30 July 2012

Blu-ray Review | WWE: Undertaker - The Streak

With the likes of the Rock, Stone Cold and Edge being treated to fulsome box sets over the last year or so, I wondered how long it’d be before we saw one for the Phenom. However, rather than take the conventional form of a career retrospective complemented by an apparently arbitrary selection of matches, The Streak’s centrepiece forty-minutes focus on the Undertaker’s incredible winning streak at WrestleMania, which rose to a staggering 20 – 0 following his victory over Triple H at this year’s event. The man himself has not a word to say on the matter, the kayfabe-friendy programme instead turning to those he defeated on sports entertainment’s greatest stage for their thoughts. Rather than detract from the release though, the Apocalyptic Warrior’s absence only seems to accentuate his mystique – something that The Streak does better than any other Undertaker-themed set released to date, in my view.

This is a very comprehensive release as its focus is so narrow. All twenty of the Dead Man’s WrestleMania matches are presented in full (though not the original entrances and aftermath in all cases – disappointingly the Big Boss Man’s post-match hanging has been removed, as have all traces of Limp Bizkit) and nobody can quibble as they’re all unquestionably relevant. Whilst the Undertaker’s had far better matches than he did against, say, Giant Gonzales, or Big Show and A-Train, every WrestleMania match forms an essential part of his streak and thus his legacy, and as such it’s great to have them all collected together.

It’s worth shelling out the extra few pounds for the Blu-ray here. Although most of the material is upscaled from full-frame standard definition video (which is softened by near-constant zooming in to 16:9 in the documentary), the Undertaker’s matches from WrestleMania XXIV onwards and the interviews with his victims are all presented in high definition widescreen. It’s worth paying the uplift just to see this year’s iconic Hell in a Cell match in true HD.

Like a lot of people, I was hoping for a ‘Best of the Undertaker’-styled release featuring an all-embracing documentary in the style of The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time or You Think You Know Me, particularly as the only documentary that the Undertaker’s ever been the focus of was It’s My Yard over a decade ago, which inevitably dwelt on his then-contemporary Bad Ass-era angles. However, as the Dead Man’s career has been so lengthy, spanning two full decades of destruction, I don’t think that a single documentary and a single collection of matches could have done him justice. The Streak is therefore the perfect place to start in chronicling the awe-inspiring career of Mark ‘Undertaker’ Calaway – but it is only a start, not a one-stop shop.

23 July 2012

Book Review | Booky Wook 2: This Time It's Personal by Russell Brand

Russell Brand’s two book(y wook)s are alike in that they are both realised through his inimitable, mischievously loquacious prose and extroverted, self-abasing sense of humour, however each covers very different ground. My Booky Wook delved into the hitherto-unexplored cradle of neuroses that fashioned an insatiable young biscuit-guzzler into a vertical-haired weapon of mass distraction; Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal tells the story of that weapon’s detonation, and the fallout that would follow.

The era covered gives the volume instant curb appeal as, unlike its predecessor, its cast are almost exclusively already-established celebrities; its key events well-known. The opening chapter, for instance, sees Brand recount his chaotic wooing of Kate Moss, which marked his elevation to the A-list. The closing ones, likewise, relate the opening moves in his romance with Katy Perry, which, at the time of publication, looked like it might prove to be the former junkie’s happy ending.

Through the pages in between, Booky Wook 2 expounds upon the scandals, missteps and spectacular successes that have made its author a global star. With the same self-criticising candour found in his first book(y wook), and indeed much of his stand-up comedy, Brand cheerfully dissects his near-ruinous slip-ups, while expressing surprisingly humble bewilderment at his Hollywood victories – it’s as if he can’t quite believe that they’ve happened. Along the way, he reveals new sides to everyone from hypnotist Paul “Is the bitch fucking with your melon?” McKenna to his teenage idol Morrissey, pasting in personal e-mail correspondence as evidence of his absolute transparency (or disinclination to fill up his word count with new material, if you’re feeling cynical).

Indeed, I have but one gripe with Booky Wook 2, and it’s that great swathes of it have been lazily lifted from Brand’s stand-up material. His musings on hosting MTV’s VMAs and “Sachsgate” comprise almost verbatim transcripts of his riotous on-stage analyses, right down to his wry digital ripostes to e-mailed death threats. Fortunately this material is so uproarious that it warrants reiteration, but if you’re reading this book shortly after watching Brand’s Scandalous DVD, or his scandalous DVD repackaging of almost the exact same gig as Live in New York City, then you’ll probably find it a little tired.

Once again though, “Rustle” (as Morrissey calls him) Brand has delivered an irrefutably witty and page-turning text. Though it lacks the disarming profundity that characterised his Booky Wook’s first incarnation, Brand’s follow-up still offers humorous, and occasionally horrifyingly honest, insight into the mind of a man whose euphoric madness is eclipsed only by that of his gravity-defying tresses.

17 July 2012

Book Review | Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of those books that you’ve just got to read. Whatever your pre-purchase views on its prospective merits (or otherwise), everyone seems to be talking about it, and not just with the dreary, uncontested awe that has been bestowed upon recent literary dominators the like of Harry Potter’s J K Rowling and The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown. In fact, besides Bret Easton Ellis’s alluring avowal that he’d love to write the screenplay for the inevitable (adult?) movie adaptation of Fifty Shades, the main thing that drew me to the book was its apparently divisive nature – as I write this, there have been 1,172 five star reviews published on Amazon UK; 831 one star reviews; and comparatively few in between. A piece of work that’s so defiantly contentious has to be worth at least the once-over.

Borne of a provocative Twilight fan fiction serial, Master of the Universe, this erotic tale was quietly published as an e-book and humble print-on-demand paperback before going on to subdue the literary universe. This has led many to surmise that the growth of e-books, and the privacy that they afford their readers, has really opened up the “mummy porn” market, allowing millions of women worldwide to get their thrills from their e-readers in the same way that their male counterparts do from their laptops. After all, it’s no secret that sex sells – and now there needn’t be any stigma in its purchase as no-one has to see what you’re reading. Yet Fifty Shades of Grey can now claim to be the fastest-selling paperback of all time too, surpassing even the Harry Potter series’ seven instalments. This title isn’t one that’s whispered about in hushed tones or appreciated solely through self-conscious peeks at a Kindle any longer – it’s on the agenda, if not the table, at just about every housewives’ coffee morning.

However, despite its world dominance, my initial impressions weren’t good. Whilst I’ve read far worse prose than E L James’s, I found it functional at best, and the first few chapters’ characterisation hardly set me alight either. I could still appreciate why it would appeal to a certain audience though; the dynamic between the eponymous tycoon, Christian Grey, and the diffident college student press-ganged into interviewing him, Anastasia Steele, put me in mind of the eminent protagonists in many a Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy or T S Eliot tale – works that James sporadically references throughout Fifty Shades. I struggled to suppress sighs as, in the spirit of the classics (classics that I have no love for, please bear in mind), James recreated the jaded truism of the well-to-do man about town and the decorous little thing that’s caught his eye.

But then, just a few chapters in, I began to get a sense for what James was really looking to do. Fifty Shades isn’t some classical homage, duly updated for a contemporary readership and enlivened with a few kinky, explicit thrills – it’s much more than that. The relationship between Christian and Ana takes the stereotype of the dominant male and submissive female and puts it in the proper context, publicly lifting the veil on a lifestyle that’s often looked upon with fear and disgust and exposing its true psychology. In giving herself over to Grey and becoming his submissive, Ana is the one who’s ultimately empowered - she chooses to acquiesce, and thus enjoy all the sensory extremes that follow that submission. If that’s not feminism in action, I don’t know what is.

I also have to applaud James for maintaining so narrow a focus over such a sizeable word count. Before I picked up Fifty Shades, I’d never read a novel that vested everything in just two central characters. Naturally, there are supporting players here, but they are little more than clich├ęd ciphers – the whole narrative is carried by Ana’s first person, present tense narration. This is, in many ways, the book’s greatest strength as it allows the reader to follow Ana’s horrifying and invigorating journey blow by blow, but it’s also its main weakness as Ana isn’t the world’s greatest storyteller, to say the least.

Indeed, James has offered critics a free shot with some of Ana’s stock phrases – “crap” and “double crap” immediately spring to mind - that might be turned into meta-textual slights on Fifty Shades’ intrinsic worth, and worse still Ana’s voice often sounds much more British than it does American – eagle-eyed readers (of the Kindle edition, at least) will spot a few greys (as in the colour, not the “Mr Fifty Shades of Fucked-Up”) that should have been grays, together with a flood of expressions that are far more redolent of the author’s native London than they are Miss Steele’s King County. However, if you can dispel such incongruities, then Ana maintains a bland believability that only seems to heighten the thrills that follow her rousing induction into the Dark Knight’s world of canes and hogties. Yes, Ana may rebelliously roll her eyes and nervously bite her lip whenever she’s in her master’s presence, but how many of us unveil unique idiosyncrasies in each and every sexual encounter? Let’s face it, our sexual reactions are samey – even within the Dark Knight’s Red Room of Pain.

Fifty Shades of Grey is without a doubt the most blunt and truthful examination of human sexuality that I’ve read outside a Belle de Jour memoir. On the strength of Ana’s often arduous musings, James lacks the pseudonymous Dr Magnanti’s wry wit and sharp phraseology, but she more than makes up for this with her invigorating discourse on guilt, power and free will, and the pleasures and pitfalls that flow from the same. If good old J K hopes to outsell this dominatrix of a novel when The Casual Vacancy hits the shelves, she’d better have swapped the magic wands of Olivander’s for those manufactured by Hitachi.

02 July 2012

Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - Sword of Damocles by Geoffrey Thorne

After a surprisingly long rest, Sword of Damocles sees the care of the starship Titan’s crew entrusted to debutant Star Trek novelist Geoffrey Thorne, who takes them to Orisha: “…a world at the edge of reason.”

Thorne’s story is careful and dense, characterised by its slow-burning, hard-hitting ‘proper’ science fiction and its powerful – but, ultimately, far too fleeting – flashes of inspiration. The idea of a species being in possession of warp technology but not using it for interstellar travel is a fascinating conceit, for instance, but it doesn’t take long for the narrative to get behind this interesting incongruity and betray the prosaic technology-suppressing force that’s holding back the Orishans. Similarly, I’m an ardent advocate of stories built upon temporal tomfoolery, provided that they’re duly neat and don’t threaten to press the much-maligned reset button. And, to its credit, Sword of Damocles manages to eschew the usual sins that generally follow this type of tale – only to replace them with fanciful coincidences and impenetrable technobabble.

It’s quite fitting that the paperback edition of Sword of Damocles carries several glossy pages’ worth of competition winner Sean Tourangeau’s Titan schematics as Thorne spends much of his word count dissecting the ship and its running. Indeed, viewers of The Next Generation will see shades of the episode Lower Decks in his exacting exploration of Titan’s routine operations, particularly in the threads that focus on the young Cardassian cadet, Dakal, and his Bajoran foil Jaza Najem. The latter, in fact, serves as the embodiment of the author’s central thesis as circumstances force him to resolve his “lifelong quest to balance faith and scientific truth” once and for all. Fans of Deep Space Nine, meanwhile, will see Will Riker and Deanna Troi rehearse that series’ Worf and Dax ‘duty versus love’ angle, albeit with a potentially game-changing twist; whereas Voyager devotees will be hard-pressed not to see the parallels between that ship’s captain and Titan’s here, as for the first time since his promotion Riker is forced to agonise over breaking – or, indeed, bending – Starfleet’s Prime Directive for the good of his lonesome ship and its endangered crew.

Fortunately though, Sword of Damocles does do one thing magnificently that I don’t have to qualify with a ‘but’, ‘only to’ or ‘borrowed from’ – break into the hitherto-hidden hearts of some of Titan’s most captivating crewmembers, and without overselling the crew’s patent diversity. This novel probes the smouldering guilt that isolates divisive libertine Xin Ra-Havreii from the rest of the crew, the shattering loss that instilled a misplaced sense of invincibility within Jaza, and even the fluctuating physical forms of Y'lira Modan that provoke such acute reactions from her peers - it’s like the eponymous protagonists of Beauty and the Beast have been merged into one.

A largely derivative, but nonetheless often enlightening, piece, Sword of Damocles fuses undiluted science fiction with expressive character drama to create a novel that is, if nothing else, absolutely nothing like the three that it follows. It lives or dies by the same.