Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (2011)

Issued some eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, it would be wrong to describe The Harrow and the Harvest as a hotly anticipated release, a phrase usually reserved for the second album of a promising debutant. Instead, I, like many, had largely forgotten that Welch was still out there in the musical ether, battling against writer’s block to compose a new batch of lazy country numbers with long-time partner and collaborator, David Rawlings (both of whom were heavily involved with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker).

The Harrow makes no attempts at a new musical direction, nor should it when you are widely regarded as one of the finest roots singers of your generation. Instead, it’s business as usual as Rawlings’ fingers scale the steel strings like an enchanted spider on gentle opener Scarlet Town before giving way to the naked beauty of Welch’s soaring voice on Dark Turn of the Mind. Each song is exemplary and without flaw, and I can think of few finer albums to stick on at a generous volume on a Sunday afternoon while reclining, eyes shut, on the sofa while the woozy charm of classic Americana passes over you. It is a cleansing experience.

By all accounts the duo come into their own during live performances, where familiar songs are treated to new meandering arrangements and I must make a point of seeing a show the next time they are in the UK. Check out the gorgeous clips below. Admittedly, Miss Ohio is not from the new album but it is one of my favourite songs – any excuse etc…

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (2011)

The inclusion of Adam’s 13th studio album on this list (not taking into account his Whiskeytown records, Suicide Handbook, bootlegs etc) is more a reflection on my joy at hearing him put out some decent music for the first time since Cold Roses, a two-disc release from 2005, rather than this being a gold-plated must have. For those not familiar with Adams other than his Wonderwall cover (which Noel Gallagher started to use himself afterwards), to many people he was – for a few fleeting years – the finest musician of his generation who proceeded to waste his prodigious talent on liquor, drugs and dubious musical choices. I can still recall the goose bumps on my arms when I saw him for the first time at a sweaty Bristol Academy in January 2004 (Jesse Malin stood a few feet away from me) –a performance that ended with the wasted Adams deserting his band and playing Nobody Girl on the bar while bumming cigarettes off the ever-obliging and rapturous crowd. Despite his inebriation, the show was a blinder. At his next performance in Liverpool, his luck ran out and he feel off the stage, braking his wrist in the process which hampered his playing for many years.

Ashes and Fire is a welcome move away from the guitar-driven sound of the later Cardinal albums to the country soul/stripped-back sound of Whiskeytown and his masterpiece, Heartbreaker. As with all of Adams’ best records, the guitar playing is simple yet thoughtful and tight, with percussion only- if at all –featuring as gentle back-up, rather than a dominant instrument. Not all of the tracks work: Come Home is a pedestrian non-event and Save Me is – to quote Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of a Monster – undoubtedly ‘stock’. However, the rest of the album is solid fare, with Dirty Rain, the title track and Lucky Now welcome additions to the Adams cannon. You get the feeling listening to Ashes and Fire that this is the sober Adams working out how to write decent music without the sauce – a record as therapy, if you like; fingers-crossed the next ones will see him reach the levels of old.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

Jewellery - Primark-chic, as modeled by Kanye

Kanye and ‘The Jigga’s’ 2011 joint offering is the aural equivalent of going full retard – a brazen homage to fame, excess and bathing in the benjamins carried off with the musical and lyrical panache of two commercial rappers at the top of their game. Much has been made of the similarities to Kanye’s excellent Twisted Fantasy album, and it is true that The Throne takes in the layered vocals and eerie synths that dominated Kanye’s last album, although this is a more polished commercial sound designed to rattle the tills.

The pair are at their best delivering solid crowd pleasers such as the Redding sampling Otis, a strong contender for the Cowboy’s wedding playlist (I’d die a happy man after seeing my grandma shake her booty while mouthing “looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparrazi on myself”), and the dirty slider Niggas in Paris (“fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance, excuse my French but I’m in France”). Critics of the album cite the leaps in sound between tracks and indeed they don’t all flow, mixing by-numbers Rhianna-flavoured R n’ B with tight James Brown vocal samples. However this is a minor quam.

Personal favourites are Welcome to the Jungle, which shows off Jay-Z at his best, riffing to a mundane yet hypnotic staccato beat, and opener No Church in the Wild, heavy on strings with a predatory bass grove, while Kanye muses on drugs, threesomes and how Jesus ‘laid beats’. An album built on two guys talking about how great they are will to many be a nauseating affair, but I for one enjoyed shuffling on my sofa, vicariously drinking in their glory. It would be a cold man who would begrudge them their right to brag.

John Smith – Eavesdropping (2011)

Those of you who read my post on my most-listened albums of the past decade (https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/) will be aware of Devonian musician, John Smith, one-time school friend of my missus and unsigned by choice. His second and last album Map or Direction was a beauty and is available to all on Spotify – give it a go.

His latest offering was recorded on a whim at his bassist’s house over a one-week period and is, as the album title suggests, a collection of covers taking in mainstream sources as diverse as The Stone Roses, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, as well as lesser-known bands. Smith is a virtuoso guitar player in the mould of John Martyn who was his mentor and with whom he played for a number of years before his passing. Therefore like Martyn, his songs rely heavily on imaginative fret work, dropped-G tuning and groove riddled guitar-slapping. What stands Smith out from other talented singer-songwriters is the depth of his voice which he showcases to good effect on Eavesdropping, in particular the wonderful Elton John cover, That’s Why they Call it the Blues (see below); a voice that hushes and booms from one moment to the next.

Other highlights are This Killer Wave penned by a local band in Liverpool (where Smith now lives) and Jenny Again by obscure folk-act Tuung. The Aguilera cover is Genie in a Bottle, and I feel truly old realising that this was released by the scantily-clad Glitter-fodder in 1999. Smith’s version is a stripped-down plucking affair and I hear that it has recently gained airtime on BBC Radio6, however for me it’s a bit of a non-event and the same applies to Not Over Yet, formerly a dance anthem (yeh man Ibiza bruv innit etc) by Paul Oakenfold, whose face I always thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a compressed pickled scrotum (or rather my projection of one). Clearly, Smith is the kind of musician who likes a cross-spectrum of styles and will never lose the desire to throw in the odd curveball. But these are minor gripes on what is otherwise an excellent interim album, pending his next proper release.

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

This was an impulse purchase after a suitably wordy 8.8 Pitchfork review (“the sound casts Bejar’s songs in a very particular light, and reinforces the feeling of the singer as persona” – yup, sure) and therefore I must confess to coming to the record with no prior knowledge of Destroyer or their members’ work.

The most striking thing about the album is the overall tone and sound, which flitters between Roxy Music, Steely Dan and The Pet Shop Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in (the album’s title track has a similar retro glitchy computer effect to that used in Once in a Lifetime). There is also a sense of film noir to proceedings, and I doubt that the naming of Chinatown and its inclusion as the album’s opener is a coincidence. Songs are cultured out of Casio synth, lazy chord strums, occasional heavy bass hooks and cheesy woodwind; for a moment they catch your ear before drifting off with the breeze.

Indeed, if I was to offer a one-line critique to stick on the front of the album it would probably be “sumptuous porn music by the XX” and I am pretty sure that if you crank up the volume on Blue Eyes and crane your ears to the speakers at 1:58, you can hear the gentle patting of Ron Jeremy’s waist against the buttcheeks of an obliging freshman. Ok, perhaps not but you get the idea.

It is difficult to explain why an album that is so inconsequential and derivative is both fresh and revelatory, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that each song is executed incredibly well. The title track is a good example – a multi-instrument number where deep thought has clearly been given to the timings of the various parts. The result is a rich array of sounds soaring against one another complete with soft male/female harmonies. Closer The Bay of Pigs catches you on the blindside, with a rambling vocal about nothing in particular suddenly brought to life by strings, percussion, harmonies and euphoric hand-clapping. It is a joy. Shit name for a band, though.

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A few of the books enjoyed by the Cowboy in 2011 (not necessarily written in that year):

The End of the Party – The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley)

Following the inevitable plethora of political memoirs that followed new labour’s demise in 2010, it was difficult to determine fact from fiction with each offering spun in favour of the author and his actions, no doubt to the detriment of the truth. Sight alone of Rawnsley’s chronicling of labour’s conduct in office following its second general election victory, suggests that his will be a more satisfactory appraisal, running as it does to 895 pages including 90 pages of references. Readers of The Observer will be familiar with Rawnsley’s concise and informative political commentary and it is this tight style, together with the attention to detail and quality of the sources (Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Powell, Balls, Darling etc), that gives The End its authoritative voice.

I do not consider myself as having more than a passing interest in politics, but I devoured The End in several days, captivated by the punchy, often wry and humorous writing used to describe the many key disagreements that punctuated this mostly shambolic government. The chapters covering the Brown and Blair wars are fascinating, and it is incredible to think that they managed to promote a (largely) united front to the unknowing public for so many years. Brown, in particular, comes across as the most grotesque individual imaginable; an emotionally retarded, yet physical hulk of a man with no concept of how his behaviour affected others:

“‘He was astonishingly rude to people.’ Civil servants were shocked by his habit of abruptly getting up and leaving meetings when officials were in the middle of speaking. He became notorious within the building for shouting at the duty clerks, bawling at the superbly professional staff who manned the Number 10 switchboard and blowing up at the affectionately regarded ‘Garden Girls’, so called because the room from which they provide Downing Street’s secretarial services overlooks the garden. When one of the secretaries was not typing fast enough for an angrily impatient Prime Minister, he turfed the stunned garden girl out of her chair and took over the keyboard himself. Word of these incidents reached the alarmed ears of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The Cabinet Secretary was so concerned about the garden girl episode that he made his own inquiries into it. Though the worst excesses of the Prime Minister’s temper were kept hidden, it was inevitable that some accounts began to filter out across Whitehall and then into the media, which reported stories about mobile phones being hurled in fury and the furniture being kicked.

One civil servant who applied for a position at Number 10 was asked at the interview whether he could cope with ‘extreme verbal abuse’ and violence done to objects. The civil servant was so scared by the description of what it could be like to work for the Prime Minister that he withdrew his application.”

Aside from the intrigue of warts-and-all access to our decision makers, what struck me was the draining nature of high politics – the frequent 6am talks, late-night skulduggery, briefings and de-briefings with the individual all the while expected to function as a human being. Family life seldom receives any mention and it is hard to see where moments that we take for granted – a simple Sunday lunch, a pleasant afternoon stroll – could ever feature in a career politician’s schedule packed with issues such as war, internal conflict and the credit crunch. No wonder Cherie turned into a fruit-loop.

Boxer Beetle (Ned Beauman)

“A collector of Nazi memorabilia. A nine-toed gay Jewish boxer. A 1930s aristocrat with a yen for eugenics. Ned Beauman’s time-travelling debut takes the cast list from the film Tarantino never made and adds perhaps the creepiest McGuffin of all time: a swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri.”

– Time Out

Whoever wrote the above paragraph that appears on the reverse of Ned Beauman’s entertaining debut novel should receive a stiff pat on the back for services to decent copywriting. It was likely the duel references to a nine-toed gay Jewish boxer and a swastika-marked beetle bearing Hitler’s name that encouraged me to dispense with £7.99 of my hard-earned English wonga. Thankfully, it was a worthwhile punt.

The book travels between the present day and the mid-1930s, with the modern-day narrative tracking the exploits of a Nazi memorabilia collector and the historic chapters dealing with said gay Jewish boxer (Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach) and hapless facist and discoverer of Anophthalmus Hitleri, Philip Erskine. Sinner is a ridiculous creation, an aggressive short-arse who lives for booze, fighting and squalid sexual encounters, barely offering sentences extending beyond one or two words (often a curt, “fuck off”, which reminds me of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski“shut the fuck up, Donny”). The narrative is fast-paced with hugely enjoyable exchanges between Sinner and the awkward Erksine:

“And just then, as he watched, the beetle shot out of the case with an explosion of glass and soil and flew straight for the opposite table, on which there was a sack of live earthworms that Erksine had ordered from a fishing shop in Richmond. It punctured the bag with a meaty thud and then the bag began to shiver. Erksine screamed.

‘Roach! Roach! Come, for God’s sake!’

Sinner came in and stared at the bag.

‘Get it out!’

‘Get what out?’

‘The beetle. Get it out of there before it gets away. But don’t kill it.’

‘How am I supposed to do that?’

Erksine wasn’t sure.”

The plot is entertaining enough but like a Tarantino film, you get the feeling that the style, development and activities of the characters are what drive the creator, and this is no bad thing. To some extent, Boxer Beetle reminds me of another great character writer – Carl Hiaasen – and in both instances the characters carry the story, rather than the reader avidly page-turning to find out the next plotline twist. While ‘serious’ literature (see The Corrections below, for example) rewards the reader on a traditional emotional level, surreal stylistic outings such as Boxer Beetle too have their place, and long may it continue.

The Celestial Cafe (Stuart Murdoch)

As a big Belle & Sebastian fan, I’ve often read Stuart Murdoch’s gently entertaining blog posts on the band’s website, and The Celestial Cafe is a collection of his diaries from 2002 – 2006 (by way of flavour, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – see my album review here: – https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/ was written in 2003). Anyone familiar with B & S will know not to expect raucous tales of binge-drinking, sexual promiscuity and general rock ‘n roll excess; instead, we read about his struggles on the football field, what makes a good cafe and occasional insights into the background for certain songs.

In terms of musical history, don’t expect nuggets of information about song-writing craft, which is a shame considering the information he must have to pass on. Similarly, discussions about one-time partner of Murdoch and fellow B & S member Isobel Campbell are off-limits, save for a few minor exchanges:

“Katrina asked if I was taking anyone to the dinner. She needed to know for numbers.

‘Is Isobel coming?’ I said.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘I’m just curious. I might have to get a partner.’

‘What? I don’t understand.’

‘I just want… Well, I’m just thinking I might need some sort of…”

Murdoch comes across as a solitary creature during this period, not surprising as the start of the diaries comes soon after Isobel left the band in 2002. However rather than moping, he throws himself into community church projects with his religious faith omnipresent throughout the diaries. His love of the band is also a strong constant and it is clear that this is where his life priorities lie. As with his lyrics, Murdoch is best when making curious observations on modern life:

“I looked for the graffiti in the toilets, ‘PUSH BARman TO OPEN old wounds’ doctored as ‘plEASE don’t put YOUR FEET IN THE SEAts’, but it had disappeared, and I felt old like I always feel old these days. I ranted against the blokes who stand in the middle of dancefloors supping pints, surveying all, like frigging lighthouses, sucking up space, making it impossible to dance.”

The burgeoning Scotland music scene is also represented with enthusiastic praisings of his sometime football partners, Franz Ferdinand (‘they’ve got words, action and groove in all the right places’) and tales of coffee house rendezvous with fellow indie darlings, Camera Obscura. Murdoch also includes some of his participatory blog threads, where he allows his readers to create the content. Here are some of the responses to his poser on things that are sexy without involving sex:

“Clear and malleable unpierced ears. I find them sexy.

– Raquel

I’m a sucker for a boy with protruding veins in his forearms. I’m pretty sure this stems from my first love who played a lot of tennis and had great forearms. This might sound as if I like men with tons of muscles, but that’s not the case, just toned arms with active veins.

– Kristine

Long hair on a man. To keep long hair nice, clean and shiny takes dedication, and if a man can take the time to be that dedicated to his hair, you must wonder what else he could be dedicated to.

– Eve

I work at a university and yesterday there was a girl from the track-and-field team sitting and studying in the coffee shop. She was obviously a sprinter, and the torso of a young sprinter of Scandinavian descent is about as sexy as it gets.

– Ray”

Barney’s Version (Mordecai Richler)

I must confess to coming to this book after watching the recent film adaptation staring Paul Giamatti as the eponymous anti-hero. The trailer hadn’t really caught me, but I’m a sucker for a free Picturehouse screening on a Sunday and still relish Giamatti’s performance in Sideways, so I gave it a whirl. Alas the film was fairly average and failed – I realised after reading the book – to capture Barney’s voice as it appears on page, removing any redeeming feature from his character (the wit doesn’t come through) which allows at least a modicum of connection by the audience.

As is implicit by the novel’s title, the story of Barney’s life as delivered in the novel is but a version of the truth. The narrator is first of all Barney who of course cannot be objective about his own activities. We later learn that Barney has Alzheimer’s disease muddying the water further. The novel is littered with footnotes, which at first we think must be corrections by Barney of his disease-caused memory lapses, however we ultimately find out that [spoiler] these have been added by his son Michael, who finally edits the collected diaries. The footnotes made the book for me, occasionally exposing Barney’s knowing lies to enhance his own reputation, but also adding an air of seriousness to the absurd, thus creating farce. The following example concerns Barney’s decision at his own wedding to “The Second Mrs Panofsky” to pursue his future third wife by fleeing the reception to track her down on a departing train:

“’Please, Barney, don’t embarrass me any further. Get off the train at Montreal West.’

‘If I do, will you agree to have dinner with me in Toronto?’

‘No,’ she said, leaping and grabbing a bag from the overhead rack. ‘Now I’m going to my sleeper and I’m locking the door. Good night.’

‘You’re not being awfully friendly, considering the trouble I’ve gone to.’

‘You’re crazy. Good night.’

‘I did stagger of the train at Montreal West¹…’

¹My doubts about the chronology of these events were confirmed when I discovered that the hockey game, on April 9, 1959, ended at 10:29, but the overnight train to Toronto left at 10:25, which meant that it would have been impossible for my father to learn the final score and still have time to race to Windsor Station and board my mother’s train. However, when I confronted my mother with these troubling details, her lower lip began to tremble. ‘It’s true,’ she said, ‘it’s true.’ And then she began to sob, and I thought it insensitive to pursue the matter further.

I do not doubt my father’s veracity or my mother’s testimony, but I do believe Barney muddled things. Miriam probably left the Ritz at the end of the second period, at 9:41, and my father’s taxi was not tied up in Stanley Cup traffic until he returned from the Montreal West Station. Another possibility is that the departure on the overnight train to Toronto was delayed. I have twice written to Canadian Pacific to ask for the departure time of the overnight train to Toronto, on April 9, 1959, but I am still waiting for a reply.”

In terms of basic structure, the novel is divided into sections dealing with his three wives, the last of whom, Miriam, remains ‘his heart’s desire’. Indeed, even though the other Mrs Panofskys receive dedicated chapters, these are still punctuated by references to Miriam, and he labours under the delusion that he may one day win her back, despite his greater love for liquor and ice hockey. The reader knows, of course, that this will never happen and his efforts are both touching and humerous.

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of Barney’s Version is his regular contretemps with friend-turned-nemesis, Terry McIver. A writer of low-brow literature (in Barney’s eyes, at any rate) it is McIver’s decision to publish his memoirs that prompts Barney to do the same, determined to contradict McIver’s slurs on his character. The exchanges between Barney and McIver are comedy gold and while a small excerpt cannot do justice, below is a taster of the tone from a letter by McIver to Barney, after Barney’s son trashes McIver’s latest work in an American broadsheet:

‘Dear Barney,

To each his own albatross.

From the day of your arrival in Paris, touchingly gauche, ill-educated, pushy, it was abundantly clear to me (and others I could name) that you were consumed with envy for my talent. Nay, obsessed is what you were, ingratiating yourself by feigning friendship. I was not fooled. But I took pity on you and watched.

I have heard that your maternal grandfather was a junk dealer, so it strikes me as altogether fitting, a symmetry of sorts, that you have subsequently become wealthy as a purveyor of TV trash to the ‘hoi polloi’. I was not surprised, given your vengeful nature, that you considered it droll to title an especially prurient series ‘McIver of the RCMP’. Neither was I astonished to see you suffering at the Leacock Auditorium when I recently read to a sell-out audience. But, fool I am, I believed that there was some calumny that even you would not stoop to. Congratulations, Barney.’

I can do little more than recommend this with every feeble fibre of my mortal being.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

Well, OK – I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m in the final third and enjoying it immensely; lush, rich yet tight prose with characters that are somehow both familiar and slightly over-the-top. It is one of those books which you read around midnight, eyes half closed, willing a natural paragraph break so you can fold the corner and restart tomorrow. An excellent purchase at £2.50 from a second-hand bookshop and I look forward to seeing what the end brings. Sample paragraph below:

“She was naive enough, she told Denise, to think this ended the discussion. She had a good marriage, stably founded on childrearing, eating, and sex. It was true that she and Brian had different class backgrounds, but High Temp Products wasn’t exactly E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, and Robin, holding degrees from two elite schools, wasn’t your typical proletarian. Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn’t imagine that style had anything to do with happiness. Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp. That Robin dressed like a grad student in white sneakers and a purple nylon shell and oversized round wireframes last worn by fashionable people in 1978 didn’t altogether disappoint Brian, because he along among men got to see her naked. That Robin was high-strung and had a penetrating screechy voice and a kookaburra laugh seemed, likewise, a small price to pay for a heart of gold and an eye-popping streak of lechery and a racing metabolism that kept her movie-actress thin. That Robin never shaved her armpits and too seldom washed her glasses-well, she was the mother of Brian’s children, and as long as he could play his music and tinker with his tensors by himself, he didn’t mind indulging in her the anti-style that liberal women of a certain age wore as a badge of feminist identity. This, at any rate, was how Denise imagined Brian had solved the problem of style until the money from W—— came rolling in.”

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2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,300 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

Having gorged on broadsheet reviews and the opinions of respected friends before settling down to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, it is fair to say that I was overly optimistic – a sense of anticipation that could only be mildly sated. True, some of the reviews were mixed, however I’m a sucker for a supposed mind-boggler and an ardent celebrator of Nolan’s previous works. As the credits rolled, two hours and twenty minutes of my life having left this planet, I can say that I enjoyed the majority of the film until the sub-conscious worlds took us to a cheesy skiing pursuit which invoked the worse parts of the James Bond franchise. In justification, Nolan could say that an alpine setting is just as likely a projection of the subconscious as anything else – all very fair. However, after some excellent anti-gravity wrestling scenes in the hotel, not to mention bending roads, it seemed odd for the director to drop the film into cliché, especially a perfectionist like Nolan.

[Spoiler alert] The final part of the film sees DiCaprio’s character appearing to return to life as-you-and-I-know-it along with Saito, the orchestrator of the main literal plot who, according to the film’s dialogue, should have been unable to make such a return as he had died in the sub-conscious world (to leave him in a state of perpetual limbo). We then see DiCaprio pass through airport security to meet his dad, played by Michael Caine (see ‘The Swarm’, below), who seems troublingly unmoved by his son’s return to American soil after years in exile. No explanation is given as to how Caine knew his son would be arriving from that specific flight, and whether the people gazing at DiCaprio are tangible homo sapiens or merely projections of DiCaprio’s subconscious (which would thus confirm he was still occupying a dream). If the coating of ambiguity wasn’t enough, the film closes with the image of DiCaprio’s two children visually unchanged since he last saw them. The shot then pans to the image of his totem (a spinning top) fizzing across the table, before the screen fades to black just as it seems that the top will yield to gravity and fall to its side (which would confirm that DiCaprio exists in real-time).

Cue mass hysteria over the internet, with some commentators berated for failing to understand Nolan’s vision and others decrying the film as a pretentious vanity project. My own interpretation is that Nolan wished to conclude with two themes: the first, that DiCaprio cannot know whether he is conscious or dreaming, just as neither you or I reading this can be certain that this world is ‘real’ (whatever that may mean) or a cunning rouse/global Big Brother (atheists and Christians are both equally naive: neither can prove their believes); the second, the film was an allegory for tackling loss and emotions i.e. only by truly investigating and understanding your predicament (going deeper and deeper into yourself – represented by the various sub-conscious ‘levels’ in the film) can you come out the other side (DiCaprio being reunited with his children). Either (or both) propositions could form the basis of a solid film, however Inception does not properly develop these strands of thinking: no positive qualities of the female character are shown to sell the audience the idea that DiCaprio should pursue redemption (we also know nothing of his children), and the film develops literal plotlines not abstract concepts through imagery and action. Contradict this with someone who works purely in the abstract – David Lynch. Lynch is the master of manipulating the viewer’s emotions through combinations of sensual/disturbing imagery and dialogue, visual tricks and general plays on perception, forming a world where reality is of little consequence and overreaching themes (identity, primarily) are central. Nolan tries to tap into Lynch via Kubrick (note the nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the bedside scene and wrinkly old Saito), but it’s a leap of faith with no foundations to support it.

Jaws 2 (1978, Jeannot Szwarc)

While Spielberg’s original remains a benchmark for populist suspense movies, the three films that followed (Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge) are universally recognised as shameless attempts to establish a cash rich franchise, with each possessing less artistic merit than a Turner prize retrospective.

In a series of diminishing returns, it would be disingenuous to lambast Jaws 2 as a worthless turkey, as certain aspects – setting-up Scheider as a paranoid loon rallying against the conservative Amity community – create a platform for a decent film. However the action falls flat for various reasons, particularly a lack of a Quint figure, lending mystique and intrigue to proceedings. All we are left with is a bunch of screaming, annoying children who we would happily push overboard to trigger a feeding frenzy. The finale itself is merely the continuation of a predictable and bloated plot-line where a bunch of kids go out boating, all smiles and song, oblivious to their cannon-fodder existence. When Scheider does turn-up, he grabs hold of an electric cable, banging it repeatedly until the shark swims towards him, bites the cable and electrocutes itself. Yawn. A far better ending would have been for Scheider to valiantly turn his bare arse cheeks to the beast and defeat it with an almighty guff. Amongst the high-voltage action, Scheider also offers the tried-and-tested knowing wink to the original film, goading the shark with a cry of “come here you son of a bitch”, similar to his closing ambit “smile you son of a bitch” from the original.

Jaws: The Revenge deserves an honourable mention for its atrocious ending – an exploding shark no less – and also for putting food on the table of shit-film stalwart Michael Caine who pioneers yet more dodgy attire (see ‘The Swarm’, below) as a cockney sea pilot. Less coy about The Revenge than The Swarm, Caine memorably claimed never to have seen it: ” I have never seen it, but by all accounts it’s terrible. However I have seen the house it built, and it’s terrific!”

Earlier plot workings for Jaws: The Revenge suggested that the shark was working under the influence of voodoo, boasting a ravenous thirst for revenge and possessed by a third-party. While sounding far-fetched, it’s difficult to see how Caine uttering satanic prayers wouldn’t have improved the final product.

Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)

Before I’m accused of disparaging this critically acclaimed work, I should be clear that my love for this delicious slice of Asian madness is undiminished by time, or its flimsy denouement. The film has several standout moments that can instantly be recalled from memory: the beautifully choreographed 2-D corridor fighting scene reminiscent of a scrolling arcade game (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example), which took three days to perfect, and lead character – Oh Dae-su – eating a live octopus without so much as a flinch – a display of method acting that makes Christian Bale’s four-month hunger strike in preparation for The Machinist seem like child’s play.

As befits a film underpinned by stylised violence and beautiful visuals, the plot for Oldboy is ludicrous. Dae-su’s journey begins with his kidnap and imprisonment in a tiny flat, during which time he learns that his wife has been murdered and his daughter sent to foster parents. Fifteen years pass before Dae-su is released, with his movements informed by calls and messages from a stranger. He meets a young girl with whom he forms a bond, and eventually they sleep together. Having tracked down his kidnapper (Woo-jiin) in a swanky penthouse, he realises that they attended school together where he had inadvertently spied on Woo-jiin engaging in an incestual relationship with his sister. This rumour thus spread, no doubt causing grave embarrassment and difficulty for Woo-jiin and his family.

At the penthouse, Woo-jiin hands Dae-su a photo album from which it becomes apparent that the female stranger he has befriended and banged, is none other than his own daughter. Thus we learn that as revenge for a playground rumour, Woo-jiin killed Dae-su’s wife, imprisoned him for 15 years and miraculously arranged for Dae-su to engage in coitus with his own daughter. Quite restrained, in the circumstances. Rocked by the horror of the revelations, Dae-su chops off his own tongue, a gesture of his will to spare his daughter from knowing the truth. In the legal world, we call this ‘acting on the grounds of diminished responsibility’.

Part of me realises that as a work of cartoonish pulp-fiction, it is illogical to expect a realistic plot where the punishment fits the crime – indeed, the film revels in the overblown and outrageous. While on first viewing, the ending ruined the film for me (I perfectly recall ranting my displeasure to my girlfriend at the time) subsequent viewings, when one of course knows the ending, allows it to be treated as a visual feast rather than a substantive movie in the traditional western sense. Having not seen the director’s other two movies in the self-proclaimed ‘revenge’ series, it’s time to take advantage of the Christmas Amazon vouchers and make the purchase. This time I know what to expect.

The Swarm (1978, Irwin Allen)

The Swarm is both the greatest and the most horrific piece of cinema I have ever witnessed (probably circa 50 times). In protest, you might cite my reviews of Big Momma’s House and wonder what could rival such pleasurable aberrations, inflicted not one, twice but thrice on the unsuspecting public. The Swarm romps home in front as it was never meant to be awful, with the cast reel reading like a Real Madrid squad list, packed with acting galacticos supposedly at the peak of their powers. For Michael Caine, an appearance in a shocker is nothing out of the ordinary, however even for someone with such a chequered cinematic past, The Swarm is not so much a skeleton in the closet, but the statutory rape conviction knowingly omitted from the CV.

Caine plays ‘Bradford Craine’, an entomologist, who mysteriously appears at an American missile silo that has just been invaded by killer bees, claiming the lives of a number of military personnel. Just as confusing as to how the bees managed to glide through a securely locked military compound, is how Caine and his man-in-africa-during-the-empire jacket slimed his/their way in. In case the viewer was unclear on this point, Caine is on hand to provide a full summary of his espionage: “that’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.’ And so we continue…

When not discussing the dramatic plight of the African killer bee, Caine offers a masterclass in seduction, with a few lines that Neil Strauss (he of the puppet show routine – see my post on The Game) might be proud of: “I have some cardio-pep in my van. Anderson: Cardio-pep?! I’ve just read an article in the medical journal about cardio-pep!” Dirty fucker.

Despite having watched the film no less than a zillion times, I continue to be mesmerised by the lunacy of the ending. With the swarm of bees inhabiting the town and taking out an entire train simply by force of its numbers, Caine craftily decides that it would be a good idea to lure the swarm out to sea with the sound of African killer bees mating. In an act of incredible self-sacrifice, General Slater perishes trying to fight-off the swarm single-handedly so Caine can put their plans into action. Being the 20th century, the sound is broadcast from speakers placed on life rafts with an oil slick craftily placed over the sea, and duly ignited with a flame thrower when the bees make their way to the ocean under the misapprehension of a bit of rumpy-pumpy. As the incinerated bees fall through the sea’s depths, Caine gets philosophical: “Anderson: Is this just a temporary victory? Craine: The world might just survive.” As someone who judges his life ‘pre and post’ The Swarm, it is difficult to recommend the film highly enough and I guarantee you will weep with joy after several viewings. At a bargain price of £24.75 from Play.com, can you afford not to watch The Swarm?

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Anderson)

I recall leaving the cinema at the end of There Will Be Blood seething at the ending which still, despite several subsequent viewings, I believe ruins the film. The main body of the film is otherwise decent (not even close to the masterpiece that frothing critics will have you believe) with the so-so delivery of the plot lifted with beautiful cinematography (beautiful in its darkness) and a fabulously creepy soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

The film is a tale of greed, power and its relentless force propelling the world forward without regard to core values (not so much good versus evil, as evil stamping all over good). Mr Method aka Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a disconcerting oil man, who strikes a deal to drill for oil located beneath the land of a religious family, the mouthpiece of which is the otherworldly Eli. Cue clashes between religion and profit-making greed as the project progresses, with Eli’s mission to rid Plainview of his greed and anger (a ridiculously over-the-top attempted exorcism at a church service) contrasting Plainview’s mission to exploit Eli’s land and apparent naivety for maximum profit. Plainview’s cold-hearted persona is enforced by his awful treatment towards his child, H.W., who he expects from an early age to act like an adult (dressing him formally and making a big play of the business being a family business).

There are hints at redemption, when a man purporting to be Plainview’s half-brother appears seeking work, and Plainview takes him under his wing. However once it is known that the man is an impostor of no relation, Plainview duly kills him. Prior to the final scene, we see a drunk, aggressive and defiant Plainview existing in self-imposed exile who shows nothing but contempt for his visiting now-adult son, H.W., claiming that he is not in fact his flesh and blood.

The ‘climax’ sees Eli meet the washed-up and booze-addled Plainview at the oil man’s mansion. The reason for Eli’s visit, we are told, is that Eli requires assistance in brokering a deal to sell family oil rights. Plainview then goads him by saying that he has no oil as Plainview drained it all away (famously delivered in a rant about milkshakes, no doubt the first and only time that Kelis’ seminal pop-offering will ever influence the dialogue of an Oscar winning movie) and demands that Eli deny the existence of God, before beating the bible-basher to death with a bowling pin.

The film’s title confirms the Plainview character – unchangeable, self-obsessed, tyrannical and violent. It is also a commentary on a particular age of America and how the motto – ‘the land of the free’ – can never apply to all, such is the inherent conflict between the needs of different social factions. Such heady topics tick all the boxes for the masterpiece tag, but Anderson’s film was to me, well, too obvious and didn’t say anything new. To use modern-day parlance, all one concludes upon leaving the cinema is that Daniel Plainview is a wanker. Running at 3 and half hours and the recipient of numerous awards, I expected something slightly more insightful and/or moving.

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The concept of being flogged something, either through a visual or aural medium, is not a modern invention, with both the Roman Empire and Egyptian Civilisation making crude wall doodles and papyrus scrawls to promote their wants of the day. Whether they knew that their early trailblazing would pave the way for advertising behemoths such as Pharrell and McDonalds, Beyonce and Armani, and Shane Richie and Daz, is debatable.

As a kid, I was indifferent to the ad-break, with most features being laughably ill-thought out or playfully amusing. However today’s adverts frequently border on the pathological, the product of scientific calculations designed to establish how best to wedge their product into the viewer’s cognitive chamber. Think about the cheery whistle signalling the end of the McDonalds advert – a breezy, catchy and childlike number designed to promote feelings of innocence that will override the adult viewer’s natural fear of chronic obesity. Staying on McDonalds, the brand of childlike happiness is a constant: the Happy Meal, for goodness sake; the logo – an upside down smile; the bright and playful red-yellow colour scheme, now cynically supported by a blatant green ‘eco’ branding.

Do you need a bag today?

Serial offenders of appalling adverts include supermarket chains at both ends of the spectrum. With its upmarket packaging, M&S wants you to believe you are solid middle-class stock by buying so much as a bag of waxy pig sweets from its store. This image was elaborated on in the continued ‘not just any…’ campaign, where the camera slowly moved across zoomed images of bits of food tumbling about the screen, while a woman crooned about the produce, as if auditioning for a sex line. While M&S panders to foodie broadsheet readers, Tesco reaches out to the lower classes, its strapline ‘every little helps’ a barely-disguised pitch for those of breadline existence. The theme is reinforced by the plodding music and northern tones of Jane Horrocks, who many will remember as the equally annoying Bubble from the otherwise excellent Absolutely Fabulous.

I am often amused by the discussions that supermarket status promotes, with many friends openly fawning at the imminent opening of Waitrose in my hometown and extolling the virtues of Sainsburys, while thoughtlessly denouncing Tesco. Such views are testament to the power of advertisement, with the Observer Food Monthly taster pages sometimes giving M&S produce 1 star with the Tesco/Asda alternative receiving excellent reviews. The idea that Tesco is some kind of corporate Yorkshire Ripper is also far from the mark: if you think Tesco is a rampant pillager of all things local, then what tag should one affix to Sainsburys, M&S, Waitrose et al. Are they thinking of the community when they snatch local land and construct their monstrous complexes? Of course, such a simple accusation has missed the point: companies exist to make money for shareholders, if they are permitted by law to do this to the apparent detriment of local communities and businesses, then that is the responsibility of the lawmakers. The end.

Anyway, I digress. This blog post was never meant to occur. The offending adverts to which we shall soon consider came, lingered like an undetected puddle of cat wee beneath the family sofa, before evaporating into the recesses of the memory bank, never to be seen again. I could turn on the TV, safe in the knowledge that my general equilibrium would no longer be tested by those 30 seconds of unmitigated horror. Or so I thought. Last week, I was innocently minded my own business behind the ironing board, when I heard the sinister rallying cry – “Haaalifaaaax”.


The Halifax advertisement campaign of 2010 and 2011 will be familiar to many: a bunch of jokers dressed in Halifax uniform pretend to host a radio show with ‘hilarious’ consequences. The charge sheet against those involved in these nuggets of televisual leprosy are numerous and may they forever be haunted by their collective aberrations.

Perhaps the most recognised advert is the ‘ISA ISA’ offering, where a gormless woman (perceptively described by a female friend of mine as “a lobotomised Count Dracula”) forges a link between a popular fiscal instrument and a frozen cube of water. Rapturous with her discovery, she nods her head repeatedly, her bug eyes overcome with delirium, before playing Vanilla Ice’s seminal 90s hit, ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Truly, she is my nemesis, someone for whom the word ‘ISA’ is akin to the meaning of life, the Holy Grail dangled in front of her vampirian features.

However, the clincher is the loose head movement circa 0:18 (see link below) as if she’s got a little bit carried away and decided to throw in some ‘what-you-looking-at-sister’ shit, or is alternatively deep-threatening thin air. After spending some time reviewing all 30 seconds of this affront to humanity, one starts to notice extra items of horror. Check-out the dude in the background from 0:15 onwards (link below). Look at the concern on his face as he squints at Count Von Count and the-poor man’s lurch, going so far as to pretend that he’s attempting to twiddle some dials to stop the horror show. Is he intended to be a narrative conscience seeking to redress the balance between omnipotent corporate juggernaut and poor consumer who has to sit back and swallow this kack? It pains me to say it, but I can imagine a corporate suit saying on first play that the advert’s too white, hence the inclusion of the background gent. Cynical? Possibly, although I recall my old law firm including a black businessman in its trainee prospectus when they didn’t have any ethnic minority staff amongst their 400 or so employees. Shocking.

Can I motorboat your grandma?

I can do no better than offer up an alternative dialogue:


Bell-end1: You know people think this advert’s piss-poor and that I’m a bit of a wanker. Are they right?

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bell-end1: That’s a bit strong. I mean, I appreciate that it might not be to everyone’s taste, but a complete tosser?

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bell-end1: People can be so mean. I put hours of training into my ‘keys in the air routine’.

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bell-end1: Do you just say the same thing over and over again?

Voice: yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bell-end1: So if I say yeh-yeh-yeah to you, you’ll just say…

Voice: …yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bellend1: Wow! This is cool!

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bellend1: Yeh-yeh-yeah!!

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.

Bellend1: Yeh-yeh-yeah!!

Voice: Yeh-yeh-yeah.”

And so it continues on loop until the ISA vampire crashes through the glass window and ruptures bellend1’s jonson during a savage, forced blowjob. Amen.

Bullet Time

Those familiar with The Matrix will understand the phrase ‘bullet time’. This was a tag used to describe the stylised slowing of an action sequence, with the camera circling an almost stationary object, while another object would pass by it, seemingly defying gravity. The effect was undeniably cool, and still is in the right circumstances. No doubt inspired by the antics of Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne, Halifax’s marketing team thought they would ramp their campaign up a notch and deliver their own brand of bullet time to the masses. Check out the slow nod at 0:13 – blink and you’ll miss it.

It’s hard to establish whether bullet-girl is worse than the ISA vampire, a little bit like arguing for Fred West at the exclusion of Josef Fritzl, however while the gormless knob twiddling is undeniably offensive, the head-shaking of the Count secures the win.

Whereas ISA saw only one member of backroom staff, on this occasion he’s joined by an invariable posse. Rather sadly, it seems as if he’s dropped the pretence of sabotage (or been coerced into conformity) and can instead be seen larking around for no particular reason. In terms of the rhythm of the performance, the blonde lady makes a fist of patenting a sort of shoulder shuffle, however she fails to make the beat which is a poor show considering the offering is light indie fare in the form of the Lightning Seeds rather than an Aphex Twin B-side.

Helpful wanking

The problem with these types of adverts, of which Halifax is only a prominent example, is that while the corporate suits know its cack, they also know full well that the masses will buy into it, which in itself is a damning indictment of society. Among the key ingredients to such a campaign is an equal mix of the bland and the low-brow, with the sinister end-goal of befriending the viewer through familiarity. This allows the consumer to identify with the brand so that when he sees a Halifax sign, he’ll think ‘they’re OK’ when of course he doesn’t have the first clue about their corporate governance or ethical policy. Particularly galling are the attempts of banks to promote themselves as run by ordinary Joes (NatWest, say), which is about as convincing as The Daily Mail sponsoring a gay rights protest.

Much better, of course, are those adverts that don’t take themselves seriously, and are capable of tickling the ribs. My favourite advert of all time remains a Lockets advert from circa 1998, when some ruddy faced podger bleats about the merits of the upper class. The acting is exemplary and the lines magnificent. It was a sensation all around our sixth form, where a muted cry of “Daddy gave me this land” could invariably be found at the back of the classroom. Luuuuuuvely soft fillie.

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“And I did laugh sans intermission an hour by his dial. O noble fool, a worthy fool — motley’s the only wear.”

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

“I got attention by being funny at school, pretending to be retarded, and jumping around with a deformed hand.”

– Leonardo DiCaprio

In my working life, I tend to view myself as two separate entities. The first is the physical creation that listlessly shuffles between office, kitchen and bathroom for a prescribed number of hours of the working day, while the second is the conscious voice – the real me, as it were. He is a detached observer, curiously interested in the minutiae of the daily routine: how the physical me changes the pace of his morning pleasantries depending on the climate; whether the woman with the superman tattoo is aware that I have no idea who she is; and what would happen if I elected on Fridays only to speak in the voice of Masterchef hero Greg Wallace (“I tell you wot, [insert name of client], I’ve just faaarkan completed your sale”), South African cricket commentator Tony Greig (“Oh ma lord, the buyer reeeeeelly needs to cum to da partee”) or maybe even Big Momma (“Child, why don’t yo give big momma yo bank details for a CHAPS transfer?”).

This notion of separating mind from body is an essential tool when it comes to dealing with life’s trials and tribulations, a mechanism which we all utilise to minimise the stresses, either through conscious effort or on a subliminal level. I anticipate that it’s not too dissimilar from the technique police officers employ when dealing with the degenerates of society, skipping into a form of auto-pilot while they laugh internally at the youth’s Roman numeral tattoo, simultaneously noting down his alcohol-muddled observations on the latest street-knuckle fight.

These thoughts were prompted during my viewing of the latest instalment in the Big Momma’s House trilogy: Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, a cinematic aberration to many that makes one ponder whether Lawrence was consciously committing career suicide with his blinkered faith in fat-suit comedy, or if he could calmly detach himself from the critical mauling to gently massage his swelling bank account. The more I replay in my mind the flimsy plot and insipid dialogue of Like Father, Like Son (let’s call it Big Momma 3 for ease of reference), the more I find in favour of the latter verdict, prompting the question of whether Lawrence is playing a crafty long-game by luring us into complacency before delivering a celebratory remake of Citizen Kane in front of a packed house of fawning critics.

Oh child

Big Momma first shook the box office in 2000 under the perfunctory title ‘Big Momma’s House’. While houses did occupy some of the running time, the movie was essentially a vehicle for Lawrence to fat-up and delve into his dubious comedy locker. The plot can be broken down as follows: Lawrence and Paul Giammatti are FBI undercover agents sent to stake out the house of Hattie Mae (affectionately known as ‘Big Momma’), who is housing the ex-girlfriend (Sherry) of a wanted crim. The stakeout meanders along with little to maintain the interest until Mae leaves the house for a few weeks, prompting Lawrence to have the masterstroke of dressing up as Big Momma; cue cutting-edge jokes such as the semi-naked Sherry asking Big Momma whether she is hiding a flashlight beneath her pyjamas. As is de rigeur for such undercover capers, Lawrence is almost rumbled when out of his fat suit, swiftly recovering his poise by pretending to be Big Momma’s handyman. Slowly but surely and without a hint of stereotyping, the plain-clothed Lawrence finds himself falling for Sherry and her wayward son, Trent, and does crazy shit like take them fishing. To the shock of the educated viewer, the clueless Sherry is unable to smell a rat, even when looking into Lawrence’s expressionless rubber face.

That’s my jam

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Big Momma failed to receive a single Oscar nomination, not even best make-up. Rather than appreciate its pioneering attempts to revolutionise the portrayal of southern african-american woman in modern cinema, ill-informed critics sought to destroy the franchise:

“Big Momma’s House…involves a gloatingly unpleasant, jeering view of old woman’s bodies which is intensified by [Lawrence’s] protective feelings for Sherry and her young son.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

“You may find yourself waiting for a commercial break but sadly, it never comes.”


“The feeble plot is forgotten for vast stretches of the movie, which is an excuse for tedious slapstick, jokes against fat people, flatulence gags and sexist leering. Three of the best comedies – Some Like It Hot, Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire – had actors dressed up as women. This is one of the worst.”

The Daily Mail

Unperturbed by the critical roasting, Big Momma romped through the box office to collect a staggering $174 million worldwide, which is surely the very least that a film containing the following dialogue should deserve:

“Sherry: Oh, it’s so good to see you, Big Momma. I thought you may have  forgotten all about me.

Lawrence/Big Momma: Shut your mouth, child. Oh, Big Momma could never forget that ass…

Sherry: What?

Lawrence/Big Momma: …ma. Asthma. Do you remember you had asthma?”

Don’t let anyone tell you that Jesus’ sacrifice was in vain.

Guuuuuuuuurl, please

For Big Momma’s second offering, Lawrence and Co decided to ratchet the series up a notch, an approach hinted at by the dazzling film title: Big Momma’s House 2. In addition to the usual family-plus-Big-Momma set-up, BMH2 benefits from a hyper-active pooch called Poncho. In one playful scene, Big Momma – feeling sorry for the designer mutt – slips some booze into his doggy bowel and urges him ‘to get [his] tilt on’. BMH2 also saw an early cinematic outing for Chloe Morritz (the young daughter ‘Karrie’), who rightly garnered rave reviews for her performance as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, and put in a decent turn as a vampire in the American remake of Let The Right One In. When she looks back on what promises to be an illustrious career, I hope she has the good grace to dedicate every single award to Lawrence.

As for the man himself, Lawrence throws the kitchen sink of fat-woman-clichés at BMH2 including crazy dancing, bare-fleshed spa treatment, jet skiing and swimsuit exposure with complimentary braids (think Bo Derek in 10 but with a little more junk in the trunk). However the film’s high watermark is Big Momma’s celebratory dance routine (see below) where she dons a skimpy cheerleading outfit to help Karrie’s dance troupe to a standing ovation. While Lawrence’s ability to act through eyes alone is undoubtedly worth the entrance fee, check out the diva pout of Karrie’s fellow cheerleader at 1:55.

She raiiiiiiised a Heffer!!!

Like the first Big Momma, BM2 defied expectations to take an imposing $140 million worldwide; to put that in perspective, Clear and Present Danger took approximately $200 million. Clearly, the people were hungry for more momma and just like Arnie with the Terminator franchise, Lawrence delivered what the crowd wanted: Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son aka BM3.

Where BM2 brought an animal into proceedings, BM3 introduces another fan of the fat suit, none other than Trent, Lawrence’s step son, perhaps better known as ‘Alpa Chino’ from Tropic Thunder. Perhaps his most memorable moment in Stiller’s blacked-up masterpiece occurs when Robert Downey Junior (he of the painted face) interrogates Chino over his choice of supposed girlfriend, ‘Lance’: “When you wrote ‘I Love Tha’ Pussy’, was you thinking about danglin’ yo’ dice on Lance’s forehead?”

Where some may be embarrassed to admit, I revel in the fact that my erstwhile Big Momma enthusiast and I braved a bleak Exeter evening to attend a screening of BM3, shamelessly paying the full fare and then taking out seats amongst the needy and depraved of society. The calibre of the Big Momma fan base was perhaps best summarised by the old man wearing a Hawaiian shirt two rows in front of us who kept jumping up and whooping at impromptu moments. My friend gesticulated towards the loon as a source of amusement, but I quickly realised he was genuinely ill, or it was at least a borderline case.

Amidst the horror of the crowd was the imposing spectre of BM3, not to mention the weight of expectation: after jet skiing, dancing and spa treatment, what further humiliations could be inflicted upon this poor stereotype? Never one to disappoint, Lawrence went full retard and laid on a banquet of depravity including life model classes, twister and yet more truffle-shuffling. Rightly or wrongly, I openly cried with rapture when Big Momma fell through the table (see 1:10 of the trailer below) while my companion beat his knees profusely, the tears similarly reigning down onto the floor, like the blows of a high school bully on an acne-ridden weed.

…but you can call me big momma

Despite BM devotees flocking to their local multiplex, the critics finally got their wish as Big Momma tanked to a worldwide box office of $61 million, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 6% (come on, people!). In fact according to Wiki, the film’s backers decided to shield it from critical abuse with the film ‘not screened in advance for critics’, perhaps unsurprising when it’s likely to be as warmly received as a limited edition copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo at a Martin Luther King remembrance rally. Having never been a fan of Mark Kermode, my faith in the good doctor took a further nose dive after his following one-line verdict on BM3: “comedy blokes in fat suits doing nothing funny for a long time while all you can hear is [silence].” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who despaired at the first BM instalment but is otherwise a bastion for the infantile as well as the serious, finally turned his back on Lawrence:

“Like Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer famous for defending some of the most questionable clients, I have in the past made a case for the comedian Martin Lawrence. I have giggled guiltily at his medieval romp Black Knight. I have chortled at Blue Streak. And the sheer, confrontational crassness of his Big Momma movies – in which he plays an FBI agent who repeatedly finds it expedient to disguise himself as a very fat woman – occasionally gets a jaded laugh. But there must have been moments when Dershowitz, having made an impassioned plea to the judge, turned round to find his client loudly planning his next robbery or murder on the phone. That is kind of how I feel now.”

Upon reading this review, I reflected on my experiences at the cinema at BM3 and came to a sad acceptance that, save for Big Momma falling through the table and playing twister, there had been little to capture the imagination. However I then recalled the name of Trent’s female alter-ego – Charmaine – and realised that there was something far cleverer at work: irony. Aware that the film was shit, Lawrence – in a flight of inspired fancy – had decided to name one of the characters after a brand of household toilet roll, a move which makes one wonder whether Oscars beckon in the future.

In terms of his future, I – like Peter Bradshaw deep-down – hope that Lawrence recaptures his mojo. However, it’s clear that he has become indistinguishable from Big Momma, a statement backed-up with the following Wiki fact: “during August 1999, Lawrence slipped into a three-day coma after collapsing from heat exhaustion while jogging in 100-degree heat while wearing several layers of heavy clothing. He recovered in the hospital after nearly dying from a body temperature of 107 °F (41.7 °C).” When a man dresses like Big Momma in his spare time, you know things have gone wrong. However, let’s not dwell on the bad. Check out the below link for some classic Momma and go forth and get yo’ tilt on.

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After the non-events that are January and February, what with everyone trudging around in a fog of overbearing depression, it is with great relief that the Cowboy finds himself inhabiting March, a month rich with high-end cultural offerings, including the Coens’True Grit, new Bright Eyes album The People’s Key and Martin Lawrence’s Big Mommas: Like Fathers Like Sons, the conclusion of a genre-defining trilogy in which Lawrence showed what could be achieved with a fat suit and some crude racial stereotypes. Just in case this isn’t enough to sate your creative appetites, we’re now well into the latter stages of Masterchef, a show that poses as many questions as it provides answers: will Greg Wallace literally cream himself while hoovering a note-perfect soufflé?; how long into each episode before John Torode implores [insert name] ‘to deliver on flavour?; can the woman responsible for the show’s voiceover take her husky delivery to the next level by moving down yet another octave? Exciting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Pending my forthcoming review of the latest Big Momma instalment (now seen since first half of this list was posted – review to come), I have been ransacking YouTube’s archives for fleeting moments of joy from my favourite comedy shows. I’ve gone for the tried and tested ‘top-ten’ angle, so a lot of decent stuff failed to make the cut including, in no particular order of merit: Blackadder, The Fast Show, The Simpsons, Peep Show, The Day Today, The Harry Hill Show, Southpark and The Office (American version).

10. Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister [BBC]

Satire is one of the hardest comedy genres to pull off. When done badly, in can be smug, indulgent and seriously dull (anything involving Bird and Fortune). However, when tightly written and skilfully acted (Yes Minister and the subsequent Yes, Prime Minister), the result is a slow-burning pleasure, being both interesting and extremely funny. Most fans will pick out Nigel Hawthorne’s velvet tongued spin doctor (sorry, permanent secretary) as the show’s fulcrum, but I was always drawn to Paul Eddington’s excellent minister, Jim Hacker, a loveable buffoon who never seemed to know what was going on around him, a premonition of George Bush (“now watch this drive”), perhaps.  The link below finds Hacker PM eloquently dissecting the journalistic appetite in British shores, with ample support from his private secretary.

9. Beavis and Butt-head [MTV]

Few things are more pleasurable than crying with laughter, provided that the outpouring of mirth doesn’t take place at a funeral, hospital waiting room or in the midst of an anticipated sexual encounter. The first conscious memory I have of doing so was watching the credits to Beavis and Butt-head roll at the start of their four-year tenure on MTV during the early/mid-nineties. The opening credits, monotonous guffawing from Butt-head and pitch-shifting cackles from Beavis, captured the essence of the show: two illiterate juveniles getting excited by nothing. Their feature-length film – Beavis and Butt-head Do America – remains a personal favourite. The plot is, of course, ridiculous and gets under way with a character voiced by Bruce Willis (one of numerous celebrity voices) asking the protagonists to “do” his wife (as in murder), which they wrongly interpret as a chance to score, cue a surreal road-trip involving gambling old ladies, the Hoover Dam and The White House. As ever, the dialogue is delightfully silly:

“Beavis: Yeah. We’re gonna score.

Little Old Lady: Oh, well, I hope to score big there, myself. I’m mostly gonna be doing the slots.

Beavis: Yeah, yeah. I’m hoping to do some sluts, too. Yeah. Do they have a lot of sluts in Las Vegas?

Little Old Lady: Oh, there are so many slots, you won’t know where to begin.

Beavis: Whoa. Hey, Butt-Head, this chick is pretty cool. She says there’s gonna be tons of sluts in Las Vegas.

Butt-head: Cool.

Little Old Lady: It’s so nice to meet young men who are so well-mannered.

Beavis: Yeah. I’m gonna have money and a big screen TV and there’s gonna be sluts everywhere. It’s gonna rule.

Little Old Lady: Well, that’s nice.”

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm [HBO]

Current TV schedules are packed full of faux-reality shows, from LA puke-fest The Hills to television’s answer to Chernobyl, aka The Only Way is Essex. Other recent incarnations include David Crane’s Episodes, featuring his former Friends’ star, Matt LeBlanc, playing a parody of an actor not dissimilar in mannerisms to Matt LeBlanc. The blurring of reality lines is not confined to the small screen, with Jean–Claude Van Damme getting his art house game together in JCVD, a surprisingly enjoyable film where Damme plays a washed-up action star, ergo himself. This modern trend of celebrity parody owes a great debt to Larry David’s sublime Curb Your Enthusiasm, which follows the Seinfield co-creator through the daily grind of D-list Hollywood life. David is a revelation, disenchanted with the world and people that inhabit it. Where a ‘normal person’ will tolerate the disingenuous chat offered-up by till staff at a corporate coffee chain, David’s character refuses to accept the bullshit and openly challenges or undermines anything he doesn’t agree with. One of the greatest moments takes place where one player at an after dinner poker game fails to go all-in despite possessing an ace high. Appalled that no-one seems to be taking the game seriously, David playfully calls him a cunt prompting everyone to make their excuses and leave. Hero.

7. The Thick of It [BBC]

Often described as a modern re-working of Yes Minister (see above), The Thick of It similarly follows the inner workings of British government, firstly through clueless minister Hugh Abbot (closely aligned to Jim Hacker) and then through his inexperienced successor Nicola Murray, played as a ditsy, highly-strung career-female parody by The Day Today’s Rebecca Front. Both ministers are ‘advised’ by a ramshackle group of self-obsessed civil servants, an eclectic mix of lifers and youthful sycophants (stand-up comic Chris Addison). In terms of structure, the episodes follow a traditional set-up of a central farcical situation being handled by inept staff, thus building a gradual snowball of hilarity. Particularly enjoyable is Peter Capaldi’s demonic spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, a globally feared bullocking machine whose authoritative presence perfectly exposes the political inadequacies of his charges. The success of The Thick of It is the marriage between note-perfect comedy performances (the actors also provide much adlibbed material) and the inspired writing of Armando Ianucci (Alan Partridge), Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and various other collaborators, including posh-boy stand-up and Jersey export, Will Smith. Some choice clips below from movie feature In The Loop.

6. Phoenix Nights [Channel 4]

“Keith Lard? Yeh, he got done for in’fering with dogs.” “He got off though, didn’t he?” “Yeh, you try getting an Alsatian to testify.”

Long before selling out venues across the land with enthusiastic renditions of family weddings and Teletext holidays, Kay could be found sipping pina coladas in the Phoenix Club as fictional social club owner, Brian Potter, a wheel-chair bound tightwad with delusions of grandeur. The success of Phoenix Nights owed much to the supporting cast, including chauvinistic bouncers Max and Paddy (“I wouldn’t mind ‘anging out of that”), mulleted DJ “Ray Von” and Potter’s social club nemesis, Den Perry (“like I say, she has got a cock, so you have been warned”). Classic episodes include a psychic evening hosted by Clinton Baptiste (“I’m getting the word…..NONCE”), episode 1 guest-featuring Roy Walker and racist folk-band “Half a Shilling” and the imported bouncy castle complete with an inflatable cock and balls. However, Kay’s greatest creation is the uber-anal fire safety officer, Keith Lard (played by Kay), who’s comic mileage is derived from a past charge of bestiality. Unfortunately the quality of the clip leaves a lot to be desired, but captures all the key dog-related quips. If you don’t own both series on DVD, get involved.

5. Knowing Me, Knowing You/I’m Alan Partridge [BBC]

It’s pretty difficult to write anything original about the Partridge character, widely-recognised as Steve Coogan’s finest moment, shortly behind balling Courtney Love and being blamed for the attempted suicide of Owen Wilson. That is a little harsh, perhaps, with Coogan having been in resplendent form of late, triumphing over Rob Brydon in Michael Caine impressions on The Trip (see below), and penning a pitch-perfect damnation of the boorish Top Gear in The Observer. Partridge, least we forget, was also the brainchild of Armando Ianucci, later creator The Thick of It, and celebrated stand-ups Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Highlights from the show are numerous, with choice offerings including the Bald Brummies Against The Big Footed Conspiracy Party, the “cock piss partridge” car graffiti, not to mention the oft-quoted “monkey tennis” meltdown, as Partridge pleads, unsuccessfully, for a second television series before shoving a round cheese in a BBC executive’s face.  Give me a second series YOU SHIT.

4. Black Books [Channel 4]

The brainchild of Father Ted’s Graham Linehan and stand-up god Dylan Moran, Black Books was never going to be jostling with My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and My Hero for the shitest sitcom in history award. Not content with a stellar creative team, it roped in Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig to be the (relatively) straight guys to Moran’s unhinged central character, Bernard, a bonkers alchy who runs a would-be pretentious second-hand book shop with a nihilistic attitude to its success, or indeed lack of. The show is brilliantly set-up, with Manny (Bailey) endearingly seeking to change Bernard’s lackadaisical ways, while Fran pretends to have similar intentions, despite being self-obsessed by her own neuroses and shortcomings.  The group have an excellent dynamic, while benefiting from line after line of fantastic writing, as well as the occasional inspired visual gag (the sweeping finger of dust shown in the clip below). As Masterchef’s Greg Wallace might say while motorboating a breast-shaped chocolate fudge cake at his favourite stand-up gig, “I tell you what, John, comedy don’t get much faaaaarkhan better than this.”

3. Flight of the Conchords [HBO]

Watching the first series of the Conchords’ eponymous TV series was a joyous experience, akin to the time when I innocently purchased a football magazine and found a dog-eared copy of Razzle locked in its laminated embrace. The show worked on numerous levels, mixing traditional structured plots with irreverent musical interludes. Cross-referencing it with Beavis & Butthead, it’s hard not to see similarities. Like MTV’s slacker delinquents, Jermaine and Brett suck at everything they do, only coming to life in the alternative world of their musical parodies, where real-life limitations are cast-aside in favour of surreal and outlandish riffings on hermaphrodite ladies, racist greengrocers and Ravi Shanker. It is these music features that lend the show its genius, with the music from the first series having – at the time of writing – racked-up over 400 cumulative plays on my iTunes. With lyrics such as “a kiss is not a contract but it’s very nice, just because we’ve been playing tonsil hockey doesn’t mean you get to score the goal that’s in my jockey” it’s hard to find flaws.

2. Father Ted [Channel 4]

It’s a toss-up for first place between this and Bottom, with only a gnat’s pube between the two. In the end, Bottom secured top spot because of the furious energy which carries the whole show, although the more I type, the more I wriggle with mirth at the images of Bishop Brennan, tearing down the garden screaming “Crilly!!!!!” (Father Ted Crilly to you and me), before bending him over and laying a slippery boot on his backside. Such is the appeal of Father Ted: off-the-wall humour, colourful characters glued together by a warmly dysfunctional household. The show ages remarkably well, no better evidenced by a recent showing of the viewer’s choice episode (Speed 3) on the Father Ted night a few months ago. Speed 3 is arguably the series’ finest hour, with a plot centring on a geriatric milkmen (Pat Mustard) who delivers his own variant on full fat dairy products during his early morning rounds on Craggy Island. Appalled by his antics, Ted brings Mustard’s activities to his superior’s attention, who sacks him shortly after failing in his attempts to steal some murky images of Mustard on the job from the parochial house. Cue a rip off from Hollywood blockbuster Speed, where Dougal (the short-term replacement milkman) must keep the bus above 4 miles per hour. As with the best comedy, the secret is the attention to detail, for example Mustard’s milkfloat being delightfully adorned by the stickers ‘Young Banger’, ‘Shit Happens’ and ‘Milkmen do it on your doorstep’. Gold.

1. Bottom [BBC]

Watching Adrian Edmonson ponce around on mind-numbing soft comedy and drama programs on the Beeb, it’s hard to recall the days when he boasted some comedy pedigree. While I could take or leave The Young Ones (his other notable success, also involving Rik Mayall), Bottom – in which he played the exquisitely named Edward Hitler – became a personal obsession and remains, to this day, the funniest thing I have ever seen. As the name implies, Bottom was as low-brow as it gets, a dismal record of the schemes and activities undertaken by two sad and pathetic desperados starved of sexual activity and with an appetite for casual violence. As with most successful comedy duos, the characters neatly dovetailed: Eddie, a loveable booze-hound prone to boats of genius but generally devoid of any mental acumen; Richard Richard (aka “Richie”, played by Rik Mayall) a deranged pervert and prodigious masturbator who wrongly believes himself to be a member of the English upper-crust. Throughout proceedings, they are joined by equally squalid associates: Dave Hedgehog, a short man with grey hair bereft of social understanding; Spud-gun, a gormless chubber with a monosyllabic delivery and Dick Head, a grouchy barman with a sensible name. Like ACDC, the formula for success is consistent, but what really makes it stand out is the commitment in the performances, with something happening at every moment. Classic episodes include a flutter on one-legged horse ‘Sad Ken’ and the triumphant Halloween episode (extract below). However, the funniest episode to my mind is Dough in which Eddie sets-up a money forging press in his bedroom, creating masterpieces such as the £27 note, in which Sylvester Stallone appears fisting old Mr McHenry from the Magic Roundabout. Classic dialogue below:

“Eddie: They’re the Queen’s jugs (in response to Richie’s query about the strange constitution of Eddie’s forged five pound note).

Richie: A. The Queen doesn’t have jugs, she’s royalty. B. If she did, she certainly wouldn’t get ’em out on the back of a fiver, she’d save ’em up for the fifty!

Eddie: If you have a look at my fifty, you may find it a bit more risqué…

[Richie glances at it and winces]

Richie: Eddie, that’s tantamount to treason!… She’s got three knockers!

Eddie: No, that’s Bobby Charlton in the middle.

Richie: Are you insane? You couldn’t buy these under the counter in Hamburg!

Eddie: That’s the point, mate. The barkeeper will be so mesmerised by the classy erotica, I’ll have had ten pints by the time he realises how crap the squiggly lines are!”


A couple of other choice highlights below, including Attention Scum by the League Against Tedium (aka Simon Munnery), Coogan and Brydon in The Trip and old Channel 4 favourite The Harry Hill Show.

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