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..."