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  • South Park – Reverse Cow Girl and Cash For Gold

    March 30, 2012 by Nick

    South Park’s back. It’s also oddly muted, not as vicious as it can sometimes be and maybe even philosophical. Sometimes it starts slowly, lulling you into believing it has lost its edge before going for the jugular. It could be that this season is going to be one of those times.

    Reverse Cow Girl is both about the age old argument between men and women regarding leaving the toilet seat up and the erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of freedom. As an analogy it works surprisingly well, which is something South Park always excels at: taking something you think is a throwaway joke and using it to make a serious point about the world. While being funny. For the most part the humour is mild and interlaced with general thoughtfulness and even tenderness. There is an archetypal Cartman moment to drive the plot on as well as being funny, but overall there aren’t as many jokes as I have come to expect. I’m also not sure how much I conflate seat belts with airline restrictions, but then again I grew up with seatbelts being a fact of life so I have never really had cause to think about the implications of them before.

    Cash For Gold is about lots of things. It’s about dementia, forgetting the things that matter and being confused. It’s about the perilous state of the economy, how people are cashing in on people’s desperation by opening pawn shops. It’s about people preying on the elderly.  It’s about Stan trying to connect with his granddad and his moral indignation at the greater story and it is about Cartman trying to make a fast buck. It’s not uproariously funny at any point, but it does make a few good points and has some good jokes. There is also an oddly emotional subplot running through the program, with Stan trying to protect his grandfather from exploitation and also realising that his granddad is confused and old. He lashes out at easy targets and learns everything is more complicated, before directing his ire at the host of a tv show. His continued victimisation of the host is odd, if it were Cartman it would be funny, but it being Stan it takes on a strange aspect and the ending feels bleak. It’s comedy, but it isn’t necessarily meant to be funny at all times.

    Dirk Gently -Episode 3

    March 28, 2012 by Nick

    The third episode of Dirk Gently takes the simmering sub plot of resentment towards Dirk from his business partner, the dislike of them by the police, Dirk’s laziness and slipshod approach and his rather wooly ethics and places them at the centre of the story. It still isn’t quite the Dirk Gently I recognise from the books, but it is a logical situation given the status quo of the series and does work together. Yes, it is a little straightforward and formulaic, but it is genuinely very funny in places and does manage to have the odd twist that actually makes sense both in terms of the episode and the series as a whole.

    Dirk’s clients are turning up dead, seemingly from heart attacks. Dirk believes that he will be a suspect for their murders, but the police believe that he is solely a person of interest and perhaps at risk himself. This plays to Gently’s arguably inflated sense of self worth and the police thinking that he is not necessarily evil rather than just grubby and largely incompetent. It’s a nice moment, and underpins the plot.

    Dirk also takes on a client who is being stalked, as the shows do tend to use the two unrelated cases that turn out to be intertwined structure, this thread continues until the climax. It’s fairly directly related in one way though, although revealing why would wreck a quite funny scene involving Dirk and the police as well as undermining the plot. The story has enough happening to sustain its length and none of the scenes feel particularly extraneous (quite a few manage exposition or character moments as well as being quite funny) and none of the twists seem to be at odds with the story. It felt intrinsically right in a way that earlier episodes haven’t quite managed.

    The tease on Dirk giving up the agency and his partner leaving him play out as you would largely expect, and is there mainly to add credence to Dirk trying to be more financially responsible and slightly less selfish. It’s window dressing to add texture to the main story and to raise the stakes. Oddly enough, his car (whose lack of reliability has been a running joke) is thoroughly dependable as the plot demands. It’s an episode where all the supporting characters get their moments and both act in character and get to drive the plot on (although Helen Baxendale’s character is noticeably absent) as well as seeming to change slightly over the course of the plot. It makes for a nice series ending and also suggests that there is life to the character beyond the books.

    The Voice

    March 26, 2012 by Nick

    The Voice, broadcast on the BBC, is a clone of X-Factor with a twist: the judges don’t see the contestants before voting on them based solely on their performance, which means that their back-story apparently doesn’t count. This isn’t wholly true. It means that the contestants get to clear the first hurdle without relying on their appearance and back-stories but I feel sure these will become more important as the show progresses.

    Each judge apparently has to choose ten contestants for them to mentor. When more than one judge wants to mentor a contestant they then compete with one another for the contestant, trying to convince them why they would be the best person to show them how to perform and get the best from them.

    Both these are nice touches, and the fact that the judges don’t have artificial and disparate categories to put their charges in is also refreshing. The problems creep in when the show doesn’t go far enough: although the judges may be making their initial choices based solely on performance the audience is privy to the back-story of each contestant before they appear on stage and the appearance of the contestant will obviously become an issue as the show goes on because the judges see them as soon as they select them to be on their team.

    The judges are an interesting group. Apparently they have sold in excess of 140 million records between them. That is a ridiculous number and suggests they must all be heavyweights. Until one of them turns out to be Tom Jones and he has managed over 100 million of them all by himself. Suddenly, 40 million between 3 seems far less impressive. Factor in the fact that one of them is the main creative force behind the Black Eyed Peas and I begin to suspect that the other two judges probably managed about 5 million between them. Certainly more than I would manage personally but it does diminish their relative worth.

    Of course, if you’re a musical act on the show and interested in your career as opposed to your ability (I would rate Tom Jones as easily the best singer of the group but probably not the person who is going to be best placed to help you with an assault on the modern pop charts), then you will probably look at who has sold the most records recently and has the strongest track record in helping other people achieve success. Jessie J has written hits for other artists, the Irish lad who isn’t Daniel O’Donnell but I am going to keep confusing with him as his name is too similar is apparently a songwriter in his own right and Will I Am manages to regularly produce and guest on songs for a variety of other artists. I would immediately want to be mentored by either the Midas like producer or the great singer with knowledge of the Vegas circuit. I do wonder if the results and careers of those involved will bear this out.

    Dirk Gently – Episode 2

    March 24, 2012 by Nick

    Dirk Gently, as previously stated, is a tv series based on the works of the late Douglas Adams. It’s passably entertaining and mildly amusing. It isn’t much watch tv and is by no means unmissable, but it is considerably better than most things that I see (which is damning it with faint praise, really). The second episode sees Gently returning to his old university at his mentor’s behest to act as security consultant and ends up investigating two related crimes in his own eccentric manner.

    Gently comes across as more egocentric and selfish, to my mind, in this episode: his every action is couched in terms relating to himself and one of the pivotal plot moments relates to challenging his preconceptions about events that relate solely to him. When he fails to stop the first crime it is because he is engaged in a selfish act. The second crime he then sees in terms of his own failure and how it reflects upon him and how it disadvantages him. I know this is an attempt to round out his character and show his vulnerabilities, but it makes him less appealing and part of his appeal has to be he is likeable in order to get away with some of the things he does.

    Arguably of greater concern to the episode is the fact that the twist ending is so obvious. When something draws so strongly on the mystery structure then the underlying mystery needs to be good or you need to subvert it in an interesting and funny way. Unfortunately, this does neither: it has charm and some amusing moments, but it is too slight to get away with such a fundamental underlying flaw and the only real surprise is a minor plot point that serves as a tangential explanation of the twist rather than anything more complicated. Coupling a weak twist, flawed structure with some revelations about the lead character that make him less appealing this makes for less rewarding viewing and the suggestion that the series doesn’t really have legs when it is divorced from its source material. The mystery is solved in a fairly pedestrian manner and it is only the physical impossibility of the explanation that actually makes this anything other than a routine procedural storyline.

    I like the series enough to hope this is an aberration, as with Sherlock having the weakest episodes as the middle of each series. If it proves to be the norm I think I will stop bothering to watch it.

    Don’t Vote George Galloway

    March 22, 2012 by Nick

    I live in Bradford West. For many years we have been represented by Marsha Singh, a dignified man who is a good constituency MP, votes according to his conscience rather than his party’s whip and has sadly had to stand aside due to ill health. This has led to a by-election that will be contested by a number of able candidates representing both the main political parties and more fringe interests. And George Galloway.

    I think George Galloway is a detestable human being and take no small amount of solace from the likelihood he will be embarrassed at the polls. When I say he will be embarrassed, I am ascribing him normal human emotions and responses. From what I know of him he appears to be a shameless self publicist and possessing a deficit of reasoning ability.

    When he launched his campaign he was apparently ascribed comments (and I am paraphrasing here) about wishing to give Bradford a sense of identity. Now, I do believe Bradford has some problems, some of which may be unique to the city. I don’t believe that they will be solved by allying its public identity to someone who jumps around political ideologies to try to make himself electable, like a mercenary selling their services to a despot.

    Why do I actually feel this level of bile for Galloway?

    Is it because he principledly holds a set of values I find abhorrent?

    No, it is the sheer ego and opportunism of the man: in his previous stint as an MP he decided the best way forward his political agenda (which he was voted in on) and to work for his constituents (which, bluntly, is what he was paid to do) was to appear on Big Brother and pretend to be a cat. This not the decision of a politician or civic minded individual, but someone hungry for fame even at the cost of their own dignity. What that was meant to achieve other than increased profile remains beyond me.

    It is not as if that was an unfortunate aberration. As recently as this year he was appearing on the 10 O’Clock show lecherously stating his desire to meet the Argentian President and hand over the Falkland Islands to her. This was over the proven objections of all the Falkland residents and contra to our own interests as a nation. He seemed more concerned over the appearance of the Argentinian premier and the largely uninformed world at large than anything logical or principled. In order to achieve peace a compromise must be reached that is acceptable to all parties involved. What Galloway suggests is nothing short of abject surrender.

    It is not just Galloway’s personality I find abhorrent, but the way in which he would pursue (or completely ignore in order to further promote himself) his policies. Remember that personality is relevant in that it gives clues to how a candidate would actually seek to achieve their policies and how they would prioritise them. Their ability to reach a consensus and implement policy is determined by personality and, in Galloway, we have a candidate with a repugnant personality and pitiful policy coupled with a sheer inability to act as a politician and actually help or even consider those who voted for him.

    Dirk Gently – Episode 1

    March 20, 2012 by Nick

    Dirk Gently is a tv series (very loosely) based on two Douglas Adams novels starring the character of the same name. He runs a holistic detective agency, which takes a rather unique approach to solving crimes as it believes that any and all events are interconnected and that everything, in fact, can be relevant to the case at hand. The tv series goes to great lengths to portray this as being part of quantum mechanics rather than chaos theory, which I always thought is what it was.

    It has been a great number of years since I read the books, so my memory of them is probably inaccurate and rose tinted, but there seems to be previous little of the books in the tv series. I can see that the books themselves won’t translate particularly well to a visual medium where showing action is the order of the day, but a lot of the underpinning mechanics of the stories also seem to have vanished: while I can understand a long treatise on a building being fundamentally sick and tired of what it was and deciding to spontaneously explode or the physical impossibility of a jammed sofa actually occupying the space that it is rammed into won’t make for good tv the character of Dirk himself and the nature of the mysteries he faces and how he solves them also seem at odds with the source material.

    This is not to say that the series is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s passably amusing and certainly not insulting to the viewer. Some of the dialogue is actually quite good and the lead is engaging and fun to watch. But it does feel rather more like a kooky mystery of the week formula rather than being true to the spirit of Adams’ work.

    For instance, in the books, Gently has an old friend who ends up writing horoscopes for a paper and deliberately writes them to annoy him. This leads the paper to lose a twelfth of its circulation and makes for an amusing aside. That someone would believe them and act  upon them is actually more akin to a Viz strip in which someone reads they will be run over and decides to facilitate this by standing in the middle of the road. It’s still British humour, but the wrong humourist. One of the other plot points is nicked from Chinatown (and probably numerous other places) and the solution to the case relies on coincidence rather than brilliance. It all feels rather unfulfilling and somehow wrong. But it is done entertainingly enough.

    John Carter

    March 18, 2012 by Nick

    I have never read the books John Carter is apparently based on and most of what I knew of John Carter going in was pre publicity for the film and the knowledge it is one of the ancestors of the genre. However, I did expect great things from the film based on the buzz I saw from online commentators. I think I was expecting something with the charm of Flash Gordon (arguably as direct a clone of John Carter as you can get) but with a bigger budget. What I saw was something more akin to Clash of the Titans while still keeping the Flash Gordon tradition of villains with English accents and heroes with American ones.

    Apparently John Carter cost a lot to make, and there are a lot of signs of this: the cgi creatures are undoubtedly the high point of the film and some of the special effects are incredible. However, a lot of the costume design looks kitsch and ill fitting and the lighting of certain scenes is distinctly unsubtle. Overall there is an oddly pervasive 70s air that adds to my sense of disappointment.

    The real problems, however, lie in the story: there is a lot of exposition at the beginning that makes sense as the film progresses but is needlessly confusing during the initial 20 minutes or so and I do feel could probably have been worked into the overall story more naturally. By the time the story proper actually began I cared little in remembering various characters names or the motivations overall. The different names that the planets were known by was an irritation and although the aliens were all distinct and thought had gone into their appearance and backstory I still couldn’t be bothered to remember what they were called.

    Unfortunately, for all the work that had gone into the supporting cast’s personalities, characters seemed to act irrationally and form alliances for no clear reason. It was not a case so much as people’s motivations and aims coinciding as characters dismissing what they actually wanted to join foolhardy quests and other characters trusting one another unquestioningly. I didn’t have a sense there was ever any real aim on the part of most of the characters and how they actually hoped to achieve it from their actions remains a mystery to me. Worse, the relationships between them did not seem convincing or organic.

    I am not trying to say that the film is woeful: it is just a missed opportunity. The star of the show is John Carter’s dog-like companion and the many species of Mars mainly make sense in context of one another. The only ones that don’t are the bipedal human analogues, as they share none of the physiology that would suggest a common evolutionary path. The film’s full of little niggles like that to make it somehow much less than the sum of its parts and episodic and rather random feeling. With a stronger plot and a little more aesthetic work it could have been great.

    Starsky and Hutch

    March 16, 2012 by Nick

    Starsky and Hutch is my favourite Ben Still and Owen Wilson comedy. It isn’t my favourite Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn comedy (Wedding Crashers) or my favourite Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn comedy (Dodgeball). It’s not even the best thing one of the Wilson brothers and Ben Stiller have done together (Anchorman). It’s not bad though. It is passably entertaining and has a few very funny sequences in it.

    Starsky and Hutch is a TV show about two cops. It’s American and people a bit older than me seem to have very fond memories of it. They’re probably wrong, but I have fond memories of The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team, so I am not sure I can sit in judgement. I am not sure how kind or how close the film is to the series, the names are apparently the same but it doesn’t seem content to just mock the show and takes aim at a lot of other cultural standards as well as being plain weird in places.

    The plot revolves around an unlikely pairing of two policemen: one is a hereditary policeman who does everything by the book and is intent on doing a great job, the other is a slob who wants to make life as easy as possible. There isn’t much in the way of friction between them, however, as everything else around them is often funnier. Along the way they encounter Vince Vaughn’s charming and ruthless Jewish drug smuggler, a black separatist pimp played by Snoop Dogg, engage in a needless but very funny parody of Easy Rider and encounter Will Ferrell (in a surprisingly good cameo) who plays a mad biker with a sexual interest in dragons.

    That is not even getting to my favourite part of the film: the disco dance off. Ben Stiller’s character gets off his face and decides to take everyone to the club. Of course, it’s the seventies and a cut price cross between Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54. Stiller then challenges one of the regulars to a dance off and engages in some hilarious (and embarrassing) comedy that makes me laugh every single time I see it.

    The rest of the film is largely formulaic, but it is the jokes that make it well worth the watch. And the easy charisma of the 3 main leads. They’re engaging, they interact marvellously and they’re funny without even trying to be. They’re just better in other combinations in other films. Apart from Zoolander.

    Three

    March 14, 2012 by Nick

    I was with Three for something like nine years. Typically what would happen is I would approach the end of the contract they would besiege me with offers and I would eventually give in and accept one of them, with a shiny new phone and regret it within six months or so as a much better mobile became available or my mobile usage changed dramatically.

    This time, as the end of my contract approached, I actually was in a position where my mobile usage had changed and I had a lot of data on what my usage was. I knew I never came near my data limit and that I used a mere fraction of the huge number of texts I was allowed. With this in mind I found a deal with another provider that I intended to get three to match as I fully intended to stay with them.

    This is where the problems began. As I called three and told them they told me that I was using considerably more data than I was aware of. I agreed to a rolling one month contract while they came back with an offer on a handset I wanted. I also checked my data and found out they had lied to me. Still, I was going to give them the benefit of the doubt and I called them back. I got passed between pillar and post and offered a string of deals and tariffs that were patently unsuitable. I repeatedly told every advisor I talked to I never really texted and was repeatedly offered contracts with multiples of thousands of texts. I told them which mobile I wanted and was offered one that was nothing like it. I told them what deal I had found and was assured that they would match it.

    They couldn’t. I cancelled my contract. They called me back and offered me something else that was nothing close in terms of handset and massively inappropriate in terms of text. I hung up. They called back and I told them not to call back unless they could match the deal exactly. A manager called back and told me they could match the deal, I told him how to locate it and he informed me that the internet was blocked in the call centre and all deal matching was done via a spreadsheet that he couldn’t edit. This whole process wasted the best part of a week for me. I told them I was still leaving and fully intended to switch to the cheaper deal I had seen. Then a funny thing happened. I had the PAC code in my phone (I was cancelling and taking my number with me) and was walking through Tescos. They had an even better deal than the one I had seen. I had a phone I had cancelled and the ability to transfer my number there and then. Sometimes life works out just right.

    Three: nine years and they don’t even know if they’re going to lose a customer or not because they have no way of telling if they can price match or not. They lie about usage and offer utterly inappropriate deals. They listen to what handset you want and suggest one massively different anyway. If they can’t retain, their support is notoriously not good and their phone range is limited, how do they hope to grow to where they want to be?

    America

    March 12, 2012 by Nick

    American Politics, to those of us looking in, are terrifying. This time out the man who could most likely start a world war that envelops us all is either going to be played by someone who thinks that making $360,000 dollars a year represents not much money and that we should all have as many wives as we want and the guy who didn’t actually understand his platform well enough to push for tax cuts when he could actually have got them through. And this is actually the best choice that could be open to the electorate: along the way many wives man could have been many mistresses mad idea man, my wife used to shack up with an abortion doctor but god hates abortions man and staring lunatic I think I am Maggie Thatcher woman.

    The American economy has been damaged (irreparably?) by George Bush. The three things that needed doing instantly were: increasing the tax burden on the super rich, making the economy attractive to corporations and a program of infrastructure investment. What we saw was a ratification of the tax cuts that were causing the budget deficit to balloon, the wrong health care program being adopted (and likely will never actually make it into practice) and austerity cuts that have driven people out of work and further hurt tax income. Obama actually only did anything about the budget and economy once he had lost control of Congress and the Senate so that he couldn’t actually get anything he suggested passed. The cynic in me now strongly believes this was because he didn’t want to pass any of these measures in the first place and hurt his, and his party’s, donors. Either that or he is truly politically inept on a level I don’t even want to consider.

    If Romney gets in (and it isn’t outside the realm of possibility, although I believe Obama will be re-elected) then the likelihood is that the very rich in America will be asked to contribute even less, that the economy splutters and that the rest if the world suffers. Or that the recovery that appears to be taking place there is actually nothing at all to do with the policies of the government and that he benefits from something he did nothing to create or nurture. And that is actually the best possible outcome for the rest of the world.

    Because that is the crux of it: what happens in America matters to the rest of the world. The two countries which really affect us all are America and China and they both feature nearly impenetrable and often very scary internal politics. They can both set us on the path to global recession and world war. And they’re usually run by madmen.