26 February 2013

iTunes TV Show Review | Partrimilgrimage - The Alan Partridge Specials

My love affair with Apple products is sullied somewhat by the iTunes Store’s habitual overpricing of television series – as a general rule, I can buy a high-definition Blu-ray box set for a fraction of the price of a series iTunes standard-definition series pass. However, I’ve recently found my way to a few baffling bargains, ranging from the Outnumbered and Doctor Who Christmas specials in HD for just a couple of quid apiece to a Partridge in a maple tree – or, that is, an HD Partrimilgrimage for a mere £3.99.

Originally broadcast on Sky Atlantic last summer, this collection of Alan Partridge oddities defies expectations as well as pronunciation. After being a little disappointed with his Mid Morning Matters, I was delighted to see the erstwhile Knowing Me, Knowing You presenter back at the top of his vainglorious game as he introduced viewers to his native Norfolk – or, as he so logically puts it, the “Wales of the East” – in the bundle’s first instalment, Welcome to the Places of My Life.

Punctuated with blasts of what sounds like a cross between Steeleye Span and a pissed Steve Coogan on karaoke, this travelogue exudes pomp and vanity throughout, and probably contains as many barbed Partridge one-liners in its forty minutes as did the whole series of Mid Morning Matters. Whether he’s clarifying that the “home of the Broads” isn’t an allusion to a “refuge for fallen prostitutes” (fallen prostitutes?), or likening the black death to HIV, only airborne – “Let me put that in context for you: flying AIDS!” – Partridge is more despicable than he’s ever been, and this time there’s nobody to rein him in. With his days at the BBC long behind him, Welcome to the Places of My Life was produced by Partridge’s own Pear Tree Productions – a truth that is shamelessly evident from the programme’s first substantive interview, which employs the clumsiest of editing techniques to try and mask Partridge’s weakness as a swimmer. Such trickery presents itself again later in the show, as a pensive vicar’s pauses are dramatically curtailed in post-production – so brutally so, in fact, that for a moment I thought my Apple TV had started dropping frames. What really stings is that the poor clergyman’s pauses might not have been so protracted, had he not been faced with questions and challenges such as “What do you think a soul looks like? Draw one!”

My favourite part of the programme though is the segment that sees Partridge begrudgingly try to broach the class divide. Fancying himself as a market grocer, down-to-earth Alan decides to turn his hand to selling fruit – a task that the gently-joshing stallholders don’t expect him to succeed in, much to his disgust. “It’s menial work,” he spits, before waxing lyrical in a voiceover about how selling fruit was one of the easiest things he’s ever done, but without providing any convincing visual evidence of an actual sale. And, heckles raised, Partridge doesn’t stop there, launching himself into one of his disproportionately vicious – and highly amusing – verbal slammings. “These stallholders, with their fast and loose approach to grammar, and particularly their cavalier use of apostrophes, were clearly people living on the very fringes of society,” he warns with undue horror, no doubt having forgotten his omission of the hyphen in mid-morning when he begat Mid Morning Matters.

But as a man “whose statutory rights are important” to him, Partridge doesn’t dwell long in the marketplace, quickly moving on to a car dealership where he finds himself a Range Rover to test-drive, a vehicle that he’s keen to stress is male -“I’m not driving a girl!”-, in so doing eschewing the centuries-old tradition of feminising transport. Scenes of Partridge and an unfortunate salesman trying to talk over each other as they wind around country lanes, firing their trenchant views on automatic and manual differential locks at each other, are woven betwixt guides to skiing in England’s flattest county; child actors admiring “substitute trees” in illusion-wrecked flashbacks to Partridge’s youth; and even Partridge’s stab at being Andrew Marr as he dramatises “historic” events occurring inside Norwich City Hall, such as the furore caused by the proposed extension to city centre parking fees beyond 7pm. It’s all vintage Partridge, but fresh and in 1080p.

The collection’s second episode sees Partridge appear on Open Books with Martin Bryce, where he’s interviewed by fellow author Chris Beale – a man whom Partridge has so little respect for, he can’t even get his name right, let alone make any sort of positive comment about his work. Studio-bound and slower burning by nature, the intimacy of the programme highlights every awkward silence; the lack of spectacle causes every Partridge faux-pas to linger for longer. Of course, as a reader (and reviewer) of I,Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, inevitably its author’s emotive readings didn’t engross me as much as they would have someone who has yet to tackle the tome, but there was still plenty to entertain me here as Partridge’s transparent stooges and obsessive fan (singular!) make their respective presences felt, and Partridge shares his plans for his next book – a “What if…?” novel set on board the RMS Titanic, designed both to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of its sinking and to make a powerful statement against speed cameras.

Equidistant between An Idiot Abroad and I’m Alan Partridge, this Partrimilgrimage is one metaphysical journey worth making. And for £3.99, it’s cheaper than the trek to Bodh Gaya. Or, for that matter, Cromer.

19 February 2013

Blu-ray Review | WWE: Rock vs Cena - Once in a Lifetime

The Rock’s departure from the wrestling world in 2003 (or 2004, if you count the one-off WrestleMania XX Rock ’n’ Sock reunion) coincided with my rapidly-diminishing interest in the World Wrestling Entertainment product, and there’s no coincidence there. Arguably ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin was the face of the then-World Wrestling Federation’s golden Attitude Era, but it’s often overlooked that he missed most of 2000 through injury, and soon after his return suffered an initially-shocking but ultimately-flawed heel turn – nobody wanted to hate “The Most Popular Superstar of All Time”, particularly when he made for the most amusing (and musical...) of baddies the second time around. The Rock, on the other hand, was there almost every week to electrify the masses. Heel or face, on the stick or in the ring, the Brahma Bull was an act that nobody wanted to miss – but miss him they did, once he’d packed his bags for Hollywood.

But as the Rock rose from being the mere “Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment” to the “Most Electrifying Man in All of Entertainment”, a blue-collar kid from Massachusetts was turning from a robotic prototype into a one-man franchise. Post-brand extension WWE was desperate for a new poster boy, and the freestyling John Cena not only became the company’s new face, but soon put a smile on it, winning a record number of WWE Championships on both its RAW and SmackDown! brands. Just as Hulk Hogan had dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Rock the late 1990s and early 2000s, John Cena has reigned supreme since 2005, his smile only subsiding whenever he’d take a moment to stop and disparage Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – the man who walked out on the business that’s become Cena’s raison d’être.

Over the years, many of the finest feuds in professional wrestling have been those borne of real heat. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels? By the mid-1990s they hated each other even more than their wrestling characters professed, culminating in Michaels’ involvement in the real-life 1997 “screwjob” in Montreal at that year’s Survivor Series. Matt Hardy and Edge? The latter stole the former’s girlfriend while he had a broken neck, and then went onto superlative success as the self-styled “Rated-R Superstar” while his adversary sat unemployed at home. But John Cena and the Rock is, in my view, an altogether more interesting proposition. Both were, at their respective heights, the company’s biggest babyfaces, yet both of them have drawn boos from crowds for showing the very qualities that made them heroes. In the Rock’s case, his initial eagerness to please soon turned an audience unwittingly headed for the Attitude Era squarely against him – a trend he quickly bucked by ditching his squeaky-clean “Rocky Maivia” gimmick and becoming the jabroni-beating, pie-eating, trail-blazing, eyebrow-raising Rock that we all knew and loved. But in Cena’s case, he was a hands-down fan favourite right from his first big push, only to gradually build up an increasing number of detractors as he enjoyed more and more success. This is unheard of, really, when you consider the length of time that Cena has been at the top, and particularly the out-and-out irreproachability of his actions during that time. This isn’t an old-fashioned good guy with a superiority complex, á la Kurt Angle – he’s a straight-talking, hard-working and often immodest performer who, by all rights, should be a firm fan favourite. The Rock, conversely, is by turns overbearing, hypocritical and downright mean. There was a reason he played the villain when he rejoined the RAW roster for a couple of months in 2003 – nobody could forgive him for leaving the squared circle. He was effectively booed out of SummerSlam 2002, having dropped his then-Undisputed WWE Championship to the so-called “Next Big Thing”, Brock Lesnar. But upon his return to the now-HD, widescreen WWE Universe, fans worldwide instantly turned their back on the leader of Cenation, vilifying him for his unfashionable constancy and instantly getting behind their intermittently-attending, but undoubtedly exhilarating, “People’s Champion”.

Usually when I watch a non-PPV WWE home video, most of my interest lies with its (usually centrepiece) documentary. This was the case when I watched The Epic Journey of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and I firmly expected it to be the case when I popped in the first disc of Rock vs Cena - Once in a Lifetime (a misnomer if ever there was one, given this year’s anticipated rematch), which picks up more or less exactly where the former left off – the Rock’s return to RAW just prior to WrestleMania XVII, which he would go on to host. However, this release’s supposedly-focal feature feels like a token extra; a fleeting look behind the scenes of the 6-hour epic that unfurls across the two discs in dazzling 1080p, blow by blow. As I didn’t follow this iconic rivalry live, I can’t say for sure that this Blu-ray presents every single Rock / Cena showdown on the road to WrestleMania XVIII in Miami, but it certainly doesn’t feel like anything has been excluded. I sat enthralled for hours as these two giants fired scathing promos - and, believe it or not, tweets - at each other; reluctantly teamed up against the Miz and R-Truth, a pair of good ol’ fashioned baddies; and eventually set the Showcase of the Immortals alight with undoubtedly the biggest match since Rock and Hollywood Hogan - and arguably one of the best too. I couldn’t help but feel for Cena when his unassailable arguments against the Rock fell flat with the rabid RAW audience, who lapped up every rapidly-trending soundbite (“John Cena’s got lady parts…” / “Fruity Pebbles…”) Rocky used to mask the inherent paucity of his retorts - when he deigned to show up, that is. The events housed on these discs don’t take place over a month or two, as most big-match build-ups do – the Rock’s appearances are peppered across more than a year, an innovation in storytelling that, in of itself, sets this feud apart from any other before or since.

But here’s the thing - as their hyped-to-the-hilt WrestleMania match pulled towards its spectacular finish, each man enduring finisher after finisher only to get a shoulder up at two, I wanted to see the Rock layeth the smacketh down - just like I wanted him to make the loveable, sock-wielding Mankind say “I quit!” back in ’99; just like I wanted him to drop the People’s Elbow on the renaissance Hulkster in ’02; just like I wanted him to end Austin’s career with a Rock Bottom in ’03. Why? Because he’s the Rock - the most entertaining sports entertainer that ever there was, and for all John Cena’s virtues, neither he nor anyone else - it doesn’t matter what their names are - could ever hope to compete with that. Let’s hope that he can continue to rise above it - after all, he’s little choice in the matter as long as Rocky’s around.