Friday 26 April 2013

Doctor Who: Cold War / Hide ( Reviews )

OK, two ridiculously late Doctor Who episode reviews are herein combined as one mini-review for your perusing pleasure. I've omitted the usual "reviews with spoilers" description since, surely, anyone who wanted to watch these stories has watched them by now.

Cold War:

This has to be the best Doctor Who script Mark Gatiss has written since The Unquiet Dead, way back in Series One. A tense, claustrophobic story with some great lines and a fascinating new slant on an old enemy. The Doctor and Clara are heading for Las Vegas but somehow end up on a sinking Russian nuclear sub at the height of the Cold War. Also on board is Grand Marshall Skaldak, an Ice Warrior recently thawed from a 5000-year sleep who is not happy to be there, seemingly abandoned by his people. Once Skaldak learns about the '80s concept of Mutually-Assured Destruction he's on a collision course with the Doctor to decide the fate of the Earth.

With many nods towards such films as The Thing and Alien, this is a beautifully-directed, atmospheric episode which pushes the boundaries of Saturday tea-time, family-friendly horror as far as they can go. The lumbering, hissing Ice Warrior is a perfectly-judged updating of a classic Who "monster" and there are some fine guest performances from submarine commander Liam Cunningham and scientist and Duran Duran fan David Warner. I was particularly glad to see Warner's character survive the story: it would be great to see that ever-wonderful actor in Doctor Who again. Another great showcase for Jenna-Louise in this episode  -  convincingly scared but brave in her confrontations with Skaldak and sharing a real warmth with David Warner's Grisenko.

Four Out Of Five Bow Ties ( or Model Subs )


After the relative misfire of Neil Cross' last episode, The Rings Of Akhaten, this story is a vast improvement and obviously a subject closer to the writer's heart. The Doctor and Clara arrive at Caliburn House in the beige days of 1974 where former war hero turned ghost hunter Major Alec Palmer ( Dougray Scott ) is searching for the ghost known as The Witch Of The Well, with the assistance of the empathic Emma Grayling ( Jessica Raine ). The Doctor blusters his way into the investigation, posing as "the man from the Ministry", but  -  of course  -  he has an ulterior motive for being there. And, this being Doctor Who, the "ghost" isn't quite what she seems...

Hide is a cracking good yarn ( as no-one says any more... ) again rich in atmosphere and detail. It's a case of "spot the references" here as time and again the story reminds the ghost story fans amongst us of classic tales such as The Haunting, The Innocents and, especially, Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape. There's some beautiful cinematography as the characters stalk the gloomy, Gothic corridors of Caliburn House and the even gloomier woods where something strange and twisted lurks. Director Jamie Payne conjures up some wonderful glimpses of the "ghost" and the "hider", often just outside of the characters' vision, illuminated by candle light or lightning flashes. The hesitant, touching relationship between Alec and Emma is skillfully communicated by stumbling conversations and brief glances  -  a masterclass from Scott and Raine in how to suggest so much with so little. This is probably my favourite episode of the series so far with many subtle and clever touches, from Clara's "conversation" with the Tardis to the final realisation that this was a love story ( or two ) and not a ghost story. And this story is one of those elite examples of Doctor Who where not one single character dies... which is nice because, again, the show has given us two memorable characters in Alec and Emma who I'd love to see return some day.

Four Out Of Five Bow Ties ( or Pale, Ghostly Faces... )

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Happy St. George's Day!

St. George he was for England
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair shirt or in mail,
It isn't safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.
St. George he was for England
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon's meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn't give him beans.
St. George he is for England
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn't safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.
This witty insight into the English character, heroic or not, comes courtesy of this blog's patron "saint", the mighty GK Chesterton, author of The Glass Walking-Stick ( the original, that is ), The Man Who Was Thursday, The Flying Inn and many, many more works of wonder.

Oh, and the painting is St. George Slays The Dragon by Fortunino Matania from the cover of a 1962 issue of that fondly-remembered magazine, Look & Learn...

Friday 19 April 2013

A Doctor by any other name...

The BBC have announced today that the final episode of Series 7 of Doctor Who ( or Series 7b if you prefer... ) is titled The Name Of The Doctor. And apparently us viewers need to "stand by for something that you might always have believed to be impossible..."
Steven Moffatt's been dropping hints for a couple of years now that the Doctor's "greatest secret" would soon be revealed. But... do we need to know his real name? Won't it take away the essential mystery of the character? It's been hinted that Time Lords choose their names ( eg The Master or The Corsair ) to suit their personalities or ideals, so the Doctor must have had a name once, instead of just a title. But, whatever it might be  -  Theta Sigma? John Smith? Matt Smith?  -  wouldn't it prove to be a massive let-down once the cat's out of the bag? You can almost guarantee you'll be disappointed: it'll be too mundane, it'll be too exotic, it'll be too obvious etc. etc.
Personally, I think this will prove to be yet another piece of misdirection along the lines of The Doctor's Daughter or The Doctor's Wife. They didn't actually, really, truthfully turn out to be his real daughter or wife, did they? Moffat likes his "slutty" episode titles, like Let's Kill Hitler, which draw people in and guarantee hype and press coverage... and this particular title will certainly do that. Of course, this series finale will also lead into the 50th Anniversary special, so I wouldn't expect too many secrets to be revealed just yet...

( Oh yeah... due to various technical hitches my review of last Saturday's Cold War is even later than usual. I'll probably combine it with the review of this week's episode, Hide. Slapped wrists all round. )

Soundtrack: Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd ( RIP Storm Thorgerson )

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Gloucester Guildhall 25th Anniversary

It's not very often I get invited to Black Tie events. In fact, I'd never been invited to a Black Tie event until I was asked to join in with the 25th anniversary celebrations of my favourite venue, Gloucester's Guildhall Arts Centre. So what else could I do but hire a tux? Here are Sarah and I getting in the party mood...
It was only through my membership of the Guildhall cinema's Film Focus Group and Film Club that I received the invitation ( thanks Chloe! ) but it was certainly a pleasure to support the venue that I've been going to for so long  -  25 years to be specific. Just a quick run down of some of the bands I've seen there over two and a half decades reminds me of how many great times I've had in that building:
Ash, S*M*A*S*H, The Damned, The UK Subs, The Supernaturals, Catatonia, Carter USM, Goldblade, Six By Seven, Lambchop, Symposium, Primal Scream, Antiproduct & Marky Ramone, Chinese Burn ( of course! ), Carbon/Silicon, Cud... and the latest gig being last Saturday's epic show by the awesome Dexy's!!! ( Review to follow... )
Here are Sarah and my good friend Tom ( of The Sensitive Bore fame ) enjoying some purely medicinal champagne...
And here's me, only pretending to drink the champagne. I was still on quite a lot of medication at the time so drinking wasn't really an option. I couldn't taste anything anyway so it would have been like drinking fizzy water. I think I had about four sips for appearance's sake. This was my first night out since finishing my radiotherapy and we were unsure how I'd cope with it, but I think I did quite well. We were out for a couple of hours and I didn't get too tired. Every day I'm getting stronger, eating more ( after losing two stone in weight! ) and needing less sleep...which is all good...
The entertainment in the main hall was slightly more civilized than the usual Guildhall gig: a Swing Jazz band, average age approx. 93, who were pretty cool and got plenty of feet  a' tappin' with some smooth standards, including an ultra-slow rendition of Mack The Knife.
As we were all decked out in tuxes it was compulsory for us blokes to act out our James Bond fantasies. Above are world's greatest Sean Connery fan Ross, Tom and myself posing with a very reluctant young lady, whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten. ( I'll just refer to her as "Lucia's daughter" 'cos that's her mum's name. Sorry. )
And here are Lucia herself ( on the right ) and Film Focus Group head honcho
( honchette? ) the lovely Chloe. Chloe has worked tirelessly to build up the Guildhall's cinema from a loss-making exercise to a successful, profitable asset to the City. She's leaving soon to have her first baby so there's plenty more hard work to come :-)
More posing  -  Ross and I obviously enjoying our time in the spotlight...
And Tom's amazing socks which were the highlight of the evening :-)

Seriously, we all had a great time and it was indeed a joy to support the Guildhall and all the hard-working staff. There were some local dignitaries present, basking in the reflected glory, but I couldn't care less about them. The success of the venue is down to the bands, the artists, the dance instructors, the projectionists, the staff and all the punters who make this tiny jewel in Gloucester's crown my favourite venue...

Friday 12 April 2013

Old Movie Of The Week: Singin' In The Rain ( 1952 )

Old movie of this week... or any other week, to be honest, is Gene Kelly's classic musical love-letter to old Hollywood. I'll just state for the record that I'm not ordinarily a great fan of musicals. In fact, until I was well into my late twenties, the only musicals I had any time for were The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease. ( Open-minded or what? ) But my opinion altered as time went by and I became more receptive to "Hey kids! Let's do the show right here!" stuff. I watched the definitive documentary on Hollywood musicals, That's Entertainment, and thought maybe there was something in this "hoofing" business after all...
I still can't handle the Gilbert & Sullivan ilk or the thigh-slappin' likes of Oklahoma or Showboat  though...

For those who don't know ( there must be some out there ) Singin' In The Rain is a story set during the late 1920s when people looked to Hollywood for glamour and escapism from their humdrum lives. Movie star Don Lockwood ( Gene Kelly ) is one of the biggest box office draws of the silent era, especially when playing opposite starlet Lina Lamont ( Jean Hagen ). They're seen as a golden couple by the public and gossip columnists... although Don secretly loathes the self-obsessed, manipulative Lina. Without warning Hollywood is hit by the bombshell that is the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer. Suddenly all the studios need talking pictures and the Lockwood/Lamont movie, The Duelling Cavalier, is a flop waiting to happen. With the help of his best buddy and fellow ex-Vaudevillian Cosmo Brown ( Donald O'Connor ) and new-found love Kathy Selden ( Debbie Reynolds ) Don has to revive his career and extricate himself from the clutches of Lina. But first, there's the matter of Lina's voice which is far too shrill and shrewish for the new-fangled medium of talking pictures...

Singin' In The Rain was actually a cynical attempt by MGM to build a movie around a pile of old Arthur Freed songs from previous films. That changed when star Gene Kelly came on board and single-mindedly turned the movie into the vibrant, post-modern classic that defined his career. He hired actors ( O'Connor ), harrassed others when they couldn't live up to his demanding perfectionism ( Reynolds ), antagonised studio bosses, and generally did whatever was necessary to realise his vision. Happily, the finished product became recognised as the most beloved musical ever.

This movie endures whilst contemporaries have been forgotten for a variety of reasons, not least for the sharp and witty screenplay, cheekily referencing the realities behind the Hollywood facade. Gene Kelly himself once said "Everything in Singin' In The Rain springs from the truth. It is a conglomeration of bits of movie lore." Sometimes biting the hand that feeds you pays off!
The breezy charm of the three leads is also a delight to behold. You can easily believe that Don and Cosmo are old pals who have slogged their guts out to rise above the speakeasys and pool-halls of their youth to become Tinseltown players. And the romance between Don and wannabe starlet Kathy is surprisingly touching for what is basically a light-hearted comedy.
And then there's the dancing...

All the leads bring an exuberance and joie de vivre to their dance numbers but Kelly, of course, is the star of the show and dances his socks off. His effortless, manly style is strong and sinuous, a mile away from the gliding, High Society hoofing of Fred Astaire. That famous scene where Don splashes about in the surprisingly "damp" LA weather is rightfully one of the most iconic moments in movie history -  good news for Kelly, who was fighting a flu-induced fever at the time and was dancing in "rain" laced with milk to make it stand out in Technicolor.
The "Broadway Melody" section of the movie takes up a good 15 minutes of the film and is a dazzling showcase for Freed's songs, Kelly's talents and the absolutely eye-popping visuals by cinematographer Harold Rosson. It's also a fantastic showcase for Cyd Charisse, bringing a real sass and sensuality to her role as an idealised gangster's moll. And she gets to blow smoke out of her nose into Kelly's face!
This section of the film also brings us the beautiful dream sequence below where Kelly pursues Charisse across a sound-stage turned soft-focus Dali landscape. Stunning!

So, Singin' In The Rain is without doubt in my mind a five-star, all-time classic... even if it is a musical :-)

Sarah and I were lucky enough to see the film at Gloucester Guildhall Arts Centre last weekend, shown as part of the venue's season of classic movies. The print was slightly dark and scratchy
( one of Kelly's lines disappeared altogether ) but it was great to see it in 35mm as originally intended. One of my favourite movies... in my favourite venue? Perfect!

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Doctor Who: The Rings Of Akhaten ( Review with spoilers )

Due to space/time dilutions in the causal nexus ( and my laziness ) this review is unfashionably late. But then, dear hypothetical reader, you're used to that, aren't you?

The Rings Of Akhaten sees The Doctor taking Clara for her first trip off-world. And where does she want to go? "Somewhere awesome..."
This turns out to be a bustling marketplace on a lump of orbiting rock, which is itself part of the inhabited rings of the star Akhaten. Here, the newbie Tardis traveller meets Merry, the Queen Of Years, a young girl who is the repository of her society's entire knowledge, with an important part to play in the ages-old Festival Of Offerings. Her role in the ritual is to sing a lullaby to the Old God of Akhaten who must be kept in perpetual slumber, unless he consumes the entire system. Merry is frightened she will make a mistake and so cause a disaster, but Clara reassures her that she will be fine. Oops...

 Of course, things go badly wrong. The Old God awakens and our time travellers have to save both young Merry and all the other races gathered here for the Festival.

This episode is very much focused on Clara  -  and rightly so. We see her here showing compassion, resourcefulness and a steely confidence. We also see a worryingly creepy sequence of the Doctor
( in slightly stalker-ish mode ) checking out Clara's past for further clues to her mystery, as well as a strange moment when the Tardis seems to disapprove of Ms. Oswald  -  which doesn't bode well for an upcoming episode when Clara will become trapped in the depths of the time machine. ( The Tardis, of course, wasn't too keen on Jack Harkness either, due to his wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey nature. Interesting... ) It's a great showcase for Jenna-Louise Coleman and her rapport with Matt Smith is lovely to watch. I'm hoping that the Eleven / Clara relationship will be more adult and less confrontational than the Eleven / Amy one ever was. They should enjoy each other's company and adventures... even when in deadly danger...

There's been a lot of criticism of this episode on the net ( what's new? ) but I enjoyed it for its attempt at doing something slightly different. I love the vistas of the Akhaten system and the cornucopia of creatures in the alien marketplace. The Doctor's speech at the climax about how much he has lost and how many terrible things he has seen over the centuries is a fine moment for Matt Smith and Clara's sacrificing of "the most important leaf in the universe" is a lovely little touch.

Apart from a few moments when the show's ambition outstrips its budget ( that "moped" ) my biggest problem with this episode is a familiar gripe: the threat. The alien mummy and its attendant servants, The Vigil, which were so prevalent in the pre-publicity material, look great but don't actually do a lot. The twist that the Old God isn't the mummy but actually a parasitical creature living in the star is a good one ( although reminiscent of Season Three episode 42 ) but it does leave Matt Smith yet again ranting at a very nebulous enemy. I often wonder if a lot of this hesitation to produce truly threatening villains stems from the BBC's constant pussy-footing around what is acceptable for tea-time TV ( the so-called "compliances" )... or is it just a lack of thorough script-editing? Neil Cross, the writer of this episode, comes from such shows as Luther and Spooks so may be suited to more down-to-earth fare. His next Who episode, Hide, is a ghost story so that may turn out better. We'll see.

Three Out Of Five Bow Ties ( or Red Leaves )

Soundtrack: Don't Stand Me Down by Dexy's Midnight Runners
                     ( I'm going to see them on Saturday night! Yay! )

Friday 5 April 2013

The Scarlet Speedster

There are so many wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the late, great Carmine Infantino on the net today 
( including this one from our pal, Cal ) that I have nothing more to add... except to say "Just look at the amazing artwork..."

RIP Carmine Infantino ( 24th May 1925 - 4th April 2013 )

Thursday 4 April 2013

Time to smile

After the necessarily sad tone of yesterday's post, I thought it would be a good idea to try and cheer up a bit...

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Desperately sad news about Iain M Banks

One of my all-time favourite authors, the great Iain M Banks has announced today that he has terminal gall bladder cancer and it's "extremely unlikely" he will live beyond a year. His full statement on the subject, full of courage and humour, can be read here at the SFX website.

I've long been a fan of this most versatile, intelligent, humane and witty of authors  -  from the dazzling SF futures of the Culture novels ( Use Of Weapons, Excession, The Player Of Games etc. ) and other stand-alone novels like Feersum Endjinn  -  to his "mainstream" novels such as The Steep Approach To Garbadale and the classic The Crow Road  -  to his "slipstream" ( ie unclassifiable ) books such as his masterpiece, The Bridge.
And below is my signed copy of that wonderful, head-spinning novel...

I met the great man at a book signing in my local Waterstone's way back in 1997. I blundered in and walked up to the desk and, with nothing better to say, remarked "I thought there would be more people here than this..." Not a great first impression it has to be said. As I recovered my composure Mr. Banks turned out to be graciousness itself, ignored my embarrassment, and chatted happily for a few minutes. I babbled on that I loved his work, even though at that point I probably hadn't read a lot of it. I asked him if the rumours were true that he'd had an uncredited bit part in the TV version of The Crow Road. Apparently they weren't. Soon after I realised I was making a prat of myself so I thanked the great man for his time and moved on... with my signed copy.

This news has really upset me today and I just wanted to set a few thoughts down about this much-loved author. Maybe I'll write some more at some point, but it all feels too sad at the moment. I'm obviously feeling it more personally than I should because of my own recent brush with the dreaded C-word. But it is still a terrible shame and a waste of a life...

"The dark station, shuttered and empty, echoed to the distant, fading whistle of the departing train"

Old Movie Of The Week: The Missouri Breaks ( 1976 )

Since I've got a lot of time on my hands while I'm still recovering from my radiotherapy, I've been watching quite a lot of TV ( probably too much! ) and I thought it would be cool to start another semi-regular feature here at TGWS... this time on all the old movies I'm watching. Starting with Arthur Penn's 1976 revisionist Western The Missouri Breaks...

Otherwise known as The Jack & Marlon Show. As the poster tagline says above: "One steals. One kills. One dies."
Jack Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, leader of a group of inept rustlers in late 19th century Montana. More proficient at boozing and whoring than rustling, Logan's gang plan to steal horses from across the Canadian border and sneak them back into the US across the Missouri Breaks. Local landowner David Braxton ( John McLiam ) has other ideas and hires a "Regulator" to hunt them down... in the form of eccentric ( ie bat-shit crazy ) gunman Lee Clayton ( Brando ).

Although a failure at the box office on release this film has gained a solid reputation over the years and I'm glad I've finally got round to watching it. There is some beautiful location filming ( only to be expected from Arthur Penn ), loads of salty, earthy dialogue and a great cast of character actors, led by the ever-dependable Harry Dean Stanton, backing up the stars.

Nicholson plays Tom Logan as a laconic, contained character, knowing his life is going nowhere, who tries for one ( doomed ) stab at happiness when he romances Braxton's daughter, Jane, sparkily played by Kathleen Lloyd. Brando, in contrast, is a delight as a vegetable-munching, dress-wearing, cold-eyed killer... seemingly channelling Richard Harris' accent and his very own eccentricities. The two only share about three scenes but when they do the star power fairly fizzes from the screen. Not a classic film by any means, but definitely a quirky, unusual treat for those ( like me ) who aren't usually Western fans.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Happy times and places!

The Doctor Who news is flooding out of the BBC at the moment, probably because filming of the 50th Anniversary Special has begun and they're attempting to beat the tabloids to the revelations.
( Which is what happened when the Cybermen were re-introduced back in 2006. )

The latest old monsters to return are the Zygons, everyone's favourite shape-changing embryonic crustaceans, last ( and only ) seen waaaaay back in 1975's Terror Of The Zygons. They left such an indelible impression with just that one story that long-time fans have been clamouring for their return ever since. And here they are above in both new and old incarnations. As with the Ice Warriors, the old design is such a testament to the skills of the original artists that it needed very little updating.
( TBH I think I prefer the original but I'll reserve judgement until I see them on the small screen in all their lumpy glory. )

Of course, this all comes hard on the heels of yesterday's announcement that  both Billie Piper and David Tennant will be returning for the 50th Anniversary. Cue two Doctors... and the inevitable slash fiction...
Things are certainly hotting up... and it's still a long time until November.

In other welcome Doc news, this time with a literary flavour, Philip Reeve, author of Mortal Engines, has announced on his blog that he has penned a Doctor Who novella, The Roots Of Evil, starring the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Which sounds very cool indeed...

Monday 1 April 2013

Doctor Who: The Bells Of Saint John ( review with spoilers )

The ringing of the Bells Of Saint John is a wake-up call for the Doctor and the programme itself: yes, the Ponds have gone, but now it's time to stop moping, move on and have some fun...
It is the 50th anniversary year after all...

Series 7 continues after an extended break as the Doctor "luckily" runs into Clara Oswald again. This modern version of Clara is a child-minder in contemporary London who has no computer skills and rings a help-line when her Wi-fi goes down... which somehow connects with the Doctor, who's gloomily exiled himself to a 13th century monastery. ( Do we sense the hand of River Song in this? ) The Doc springs into action to again try and solve the mystery of The Woman Twice Dead. As another Steven Moffat character might say "The game is on..."

"Suppose there was something in the Wi-fi harvesting human minds...?"
There's your high concept for this episode. We're all tapping away at keyboards on laptops, netbooks, tablets... all at the mercy of a hungry alien intelligence. Well, OK, it's the Great Intelligence again  -  gifting us with a short, but very welcome, appearance from the great Richard E Grant. ( Quite poignantly, actually, for us Withnail fanatics after the recent sad passing of Richard Griffiths. ) He, or it, is pulling the strings of glacial businesswoman / villainess Miss Kizlet, wonderfully portrayed by the excellent Celia Imrie. From her eyrie atop The Shard she controls the world's Wi-fi, switching people on and off like puppets, and even managing to drop planes out of the sky onto London...

The Bells Of Saint John is a fast-paced, glossy episode with definite hints of recently-demised BBC programmes like Spooks or Hustle in its high-tech, high-rise view of London. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Partners In Crime, the opening episode of Series 4  -  reintroducing a previous character as a permanent companion, lots of scenes in offices, a power-suited woman as antagonist and so on. Unfortunately, the "minds being uploaded" concept and the head-spinning Spoonheads themselves ( robotic Wi-fi base stations ) are very derivative of that series' "Library" two-parter, which is this episode's main failing.
However, there is plenty to love here: the Doctor's "anti-grav" ride up the side of The Shard, the concept of a "snogging booth", the mystery of Clara ( what's with that leaf? ), the gorgeous location footage, Miss Kizlet's tragic fate, the witty digs at modern day life, the Doc looking cool with fez, bow tie and Pertwee-esque new purple clobber...

And, of course, the radiant Jenna-Louise Coleman, making her third "first appearance" as the contemporary version of Clara. Subtly different to her "Souffle Girl" or "Victorian Governess" iterations, this is a confident, modern character with plenty of charm, a real twinkle in her eye and that mystery at her core...
Coleman and Smith are a delight together, a fizzing chemistry between them already apparent, promising great things.

I'm torn between giving this episode a 4 rating or a 3 1/2 ( mostly due to some recycled ideas ) but, sucker that I am, looking at JLC's smile above has warmed my frosty heart, so I'll go for...

4 Out Of 5 Bow Ties ( or mediaeval bells )

PS I've been doing this Bow Tie Rating system for a long time now and I'd just like to remind everyone that it was the lovely Michelle / Mickey Glitter who first gave me the idea. Cheers!


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