Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Light Fantastic

Today is the final opportunity to see Wellington's waterfront
(and Laneways) in a new light.

'Square Things' by Johann Nortje

Devised in 2011, the Wellington Lux Light festival has grown each year, to a full thirty exhibits glowing for the last time tonight. (a Lux, incidentally, is a unit of luminosity, and not indicative that the festival might be sponsored by a soap company).
We first saw the spectacular displays last year, and were particularly taken by this exhibit, apparently based on cherry blossom.  We'd stand with night-time crowds on the corner of Frank Kitts Lagoon mesmerised by the swaying globes and their shifting, undulating colours.

One of the highlights of last years festival.

Fortunately for us, but definitely not for the festival, Wellington was then ravaged by a two day storm, the worst in decades, which probably added some of the vulnerable exhibits to its list of damage.  This year the festival was extended to ten days , and came with the new criterion that the exhibits needed to be able to withstand 140kmh winds.
Although necessary, this does seem to have created a chunkier, more industrial look to many of the displays, in place of the more intricate and organic structures of last year.

A notable exception is this 'light raft' ( nZwarm by the Advanced Architecture Laboratory and Augmented Senses Group) anchored in the lagoon which swirls and ripples with colour like some vast bioluminescent sea creature.

Probably most spectacular is the Bridge of Light (Angus Muir Design), already lit all year round with 'lightsabre-like' blue rods beneath it's span, it has blazed with colour over the past ten days.

As a free and spectacular experience, the Lux Light festival makes braving the chilly darkness more than worthwhile, brightening up the Wellington winter in every way.  Highly recommended.
(photography by R Hughes)

Monday, 25 August 2014

Catching Breath

In the reversal of a theme much-used by Doctor Who in recent years, the young man in an older man's body is back at last.

I haven't written about Doctor Who in ages.  Last year, or specifically its last couple of months, was a very special time to be a fan (who but the media ever calls us Whovians?), and I certainly thrashed that particular drum on this blog.  The fiftieth anniversary of a programme which forms my very earliest memories and has provided landmarks for my life ever since will do that to you. But since February, and the amazing Symphonic Spectacular, things have gone very quiet.  I must confess I hadn't even watched any Who since last year's Christmas special - unheard of!

The post anniversary wait for the new series has been the longest since the programme returned in 2005, and probably quite necessarily so.  Barely any news for months, the TARDIS standing dark and still, but beneath this dormancy was always an inextinguishable ember of excitement - that when our programme returned, the Doctor would be Peter bloody Capaldi!

I've already written that I've been a fan of his for decades, and I quickly found I wasn't alone. This was a new situation to be in - the new Doctor was already an internationally-recognised star, and an actor experienced, respected and quirky enough to have no detractors, certainly none that I've ever met or heard, at any rate.
Capaldi's from Glasgow, he's a star of my own favourite film of all time (Local Hero), he's already given brilliant guest performances in both Doctor Who and Torchwood and been a fan of the Doctor all his life. For the first time I had absolutely no doubts or anxieties about this new Doctor - he was going to be brilliant.

The first publicity shots of Capaldi in costume pack a hefty wallop of deja vu.
So the first spoiler in this review of his first episode is - yes, of course Peter Capaldi is a fantastic Doctor, the whole world knew he would be.
I saw Deep Breath at the movies; the completely full but delightfully cosy Lighthouse cinema in Petone (the capacious seats even have cushions!) on a grey, wintery Sunday afternoon.  Whole families took up the better part of entire rows and once again several generations were represented from greying veterans to excited nippers.  Somehow it felt like being in the biggest living room ever, an extension of the 'safe' room that we all used to watch Doctor Who from with our own families, when we were little.

The new Doctor goes fourth!
To begin, I'm going to skip to the end, and the brief 'making of' documentary which screened immediately afterward the episode itself (such amazing value!)
In a clip from an interview, writer Steven Moffat confesses anxiety about a particular scene.  His concern is that the new Doctor and companion Clara are in quite a long sequence where they are just sitting and talking.  Fret not, Mr Moffat, to me, this very scene signaled a refreshing gear change which is both welcome, and probably necessary.
Whereas Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman would have played it all quick-fire quips with frenetic music and rapid editing, Capaldi actually uses this time to gradually present his character: a look, phrase and, most welcome of all, pause at a time.  This is a process which actually isn't even over by the time the episode ends, Capaldi is an experienced and accomplished actor who can afford to leave something in the tank for later, but still meet and exceed high expectations.

The trailer highlighted something else which seemed to harken back to the third Doctor's era.
The programme makers seem well aware that this is no 'soft change', as it could be argued the transition between the last two floppy-haired nerdy-cool young Doctors was, but a serious wrench for Clara and the audience.  In addressing this there is a triple-pronged strategy to ensure acceptance:
 In reverse order, there is an unprecedented and well-kept surprise which I'm obviously not going to spoil here. (you'll know what I'm referring to when you see it)

Secondly; Jenna Coleman gives perhaps her best performance yet, conveying the sense of loss, anxiety and even anger which some of the show's massive (and similarly young and female) audience might also feel.  "How do we change him back?" she asks in all seriousness. An examination of human superficiality and the shameful folly of judging by appearances is threaded deftly into this story.  The Doctor and Clara both wonder where the lines on his brand new face can possibly have come from.

And last and foremost, Capaldi gives a magnetic performance, taking us through the initial post-regeneration skittishness (or is that Smith-ishness?), to darker, scary mood swings (" don't look in that mirror - it's furious!") before finally settling into a foreshadowing of the formidable authoritarian Doctor he is to become.  He pours his adversary a last drink (surely single malt) before a taking a much-missed physical approach to their final confrontation. Of course there is humour as well and Capaldi even subtly, but heart-breakingly conveys the Doctor's own sense of loss and fear of potential abandonment, while also concealing it behind a markedly sterner and gruffer exterior than we've been used to recently.
His frank statement, "I'm not your boyfriend, Clara", lays to rest the flirtatious antics of his previous two selves, with perhaps some regret at misleading his travelling companions over that time.  "You might as well flirt with a mountain range" observes Madam Vastra as she strives to remind Clara that this new Doctor might look older but in reality the Time Lord has always been ancient.

It's a startling effect, and this chap probably adds thousands
to the effects budget every time he turns to the right.
As I feared, this post has turned into more of a review of Capaldi's debut than the episode itself, which contains many wonderful, funny, exciting and scary moments, to say nothing of the programme's possibly first-ever gratuitous cleavage shot.
However, I'll be blunt and suggest that the story itself strains a little to justify it's running time. Although not actually earning disappointment, the pacing seems disjointed, the nature of the threat somewhat unfocused and low-key, and, for once, there are scenes which could have been trimmed.

Defining moments: "No second chances...basically; run."
 There are no exhilarating, defining "No second chances, I'm that kind of a man" or "I'm the Doctor. Basically; run" moments which his predecessors got in their introductory stories. But then again it might be argued that those Doctors were not often quite as good ever again.  I suspect Capaldi is playing the long game, taking his time as an experienced Pro would.  This Doctor's defining moments are yet to come, and I can't wait.

Things to come...
I was able to adapt this blog post as a 'preview' for the Dominion Post,
which devoted close to a half page, and a page 2 'pointer', to the feature. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Love over Gold

Captured by scrap dealers, blown to pieces, then made to appear in the prequels, all nothing compared to the 'dark side of the Paws'...

 In the distant 1970s, and probably for many years afterwards, New Zealand Television had a magazine programme for younger viewers which screened early on a Sunday evening (possibly to help deaden the pain of school the next day) called Spot On.  Based on Britain's Blue Peter, a trio of young-ish presenters, enthused their way through semi-educational , handy-crafty, odds and bobs.
In late May 1977, as the evenings were getting cooller and darker, I sat in front of our black and white telly, and all-but dropped my cheese-on-toast into my lap as I unexpectedly had my tiny mind blown.  Spot On reported that a new movie was breaking all kinds of records in America, and they showed a clip...
The next day at school this flurry of images, never seen or imagined before, was all anyone could talk about. "That ape thing - flying the spaceship!" "The 'astronauts', firing at those things!" "that girl with the buns on the sides of her head!" We were soon to learn their names in a very short space of time, but what impressed me the most was the shiny robot who's eyes glowed when the cockpit lights went out.
I could never understand the attraction of Artoo-Detoo - he was just a noisy appliance, whereas See Threepio was a beautifully-sculpted suit of golden armour.  Even when I got my first inkling of his voice and personality (on an episode of The Donny and Marie Show, for heavens sake) I still loved him.  Planet of the Apes had been the biggest sci-fi sensation up till now, and to me, Threepio sounded like Roddy McDowell, but from the other side of the Atlantic.

I gave most of my Star Wars  drawings away, but this is probably
the very first one I did of the robots, when I was eleven. I recall I only
had a tiny black and white newsprint photo as reference, and it shows!

Star Wars mania gripped the country and I soon realised, but never understood why, that preferring Threepio over Artoo seemed to put me in a minority of one.  But I wasn't partisan in the thousands of drawings I made - I drew them both and reached the point where I had memorised all of the fiddly outer detail and it's exact correct position on both droids.

I might have been the only little boy who got a See Threepio kitset model that Christmas, and sadly, being my first kit I made something of a Bantha's ear of the poor, long suffering protocol droid. Alas, nothing of him even remains now.

With his oversized head, the original MPC kit looks a little
like a Thunderbirds version of See Threepio.

Many years later I won a beautifully-sculpted vinyl kitset Threepio at a science fiction convention art competition, and this time was determined to make a better job of him.  I'd put quite a few models together by this time, and had learned some tricks, and most importantly: patience.

I did the best job I could, filling the hollow vinyl parts with plaster to give some stability, highlighting the surface detail with delicate 'weathering' and then painstakingly coating the finished model with many layers of gloss varnish to give him a metallic shine, just like the real one (in the final scenes of the films, at least). The result was very striking, even if I say so myself.
An eventual  house move saw Threepio and my other precious and delicate kitsets carefully bubble-wrapped and placed lovingly in a large cardboard box, awaiting proud relocation to a suitably prominent shelf.
But before this could happen two very boisterous new kittens found their way into the room, and the forest of cardboard boxes became their favourite playground.  I can confidently speculate that during one particularly rambunctious session, they both fell through the taped up top of the kitset box. Finding themselves suddenly in a strange environment of bubble wrap, tissue paper and very delicate plastic, eight small paws rapidly shredded, scratched and snapped everything within reach.
Some kits will never recover - the delicate filligeree of my best made model, the imperial speeder bike from Return of the Jedi, is beyond saving.
Threepio was almost completely dismembered, but perhaps because of his sturdily reinforced plaster of paris innards, the individual 'body' parts remained intact. Much like his real self in The Empire Strikes Back, this was only a temporary inconvenience.

Threepio goes to pieces, again.
But if the protocol droid had cause to complain about the delay in reassembling him in that film, he was actually well-off: it's taken me four years to get around to my own Threepio reconstruction.
The model is so beautiful that I could justify having him in public view, so set about trying to reassemble Threepio as carefully as I originally put him together.  Refitting the limbs and head only increased my admiration of the original sculpt, and the resulting stance is 110% Threepio: redolent of actor Anthony Daniels channeling the restrictions of the suit to create an expressive and instantly recognisable body language.
This time I wanted to give the model a base, as much as I love the fact that he is freestanding, it also makes him very vulnerable to toppling.  I searched everywhere, imagining that a clear perspex disc might be my best option. Having no luck, I accidentally stumbled across a recently damaged motorcycle wing mirror lying in the gutter, and after removing all of the shattered glass and respraying the matt black finish, it has proved ideal.

It's good to have this representation of 'nobody else's favourite droid' back in one piece.  The much-hated Ewoks have one redeeming feature: they worshipped him!

A lol cat.  I can sink no lower...

Friday, 8 August 2014

Moving House

Revisiting a film which chilled you as an impressionable youngster is a tricky proposition, would a return to 1973 and the Belasco house still raise the goosebumps?

The haunted house, or the 'bad place' as Stephen King calls it, is an ancient and much revisited story premise: An unhappy occurence imprints itself upon an often large and usually run-down dwelling where a small group of people stay the night, willingly or otherwise, and face then face supernatural consequences after nightfall.

It's a simple template, but used so many times that it takes a writer of huge skill to employ it in a fresh and effective way. Fortunately, Richard Matheson is such an author, and even more fortunately for someone like me who watches plenty of films but doesn't read nearly enough; his work has been constantly adapted for the screen for many decades. And usually adapted well, sometimes by Matheson himself.

You'll have seen interpretations of his work whether you realise it or not, from William Shatner/John Lithgow suffering worse-than-usual flying anxiety over 'something on the wing', to Will Smith fighting dodgy CGI vampires in his cargo pants, a tiny man trapped in his cellar by the household cat, Robin Williams in a Rennaisance artist's heaven and Dennis Weaver pursued by an implacable, malevolent truck along a Californian desert highway.

That's a mixed bag of good and bad adaptations - fortunately The Legend of Hell House is one of the very best. Adapted by Matheson from his own, more explicit novel Hell House, this is the story of four psychical researchers spending a full week in the 'Mount Everest of haunted houses'. A cold, clinical physicist who believes in a purely scientific explanation (played by ex-Rongotai College Boy and original Emperor Palpatine Clive Revill) and his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) are joined by a Spiritualist minister and a medium (played by former child stars Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowell, respectively) .

There is plenty of tension between the four, providing the drama when the surprisingly confident and startling depiction of paranormal activity isn't on screen (I don't think I've seen a manifestation of ectoplasm shown in any other film, for example).

The opening is extremely creaky, with murky establishing shots and the worst letraseted titles seen outside of a sixth form art class. But as the story gains momentum all else becomes secondary. The four leads are instantly convincing, each affected in a different way by the baleful influence of the Belasco residence. There's an early bravura 'effects' sequence which gives Revill's character a much-needed lesson in manners, but the creepiest scenes involve Pamela Franklin's bed sheets. Convincingly done, but perhaps it's the element of invasiveness which lend these sequences their extra shudder.

This and another scene involving a possessed cat has apparently been spoofed in other films, which I suppose can be taken as high praise. (Come to think of it, the Ghostbusters theme song video blatantly riffs on Hell House's scariest scene: "An invisible man, sleepin' in your bed, who you gonna call...? and of course the 1984 comedy fairly drips with ectoplasm).

But what gives The Legend of Hell House it's real sense of creeping dread is the soundtrack. Churning electronic music, punctuated by eerie sighs and half-heard voices, permeate almost every scene; subconsciously unsettling us. Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgeson, (two names instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Doctor Who), are responsible for this 'music', and the result is remarkable, although not an album you'd ever put on to chill out to. (Well, not that kind of chill, at least).

I'm still happy to recommend this as one of the best horror films I've ever seen. Long before this genre became unfortunately littered with slasher flicks, zombies and tiresome CGI, The Legend of Hell House still shows that a good story told and performed well, with reliance on creating atmosphere rather than massive computer files, can't be beaten.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Glasgow Kiss

"That great old place I miss so much, has seen much better days..."
sang Billy Connolly in a rare, sincere tribute.
 But surely none better than this...

I work in a newsroom, which has various enormous TV screens suspended in corners, usually flickering silently except at newstime.
On the morning of July 23 many staff were to be found staring at these soundless screens in a mixture of disbelief and irresistible morbid curiosity. In New Zealand, if it isn't a breaking news story of national importance only one other event can capture this much attention - sport.

But this wasn't quite sport, more of a prelude to - but so many other things at the same time. Spectacle: kind of, song: definitely, dance: in a manner of speaking - and a giant bunnet-wearing Loch Ness Monster.

'Nessie, I believe in you...'
It could only be the Opening Ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. I passed an open mouthed, transfixed Editor and remarked "I was born there, you know!"

"You must be so proud...", he drawled even more drily than usual.

"Prouder than you were of the last Air New Zealand in-flight video" I thought wittily, in retrospect, several days later. (actually, make that every Air New Zealand in-flight video)

The world has been introduced to Glasgow and the belief that frenetic enthusiasm, a lethal over-dose of tartan and dancing Tunnochs tea cakes can overcome all budgetry and choreographical deficiencies. It has also witnessed the unabashed purple-tartan suited exhibitionism of John Barrowman - his indestructible self-confidence supporting the entire dodgy structure of the ceremony in another world-leading feat of Scottish engineering. Not only that, but he also sent a message to the 42 participating nations who still outlaw homosexuality in one way or another, which will be talked about for years to come.

John Barrowman, about to become the purple people eater...
And this was only the beginning. A bizarre musical interlude where performers seemed to pass the words of a certain prehistoric rocker's ballad (which appears to have nicked the tune from 'Loch Lomond') back and forth to each other threatened to summon the dread presence of the 'ancient one' himself. And sure enough: London-born Rod Stewart manifested to take the stage and finish it off. Stewart has always looked and sounded crusty, so he got away with it. Elsewhere, Susan Boyle warbled nervously, Ewan MacGregor and James McAvoy purveyed charismatic pretty-boy earnestness in the worthy name of UNICEF and Billy Connolly proved he could still spin a good yarn, even from behind comedy blind person shades.

The often grumpy Celtic weather gods appeared to be in a very good mood, and the glimpses of familiar landmarks showed them at their very best. The copious iconography of the city was well-used, particularly this gentleman who I was delighted to see still sports his traditional traffic cone.

The Duke of Wellington in customary attire.
I believe the 'organisers' missed a trick in not giving us a Police Box, however - as Glasgow was the last city in Britain to still have them on the streets for many years - and maybe throw in Peter Capaldi, as well. But of course, images of both are now copyrighted within an inch of their lives by the Beeb .

 A wee dug.
Our attention wavered as the nations were paraded into Celtic Park, led by a wee Scottish terrier which we hoped wasn't the the same one reused for each country (but given the apparent budget of the spectacle, we couldn't quite dismiss the idea). The best was past: Barrowman was off to ComicCon, Boyle back to the studio for her next Christmas album and as for Nessie and Rod... maybe deflated and put away until the closing ceremony?

Personally, I'm a great supporter of brazening-out cash-strapped ventures in pure panto style (I've been a Doctor Who fan all my life, after all), provoking the world to shout "Oh no it isn't..!" when sniffy detractors like most of Britain's Press attempt to condemn the Glasgow Opening as a 'Scottie Dog'.
I think the whole event was best summed up by an on-line comment which suggested that what we actually witnessed was the pilot for a new television series called 'McGlee'. Hoots, Crivens and help M'Boab - I'd watch it!

Made in Scotland, from Girders... unpronouncable too;
Made in Scotland from girders... it's called Barr's IRN BRU!
(With thanks to Bridget and Peter, without whom we wouldn't have seen this McExtravaganza)