Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Aw, sweeeet.

Susi and I had actually planned to see Mamma Mia - which I'm vaguely curious to see, since the spectacle of Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan singing Abba is said to be mesmerisingly ridiculous. But it was sold out at our local cinema, so we headed for the next one on the list.

Presumably you know the concept of Wall-E by now. Human race leave Earth after environmental catastrophe. Robots are left behind to clear it up. Poor beleaguered Wall-E is the last one left, until something arrives from space.

All of which sounds like a slightly odd set-up for a kids' movie, and indeed it is. There's practically no dialogue in the first half hour of the film. The heart of the story may be Wall-E and Eve (the probe from outer space), but they rarely speak more than a word at a time. There's virtually no dialogue in the first half hour. It works because Pixar are geniuses, and know how to adapt body language for machines, so as to make them expressive. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Pixar can pull this off - they've been doing it literally since day one. But as a sustained animation tour de force, it's hugely impressive.

The weaker half of the film is, well, the rest of the story. All this stuff about the human race being out in space and so forth... it doesn't feel like it's been thought out as thoroughly as the robots. Other than the Captain, the human characters are perfunctory; and there are details that don't entirely make sense. (If nobody ever looks up from their video screens, what are the billboards for? If they've been in space for that long, shouldn't there be more former Captains in the gallery?) I don't really buy the humans' story, and that's a problem.

But Wall-E and Eve... that's worth seeing the film for. It's perhaps a bit slow for the kids, and it takes a while to get going, but at its best, it's some excellent work.

Monday, July 28, 2008

If you haven't read it...

...here's the judgment in the Max Mosley case. I could explain it for the benefit of Americans, but the first paragraph of Mr Justice Eady's judgment pretty much tells you where we're coming from here.

This is worth reading for all sorts of reasons. Non-lawyers should feel free to skip past the stuff about exemplary damages, but otherwise, it's a vastly entertaining read - not just for the reasons you'd expect, but also for providing an amazing glimpse into the ethical landscape of the News of the World, whose witnesses genuinely couldn't get their heads around the idea that threatening to expose people unless they co-operate is (literally) blackmail.

Even better, it turns out that after offering their informant £25K to film the event in secret, they stiffed her for half the money. ("The editor gave the reason that they like to renegotiate downwards when in a strong negotiating position. They were affected by the credit crunch like everyone else.")

It's a genuinely interesting case in terms of the trend of privacy law; there's a clear trend towards the courts clamping down on the most plainly indefensible excesses of the tabloids, and giving short shrift to ludicrous "public interest" claims.

But it's also worth reading just to enjoy Mr Justice Eady, who deals with most of London's major libel cases, at his most laconic. My personal favourite paragraph:
Mr Thurlbeck also relied upon the fact that the Claimant was "shaved". Concentration camp inmates were also shaved. Yet, as Mr Price pointed out, they had their heads shaved. The Claimant, for reasons best known to himself, enjoyed having his bottom shaved – apparently for its own sake rather than because of any supposed Nazi connotation. He explained to me that while this service was being performed he was (no doubt unwisely) "shaking with laughter". I naturally could not check from the DVD, as it was not his face that was on display.

X-Axis comments thread - 27 July 2008

This week, Uncanny X-Men #500 begins the San Francisco era (well, kind of - Astonishing got their first); Wolverine: First Class guest stars Alpha Flight; and X-Men: Legacy rummages around in Alamagordo continuity.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 20 July 2008

This week, X-Force continues its path of overwhelming misery; DC relaunch Batgirl and actually remember to explain the plot to new readers; and Dark Horse begins The Helm, a superhero/fantasy/comedy thing.

Great American Bash 2008

WWE pay-per-views aren't exactly renowned for their brilliant names, but every year I have to suppress a shudder on typing "The Great American Bash." "Wrestlemania" may not be a great title, but it's got a certain 1980s charm. GAB also dates back to the eighties - it's an old WCW brand name that they picked up in the fire sale - but even by wrestling standards, there's something intangibly crap about the name.

Anyway, this show is on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I get it as part of my regular subscription. Which is handy, because there's some interesting stuff on here. There's also some hastily thrown-together filler. But that's par for the course.

1. WWE Title: Triple H v. Edge. Now pay attention, because this gets complicated. As you all know, the WWE has three separate shows - Raw, Smackdown, and the distant C-show ECW. Each show has its own roster. Just before the last pay-per-view, they held a draft to reshuffle the rosters and freshen things up. This resulted in Raw's champion being drafted to Smackdown, and Smackdown's challenger being drafted to Raw. So Smackdown had both the titles - but Raw had the chance to win them both back. With me so far?

Triple H is the WWE champion, who was drafted to Smackdown. He successfully defended his title against John Cena, and so the title goes with him to Smackdown. Edge was the World Heavyweight Champion, who was on Smackdown to start with. And he successfully defended his title against Batista, which should have meant that Smackdown kept both titles. But the next night, CM Punk cashed in the "Money in the Bank" title shot he won at Wrestlemania, beat Edge, and took the World Heavyweight Title off to Raw. So the main titles have switched shows, Triple H is now the Smackdown champion, and Edge now gets his shot at that title.

I told you it was complicated.

The build for this match has largely involved Edge's storyline with Smackdown general manager Vickie Guerrero, culminating in their marriage on Friday's show, and Vickie discovering too late that Edge has been sleeping with the wedding planner. And if you're wondering where Triple H fits into this... um, yes.

These two should have a good match, but the storyline hasn't really been about them. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see a title change here. Triple H's title reign hasn't done much for the ratings, and besides, Smackdown still has a shortage of heels for him to fight. A title change leaves Edge to fight a replenished selection of main event babyfaces (thanks to the drafting of Jeff Hardy and Mr Kennedy), and Triple H to take the more natural role of chasing the title. On the other hand, the WWE tends to have a very optimistic view of the drawing power of Triple H, and on that basis I'd expect him to retain - not because it's a good idea, but because it's the sort of thing the WWE tends to do.

2. World Heavyweight Title: CM Punk v. Batista. Meanwhile, over on Raw, we have a very strange match. Now, this is not the direction they originally planned to go in. The "Money in the Bank" gimmick has been running for four years. A bunch of upper midcard wrestlers fight in a ladder match at Wrestlemania. The winner gets a title shot that he can cash in at literally any time over the next year. Edge has used it twice to attack beaten-down champions and win their belts. The other year, Rob Van Dam (as a babyface) just demanded a match on his home territory. But he won too. So: four years in, we've pretty much established that if you win the MITB ladder match, you're probably going to get a brief run as champion, on either Raw or Smackdown.

The plan this year was for Jeff Hardy to win, but immediately before Wrestlemania, he was suspended for failing a drug test. So they had to pick somebody else, and they came up with CM Punk. Punk is an indie darling who had a run as ECW Champion last year, and who's had a stop-start career in the WWE. The fans seem to like him, and cheer for his entrance, but also tend to go a bit quiet during the actual matches. The writers can't seem to figure out whether he's a big star of the future, or just another guy in the midcard. He loses an awful lot.

But he has two main things going for him: charisma and novelty. Punk's "straight edge" gimmick is apparently genuine; and indeed, he doesn't look like the typical WWE wrestler. However, that cuts both ways; from a certain angle, he could be seen as an indie wrestler curiously out of place on the national stage. And since winning the MITB title shot, Punk has been drifting aimlessly, and losing regularly.

Now, Edge retained his title against Batista last month by blatant cheating, and showed up on Raw to gloat about it (which should have been a warning sign right there). Batista responded by beating the hell out of him, and then CM Punk raced out to cash in his title shot and pin Edge in six seconds to win the belt. Normally this wouldn't be much of a babyface move but... well, it's Edge, and he's done it to the good guys twice before, so what goes around comes around.

All this came as a surprise, because Punk's string of defeats didn't exactly make him look like a champion. And that's basically the direction they've taken for the last couple of weeks. Punk may have the belt - but is he just a paper champion? Is he out of his depth? We're clearly meant to think that the answer is "Yes, Batista's going to rip him apart." But ratings were up with Punk as champion, and the WWE tends to go for reverse psychology in its booking. I suspect Punk retains here - possibly by the skin of his teeth, and possibly setting up a slow-burn heel turn. By all accounts, he's always been better working as a smug, holier-than-thou bad guy, and a run as a questionably undeserving champion could be just the way to get him there.

The match quality... I don't know about this, to be honest. Punk is inconsistent at best when he's working a WWE-style match, and I suspect a massive style clash between these two. Could be a train wreck, might be a pleasant surprise.

3. ECW Heavyweight Title: Mark Henry v. Tommy Dreamer. Mark Henry won the ECW title from Kane last month, which is probably the best use of him at the moment. He's never been much of a wrestler, but he's a huge guy with some presence, and on the C-show, he can happily plough his way through smaller men without having to face off against the real top stars. (Because bluntly, Mark Henry just isn't good enough to be in the main event on the top shows - and it doesn't make much sense for the world's strongest man to be floundering in the midcard.)

Tommy Dreamer has been around for years, doing the "heart and soul of ECW" routine. Henry will squash him dead in three minutes or so.

4. WWE Tag Team Titles: John Morrison & The Miz v. Finlay & Hornswoggle v. Curt Hawkins & Zack Ryder v. Jesse & Festus. A four-way match for the tag titles, announced on Smackdown with no logical build at all. John Morrison and Mike Mizanin have been great heel champions and I have no particular desire to see them lose - certainly not to any of these guys. Finlay and Hornswoggle are an Irish veteran and his midget. The less said about them the better. Hawkins and Ryder are Edge's sidekicks, promoted from the undercard mainly on the grounds that they looked a bit like him. They're okay for rookies. Jesse and Festus are a bizarre novelty act, based on Of Mice and Men. Festus is a big guy who wanders around in a daze until the bell rings, when he flies into a rage. Jesse seems to be under the delusion that everyone else might not have noticed this. They're quite fun, but they seem to be a random inclusion in this match.

Miz and Morrison are clearly the best of the bunch. But they're on the ECW roster, and ECW tapings are being moved to Mondays, which will put an end to their appearances on Smackdown. So at some point, they'll have to lose the Smackdown tag titles. A four-way match looks suspiciously like a device to have them do so without being pinned.

Finlay and Hornswoggle are also technically on the ECW roster, so there's no point in them winning. My guess is that Ryder and Hawkins get the titles, in a chaotic match.

5. WWE Divas Title: Natalya Neidhart v. Michelle McCool. Oddly, both of these alliterative names are real. Well, Natalya's actually called Natalie, but close enough. This is a new women's title for Smackdown, and yes, they really are calling it the Divas Title. And if you think that's bad, you should see the belt, which looks like it was designed by a San Francisco drag queen.

The WWE doesn't quite get women's wrestling, and still seems to think that T&A makes a difference to their ratings. In fact, there's very little evidence to support this in recent years. T&A segments don't do much for the ratings; compare the rival promotion TNA, whose women's division actually does draw viewers, largely because it's built around wrestlers, or at least strongly defined personalities. The women who have succeeded in the WWE in recent years have tended to be the ones who worked hard to become proper wrestlers (thus earning the fans' respect), or the ones who could be entertaining as characters (nobody cared about Maria until she stated doing her "idiot" gimmick and turned out to have comic timing).

None of this seems to have registered with the WWE, who apparently haven't figured out that one of their biggest draws is John Cena, and his core fanbase is women and children. Even the male audience is significantly less neanderthal these days than the WWE seems to think. Well, either that, or they've all got the Internet these days.

Natalya ought to win this, partly because she's a better wrestler, but mainly because she's a heel, and if she wins, McCool can carry on chasing her for a while.

6. WWE United States Title: Matt Hardy v. Shelton Benjamin. Announced in an obscure link in the news section of WWE.com. Presumably filler. Should be decent. Matt Hardy is another ECW guy holding a Smackdown belt which he needs to lose at some point; this could be the night.

7. Parking Lot Brawl: John Cena v. John Bradshaw Layfield. Nothing enthralls the live crowd more than a match taking place backstage, but that's what we're getting here. Basically a load of gimmickry to distract from the fact that JBL's got a chronic back injury and is fairly limited in what he can do. They've been pushing this very hard on TV, leading up to a cliffhanger on Raw where JBL seemingly ran over Cean in a car. (Official line from the website: he missed. No, really.) I'm not expecting much from this, and if they've got any sense, they'll keep it short. These two have been feuding for too long already, so Cena should probably win and move on to something else.

8. Shawn Michaels v. Chris Jericho. The latest instalment of the long-running feud between two former champions. Jericho has just turned heel again, for the same reason he usually does: those damned fans insist on cheering other people more than him. How can this be? The bastards! Jericho's always been great in this role. Most people just do the "I'm great, cheer me" schtick, but Jericho manages to come off as genuinely hurt and bewildered by the fact that he isn't the most popular guy on the show. It's still been a tough sell, because he's reaching the point in his career where audiences respect him too much to hate him. But it's a good storyline, which has actually made sense - if you think about him rationally, Michaels is a total dick. Of course, in reality, the fans are cheering the performer more than the character; but from the point of view of Jericho's character, everything he's saying is pretty much fair.

Michaels apparently has some sort of genuine eye injury, which is why they've been pushing the eye so heavily in the storyline. I expect this to be a great match, and the feud has plenty of long-term potential; Jericho should win, either to set up a rematch, or if need be, to write Michaels out while he gets his eye seen to.

Worth buying? Triple H/Edge and Jericho/Michaels should be good. Punk/Batista should at least be interesting, and most of the rest should be okay. It's a pretty good card for a second-tier show.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 13 July 2008

This week, all the X-books are in mid-storyline, so we'll check in on Young X-Men. Joe Kelly is back with another eccentric miniseries, I Kill Giants. And there's Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Minx book, The New York Four. (Seriously, it does sound like an Enid Blyton title, doesn't it?)

- Oh, and since I plugged Adam and Joe a while back, you might want to know that they've released a Song Wars collection on iTunes as a budget priced album. This is the feature on their radio show where they each write a song based on the same theme, record it on their laptops, and get the listeners to vote for which one is best. A lot of it is surprisingly good. There's a lot of homemade videos by fans on YouTube (mostly for a competition), of varying quality. But here's Adam Buxton's own video for his "inappropriate film exit music" entry: a new theme tune for The Hours.

(My favourite track on the album is actually Joe Cornish's ultra-sincere eco-awareness song, but that's only available with a really dodgy fan-made video. I suggest opening it in a new window and not watching the pictures.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Apparently Wales doesn't exist.

Nothing like overstating a half-decent point. A bunch of Welsh AMs (that's members of the Welsh Assembly) have produced a report complaining that Wales doesn't get enough attention on British national television. There's a degree of truth to this. The UK media is obsessed with London, which is partly because important stuff tends to congregate there, but also results in disproportionate coverage being given to local news stories that happen to take place on the broadcaster's doorstep.

In the case of Wales, there's perhaps also an element of the local broadcasters spending a lot of their resources on making programmes in Welsh, which the rest of the country understandably isn't keen to network. BBC Scotland and STV don't have that issue; most of their output is in English, and a lot of it gets networked.

But, says the report, "Everyday life in Wales is reflected nowhere, in any genre, at any time across the schedules." The chairman of the report, Alan Davies, is also quoted as saying, "If you watch TV day in day out, week in week out, you won't see Wales represented anywhere across the UK networks."

Um... that's a bit sweeping, isn't it?

I mean, Torchwood's not the greatest show in the world, but it is set in Cardiff, it airs in prime time, and it features scenes of Welsh people going about normal daily activities (admittedly interspersed with invasions from Jones the Hellmouth, but they did say "in any genre"). Perhaps in real life the Welsh don't derive quite so much pleasure from standing dramatically on local tall buildings, but surely it takes us over the threshold of "nowhere, in any genre, at any time"?

And I've never actually watched an episode of Gavin & Stacey, but I know it's an award-winning comedy drama, and I know it's set partly in Glamorgan.

Now, I can't think of much else (and I draw the line at counting The Charlotte Church Show, or sketches from Little Britain), which tends to suggest they've got a point. But it'd be an even better point if they made it accurately, wouldn't it?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: July 6

I'm figuring we'll just take these as they come, rather than wait to the end of the month. Makes more sense. Anyway, Ne-Yo lasted a single week, and now... well, here's a record you probably won't be seeing in the American charts any time soon.

Dizzee Rascal featuring Calvin Harris & Chrome, "Dance Wiv Me." Hmmm... shall we go with the version on Calvin Harris' page, which has a couple of minor sound glitches, or the one on Dizzee Rascal's page, which is in the wrong aspect ratio? Yes, these things annoy me. Alright, the sound's more important... let's go with Dizzee.

This is another surprise number one. Actually, it's a surprising record, period. Dizzee Rascal is a rapper from East London, and I still can't quite believe it's been five years since he won the Mercury Prize for his debut album.

Dizzee's early singles tended to be rather harsh and minimal records of the sort that get good reviews but play to a rather niche audience. Here's his debut single "I Luv U" (number 23 in 2003) - a great record, with a lot more going on than first meets the eye, but not exactly radio-friendly. Although it does have some fabulously ineffective radio-editting of the chorus, not to mention some industrial-strength sullenness.

And this was the follow-up. Minimal, to put it midly. Mind you, this was all fairly important stuff; UK rap used to be largely dismissed, even in the UK, as a rather pale imitation of American rap. When they started lurching off in a different direction, things got a lot more interesting.

He's made some much more accessible records since then - although the less said about "Dream" the better - and he's enough of a chart fixture that nobody could seriously claim he's any sort of underground act. (He has the misfortune to be the token UK rapper in a lot of Guardian-readers' record collections - depending on whether you consider credibility-free money to be a misfortune.) Still, his biggest hit in Britain was "Stand Up Tall", and that only got to number ten - four years ago. It's amazing what a radio-friendly hook and a very obvious video can do.

Calvin Harris, on the other hand, is a guy from Dumfries who makes 80s-retro electropop. He's the guy playing the barman in the video. He's basically known for two singles (we'll gloss over "Merrymaking At My Place", which missed the top 40), which between them pretty much sum up what we're dealing with here.

(Or watch it on YouTube without the adverts and in the correct aspect ratio. I swear, I don't know why people bother disabling embedding.) That's "Acceptable In The 80s", which kind of teeters on the brink of being a novelty record, at least once the video director is finished with it. But "The Girls" shows him in a rather better light.

(Again, I'd watch it on YouTube if I were you.) This time, the video director has got it right, and has figured out that if this is going to work, they need a bit more ironic distance. And it's a better song, anyway.

And Chrome... uh, I think he's a protege of Dizzee Rascal. Or something.

Anyway, these two (and most people don't bother mentioning poor Chrome) are an odd match, and I wasn't at all convinced about this record the first time I heard it. Seemed to me that they ended up meeting in the middle with something that wasn't as memorable as either of them. But... you know, after a few listens, it's growing on me. It's got something. It's a happy little record. Bless it.

Not sure quite what they were going for with the video. It's obviously vaguely trying to be one of those generic American R&B nightclub videos, but they've somehow ended up looking vaguely low-rent and featuring a suspiciously out-of-place man from Dumfries. I can't quite make up my mind whether they're doing a very deadpan parody, or just not doing it very well.

And if you don't like it... well, the other major contender for number one last week was the second Basshunter single, which is fucking awful. And as I predicted a while back, once again they've rewritten the lyrics instead of translating them, to remove any trace of possible interest. For those of you keeping track: it's an English-language rewrite of his Swedish-language single "Vi sitter i Ventrilo och spelar DotA", which in turn is a geek-oriented semi-cover of an equally dreadful French song called "Daddy DJ" (which passed the UK by, mercifully). It was a hit across continental Europe in 2001, though, and I guess that tells you all you need to know about the dayglo underside of European dance music.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 6 July 2008

This week, Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi take over Astonishing X-Men; Cable completes its first arc; and perhaps the oddest book from Minx so far, Ross Campbell's Water Baby.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: June

We left off at the end of May with Rihanna's "Take A Bow" at number 1. That lasted through to 8 June for a total of two weeks... and then we get some very unlikely stuff.

Or, if you prefer, you can see it here without the adverts - for some reason, Mint Royale's record company is happy to put the thing up for free on YouTube but vigilant against the threat of embeddable versions.

Anyway, this is Mint Royale, "Singing in the Rain" (8 to 22 June, two weeks). As I've explained before, under the new chart rules, unless you're buying the whole album, pretty much every download counts towards the singles chart. So from time to time, an old record shows up on TV, usually in an advert, and makes the bottom end of the chart. But none of them have done this well before.

"Singing in the Rain" was the soundtrack used by Britain's Got Talent winner George Sampson, a teenage breakdancer, in his winning routine. A massive outpouring of enthusiasm from viewers saw "Singing" re-enter the chart the next week, and then shoot to number one for a fortnight. The record was originally commissioned for a car advert, which is why it sounds a bit like a thirty second idea stretched to three minutes. It reached number 20 on its original release in 2005, and everyone had pretty much forgotten about it until a few weeks ago.

Mint Royale were a production duo who had some moderate success at the turn of the decade. Until now, their biggest hit was "Don't Falter" with guest vocalist Lauren Laverne, then best known as the lead singer of Kenickie, and now inexplicably the host of BBC2's The Culture Show. It got to number 15 in January 2000, and it's really rather good.

(You won't be surprised to hear that the American record company refused to go within a mile of that video. You might be more surprised to learn that they thought this thing was an improvement.)

In fact, until now, Mint Royale were one of the rare acts who weren't even credited on their biggest hit: their remix of Terrorvision's "Tequila", which made number 2 in 1999. Let's take a minute to remember the days when Chris Evans was at his career zenith.

(For the benefit of Americans: Terrorvision normally sounded more like this.)

Despite managing two weeks at the top, Mint Royale are already plummetting their way down the charts again. This looks like a weird flash in the pan.

That's an iTunes advert featuring Coldplay, "Viva La Vida" (22 to 29 June, one week). It doesn't have a proper video yet, because technically it's Coldplay's next single. The lead single from the album was "Violet Hill", which made number 8 - but that's because they gave it away for free before releasing it for sale.

VLV's chart run has been distorted by another promotional tactic. Initially, it was available as an advance track from the album. The idea is that you sign up to buy the album, and you get the title track now, with the rest of the album upon its release. The UK chart compilers pored over the rulebook and decided that this doesn't count as a single - it's a downpayment on an album. So VLV was duly disqualified from the charts until the album was released, and it was being sold on the normal basis. As a result, the song duly enters the chart at number one, raising the interesting prospect that it could be well on its way down the chart before being "released" at all. It's also the first number one single without a video since (I believe) early 2005 when an Elvis Presley re-issue programme clogged up the charts for a few weeks.

This also begs the question of whether it's a phantom number one that should have been at the top in the preceding weeks. But I'm with the chart compilers on this one. If you're paying for the whole album, then it doesn't become a single just because they stagger the download.

The Coldplay backlash may be setting in. They've always been criticised as a polished but bland outfit, but when articles to that effect start cropping up in places like The Daily Mail, the meme is clearly spreading. But I'm sure they won't be losing much sleep over it at this stage.

Ne-Yo, "Closer" (29 June to date, 1 week and counting). Oh, this one. It's one of those songs that I always recognise when I hear it, and yet I forget it the moment it stops.

This has taken eight weeks to climb to the top, something that we're increasingly seeing with the new chart rules. It's his second UK number one, following "So Sick" in 2006 - a title I didn't even recognise when I looked it up, but the song is vaguely familiar. (It also has a video by Hype Williams, who seems to have built a career in America off recycling the same idea ad nauseam.)

American R&B acts tend to have intermittent success in the UK, and Ne-Yo is no exception: his last two solo singles missed the top 40 entirely. And I'm not sure what more to say about this, really. It's a polished record, and I can see the appeal, but it doesn't do much for me.