Saturday, 22 February 2020

Overdue Doctor Who Reviews

As I'm even later with my Doctor Who reviews than is traditional for this 'ere blog, I'm just going to jot down a few quick thoughts on Series 12 so far... before it's actually over... starting with

Spyfall ( Parts One & Two )
A hugely confident opening story with the Doctor and friends getting involved in all sorts of globe-trotting Bond-esque shenanigans and coming up against an old enemy. Well, it's the Master  -  not much reason for a *spoilers!* tag at this stage in the game. Some fun guest appearances from Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry ( next series French & Saunders? ), gorgeous location filming in South Africa, and the debut of Sacha Dhawan as that old Jackanapes, the Master, with a reveal almost the equal of the Jacobi / Sim regeneration in Utopia. And the fact that we share a surname with Lenny Henry's character gave James and me a few chuckles at certain lines.

Orphan 55
A slight stumble after the wide-screen adventure of the first two episodes. This story had quite an '80s vibe, even going so far as basically copying the main concept from The Mysterious Planet. Again, some impressive location filming in Tenerife and a fairly creepy menace in the shape of the de-evolved future humans known as Dregs, although this wasn't quite enough to save a weak story with under-developed supporting characters. And, if you're going to get an actress as accomplished as Laura Fraser in the show, why not give her something to do?

Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror
Proving yet again that the, er, current production team seem far more comfortable with stories set in the past, this episode again went for the "celebrity historical" format, this time centred around the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Featuring some fine, scenery-chewing guest performances from Robert Glenister and Goran Visnjic and a well-realised early-twentieth century New York, this was the definition of the fun, historical romp.

Fugitive Of The Judoon
In a purely selfish way, I was really looking forward to this episode, as it was set in my home town of Gloucester. As I'd suspected, Gloucester Cathedral was played by Gloucester Cathedral, while the rest of Gloucester was played by Cardiff. ( There were some very "blink and you'll miss it" shots of Gloucester Docks too. ) Not a major problem as it was still lovely to see those irascible space-rhinos the Judoon stomping around our lovely Cathedral in their search for the titular fugitive. And that fugitive turned what had seemed like a stand-alone episode into a pivotal moment in this series' story-arc ( yes, there actually is an arc this year ) because their quarry was revealed to be... another Doctor! Or is she? The introduction of the "Ruth Doctor" was a real rug-pulling event in the show and has opened up some exciting possibilities for the future. Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall injected new mystery into the show with their intriguing script and I'm really interested in where it will all lead.
Oh yeah, Captain Jack Harkness returned too, very briefly. I'm sure we'll see him again before too long.

This one was a bit of a mixed bag  -  a series of seemingly unconnected deadly events around the globe forcing the Tardis Team to split up and look for solutions. The story gave us disappointingly human-like aliens, a fairly sweet gay love story, a nod to Hitchcok's The Birds and yet another environmental message ( after Orphan 55's climate-change warning ), this time centring on pollution in general and micro-plastics in particular. It also inspired me to write the following on Twitter:
Tonight's #doctorwho drinking game:
One shot every time someone is teleported
Make it a double if they're teleported against their will
A pint and chaser every time all the regulars plus guest cast are squeezed into the frame to explain the plot to each other
Good luck!

Can You Hear Me?
A long overdue chance for the human Tardis travellers to return to Sheffield to catch up with friends and family. And, of course, it all goes wrong when a creepy bald guy with detachable fingers (!) keeps popping up to feed on people's nightmares.
It was nice to see more of a focus on the companions in this story. It still feels like we barely know them. The nightmares they experienced were suitably revealing, Graham's in particular ( his cancer returning, an alternate version of Grace haranguing him ) were very affecting. The menace in this episode, the fear-scoffing Zellin, was revealed as an Eternal, another call-back to the classic show, and was a memorable opponent. And, yes, you could have felt very wobbly if playing the drinking game this episode. Which I'm obviously not endorsing. Please drink responsibly. Don't text and drive.

The Haunting Of Villa Diodati
The long-awaited Mary Shelley episode saw the Doctor and friends gatecrash the infamous night in 1816 when the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori all played the Doctor Who drinking game and told each other ghost stories. Mary, of course, came up with the immortal Frankenstein on that dark and stormy night and this was an obvious opportunity to drop the Cybermen into a historical.
A cracking episode with some suitably eerie, candle-lit horrors and entertaining encounters between the time travellers and the Romantic poets. The Lone Cyberman, as mentioned by Captain Jack, was up to no good near Lake Geneva and was soon causing moral quandaries for the Doctor... as well as snapping necks. This story gave Jodie Whittaker the opportunity to show an angrier, more forceful Doctor, facing up to her mistakes and trying to save lives she'd put at risk. Not before time  -  while the friendly, goofy side of this Doctor is fun, I don't often feel that the character is "alien" enough and this chance to give Whittaker a meatier role was appreciated. This all acted as a precursor to the two-part finale which starts tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

Soundtrack: Various songs by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Stan & Jack by Pete Doree

It's here! The Big One! Kirby says "Don't ask! Just buy it!"

All this hysterical hyperbole ( and agonisin' alliteration ) is my way of plugging this Marvelous new mag by ace cartoonist and faithful friend of The Glass Walking-Stick, Peerless Pete Doree.
As if Pete wasn't busy enough producing The Bronze Age Of Blogs and The Kids From Rec Road 
( seriously, you need to check them out ) he's now pouring all his artistic talent and love for the Silver and Bronze Ages into a brand new comic featuring the amazing, astonishing adventures of Smilin' Stan and Jolly Jack.

Yep, these are the adventures of The King and The Man, fearlessly facing deadly doom in dark dimensions, ably aided and abetted by other cavorting cartoonists along the way  -  Ditko, Kane, Wood and more all turn up as crazy caricatures, fighting frightful foes and cracking wise in weird, way-out worlds. ( Phew! As Pete said to me on Twitter, trying to talk like Stan Lee is exhausting! )

It's all great stuff, very funny and full of a genuine affection for these legendary comic creators and the worlds they conjured up on cheap newsprint all those years ago. It's highly recommended... so...
whaddaya waitin' for? Go and buy the fershlugginer thing awready! You can get it here  -  and tell Pete that Honest Irving Forbush sent you!

( As a bombastic bonus, Pete's been sending out personalised sketches with early orders  -  here's mine above. Get 'em while you can, True Believers! )

Friday, 14 February 2020

Valentine's Day with the Eighth Doctor

A couple of weeks back I went to the True Believers comic con in Cheltenham ( something which is turning into an annual tradition for me ) and I commissioned the above sketch of the Eighth Doctor from the hugely-talented Mike Collins. I'd previously bought a Third Doctor sketch from Mike but this one wasn't for me, it was for my lovely wife Sarah. She's a huge fan of Paul McGann ( as am I, but in a slightly different way ) and, of course, we met the man himself at the Gloucester Comic Con back in 2018. I thought this was a great opportunity to buy a very special Valentine's Day present for Sarah and I think Mike did a wonderful job of capturing the McGann Doctor, in all his Byronic glory.

( I'll post some more stuff from True Believers soon... including more Mike Collins artwork! )

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Random Januaryness ( featuring Star Wars! Punk rock! Welsh mountains! )

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a month called January in a year called 2020.
A ( band of heroic resistance fighters  ) good-for-nothing, lazy blogger decided he should get his blog back on track and post his futile thoughts more regularly. To prove his utter commitment to this idea he didn't post anything until the month called February. This month. Now. Starting with...

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker
Late to the party as ever, I finally got round to watching SW:TROS ( great acronym! ) last weekend.
I dragged my old friend Kev along as well  -  like me, he had also grown up watching the original Star Wars movies back in the good / bad ol' days of the '70s and '80s.
I'd recently re-watched Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, just so I could remind myself where the space saga had got to in the previous installment. I'd certainly enjoyed that movie when it was released but now, on my third or fourth viewing, I realised that I really liked it. In fact, I'd say it's the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Heresy? Maybe. For me, TLJ is a superior Star Wars segment ( alliteration alert! ) because it dares to move the story along, to provide some actual character development and decent dialogue, plus there are some gorgeous visuals along the way. With that in mind, what did I think of JJ Abrams' saga-closing Chapter IX?
Well, it was pretty good. I enjoyed it. Talk about damning with faint praise?

Because it was the final Star Wars ever ever ever ( until Disney decide to reboot it all with James Bay or Zack Snyder in charge ) there were a lot of nostalgic, fan-pleasing elements to the movie  -  old characters returning ( some warranted, some not ), many call-backs to previous chapters and a general feeling that this was, again, Star Wars' Greatest Hits  -  The Remix. And mostly that was all fine. There were some spectacular space battles ( hey, it's Star Wars! ), a proper resolution to the Rey / Kylo Ren storyline and a warmly nostalgic ( there's that word again ) epilogue with Rey visiting the old Skywalker homestead on Tattooine where the whole epic had begun.

However, I was disappointed that most of the narrative themes and ideas introduced in TLJ were abandoned by JJ. I thought that the "Rise" of the title would have referred to a rebirth of the Force in the universe as hinted at by that Sorcerer's Apprentice moment at the end of the last movie, but that was seemingly forgotten. The question of Rey's parentage which looked to have been resolved in the last installment was clumsily reintroduced with the previous message that "anyone can be a hero" now negated by retrospectively inserting her story into yet another hidden lineage. And the sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran's character Rose looked very much like a cowardly caving-in to the reactionary #notmyskywalker bigots, and was very disappointing.
Maybe there should have been a more over-arching plan for these movies? It did come across like each part of this latest trilogy was a reaction to previous stories ( whether for good or bad ) and not a concerted whole. All in all, SW:TROS was a fun movie, sufficiently pleasing to old fans like me and certainly not the car-crash that the prequels were. I just wish it could have been something more.

Back down to Earth now, and on the 18th of January I went to my first gig of the year, a benefit for Cheltenham's food bank at the Frog & Fiddle. This went by the moniker of Punks Against Poverty and boasted some top local ( or relatively local ) bands.

Sophie had been home over Christmas so we persuaded her to come along for some ear-blasting Punk rock 'n' roll  -  and a few drinks. Here are Sarah, Sophie and myself with good friend and Borrowed Time superstar Glenn.
We missed the first band who had the un-promising name of Pretty Vacant but saw second on the bill Ska-Punksters King's Alias who played an energetic set, strangely featuring some distorted acoustic guitar noise. After them, all the way from the People's Republic of Stroud, it was time for my most-watched band of all time, the mighty Chinese Burn...

The Burners were on fine form, their catchy Pop/Punk/Disco/ Rock 'n'Roll enlivening the crowd and seemingly making some new converts. Frontman Ben Rigsby was as ever a whirling Dervish, busting out his best Iggy / Rotten / Jagger-esque moves whilst being a danger to the life and limb of his band mates, all the while spitting out his literate, intelligent and acerbic lyrics. I'm always grateful that they're still up there, still blasting out such faves as Shut Your Mouth, John Belushi's Dead and Defending Stalingrad, especially as lead guitarist Dave had been quite ill recently and this was his first gig back with the band. Well done Dave! What a trouper.

Next up were the constantly-gigging Borrowed Time, playing on home turf for the first time in a while and assaulting our ears with their Punk-Metal anthems. BT classics like Under The Radar, Chains and the eco-warning of The Day We Broke The World sounded as impactful as ever and they even unveiled a new song ( the title escapes me now ) which added to their arsenal of sharp, angry songs. They may be living on borrowed time but they're making the most of every minute.

Then there came a surprise as legendary Gloucester Punks Demob played a couple of impromptu numbers. They had all been at the venue, either playing in other bands or as punters, so decided to hit us with some old skool Street Punk for a good cause. Loud, righteous and subtle as a flying brick, Demob may not be to everybody's taste but they always mean business.

The headliners were Swindon's Slagerij ( Dutch for "butcher's" apparently ) who were yet more purveyors of Ska-Punk. I'm not really a fan of this style  -  it can be very generic and I always feel slightly uncomfortable about the cultural appropriation involved  -  but Slagerij certainly put on a great show. Very enthusiastic, very tight and extremely proficient with a pleasingly goofy approach after some far more serious bands. All summed up by their song and probable motto "Turn It Up... Rip The Knobs Off!"
So, a fun night supporting a worthy cause. Here's another pic of us happy punters... with added Caz!

After all that, er, glamour ( cough! ) I'm going to end with some lovely views of freezing cold Snowdonia. I mean, why not? A couple of weeks back we moved Sophie up to North Wales where she'll be training for her next season as a dancer at Haven holiday parks. We spent a very brief and bloody cold time taking photos of the landscape on the journey back. An absolutely stunning area  -  we'll definitely have to go back some time and explore it properly.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Friday, 27 December 2019

Recent gigs: The Wonder Stuff and Big Country

A couple of late entries in this year's gig calendar  -  both are bands that I've liked for a long, long time but have never seen play live, and both are bands that have soldiered on after tragedies have cost them members over the years.
Firstly, and in the usual reverse order, it's The Wonder Stuff at Bristol's O2 Academy on 12/12/19.

As I said, I'd never seen the Stuffies before but I had seen main main Miles Hunt and violinist partner Erica Knockalls play as a duo at Gloucester's Guildhall back in 2015 and promised myself I'd catch their "other" band some time. Four years later I finally made good on that promise and I'm very glad I did. But before that I picked up my old friend Glenn ( Borrowed Time superstar! ) and headed down to Brizzle through sluggish, late-rush-hour traffic. This gig was a kind of joint birthday present for us both, with Glenn's birthday being on the 10th and mine on the 14th  -  as they are most years it seems. After enjoying the culinary delights of the local Subway ( vegan subs, yum! ) we headed into the venue for an evening of refined musical entertainment. Glenn hung back by the balcony, saying he would join me later, whilst I got down to my customary spot at the front where I met up with die-hard gig-goer David Rose ( of David Rose's Gig Diary fame ) and his friend Robynne. Already on stage and giving it some ( sparkly ) welly was this urchin:

Could it be? Yes, it could. It's only that bleedin' Jim Bob innit? Yep, formally half of the sadly-missed Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine ( another band I saw at the Guildhall back in the day ) the man also known as James Robert Morrison was here to sing us his pun-packed, wordy and wry songs of life, love and losers. I'd wondered how the drum-machine-driven, sample-heavy Carter songs would stand up when played acoustically  -  pretty well, as it turns out. Jim Bob was in fine voice and played with all the passion and energy I remember from Carter gigs back in the ( gulp! ) '90s. Standouts from the old material were Do Re Mi So Far So Good ( I'd actually forgotten that one! ), a wonderfully moving Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over and a heartfelt The Only Living Boy In New Cross  -  still my fave Carter song, with Jim holding that looooong note on the chorus perfectly, and prompting me to babble in David's ear that the song was "pure poetry". Of JB's new songs the highlight was Victim, a stark and honest account of the time he was mugged and the effect it had on his mental health.
After the expected "You fat bastard!" chants, Jim Bob finished with the equally-expected Sheriff Fatman and remarked "Well, my parents were married when they had me so I'm technically just fat."

After a brief interlude in which more and more ridiculously tall people began to appear between me and the crowd barrier, Miles Hunt bounded onto the stage ( well, as much as any 53-year old man can bound ) and instantly went into a cheesy Las Vegas compere kind of routine, telling us The Wonder Stuff were here to play some new songs, followed by two old albums in their entirety  -  "and to do that, guess I'm gonna need me a band!" At which point the band duly appeared stage left and kicked off the show with newie Feet To The Flames. This was an absolutely cracking song to start off the set which showcased Miles' impressive vocal range and showed how confident the new material is. After four more new songs the Stuffies took a 15-minute break  -  the first band I've seen do that since The Dandy Warhols sat on that very stage many years ago and smoked cigarettes for 10 minutes...

They then came back out to run through second album Hup, celebrating its 30th (!) anniversary this year, starting with the kicking and snarling 30 Years In The Bathroom and the teen-punk snottiness of Radio Ass Kiss. By the time Miles claimed The Wonder Stuff had invented Country music ahead of a joyous Golden Green I was completely sold. Cartoon Boyfriend was a massive singalong, Unfaithful a showcase for Miles and Erica ( see photo at the top ), while Piece Of Sky was poignantly dedicated to those we've lost in the last 30 years. The only weak spot for me was Let's Be Other People which I found turgid but was quickly followed by the all-conquering Don't Let Me Down, Gently. Which was nice.

With barely a pause for breath they moved on to first album The Eight-Legged Groove Machine. Apparently they'd missed the 30th anniversary of this last year so, when the idea came up "in the boozer" to play Hup in its entirety, the decision was made to play TELGM as well. Obviously gluttons for punishment.
If anything, this section of the gig was ( wonder ) stuffed with even more bangers: It's Yer Money, Unbearable and Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More were all sweet 'n' sour indie pop classics, while the surreal Ruby Horse reminded me of Robyn Hitchcock with its lyric about the sun shining down like marmalade... and it certainly pleased the guy who kept shouting for "Ruby fackin' Horse!" all the way through the set. The Stuffies finished with a rampage through the stuttering Poison ( "P-p-p-poison!" ) and then came back out for a final Good Night Though, a track from Hup which had come adrift and found itself a more appropriate place at the end of the set.
Miles said "Thank you, Bristol, you were a pleasure!" And the feeling's mutual. What a great gig! I'm so glad I finally got to see The Wonder Stuff and will definitely have to catch them again.

( After the gig, when I finally caught up with Glenn, we got stuck in a massive tailback on the M5 due to late-night roadworks which meant I didn't get home until gone 01:00 am. It was worse for Glenn  -  he was going to work the next day, then playing a gig that night in London! And, of course, we all woke up the next day to the disastrous election results with Labour more or less wiped out and Boris Johnson's Fascist  Conservative party continuing its lemming-like course of destroying everything worth saving in this country. Talk about a comedown. )

And, just a few weeks previously, I saw another old fave for the first time ( huh? ) at Gloucester's groovy Guildhall  -  Big Country in a small venue. This was the 35th anniversary tour for their second album, Steeltown, and I'd luckily acquired a ticket from David Rose ( it's that man again! ) who had double-booked gigs so couldn't make it to Gloucester.
I was an early fan of Big Country, buying their first single Harvest Home on 12" vinyl the week it came out, after hearing them on Radio One ( probably on Kid Jensen's show ) and reading a Sounds review which described them as "sparklingly innovative". I was given their first album The Crossing for Christmas 1983 and was instantly hooked by its juxtaposition of tough indie rock, folk influences and melancholy lyrics. I have to admit that, when Steeltown came out, I was beginning to think it all sounded a bit samey ( plus the second album's production sounded a little muddy after The Crossing ) so I drifted away from the band. I think they even played in Gloucester, at the old leisure centre where I'd seen the likes of Thin Lizzy and Ian Gillan, but I didn't go, unfortunately. This local gig was a chance for me to make amends.

I went with Glenn ( of course! ) who knew the promoter so got in on the guest list. His band Borrowed Time had supported The Skids here back in February ( see here for review ) and, of course, Big Country share DNA with that other gang of Dunfermline art-punks.
We missed all but one song by support band The Q ( perennial Jam-copyists but very good at what they do ) and then Big Country ambled onto the stage with very little fanfare and launched into the anthemic 1000 Stars. ( It may seem redundant to call BC songs "anthemic" 'cos most of them are but this was a perfect, rousing start to the set. ) I'd expected them to play Steeltown track by track but they mostly split the set between the first two albums which worked fine.

The first thing I noticed was just how well they captured the classic Big Country sound, even without the leadership of the late, great Stuart Adamson. Having two founding members in Bruce Watson ( guitar ) and Mark Brzezicki ( drums ) certainly helped, while Bruce's son the hugely-talented Jamie Watson again showed, as with The Skids, what a fantastic guitarist he is, more than equal to the BC challenge. Frontman Simon Hough, however, was in a difficult position. His vocals were strong and clear but it's bound to be difficult to replace such an individual, powerful voice as Stuart Adamson's. Hough comes across as a nice bloke who does a fine job but lacks the stage presence of his predecessor. The focal point of the band was often Bruce who had loads of salty banter with the audience and the other band members and was clearly loving it. Playing with , as ever, a HUGE grin on his face he was a delight to watch, especially when rocking some classic "dualling guitars" poses with Jamie. At one point the Celtic-influenced sounds of the twin guitars and the old school jamming prompted me to shout into Glenn's ear "Thin Lizzy or what?"  -  and then they dropped a snippet of Whiskey In The Jar into the song. They know what they're doing!

After such muscular rockers as Flame Of The West, East Of Eden and Look Away ( from third album The Seer ) they played my absolute favourite BC song, the mournful, romantic Chance. This was just wonderful and it seemed to be everybody else's fave too, as we all joined in with the surging "Oh, Lord  -  where did the feeling go?" chorus. A spine-tingling moment.
They finished the set with ( of course ) the mighty Fields Of Fire. Which was an anthem. It was proper anthemic. It reached 100% anthemicity. I really can't avoid using the word "anthem" at this point. Look, it was just bloody great, alright? They then encored with Restless Natives which, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't know at all but was a suitably powerful, quintessentially Big Country song to end with, all heart-on-sleeve lyrics and swirling guitars.
So, it's taken me a very long time but I've now seen two great bands who I really should have caught back in the day and all I can say is we're lucky they're still out there.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Merry Christmas from The Glass Walking-Stick

Season's greetings to all you lovely people out in the blogosphere. I hope you're all having a healthy and happy time. Wishing you all peace and love.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

One of the late, great Bernie Wrightson's original art pieces for his Frankenstein series of plates has sold recently for $1,000,000. Please click on the picture above to see it in all its insanely-detailed Gothic glory. The selling price is a testament to the regard in which people hold the work and the man, a sadly missed master of the sequential art form. It really is a beautiful piece of work and must surely be the jewel in the crown of some lucky person's collection...

But... I was hoping someone might have bought it for me for my birthday ( for 'tis today )...
Oh, well...

Thursday, 31 October 2019

"I do believe in Spooks"

Well, I don't really. But I've always been interested in the supernatural and things that go bump in the night and, hey, it's Halloween so now must be the time to talk about it, right?
I'm more interested these days in fictional ghoulies and ghosties but when I was younger I was borderline obsessed with the supernatural and was always reading "true life" ghost stories. As a teenager I subscribed to the infamous part-work The Unexplained which contained many a tale of spooky and, yes, unexplained phenomena in its eldritch pages.
Of course I had an active imagination as a kid and the fact that I was brought up in a creaky, draughty 200-year old farmhouse just added to my fascination for the weird and bizarre. I was always imagining footsteps on the attic steps outside my bedroom door or hunting for secret passages in the cellar. My dad, Pete, told me his family had lived in the house since 1930 and nobody had ever seen even the merest wisp of a spectre. By the time I was a teenager I was starting to doubt that...

As an adolescent I started having weird experiences at night ( no, not those! ) which had me thinking there were stranger things in heaven and earth etc. etc. On many, many cold dark nights I would wake up ( always at 01:40 am for some reason ) with a feeling of absolute dread. I found myself unable to move, as if some giant weight were pressing down on my chest, and there was usually the impression of a shadowy figure standing at the foot of my bed, no doubt meaning to do me harm. After much struggling and scrabbling around to find my light switch I would feel the weight suddenly disappear, switch on my light and reveal... nothing. I don't know for sure how long this lasted  -  probably a couple of years  -  but I was understandably freaked out by it. I couldn't tell my parents, or anyone else for that matter, because I was sure they'd (a) think I was nuts, (b) laugh at me or (c) both. I began to think that the house was indeed haunted... or I was indeed going nuts.

Many years later as an alleged adult I was watching a TV documentary about sleep and dreams ( this time in our resolutely non-spooky one-bed suburban terraced house ) when the narrator mentioned the subject of sleep paralysis and I nearly fell out of my chair. This was it! This was the cause of those fear-filled nights. There was no nocturnal creature holding me down or lurking at the foot of my bed, merely a quirk of REM sleep which keeps the body immobile and presumably safe whilst dreaming. I wasn't haunted or mad! There was an actual physiological explanation for this private night-time terror which had gripped me for so long but was now an adolescent memory. Boring or what?

As much as I might wish otherwise I've still never had any real kind of supernatural encounter. Even when my mate Paul and I tried to sacrifice my sister to the Devil down in the cellar of the farmhouse there was no puff of sulphur or echoing voice from another world. ( I suspect Lucifer would have rejected her for being just too nasty for the hot place anyway. ) All we got was a telling off from my Nan for "trying to raise evil spirits"  -  chance would be a fine thing!

Really, the only sniff I've had of the spirit world was sometime in the early 90s when Sarah and I visited Littledean Hall in the Forest Of Dean. This is one of the oldest houses in the country and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, being home to a colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats. I'd spotted it on my travels ( I was a truck drivin' man in those days ) and thought it would be worth a look. We had a nice couple of hours there, looking around, and although there didn't seem to be anything too notable about the place, it was a pleasant enough way to spend a Summer's morning. There was very little in the way of information on display so we didn't really find out much of the house's history at the time.
One of the last rooms we looked in was a fairly unremarkable, almost bare room containing not much more than a table, a fireplace and some exposed roof beams. For some reason, even though the day was warm and all the other rooms felt light and airy, I suddenly felt an extreme cold creeping into my bones. As the room felt colder and colder I started  to feel anxious, claustrophobic, I just felt I shouldn't be there. I didn't say anything to Sarah because, again, I would have felt foolish but I was extremely relieved to get out of that room and breathe some fresh air and feel the sun on my face. From the outside I could see that the room was bathed in sunlight, not obscured by trees or hedges, and there was no real reason why it should have been so marrow-chillingly cold.
In the car on the way home Sarah suddenly confessed to me that something had really upset her in that room and she'd felt oppressed and nervous and couldn't wait to get out. She hadn't told me in case I thought she was just being silly...

Brrr! I'm feeling cold, just typing this. ( Well, it is October. ) We later looked up the history of Littledean Hall and apparently it's been the site of many supposed hauntings over the centuries. We hadn't been aware of that before our visit and had no reason to expect any "cold spots" in the house or anything like that. We both just think of it as a strange anomaly that we can't explain and it certainly didn't turn us into believers in ghosts. But... maybe, just maybe...

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Joker and other recent movies

"Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right..."

2019 has been a year where jokers and clowns have been seemingly all around us, from the ones cavorting on the silver screen to the ones who ( allegedly ) run our countries and institutions. And this feeling of the lunatics having taken over the asylum very much feeds into the first film I'm going to talk about here in my quick rundown of recent big screen fare:

Joker ( Dir. Todd Phillips )

Strangely enough, this origin story for DC's Clown Prince Of Crime has turned out to be the most controversial film of the year, even if its content doesn't really warrant all the hysteria. I guess you've heard all the hype, Dear Reader, from the ridiculous warnings that certain misfits could identify with the central character and go out and do Bad Things, to the director's confession that he planned to sneak an "indie" film into the DC cinematic universe, to the spectacle of elder statesmen of film slagging off super hero movies. So, does the movie justify all that uproar? Well, not really.
In its subject matter, Joker is basically an amalgam of two Martin Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy  -  and the fact that the latter film's Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro himself, turns up as a supporting character only pushes the cross-referencing envelope. The problem is Todd Phillips ain't no Scorsese. The movie seems confused to me and its pretensions to making Big Political Statements are, well, just pretensions. If you really want to talk about such subjects as the banality of violence, class war and the madness of crowds then using an old Batman villain will only get you so far.
Having said all that, the film certainly delivers in terms of the visuals ( the grimy, grainy, 1970s New York vibe is superbly evoked here ), the deliciously mournful score by Hildur Guonadottir and, of course, the central performance by Joachin Phoenix. Barely off-screen for a moment, Phoenix is compellingly, frighteningly believable as mentally unstable outcast Arthur Fleck, whose pitiful attempts at fitting into society are obviously doomed to fail. It's a towering performance, brave both emotionally and physically ( the actor must have really put himself through the wringer to achieve this ), and probably far better than the film deserves. Hopefully there won't be a Joker 2 or an attempt to shoehorn the character into the next Bat-pic ( although Hollywood bean-counters would surely love that ) because that could only detract from Phoenix's utter ownership of this Joker and his world.

It: Chapter Two ( Dir: Andy Muschietti )

Hopping in ridiculously oversized shoes from one clown to another we come to what was probably my most anticipated film of the year. The first chapter of this Stephen King adaptation was a delight, a wonderful mix of horror, humour and nostalgia that did a damn good job of catching King's unique "voice" and brought the world yet another memorable circus-themed monster. This second part of the story is fun but, for me, lacks the magic of the first. It starts off promisingly with some very nasty scenes of brutality as the Pennywise character reincorporates 27 years after the Losers had thought they'd beaten him, but it all becomes more generic as the story progresses. As with the Tim Curry-led TV mini-series, the adult versions of the Losers are far less interesting than their teenage counterparts. There's some fine work here from James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader but none of it really catches fire, something which is only highlighted when their younger selves pop up in flashbacks. There are admittedly some creepy scenes here but the atmosphere is often punctured by ill-judged humour and probably the freakiest scene in the film ( the Bit With The Old Lady ) was available in truncated form online before the movie came out, so is completely spoiled. Muschietti piles on more and more supernatural shenanigans as the film winds down, proving yet again that more is often less in horror movies. I still think King's novel would have benefited from being made as a 12-part Netflix show or some such which would have given the mammoth story room to breathe.

Blinded By The Light ( Dir. Gurinder Chadha )

In complete contrast to the previous two movies, Blinded By The Light is a warm-hearted and exuberant story of the growing pains of a British Pakistani in the 1980s who happens to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. Based on Greetings From Bury Park, the autobiography of journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, this is the definition of the "feelgood Summer movie" but one mostly free of the saccharine touch of the likes of Richard Curtis. The main character, Javed, comes of age in the late '80s, living in the seemingly nowhere town of Luton, dreaming of breaking free and becoming a writer but feeling constricted by the weight of his family's expectations. A friend at college introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen and he finds a deep connection to Bruce's songs of loners, outcasts and dreamers which he struggles to explain to his friends and family.
The push and pull between East and West, and between Javed's and his father's dreams, drive the story whilst Springsteen's songs underscore or counterpoint the narrative.
Gurinder Chadha's assured direction imbues what seems on the surface to be a light and frothy movie with some darker undertones as racism rears its ugly head and poverty bites at the characters. There are also some fascinating insights into Pakistani culture which you barely see in mainstream movies. Mostly, though, it's just huge fun as Javed finds the music of the Boss helping him get through his growing pains, often breaking out into song, Bollywood-style, or finding the song lyrics whirling around him on screen as they comment on his life. The film is unashamedly, cheekily cheesy and emotional, wearing its heart on its denim sleeve, and is all the better for that.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ( Dir. Quentin Tarantino )

Tarantino's latest is, for want of a better description, 100% Tarantino. A lovingly recreated Hollywood past is the playground for a cast of characters, some fictional, some real, all trying to survive turbulent times and maybe make a buck or two. The story ( or what story there is ) revolves around fading '50s movie star Rick Dalton ( DiCaprio ) and his stunt-man / buddy / gopher Cliff Booth ( Pitt ) as they hang out, drive around LA, go to parties, drive around LA, try to hang on to their careers, and drive around LA some more. Versions of the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate drift in and out of the film, some making more of an impression than others. Margot Robbie is conspicuously under-served by the script, having little to do except look gorgeous and ( you've guessed it! ) drive around LA, whilst most attention is lavished on Leo and Brad whose combined charisma is the real engine of the movie. The film is slooooow even by QT's standards, without much of his standard violence to break up the general sluggishness
( although there is one typically ultra-tense stand-off scene and the old ultra-violence does put in a controversial appearance near the end ) but it all gets by on the star power of the two leads and the gorgeous visuals. Just.
A love letter to the movies in general and late '60s / early '70s Hollywood in particular, it's probably the most self-indulgent film yet from a consistently self-indulgent film-maker. QT here re-imagines a pivotal time in Hollywood  -  as the Studio system gives way to the era of the Movie Brats and darker forces are at work behind the scenes and in the dust of the Californian desert, Quentin audaciously attempts to right wrongs and give some people the happy endings they never received in real life. I'm still not sure if he really succeeds ( or even should have attempted it ) but it's brave and foolhardy at the same time and is pure Tarantino.

( Sarah, James and I also went to a revived screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the good ol' Gloucester Guildhall. James and I last saw this on the big screen only last year but it was still great to see it again and it didn't lose its power on the smaller screen. Still the Ultimate Trip. )

Soundtrack: various obscure Vaporwave artists


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