TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2012

Shows which were listed in the 2010 or 2011 pieces on this topic are disqualified from a repeat nomination. I’ll probably lift the moratorium next year, on a rolling three-year basis, so that the 2010 shows – or. at least, any of them that are still being screened (Caprica, Spooks and 24 have already gone, with Fringe on its last series and The IT Crowd likely not returning either) – will be eligible to repeat. But, for now, here are ten more of the best pieces of televisiual entertainment to have graced our screens in the last 12 months.
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The Death Of Copyright

I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue – or rather by vice – of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.
— John Philip Sousa, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” 1906

The latest copyright discussion to break out on the Internet was the result of a post on the NPR radio blog by one of their interns, Emily White, entitled I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With, in which she says she has purchased about 15 CDs in her life. Here’s the crux of what she said:

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience. What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?

Seems like it was for some people

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Hitman: Absolution, and The Boy Who Cried “Rape!”

Oh, boy. Here we go again. Another day, another moral guardian pops up to condemn a game. Except, here, we’re not even talking about an actual game – just a trailer for one. I heard about this through a Google News alert, which brought me to this article on Forbes.

The blogosphere has tried the Hitman: Absolution trailer and it has been found guilty. In it, a group of female assassin’s dressed as hyper-sexualized nuns are brutally murdered by the ultra-masculine 47. It’s juvenile, brutal, an affirmation of every problem that video games have with women and an affirmation of the worst aspects of our culture.

I’ve never played Hitman – I saw the movie, which largely sucked, and think I spent a post-Thanksgiving sloth watching our son try to get through a mission.I seem to recall falling asleep, though that may have been as much the turkey overdose  as the game.  But, ooh! “An affirmation of the worst aspects of our culture”! I wanna see! Oh, dammit: I’m on my lunch-break. Better wait till I get home.

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Tentacle Bento And The Futility of Censorship

It was 25 years ago that Urotsukidōji was released, and slowly seeped its way over to the West, on a variety of dodgy, Nth-generation bootleg copies whose resemblance to a snuff movie in terms of quality, only enhanced the feeling that what you were watching was extremely wrong. But, it appears, tentacles and schoolgirls remain a combination capable of creating controversy, as Soda Pop Miniatures found out.

This small, independent company decided, for their next project, to make a card game called Tentacle Bento, and get funding for it through Kickstarter, a favourite site for fundraising projects outside the normal scope of business. According to the official description,  “Each game puts you in the enviable position of being a horrid, tentacle flailing, slime oozing monster from outer space.  Cleverly disguised (of course) as an adorable, and newly enrolled student at Takoashi University, an all-girls school nestled in scenic Japan.”

Kickstarter didn’t object. The project rolled along merrily, raising funds and hitting its goals. And then, perhaps inevitably, the morality police got word and, for want of a better phrase, the shits hit the fans…

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Thank you, Jessica Hahn

End of the month time, so I checked the stats for the site, see how many people have been stumbling across my deathless prose – or, more likely, doing a Google Images search for dubious pictures [Hey, hits are hits, right?] Normally, there’s about 200-300 per day, not really varying too much. But then I looked at the graph for February…

One of these things is not like the other…


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In Support of Ethical Piracy

My name’s Jim, and I am an ethical pirate. The music and film industry would have you believe that downloading “their” material is wrong, an approach best summed up as “Piracy is stealing, mkay?” But, the reality of it is, that the morality is a great deal less clear-cut. Here, courtesy of an interesting series of articles, well ahead of the curve, from David Pogue are some hypothetical scenarios, all of which describe what is technically piracy. How many of them do you think are morally wrong?

  • I own a certain CD, but it got scratched. So I borrow the same CD from the library and rip it to my computer.
  • I have 2,000 vinyl records. So I borrow some of the same albums on CD from the library and rip those.
  • I buy a DVD. But I’m worried about its longevity, so I make a safety copy.
  • I meant to record a movie – perfectly legal – but my recorder malfunctioned. My buddy recorded it, so I copy his DVD
  • I meant to record a movie, but my recorder malfunctioned and I don’t have a buddy who recorded it. So I rent the movie from Blockbuster and copy that.

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Is pro wrestling art?

We went to WWE Smackdown here in Phoenix on Tuesday night, and had a thoroughly good time – over four hours of entertainment, accompanied by pyrotechnics so loud they had Chris covering her ears. The televised main event saw straightedge bad-guy champion CM Punk (left) beat fan favourite Matt Hardy, in a ‘loser leaves WWE’ steel-cage match. The result wasn’t a surprise to us – previous events had made it fairly clear Punk would be fighting the iconic Undertaker at the next pay-per-view, so it seemed very unlikely he’d lose. But when we watched the show on TV on Friday, we were surprised to see some fans in the audience crying after Hardy lost.

Now, it’d be easy to mock those fans, going the cheap route and rolling out the tired old cliches about them not believing that wrestling is staged [I use that word carefully, and would never call wrestling “fake” – especially not the same week a wrestler we know died, apparently the result of taking too much pain medication]. However, that would also mean those who cry at sad movies should be similarly criticized for failing to distinguish reality from entertainment: despite what Titanic might say, Leonardo DiCaprio is not really dead. A capacity to produce the emotional reaction desired by the creator is one of the key definitions of an art-form, even if that emotion perhaps comes from the lizard part of the brain, such as when you get 15,000 people to chant “You suck!” in unison.

It’s somewhat similar to the long ongoing debate about whether video games should considered as ‘art’ or not, which has been a topic for discussion since Jack Kroll wrote in a 2000 issue of Newsweek that “Games can be fun and rewarding in many ways, but they can’t transmit the emotional complexity that is the root of art.” That was almost a decade ago, and technology has certainly advanced massively since. However, many remain unconvinced: there’s an interesting debate between Roger Ebert and Clive Barker on this topic, and I do have to say, I have never had any significant reaction to a video-game. A certain poignancy in the middle of Final Fantasy VII; some slight dread while engrossed in Doom. Then again, I have never had any significant reaction to sculpture either.

Computer game designer Tim Schafer said, “Art is about creatively expressing thoughts or emotions that are hard or impossible to communicate through literal, verbal means,” and that’s a definition that could well be applied to the largely non-verbal world of professional wrestling. Sure, the cutting of a promo is part of the medium, but it’s what happens after the bell rings that really matters. Then, you’re watching a morality play unfold, a struggle between good and evil for supremacy – though evil may triumph over good, or ‘normal’ notions of what is “good” may be reversed. See Punk vs. Hardy for an example: Punk doesn’t smoke, drink or abuse medications, but by putting across a “better than you” in-ring persona, he has become the ‘heel’.

Like all media, it’s probably necessary to accept that there is a spectrum in effect. Not all films can be truly considered as art – or at least, successful art. Movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space certainly provoke emotions in the viewer, but you can’t really claim that Ed Wood was aiming for derisive laughter in his audience.  Similarly, you can’t lump together all pro wrestling as a whole, but need to accept that there is good and bad. You also need to realize that no match happens in isolation: they are pieces in a carefully-constructed storyline laid out episodically over the preceding weeks and months. Like any good soap opera, the more you watch, the more you get out of it. The casual viewer simply won’t be able to appreciate it anywhere as much.

An example of the best kind of wrestling would be the match at the last Wrestlemania, in Houston, between the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels (left and right respectively, above). A knowledge of the back-history involved was crucial. Undertaker had a remarkable record of 16-0 in previous Wrestlemanias [sure, we’re talking pre-determined results, but the mere fact that he has been deemed a credible winner every time since his debut in 1991, is still hugely impressive] On the other hand, he had never beaten Michaels, one-on-one. We’re also talking two of the most unquestionably charismatic performers in the field – I’m not sure why WWE have never tried to use Undertaker in a horror Western, as he’d be perfect.

Their struggle on this night was a marvelous example of story-telling through physical theatre, the pace of the encounter ebbing and flowing over forty minutes as well as any movie could hope to do, even though there were no titles at stake here.  It built to a crescendo where each man pulled out their signature moves, only to see the opponent refuse to succumb. Finally, the Undertaker delivered a second Tombstone Piledriver [a move you’d better hope is staged, because if you don’t do it right, you will break someone’s neck] and took the victory, running his Wrestlemania record to 17-0.

Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” If not a classical art, there’s no doubt that, by this definition, professional wrestling  qualifies: the skill involved certainly cannot be questioned, and if the imagination shown in the storylines is occasionally…well, let’s just say ‘somewhat excessive’, it’s equally undeniable. If you want a shared experience, then a wrestling show is more interactive and less passive than almost any other. Indeed, without the fans there would be no show; the spectators become part of creating the art, their reactions becoming part of the collective artistic experience.

Wrestlemania 26 comes to Phoenix next March. I’m not expecting any art critics from the local papers to attend alongside us, but it’s going to be an experience which we certainly wouldn’t miss for anything.


The Death of Laserdisc

discIt came quietly at the start of the year – not with a bang, followed by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Just a two-line notice in the Akihabara Times, quoting a press release on the Pioneer website [I presume, anyway – the second link is in Japanese, so I’m going on faith with that one]:

This is a sad day for all LD (Laser Disc) fans… Pioneer is stopping the production of their three latest LD players, the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88… For your information, Pioneer sold over 3.6 Million LD players in Japan from 1981 to 2002.

I must confess, my first thought on this was not dissimilar to my first thought on hearing about The Wrestler: “I didn’t know he was still alive.” If asked, I’d probably have said that the last player rolled off the production lines in Japan at least five years ago, probably longer. But no: though the release of software pretty much petered out not long after the new millennium, laserdisc lasted for over three decades, with more than 360 million units sold. Do you think we’ll still be watching DVDs thirty years after their arrival? I sincerely doubt it.

LDs were for the truly hardcore cinephile. Hell, I started buying discs before I even owned a player: I think the first one I got was Cat People, and had to get Lino to dupe it down to tape for me. Even though it was widescreen, this did somewhat negate the point. The 420 lines of resolution they offered may seem weak now, compared to Blu-Ray’s 720, but they kicked the arse of VHS’s 250. However, there was a price to pay for this, and it came in the form of cold, hard cash. Very few laserdiscs were made in Britain, so you almost inevitably had to rely on imports, mostly from the US, but occasionally from Hong Kong or Japan. Those movie fairs held at places like the Electric Ballroom in Camden, were goldmines for these, but some of the shops on Tottenham Court Road had a few, and there were also the Cinema Store, Psychotronic Video and Eastern Heroes, who all had their moments.

These were of extremely dubious legality, since none of the imports had been passed by the BBFC; even if there were no cuts, the higher frame-rate for NTSC made the running-time different, ergo they were uncertificated. Most stores got around this by slapping stickers on them, though I vaguely recall the late, unlamented [due to their horrific over-pricing] Tower Records getting into trouble for adopting this technique. And, like most things illegal, they weren’t cheap: the most I recall paying for a single disk, was 65 quid for a copy of Flying Daggers, though there may have been a Yellow Magic Orchestra LD – from Tower, natch – that was a little higher. If you paid less than twenty pounds for a movie in Great Britain, you were doing really well.

The player will show in this paragraph
A promo film Devo did for laserdiscs

As a result of these cost and availability issues, there were overseas buying trips – most commonly to the USA, but I also recall trips to Paris, and raiding stores such as FNAC. Back in 1998, on the final leg in New York, I spent an entire afternoon in the Virgin Megastore, going through their complete stock. I ended up with so many discs, that I had to take a taxi back to the hotel. No matter the haul, all these shopping-sprees ended in basically the same way. Who can forget the ripple of fear as you approached HM Customs at Gatwick, staggering under the weight of uncertificated material? Or the thrill as you exited the ‘Nothing to Declare’ channel to freedom, intent on subverting the very fabric of British civilization with your uncut copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Of course, you could order discs by mail, and enjoy the delightful game of Postal Roulette that followed. Would they arrive intact? Would they arrive at all? To this day, one of the highlights of my life remains getting HM C+E to cough up compensation, after they badly scratched a disc during one of their Naziesque inspections.

Laserdiscs were simply so much cooler than videotapes, coming as they did with extra features – again, this is now something we take for granted with DVD [“No in-depth interview with the costume designer? Wot kind of ‘special edition’ is this?”], but it opened up a whole glorious vista of experience, since VHS rarely had anything apart from the movie. The director’s commentaries were the bomb: a good one would be like having the people concerned sitting beside you, drinking a beer and telling you about the movie. Escape From New York, with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter pointing out each other’s ex-wives, would be a classic example. And much as I hate Quentin Tarantino, his and Robert Rodriguez’s chat on From Dusk Till Dawn, with input from Greg Nicotero, is another that highlights the possibilities offered by the medium.

I still watch my discs occasionally – most recently, Basic Instinct, only a couple of weeks back [Paul Verhoeven is another commentary master]. I have to admit, the video quality does look a bit dodgy, especially on a large screen, which are much more common now than they were at the time. But there’s something about a laserdisc which is more physical than a DVD, in much the same way that a vinyl LP offers more scope for design than a CD. Some of the box-sets that were released were simply phenomenal: Toy Story and Hellraiser are the first couple that come to mind, and occupy an honoured spot on the bookshelves in TC Towers. Criterion also did some impressive work, but their sets always seemed over-priced, even by the standards of the medium; I think the only one of theirs I ever got was Hard Boiled.

Laserdisc never became more than a fringe market in the West; in echoes of the VHS/Betamax battle, the technically-inferior videotape won. Though to be honest, it was never much of a battle, LD failing to capture more than a couple of percent of the market, due to various criticisms, valid or otherwise. “You can’t record on it.” “What? Turn the disc over in the middle?” “They keep falling off my record-player.” And when DVD arrived – much though I tried to deny it – I knew in my heart that it sounded the death-knell for laserdisc. However, with two bookcases, still stacked more or less floor to ceiling with the damn things, they may be gone but certainly aren’t forgotten, at least hear in TC Towers. Let’s just hope our player soldiers on for the next thirty years.

[Thanks to Alex M for being the bearer of these sad tidings!]

In Praise of Narwhals

lolwhalI don’t normally hold much common ground with the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd, but even I have to admit that evolution is hard-pushed to explain the existence of the narwhal – to me, it seems not just proof of the existence of god, but that he/she possesses a twisted sense of humour. It’s the kind of animal that could only have been invented at the tail-end of a long college party, when it seemed like a good idea to outfit a marine mammal with a corkscrew on its nose. Narwhals should consider themselves fortunate that their creator apparently fell asleep, before deciding to add a can-opener and a pair of scissors to their other end.

While initially merely amused by narwhals, the more I learned, the more I realized that they fall into the category of “unjustly overlooked.” Dolphins get all the cetacean press, but all they really have to offer is a smile like Lindsay Lohan leaving court after a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Narwhals are much, much cooler, truly equipped to be the ultimate party animals (far surpassing dolphins, and their bottle-noses). That horn can be over nine feet in length., and when Queen Elizabeth I was presented with one in 1588, by privateer Martin Frobisher, she placed on it a value of ten times the horn’s weight in gold. Suck on that, Flipper.

Actually, it’s not a ‘horn’ as such, but a tooth that grows through a hole in the narwhal’s upper lip. The narwhal has two; almost always, it’s the left-hand one that expands out, but occasionally, the right tooth won’t get that message, leading to a rare, bi-pronged narwhal. The British Museum reportedly has one – no word on whether this leads to some kind of tusk envy among others of its pod. [Hence the saying, “As happy as a narwhal with two horns.”] The actual purpose of it remains a mystery, which is part of the animal’s appeal: obvious uses like fighting or punching holes through the Arctic ice, just don’t seem to happen.

However, in 2005, scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology took a look at it through an electron microscope. They discovered 10 million nerve endings going from the core outward, and believe the horn is basically a massive sensory organ, that can detect changes in temperature, pressure, etc. It’s almost like the tooth is built in reverse, with the nerves on the outside, causing The New York Times to call the appendage, “one of the planet’s most remarkable.” When the whales break the surface, waving their horns around, it may be the equivalent of us licking a finger to tell which way the wind’s blowing, to help predict the weather.

narwhal2Really, not much of a “Mystery” Whale, is it?

The name translates from Old Norse as “corpse-like whale,” describing the whale’s mottled black and white skin – those Old Norsemen were clearly not exactly observant, apparently managing, when naming the beast, to miss that whole F-sized tusk thing. The Inuits got it right, calling the narwhal Qilalugaq qernartaq – no, I didn’t just fall asleep on the keyboard – which translates to mean, “the one that points to the sky.” It’s generally thought that narwhals are involved in the unicorn myth. This is somewhat hard to swallow: I mean, if I was cruising the arctic seas and saw one, my first thought would hardly be, “Look! A horse with a horn on its head. We need a virgin to catch it.” However, these were the same sailors who apparently confused manatees with Darryl Hannah, when Rosie O’Donnell would have made more sense. So I suppose anything is possible.

One thing is certain. Narwhals combine style and function, mystery and grace, intelligence and strength, in a way that lesser species would kill for. They may, arguably, be quite the coolest animals on the planet.

whales_came_02When the Whales Came
Clive Rees
Star: Max Rennie, Helen Pearce, Paul Scofield, Helen Mirren

Narwhal fans are not exactly well-served by the cinema. As in most of culture, it’s damn dolphins that get all the coverage, going back to the 1916 silent film, The Fate of the Dolphin. Since then, we’ve had Flipper, Day of the Dolphin and even Touched by a Bleedin’ Dolphin. In contrast, the most well-known cinematic moment for the poor narwhals, is a ten-second cameo in Elf. But this 1989 film, while less renowned, contains significantlyl more tusky goodness – though it takes its time getting there. We were drawn in by a two-line synopsis that mentioned two of our favourite things: narwhals, and mobs of villagers. However, that really only occupies a small part of the film, albeit the climactic moments.

It’s set around World War I on the Scilly Isles, off the coast of Cornwall, on an island where the inhabitants largely survive by scavenging from whatever the sea throws up on the beach. Two children, Daniel and Gracie (Rennie and Pearce), befriend a reclusive old man (Scofield), whom the rest of the local treat with a mix of fear, suspicion and derision, because of his trips to the cursed, now-deserted nearby islet of Samson. He’s known as “The Birdman”, because he carves exquisite birds out of driftwood. That’s what attracts Daniel, who wants to learn the art partly as an escape valve from his abusive father. Gracie has no father at all, since he went off to join the navy, so she’s being brought up by her struggling mother (Mirren).

An ill-fated fishing expedition by the kids lands them on Samson, where they find a narwhal tusk over the fireplace in one of the abandoned houses. Back on their own land, they find some locals suspect the Birdman of being a German spy, because of the beacon fires he sets, and set out to make him pay. However, he is more pre-occupied with a narwhal which has beached itself on the shore, and tells Gracie and Daniel it must be returned to the sea, before it brings the rest of its pod ashore behind it – an act that would bring doom to this island, as it did to Samson. Which is where the mob of villagers comes in…

whales_came_01In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that, I believe, narwhals are very rarely stranded on the British coast [only four instances have been recorded since the days of Good Queen Bess], so the concept here is probably, ah, on thin ice, zoologically-speaking. Though the massacre of narwhals in large numbers, sadly, still goes on: late last year, up in Canada, at least 600 were killed by locals after getting hemmed in by ice. I’d be more inclined to take claims of this being a native tradition seriously, if snowmobiles and semi-automatic weapons weren’t apparently involved, and the media kept away. Happy to use the tools of modern civilization; not so willing to leave your questionable “harvests” behind, or face public opinion when the world sees what’s going on.

Back to the film. It’s an idea that works very nicely, both as a metaphor for the war – we note the prominence given to a narwhalesque spiked German helmet in the local school – and as a reverential acknowledgment that narwhals have a mystical quality, perhaps more so than any other aquatic mammal. The movie is certainly helped by a strong performance from Scofield, and very natural ones by the two children, against a marvelously scenic backdrop. The pace is relaxed, to say the least – those, like us, lured in with the promise of narwhals, will likely find themselves looking at their watches. But as an unhurried, Sunday morning kind of a film, it certainly has some charm.

[January 2009]

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Twilight’s Last Gleaming

The film only opened on Friday, but I have already had it up to here with the cinematic incarnation of Stephenie Meyer’s massively-selling doses of what should probably be called “teen fangst”. I can’t honestly claim to have read the entire book on which the movie is based, but I’ve read enough – for reasons which I’ll get to shortly – to be able to label it as sub-Anne Rice hokum, aimed at undiscerning teenagers with no literary taste, in search of something undemanding to read in between updating their MySpace profiles and writing really bad poetry. It’s not “bad”, per se: though quotes such as “He unleashed the full, devastating power of his eyes on me, as if trying to communicate something crucial,” might make you think otherwise. But it’s just phenomenally mediocre.

Which may explain its popularity. Cinema can be phenomenally successful without sacrificing art: Lord of the Rings would be a great example there, and if you look at other winners over the past twenty years, they include such box-office successes as Gladiator, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Dances With Wolves and Silence of the Lambs. However, the list of best-selling books over the same period is basically Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. While I confess to enjoying the former [and even the latter, to a certain extent], any similarity they may have to Great Literature is purely coincidental. Even further down the list, where you find things like The Bridges of Madison County or The Lovely Bones, you won’t find Nobel or Booker Prize wnners.

I will admit that a copy of Twilight can be found in TC Towers. It was bought for a curious Chris earlier in the year, and she did read it, though doesn’t like being reminded of the fact, and pulls unpleasant faces whenever the author’s name comes up. It’s particularly galling to her, I think, that the idea is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ones. Not that vampires at high-school is exactly ground-breaking. Josh Whedon would be quick to remind you, he took the whole “high-school as hell” metaphor to its literal interpretation, beginning with the movie in 1992. All Meyer has really done is take the Buffy-Angel scenario seriously, and beef up the drooling adjective count by several orders of magnitude.

It has some local resonance too, as Meyer lives her in Phoenix – just up the road in Cave Creek, actually – and went to the same high school as our kids. But perhaps most irritating is the fact that she’s a Mormon. Not that I have anything against Mormons, as such. But there seems something sacrilegious about one of God’s chosen people using the undead to make serious bank. Though it is easy to see the parallels between Edward and Bella, and the restraint they have to show in their relationship and the sexual restraint preached by the church. The irony is that Meyer was inspired to write the books by a dream – just as Joseph Smith was inspired to start the religious faith by a dream…er, divine vision. Why can I get to have dreams that generate quite the same level of revenue?

Typically, it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone who provide the most fitting commentary on the current fad. In the latest episode of South Park, the local Goths get upset at all the vampire wannabes that start showing up in school because it’s become cool. They abduct the leader of the vampire cult, and send him off to the most horrible, and miserable place on Earth.” That would be, according to the response, Scottsdale. Living in 85254 [Scottsdale zip-code, but legally in Phoenix] I am not inclined to argue. In the end – and I hope I am not spoiling this for anyone – they destroy the wannabes by burning down their lair. Or ‘Hot Topic’ as you or I might know it.

Still, in protest at the dumbing-down of the vampire to PG-13 sexlessness, we will be watching an example of the genre tonight – and one about as far from Twilight as can be imagined…

Screw you, Stephenie Meyer!