While laid up with a dodgy leg a couple of weeks ago I found myself strangely compelled to catch up with the last couple of series of Hustle that I missed, in the same way that when you’ve got a broken tooth throbbing in your gum you feel strangely compelled to poke your tongue at it.

Somehow in the eighteen months or so since I last watched it I forgot how much more-or-less everything in Hustle gets on my pecs. All of the individual missteps it makes could be forgiven, but they come together to create something fundamentally disagreeable. In the rather spiffing recent Screenwipe special on writing for television, Hustle’s creator Tony Jordan said that when writing the scripts for the series he’d start with a premise but have no idea how it would end. Instead, he’d just follow the story until something suggested itself.

Frankly, this explains a lot.

Too often, Hustle plays – I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry – a con game, talking fast to try and rush you past a plot point or story conclusion that seems to superficially make sense but falls apart if subjected to the slightest scrutiny. It’s also painfully formulaic – every week, about two thirds of the way through it seems that everything’s gone wrong for the team but by the end it’s revealed that the trap they were seemingly caught in was just part of a wider con and, aha, actually they were in control the whole time. House gets away with repeating the same basic episode structure over and over again largely because its antihero central character is unusual, engaging and well-written. Hustle doesn’t because its antihero central characters are either cataclysmically dull or brain-detonatingly irritating. Even the more likable personalities (that’d be Ash, a combination of the Faceman out of the A-Team and a bulldog licking a nettle) are forced to transport levels of weapons-grade smugness far in excess of government-mandated safety guidelines. It desperately, desperately wants to be Ocean’s Eleven but succeeds only in being Ocean’s Twelve. Damningly, the characters look to be having a far better time than the audience ever will.

Top tip! If you’re writing a series about a group of con artists, whatever you do don’t rip off The Sting which is, y’know. Only the most famous movie about con artists ever made. And really, really, don’t do it twice. And when you’re having one character explain the con to another, really really really don’t have them say “you know, like The Sting.” Because that’s not funny, it’s not clever, it makes no sense. If you acknowledge that The Sting exists in your setting, then apparently your con artists are banking their life, wealth and liberty on the fact that their mark and anybody he happens to talk to haven’t ever seen a film that won SEVEN FLIPPIN’ OSCARS. More than that, it’s probably not a great idea to remind your viewers that they’ve seen this story done before with better writing, better acting, better directing, better costumes and better music. In The Sting, for instance. And to anyone who considers watching that episode like I did, thinking to yourself all the way through actually, this is really clever, they’re following the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist at the end that works because I think I’m familiar with the story” – don’t bother. Because they’ve followed the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist that’s exactly the same as the end of The Sting.

Grrrrr.

Top tip! If you’re writing an episode that focuses on poker and you don’t know anything about poker, why not try not writing an episode about poker? Otherwise, you just end up in a situation where Evil Max Beesley flat calls a pre-flop raise heads-up with pocket kings (perfectly reasonable in itself, of course), calls again after the board comes down ace-high and he’s facing a pot-sized bet (um…), calls another big bet after a blank on fourth street (eh?), then flukes into one of his – count ‘em – TWO outs, catching trips on the river to beat the raiser’s top two-pair. Which would be bad enough, but then he’s got the nerve to smirk “Call me sometime and I’ll teach you how to play poker!” as he scoops a pot that he’d have lost 23 times out of 24 after the call on the turn.

Top tip! If you’re a team of high-class con artists who repeatedly bang on about how you only ever take money from people who deserve it, why not try not constantly conning the poor Scouse sap who runs the bar you always meet at? Not only does this make you look like a bunch of complete hypocrites and remove any last lingering traces of sympathy I might have had for you, but it’s also spectacularly unwise to systematically antagonise someone who’s seen and heard the planning of about 75% of every criminal act you’ve ever committed, you enormous idiots.

Wow. 800 words on the hatefulness of Hustle and I haven’t even had to mention Marc Warren and his stupid squinty smirky Mockney hamster fizzog.

Next week in Blue Man’s Timely Telly Reviews Of Large, Slow Moving Targets we’ll be covering Day 6 of 24 in a feature entitled I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills or: I Know What Jack Bauer’s Dad Looks Like And You, Sir, Are Not Jack Bauer’s Dad.

,

As mentioned in a previous life, Blue Man’s First Law Of Comic Adaptations is this: just get the big stuff right. Work out what makes a comic worth reading, find the foundations that it’s built upon and make sure that those essentials come across successfully on screen. The corollary to Blue Man’s First Law Of Comic Adaptations therefore is this: change as much small stuff as you need to.

The first two X-Men films keep the mutants-as-an-oppressed-minority and family vibes from the comics, along with the iconic powers of Cyclops, Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X but change the costumes (“What, you think we should be wearing spandex?”), turn the Xavier Institute For Gifted Youngsters into an actual school, and re-interpret both Magneto (as a Holocaust survivor) and Rogue (as a teenage runaway). Batman Begins shows us Bruce Wayne’s double life, keeps Batman’s ambiguous relationship with the law and portrays him as a figure of superstition and terror to the criminal classes. However, it also gives us an on-again off-again romantic dalliance, the Batmobile as a military vehicle and Batman being trained as an actual no-fooling ninja. My very favourite comic movie ever, The Crow, retains almost nothing from the comic – about one-and-a-half scenes (Eric visting Gideon’s pawnshop and his confrontation with Fun Boy), plus the basic look, origin and mission of the central character, a bunch of villain names and that’s your lot.

I reiterate this to make my attitude clear – I’m a huge fan of Watchmen, but I don’t regard the book as a sacred text from whose holy writ deviation is not to be tolerated. I understand that what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on screen. In fact in the case of Watchmen this is doubly true, it being  a story that is structured specifically to take advantage of the strengths of the medium it was written for. Sin City may have basically treated the original comic like a storyboard with more-or-less successful results (mind-bendingly rampant misogyny aside), but in that case you’re talking about a very simple plot and books that were intended to be a film noir in comic form. Try the same thing with Watchmen and you’d just end up with a sprawling mess, albeit one with some great characters, nice set-pieces and interesting visuals.

Watchmen is a sprawling mess, albeit one with some great characters, nice set-pieces and interesting visuals. It’s not a very good film at all. I enjoyed it very much, look forward to seeing it again and would recommend it without hesitation to anyone who’s read and enjoyed the comic.

(Anyone who hasn’t read the comic I would recommend to, er, read the comic – it’s about the same price as a cinema ticket, can be read in about the time you’d invest in a visit to the flicks and is better than the film in every respect).

Let me attempt to explain.

The Phantom Menace is a terrible film by anybody’s standards. It’s got a rotten script, dodgy performances, it’s bloated, baggy and filled with characters I couldn’t give a flying hug about. But the first time that Qui-Gon O’Jinn The Oirish Jedi and Awful Alec Guinness Impression drew their lightsabres with that ssssccccchvooom! sound and began cutting loose with them I started grinning like I had a flip-top head. There are things that I’m just programmed to enjoy, that are hard-coded in my Nerd DNA to give me pleasure.

The sight of a giant Doctor Manhattan creating a glass palace of cogs and gears is one of these things. So’s the Comedian’s costume. So’s Archie the Owlship. So’s “You don’t get it! I’m not locked in here with you! You’re locked in here with me!”

Director Zack Snyder is obviously a fan of the comic, and he’s pretty good with cool images, with cool lines, with cool props, with cool fight scenes. He’s not so good with anything below the surface sheen. To coin the excellent phrase that m’good friend Lori used while we were comparing after-action reports last night, he’s respectful but not insightful. Almost without exception,every problem with Watchmen as a film can be traced back to one of those two traits – too much respect or not enough insight.

SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILM AND COMIC FROM HERE ON OUT. FAIR WARNING GIVEN.

The scene near the start of the film showing Dan Dreiberg visiting the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, is a decent example of showing too much respect for the source material. In the comic, Hollis plays a much bigger part, largely via the excerpts from his autobiography that make up the last few pages of the first three issues. We know him, we empathise with him, we’re upset when he gets killed, a shocking, saddening piece of collateral damage from Rorschach’s crusade. In the movie, Hollis gets that one short scene and is never heard from again. So if you’re not going to develop him as a character why include him at all? We don’t learn anything from the scene that couldn’t have just as easily been included in the (excellent) title montage that sums up the rise, fall and replacement of the Minutemen. The scene doesn’t serve any dramatic purpose so why does it exist? The answer: because it exists in the comic.

A smaller example is Bubastis. In the comic she’s a tiny bit of foreshadowing, an example of the genetic engineering that Ozymandias later uses to create the Space Squid Of Doom. In the film, she’s just a cool (and quite badly animated) pet. Why is she there? Because she was there in the comic.

Ozymandias was a major problem in general, in fact. In the comic he’s portrayed as a cross between John D. Rockerfeller, Bill Gates and Bono. He’s a media star, he’s a philanthropist. Yes, he’s a genius but he’s also approachable and down-to-earth. When the “assassination” attempt occurs, we hear a character saying “Who’d go after a guy like Veidt? He’s a real hero.” When it’s revealed that he’s behind the “mask killings” and then worse – much, much worse – it’s a kick in the gut that’s all the more savage for being totally unexpected.

In the film, he’s a stereotypically superior corporate kingpin. If he’s using his riches to do good works we never see it, beyond one rather nice little speech early on where he’s talking about infinite resources meaning an end to war driven by envy and hate with the twin towers of the World Trade Centre silhouetted behind him. We see him using people as human shields to avoid an attacker’s bullets. When it’s revealed that Veidt is behind the “mask killings” and worse our reaction is “yeah, he seemed the type”.

It feels almost as if the director’s started from the premise of Someone Capable Of Killing Millions To Save The World and worked backwards from there rather than appreciating the nuances of the character as written. In the book Ozymandias is a reflection of Rorschach – the latter is a character who we initially see as a despicable right-wing psychopath but gradually gain a measure of respect for. The former is a character who at first seems noble and sympathetic but who is revealed to be capable of unthinkable atrocity. That symmetry is lost in the film, as are plenty of other subtle parallels and juxtapositions and it’s the poorer experience for it. I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining that too much has been taken out in the transition from stage to screen, that’s not the issue at all. Almost the opposite in fact – the problem isn’t that Stuff Has Been Taken Out, it’s that the director’s primary concern appears to have been getting as much Stuff into the film as possible, with the structure that that Stuff hangs on a secondary concern.

This is a film that seems to have been made by someone who loves the book too much and understands it too little.

The director’s big stampy bootprints are uncomfortably visible all over the place, making sure that any layers are properly smashed flat. There’s no room for subtext, nothing’s allowed to be hinted at or implied. I could nit-pick any number of examples but I think one sums up Snyder’s approach perfectly. He’s perfectly fine with allowing Rorschach to speak the iconic line;

“No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.”

So long as he then adds:

“That’s the difference between you and me, Daniel.”

For CRYING OUT LOUD. YES. We KNOW that’s the difference between them, you’ve just spent TWO AND A HALF HUGGING HOURS SHOWING US that that’s the difference between them, this line is coming at the end of a scene where they’ve practically specifically DISCUSSED that that’s the difference between them, you’d need to have a MAJOR CONCUSSION not to realise that that’s the difference between them so WHY ON EARTH do you feel the need to SPELL OUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM, you ENORMOUS HACK?

Honestly, it’s “from my point of view the Jedi are evil!” all over again.

For all that, there was plenty of stuff to like. The look of the film is almost perfect, a couple of dodgy costumes and some extremely dodgy makeup aside. Rorschach is utterly fantastic, and his incarceration is one of the few sequences that the film abridges almost completely successfully – a lot of the detail is gone, but the shape is still right, it’s tense but romps along at a good pace and is comfortably the best section of the movie. Dr. Manhattan comes across as properly unearthly, the Comedian as properly brutal, Nite Owl as properly diffident. The Silk Spectre is OK, but didn’t display anything like the hatred for the Comedian that she shows in the book which rather undermined the Luke I Am Your Father revelation on Mars. The change to the ending is perfectly acceptable. The action scenes are pretty good, albeit over-reliant on slow-mo and maybe erring on the side of “whoa, cool!” a bit too often. 155 minutes shot by amazingly quickly.

I just wish I could have seen a Watchmen movie made by someone who didn’t seem as scared of the source material and the fanbase. I wish I could have seen a Watchmen movie that was more interested in the book’s themes than its look, with its steak rather than its sizzle. I wish I could have seen a Watchmen movie that complimented the comic rather than just trying to duplicate it. I wish I could have seen a Watchmen movie made by Paul Greengrass, basically.

Until that happens, we could do an awful lot worse than the Watchmen movie we’ve already got.

,

Alright. Alright. I promised not to bang on any more about how awesome Rock Band is. But when I said that, I had no idea  what songs were going to be made available for download next week.

Richard motherhugging Thompson. Oh, HELL YES.

It’s a slightly odd choice of song on the face of it – The Way That It Shows probably isn’t even one of the three best tracks from a fifteen-year-old album that most RT fans don’t regard as a classic (although personally I like it a lot). But it’s a decent selection for playing in Rock Band – it’s got a great bassline, I think that vocal will be surprisingly good fun (particularly the practically-clenched-teeth wailing in the second chorus) and it’s one of the relatively rare Thompson studio tracks to feature a big guitar solo.

There really seems to be a difference in the approach to downloadable tracks for Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band. Neversoft seem to think it’s more important to chase “scoops” and grab brand new songs of the new albums of name acts. Harmonix tend to focus more on having a wide representation of musical styles and, y’know. Good songs.

Obviously it’s a business decision above all, but to my eyes it’s a good one. Harmonix understand music and care about music. Between them, the first two Guitar Hero and Rock Band games must have introduced me to a dozen bands who’d previously either passed me by altogether or that I’d ignored because they played music I didn’t think I was into. It puts a huge smile on my face to think that someone, somewhere, is about to get exactly that same experience with a semi-obscure sixty year-old folk-rock guitarist who just happens to be one of the finest songwriters British music has ever produced.

Seriously. How cool is that?

(Although would a three-pack with Shoot Out The Lights and Can’t Win or bitterest-song-in-history When The Spell Is Broken have killed you? Also: seeing as you’re now apparently putting out tracks specifically to please me, can we have Another Girl, Another Planet next? Or a three-pack of monumentally stupid eighties stadium-goth shoutery by The Mish with Tower Of Strength, Wasteland and Deliverance? And some Up To Here-Fully Completely era Tragically Hip PLZKTHNXBAI!)

,

On rare occasions I’m accused of being just a little arrogant.

(Pauses for sounds of shocked disbelief).

Some people labour under the misapprehension that I’m incapable of seeing anyone’s point of view but my own, that I will generally respond to the assertion that it’s not possible for an opinion to be wrong with “Of course an opinion can be wrong. You’re in the process of proving it. Besides, if you held the opinion that gravity had stopped working and the moment you step ouside the door you’re going to float up to the ionosphere, that’s empirically and certifiably wrong. Stop wasting my time with this wishy-washy, well-on-the-other-hand, everyone’s-opinion-is-worth-the-same, walk-a-mile-in-the-other-fellow’s-shoes, being-right-isn’t-the-be-all-and-end-all claptrap.” 

In reality, this is only true ninety, maybe ninety-five percent of the time tops.

Obviously most of the time only a fool or a lunatic would disagree with my position – that anyone who can hear Higher And Higher by Jackie Wilson without smiling needs to be removed from the gene pool for the benefit of future generations for example, or that Jeff Sinclair was a far superior commander of Babylon 5 than Smilin’ John Sheridan. However, there are many, many (actually, not that many) subjects that I’m perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that my stated position could potentially be wrong and the rest of the world might be right.

For reference, please find below a full and complete listing of those opinions that may under the correct circumstances be negotiable:

  • Seinfeld isn’t funny.
  • The three best films directed by a Scott brother are, in order, Blade Runner, Top Gun, and Alien.
  • Gladiator is at least an hour too long.
  • The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is at least four hours too long.
  • Street Fighter II is boring.
  • And so is Halo 3.
  • Deep Space Nine wasn’t that bad. Certainly better than Next Gen.
  • Johnny Mnemonic is better than the last two Matrix movies.
  • Poison’s “Flesh & Blood” is one of the five best albums of the eighties.
  • Teen Wolf has one of the five best final scenes in cinema history.
  • Kebab pizza is lush.
  • It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s a rubbish film.
  • Led Zeppelin’s music is by and large ponderous, self-indulgent tosh.
  • Battlestar Galactica is filled with hateful characters and takes itself way too seriously.
  • Independence Day is filled with awesome characters and takes itself not even slightly seriously.
  • Playing king-three suited is lucky.
  • The Pylea story arc at the end of Angel’s second series was terrific fun.
  • Supporting more than one football team after the age of 9 is an indicator of weak moral character.
  • Rocky III is the best film in the series.
  • Empire Strikes Back is the worst film in the series, if you take the natural and sensible position that Episodes 1-3 didn’t happen.

Obviously, should you hold a dissenting position on any subject not covered   above then I regret to inform you that you’re completely incorrect and should adjust your thought processes accordingly.

You’re welcome.

,