Monday, September 26, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle

How can anyone not love a film called Howl's Moving Castle? With a title like that, it's got to be good. Even better, it's an ultra-literal title. There really is a guy called Howl. And he's really got a moving castle. On legs.

This, strangely enough, is not really the plot.

Howl's Moving Castle is the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator who achieved a degree of mainstream breakthrough in the west with Spirited Away - a film whose reviews seemed to have been largely compiled using a special Hayao Miyazaki magnetic poetry kit featuring words and phrases such as "magical", "joyful" and "Japan's answer to Walt Disney." Spirited is a damnably weird film, with a plot that swerves all over the place (partly because he rewrote it halfway through production) and frankly doesn't altogether make sense, but which got away with it because it just had so much charm that you didn't really care.

Howl's is a very different beast, as it's far more plot driven. The plot in question comes from a 1986 novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, and centres on Sophia, a browbeaten apprentice milliner who (for reasons far too convoluted to go into here) ends up being transformed into an old woman by an evil witch, and runs away from home to Howl's castle, where she becomes the housekeeper. You'd normally expect this to lead to an entire film about Sophia breaking the curse, but instead the plot swerves merrily off in another direction entirely, and focusses on Sophia's relationships with the castle inhabitants, and Howl's own ongoing battle with the authorities.

Good god, but there's a lot of plot here. Even at two hours you can see Miyazaki struggling to fit it all in. ("Hi, I've remarried. Allow me to drop off this item. Goodbye!") The big criticism of this film, from some reviewers, is that the story is all over the place and it doesn't make much sense. I disagree, but I can see why it confuses some people. Not only is the plot hugely condensed - the cause of the war is left as a virtual afterthought - but chunks of it depend on a sort of poetic logic where you just have to be prepared to run with all this talk of Howl's heart and the somewhat arbitrary magical rules that go with it. It works because the arbitrary rules are set up long before they pay off, but there's an awful lot to take in. Heaven only knows what the younger kids must make of it. Some of them seemed dreadfully confused when I saw the film.

Personally, though, I'd rather have too much story than too little, and there's something quite appealing about the vagueness of the plot. Sophia spends much of the film quietly changing age depending on her mood at any given time - nobody ever comments on this, but you could happily spend the whole film working out exactly where her mood is changing and the character design is shifting.

In keeping with the original novel, Miyazaki sets his film in one of those all-purpose European fairy tale worlds, but with the quirk that all the magical aspects come from his own playbook rather than the European traditions. The castle itself is in a little stylistic world of its own and seems to have escaped from a Terry Gilliam animation. Oh, and there are sci-fi flying machines, because Miyazaki likes those, so he added them to the plot. All of which sounds like it ought to be a baffling style clash, but instead the elements complement one another and fit together as a beautifully imaginative world that inexplicably feels right.

Beautiful stuff. Miyazaki really is as good as the conventional wisdom says.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sky Three

For those of us with a vague interest in multichannel TV - something I'll becoming back to later on, by the way - Sky's decision to launch Sky Three as a Freeview channel is very intriguing.

For the rest of you, which presumably includes anyone reading this outside the UK, a bit of background. Multichannel TV in the UK is presently in the middle of a platform war. Basically, if you want lots of channels, you have three options. You can get a satellite dish and sign up with Sky (like I did). That gets you the biggest number of channels, many of which are of course baffling low-budget crap or ridiculously narrow specialist channels. (Does any country really need a Wine Channel? The Golf Channel? The Dentists Channel? Two channels entirely devoted to poker?)

Or you can get cable. Fewer channels, but they tend to throw in broadband. On the other hand you're stuck with whoever the local provider is - if there is one - and there's a fair chance that'll be NTL, whose notoriously incompetent customer service department earned them the "NTHell" tag which they've never managed to shed.

Option three is digital television - which only gives you 30 or so channels, but at least you don't have to get a dish. Originally they tried making digital television a subscription service, and that bombed horribly, because anyone willing to pay for multichannel TV wanted a much better range of channels. ITV Digital, who ran the system, went bust a couple of years ago, and it looked as though digital television was dead in the water.

But the government is determined that we're all switching to digital TV whether we like it or not (it'll free up space on the broadcast spectrum, or something like that), and so digital TV rose from the ashes as Freeview, which gives you a whole load of channels... for free. Well, you've got to buy a decoder box, but those cost peanuts. Most of the channels in the initial line-up were rubbish, but only because all the good ones had contracts with Sky and cable which prevented them from broadcasting free-to-air. (Not much point selling a channel as a subscription service if everyone can get it for free.)

Even so, several major players hedged their bets. Sky themselves bought a couple of slots on Freeview, and used one of them for Sky Travel - basically, a load of filler. MTV weren't allowed to go free-to-air, so they just set up a channel called "The Music Factory" and broadcast that instead. Freeview has done remarkably well, and is now on course to beat Sky and cable hands down. E4, one of the biggest multichannel draws, has just gone free-to-air and abandoned subscription altogether.

Sky are obviously getting worried. Sky Travel is being pulled from its slot and replaced with Sky Three (Sky Two being the channel currently called Sky One Mix), which will broadcast Sky programmes on a one-year delay, the idea being that people will rush out and subscribe to Sky on seeing how wonderful it is. The downside is that if the programmes are that good - and they're running season 3 of 24 on Sky Three - people will just decide that Freeview is good enough for them. And with ITV4 and More4 (Channel 4's latest spin-off channel) both about to go straight to Freeview, Sky have something to worry about here.

Sky's weakness has always been in mainstream entertainment channels. All the good ones belong to the BBC, ITV or Channel 4, who have no interest in propping up Sky. Sky One, their in-house mainstream channel, is still hugely overreliant on American imports, and has never really found a replacement for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are some scattered B-list entertainment channels on the service - Paramount, Bravo, Living, FX - but nothing that's going to bring people flocking. This is the market that Freeview is now cornering, because all the major players want to go there.

Sky's strength, on the other hand, lies in specialist services, of the sort that manage to find a niche on a platform with hundreds of channels. Leaving aside the multitudes of shopping and gaming channels, Sky is the natural home for slightly odd channels like Challenge; the multitude of genre-specific music channels (I get 26 of them, most of which really aren't bad at all); and the movies and sports events which they've hoovered up the rights to. Oh, and all the silly quiz and shopping channels. In with the utterly insane and pointless channels - who on earth is watching channel 669, "Christmas Shop", or channel 250, "Real Estate TV"? - there's also some low-budget, themed channels which are actually quite good at what they do.

That's Sky's natural strength - something for everyone. But instead, they're going for the mainstream entertainment audience with Sky Three, and trying to fight on their weakest area. I suspect they're going to be disappointed with the results.

Monday, September 19, 2005


I'm assuming you've already read my preview, so here's the post-show commentary. On the whole, better than I was expecting.

- Rob Conway v Tajiri. This is the obligatory token match from the pre-show on Sunday Night Heat - although since Sunday Night Heat is about to be axed, it's presumably going to be the last one. Call me crazy, but if I was running a token match on a free show which existed for the sole purpose of plugging a PPV, I'd make it a reasonably good one, in the hope of convincing viewers that they might like to watch more wrestling. The WWE don't see it that way, and prefer three-minute squash matches (you know, the ones where one guy gets almost all the offence and the other guy is annihilated). Today's victim is the Japanese wrestler Tajiri, who used to be fairly prominent and still gets a good reaction for his signature moves, but has nonetheless drifted down the card to the point where he's losing to Rob Conway. Conway has just finished a lengthy run in the frankly embarrassing tag team La Resistance (an anti-French gimmick - don't ask), and they're trying to establish him as a singles wrestler under a new gimmick. Unfortunately, nobody can satisfactorily explain what the hell his new gimmick is meant to be, although it seems to involve narcissism, claiming to be a conman for no apparent reason other than a lame pun on his surname, and wearing clothes that make him look like a Soho gimp. Even the commentators don't seem to know quite what to make of him these days, and if they don't know what the point's meant to be, what hope do the audience have? So Conway gets his usual reaction of bemused silence from the crowd, and wins anyway. (sigh)

- WWE Intercontinental Title: Ric Flair -v- Carlito. Rather surprisingly, Flair wins the title in about 12 minutes, with Carlito submitting to his trademark Figure 4 leglock. I really don't see the point in giving him the belt at this point in his career, but so be it. At least it might lend the belt a bit of credibility, although at Flair's age, perhaps not. There's one great bit with Flair finally hitting his double axehandle from the top rope, which is funny if you know that he's tried that move in every single match in the last twenty years, and it always goes wrong. Huge cheers from the audience as Flair finally hits his beloved move, and then drops to his knees in shocked amazement. So he tries it again. And it goes wrong. Beautiful. Otherwise, a pretty uneventful match, and nothing that's really going to change the perception of Carlito as a slightly dull in-ring performer.

- Victoria & Torrie Wilson -v- Trish Stratus & Ashley Massaro. Trish pins Victoria after 7 minutes with her usual finisher (a kick to the head, which the WWE has helpfully christened the Chick Kick. Because she's a girl, you see.) Please, please, please, don't ask Ashley Massaro to wrestle again until she's actually learnt how. I'm sure she's trying her best, but any time she actually tries to perform a move, it's just plain embarrassing. And if she keeps landing like that when she's thrown out of the ring, she's going to break her neck. Anyway, Trish and Victoria carry most of the match, and their stuff was pretty solid. Which is good, because they're going to have to spend a lot of time fighting one another unless the WWE gets around to hiring some more competent female wrestlers.

- The Big Show -v- Gene Snitsky. Well, that's seven minutes of my life I won't get back. As dull as I expected. Big Show wins with his chokeslam.

- Kerwin White -v- Shelton Benjamin. Much as it pains me to say it, the Kerwin White gimmick really isn't working. Fundamentally, it's a comedy act, and people just don't want to see him in a proper match. Which is a shame, because they actually did a pretty good little match here. All logic says that Kerwin should have won this match because he's a new character and needs the credibility, so naturally Shelton wins clean with his Exploder suplex in eight minutes. What can you say?

- Steel Cage Match: Edge -v- Matt Hardy. Matt pins Edge after 20 minutes. My scepticism was wrong. This was precisely the match they needed to do to resolve this storyline (and it had better be the ending, because there's nowhere else to go from here - but the writers have developed a bad habit recently of failing to notice when a story has finished). After weeks of getting his head kicked in, and an alarmingly extended period when this match looked to be going the same way, Matt finally gets his revenge in a gloriously excessive fight, beating the hell out of Edge, fending off the evil ex-girlfriend, and finishing off with an utterly suicidal-looking legdrop from the top of the cage. Which is something like a fifteen foot drop. He must be insane, or at least very cavalier about the future of his spine. Wonderful match, anyhow. Highlight of the show, and they finally got the storyline right for the big finish.

- WWE Tag Team Titles: Cade & Murdoch -v- Hurricane & Rosey. The cowboys win in 8 minutes, to the surprise of precisely nobody. Better than the match they had on Raw, since at least there's a storyline here of sorts. And the cowboys have at least remembered that, as villains, they ought to do something villainous. Still nothing to write home about, though.

- Chris Masters -v- Shawn Michaels. Michaels wins with his superkick in around 17 minutes. Well, what was the point of that? At least they didn't blow the months-long storyline that nobody can break the Masterlock, but given that Masters just got convincingly beaten anyway, they've still undermined it. Internal politics aside, Masters should have won here, because it makes him stronger, while this finish helps nobody and damages Masters. Even if they're giving up on Masters (which they should), they might as well make him stronger so that it means more when a rising star beats him. Technically an okay match, but there's something unutterably dull about Chris Masters and I found my attention wandering time and again.

- WWE Title: Kurt Angle -v- John Cena. The ultimate in unimaginative cheap finishes, as Angle wins by DQ in 17 minutes. (The title doesn't change hands on a disqualification, you see.) I don't mind this ending for matches further down the card, but not in the main event. In fact, they botched the explanation so badly that it came desperately close to being what fans call a Sports Entertainment Finish (a non-ending where the match just seems to be forgotten about). A very good match up to that point, and certainly way above Cena's normal quality levels. But a finish like that doesn't exactly make me want to see the rematch, which is presumably where they're heading.

Still, one excellent and one very good match, and a fair amount of above average stuff. Not a bad show, all told, and the Matt/Edge payoff delivered.

Next PPV: No Mercy, a Smackdown show, on October 9.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

ONI Sunday

I remember when Chris Evans was good. This is worth pointing out, because a lot of people have more or less forgotten that he was ever any good, and have been generally quite pleased not to have heard from him over the last few years. But now he's attempting a comeback as a presenter, which will probably as embarrassing as most of his recent projects. So it's as well to remember: there was a time when he was good.

Chris Evans' comeback plans consist of a weekly radio show on Radio 2, which started today, and something for ITV with the working title of ONI Sunday. Given that Evans dwindled from our screens while producing endless rehashes of TFI Friday, the title isn't exactly encouraging. The fact that somebody thought it was worth mentioning in a press release boggles the mind. You might as well say, "Hey, we've given Chris Evans a new show. And it's going to be the same old shit."

When Chris Evans started out as a presenter, back in 1990, his schtick was that he was one of us - an outsider looking in at the world of celebrities. Hard as it may be to believe in retrospect, a regular feature on his Radio 1 show involved him quizzing celebrities about such things as the price of a pint of milk, in order to demonstrate how out of touch celebrities were. To judge from the way he acted for most of the last decade, if Evans even remembers doing this feature, he probably no longer recalls why it was funny.

The show that made his name, The Big Breakfast, was ideal for him. Evans is a personality presenter - somebody who can't strictly speaking be the focus of a show, but who needs a format that gives him the chance to go off on tangents and be himself. The Big Breakfast, a sprawling breakfast show of ramshackle and seemingly arbitrary items, was ideal for him (just as it was ideal for Johnny Vaughan a few years later), because it provided just enough framework to let him show what he could do. Most of Evans' later magazine programmes and game shows - like Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday - try to recreate that open-ended, random, whatever-we-feel-like-doing format, with varying degrees of success. The dreadful Vernon Kaye vehicle Girls & Boys, also one of Evans' creations, sticks to the same formula.

The games and stunts which worked for him in the first half of the nineties worked because he was seen as a loveably, cheeky outsider having fun on the margins. The ramshackle nature of the shows played into that. Chris Evans made a career as somebody the audience identified with as "one of us". The shows fall apart without that.

But Chris Evans is ultimately a presenter, and he needs something to present. This is where the Radio 1 breakfast show went so horribly wrong. It seemed like a logical move, for good reasons. Evans got an open-ended format which played to his strengths, and Radio 1 - then in the throes of overhauling the station and aiming for a younger and more fashionable audience - got a top celebrity to endorse their new direction.

Unfortunately, the longer it went on, Chris Evans' radio show ceased to be about Chris Evans presenting anything, and became simply a daily exhibition of Chris Evans as an object of veneration. What would once have been "here's a whacky event I've decided to set up" soon transformed into "look what I can get away with because I'm so famous." Moving the entire show to Inverness for a week on a whim was a turning point, as Evans descended on a minor local studio, proudly proclaimed how great it was to have that sort of influence to get things done so quickly, and proceeded to insult and generally run down the host of the breakfast show on a rival local station for no apparent reason other than that Evans considered him laughably provincial.

And at this point, the audience starts to twig: You're not one of us any more.

Soon after, Evans began a ridiculous feud with BBC management over his absurd insistence that he should be allowed to take Fridays off. He had become so used to getting his own way on everything that he seemed genuinely shocked at being turned down. When Evans simply stopped showing up for work, audiences swiftly realised that not only was Evans not one of us any more, but he had become a complete asshole, with an ego and a sense of entitlement wholly divorced from the real world.

And the moment the audience decide they don't like him any more... well, that's the end of that. It's been a slow decline ever since. His breakfast show on Virgin Radio never found anything new to do with the format, and the bizarre decision to simulcast part of the show on Sky One so that viewers could watch him drinking tea during the records seemed like insane narcissism rather than playful self-indulgence. Marrying Billie Piper - a 19-year-old girl 16 years younger than him - didn't exactly improve his image. He had long since passed from "I wish I could get away with that" to "Who does this prick think he is?"

All of which is a shame, because he had - and presumably still has - real talent. He's just a particularly bad example of fame going to somebody's head. He went through a phase of being incredibly successful, and then surrounded himself with yes men for the next few years. I remember being backstage at T in the Park in 1997 (I was working for their radio station that year), by which time Chris Evans had just passed his peak. He turned up in the backstage bar area, where all had been quiet for a couple of days with bands milling about between their sets, and was promptly mobbed as the biggest celebrity there. In the backstage area. God help him. That sort of thing has to go to your head after a while, and unfortunately, it did.

Hopefully a few years spent (relatively) out of the public eye might have grounded him again, but it's going to be difficult for Chris Evans to ever recapture the connection he used to have with the audience. And any sort of rehash of TFI Friday is bound to seem dated - the "random items" formula having been thoroughly mainstreamed by Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. At this point in his career, what can he actually do? ONI Sunday is being billed as "blending discussion of the weeks events with special guests and live music", and it's hard to conceive that he can possibly be intending a serious current affairs element. (Not with interview quotes like "ONI Sunday is a live end of week show confirming the nuttiness of planet Earth and the people who live in it" - which makes it sound painfully end-of-pier on top of everything else.)

Then again, Evans' formats have never been all that great - which is one of the reasons why he's been responsible for producing so many flops during his time off screen. With TFI Friday, The Big Breakfast and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, it was never the strength of the format that made the shows successful, but the opportunities which they gave to a charismatic frontman. For Evans to create similar shows and then hand them over to Vernon Kaye misses the point by a mile - while over on ITV, the equally random Saturday Night Takeaway draws huge ratings simply by giving Ant and Dec a platform for their act.

Maybe he'll prove me wrong. Maybe he'll manage to reinvent his persona in a way that makes people like him again. It would be nice to think so, because he must have some good shows left in him yet. But there's so much damage to undo that it may be a hopeless task. And TFI Friday 2005 is surely not the show to do it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

And now, wrestling.

Yes, wrestling. I said the tone was going to go precipitously downhill, didn't I?

The WWE is a profoundly frustrating organisation. It employs a lot of very talented performers. It also employs a lot of musclebound lunkheads. And it generally seems to have trouble telling them apart. They employ one of the best writers of TV wrestling shows in the business in Paul Heyman, but instead of having him write their TV shows, they sent him off to run the trainer league Ohio Valley Wrestling (which, despite the name, is in Kentucky). Meanwhile, the shows are written by Stephanie McMahon (because her dad owns the company) and a bunch of scriptwriters who mostly don't seem to have a clue what they're doing. Oh, and Triple H will be at the top of the card forever, because he's married to Stephanie. And the chairman of the board is a bodybuilder, who doesn't understand the appeal of anyone under 250 pounds.

Oh, and the company has some extremely questionable views on foreigners, women, and homosexuals.

And yet... despite this, decent performers still sign up to work for the biggest promotion in America, and decent matches sometimes ensue. But boy, you have to slog through a lot of crap to find them. Which brings us to the monthly exercise: Shall I Buy This Month's PPV?

For those of you who don't know how this works: the WWE has two weekly 2-hour shows, Raw and Smackdown. They split the roster in half a couple of years ago, so they're now both separate little mini-companies in their own right, with their own (increasingly meaningless) titles. Every month there is a Pay Per View. The economics of wrestling are that you use the TV show to set up matches for the PPV, and encourage people to buy it. Because people are more likely to buy a show if they care about the story. Ever since wrestling abandoned the last vestiges of pretence of being a real sport, the WWE's stories have become increasingly bizarre and elaborate, and generally far beyond the acting abilities of 90% of those involved. This, in itself, is often compellingly entertaining, albeit for entirely the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, this means that once the card has finally been announced, you sit down and decide whether it's worth buying. Sunday's show is Unforgiven, which is a Raw-only show, and it's actually on Sky Sports 3, so I get it anyway. But that's no reason not to go through the motions. Besides, some of this stuff is just so perversely stupid that I like writing about it anyway.

Let's start at the top of the card and work down. For those of you who really don't know anything about wrestling, a face is a goodie, a heel is a baddie. I'm sure you'll pick up the rest.

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle. Reigning champion John Cena, who's held the title since April, is a wrestling rapper, from the mean streets of West Newbury, Massachusetts. In fairness, this was originally conceived as a comedy midcard heel gimmick, the idea being that he was obviously the least hip-hop man in the world and had lost touch with reality. They were thinking Vanilla Ice. Unfortunately, Cena was so good in the role that the crowds started cheering him, and he's mutated into a strange, crowd-pleasing face, complete with ludicrous blinged-up customised title belt. He's also released a rap album, which was surprisingly decent by the standards of musical wrestlers. The hardcore fanbase have turned on Cena a bit since his face turn, since his material was much more imaginative as a heel, and he's an okay wrestler at best. And he doesn't seem to be getting any better. But the kids like him, so he's the champ.

Kurt Angle is a genuine Olympic gold medallist wrestler who, unusually, turned out to be a fantastic pro wrestler as well. In fact, he's one of the most talented and entertaining wrestlers of the last decade, both in terms of his matches and his self-righteous character (who still won't shut up about winning that medal, even though it was in 1996). He's getting a bit banged up with permanent injuries these days - he's had major neck surgery twice - but he's still one of the best guys on the roster.

It'll probably be a good match - despite Cena's limitations, he can be carried to a good match by a talented opponent, and Angle is the definition of a talented opponent. Cena's had the title for months and he's the sort of character who's more entertaining when he's chasing the belt, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if he loses on Sunday. On the other hand, Triple H must be due back from his holiday soon, and he'll probably want to win the title straight away, in which case Cena would have to retain (because Triple H is a heel, and he can't face Angle for the title, because that would be a heel-versus-heel match, and they never draw any money). Could go either way, depending on how long HHH is going to be out of circulation. Hopefully Angle wins.

2. Intercontinental Title: Carlito -v- Ric Flair. Yes, Ric Flair. Yes, the guy who was World Champion in 1981. Yes, he's still going. He's semi-retired, but he's still going. And unlike a lot of veterans who can't quite shake the bug, he's still mobile, and he still has the odd decent match. He's not the man he once was, but then he was one of the top guys of the 1980s, so he can fall a long way and still be very watchable. Plus, he's had the decency to drop back down into the midcard instead of facing men half his age for the main title.

Instead, Flair will be fighting for the Intercontinental Title, a sort of secondary singles title which used to make sense when it was treated as a really big deal, but has drifted over the years into a sort of "champion of the midcard" belt. The current champion is the gloriously obnoxious Carlito, a self-proclaimed icon of cool who has connected with the crowds by the simple device of taking a potentially awful gimmick and grafting a proper character onto it. By the way, Carlito's the heel here, even though Flair was a bad guy for most of his career. At this point, audiences just won't boo Flair - they respect him too much - and he's reluctantly settled into playing the face in the twilight of his career.

The problem with Carlito is that the character's great, but the wrestling's a bit vanilla. He also spent the last couple of months playing second-fiddle to Chris Jericho and not defending his title at all, which is no way to build up a champion, even a secondary one. Anyhow, Carlito really needs to get a good PPV match under his belt, to convince the audience that he's worth watching after the bell rings too. Flair will probably have a good match with him, and if they've got any sense, Carlito will retain.

3. WWE Tag Team Titles: The Hurricane & Rosey -v- Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. The Hurricane and Rosey are superheroes. Cade and Murdoch are cowboys. Welcome to 1983. The superheroes are the champions, although nobody cares, because there are so few other teams for them to fight, and they've spent the last couple of months losing singles matches on a regular basis. Basically, the tag division has been appallingly written for at least two or three years now, and it's now at the stage where it needs desperate help if anyone's going to care about the belt again. Nobody in the WWE seems to have noticed this. (Except the wrestlers, but nobody listens to them.)

Cade and Murdoch debuted a couple of weeks ago. They're presumably meant to be heels because they only fight faces, but they haven't actually done anything very heelish. Quite why anyone's supposd to care about a cowboy gimmick in 2005 is something of a mystery. We're also all apparently supposed to have forgotten that Cade has already been around for years as Garrison Cade. But it's totally different this time, because he's wearing a hat. Hurricane and Cade are the best workers in the match - Murdoch is a 1970s throwback and Rosey is a big fat guy, albeit a fairly agile one. These teams fought on Raw a couple of weeks ago and it was nothing special. Conventional wisdom in these situations suggests that the newcomers will win the titles in a short match. By the way, although I'm listing this at the top because it's a title match, chances are it'll be way down near the bottom.

4. Shawn Michaels -v- Chris Masters. Yes, Shawn Michaels. Yes, the guy who was World Champion in 1996. Yes, he's still going (despite the supposedly career-ending injury which caused him to retire for a few years a while back). Yes, he's still calling himself the Heartbreak Kid. And yes, he's clearly far too old for that gimmick. But Michaels is still good enough to merit his place at the top of the card - he's another wrestler who can carry anyone to a passable match, as we saw last month, when he somehow managed to have a watchable match with Hulk Hogan, who has an artificial hip.

He'll need all that talent on Sunday, because he's wrestling Chris Masters, a useless great lump of a bodybuilder whose big signature move is the Full Nelson. The WWE love him, because he's a huge bodybuilder, and they think that's a good thing (even though he has the charisma of a recently-varnished plank, and bodybuilders tend to make dreadful wrestlers due to limited mobility and susceptibility to injury). The match won't be bad, but it'll be a miracle if Shawn can drag him much above average. Needless to say, Masters will be winning, because there's no earthly point to the match otherwise, and the loss won't do Michaels any harm with the fans.

5. Steel cage match: Edge -v- Matt Hardy. Ah. Yes. Now. This gets complicated. Where do I start?

Edge (Adam Copeland) and Matt Hardy used to be friends in real life. Matt's long-term girlfriend, Amy Dumas, also worked for the WWE as Lita. The WWE management had Edge marked for stardom, but didn't really get Matt (because his speaking style's a bit odd, by their standards, and he's a smaller guy), and had him marked as Midcard 4 Life. A few months back, Matt took a few months off to recover from knee surgery. Since Lita was still on the road working, Matt gave her his blessing to travel with Edge instead. After all, Edge was a good friend, and besides, he was married. You can probably see where this is heading, can't you?

After Lita dumped him for Edge (who duly left his wife), Matt vented his feelings at length on his website. This was a very ill-advised move, because the WWE promptly decided he was surplus to requirements and fired him. All of the above, I'll remind you, is not the storyline (which, at this point, had Lita in a forced marriage with Kane - don't ask).

Once word of this leaked out, fans turned violently against Edge and Lita. This wasn't a big problem for Edge, who was playing a heel anyway, but caused real problems for Lita, who was meant to be a face but was being booed out of the building in a lot of venues. So eventually they gave up, turned Lita heel, and put her with Edge on TV as well, with Kane being quietly shunted out of storylines. Still the crowds didn't shut up, and eventually the WWE gave up and re-hired Matt Hardy. After all, if the crowd was that worked up about this story, they'd pay money to see Matt Hardy versus Edge, right?


Well, yes, but through a combination of incompetence and internal politics, that's not how it turned out. What we have, in theory, is a feud where Matt Hardy keeps getting beaten down but bravely comes back for more. What we have, in reality, is a feud where Matt Hardy gets the shit kicked out of him at every turn. Their first PPV match, last month, ended after five minutes when the referee stopped the match on the grounds that Edge had beaten Matt so badly that he was unable to continue. One good TV match has somewhat rekindled interest in this story, but basically the writers have done everything in their power to kill it stone dead - an outcome which benefits absolutely nobody.

Matt and Edge are capable of having a very good match. Whether they'll get to do one or not depends on whether somebody has another smartarse brainwave and decides Matt needs to get his head kicked in yet again. At the very least, Matt needs to dominate this match and get screwed out of the win, in order to establish that he can beat Edge. But many in the WWE appear to see him as an uppity little shit who needs to be taught a lesson, having committed the ultimate crime of not doing as he was told. And something tells me he'll be getting taught another lesson on Sunday. But maybe they've finally wised up.

6. The Big Show -v- Gene Snitsky. Guaranteed to be awful. There's no real point to this match - it exists because the writers belatedly noticed that they'd brought the giant wrestler Big Show over from Smackdown a month or so back and done nothing with him, so they ought to get him into the PPV somehow. His opponent is Gene Snitsky, a slightly smaller and far less talented big guy whose role in life is to lose to people higher up the card than him. (Big Show has good matches from time to time. Snitsky doesn't.) It'll be two large men punching one another, and the best that can be hoped for is that it might be short.

7. Shelton Benjamin -v- Kerwin White. Or "Hey, we created this Kerwin White character a month back, and we'd better do something with him." Kerwin is a bizarre repackaging of long-serving Latino wrestler Chavo Guerrero, the idea being that he's inexplicably decided that he'll do better in life as a white middle class guy. Unfortunately, Chavo's idea of the white middle classes is stuck somewhere in 1956. I'm in a tiny minority in finding this idea perversely entertaining, although the catchphrase "If it's not White, it's not right" is alarmingly misconceived on every level. But how can you dislike a character with entrance music like this?

Shelton Benjamin, his opponent, was the previous Intercontinental Champion, and a solid in-ring performer who needs a bit of work on the spoken side of things. He's seen, probably correctly, as a big prospect for the future. Nonetheless, he's not the guy trying to establish a new gimmick here, so common sense says he'll be losing. Shelton and Chavo/Kerwin are both talented and agile wrestlers who could have an excellent, technical, fast-paced match, but something tells me Chavo will spend the match stalling and doing comedy spots in an attempt to sell his character. This might also be entertaining, in a way.

8. Trish Stratus & Ashley Massaro -v- Torrie Wilson & Victoria. Meet the Women's Division. They fired most of the women who could actually wrestle last year, and then Trish, the women's champion, promptly got knocked out of action with an injury. And Lita's been tied up in the Edge/Matt storyline. All of which has left Victoria, the only other proper female wrestler still on the roster, to sit in the back and dream of better days.

This is Trish's return match following her injury. For the avoidance of doubt, we approve of Trish Stratus, because she was hired as yet another generic blonde bimbo, could have coasted on that until time caught up with her, and still insisted on learning to wrestle properly. And she's pretty good. We approve of such things. Victoria's not bad either, and the two of them could have a good match. Unfortunately, the WWE has just finished this year's ludicrous Diva Search competition, in which an assortment of bored models compete to win a job of unspecified description. Last year's winner, Christy Hemme, is now on Smackdown, and at least had a bit of charisma. God only knows what they're going to do with Ashley Massaro, a woman of no discernible talent besides the ability to look good in a dress. She wrestled Torrie Wilson, another very occasional wrestler, on Raw last week, and it was fucking awful, amateur hour stuff - to the point where the crowd turned on them badly, and started booing them as performers, rather than as characters. Which is unfair on Ashley, actually - it's not her fault that some idiot decided to make her wrestle a match on TV after a fortnight's training, and she was trying her best.

None of which alters the fact that she can't wrestle in the slightest, and the moment she steps into the ring, this match will be abominable. Basically, with Trish and Victoria, it'll be good. With Trish and Torrie, it'll be just about tolerable. And with Ashley and anyone, and it'll be embarrassing. But the point of the match is to get the Diva Search winner onto the PPV, so she's got to tag in, and... it hurts just to think about it.

So... worth buying? Cena/Angle will probably be pretty good. Carlito/Flair and Michaels/Masters will probably be okay-to-good. We've seen the tag match on Raw and it was nothing special. Big Show and the women's match are sure to be awful. The wildcards are Benjamin/White (which could be good but will probably be at the bottom of the card and won't get much time), and Matt/Edge (which could be very good but is likely to be hobbled by inept writing again). There's only two matches here with really high potential, and I've got no confidence in them to write Matt/Edge properly. So, no, I probably wouldn't bother with this if it wasn't on Sky Sports 3. But I get it as part of my regular package, so we'll find out on Monday whether I'm judging right...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde confuses the hell out of me.

Conventional wisdom says that if you're going to set a story in a fantasy world - even a comedy one - then you don't want to stretch suspension of disbelief too far. You make one big change, maybe two, and everything flows from there. People will accept that. Your story will work.

If Jasper Fforde has ever heard this conventional wisdom, he doesn't give a toss about it. He's now written five novels - The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten and The Big Over Easy - not one of which is remotely concerned with credibility as we know it. They shouldn't work. And yet they do.

Imagine Terry Pratchett, crossed with the metatextual stuff from Grant Morrison, and marinaded in the comedy department of BBC Radio 4, and you'll be getting close. Under the guise of a slightly twee and cosy sort of British comedy, Fforde is a seriously weird writer, with a spectacular disregard for the usual way of making these stories work.

The first four of his five novels are part of the Thursday Next series. Lost in a Good Book is sort of at right angles to Thursday Next's world, but I'll come back to that in a bit. Thursday is Fforde's recurring heroine, operating out of an implausibly exciting parallel Swindon. Even trying to describe the ground rules of Thursday's parallel world takes time, as it's littered with bizarre deviations from history, and part of the entertainment value of the books is trying to work out what on earth happened in the bits of history that Thursday, as narrator, didn't bother to explain. By the time Thursday's stories begin, in the 1980s, the Crimean War is still going, the United Kingdom has broken up, the dodo has been reintroduced through amateur home cloning, and the President of England is George Formby. Oh, and Britain has a secret police, part of which is devoted to thwarting attempts to revise the timeline.

None of this has anything to do with the premise of Thursday's books. That's how warped a world this is. In part, this is Fforde's central joke - he writes stories set in worlds that have clearly been horribly deformed somewhere along the line, but nobody seems to notice that anything's wrong.

The big idea of the Thursday Next books, however, is that Thursday has the power to enter books. All of fiction exists as a sort of parallel dimension, each book as a world in its own right, and Thursday ends up doing double duty with the real-world secret police and the Bookworld's in-house police force - which, naturally, is mostly comprised of minor characters who have spare time during the chapters when they're not appearing. Oh, and there's a long-running feud with an evil corporation called Goliath, which, let's face it, is a bit obvious. (It picks up in book four when Goliath decides to reinvent itself as a religion.)

These are weird and intricate novels which manage to take the most ludicrous worlds imaginable, and somehow make them (more or less) internally coherent. The Bookworld could easily become horribly twee, but the alternate history device allows Fforde to dodge the problem of copyrighted books, and turns it into a weird but strangely compelling alternate world. Fforde has clearly put an awful lot of effort into working out just how the Bookworld is meant to operate. Part of the reason I like his books is that I find myself picking holes in the concepts and going "Yeah, but....", only to find the problem being politely knocked on the head five chapters later. He's ahead of me, damn him.

(By the way, if you want to read the Thursday Next novels, you'll want to begin at the beginning with The Eyre Affair, and if you haven't already done so, that means you'll want to read Jane Eyre. Don't let that put you off. You don't technically need to read it, but you'll miss the point of the pay-off if you don't know the plot, and it's a really good novel anyway, so go read it.)

The Big Over Easy is Fforde's first break from the Thursday Next series, and it doesn't quite win me over as much. Reportedly, it's a complete rewrite of a novel that was rejected before the Thursday Next series took off, but he's now turning it into a parallel series of its own. Set in a parallel Reading, DCI Jack Spratt leads the bafflingly arbitrary Nursery Crime Division, which deals with criminal investigations involving Reading's inexplicably high proportion of nursery rhyme characters. Book one, as the title would suggest, is the murder of Humpty Dumpty. And yes, he's an egg.

On top of the weird nursery character premise, it's also a world with a seriously screwed-up police force, where everything operates according to the rules of drawing-room mystery novels, and thinly-disguised versions of Inspector Morse and Miss Marple are the embodiment of quality detective work. To achieve popularity - and therefore funding - it's not enough to actually solve crimes. You have to solve them in a way that makes for a compelling narrative.

This latter bit actually works. There's something perversely plausible about a world where types of evidence are ruled inadmissible on the grounds that they're cliched. The nursery rhyme stuff, on the other hand, strains credibility to breaking point. The idea is that the nursery rhyme characters don't realise what they are. They feel strangely compelled to perform their stories when the opportunity arises, but otherwise they just ignore it. For Jack, this is reasonably plausible. But for a talking egg? I can't quite buy that, even by Fforde's unusually elastic standards. I'm not quite sure why, because I didn't have a problem with the Gingerbreadman as a serial killer... but then, I don't have to run with that as the central premise for the whole book.

It makes rather more sense in the context of the Thursday Next books (although, again, you don't need to have read them to understand this one). A subplot in book four ended with Thursday taking the nursery rhyme characters from the oral tradition and offering them a place to live in the unpublished Caversham Heights, an ultra-generic detective story which was unpublished for a reason. The Big Over Easy is meant to be the result of this politically convenient genre-mangling. So if you must have an explanation for this weird book, it's right there in the Thursday Next series. Not that you're really meant to look at it in that light - it's more of an easter egg.

Despite my reservations, though, it's still a perversely entertaining book - and, as with all Fforde's novels, it takes its ludicrous set-up and follows it through with remorselessly rigorous logic. The plot may be intentionally convoluted as a detective story pastiche, but still clings tenaciously to its own internal logic. It's a good book. But I still prefer the dizzyingly abstract stuff from the Thursday Next books, a world which makes no more logical sense than this one, but somehow feels like it should.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Preliminaries: go read PunchDrunk, because it's very good. It's also written largely by friends of mine, but trust me, if I didn't think it was any good I'd just quietly mumble at them and change the subject when they asked if I'd read it.

My iPod mass uploading programme has now reached the letter K. It turns out that I own six albums by Kid 606. Which is really weird, because I don't remember particularly liking him that much. Perhaps they breed.

But back to business. Asylum is the last hangover from my Film Festival reviews before I plough this blog into far more downmarket territory. I've held off on it because it's coming out in the UK tomorrow anyway.

It's England in the late 1950s, and reluctantly dutiful wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) is dragged along to live with her family in the lunatic asylum where her doctor husband is working. Finding the local society intolerably stifling, Stella looks for another outlet for her passions, and ends up starting a spectacularly ill-advised affair with a spectacularly ill-chosen man - Edgar, a long-term patient , who is passing the days refurbishing a metaphorical greenhouse.

You probably have a fair idea of where this story is heading, and you'd be absolutely right. What comes as a surprise is that the predictable and obvious bit of the story turns out to be act 1, after which the film goes barrelling off in increasingly strange directions. Meanwhile, Ian McKellan's ultra-manipulative psychiatrist moves quietly into the foreground, to deliver plot twists that will either make your jaw drop or leave you rolling your eyes and muttering "That's just stupid."

Some films unite the critics, some split them down the middle. Asylum has scattered them all over the place. Metacritic gives it an average rating of 51, but that's based on reviews distributed more or less evenly from 91 to 10. I think a lot of the critics are getting horribly confused because, first, they don't quite get that it's a gothic melodrama, and second, they expect it to make sense. It doesn't really make sense. The characters aren't really believable, unless you're prepared to accept that it's drawn in intentionally broad strokes. And there seems to be a school of thought that thinks it's a badly botched critique of 1950s mental health care. Er, no. It's about the thin line between obsession and insanity, if you want to boil it down to a sentence. Ultimately, two of the three leads hover in the grey area. (And the third is just way over the edge.)

This is a film of big stylized characters doing unlikely and magnified things, set off against a very restrained and underplayed visual style. Where the plot could easily have justified going way over the top, director David Mackenzie keeps the film almost painfully restrained and distant, indulging himself in the occasional visual motif to break things up a bit. Basically, though, he wants us to try and react to these characters as people rather than as potboiler fodder, and to take their story seriously no matter how bizarre it gets.

If you go in looking for psychological realism, and characters you can believe in, then you'll hate it with a passion. Mackenzie's approach almost invites this reaction, leading audiences to try and engage with the film on completely the wrong level. But if you go with the flow, and accept it for what it is - a film of ideas about people, rather than a film of people - it tells a great story. Richardson delivers a fantastic performance that makes Stella's odd behaviour always seem entirely natural. The film works because the stylised characters still feel like people at one remove - there are proper personalities in there, but distorted to fit the story.

I loved it. I'm in the minority there, admittedly. But then, I'm all for stories full of slightly abstracted ideas and slightly abstracted people.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats opens in Britain on Friday, which is my excuse for not writing about it before now even though I saw it a week ago. It's a documentary which has apparently been banned from at least one major American cinema chain on grounds of obscenity, although to be honest, you've got to wonder when American multiplexes became so documentary-friendly as to make this an issue in the first place. And is it offensive? Well, no, not unless you're missing the point by a mile.

The Aristocrats is a joke which American comedians have been telling one another for years. There's no real equivalent in Britain. There's a ton of versions of the joke here, but basically it goes like this: man walks into a talent agent's office, and says he's got an act. Tell me about this act, says the agent. So the man explains the act. Here insert the most appallingly offensive thing you can think of involving the man, his wife, his children, the grandmother and a dog, probably involving incest, bestiality and coprophilia. Wow, says the agent, that's quite an act. What do you call it? And the man says, "The Aristocrats!"

Now, here's the thing. The joke isn't funny. At all. It's a jawdroppingly lame punchline. Some of the comedians in the film acknowledge that. Some openly hate the bloody joke. Some actually like it and do it more or less straight, and those versions tended not to get the laughs from my audience.

The reason comedians like it is because you can do pretty much anything you want in the middle section, and it's all in the delivery. It's not enough to simply be horrifyingly obscene - you've got to be horrifyingly obscene in an imaginative way. Some comedians get away with relatively straight versions by playing it as character comedy, with the idea that the father is inexplicably unable to see that he's promoting an act which is not merely hideously wrong but probably criminal. Others do painfully detailed and elaborate central sections where the actual punchline is almost an afterthought (which is fortunate, because it still isn't funny). A couple add additional, and much better, punchlines onto the end.

But some of the best versions come from people who aren't even really doing the joke at all, so much as riffing on the concept. Gilbert Gottfried performs it to an audience of comedians in a way that only works because they all know it. Somebody does it in mime. South Park provide a version where the joke is really Cartman attempting to tell the joke, rather than the joke itself. The editorial team of the Onion have an editorial meeting about what should go in their version of the joke (but never actually tell it). And Sarah Silverman's "I was an Aristocrat" monologue is the best thing in the film, taking the same basic riffing but plugging it into an infinitely funnier framework. Silverman isn't remotely known in the UK, but I might try and track down some of her stand-up on the strength of her appearance here.

Is the joke funny? No, and hearing it repeated for ninety minutes doesn't make it any funnier. But what people do with the joke, that's funny. And that's why comedians love it - because it's a dreadful idea with infinite flexibility. The Aristocrats works as a film because it shows just how much can be done with a really terrible idea - far more than you'd expect when you first hear the joke.

The Dresden Dolls

Yes, yes, it's taken longer than I expected to write this one up. Basically, I finally caved in and bought an iPod this week, and I've spent the last couple of days... well, whacking my laptop with a stick and yelling "Why doesn't the fucking USB 2.0 card work?" before giving up, phoning the people who sold me the USB 2.0 card, getting a suspiciously automatic "Oh, you should re-instal Windows" answer, ignoring it, buying a Firewire connection (and the 4-pin converter), wrestling with Apple's registration form (which I suspect is another of those bloody sites that doesn't like apostrophes in names) and beginning the painfully laborious procedure of copying over my CD collection. This is going to take time, because I bought a stupidly high-capacity iPod and have tons of CDs to put on it.

As I type this, it's happily sitting in the corner playing a random selection from 30 CDs, all of them with artists whose names start with A or B. And there's most of B still to go - I've only reached Blur. This is going to take ages, but it'll be worth it in the end. It's terrifying how many album tracks, even from that selection, I either haven't heard in years, or genuinely don't recall ever having heard before. (Incidentally, I'm impressed that iMusic's database recognised "Sugar Candy Kisses", a Bjork bootleg from 1993. Something tells me nothing in my collection is going to be obscure enough to defeat it, but we shall see.)

Anyway, the Dresden Dolls.

Or rather, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, since drummer Brian Viglione decided to give the UK tour a miss at the last moment, cancelling their planned festival sets, and leaving Amanda Palmer to play the Scottish gigs as a solo act. To be fair, according to their website, they seem to have been on permanent tour since January, so you can understand him being a bit burned out. Shame he didn't come, though, since the Edinburgh Fringe is pretty much an ideal place for the Dresden Dolls.

For those who don't know them, the Dresden Dolls are a piano/drums duo who describe themselves as Brechtian punk cabaret. I'm not sure where they're getting the punk bit from (although Americans do tend to see it more as an attitude than a genre, from what I can tell), but the rest is pretty much accurate. They're an unrepentantly theatrical band, who turn up in doll make-up and perform epic storytelling songs that seem to have diverged from their contemporaries decades ago and struck off in a completely different direction starting with Kurt Weill. Without losing sight of the fact that all of this is, first and foremost, supposed to be entertaining. I just thought I'd throw that in, because I realise the whole thing sounds like it could be a terrifyingly pretentious art school project, and it's important to make the point that it isn't.

Being a very theatrical act by nature, the Dresden Dolls are right at home in the Edinburgh Festival, which is filled with people just like them. This is particularly good news for Amanda Palmer, who turned up intending to play a solo act, only to get booked for a warm-up show headlining Edinburgh's Vaudeville Club, and recruit a bunch of the club's regulars to join the show. The Vaudeville Club is the sort of loveably marginal venue that's ideal for this sort of semi-secret show, and not surprisingly, it was packed with Dresden Dolls fans. Rather than just running through a cut-down version of the next night's set, Amanda brought in Regina Spektor for a couple of songs, duetted with the MC, did a new song by a local songwriter she met the previous day, and brought in a tap dancer and a trumpeter for "Coin Operated Boy." Anyone who can sling together a show that good at the last minute is doing something right. It's stumbling into this sort of thing that makes the Fringe worthwhile.

They repeated some of this material for the main show at the Exchange the next night. The Exchange is a decent enough small-to-medium music venue, but I tend to think there's something about Amanda Palmer's songs that works better in a smaller room. But for someone who's only released one studio album, and who'd only played solo in her home town before now, she has no problem filling a ninety minute set. There's a new album of material just about to be recorded, making this a very good time to see the band live, and the usual offbeat choices of cover version. Anyone can decide that they're coming to Scotland and should do a Scottish song; but you have to be slightly twisted to decide that the song in question should be "I Want You But I Don't Need You" by Momus, practically a Gilbert & Sullivan number.

Yes, the "Brechtian punk cabaret" thing sounds hideously pretentious, but only because you're imagining the sort of people who would normally do such a thing. The Dresden Dolls are much better than that. They're doing it right.