The 2019 List: July

Wow. I came this close. I came this close to reaching 100 by the end of July. No mean feat, especially considering that this month includes five television series, entailing over fifty episodes (albeit the majority were for a sitcom show of about 20 mins apiece). Curiously, the best and worst viewing of the month are in that television section: worst of the month was Star Trek: Discovery (alas for STD, I haven’t yet finished Another Life, which frankly would be the worst of any month) and the best was Chernobyl, which I only finished yesterday and haven’t had time to review it yet.

So anyway, it was a bit of a strange month, adding 15 titles to the 2019 total was unexpected, considering this was a Wimbledon month which monopolised the television for the best part of two weeks. I really thought this monthly review would be a pretty threadbare post, but there’s an awful lot here. I really enjoyed the Quatermass show, which dates way back to 1958 and was really refreshing in being something full of ideas and hidden depths rather than eye-candy, and I’m absolutely loving the lazy ease of watching The Big Bang Theory, which is such an undemanding watch it’s almost addictive.

The films I watched this month are what proved most disappointing. I’ve had a bit of a run of Dwayne Johnson films, and it’s been all downhill from the (surprisingly good) Jumanji film he starred in, but Rampage was really pretty bad. I think the best film of the month was In Bruges, with honorable mention going to A Star is Born.

Which is ignoring rewatch stuff- as both Prisoner of Second Avenue and Field of Dreams, both old faves recently restored, are better than anything else I watched this month, period. I continue to find myself resisting just ignoring ‘new’ stuff and going back to old stuff I’ve seen before- maybe that’ll happen one day (it somes invitable, at some point) and this blog will just be some old dude waxing lyrical about old movies and tv shows.

 TV Shows

85) Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

87) The Big Bang Theory Season One

89) Star Trek: Discovery Season Two

94) The Big Bang Theory Season Two

98) Chernobyl


84) Rampage

86) In Bruges

88) Captain Marvel

90) Armstrong (Doc.)

91) A Star is Born (2018)

92) Kingsman: The Golden Circle

93) For the Love of Spock (Doc.)

95) The Dark Tower

96) Bushwick

97) Unsane


unsaneI’m not at all sure what I thought about this one: underwhelmed, I think, is the safest way to put it. Very likely a film more notorious for having been shot with an iphone 7 rather than any particular merit in the film itself, this is directed by Steven Soderbergh and possibly represents what modern Hollywood thinks is guerilla filmmaking. I suppose it’s experimental nature is to be commended with so few chances being taken in film these days, but not sure how much of any risk was being taken when television commercials possibly cost more to make than this ‘film’ did.

The premise is intriguing- an unhinged young career woman, Sawyer Valentini (a typically fine performance from Claire Foy) is finding it increasingly difficult to function in normal society having suffered the trauma of being stalked (and possibly abused) by a man a few years before. She opts for what she thinks is the first of a series of therapy sessions at a mental health clinic but signs on the wrong dotted line and realises to her horror that she has been tricked into voluntarily committing herself to 24 hr observation in the clinic. When she panics and causes trouble, injuring someone in her attempts to get out, her stay gets extended to seven days. Another patient tells her the clinic is operating a scam to rinse money from health care insurance and that she’ll only ever get out when the insurance money dries up. Of course, her confidant is also a patient so might himself be crazy or untrustworthy, but Sawyer’s nightmare heightens when she  recognises one of the clinics orderlies as the man who stalked her years ago, and he now has her trapped with nowhere to go…

Yeah on the preposterous scale of one to ten this is stretching nine – the only saving grace that keeps the film moderately absorbing is the suggestion that Sawyer may indeed by crazy and we are not ‘seeing’ everything via a reliable narrator, but as the film starts to slip into ever-sillier horror tropes and twists it’s inevitable to conclude that its the whole film that unreliable, not Sawyer.

I will say that the film at its best, mostly due to the low-rent ‘look’ of the production had a suggestion of 1980s horror films from David Cronenberg, particularly Rabid. The stilted acting or unrehearsed feel of some of the scenes really had that early-1980s direct-to-video ‘feel’ shared by so many horror VHS tapes back then. This is always, of course, subtly undermined by having a star like Foy in the lead- I think it would have been better served by having an unknown in the lead, but Foy is very good and possibly holds the film together so I can understand the counter-argument with her casting.

I have noted before, its curious when mainstream or ‘sophisticated’ directors have a go at the horror genre, as if trying to elevate it somehow.  It doesn’t always work and I suspect that this genre, likely looked down upon by the more arthouse cineastes such as Soderbergh as beneath their station, has claimed another victim here.

Last Week: Tears in Rain

Last week I picked up my old hardback of Frank Herbert’s Dune for a reread. Continued reading the frankly miraculous and perfect Vol.4 Amazing Spider Man Omnibus (it’s like I’m ten all over again), watched quite a bit of new stuff on tv and was saddened to read the news of Rutger Hauer’s death at the age of 75. We’re all getting older and 1982 seems such a long time ago, even more so with Rutger’s passing.

rutgerAs anyone familiar with this blog over the years will know, Blade Runner is my favourite movie- it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Its a dark irony that we are now living in 2019, the year in which the film is set, which back in 1982 was still a lifetime away. To paraphrase Rutger, all those years lost in time like tears in rain. I have watched that film so many times, over 200 most likely (I used to keep count but gave up at around 100) and I have always been fascinated by Rutger’s performance as Roy Batty. Mercurial, bewitching, childlike, feral… one of the biggest achievements of the film was transforming a one-note and frankly incidental character from the book into possibly the true star of the film. Watching Blade Runner, there is always the sense that Rutger knew he was playing the part of a lifetime and seized every opportunity to maximise the performance and every magical cinematic moment. So many things came right for the film- the perfect director, the perfect composer, the perfect cinematographer, visual effects artists, editor, production designers and futurist… and Rutger was the perfect actor to play Roy Batty. He seems to know that in every single scene he is in.

Over the years I would be a bit of a Rutger fanboy, fascinated to see him in other roles (although somehow I never saw him in The Hitcher, must rectify that), from Flesh & Blood to Dark Knight and of course those Guinness ads. Nothing really approached the greatness of Roy Batty, and in particular the Tears in Rain speech that became one of the most famous and quoted scenes in film history. Nothing could ever equal it, I guess, and I marvel that Rutger evidently handled this fact well over the years. I imagine it might have haunted some actors to be in the shadow of something like that forever: thank goodness his biography wasn’t titled ‘I Am Not Roy!’

another1Katee Sackhoff  of course has a famous genre character of her own, as Battlestar Galactica‘s reimagined Starbuck. She’s continued a very successful career since and seems at peace with Starbuck being her defining role, but goodness me she’s backed a turkey with Another Life, the new sci-fi show on Netflix. Since my post the other day I’ve watched a few more episodes and Good Lord it’s just gotten worse. Its abominable, frankly, and I’ve not been cheered up by discovering that what I mistakenly thought was an eight-part show is in fact ten episodes. Its really becoming hard work to get through. The last episode was what I like to call the ‘Space:1999 episode’ which means it was so bad it’s like the last forty years of sci-fi television never happened. Shows are rarely that bad, although Nightflyers pulled it off too. Two episodes after the crew was nearly all killed by an alien infection from a rogue moon, they now land on an Earth-like planet and sample the native fruit etc by, er, just going ahead and eating it, breath the local air and don’t even wear gloves. One character gets a scratch off a thorn and nearly loses his leg in mere seconds from a deadly infection, and another two walk into a colourful forest glade from the Annihilation set and get intoxicated  by hallucinogenic drugs given off by the flora. In another episode, an alien hunts and kills the crew on the spaceship one by one until it turns out it’s all a hypersleep dream. In the last episode I watched, an alien bug brought onboard from that Earth-like planet fraks up some wiring which nearly wipes out the ship, everyone only saved by the obnoxious always-bitching communications woman who has continuously failed to get communications up and running, who sacrifices herself and ends the show as a bloody puddle. So I guess they’ll never get communications up. Maybe the show will amaze me with an amazing finale twist, but I doubt it.

The next season of The Expanse, not arriving until December, seems so long away.

While I dedicate far too much time here writing about Another Life, and also Star Trek: Discovery prior to that, I just feel I need to point out really bad scripts and creative choices. Another Life is truly abominable and should never have gotten filmed in the state its in. Sackhoff is actually a producer on the show so probably sees it as a career progression, but that only reinforces her guilt for the whole thing being so bad, it’s not as if she’s just an actor trying to make the best of the scripts she’s given. It is very true that some parts of the creative business in Hollywood and beyond are taking the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon for a ride. There is no quality control, it seems, when the main objective is just to get access to that streaming pot of gold. I’ve ranted about this before and I’m certain I will do so again. Of course the streaming giants are party to the guilt themselves because they just seem to be throwing money at everything in the hope something sticks, but genre shows really are taking steps backwards of late and it’s a worrying development. I’m certainly no professional and have no story in print anywhere, but I could write a better show than Another Life – there should, surely, be a quality distinction between what passes for professional script writing and what is often dismissively termed ‘fan fiction’ but of late I have to wonder. Maybe us amateurs deserve a shot, doubt we could do any worse.

Except maybe that’s the point. Maybe, as I have noted before, the geeks finally have inherited the Earth (or Hollywood, certainly) and all this mess is simply because too many geeks/amateurs think they can write scripts or be showrunners. It does seem curious that Another Life seems to be ripping off a different tv show/movie every episode, and that Star Trek: Discovery was riddled with nods to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Inception etc.  so much so that it seldom seemed like Star Trek at all.





bushThanks to its outrageously preposterous storyline, this film has an awful lot in common with John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York, and to be honest Carpenter’s film came to mind several times during the film. Its certainly something I most appreciated from it- Carpenter had a knack of coming up with a killer (albeit ridiculous) premise, whether it be turning New York into a State Prison or an old police precinct under siege from a murderous street gang or a coastal town terrorised by ghosts of pirates after revenge, and spinning it into a compelling low-budget thriller, the low-budget, no-frills approach only adding further verisimilitude to the project. Less gloss, more grit. The low camera angles, the long single-camera shots, the rather odd funky 1970s-like soundtrack… Bushwick shares a great deal of the style and sensibilities of early Carpenter work, with particular echoes of Assault on Precinct 13.

The casting of David Bautista (so good in BR2049) brought me to it, and to be honest I really didn’t expect much other than a derivative b-movie action flick and an opportunity to see Bautista in an early career effort. I even thought the title referred to the Bautista characters name, like in films such as Shaft, Bullitt etc- I didn’t realise it referred to a NYC district.

Sometimes films pleasantly surprise, because on the whole this film was pretty good. Shot in the style of Cloverfield, as one long continuous take as if in real time, that conceit wears a little thin as you play a bit of a game spotting the trickery that they use to join all the seperate takes (lens flare giving them an artificial fade-out/fade in to white, sometimes the shot slipping into dark shadow like a momentary fade to black, sometimes a split screen created by the scenery) which is a little unfortunate, in the same way as found-footage movies get distracting when you start wondering who keeps on filming stuff in such moments of stress or how did someone later find it and edit it together. But the film somehow still draws you in, ultimately becoming compellingly fascinating viewing.

The core fascination is that daft premise, and also its nightmarish reflection of the American Dream gone amok- in this respect it often reminds of The Purge series. Its a uniquely American thing, that mash-up of patriotism and gun ownership, where it fits in society and modern civilization, how easily that could break down and the country return to the Wild West myth of good vs evil, right vs might and the power of the gun.  It reminded me a great deal of DMZ, a comic book by Brian Wood set in a near future Second American Civil War in which Manhattan Island has become a Demilitarised Zone caught between the opposing factions. I bought the deluxe hardback collections a few years back and had heard it was going to become a miniseries or something- perhaps this movie dates back to this project, because it does seem awfully close.

bush2Lucy (Brittany Snow) returns to Brooklyn with her new boyfriend Jose, to find the underground station oddy deserted and alarm sirens sounding. Nearing the exit they are confronted by a screaming man racing by, all aflame, and sounds of explosions and gunfire ahead. It transpires that the city has been invaded by an armed militia, arresting and killing people in the face of an armed response from the locals. Anarchy has broken out, criminals and police and this mysterious militia attempting to take control of the streets through gun battles with innocents caught in the carnage and looters taking advantage of the bedlam. Helicopters patrol the skies and snipers take shots from rooftops at everyone passing by, lawlessness is everywhere.

Lucy falls in with Stupe (Dave Bautista) a veteran US navy medical officer traumatised by past experiences and the loss of his family in the 9/11 tragedy. They both get injured and have to work together to survive, heading for a US army extraction point, during which they get caught in lootings and gunfights and encounters with the armed militia, discovering that Political elements have broken free of the Union, and commenced a new civil war between rival States.

Its daft and crazy but somehow it works. I think its low-budget, no-frills approach works mightily in its favour, especially in how the gritty visuals, camera work and largely electronic score evokes so much of John Carpenter’s films. Its hardly groundbreaking but I’d much rather see low-budget, novel films such as this than your typical, anodyne blockbuster films: in some ways it reminded me of the early VHS era when stuff like this seemed to be on the rental shelves.  Admittedly its use of CGI etc betrays it as a modern film but on the whole in its sensibilities it really does feel very low-fi 1980s in mood and approach. Nothing particularly groundbreaking here but a pleasant surprise nonetheless-  I enjoyed it.

Starting Another Life

anotherKatee Sackhoff, hell of an actor. Her turn as Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot was quite brilliant; searingly well done in fact, the kind of role that has endeared her to genre fans forever. While she’s had a fairly successful career post-BSG, I don’t think she’s been involved in anything as memorable or impressive (although one might well argue her turn in 24 was certainly a more high-profile turn in the wider public consciousness). She’s a strong and physically capable actor and how she’s never gotten a big role in a Marvel movie is beyond me, with her fanbase and genre credentials you’d think it would be a sure thing and she’d become some kind of superstar.

So anyway, a few weeks ago when I learned that Netflix were shortly dropping a new sci-fi series starring Sackhoff, well, it was at the top of my watchlist: Another Life, a ten-part thriller about First Contact and a spaceship sent to another star system to investigate the origin of a strange alien artifact recently arrived on Earth- literally Arrival meets 2001 and… Nightflyers.

Oh dear. I have a bad feeling about this.

Well, three episodes in and it’s pretty dire. To be brutally honest, it doesn’t work. Its car-crash television and its painful to see someone like Sackhoff wasted in it. Sure there’s seven more episodes to watch and like a masochist I’m sure I’ll be watching all of it (hell, I’m a veteran of that Nightflyers junk, afterall), and will have a review proper when it’s all done. But really, it doesn’t look good.

Possibly its a lack of budget, but the sets are limited (characters walking/running up and down the same corridor etc, and engine room that looks like a Chinese laundry) and the CGI functional at best, but really, the real handicap is the script, a regular refrain here on this blog. The script is awful, and the creative choices frankly appalling. At the moment I have no idea if its the script making the actors look bad, or just bad actors being bad, but it’s so dire its a struggle. Did the showrunners or any of the writers ever work on a sci-fi show before? I have to wonder. It really looks like the writers room had a DVD collection of sci-fi shows/movies from the last few decades and they assembled Another Life from what they thought were the best bits.

Alien artifact arrives/crashlands/sprouts mysterious crystalline structure. It has conveniently landed near the home of Niko Breckenridge (Sackhoff), a space commander, and her husband Erik (Justin Chatwin) who is a scientist tasked with looking handsome while communicating with the artifact. I mean, literally, it lands near their house. He is given the job of communicating with it (and in the tradition of CE3K, he finds music works) and she is given the job to travel to the artifacts original star system to find out why it was sent (not sure of the logic, it figures you’d be best figuring that out by communicating with the artifact). So you’ve got this husband and wife team (sci-fi’s answer to Hart to Hart or McMillan and Wife?) in charge of saving humanity. Oh, and they have an annoying daughter.

Niko’s job is made worse by being put in charge of the craziest, most dysfunctional crew of any spaceship I have ever seen. I mean, they are absolutely bloody nuts. And they dress in civvies because no-one wears uniforms on spaceships anymore. Its as if they picked a bunch of civilians at random and put them on Love Island in Space or I’m (Not A Celebrity) Lost in Space Get Me Out of Here. Its utterly bizarre. They are a bunch of utter nutters that make the crew of Star Trek: Discovery look competent.  They don’t work for NASA, there is no Government or Mission Control that I can tell- they are let loose on a FTL spaceship and get lost in the first episode after nearly plunging into a star. Niko replaced the ships original Captain, Ian, when she is put in command and he promptly tries to kill her. Twice. So she fries him in an electrical field, which pisses off the crew and… yeah, we’re still in the first episode. By the second episode they are wandering around on a rogue moon looking for caves of oxygen crystals (?) because they’ve lost all the oxygen from their ship and one of the crewmembers goes wandering off and does something even stupider than those alien-goo obsessed scientists in Prometheus. Its absolutely bloody nuts.

Oh Katee. The heights of Battlestar must seem so far, far away. You deserve better. Viewers deserve better. How come no-one can write decent sci-fi shows anymore?



The Dark Tower

dark1Here’s something of a disclaimer: I have not read any of the Dark Tower series of books written by Stephen King, of which I understand there are several. I have no idea if this film is based on the first book, or is a rushed compendium of all of them, but I suspect it is the latter, as it would explain why the film races by in 95 minutes bereft of any weight or meaningful pause. This film is so rushed its unable to expand its characters beyond basic archetypes, it’s some kind of good vs evil saga, in which the bland battle against the bored.

There is clearly some kind of grand mythology at play, some kind of melting-pot of science fiction and fantasy that I guess can be found in the books, but it’s utterly AWOL here. Its confusing to people like me who are unfamiliar with the book saga and likely frustratingly simplistic to fans of that book series- perhaps like what condensing the Lord of the Rings trilogy into a single movie would be like- it just can’t work.

We have teleport stations to other worlds, demons attempting to invade our universe from some Outer Dark, a Dark Tower (I feel like asking Stephen King whether it should have been a White Tower, as its protecting the universe from Darkness but perhaps I’m being tetchy and its explained in the books) at the centre of the universe that thwarts them. Our bad guy Walter Paddick (Matthew McConaughey) is attempting to destroy the Dark Tower and our hero, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba, who between this and that Star Trek film should perhaps just give up on Hollywood), is the Gunslinger, who is trying to destroy Paddick before he succeeds. Its hardly mind-bogglingly imaginative stuff, and it’s not aided by having some kid who is (yawn) the Chosen One who Paddick can somehow use to power some weird laser cannon to finally destroy the Dark Tower and wreak the Apocalypse upon all creation. It really is that stupid. Maybe there was nuance and dramatic tension in the books, but there’s none of that here.

I suspect that this would have worked much better as a series on HBO or Netflix, across several seasons. Why exactly anyone thought this would satisfy as such an empty, thrilless, joyless movie is beyond me, the irony of the ending teasing further adventures just another example of Hollywood thinking absolutely anything can be a franchise. I am getting so pissed off with the films that don’t just end (ta da! ‘THE END’ like films used to), instead closing with a tease for something that will never happen- it’s just insulting to the audience and anyone who has invested any time watching it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

kings2I quite enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service, a confident, zany twist on the James Bond spy genre based on a popular comic/graphic novel from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. It enjoyed considerable success and a sequel was quickly greenlit, which I’m a little late finally getting to (I think they are currently filming a prequel).

In the tradition of sequels, this one is bigger, louder and zanier, and while on those terms its enjoyable enough it simply isn’t better– indeed, it’s quite inferior to the original film. Something is missing. I suspect it’s just too bigger, louder, zanier, going far over the line into the ludicrous – sort of dafter, sillier, madder. I’m pretty sure it has its fans and in some ways those fans that loved the first are just as likely to love the second for exactly the same reasons that I found it lacking.

But any film that can waste Jeff Bridges has a bad mark against it in my book. It could be anyone playing his part in this and that’s a crying shame, and it’s somewhat curious to see Halle Berry in a largely wasted role too – with talent like this involved, the film really should have been better. Which is to say nothing of the waste of Julianne Moore as the villainous drug dealer Poppy Adams, a daft pantomime performance that Moore likely thought was fun but leaves the film lacking the balance and drama of what I would consider a proper villain/bad guy. She’s crazy in the grand tradition of many of Bonds’ daftest megalomaniacs but she’s surprisingly bereft of any threat. Sure, she promises the death of millions of people but these are reduced to blatantly animated CGI characters (there’s actually far too much CGI in this, distancing us from any real dramatic tension either in the OTT fights or the grand establishing shots that look false and cartoony- only accentuating the strange distance I felt from the action). Indeed, it slipped uncomfortably close to the kitsch camp of the Adam West Batman show of the 1960s, and that may have been intentional, but it didn’t help the film at all in my view. Afterall, when a bullet to the brain doesn’t mean death, how seriously can you take anything that happens, or much less even care? I half-expected to see Mark Strong limping around in a post-credits sequence…


Trailer Madness: The Expanse Season Four etc

Comic-con hit San Diego last weekend and lots of trailers and teasers hit the net. I particularly enjoyed the footage Amazon dropped of season four of The Expanse: a five-minute sequence from one of the episodes and a teaser proper featuring highlights from the season. It looks like it’s going to be great, although Amazon likely disappointed many by revealing that the season isn’t going to be released until mid-December. While it will no doubt prove a great Christmas present to us fans, it leaves us with a longer wait than we might have expected. Perhaps there is still a lot of post-production work still to be done (it’s easy to forget, considering the scale of something like this show, how tricky and time-consuming it must be to pull off).

Other trailers of note included an expanded one for Westworld Season Three, which won’t arrive until next year. After the mixed season two, I have cautiously high hopes that season three will be a return to form- it certainly is ripe with all sorts of possibilities. Although the second season had its issues it was still one of the most interesting things I watched last year. I have both seasons on disc and keep trying to find the time to watch them, its infuriating really, but there is just so much to watch these days it gets so tricky to manage the time enough to rewatch stuff. Have we ever had it as good as we do now, all this genre stuff out there? Probably just as well I have little current interest in ever subscribing to Disney+ when it (eventually) reaches these shores- something just has to give.

Amazon have announced that season four of The Man in the High Castle will arrive in November and that this will be the final season, promising a proper conclusion to the series. As I have yet to watch season three, I guess that means I’ll be watching that in October to prepare for the final season, and squeezing that in before The Expanse arrives December.  I’ve enjoyed The Man in the High Castle very much, although I’ve found it a more intellectually satisfying exercise than an emotional one, leaving me some sense of distance from it (hence why I’ve not watched season three yet). Which reminds me, I still have the latest season of Outlander to watch. Crikey. Maybe it’s just as well The Expanse isn’t coming until December afterall.



armArmstrong is a fascinating documentary film about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and is a welcome companion to Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man that starred Ryan Gosling. That film was rather divisive, likely deliberately so, as it dwelt less on the space program and the mechanics of the Apollo missions and more on Armstrong himself (the film aptly summarised by Mark Kermode as ‘more inner space than outer space’). The problem for First Man was that Armstrong was always a private man, and rather kept his distance from the media, something of a cold fish to anyone outside his inner circle of family and friends. There is a very telling observation in Armstrong that ‘thank God there was no social media back then’, and this resonated with me a great deal. Can you imagine what it would be like, had the first moon landing happened in today’s world? That first man would have been eaten alive by the demands of our modern mass-media world. It was probably bad enough for Armstrong post-Apollo 11, I don’t know how he would have managed to survive something like that now- the demands of the media world today and the added hysterics of social media… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lacking the dramatic conflicts (albeit largely fictional dramatisation) of films like Apollo 13, First Man initially seemed a cold, distant film, but having seen Armstrong, I think First Man will reward greater on repeat viewing.

Of course the tantalising thing about First Man, and of Armstrong himself, is the sense of mystery about him, because he refused to become a part of the celebrity media circus that he might have been. Part of that mystery, beyond the facts of who he was and his accomplishments, is just how do you survive something like Apollo 11? He became one of the most famous men not just alive, but in all of history- his is a name that will be remembered in the same way as the greatest kings or Pharaohs or the likes of Da Vinci, long after the rest of us, even the most famous people alive today, the musicians or actors or scientists or leaders, are long gone and forgotten.

Which is part of the dichotomy of Armstrong, because although his name will always most chiefly represent all that Apollo achieved, he himself was always clear about his sense of personal good fortune and always referenced all the work of the many thousands of people who got him to the moon. Essentially, of course, being an Astronaut was his job and while its a curious thing to look at it like that, I think it’s important too. He earned his place on Apollo 11 and was ultimately the preferred choice for the first lunar footstep- this was by merit, and he earned it. But it could as easily been someone else through some other twist of chance.

Review: ‘Armstrong’ examines the man behind the moon landingThis documentary has input from his family and freinds to inform much about Armstrong’s personal life that the public only dimly knew, and features a surprising amount of Super-8mm home movie footage of Armstrong and his family. I also found it interesting how much footage existed of Armstrong’s test-flight days- it’s odd to consider his life was being recorded so early on when its historic value would not transpire until much later. But it’s the fairly candid footage of his home life that fascinates, particularly of the 1960s and how that corresponds to its depiction in First Man, which was actually not far off the mark.

Anyone who recalls the awful voiceover on the theatrical version of Blade Runner will be amazed by the excellent narration here by Harrison Ford, who reads speeches and personal letters by Armstrong allowing us to hear the man’s thoughts and insights. Its extremely well read by Ford, infecting it with considerable nuance through pauses and inflection of voice.

On the whole I’d suggest this is a well-balanced and informative film, that tells us a great deal about the man and his achievements without falling into the trap of awe and idolising him. While to some extent Armstrong remains something of a mystery (there always seems to be something ‘unknowable’ about him, so frustrating in First Man) there is some achievement here in distancing the human being from the event that would dominate his life and his place in history.

1976, the Batmobile, A Star is Born, Jack Kirby and all that

1976 was a pretty good year. I was ten, buying four-colour Marvel comics voraciously; the American monthly comics (rather than just the UK weekly reprints) which were printed in runs for the UK market, being cover-priced in pence rather than cents (no idea if this meant the comics were/are worthless to collectors). It was the Bicentennial in America, something the comics were full of and which almost felt like a holiday/event for me too. Jack Kirby was drawing Captain America, full of patriotic Stars n’ Stripes and I almost felt more American than British (and of course the four-colour Anerica of the comics was a world away from living on a Council Estate in the Black Country in 1970s Britain).

Jack Kirby being back at Marvel was a big deal over the pond but I didn’t understand why, but I was loving his work on 2001: a Space Odyssey and The Eternals and the Black Panther, fantastic comics that exemplified all that was marvelous about Marvel, especially to a ten year old. It was also the year the film Logans Run came out, a film I would not see for a few years but I read the Marvel comic adaptation, which was really exciting and better than the movie, as it would turn out. Had great art by George Perez as I recall. His name is an indelible part of my childhood reading all those comics he drew for Marvel – I think he also worked on The Avengers comic and several others. Of course 1976 was the year of Howard the Duck running for president.

1976It was a long hot summer that year in the UK; we had a huge drought and terrible water shortages, but for a ten-year old lad it was fantastic, no rain, lots of play. The kids in my street had a fad for go-karts that summer and our parents built us go-karts; invariably deathtraps, really. Batman re-runs were on television that year and the kart my brother and I had was painted black and we called it the Batmobile. My Dad was no engineer and it was a shaking, rattling accident on over-sized pram-wheels just waiting to happen, which was a tad ironic- a lad up the street, Stuart, had a go-kart that was built like a tank, a beast of a wooden kart it looked like it would last forever, but we had an accident in it late one evening racing down a steep alley near our school entrance and he lost some of his teeth (it was the same alley down which I would later break my arm skateboarding, but that was another craze in another year). His go-kart of course was in better shape than he was. If he’d had the crash in our Batmobile it would have been in pieces everywhere, but our Batmobile actually lasted the summer, somehow, and whenever I think about the Adam West show, my thoughts often turn to that rattling Batmobile and I wonder that it didn’t kill or maim me.

So why do I write about 1976? Well, two things really. Partly it’s because I watched the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga film A Star is Born yesterday, which triggered a conversation regards the two earlier film incarnations from 1954 and 1976 neither of which which I’ve seen (I didn’t even realise there was an original 1937 film until I checked). My mother-in-law recalled the 1954 film starring Judy Garland very well, but other than a song I think all I remembered of the 1976 film was a review of the 1976 version commenting on the dire hands of megalomaniac star Barbra Streisand and producer boyfriend Jon Peters ruining it. The new version thankfully isn’t the disaster that 1976 film apparently is, I’ll perhaps post a review soon (A Star is Born perhaps isn’t the usual kind of film I’d watch, but it was Claire’s birthday yesterday…).

marv1But as usual, I digress. The other thing that has me reminiscing about 1976 is that I recently read a fascinating book by Sean Howe, Marvel Comics- The Untold Story, which for an old Marvel kid like me, proved to be a sobering read, confirming all sorts of tales and comments I’d read/heard over the years.  When you’re seven or ten or thirteen, you don’t care about the real-world stories behind the comics, you’re just loving the comics, but it’s pretty shocking in places what went on behind the scenes. It would make for a brilliant movie, but I doubt Marvel Studios would be keen on seeing that in multiplexes- which is a pity, it’s a very human story behind those four-colour daydreams of my childhood.

The crux of the issue is what became known as ‘the Marvel Method’ which I assume infers that those DC comics that I never read were created in some other way. How Marvel did it, was that Stan Lee, usually attributed the title of creator and writer of the comics, assigned plot summaries to artists like Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four) or Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and they would go away to plot and pencil the comic. When this artwork returned, Lee would then write dialogue over their work. Now, when I was kid reading those UK reprints of the 1960s Spider-Man, I always assumed Lee wrote the stories in detail and that Ditko just drew what Lee thought up- but of course this was far from the truth. In penciling the layouts and pages the artist was responsible for the pacing of the narrative and the details of the heroes battles with the bad guys. Indeed, pretty much the whole actual story beyond the rough plot outline from Lee. In the case of the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby got increasingly disheartened by being given what he saw as insufficient credit. In one often cited example, an increasingly sidetracked Lee (remember he was writer/editor of the majority of the Marvel line) gave Kirby the premise “the Fantastic Four fight God” and Kirby came back with the classic saga of Galactus the World Eater and the Silver Surfer, characters who went on to become major figures in the Marvel Universe, in an epic story that still gives me tingles thinking back on it (it’ll be a great movie one day, no doubt).

Like Kirby, Ditko (something of an odd character himself, truth be told) got into an increasingly bitter feud with Lee over his work on the title and left the Amazing Spider-Man comic and Marvel altogether – Ditko’s run on the comic regarded as the classic defining run of the comics history. Lee of course would continue to be considered the creator of Spider Man and the web-slinger would go on to make Marvel a fortune, and millions for the film studio when the later films came out… but not for Ditko.

Kirby had long battles with Lee and Marvel for recognition of his own work in creating stories and characters, and this long-running saga is infamous in the industry. Marvel treated artists as ‘work for hire’ and held that their art was owned by the company- by the late 1960s it became increasingly obvious that the real value of the artwork wasn’t actually in the comics but was in the licensing and merchandising of the content of the comics, revenue that Marvel earned but the artists didn’t. Kirby fought for years to get his artwork back, seeing it used on tee-shirts and toys and other merchandise and himself not earning a dime. Disney later bought Marvel for $4 billion and would go on to make billions of dollars from a line of movies based directly on Jack Kirby’s work of the 1960s.

The thing that struck me most though from reading the book- whatever the details of his creator credentials, it’s clear that Stan Lee saw the future for Marvel’s roster of superheroes, and it resided in Hollywood, and the movies we watch today. He spent years out in LA trying to get studios onboard with making films of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four etc. All of the 1970s, pretty much, and into the 1980s. The studios just didn’t get it. Ironic, now, considering how much the Marvel Studios output is dominating the movie industry (news broke this past weekend that Avengers: Endgame may finally have surpassed Avatar at the global box office and become the biggest film of all time). I suppose that film technology had to catch up with the wild four-colour fantasies of those Marvel artists. But Stan Lee saw it. For years he just couldn’t sell it. He must have felt so vindicated after all those years when they took over the world’s cineplexes.

Sean Howe’s book is a great read and I recommend it to anyone even mildly interested in the real history of Marvel and its creations. For readers of those comics, especially those of the 1960s and 1970s, the book is essential reading.