Monday, 28 December 2015

Drawing to a close

As 2015 nears the finishing line, we cue the ‘Vision On’ gallery music and take a quick look at some of the year’s events, in pictures wot I drawed.

The 2015 Budget was notable for our Finance Minister failing to hit the surplus.  This is my William Tell overture to this feat of marksmanship...

Still on the subject of men at the top: I’ve had a thing for ponytails in my time, and once even been enough of a tool to playfully 'bat' one - but I was young and stupider, and certainly not leader of the country.

The first time I ever heard Jonah Lomu’s name mentioned, I hadn’t been long back in the country, was still a bit out-of-step with the accent, and assumed the speaker was talking about Joanna Lumley. But despite my general sporting ignorance, reading the Oscar Kightley’s article about Lomu’s contribution to his Otara community made me very happy - and privileged -  to illustrate it with this collage.

Three funny-looking sisters called Fern, their brother Koru (who no-one takes seriously), and their new sister Redpeak, who everybody loved.  I have no idea what this Kiwi fairytale by the very witty Matt Suddain was about, have you?

And lastly:
We’ve all made ourselves forget, but the last time a new Star Wars film came out, some people ‘Force manipulated’ themselves into believing they really liked it.  I unearthed this drawing I did back in ’99, where I seem to be an inept and very un-intimidating Darth Maul, receiving a kicking from two Jedi workmates.

If you are on holiday (or even if you aren't) enjoy the last couple of days of 2015 everybody!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A man for one Season

In the middle of summer, kids of all ages still expect a large man dressed for a snow blizzard to visit tonight.  

It's Christmas Eve - and an absolutely perfect day outside. The dewy morning is literally glistening with possibilities - swimming at the river, a bit of casual mowing and, oh yes, I’m working an evening shift tonight.

But that’s OK.  Although I don’t officially stop for a brief holiday until 10pm on Christmas night, my last two shifts of 2015 will be from home -  I’ve walked away from Wellington and commuting for the last time this year.  

I can’t help but feel as if my holiday has begun, after what has been at times the most trying year at work I’ve ever had.  However, my conviction that if I hung on and hoped for the best I’d eventually land on my feet, seems to have worked out.
But enough about me.

With it being the day before Christmas I wanted to mention an extraordinary piece of festive research which I’ve been enjoying recently and would urge anyone who’s interested to explore.
I’ve sang the praises of Jim Moon’s Hypnogoria podcasts before, and over the last week he has  delivered a beyond-comprehensive four-part masterwork looking at the origins and history of the figure who’s  been called St Nicholas, Sinterklaus, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas, but is now mostly known as Santa Claus...

From Turkey in the fourth century AD, to Tudor England, the Victorian era and 1900’s New York this is a truly epic journey through history.  Along the way, the Coca Cola company gets a well-deserved kicking, Krampus’s defamatory PR is amended (as is the reputation of the supposedly dour Victorians) and even Thor’s Dad gets name-checked.  

Jim Moon takes a look at assumptions we’ve always made and turns up fascinating new facts and viewpoints.  Literally years in the making, this is exquisitely researched and in truth may require several revisits to absorb properly.  It’s a good thing Moon is always a pleasure to listen to.

Whatever you want to call him, I hope the jolly gift-giver is generous to you and your families tomorrow, but most of all, that you all have a very Merry Christmas.
(All images copyright Jim Moon)

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

It’s not Who, it’s me…

I need to address something, but it’s not a Christmas card

A rough night in 'Space Glasgow'
This year’s series of Doctor Who has been “the best ever” (TM).  At least, I’m told it’s been “amazing” (TM), Capaldi has “knocked it out of the park” (TM), the two-parters format has been “a triumph” (TM).
As I say, I read and hear this , but, with the exception of Mr Capaldi, I just haven’t felt it. 

This is the first post about this year’s series which I’ve written, I still haven’t seen at least one episode, and I only finally saw the finale a few days ago; weeks after it screened. Even when I did get the rare opportunity to watch an episode as broadcast, I happily let my Dad watch the soccer on another channel without a single word said. 

Peter Capaldi himself has just had a well-deserved holiday in New Zealand - during which time he must have gamely posed for photographs with every fan within these shores.  Did I see him speak in Auckland, try to find him, follow his progress, feel envy at everyone else’s ‘Cap snaps’?
To quote the man himself in Local Hero: “Nyet, ni nada..."

Call myself a fan?  Well, that’s just it… I don’t think I have been this year.  Of Capaldi? Always. Of current Doctor Who? Well, not really, no.

It might have been the first episode which did it - may we never have to suffer so colossally self-indulgent a scene as that one again (those of you who’ve seen it and somehow convinced yourselves you like that sequence know what I’m talking about).  

When I was 13 I tried to write an (appalling) Doctor Who film script.  In it, the Doctor picks up an electric guitar, idly strums it, considers tuning it, and puts it down again.  A throw-away scene demonstrating the visual dichotomy between an outwardly mature British Gent, and an Alien cutting across social convention with a curiosity and adeptness for almost everything. It was a few seconds, tops, just a brief opener.
I doubt it would make anyone walk out, as my wife, hardened viewer,( if not quite ‘enjoyer’), of the programme for the last decade, did during episode one of series 9.  And she’s not coming back.
Of course it makes me a bit sad, but I really couldn’t blame her either.

As it turned out, the ‘return of Davros’ story was fine, Michelle Gomez was as terrific as ever, the opening scenes on Skaro were lovely.  
It was fine.  
The following story was also fine, maybe slightly less so.  The next one a little bit less fine, the one after that I can’t really remember much of.  I hear it had brocading in it and I’m sure it was fine too.

For various reasons I had to miss the first part of the Zygon story.  I gathered all I needed from the recap at the start of the second part, and really enjoyed this one.  I saw only half the story and it was my favourite so far!  Hmmm… what does that say about the two-parters?
Most agree the next one wasn’t fine, except for the Doctor Who Magazine reviewer who tries to be as clever as Steven Moffat in his reviews, and sometimes succeeds.

Clara dies in the next one and I really did sit up and pay attention.  Because, although this series has been fine, Jenna Coleman has been bloody amazing this year and I’m really going to miss her.  I realise this right at the end.  Sigh, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  It also had a flying TARDIS scene and I’m a sucker for those.

The next one was also very self indulgent.  But Fans are still singing it’s praises so I’m obviously wrong.  And that’s fine.

Like the Zygon story. I loved half of the series finale, but this time it was the first half.  The Gallifrey stuff was wonderful - I never realised a Western in Who could work so well! (and the Ennio Morricone-style take on ‘The Doctor’s theme’ - sublime!)  Right up until the stolen retro-TARDIS I’m having fun, and then it becomes a talk fest until they finally stop talking.  I don’t think I’m an idiot (not ALL the time).  I don’t need explosions and monsters in every scene. I like a bit of talk.  
A … bit… of talk.  
But it was fine. Apparently the story is very pro-feminist and that is more than fine.  It is also exquisitely directed by Rachel Talalay and has a character played brilliantly by both a man AND a very beautiful black woman.

The renegade returns to bring Law and Order to his hometown...
We have the best Doctor in a very, very long time and have just said goodbye to an equally good companion. 
However, this might also just be me, but I think the programme itself needs an overhaul, or even a rest.  

Or maybe I need the rest. Because I’m tired of stories which disappear up their own bottoms like some smirking Ouroboros, bringing deceased characters back to life every other week and steadfastly refusing to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end in the usual order.
Instead of entertained, I am more often tricked, huckstered, disorientated and maybe made to feel a little less bright than I did at the start.  Instead of being educated by what I’m watching, I’m more often baffled.

I’m tired of ‘clever’, I’m not that clever. I just want a story anyone can follow, which makes ‘sense’ within the generally accepted parameters of the word.  A tale which satisfies the viewer whether they be seven or seventy, and leaves us believing we’ve just spent 45 minutes well.

The current programme makers might argue Doctor Who has to be more than that now.  If that’s true I’d have to conclude that I have a new understanding of the programme’s title.  It’s ‘Doctor Who’(?) because sometimes I don’t recognise it any more.

But this isn’t new.  And it’s not the first time I’ve walked away for a little while, either, (sorry, Colin Baker).

However, I re-watched an episode last weekend, and despite it being rudely cut short by a dog attack, (it’s OK, we got there in time and the chickens are all fine), I really enjoyed it.  So perhaps that’s the answer. 
It’s the season of peace and goodwill so, although it will be of absolutely no consequence to anyone but myself, I’m going to give Doctor Who: Series 9 another chance. (And if it doesn’t work, there’s always 50 years of better stories to revisit).

Charting a course for the past might be the best direction for the next series to head?

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Back in Force

It’s a poignant experience revisiting childhood friends to find them older and greyer, but still very able to pick up again where you last left off.

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens follow
— read responsibly, or see the film first

<Mild spoiler warning>

This film did not leave me with the instant buzz of euphoria which Star Wars (A New Hope) did back in 1977. 
And I’m not alone, given the somewhat muted applause which The Force Awakens end credits received in a cinema packed with costumed Star Wars fans.

What I am still processing, a mere six hours later, is more complex and reminiscent of the first sequel back in 1980. It’s a mixture of the joy of seeing beloved characters again and meeting exciting new ones, the kinetic thrills crafted by a skilled, fully invested director armed with technology pushed to it’s limits, and the sting in the tail which The Empire Strikes Back delivered. 
But this time the resolution is punctuated with an implacable exclamation point, rather than a hopeful question mark.

What at times seemed a playful and almost self-knowing reworking of the beats of the first film, a droid carrying an important message, a gifted youth propelled from a backwater planet into a galactic conflict, a masked villain and a vast super-weapon with an Achilles heel, is transformed by this plot turn into far more profound drama.

But despite the spoiler warning I won’t dwell on the end of the film (I went in with no idea what was going to happen and I sincerely wish everyone else can too) but focus instead on the new hope which The Force Awakens brings.

Our new characters Rey, Finn and BB8.
The new characters are instantly watchable, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey, who not only brings balance to the woefully male-centric Star Wars universe but also gives budding young female Jedi viewers a very capable and competent role model.  Ridley is a very welcome addition to the pantheon.

But the biggest delight, and recipient of the loudest applause, was the heart of the original trilogy. Weathered, but still instantly recognisable and more than capable of carrying the film’s most exciting scenes: The Millennium Falcon.

Still evading TIE fighters, most of the Falcons scenes are in broad daylight
and pretty damn spectacular.

Harrison Ford returning as Han Solo is wonderful in itself, but I was unprepared for how large a role he actually plays, still cracking the best lines from the corner of his mouth and regularly demonstrating the total inadequacy of storm trooper armour against “a good blaster by your side”.

Best of all for me was the depiction of the character.  Rather than settling down to become a responsible leader of the republic and devoted husband to Leia, as the plethora of post-Return of the Jedi novels always assumed, instead we find him returned to his original smuggler’s life: reckless, up to his neck in self-inflicted trouble and desperately improvising his way out of one tight spot to the next with a certain faithful Wookie by his side.
Despite the white hair, this is Han doing what he’s always done, because at the core of his character he will never change — He’ll never grow up and we fans probably won’t either.

Humour is a welcome factor in this film — breezy, wittily delivered lines ‘pop’ as they should, and even Threepio is allowed to be genuinely funny.  Incredibly, even our new masked villain is responsible for a couple of the most amusing sequences. He is a ‘Vader wannabe’ in every sense, and knows it.

And this brings me to one gripe.  Max Von Sydow is briefly in this film, a consummate veteran actor with serious science fiction villain form.  But instead, our ‘big bad’ is flippin’ Andy Serkis with spots on his face, bringing another artificial-looking pile of pixels to unconvincing life.  
It is even more disappointing given JJ Abrams’ stated preference to use practical character effects whenever possible.  However, this is mitigated slightly by the fact that we do have a convincing and endearing CGI character elsewhere in this film.

Old meets new behind the scenes of this photo shoot for Vanity Fair.
But the rest of The Force Awakens fairly glows with the love, attention and respect for the original trilogy heaped upon it.  I knew this would be the case when I saw the last sentence of the traditional justified-text introductory crawl ending with a grammar-busting four ellipses, followed by the downward pan to a nearby planet and the rumbling entrance of an Imperial Star Destroyer.

"freedom to the galaxy, dot, dot, dot - and dot."
So we’ve had the best ‘the greatest hits album’ ever as an early Christmas present, and now the next films are tasked with showing us exciting new things which can be done in the Star Wars universe.

The Stormtroopers are actually precise shots in this film - but so is Chewie.

The Force Awakens is a film I thoroughly enjoyed a few hours ago, but which I know I will love when I see it again.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Death Stars

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Assembly Line: Part Five - Young Frankenstein

Ralph Bates might have had a short career at Hammer, but he did land some plumb roles, positioned, (unsuccessfully), to take over from both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

I looked at how Bates' Lord Courtley was supposed to cut in on the increasingly reluctant Mr Lee's vampire Count in Taste the Blood of Dracula here:

This strategy was scotched by American co-financers and distributors Warner Bros, who insisted they were putting their money in to see Lee as Dracula.  In Horror of Frankenstein, Ralph Bates then moved in on  Hammer’s other icon and took the lead in a film which was to reboot the popular film series, beginning with a quasi-remake of Curse of Frankenstein.  But this time it appears that the public voted with their feet, the only Baron they wanted was Peter Cushing.

For Bates it was to be third time lucky, playing the last of his trio of iconic horror Characters, Doctor Jekyll, opposite Martine Beswick's Sister Hyde in 1971.

But neither of his previous efforts were his fault, Ralph Bates does as excellent a job as ever in Horror of Frankenstein (1970), despite having hair almost as big as the two lovely female leads, Veronica Carlson and Kate O'Mara. In fact in direct opposition to everything I'd always been led to believe, it is hard to find any real deficiencies with production.  Despite the impressive d├ęcolletage on display this is not Carry On FrankensteinMad Doctor at Large or even Monster About the house.  But the weakest element does remind me inescapably of another famous British comedy series:

"I didn't get where I am today..."
Really, resembling the immortal CJ from The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin might be Dave Prowse's greatest achievement in this film.  The disturbing and somewhat deviant fact that the 'monster' is nothing but a body-builder in a bald cap, dog collar and nappy just can't be overlooked and only makes Christopher Lee's achievement of emoting through several layers of mouldy pudding in the 'original' that much more remarkable.

If I'd have to make a guess at why this film is not considered a success it would have nothing to do with the cast, or even the script but the intention of the film.  The earlier films in this cycle succeeded because the essence of Mary Shelley's novel was interpreted by Hammer with their first film, freeing up the ensuing chapters to explore innovative new directions in storytelling (perhaps with the exception of Evil of Frankenstein - tailored specifically  for Universal to emulate their original films).
Horror of Frankenstein gives us a bright new cast and a more modern sensibility, but unfortunately feels the need to tell the original story yet again.  Apart from this repetition, the re-stitched plotline also depends intrinsically upon a 'creature' whose deficiencies have already been mentioned.

Cushing would know what to do...
A new series of Frankenstein films starring Bates was not forthcoming, but lets close by focusing upon an important success.  The previous two cinematic outings for Cushing's Baron had been gradually establishing more central roles for women, but here we have the epitome of that shift.  Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson (her second Frankenstein film in a row) have as much screen time as their male co-stars and easily as much significance to the plot.  O'Mara relishes in her vampish role: Alys showing a ruthless streak of her own when her livelihood is threatened. And Carlson brings depth and conviction to what could too easily have become merely an over-virtuous polar opposite to O'Mara's earthy and mischievous housekeeper.

Horror of Frankenstein is a worthy experiment, but like the results of the Baron's own researches, is only a partial success: a product of great skill but somewhat clumsy, misshapen and unfairly shunned by those who don't understand its intent.

"One day I'm going to play the most famous villain in film history!"
"Sure, Dave..."

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Festive 4 Play

The difficult fourth album will not be hitting stores shortly, but may be passed onto you soon like a terrifying gypsy curse or persistent conjunctivitis.

I haven't yet managed to find a way to over-lay a 'clap track', but there's always next year...

This year’s carefully selected compilation of unforgivable hits once again features Christmas singles which you may have never heard before (and may not wish to hear again).  A request that this year’s album contain a little more in the way of traditional carols has been noted (kind of) combined with my  usual remit of finding ‘interesting’ recordings by well-known performers.  Lets lower the needle and get started.

1. Closing of the year (Bentley Jones)

Last year’s campstravaganza opening track by the Pet Shop Boys was never going to be matched, but this boy-bandish yet soulful number by Bentley Jones (perhaps better known under his mix pseudonym of PHUNKSTR) isn’t a bad attempt.  Believe it or not, the song first appeared in the Robin Williams film Toys, and was written by none other than 'film score-meister' Hans Zimmer!

(The original version, from the film Toys)

2. White Wine in the Sun. (Tim Minchin)

The guardian newspaper called Australian Tim Minchin’s song ‘a contrarian carol’.  Minchin himself says: “Christmas means much to billions of people who don’t believe in Jesus, and if you think that Christmas without Jesus is not Christmas, then you’re out of touch, and if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.”  He acknowledges the contradictions inherent in celebrating a festival he doesn’t believe in, but concedes that he still really likes it.  It’s about seeing his family at Christmas, who’ll be waiting… drinking white wine in the sun.  Sound familiar?

3. Oi to the world (No Doubt)

A ska/punk play on Joy to the world sounds like light-hearted fun, but the rapid fire lyrics actually tell the story of a bloody, racism-fuelled encounter between a Skinhead called Trevor and a Sikh Punk called Haji.  Despite a violent showdown, it’s the spirit of Christmas which ultimately triumphs. Another example of the infinitely adaptable message that we should all make an extra effort to be nice to each other at this time of the year.  The lyrics are well worth a read:

4. Angels from the Realms of Glory

Otherwise known as the one with the tricky chorus which no-one can actually sing.  Annie Lennox can, and even this older, throatier version of her instantly-recognisable voice makes it sound heavenly. Excelsior!

5. I have an ugly Christmas Tree (Oh, Hush)

Here’s a happy little number, recorded by Oh, Hush (Chris Sernal) a ‘secret artist’ who apparently has never played live or posted a single image of himself.  But he wants to keep his tree up until February and loves finding pine needles in July, so he’s my kind of guy.

6.The Holy and the Ivy (The Mediaeval Baebes)

Does anyone else remember the Mediaeval Baebes - an ensemble of young women who recorded traditional songs from the middle ages, in the 1990s? It’s a haunting sound, perfect for this years ‘ancient pagan chart-topper dressed up as a carol’.  One theory suggests that it was originally a battle of the sexes ‘sing-off’ between the masculine Holy and the feminine Ivy, which is eventually resolved beneath the mistletoe.

(Sadly I couldn't find the video for this particular carol,
but here's a different one by the Baebes instead)

7. I want you for Christmas (Cheap Trick)

Remember in Love Actually when Bill Nighy’s ageing rock star makes an assault on the festive charts by cynically shoe-horning the word Christmas into a former hit single?  Here Cheap Trick do that for real, but it was their song originally, so that makes it OK.  And besides, they aren’t taking themselves seriously for a second - they’re having fun and so will you.

(Once again, not quite the video you're looking for -
this is the original song from 1979)

8. Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle (Ariel)

A change of pace here - a 16th century French Carol recorded by US singer-songwriter Ariel Tebben on the Celtic Harp.  To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, while singing the carol.

9. Snoopy’s Christmas (The Royal Guardsmen)

Making their fourth consecutive appearance  - what would a New Zealand Christmas be without Snoopy and the Red Baron? 

And speaking of which:

10. A New Zealand Christmas (Chris Jones)

A celebration of BBQs burning into the night and, on the radio, the Red Baron making one more flight… It’s a New Zealand Christmas - the kind we all love.

11. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Busted)

I quite clearly know nothing about music, but this single by English band Busted seems to me a surprisingly sincere and enthusiastic take on the traditional carol, with some rather sophisticated musical arrangements.  Mike Oldfield-esque electric guitar, strings, piano and bells?  I’m there!

12. Christmas Lights (Coldplay)

Recorded in 2010, the video features Simon Pegg, as one of three violin-playing Elvis’s. A street level, reality-intrudes Christmas tale of a similar ilk to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but set in London’s Oxford street.

13. Blue Christmas (Sheryl Crow)

Ms Crow’s breathy rendition of this popular Christmas standard provides a stripped down alternative to other heavily orchestrated tracks on this compilation.  

(This is a different version to the unaccompanied
track which appears on the compilation)

And it gives you a chance to prepare yourself for what’s coming next:

14. Jingle Hell (Christopher Lee with Li Li)

I know I’m going to be defending the inclusion of this one for months to come.  But let me just say: unless we mere mortals really believe that we could record a Heavy Metal Christmas single at the age of 91 which breaks into the US Billboard top twenty, maybe we should just pull our heads in before you-know-who bites our jugulars.  Besides, this magnificent track by the late Sir Chris and classically- trained soprano Li- Li is on last so that you can always pretend there are only 13 tracks on this album (though why you’d ever want to do that is beyond me)

(Caution: the novelty of this video may pall as quickly as the single itself does)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Kin of Kong: Part One - Clown Prince

"You're not a patch on your Old Man"

We tend to suffer from sequel fatigue these days, and for good reason. Few films are made without a franchise in mind, actors signed up for a series of continuations stretching years ahead before production even begins.
And generally these films tend to be grander in scale, bigger, but rarely better than the original which spawns them.
Inflation accounts for some of the greater cost, but mainly the perception seems to be that the next film has to be bigger, louder and longer to justify itself, budgets soaring to hundreds of millions of dollars.

But there was a time when sequels were regarded as quick knock-offs, hurried into cinemas to capitalise on the still-current interest in the original film.  And sadly, this is very much the case for Son of Kong - rushed out at the end of the same year as the release of 1933's King Kong.

Given that the original Kong had a then-lengthy production schedule of 55 weeks (and utilised some models and sequences created for an earlier, unmade film), it was obvious that the miracle could never be repeated in mere months.  To their credit. the producers were well aware of this and Kong screen writer Ruth Rose wisely decided: "If you can't make it bigger, make it funnier"

Denham bandages young Kong's injured finger.
Consequently, Son Of Kong is a better film for the human actors, and far less focused on the wonders of stop motion animation.  Young Kong still has his moments, but more about this later.
Robert Armstrong in particular benefits from this shift in emphasis, with generous screen time allowing hi m to really flesh out the character of Carl Denham. No longer in a certain someone's giant shadow Armstrong projects genuine charisma, somehow making the opportunistic huckster Denham a likeable character. Quite rightly the film opens with him practically a fugitive, bankrupt and in hiding from a city which is determined to make him pay for the destruction wrought by his abduction of Kong.

To his credit, he does appear to acknowledge his terrible injustices against the 'Eighth wonder of the world', which we later find the surviving villagers on Kong's home are not about to forgive.

The other returning characters from the first film, Captain Englehorn and his cook Charlie throw Denham and unexpected lifeline, and soon all three are heading for Indonesian waters once more.  The fact that they will eventually wash up on Kong's Island is a given (note: In a similar vein to Sherlock Holmes's most famous line never actually having been written for the Great Detective, Kong's home is not referred to as 'Skull Island' here, in the first film or even the '76 remake.)

And just as the female lead, Helen Mack, is a brunette in this film, young Kong himself is now blond, possibly even albino.  At a mere twelve feet high he is lighter than his father in every sense, and not above gurning directly to the camera, shrugging with upturned palms like a vaudeville comedian.
Worse still, he appears to be accompanied by the chattering of a chimpanzee in some scenes, and during an otherwise impressive battle with a huge cave bear is literally knocked cross-eyed at one point.

Pooh Bear felt Hundred acre wood wasn't as friendly a neighbourhood as it used to be.
Despite this, the sequence is also possibly also the nearest the film comes to capturing the excitement and spectacle of the original.  A later tussle with a dragon-like creature is over far too quickly.
Infamously the film ends abruptly with a massive earthquake which submerges the entire island in a matter of minutes, the trapped little Kong lifting Denham to safety before disappearing beneath the waves.  Kong's Island, perhaps the world's final great place of mystery and wonder, painstakingly realised in the first film, is hastily erased - surely the final insult to the memory of the movie legend this one seeks to exploit. 

I should abhor Son of Kong, but I really can't.  Although an obvious cash-in, the good outweighs the bad in terms of Armstrong's performance, and in young Kong's relatively few scenes some of the magic does still shine through. 

Rather than detracting from the film which came before it, by comparison this all-but-forgotten and inessential adjunct only further highlights the achievements of the original King Kong.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Haven in the west

Paradise is at the end of a road which leads nowhere in a region which is neither a golden bay or a west coast.

The sparkling Tasman Sea.

I’m reliably informed that Westhaven is in Auckland, boasting the southern hemisphere’s largest Yacht Marina, and Whanganui is a large coastal town in Manawatu, near the mouth of New Zealand’s longest navigable waterway.

We didn’t go to either of those places, as lovely as they sound, but we did go to a Westhaven, also known as Whanganui inlet, which many people don’t seem to know exists.  Which is perhaps why it is one of the most unspoilt and breathtakingly beautiful places we’ve ever been to. It is described as being on 'the west coast of Golden Bay', a geographical anachronism like Harry Potter’s 'Platform 9 3/4' which only enhances the magic, and seclusion of the place.  One of New Zealand’s largest estuaries (roughly 13km long and 2-3km wide), it is filled by the Tasman Sea at high tide which flows rapidly through imposing heads glimpsed briefly as you take the winding drive from Pakawau. (As with any route heading North of Collingwood, don’t expect to reconnect with civilisation – you are pushing into the wild west).

The western peninsula from the other side of the inlet.
If you have bionic eyes you might just make out the lodge on the ridge line at the centre of the image.
And it was on the western head that we were lucky enough to stay, which is also a privately-owned 400 hectare peninsula, and home to Westhaven Retreat, a 4-star luxury lodge.  Anyone who knows us won’t be surprised to hear that we didn’t stay here, however - our accommodation was a much more modest cottage, adjacent to the main building.  

After the long drive we had started to wonder if we had come to right place, as I picked my way through fresh cow pats to open a farm gate, loudly serenaded by dogs before manoeuvring carefully around huge wandering cattle beasts.  As we crested the hill and the lodge came into view we weren’t left in any doubt. A unique and exquisite structure of which there will be more about later.

The lodge is designed to compliment the landscape.
“You’re kiwis, we knew you wouldn’t mind!”, explained our host about our farm encounter entrance. She also apologised for the nearby helicopter, the way most guests usually arrive, which crouched close to our cottage like a giant shiny black dragonfly. The fact that Rose scampered out to photograph it ferrying its wealthy passengers to the beach later that evening would have shown just how much we minded, it’s rare we have a helicopter in our garden.

The 'other half' leave for their beach trip.
The cottage was everything we needed but as with all things here, it’s really about the location.  I’ve loved coastlines and this part of the country for almost as long as I can remember, but Westhaven is something else again. From the top of the peninsula views of the Tasman Sea to the west and the inlet on the other side were literally jaw dropping. Paths weaving down through surreal rock formations and a nikau palm forest led to perfect sandy beaches which we literally had to ourselves. 

A mysterious wall built by a primitive tribe.
Not Skull Island, but the Westhaven nikau forest.

Rose looks back at 'our' beach.
On our second day I interviewed the 'Westhaven family' about the retreat and then Rose joined us for a tour of the facilities which I will be writing about for work.  They seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them, and this led to them inviting us to use the spa and opulent indoor swimming pool that afternoon as an anniversary present from them.

The lodge's indoor swimming pool.
The lodge itself was designed and built by the patriarch of the family, an extremely accomplished Austrian engineer whose experiences working in Asia led him to believe in the principles of Feng Shui.  And so the building is formed of three interlocked octagons (a 45 degree angle being spiritually preferable to the hard right angles of most western structures).  The interlocked building is designed to be safely flexible during a quake and the shape also resonates what Bruno referred to as the two 'landscape guardians' of their home.  Two remarkable rocky outcrops sit above the lodge, the ‘lion’ to the west and the ‘dragon’ to the north, their shapes being quite self explanatory and also echoed within the low crouching form of the lodge.  It is a beautiful building inside and out which completely fulfils its aim of harmonising with the surrounding landscape.

The lodge and cottage (tiny white blob on the lower right) photographed from the head of 'the dragon'.
The 'lion' ridge can be seen in the distance.
Rose and I both did a lot of walking (almost every track available during our short stay), and after much goading I even braved the chilly waters of the Tasman. But we also did a lot of reading - something which I’ve shamefully let slip far too much this year.  And as eager as I was to write about the experience I also left my laptop alone, and I’m glad I did. ( I met a work mate at the airport when we flew out from Wellington who all but insisted that I hand over the PC to her so she could put it in my locker until I came back to work).

(Very) amateur body surfing was unplanned,
  but the waves were persuasive enough to carry me all the way to the shore.
Quite a different experience to our Melbourne holiday last year, the combination of exercise punctuated by long blissful spells of inactivity helped us both to relax more quickly than usual.  New Zealand’s earliest sea captains knew about this hidden inlet which provided shelter and safety from westerly storms, and it certainly worked wonders for us.

We discovered this hidden corner of New Zealand almost by accident at the beginning of the year - and look forward to coming back.

A friendly Kereru followed me through the nikau forest.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Periodic Fable

Synthesised chemical elements like Rutherfordium can only be brought into being under very particular circumstances, and then only last for a fleeting period of time.  

In 1979 ITV achieved this alchemy with what was supposed to be a science fiction show to rival the BBC’s ubiquitous Doctor Who, made by their production arm ATV, and aimed at children.  But that certainly wasn’t what they got.  Author PJ Hammond was inspired to write a supernatural science fiction series after spending a night in a haunted castle and instead came up with one of the darkest, creepiest and most enigmatic shows ever to appear on television.

The still inexplicable twin casting triumph of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, who apparently signed on immediately, was touched on last time, and by the time ITV realised what they had been given by Hammond, the programme was already something of a hit.
The first ‘assignment’ dealing with two youngsters whose parents have been taken by a nursery rhyme comes closest to betraying Sapphire and Steel’s origins as a children’s programme, but the second story pulls no punches.  Set on an abandoned railway platform it is relentlessly oppressive in atmosphere and the resolution of the crisis is only achieved at a terrible cost.
In stark contrast, once again the appearance of a Sapphire and Steel annual in 1979 indicated the original intention of the programme as a kids TV vehicle, as did a continuing comic strip in ITV’s youth magazine 'Look in'.

Nobody could claim to fully understand the programme, as was the intention, but they tuned in in their millions in Britain.  The famous ITV ten-week strike of 1979 actually worked in the programme’s favour, as the second serial was repeated in full when the channel returned to air, greatly reinforcing the programme’s viewership. The return of our favourite ‘elements who actually weren’t’ was guaranteed.  Also as discussed before, the availability of it’s stars made exactly when a little uncertain and in fact it was a full 18 months before Sapphire and Steel returned.

Silver Fox - Elements don't scrimp on hair care products
The third adventure isn’t fondly remembered but does at least introduce ‘specialist’ Silver; played in dandified fashion by David Collings who shakes up the existing dynamic between our leads.  His flirtatious rapport with Sapphire appears to provoke jealousy in her usual partner.  Steel hardly needs to be made any more grumpy, and perhaps the notable scene where he appears to snap lift cables with his bare hands and tie them in knots is his way of ‘working off steam’.  It’s the following story, dealing with a ‘faceless man’ who can inhabit any photograph ever taken which seems to be the most remembered and chilling.

This is the story I re-watched recently with friends, and despite its obvious staginess and budgetary limitations, we agreed that it’s really only the incidental music which dates this unnerving tale.  Xylophone solos and a crew member’s cough on the soundtrack are more than made up for by expert use of lighting (the sepia children would doubtless be an expensive CGI effect these days, but perfectly realised here), the charisma of our leads and the sheer freaky uneasiness provoked by the tale.  PJ Hammond seems to know exactly how to write for the show’s minuscule budget: everything shown on screen feels like the tip of the story’s iceberg, the unseen but greater mass of what is implied, but unseen, is what really scares us.

From what I’ve heard Hammond's skill was sorely missed when Sapphire and Steel returned the following year for its fifth assignment.  I say heard because I somehow missed this sub-Agatha Christie drawing room mystery written by Doctor Who scribes Don Houghton and Anthony Read - or perhaps the programme’s erratic scheduling finally defeated TVNZ and it was never shown here.
Hammond was exhausted and needed a break, but was apparently appalled when he saw what had been done to his creation in other writer’s hands.

Director Shaun O'Riorden (left) and PJ Hammond
He rallied and gave us what was to become one of the greatest conclusions of any programme - except, Assignment 6 was never intended to be a finale.  I certainly saw this one, as with most memorable TV fantasy in my childhood with my Mum, and I remember us both gasping with genuine surprise when the true nature of our heroes’ adversaries was revealed.
In the real world Sapphire and Steel had also come up against an implacable enemy, and when Central television took over ATV a slew of programmes were cancelled - this undervalued gem among them.

Hammond apparently wanted to shop his creation around to other channels in the hope of continuing. But when hoping to enlist his stars Lumley and McCallum they begged off, feeling they’d done all they could with the roles and convincing him that the show couldn’t have ended on a better, if downbeat, high.
Sapphire and Steel were unassigned but remained a cult classic through nostalgic recollections, a partial repeat on British satellite channel Bravo, and VHS and DVD releases.

Twenty years later, Big Finish Productions released three ‘seasons’ of Sapphire and Steel audio dramas, starring the mighty David Warner as Steel (McCallum was living full-time in Hollywood at this time) and Susannah Harker (Lumley didn’t want to reprise her role).

I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing these but they were apparently very popular and well-received.  Big Finish no longer have the license and don’t sell them anymore, but I live in hope of tracking down some second hand-recordings one day.

Different elements: David Warner and Susannah Harker voice Sapphire and Steel
in original audio adventures from Big Finish.
Earlier this year it Wellington-based Luther creator Neil Cross announced that he was in talks with a British Production company to revive Sapphire and Steel.  Exciting news, but to me part of the series charm was that the original series was ephemeral, only able to exist in our reality for a short time.  A brief but bright flare of brilliance in the early 1980s when Time broke through and we had to depend on two sharply dressed strangers who refused to explain themselves, and left us knowing as little about them as we did when they first appeared. 
I doubt something so determinedly cryptic could be made now, when mainstream audiences appear to need everything spelt out before moving quickly on to action and effects scenes. 

But I’m very happy to be proven wrong.

(I'm heavily indebted to the excellent Horror Etc podcast for unearthing a great deal of this information)