Thursday, July 20, 2006

Great American Bash 2006

Another PPV, and this time it's a Smackdown show. The Great American Bash is arguably the single worst title the WWE currently use for a show - bizarrely, it's the one WCW trademark that they kept using after buying out the company. Perhaps it sounds better to Americans, due to the warm glow that fills their hearts when they see the name of their country.

This is the third GAB show promoted by the WWE, and the last two were terrible. This year will be even worse. All the second-tier pay-per-views are basically indistinguishable from one another, but for some bizarre reason, GAB seems to be jinxed. The show doesn't even start for another 24 hours, and it's already a trainwreck, with half the card being rewritten at the last moment. We'll get to that in a minute.

There's no way in hell I'd pay money to see this card. Luckily for me I don't have to, because the show is airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK. It has the potential to be so disastrous that I'll certainly watch it for free.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Rey Mysterio -v- King Booker. But first, a match that's actually taking place as advertised. Unfortunately, it's only nominally the main event. The big deal for this show was meant to be Dave Batista's return match, which we'll come to momentarily.

The tiny Rey Mysterio has held the title since March, and they haven't written him very well. He's meant to come across as the underdog champion who gets beaten up time and again but always comes through when it counts. That's the theory. The reality is that he usually loses, but clings onto the title through a series of freak wins. That's probably not what they were aiming for, but it's the way things have worked out.

King Booker is the artist formerly known as Booker T, who won the King of the Ring tournament a couple of months ago and started taking the whole deal absurdly seriously. He's effectively the top bad guy on Smackdown, and all logic says he's going to win here, so that Batista can move on to challenge him for the title next month. There's a school of thought that says Batista/Rey would be a bigger money match, but I think it's just too much of a mismatch to work when they're both meant to be heroes. Besides, Smackdown is desperately short of main event villains, and they might as well protect Booker now that he's on a roll.

Booker's return to the main event, some five years after he last held the WCW World Title, is a bit of a surprise, since he'd been languishing in the midcard for years. But he's a great character, and his ridiculous "medieval king" gimmick, complete with loyal servants, is working unexpectedly well. His new entrance - in which he heads very, very slowly to the ring while incredibly dull and repetitive music plays and William Regal yells "All Hail King Booker" over and over again - is so insanely tedious that it approaches Kaufmanesque genius.

The match will be above average, and Booker will probably win, although anything is possible.

2. World Heavyweight Title, #1 Contender Match: Batista -v- Mark Henry Ken Kennedy. And now, here come the problems. Former champion Dave Batista has only just returned to the show after spending several months rehabbing a shoulder injury. This is his return match, unless you count a six-man tag from Saturday Night's Main Event last week. At the time of his injury, Batista was feuding with Mark Henry, and so Henry was given the credit for putting him out of action. Naturally, on his return, Batista wants to fight Mark Henry. And so we end up with the originally scheduled match: Batista v Henry in a number one contender's match. The obvious plan is that Batista wins and goes on to face Booker for the world title at the next show.

But unfortunately, in that same six-man tag match last week, Mark Henry charged into the corner, hit the turnbuckle awkwardly, and broke his kneecap. He'll be back in a few months. Uh-oh.

So Batista's got to fight somebody, and into the breach steps midcard villain Ken Kennedy. Kennedy was undefeated until last week when he was pinned by Matt Hardy, obviously with a view to setting up a feud between the two. That's out the window now, because Hardy isn't on the show at all, and Batista will be demolishing this upstart in about five minutes max. There is no way on earth they'll use this match to elevate Ken Kennedy to the main event mix. He's just the biggest name bad guy on the show who wasn't already committed to another match, simple as that.

3. Punjabi Prison Match: The Undertaker -v- The Great Khali The Big Show. The Undertaker/Great Khali feud has been meandering along for a couple of months now. In their last match, Khali demolished the Undertaker and was generally presented as an awesome, unstoppable force. Well, that's how he's written, at least. His actual wrestling ability is poor to abysmal.

This is the rematch. For reasons nobody seems quite able to explain, it's Khali challenging the Undertaker again, and not the Undertaker looking for revenge, which would have made more sense. Since there's no earthly way they can send them out there to have a competitive match without a ton of gimmickry, this is (ahem) a "Punjabi Prison Match", Khali's signature gimmick match.

But what is a Punjabi Prison Match, I hear you cry? Ah, well they haven't actually explained that. Hilariously, that's the hook - buy the show, and you can find out what the match is. Normally when a villain invents a gimmick match that nobody has ever heard of, it means that he screws the hero by making up the rules as he goes along, but since Khali is an unstoppable juggernaut, that's unlikely to be the plan here. The promotional video used on Smackdown suggests that it's actually a steel cage match, except with the cage made of bamboo instead. The mind boggles.

Unfortunately, the Great Khali will be unable to participate on Sunday due to, and I quote, "elevated liver enzymes." I wonder what could possibly be the cause of that.

So, even though this is a gimmick match designed specially for the Great Khali, and the whole point is to do a Khali/Undertaker rematch, the match will be proceeding on Sunday without the involvement of the Great Khali. Instead, the Big Show - now the ECW Champion - will be wrestling the match, for no terribly good reason. The WWE book Big Show/Undertaker from time to time, because they like large men. It's never any good. They did the match on free TV on Tuesday, and by all accounts it wasn't any good then either.

Still, at least you get to find out what a Punjabi Prison Match is.

4. WWE United States Title: Finlay -v- William Regal -v- Bobby Lashley. Well, this should be interesting. The original hook here was a three-way match between Bobby Lashley (the former US champion) and Finlay and Regal (both henchmen of King Booker). In other words, it's a three-way match in name only, and the plan was to do a 2-on-1. Finlay won the title from Lashley on free TV a couple of weeks ago, which seemed very odd at the time, since this threeway was already booked.

When last I wrote about Finlay, the WWE were about to saddle him with a leprechaun, an idea that seemed utterly wrongheaded and was rumoured to be the result of internal politics trying to sabotage him. In fact, the leprechaun has turned out unexpectedly well. Instead of just having a cheerful green midget at ringside - which would be appalling - the idea is that Finlay keeps a psychotic leprechaun under the ring, who emerges occasionally to attack opponents. Finlay refuses to acknowledge that the leprechaun exists. It's actually working.

Unfortunately - you guessed it - Mr Lashley will be unable to compete on Sunday, as he too is suffering from elevated liver enzymes. It must be going round.

That leave us with the odd prospect of two villains from the same stable fighting one another for the US title. And curiously, the WWE have announced that this is exactly what we're going to get. Technically it should be an excellent match, since Finlay and Regal are two of the best wrestlers on the roster, but villain/villain matches tend to get no crowd reaction and rarely work. Finlay should probably retain.

5. WWE Tag Team Titles: Paul London & Brian Kendrick -v- The Pitbulls (Jamie Noble & Kid Kash). At last we come to a match which is going ahead as planned. Although the WWE are keeping awfully quiet about it, this is an all-Cruiserweight match. On paper, it should be good. Noble and Kash have two wins over the champions in singles matches, so conventional wisdom says the champions will probably retain. Doesn't really matter either way - it's only the tag belts. The back story is largely token, but the match has the potential to be good.

6. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms -v- mystery opponent. Yes, the WWE have announced a Cruiserweight Title match, but haven't actually said who's in it. Gregory Helms is the current champion, and he's had this largely ignored title for six months now. For the challenger, you're looking for a cruiserweight who's one of the good guys, and that pretty much narrows it down to Super Crazy. Should be alright, but the crowd won't care because there's no story. They really should have done the Super Crazy/Psicosis match on this show, to further the Mexicools' break-up angle, but for some reason they're not.

7. Ashley Massaro -v- Kristal Marshall -v- Michelle McCool -v- Jillian Hall. The seemingly obligatory five-minute T&A match. Ideal for tea-making. I'm not even going to pretend that I care or that the outcome matters. (Although it's worth mentioning that Kristal and Jillian aren't actually that bad, by the admittedly low standards of the WWE's women's division, and would be much better off on Raw where they could provide some more challengers for the Women's Title.)

Worth buying? Well, let's see... Finlay/Regal should be a great technical match, but it'll probably die because it's absurd in storyline terms. The main event should be alright. The tag match could be good, but the crowd probably won't care. The Cruiserweight match is an unknown quantity and the audience definitely won't care. The whole card is plagued with last-minute revisals, and there are three matches that look downright horrid. No, of course it's not worth buying. But it's enough of a trainwreck to be worth watching for free.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

District 13

I could, I suppose, go and see Superman Returns or Pirates of the Caribbean 2, but I honestly don't care about either of them. So instead, I went to see the gloriously stupid District 13, on the grounds that it's French, and therefore must be cleverer. (Before anyone asks, yes, this is the same film that was released in America as District B13. Obviously, I'm working with the subtitled edition, because dubbing is an abomination.)

Cinemas tend to work on a theory that anything in a foreign language must be arthouse. This is breaking down to a degree - Goodbye Lenin got a full-scale UK release despite being in German, and my local multiplex has a curious fondness for South Korean horror movies. Even so, District 13 ended up showing in the Filmhouse, Edinburgh's leading arthouse cinema, despite being the least arthouse thing imaginable.

How un-arthouse is this film? Well, the IMDB's plot outline starts like this: "Set in the ghettos of Paris in 2010, an undercover cop and an ex-thug try to infiltrate a gang in order to defuse a neutron bomb." That's exactly how arthouse it is.

But the plot isn't the point. In fact, for most of the film, the plot is refreshingly absent. This is a film starring David Belle, one of the inventors of parkour - the noble French art of jumping around buildings and public spaces in an implausibly agile way, sometimes awkwardly translated into English as "free running." It's wonderfully visual stuff, and not surprisingly, the BBC has made a couple of attempts to televise it in the past.

Unfortunately, the result of that was the painfully awkward films Jump London and Jump Britain, which attempted to show nice French people running around national landmarks. If you haven't seen them, don't bother. The director can't seem to grasp the idea that rapid cutting undermines the flow of the performance, and much of it consists of people bouncing around rather dull spaces that don't give them much to do - but hey, they're famous dull spaces.

Luc Besson, who produced and co-wrote this film, has a better idea. David Belle is an insanely agile man. He's a charismatic guy, and a decent enough actor. And he knows a bit of martial arts. So you put him in an action movie and have him do his own stunts. It's not brain surgery.

The appeal of good old-fashioned stunt work has fallen by the wayside in Hollywood, even when they attempt a martial arts film. District 13 is a classic example of what we're missing. Belle, and co-star Cyril Raffaelli, bounce around the screen in suitably ludicrous fashion and do ridiculously impressive things. We, the audience, are suitably astounded. And the film clocks in at 89 minutes, before any of that wears off. There's your evening's entertainment. Director Pierre Morel has a better grasp of how to shoot this material than the BBC did. Yes, the camerawork is flashy, but he understands the most important thing - let the stunt work speak for itself, and don't chop it up.

Of course, genre expectations mean that there has to be some sort of plot. Besson has duly provided some sort of plot. It comes in near the end, slows the film down, and generally reads like it might have filled out an episode of Tharg's Future Shocks. It falls apart under any consideration at all, and the finale is absurdly contrived. None of this really matters, because it does the job of keeping the action moving, and you probably won't bother thinking about it in much detail afterwards. There's a bit of political ranting about abandonment of the ghettos by the ruling classes, which is theoretically the big idea, but it only lasts about 90 seconds and feels like it was only included because they thought the story ought to go through the motions of having a point.

Most of the film just ignores the plot entirely - the majority of the running time is devoted to introducing the characters and allowing them to show off, which is just as it should be, before the story arrives and things get a little bogged down by comparison. If you can fault the film, it's for the final act, which has too much plot and too little fighting - or rather, doesn't quite reach the same spectacular heights as earlier action sequences.

It's a ridiculously silly film, of course - it's even got a B-movie villain who shoots his henchmen for bringing bad news - but that's beside the point. The story is just an excuse for some good action sequences. And the action sequences are incredibly good.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Only Fools on Horses

No, not Only Fools and Horses, the classic 1980s sitcom. Only Fools on Horses is the BBC's latest attempt at a celebrity reality TV show. Today's theme: show jumping.

I'm generally a big fan of the BBC. But good god, sometimes they produce programmes that amount to little more than a lengthy argument for the abolition of the licence fee. This is one of the worst things I've seen on primetime BBC in years.

That's not so much because it's bad or incompetent - although come to think of it, the sound quality wasn't brilliant. No, it's just so grimly uninspired. You can tell that the creative process behind this show started and finished with the words "What about show jumping? We haven't done show jumping yet."

Pop Idol (amusingly translated in the US as American Idol, as if viewers across the Atlantic might not know where they lived) was a magnificent formula, and it's been so endlessly copied that it's worth remembering that it was moderately original. A group of people enter, they display their talents, they receive "criticism" from judges, and the public vote decides who gets eliminated. Repeat until end of season. The elimination structure was cloned from shows like Big Brother, but hitching it to some sort of talent show was a good idea.

Now, the format has been cloned so endlessly that one wonders what hobbies remain to try. We've had singers, we've had bands, we've had Fame Academy, we've had Celebrity Fame Academy, we've had ballroom dancing (with celebrities and real people), we've had ice dancing. The BBC's Gaelic unit even produced a version for comedy sketch writers, which was grippingly awful. I gather there's one in America for inventors, and I believe Sky did one for footballers. By comparison, Channel 4's The Games deserves credit for at least having its own scoring system.

Only Fools on Horses is nothing more than a lame pun on an irrelevant show, nailed onto the format of Strictly Come Dancing - which wasn't remotely original to start with. A group of celebrities learn to ride and go showjumping. Three judges comment on their performance, even though there's no point to the exercise because their scores are determined (shockingly) by the normal rules of show jumping. One of the judges is the nasty one. As with SCD, the public vote makes up half of the result. And that's it.

Presumably somebody thought this might lead to some thrilling falling-off-and-hurting-yourself action. In reality, of course, it's a televised novice gymkhana. And why would you want to watch that, unless you knew the people involved? It's not as though the bar of celebrity has been set particularly high here. The high point is probably Sara Cox, who is at least still employed by Radio 1. Ruby Wax appears to have a contract that obliges her to appear on every BBC reality show, perhaps because they can't think of anything else to do with her. There's a guy from Blue Peter, and a man who used to be in Hollyoaks. There's Josie D'Arby. There's Paul Nicholas.

In every respect, it's a completely off-the-peg show where nobody seems to have sat down and thought about how it might work on screen. The judges seem to serve no purpose at all, except to clone better programmes. I was appalled to realise that "hoofed out of the stables" is indeed the show's officially-sanctioned term for eviction, and not a witticism on the commentator's part. I was near suicidal at the words "So turn over now to BBC3, where June Sarpong..."

Stuck in the middle of this hour of mediocrity is Angus Deayton, serving out his stint in career purgatory after being booted unceremoniously from Have I Got News For You. To say that Deayton was unenthusiastic would be an understatement. He looks like he wants to shoot himself. While most presenters would at least feign enthusiasm, that doesn't seem to have occurred to Deayton - or perhaps he's just suicidally indifferent.

He slumps through the show, a snarky low-end intellectual doomed by capricious circumstances to attempt a role better suited to Ant and Dec. He mechanically congratulates the participants, openly sneers at the voting system, and at one point suggests that Ruby Wax's favourite horse has been shot. It's the performance of a man who has either misjudged his audience to a catastrophic degree, or who has been so broken by the downturn in his career that he just doesn't care any more. Either way, it's the most entertaining thing on the show, for entirely the wrong reasons.

It is, of course, possible to slide further down the TV scale than this. Monday night sees season two of Love Island, the show formerly known as Celebrity Love Island until Trading Standards stepped in. The theory is that you take a bunch of celebrities, put them on an island, and - officially - hope that they find love. In reality, you pray that they have sex, or alternatively punch one another. The Fiji location is supposed to provide romantic glamour, although given the end result, they might as well call it Frottage Gulch. In an act of particular barefaced cheek, ITV's 2005 annual report solemnly classed the show as a third world documentary.

As you can imagine, even the most desperate microcelebrity has got better things to do than appear on this sort of show, hence this year's hilarious cast list. Paul Gascoigne's stepdaughter? Pierce Brosnan's son? A guy called Leo who plays in Mike Skinner's live band? Considering the number of losers who'll cheerfully turn up to the opening of an envelope, they really must be having trouble convincing the agents if this is the best they can come up with. Season one was widely mocked for its poor quality of "celebrity" (Nikki Ziering? Fran Cosgrave?), but this line-up actually plunges through the bottom end of any definition of "celebrity" known to the English language, no matter how generous.

And yet, in a bizarre way, I somehow have more time for the suicidal cynicism of Love Island than the utterly phoned-in Only Fools on Horses. And so, from the look of it, does Angus Deayton...