Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Safe Arbour

We've discovered a completely different form of 'suspended animation'.

Ed and I, hanging out.
 Our property is bordered by a stand of native trees which we refer to, somewhat pretentiously, as 'the forest'. A haven for native birds, it is part of a bush corridor which extends from our land into the Tararua foothills.  During the day tui and fantails flit and kereru swoop though its many shadowed branches, while after nightfall it becomes an auditorium for moreporks enthusiastically engaged in their own distinctive form of social media.

Consisting mainly of native totaras and cabbage trees, deep within our own woodland is what we assume to be a rimu which has grown in a remarkably un-tree-like way. Four metres above the ground, the dappled trunk suddenly corners at 45 degrees and then levels out to form a solid horizontal beam, eventually terminating in branches which stretch skywards once again.

This unusual form is a mystery - perhaps the tree's destiny was shaped by a long-gone over-hanging branch, forcing it to elbow its own way out from underneath.  
The drawbacks of rope swings have been highlighted in the news this year, but I have to confess it was the first thing to cross my mind when we discovered this arboreal rafter. But as usual, my wife had a better idea - we were going to make a 'hanging bed'.

Rose's Your Weekend spread - describing how you can make your own hanging bed.
Essentially a slatted wooden bed frame complete with mattress and cushions, we suspend this arrangement from our tree's natural crossbar with a series of ropes connected to each corner. Perching on one end with your feet dangling above the surrounding fern and bracken, you fall gently back and savour the softly rocking motion your manoeuvre has created.

So successfully relaxing is this structure that we defy anyone to remain awake longer than ten minutes without surrendering to its levitating embrace. A view of the forest canopy and patches of sky through the shading upper foliage is a supremely restful sight as your eye lazily traces the graceful contours of the limbs above, and before long the purring company of at least one of our cats is inevitable.

Older trees on either side form a natural chamber around you, and the weight of nature gently enfolds you like a blanket.  Eventually you'll open your eyes again to find that shadows from the leaves branches above you have shifted, indicating the passage of time while you've dozed.

We've recently had a couple of perfectly still, warm evenings, and have spent the night under the arched, protecting arm of our special tree. It's very special waking up in the cool early morning air to the dawn chorus and the first light of a new day glimmering through the overhead leaves and branches.  Obviously not a year-round activity, we intend to make the most of this while summer lasts.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A New Heritage

It's (a longer) Hammer time...

1994 was a significant year for Hammer fans. Peter Cushing cast off from his mortal moorings to rejoin his beloved Helen at last, and he did so between episodes of the best Hammer film documentary ever made.
Flesh and Blood; The Hammer Heritage of Horror was written and produced by film-maker and horror historian Ted Newsom, who brought Cushing and Christopher Lee together for what was to be the final time, to narrate it.

Peter Cushing, Ted Newsom and Christopher Lee at the
narration recording of Flesh and Blood in 1994.
During a tribute to Christopher Lee recorded last year, Newsom recounted that Cushing was very frail and ill by this time, and unsure he’d be physically able to perform the work.  Lee  sat down with him and regaled his old friend with anecdotes, reminiscences and impressions until Cushing was soon howling with laughter.  So much so that Newsom went from relief that aged actor was now re-engaged in the project, to concern that Lee would exhaust him too much to continue.

The resulting documentary was screened in two parts on british television, which I made certain I recorded, and re-watched many times, until it was released on DVD a couple of years later.
That disc then became the most replayed which I owned.

Flesh and Blood is exhaustive in the best possible way, and showcases fascinating interviews with everyone from Raquel Welch, to Joe Dante to a plethora of Hammer production alumni.
A lot of ground is covered with clips, trailers and behind the scenes footage, all of it woven together with the instantly recognisable voices of Lee and Cushing.
Although my collection of the actual films continues to grow, the authoritative history of the studio remained locked within that particular DVD case like a time capsule.  The final, definitive word, from the people who were there.

Together again, for the last time.
Or so I thought, until Ted Newsom signed off on last year’s Lee tribute with the news that he was finishing work on a new, expanded version of Flesh and Blood, remastered and remixed with additional material.  
I was instantly intrigued, but a little trepidatious as well  - could a perfect work really be made better - or merely longer?
Something convinced me though; his mention that an ingenious sound editor had remixed Cushing’s narration, the result knocking a couple of decades off the original, admittedly frail-sounding, delivery.
Like many others, I wanted to give Newsom my money there and then, but his experience with distributors in the past meant that he was only going to make it available himself this time, so we’d just have to be patient.
Happily, the 'new' Flesh and Blood became available at the beginning at the year, and I signed up, pleasantly surprised to receive a DVD-shaped parcel a mere week later.

The Flesh and Blood redux is a fascinating experience.  Aurally, Cushing does indeed sound like a more robust man in his 60’s rather than the ailing 85 year old he was.  I’m assuming pauses for breath have been removed and the voice deepened - but however it’s been done, to someone like me who knows some passages by heart, it’s a complete success.

The original Hammer's last gasps: an all-star Agatha Christie remake, their final horror
with a Dennis Wheatley adaptation, and the sadly unmade Vampirella.

Visually, the nearest experience I can think of is the feeling we had when George Lucas re-released his Star Wars films in the mid 90s. there’s an excitement to see the new material, where and how well it’s been integrated.  There’s no ‘Greedo shooting first’ nonsense here though.  Instead, Hammer on television and the new films have been welcomed into the fold, recollections are expanded upon, facts filled-in and and we even get to hear from fans the likes of Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter.

This 138 minute documentary is not only essential for anyone who takes their horror films seriously, but should also be treated as a serious historical account of a lost era of British cinema, and the impact of a single film studio on global popular culture.

Sometimes more is more.

(Flesh and Blood - The Hammer Heritage of Horror is available only through Paypal: Just type in

'New' Hammer has scored some hits like the atmospheric
and scary Woman in Black (2012)

Monday, 11 January 2016

Planet Earth is blue

“Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…”


The 'Thin Wet Duke' in Wellington, 2004 (Image copyright Fairfaxmedia)

David Bowie called me a crazy motherf#*ker, once.  OK, it was me and the rest of Wellington’s full-to-bursting Westpac Stadium, but it was still a magical moment.

We were so-called because his 2004 Wellington concert had to go ahead despite atrocious weather and we all sat in the rain, the lucky ones huddling under bin liners. The paper the next day called him ‘the Thin Wet Duke’, but he promised to persevere through the downpour as long as we stayed - and he did.  It was David Bowie - we might have sat on ants nests wearing hair shirts to see him live.
And now he’s not.

69 seems so ridiculously young.  Just like everyone else, his music has always been a presence in my life.  
My best primary school friend and I sang The Laughing Gnome in the bath together when we were very young (although in the first of many mis-hearances, I recall we thought it was called ‘The Laughing Roman’ (Nice one, Centurian).
Many years later that same friend and I practically rebuilt our friendship with a shared love of Bowie’s music (not shared baths).

“I'm always amazed that people take what I say seriously.
I don't even take what I am seriously.”

David Bowie

Into the early 1980’s, Ready to Roll always kept us informed of Bowie’s current output…  Ashes to Ashes and the theme to the Cat People remake were there, but just sort of taken for granted.  It took another couple of years for me to become aware of his back catalogue - and then it really hit.

Sixth form parties… the odour of cheap beer, a rugby team in one corner and, if you were unlucky, two rugby teams in opposing corners. Alternatively, if you were lucky, there might be girls there. And always… somebody’s record collection.
In the wee hours someone put on an irresistibly infectious, weirdly angular song; a stuttering chorus sung with a mewling, but strong voice.  I know nothing about music, but as much as I can appreciate well-written lyrics and a good voice, for me it’s all about the musical arrangements - the subtle, powerful engine working away beneath the voice and words.  And this was the first time I became aware of a structure leading me through a song, soaring, hovering, darting - surging.

“Who’s that?!” I asked guilelessly - with my eternal cluelessness for coolness. 
“It’s... David...  Bowie...” someone replied slowly, with equal amounts of astonishment and disdain.  The song was Changes and I was hooked forever...
I bought the album the following week, my first ever.

And suddenly, I became aware that Bowie was everywhere - he always had been, of course.
Every party and school dance seemed to end with the single Heroes - your face, flushed from the exertions of a night throwing shapes, resting against your partners’ hot cheek as you shuffled in slow circles, usually with eyes closed.
I puzzled over this ritual - why is it always Heroes?  “Because it’s a song of hope.” maintained my friend Mark, always wise beyond his years.

And just when we needed it - a new album and Australasian tour.  Serious Moonlight hit, as did trendily baggy trousers and perms with shaved sides.  We put on our red shoes and danced the night away.
My final New Year's before leaving home: Bowie’s 1984 blaring in the town square, because suddenly, it was.

So many memories, so many albums which I am so very unqualified to rave about.
The Man who fell to Earth has left, but I think his spaceship knows which way to go.

David Bowie: 1947 – 2016

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Yearly projections 2015

2015 at the movies: dinosaurs roared, the Millennium Falcon soared, spies warred and Marvel... bored.  In no particular order, here's my top 10...

Who wore orange and white best in 2015?

The Kings of Summer 

This small independent film is actually from 2013 - a coming of age tale which not only pokes fun at adolescent awkwardness but, in my case at least, actually encourages tears of laughter.  This is no crass teen comedy though, but a beautifully told story where the humour flows naturally from quirky characters and human interaction in all its glorious ungainliness.  The ’T-shirt scene’ alone is worth the rental.

The Man from Uncle

It’s been a 'spy-heavy' year. However, Spectre was merely good and Kingsman completely lost me in the relentless vulgarity of its last act.  But the Man from Uncle did everything right, from the chemistry of its two stars, the meticulously-achieved period setting and deft balancing of great action and comedy.  Add Hugh Grant’s best cameo ever, and I really want to see more from Solo and Kuryakin.


Remember those Wonderful World of Disney ‘dog stories’ which you’d often get instead of cartoons on Sunday nights? Max is one of those writ large - an old-fashioned, engaging family drama which also doesn’t flinch from the realities of US forces overseas involvement and its wider effects on servicemen and their loved ones.  German Shepherds don’t seem to care for me, but I really liked Max.


This was actually released a couple of weeks before 2015 began.  So much could have gone wrong with this unrequested update of a near-obsolete children's character from a bygone age, but instead Paddington triumphs in every possible area.  A top notch cast combine with a special effect which you instantly accept being as real a person as they are, and then the non-stop fun begins.  A total delight.

Star Wars episode 7: The Force Awakens

Yes, we KNOW it’s largely a retread, reboot, rehash, ‘re-quel’ - but that’s exactly what legends have always been. And we’re now left in very good hands for the new adventures ahead in less than a year’s time.  There’s never been a better time to be a  Star Wars fan - and you guys are still complaining?

Mad Max: Fury Road

Shave her head, smear diesel all over her face, even remove an arm - and Charlize Theron still looks amazing. I think that might be Tom Hardy in the passenger seat.
I heard someone say that this film was like having your face shouted into for a couple of hours.  Yes it was. And their point is?


That rarest of beasts - a film which deserves to call itself a comedy. Barely a single, solitary gag failed to ignite - and there are a hell of a lot of them.  Rose Byrne is a potty-mouthed Goddess.

Jurassic World

I cannot understand all the hate for this film. I bet Marvel couldn’t either when it out-grossed 'Ages of Dulltron'.  Of course it isn’t perfect but personally, it gave me everything I wanted and more - I might have even cheered when a certain star from the first film puts in a late appearance to save the day.

Far from the madding Crowd

I remembered the 1969 version more than I realised when I saw this.  But this adaptation is one of those films so beautifully shot that any random freeze frame would be worth printing.  It’s a sweeping tale with more than it’s share of woe, but that makes the sweeter moments all the more so.


I suspect this cinematography is as close as most of us will ever get to climbing the mountain. And it also pays tribute to a modern Kiwi legend - the story of Rob Hall and his final phone call from the top of the world.  Spectacular and moving, as it should be.

Honorary mentions:
The Martian - for best soundtrack
Mr Holmes - Best performance:would definitely be on this list if we'd been able to see the whole film
Ex Machina - Best eco-home

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Girl Powered

Breaking Bad meets The Matrix, meets Doctor Who (casting-wise,
at least), in Daredevil’s neighbourhood - how could that ever
not be the best thing ever?

Well, it very nearly is.  Whereas this was the year where Marvel films really started to let their formula show - neither Ant Man or ‘Ages of Dull-tron’ will be on my top ten list for 2015 - the smaller screen was where the house of Spidey triumphed.  Even Agents of Shield appeared to settle down a little and try to weave it’s multitude of wildly thrashing plot threads into a coherent storyline (take note Avengers). 
But the real revelation was Daredevil; shaking off the spectre of a badly received early 2000’s film adaptation to deliver a powerhouse action-drama series which just happened to feature a superhero, who doesn’t even get his costume until the final episode.
So that was already enough to make me confident that Marvel owned the tube (I’m enjoying Supergirl but still haven’t bothered with Arrow or Flash - sorry DC), and then along came Jessica Jones

"Judge me by my size, would you?"
I had no idea who this character was, beyond the fact that she and two other third tier Marvel titles were eventually going to combine with Daredevil to form a (Quote): “Gritty street-level Avengers-style team”.
A quick look at Wikipedia didn’t do much to fill me with confidence, either - a post-traumatic stress-disordered former superheroine, shaken so badly by an encounter with a mind controlling villain that she’s hung up her costume and is essentially living the life of a victim, sounded frankly awful.

However, so much shared DNA with the sublime Daredevil series couldn’t be all bad, and the fact that there was such a strong behind the camera representation of women producing, writing and directing assured me that this wasn’t going to be a story sensationalising female vulnerability.
Any lingering doubts were blown away as soon as lead Krysten Ritter appears on screen.  Previously seen in Breaking Bad as another feisty character, she is a real piece of work here. Exuding attitude (and screen presence) at toxic levels, Jessica Jones is self-admittedly rude to everyone, hard-drinking, hard-talking (the F-bomb in a Marvel series!), and when the situation calls for it, hard-fighting too. Ritter’s uncompromising performance makes her largely unexplained powers the least-interesting part of her characterisation - she’s quite formidable enough without them.

Luke Cage: No 'fro under that helmet, sadly.
With New York being what it is in the Marvel universe she soon becomes involved with another ‘special’ person, although neither suspect the other’s abilities initially.  I was aware of ‘Luke Cage: Power Man’ when I  read the occasional Marvel comic in the mid 70s.  Back then he sported a wicked ‘fro, which has since been updated to the standard issue shaven head, (and a certain Nicolas Coppola borrowed the character’s surname when he became an actor).  He’s a man of few words, and unfortunately he and Jones have a tangled and tragic past history which will severely test their relationship.
Luke Cage is destined for his own series next, and Mike Colter’s charismatic performance certainly justifies it.  But this is Jessica Jones’ show, and for now he is something of an anomaly, because almost every other character is  a powerfully-portrayed woman.

Hey, Carrie-Anne. The first, and latest, modern breed of
science fiction superheroine combine forces.  Sort of...
Carrie-Anne Moss, who spearheaded the new kick-ass breed of female genre characters at the end of the 90s in the Matrix, is equally impressive as attorney Jeri Hogarth. Her wife, girlfriend, client and Jessica’s adopted sister Trish all round out the roster of formidable women, with a late tie-in appearance from Daredevil’s Rosario Dawson providing the icing on the cake.

Our villain, Kilgrave, is David Tennant getting his teeth into the role of a lifetime.  Like Fisk in Daredevil, this is a character so bereft of any moral code that he emerges through our usual expectations of a villain to become someone we find ourselves alternately hating and then sympathising with. His own potent super-ability makes him supremely dangerous and the purposes he puts it towards with his female victims (Jones included) leads the programme into very dark waters.

You may have faced down the daleks in the past,
but you really should consider running this time....
The fact that Jones initially leaves a trail of extremely bloody destruction in her wake, failing again and again to save those she’s promised to protect, compounds this.  Friends and even Jessica herself will lose faith in her ability to win through, but this is a rough ride worth hanging on for.

This isn’t a programme for your usual comic reader.  If you want a bloodless, asexual superheroine series watch CBS’s Supergirl (I’m a fan. none-the-less), but if you can take something with considerably more bite and emotional resonance, take a walk through the Netflix Hell’s Kitchen, instead. This story of a damaged and guilt-stricken character eventually finding redemption and her own potential for good makes the caustic Ms Jones possibly the most relatable and human superhero ever put on screen.
Highly recommended.