Tuesday, 31 December 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
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
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
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
A Range Of Chase
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
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.
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.
Wednesday, 25 December 2019
... to all my readers. Wishing you the absolute best in what, for me, has been an absolutely terrible year.
Please come back tomorrow for a nostalgic or possibly educational, depending on your age, post especially for the Christmas season.
Thanks to you all for continuing to read here.
Sunday, 22 December 2019
Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz
It’s that time again!
Merry Christmas and welcome to this year’s Cryptic Movie Quiz for the festive period.
If you look at the grid above you’ll see spaces for 16 movie titles running horizontally and, below this intro, are the cryptic clues to help you work out what these 'non-Christmas' movie titles are. To help you out, I’ve filled in a line of letters vertically downwards spelling out SEASON’S GREETINGS (minus the apostrophe)... so you have a letter in its correct position for each of the titles. Please don’t forget to click on the grid to see a larger version of it and maybe print it off to help yourself.
Like always, depending on my finances after Christmas... I’ll probably award a small, strange or possibly customised prize (customised if I know you from Twitter ... or even real life)... to the person with the most correct answers, pulled from a hat in the unlikely event of a draw (although that’s never happened yet).
Email your answers to me at email@example.com and, since I posted this a lot later this year, you have until the end of January 9th 2020 to get your entries in. A few days after that, I’ll stick up the name of the winner (or winners, if it’s a tie or a group effort), along with all the answers, here on my blog.
By way of an example, here’s a question from last year’s quiz, followed by the answer...
I go with the French green.
The French word for green is Vert. Literally add “I go” onto the end and you get another Hitchcock classic, Vertigo.
Or just check out the January solution pages from the last few years to get a feel for how to put these things together. If you keep checking back at the comments section below, I will probably put the odd extra clue down there every now and again to help you out through the Christmas period.
Because a lot of stuff that’s been happening in my life, the quiz is perhaps a little easier than usual. I can tell you that half of the movies this year are from films which were released in the cinema in the UK in 2019. So those eight would have all been reviewed by me this year on this very blog. The first clue this year is probably the hardest while the easiest one, I reckon, is clue number five (if you know the movie, of course).
Full marks are rarely scored so... if you’re feeling a bit stuck, there’s still everything to play for. Send me what you’ve got anyway.
I hope you enjoy playing and, above all, have fun this Christmas, drink responsibly and play irresponsibly. And here are the questions...
1. No identification... but it’s only half that you’re in.
2. It’s dark but it’s all there.
3. Back in the morning.
4. MD peels back.
5. They’re not in stereo.
6. Palindromic lady assassin.
7. Two days before tomorrow.
8. The absence of violent bloodshed.
9. The ‘not very polite’ bee.
10. His life lived backwards.
11. Cannibal serial killer is promoted to the rank of colonel.
12. He slipped into the trademark.
13. The Sun God raises his hand at the auction.
14. Ellie isn’t around as this pachyderm takes over from Peter Lorre as a Fritz Lang serial killer.
15. A file mix up ascends.
16. Plus a scrambled, heavenly body that appears as a fixed, luminous point in the sky.
Saturday, 21 December 2019
Merry Sith Mass
Star Wars Episode IX -
The Rise Of Skywalker
2019 USA Directed by J. J. Abrams
UK cinema release print.
Warning: I’ve decided to write this with HUGE SPOILERS in it because I’d rather this review had a little more longevity to it, since my Star Wars ones do tend to get revisited by people a little more than some of my others. Please DO NOT READ this if you’ve not seen the movie.
Okay so, Star Wars Episode IX - The Rise Of Skywalker is a mixture of good and bad stuff, although I quite liked this one but, before I get into it, I just want to reiterate my spoiler warning above. There’s stuff revealed here that you won’t want to know (even if you’ve already figured it out anyway) before seeing the movie... so just don’t read this until after you’ve seen the film.
Right... so if you’ve been keeping track of my Star Wars reviews over the years you’ll know that I really didn’t think much of Episode VIII - The Last Jedi. I think it was a huge wrong turn of a movie with some brilliant set pieces but an absolutely terrible story and direction for all of the characters. In terms of Star Wars films I’d stick it down with Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith as being one of the absolute worst of the series. And, while nobody from the production of the movies has said it outright... although it has been heavily implied by some of the big names behind and in front of the cameras this last few months... I think the producers probably recognised that The Last Jedi was a huge mis-step for the franchise too. Just speculating here, mind but... that’s how I see it as playing out when people have been interviewed. Abrams himself has said this movie is something of a course correction and, yeah... absolutely... The Rise Of Skywalker does spend a lot of its time, perhaps a hugely disproportionate amount of time, backtracking and erasing elements of The Last Jedi. Sometimes though, it does throw the baby out with the bathwater, it has to be said.
To do this, Abrams has had to set up a story beat which I believe he always planned to be there but, because of the way the last movie went (my understanding is that he had little involvement or knowledge of the story of the last one when it was being made) he actually uses the opening crawl to set up the return of Emperor Palpatine where if he’d have done the whole of this trilogy, I believe he would have heralded Palpatine’s return in a much more subtle and surprising way. I don’t have too much of an issue with this, however, because that’s what the title crawls did in the first two movies when they were released in 1977 and 1980 so, it’s not a new thing to bring in new information in this manner.
The fact that Palpatine returns from the dead here is handled in a way that is credible to an extent, if you don’t mind the movie dipping into 1930s/1950s Universal Horror territory... there really is a kind of alchemical ‘weird science’ vibe that’s not been visited before, to my memory, in the Star Wars films but... I think it finds its place in the series and certainly brings a ‘pulp literature’ element with it. And the lighting on Palapatine’s face in his introduction scene reflects this in a wonderful manner too.
Now we get in to the real spoilery stuff so... to quote Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein... well, we warned you.
A week or two ago, when I realised that Abrams was going to jettison the idea that Rey’s parentage wasn’t important... which is just as well because it was set up so well in the first one that she knew exactly who her important family tree were in The Force Awakens... I was talking to my friend and said, “You know, she’s probably not a Skywalker like you keep saying but Palpatine’s granddaughter. The ‘Rise’ of Skywalker is probably Kylo Ren redeeming himself in a similar way to Darth Vader in Return Of The Jedi.” And, yeah, I so totally called it... those things come to pass in this movie. And it all makes sense except the last little scene on Tatooine where Rey refers to herself... as you know she’s going to because of the way the stroy beat is presented... as a Skywalker. Well she totally isn’t but I guess, because she holds all of the past Jedi in her now, she can maybe take that name and, lets face it, if she calls herself Rey Palpatine she’s going to have some serious hate mail. It all works... just... but I do think the ‘pendulum swing’, as Abrams puts it, of The Last Jedi really did hurt this new film with its legacy and things could have fit together in a lot more smoother manner without Episode VIII.
How Abrams cushions the blow and gets the franchise back on course is to completely borrow (see how I’m nicely not using the word ‘plagiarise’ here) a load of elements from a fair few previous films in the franchise. People who love the series will literally recognise scenes taken almost wholesale from the original trilogy and sometimes it’s done in a referential, loving homage kind of way such as Luke lifting his X-Wing from the sea while Yoda’s theme from the similar scene in The Empire Strikes Back plays out in exactly the same orchestration that it might even have been needle-dropped in and... sometimes it isn’t. There was one scene, for instance, when I leaned over to my friend (who had already seen it earlier in the day) and whispered... “Why didn’t they just CGI Don Henderson into this scene if they were going to do this?” So, yeah, some of the stuff was not that subtle and felt... not out of place, just very familiar and, well... there are a lot of bits in this movie where fans of the films will find themselves in very familiar territory.
But you know what? That’s what Star Wars has always been about. Swiping stuff in a postmodern manner from other things. George Lucas couldn’t secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie (Flash Gordon already borrowing heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books) so he wrote Star Wars and the films have always been full of iconic and often ‘borrowed’ ideas and images which the films have assimilated into their own cinematic language. So I really don’t have a problem with what Abrams is doing here. There are a few things I did have a problem with, though.
Like the introduction of a new droid. Frankly, it’s fun but has no purpose in the plot and feels like a fifth wheel most of the time. It just seems there to sell toys.. as does the clunky (or should that be McClunkey?) bikes that launch the flying stormtroopers. “They fly now!” say three of the characters... somehow oblivious to the fact that their nearest stormtrooper equivalents did in the prequel trilogy too. Didn’t think this added anything to the action scenes but then again, the action scenes were another problem for me.
They felt, somehow, anti-climactic and flat a lot of the time. Ironically, the action sequences in The Last Jedi were far more interesting and impactful. There’s nothing as cool as the throne room skirmish or the battle of Crait in The Rise Of Skywalker, for example. However, the action sequences in this one, although not as exciting, felt more organic to the story and not just slotted in because they felt like they needed something to happen (for the most part). This movie covers a lot of story at a fairly fast pace and so there’s less action but more integrity to the Star Wars universe I felt.
There was a lovely ‘shock’ character death fairly early on in the film but it turns out it was just a dupe and, frankly, lifted from the baskets scene in Raider Of The Lost Ark. I totally bought it for a while before they revealed a certain character was alive. Oh, and for the record, the force energy coming from people’s hands, especially in the later scenes, looks terrible compared to how it looked in the 1980s. Just rubbish and too wispy. Needed to be much more dense, I think.
There’s also a dubious scene which, funnily enough, I was talking to someone about a couple of times over the course of the last few years but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to do it for this film. I said to my girlfriend that they really needed to somehow get Han Solo back in it for a resolution to his son’s character arc but they wouldn’t be able to do it because they would somehow have to coax Harrison Ford back and, also, there’s no precedent in the series for a ‘non-force’ ghost. But, what the heck.... they did it anyway. They must have paid Ford quite handsomely for his little ‘cameo’ here and his appearance is treated in almost exactly the same way as Kevin Costner’s ‘memory ghost’ appearance in Batman Vs Superman. They did it and... it’s a bit questionable but it’s nice to have it and it worked for me.
There were also a lot of voice cast returns of a load of the other Jedi from previous films. I was ridiculed on Twitter by someone for spotting that Liam Neeson’s voice was in the teaser trailer and was told it was Mark Hamil. Nope, it was Neeson, as I’d said. This film would have been a lot better had it brought back full-on force ghosts of a fair few Jedi from the previous movies too but, alas, I guess voice rates must be cheaper and the producers didn’t want to spend the extra money, is my guess.
My biggest gripe is not knowing how in hell they got Luke’s old light sabre still, after that terrible throw away line in The Force Awakens about it being a good question for another day. This was a question I really needed answering and the film makers have just ignored it... which I think is the only way in which Abram’s two movies disrespect the fans of the original films.
One thing I did love about this movie is... finally C3PO was cool again. He’s the least irritating and most witty he’s ever been in the franchise and his character really worked well here. Alas, R2D2 is hardly in it again and I wish they’d used him more but, I’m guessing it might have damaged the story flow in some way and so they chose to do with him what they did here. It was great how they worked C3PO though... really good stuff here.
And, it goes without saying, that the cast in this were all pretty much outstanding... including the new characters although, I wish Keri Russell had turned in her performance without a mask covering her head... she was a cool character. My only grouch about the casting would be that none of the original trilogy characters had much to do and were hardly in it. Carrie Fisher wasn’t integrated nearly as seamlessly as they said she was and, they totally lied about not CGIing her in one scene where, frankly, you couldn’t have had the training scene with Luke and Leia done any other way than to de-age them (and make them look vaguely unreal and cartoony). Luke and Han (who was admittedly a mostly unexpected bonus) hardly have any screen time, Yoda is practically non-existent other than a voice and a brief glimpse and I just felt Billy Dee Williams was kinda wasted in this. He was cool... just under utilised but, at least he got to say a specific line which is pretty much in almost every Star Wars movie, so there’s that. I could also have done with a lot more of Kelly Marie Tran’s character being in here because, frankly, she was one of the best things about The Last Jedi.
There’s probably going to be a lot of criticism of Abrams on this one about how the power of The Force is used in certain scenes but I was fine with it all... especially the cool way in which Rey passes a light sabre to Ben Solo. There actually is a lot of back up in the history of the saga which means this kind of magical stuff is just a slightly different looking iteration of exactly the same kind of thing so I think Abrams and the writers made a good call here. It’s also a really cool moment too so, yeah, again it works for me.
As far as the music goes... John Williams’ score soars as he builds on the themes he introduced in The Force Awakens in exactly the way he didn’t in The Last Jedi. I can’t wait to give the CD a spin fairly soon. I hope they give him an Oscar for this one. He deserves it.
And that’s me pretty much done. I didn’t absolutely love this on first viewing but, like The Force Awakens, which I gave an absolutely terrible review to and regretted doing that as soon as I saw it a second time, I suspect The Rise Of Skywalker will definitely be something I get more out of on future screenings (probably sometime towards the end of next week... I just wish Kerry had been around to see this one). If you are a fan of the franchise then, I think you’ll really like this one. It’s not top tier Star Wars but it’s not bottom tier either which means it’s pretty great, right? But then again, you already know that because you wouldn’t be reading this spoilerific review if you hadn’t already seen it, I hope.
Star Wars at NUTS4R2
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones
Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith
Episode 4: A New Hope
Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi
Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Episode 8: The Last Jedi
Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker
Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Christmas at Fontaine's
by William Kotzwinkle
Andre Deutsch ISBN: 0233975888
Wow. Sometimes it’s not the best idea to go back to something you loved as a teenager.
Christmas At Fontaine's was a book I read around about 1984. I spotted it in December in my local library, back when libraries were all about books and knowledge as opposed to computers and misinformation. I picked it up, not because of the jolly Santa pictured on the cover... at 16 years old I was not into Christmas nearly half as much as I am now... but because I recognised the writer’s name. William Kotzwinkle was, after all, the guy who had written the novelisation/movie tie-in for E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial. I don’t know why this resonated with me so much because I really hadn’t liked the movie (although I’d bought and read the book) but it was at a time when I still hadn’t figured out what parasitic, hand me down form of art the ‘novelisation of the movie’ is and, well, don’t judge me... I guess I didn’t know any better.
Anyway, I borrowed Christmas At Fontaines and read it and, then my dad read it also. We both loved it at the time but I couldn’t remember why we’d liked or indeed, recall hardly anything of the content of the novel as the years streamed past us. All I remember is that we both bonded over it and loved the decision, by one of the shop window display technicians who is a character in the book, to decapitate the reindeer in his attempt to make his window display something approaching ‘high art’. That’s all I could remember.
Perhaps that’s all I could remember because, reading it now as an adult, the book seems somehow slight and less engaging than it once did.
The action of the story, such as it is, follows a number of employees (including the owner) of a big ‘Selfridges style’ shop in New York called Fontaine’s. Plus, one other character who wanders the city outside as a bag lady and who spends all of her time in the book living out a distorted perspective of the world, projected by her own insanity.
So we have her, the two high tech window dressers, a lonely woman from kitchenware and her lacklustre pursuit of the child hating manager of the toy section, Fontaine the owner, a tramp who is employed once a year by the store to be their Santa Claus and the security guard who spends all of his time trying to catch a person who has been living in the store overnight in the week leading up to Christmas. This last is the mystery at the centre of the book... is there a Christmas miracle going to happen here in this, frankly cynical and jaded view of the world that the author conjures up for us? Is it Santa himself, perhaps, disrupting the store after closing time?
Alas, the general grimness of the attitudes of all of the characters in this book pretty much clinches it that, unlike my apparent enthusiasm for them when I was in my teens, I really can’t find anyone to latch onto as a genuinely likeable character and so, since there is no real Christmas miracle at the end of the story, only a brief illusion of one, if indeed the story could be said to have an ending at all, then I found myself... not so much disappointed by the ending rather than, lets say, accepting that it rewards my lack of engagement by not delivering much of anything at all. A conclusion during which some, though not all, of the characters find temporary respite from their day to day concerns and frustrations.
It’s well written enough and Kotzwinkle certainly knows how to pull the reader into the protagonists’ heads but, ultimately, there’s not all that much of these characters I could really feel was worth knowing about and so there’s nothing, for me at least, to empathise with.
Funnily enough, I talked to my dad about the book again this morning and he said he’d tried to read it again a few years ago but found it oddly disappointing. Maybe the book then, I think, is one which is perhaps very much ‘of its time’. I can certainly admire Kotzwinkle’s wordage and what I think he was possibly trying to achieve with this novel but, out of context of reading it at the time of its release when, it’s sad to say, the world seemed to be a much simpler and easier place to navigate, it just doesn’t seem relevant anymore.
Still, this is my Christmas novel for this year and I’m not saying its a bad tale by any means. It’s just not got a lot of weight to it, I felt, despite the grim fears, anxieties and broken dreams of the co-protagonists. Christmas At Fontaine’s is a seasonal novel set in a big department store so, if you want a Christmas vibe to your reading it’s definitely worth considering giving this one a look sometimes because, frankly, one man’s disconnect is another man’s Shangri La and, you know, books about the yuletide season are definitely outnumbered by everything else out there. So there you have it, William Kotzwinkle’s novel is a slice of jaded cynicism looked at through whimsy tinted glasses... if that’s what you’re looking for at Christmas then, why not give it a go?
Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Anna And The Apocalypse
UK 2017 Directed by John McPhail
Second Sight Films Blu Ray Region Free
Well this one’s a breath of fresh air. It’s not without its problems but I finally sat down to watch this for the Christmas season (it only got a very limited release in cinemas Christmas 2018, nowhere I could get to) and had a really positive time with it. If you’re wondering, Anna And The Apocalypse is... and I don’t know if this is a first or not... a Christmas Zombie Musical.
And... yeah...it is kinda brilliant and a huge pat on the back for the cast and crew. Some minor grumbles that I’ll get to in a little while but this one really is a great big ball of zombielicious fun.
Anna, played by the quite marvellous Ella Hunt, is on the last bit of high school but, after the recent death of her mum, her dad... the school janitor... played by the always watchable Mark Benton... is kinda angry at her because she’s bought a ticket for a round the world ‘year out’ before going on to university. She and various friends and colleagues played by the likes of Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux (from Aaaaaaaah! reviewed here) and Marli Siu go through their last day at school which takes up the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the film.
And it’s really to the movie’s credit that the film does take its time to develop, in a humorous way, the little details of all the relationships the characters have with each other before drifting into full on zombie apocalypse mode (the most you get are little ‘scene setter’ snippets about a ‘virus’ heard on news reports in the early stages of the film). What we also get is three songs at least before the carnage kicks in and, luckily, they are the strongest ones of the film and are all easy to get stuck in your head.
That being said, it does start to drag a little before the last pre-zombie song kicks in but, as it happens, the song in question is a pretty amazing, drop dead sleazy number in the style of Santa Baby, called It’s That Time Of Year Again... only with heavier double entendres such as “I've warmed your milk and made your favourite snack, So come on over and unload your sack.”
Then, just as you think the film is going to start to outstay it’s welcome, bang with the zombie shenanigans and a brilliantly choreographed musical number sang as two solos from Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming who are oblivious to the ongoing carnage around them. And then you get a great encounter with a zombie snowman and we’re off and running with the whole survival horror, musical Christmas genre mash up.
One of the good things about the film, or at least the characters at its heart, is the way everybody is always there to help one another while, at the same time, the writers pull no punches on the kind of character losses you just don’t want to have to deal with after spending some nice, fun times with these people. It does, truth be told, start slowing down in the middle but I think that’s possibly just my reaction to the remaining songs which seem a little less stronger than the opening salvo of musical brilliance. I suspect that, now I know the songs (and also need to check out the second disc on this extras crammed Blu Ray release, which contains and extended director’s cut), then I’ll probably have an even better time with it on subsequent spins (which might well be every Christmas).
Also, while the cast is absolutely spot on, I have to single out Hunt in the title role because she manages to really convey a ‘star presence’ throughout this. She makes some wonderful use of facial expressions to project a certain ‘young but world weary’ attitude and it’s almost like silent movie acting as she completely makes you believe in her character... I found myself connecting to Anna in a way I wasn’t expecting to. Especially with a lot of things left unsaid and deliberately alluded to in terms of fleshing out her back story and relationships.
The film does show its low budget on occasion, it has to be said. When the army start blowing stuff up, for example, we hear the explosions and see the light reflecting off the young cast’s faces but we never actually see any pyrotechnics on screen. And some of the gore effects could have been a lot more gruesome to stay up there with other genre films... such as the obvious homage to Romero’s third zombie fest, Day Of The Dead, for example.
Another thing which disappointed me slightly was the ommission of the song ‘What A Day To Be Alive’ in anything other than a solo rendition over the end credits. This was the song used to promote the film on trailers and it’s kind of catchy. It’s even used exclusively on the Blu Ray menu’s and is included on the CD soundtrack so I had to find out why this was ommitted fro the actual film. Seems like this scene was supposed to open the film and the shoot was underway... which explains the existence of the full sound recording to lip synch to... but had to get cancelled due to poor weather. It’s a shame because some of the lyrics and melody from this find their way into other songs and it’s like a little coda to the musical DNA of the thing. Still, at least we have it on the soundtrack recording so there’s that.
Other than those tiny and probably quite irrelevant grumbles though... and the somewhat downer of an ending... Anna And The Apocalypse is a huge amount of fun. A blood soaked Christmas cracker that most fans of zombie films or musicals... not to mention Christmas movies... should find a refreshing change from some of the others ones they have in rotation. Definitely give this one a go... it’s a right corker. Let them shove Christmas zombies down yer throat and then sing about it to you.
Sunday, 15 December 2019
Saint Louis' Blues
The Saint’s Return
(aka The Saint's Girl Friday)
Hammer/RKO UK 1953
Directed by Seymour Friedman
I’ve remarked more than once that my favourite actor to embody the famous Leslie Charteris character The Saint has always been Louis Hayward. Now that’s alway been on the strength of his performance in the RKO entry The Saint In New York (reviewed by me here). He stopped after one movie and George Sanders took over for a while before Hugh Sinclair pretty much finished the series off (although he was starting to grow into the role I think). Hayward did, however, return to the character 15 years later in a movie made in England by Hammer Studios, who would soon become quite famous for their horror movie output. Now I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen The Saint’s Return before, which does try to be a continuation of that original film series and, indeed, the film was briefly distributed by RKO for Hammer in the US, under the title The Saint’s Girl Friday.
The film starts off with a high speed car chase as a woman is killed when her car is forced of the road by nefarious bad guys. And when I say high speed car chase I mean a ‘not that fast’ car chase with some obviously sped up footage, in this case. We then find The Saint flying back from the US and Inspector Teal, played here by Charles Victor, receiving a telegram from his American counterpart Inspector Fernack (sadly unseen in this film) to warn him of that fact. When we catch up with Louis Hayward’s soft spoken version of The Saint, he has his valet Hoppy with him (played by Thomas Gallagher) and from him hears the news that his old lady friend who had contacted him to come to England to help her has died, courtesy of the car chase at the opening of the picture.
This news obviously fires up Simon Templar but the brilliance, still, of Hayward’s performance is that this anger at the death of a friend is conveyed mostly by body language only. Hayward remains soft spoken throughout the picture and his rage is a smouldering undercurrent, punctuating the actions of his adventures while he offers opinions and advice to his enemies. This adventure is a pretty standard plot involving gambling IOUs and revenge against the people who killed the lady who brought him to London in the first place. I’ll say no more of the plot here other than it has a kind of neat twist reveal on the secret identity of the ringleader of the mob of gamblers which I actually didn’t see coming. So I should be happy about this, right?
Alas, I wish I could say this is a good movie but it’s actually quite a bad one. And it really shouldn’t be. Hayward seems to just stroll through his performance because, frankly, the script just isn’t as clever or witty as those earlier Saint movies and the action choreography on the few fist fights there are is quite lethargic and neither looks, nor feels, like anyone here is in any danger. Now there are a lot of great British actors and actresses who turn up in minor roles here including such notables as Sydney Tafler, Sam Kydd and the glamourous (as she was then) Diana Dors and this should all be enough to save the day as far as this film is concerned but... it just doesn’t. Doctor Who fans might like to note that there’s even a smallish role for William Russell in the film, going by his real name of Russell Enoch, ten years before his famous role as Ian Chesterton, the first Doctor’s companion, made him a household name for a short while.
Ivor Slaney’s score does it’s best to feel like it’s a ‘proper’ Saint movie and he incorporates the much disputed Webb/Charteris melody which was still in use for Ian Ogilvey’s run on the character in the 1970s but... yeah, the music really doesn’t lift the picture as much as one might like. The film is as short as the more recent of The Saint films prior to this but it still somehow feels somewhat padded and, in some ways, just like watching a TV episode. Indeed, the director of this would go on to work with Hayward again the following year on a TV incarnation of the US Lone Wolf character... I’ve never had the opportunity to see any of the Lone Wolf films or TV shows over here in the UK (no, not the Japanese manga character) but, from what I understand, he’s pretty much another variation on Simon Templar anyway (much like The Falcon was, if memory serves).
This film made me think of Timothy Dalton a bit and the two James Bond films he made. I think Hayward is in the same position as him. Timothy Dalton made only two James Bond films... The Living Daylights (reviewed here) and Licence To Kill (reviewed here). The first of these two was absolutely spectacular and got me back into appreciating the Bond character again... the second of these two was a terrible, terrible movie which actually put me off watching the Bond films for a long time until the wonderful Goldeneye. The point is, although Licence To Kill was an awful film and hard to watch, Dalton was still giving an absolutely solid performance as Bond, he just had a useless script to work with. I think the same thing could be said of Louis Hayward and his two movies for The Saint series. He jump started the franchise with an absolutely brilliant film, The Saint In New York but when he finally came back and did a second one, well, the script and direction just seems to have let him down. I can kinda see why Hammer or RKO have never made this one available on DVD or Blu Ray but, as awful as it is, one of those companies really should have a think about doing a commercial release of this one. It needs to be out there for people to see.
As for me and The Saint... well, I don’t plan on revisiting any of the TV shows anytime soon but I am curious to see what Val Kilmer did with the role in the most recent cinematic version of the character. Before that, though, I’d really like to see the two French movies made in the 1960s so, if anyone knows where I can track down copies of these with English subtitles, please let me know. As for The Saint’s Return... there are much better places to start on in the series than to try and sit through this one.
Thursday, 12 December 2019
Worlds Unknown (Marvel)
Eight Issues USA May 1973 - August 1974
My first and only previous encounter with the eight issue run of Worlds Unknown was when I was six years old. I remember standing on Queensway tube station with my parents, gazing down with wonder at the comic they’d bought me. It was issue eight which, I didn’t know for many years, was the final issue of this title. This contained the second of a two part adaptation of Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and, just as I did when I’d seen the movie itself, earlier that year, I didn’t make the connection at the time between the big posters on the tube of Caroline Munro as the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl and her starring part in said movie. In terms of the Navy Rum temptress... well let’s just say that even at the age of six I knew a fine looking young lady when I saw one.
So it’s taken me many years to catch up to the rest of the issues and read them all, finishing with the issue I first read 45 years ago, with the outstanding cover of the giant sized statue of Kali (under a different name for some reason) menacing Sinbad. I’ll get to the Sinbad stuff in a minute but... and again, I wasn’t to know this at the age of six... the two part adaptation marked a real turning point in terms of the original intention of the comic and, in a way, it’s no wonder this last thing sounded the death knell. However, with a bit of logical deduction, I can see that the comic and material ear marked for it was reborn a year or so down the line, albeit doomed to another short run. That’s another thing I’ll get to in a minute.
Now the mission statement, so to speak, as set out in the first issue, was for the comic to be a science fiction publication which would be full of new adaptations of short stories by leading science fiction writers. Plus, a few reprints of old ‘twist stories’ shoehorned in to fill space from older publications by comic companies which Marvel now found themselves in ownership of. But the main focus was one or sometimes two short story adaptations by the likes of people like Frederick Pohl, whose anti-racist story The Day After The Martians Came is actually pretty good at setting a tone but low on action. The artwork in this and other issues is all great too and I’d have to say that, from my point of view, Worlds Unknown was a good little comic which should have lasted a long time... especially since some of the stories the editors were bringing to the table to adapt were quite landmark and the Marvel versions were not always the first crack at adapting them.
For example, issue three has an adaptation of the Harry Bates short story Farewell The Master. This is, in actual fact, the short story on which the original 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still was based. Now, in the editor’s column inside this issue, they mention that they have done just a few very minor tweaks to the story but more or less left it intact and what that means is... if you remember the film, then you don’t know the story. Turns out the original (and presumably the remake of the original) took huge liberties with the source material so that, most of the time, there’s not much synchronicity between the two. For example, the alien Klatuu, played by Michael Rennie in the film (or Keanu Reeves I guess, take your pick) manages to get out half a sentence before he is shot dead... and not by the army but by a lone gunman assassin watching events (and he’s not getting up from that, either). And as for the ending... well, the ending I’m still not quite sure I understand. Gort the robot, who is named Gnut as in the original here, can talk and at the end he reveals that ‘he is the master’, not Klatuu, before taking his space/time capsule away from the Earth. I am guessing my lack of clarity here may be a generational thing... perhaps the original writer was trying to make some point about the autonomy of mechanical life forms, I dunno. But it’s certainly an interesting read and adaptation, even if I do prefer the original movie’s ‘peace for all mankind’ message.
As the run of the comic goes on, actually, I see more clues that they were trying to tie it in to TV and film because, I’m guessing, sales were maybe fairly poor. They do say in the pages that science fiction is not a popular seller (and indeed, I remember the 1970s and 1980s... if you read science fiction or fantasy you were a bit of an outcast), regardless of the fact that the superhero comics which were performing so well for them were completely science fiction anyway... just not marketed like that. So yeah, on the cover of Issue 5 for the adaptation of A. E. Van Vogt’s Black Destroyer, the cover exclaims... “A monster stalks this spaceship! A marvel masterwork in the tradition of TV’s Star Trek.”
Indeed, the previous issue was an adaptation of the Fredric Brown classic Arena, which had been adapted into an outstanding episode of the same name for the original run of Star Trek on TV the decade before. Again, many liberties were taken by the writers of Star Trek and this is a completely different story using the same premise of a human and alien forced to duel to the death on an alien planet. I have to say, again, that I preferred the outcome of the Star Trek episode with its clever ‘gunpowder plot’ and the hesitancy to open hostilities but the original, or at least this comic book of it, is worth a read.
Now, there was a column inside, sometimes grouped with the letters page, where the editors would talk to the readers, tell them what they were up to and what to expect and, in the fifth issue, they definitely said Issue 6 would start off an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids scripted by Gerry Conway (which would also tie in with the idea of pushing stories connected to TV or film adaptations). However, instead of the triffids, the sixth issue brought us an adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer... proclaiming on the cover, “As seen on TV”. Now this might have been because the TV movie based on this, which I remember loving as a six year old, watching alongside my equally impressed dad, aired that same year and this was another exercise in changing the content to suit current trends and, maybe, extending a deadline if Triffids wasn’t finished yet. I can’t remember the movie Killdozer now, to say if it was very different to the short story as depicted here but, it’s an okay issue and, again, like nothing else Marvel was doing at the time.
And then comes the final two issues adapting The Golden Voyage of Sinbad which, to be fair, it says is “Freely adapted from the screenplay by Brian Clemens.” Now, these two issues have characters that, for the most part, look nothing like the likenesses of their on screen counterparts... John Philips Law’s Sinbad is passable but the drawings of actors like Martin Shaw, Caroline Munro and Tom Baker are all... no, I don’t think they were even trying. However, although the story is quite truncated here and certain scenes are merged into others for brevity, this is actually almost a much more dynamic rendering than perhaps the film was. Marvel were used to doing sword and sorcery epics by now, what with best sellers like Conan The Barbarian (based on Robert E. Howard’s famous character) and it really shows here. The language is decidedly more interesting and flowery in the context of a much more verbose sort of dialogue than found in the movie and the artwork is quite stunning in places (and those covers are awesome).
Okay though... by this point I’m chomping at the bit to read their Triffids adaptation... and I still am but at least I know where it is now. In the letters page of issue eight the person replying to the letters alludes to some boxed out news from one of the editors or writers of the comics but, alas, I’ve scoured the issue repeatedly and can find no sign of it. This was presumably to tell the people who had been writing in and saying really nice things about the comic that this was the last issue and it had been cancelled. And maybe they thought they had a reprieve just before printing it and decided not to run it at the last minute. Either way, the concluding part of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad was, indeed, the last issue. Which is a shame... however...
Remember those brilliant old black and white magazine format comics that Marvel were so good at? The artwork was astonishing and it showed some of their regular characters rendered in a much more expressive and interesting way... magazines like The Savage Sword Of Conan, Dracula Lives, The Rampaging Hulk and, my favourite, Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze. Well, around four to five months after Worlds Unknown was cancelled, a new comic magazine started up with the not so distant title, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction. Now I’ve not read this yet but included in the first two issues is an adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids, scripted by Gerry Conway and various other stories also graced the pages, many of which I believe were touted in the first issue of Worlds Unknown as up and coming adaptations. So the stories did have a second life after all and, although it only lasted for six issues plus one annual this time, maybe it was thought that the audience reading the less expensive, shorter colour comics would be tempted to part with more of their hard earned cash if they gave the stories their due in loving greyscale... kind of a win/win situation for both the customer and the company, is my guess. Or at least, it should have been. Like I said, it ran for an even shorter period than Worlds Unknown did.
So, in conclusion, I would say if you are a fan of science fiction and want to see the way it was tackled head on in the early 1970s by writers and artists who were so obviously loving fans of the material they were working on, then a read through of the issues of Worlds Unknown is definitely something you should consider. As for Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction? Well let’s just say that it’s ‘on the pile’ now and I hope to be reviewing that run on my blog sometime in the new year.