Monday, 22 December 2014

Reverse the Polarity!

It used to be a running gag that the original Doctor Who was hamstrung by minimal budgets and dodgy sets, but my recent ambles down Memory Lane - most recently Ambassadors of Death, Colony in Space and Claws of Axos - refute that accusation. Ambassadors, for instance, features a military convoy being attacked by helicopter (no stock footage there), whilst Claws offers a large cast of extras and the exotically organic interior of the Axonite spacecraft, even if the true form of its crew does resemble a Michelin Man covered in spaghetti. One does wonder whether Jon Pertwee would have stayed longer, had later serials such as Planet of the Spiders managed to keep up that standard.

[Originally posted on LiveJournal. Please leave comments there.]

Friday, 19 December 2014

I Would, Wouldn't I?

mandy

Sorry to hear the news about Mandy Rice-Davies, blonde half of the Profumo dance troupe. I interviewed her in the early 1980s, when she'd moved back to Solihull, and thought she was quite a lady.

[Originally posted on LiveJournal. Please leave comments there.]

Saturday, 13 December 2014

My God, It's Full of Stars

Two of my favourite science fiction films in recent years have been Under the Skin and Interstellar, yet their story arcs couldn't be more opposite. The former opens from an alien perspective, shifts to inner-city Glasgow and retains that sense of extraterrestrial detachment throughout; the latter opens in rural America, heads off into deep space and is thrust forward by its embrace of humanity. In the first, the alien struggles with its increasing desire to understand those it wanders among; in the second, the crew battles to retain their human core in the face of the infinite cosmos, only to discover -- as Nigel Kneale once wrote -- we are the Martians.

Intriguingly, despite their mirror-polarities, both films reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[Originally posted on LiveJournal. Please leave comments there.]

Friday, 21 November 2014

Five Years On...



Hard to believe that it's five years since I last posted here. I was in Nottingham last weekend, chairing the science fiction convention Novacon 44. This week, I'm concentrating on generating content for the forthcoming Ghostwords website (which will both overlap and supercede this page) and liaising with my business partner Chrissie Harper on the Rose of Eibon website.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Film review:
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


There's no denying Terry Gilliam's place among the great auteurs of modern cinema, but even his usual visual flair can't paper over the cracks in this landscape. There are moments here of bewildering imagination, but also lengthy sequences where the narrative slows to a crawl and the dialogue appears to have been made up on the spot.

The late Heath Ledger makes a decent stab at capturing his character's splintered personality (a trait underlined by the trio of actors drafted in to play the same role in Parnassus' dreamverse) and Lily Cole is surprisingly effective in her first major screentime, but the overall impression is of a disjointed jigsaw which simply doesn't fit together coherently.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Film review:
Gamer (2009)


Those familiar with Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's previous collaborations, the frenetic Crank and its equally cartoonlike sequel Crank 2: High Voltage, will find little to surprise them during the first half of their latest shoot-'em-up, set in a future America where millions engage in a live-action version of Second Life and the top-rated tv show features convicted criminals fighting to the death in the hope of gaining their freedom. (The latter may remind some of the 1987 adaptation of Stephen King's pseudonymous The Running Man, but it's closer in treatment to an obscurity from that same year, Deathrow Gameshow.)

It's at the mid-point, however, that the script edges towards a rather more interesting meditation upon the nature of identity in a world where nanotechnology can provide you with a physical avatar, under your direct mental control. That it only strays a short distance in that direction is most likely rooted in a desire not to alienate the film's target audience, although the cliched depiction of one player as a semi-naked couch potato with sexuality issues won't endear it to some. In all, a mildly interesting misfire.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Film review:
Lat den ratte komma in (2008)


Repackaged as Let the Right One In for its belated UK release, Lat den ratte komma in is the most intoxicating blend of childhood sensitivity and gutsy fantasy since Pan's Labyrinth. By turns a convincing portrait of pre-teen terrors (bullying, divorce, first love) and a gory vampire thriller, it's utterly engaging and shockingly effective, with stand-out performances from the two leads (Lina Leandersson is stunning as the sometimes sweet, occasionally feral Eli). By a wide margin, the best horror film I've seen this year.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Film review:
Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)


The first big screen pairing of rising BBC3 "stars" James Corden and Mathew Horne is many things - unfocussed, flabby (even at 86 minutes), ultimately tedious (quite an achievement for a movie featuring semi-nude female vamps) - but the one thing it isn't is another Shaun of the Dead. LSK is neither as good as it could have been, nor as bad as some of the critics have indicated: another misfiring British sf/horror comedy, in other words, to join the ranks of Evil Aliens, The Revenge of Billy the Kid and When Evil Calls. You'll have far more fun watching the "Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust" episode of Dr Terrible's House of Horrible.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Are You Still Here?

The award-winning online archive eFanzines just posted Are You Still Here?, a selection of material I've written over the past twenty-three years. The most daunting part was making the final cut; I'm almost tempted to put together a second volume (you have been warned...).

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Fifty Pence to Stop!


[First published on LiveJournal, November 2005:]

In common with [my friends Fran and Sandra], I've somehow slipped onto the Penknife Press e-mailing list, the company's name presumably arising from the item you grab to slash your wrists when the latest teaser chapter arrives.

Sunday's extract was from The Last and Final King by Obi (sorry, who?), ominously entitled "Book I, Chapter I":

Life is a f***. In and out, in and out, over and over again. Like a sine wave. Like a wave good-bye. It feels good to push it in, but the feeling doesn’t last. It fades like the sound of a plucked guitar string, or a train whistle breezing by the station. Good-bye! You have to pull it out just so you can push it back in, just so the feeling will be intense again. And there you are again as the feeling fades, and you want it to last forever, so you pull it out again. Your rear end is bobbing in the air, and to what end? The feeling that fades and keeps you bobbing? Is this what forgetting history is like? What about your own personal history? In and out, in and out, over and over again.
Sorry, your arse is bobbing in the air whilst you wave goodbye to a train whistling through a tunnel and try to remember how to play the guitar? Is this death by a thousand similes?

I want to forget, but I can’t.
Try harder. I certainly am, right now.

Film review:
A Fine Madness (1966)


One of the joys of having TCM included in your cable package is discovering movies which have somehow slipped you by over the past four decades. Sadly, A Fine Madness (1966) is not one of the cases for celebration.

Sean Connery takes the lead role of tortured poet Samson Shillitoe, with Joanne Woodward largely wasted as current wife Rhoda, forced to work as a waitress whilst the beligerent bard stumbles around New York, seducing virtually anything female with a pulse and moaning - incessantly - about his inability to complete his second poetry cycle. No one appears sure whether this is a drama about creative insanity, an adult comedy (for its period, that is; the only naked chest we see is Connery's) or some hamfisted combination of the two.

Whilst we ponder the tagline "We should all be so crazy", our poet dodges city cops to avoid paying alimony to his first wife, acts with no concern for anyone but himself, sails through a lobotomy with no obvious effect and reacts to the news of Rhoda's pregnancy by punching her on a public street. As Shillitoe fends off an outraged crowd, THE END fills the screen, and barely a minute too soon.

I realise attitudes were different 43 years ago, but surely even back then, audiences would have had difficulty identifying with a violent, adulterous wifebeater who believes the world owes him a living because he sold fewer than 200 copies of his only volume of poetry? Maybe there's a good reason I'd never caught up with it.


[First published on Livejournal, February 2009]

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Closing Time


[First published in my online Sunday Mercury column "Toby Jugg", September 2008:]

I just returned home from watching the scary thriller The Strangers at the Cineworld on Birmingham's Broad Street.

But for all that movie's chills and blood spills, the evening's most horrific moments look place a few hundred yards away in Bishopsgate Street, at the City Tavern.

I had an uneasy feeling as I walked into the fairly tiny bar and noticed seven of the eight beer taps were turned around to indicate that particular brew was out of stock.

Raising my voice so I could be audible over the blaring television in the corner of the room, I jokingly asked the glumfaced barman if there had been an unexpected influx of real ale fans.

No, he explained, the management had put the entire array of bitters on tap, found no customer base whatsoever and were now abandoning the strategy before it cost them any more money.

A sad story, but another reason for the scheme's failure occurred to me as I began to drink my pint of the sole remaining bitter, Fox's Nob. Never before have I been led to suspect its title originated from the beer being brewed in a vulpine urinal. (I must point out I have enjoyed Fox's Nob in the past, but this clown was serving up pints of pure vinegar.)

By this juncture, my companion had turned up and was looking askance at the insipid half-pint of Fosters he'd ordered. Little wonder that when we left shortly afterwards, there were only two victims customers remaining on the premises, being slowly deafened by Adrian Chiles on BBC1.

It's obviously sad when a pub goes this far downhill, but boarding up that particular hostile hostelry would be a mercy killing.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Film review:
Gran Torino (2008)


Many of the reviews for Clint Eastwood's Gran Turino have conjured up the iconic image of "Dirty" Harry Callaghan, but that's to miss the point: Walt Kowalski is not some maverick cop trying to protect the public from its own perceived lack of moral grit, he's a bitter war vet who's increasingly more of an alien in his run-down Detroit community than the "gooks" whose arrival he despises.

Eastwood now resembles a Rockwell sketch of Mount Rushmore, with a growl low enough to be detected by whales fifty miles away, and he brings a depth and humour to Walt which allows us to empathise with him whilst finding distasteful many of the views he expresses. Ironically, this strength proves one of the film's weaknesses: it relies too much upon its star, and one can't help wondering how differently Eastwood the director would have handled the material. Still, if this is indeed his swansong in front of the camera, it's a damned fine performance to go out on.


[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Roofworld


It’s not only the future which remains an uncharted continent: the past is just as capable of sneaking around and biting you on the butt. Shortly after I returned from running the Eastercon fan lounge last year*, Ann exiled me to the attic; no, not like the hideous mutant twin in some Lovecraftian potboiler, but because the second floor of our home contains the accumulated debris of my near-forty years on this planet.

Old fanzines, books, comics, toys, film posters, lost religious relics… The attic is crammed to the rafters with the odd, the obscure and the patently useless, much of which has never actually left the premises, a curious side effect of buying the house you grew up in. More terrifying, there are glimpses of other potential life paths left untrod: computer manuals from a two-year cul de sac in the mid-1970s when I hedged my career bets by taking a programming course at college; layouts and synopses for comic strips; the clockwork cine camera with which I toyed at becoming the next Ray Harryhausen; heaps of notes for novels and short stories aborted or stillborn. It’s strangely both unsettling to see so many youthful fancies buried under so much dust.

The only real constant is box upon box of fanzines, the bulk collected in the long-ago days when such material was the mainstay of British convention auctions, but very nearly as much archived during the past decade. That’s the great strength of fandom: like attics, it never demands you act your age.


*Intervention, Liverpool, 1997

[First published in Omega #22, October 1998]

2009 Delta Film Award Launched

This morning's post included the first entry for the 2009 Delta Film Award, which will be announced in October at the 20th Festival of Fantastic Films. The competition is open to both UK and non-UK film-makers, and is presented to the best non-professional movie screened at the Festival; recent recipients include Small Things (UK), Contretemps (France) and the acclaimed Eddie Loves You (UK).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Film review:
Revolutionary Road (2008)


It's certainly been Kate Winslet's year: two dramatically different roles in two excellent but very distinct movies. I can understand why Our Kate eventually earned the BAFTA for her portrayal of the emotionally amputated Hanna Schmitz in The Reader: it's a greater challenge to bring a sterile void such as Schmitz to the screen and make her believable, than someone whose emotions are bristling right on the surface, like the sparks on a Van de Graaff generator.

Which is not, in any sense, to downplay the weight and solidity of Revolutionary Road. There have been many films exploring the private dreams and nightmares of those who live in silent desperation within the facade of the post-WW2 American Dream (The Ice Storm immediately springs to mind), but this entry accentuates the sense of loss by offering its protagonists -- frustrated mother-of-two April and her sexually oppotunistic husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio, also at the top of his game) -- a way out of the rut they've slipped into.

Whilst 1955 Connecticut society looks on in horror born out of ill-disguised envy, the pair plan their escape to a Europe which has taken on a mythic status for them, only to have any real hope of freedom crushed by their own weaknesses. There's a grim inevitability to the movie's final chapter (one which, for personal reasons, I found very difficult to view), but it was obvious from the opening scenes that a happy ending was unlikely to be on the agenda.


[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Film review:
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)


I have to confess I haven't kept much of an eye on Woody Allen's career since Hannah and Her Sisters back in 1986. Mighty Aphrodite (1994) proved mildly diverting, as did Bullets Over Broadway (1995), but neither displayed the invention or self-assurance of Annie Hall (1977), Sleeper (1973) or even Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972). The indifferent reviews which greeted his more recent projects scarcely had me running to the box office, but word of mouth on Vicky Cristina Barcelona hinted that Allen might be back on form.

Ah, if only. Despite the best efforts of his cast (headed by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous Americans adrift in Catelonia, Javier Bardem as the fiery artist who beds them both and Penelope Cruz as his equally tempestuous ex-wife), this is a lightweight tale, its limitations underlined by the invasive narration which Allen presumably hopes will paper over the cracks in both plot and characterisation.

A stray thought hit me as I sat in the cinema tonight: had this film been set in a sinkhole housing estate, with boringly mundane protagonists rather than artists and poets, would we actually give a toss about their bedhopping antics? Romantic locations do not a romance make, nor the occasional witty line a winning comedy.


[First published on LiveJournal, February 2009]

Monday, 16 February 2009

Perspectives


The View from the Bridge

Life’s a bridge,
spanning the gulf
between the moment of our birth
and the instant of our death

Some choose the duration of their journey;
others barely step on at one side
before reaching the other

Do we have further bridges to cross?
And should we decide instead
to leap over the barrier’s edge,
what awaits us in the darkness below?

December 2006


Sixteen Weeks On

Nothing lasts forever
No one stays the same
This is no rehearsal
Life is not a game

Some believe they're special
That the rest of us are wrong
Convince themselves the middle verse will
Stretch beyond the song

I still recall our meeting
The life and love we made
But joy's a dream, and fleeting,
When even ours could fade

November 2008

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Book review:
The Eyes by Jesus Ignacio Aldapuerta


Available in English for the first time, this truly chilling collection of short fiction by a Spanish devotee of the Marquis de Sade whose suicide in 1987 may well disguise real-life crimes as horrific and as sordid as those he envisioned, no easy task, holds the same grim fascination as a road traffic accident.

Often surreal (the war-maddened masturbator of "Necrophile" stumbles out of New Worlds via the films of Jorg Buttgereit), frequently fantastical (no more so than in the flying torture chamber of "Ikarus") and never less than mind-numbing, The Eyes is memetic toxic waste: there are images here which refuse to creep back into the shadows, much as one would wish them to. Be warned: these are dark tales of insanity and inhumanity, foul splinters in the mind's eye. Read them at your own risk.


[First published in Critical Wave #44/45, April 1996; more than a decade on, The Eyes remains available from Headpress, which ran the Critical Vision imprint]

In memoriam:
Bob Shaw [1931-1996]


There's a tendancy, when eulogising the recently deceased, to recall only that which portrays them in a favourable light, and to downplay the less commendable facets of their personality or career. In the case of Bob Shaw, however, no such well-intentioned distortion is necessary; he was, quite simply, one of the nicest people whose company I have ever had the good fortune to share.

My first contact with Bob, more than twenty years ago, exemplifies his generosity and good nature. It was the spring of 1975, and I had learned of science fiction fanzines through the short-lived World of Horror; I'd already received several copies of the Dr Who Fan Club newsletter, but this (curiously) was sponsored by the BBC and had little or no contact with the fabulous fannish universe the WoH column hinted at. Within months, a friend and I were drawing up our own plans to enter the fray, with one of those dry-as-dust serconzines pretty much endemic at the time.

By coincidence, Marvel had recently added Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction to its black & white line, a surprisingly honest attempt to drag sf comics out of the 1950's EC vein and towards the New Wave occupied by the likes of Moorcock and Ellison (who were both represented in due course, along with adaptations of work by Wyndham, Silverberg, Weinbaum and Niven). More importantly to this tale, Marvel decided to lift Bob's "Slow Glass" concept from his Hugo-nominated "Light of Other Days" for use as a framing device to give each issue an overall cohesion; instead of EC's Crypt Keeper, shopkeeper Sandson Tyme would startle his customers with visions of distant worlds and strange futures.

Despite this peripheral involvement and the somewhat variable quality of the strips, Bob wrote to offer his congratulations and - apparently on an editorial whim - his address was published in full. I'm unaware as to whether he was subsequently buried in fan mail, but I grabbed the chance to contact a Real Skiffy Writer and, surfing a wave of teenage chutzpah, even included a short questionnaire for use in our proposed first issue.

As it turned out, the fanzine took a further two years to materialize, by which time Bob had replied to this and several other letters, the "interview" had turned up in another location entirely and, best of all, I'd had the opportunity to meet him in person. Better still, it was in a Novacon bar, which is on a parallel with joining John Huston on safari or Ernest Hemingway at a bullfight. He was entirely at ease, and within moments so was anyone who took an adjoining seat. As I swiftly learned, no matter how successful he became as a science fiction author, he never really evolved from the youngster who tapped at Walt Willis' front door a half-century ago and immediately boosted Irish Fandom by fifty per cent; at heart, he remained a fan.

It's difficult to put into words my admiration for Bob. I enjoyed and respected his sf novels, adored his fanwriting (frequently reprinting the lesser-known pieces in my own fanzines) and always valued our occasional chats at conventions, or on the telephone. Our final lengthy exchange was a short while before Novacon 25, concerning a less than favourable review I'd given A Bit Of BoSH in Critical Wave #41 (entirely down to the editors, I must add); then as always, Bob was supportive, understanding and, above all, honest. In a sense, we ended as we began, fan talking to fan.

Despite his achievements in professional print, Bob's is a greater loss to fandom than to sf as a whole. I doubt he ever regretted that balance for a moment.


[First published in Critical Wave #44/45, April 1996, which also included a 1975 article by Bob Shaw and additional tributes to him from fellow science fiction authors Stephen Baxter and Keith Brooke]