Sunday, 11 August 2019
So far this year my movie-going experiences have oscillated ( and that's a word I don't use enough! ) between MCU blockbusters and assorted classic re-releases. I'm just going to do a quick rundown in roughly reverse order, starting with super-hero shenanigans...
Spider-Man: Far From Home ( 2019 )
James and I saw this at our local Cineworld last weekend, and probably just in time too as the film is down to one showing a day now. We'd missed seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming at the cinema so really wanted to catch this sequel on the big screen, especially because there were scenes set in Venice, as the poster above demonstrates. After the huge, world-saving, time-travelling Endgame where everything was about the BIG STAKES, this movie was lighter and smaller scale but a lot of fun. Again going for the John Hughes teen-comedy vibe this took Peter Parker and his friends on a wild school trip around Europe, taking in beautiful Venice ( sigh! ), Prague, Berlin, somewhere unspecified in the Netherlands ( we knew that 'cos there were tulips and windmills on display ) and ending up in London. Some fine action sequences, Jake Gyllenhaal having a ball as anti-hero / villain Mysterio and some great performances from the young cast. I'm still uncomfortable with Peter being Tony Stark's bitch and not really his own man but this movie went some way to move the character onwards in the wake of *SPOILER* Stark's death in Endgame.
So, I'd rate this a solid Three and a Half out of Five Web-Shooters
The Matrix ( 1999 )
Sarah, James and I went to see this 20th anniversary re-release in Southampton while we were on holiday down in Hampshire. This was at the Showcase Deluxe cinema which boasts a 70 ft (!) screen which was perfect for a film like The Matrix in which you need to be totally immersed. For a film that is two decades old ( I still can't believe that! Surely it came out in about 2010? ) and has been almost constantly imitated ever since, The Matrix stands up really well. Apart from a few wobbly effects and some obviously outdated cultural references it's still a visually spectacular thrill-ride, with its cod-philosophy more integral to the plot than the endless navel-gazing in the sequels, and lots of fun to be had in the interactions between the lead actors. Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne are still impeccably cool, Hugo Weaving and Joe Pantoliano are hilariously slimy and Keanu is... well, he's Keanu. Playing a hacker-turned-action hero who seems to be simultaneously the smartest guy in the room and the dumbest dope on the block, the role of Thomas Anderson / Neo is absolutely perfect for the former Ted ( Theodore ) Logan. And, bizarrely, Keanu is of course an action hero again all these years later in the John Wick series. "Whoa!" indeed.
Avengers: Endgame ( 2019 ) ( SPOLERS! For anyone who hasn't etc. etc.)
What more can be said about The Most Successful Movie Ever Made TM? ( Until the next one, anyway. ) There's not much I can add except to say it was hugely entertaining, with the Russo brothers somehow managing to corral the immense cast, spectacular action scenes and emotional payoffs to this long-running MCU saga into a convincing, and mostly coherent, whole. After the intense setup of Infinity War this last chapter in the Thanos saga was surprisingly light and comedic, although the early scenes of post-"Snap" trauma were suitably anguished. Most of the characters received appropriate screen-time and were given fitting ends / next chapters in their stories. Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo easily walked away with the acting honours... or hobbled away, in Cap's case... but it was also suitably sad, if inevitable, to see Robert Downey Jnr's Iron Man meeting his heroic downfall. ( Also, as Doctor Who fans, James and I both laughed when the concept of a "time heist" was unveiled but, of course, nobody else in the cinema did. )
Captain Marvel ( 2019 )
More super-hero action of the cosmic variety next with the latest iteration of Captain Marvel. It's certainly past time the MCU focused on a female hero and its previous applicants ( Black Widow, Scarlet Witch ) have never been strong enough characters to carry their own movie. Carol Danvers, on the other hand, former test pilot - turned - Kree warrior, is far more interesting and worthy to be Marvel's answer to DC's successful Wonder Woman. The film showed huge confidence by instantly plunging the viewers into the middle of the intergalactic Kree / Skrull conflict with very little hand-holding by the way of exposition. Brie Larson was the definition of "steely" as the good Captain, trying to discover the secrets of her past and to escape from the toxic shadow of Jude Law's Kree mentor Yonn-Rogg. Her scenes with Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury were a delight, their spiky, acerbic chemistry being the best parts of the film. Larson brought a subtlety to her character which many nay-sayers confused for blankness but I thought was refreshing after the often over the top stylings of many other super-hero actors. The action scenes were well handled and surprisingly not too gratuitous, while the 90s soundtrack was a blast. Hopefully, apart from her short appearance in Endgame, we won't have to wait too long for this gutsy, empowered hero to return.
A Clockwork Orange ( 1971 )
Another classic movie re-released, this time Kubrick's controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess' equally controversial dystopian novel. James and I saw this at Stroud's Vue cinema with only about a dozen other people. Maybe another Fast And Furious movie was out or something.Anyway, it was a lovely print of the film, lending extra clarity to Kubrick's eye-popping visuals and, as often when you see a familiar movie on the big screen for the first time, all the little details of the set design just sang out, enhancing the experience. I hadn't seen A Clockwork Orange for some time and I found "the old ultra-violence" to be as shocking as ever ( especially the sexual abuse scenes ) but I was surprised to recall just how much of a pitch-black comedy the film really is. From Malcolm McDowell's alternately charming and sneering performance, to all the typically Kubrickian grotesques that make up the supporting cast ( "P and M", Mr. Deltoid ) to the juxtaposition of horror and farce, this was a film that had you laughing at some "real horrorshow" situations, then feeling suitably uncomfortable that you'd found it so funny. Viddy well, O my brothers, viddy well...
A Matter Of Life And Death ( 1946 )
And finally, another re-release, in complete contrast to the last one - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic fantasy masterpiece A Matter Of Life And Death - or Stairway To Heaven if you're American. This has long been one of my and Sarah's favourite films and we jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen at the Cheltenham Playhouse, part of a season of "fantastic films". We dragged James along too and I think we converted him.
I should probably do a whole post on my love for this movie, and for P&P's other classic films, but I'll just state for now that it's one of the most beautiful, heart-felt, witty and wise films ever to be made in this country. The direction by Michael Powell and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff are absolutely perfect and the wonderful script by the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger is a total joy, masterfully capturing aspects of the British character as only an outsider could see them. The story of a WWII airman who jumps from his burning plane without a parachute but survives and then has to justify his life to a maybe-imaginary Heavenly court is a triumph - a sweet love story, wrapped up in a fantasy, underpinned by philosophical ideas and touching on darker themes of war and mental illness. There really isn't anything else like it. And the lead actors - a never-better David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey - are all sublime. I have to admit, I've never watched the last scene of this movie without getting a bit misty-eyed... and I hope I never do.
Wednesday, 3 July 2019
After the theatrical, stadium-rocking excesses of the Muse gig in part one of this epic series ( of two ) here's a very contrasting gig experience - Manchester's Chameleon Vox playing to an audience approximately 100 times smaller. Well, I say "after", but this gig was back in May... of course, this 'ere blog has never been known for a strict adherence to the laws of time.
The Chameleons were one of those early '80s post-Punk bands that I always saw mentioned in earnest, deadly-serious pieces in the music press, when rock journalists were desperately looking around for someone to replace Joy Division. And, like fellow potential pretenders to the Mancunian miserabilists' crown such as The Sound and The Comsat Angels, I didn't have the first clue what they sounded like. I suppose I may have heard The Chameleons on the John Peel show, sandwiched between Peruvian nose-flautists and angry Germans banging pieces of metal together and screaming, but they certainly didn't stay on my radar. My loss, really. So when The Chameleons ( or Chameleons Vox as this incarnation are actually called ) stopped off at me fave venue, the Gloucester Guildhall, I thought it worth the gamble to see what I'd missed all those years ago.
The other draw for me was the chance to catch up with fellow blogger David Rose, the mega-talented mastermind of David Rose's Gig Diaries. David is the veteran of over 1000 gigs ( puts my efforts to shame! ) and writes eloquently and passionately about music on a far more regular basis than I ever could. His blog has long been a favourite of mine and is a must-see for fans of music in general and live music in particular. David and I had briefly met earlier in the year at the triumphant Skids gig in the same venue, but this time we had more of a chance to hang out and have a proper chat. ( There was no support band that night so we stayed in the bar until Chameleons time. ) We had a fine time, yakking about our shared passions for music and comics, and discovering that on many occasions we'd both been to the same gigs, long before we'd met. One of the joys of blogging is hooking up with some lovely people, either virtually or in the "real" world, and it was a real pleasure to properly make David's acquaintance after following his blog for so long.
We moved into the sadly only two-thirds full main hall to watch The Chameleons shuffle onto the stage with very little fanfare.
They were playing their third album, Strange Times, in full plus some other "hits". All this was new to me even though I'd given them a quick listen on YouTube prior to the night. Instantly we were transported back to the post-Punk days as the band conjured up an intense, dense sound - the pounding, tribal drums, melodic bass-lines and chiming guitars familiar to fans of the likes of Killing Joke or Theatre Of Hate. Mixed in with this familiar sound I could also hear hints of Folk and even Prog, adding unexpected colours to a music which could so easily be monochrome.
The typically reserved Gloucester audience ( well, typical for a certain age group ) took a while to warm up, even though many were clearly old school Chams fans ( can I call them "Chams"? ), but the epic, none-more-Goth Soul In Isolation did the trick and kicked the metaphorical doors open. The twisting, turning riff and windswept melodrama of Swamp Thing reminded me of early Big Country ( which is obviously A Good Thing ) with Mark Burgess' sturdy vocals soaring over the tune like an eagle over moorland. Or something.
Although not the most loquacious of front-men, Burgess put on a mesmerising performance, every note seemingly wrenched from his soul via his lungs. From the little I've heard of The Chameleons' recorded output I'd say his voice is even stronger, more commanding and more nuanced than back in the day. The passion just blazed from the man and it was a privilege to watch.
The slashing, chiming guitars of Nostalgia ( surely an influence on The Horrors! ) heralded the end of a fantastic set and I walked out of the Guildhall converted - just need to track down some Chameleons music now. David and I chatted a bit more before parting ways, both agreeing that we'd just been spellbound by The Chameleons and needed to do it again some time. Great gig!
Sunday, 23 June 2019
In the last 6 months I've seen some outstanding live performances from The Dandy Warhols, Sleeper, The Supernaturals and The Skids and now, over the next couple of posts, I'm going to talk about a couple more - two very different but equally inspiring gig experiences. In my usual haphazard way I'm going to start with the most recent one, the mighty Muse at Bristol's Ashton Gate on the 5th of June. ( Although the tour poster above omits this date it did really happen. I think. Or was it a simulation? ) Sarah and I saw Muse on their Drones World Tour a couple of years ago at London's O2 Arena and were absolutely knocked out by them so, when they turned up almost in our backyard, we had to head to Brizzle to see what latest insanity Matt Bellamy and friends had cooked up...
After a remarkably hassle-free trip down to Bristol and miraculously securing on-street parking only a 10-minute walk from the venue we headed into the home of Bristol City football club, alongside about 30,000 other fans. As ever I had to virtually drag Sarah to see the support band, in this case guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine fame. ( We'd unfortunately missed first band Pale Waves who must have been on stage super early. ) Literally the second we walked into the stadium Morello kick-started that iconic riff to the wonderfully-shouty Killing In The Name Of. Perfect timing! I'd wondered how Morello would come across as a front-man but we didn't really get to find out as he left the vocals on this song to a "choir" from Bristol activist group Acorn who didn't seem to know the words but were certainly enthusiastic. The whole stadium ( apart from Sarah, of course ) took up the "Fuck you, I won't do what you told me!" chant while Tom shredded his guitar and bounced around the stage like a right-on Tigger. We then realised we'd missed most of the set as he finished with a cover of Lennon's Power To The People, again letting the crowd handle the majority of the singing. Tasty while it lasted but a slightly under-nourishing starter to the main course...
A huge roar heralded Muse's arrival as they took to the stage and proceeded to smash their way into ace new song Algorithm in all its Blade Runner-style synth-pop glory. Then it was straight into another ( great ) song from the new album as a troupe of neon-suit-wearing trombonists joined them for a stomping rendition of Pressure ( it was that kind of a gig! ) and ran down the runway at the centre of the stadium...
After the choreographed drones of the last tour, Muse seemed to have gone for a more human, performance-based experience this time ( I said "seemed" ) as they frequently brought out dancers and extra musicians to augment their own performance. ( If any of the approximately two and a half people who still read this 'ere blog are planning to see the Muse tour and would prefer not to be seriously SPOILER-ed by this review, well, I'd look away now. This was a Public Service Announcement. With guitar and trombone. ) As well as the trombonists there were also some Sith / Ninja-type characters with glowing staffs ( lightsabres? ) and a group of hazmat-suit-wearing types who were lowered down above the stage while images on the screen behind made them look like germs being attacked by antibodies. You might just glimpse the latter if you squint at the next photo.
Meanwhile, the music was fantastic. After a few more songs from the last two albums the band started to wheel out the big guns and the crowd went nuts as the twisty-turny guitar licks of Plug In Baby and the space-rock of Supermassive Black Hole ( complete with Close Encounters intro ) rolled over us. For the wonderful, gospel-flavoured Dig Down ( another instant classic from Simulation Theory ) they brought out a choir of Daft Punk-esque cyborgs to elevate the choruses and virtually the whole stadium. ( Interestingly, our daughter Sophie's former flat-mate is a member of a Bristol-based choir and had sung with Take That at the same venue the week before. This was obviously an amazing experience for her... except the choir hadn't been paid. They hadn't been paid by one of the most successful music acts to come out of this country who were clearly raking in the cash on their latest tour. Appalling behaviour from the ageing boy-band... )
Anyway, back to the boys from
It was a typically ludicrous but wonderful moment of excess from a band who continually pull out all the stops to give their fans a literally larger-than-life show. The music was suitably epic, with the newer, synth-heavy material sounding fantastic ( and the sound was mostly excellent for an outdoor gig ),culminating of course in the Spaghetti Western Metal of Knights Of Cydonia and an explosion of confetti and streamers showering over the crowd. It goes without saying that Muse are excellent musicians and know exactly what their fans want in terms of songs and spectacle - they certainly delivered in Bristol!
Saturday, 25 May 2019
Thursday, 23 May 2019
Wednesday, 22 May 2019
A couple of weekends ago ( trust this blog to always be up to the minute! ) we spent two days in sunny Portsmouth, home of the Mary Rose, the HMS Victory, the Spinnaker Tower, and the beautiful Portsmouth Guildhall which was playing host to hundreds of Wookiees, superheroes, gamers and Imperial storm troopers. Yes, you guessed it, this was the Portsmouth Comic Con and a very impressive con it was too, definitely the biggest one I've been to so far. The major draw for me was the appearance of those comic book legends, "Rascally" Roy Thomas and "Stainless" Steve Engelhart, two of the defining writers of the Silver and Bronze Ages. This was also an opportunity to catch up with the nearly-as-legendary Kids From Rec Road, but more of them later...
Whilst Sarah headed off to Gunwharf Quays for some retail therapy James and I| plunged into the maelstrom of the con. It was really quite bewildering with room after room and floor upon floor filled with toys, games, comics, artwork, cosplayers, families, people with very poor bodily hygiene, all squeezed into a labyrinthine building which was lovely but didn't seem to follow any logical pattern. After a little while getting our bearings I made a beeline ( whatever that is ) for "Sturdy" Steve Engelhart himself who was signing comics in the artist / writer area ( I'm sure it had a snappier title than that! ). For those who don't know, Steve was one of THE most prolific writers of the Bronze Age of comics who had celebrated runs on some of the most important mags of the day - The Avengers, The Defenders, Justice League Of America, Doctor Strange, Captain America, Detective Comics - whilst also creating or co-creating and writing such characters as Star-Lord and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. In later years he also wrote an excellent update of the Fantastic Four as well as working for Malibu, Valiant and Topps. Phew! My personal fave of all his comics work was the time he spent with the following master of the mystic arts...
Naturally, this was the comic I'd brought from my own collection for Steve to sign. He was very gracious when I gushed about how much I'd loved this series as a young reader and how it had been ahead of its time in terms of philosophy and concepts. He told me briefly about the differing working relationships he'd had with artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan on Doctor Strange - basically, Steve and Frank would brainstorm story ideas together over some jazz cigarettes and then Steve would shape those ideas into a story, whilst Gene was happy to work from a full script and didn't contribute to the plots. He also briefly touched on his time working with Marshall Rogers on Silver Surfer after I'd raved about that series too. Unfortunately our time was cut short after someone reminded Steve that he was due on a panel so I had to move on, but at least I'd spoken to one of my all-time favourite comics authors who had turned out to be a lovely bloke... and he'd signed my comic...
James and I legged it to the Guildhall's impressive council chambers for Steve's panel. Here we heard him repeat the stories he'd just told me about Doctor Strange and the Surfer, as well as further fascinating anecdotes about writing Captain America in the Watergate era, working with Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics, and his later creator-owned characters like Coyote and Scorpio Rose. Also at the panel were my ol' blog buddy Pete Doree of The Bronze Age Of Blogs and Kids From Rec Road fame, and Colin Brown, curator of the John M Burns Art Facebook page. We had a quick chat after the panel before going on separate quests. ( There's a wonderfully in depth post about this con on Pete's blog, which you can read here. He's remembered loads of stuff so I don't have to... )
James and I took a quick detour down to Gunwharf Quays to meet Sarah for some lunch and then it was back to the con. After nosing around the various stalls etc and briefly chatting with the guys from Knockabout Comics I queued up to meet the Rascally One himself... Mr. Roy "The Boy" Thomas...
Yeah, here I am with THE Roy Thomas! As someone who's been reading Roy's comics for nearly as long as I've actually been able to read this was an exciting, and surreal, experience.As with my meetings with Steve Engelhart and "Dauntless" Don McGregor last year I found it incredibly hard to encapsulate decades' worth of time reading and enjoying the man's work in the short time I had with him. ( I didn't get off to a great start when I shook Roy's hand and he said "Wow! You've got a strong grip... and I've got arthritis." Oops! ) Anyway, he was perfectly charming and allowed me to burble on about what a fan I am - I'm sure he hears this stuff all the time. For a long time, of course, Roy was Stan Lee's right hand man at Marvel Comics, taking over the reigns himself as Editor in Chief when The Man moved on to Hollywood, and is a legendary figure in the industry. He had a stellar career writing mostly for Marvel and DC ( excelling at team books like the FF, X-Men, Avengers, Invaders, Justice Society Of America, Infinity Inc ) but one of his characters clearly stands head and overly-muscled shoulders above all the rest and was the obvious choice when I was thinking of getting a signature...
Okay, Conan The Barbarian wasn't actually created by Roy ( that honour of course goes to the legendary Robert E Howard ) but he's probably the most important character that Roy developed for Marvel and he's the character that is the most associated with the Rascally One. And it was always going to be this exact comic that I'd like to have signed, Conan The Barbarian #24 from March 1973, the last regular issue to feature the incomparable art of Barry Windsor-Smith. I've had this issue since ( I think ) the Christmas of 1978. Back in the Summer of that long-ago year ( imagine? 41 years! ) we'd had a family holiday in that there London and I'd had my mind blown by my very first visit to a comic shop, the legendary ( there's a lot of "legendary" in this post ) Dark They Were & Golden Eyed. For my first glimpse of the world of comics retail, before the advent of such faceless shops as Forbidden Planet, DTY&GE was a pretty cool place to start. A veritable Aladdin's cave of comics, posters, "head shop" products and ephemera, it was a wonderful place to visit and I easily blew my limited budget. And then I came across a copy of CTB #24. I persuaded my parents to buy it for me but they kept it as a Christmas present so I had to wait half a year before I could marvel at Roy and Barry's four-colour masterpiece, The Song Of Red Sonja.
( Yes, it was a pretty good Christmas morning! )
As with my chat with Steve Engelhart I was aware that that there was still a queue of people behind me waiting to see the great man so I didn't hang around too long. I had a quick word with Roy about The Hero Initiative, the charity he's involved with which raises funds for healthcare for veteran comics creators ( read about its good works here ), gave some money to the cause and then moved on. It had only been a short moment really but... I'd met Roy Thomas! Very, very happy.
( Incidentally, did you notice that Roy signed the above with a Biro not a marker pen? He was concerned that the thicker ink from a marker pen might show through on the next page. Pete and I were talking about this recently and he remarked on how respectful Steve and Roy were for the artwork on the covers they signed - they always tried not to cover important parts of the art. A small but very telling point. )
In between these encounters with awesome authors I did manage to rummage around the long-boxes for some bargains. Unfortunately these were in short supply - for all its good points, the Portsmouth Comic Con was severely lacking in yer actual comics, in fact it's probably the poorest one I've been to in terms of back issues. ( I mean proper back issues, not just year-old American comics at a slightly reduced price. ) And, of course, virtually no British comics at all. I only picked up two
( two! ) comics - an issue of Warren Ellis & John Cassady's wonderful Planetary ( only one issue of the series to go to complete my collection ) and this Fourth World wonder from the King himself...
As the day began to wind down we headed to the local Wetherspoon's ( only the best pubs for us! ) to meet up with the Kids From Rec Road for a swift drink before we went our separate ways. Although the dreaded ( and pseudonymous ) Arnold Lipschitz didn't show, I still caught up with Pete ( blogger extraordinaire! ), the mega-talented and award-winning Sean Phillips, and met the third of the Kids - Dave H who actually lives in good ol' Gloucester just like your humble blogger. It's a small world but I wouldn't want to paint it etc. etc. Here are the Kids in full flow, with Dave explaining just why Marvel are better than DC ( probably )
Not long after I took this photo, Sean headed back into the Guildhall for the Tripwire Awards where he won for Best Artist and Best Original Graphic Novel - very well deserved!
Whilst Sarah, James and I headed off as well - to our hotel just outside Portsmouth and an extremely average meal in a local restaurant. We then spent the next day in sunny Portsmouth, more to follow...
So, a fun day out with some fine people - shall we do it again next year?
Wednesday, 24 April 2019
A year ago Sarah and I had an amazing week in the beautiful city of Venice to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. For some reason I didn't post any photos at the time but here are a few belated glimpses of that magical place...