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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Loving The Alien

To misquote Karen Carpenter: rainy days and Mondays - and hearing about the death of David Bowie - always get me down.

I'm not good enough a writer to sum up in a blog post the icon that was - is - David Bowie. It's like trying to condense the glory of the Grand Canyon into a single tweet or distilling the euphoric rush of your first love onto a Post-It note. Bowie's contributions and impact on art are immeasurable and will continue to influence it for decades to come.

I've written before about how I first discovered Bowie, so I won't cover that ground again. What I want to mention is this mixtape.

It was given to me back in the mid '80s by Linda Murrish, who I used to work with at Exchange & Mart magazine. Linda was a huge Bowie fan and was amazed that my knowledge of the Thin White Duke only extended to the Let's Dance and Tonight albums, plus a handful of singles. It was time to educate me about the wider world of Bowie. Linda skilfully put together a mixtape of album tracks, B-sides and rare mixes and presented me with it. I listened to that mixtape repeatedly back in '86 and it was that cassette that turned me onto Bowie.

I don't listen to cassettes any more. Most have been thrown out by me over the years but I've kept back those that mean something special to me. Linda's tape is one of those. A quick rummage in the loft and there it was. I lost contact with Linda many years ago but I wish that today - of all days - I could thank her again for making this tape and making me aware of the genius that was 

David Bowie - RIP. It may be Monday but I'll love you till Tuesday...and every day after that.

A Loss In The Family - Still Alice review

Alice Howland has a brilliant career. She's witty, happily married and the proud mother to three teenaged children. Then she begins to forget the odd word. She occasionally loses her sense of direction. Alice is concerned but she's barely fifty - how bad can it be? A visit to a consultant delivers the shocking news - she has Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Her life, and the lives of her friends and family, are turned upside down. But Alice refuses to be defined by her disease. Her memory may be fading but she her resolution stays strong.

Hollywood has a pretty unfortunate track record in handling medical conditions like Alzheimer's. Cinematic good intentions become hollow, over-sentimental tearjerkers. Fortunately, Still Alice avoids this trap. It spends its time creating carefully-drawn characters that you can believe in. Each step of Alice's mental deterioration is sensitively handled, whilst the devastation the disease wreaks on the family is heartbreakingly portrayed.

There's an understandable reaction to a film like this - why go see it? There won't be a magical cure appearing in the third act to save the day. A happy ending is not on the cards. So why see Still Alice?

The first and foremost reason is Julianne Moore. Moore has cleaned up during the recent awards season, winning virtually all the trophies she was nominated for. She capped this off with a Best Actress Oscar win. And rightly so. Her performance brilliantly conveys Alice's frustration at having to deal with the disease, the dementia that is slowly destroying her memory and her ability to communicate. It's often snidely remarked that portraying an affliction can fast-track you to Oscar success. Moore's restrained yet powerful performance is fully deserving of the accolades showered upon it.

Another reason to see this film is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's direction of their own screenplay, based on Lisa Genova's novel. They approach the material sensitively and with great care.  

At the core of the film is Alice's resolve to not lie down and be a victim. She knows that the quality of her life is slowly being eaten away by Alzheimer's but she refuses to give up. In a memorable scene, Alice decides to speak at an Alzheimer's Association meeting. As a linguistics professor, this would have been a walk in the park - now it's an uphill struggle. Armed only with several sheets of paper, a highlighter pen and her steadfast determination, she battles on.

There are other, less challenging movies to go see but I strongly recommend you see Still Alice. It's not an easy watch but that's evidence of its power and its integrity. Ultimately, Still Alice is that increasingly rare artefact - an intelligent, thought-provoking film about real life issues, with characters you genuinely care about.

"This is it!" - STAR WARS, The First Time

Can you remember when you heard for the very first time about a little something called Star Wars?

For me, it was seeing the artwork below. It graced an article in the Daily Express back in 1977 about how the film - not then released in the UK - had been decimating box-office records in America all summer long. It was a phenomenon that caused a revolution in the movie industry that we still see the effects of today. Merchandising a film became a lucrative priority overnight. Every studio began to develop their own big-budget SF epic - Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker...yes, even 007 was propelled into space to capitalise on the genre du jour.

Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

The picture above is one of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie's renderings for the climactic X-wing assault down the Death Star trench. McQuarrie's illustrations shaped the look of the original trilogy, his designs for robots, spaceships and alien worlds bringing to life George Lucas' script. The kinetic energy of the artwork burst out of the black-and-white newsprint. Even in monochrome, it was an arresting image. Wow, my 12 year old self thought, a scene like this is going to be in a film? Cool! My ticket was mentally bought then and there.

The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

Star Wars opened on May 25th 1977 in the US but didn't reach the UK until much later. I finally saw it in early 1978 on the magnificent Gaumont 2 screen in Bournemouth - now regrettably diced up into a multiplex. By that time, I had already read the novelisation, the comic books, the making-of...I knew the story backwards and the characters were like old friends. No plot surprises then but what hit me for six was the film's scope. It was huge - literally like nothing I had ever seen before. Spaceships fought dogfights across the silver screen, planets exploded in Dolby stereo, the hero fought with a cool weapon called a lightsaber... it was pulp science fiction brought lovingly to widescreen life. 

Then came the sequels - the (arguably) even better Empire Strikes Back and the spectacular but somehow less impressive Return Of The Jedi. And then sixteen years later, along came the prequels....

Let's not go there. Instead, we will be returning to that galaxy far, far away later this year, with the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The early signs - the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, Empire alumnus Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the screenplay, the cast - were promising. Then there was the first sight of actual footage in the shape of a teaser trailer. A trailer that - for some youngster out there - will have been their own very first introduction to the Star Wars universe...

 

Thanks to the excellent Episode Nothing blog for providing the Evening Echo ad. Do click on the link to read Darren Slade's own recollections of seeing Star Wars in Bournemouth back in '78.

Behind The Sandpaper Curtain - An Appreciation Of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's latest record - Shadows In The Night - is the #1 album in the UK. A collection of Frank Sinatra covers, it's the next surprising move from a singer-songwriter who's made a career out of doing whatever he damn well pleases.

Robert Allen Zimmerman - to give his birth name - polarises popular opinion like Marmite. I first really came to know his work back in the summer of 2002. I had recently started a new job and was going to be driving between Bournemouth and Southampton, spending the best part of an hour each way in the car. Some new music was definitely required. I went down to HMV and browsed the racks, looking for inspiration. Whilst I was rummaging through the bargain bins, I came across an unfamiliar CD at a very nice price. I decided that I could afford to risk three quid on this particular album album, though it would probably just confirm what I suspected all along. That this "Bob Dylan" bloke couldn’t sing and was criminally overrated.

So I took the CD, threw into the car stereo and started the drive home. I listened to it. And then on the way to work the next day, I listened to it again.

And I thought it was great.

Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

The album was Blonde On Blonde. There’s no hit singles on it but what is does have is Dylan classics such as “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. The Dylan anorak in me is forced at this point to tell you that when this came out way back in 1966 it was a double album – one of the very first. And “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, which is 11 minutes long, took up an entire side of one of the two records that made up the album. 

In my humble opinion, this is one of the very best folk-rock albums ever made. This is not just a collection of songs but a proper album, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s also a very enigmatic record - there are no photographs available of any of the recording sessions, no film has ever been released of Dylan in the studio  – which is pretty unusual.

This is the kind of detail that makes Bob Dylan so fascinating to me. He’s been releasing albums for over 50 years now– 36 studio albums, 11 live albums and many, many compilations. For many people, it's the Dylan voice that's the problem. He doesn't have a great singing voice - a sandpaper curtain that unfortunately obscures his genius for some. But get over your initial misgivings, dive in, and there's a wealth of tremendous lyrics and powerful music to discover. Full disclosure: whilst many of his records are works of genius, others are complete crap. No, really. Unlistenable. Lend an ear to 1988's Down In The Groove for a start.

And it’s not just his records that can be infuriating – it’s his live performances as well. I’ve seen Dylan play live on several occasions, each time going with a different person – because at the end of the gig, they invariably turn and say “sorry mate - that was rubbish”. They complain that he croaked his way through each and every song, that he played classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone” in versions that hardly sound like the original at all. And they’re right. The band is good – the music is always good – but Dylan barely acknowledges his audience. He just gets on stage, does a couple of hours and goes.

But once in a blue moon, sometimes clicks. Out of nowhere, he suddenly delivers a terrific performance or does something you’re not expecting. Last time I saw him, he had a stack of music sheets on top of his keyboard. He was peering at them, trying to read the words as the sheets kept slipping off. In exasperation, he glanced around, picked up something nearby and used it as a paper weight. If you looked really hard, you could see what the improvised paperweight was – the Best Song Oscar he won in 2001, for "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys.

I’m now passionate about Bob Dylan – the music, the lyrics, the man, everything. If you’re a fan, he can really be exasperating at times but like with a good friend, you’re always prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion. 

And by the way, his Frank Sinatra album is terrific. He even sings it well, the contrary old bugger.

The Avengers, Disassembled

And before Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk et al teamed up, there were....The Avengers.

The Avengers (1998) DVD cover

We're talking John Steed here, who debuted on TV in 1961 - two years before the Marvel Comics superhero crew arrived on the comic book scene. The Avengers TV series was a huge international hit but our attention is actually on the ill-fated 1998 movie version.

This incarnation of The Avengers featured Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel - British secret service agents battling a villainous Sean Connery and his destructive weather-controlling machine. The movie cost a small fortune, had highly-regarded talent in front and behind the camera, yet wasn't shown to the press before release - never a good sign. The film was soundly ridiculed and audiences stayed away in their droves. 

Being a long-term fan of the TV series, I was there at the cinema on opening day to see it. As the end credits rolled, I remember leaving with a heavy sense of disappointment. There was some good stuff in the movie - a few imaginative set pieces, the sumptuous production design, Connery clearly relishing his over-the-top role. The surreal SF nature of the TV series had been retained; weaponised robot wasps pursue Steed and Emma down country lanes and there's a bizarre scene with Connery chairing a boardroom meeting with his accomplices - all dressed in Dayglo teddy bear outfits. Despite these bursts of imagination, however, the film came across as little more than a disjointed 90 minute trailer for another Avengers film. A different, perhaps better movie.

Some time after the critical roars of disapproval had died down, this turned out to the case. It emerged that after some disastrous early test screenings, some 30 minutes of the original version of the film had been hastily excised. Coherent plot be damned - the running time had to be reduced by any means necessary. Whole sequences were excised, with little or no effort expended to make sure that what remained actually made sense. There's evidence of these chopped scenes in the trailer - that "Emma Peel in a phone box/How Now Brown Cow" bit is part of a whole pre-credits sequence that was dropped.

Will be ever get to see a restored version of The Avengers? Director Jeremiah Chechik has gone on record saying that he'd happily revisit the project and spend the necessary time in the edit suite, reassembling his original cut. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers don't appear to be quite so enthusiastic. It looks increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see the full, 115 minute version given a proper release.

So are we missing out on some lost masterpiece? Probably not - there are some things wrong with The Avengers that surely can't be fixed, even with an extra half-hour's worth of footage. The total lack of chemistry between the two leads for one, and Thurman's stilted British accent. But we are still only seeing 75% of what was originally completed of The Avengers...and the thought of finally watching the missing 25% is an attractive one. 

All-American Horror Story: POLTERGEIST, Then And Now

"They're heeeeerrrrrreeeee....."

Hard to believe but it's nearly 33 years since little Carol Anne uttered those words and POLTERGEIST first scared audiences. POLTERGEIST is a big-budget horror movie set in the heart of American suburbia, with the Freeling family under siege in their own home by forces beyond the grave.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, the film has a likeable cast (Craig T Nelson, Jo Beth Williams and the excellent Zelda Rubinstein as eccentric medium Tangina), a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score and plenty of old school ILM special effects. It was a huge success at the box-office (one of the top ten biggest moneymakers of the year) and spawned two inferior sequels - POLTERGEIST II in 1986 and two years later, POLTERGEIST III. The original is also noteworthy for the extreme difference in ratings it was given on either side of the Atlantic - in the US, it was awarded a family-friendly PG certificate, whilst here in the UK, it received an X; nobody under 18 allowed.

Sadly, POLTERGEIST is a film burdened with a troubled and controversial production history and subsequent tragedy - far too much to discuss here but thoroughly covered at this excellent Poltergeist Fan Site.

To this day, POLTERGEIST remains good fun There's precious little logic to the screenplay but taken as a cinematic ghost train ride, the movie works just fine. The scares are well-judged and there's surprisingly little gore - unusual for a horror movie released in the stalk & slash era. POLTERGEIST is also a key member of the Class Of Summer '82 - a summer which boasted the release of many classic sf and fantasy movies. ET, BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, THE ROAD WARRIOR, TRON, STAR TREK II, TRON - an embarrassment of riches and not equalled until arguably last summer.

In 2007, a lavish 25th Anniversary DVD of POLTERGEIST was planned for release but this had to be abruptly abandoned. None of the principals - Spielberg, director Tobe Hooper or the lead actors - wanted to be interviewed about the film. Because of this, there's precious little in the way of behind the scenes material about POLTERGEIST, albeit this brief "making-of" doc that was included on the laserdisc release:

The news that POLTERGEIST has being remade caused my heart to sink. I shouldn't be surprised - remakes are common currency in Hollywood these days. Good remakes, though, are few and far between - DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) springs to mind but it's the exception that proves the rule.

On the plus side, Sam Rockwell takes over from Craig T Nelson as the father and Jared Harris replaces Zelda Rubinstein in the role of the spiritual medium. However, the trailer for the remake doesn't inspire much in the way of confidence. It revisits familiar landmarks from the original - the closet, the clown doll, the tree - but seems to favour the "electric cattle prod" type of scare that's unfortunately the norm in horror these days.

We'll know for certain if director Gil Kenan really knows what scares us when the film's released at the end of July.