Sunday 31 December 2023

Top 20 Films Of 2023


My Favourite
Films Of 2023

Okay then... the usual caveats apply to this pretty subjective list. Firstly, some of the films I’ve included, which I saw in cinemas as parts of festivals, probably won’t go on general release until next year, if ever. But I saw them this year so, that more than qualifies them for me. Similarly, films I saw at the cinema in 2022 but didn’t get released widely until 2023 are not on the list if I already included them in 2022. So, stuff like Mad Heidi and Argento’s Dark Glasses were already included by me in last year’s list (which you can look at here if you so desire).

There are a couple of mainstream superhero movies on here, surprisingly. They are fairly low down on the list but I wouldn’t have included them if I thought they weren’t worth it. At least one of them was universally panned but, I have no idea why and I have come to suspect that, the worse a superhero movie does at the box office, the better it actually is as a piece of art. I’ll be testing that theory some more over the coming year, I think... although I believe superhero movies are going to be slim pickings in 2024, with most of the franchises taking a kind of ‘year out’ break, if my information is correct and mostly just the pseudo-Marvel movies getting some air. Looking forward to seeing what they do with Deadpool 3 though.

Lastly, you won’t find Barbie or Oppenheimer on this list. Purely because neither of them appealed to me and so I just haven’t bothered with them. I usually like Greta Gerwig but I get bad vibes off this one... and I rarely like Christopher Nolan’s films so, why subject myself (he made two decent Batman movies, after a terrible first film in that trilogy, as far as I’m concerned... and that’s it). And there are a fair few other movies that I really wanted to see but never got the time to, so my apologies for any obvious absentees from the list. I’m sure half the reviews of 2023 movies I’ll post next year will have the old “I wish I saw this last year so I could have included it in my end of year list” comments in them.

So, yeah, this list in ascending order from least to best and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, for sure. If you want to read my reviews of the titles in question, just click on the title and it should take you to the review... and as always, thanks for reading.

20. Cocaine Bear

A film which does exactly what it says on the tin so, really, if you are expecting anything other than a cocaine fuelled bear on the rampage comedy, then you came to the wrong party.

19. Blue Beetle

This film had one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen and the only reason I managed to drag myself to the cinema to see this was because it was part of an all encompassing franchise (which has just been foolishly jettisoned by the studio, by the way... the new Aquaman movie being the last part of this DC experiment which had finally been gaining some traction in recent years). Fear not, the trailer was nothing like the movie, which was way better than anyone had the right to expect. Really pleased I caught this one at the cinema, to be honest.

18. The Nun II

The latest installment in The Conjuring franchise was a blast... again, it was much better than I’d been told and I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here with it.

17. Shazam - Fury Of The Gods

Again, another superhero movie which positively shines. The first movie was absolutely brilliant and this one is an absolute corker too. Bonus points for bringing back Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in a very meaningful and life affirming way... not to mention a really great and comical way of putting in product placement (which I usually hate in any movie but those bloodthirsty unicorns were something else).

16. The Creator

A nicely made piece of sci-fi world building, I’ve forgotten almost everything about it other than I loved it... so I guess I’ll be picking up the Blu Ray at some point then.

15. Monolith

This character study of a formerly disgraced journalist working from the home of her parents to make a podcast about strange, black bricks which are turning up in people’s lives is hands down the best thing I saw at Fright Fest this year. The ending is a bit obvious but getting there is fun.

14. Enter The Clones Of Bruce

This great documentary piece about the various actors who were asked to fill the void in the market left after the death of Bruce Lee is, in equal parts, informative and hilariously entertaining. It’s directed by one of the heads of Severin Films so I’m expecting it to be a key disc in an up and coming Brucesploitation boxed set in 2024.

13. Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny

While it’s true this latest Indiana Jones adventure is the ‘least’ of the movies, it’s still nice to watch in a nostalgic way. It’s kinda long and the second half maybe drags a little but it ticks all the boxes and it has a really nice ending.

12. Meg 2 - The Trench

So this is what happens when you let great British modern folk horror auteur Ben Wheatley direct a schlocky B movie with a big budget... someone who, against all odds and negative vibes (not least from the majority of critics) manages to understand just what people wanted from the first movie and deliver a completely ridiculous product that is far superior in every way. Fun with a bite.

11. The Marvels

I have no idea why this movie was received so negatively by pretty much everyone else on the planet. It’s easily the best Marvel movie in a fair few years and it has a planet where the inhabitants have to communicate through song. And it even has a montage scene needle dropped with Barbra Streisand’s cover version of Memory from Cats. What’s not to like? Plus, Iman Vellani needs to be in everything now, please.

10. Dream Scenario

Nice, low key fantasy drama about a man who inadvertently finds himself turning up in people’s dreams. A quirky movie with Nicolas Cage which isn’t over the top in its outrageousness... in terms of the way the characters are portrayed, at least.

9. Pearl
USA/Canada/New Zealand

Nice looking prequel to X from the year before, showcasing Mia Goth’s brilliant acting in a much more interesting way than the somewhat drab Infinity Pool (which didn’t even make this list).

8. Reality

This docudrama starring Sydney Sweeney as real life person Reality Winner is scripted verbatim... including redactions, which are handled in a very interesting manner... from an FBI recording of those events, in real time. A very interesting watch, for sure.

7. Scala!!! Or, The Incredibly Strange Rise And Fall Of The World's Wildest Cinema And How It Influenced A Mixed-Up Generation Of Weirdos And Misfits 

Beautiful documentary about the rise and fall of the Scala cinema in London. Even if you’ve never been there, if you are of a certain age and lived in London in the 1980s, this one will probably pique your interest. I believe this is getting a limited cinema run here in the UK a few days after this Top Twenty is published on the blog.

6. The Three Musketeers - D’artagnan

As unlike the original Dumas novels as the majority (if not all) film adaptations are, this one manages to look both gritty and beautiful at the same time and has Eva Green playing Milady. Plus it has a nice ‘one take’ style of capturing the fights in complicated sets of camera movements which must have taken a lot of rehearsals, I would guess.

5. The Three Musketeers - Milady

Mor of the above but, perhaps even a little better.

4. Godzilla Minus One

Wow... this unbelievably heartfelt period drama with added Godzilla goodness is easily as good as, if not better than, the 1954 original. This is how you do a Godzilla movie and it stomps all over the recent American attempts to do something with the character.

3. Daaaaaali!

This wonderfully comical movie which is inspired by Salvador Dali and which has a few actors playing Dali over the course of the film, in and out of the role, comes from the wonderful French surrealist Quentin Dupieux, who gave the world Rubber, among other things. This one is yet to open in the UK but I hope it gets a general release soon... the audience I saw it with absolutely loved it too.

2. Asteroid City

This is Wes Anderson doing what he does best... being Wes Anderson. It’s another nice slice of off kilter, quirky and statistically saturated comedy... giving you exactly what you’d expect from this director... and there’s nothing wrong with that.

1. Lola

Wonderful looking sci-fi-on-a-budget British movie which deals with two ladies who change the course of the Second World War when one of them invents a time machine which picks up transmitted broadcasts from the future... and how they then try to change things back. Not for everyone but I really liked this one a lot.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Warning From Space

Well Wish Star Fish

Warning From Space
aka Spacemen Appear In Tokyo
aka Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru
Japan 1956 Directed by Kôji Shima
Daiei Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Star fish shaped spoilers in this one.

Okay, if there’s yet another good thing about UK boutique Blu Ray labels just recently, it’s their new found interest in releasing previously unseen Japanese science fiction, horror and fantasy movies which haven’t been seen over here in a proper version before. This one, Warning From Space is a first time watch from me and, although some print damage means some of the sequences are fluctuating a little, I have to say that Arrow have done a wonderful job with getting this out there. And I was actually quite taken with this one.

Briefly, in terms of plot, the film centres around some mysterious UFOs appearing in Japan over a few weeks followed by the brief appearances, of some starfish monsters, designed by popular artist Taro Okamoto. However, once the starfish people, who come from the planet Paira, have realised we frighten them, they transmute one of their best scientists into human form, the guise of a popular tap dancer in Tokyo, so as not to scare us jumpy Earth people. Then they tell us that unless we release all our nuclear weapons at an oncoming planet on a collision course with Earth, we will be destroyed by it in 30 days. Much politicking occurs but, when the various countries finally agree that it’s a good idea to stop the certain death which is approaching, the nuclear bombs do nothing. Luckily, the aliens prepare a missile utilising a theoretical formula from an earth scientist, which they knew about millenia ago but destroyed and forgot about it, so they could never suffer from its destructive force... and use it to destroy the menacing planet.

So, yeah, there’s lots of interesting stuff in this movie, for sure, beyond the fact that the creature designs were produced by a famous artist. Perhaps that’s why the decision was made to shoot this one in colour because, it’s actually the first ever Japanese science fiction film to be shot in colour (just two years after rival company Tokyo launched their black and white Godzilla films). It’s interesting that the aliens, although presented as a possible life threatening menace at the start of the picture, to catch the imagination and keep the audience interested, are actually on Earth for a mission of peace. The film was actually based on a novel by Gentaro Nakajima, from what I can understand but, in film at this point the concept of aliens being our friends was fairly new and I can’t help but think this film was in some small way influenced by the 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, in this regard... at least in terms of creating a cinematic environment to get the project green lit.

The starfish version of the aliens aren’t in the movie too much but they look pretty good and, for fans of comic book company DC, they may look especially familiar. I have no idea if this is true but surely the alien starfish character Starro, who debuted in the first Justice League Of America comic book in 1960, is a complete rip off of these aliens? Especially since it doesn’t take much imagination for someone to put an S in front of Taro Okamoto’s name and add an extra R. Starro, of course, would finally make it onto cinema screens as the prime villain in the 2021 DC movie The Suicide Squad (reviewed here).

There’s something about the way colour is used too, which gives this film a certain something. The bright red splash of blood (or is it supposed to be red paint) which ushers in the opening titles on a red block background (on the Japanese print... the US dub version, also included on this Blu Ray, apparently dumps these titles for something else) are quite strong and, in the opening shot, pitched in sharp contrast to a big close up of a blue umbrella to bring us into the first shot of the movie. And the main sequence on the mother ship when the starfish aliens are conversing about how to not frighten the Earthlings has them all appear as grey monsters on a grey set... which is a nice use of muted colour. Also, they have that wonderful, revolving double hoop spinning around in their ship, which is a simple effect but which I don’t remember seeing on screen before it made an impact with audiences in the 1978 picture Superman The Movie... so it’s nice to see it used here in a 1956 film. Another nice touch which we see in a lot of modern science fiction movies from the mid-1970s to present, is the loss of radio signals in the area whenever there’s a UFO or monster in the vicinity... the film is not shoddily thought out, for sure.

Of course, the alien transformed into a half drowned human found on a lake and then used to infiltrate one of the many scientist’s family homes gets some stuff wrong, if she doesn’t want to be immediately found out. For instance, in a wonderful instance of some kind of trick photography, which is very well done, she jumps impossibly high to return shots when she’s playing the scientist’s son at tennis. Not to mention, when trying to avoid autograph hunters who think she really is the local tap dancing sensation, walking through doors without realising you need to open them first, just dematerialising through them instead. Yeah, actually it’s surprising with all this going on that people take so long to realise that she’s not actually human, for sure.

The aliens are mostly not present for the last third of the picture, where it turns into a disaster movie with the heat of the approaching planet causing high temperatures and forcing the inhabitants of the planet into underground shelters. They turn up for a quick deux ex machina style rescue as revealed earlier but, yeah, I thought Warning From Space was pretty good, it has to be said. When the earth is saved, loads of different examples of native wildlife, such as rats, bunnys, crabs and tortoises emerge from their natural hiding places and return to Earth’s surface once more. A subplot involving a villain who kidnaps one of the scientists to persuade him to give them the formula of ultimate destruction kind of peters out by the end and the villain goes unpunished, since it’s only happening in order that the scientist’s absence from the main part of the narrative can build suspense as to whether the Earth will survive or not. But, as I said, I didn’t mind this and I will definitely try and watch this one again at some point. I had a good time with it and I suspect fans of Japanese science fiction in general should find this one worth a watch.

Friday 29 December 2023


Guardian Angel

UK/USA 2019
Directed by Vicky Jewson
Jewson Film

Directed by Vicky Jewson, Close is a female dominated action thriller inspired by real life bodyguard Jacquie Davis. It’s also pretty much a typical Hollywood action vehicle in some ways but it has a few things going for it to elevate above a lot of the usual, often bland films of a similar nature out there these days. One of those things is the casting of Noomi Rapace as Sam Carlson, the character loosely based on Jacquie Davis.

The basic story is, Sam is a bodyguard or, as it is properly known, a Close Protection Operator. She is assigned to a rich teenager, Zoe (played by Sophie Nélisse), whose father has died and who has been left inheriting his large company, rather than her step mother Rima (played by Indira Varma), who is in something of a bad relationship with her daughter and just wants to make sure an important deal for the future of the company is set to go ahead successfully as planned. However, when Sam stays on a few hours more after delivering Zoe to a somehow ‘less than safe’ safe house, kidnappers come for Zoe and so Sam (who has her own mother daughter issues in the form of a child she abandoned years before) has to try and get Zoe to safety somehow in a foreign land, where the powerful masterminds behind the kidnapping are working with a corrupt police force to ensure that Zoe is brought into harms way.

So, yeah, like I said, it’s a typical set up and play out for a big blockbuster action movie but, asides from the superb cast being absolutely brilliant in this (with Noomi Rapace doing all her own stunts apparently... looking at some of the things going on here, she must have had a lot of bruises at the end of each day’s shooting), the director has a good understanding of just why these films fail or succeed and gives the thing a real feeling of suspense and tension, not to mention a certain brutality injected into the mix with some of the various punch ups throughout the story.

So, yeah, the pre-credits sequence (before a rather stripped down and less richer cover version of the excellent Kate Bush song Running Up That Hill is played over the credits) does exactly what you’d expect a film like this to do. Taking a cue from the James Bond films, we see Sam in a war zone protecting two members of the press in an action sequence, to show the audience that she’s a tough character and she can get people to safety in the face of considerable opposition. It basically shows the audience that she’s not the kind of person to just roll over in the face of adversity, instead being the individual who will look for every angle she can to swipe victory (and safety) from the jaws of defeat. And, yeah, there is a moment in this opening where one of the film crew is clearly visible on the back of a small truck that the character drives off in but, you know, these things happen and it doesn’t hijack the clear message to the audience.

So later, when Sam and Zoe go on the run and play a game of cat and mouse where they get captured, put in peril again and escape, while trying to build up a close trust to each other, it is familiar territory for sure but, it’s one of those films where all the clichés and tropes of the genre are actually done right and so we get a credible and exciting action film rather than a boring one.

For example, the cinematography is gorgeous... choosing warm colours such as oranges, yellows and browns with the two main characters dressed in colours complimentary to the environments they find themselves in... but it’s also very slow and surely paced for the majority of the film. So it’s lots of long, slow takes with fluid camera movement interspersed with static shots as the actors inhabit a world where everything plays out in a way where the audience has time to connect to the characters. For example, establishing shots of various locations will be held for much longer than you might expect and often involve slow approaches to the settings. What this all does, of course, is reveal that the director knows all about how you pace an action movie, using this kind of laid back style to make pauses which allow the action sequences to surface with more sped up, more frenetic camera work and faster cuts, to actually feel much more in contrast to the style of shots surrounding those scenes. This is something directors like Kurosawa knew about but it’s an approach often overlooked in Hollywoodland these days.  

Where this technique really comes into its own is in a scene where Sam kind of goes off and has a personal cry and panic about what’s going on, finding herself in a situation where she has no idea if there are any options left. Briefly, for that moment, the camera switches to a very slow handheld style, with slight movement to the shot rather than locked in a totally static moment... this really heightens the tension in the scene and sends a message to the audience, backed up by the camera movement hooking into the subconscious perception of the shot, that the character really is a little out of control at this point. But then, as soon as the character gets her head together and rejoins the girl she is protecting, the camera switches back to a very steady, fluid or static stream of shots again, to signal to the audience that she’s once more in control of the situation. Most people probably won’t even notice it but they sure will feel it and it’s a nice example of using the visual language to enhance the emotional state of the characters on screen.

Added to this is a moment when the rug is pulled in terms of just who the villain of the piece is... which actually took me by surprise for once. If I hadn’t been so pulled into the movie and thought about the way a certain character is written and pushed to be someone unsympathetic to the audience, I would have realised that it was a set up for a reveal later on when that character comes off as not being the source of the threat so, hats off to the director for this one, for distracting me enough with the beautiful looking visuals and standing back enough to let the central performances come to light better, so that I actually didn’t see the reveal coming. I don’t often miss those kinds of things (and, yeah, I must be getting really old now).  

And that’s me pretty much done with Close. If you like your action films with a certain credible violence to them, where characters take time to recover from being punched and knife and bullet wounds are shown to hurt the characters and have some kind of impact on them (Noomi’s face is the worse for wear with small, healing wounds throughout the movie due to her experiences depicted in the opening credit scene) then you should definitely give Close some eyeball time. Despite the formulaic story line, I thought it was an impressive piece and would recommend this one above certain other action genre movies of recent years.

Thursday 28 December 2023

I Vampiri

Bathory Sphere

I Vampiri
aka The Vampires
Lust Of The Vampire
Italy 1957
Directed by
Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava  
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Shot in full cinemascope, I Vampiri is the second of the movies presented in Arrow’s wonderful, sold out before it actually hit the bricks and mortar shops, mini Blu Ray set Macabre Visions - The Films Of Mario Bava... although you have to look for it. Despite it’s prominent inclusion in the little, accompanying hardback of essays on the films included here (this one written by the great Alan Jones) it’s actually included as an extra on the first disc, Black Sunday (aka The Mask Of Satan, reviewed here). So you have to read the full list of extras for that movie to even realise it’s in here.

The reason for that, I guess, is because Mario Bava is not the credited director... only Riccardo Freda. Bava was the director of photography (and it certainly shows) but Freda walked out on the film 10 days into shooting (on a ‘shoot a film in 12 days’ bet) and Bava had to figure out how to rescue it and add and subtract from various elements and still finish the picture on time. Freda did a similar thing and left Bava ‘holding the bag’, as it were, on Caltiki, Il Mostro Immortale, reviewed by me here). So, for instance, the reason why one of the ‘mad doctor’s’ henchmen has a scar around his neck is because he was originally rebuilt from another character, who is now his own character played by another actor because various actors weren’t around for the last two days.

However, I’m thinking I Vampiri is an important film for a couple of reasons. Firstly, after decades of government censorship and not being allowed to make horror movies, it was the first talking picture horror film out of the gate in Italy. So that alone should mark it out as something to at least take a look at. Secondly, the villainess of the film, Gianna Maria Canale as Countess Giselle du Grand, is obviously inspired by the real life ‘Countess Dracula’, Elisabeth Bathóry (of whom so many films have been made), using her ‘weird science’ doctor friend as he gives her injections of various young ladies blood to maintain her youthful looks on a regular basis, long after she would have died (she transforms backward and forward from young to old age in the story).

In some ways, she’s actually more like the real life Elisabeth Bathóry, in that blood drinking was still a big no no, at this time, in what Italian films could get away with, so the weird science element injected into the formula means that the character is shorn of any actual supernatural abilities (no matter what you may think of the silliness of the scientific element presented here). Yep, there are no actual vampires in this film guys and gals, just metaphorical ones. This ushers in, of course, a whole wealth of films which did the same thing, where many movie protagonists over the years have sought to extend their life and youth by various malevolent means (I must remember to mention this film again when I get around to rewatching and reviewing The Night Strangler*, for sure).

Because it’s Bava doing the photography and some of the directing, it looks fantastic. The whole thing is set in Paris and, certainly, it looks like they shot it there. It was, in fact, just Bava being clever with his matte paintings again... most, if not all people, I would think, would not realise it was shot in and near a studio in Italy since everything, even the big Eifel Tower, looks like it’s all been shot on location in France.

Truth be told, if I didn’t know this was shot by Bava, I probably wouldn’t guess but, regardless, the film looks incredible. Bava uses various techniques to make the film look interesting. Vertical columns created by arches inside the Countess’ castle, for instance, to move the camera around and reveal new elements of a dance ball inside. Mirrors reflecting actors in conversation with others in another part of the frame. Corners with a lot of depth where one room leads into another to create rectangles to use to separate the actors in a shot, etc. There’s some nice things going on in this movie.

And, also, of course, there’s the special effect which Bava would use again three years later on his proper directorial debut, Black Sunday. Cribbing the old trick from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, coloured lighting on the shoot is used to hide make up of various wrinkles on the lead actress until a ‘transformation’ happens and the light is either taken away (and enhanced with an opposite light on the colour wheel) or added. In the black and white film, this gives an ‘in camera’ effect of wrinkles and gouges on the face of the actresss either appearing seamlessly or vanishing in the same way. It’s good stuff and, for a long time, a guarded secret of special effects departments, from what I remember of my youth.

And that’s all I want to say about I Vampiri. The dashing young newspaper reporter hero (who must have shot all his main scenes in two days because he was a minor supporting character up until Freda left the picture), played by Dario Michaelis, is engaging enough and Roman Vlad’s score, while not my favourite stand alone listen on CD, is appropriate to the visuals and doesn’t grate too much in the melodrama stakes. It’s an interesting film and certainly worth a watch if you’re a Bava enthusiast and then considering its importance in being the first talking horror picture to come out of Italy (even though I don’t quite agree with that... not sure it’s not just a thriller in this form, to be honest... although the mad scientist does bring a guy back from the dead at one point). Maybe try and catch up to this one though, if you’ve not already seen it.

*Well that one made it’s way to the blog way before this review did in the end, right here and, yeah, I think I forgot to mention this movie.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Commando Cody - Sky Marshal Of The Universe

Going Commando

Commando Cody -
Sky Marshal Of The Universe

USA 1953
Directed by Harry Keller,
Franklin Adreon & Fred C. Brannon
12 Episodes
Republic/Olive Films DVD Region 1

Wow, this one gets really complicated. I’m sure many of you will remember the old Rocket Man serials. UK viewers especially should remember the first of the three/four serials (depending on your point of view), King Of The Rocket Men, starring Tristram Coffin as Geoff King (if memory serves) as it was a popular fixture of UK television in the late 1970s/early 1980s... when the BBC felt like they couldn’t just show the Flash Gordon serials yet again (reviewed here and here and here) until maybe Christmas. So they had a few back ups (anyone remember Daredevils Of The Red Circle?) but King Of The Rocket Men was probably the most popular sub after Buck Rogers (reviewed here). And rightly so... good fist fights and good special effects for its time by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, who performed the same task for this one I’m going to talk about now, Commando Cody - Sky Marshall Of The Universe. But hold on... as I said, it gets complicated.

So first there was King Of The Rocket Men and then the shots of his jet pack suit flying and various special effects were recycled for Radar Men From The Moon... that one did actually feature the lead character of Commando Cody but played by a different actor. However, the actor was changed (and also masked, I’ll get to that) to Judd Holdren here for what was supposed... and also kinda was... to be a TV show. However, after three episodes were filmed, which introduced Cody’s two scientist sidekicks played by Aline Towne and William Schallert, by way of being a kind of prequel to Radar Men From The Moon, there was some kind of unscheduled and extended break in production and in this time the studio made a third Rocket Man serial with the same actors, Zombies Of The Stratosphere (a young Leonard Nimoy turns up in this one too, if I’m recalling the correct serial).

However (again), Commando Cody was inexplicably renamed Larry Martin for that serial. When the production of the ‘TV show’ recommenced, not all of the actors returned so, for episodes 4-12, Schallert was replaced by Richard Crane. And, like I said, it was supposed to be a TV show in which, every week, Cody and his men tried to stop the destruction or invasion of Earth by the arch fiend from another world, The Ruler (played by Gregory Gaye). However, the producers had learned a thing or two from their other TV show The Lone Ranger. Clayton Moore took his mask off in that one and was known to the kids so, when he walked off that show demanding more money, they couldn’t easily replace him. So for this serial, Cody has a mask covering his eyes (like Robin in the Batman comics) which he even wears when he puts on his more familiar (to fans of the Rocket Man serials) jet pack and leather coat, with the primitive controls and helmet. This way, they reckoned they could just replace him if the show got popular and he decided to hold out for more cash.

And then... the unions got involved somehow. So, before it played on television, the studio was obliged to first show it as a theatrical serial. And it’s a strange mix of content because, unlike a regular serial, it was devised as a TV show so... there’s no cliffhanger at the end of every episode. That being said, when it came to TV soon after, if you were lucky enough in the 1950s to be able to catch it being broadcast in the right order, there is an underlying story arc, regardless of the stand alone nature of it all... but the last episode (which is a kind of continuation of the previous chapter) kinda concludes things. So, yeah, it was conceived as a TV show and then shown like that... but it was released as a serial first and this Olive Films version is, finally, a definitive and uncut restoration of that fourth serial, from what I can tell.

So yeah, fans of the Rocket Man serials wil love it. The mix of primitive, pulp science aided by recycled footage of the Rocket Man doing his thing, ray guns, rocket ship battles and, towards the end of the serial, some genuinely interesting plots... such as The Ruler making a slowly increasing number of copies of the sun appearing around earth every 24 hours as an additional sun, threatening to snuff out all life on the planet as we know it. Yeah, that was a good one. We also have the wonderful opening music for King Of The Rocket Men serving as the main theme here, in addition to a lot of other Republic serial needle drop scoring which fans of these things will remember and love. It even, in one episode where The Leader is using mechanical men to do his bidding, recycles the robot costume of the Volkites from the 1936 serial Undersea Kingdom. Remember that one? Another memorable BBC substitute to their repeats of the Flash Gordon serials, that one starring Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan.

And, yeah, it’s not got the kind of science behind anything that you can take seriously but it is a lot of fun, moves around at a fair lick, has no bottle neck episode at all (surprisingly) and also has that other Republic Serial trademark of hand to hand fist fights where anything in an interior room that isn’t nailed to the floor or an immovable service is used enthusiastically as a weapon in their typically energetic way. So, regardless of whether you think of this one as a genuine theatrical serial or not, Commando Cody - Sky Marshal Of The Universe certainly has all the ingredients to keep fans of the Republic serials (especially) happy for 25 minutes per installment. I certainly had a lot of fun finally catching up with the last of this Rocket Man quartet I’d not seen and, all I can say is that, if you’re as old as I am, it makes a great Christmas present for dads too. Love this one and there needs to be more old serials on the commercial market and more widely known/recognised for sure.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Doctor Who - The Church On Ruby Road


The Paradox Children

Doctor Who -
The Church On Ruby Road

Airdate: 25th December 2023
BBC plus some evil purse strings

Well, this wasn’t bad and, it certainly wasn’t, as someone in my house said, “Bloody awful... put me off watching Doctor Who!” By the same token it wasn’t great either and, yeah, possibly not quite good. The new split off version of The Doctor, played by Ncuti Gatwa teams up with his new companion Ruby Sunday, played by Millie Gibson, for an adventure which all circles around her origins as an orphan and begins a thread which will, if I’m not mistaken, run through the whole of this next season, which begins properly in May.

Okay, so the story of The Church On Ruby Road, such as it was, involved The Doctor and Ruby trying to prevent her foster mother’s new baby, the 33rd she’s adopted (which maybe a reference to LP playing speeds, given that one of the upcoming episodes features Abbey Road and The Beatles) from being eaten by goblins, itself a ploy by the goblins to, I would assume, get their hands on Ruby. Which they do after being defeated by The Doctor, by using the goblin ‘physics of coincidence’, if I’ve got that right, to fracture time and kidnap Ruby from the steps of the church she was left at as a newborn baby. The Doctor goes back and saves her and picks up his mysterious new companion once the timeline is set back, stupidly not following the mother himself because, hey, it makes dramatic sense to dangle that mystery over the audience for the rest of the year (I’m guessing). I wonder if Ruby has a pocket watch. Probably not, two hearts would definitely show up when they’re doing checks on foster kids, for sure.

Okay... so Gibson seems fine. Gatwa looks absolutely perfect as a new Doctor but, there’s still something about the way he’s playing the character which I’m not liking and, I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. Something about the voice and attitude seems a bit off, to be honest. Still willing to give him time though... unlike other members of my household, it has to be said.

And there’s the other trap that either I’ve fallen into or Russel T. Davies has accidentally sprung on himself. Doctor Who was always, as far as I remember, supposed to be a family show, rather than just a kids show. And this episode is nothing but childish malarkey from start to finish it seems to me. Now, I think one of two things could be happening here... and the thing I hope that’s happening is that he just wanted to do a  very light hearted, drama free, kid pleasing tale for Christmas. The whole episode felt like a poorly CGId version of The Dark Crystal or even The Muppets, to be fair. But, it could be just a concession to Christmas with more serious drama and peril on the way later (I mean, seriously, just eat the kid already and move on, there are no high stakes or real threats in this episode).

Or... and I suspect some newspaper reviews may well take this tack in the next morning’s papers but... is this new, child-like tone a sign of the Disneyfication of Doctor Who? Remembering that it’s Disney who are injecting finance into this thing now (although not enough to make the goblins look ‘all that’... apparently). Now, this was my first thought but, being as the preview trailer for the new series starting in May looks like that won’t necessarily be the case... I’m not going to rush to any conclusions and keep my fingers crossed that the whole Disney element and the child-like atmosphere in this episode was just a big, Christmas fuelled coincidence. I hope. Keeping my fingers and toes crossed for this... I’m just not sure.

Also, I didn’t see any Daleks or Cybermen in the trailer and, as much as I hate that they keep returning with alarming frequency over the last ten years or so... if you want to establish the new guy as The Doctor, then you should get him sharing screen time with those established villains as soon as possible, would be my take on that.

Still, it was nice hearing Murray Gold return to the show with some pretty good music and I can only hope that Silva Screen will be releasing a proper CD of that soon... along with the Murray Gold season which they never got around to releasing all those years ago, preferably (or even instead of this new one because, they should be releasing these things in order anyhow).

And that’s me almost done on Doctor Who - The Church On Ruby Road other than... did someone mention Mavity. Yep, again, instead of gravity. That’s been turning up since the episode Wild Blue Yonder (reviewed here) and I can only assume that it’s going to turn around and bite the audience in the backside at some point over the next two years because, obviously, those timelines aren’t quite rightly settled yet, are they?

Anyway, I don’t think this episode was a total disaster and I’ll withhold judgement for a while. I'm ot looking forward to the new series all that much but I'm still hopeful. Time, as always, will tell.

Monday 25 December 2023

Merry Christmas from NUTS4R2 2023

Merry Christmas 2023

Well, it’s that time of year again. By the side you’ll see the three covers of my Christmas card designs from last year. Christmas songs remade as newspaper articles, which you should be able to read if you click on them and expand the images (then unpinch or zoom in).

It’s been a long and, mostly, dreadful year again but there’s something about Christmas that, if you’re lucky, brings some escape or temporary respite from the troubles of our times and personal burdens. Like a collective agreement to be more tolerant of others and either reach out to loved ones or embrace a welcome touch of solitude. Again, if you’re lucky enough to be in that position and are not out sleeping on the streets or in other, even less pleasant circumstances. 

Anyway, I hope that some of you, if you are on your own this Christmas, find some time to discover something to your liking on this blog. There’s my Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz (right here) for a start, if you want to puzzle some of those out... and if you go into the ‘list by year/month’ index in the right hand sidebar on this page and click in December of each year, you should be able to find a whole bunch of Christmas themed movie, book and comic reviews, if you are so inclined. 

I also hope you all manage to find some time to get cosy and let the world spin by without you for a bit. I always cherish the precious time I have off this holiday, away from the negativity and bustle of the work environment.

The reviews should hopefully continue coming, more or less, every day this week... at least that’s the plan (normal service will settle back down to three per week in the New Year). If the extra reviews don’t turn up then either something very good or very bad happened to me, I guess. And if you are playing along on the Cryptic Movie Quiz, check the comments section every few days as it’s my intent to throw in a clue or two this week to help out, so to speak.

That’s it. Merry Christmas to all and I hope the New Year brings us all better fortune, for sure.

Sunday 24 December 2023

Carfax House

Ghosts Of
Christmas Past

Carfax House
by Shanni Struthers
Story Land Press
ISBN: 9781838220419

Clocking in at only 160 pages in length, I’m not sure whether Shanni Struthers’ Christmas laced tome Carfax House qualifies as either a novel or a novella but I can say one thing with certainty... and that’s the fact that I’ve had a very good track record this year with Christmas themed reading for the blog. This makes three out of three books I’ve read this season that were all excellent and I’m really pleased that I blind bought so well this year (alas, the same can’t quite be said of the Christmas movies I viewed).

So, just as a caution to temper expectations, Carfax House, subtitled A Christmas Ghost Story, has nothing whatsoever to do with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the titular house and Stoker’s famous abbey sharing a name. So put that out of your mind before you dig into this one... it doesn’t even come up. Instead, it’s the story of a young couple, Liz and Al Greenaway, who have just bought the house, a big property with its own land, as an unexpectedly cheap ‘fixer upper’, isolated and few hours train ride between London and Birmingham. And it deals specifically with the days leading up to Christmas and Liz’s first week in the house, there to begin the gradual renovation of the property while her husband, a London lawyer, finishes up a murder trial before joining her there in their new home for Christmas.

And in reality, there are few characters and a lot of the time it amounts to what is a kind of monologue of Liz as she begins to settle into the place to find that the house is, indeed, haunted by something or someone. Which sounds like it could get kinda dull but, it really isn’t. I was sceptical of this tome at first but Shanni Struthers totally pulled me into the mindset of the main protagonist and made me care about her.

I mean, it’s a grim book, for sure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Case in point, Liz loves Christmas (like me, these days) and always pushes the boat out to make everything just right. But, as the tale wends its course and you find out that the presence that resides in the house is rekindling the memories and tales from Liz’s own past, you begin to realise that maybe Liz loves Christmas for all the wrong reasons. There is a power to her back story which, once you begin to discover it in the books third act, permeates everything that’s gone before and colours it with new information given.

And it’s got a nice ending too, as it happens. This is still very much a Christmas story and the direction it heads in embraces all that’s best about the season, tempering the negative energy and slow creeping dread of Liz’s childhood experiences to present a conclusion that not only resides in the festive spirit but also introduces the idea of a haunted house that heals... pretty much anyone who has a troubled past... via a tragic Christmas story locked up of its own.

And, short review that this is, I don’t think I want to say too much more about Carfax House other than, it kept me guessing and upended my assumptions about the characters and, as any regular readers will know, that takes a lot of doing in my case (and so I’m delighted that my Christmas reads this year have all included an element of surprise which I didn’t see coming in the first few pages... this is almost a new experience for me). So, yeah... I see that this lady has written a few Christmas supernatural books so, yup, I suspect I’ll be picking up one or two more to review for the blog for around this time next year too. Carfax House is a pretty good read and I’m really glad I’ve discovered another new writer.

Saturday 23 December 2023

It's A Wonderful Knife

Fallen Angel

It's A Wonderful Knife
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre
2023 United Kingdom/United States/Canada

Warning: Kinda spoilers.

Hmm... this was not the film I was hoping it would be.

When I first heard they’d made a horror version of what is, after all, the greatest Christmas movie ever made... It’s A Wonderful Life (reviewed by me here), I was thrilled. I love this new trend of taking something which already exists in its own right and putting a horror or sci-fi or slasher spin on it (even though I hate slashers... I personally prefer gialli). And in the marketing, the spirit of some of those kinds of films which I loved such as Happy Death Day (review here), Happy Death Day 2U (review here) and, quite specifically named in the trailer... Freaky (review here)... is certainly invoked. However, after a not terrible opening, It's A Wonderful Knife very quickly turns into a bit of a mediocre mess of a production, it has to be said.

The film stars Jane Widdop as Winnie Carruthers, who lives in Angel Falls and who is having a tough time at Christmas as she has been rejected from a place at the university she wants to go to and whose boyfriend is, unknown to her at the time, straying in his amorous intentions. And then her best friend is killed by a psycho stalker the night he goes on a rampage. She manages to kill and unmask the killer but, a year later, while things have improved for everyone else in the sleepy, suburban town as a result of her actions... things are still bad for her. And so, with the aid of some supernatural shenanigans I really didn’t understand, she wishes she was never born and then she gets her wish, navigating an evil tinted version of Angel Falls where she wasn’t there to stop the psycho, as the killer has been murdering more and more people every week. It’s up to her to kill the killer(s) and somehow manage to get herself back to her own version of reality.

So, yeah, the film tries its best to be a parody of the Frank Capra classic, with dialogue exchanges such as “You’re George Bailey!” “Will you be my Clarence?” and I even noticed the marquee of the local cinema, when Winnie runs past it, shows that they are playing The Bells Of St. Mary’s... just like the cinema was when James Stewart’s George Bailey runs past it in Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life. But, yeah, some nice sly references do not a classic make, for sure.

Now I’ve been trying to figure out why the film doesn’t gel for me. I mean, it jams inclusivity/wokeness down your throat somewhat but that’s really not enough to make me give up on a movie and, while it is a bit overpowering, it didn’t really bother me too much. And it did have the odd moment that was really good, especially from the opening sequences before the title comes up. For example, when one of the girls is kissing her boyfriend, she comes up for air and says he tastes funny... the reason being that, when they were lip locked, the killer comes up behind him and pushes a shaprened candy cane through the back of his head and out through his mouth... which was a nice, surprising moment (kind of a shame they give that one away on the trailer, to be honest) but, these stabs of poetic violence are in short supply throughout the film and it really could have used more of that kind of thing.

Also, I really didn’t care about any of the characters. Possibly because I couldn’t identify with any of them but, honestly, that’s never stopped me investing emotionally in characters before. I really didn’t care who lived or died in this movie. I would have been quite happy with nobody making their way out of this one alive, truth be told. And the story is a bit of an illogical mess with seeming contradictions at every turn... at least, that’s what it felt like to me.

The one thing I did like about the production was the musical score by Russ Howard III, which reminded me just a little of something Bear McCreary might have written for this kind of film... with the odd Christmas tunes plundered and turned into more sinister versions of themselves throughout. I’d buy a CD release of this one in a second, if it got one.

And that’s me done with It’s A Wonderful Knife, I think... this is not a great movie. Granted it’s really not too badly made (although, as I said, some of the story seems a bit woolly at best) but it’s certainly not a good film either and I really don’t need to ever see this one again during my lifetime, I think. Not a glowing recommendation from me, I’m afraid.

Friday 22 December 2023

The Christmas Jigsaw Murders


The Christmas
Jigsaw Murders

by Alexandra Benedict
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 9781398525375

Eagle eyed readers of the regular kind will probably notice that this is the second ‘December tome’ that I’ve read this year by Alexandra Benedict. The first was Murder On The Christmas Express (reviewed here a couple of days ago) and I was delighted to find a second Christmas themed novel by her out for this Christmas... The Christmas Jigsaw Murders. However, I got it wrong again. Near the start of this story, the main protagonist mentions that something wasn’t quite sitting right about a murder story in the news...  that murder story being the one detailed in Murder On The Christmas Express. All well and good, a shared universe is a nice thing and means characters can cross over in later novels... but then I remembered that a similar comment was made about a murder in the news by another character in the previous book and, sure enough, when I checked, this is actually the third Christmas murder story that Benedict has written, the train set story being the second. So, next year for my December reading, I’m hoping to still be able to pick up her first in this loose trilogy, The Christmas Murder Game (if there are still hardback editions to be had) and, who knows, perhaps she’ll have written a fourth by then.

This one concentrates on a story concerning main protagonist Edie O’ Sullivan, an 80 year old ex-teacher and crossword setter for a local newspaper. And when I first read this on the synopsis of the book on Amazon, I assumed that this would be the writer’s homage to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories but, no Edie is absolutely nothing like Miss Marple, although she clearly possesses a sharp mind, for sure. If anything, I’d say there’s more than a little of Ebenezer Scrooge in her and, I’m possibly reading too much into it but, I think their are a few vague connections to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in this one.

That being said, Edie is a completely sympathetic character who just happens to hate Christmas and most people... and there’s nothing wrong with that (although, personally, I started to embrace Christmas myself, when I was older and had enough money in my pockets to be able to buy people presents). The story involves a series of murders in the town of Weymouth, which seem to be personally targeted at Edie from a person in her past. A person who is posting puzzle pieces from murder scenes as clues, in brown envelopes, through her door as a challenge to stop each murder before it happens. A challenge Edie takes seriously since the endgame, if she is figuring out the puzzle pieces properly, seems to be the death of her nephew Sean, a detective in the local constabulary who has warned her off from working the case in her own way and to leave it to the police.

But, of course, if she did that, then there would be no exciting story to read about. Now, I have to say, after the excellent Murder On The Christmas Express, I wasn’t expecting this one to give it much more than a good run for its money in pacing and addictive reading. I mean, murder mysteries set in railway sleeping cars is always a great setting so to expect something even more unputdownable from the writer would be, I felt, an unfair expectation. But, as it happens, The Christmas Jigsaw Murders is actually even better than the prior Christmas flavoured tome and I found myself feeling for the central characters even more than in the last one. And, I actually didn’t figure out who the murderer was either (although in that particular part of the game, I did feel it would have been impossible to do that, once I knew the solution). So it kept me guessing (which is almost impossible these days) and it also had a couple of surprises in terms of what happens to the main character before the novel had finished... which was cool.

Once again, the writer’s obvious penchant for puzzle solving has been highlighted in the book in a similar manner to the prior tome. For instance, one challenge she issues is to solve hidden anagrams of Dickens novels, thrown randomly in to the book. Another is to name hidden songs in the text... in the prior volume it was Kate Bush songs and, this time, it’s the turn of Fleetwood Mac (not a band I’m familiar with, in all honesty but, my cousin would love it). Finally, there’s a prize to claim as well, for the first person to unscramble all the letters, one given in a puzzle piece heading for each chapter, to reveal a Christmas song... so that’s nice.

I do have one slight criticism with the book and, I’m more than happy to overlook it as a mistake made by one of the characters as a deliberate character embellishment by the writer, rather than suggest she was at fault herself. In one scene there is a reference to a 1940s film noir one of the characters watched which featured a briefcase with unseen insides which glowed. Now, I can only assume this is a less than veiled reference to the Mickey Spillane movie Kiss Me Deadly. If so, it’s not a forties noir... the movie was released in 1955.

Other than that, though, I would have to say that The Christmas Jigsaw Murders is one of the most enjoyable and pacey December reads I’ve been through in some time and have nothing but good words for anyone wishing to read either this wonderful volume or the prior one. As I said, I intend to return to the Christmas writings of Alexandra Benedict next December, for sure.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians

Martian Santa-Hunter

Santa Claus
Conquers The Martians

Directed by Nicholas Webster
USA 1964 (released 1966)
Public Domain

Wow, this is terrible. Cheaply made and badly written and... I dunno... somehow completely charming and captivating.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is a film I’ve been meaning to get around to seeing for a good four decades or more and, it’s really not what I was expecting. I mean, I was expecting more of a family film but it became apparent very quickly that this one is aimed squarely at the kiddies. Which is fine.

A quick summary of the plot. You have Santa, played really well and likeably by a guy named John Call, getting ready with his elves for Christmas but, something is happening to the kids on Mars, who are being all depressed and despondent, even as they watch television broadcasts from Earth and enjoy the documentary interviews with Santa by a news crew. The martian leader Kimar, played by Leonard Hicks, goes to see the surprisingly sinister (for a kids movie) elder martian who says they need to get their own Santa Claus to teach the kids of Mars how to play and have fun. So, with a few plot wrinkles, Kimar, along with some of his martians including bad guy Martian Voldar (played convincingly mean spiritedly by Vincent Beck) and atrocious comic relief martian Dropo (played by Bill McCutcheon), head to Earth where they kidnap a couple of children and also Santa Claus, to set up a toy factory on Mars (one of the martians seem particular enamoured of a toy they describe which is a Slinky, which was back in vogue at the time).

Despite Voldar trying to blast all three of them out into space, they survive the trip and help out the martians, also stopping Voldar’s uprising and, in the process, teaching Dropo how to dress up and play as Santa, so he can take over and they are free to return to Earth, just in time for Christmas Eve.

And it really is a cheap mess, all shot on interior sets (four days shooting in an airplane hangar, apparently)... while at the same time being bizarrely addictive.

Some things I found interesting are... well, for starters, the colours are going for bright greens and reds but the film stock isn’t exactly technicolour (okay, just looked it up, it’s Pathécolor apparently) and so it all looks incredibly muted, even though it’s trying to be bright. Like a dulled down pastel variant of Christmas which, I have to say, I really liked.

The documentary newscasts which come in are interesting in that, at no time is it suggested that anyone on Earth does not believe in Santa Claus, He’s a newsworthy celebrity and these opening segments where he and his wife, Mrs. Claus, are being interviewed, seem really unusual. By the way this is apparently the first movie to depict a Mrs. Claus... a shame she’s not called Mary... you know, like in Mary Christmas... but still, relatively early days, I guess. The newsreel footage is also used to provide a series of narratives on the martian ‘UFO’ and so stock footage of various military responses can be montaged in with this really bland but, again, likeable soundtrack... literally to help pad the movie running time out every now and again. Although, the last you hear of the military is when they are trying to trail the martian ship to Mars... then they simply drop out of the narrative with no explanation.

Also, there are not that many people seen on Mars, it has to be said. Maybe seven or eight including the only two children (of the apparently many) you’ll catch a glimpse of on Mars... one of them being played by a young Pia Zadora in her debut movie role. When I was a kid in the 1970s, Zadora seemed more well known for films with more erotic content, if memory recalls... but here she’s just another green painted kid with not much personality.

Now, the film is studio bound but it does spend hunks of time in fake, outdoor painted environments standing in for locations like the martian landscape and the North Pole. It looks okay though but... the special effects are something else. The big, fairly useless but aesthetically pleasing hunter robot Torg looks like it's straight out of a Japanese tin toy store but it’s likeable enough. As for the fierce polar bear that bothers the kids and scares a martian off, however, well it’s hilarious. Literally a man crawling around on his knees wearing a polar bear head with a furry sheet thrown over him. This was never going to convince anyone but, honestly, from this side of history, it all just adds to the charm of the thing as far as I’m concerned... as does the saccharine opening and closing credits song... Hooray For Santy Claus.

And that’s me done with Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, I think. It’s bloody awful and cheap looking and probably an embarrassment for most of the actors working on it but... I kinda loved it and would certainly not mind seeing it again. At the moment, the Blu Ray of this is pretty expensive but, maybe it’ll come down in price in a few years time. I can’t really, in all good conscience, recommend this one to most people but... all I’m saying is that it kept me smiling, possibly for a lot of the wrong reasons. And I’ll leave it at that.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Murder On The Christmas Express

Deeper Sleeper

Murder On The
Christmas Express

Written by Alexandra Benedict
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 9781398519824

Regular readers may remember that I don’t always have the best of luck when it comes to choosing December, Christmas themed reads to review on the blog. I usually go for either whodunnits or horror stories and, for some strange reason (since I do love a good ghost story), I usually have much better luck at this time of year with the old school crime stories. This year I’ve hedged my bets by going for, not one but two Christmas themed crime thrillers (by the same writer, too) and one ghost story. Hopefully I can get them all read and reviewed here before December the 25th is upon me.

Okay, so the first tome on the list is Alexandra (aka A. K.) Benedict’s novel Murder On The Christmas Express, which arrived from Amazon as a nice, handsome hardback, signed by the writer herself, no less (I hadn’t realised I was ordering a signed copy so that’s always a nice surprise). A really nice thing about this train bound story of murder is that the sides of the pages on this edition, are coloured red with white train track running through it... so, yeah, I’m a sucker for that kind of attention to graphic design features, for sure. There’s also a map of the main train carriage and the occupants of the various sleeper cabins, in case you need to refer back to it in the text, on the inside front and back covers.

And then the opening notes by the writer really pulled me in. It seems that the lady in question is a lover of all things quiz-like (I wonder how she’d do on my regular Annual Christmas Cryptic Film Quizzes? You can play this year’s edition right here). Case in point, she gives us a list of some of her favourite Christmas prose and poetry and says that all of the titles are hidden as anagrams in the book. Furthermore, she says that there is a pub quiz at the end of the book to reward the reader and, yeah, there are indeed three rounds of Christmas themed questions at the end. And finally... and this one really got me... there was a prize to the first reader to contact her with six of the names of the many Kate Bush songs hidden in the text.

Now, I have to say, I got none of the anagrams (I was too busy concentrating on the story to play along, to be honest) and only a few of the songs from one of my all time favourite pop artists (I mostly listen to film scores... as some of my readers may remember) but it’s a really nice idea and it made me happy that someone with this devious kink in their brain is writing mystery fiction.

The story itself tells of the ‘just retired’ former police inspector, Roz, who is going home for Christmas on the last sleeper train out of London, to be with her daughter in Scotland for the birth of her grand-daughter. Or so she hopes. It’s all caught up in a story of a killer on the train, the death of a social media influencer (I still don’t understand that modern phenomena, I’m obviously very old fashioned) and her horrible boyfriend and.... yeah, so much more, including shadows of Roz’s troubled past (or should that be Roz’ past?) coming back to haunt her as she tries to find the culprit on a train which has derailed in the Scottish wilderness, with no help from the authorities for a good long while that can reach them. Oh... and did I mention that Roz is supposed to look like Kate Bush? Another plus in my book although, due to the various quirks of the human mind, even when presented with that information right from the start, I still imagined Roz as looking somehow quite different. But there you go, that’s just me.

And that’s all I’m saying about the plot but I will say that this Christmas I got really lucky on at least one of my choices... it’s an excellent and enthralling read from start to finish, that’s for sure. It opens like an old 1960s Marvel comic, structurally, in that it starts with one of the key incidents (yeah, always open on a slice of action in the ‘Mighty Marvel Manner’) to grab the reader and pull them in, before flashing back, setting up all the characters and then catching up to that sequence somewhere later ‘down the line’ (no pun intended but now that I’ve written it I’ll just go and flag that one up with inverted commas as a token gesture to the God of serendipity).

From then on it’s a cracking read with some nice turns of phrases, some of them highlighting the writer’s love of film... “If someone had drugged or poisoned the dates, Mary would be their Indiana Jones monkey.” and an obvious love of film scores too. Amongst the various musical references. I was loving the fact that the music Roz’s daughter was listening to in labour included the Goblin scores for Profondo Rosso and Suspiria although, a point deducted for spelling the Italian title of Deep Red wrong (although, maybe it was a deliberate typo and this was one of her cunning anagrams... I should go and check).

So, all in all, my first Christmas book of the year, Murder On The Christmas Express, was a very positive experience for me and lovers of the old ‘cosy whodunnit’ might want to give this one a try. I also learned a couple of new words/phrases too... I now know what Casein is and also what ‘Blood Eagle’ means, although, in the case of the latter, I kinda wish I hadn’t googled that one (although lovers of the movie Midsommer might want to familiarise themselves with this particular form of viking torture)... so maybe not so ‘cosy’ after all. Fantastic read though, couldn’t put it down.. although, I kinda had to otherwise the shower would have made the pages go all soggy on me, for sure.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

The Three Musketeers - Chapter II: Milady


The Three Musketeers
Chapter II: Milady
Directed by Martin Bourboulon
Spain/Belgium 2023
UK Cinema Print

Made back to back with The Three Musketeers - Chapter I: d’Artagnan (reveiwed here) over a 150 day shoot and released in cinemas in the same year as the first installment, The Three Musketeers - Chapter II - Milady picks up from the cliffhanger ending of the first film but, not before providing a lengthy recap of the events as they played out in the first part (not unlike Richard Lester’s The Four Musketeers did back in the 1970s - review coming in 2024). And this one probably needs it more than most versions if you’ve not seen that first part in a while because, well, to say that this ‘adaptation’ plays hard and fast with Alexandre Dumas’ original writings would be an understatement. I don’t mind that so much because I’ve honestly never seen a filmed version of The Three Musketeers which didn’t stray far from the source material but, yeah, don’t go into this one thinking it’s a faithful version, just because it’s French. It’s got all the tragedy of the original in regards to certain characters but... yeah, the producers do try to have their cake and eat it here by quite pointedly leaving it open for a character to return in some kinda sequel... who certainly didn’t survive beyond this point in the original book.

Because it was all made in one lump, all the cast from the original movie are here for this including the wonderful Four Musketeers played by François Civil (d’Artagnan), the always brilliant Vincent Cassel (as Athos, I’m really not used to seeing this guy playing a heroic character), Romain Duris (Aramis) and Pio Marmaï (Porthos). There’s also Lyna Khoudri as Constance (hardly appearing in this part of the story at all... much like Raquel Welch dropping out of the narrative for a while in the Richard Lester versions) and the incredible Eva Green as arch villainess Milady. Despite playing fast and loose with the character of Milady (not to mention d’Artagnan’s almost complete lack of amorous interest in her compared to his actions in the original story), Green sets the screen on fire as she always does and makes a very memorable version of the character... not to mention getting more involved with the brawling and sword fighting this time around.

Like the first movie, it’s enjoyable hokum and it’s filmed in a very gritty style. Lots of moving camerawork and with most of the fights being done in either single or very long sets of takes with the camera following the action and splitting off at multiple key moments to ‘catch what the next person is up to’ in the heat of battle. What this does is adds a sheen, no matter how artificial, of truth via a fly on the wall style approach to the squirmishes, lending the film a much needed air of credence to counteract just how many liberties are being taken with the story. 

The gorgeous score by Guillaume Roussel also keeps things grounded in the grit and speed of the unfolding story, giving the beautifully shot scenes an audio resonance that distracts from the narrative departures effectively.

So, yeah, look on the way the story unfolds as just a different set of directions for the tale which, in all honesty, still very much has the seeds to take the same cast into the next part of the saga... Twenty Years After, should they decide to come back and do that at some point. Perhaps sooner than later because, for some reason, this new movie version very much leaves things on a cliffhanger ending again... which I wasn’t expecting.

A short review alas but, all in all I have to say that The Three Musketeers - Chapter II: Milady is an enjoyable romp and a good piece of adventure cinema which keeps the blood pumping, displaying equal parts action, romance, comedy, betrayal and tragedy as it gallops towards its conclusion. Will definitely be picking this one up on Blu Ray when it comes out.

Monday 18 December 2023

Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special 2022

Christmas Bacon

Guardians Of The
Galaxy Holiday Special 2022

Directed by James Gunn

A quick note... I’m writing this very brief review in  the last days of Christmas 2022 and so it’s probably bad timing to put this one up before 2023. I’m going to pre-empt myself here and say that, by the time this review is published in December 2023, I will have already seen and reviewed Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 3 for the site (right here). Therefore, any character arcs and terminations (which I suspect will be the case) are not yet known to me as I’m writing these words... so please read this in that context since, I’m sure some of the things in this might seem a little contradictory by the time this review sees the light of day.

Okay, so we have a specific Marvel Christmas special this year (as opposed to a Christmas TV miniseries such as Hawkeye... reviewed here). I have to say that I’m the only member of my household who actually thought this was any good and the only one who stuck with it properly until the end (even though it’s only 41 minutes long). There are a few bad things about it and also some good stuff. And this is going to be a fairly short review so, let’s look at the good stuff first.

Okay, so we have the film starting on a flashback sequence done in a late 1970s/early 1980s variant of rotoscoping animation, telling of how Yondu (played by Michael Rooker) ruined Peter Quill’s Christmas. So, yeah, the start looks deliberately cheap. Quill, aka Starlord, is once again played by Chris Pratt and he’s joined by series regulars Vin Diesel as Groot, David Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Racoon, Pom Klementieff as Mantis and Sean Gunn as Kraglin. Once Mantis and Drax are told this story, it switches into live action and the two pledge to bring Christmas back into Starlord’s life... by travelling to Earth and kidnapping Peter’s longstanding childhood hero in the GOTG series of films... Kevin Bacon, in order to present him to Peter as a christmas present. Comedy shenanigans ensue and Bacon eventually finds himself hanging out with the Guardians on their newly acquired base on Knowwhere (following on from Avengers Endgame).

There are some nice jokes, some songs (mostly terrible, although I liked the first one... nobody else in the house did), some tiny comic action sequences and... a bit of sentiment here and there. It’s pleasant and mostly harmless fun and, yeah, I guess for me that’s fine but I think others in the household wanted a lot more from it.

There’s some bad stuff too, though... but the one thing I will bring up in that context is Groot. I mean... what? What happened to the CGI stuff? Did they use it or not because, frankly, if looks like someone wearing a bad Groot costume for most of the time. It just looks cheap and horrible and I can’t help but think that maybe more extensive use of CGI effects might have been planned but either money or, perhaps more likely, time... was not on the side of the crew here? Yeah, I don’t know why but it just felt wrong. I’m hoping this is not the same kind of effect/look they’re going to be going for in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 when it comes out... but if it is, you’ll certainly already know that by the time this review sees the light of day on this blog.

Countering that though, Mantis seemed a little less subdued as a character and given much more to do, asides from being revealed to Peter as being his half sister. She was great in this. I could have done with seeing a lot more of Nebula and Rocket though, truth be told.

And, yeah, that’s me done with Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special 2022... it was basically fine but, certainly in my household, I was in the minority. Most people here seemed to think it was pretty rubbish so, whatever, I certainly think it was by far the best of the stand alone Guardians Of The Galaxy adventures though*... which, to be fair, isn’t saying much but, no, again, it’s basically fine.

*Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 is better than all of them by a long chalk, it turned out.