Friday, 11 November 2016

Flying Sorcerers


The real world has let us all down very badly this past week.  So I was very happy to visit the mind-bending alternative realities of my favourite Marvel character, instead.



Doctor Strange has always been my favourite Marvel character, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, he always reminded me strongly of Vincent Price, and I believe that is who the look of the character was derived from.


Secondly, I’ve always preferred my heroes to think, not punch their way out of crises - hence my favourite characters tend to be Doctors and Professors, rather than Captains, commanders and mopey Dark Knights.
And thirdly: you never forget your first time. I was twelve and spending a period in hospital, flying full of pain killers and other drugs. My Mum visited gave me another mind-altering substance to help pass the time - a Doctor Strange comic. Very soon my own astral form was well-and-truly tripping through Steve Ditko’s psychedelic realms with the Sorcerer Supreme.

"They'll never get this stuff on screen", thought the Sorceror Supreme

Yes, this natty chap with the cloak and a severe deficit of modesty was the superhero for me, but never in the most skewed of cosmic states of existence would I have thought I’d see him on the big screen.  
By all accounts this somewhat risky investment in a little-known supporting character has magically transformed into yet another Box Office triumph for Marvel Studios.

The fact that they will stumble one day is surely inevitable, but to my great relief not with this particular title.  
In fact, Doctor Strange brings much that is new to the Marvel cinematic Universe - an altogether more cerebral approach to protecting our puny planet, culminating in a genuinely clever resolution.

Impressive visuals are a given. But speaking of becoming jaded, at this point I’d invite anyone likely to whine that they’ve seen it all before in Inception to stick their head in a bucket.
I love Inception as much as anyone, but what we saw there was a mere starting point to the truly astonishing vistas we see Cumberbatch, Ejiofor and Mikklesen tumbling through.  This is one of those rare films which demands you see it in 3-D.



And what a cast.  In Price’s absence I literally can’t imagine anyone but Cumberbatch in the role, and no doubt his star power is responsible for much of the film’s success. Mads Mikklesen has the thankless task of bringing a fairly stock-standard villain to life, but his talent for exquisitely-timed, dry-as-dust humour (see also Wilbur wants to kill Himself, 2003) create some of the film’s best scenes.

If I’m to be completely honest there seems to be a slight coldness about Doctor Strange which ultimately makes it less than the sum of its parts (the exhilaration and warmth of Civil War and The Avengers keep those two at the top for me). But its parts are utterly amazing - and I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton or many people’s favourite character - the Cloak of Levitation.


If this studio can succeed so well with a relatively little-known, high-concept character like this, then I’m fast reaching a heretical conclusion.  If DC fail with their big-screen Wonder Woman next year (and I desperately hope they don’t), then perhaps they should just carry on churning out Batman films and hand everything else over to Marvel.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Bangin'


To celebrate our anniversary we usually visit glamorous destinations to eat, drink and spend too much money.  This year we dragged ourselves to physical exhaustion and beyond…

Team OrangeCat give the competition paws for thought...

I run and cycle fairly regularly because I enjoy it - and need to spend time away from a computer screen for my health and sanity’s sake. (I have already failed in at least one of those categories).

But it’s always better to to have an event to aim for, and when Rose told me about the Big Bang Adventure little did she know what she was letting herself in for.
Their website told me that you could only enter in teams of at least two, and somehow catching Rose at a weak moment, she agreed to join me - Team ‘OrangeCat’ was born!


Mountain biking - how hard can it be?

This all day multi-disciplinary event has a strong map reading and orienteering angle, and so exact details were shrouded in mystery right up until the actual date. All we knew for now was there would be running, mountain biking and a mystery aquatic event.
Rose arranged mountain bike hire for the date and I drafted my ever-dependable Dad as our support crew, another stipulation of entry.

Fast forward the inevitable training montage (alright, a little bit of running and stuff) to the big day. But first, there’s something you need to know about Rose. Although a brown belt in two martial arts styles and constantly active, she also suffers from a mysterious muscular ailment which has shortened her right leg and made even walking painful at times.  But paradoxically, our running seemed to help and Rose gradually became fitter and more pain-free than she had been in years.

This was hugely encouraging, but I also knew we would never be serious contenders - our goal was to do as much as possible without causing lasting harm.

Leaving at 5.30am with me crammed in the back of our car around two huge mountain bikes and a sack of scroggin we headed for the Kapiti coast, and the recently disclosed race location. On hilly private land just east of Raumati we were to throw ourselves into four cross country events. Alternating between running/orienteering and mountain biking, before ending up at Queen Elizabeth Park for the water challenge.

A always, a lot of anxiety dissipates once you’ve actually made it and know what’s expected of you, but the difficulty level was extreme. Finding  a variety of electronic check points up and down the hillside was made slightly easier in that we were able to stay with ‘the pack’ to some extent, although the steepness and altitude of the terrain was extremely daunting.

The first orienteering stage. We go up, and up...and up.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about my staunch OrangeCat team mate at points throughout the day.  Mobility pain aside, in the darkest moments a history of heart problems in Rose’s family made me question the sense of this foolhardy venture.  Just when I thought she might do the sensible thing and give up, Rose rallied every single time and willingly stepped back into her world of pain. She probably showed more courage and determination than anyone else on the course, certainly me.

And down - I'm holding the map which was our life-line.

I worried a little about my father as well, left for hours on his own waiting for us to finally reappear and driving our gear from one transition point to the next.  But true to form he was totally dependable, always smiling and encouraging - making the best of a day anyone else would find a chore.
He even had a selfie taken with one of the top managers of the organisation I work for, just by falling into conversation with her.  Couldn’t have done it without you, Dad!

Emerging after getting lost in the bush - still smiling...

We struggled up endless bush-clad inclines, hurtled down logging roads on our hired bikes, got seriously lost when we fell behind anyone who could actually orienteer - but found our way out again. 
Ending with a punishing motor boat ride through the pounding surf to a marker buoy, we crossed the finishing line, intact, alive, still friends - and not even last.

Surf's up - time to get very wet...

I know I’m married to an incredible woman, but 27 years on she continues to surprise me still.
Next year - shopping and eating in Melbourne!

(and here is a video of the day - watch out for those OrangeCat hats at 0:25 and 1:09)

Monday, 31 October 2016

Hammer for Halloween

I’ve got the remote and it’s All Hallows’ Eve -
time for a creature double feature



It’s been a funny old month: extra work commitments and other projects resulted in this blog almost dying from neglect, and myself scaling new heights in obnoxiousness due to sleep hours being purloined to meet deadlines.
But right at the very end of October my work/life balance has almost levelled out again - just in time for Halloween.

I’ve had most of a weekend to myself, and an opportunity to finally watch a couple of blu-rays which I bought months ago.  Happily, they are early Hammer Horror classics, both from 1959 and featuring Sir Chris and ‘The Cush’ at the their very finest.


Canine Doyle


You can keep your Cumberbatch and Brett - if there was ever an actor born to play the World’s first consulting detective, it was Peter Cushing. And he grabs this role as only a life-long Holmes fanboy and perfectly cast leading man could.
Dying his hair, raising the timbre of his voice and embracing all the higher functioning autism traits of the character, his Holmes crackles with nervous energy. He’s a man out of step with the rest of humanity, always several steps ahead of anyone he encounters and not slow to display the inevitable impatience.

"Come on Cumberbatch and Brett, I'll take you both on ..."
Cushing’s performance is so startling that it makes you forget there’s a dog in this. And that’s just as well because no-one has ever been able to do the Baskerville Hound justice, not even Sherlock’s most recent dodgy CGI attempt.

Having said this, anyone familiar with the works of Conan Doyle will tell you that there’s a problem with this particular story. Bringing his most famous creation back ten years after the great detective’s assumed demise at Reichenbach, Conan Doyle did not originally intend The Hound of the Baskervilles to be a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

And this might help explain why Holmes himself is absent for the middle portion of the tale, which, along with having to eventually depict the Hound, brings down most adaptations of this novel.
As Cumberbatch’s Holmes recently remarked in a beautifully meta-textual moment: “I’m hardly in the one with the dog!”

Hammer’s secret weapon is the wonderful Andre Morell as a capable and quietly intelligent Watson, and his scenes with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry Baskerville carry the story on nicely until Cushing’s dramatic reappearance.

"Steady Holmes, I think he's got Kryptonite..."
Beautifully directed by Terence Fisher, this is an expensive -looking production, with first rate performances all-round, including New Zealander Ewen Solon. Hammer’s inevitable tweaks to the story result in a thrilling prologue sequence and a progressive substantial female role.

Christopher Lee as the anxious Sir Henry Baskerville.
Yes, “Elementary, my dear Watson” is uttered, but the fact that Cushing says it, even if Conan Doyle never wrote it, makes it canon to me.
Best in Show, this Hound is a must see.

___________


Wrap artist


If The Hound of the Baskerville’s was Cushing’s star vehicle, The Mummy (1959) belongs to Christopher Lee. Although he gets to incant a little during  the ancient Egypt flashback sequence, as Kharis the revived Mummy he speaks not single word. 

The high Priest Kharis...
This isn’t his Frankenstein creature in bandages, but a performance which refuses to be smothered by costume, mud and makeup, or silenced by a complete lack of dialogue. I don’t know enough about mime to call this a masterclass in silent acting, but it surely is.

...returned to life four thousand years later.
Only able to emote with his eyes, Lee’s Kharis is an unstoppable juggernaut shrugging off close range shotgun blasts, but also immensely dignified despite his pitiable state. And best if all, tender and sympathetic when moved by millennia-old lost love. The number of close ups Kharis is given indicate the directors confidence in Lee to deliver despite every possible physical restriction to his performance.  Best screen Mummy ever? Absolutely.

Cushing wanted to justify the hole in the Mummy on the film poster,
so suggested putting a harpoon through him.
Cushing as John Banning, the remaining target of the Pharoah’s curse, brings all the urbanity, conviction and energy which he always does (apparently busting out some parkour when Kharis first pays him a visit) but I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that the character of Banning needed to be played by a younger man, and Cushing would have been better cast as his older friend and advisor.

However - to contradict myself again, it’s also difficult to imagine anyone else in the passive aggressive showdown he shares with the Mummy’s ‘keeper’  - it’s a classic Cushing scene of steely resolve beneath an icily formal veneer.

The spectacular climax sees Kharis undone, not by Cushing’s shotgun-blasting posse, but Yvonne Furneaux as Elizabeth Banning. In the Mummy’s eyes at least, she is the reincarnation of his lost love Ananka. Her gentleness with him at the film’s climax makes you side with Kharis, as you should want to do with all truly great screen monsters.

Yvonne Furneaux did Fellini's La Dolce Vita straight after this...
Perhaps the closest to a straightforward Universal adaptation, Hammer’s The Mummy conflates the plots of three or four of the older studios bandaged horror films, and distils their essence perfectly.  
If you only ever see one Mummy film - make it this one.

Friday, 28 October 2016

“On my world it means hope” Part Two

If someone acts and sounds like Superman, then he probably is,
and two out of three ain’t bad.



Tyler Hoechlin is at least 300 times better looking than I  could ever hope to be.  But, to me at least, he just didn’t quite personify the Superman look - he’s an alternative to the symmetrical, strong jawed features we’re used to. And I still can’t get used to those weird cape brackets on the shoulders.
But he wore it well.

In every other aspect, however, this was the best Superman we’ve had in many many years, with a warmth, charisma and humility which has been especially missing of late. The easy authority and sheer likeability of his performance reminded me most of George Reeves. Even without the costume and superpowers, you’d be drawn to this figure and inspired by him.

It sounds simple when put like this - and makes you wonder why so many have struggled with the concept recently.  Let people be afraid of Batman, but you should want to BE Superman.
And despite achieving all of this, Hoechlin still managed to deliver a portrayal which didn’t eclipse his cousin in her own show. Bravo sir, and I hope you come back, one day.

Which brings me to the Supergirl series itself.  I don’t want to be unkind - as a friend pointed out, this is a family show - but now that Superman has retuned to Metropolis I doubt I’ll be tuning in again.
Perhaps the gritty Netflix Marvel series have just spoilt me for anything less than believable, flawed characters, rather than pretty people delivering Saturday morning cartoon dialogue.

But ultimately, I’m happy that there’s a bright and breezy Kryptonian bearing that shield and fighting for truth and justice, and glad that her viewing figures don’t need me.

Just super - you wait for years, and then two come along at the same time...

Thursday, 29 September 2016

“On my world it means hope.”

He’s been through a lot this year, but it takes more than an unmentionable cinema experience to keep him down



We’ve been told in an earlier film that the shield, above, means ‘hope’ - so here is a much-needed dose. 
It’s far too early to really tell, of course, and this is really his cousin’s show, but these few minutes feel more like the character I’ve always loved than anything else I’ve seen this year.



It’s good to have you back, Superman!

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part 5 - Terrier from Beyond the Grave

We’re ending on a high note - a good Tim Burton film (no, really)


Ah, Tim Burton… I must really like you because the three or four films you’ve made which I actually like outweigh the decades of, umm, lesser output I’ve sat through.  But I’ll probably forgive you anything because of your tributes to the two greatest Horror film studios in history - 1999’s love letter to Hammer: Sleepy Hollow, and an animated feature about a boy and his dog called Frankenweenie.


Created in beautiful black and white, this is an unlikely homage to the Universal horror films, almost every single one, in fact.  There are analogues for every famous creature and stock character from that studio’s chillers, and even appearances from ‘Godzilla’ and Christopher Lee as Dracula. 

Monster gallery: Victor's revived dog Sparky; the vampire cat; were-rat;
Colossus the mummy-hamster; Shelly the tortoise(-zilla) and a Sea Monkey.
There’s immense fun to be had in spotting all the references, but best of all is that at a mere 87 minutes Burton doesn’t have time to go of the rails and tells a tight and entertaining, funny, moving and ultimately exciting story for all ages.  Being a painstakingly crafted stop motion film probably also persuaded the Director to stay to adhere to the essence of the story.
In fact this is a remake of a 1984 live action film which the then-young director made for Disney.

The original, live action Frankenweenie from 1984
A young Boy with the very unassuming name Victor Frankenstein finds a away to bring his recently deceased dog back to life with the power of an electrical storm.  His various classmates discover his secret and set about reviving their own past pets. This mad science even extends to a swimming pool full of mutated sea monkeys who are finally look like the advertisement always said they would.
The revived creatures, including a mummified hamster, a vampiric bat-cat, a hulking Were-Rat and a titanic bipedal tortoise converge on the town festivities to wreak havoc in the ultimate monster mash-up..
Naturally, the thrilling climax involves a flaming windmill and torch-wielding villagers.

Sparky bravely faces the vampire cat in the fiery climax
This film is a delight , boasting the voice talent of past Burton collaborators Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Martin Short. And certainly Jack Skellington and the Corpse Bride have already shown how brilliant Burton-designed stop motion can be.

Martin Landau as Vincent Price.  I mean, Victor's Science teacher

And so ends Ghoul Assembly, my look at ‘monster mash-ups’ - at least for this year.  Winter is over and we are now into the truly bad weather - Spring in New Zealand.  So maybe it’s not time to put those horror films away just yet…

Monday, 12 September 2016

Caster's first stand

I’ve listened to other people’s for years, but finally had my own first (and near-disastrous) attempt at podcasting.


37 years, 500 issues, untold amounts of pocket money...
There’s an incredible world of entertainment available on the internet, where people pour their knowledge and enthusiasm of almost any topic into an audio file which others can download and listen to for free.

My own podcast listening unsurprisingly spreads across a range of fantastical film and TV, from the slick, professional Empire film podcast, to the meticulous research of avuncular Jim Moon's Hypnogoria, to the riotous and irreverent Hammered Horror. I’ve caught up on decades of comics lore thanks to the expertise and generosity of others, and followed up films and books recommended by podcasters who know what they’re talking about.

I’ve also occasionally strayed into 'bad podcast land', where people on the other side of the microphone eventually seem more interested in themselves, or their lady partners (TM), than the subjects they discuss, and unchecked enthusiasm turns to alienating immaturity.
I might swiftly delete them from my playlist, but at least these people were making the effort, which is more than I was doing.

So when my friend Peter finally convinced me to download skype and a sound editing programme and join him in a recorded conversation, I really had no excuse not to.


He and another friend Dave, launched Beyond the Sofa, a Doctor Who podcast, last year. It's a sharply-observant sideways look into unexplored corners off the programme, disguised as an amicable chat between two friends and an occasional guest.

However, in a perfect example of bad timing, 2016 became the year of no new Doctor Who on TV. Along with many other similarly-themed podcasts worldwide, the availability of previously unexplored subject matter for BTS to discuss suddenly diminished alarmingly.
Fortunately 2016 also marked a record breaking landmark - the 500th issue of Doctor Who Magazine, a publication which Peter and I have both collected for most of our lives - around three and a half decades worth of reading.

Where it all began for me - issue 50 and that free poster.
Now faded and wrinkled with age, but aren't we all...
So the topic and time was set, and after 20 minutes of technical difficulties we were underway at last.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the itinerary was all but abandoned as we meandered all over the topic. Floundering experience in phone interviewing meant that I failed to be a passive guest and often hosted Peter on his own podcast, which results in a nice two-handed sort of approach with neither of us leading the conversation.  I still sound like a stammering fop, but we all work with what we’re born with, I guess.

Clockwise: The previously unseen Hartnell image, which I used
as reference for this rough visual (top right), and final scraperboard artwork
(bottom right) which  finally appeared in the 1995 Yearbook (bottom left).
But much worse was the fact that I almost unwittingly sabotaged the entire operation, and only the heroic and no doubt lengthy sound-editing surgery of Dave saved the session. As we chatted, I was unaware that both of us were being recorded, so instead of my clean track, a tinny, skyped Peter also featured.

Bad masthead logo and better masthead logo, seen here on the cover of Peter's favourite issue.
Poor Dave had to edit this out and stitch the the resulting tracks together, but has done a brilliant job with only the occasional overlap still apparent.
I’ve learned my lesson, and will hopefully be asked back one day!