Sunday, 19 January 2020

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau


Soul Survivors

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau
USA 2014 Directed by David Gregory
Severin Films/Nucleus Films  Blu Ray Zone B


Richard Stanley is one of those directors I’ve always liked... and I finally got to experience him in the flesh last year in a Q&A about his latest movie Colour Out Of Space (reviewed here). I’ve never much been interested in seeing the misstep of a movie adaptation of The Island Of Dr. Moreau that Stanley was fired from and which was reshaped and made into the disasterous production starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer as director John Frankenheimer tried to resurrect a phoenix from the ashes of Stanley’s pre-production but I have, over the years, been fascinated by some of the stories coming off the experience so I’m glad I, almost accidentally, stumbled on this relatively recent documentary about how this happened here.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau is, as is to be expected, a lot of talking heads but the various heads that are talking here, including sizeable contributions from Stanley himself, are such that this does make a fascinating documentary. Intercut with quick scenes from Frankenheimer’s disastrous finished project for New Line, it goes back right to the kernel of the project with Stanley explaining all the ideas that came from H. G. Well’s famous novel, why he wanted to do a legitimate version of it in the wake of some historically poor adaptations of the material and all of the bad luck which dogged the project leading to his return, after going AWOL for a long time in the jungle, as a ‘dog-man’ extra in the film, unable to reveal his face to the majority of the cast and crew for fear of being prosecuted and not collecting his rejection fee. He’s in the final cut though.

Graham Humphries also turns up with the original concept art he did to help Stanley secure the green light on the film initially... indeed, he also did the cover art for this documentary release. He’s one of those people who seem to have turned up everywhere in the background of a lot of projects I’ve been watching or reading lately so, yeah, it feels almost like fate drew me to this one.

There are some great anecdotes about the politics and mechanics of a film that goes completely wrong which are, in fact, well... maybe not as opulent as the original director covertly returning to star in the film as a dog-man but, certainly, a lot more enlightening about how some of these kinds of train wrecks happen and, frankly, at this point in his career, I would have thought that anyone wanting to work a film set with Brando was kind of tempting fate a little too heavily anyway. Brando’s dead now, of course, so this tale of stardom gone mad, which is in some ways a rerun on a more absurd scale of the way in which he behaved on Apocalypse Now, can’t really hurt him. I tell you what though... if I were Val Kilmer then I don’t think I’d like to see many of these stories seeing the light of day. I’m amazed he went on to work on anything again after the way he comes across, second hand, in this and it’s really no surprise that he’s not in this documentary in anything other than photos, original footage and remembrances.

As with anything connected with Richard Stanley, there seems to be an almost supernatural hand in the way this production was put together, as he employed a witch to cast ‘fixing spells’ on his first meeting with Brando... who subsequently took to Stanley like a fish to water. The death of a couple of people involved in, somewhat, strangely grim ways, including the witch himself (you’ll have to watch the documentary to find out what happened to him) and the way that all the bad things came together at the same time Stanley was more or less fired from the project, are mentioned here and make you wonder just what kind of bizarre creatures of the nether-world that Stanley has stalking him... in either a positive or negative manner.

The film is also fairly educational to a layman like me. I’ve read stories featuring the Dr. Moreau character over the years but never Wells original novel (although I have read a number of his other works) and I had no idea that Wells had a falling out with Joseph Conrad when Conrad published Heart Of Darknesss a few years later which, allegedly, has a central character based on Moreau in a novel which has the same structure as Wells own. Conrad is said to have based the Kurtz character on Henry Morton Stanley (who famously said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”) who, it turns out, is a direct ancestor of Richard Stanley. As far as the Brando behaviour repeating from Apocalypse Now goes... Apocalypse Now is, of course, Francis Ford Coppolla’s take on Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness... so even there, there is a strange kind of spooky symmetry going on, I think. Although that last bit about Brando is not a connection I remember any of them making in this documentary.

It’s extraordinary though, especially Stanley and Fairuza Balk, who was a good friend of Stanley at the time and who was one of the stars of the movie... both the original as it was to be attempted and then again, much against her will it would seem, the fiasco of a version of it that eventually materialised.

As you would expect from Severin Films, the disc is full of extras including a 48 minute series of outtakes of Stanley, followed by some shorter out-takes sections by other cast and crew members, of fascinating stories which never made it into the final cut. It’s interesting stuff and, as I’ve said before, Stanley’s almost soporific accent combined with a keen intellect and ‘mile a minute’ rapidity of speech were always, even on their own, going to be worth the price of admission here.

Bottom line, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau is a great little curio about how a perfectly good film can turn into a nightmare for so many people in some unlikely ways. If you love the cinema then you would surely find this an insightful and fascinating project and it has much to be recommended. I’m glad I got the chance to see this one.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Welcome To Marwencol


A Figure Perspective

Welcome To Marwencol
by Mark Hogancamp & Chris Shellen
Princeton Architectural Press ISBN: 9781616894153


Welcome To Marwencol is a beautiful book that I was given by somebody special in my life for Christmas. It’s a gorgeous tome telling the story of artist Mark Hogancamp and highlighting some of his photographic work after he recreated himself in the wake of an almost life ending event. If any of this is ringing any bells then you should take a look at the movie about this guy, where he is played by Steve Carell, called Welcome To Marwen, which I reviewed last year here (and which ranked quite highly in my end of year films list). There’s also a documentary film about him called Marwencol which I will need to catch up to at some point soon.

Like many biopics, the Steve Carrel movie made a fair few minor changes to the truth of the situation and this book, which showcases Hogancamp’s work, seems somehow more up to date (even though it preceded the Hollywood biopic). It’s also a fairly depressing story and it goes something like this.

Ex navy man, illustrator and alcoholic Mark Hogancamp was in a bar one night when he admitted to somebody in there that he was a cross dresser. As he was leaving the bar, the guy he’d been talking to and several of his friends jumped Hogancamp and gave him a seriously life threatening beating which he almost didn’t survive. He was placed in an induced coma for quite some time because the injuries were so awful as his face was peeled back and the doctors gave him a prosthetic eye socket to replace the one which had caved in. When he awoke, he managed to recover enough to be able to speak and move about again but he has no memories of his life before the beating. However, from what he could learn of it, he has tried to improve his outlook on life from what it was... including giving up his reliance on alcohol.

After the accident, he could no longer draw because his hand shook too much and he was initially afraid to venture outside his home for quite a while. But then he started to build the fictional, miniature town of Marwencol, in Belgium, perpetually stuck in a bubble that preserved the time to World War II. He populated this with heavily customised dolls and figures of alter egos of himself and friends and, even the five evil SS Men in the town who cause so much trouble for ‘Hoagy’ are based on his real life attackers. The plots to the adventures he ‘records’ photographically and in incredible detail, sometimes get quite convoluted... with very specific death rituals to truly kill an SS man, to stop them from re-spawning and... a time travelling witch called Deja Thoris (I guess Edgar Rice Burroughs fans will know where she gets her name from). There’s even another dimension with a knight who brings permanent death to the characters and a nazi encampment built around the other side of Hogancamp’s trailer where Hitler lives.

And it’s a wonderful book. The photographic artwork is truly beautiful, capturing a curious blend of gritty realism juxtaposed with a kind of fairytale whimsy. Fairytale whimsy with alcohol, cat fighting, torture and horrendous bullet wounds. These photos are really a labour of love and are dotted throughout the book which explores Hogancamp’s ‘recreation’ as a human being and then looks at his technique (to the point where he eventually embraces the digital camera... he’s a braver man than I).

The book also shows off a little of his early drawing skills and also the plans he knocks up now if he’s adding a new building to his ‘set’. There’s even a photographic plan of the town on a double page spread where most of the buildings are. And the final little extra dash of brilliance, for me, was the fact that Hogencamp’s scaled down alter ego is also busy building an even smaller model town as a hobby in his plastic reality... there’s a wonderful shot of the figure with a box housing two very small figures. It’s great stuff.

The final third of the book houses a photographic comic strip... like those old Fotonovel’s from the 1970s and 80s, telling tall tales of small people and its both charming and, sometimes, possibly a little unsettling too. But it is wonderful stuff and it's the kind of content I could look at for hours on end. I wish they’d do a show of his work here in London, England sometime.

Anyone who’s into the world of model making, miniatures, dolls and action figures would really like Welcome To Marwencol and its a definite recommendation from me (as was the movie). I can only hope that there’s a follow up volume sometime soon and I would love to see some of the comic panels as larger shots, unencumbered by the commentary. For more information on Marwencol and to buy this wonderful book, go to http://marwencol.com and may your stay in the town be as enjoyable as mine was.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Doctor Who - Orphan 55


The Orphan Age

Doctor Who - Orphan 55
UK BBC1 Airdate: 12th January 2020


Warning: Here be spoilers.

Well this was pretty... to quote a friend... “Meh!”

I was less than excited when I saw the trailer for Orphan 55 because it looked like a standard, stereotypical Doctor Who story from the last few years. You know the kind... Doctor and companions arrive at luxury resort/planet/space station... take ten minutes to establish friends and characters and then hit the audience with the whole ‘actually it’s a bit of a deathtrap here’ spiel. And, guess what? That’s exactly what we got with this thing.

Actually, to be fair, this episode with Bradley Walsh’s Graham character activating some free tokens and teleporting The Doctor and companions out of the TARDIS and into a free two week vacation on a luxury resort wasn’t that terrible a set up, to be honest. Although it was pretty much the exact same set up as Kerblam! from last series. That being said, this one did manage to go down hill rapidly... primarily because a lot of the things which happen in it either didn’t make a whole lot of sense or were somehow contradictory.

So the fact that the luxury resort is held in by holographic walls and is actually built on an
orphaned’ world... so a planet that’s basically wiped itself out and is supposed to be empty and off limits... was all well and good. However, when it turned out to be the Earth in the future... well this was an unnecessary and unwanted plot twist and really doesn’t make sense in terms of series continuity with anything we’ve seen about the future of the planet before. And, frankly, the always good to watch Jodie Whitaker can go on about this being just one future for our planet in a host of possible timelines all she likes but there’s absolutely no evidence of that and... guess what? Our intrepid bunch of heroes don’t refute that timeline in any way, shape or form by the end of the episode so... yeah, I guess that future stands now, does it? As do all the other futures for Earth we’ve seen in the show. What happened to all those ‘fixed points in time’ moments we’ve been hearing about over the last few years? Makes no sense, right?

And the writing just generally seemed to be quite bad but I say seemed because it was, frankly, so sloppy that I suspect there must have been some production troubles with the episode. I really can’t believe this script was shot ‘as is’ because the dire contradictions and inexplicable incidents that made no sense would surely have been caught at the script stage? I’m guessing some scenes had to be improvised, rewritten or ‘written in’ without the time to worry about the consequences. This is all just a guess on my part but... well... watch it and see what you think.

So you had a lovely, elderly couple who became separated and when you did ‘hear’ the missing guy towards the end of the adventure... well, it seemed to make no sense. The character was hastily dropped out of the narrative, more or less, once he’d fulfilled his function to draw The Doctor and her companions out onto the surface of the planet. One wonders why they bothered building up these characters in the first place at all, to be honest.

But that was nothing compared to the amount of characters who sacrificed themselves to save the others by somehow offering themselves up to be... what, eaten? In order to slow a horde of creatures down? How was this working? How does one person slow a whole army of creatures down. And why does the young lad in this actually run off at some point? For no good reason other than to give the other characters something else to do, it seemed to me.

And for goodness sake, if you’ve set up the idea that leaving yourselves with a bunch of monsters and one gun which doesn’t really work because they can adapt to it is certain suicide... you don’t then suddenly have someone who was previously wounded and who selected this fate suddenly turn up from out of nowhere at the end, guns blazing, to buy The Doctor and the others more time to get off the planet. That makes no sense whatsoever. And should I mention that The Doctor didn’t bother going back in her TARDIS to save these poor buggers at the end? No, instead she made a really heavy handed speech about climate change which the audience really didn’t need to hear because, you know... we got it... and which went on for way too long. This was way beyond preachy.

Oh... and talking about the TARDIS. Once we’ve established that we're on future Earth in Russia... how the heck do the creatures understand Jodie Whitaker talking in English if they’ve evolved from Russians? The TARDIS is nowhere near them so the Universal translator which is projected in the near vicinity of the ship is not valid here. What’s going on? Have I missed something? Probably but... I’m almost past caring at this stage.

So, yeah, Orphan 55 was problematic at best and I’m going to try and forget this one. I’m also going to try and forget that the pre-order Blu Ray price for this series... for a measly ten episodes... is around £50. Seriously BBC? Do you think that’s anything approaching what this should be?

Anyway... as always I shall try and be a bit optimistic about what we may be getting in the next episode. Time will tell, I guess.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Cryptic Quiz Answers 2019


Cryptic Quiz Answers 2019

It’s that time of year when I reveal the answers to my Festive Cryptic Movie Quiz once again... so all of you who were playing can kick yourselves. Unusually this year, nobody got everything right but there was a clear winner with @matthematically who is someone from my Twitter timeline, scoring an impressive 14 out of 16. The two he didn’t figure out were numbers 1 and 8... which everyone had trouble with, to be fair.

So big congratulations to him and here are the ‘workings’ to this year’s answers revealed.

1. No identification... but it’s only half that you’re in.
Well another way of saying a half is ‘SEMI’. If you’re in it then that’s ‘INSEMI’ and then no identification could be abbreviated to ‘NO ID’. Put it all together and you have Norman J. Warren’s classic sci-fi horror INSEMINOID.

2. It’s dark but it’s all there.
If it’s dark then it’s possibly BLACK. If it’s all there (and not just, say, a half) then it’s WHOLE. Scrumble it all up into a film title and you have Walt Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE.

3. Back in the morning.
Well morning could be expressed as AM. Read it backwards and that’s MA.

4. MD peels back.
Similarly... MD is an abbreviation of Medical Doctor, so just keep the DOCTOR. Peels read backwards is SLEEP. So we have DOCTOR SLEEP.

5. They’re not in stereo.
If it’s not in stereo then it’s in MONO and if it's 'they're' it implies it’s plural so you get the movie MONOS.

6. Palindromic lady assassin.
So a movie title which is the name of the assassin character which is a palindrome... aka, it reads the same both ways... and we get Luc Besson’s ANNA.

7. Two days before tomorrow.
Well, yeah, that’s just simple maths. The day before tomorrow is today so the day before that would be YESTERDAY.

8. The absence of violent bloodshed.
Violent bloodshed could be considered GORE. When it’s absent it’s probably GONE. Put it together and you get Hammer Horror THE GORGON.

9. The ‘not very polite’ bee.
Something not very polite is RUDE (except spell it differently). A bee is literally just a B in front of it. So you get David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD.

10. His life lived backwards.
Lived read backwards is DEVIL.

11. Cannibal serial killer is promoted to the rank of colonel.
A cannibal serial killer could be Hannibal LECTER (spell it imaginatively folks). The rank of Colonel is often seen abbreviated to COL. Put it together and you have THE COLLECTOR.

12. He slipped into the trademark.
Trademark is TM. Slip HE into the middle of it and you get everybody’s favourite giant ant movie THEM!

13. The Sun God raises his hand at the auction.
A Sun God could be the Egyptian RA. What do you do at an auction? You BID for things. Put it together and you get David Cronenberg’s... or The Soska Sister’s... RABID.

14. Ellie isn’t around as this pachyderm takes over from Peter Lorre as a Fritz Lang serial killer.
A pachyderm could be an ELEPHANT. Take ELLIE or ELE out and you’re just left with PHANT. If it replaces Peter Lorre in the title role of the serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M, you get AS M. So Don Coscarelli’s classic horror film PHANTASM.

15. A file mix up ascends.
Scramble up the letters of FILE and you get LIFE. If it ascends then it must get HIGH. So HIGH LIFE.

16. Plus a scrambled, heavenly body that appears as a fixed, luminous point in the sky.
Plus could be expressed mathematically as ADD... but knock it down to AD. A heavenly body could be a STAR... but scramble it up to STRA. So you ‘add a stra’ and get AD ASTRA.

So there you have it. I hope some of you (preferably all of you) had fun trying to solve some of these and maybe I’ll do another next year if I get enough good feedback. Thank you for playing/reading.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Face It


The Dagwood Stage

Face It
by Debbie Harry
Harper Collins ISBN: 9780008229429


I don’t read that many autobiographies. Not for any strange reason... it’s just that there are very few people I’d be interested in knowing more about and they’re usually the ones who don’t write autobiographies. However, when I found out that Debbie Harry, lead singer of the group Blondie (among other things), had just written a tome I was well on board and it went straight onto my Christmas list.

It’s funny... I was never much into pop music when I was a kid (Is it still called pop music and does Blondie’s US punk variant aesthetic apply here to pop?). I was... and still am, I guess... someone who prefers to listen to a good movie score. So I never really ‘followed’ Blondie when they were at the absolute height of their powers in the late 1970s... but their music was a frequent backdrop on all the radio stations and television shows when I was in my teens and something must have seeped in because, after I discovered pop music had more to offer than what was at face value, sometime in the mid-1980s, Blondie was one of the first groups (after The Beatles, Kate Bush and Simon & Garfunkel) who I decided to check out. Like a gazillion other people, I bought the old vinyl LP (and a little later, the CD) called The Best Of Blondie and it was, as far as I could tell, absolutely filled to the brim with some amazingly strong and melodic songs. There literally wasn’t a bad one on there (although, I admit it took me a while to get into Atomic) and seemed to me like a collection of fairly sophisticated songs. It wasn’t long before I explored some of their other albums and my favourite one, with also the best cover art, would have to be their Autoamerican album. I used to listen to that one a lot.

So here I am, having just finished Ms. Harry’s new book Face It and, as I’d kinda expected actually, it charmed the pants off me. This is a, more or less, chronological take on her life from childhood to the present but the structure, while certainly there, is a little looser and more flexible than some other autobiographies I’ve read. Debbie will think nothing of making a quick deviation here and there, jumping backwards and forwards in time to suddenly cover something which she feels needs to be... or maybe it would be more fun being... grouped together thematically with something else.

She seems to have lead an interesting life and the book is not, I’m happy to say, just a series of behind the scenes anecdotes to various concerts and recording sessions... these are here too but they take the form of ‘easy to swallow’ asides and it’s all gleefully mixed into the potpourri of her life in a way that is both jarring and complimentary 'both' at the same time. There are also little interpenetrating sections where various pieces of ‘fan art’ is showcased with introductory commentary by her and this, apparently, is where the title of this book comes in... since they mostly all depict her face.

Some of the movies she’s made such as Videodrome and Union City get a respectable amount of ink while others are sometimes just whispered in passing as she cruises past little pockets of her life which, as she says in her last chapter, leaves the audience... or readers, I guess... wanting more. I would have certainly liked to have learned something more about the making of a wonderful film she’s in called My Life Without Me so, if she writes a second volume of this anytime soon, I’ll be first in line.

So, yeah, the book is full of amazing facts and interesting attitudes to events that have happened to her in her time. For instance, the way she seems to take a rape/assault coupled with a robbery in her stride is perhaps a little telling of how comfortable and confident she is in her skin... many people would not be able to do that as seemingly lightly as she does here. There’s also a lovely moment where she reveals that she slept with actor Harry Dean Stanton a couple of times. The first word that sprang to mind when I read that little reveal was... “Legend!” Although I’m not sure if I meant that in regard to Debbie H or Harry D. On reflection... I think it pretty much meant both of them, to be honest.

There’s also the quirky and sometimes quite informative and intelligent side to her personae given room to thrive here too. For example, one chapter starts off with her explaining what she believes the phenomenon of ‘coincidence’ is actually about. Another chapter might concentrate almost totally on the usefulness of having thumbs... opposable ones at that. And, of course, sometimes what’s left almost unsaid in the book is what lingers most in the memory but, of course, as above... leave them wanting more.

Ultimately, this was a real breeze to read and, in places, quite thought provoking too. I got the feeling that the writer herself thought she was being a little too dark in places and has tried to compensate for that but, honestly, I think it’s a much lighter, fluffier book than she realises and, of course, that also makes it a very entertaining and most welcome tome to sit and ponder. Alas, my favourite song of hers, the one I always play first when I revisit her music... Here’s Looking At You... doesn’t seem to get a mention but that’s okay, the spirit of her vocals seemed to me infused into the pages so I didn’t really miss it as the writer sprayed her initials across the pavement, so to speak.

So yeah, Face It is a great read, something I’d definitely recommend to fans of Blondie and outsiders such as myself, who don’t have any idea of what its like to live in the ‘New York scene’ of various decades and who can, at least, get a flavour of what it was like there. I really enjoyed this little peek into Debbie’s world and all I can say is, I hope she gets the time and motivation to bring out a second volume some day. I’d definitely like to know a little more.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Doctor Who - Spyfall Part 2



Deton-Ada

Doctor Who - Spyfall Part 2
Airdate: 5th January 2020
BBC 1


Warning: Slight spoilers regarding the future of The Doctor’s origins.

Well, that one was certainly... something. I’m not sure what but it was certainly... an episode of the new series of Doctor Who.

Nah... I’d like to just leave it there but I can’t.

There’s something which has kinda been happening a lot recently with the show... ever since Russell T. Davies left and Moffat jumped on board and then, carrying through to the present. And it’s the phenomenon of starting off either stories or, more often than not, arcs with a bang and then not following through on them with anything like a satisfying conclusion. And that seems to be what happened here.

Last episode (reviewed here) we started with a mad rush of humour and spy spoof and I was thoroughly caught up in it. This week... well it’s not completely terrible but it did seem to kind of fizzle out a bit and, while I admire the chaos and friction of jumping through different time periods and picking up strays... such as Ada Lovelace lobbing miniature hand grenades... as The Doctor goes on her merry adventures, well.... I dunno, it just felt a bit dull to me this week.

The cast, as usual, were all excellent. I really like Jodie and her friends as The Doctor and her companions but, honestly, I think the scripts are a bit hit and miss and that’s especially infuriating when you’re halfway through a story and it kinda loses impetus.

Sacha Dhawan was okay as the new version of The Master... although I’m the only one who seems to like him in the house. His performance was a lot less histrionic than last week and I think he’ll hopefully improve as the series progresses... and due to the nature of the underlying story arc I’m sure we’ll be seeing him reprising that role before the series is finished. Having said that, I’ve still no idea how the heck The Master survived after his/her final death in the Peter Capaldi stories so... I hope they don’t just leave that one with a big question mark over it.

There were some nice things with Bradley Walsh hogging a lot of the best lines. I loved his little tap dancing laser shoes and the way he used them. That brought some much needed humour to a mostly dark episode... when you start using Nazi imagery and seasoning it with some heavily noirish atmosphere then, unlike some of the other Doctor Who shows that have used that period, you’re not necessarily going to invoke a miasma of fun. Of course, the argument is that you shouldn’t anyway but it depends on the message you’re pushing and I somehow didn’t think the gravitas of this period really matched what was going on in the rest of the episode so well.

My real big worry is how the show will progress now. As each new show runner has come along, they’ve usually tried to either change or add to the underlying mythos of Doctor Who a bit. Davies did it, Moffat did it and now it looks like Chibnall is also trying to do it. as well. This might mean he’s already on his way out and, if he goes towards the end of the season, he may well take some of the cast with him, is my guess. Is a regeneration on the cards anytime soon? If it comes to it, I’d rather that than a cancellation of the show outright but we shall see.

So, yeah, we have some serious implications here, via a recorded message from The Master, that there is something amiss with the origins of the Timelords on The Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. So much so that The Master burned the planet to the ground as a result of hearing what that ‘betrayal’ was. Maybe it's a Rassilon or Omega thing... who knows? Of course, this could all blow over but I suspect the show runner wants to put his stamp on the history of the character before his tenure is done and so I suspect this will possibly be leading to a kind of soft reboot of The Doctor in some way, to a lesser extent. For all I know The Master and The Doctor are aspects of the same person but... we shall see.

That being said, it could all just be something which we’ll look back on and point accusatory fingers at the BBC for in the future... after all, is anyone asking about The Valeyard lately? I think there’s definitely some underlying tinkering going on here and while I loved what Davies did with the history of the show... which was kind of retracted in the Moffat era when Gallifrey was alive and well but then hidden away to materialise at a later date... I don’t think all this unnecessary tinkering with the basic plot mechanics is particularly good for the people who have grown up with the show from various decades.

So, yeah, big tonal change on this one. Lots of drama and gravitas but a deadly serious, dark edge which, while not completely unwelcome, doesn’t really sit as well alongside the set up episode, I think. There was a distinct shift in tone which, frankly, could have worked well and been a genius touch but... I don’t think it was here. At least, it didn’t quite do it for me.

Oh well, the next episode looks much less interesting so, with my expectations set relatively low again, I can only hope it will get better again soon. Luckily, there’s a doctor in the house.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Dracula (2020)



Leaving Demeter Running

Dracula (2020)
Airdate: 1st, 2nd and 3rd January 2020
BBC 1 Three Episodes


Warning: Yep... spoilers residing within.
Don’t read this if you don’t want to know.


So this was unexpected.

As you know I find the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss a bit hit and miss... sometimes I find it brilliant and at other times, beyond irritating and disappointing. Well, I have to say, this one exceeded any hopes I had for it and managed to be quite spectacularly entertaining throughout each of the three episodes. Quite wonderful stuff.

Now I complained bitterly just recently and on this very blog, when the BBC did a free and easy excuse for an ‘adaptation’ of War Of The Worlds... mutilated more like it (which I reviewed here). I would almost have been much more happy to accept it, I suspect, if there had been at least one ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel before the BBC did what they did to it... possibly not because, it was indeed terrible but at least there would have been a history of adaptation so that people could now have a go at legitimately subverting the source.

Dracula is completely different territory. There have been lots of good adaptations already... not of the novel which, I suspect, still hasn’t been done properly, but of the 1924 stage version Hamilton Dean wrote from the Bram Stoker novel, which had major simplifications to the book and which he knew would play better as a visual spectacle. In fact, it’s quite likely that most of the versions subsequent to the two 1931 versions of Dracula from Universal are based on the John L. Balderston revisions to that adaptation, if memory serves.

So I’m not uptight about bothering to do the novel again and also, there have been enough straight adaptations now of the play that I can easily forgive people doing their own thing with Stoker’s fascinating Count. After all, how would I be able to enjoy movies like Son Of Dracula, Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein or Dracula Vs Frankenstein without being able to let go of the original. So, yeah, I wasn’t expecting to see a straight adaptation which is just as well, although Moffat and Gatiss have certainly infused this new version with a lot of the same plot points, often disguised and embedded into the DNA of the thing rather than ticking the boxes in a more conventional manner.

Also, they have been rather clever for people who have enjoyed various versions of Dracula over the years and, I have to say, they won me over really quickly. After the setting up of a ‘start to mid-point’ framing device in the first episode (a flashback and then forward technique which they use, to an extent, in all three episodes), the first ten minutes or so of Episode One is almost a straight remake of the early scenes of the two 1931 Universal versions. Right down to the line readings and arrangement of the dialogue. Honestly, the only things which were missing and, it has to be said once I’d seen what they were doing, pining for, were the girl quoting “Around the rugged rock...” and the appearance of a total non-sequiter of an armadillo in Castle Dracula. And, honestly, if they had actually put the armadillo in I would have been ecstatic.

As it was though, the way the story is done in the first episode as a recollection from the now ‘vamped up’ Jonathan Harker (played by John Heffernan) and Sister Agatha Van Helsing (played by Dolly Wells, who also plays her ancestor in the third episode), was absolutely ingenious and though a good deal of the ‘surprise’ moments were, actually, not all that surprising, Moffat and Gatiss do have a few moments up their sleeve and, especially at the end of the second episode, did manage to blind side me a couple of times... so that’s good.

The second episode was actually my favourite, which tells of the journey to Whitby on the Demeter but, with a wonderful twist at the end and, honestly, quite a different version of the voyage which was established cinematically, originally, in the 1922 version of Nosferatu (one of my two blog title namesakes). And, frankly, the final twist of the second... which has a much different line reading from when we see it again when revisited in the third (Dolly Wells is definitely delivering it as Agatha at the end of episode two and as Dr. Helsing in the third)... is bloody brilliant and reminded me of why I loved some of the early episodes of Sherlock so much.

There’s absolutely loads of good stuff I could say about the set design, the scoring, the way the camera frames some of the set ups, the graphic, artifical dream landscape glimpsed in the third episode etc but this would have to be a long review and that stuff is perhaps much better touched upon in a book about the show. But asides from some brilliant direction and top notch pacing throughout... often maintained by cutting the story in a non-linear way to break the flow and stop things from going on too long... we have to give credit, too, to the two brilliant actors who absolutely make this show their own.

I don’t know who Claes Bang is but his portrayal of Dracula and what he makes of the sometimes exquisitely playful lines he is given are absolutely first class. The chameleon shift from charming to brutal and back again really does help lift the show past what it might have been and you have to love this stuff.

But then... even he is upstaged in this. Dolly Wells’ performance as Agatha Van Helsing and her modern day equivalent (and sometimes a cross pollination of both due to Agatha’s blood-memory being in the blood the modern incarnation of her drinks), is absolutely fantastic. The way she pulls off the wit of the lines and matches Claes Bang blow by verbal blow is just incredible and I would love to see more of this lady in this kind of role. Van Helsing and Dracula have absolutely brilliant chemistry together... which is quite right, after all.

And of course, the other thing is, despite there being no armadillo, the way that Moffat and Gatiss pepper the show with both subtle and often quite blatant references to, not just Dracula’s cinematic and literary history but also other gothic or cinematically sympathetic moments, is wonderful and enrich the show for some of us who might be getting a bit tired of the abundance of Dracula at this point.

So yeah, asides from the Universal and Balderston parallels I mentioned earlier, we had the castle in the first episode actually ‘played’ by the exact same castle that F.W. Murnau shot his 1922 Nosferatu variant of the story in. There’s a wonderful moment in the first episode, where Harker runs into the full on ‘younged up’ version of Dracula which is absolutely an obvious homage to the ‘animal predator’ version of Christopher Lee’s wonderful portrayal from the Hammer Dracula movies... red contact lenses too (or some CGI trickery).

My stand out favourites, among other things you may or may not have caught, were the opening of the second episode being an homage to The Beast With Five Fingers, a version of Vincent Price’s sunglasses from the AIP movie version of Tomb Of Ligeia and a blue version of the carpet pattern from Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining adorning Dr. Seward’s wallpaper. My favourite one of all, though, was the hospital room Dr. Helsing is a patient in during episode three... AD/072... being a less than subtle reference to my all-time favourite Hammer Dracula movie, Dracula AD 1972. Wonderful stuff.

it was perhaps less than wonderful to see the guy fro the annoying Cineworld campaign show up as the Texan, Quincey, from the novel but... I guess it’s good that he’s getting work in the business and I wish him well. However, the supporting cast of loads of modern character actors that you never really remember the names of was also superb and there were even some ironic vampire names amongst the supporting characters too (cough... Lord Ruthven... cough).

Finally... and I know some people had a problem with it... but I also loved the ending. Not just the sacrificial romantic sentiment but also the way it was shot... which was an absolute dead steal from the movie version of The Final Programme (reviewed here) which is one of my favourite movies of one of my favourite literary heroes. It almost even kind of made sense at this point because this version of Dracula, transposed to modern times, was beginning to get a little more like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius character as the show progressed to its conclusion so, I’m absolutely convinced that Moffat and Gatiss would do something interesting with that character, should Moorcock ever give his blessing.

The only flaw I could find in the production... asides from Agatha’s floating dead body still being visible and 'out of time' in the shot as Dracula leaves his underwater coffin at the end of the second episode... was the fact that, at the end of the first episode... Mina definitely invites ‘Johnny’ into the chamber, specifically by name... and not Dracula. It could be argued, perhaps, that since Dracula was, quite literally, wearing Harker’s face at this point that he was also, in fact, Harker but I think that’s pushing it a bit. Still, there could be a case to be made so let’s just sweep that little slip up under the bloodstains and enjoy the production for what it is.

And that’s me done with the new Dracula. Absolutely loved it for many reasons and I’ll definitely be picking up the score CD at the end of January and the Blu Ray in a month or two. A solid and interesting effort and a worthy and blisteringly entertaining addition to the vast array of cinematic and television Dracula’s of the last 100 years. Beautiful work.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Doctor Who - Spyfall



Expect Her

Doctor Who - Spyfall
Airdate: 1st January 2020
BBC 1


Warning: Spoilers in this one... you have been warned.

Right then. Here we are for Series 38 of Doctor Who and they’ve managed to slash budgets even more than the last series, it looks like, by not only cheating us out of a Christmas special once again but, also, making the so-called ‘New Years Day special’ part one of a two part story in what is a series consisting of only ten episodes. Good grief, what a comedown. Back in the day you’d get a minimum of six multi-part stories per season with the smallest story usually being no less than four 25 minute episodes. So we’re definitely short an hour or two here at the very least.

Never mind... as it happens, Spyfall wasn’t a bad episode. Well, I liked it anyway... everybody else in the house hated it and I might have trouble getting the television for the next episode but I’ll do my best.

So, we have an espionage themed story and, true to some things I’d read lately, the episode was a little darker in tone and felt a little more dangerous. Also, it was going for a James Bond-esque tone which, at times it did very well. Early on in, I think it was in the third section of the pre-credits sequence, there was some scoring which was definitely trying to sound like John Barry and, later in the episode, there were some definite nods to the David Arnold style Bond scores as well, I think.

The appropriate scoring plus the great chemistry between the usual team of Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor and Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole all lent a certain credibility to the sense of pastiche and assured the whole thing was carried off to a high standard. Stephen Fry as the head of MI5 and Lenny Henry as this story’s villain also did a good job, Henry playing against type pretty well and getting away with it superbly. Not a ‘de condensed milk’ sandwich in sight.

And then there was the surprise villain. Since we already saw The Master kill his future self, Missy, dead 'for good' with the inability to further regenerate, I’m going to assume that the new incarnation of The Master, played by Sacha Dhawan, is an earlier incarnation that we... and somehow, The Doctor... haven’t seen before. I hope so because, frankly, it’s sloppy writing to just having no excuse for bringing The Doctor’s long running arch enemy (first introduced in the Pertwee era) back from the dead again and again. So... yeah, lets leave that on a back burner for now. I wasn’t as impressed with his performance as I was with the others but it’s early days for this version of the character and so I’m hoping some of his more irritating mannerisms will be dropped before long.

And... there’s actually not too much more to say about this one, I think.

There was a little more action than some of the latest stories but the script isn’t too bad and, unlike many in Whittaker’s first season, it doesn’t waste the actors on a terrible story. Well, part one doesn’t at least. I’m not a hundred percent convinced that the alien beings are enemies we haven’t seen before either... if they turn out to actually be there at all. There is a large element of smoke and mirrors in this one and it wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of either the second part or the entire series, things are revealed to be an illusion of some sort. Certainly the forest of what looks like a hanging nervous system implies that there could be a whole lot less to things than we might expect. And the reason the sonic screwdriver is being no help is because there’s nothing to register? Just a guess mind you... I’m sure all will be revealed soon.

Now, one of the complaints from the people I watched it with was that the series had lost its sense of fun. Well... I think Id disagree with that one too and I kinda like a darker version of the show, it puts me in mind of some of Tom Baker’s more sinister stories and the old complaints of ‘scaring the kids’ that has never really left the show since it first started in the 1960s. Frankly, if it’s giving the young ‘uns watching this nightmares then its doing it’s job as a good TV programme, arming blossoming viewers with the coping skills they’ll need in later life.

Anyway... Spyfall is a good opener and I’m kind of hoping against hope... although really not expecting... that the rest of this short series continues in this manner. Keeping my fingers crossed for this one.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

NUTS4R2’s Best Movies of 2019



The 19 Best Movies of 2019

Hi there, it’s that time of year again.

Here are my favourite movies of 2019, with a bit of a bias towards American movies it seems to me. Not that I didn’t see my fair share of foreign language movies this year... I just don’t think I saw that many truly great ones. As usual, there will be some films that people will wonder why they are absent here. Frankly, if I saw them screen a year early at a festival or something, then they are films I saw in the cinema last year and would have been eligible for last year’s list. That’s right... all the films on this list are films that got, at the very least, a cinema release or random screening over here in the UK this year.

My one big regret is that Jay And Silent Bob Rebooted couldn’t be on here. Normally a Kevin Smith movie would score very high on my scale but, unfortunately, due to some bad ‘real life’ timing, I couldn’t use the ticket I’d bought to one of the... actually quite rare... screenings in this country. Why it was rare I don’t know. Surely the studio’s must realise that a new Jay And Silent Bob movie is an even bigger draw than a new Star Wars movie but... nope, apparently they are all just a bit out of touch. So, alas, I’ve not seen it yet.

I’m guessing there’s at least one movie on this list that won’t even get a UK release unless I’m very lucky. That usually happens with stuff I see in festivals but... at least it’s recorded here.

There are two big surprises for me about this year’s list. One is that, since Avengers - Infinity War was my favourite film of last year, I was expecting the direct sequel, Avengers - End Game, to be high up on this list. However, the Marvel movies this year were so bad (with End Game being the worst, logic challenged, ‘they’ll watch any old crap’ attempt to grab my money with no decent script example) that none of them made the list. Instead, the one truly great superhero movie, which was made by DC, is here instead. Sure, they got the central character a bit wrong and he wasn’t allowed to be called by his actual name due to Marvel having the rights and releasing their own film under that name this year but... it was still the only truly amazing superhero film this year.

The other big surprise is... if I were to get around to doing a ‘best scores of the year’ list (and because of this I now might)... it would look absolutely nothing like this list at all. The year was filled with marvellous, brilliant scores made for some truly terrible films... the Avengers movie in my last paragraph being a prime example. So... yeah, that might happen.

Anyway, I’m sure some of the cracking films on this list will be on some poor souls’ ‘worst of the year’ lists but that’s okay... I know my list is much, much better. ;-)

19. Madness In The Method
Jason Mewes’ directed this Eight And A Half meets slasher movie Madness In The Method, which sees the director playing a slightly fictionalised version of himself, as he tries to get a part playing anything other than the ‘stoner stereotype’ he plays in the Jay And Silent Bob movies. I think my favourite bit is when Vinnie Jones kicks the big firecracker. You can read my review of this movie, which I saw screened at FrightFest, right here... http://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/08/madness-in-method.html

18. Destroyer
This gritty tale in which Nicole Kidman plays a washed up cop, marvelled audiences, me included, with a great ending reliant on those watching decoding the structure of the way the movie plays out in the wrong order. Destroyer is a brilliant sleight of hand movie and the only one I’ve seen that has a ‘handjob for information’ scene in it (which was apparently removed from the airline version which my cousin saw on the way over from Australia). My review of this one is here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/01/destroyer.html

17. Colour Out Of Space
So here we celebrate the return of director/creator Richard Stanley with a movie based on the H. P. Lovecraft story, The Colour Out Of Space. It’s a nice, old fashioned horror movie, a bit out of its time and it certainly harkens back to the days of the 1960s AIP releases in tone and style. Which is probably exactly why I loved it so much. You can read my review of this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/10/colour-out-of-space.html

16. Doctor Sleep
Mike Flanagan’s ‘adaptation’ of one of Stephen King’s best books is not without its problems but even though the last third or so of Doctor Sleep differs terribly from the book and changes things for the worst, it’s still not a bad movie and a nice sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. It’s just not a patch on the source novel but the Newton Brothers score, with it’s Dies Irae lifts from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score for Kubrick, is especially welcome. I reviewed this movie here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/11/doctor-sleep.html


15. Judy And Punch
A nice, completely fictional movie about the purported inventor of the Punch And Judy show is quite raw, in some ways, without ever really showing the violence it lingers on in the aftermath of any onscreen altercations. Judy And Punch is, in some ways, a bit of a feminist movie and it kind of wears this on its sleeve but it’s nothing less than brilliant throughout. You can read my full review here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/11/judy-and-punch.html

14. Charlie’s Angels
Everyone else seemed to hate the new Charlie’s Angels movie so let me be the voice of reason here and say... no, of course it was never going to be as good as the two McG cinematic masterpieces but... once you can get through the terrible opening sequence it turns out to be a pretty good movie after all. It even had a twist I didn’t see coming, which was nice. I reviewed this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/11/charlies-angels-2019.html

13. Ad Astra
Ad Astra was a wonderful mix of 2001 - A Space Odyssey and Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, where the absolutely brilliant journey of the movie wasn’t quite diluted by the incredibly anticlimactic last 20 minutes. It also had a nice score by, like, three people... according to the CD. My review is here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/09/ad-astra.html

12. Rabid (2019)
A surprisingly excellent and respectful remake of David Cronenberg’s Rabid by the brilliant Soska Sisters which deserved a proper cinema release over here, rather than just a few screenings. However, thanks to FrightFest, I at least got to see this gem on a big screen. You can read my take on this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/08/rabid-2019.html

11.  Happy Death Day 2U
After the brilliance of the first film, Happy Death Day 2U had to move into slightly sideways territory, rather than just be a second horror movie remake of Groundhog Day. It did this beautifully, managing to have its cake and eat it in a film which, alas, wasn’t as successful as the first in terms of revenue but was absolutely a great sequel with the promise, in the post credits scene, that there would be more on the way. Sadly, due to the aforementioned box office take, that’s now less than likely but I can still hope for more. I reviewed this here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/02/happy-death-day-2u.html

10.  The Antenna
Turkish film Bina aka The Antenna was a nicely strange movie... coming across as something of a cross between the two most interesting cinematic Davids... Lynch and Cronenberg... channeling Cthulhu mythos, this one also played out like something of a horror movie. Quite bizarre and I’m just hoping this gets a UK release at some point... although I kinda doubt it. My review is here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/10/the-antenna.html

9. The Banana Splits Movie
I used to love The Banana Splits as a kid so this new ‘kids show subverted to horror’ version was something I was completely embracing. Once the novelty value has worn off... which is in itself pretty cool... it’s actually a solid sci-fi/slasher movie. I loved it and I’m not even a fan of American slasher movies (I much prefer a nice, Italian giallo). I reviewed this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-banana-splits-movie.html

8. Star Wars Episode IX - The Rise Of Skywalker
The new Star Wars movie, episode nine in the chaptered series, is supposed to be the last one in that particular chain. Yeah, right. Give it twenty years or less and they’ll be trying to reassemble the surviving cast for another ‘handover’ trilogy. This one is by no means a great Star Wars movie but it’s a heck of a lot better than The Last Jedi and wisely, I think, chose to eradicate and twist the direction of that last movie. It didn’t necessarily do this in a great way but, frankly, I’m just relieved Abrams managed to bring the franchise back on track. My review for this one is here.... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/12/star-wars-episode-ix-rise-of-skywalker.html

7. Alita Battle Angel
With Alita Battle Angel, we all went to the cinema expecting a shallow spectacle. Well, we certainly got the spectacle but, surprisingly, we also got a wonderful, emotional film with a lot of heart and soul to it. I was completely charmed by Alita and would love to see the next part of her story. My thoughts on this one are here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/02/alita-battle-angel.html

6. Zombieland - Double Tap
Just like the first movie, I wasn’t expecting much from the new Zombieland sequel and, just like the first movie, I was pleasantly surprised by this one which, frankly, I enjoyed even more than the original. Looking forward to seeing this one again at some point and you can catch my review of it here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/10/zombieland-double-tap.html

5. SHAZAM!
This one was the only superhero movie that was any good this year... even though the central characters of Captain Marvel and Sivana, while looking somewhat like their comic book incarnations, were somewhat changed (heck, they even gave Cap some kind of projectile lightning powers). A brilliant film that doesn’t take itself too seriously while managing to tackle the issues of family being what you make it as opposed to what you are saddled with and, to boot, being a fine Christmas movie. I reviewed this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/04/shazam.html

4. Welcome To Marwen
Steve Carell, who I only really like in straight roles, plays real life artist Mark Hogencamp. I won’t spoil the story of this man’s unfortunate experiences which turned him into a World War II action figure photographer but I will say that this film manages to juggle the intimacy of the subject matter with absolutely amazing, spectacular special effects work, as the writers have Hogencamp’s art world taking over, Walter Mitty-like, from real life when he gets stressed out. I reviewed this absolute gem of a movie here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/01/welcome-to-marwen.html

3. Yesterday
I don’t usually like modern romantic comedies (give me Bringing Up Baby any time) but this one has such a unique premise of a world where various things are suddenly wiped out of existence, especially The Beatles, with a superb cast who really got you to care about their plight. Various elements introduced throughout assure that the story sustains itself over the whole running time... which is an achievement in itself. My review of this one is here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/08/yesterday.html

2. One Cut Of The Dead
You don’t want to know anything about this movie before going in. I told my dad before I showed it to him... this is going to seem like one of the worst zombie movies ever made for about 40 minutes. Don’t complain and go with it because... well, you’ll see. And then he spent the first 40 minutes complaining about how rubbish it was and then the end credits rolled and... then the film continues and the real film slowly begins to unfold. By the end of the movie, my dad actually called it a masterpiece and... well, he was right. My initial review of this wonderful movie is here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/01/one-cut-of-dead.html

1. The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot
Okay, so the title of this film suggests it’s either going to be a horror movie or, more than likely, a modern film trying to capture the spirit of an old exploitation movie. It’s neither, actually. What it really is, frankly, is actor Sam Elliot turning in the performance of his career in a movie which is truly touching and beautiful. Poignant and unforgettable, this easily walks away with the ‘Best Movie Of 2019’ title as far as I’m concerned and you can read my initial thoughts about this one here... https://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2019/04/the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then.html

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Quantum



A Range Of Chase

Quantum
by Patricia Cornwell
Thomas & Mercer ISBN: 9781542094061


She’s back... or at least one of my two literary ladies is?

My celebratory tone is because, for the first time in three years, I can resume my regular Christmas ritual... or part of it, at least. The part where I get given Patricia Cornwell’s latest Scarpetta book for Christmas and devour it within the next couple of days. This is often finished up with a second part to my Christmas ritual with another author’s book who, inexplicably, seemed to give up writing these things exactly the same year Cornwell did. Alas, her book isn’t due still until next year but then, so is the follow up to this one by Cornwell so, I’m just really happy to be reading the new Cornwell novel in my Christmas holidays once more... even though this one is not, nor probably will be for the forseeable future (if ever again), a Scarpetta mystery.

Instead, Quantum is the first entry in a series of books about a new character, Captain Calli Chase, who works for security (kind of, among other things) for NASA and who is possibly in the running for going up into space herself in a future adventure. Those who follow Cornwell on Twitter will know the amount of research that the author has done within NASA for this book and, even if you don’t lurk within her social media, you will surely know how detailed her books are so that the research that’s gone into this work is self evident.

Still, nervous as I was about going into a non-Scarpetta book by this writer... it’s not the first time she’s ventured into other characters and I don’t recall finishing off either of her other non-Scarpetta series... I’d have to say that her writing is as strong as its ever been here and, even if you’re missing Scarpetta, her voice is certainly in here because Cornwell’s writing style with her new character is pretty damn near to her former literary avatar.

I’ve said that detecting the same speech patterns etc within different characters in a book is a huge turn off in terms of buying into the world that a writer has created but, here, I think Cornwell gets away with it extremely well. We can hear Cornwell’s confidence and way of expressing things in her new main character, for sure. Especially since the books are written like the majority (not quite all) of the Scarpetta novels... in first person. However, there are some quirks to this character and her identical twin sister which also make this a vastly different read, in some ways, to her regular character’s work.

Also, like quite a few of her later novels in the Scarpetta series, time is compressed into quite a small period, taking place within the space of just over 24 hours in early December 2019. The plot is of an important upcoming installation of a top secret Quantum device in space, although the title also, I believe, refers metaphorically to the entanglements of personalities and shared traits of identical twins. However, deadly coincidences pointing to the sabotage of NASA’s plans are landing quite forcefully in Chase’s lap and everything she hears as her day gets worse, keeps landing back home with the possibility of her twin sister being more than just a little heavily implicated in the trail of corpses and security threats leading back to the base.

Die hard fans of Scarpetta needn’t worry too much about straying into radically different territory here. A large section of the book deals with working a murder scene, just as it probably would in one of Cornwell’s other novels and you certainly don’t get the impression she’s writing about anything she doesn’t know... it’s all very detailed. Also, that headlong dash towards the ending you often get with her work these days is clearly present, as things escalate very quickly within the last forty or so pages of the book, as NASA are counting down to the important installation in outer space.

So, yeah, a typical Cornwell style which, in my book, makes her probably one of the foremost writers of what I, not disparagingly, would call the modern pulp novel. She’s in good company and probably the absolute master... mistress?... of 21st Century mystery fiction and this first Chase story certainly demonstrates why she should be considered so.

I did have one huge problem within the first three pages, to be honest, when Captain Chase assumes the name of a connecting, underground tunnel beneath NASA, which is called Yellow Submarine, must have been so named so sometime after 1968, when the song came out. Frankly, I’m surprised both the character and Cornwell don’t realise the song dates from 1966 (when it was featured in the Revolver album... my personal favourite album by The Beatles) and so, yeah, the timeline established there is out slightly.... not that it matters or has any bearing on the rest of the novel. Actually, with things like this and the introduction of a ‘drive’ being named after Penny Lane, there is one way where this novel differs hugely from the Scarpetta series and that is with the abundance of modern pop culture references scattered throughout and peppered into Chase’s dialogue with the reader. We have little nods to Avengers - Infinity War, Mr. Spock and one of the characters has a Spider-Man ring tone on her phone. Heck, she even includes a paragraph on the murder of the immensely talented young actress and director Adrienne Shelly at one point... which made me both happy and sad at the same time, to be honest.

Now this is a first book for the characters so, yeah, the reader doesn’t have the usual pleasure of greeting previous regular characters in the series and smiling at their antics and, of course, worrying if they’re all going to make it through the pages alive at the end. So that’s something this book doesn’t have but... it does start to set up new characters for the future so, obviously, those pleasures are best waited for as the series gets written.

There is one character, for instance, who is only mentioned and never really glimpsed in the flesh... and mentioned a lot, believe me... so I can’t wait to meet this person in a later novel. And, frankly, since its all set in the same world of... well... what I call the ‘shady world of high level law enforcement and security’... then it’s almost certain, I think, that Scarpetta and, quite probably, her niece Lucy, will cross paths with Captain Chase at some point in the near future, once the series has been established.

So yeah, finally a non-Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell that I really liked and, while I suspect the content and the writing style are deliberately cushioning the readers to the way these books might progress, I think it’s all pretty great and frankly, when a writer includes such poetic prose as “the half page filled with her handwriting, tiny and flattened as if the words are too shy to raise their hands in class”, then you know you are in the hands of an absolute artist. Which of course, Patricia Cornwell is. So, yeah, Quantum gets a huge recommendation from me and, if you’re worried a new character may be a little too jarring after sticking with the Scarpetta character for so many decades... I’d say you don’t need to worry about that. This is an almost typical Cornwell book and, therefore, does what all you Scarpetta junkies need it to do. So get on it.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

23 Favourite Childhood Toys


Obscure Objects Of Desire

23 Favourite Childhood Toys
I’ve been thinking about my childhood a little recently, in light of some of the events of this year and... I had a lot of toys. Ranging from Spirograph to Lone Ranger action figures  (actually, a lot of varied Western action figures and also guns and holsters) to a multi-part assembling snipers rifle to ViewMaster to Etch-A-Sketch. I even had a Scalextric track and a Hornby train set with a replica of the Flying Scotsman (which had a thing which rubbed against the wheels as they turned to make it sound like a steam train too). My favourite toys, though, are briefly celebrated below and, if you’re of a certain age, they might hit you with a sudden flash of nostalgia or, you know, if you’re not, you might even find this listing mildly educational from a ‘what the heck, did they really play with these things’ point of view. Here they are then, in reverse order but, frankly, these were all brilliant, are 23 of my favourite toys of all time.

23. Haunted House (Denys Fisher)
This was a board game with a haunted house constructed out of cardboard walls and a plastic chimney into which, on occasion, you would be allowed to drop the dreaded 'Whammy Ball' down and then it would randomly drop onto one of the traps in one of the four rooms and take out one of the playing pieces if you happened to be perched on the wrong place at the wrong time... that player would have to start again. Much fun until the ball started to drop in exactly the same room each time and you’d have to fiddle with the chimney stack to get it back into a more random mode.


22. Starsky and Hutch Revolver (Lone Star)
I loved toy guns and this one, from the popular TV show Starsky and Hutch, had its own shoulder holster. Like almost all the other toy guns listed in this blog entry, it would also take caps if you happened to have any. Caps were literally small blobs of gunpowder on a strip of paper which you could tear off and load into your toy guns so you got a really loud bang when you pulled the trigger (and the smell of gunpowder in your nose). I suspect they don’t sell caps to kids in toy shops these days but, back in the 70s and 80s, they were everywhere.


21. Maskatron (Denys Fisher)
This was part of The Six Million Dollar Man range. I had the original Steve Austin figure with the engine he could lift and I also had the surprisingly entertaining Oscar Goldman figure with his exploding briefcase. Maskatron, however, was the best in the line with a robotic body including limbs and a head that could be spring ejected (or locked) at the touch of a button. Also, his sinister robot face could be covered with one of three masks so he could disguise himself while about his business... the business of villainy and death!


20. Astro Wars (Grandstand)
Astro Wars was a truly sophisticated, for its time, ‘hand held’ electronic game in the style of the arcade hit Galaxians... so basically Space Invaders but with aliens that would also swoop down to you and try to take you out. Each round consisted of four stages with the notorious last ‘Docking Stage’, where you would have to try and land the top of your ship back onto the moving base unit, being the hardest... until you played it a lot and got your eye in. Hours of fun on this thing which was brightly coloured and made some great sounds and musical stings. I still have mine in the loft somewhere but you can also download a simulation of this classic game on your phone right now.


19. Lego
Everyone likes Lego and I was no exception. There were no mini-figures as such in those days but you really could build anything your imagination could come up with (to an extent). It was more flexible in that respect than Meccano so I much preferred this particular construction toy. I even won a competition at Selfridges in 1978 (I think that was the year) where kids had to build something and it would be left for judges to look at the end of each day. I built an X-Wing Fighter with fully working wings (way before the days where Lego would allow themselves to be cross pollinated with other brands like Star Wars... ah, how times have changed) and my prize was... a Lego Police Station set and tea at the Grovesnor Hotel.


18. Action Man, especially Atomic Man (Palitoy)
Palitoy’s Action Man was the ultimate military action figure toy for kids (even more so than Mego’s Action Jackson range or Palitoy's Little Big Man). My original one was from when I was born, I think. A couple of years after the range started. I remember this was before ‘eagle eyes’ and ‘flexible grip’ features were introduced and the figure had hard moulded hands and a string on the back which you could pull out to different lengths to get the figure to speak a series of commands such as "Action Man Patrol, Fall In!" Later on the range of figures expanded (not just the costumes) and there were also vehicles (I had the tank and the one man helicopter). There was even a space alien figure with a bear hug action called The Intruder (I guess he came intruder window!) and a superhero figure called Bullet Man who looked... well trust me, you never wanted to take his bullet mask off because he looked truly worried about things. My favourite one was their ‘bionic man’ rip off Atomic Man... which was way cooler than the official figure from a rival company. This guy had an eye with which you could signal coded messages in morse code, bionic limbs, a heart pacemaker which you could click (presumably to charge his strength?) and a brilliant arm which you could rotate with a little cog in his wrist. He had a big pair of helicopter blades which he would grip, hold above his head and then when you rotated his cog he became a human auto-gyro. Much fun was had!


17. Armada - The Great Galleon Battle Game (Condor)
This was both a board game and had workable firearms as one of its features. A big plastic 3D moulded board of the sea with loads of little islands and a cannon mounted on each end so you could fire little plastic cannonballs at each other as their ships approached your end of the board. A great game which I never saw anybody else with.


16. Moonraker Space Gun (Lone Star)
This thing was big and, unlike the toy Golden Gun, from The Man With The Golden Gun, actually looked a lot like the pistols used in 007’s space movie that year. Of course, instead of firing laser blasts it just took gunpowder caps but that’s okay, you could make your own sound effects.


15. Mego Action Figures
I loved these and Mego had many lines (and even more overseas). I had a couple of the Star Trek figures, some of the superheroes (both Marvel and DC), Tarzan, a knight and most of the Planet Of The Apes figures. For some reason, I didn’t have any of the Space 1999 figures... can’t think why. I remember my Tarzan figure came into hospital with me when I had to have an operation at the age of 5 or 6 years old. And I also remember coming home one day to find that my puppy had chewed up Superman and his hand had dropped off. It would fall off quite a bit after that and this is when I discovered that the last son of Krypton actually wasn’t indestructible after all. I also remember the traumatising experience one day, when I peeled back the top of the female ape Zira from the Planet Of The Apes range and discovered she had boobies. Felt pens were never much good at drawing nipples onto hard plastic, alas.


14. Batmobile and Aston Martin DB5 from Corgi
The licensed Corgi toys were great. The Batmobile, based on the one in the Adam West TV show Batman, had the rockets that fired out of the tubes, a big flick knife that came out of the front and little figures of Batman and Robin which you could remove. Alas, my version was not the original issue so, unlike my older family relation, the hard moulded plastic flame that came out of the exhaust port at the back didn’t retract and come out again as you wheeled it along the floor like the very first ones did. The Aston Martin DB5 I had was the grey/silver one and looked closer to the one in Goldfinger and Thunderball than the original gold coloured issue. In addition to the ‘bullet proof’ pop up back screen, retractable machine guns and the brilliant ejector seat top which all the versions had, this one also had plastic tire slashers and revolving number plates, which weren’t on the very first ones.


13. Rotadraw (Letraset)
I liked Spirograph but I much preferred rotadraw and you could buy different sets of disks. Basically, you had a backing piece of cardboard, a sheet of paper and one of several discs ( I remember the Space set and the Rupert The Bear set of discs were my favourites). The discs would be hard plastic with lots of cut out wiggly lines which were numbered on the front and numbers marked as a ruler style measure around the circumference. You’d pin the disc to the paper and card via. central hole and then line up the number one at the top of the disc, draw through the allocated number on the disc, then rotate it until point two was at the top and then do the same again with slot number two and so one, giving somewhere between 20 and 30 pen strokes per disc. You’d then remove the pin and disc and you’d be left with a great, stylised drawing of... say... an astronaut, which you could then colour. Great fun.


12. The Professionals Automatic Pistol (Lone Star)
I used to like toy guns and the automatic pistol which tied in to The Professionals TV show was extra cool because it had its own fake bullet cartridge in the handle which you could eject and, if you so desired, put gunpowder caps in. I used to love ejecting the cartridge when my imaginary rounds of bullets were spent.


11. MAC - Mobile Action Command (Matchbox)
Matchbox made a line of small action figures representing a world rescue service (like the Thunderbirds, I guess) and each came with their own vehicle. As the years went by, the figures became more muscular and slightly taller as if they’d suddenly been taking steroids but they still all fit the same vehicles. I also had the amazing MAC Mountain Rescue Centre which was a mountain one side with little hand holds they could climb it and pop out sections so vehicles such as the speedboat and the helicopter etc could come out through the front. Turn it around and it was a cutaway, with all their little base rooms and vehicle hangers. A great toy.


10. Green Avenger Water Pistol (Barton)
This was an unusual water pistol because the ‘trigger’ was a plunger which pressed into the palm of your hand while you put your fingers through... and I never realised this at the time... what was essentially a knuckle-duster. I think that before I had one, it was marketed as some kind of tie-in toy for The Green Hornet TV show.


9. Spudmatic (Lone Star)
This was a brilliant, four-in-one weapon made of metal. It had a normal firing mechanism so you could, you know, put gunpowder caps in it. You could also fire little corks out of it. However, it was also a potato gun and worked really well. Finally, if you clipped on the front plastic nozzle attachment you could fill it with water and it would become a water pistol. I believe the spudmatic still exists in some countries out in the wild to this day and... deservedly so. It was a fantastic toy.


8. Airfix Model Soldiers and Play Sets
My grandad was in the Eighth Army during the Second World War. Airfix did two sizes of soldiers but the ones I really loved were the teeny tiny 1:72 scale soldiers. My first set was the Eighth Army and I also had the two El Alamein playsets and a fantastic Pontoon Bridge Assault Set. Absolutely loved these but my favourite sets were the Robin Hood set and the Astronauts set, the latter of which is now back in shops again and, honestly... I am tempted.


7. Joe 90 Car, Thunderbird 2, Eagle Transporter
and UFO Interceptor from Dinky

Dinky made even better licensed vehicles than Corgi.. which is saying something because the Corgi ones were amazing. I loved the Joe 90 car best, with its flashing light and retractable wings. Thunderbird 2 was always fun... despite its flimsy, retractable legs which would attempt to hold up the die-cast metal body so the pod could drop down, holding a little plastic Thunderbird 4 in its belly. The Eagle Transporter I had from Space 1999 was the passenger transporter as opposed to the cargo version... the compartment could be ejected so you could... I dunno... kill all its imaginary passengers I guess. The UFO Interceptor needed a lot of strength to pull back and load the firing mechanism so you could shot out the front loading torpedo (which was truly powerful and unbelievably dangerous). It was also easy to mistake for something else too.... as I found it when I shot it into my nan’s make up kit by mistake and she accidentally picked it up and tried to use it as her lipstick.


6. Fighting Furies (Matchbox)
Peg-Leg Pete and Captain Hook... these were the original Fighting Furies. Pirate action figures that had buttons to activate their sword arms so you they could fight each other. Put a knife in their hands, pull the little plastic ring off their finger, pull the arm back and release and they could also throw their daggers at each other. Peg Leg Pete had a little stopper in his plastic wooden leg which you could remove and pull out his secret buried treasure map from. Great toys and they probably still arrrrrrrrrrrrrr!


5. Crossfire (Ideal)
This had a big board arena (bigger even than Battling Tops) and a puck made of a disc around a metal ball bearing. At each end of this vast board was a mounted gun above a goal which fired gazillions of ball bearings as fast as you could pull the trigger and reload. The idea was to shoot the ballbearings at the puck as fast as you could without jamming the gun mechanism and get it into your opponents goal. It was blisteringly good fun and, as an added bonus, you could quickly unmount the guns, load them up with ball bearings and you suddenly had a lethal weapon in your hands. Great stuff.


4. Star Wars Figures (Palitoy)
Star Wars figures were great. I had all the figures from various waves of the first two films and some of the third film, Return Of The Jedi. I also had an X-Wing fighter, a Tauntaun (with cute false legs hanging down the sides so you could pop your figure in through a trapdoor in its back) and the original Millennium Falcon... and still do have all these, up in the loft. The Falcon is still in its original box even, because it could still fit in after all the extra bits had been assembled. I even have the original Bobba Fett figure which you sent off for as one of the first ever pre-order figures (‘This won’t be available in shops!’) but that one just came in a little white cardboard box with no real authentication to prove what it is nowadays... otherwise I’m pretty sure if I had some kind of certificate of authenticity I could sell that figure for a mini fortune now.


3. Action Transfers (Letraset)
I used to love these. Empty cardboard backgrounds with little figures  you could rub down onto them to create action scenes. I used to love the Spanish Main set with its battling ships and rub down cannonballs. You could also get a lot of licensed properties such as The New Avengers, The Sweeny, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and The Black Hole (to name just a few). They were also popular movie themed gifts in breakfast cereals from time to time. It’s a shame that these are no longer made.


2. Cyborg, Muton and Android (Denys Fisher)
Cyborg was a transparent, naked man with interchangeable robot attachments. Muton was his purple, transparent, naked enemy with evil monster outfits and Android was his lethal, robotic, naked henchman. Great toys which were constantly being played with... although not when I was naked. I also had the UFO looking starship with its internal, mini interceptor... pull the rocket exhaust back and the transparent, perspex dome would hinge open at speed with a satisfying woosh sound. If you did this with any of the figures laying on the dome, they also went flying. A truly odd and amazing set of toys which were even more expanded in their home country of, I think, Japan.


1. Micronauts (Mego)
The Micronauts were fantastic mini figures with coloured, transparent bodies and silver heads. Their arch enemy Baron Karza was huge in comparison and had magnetic limbs and a magnetic head. Like his good-guy counterpart (the Force Commander, which I never had), you could pull Karza’s horse’s head off and both of Karza’s legs off, combine the two and you’d have a ready made centaur figure (and, yes, this was an intentional feature of the toys). I never had Biotron but I did have the huge, robotic Mobile Command Unit which could be pulled apart and re-transfigured into a number of different vehicles. My favourite piece though... and the one thing I might still have stashed away somewhere... was the Phaoroid Micronaut with its Cosmic Egyptian theme and its little Sarcophagus for sleeping in.

So there you go. What great avenues of escape I had back in those days. I hope you had as much fun reading about this stuff as I did writing about it and, what the heck, it’s Christmas time. We should all be enjoying our toys.