Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Ghost in the Shell

A reader recently compared Steeple to 1995's Ghost in the Shell, Mamuro Oshii's hugely popular manga adaptation - and this prompted an insomniac 1am viewing, with the lights off and earphones in. 

That's a good way to experience the movie - submerged, isolated, like Major Motoko Kusanagi on one of her diving expeditions, waiting to float to the surface and be reborn. The small hours amplify the movie's prolonged silences, those dialogue free stretches which help Ghost ascend to something like great cinema - witness Batou and Kusanagi's pursuit of a suspect through a derelict district, the only soundtrack footsteps in puddles, the hum of the city, a vast aircraft hovering over abandoned towers.

The dialogue in Kazunori Ito's screenplay is a mix of impenetrable clunky info-dumps interspersed with snappy noir-tone lines, but the weaknesses Ito asks viewers to swallow (which must, after all, be taken with a pinch of translation salt) never detract from the script's ambition, and its skilful interplay of action and ideas. 

Puppet Master:
Memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind

Oshii and Ito's exciting, gun-toting future espionage adventure easily accommodates a thoughtful exploration of identity in a world where memories are manipulated, faked and used as weapons; where consciousness is a ghost haunting a network; where bodies are more than ever disconnected shells, and gender uncertain.

That is quite a trick, and its played out in a beautifully realised world sprinkled with elements of military scifi (got to love that spider tank), intricately detailed city scapes (of brilliant daylight as well as Blade Runner gloom), and a pretty good sense of humour.

Most striking of all are the wonderful score by Kenji Kawai, which grips the viewer's heart from the opening title sequence, and Oshii's astonishing direction. One particular long, closing shot in the final scene is like some unnerving, trickster Van Eyk portrait, slowly revealing itself - one of several moments of truly striking, unique effect. 

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is written by Oshii alone, without Ito. Interesting. It will have to be viewed soon, on some other lonely, late night, laptop screening. Sometimes it's the only way to go.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Blackstar: Bowie's Back

Have to jot something down about David Bowie's ten minute treat, Blackstar. 

H insisted I watch the music video the other day, and I resisted at first, having grown weary of David's recent output. Songs like Where are we now and the Stars are out tonight were a bit...easy, with nothing like the freakery or inventiveness of what defines proper Bowie. No album of his since Outside, in fact, had enticed.

So I'm surprised to find myself singing Blackstar to myself in the shower, on the street, even at work. There's something about it. The video is especially delightful, made by someone who knows how to draw Bowie's freak out from his fashionista's shadow. A good thing too. I'd missed freaky Bowie.

The opening four minutes of the track brings to mind Radiohead: ominous bass, lamenting vocal, twitchy electronic drums. That might put me off in other circumstances - but David's wearing a button-eyed blindfold! Plus, he's giving his all to some beckoning, finger-waggling, shivery choreography of which a Bausch or a Schector would be proud.

But what makes the video really loveable is that the Director, Johan Renck, so loves Bowie's face - not just the eyes, but the whole wonderful, ageing structure, the great arch that spreads from his eagle nose to his mouth. It's all examined in fine detail, and new things are discovered. I'm not sure anyone else has so delighted in Bowie's teeth before. Who knew those ivories could clench into that skull-like, nauseous arrangement? Check him out around 1 minute 20 - it's a treat.

Even better, after four minutes Bowie gets to take off the blindfold and pull on his funky boots, launching into the best song I've heard from him in a decade. While he's at it he struts and poses and wags his finger, and makes you remember the spindly force he can generate with that physique. By the time he grasped his lapels and sang: 'I'm the great I am' I was giddy with joy.

A few people have had criticised the video - I read some snooty comments about the scarecrows - and I have to admit I was hoping to see more of the diamond-skulled spaceman we glimpse tumbling into a black star.

Still, the main theme - the girl with the tail, the dancers, the solitary candle - is a feast for me. I have seen an awful lot of modern dance through H's work, and it's rare that I take such pleasure in it. I suppose it works here because I can easily picture David passing an afternoon stood in his attic, shivering and jerking, communing telepathically with writhing scarecrows on distant worlds.

Welcome back Bowie. It's a treat to be humming your stuff again.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Ian Fleming's voodoo spectre

Halloween was the perfect night to take in Spectre. James Bond always makes a good watch this time of year. He's the closest thing we British have to a Voodoo Loa spirit.

Bond personifies an idea of British power and prestige that is long dead - but the lure of his Church endures. Generations of Priests, from Hamilton to Mendes, summon him again and again, outfitting him with the potent symbols of tux, car and watch. Like a good congregation we assemble in the dark cinema space, hypnotised by his convulsions, his theatre of fire and blood - however absurd and superstitious it may seem in the light of day, however gruelling the 140 minute ritual may be.

As a spirit, there seems no way to kill Bond. Austin Powers weakened him, briefly, by making a joke of his myth - but Bond simply took possession of a new body and rose again, relying more than ever on the compelling power of his sacred songs, dances and modes of service. There are countless "just shoot him" moments in Spectre, but Bond's congregation don't care. These traditions are part of the rite. Villains no longer even require a plan; they are a symbol, part of the service, to be banished by the Bond Loa to the realm of the dead.

Bond's is a vain, violent, trickster spirit, yet his appeal only grows. His mysteries withstand reality, making him our very own island cult, as powerful and notorious as Haiti's.

Can his spirit ever be crushed? Perhaps some misguided future Priest will attempt to change his rites, and break the spell. Maybe his altars will become so obscured by merchandise that the spirit is forgotten, snuffed out.

Perhaps only Baron Samedi can say for sure. He certainly had a good laugh on that train...

Monday, 19 October 2015

Revolution, or The NRA Lost

A few words on Season 1 of Revolution, which is a strange beast , where many of USTV drama’s finest qualities compete with the dumbest.

It builds a strong foundation for its story – an America reduced to one great, pre-electric frontier - yet cannot help chipping away at it when it becomes inconvenient. The mood jerks around violently - between a gritty depiction of brutal, lo-tech civil war, and camp, swashbuckling adventure. The writing includes everything from crackling dialogue to eye-rolling, nonsense plot twists. The overall effect is of an intricate house of cards that is painstakingly erected and then smashed apart every few episodes.

Not that this is always a bad thing.

The Lost Firefly

Perhaps its mood swings derive from its wide range of influences, two of which in particular stand out. Firefly hovers over Revolution for most of the first season, as a band of desperadoes led by a devil-may-care, wisecracking antihero fight their way around the fringes of an Old West landscape, populated by a reduced future race. Our lead even has a cause with which to be disenchanted, and a tyrannical government force at whom he thumbs his nose. There are subtle differences, but there’s no doubt Matheison trails Mal Reynolds’ shadow about wherever he travels.

Still, Abrams’ Lost is the tomb most raided here, its presence hanging over proceedings like a tapping column of black smoke. Revolution imitates Lost's flashback device, but with nothing like the discipline, darting all over pre 'blackout' history with too little patience to flesh things out effectively (and in some episodes not bothering with flashbacks at all).

It strives to emulate that pleasing Lost meld of supernatural, archaeological and technological mystery, and does a reasonable job, although it has nothing like Lost’s predilection for denying its audience satisfaction. In fact, Revolution shows its hand incredibly early – probably out of a lack of confidence. Certainly it is in an incredible rush, as if hyper aware of the threat of premature cancellation. Maybe Firefly’s fate played on their minds. (Turns out they were right to be worried)


Certainly Revolution is keen to bring in some familiar faces, feeling the need for star power more than Firefly. Top talent like daughter-slapping, coworker-stabbing, corpse-mutilating Elizabeth Mitchell and priest killing, son-beating, Lionel Ritchie enthusiast, Giancarlo Esposito, are brought in to put bums on seats, and to make us think of other, greater shows.

Still, lead roles are given to fresh faces. Tracy Spiradakos is the highest profile newbie, providing a solid, likable enough lead, helped by writers who know the importance of a good joke, and proper surprises. Baddie in Chief, General Monroe, is a less successful bit of casting. David Lyons occasionally shows he's a strong performer, but he doesn't possess the necessary mass for a character who is supposed to have drawn so many people into his orbit. Once again the impression is that an older, more grizzled figure, with eyes and voice that speak of a history, would have been a better choice.

It’s a similar story with main part, Miles Matheison. Actor Billy Burke has a little more form, having cropped up in 24 (as another Matheson) and in the Twilight movies. Very often he is almost there - yet the feeling lingers that he's too wiry and slight to carry the weight we're told is on his shoulders, or the responsibilities of a revolutionary leader.

Generally the cast’s gleaming teeth and perfect hair can make Revolution rather hard to take seriously. You can’t have it both ways: a world where hot water is hard to come by should not be this gorgeous.

Your darlings' mates

Still, you don’t stick with this show if you’re looking for high-brow entertainment. You watch it for sword fights, snappy dialogue and adventure. Oftentimes it can be a delight to sink into a world where electricity is forgotten magic, popular culture is the domain of the middle aged (“what’s a boy band?” asks a teenager) and a Google executive is a helpless, poverty-stricken fool.

Revolution absolutely hammers along, killing if not its darlings, then its darling’s mates, with abandon. Additionally, there are very few of the dead episodes that plagued a show like Lost; rather each is packed with events: Prison breaks! Drug runners! Turncoats! Amulets! And heaps and heaps of old Holywood swordplay. “You killed my father!” yells each episode. “En Garde!”

And this has its attractions. Coherence goes out the window, but it’s all pretty entertaining. The writers are intent on demonstrating that things are progressing, that it doesn’t intend to hang everything on one increasingly tired mystery.

Tea Party

Instead, they’re keen to expand and explore this world they’ve created. The writers have great fun imagining how the United States might collapse into warring parts, reflecting that US Voter Map - a nation of distinct, warring cultures. Revolution’s new states, the despotic ‘Monroe Republic’ (The North East coast), the part Confederate flagged ‘Georgia Federation’, the barren ‘Plains Nation’, the ‘California Commonwealth’ and amusingly, ‘Texas’, seem a fairly accurate projection of how the US would divide.

The rebellion, an apparently widespread network of goshdarn decent folk, are committed to restoring the Union. And it’s in their story that the show begins to manifest a rather odd ideology.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a show with Revolutionary zeal at its heart would have an uncomfortable relationship with guns. The Limbaughs and Trumps would certainly approve of this future America, where a population is made prostrate to a dictator by being relieved of its weaponry. The message is clearly broadcast throughout the first half of the series: no guns = tyranny. It’s strong enough that an NRA logo in the credits would come as no surprise at all.

Still, halfway through the season the whole 'no-guns rebellion' thing is ditched, so that we can all enjoy some more gunfights.

Even here then, the show doesn’t have the power of its convictions. It’s too intent on ensuring we’re all entertained. That helps the audience forgive the questionable politics, and enjoy the world for what it is: a place where swinging from a chandelier is essential combat training.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Double Bill: A Boy and His Dog (1975) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

God the cinema could be a grim old place in the mid-70s. Carrie, Chinatown, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Where the Marvel age swigs and chokes on life like Cola from a shaken-up can, 70s filmmakers chewed it like a Fray Bentos pie, in a grinding search for meaningful meat. 

Even arriving armed with this knowledge, you can’t help but be struck by the sheer bleakosity of these two movies. Neither finds much to like about people, or hope for existence in general. That doesn’t make them bad; each is compelling enough - but they’re certainly not leading candidates for repeat viewing: A Boy and His Dog is a relentless depiction of an ignorant rapist wandering grotty, post-apocalyptic ruins. The Man Who Fell to Earth is the tale of an alien visitor who is corrupted, exploited and forgotten by modern America.

Sounds fun, huh? 

OK, so they're not Christmas movies, but there are things in there of interest, and though they explore what are very different worlds, they share common interests. For instance, both are fascinated by

Love and Sex

Johnson and Bowie portray characters whose sexuality make the toes curl, although in very different ways. It's a fair bet that A Boy and His Dog would never get made today, with its sex shop, sweaty-palmed atmosphere and ignorant, horny antihero. Partly successful in its depiction of male lust - frustrated and violent on the surface, sanitised and industrialised underground - it's deeply cynical about romance. Here love is a punchline, sex either a weapon or part of an endless cycle of needful urge and fleeting relief.

The Man Who Fell To Earth has an equally bad attitude to love, but comes at it from the androgynous perspective of string thin Mr Newton and his doomed, destructive thing with Mary-Lou. Their relationship can be touching at times, but drives them both crazy as they realise it's built on a lie and that worse, the truth offers nothing better. An attempt to make love with Newton out of his man disguise fails, and though bound together by circumstance, there is soon nothing left between them but resentful dependence. Still, Man Who Fell to Earth does offer a glimmer of hope in Farnsworth's gay relationship, which seems to be genuinely loving and respectful, however briefly it's glimpsed.

Man and Boy

Both films explore how power must assimilate or crush those outside its control.

Lou Craddock only admits outsiders to his bunker in order to pump them for their seed. Then he disposes of them, before their minds can infect his people; a bunker population locked in hypnotised submission, compelled to reenact  nightmarish small-town American group activities: fetes, parades and weddings.

The Man Who Fell to Earth has different sorts of oppressive forces; greed and accumulation. Peters is the agent of a faceless corporation that is driven by a desperate need to absorb Newton's "World Enterprises". He badgers Farnsworth into selling Newton's business, over and over. When it becomes clear Farnsworth won't budge, Peters has him tossed out a window instead.

Both Vic and Newton are kidnapped by these powerful forces, strapped to hospital beds and humiliated with tests and procedures. Both escape, returning to wastelands, and reconnecting with friends they'd meant to leave behind.

Bryce and Blood

The movies have a fraction more time for these friendships than for love. Blood the dog and Newton the alien forgive much of human nature - and these are some pretty wretched examples of humanity: Bryce the conceited lech-turer, out for fame and cash and Vic the simple-minded animal. Both Blood and Newton forgive these despicable men, even when abandoned by them. The message seems to be that friendship, even with a monster, is preferable to isolation.

Dave and Don

Each film's lead is an unforgiving one. Vic is probably one of the least sympathetic roles in cinema, based as it is on an ignorant sexual predator - a similarly revolting protagonist to another canine title, Man Bites Dog. It's remarkable Don Johnson took the role - he must have known it would do very little for his Hollywood leading man prospects.

Bowie's performance, meanwhile, comes across like a confession, his spindly, naked frame starkly illustrating the "ten grams a day" he was doing during the shooting of the film. He genuinely looks like he could be carried up stairs by Mary Lou and it is quite something to see him exposed like that.

Whatever you think of the films, each actor made a very brave choice indeed - braver even than choosing Fray Bentos for dinner.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Casting charisma

Some roles cast themselves

The last day of the summer holiday is a difficult, listless sort of time. The last free moments are precious, but it's hard not to fritter them away brooding on the mundane tasks to be tackled, like the waiting outlook inbox and the fucking ironing. Well, the hell with it. There's half a duty-free Toblerone in the fridge, and as long as there's a triangle left I consider the holiday still on. Let Monday wait.

Instead, here are a few thoughts on some of the TV that's been flickering on Mrs and Mr Wallace's box this year, most of which was consumed over late dinners during what's been a tiring 2015. Light telly has been an essential antidote to punishing work schedules, so while series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad went unfinished, and meaty fare like True Detective and House of Cards passed us by, weak minestrone like

24: Live Another Day 

found its way onto our plates.

24's nag was flogged to a pulpy skeleton well before this latest retread, and Live Another Day felt every bit as tired as you might expect, rolling out the same knackered old nonsense we've seen too many times.

The only thing that held our interest through the slow early episodes were one or two stand out performances. This is a common trick for 24, which has a distinguished history of casting interesting actors - helping it to overcome flabby middle sections and pedestrian scripting through sheer force of personality.

The likes of Penny Johnson, Joaquim De Almeida, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Gregory Itzin kept audiences coming back for more, and Live Another Day is no different.

Michelle Fairley, Michael Wincott and William Devane make it just about worth persisting. Their talents are utterly wasted (it really is poor when you give the President Alzheimer's and fail to make anything of it) but they provide just enough energy to drag the wheezing Bauer vehicle over the finish line. I'm not saying 24 gets everything right (Stephen Fry is just horrible as the Prime Minister) but you have to at least give the show credit for going all-out to cast charisma. Other shows like


fail badly in these stakes.

Someone who may or may not be related to me is a huge fan of this show, and I have watched a fair bit as a consequence. Don't get me wrong, I know this show is not intended for me, but it grates how little strength is to be found among the players - with the honourable exception of Hayden Panettiere, who has tremendous fun chewing up her supporting cast and spitting their flesh at the camera.

Are you my lunch?
It's a frustrating ensemble. Nobody is expecting quality storytelling from escapist hooey like this, but the producers could learn a lot from 24, casting one or two parts on the basis of magnetism as opposed to gorgeousness.

The part of Teddy Conrad, a scandal-stained Nashville politician, is a case in point. It's played by Handsome University graduate, Eric Close, who just doesn't have the chops for the gig. This is perplexing, after the show so quickly dispensed with the services of Powers Boothe, a man who fair sweats sleaze and regret. The writers obviously felt there wasn't room for two politicians: fine, but who the hell voted to keep Close? Boothe could have ruled this thing alongside Panettiere while the pretty folk played their rubbish country. Instead Nashville's makers couldn't wait to kill him off, preferring to invest all baddie duties in the part of Jeff Fordham.

OK, fine, but there are two problems with such a move: First, nobody called Jeff can be intimidating. Second, they again recruited poorly. Oliver Hudson isn't terrible, but in the absence of good lines the part cries out for a heavyweight, a pillar of strength to help Panettiere prop up all the flimsy glitz. James Woods, nut that he is, was surely available? Failing that, Peter Weller? Bill Duke? Michael Ironside? Carl Weathers? I'm just flicking through IMDB here...Might an older, grizzled face help balance all that wretched youth and glamour?

The trick of good casting, surely, is to make a part feel written with the actor in mind, regardless of pedigree. Maybe unknown or unexpected choices could have worked just as well. That is certainly the case with


which was recommended by the brother. At first its casting choices seem deeply odd. I recalled seeing posters for it on the Underground and instantly dismissing it, on what seemed like decent grounds.

Johnny Lee Miller's brilliant turn in Trainspotting never progressed into an interesting movie career, and Lucy Liu, save a great appearance in Futurama, only flickered on the radar for dated telly like Ally McBeal and nightmare pictures like Charlie's Angels. Further, transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern day New York conjured up all manner of scornful preconceptions.

Then we watched the first season and it all made perfect sense. Theirs are the only parts that really matter (although Aidan Quinn provides decent back-up and could clearly do a lot more) and their unlikely pairing just clicks. It seems like the most natural thing in the world after the first episode, but really it was a brave move to put these two together, a risk that pays off handsomely. Their rapport is crucial to the success of the show, elevating it from the white noise of formulaic US crime TV into addictive, watchable fun. If you haven't seen it and need something easy on the little grey cells, do check it out. It'll give you solid evening entertainment, and perhaps make you appreciate the unsung art of Casting Direction all the more.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)

The great thing about iplayer is that it has has a narrow selection of movies, which is a nice alternative to the scrolling endlessness of Amazon Prime and the like. The streamer is compelled to give more consideration to the black and white business on offer. There are gems to be found.

The Quartermass Xperiment is one such. Not a classic, by any means, but creeping close mainly through Val Guest's direction and some extraordinary music from James Bernard, who knew Benjamin Britten, was a classmate of Christopher Lee. and went on to compose Hammer tunes for movies like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out. Guest went on to do all sorts, including The Day The Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth.

The film has a spooky, taut atmosphere and rich, noir look. There are wonderful long, swooping shots over spotlit night scenes and through a beautiful, harsh London. There are powerful images - of the V3 rocket ship, its nose buried in the earth; of its grainy, flaring black box footage; of the lights going out on Battersea Power Station; of Quartermass walking through dots of light.

There's no room for personal feelings in science, Judith

The cast, well they're a bit odd. The cause is Quartermass himself. Casting Brian Donlevy was an outrageous decision, however you slice it. Hammer hired him to market their movie for almighty US dollars, and presumably he possessed some quality a bunch of clueless Englishmen thought quintessentially American.

They were right. He couldn't be more American. And that's the problem. Donlevy's otherness among all the Britishers is richly bizarre. With his long face, bullet shape and rat-a-tat Hollywood delivery, he seems like he would be far happier hunting communists than kicking about London with these goddam limeys. His presence creates powerful tremors in the English setting, as if everyone is performing during an earthquake.

His character is entirely out of sync. Nobody ever refers to Quartermass as 'Doctor', or 'Professor', or explains how the hell he fits. All we know is that he is some kind of freelance Nasa, whose every hare brained scheme the public are delighted to swallow. The British characters happily accommodate him, but take care to talk him out of his more vulgar ideas (like deploying 'dynamite and flame throwers' when the creature gets loose in Westminster Abbey).

The performance certainly can get very funny. There's a wonderful passage between Quartermass and Doctor Briscoe. The Doctor explains the condition of Victor Carroon, the broken shell of an astronaut they rescued from a crashed spaceship: Victor's bone structure has changed, his skin is falling off, and he's clinically dead. Victor's wife enters the room and asks how Victor is doing. Quartermass replies: "He's coming along fine."

When they're not being knocked about by this Yank Tank, the rest of the cast are very good. Richard Wordsworth is excellent as Victor, pulling off a Boris Karloff Thing with aplomb. There's a splendid, lively turn by Harold Lang as Christie. Jack Warner is hugely likeable and despite a weak part shows why Dickson of Dock Green would last for over twenty years. 

Twitter says that X: The Unknown, a kind of sequel, is also on iplayer. That's tempting, but it's worth also considering Rififi, a French noir that was originally screened alongside Xperiment. Rififi was directed by Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted for UnAmerican Activities. Who knows, maybe it was DonLevy who shopped him to the Feds?

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Jurassic World

The cinema ushers were handing out free ice creams at the end of Jurassic World. I cast my eyes over the options, but decided not to take one. I couldn’t handle another gaudily-wrapped dose of sugar and fat.

Like a late night McDonald’s works the jaws but fails the appetite, so Jurassic World left me unsatisfied. I have no problem with a daft film, but I had a few issues on basic, B-movie grounds that have been bumping around my head today:

A six-inch retractable claw, like a razor, on the the middle toe. He slashes at you here, or here...Or maybe across the belly, spilling your intestines. The point is, you are alive when they start to eat you.

Gliding under the surface of Jurassic World is an amusing contempt for tourists – but when the dino-carnage is finally unleashed upon them it’s a disappointingly bloodless sort of mayhem, where materiel is smashed but few arteries severed. When the flying critters swoop on the crowd it should have been a gory peck-fest, but you never really feel the claws snap, or teeth bite - there is just a lot of running and…um…screaming.

Surely at least one of the two brothers (who decide to off-road their way into trouble) could have been Raptor fodder? The older one was fair begging to be bitten in two, and such a scene might have shocked the film free of the previous three movies’ fossilised tracks, which each sequel has followed with diminishing results. But no, the children must be in peril again, must be resourceful again, must be saved again.

Ah, no wonder you're extinct. I'm gonna run you over when I come back down!

That wouldn’t matter if the baddies turned up their performances to compensate, with lines they can spit like a Dilophosaurus. Instead they’re so bland you can barely figure out what they’re doing there. The Brit in dark glasses has not even the beginning of a character, so when her fairly spectacular death comes around there’s no reason to cheer it. Contrast her with the ‘blood-sucking lawyer’ in Jurassic Park. Compare D’Onofrio with Wayne Knight’s scheming comic programmer.

The main problem is the script. Nobody’s expect Spielberg storytelling from Part 4 of this franchise, but it does trouble me that nobody picked up this draft and asked: where are the zingers? Pratt, Howard. Khan, Sy - they don’t have a good line between them. This bugged me, because hundreds of writers could have given this thing one final, character-building draft and with a sprinkling of lines given it a little more bite, to match all those teeth on display.

It doesn’t even steal particularly well. D’Onofrio has Dick Jones’ lust for the quick military buck, but without the murderous intent he’s not nearly nasty enough, and when his death came I was pretty indifferent. After the show my wife pointed out that Pratt’s relationship with Shaw is a direct replication of Crocodile Dundee and Sue Charlton - only without the dodgy culture clash jokes, and even less involving. It’s certainly nothing on Malcolm’s flirting with Sattler.

Jurassic World has no room for Malcolm or Sattler of course, or for Dr Grant. Instead, through Pratt Dundee, it gives us a character who doesn’t study the animals, but understands them. He’s a kind of warped Muldoon, a rifle-wielding game keeper - but where Muldoon feared the ruthless intelligence in the Raptor eye, Pratt thinks he sees shared respect. At first the movie seems to recognise this as delusional, but later on, what do you know, the raptors become his willing collaborators - and what would Grant have made of that? Like the man says: You can't just suppress 65 million years of gut instinct.

before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you wanna sell it. Well...

Yes, it’s a dumb sequel. Yes it cost a ‘modest’ £150 mil and almost raked it back in the first weekend. Yes there is some great CGI, and a few genuine jumps. But if this little effort is made with the characters they may as well ditch the movies entirely next time and release a new Lego set instead - that’s what this whole exercise was really all about anyway, right?

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Double Bill: Metropolis (1927)/ Dark City (1998)

I watched these after a very long drive indeed. I was too wired to sleep, too brain-dead to write, and both were freely available. 

They make a decent pair. Metropolis has a few clear influences on Dark City: both cities crush their populations, channeling them about in anonymous streams, stripping them of free will. Both are packed with gorgeous design: Metropolis is a bright, futurist surface lording it over a subterranean machine world. Dark City is a brooding, reshaping, anytime cityscape. But while I watched a few other interesting points occurred that might be worth recording.

The Music:

With Metropolis you arrive expecting a score, and it is fine as it goes. The surprise is that Dark City is scored as if it too is a silent movie. That bloody soundtrack hardly lets up the whole length of the movie. This creates the urge to hurl the telly out the window, the relentless music swamping dialogue and stomping on tension too many times. A little silence could have really helped.

The Squint:

Still, Dark City is darn watchable, mainly due to the wonderful cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ian Richardson, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien – and, of course, Freak-Master General, Rufus Sewell. Sewell never quite had the movie career he deserved, possibly due to his funny eye. Happily that remarkable super-squint is a positive boon in Dark City, a visual symptom of his other-worldly ‘tuning’ abilities. What’s interesting is that a squint also provides a key visual queue in Metropolis, as the Robot ‘False’ Maria is revealed and identified via Brigitte Helm’s twitching, fluttering wink. You can’t help wonder if Dark City’s Director, Alex Proyas, cast Sewell with Helm’s mush in mind.

The Scientists:

Another dodgy eye is to be found, of course, in Dark City’s Dr Daniel Shreber – a wonderfully barmy (and weirdly breathy) performance by Keifer Sutherland. He’s a worthy successor to Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang – Metropolis’ own mad scientist, and illustrates Lang and Proyas’ association of perverted science with their cityscapes hidden powers: Rotwang creates a destructive, robot double agent on the orders of Fredersen, Metropolis’ Master. Shreber is coerced by the Strangers to mess with the memories of his fellow humans. What’s interesting is that both films excuse their scientists as tortured individuals whose actions are motivated by personal tragedy. That’s curious, as scientists rarely need to be forced into questionable projects.

The Clocks:

Both movies’ populations are slaves to time. Workers under the surface of Metropolis toil with the hands of a clock machine, turning them to meet meaningless, flashing prompts. Dark City’s populace is frozen in time each night, held in perpetual night, living out meaningless mixed up lives built on false memories. It’s interesting to see how each city’s population break free from that imprisonment. Metropolis’ ‘heroes’ often grate – particularly Feder, strutting about in his daft jodhpurs – and the people are portrayed as a panicky mob. Still, they do at least have some kind of part to play in the story, rioting, burning the false Maria and generally letting off steam. It’s a different story in Dark City, where Murdoch is the sole force of the revolution, the population very much set dressing for a hero and his love interest.

The Heart:

Metropolis, which is a preachy affair, opens with a moral: that ‘the mediator between brain and muscle must be the heart’. It's a muddled sort of line, symptomatic of the movie's scattered message - which drew it acclaim from Joseph Goebbels and scorn from HG Wells. Lang would surely have preferred things the other way around. Dark City too finds something vital in the human heart, but here the message is simpler and more powerful for it: Murdock tells the Strangers that their search for humanity’s individuality should not have taken place in the mind but in the heart: “You were looking in the wrong place”, he says.

An interesting double bill and the first of many I have planned for the summer. Next up I'm thinking it's time for some old Mars movies: Battle Beyond the Sun and Angry Red Planet. Watch this space...

Monday, 27 April 2015

Electing to renew

In the run up to the UK general election some noise was made about the renewing of the nation’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused the Labour party of using the Trident replacement project as a bargaining chip with the SNP. Labour responded by saying they remained "committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent" but would be looking at "value for money".

The row, such as it was, almost immediately fizzled out. In an election which already feels like the most feeble and cynical of my lifetime, the mud-slinging about nuclear weapons was by far the most depressing development. There was no debate about the efficacy, meaning or morality of the UK’s nukes - just a little half-hearted point-scoring, and a desire to have a cheaper apocalypse solution.

Immigration and house prices dominate our election discussion. Strange, when one of those Trident missiles has the potential to end human civilization in an afternoon.

We should only maintain nuclear weapons if there is broad agreement based on an informed, inclusive debate. There are arguments for it: it could be said that nukes have helped put an end to the relentless cycle of state-on-state wars, and actually saved lives.

Still, it is fair enough to ask for some kind of debate considering that a replacement system will cost (very conservatively) £20bn. It is at least a little curious that both major parties plan to axe programmes that help people to pay for one that incinerates them.

Crucial to a successful debate would be agreement to frame the discussion in realistic, appropriate terms. Let’s not hide behind language like:

Independent nuclear deterrent.

Let’s split that phrase up:

How independent is it? If the missiles are American designed and built, and if Aldermaston, where we build the bombs, is privately managed by American firms Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering, how can we claim to have ownership? At best it’s a kind of lease.

Nuclear deterrent – that is an awfully nice description for what is, let’s face it, a monstrous weapon of mass destruction. Trident is designed to indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and render large areas of the planet uninhabitable.

Further, any use of the weapon is almost guaranteed to create a panic in which a response by the USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan or Israel would follow, setting off a chain reaction that ends our civilization.

If we are to have a useful debate shouldn't we drop the term ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ and replace it with the term ‘Doomsday Device'? It's a more accurate description.

Nuclear Blackmail

This is a post-Cold War construction which began to rear its head in the aftermath of 9/11, as people began to ask: what use is Trident against such an enemy?

The scenario, such as it is, goes that a ‘rogue’ nation like Iran threatens the UK with a nuclear weapon, and poor old nuke-free Blighty is compelled to do their evil bidding.

The idea is idiotic, and should be dismissed as irrelevant out of hand. It is particularly galling to hear the term used so often by politicians who either know better or are too plum stupid to question it.

No nation can threaten another with a nuclear weapon in isolation. The very nature of the Doomsday Device dictates that to threaten one country with it, no matter how relatively low the yield, is to threaten the entire world.

Playing fast and loose.

Defence secretaries love belting each other over the head with this phrase whenever the Doomsday Device is discussed – to consider reducing or scrapping Trident, they argue, is to ‘play fast and loose with this country’s defences’.

This is the most extraordinary claim when you consider the savage, poorly planned cuts which successive governments continue to make to armed forces personnel and equipment  – ie the stuff which we might actually use one day. We are currently planning to have our smallest standing army in centuries. Now that the nuclear deterrent is paid for out of the defence budget we can expect things to get considerably worse.

If we wish to be properly defended, switching Trident funding to improve our conventional kit would be a more practical use of the money.

A seat at the top table

This is the central fallacy of the deterrent. Newspapers will often talk about Trident giving us ‘a seat at the top table’. That is a say in world affairs, a seat on the UN Security Council etc. By virtue of what? The threat of our planet-killing wrath?

Britain’s Security Council seat, like our nuclear weapons, is a legacy of the settlement left by the Second World War. It was a time when the British Empire still existed, and we sought to cement a position as a reduced but still formidable global player.

That time has passed: Suez happened. Iraq happened.

Other nations like Brazil and India already have a better claim to a Security Council seat purely by virtue of demographics. Our possession of nuclear weapons will not prevent movement for change, if and when it comes.


You, me and every other taxpayer knows that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. Yet we seem happy to pay for them. Can it really be that most of us are content ignoring the issue, thinking ‘better strong than weak, better status than change?’

We cannot shield our eyes and wave through a decision this big. If we discussed it even half as much as we do immigration, we’d soon recognise a far greater threat to our way of life than someone speaking Polish on a bus.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Star Trek: The Original Series. Season Two.

Bored one evening last winter, I plunged into Star Trek: The Original Series. All three seasons are free on Amazon at the moment, and as my knowledge of the show was patchy it seemed foolish not to take advantage.

I began viewing with the second season (I don’t know why, it made sense at the time) and worked through all 26 episodes over Christmas and New Year.

The experience has been, in the most part, a wonderful surprise. Presented here, for what my latecomer perspective is worth, are a few thoughts.


Each episode fair hums with the most brilliant, zesty energy. I guess it’s because TV was still in its infancy, prone to mistakes but with a capacity for wonder. It had no expectations to meet and it was feeling its way, enthusiastic but tripping up occasionally. That quality makes the show easy to forgive.

Another endearing characteristic is its wonderful optimism about technology. Even living under the spectre of thermonuclear war, TOS has faith: in our ability to leap beyond nation and race, to be unified by access to the stars, to find more meaning in life than the accumulation of property. And despite all that, to keep our sense of humour.


Still, most of that remarkable energy derives from a conscious choice made by writers, cast and crew: to make their show cool.

This, I think, was forgotten on the TNG Enterprise. That ship was too often a sort of traveling debate society, where beige alien ambassadors exchanged speeches with Picard’s Lycra-stiff crew.

Kirk’s ship still tries to ask difficult questions, but it never forfeits its commitment to adventure and, most importantly, to its characters. People on the Enterprise are humourous, brave, and importantly, flawed. Spock is a ticking bomb. McCoy teases him for sport. Kirk thinks any problem can be solved with his fist or his dick.


That triumvirate is given colour by great casting. They had real charisma, these guys, and amazing faces to match (Spock’s granite sneer and McCoy’s wild, wet eyes). In fact probably the nicest surprise of the show was Shatner.

I expected horrible, screen-quaking camp from Kirk, so it was a real stun-at-close-range to find that in most situations, his performance is actually pretty understated. When he flips up that communicator and grumbles “Kirk to Enterprise” it’s generally a laid back sort of hail, like McQueen or Connery might deliver it - not the stentorian stuff of Picard.

Oh he’s a strange screen presence all right, with his (often exposed/ ripped-shirt) barrel chest, his curious spread gait and occasional explosion of madness. But generally speaking any embarrassment is outweighed by entertainment value. There's no denying that the man is extremely watchable.

Some of the other characters are less successful. Chekov’s mop-top comedy routine can get a bit tiresome, the ‘everything was invented by Russians’ gag wearing thin fast.

Scotty, a character I’ve never gotten along with, is painted as a bit of a creepy idiot: In Who Mourns for Addonais? he’s obsessive about an Ensign, in Friday’s Child he falls for a trick Mr. Ed would have spotted, and he’s Jack the Ripper in Wolf at the Door. I almost felt sorry for James Doohan as the series went on. He never had a good story.

Uhura doesn't have a picnic either: I can’t remember her having a good line in the entire series (although to be fair she does have a few in Season 1). Mostly she’s made to look sort of ridiculous, which bothered me after a while. Still, you have to credit it for putting a black woman on that bridge in the first place. Nichelle Nichols certainly does.

What else is there to say? Well, the budget limitations don’t bother me. I like the way they never lose gravity on the Enterprise. I like the way so much is shot in close up, to obscure the same old sets. I like that Spock pulls away a panel on the bridge to fiddle with wires ripped from an old radio. 

Yes, occasionally the cheapness provokes a cheap laugh (Snake head!) or rattles the nerves (that damn computer voice) but overall I had no trouble suspending my disbelief.  I was just having too much damn fun.

Snake Head!

Best Lines:


On imminent peril:
“To the logical mind the outlook is somewhat gloomy”

On the Vulcan coma:
“We find it more restful for the body than your ‘vacation.’”

To McCoy:
“I find your arguments drilled with gaping defects in logic.”

To McCoy again, on volunteering for a dangerous mission:
“You have a martyr complex that disqualifies you.”


To Kirk, on starting an arms race:
“It’s not bad enough there’s one serpent in Eden teaching gun-powder, you’re gonna make sure they all know about it!”


On humans and sex:
“Yes, we do think a great deal about it.”

Best Episodes:

The Doomsday Machine: Planet eating worm!

Friday’s Child: Klingons!

A Piece Of The Action: Kirk and Spock as mobsters!

The Immunity Syndrome: Space amoeba!

Poorest Episodes:

Wolf in The Fold: Sit and listen to the computer episode

The Deadly Years: Hilarious elderly crew make-up

Cat’s Paw: Worst. Episode. Ever.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Jupiter Ascending

We very nearly missed Jupiter Ascending, just barely catching her last gasp in UK cinemas. We were so oddly committed to seeing the film we actually trekked to a 10.40am – yes, 10.40am – showing, at a Cineworld buried deep in the bowels of Shopping City, Wood Green. I’m glad I didn’t miss the movie. I enjoyed it.

I’m not entirely sure where the really bad notices are coming from. I could never award one or two stars to a film purely on the basis of it being daft. Jupiter Ascending is plenty stupid, but it entertains far better than, say, Prometheus (which bored me silly) and it never made my teeth grind like Pacific Rim (which I had to switch off after five minutes and will never attempt again).

All of these B movies suffer from being made in our Age Of The Bloater (Prometheus is 124 minutes, Jupiter is 127, Pacific Rim 132). But Jupiter is so light hearted that it only lost me for twenty minutes or so, during the space wedding sequence. Otherwise I was right there with it.

Anyway, a few thoughts:

Oop - there she goes again
Jupiter Descending

Jupiter does spend an awful lot of time tumbling from a great height, only to be scooped up by Wolf Boots, or whatever his name is. She is rather kicked around by events – which wouldn’t matter so much if she had better lines. Kunis has a long association with comedy (albeit Family Guy’s nasty stuff) and I’m surprised the Wachowskis didn’t tilt the part in that direction after casting her - Jupiter has one or two moments that cry out for a zinger that never comes. Kunis isn’t great, but better anyone than the originally mooted Natalie Portman, who should steer well clear of this stuff.

Jupiter Viewing

Well, let Jupiter drop, fall, plunge and plummet to her heart’s content – so long as I can see what the hell is going on. It’s not perfect, but the film does manage to occasionally show the audience what is happening - and that has been rare in the Bloater age. The skies are never overcrowded in the aerial battles, and the combat in general is never overwhelmed by machine gun cuts and too close close-ups. All of the action sequences are enjoyable for their willingness to step back and let you see.

Give over, there's nowt wrong with your ears
Jupiter Strutting

To do that requires confidence, and the Wachowskis have it in spades. The movie has a cocksure stride and humming energy that endeared me to it instantly. I like a film that knows it place and can tell what’s important: so while it pauses a moment to mock the idea that we are alone in the universe, it doesn’t bother to ask Sean Bean to try a different accent. I can imagine how this quality might wind up some viewers: Jupiter’s convenient leaps in understanding (she memorises interstellar law in a jiffy) might seem like carelessness. But to me they indicate the Wachowskis urging the story on, not stopping to try and Polyfilla cracks along the way. Start picking at them and you’ll realise how structurally unsound the whole thing is. Anyway who cares? The bees are fighting the aliens! 

Jupiter Looking

The visual experience is a strange cocktail of the ludicrous and the accomplished. The outfits in this movie have drawn Flash Gordon comparisons, and that’s appropriate: one particular shreddy-skirted number Kunis sports is at least as funny as Max Von Sydow’s pointy beard. Yet even as I hooted and slapped my thigh, a shot of the Great Red Spot would appear, churning on Jupiter’s surface, and I would be impressed. The aliens are decent too - it seems to me a lot of care was taken to give the two main species convincing gait and movement. OK, so the film doesn’t let you think too much of it, jolting you with more of Channing topless, of Redmayne in a neck bracelet. But what the hell- I can gasp and chuckle too, can’t I?

Jupiter Speaking

Among the explosions of glitter the film finds a little space to talk about class. Jupiter’s character isn’t the best means of delivering the message – what her part says on the subject is something of a muddle - but the idea of a creepy, hidden caste of aristocrats, drooling over the Earth as if it were one giant stock, is one that resonates. OK, so the script doesn’t ever bite on the subject, but Redmayne and his siblings are there, squabbling over humanity like a jar of Nutella - and their very presence is clearly there to show us the shadow of a looming Feudal system. For a movie in which a David Bowie cameo would have come as no surprise at all, that is something of an achievement.

Friday, 27 February 2015

A few thoughts on Leonard Nimoy

I’ve been meaning to write a new Star Trek blog for some time now. Tonight I have finally run out of excuses. For tonight is the night of Leonard Nimoy’s death. I will soon post about Star Trek (TOS) Season Two, but until then I must present a few words on a wonderful, underrated performer with a classy sense of humour.

The fact is that Leonard Nimoy played a crucial role in my development both as a viewer - because he kept surprising me - and as a writer, because he helped show me the great depth science fiction stories can have.

My first encounters weren’t encouraging. I think the first Trek movie I saw in the cinema was Star Trek 5 (which is an awful snooze no matter how you slice it) and shortly after I discovered his Bilbo Baggins music video. Neither created the impression of someone to be taken seriously. It was easy to dismiss him as little more than a vessel for those ears, the lucky bearer of an iconic part anyone could have played.

But he kept cropping up during those teenage years, that period of life when your taste really crystalises, and he kept startling me - offering excellent performances in places I didn’t expect to find them. He was such a revelation in Wrath of Khan (more of that later) that my friends and I sought out his other work. So it was we discovered Invasion of The Body Snatchers, a beautifully bleak science fiction remake, shaped around Donald Sutherland’s lead and Leonard’s cool, unflappable Doctor David Kibner.

Then there was TV. I had a deep affection for 70s Colombo during my late teens and early twenties, appreciating this most formulaic of formulaic shows mostly for its brilliant cars, clothes and reassuringly familiar devices. Occasionally there was an episode that did something a little special - usually marked by an outstanding performance. Leonard Nimoy guest starred in one such show, delivering a stony portrayal of a killer so calculating he actually causes Colombo to lose his cool - a rare occurrence of the detective breaking out of character.

Then there was Leonard’s Simpsons work. He was one of the first celebrities to have the self-confidence to send himself up in the show, and remains one of the very few cameos to be funny in his own right. Where others draw laughs as objects for Homer’s scorn/lust/admiration, Leonard makes his own funnies – check out his introduction to the X-Files episode. Of course this is largely due to the writers, who worship the man like a God, but the fact remains that when I saw his episodes at school I was hugely impressed by his wit, and by his class.

So Leonard helped make me more tolerant and inquisitive as a viewer. More importantly, Leonard taught me that science fiction could be truly moving.

Wrath of Kahn was a major event in my movie history. The film delighted me, providing everything I had always wanted from space opera - humour, spaceships (fighting each other) and at least a nod to the sublime – but added a startling extra: a genuinely moving, human scene, hinging on a broken yet dignified performance by Nimoy.

It might sound daft, but it was a moment that really spoke to me. It was one of the first occasions that I found science fiction touching. Alongside three or four other early experiences, it bred an ambition to write something even half as accomplished.

I’m ashamed to say that I’m only beginning to discover Star Trek The Original Series now, which is the very definition of doing it backwards – but, as always with Leonard, the experience has been a revelation. He may be gone, but I’m still getting to know him.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

New website!

For a while now I've been meaning to create a new website to compliment thingaboutchickens.

When I started out blogging I was producing opinion pieces and the like, interspersed with links to my short stories as they were published. I was fairly clueless about it, approaching blogging like a kind of online scrapbook.

I began to add movie reviews, and bits and pieces on science fiction TV and literature. Then Barricade came along, and I added updates about that. The whole thing began to feel like a bit of a mess  - and besides, it was always daft having a website without my name in the title.

So it is that I've created a new site, jonwallace.co, purely for posts relating to my writing (featuring the above posh snap by the one and only Jack Ladenburg). It's taken me an age to actually get my rear in gear about this, and despite the techno fear/ rage that was involved in its production (I am sub Cro-Magnon when it comes to this stuff), I am well pleased to have the site sorted out. I'll update soon with articles covering everything from my new book's cover art to the love of dogs. There'll also be regular updates about the forthcoming sequel to Barricade (Steeple, coming in June), related articles and hopefully details of new short stories (I have to write some of these freaking ideas and send them off!)

I certainly don't intend to let thingaboutchickens fade away - in fact I am going to try and post here more than ever. I've had some great interest in past opinion pieces (like those on Macca and Cardinal O'Brien) and have the need to scratch this commentary itch regularly. I also can't help but write about TV and film - so look out for forthcoming pieces right here on Star Trek The Original Series (Season Two), and the madness of nuclear weapons.

In the meantime many thanks to all the brilliant folk who visit thingaboutchickens. Please do keep up your visits, and comment if you care to - I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Parliament Square has all the charm of an over-policed roundabout.

I recently ceased working in the Parliament Square area, and I’m quite happy about it. Over six months I developed a quite powerful dislike for the place.

I'm not moaning about the tourists– if anything I feel sorry for those visitors to our capital who include Parliament on a tour. If I emerged from the Underground I would take one look around me, tick it off the sightseeing list, and depart immediately. Why? Because the square is hostile, ramshackle and utterly fails to deliver, on whatever level you approach it.

You want antique Imperial bombast? Sorry, it's hard to pick that up when Parliament and Westminster Abbey sit on a perpetually clogged roundabout, bathed in the roar of diesel engines and the tetchy blare of horns. I suppose the statues scattering the central island might hit your 'I' spot, but you’ll only get a decent look if you can figure out how to traverse the confusion of traffic – and good luck with that.

You want a modern, transparent seat of power? You’re bang out of luck. In terms of a public space this is a distinctly unfriendly one. The Palace of Westminster sits behind hideous knee-high black barriers, tossed into the road after 9/11 and left to become a permanent disfigurement. Parliament Square, meanwhile, lives half its life hidden behind a mess of grilled, grey, security fencing.

Traffic, fences, backs of statues. 
It doesn't make anyone safer, this fencing - it's just there to emphasise the square's defining message to any visitor foolish enough to arrive without an appointment. Namely: ‘get lost, pleb.’ This message is of course, particularly aimed at those who come bearing placards.

Westminster's overreaction to any form of protest is quite astonishing when you see it on a day-to-day basis. One small gathering I witnessed saw police outnumber protesters by something like four to one. The plods roll in at the merest hint of organised assembly, tossing up barriers and sitting packed in transit vans along Whitehall, seeming to say: 'go on, just try it'.

All this hardly helps change our image of Westminster politicians as cowardly and out of touch. It only reinforces the perception that they'd  prefer to lock the square up behind railings, like a private Belgravia garden – or, better yet, erect a concrete wall around the entire area, complete with battlements, taser-packing guards and drawbridge (to allow the orderly egress of despot limo and party caterer).

The point is, what do we want from the home of our Government? A fortress or a public space? It is neither at the moment. It's a knackered Victorian folly, ringed by exhaust and coppers packing heat.

So I have an idea: an elegant solution that will help MPs hide more efficiently from their voters, and free up a striking bit of Thames-side real estate for tourists and Londoners alike. The idea? Move Parliament.

There’s plenty of precedent for them sitting elsewhere, and the Palace is horribly unsuited as a place of business anyhow (and in dire need of refurbishment). It would serve far better as a tourist attraction, overlooking a pedestrianized square with trees, grass, and maybe a comfy bench or two.

Parliament, meanwhile, could move into The Excel Centre. I can’t see many people objecting to that bleak box being fenced off, or many protest marches making it their finish line – arriving at Custom House could only be something of an anti-climax. Most importantly, the building is just forbidding, charmless and dull enough to reflect mainstream politics.

And if MPs get too depressed based out there (and believe me, they might) they can always ask to come back home – and we should let them. But only if they accept that it’s our Square too, and leave those bloody fences out East.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Dark Star (1974)

A few words on Dark Star, which I saw for the first time just before Christmas. I've been meaning to watch it for about a decade now, but somehow never got around to it. I knew it was a stretched John Carpenter student film, and it's regularly mentioned in lists of 'greatest ever science fiction movies', yet I could never build momentum for a viewing. How daft that seems now.

Written by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, and unfolding over a super-tight one hour and twenty-two minutes, I watched it with a building sense of awe. The opening scenes were so strong that I assumed the rest of the film couldn't possibly live up to them. Then the titles kicked in, with the splendid country song Benson, Arizona (music by Carpenter) and the movie just went on delivering.

Charting the bickering, bearded crew of Dark Star on their journey of meaningless destruction, the film is characterised by surprisingly sharp wit, unique lo-fi space effects, and a deep love for its characters.

I won't get into it too much, in case there are other idiots like me who have never seen it - I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I found it a humbling and delightful experience. Almost every element made me smile, from Cookie Knapp’s superb computer voice to the emergency phenomenology.

God it’s imaginative and clever and bravely paced and well acted and surprising. It has been a long time since something impressed me so much - what a talent Carpenter was. It's free to stream on Amazon, so if you haven't seen it, take a look. You won't be disappointed.