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

Sunday 13 October 2019

40 Years of DWM!

Forty years ago this week saw the publication of the debut issue of Doctor Who Weekly, the first ongoing magazine devoted solely to everyone's favourite Time Lord. As the Fourth Doctor, the mighty Tom Baker, was fully embedded in the public's consciousness at this point, with Tom having played the character for five years, it was clearly an ideal time to launch this new magazine.
The 12-year old me was certainly very excited to read this "Fantastic First Issue"  -  I'd been a Doctor Who fan for 7 or 8 of those years and had just recently watched what would turn out to be my all-time fave Who story, the Paris-set beauty that was City Of Death. ( The current serial at the time was the overly-camp Creature From The Pit which was 2 or 3 episodes in at this point. )
Doctor Who Weekly combined two of my great passions, Doctor Who and comic strips, so I was as happy as a Dalek with a planet-full of pitiful humans to exterminate. And it was a Marvel comic too
( master-minded by comic book impresario Dez Skinn ) so that ticked another box for me. A Marvel comic with a secret ingredient... the cream of 2000 AD!

Yes, the lead comic strip in the first issue featured some absolutely stellar work by 2000 AD mainstays Pat Mills, John Wagner and Dave Gibbons, bringing us eager young fans the kind of budget-busting science fiction spectacle that the Beeb could only dream about. The issue was rounded out by some entry-level articles about the show and another couple of short comic strips. I was instantly hooked and became an avid follower of the magazine. After a year or so of publication its name was changed to Doctor Who Monthly as it began to be published ( you guessed it! ) once a month. Now known as Doctor Who Magazine ( or DWM for short ) it has managed an incredible run of 40 years of continuous publication. In an age when print media seems to be dying this is really impressive.
DWM has unsurprisingly had many ups and downs over the years but for the most part has been a wonderfully entertaining and informative mag, devoted to the Doctor and the various spin-offs from the show  -  from the New Adventures novels, to TV off-shoots like Torchwood, to the long-running Big Finish audio stories.

( The above issue has a special place in my cold, unfeeling heart as it contains the first fan letter I ever had published. I'll have to dig it out sometime and scan it for this 'ere blog. )

So, many congratulations to all the talented people who have kept DWM going for all these years, even through the "dark times" when the show was off the air. Happy times and places!


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