"Pimp My Ride" Weekend, TMF

It could be argued by a man cleverer than I that capitalism breeds cynicism. I, for one, am pleased as punch that “Pimp My Ride” – an MTV programme given a whole weekend of themed programming this week by cable channel TMF – refutes this accusation strongly.

In writing this review, I must inform you that I am staving off the urge to make Dickensian analogies with regards to the premise of the show. A down-at-heel eccentric introduces us to their car, which is in desperate need of repair. Often, these people work in the community, and do not have money to spend on car repairs. The rapper Xzibit then meets the car-owner, who is generally overjoyed to see Xzibit. Hands are slapped, rappers are hugged. Xzibit says some funny things – he lambasts America for using duct tape to hold its cars together, and tells Americans to leave bodywork repairs to the professionals. He is full of attitude and charm.

He takes the car to West Coast Customs, a repair and customisation workshop. Here, a team of lovable car mechanics puts the car back together, repairing damaged bodywork, replacing missing parts, and restoring classic cars to their former glory.

But they do a bit more than that.

“Needless ostentation” is the name of the game here, people, and these mechanics add literally thousands of pounds worth of gold, bling, leather interiors, electrics, LCD-screens, and speakers to the car. Of particular note is the loving attention given to tyres and “rims” (hubcaps); things you only hear about when they get namechecked in rap lyrics. Also, as part of the customisation, personal information about the car owner is transmogrified into… well, into complete lunacy. A man who likes bowling has a bowling ball cleaner and automated shoe rack installed in his boot. A man who is training to be a mechanic has a TV put underneath his car, so he can watch TV whilst repairing it. Someone – I forget who – has a log fire put in the back of their car – I forget why. A student has an espresso machine installed in their armrest. It’s very silly.

Whilst the customisation process is going on, we get to meet and learn to love the mechanics, including my favourite, Ish, who mumbles in a Latino accent and does a lot of work with fabrics. There is also a man called Big Dane, whose job is “Accessories”. At one point, whilst customising a bowling ball for the bowling guy, he yells at the camera “You’ll be KILLING THEM!” in a way that is hilarious, and not at all threatening.

Finally, the car owner is brought in, their car is revealed, they scream, they leap about, hands are slapped, rappers are hugged. They are shown around their car and then they drive it away.

Their “ride” has been “pimped”.

Now, I generally loathe cars. I can’t drive, I know nothing about them; I once watched an episode of “Top Gear” and nearly slipped into an anaphylactic coma. However, this show takes something really boring and ugly – car repairs – and raises it to not only excellent TV, but also amazing creations; turning old and decrepit, to new. MTV’s “Cribs”, where we get to see around rich people’s houses, offers only a voyeuristic view of the “bling” lifestyle, whereas “Pimp My Ride” says “This life of ridiculous wastefulness can be yours, too”.

The reason I find this show so affecting is that it is so rare that altruism has been celebrated so joyously. The premise of the show, at its most fundamental level, is that people get given presents. Everyone loves to see people get presents, and this show is like watching someone give thousands of pounds out to complete strangers.

One episode I watched had a suitably manipulative viewpoint. The car owner was a community youth leader. His car was horrible. He said that if the kids on the street saw him in a bad car, and then saw a drug dealer with a good car, then he was fighting a losing battle. At the end of the show, he said “This is proof that if you are good, good things happen to you”. And, I must admit, my cynicism was defeated by that.

Now, there are deeper concerns here, not least how much insurance MTV pay so that when these “pimped rides” return to the scuzzy neighbourhoods they aren’t propped up on a pile of bricks within half an hour. The show is a reflection of a certain America – a nation where a person is judged by the car they drive, where hope comes in a golden ticket, where money is there to be wasted, where the way to happiness lies in expenditure. However, in terms of raw exuberance, intelligent artistry and a lot of stupidity, “Pimp My Ride” is an entertaining half-hour.*

* Or, thanks to TMF, an entertaining two-and-a-half hours of back-to-back “Pimp My Ride”. Sweet.

Fantastic Four

In the near future, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) of the Von Doom corporation agrees to fund the space research programme of the bankrupt Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and his lunky friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) into a cosmic storm of interesting scientific proportions. Matters are complicated by the fact that Von Doom is now both employing and dating Richards’ ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and assigns Storm’s brother, Johnny (Chris Evans… no, not that Chris Evans) to pilot the mission, much to the chagrin of his ex-NASA superior Grimm.

On the space station, the cosmic storm arrives way ahead of schedule, irradiating Richards, Grimm, Storm and Storm, as well as Von Doom, who is also on the space station for some reason.

Arriving back on Earth, it is revealed that they have been given super powers. Johnny Storm can set his body on fire at will, Sue Storm can become invisible at will, Reed Richards can stretch his body at will, and Ben Grimm becomes a massive orange latex man. His superpower is that he is massive and strong and no longer has any ears. Together the four save some NEW YORK FIREFIGHTERS GOD BLESS THEM from falling off a bridge, and they are lauded as heroes. This is because if you do anything nice to a NEW YORK FIREFIGHTER in this POST 9/11 CLIMATE you are IMMEDIATELY A FRIEND OF NEW YORK AND AGAINST TERROR.

Von Doom also changes. He can now control electricity, because his body is turning into metal. He is also now bankrupt because of the failure of the space mission, and because he never got to ask Sue to marry him, ergo he is pissed off, ergo he is homicidal, ergo he is the supervillain Doctor Doom. Although never referred to as such. He attempts to break up the Fantastic Four by turning Ben Grimm back into a human, and by shooting a heatseeking missile at Johnny Storm. He also kidnaps Reed Richards and freezes him, but I can’t remember why.

Anyway, the whole thing culminates in some sort of culmination and NEW YORK has a NEW PROTECTION AGAINST TERROR in the family superhero antics of the Fantastic Four.

Where Batman Begins was life-threateningly serious, this is – like most comic books – for the kids. Dealing with a very vocal minority of comic-reading dudes on the internet must now be in the Top Five of “Hollywood Producers’ irritating day-to-day trials”, along with getting the cocaine out of their carpets, and the tendency in recent years has been to make everything adult, everything explained, everything psychological and “dark” and not very much fun. What the producers of “Fantastic Four” have attempted is to make light, frothy, family entertainment, that’ll sell some action figures and some lunchboxes.

The trouble is, the film is totally bobbins.

To start with, the characters are bland, bland, bland. The key parental figures of Reed and Sue are given pretty much bugger all to do. Johnny Storm is reasonably cheeky and mischievous, but is a one-note character. The “back-story” that “haunts” Ben Grimm – his fiancee, running around the Bronx in a negligee, rejects Grimm now he’s turned into a massive orange rock man – is so hammily set-up and so pathetically dealt with, that he remains just an hilarious massive orange rock man, and not the Cyrano De Bergerac that the producers would have wished. (There’s a scene where his fiancee puts their engagement ring on the ground, and walks away, and Grimm can’t pick it up because of his massive rock fingers. It’s not tragic, or even interesting. It’s kind of comic.)

The dialogue is workmanlike at best, wisecracky and horrible at worst. “Look at me,” demands the Invisible Girl. “I can’t,” joshes Mr Fantastic. It’s like that for 90 minutes. The direction is there somewhere, but who knows where? Director Tim Story made his name on the “Barbershop” movie series, starring Ice Cube, so that’s the level we’re dealing with.

So, I suppose this film is entertaining, but it matches that entertainment pound-for-pound with being facile and stupid. It’s a bit like the “Lost In Space” remake in tone, but without the acting calibre of William Hurt, Gary Oldman, even Matt Le Blanc, and without the story, or set-ups, or direction. Or effects.

There is, therefore, no reason to go and see this film, unless you are a 6-year-old boy. And even then, you’d probably sit around for an hour after it, drinking milkshakes and picking holes in its story. Ah, what a life…

Crash

Paul Haggis, the writer-director-producer-songwriter of “Crash”, also created the Chuck Norris TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger” and the “kindly mountie in America” series “Due South”. I mention these to place this film in its appropriate, lowbrow context. “Crash” is the sort of film that rather desperately wants to be edgy and provocative, but never quite earns the plump portentousness that wobbles onto the screen.

Confusingly sharing a title with the leg-shagging JG Ballard adaptation, “Crash” is a look at racial stereotypes and attitudes in contemporary Los Angeles. Narratively, the film comes from the “more is more” tradition of “Magnolia” and “Love, Actually”. Roughly thirty stories (roughly) weave in and out of each other, building up a picture of confusing times in American race relations:-

Black people are no longer slaves, white people are confused about this.

Except it’s more complicated than this; white people hate black people, black people hate white people, black people hate other black people, white people hate Hispanic and Persian people because they’re a bit like black people, Persian people hate locksmiths and insurance representatives, and white people hate themselves.

So, it’s not really that much more complicated. In fact, it’s much, much more simple. Everyone hates everybody else.

The film begins with a rather noble speech by the great Don Cheadle:- “In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” LA is obviously meant to be a character in the film, but it comes across as a rather horrible character, a huge uncle that sits in the corner of the room and really depresses you. In this way, “Crash” is an excellent advert for upping sticks and moving to a “free love” hippy commune in the middle of nowhere, where you can just, you know, get along with people.

In this film, everything is ‘complicated’, and the film wears its ‘complicated’ colours with pride. Two young black men have an intelligent discussion about how they represent educated black youth, and how white people in the upper-class area they find themselves in should not be afraid of them, and THEN STEAL A CAR! A rich white woman is openly dismissive of her Hispanic home-help, and THEN SAYS THAT SHE’S THE ONLY FRIEND SHE HAS! A black police officer is offered a promotion BECAUSE HE’S BLACK and then is blackmailed into saying something against some guy BECAUSE THE GUY IS WHITE and if the police officer doesn’t say it, HIS BROTHER WILL BE TOTALLY ARRESTED because HE’S BLACK and his MOTHER IS ON DRUGS and HAS NO GROCERIES! This constant pride in being ‘complicated’ is exceptionally wearing. This is even before we get to the racist white policeman rescuing a black woman he had previously molested from a fire, which could probably have been a fun episode of “Due South”.

Rather than being insightful, the film’s fragmented narrative allows some really sloppy writing. Characters are reduced to stereotypes, as they need to be brought in quickly and finished quickly. Stories tend to follow a pattern:- the person is unhappy, they are shot or they shoot somebody, they are more unhappy as a result. The story that resonated most for me was the deeply odd story about the Persian man trying to get his revenge on a locksmith, but that wasn’t really about racial tension, it was more about the trials of being a locksmith. Quid pro quo.

One fortunate thing that the film does is make you not hate its cast. If someone suggested you went to see a film with Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Thandie Newton, you’d probably expect a horribly bland comedy, but none of these are given much time to be offensive. Don Cheadle is welcomingly passive, and there’s a standout performance by the rapper Ludacris, who has a nice speech about how hip-hop demeans black people. Oooh. Irony. Apparently Tony Danza from “Taxi” and the woman who plays Deanna Troi are also in this film. I have no idea where.

So, yes. “Crash”. I probably enjoyed it more than watching someone shagging a leg, but I enjoyed it less than “The Wedding Crashers”, which – considering how important the film wanted to be – is a rather damning state of affairs.