by Patricia Cornwell
Warning: Some ‘how the characters have moved on’ spoilers included.
I’m so happy to finally, after a good few years, be able to return to what has been my annual Christmas ritual for some years now... starting the first chapter or so of the latest of Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta hardbacks. Autopsy sees Scarpetta, one of my favourite contemporary characters, returning to her old stomping ground of Virginia, taking over as the chief. However, it’s not an appointment which everybody is happy with and, as she tries to get a handle on what can only be described as ‘adverse interpersonal working conditions’ (yeah, had enough of those in my time), she becomes embroiled in a number incidents which are all connected although, at least from how I understood it, not all connected in the same way.
So Cornwell weaves a tale of a woman found with her head bashed in and her hands removed... a neighbour of her regular character Marino. Marino has both followed Scarpetta and her husband Benton to Virginia and also, it would seem, married Scarpetta’s sister (aka Lucy’s mother). Also added to the mix are a poisoning which Scarpetta has to deal with up close and personal, not to mention what looks like a double murder in space, where Scarpetta has to remotely instruct from a video link as two astronauts try to work a crime scene with her help. And it’s all gripping stuff.
Also like a fair few of her Scarpetta mysteries of recent decades, the time frame in which all the events take place is a small one. Not as small as some of them but certainly this one takes place over no more than a few days, in the December run up to Christmas. Also fitting her usual pattern, the solution to the whole mystery... or in this case, set of mysteries, is left until the last minute. It rarely seems rushed but it’s quite an effective sprint to the finishing line, as it always is. Happily enough, I didn’t arrive at a solution before the main protagonist did (and I don’t think I was armed enough to be able to, in all honesty) but I did get myself believing I would this time due to my concentrating on two specific clues which, while not red herrings, were not going to be all that workable to the reader, I would say (and that’s not always a bad thing if you don’t want to tip off your audience too quickly).
And it’s the usual, intriguing tale told from Scarpetta’s regular first person world view of things but, it has to be said, it’s also quite scary. Not scary because of the various murders and so on which come to light but, scary because I completely trust this author, due to her various life experiences and thorough research, to know what she’s talking about in some of the more, up to the minute stuff. Unlike some creators have been doing, this story is firmly set up in the real world and in real time... so the characters tend to move on with their lives between books. In this one, my favourite supporting character Lucy Farinelli (who Cornwell’s legion of fans have all read about as she grew up in the books) is staying on the same property as the good doctor herself. The reason being that this book is set firmly in a post-outbreak world. The pandemic is still, as it is, thriving and Lucy’s young girlfriend and their small child have both been to London, caught Covid and died between books. I read with worry as Cornwell describes just how truly bad the Coronavirus is in London, with mass burials etc and, as I noticed the information spinning much more ‘on the nose’ than we are getting on our own news over here in the UK... I was reminded once again how badly off we are now in this pandemic. Because if there’s one thing I trust more than the news being reported at the moment, it’s Cornwell’s research into what’s really going on.
So that element is quire scary and, indeed, so is the way Lucy has chosen to deal with the death of her lover. She basically talks to her all the time as an AI version on her computer... one who is almost impossible to tell from the real life model in terms of behaviour, responses, look and resourcefulness. Almost like having the real person, now deceased, standing in the same room as you. I’ve no doubt, as Scarpetta worries about how commonplace it will soon be for this technology to be commercially available that Cornwell probably knows it’s already here and it won’t take all that long to trickle down into the public domain. I’m used to her dealing with cutting edge technology a year or two before we realise it’s already here. Stuff which seems like pure science fiction when she first published it has turned out to be hard science ‘already with us’ on more than one occasion. So, yeah, this is an interesting and perhaps worrying thing to be reading about but... I do appreciate the heads up, for sure.
Interestingly, at a high level, presidential meeting where Scarpetta works a crime scene in space, remotely, I found it similarly interesting that the people in power are not ruling out the idea that the problem they are facing in space might be extra-terrestrial. Also a scary but not unexpected attitude given various little nuggets of information being let slip to a ‘Covid distracted’ public of late.
Of course, with Scarpetta now moving in these circles, one has to wonder how long it will be before she comes face to face with Captain Calli Chase, the lead in protagonist from Cornwell’s other main series of books at the moment (reviewed by me here and here). I thought it might even happen in this very novel but, for the time being, the two are not quite inhabiting each other’s personal universe as yet (although I suspect this is only a matter of time now).
I look forward to the day when that crossover comes but, for the time being, Cornwell does just like her main protagonist does in Autopsy, peeling back layers of story with her writer’s scalpel (okay, you know, pen or keyboard) until she cuts back to reveal the truth of the fiction. It’s amazing stuff and, as a bonus to me, when I googled a word to find what I thought was a bad typo, I was happy to also learn a new word... so I won’t be looking for a splash in every plash now, that’s for sure. If you like Cornwell’s Scarpetta books, which surely must have a built in audience by now, then you’re sure to love her latest taut, tension filled procedural thriller. I hope she manages to get the next one out for November so my once and future Christmas ritual can kick in again next year.
Friday, 31 December 2021
Thursday, 30 December 2021
Directed by George Pal
Warner Archive DVD Region 1
I must have been not much more than a nipper when I last saw tom thumb. It was one of those films that was perpetually showing on television every Bank Holiday and Christmas in the UK throughout most of the 1970s and probably the 1980s too. A well loved favourite that people didn’t fail to tune into. I wasn’t particularly wanting to see it again however but, my dad was keen to remake the acquaintance of the movie and I can remember him singing songs from this throughout the 70s (and sometimes still). So I took a gamble for his birthday because the only way this is still available to see, from what I can gather, is from a Region 1 Warner Archive DVD (it’s kind of a shame this isn’t available in Blu Ray) and reports were mixed as to whether the film was in the correct aspect ratio or not. Or maybe I’m just too old and ‘full frame’ doesn’t mean what it used to (which certainly used to mean a 4:3 aspect ratio whether the film was shot like that or not). Well, for anyone else wanting to pull the trigger on this one, let me assure you that the film is, at least, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio on the Warner release.
And it’s such a charming film. It kind of does seem made for kids in some ways because the acting is much broader than what you might normally see in an MGM Musical of the time... but that makes it no less entertaining and, although the special effects which won an award in its day are somewhat creaky now, the film hasn’t really lost any of its magic and, another plus if you’ve never seen it before, is that the story really doesn’t always go in the direction you think it will.
The film starts with a wonderful title sequence where a big old leather or Rexine-style bound book is shown bearing the title of the film in really small print. Then a hand with a magnifying glass passes over it so we can read said title before the pages start turning and we are introduced to the various cast members as page after page of illustrations etc. After this the film carries on with the magical Queen of the Forest (played by June Thorburn) asking the Woodcutter (Bernard Miles) not to cut down the big oak which has enough timber to keep the village warm all winter. For his kindness at eventually agreeing she grants him three wishes but, when he goes home to tell his wife (Jessie Matthews), the two of them accidentally waste their three wishes in sausage related mishaps. However, as a last streak of kindness, the Queen gives this childless couple a child of their own... except, instead of a baby, they get a full grown Tom Thumb, played by Russ Tamblyn, shrunken down to around 10 inches instead.
All goes well and we have singing and dancing and George Pal, who had what was more or less his first go at directing his first feature length film here instead of just producing (and it was a roaring success for him), also uses his ‘puppetoons’, which are basically stop motion characters such as Ray Harryhausen would later animate in movies, as various toys and objects that dance around and speak with Tom when the parents aren’t around (hmm... where have I heard that premise before?).
Then we’re introduced to the romantic interest, Woody, played by Alan Young, who wants to pair up with the Queen of the Forest but can’t until he’s kissed her and made her mortal. And also, the two villains of the piece, played by Terry Thomas and Peter Sellars. The film has some wonderful scoring by Douglas Gamley and Ken Jones (which I can’t believe has not made it onto CD as yet) and some of the work on the songs was by Peggy Lee (I’m not sure how much of a contribution she made, though). Actually, the songs are great and the sequence with the animated ‘yawning man’, voiced by the always brilliant Stan Freberg, is particularly infectious and is almost guaranteed to make any audience watching the scene feel sleepy.
There’s a nice symmetry to some of the shots as Pal uses uprights such as a bed post at centre of the screen while the woodcutter and his wife sleep, somewhat innocently, head to head, horizontally in bed, facing away from each other with the tops of their heads united (no wonder they never produced any kids... this position is not something you’ll find in the Karma Sutra). Something tells me this style of framing is so the audience gets used to it when sly techniques are used to try and cover up certain special effects trick shots throughout the movie. Some of these effects are successful... and there a few oversize novelty sets for when just Russ Tamblyn is on screen... but there are also quite a few bad matte lines in the picture, it has to be said.
There’s also a certain sense of traditional fairy tale cruelty laying at the hear of the film, such as when the woodcutter and his wife are charged with robbing the villages gold and instead of sentencing them to prison they are sentenced to a public whipping. Apparently, the ‘whipping guy’ had forgotten to be cast on the day of the shoot and so the masked character is Peter Sellars, doubling up on roles. Of course, this film is based on a fairy tale from The Brothers Grimm, who were not known for holding back on the gore and nastiness content of their tales in their original translations (they have become somewhat cleaned up throughout the years in different international versions) but the movie, at least, doesn’t make good on this particular set up, as Tom and Woody race against time to bring the real culprits to justice before the whipping begins. There’s even a nod to the source material as Russ Tamblyn is seen dancing on the cover of a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales early in the movie. Of course, he would reprise his role as Tom Thumb as well as playing another character just four years later in the big Cinemascope production of The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm.
The acting in tom thumb is, as I said, not exactly subtle but I do like the fact that the film really doesn’t take itself too seriously and loved the fact that, when Tom is lowered by rope into the treasury, the bags of gold are labelled up as either ‘Gold’ or ‘More Gold’. And its little details like this within the frame that keep the film from getting dull at any point and make it a bit of a carnival ride entertainment. So there you have it... if you’ve not seen tom thumb then maybe you were missing out in your childhood. It’s full of wonderful, larger than life situations which, may seem humdrum now but which must have been a thrill to see at the cinema on its first release and, I for one, am certainly glad to be falling back under its spell again. Definitely worth a watch if you enjoy fantasy cinema and this film opened the doors to Pal directing an unproduced film he’d always wanted to have a go at, his amazing version of The Time Machine (which is another of the many classics which he either directed and/or produced). It would be nice if we could get a Blu Ray of this but, until then, the Warner Archive DVD is probably the best way you’re going to see this, almost but not quite, forgotten classic these days.
Wednesday, 29 December 2021
Wilbur Seeing You
For The Last Time
Abbott and Costello
USA 1948 Directed by Charles Barton
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
Lon Chaney Jr: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but...
in a half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.
Lou Costello: You and 20 million other guys!
Abbot and Costello’s movie career was flagging somewhat, from what I can remember. I can’t find my reference for that now but I’m pretty sure the highly successful comedy duo were nearing what would have been a natural break in their careers, possibly for good. And then somebody came up with the idea for Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein which, despite Lou not initially liking the script, they at least agreed to try.
So three years after the cessation of Lon Chaney Jr’s contract with Universal, following what everybody thought would be the final film to star three of the classic franchise monsters, House Of Dracula (reviewed here), he was re-employed to make this film, which has Abbott and Costello playing two postal workers, Chic and Wilbur. Chaney would obviously replay his role as Lawrence Talbot, aka The Wolf Man and the film would also see the return of both Count Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. It’s kinda ironic given the title, I suppose, that Abbot and Costello don’t actually get to meet Frankenstein himself, of course, just the monster which became synonymous with this fictional name but, yeah, I guess we can forgive the marketing people on the movie for this grave error, to some extent at least.
Bela Lugosi returned to the role he made famous on stage and also on screen in the 1931 version of Dracula (reviewed here) and, it was a somewhat belated but welcome return for sure. Although he’d played other vampire roles for other studios over the years, such as the truly great movie The Return of The Vampire (reviewed here), this was only his second and final time playing the famous Count, brought to the world from the writings of Bram Stoker.
Also returning for another shot at his role was Glenn Strange, who was playing the Frankenstein monster for the third time, after his turns as the famous character (after Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi had all had a go at the role) in House Of Frankenstein and House Of Dracula. That being said, when he damaged his ankle on set, Chaney Jr once more doubles up for him in a few shots in the movie, most noticeably the scene where he throws one of the two leading ladies out of a window to her death. It’s interesting to note that, for the first time, Glenn Strange actually gets a few lines in the role, reminding the audience that the monster can, in fact, talk when he puts his mind to it. He could also laugh, I guess because he ruined a lot of takes of certain scenes reacting to the improvisational shenanigans Lou Costello brought to his role when playing scenes opposite him.
The two leading ladies are Lenore Aubert and Jane Randolph, who both feign romantic interest in Wilbur here for different reasons... as a way of getting them to their own personal goals. Randolph is an insurance agent, Joan, trying to track down (as is Chaney’s Lawrence Talbot) the big packages containing Dracula in his coffin and the Frankenstein monster. She thinks Wilbur knows where they are because they are accused of stealing them somehow due to some earlier, well performed tomfoolery in the first third of the picture.
Dracula’s interest, along with that of Lenore Aubert’s character Sandra, is to revive and make a slave of the Frankenstein monster. His actual motivation as to why is left unclear but,as he says, he needs a different brain inside the fleshy casing. The brain of someone who has... “No will of his own. No fiendish intellect to oppose his master.” Which is why Sandra is trying to entice Wilbur to her castle laboratory... it would be fair to say she doesn’t want him for his body, just his brain.
And, it’s a hoot. There are some nice set pieces and, although this wasn’t quite the first film to fuse comedy with horror, it’s certainly the one that shows you how it can be done right and, the simple answer is... to play the comedy straight. That is to say, the three classic monsters are taking the proceedings of the film absolutely seriously. The characters are respected and their playing out a typical Universal horror movie plot. And then you add the comedy around and with them via the two lead actors, Bud and Lou. And it works really well and certainly the audiences thought so. This film completely revived the two comics’ ailing career and saw them continuing on in movies for quite a while. The box office receipts were very healthy on this, especially seeing that the film was the second cheapest picture Universal produced that year but then was their second biggest money maker of the year. That’s a good return and it’s a shame this didn’t also help the ailing careers of the classic monsters, who would not return on screen for Universal for many decades.
It’s been said that the film should not be treated as canon with the other Universal monster movies that came before it and not be seen as, for instance, a direct sequel to House Of Dracula, because of the ridiculous jumps in continuity. After all, the Frankenstein monster and Dracula (played by John Carradine in the previous two installments) had met their end and, also, Lawrence Talbot had been cured of his lycanthropy in the previous film... only to be living with the wolf man’s curse again in this one. My personal take is, especially considering the actors in the roles, that there certainly is continuity for precisely the same reason. I mean, have you looked at the continuity between films for those last few? It’s atrocious and so the lack of logic in the continuation of those characters here is actually very typical of the franchise... so it obviously is part of the whole bunch of them, as far as I’m concerned.
There are lot of good things about the movie. Abbot and Costello work nicely here and are fairly amusing. Costello breaks the fourth wall a few times by mugging at the camera and it kind of makes the audience complicit and engaged with the storyline, to some extent. When he glances directly into the camera to push a point or impress himself by accidentally pulling a table cloth off a chest without disturbing any of the objects on it, it almost feels like you are interacting with the film and it’s a real plus in terms of the.... well, I was going to say credibility of the characters but, maybe I should just say, it’s a real plus in arousing your sympathies and making sure you are rooting for the right characters to come out on top.
There are also several bad things in the film, mostly in terms continuity, it has to be said. One big problem for me is that, in a scene where Lugosi is biting Lenore Aubert’s neck to bring her completely under his spell, we can clearly see him reflected in a mirror. Even in the last movie (and certainly in the first when Lugosi initially played the role) it was always established that a vampire casts no reflection so, yeah, the internal logic of the creatures goes out the window with this final film in the series. Which is a shame but, as I said, the Universal monster movies were not exactly known for their tight consistencies.
So, yes, a big box office hit which, I might go so far as to say, saved the careers of Abbott and Costello but which saw the demise of the monsters although, it would not quite be the last of Universal’s monster movies. There are still a few more reviews for me left to write in terms of the classic Universal monsters. For instance, an uncredited voice appearance of Vincent Price turns up in the punch line to this movie as The Invisible Man and, although Price would not go on to play him for a third time, The Invisible Man would meet Abbot and Costello in an upcoming film. As would, of course, another iteration of The Mummy and, yeah, I will be covering those films too plus, of course, the fifth and last of the classic, big Universal franchise monsters, who would only ever appear opposite Bud and Lou on their TV show. I’m talking of course about the trilogy of movies top lining the Creature From The Black Lagoon, the first of which you will find reviewed here. So, yes, join me soon for some more Universal monster shenanigans.
Tuesday, 28 December 2021
USA 2021 6 episodes
November - December 2021
Warning: Some spoilers.
Hawkeye, the latest of the Marvel TV series which link into the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (MCU) tells a story of main protagonist Clint Barton, played once again by Jeremy Renner and, in this one, he’s just trying to get back from New York to his family for Christmas Day. However, he runs into trouble when a girl called Kate Bishop, played by Hailee Steinfeld, who has been training most of her life to be just like Hawkeye after seeing him in action in the Battle Of New York from the end of the first The Avengers film (aka Marvel’s Avengers Assemble to us here in the UK), stumbles on a secret underground auction of equipment left over from the decimated Avengers mansion, as it was after the events of Endgame. Namely, his old Ronin suit and retractable sword, which gets her into trouble when gangs related to many that Ronin wiped out mistake her for Ronin and come after her. So Hawkeye (aka Barton) has to stay in New York and keep the police and gangs at bay while the two try to uncover exactly what’s going on with the people behind the auction and how Kate’s mother, played by the always wonderful Vera Farmiga, is mixed up in things.
It’s an okay and mostly entertaining show I thought. It doesn’t feel in any way important to the way the Marvel universe is being reshaped at the moment but it does cram in some other elements which will lead on to other things... and ties up one small loose end.
For example, we have Alaqua Cox playing deaf/amputee character Echo, who is soon to spin off into her own series, apparently. And we have Florence Pugh reprising her role as the new, prime Black Widow, sister of Natasha, trying to make good on her mission to kill Clint Barton leading directly from the post credit scene in Black Widow (reviewed here). There are also a bunch of extra characters in the form of LARPers... which if memory serves stands for Live Action Role Players (yeah, I think some of my friends used to go in for this) and a one eyed dog who seems to have a terrific build up and seems like its own loose end, due to the way he meets up with Kate and Hawkeye in the TV show. I felt like the dog character had more of a purpose, perhaps, in an earlier script but maybe that part was jettisoned at some point... who knows?
And the chemistry is good between all the actors. It simmers along quite nicely with the odd, fairly well staged action scenes thrown in when they’re needed to pick up the pace... there’s a great scene where Kate and Hawkeye are getting to know each other in a car chase where she is firing off different borrowed trick arrows as they try and escape from a load of thugs. So, yeah, I loved the Christmas feel of the show and it was entertaining enough but not quite hitting on the right amount of mystery to maybe feel like it was somehow more important in the grand scheme of things.
One of the things it does do, however, is act as yet another tie in to the old, non-MCU versions of some of the characters and bring them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I believe what’s happened with Marvel, after both their acquisition by Disney and then with the latter company also swallowing up Fox, is that they now have control over all... well, almost all... of their former characters. So at the end of both Spiderman Far From Home (reviewed here), Venom - Let There Be Carnage (reviewed here) and, I’m assuming (as I haven’t seen them yet), The Eternals and Spider-Man No Way Home, they’ve started integrating and folding characters and actors from previous non-MCU Marvel films into their own films. This is also the case with Hawkeye in that, when the main villain is revealed to be Kingpin (who it’s pretty obvious was going to put in an appearance in this), then he’s played by Vincent D'Onofrio, another great actor who played him in the old Daredevil TV show (which I’ve also not seen... yet). So, with the recent, possibly quite tenuous, news that Hugh Jackman may also be returning as a Marvel character he made famous in the X-Men films, it looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this bizarre, cross franchise interpolation for a few years to come, I would think.
And, I’ve not much more to say about this other than, it kept me entertained and I had a blast with some of the Christmas references in the show. For instance, when Hawkeye is trying to teach Kate how to throw by aiming at the TV set controls, she hits it and it switches on revealing James Stewart running through Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life (reviewed here). But my best Christmas moments in the show were musical, when two of my favourite Christmas albums, Christmas In The Stars (The Star Wars Christmas album) and the great Vince Guaraldi’s incredible score to A Charlie Brown Christmas, were both featured as backgrounds to a couple of scenes.
And, yeah, a short review but not much to say about Hawkeye, I think. This one feels like a much smaller piece than some of the recent MCU TV shows but it’s not the least entertaining of them, for sure. I’m now wondering, since the plot thread was resolved in such a way that people who only watch the films will not know that it’s even happened, if we’ll ever be seeing Florence Pugh back as Natasha’s sister in the franchise. Because, presumably, people who haven’t seen this will wonder why she is not trying to kill Hawkeye the next time they meet. I guess we’ll see how popular that kind of move is away from the comic books (where it’s done all the time) when the time comes, no doubt. I think people will be confused.
Monday, 27 December 2021
The Toys That Made Us
December 2017 to November 2019
Three Seasons of Four Episodes per Season
Just a quick diversion of a review to give a heads up to a TV series I found by accident, when I needed to kill an hour one day. The Toys That Made Us is, in the words of its brilliantly 1980s cartoonesque theme song over a clever animated title sequence, “An eight part documentary series of the toys that we all know.” And, yeah, if you’re wondering, even if you’re not that good at maths, how an 8 part documentary series could run for three seasons of four episodes... they were obviously not expecting to be so successful with viewers (I’m assuming) and renewed for another season past their initial expectations. For the third series, the lyric changes to an incredibly stretched out “The continuing series... etc”.
That song and title sequence is great, though. With a cartoon boy and girl rushing into a toy shop and grabbing a toy each off the shelves before we see two adults in their own scenarios, still having their toys with them. So a doll in a female manager’s power office and an astronaut retrieving his Luke Skywalker action figure in zero gravity round out the credits... and it’s a perfect visual metaphor for the psychology of modern toy purchasers and collectors.
And the series is just as well put together as those titles. It’s a very humorous but extremely informative look at the background stories behind various successful toy lines and where they had all ended up by the time the series was made a few years ago. Wonderfully witty voice over commentary is pitted against various talking heads of company executives, toy designers and even some celebrity fans (as you’ll see as you read down the page), making for a show which is really entertaining. They also feature, in many cases, little re-enactments of real life events... many shown in a hilarious light.
The first episode covers the Star Wars figures made by Kenner (and Palitoy but they don’t really get a mention here) including the unbelievably lucrative deal they made with Lucasfilm (who weren’t smart on their end of the contract) and it also includes some wonderful knock off toys such as one country’s Dalmation with a Stormtrooper’s head and another showing a character in front of a control panel on the box... except the Death Star technology seems to have metamorphosised into a pocket calculator photograph in a very strange montage.
The second episode is one of my favourites, which surprised me as it’s dedicated to Barbie. Starting off with a re-enactment of the unboxing by the creators of the first Barbie prototypes, the designer hastily files off the painted nipples to make it look more market appropriate for the time. What I didn’t know was that the Barbie doll was a swiped knock off itself, of a German doll based on a newspaper strip about Lilli, a high end call girl and that the doll was given by men to state their intentions to sex workers there. And don’t get me started on the original prototypes for Ken’s sex organs.
The third episode delves into the world of He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe (something after my time in terms of toys, like a fair few of the items explored in the show). But I even found this one incredibly entertaining and it highlighted an issue that seems common among the people who first put a toy design out... a lot of the people who came up with these things at different stages of the process all say they were the inventor of the toy.
The last episode of Series One is dedicated to GI Joe... although mainly from an American perspective. This goes through the years from the first prototypes made behind the bosses back when he was away on a two week vacation, where incredibly authentic weapons were made and built next to artist’s poseable mannequins refitted with clay... which are the versions which are best known to me over here in the UK as the beloved Action Man from my childhood... to the modern, rebooted, smaller GI Joe figures. It demonstrates the huge risks some of the companies involved took and also shows the incredible popularity of the newer figures too.
Season 2 opens with an episode devoted to the toys of Star Trek. This includes those wonderful Mego figures I used to love as a kid (wish I still had mine, they go for a bomb nowadays) and also includes lots of mis-steps along the way such as the infamous Star Trek helmet with flashing light (honestly, Rodenberry would sign off on anything) and shows how, even though it’s a very successful franchise, the various companies trying to launch their action figure lines often failed because of incredibly bad timing.
Next up are the Transformers... another toy I know nothing about other than the live action movies. What I did find fascinating about this one is their origins being from several different Japanese toy lines mixed together and their roots in two of my favourite sets of action figures I used to adore as a kid, the Henshin Cyborg (Cyborg, Muton and Android over here in the UK) and my beloved Micronauts (I think I still have my Pharoid Micronaut in an inaccessible drawer somewhere).
Following this is the amazing tale of Lego, how a successful Danish house builder was hit by the great depression, became a carpenter and started making wooden toys which sold well... and the various stages to get to the full on Lego bricks inspired by the colours of Mondrian’s paintings we know now, including the ‘clutch power’ introduced in 1958, which was a real game changer. It also looks at their decline and almost liquidation before, of all things, their Bionicles sets saved them when, again due to bad timing, their Star Wars and Harry Potter licences wouldn’t sell toys.
The last episode of Season Two is devoted to something called Hello Kitty which seems to be a phenomenon in itself and includes collections and talking heads of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, as well as introducing us to the Hello Kitty vibrator. The writers use a nice Godzilla analogy in here too.
Series Three kicks off with the creation and development of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property, taking it right back to the comics and, in a nice on screen moment, reuniting the estranged comic book creators, Eastman and Laird, for the first time in a long time. Writer/director/actor Kevin Smith also turns up in this one.
Next up is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the tenacious, eight year attempt to bring the show to the US, which utilises action footage from Japanese TV shows blended with new American footage... and the rise of their toys, which are retooled versions of the Japanese toys. It even owes some of its origins and shows a clip from that wonderfully bizarre Japanese live action Spider-Man TV show that I’ve been wishing some smart Blu Ray label will make available over here some day. Some nice footage of a younger Stan Lee in here too.
A bizarrely entertaining episode on the origins of My Little Pony comes next with a wonderfully poetic continuation of their success story in terms of their current designer (and let’s hear it for those ‘rump designs’... or butt paintings as the current design gal puts it). And then the series rounds off with a look at the various US themed Wrestling action figures over the years. I can’t believe so many of these non-articulated figures sold to kids at all, to be honest but the rivalry between the various Wrestling companies is certainly as fascinating, if not more so, than the successes and misfires of the toys.
And thats that. The Toys That Made Us is a truly great show and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, at some point, it will be picked up for a fourth season. It’s shot full of humour and the only thing I will say to people who haven’t seen this is... watch them in order because some of the jokes depend on referencing back to earlier episodes. This one’s thoroughly recommended for both the young at heart and, of course, any grown men (who are, by definition, still just kids anyway). As one such specimen, I got a lot out of this show, for sure.
Sunday, 26 December 2021
Rack To The Future
Rack Toys -
Cheap, Crazed Playthings
Second edition by Brian Heiler
Nacelle ISBN: 9781737380108
Rack Toys, subtitled Cheap, Crazed Playthings is a wonderful little memory tome by Brian Heiler, the man behind Toy Ventures magazine (first issue reviewed here) and the Plaid Stallions website, which is here. I’ve been wanting to grab a copy of this for years but have always been put off by the fact that Amazon always used to list it as being only one page long. So I was really pleased to see that the author has just brought out a second, revised edition of the book.
This tome is aimed squarely at people like me, who spent most of their childhood in the 1970s and can remember either a lot of the toys pictured between the pages or, if not, remember another toy just like it, often using the same mould and repackaged. For these toys are the things of childhood legend... the kind of obviously cheap, lower grade toys hanging up on racks in chemists and cut price goods shops of the time. Many of these were licensed properties which were often reworks of a previous toy and you always knew, even as a kid, that there was a lot less thought involved in the production of these things than the regular children’s toys, where the policy was not just to give the product a different colour and put a sticker belonging to the latest license on it... which is exactly what the rack toy manufacturers often did.
Asides from a foreword and afterword, the book is comprised of six chapters and, if it’s word count you’re looking for, well... the book is a bit sparse in that area but what’s there does enlighten and it’s more about the brilliant full colour images of hundreds of these toys which are the main allure of the book. I’ll quickly take you through the six chapters now, although there are some overlaps and ‘creative categorising’ in this tome too, it has to be said...
Chapter One is entitled Comic Action Heroes (which is also the name of a line of a much loved set of Marvel and DC figures from my childhood but, alas, these are not featured in this book because they weren’t mere rack toys... although, you know, they still hung on racks in the shops). This section focuses on super-hero licenses and is perhaps the best to re-introduce you to one of the wonderful conundrums of the contradictory world of rack toys... that some of these things just don’t make any sense when you relate them to the licence in question. So, okay, I can just about accept a Spider-Man parachute because I saw him spin a web and use one as such in an early Spider-Man comic but, a Superman parachute? That’s a different proposition... the guy can fly and has no use for such contraptions. And as for the Spider-Man The Exterminator set... seriously? This is a gun, handcuffs and police ID badge branded with Spider-Man on the packaging. What were they thinking? It makes even less sense than the Spider-Man miniature ten pin bowling set depicted on the same page. So, yeah, there’s stuff here which will certainly bring a smile to your face... whether you remember the toy in question or not. At least the Superman water gun has a little comic strip on the packaging explaining why the last son of Krypton might have a use for such a thing. And, if you were always agonising over the origins of some products, Heiler will put you out of your misery and reveal that the Batman branded water pistol really was repackaged later as Doctor Who’s Anti-Dalek Fluid Neutraliser. And who knows what evil was lurking in the hearts of men when they repainted the 1966 Batmobile and put a figurine of The Shadow in it to rechristen it the Shadowmobile?
Chapter Two - Spooky Fun shows us a lot of figures and other products based on the various horror franchises such as Universal’s classic monsters... so Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Creature From The Black Lagoon are all present and correct. As are some of the larger monsters such as King Kong and Godzilla. Heck, there’s even some Jaws tie-ins. I never saw Jaws when it first came into cinemas because I was only seven years old but even I had a tie-in rubber shark when I was a kid (or more likely a knock off... I’ll get to those a little later).
Chapter Three - The Future Is Fantastic covers many of the science fiction based toys such as Planet Of The Apes (again, an abundance of parachutists and some completely out of continuity items like an Apes helicopter), Star Trek, Space 1999 and even... and I would have loved one of these as a kid but I had no idea these were even being manufactured... a tie-in action figure from the TV miniseries of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. There are also tie-ins for such sci-fi shows as Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and Flash Gordon. Another surprise was the ‘bend-em’ flexi-figure based on the extra terrestial from the final scenes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Chapter Four is branded TV And Movie Superstars and contains a large number of licences including a Police Woman crime lab play set, a M*A*S*H helicopter and a Trapper John MD medical kit to tie in with the largely unsuccessful M*A*S*H spin off show. Plus loads of other stuff you may or may not have forgotten such as toys inextricably... and often inexplicably... linked to franchises such as Manimal, Street Hawk and Laverne And Shirley (although, as the writer points out, how could you have a Laverne And Shirley Pocket Calculator when this Happy Days spin off show was set in the late 1950s and early 1960s?).
Chapter Five - Saturday Morning Fun focuses on toys based on the three or four hours of shows and cartoons which would be laid on for kids on TV on a Saturday morning. Again, you have to wonder why a submarine and a deep sea diver (you know, the ones you put in the bathtub and then suck water through the attached tube to make it sink) would be branded up as a Woody Woodpecker submarine and diver. I was surprised to find some Disney stuff in this section too.
Chapter Six - Generic Joy deals with the products which weren’t tied to any famous licence and there’s some very interesting stuff here... such as the old staple of plastic infantry men in various packaging. And a whole fleet of really interesting looking toys based on the moon landing and the space race from the late 1960s. And, wow, Squirt Rings! I’d forgotten about those but used to love them as a kid. A moulded plastic ring which you wore on your finger, careful to hide the squeezy, water filled bulb attached to it in your hand so a quick clench of your fist turned the ring into a water pistol. Those were great fun.
Chapter Seven, the final chapter is called Hey, Knock It Off! This one is an extremely interesting and outrageously entertaining section which deals with unlicensed copies (or knock offs) of licensed properties in all their strange forms. So four plastic ‘soldier-like’ musicians are branded with an illustration of The Beatles, but the band is renamed The Swingers for copyright purposes. Or there’s the Sonic Man and Sonic Woman... nope, nothing bionic about these. And the Space Visitor, which seems to be some kind of science fiction vehicle with Superman’s head and arms growing out of it is... well... it’s an abomination of science and must have come out of the mind of some crazy, plastic figure of a mad scientist somewhere. I’d love one of these bizarre and somewhat unhinged toys. And of course, there’s the famous Mr. Rock... who is now worth much more money than the original Mego Mr. Spock action figures that it was riffing on.
Okay, I have some light criticisms based around the wording in this book. The typography is appalling with many typos throughout. Normally it’s not enough to hinder communication and, for example, I know an action figure was more likely to have come onto the market in 1974 as opposed to the listed year being 1074. I’m pretty sure that, in the wake of the Battle Of Hastings, for example, the kids weren’t playing with plastic action figures. There’s also the odd sentence with words left off the end completely and also a repeated caption on a page. And there’s one glaring layout where it looks like the designer came off the rails and forgot the runaround value on a section, where all of the last words on the right of a paragraph are half cropped out completely... which can impair comprehension a little.
However, I can live with all these errors and I’m sure they’ll correct them for the next edition. I was just grateful to be able to pore over the pictures in this epic book and be transported back to my youth (I’m currently in the process of living through my fourth childhood, of course). So, yeah, if you’re into the toys of the late 1960s to early 1980s then Rack Toys - Cheap, Crazed Playthings is absolutely for you. A wonderful archive of a simpler but, perhaps more fun time to grow up in. And now I just need to figure out where to grab a Wonder Woman pencil sharpener from.
Saturday, 25 December 2021
Ghosts Of Christmas
Past And Present
Hi there! Once again I’d like to thank my many readers... one review readers and regulars alike... for taking a look at my blog over the years. It’s very much appreciated. And of course, to wish you all a Merry Christmas and hopefully a better New Year than we’ve been living through for the last two.
Pictured above are some matchbox labels I designed for a prop shoot for last year’s Christmas card designs, plus the labels on the actual boxes which I mocked up for the shoot. Thought some people on here might like to see them.
And, if you want something to read over Christmas that’s generally keeping with the spirit of the season, I’ve made a compilation of links of all (as far as I could find) the various Christmas themed reviews I’ve done since I first started this blog in 2010. Be warned, some of these are probably fairly basic as they’re so old and, possibly even have the odd typo.
Anyway, check back here later this week for some more reviews and please, have a go at my annual Cryptic Movie Quiz, right here, if you want something to puzzle over while drinking your Christmas spirits and nibbling on the odd mince pie (the odder the better).
Here are the past and present Christmas reviews for you, comprising fours sections... Books And Comics, Movies, Doctor Who Specials and a Bonus section. Just click on the titles to be taken to that review. Thanks for reading.
Books & Comics
A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Making Of A Tradition
Christmas At Fontaine’s
A DC Universe Christmas
Ghosts Of Christmas Past
Giant SuperHero Holiday Grab Bag
Horror For Christmas
Mystery In White
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - DC Limited Collector’s Edition
The Santa Klaus Murder
The Stupidest Angel
The Advent Calendar
Anna And The Apocalypse
A Christmas Horror Story
Die Hard/Die Hard 2 Double Bill
The Green Knight
Gremlins Double Bill
It’s A Wonderful Life
Rare Exports - A Christmas Tale
Tales From The Crypt
Doctor Who Christmas Specials
Doctor Who - A Christmas Carol
Doctor Who - The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe
Doctor Who - The Snowmen
Doctor Who - The Time Of The Doctor
Doctor Who - Last Christmas
Doctor Who - The Husbands Of River Song
Doctor Who - The Return Of Doctor Mysterio
Doctor Who - Twice Upon A Time (2017)
23 Favourite Childhood Toys
Greatest Christmas Music
John McCLane VS George Bailey Grudge Match
Thursday, 23 December 2021
Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz 2021
And already it’s time for this year’s
Cryptic Movie Quiz for the festive period.
How you play...
Check out the grid above and you’ll see spaces for 16 movie titles running horizontally and, below this intro, are the cryptic clues to assist you in working out what these 'non-Christmas' movie titles are. To help out, I’ve filled in a line of letters vertically downwards spelling out SEASON’S GREETINGS... 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.
Email your answers to me at email@example.com before January 9th 2021 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. Again, there are no prizes offered as I used to do because, well, times are hard but, if you like solving puzzles, give it a go.
By way of an example, here’s a question from
last year’s quiz, followed by the answer...
Sheriff Ross, go back and get your men.
Ross backwards is Ssor. A sheriff’s men are usually called a Posse.
So the answer is Brandon Cronenberg's movie POSSESSOR.
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.
Full marks are rarely scored by everyone 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. Make sure you have lots of fun this Christmas period, drink responsibly and play irresponsibly but, don’t catch Covid! And here are the questions...
1. Take a detailed look at the bed linen that backwards lad brought in!
2. Travelling atop the back of the European Community.
3. A gap situated between two of their typical structures for this
large body of beavers united by common descent, history or culture.
4. An ion passes through... it’s one of many similarly unlawful acts.
5. The perfect fusion of VHS and homo sapien.
6. Shoo! It was a bit of a scramble yesterday evening.
7. It’s solely an alliance of frozen water.
8. The first games player is a militarised ant of a behemoth.
9. Not a light person to pull your stranded vehicle away.
10. The backwards glance.
11. The act of devouring the coverings on top of her fingers.
12. I’m dreaming of a Shark Father Christmas!
13. ... as sunlight power does!
14. It’s crimson... negative on the frozen water.
15. Had all the violence and bloodshed taken out of it.
16. Carnal relations at the Overlook Hotel.
Wednesday, 22 December 2021
The Advent Calendar
aka Le Calendrier
Directed by Patrick Ridremont
Warning: Plot set up spoilers.
Although not having too many Christmas trappings to it other than the titular element, The Advent Calendar is a remarkable slice of Christmas horror cake. A horror movie for the season which is actually really well made and that keeps you enthralled to the very end.
The story involves Eva (played by Eugénie Derouand), who lives alone and who has been wheelchair bound since a car accident, which happened when she was travelling with her best friend Sophie (played by Honorine Magnier), left her paralysed from the waste down. She has a terrible job working for a nightmare of a boss and a grim attitude to the life she has been left living. Then, on her birthday in early December, Sophie gives her an old fashioned, elabourately carved Advent Calendar, with various drawers and concealed compartments (as it turns out), which she acquired from a market in Germany. Carved in the back is a warning which is also the third of three rules written when the first door is unlocked... and the first of a daily special candy and instruction or saying are both revealed. When Eve unlocks and opens the first door, something menacing is awakened in the calendar.
The first three rules are as follows... written in German but, luckily, Sophie can read and speak the language.
Rule 1: If you eat one, eat them all... or I’ll kill you.
Rule 2: Respect all rules until you open the last door... or I’ll kill you.
Rule 3: Dump it... and I’ll kill you.
So, of course, Eva pops the first candy into her mouth and various different sweets and rules are revealed as she goes, such as “Destroy what hurt you!” and with an angel piece of confectionery which appears a few times in the course of the sequence with the words “Jesus said to the cripple, arise and walk.” And every day Eva eats a candy and each time she does, it has real world consequences... with the sinister spirit residing within the Advent Calendar both protecting her (such as when a guy tries to rape Eva and then leaves her stranded on a road... I won’t tell you what the calendar does to him) but also making Eva kill certain people (and an animal) in her life for fear of death. As a taster, one specific piece of candy shaped like a clock causes Eva to instantly lose four days of her life, which itself has consequences. And the white, angelic sweets, well... they give her the use of her legs back for a period of time. Another candy gets her a boyfriend but, that also has a sting in the tail later in the movie. And as the days go by until the 24th December, Eva starts to piece the clues together and work out the rules of the game... as well as realising she has a decision to make when it comes to the very last piece of candy.
And it’s brilliant. I love French cinema and the director really does a pretty great job of weaving a credible tail from incredible subject matter. The film has a lot of imaginative elements in it, such as when the boyfriend sees a message being scratched backward in a compartment of the calendar and the reveal of that moment from a different perspective a little later in the movie. The cinematography is awesome too. They do some wonderful stuff with the colour palette here. For example, Eva’s father has Alzheimer’s and he doesn’t recognise or speak to anybody... apart from... okay, that’s something else you will discover. However, when we first see him, the way the rooms are lit in a shot, places the step-mother in a warm room with warm coloured light bouncing off her whereas, the pale husk of a man sitting in the foreground of the shot in another room... is all white and pale neutral colours, like the blood has drained from his body and soul. Great stuff. Or a shot where Clare is beneath the surface of a swimming pool with her boyfriend... I can’t tell you the context under which this happens for fear of more spoilers but the sequence is beautiful, with just their bodies highlighted and purple tones lighting and accentuating them within the shot.
The acting is really wonderful too. Magnier’s performance as Eva’s happy-go-lucky, flirty best friend Sophie is pretty great and Derouand’s turn as Eva herself is absolutely brilliant. She plays the character at times with a bitter attitude towards life in general and, at other times, going a little out of her mind at the things which are happening to her since she started opening the drawers/doors of the calendar. She really knocks it out the park here and it certainly gives the film a big, solid anchor around which the director can get away with floating the various supernatural ideas. I need to see what else she’s been in, I think.
It’s also clear that, should it come to it, there are a whole bunch of opportunities for sequels, as the double ending of the movie makes clear. I say double ending, there’s the ending which brings Eva to a point where... well, it’s just perfect where they end it with her. Also, though... and I wasn’t expecting this... there’s a little ‘One Year Later’ moment in the movie which really opens up the possibility of this becoming some kind of horror franchise if a studio so desires and, frankly, of all the horror franchises out there, this one seems much more worthy of exploring in future films due to the calendar creating a slightly different kind of relationship with each person it’s gifted to, exploring what’s behind the doors.
So, yeah, that’s my take on The Advent Calendar and, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. This is exactly the kind of movie I would rush out and buy on Blu Ray if I was able to so, hopefully I’ll get that opportunity at some point. A truly gripping, suspenseful and, above all, interesting seasonal horror movie, for sure.
Tuesday, 21 December 2021
Dark, The Herald
The Stupidest Angel
A Heart-Warming Tale
Of Christmas Terror
by Christopher Moore
Warning: Well, I guess you can’t help a few spoilers.
So once again Christmas time is upon us and, also once again, I scrabble around and struggle to find a book to read in December to review. I’ve gotten pretty tired of the Christmas murder mysteries and Christmas horror books I’ve been reading in recent years... mostly because they have a track record of being disappointing. So instead, I stumbled upon a second hand ex-library copy of a book that sounded kinda off-beat and fun called The Stupidest Angel, by a writer I’d not heard of called Christopher Moore. Well, I can tell you that after I read this, I’ve made it my personal mission to read various others of this guys books because, this accidentally became an occurrence of an incident which is becoming frequently rarer as I get older and less accepting of what passes for writing these days... I found a newish fiction writer I actually like a lot.
Subtitled A Heart-Warming Tale Of Christmas Terror, the novel starts off with a mostly accurate Author’s Warning to the reader... “If you’re buying this book as a gift for your grandma or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don’t blame me, I told you.” So that’s pretty much a good advertisement or recommendation for a book in itself, I reckon.
After the opening warning, just the first part of the first sentence... “Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing...” woke me up to the fact that I might be in the hands of a literary genius and as the story and, more importantly, the breezy and insanely witty writing style of the author began to take a hold of me, I was even surer that this was, indeed, the case.
I mean, there are some real gems of sentences in here like... “searching for a truly meaningful moment of Christmas commerce” or “They rang their bells like they were going for dog-spit gold at the Pavlov Olympics.” This was really good stuff and all these examples were just from the first few pages so, yeah, pretty soon I realised I couldn’t just keep reaching for the notepad on my iPhone every time one of these word gems appeared... or I would be at it until the New Year (which New Year, I’m not guessing).
The setting of the novel is a fictional Californian town called Pine Cove and it tells the story of some of the inhabitants... a local cop named Theo, his large chested ‘off-her-meds’ Barbarian Queen of an ex-exploitation B movie actress called Molly, a nice gal called Lena, a pilot called Tucker, his talking Fruit Bat Roberto and a whole host of others... some of whom we’ve apparently met in other books from the same author as minor or major characters, making up a shared Chris Moore universe (so yeah, I’m practically forced at gunpoint now to go back and read his other works... bugger).
And, of course, there’s a kid called Joshua and the titular character Raziel, the unstoppable, unkillable Terminator-like stupidest angel who has been given the task of finding a kid and performing this year’s Christmas miracle, if he can work out a good one to do.
And that’s where it all goes wrong for everyone, after Joshua sees Lena accidentally kill her nasty ex-husband, dressed in a Santa suit, with a badly timed shovel through the throat. Joshua, of course, assumes that Santa is dead and so, when Raziel decides he’s the kid he’s going to help, Joshua wishes Santa alive again. However, instead of raising just ‘Santa’, his lack of clarification on where the body is buried means that, without Raziel realising until much later in the book, he accidentally raises all the dead in the nearby area. And when I say raise the dead, I’m talking about brain eating zombies who have a plan to feast on the living before all heading off to visit the new IKEA store because, as Mr. Moore explains in the book, “No one knows why but, second only to eating the brains of the living, the dead love affordable prefab furniture.”
And it’s an absolute blast. I don’t want to reveal too much more about the contents of the book but I had a real good time with it and grew to love the characters... especially crazy lady Molly, ‘Warrior Babe Of The Outland’, who is a dab hand with a katana and her wonderful ‘narrator’, who only comes out when she’s not sticking to her medication, apparently. If I had one complaint about the book, it’s that it finished too early... I would have loved it to be an absolute doorstop and carry on for another few hundred pages but, I guess the humour and cleverness of the writer’s phrasing is epic enough and probably works better in slightly smaller portions.
Apparently, there was a reissue of this book suffixed with the title Version 2.0 which includes an additional short story at the end... so I guess I’ll be reading that version next Christmas in addition to whatever else I can find for the 2022 Christmas read. In the meantime, all I can say is The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore is absolutely fantastic and I will (and have already, as it happens) recommend it to all my friends. Absolutely give this one a go.
Monday, 20 December 2021
The Green Knight
United Kingdom 2021
Directed by David Lowery
Warning: Very mild spoilers.
The Green Knight is just the latest in a long line of movies based on the Arthurian myth verses, written in the 14th Century, depicting the tale of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. At least, that’s what it purports to be... I’m hearing that a lot of the characters and situations are misplaced and changed and some incidents even come from other works so... yeah, it would be true to say that it was inspired by, rather than a genuine adaptation, I think. Thankfully for me, I’ve not read the original text and I’ve somehow, not on purpose, managed to miss seeing any of the other versions of this so... yeah... I say lucky because I can’t be enraged with the various liberties taken with the text.
So instead, what I saw when I sat down to watch this, was a truly magical and surreal experience of a movie, starring Dev Patel as Gawain (who is not actually a knight at all in this one), supported by a wonderful cast including Alicia Vikander as his prostitute girlfriend (in a dual role actually)... who he spends nights with in the local brothel, Sarita Choudhury as his witch of a mum (a kind of misplaced Morgan Le Fey character, even though that character is also represented here later on in the movie, blindfolded... she wasn’t Gawain’s mum in the original, I think), Sean Harris playing a truly excellent and interesting version of King Arthur and Kate Dickie as his Guinevere.
The plot is simple and the reason I’ve been waiting to watch this until now is that it’s actually a Christmas movie (again, displaced from New Year’s Eve in the original text, I am told). The events take place at Christmas and then, for the next part, the days leading up to the next Christmas. A big creature of a person who seems to be made of wood, The Green Knight, shows up at Arthur’s castle during the Christmas feast and challenges a knight to ‘A Christmas Game’. One should fight him and, if he wins and beats him, then he has to present himself to The Green Knight’s chapel, a fair few days ride from there, the next year to quietly accept whatever blows or wounds which are done to the knight to be visited upon him in turn.
Of course, Gawain, who really wants to be a knight, accepts. Arthur lends him his sword, Excalibur and, thusly armed, he faces the enemy in the hall. The Green Knight, however, just puts his sword down and waits for whatever blow is delivered but Gawain, wound up by the odd atmosphere and not knowing what to do, takes his head clean off. Then, after a minute, The Green Knight gets up, picks up his head, and reminds him that he has to present himself to him to receive the same blow in a year’s time. The rest of the film is Gawain’s journey to that fateful meeting and, it has to be said, it gets quite surreal and more than a little ambiguous before the completely uncertain conclusion of the film (and even the post credits moment doesn’t help too much at this point, since the audience has become aware of the inherent trickery of the narrative to impart unreliable information).
The film starts off as it means to go on, with a shot of Gawain on a throne while a narrator (a mixture of voices of the director and his wife) leads the audience in and then we see Gawain's head suddenly catch fire, while leaving him unharmed, like he’s the lead character in an old Marvel Ghost Rider comic... and the roar of the flames as the sound grows, giving way to sudden silence and a black screen before a more tranquil, pastel toned image of the start of the story, proper, is revealed.
And this is something which the director keeps doing in this, truly breathtaking looking film (this is definitely a ‘buy the Blu Ray’ job when the time comes for a re-watch, although it looks like that’s only available in the US at the moment at an overinflated price), playing in contrasts of both sound and visual rhythm. The sounds keep dialling up and then leaving us in a wake of almost silence (and old trick but no less powerful) and also the visual rhythms cut from very fast, fluid tracking shots to slower and more leisurely paced camera movements mixed with the odd static shot. It’s like a visual collision of pacing but most of the time it’s fairly slow and sure. I love that the director has learned, where many modern directors haven’t, that to truly make a small incident in a film special... you need to surround it with a long lead in and a quiet approach. And, believe me, this film is very effective. Confoundingly non-conclusive, for sure (the director is definitely wanting you to bring your own conclusions with you by the end of the film) but the various set pieces are truly powerful, even when they are mere camera moves to reveal a different view point of what you think you are watching.
For example and without giving anything away, there’s an extremely beautiful ‘double 360 degree pan around’ a forest clearing where Gawain has been tied up and left for dead. The first time it catches back up to Gawain it reveals something you really aren’t expecting to see at this point and then, when it gets back to him again... okay, the second pan around gets to something more predictable but the whole shot, which must take somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute, is absolutely brilliant and really a key into the way creative expression is brought to the foreground of the movie. The music also is wonderful but, alas, at time of writing it’s not been released on a proper CD so it looks like I won’t get to hear it free from the bounds of the movie, which is a real shame.
There are lots of wonders which I daren’t reveal here (but, honestly, “chaos reigns” at one point ;-)) but the ending, it has to be said, is extremely ambiguous. You can always take the easy route and read the original text to see how it’s supposed to go but, like I said, the ending is deliberately vague as to the final fate of Gawain and, perhaps, even errs on the absolute opposite of the version in the original text. I guess it depends on how you choose to interpret it as to whether the film ultimately delivers for you but, I’d have to say I’d certainly recommend The Green Knight to all those who love what the magic of cinema can give us when used to create unique and interesting story telling formats. Definitely one I’ll be watching again at some point.
Sunday, 19 December 2021
The Red-Nosed Reindeer
DC Limited Collector's Edition
Issues C20 (1972), C24 (1973),
C33 (1975), C42 (1976) & C50 (1976)
For a couple of years now for the blog I’ve been wanting to read through the annual Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer comics published once a year by DC between 1950 and 1962, specifically to review those issues for this blog at Christmas. Alas, this is not... quite... that review. Once again, with Christmas blog deadlines fast approaching, I realised there wasn’t a way I’d be able to make myself read through all those issues in time but, I did think I would manage to read the five, giant sized DC Limited Collection Editions of the title put out by the company between 1972 and 1976.
The DC Limited Collectors Editions, of which there were many, was that companies rival to Marvel Comics famous Treasury Editions. Being a tabloid size with card covers and a much bigger page count. Because of their size and the fact that they would get folded to travel through the post etc, a lot less of these larger format comic books survived the 1970s and early 80s... the time in which they were most prevalent. These five specific ones contained a mixture of mostly reprints of the earlier, regular DC issues mentioned above plus, it would seem, a smattering of new material on occasion (which look like they were handled by the same artists and writers who were drawing the strip in the 1950s... it’s a pretty consistent tone throughout, it has to be said).
Asides from the majority of Rudolph’s fellow reindeer, who are not in these specifically selected stories as much other than as supporting roles, the strips seem to have had six regular characters. There was Rudolph himself, of course... and, as importantly, his best friend who would continually get him in or out of trouble, Grover the Groundhog. Then, of course, there was their boss, Santa Claus. There were also two chief elves who helped run Santa’s workshop where the toys for all the children of the world would be manufactured... Winky and Blinky. And lastly, there was a sometimes villainous but never too mean spirited or unhelpful bad guy... err... bad bear character, succinctly named... Baddy Bear.
Okay, so each of these contains either two very long stories or one long story and two shorter ones, in addition to the various puzzles and games pages and the cut out diorama found on the back covers (which was often the case with these things) and all but one story would deal with how that year’s Christmas trip by Santa would be placed in peril by some kind of accident or intervention and then the rest of the story would be how to solve the problem and fix things so Christmas could go ahead after all...usually with Rudolph applying the powers of his famous nose to good effect in some capacity or another. Which is one of a couple of small problems I had with the strip...
In total these treasuries have 13 stories, 12 of which are all set on Christmas Eve... but it’s also clear that none of them are set on the same Christmas Eve as the previous story. Which makes no sense because, nobody in the strip seems to have aged over the years... let alone Rudolph. I looked it up and the average lifespan of a reindeer is just 15 years (20 if they’re in captivity)... so I either read the whole of his lifespan in these stories, more or less, or... something else is going on here. Santa Claus or no... Red Nose or no... these characters should at least show some kind of entropic deterioration over the years, it just makes no sense. So, yeah, the characters in this are suffering from the same bizarre disease of fiction that has also plagued characters like James Bond over the years. There’s no science to this at all.
The other minor quibble I have is that... okay, the stories are a bit formulaic and you kind of expect that to an extent... but they do seem to be hitting exactly the same spots in most stories. For example, Winky and Blinky will always bump into each other and have a blame game argument for a panel. Now you could argue that’s just re-enforcing the characterisation but it’s almost the same thing every time. The thing is, I remember reading a lot of Harvey Comics when I was a kid, probably intended for the same kind of audience as these and, the Harvey Comics were way superior in the writing department, as far as I can remember.
Okay, another common thing to the formula, though, is also a very interesting approach. For a kids comic about Rudolph and his pal helping out Santa, it gets very experimental with the format. For instance, one common thing is that, at some point in about half the stories here, the plot relies on Rudolph and Grover taking an alternate form of transport to try and get to their destination, as opposed to the standard ‘Santa sleigh’. So this can be anything from a new experimental plane to a rocket ship but, usually once their journey begins, we are then treated to a splash page where the favoured mode of transport goes all over the place, shown in different positions and in all orientations on the page along with a visual trail marking out that journey. This is augmented by continual comments from Rudolph and Grover in speech bubbles which match whatever the orientation of the craft is at that time... so you will have a load of speech bubbles on the page also, at varying angles, meaning you will be doing a lot of sideways and upside down reading. So, yeah, a common element but at least it’s a fun one.
The other thing is that the fourth wall gets broken occasionally by one character or another... which I found strange for a kids comic. So when the characters are looking for something in the bottom panels of a page, for instance, one of them says “Let’s look on the next page! I bet that’s where they are!” Or, when a plan is coming to fruition in one issue, Grover peers out of the panel and says “Ha! Didja hear that, reader - - my trick is working!” Or in another one... “I saw this trick work in a TV cartoon.”, followed quickly by “Well whaddaya know? - - It works in Comic-Books too!”, literally drawing attention to the media format in a bit of mind bending metatextual shenanigans. And in another panel in a different strip, after Rudolph makes a ‘floor yo-yo’ for Baddy Bear, Santa even calls Rudolph's attention to the presence of the audience by saying to him... “Rudy, look at our readers out there! - - See their faces? They’re dying to know how you made that yo-yo!” So, yeah, even though the stories are a bit one note, there is a certain degree of sophistication in the writing on occasion. Rudolph is even aware he’s a famous reindeer on account of the song which inspired this comic book rendering.
And that cleverness in concept (if not dialogue or set up) extends to Rudolph’s nose. They obviously wanted to broaden the range of things a Reindeer with a glowing nose can bring to the table to open up their story possibilities... so at various points Rudolph can be seen utilising his most famous asset in new ways such as melting snow, generating an electric current as required, using it as a backlight to reveal the message on ruined, paint covered letters and even picking up a shard of glass to hone the glow of his nose through the makeshift lens into a laser beam.
But, for every innovation, there’s a heck of a lot of bizarrely silly stuff happening in the comic too. For instance, when Baddy Bear hitches a ride from a passing eagle, you have to ask yourself how a small bird can possibly carry the weight of a large bear. Or how Rudolph’s mum is possibly dextrous enough with her hooves that she is seen knitting.
However, all that aside, I did find these treasury sized editions of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer a refreshing brain cleanser alternative to some of the other stuff I’ve been reading lately and it’s certainly something that can’t help you catch the Christmas spirit at least a little. Not exactly a recommendation for the majority of my readers, perhaps... but I certainly had a good time with it, in spite of the various scientific holes in the stories. I think I still need to go back and read the original 1950s/60s run at some point now.