Thursday, September 27, 2012

Michael Caine

Michael Caine:  A Class Act

This may seem a really strange book for me to read, given that I have seen very few of Caine’s oeuvre, not even his most famous films like Zulu and The Ipcress File.  There is an explanation, but in a more general sense, I guess I became a Michael Caine fan when I first saw The Muppet Christmas Carol.  I was very young and thought only two things, firstly, that I was amazed such a serious British Shakespearean [sic] actor could act against Muppets, and furthermore, I thought he was a good Scrooge and made a great movie even better.  I still love this movie and still think Caine is the best Scrooge ever.

I chose this biography rather than Caine’s two autobiographies because, I suppose, of the angle Christopher Bray picked (even though the biography is about 10 years out of date now).  “Sir Michael Caine would never not open an envelope—because there was always the chance that it might contain a cheque.  It was a joke, but like many jokes it made a serious point.  Money and class have been the twin obsessions of Caine’s life.”  I hadn’t realized, somehow, that Caine was born in Rotherhithe, went to school in Camberwell (John Ruskin), and gained his first cinema experience in Peckham.  The Lone Ranger, he says, was his first hero.   The point is, I live in south London—barely a stone’s throw away from some of the early landmarks in Caine’s life.  Believe me, you don’t find many movie stars from south London.  

In addition to contracting rickets (one disease you never hear of anymore), he also contracted blepharitis, which was, in fact, responsible for giving him that trademark hooded eyes look.  What also surprised me was how, in some ways, his early life mirrored the first 20 years of the life of William Hartnell, born some 20 years before him.  Like Caine, Hartnell thrived in the country but was drawn by circumstance inextricably to London.  Like Caine, Hartnell fell in love with his leading lady—for Hartnell, it was on tour in Canada in the 1920s and the marriage lasted until his death, though not without its ups and downs.  Caine, on the other hand, married his RADA graduate in the 1950s, only with it all to fall apart and Caine not to form a lasting relationship until the 1970s when he met Shakira.  

Caine’s life also intersects in a roundabout fashion with Verity Lambert’s—in 1957, he lost out on a role to Sean Connery, with whom he eventually became good friends.  The role was in Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Rod Serling TV play that Verity Lambert went to New York to study in 1961.  The 1950s, however, were a dreadful time for Caine’s career; it’s almost as if he were the perfect face of the early 1960s, one of the few to actually embody the picture of the Sixties that Dominic Sandbrook tries hard to dispel in his books, just waiting to emerge when the new decade came in.  In any case, he has stood the test of time far more than his one-time flatmate, ‘60s flavor of the month, Terence Stamp.  

And after  that, Bray follows Caine’s career through works of genius and flops and everything in between, trying to find something worth saying about each of the hundreds of films in Caine’s filmography.  I have to take Bray’s word for most of it, and his filmic admiration of Caine’s craft is tempered by wry honesty, though some of his observations just strike me as bizarre.  It’s no masterpiece, but it’s interesting and certainly has made me pack dozens of Caine’s films on my “to watch” list.  

Caine, as presented in this book, is a good actor.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he is a good or even consistent person.  He is quoted as having said, “I’ve always felt slightly patronized, trivialized, marginalized,” whether by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Richard Harris, or Denis Healy’s ‘70s taxation system.  One does get the impression more than ever that films are churned out by committee and by industry and there is no telling what will actually emerge—whether it will be something decent or something execrable.

It’s a real shame that the book was written before Caine’s casting in the Nolan!verse Batman films.  I’d love to have read what Bray made of that.       

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Marvel 1602 (spoilers)

Of the dozen or so graphic novel titles I have consumed in the last few weeks like a plague of locusts on wheat (or something), Marvel 1602 was actually my favorite, even though I am not really a reader of Marvel and was unfamiliar with quite a few of the superheroes in this story.  I thought it was intriguing, well-written, and a very fun idea to ponder.  It wasn’t perfect, but it sustained my interest. 
I was vaguely familiar with the Fantastic Four, Nick Fury, Spiderman, Daredevil, the Black Widow, Thor, and Captain America, but I had no familiarity whatsoever with Doctor Strange, Count Otto von Doom (what a name!?!), and I can’t place the Grand Inquisitor (aka Magneto’s) disciples, Sister Wanda and Petros.  However, at one time I was quite up on the X-Men so I expect I knew their story best (although—no Wolverine?!?!?!  Are you crazy?!?!).  Certainly it must have been difficult enough to weave in all the characters mentioned as well as Queen Elizabeth and King James (James has never been portrayed as a good king—like John, he gets all the stick).  So I can accept who Gaiman decides to exclude from Marvel 1602.  

It is a fabulous idea because he’s judged the setting correctly.  The English court is always going to be a hotbed of espionage and manoeuvring, and to include within this the legend of Virginia Dare, the first white person born in America (that we know of) and in so doing bring in the mystery of Roanoke, one of my pet subjects, plus include a Voltaire-esque Inquisition, was nothing short of inspired.  To me, the whole upset in time could be completely eliminated and I would have been more than happy.  Frankly, I hated the brain-man on the moon looking down and giving advice—even if this is part of the Marvel universe, it moved me not at all.  I suppose there would have been no way for Doctor Strange to figure out what was going on otherwise, but I found this particular re-set button annoying.  The business with Captain America was intriguing, especially since I had gotten halfway through the graphic novel about to lambast Gaiman for his stereotypical depiction of the Lumbee, Chowanoke, or any related Powhatan group tribe as manifest in Rojhaz.  (The business of his blonde hair and blue eyes being explained away as one of Madoc’s Welsh Indians was amusing but could hold little water.)  I’m still not entirely convinced the costume is accurate.  (For more information, have a look here:  I also like the notion that America would be the place where the “Witchbreed” would look to for acceptance much as the Pilgrims et al looked to it for religious freedom.  

The characters are all fascinating, and I have a soft spot for Virginia Dare, for reasons I already mentioned, and also because she looks a lot like how I envision my own character, C├ęcile, to look.  Andy Kubert’s art, is, as you know, omnipresent, but I can’t say I agreed with the enhanced pencil look of the story.  Quite frankly, although Kubert’s pencil sketches as included in the appendix show that he is an extremely talented draftsman, I dislike the computer-generated painting of the color applied afterwards.  I agree it would probably have been too much work to ink and color in the traditional style, but it causes the pages to look cartoony and less authentic rather than more.  It almost makes the art look clumsy at first, before you get used to it, which was a bit of a turn-off as I was getting into the story and trying to take it seriously.  

Not so the incredible scratchboard covers by Scott McKowen.  I would certainly buy these covers and display them as art on my wall.  They are among the most distinctive and beautiful graphic novel art I have ever seen and probably will ever see.    

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey:  Witchfinder:  In the Service of Angels

This was an enjoyable and beautifully drawn Victorian horror pastiche—I found Mignola surprisingly adept at a pre-Ripper London which bore more resemblance to The Strange Case of Spring Heel’d Jack radio plays than to steampunk Victoriana like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Mignola acknowledges his debt to Bram Stoker, but much of this is recognizably Mignola—unmistakably so.  Stenbeck has matched his art style to mirror the pages of Hellboy, though the references to Hood, the 17th century Witchfinder General based on the real one, Matthew Hopkins, brings a flavor of The Scarifyers to the proceedings.  

My favorite part of this was Mary Wolf, the cheesecloth/ectoplasm medium-in-a-box who was actually a real medium.  The visual styling fit perfectly, and it was a nice antidote to Affinity.  The Captain was the most original character in the story, claiming to be 200 years old and the real Gulliver of Gulliver’s Travels (Swift wrote him out, something you can easily believe of Swift in his cantankerous latter years).  He was from the Peter Cushing mould, and his young sidekicks, Salt and Bacon, seemed benevolent versions of the two hoods from, once again, The Strange Case of Spring-Heel’d Jack.   Grey himself was long-suffering.  The Heliotrope Society was a much more sinister one  than poor old Namin in the country house conjuring up Sutekh.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for me at least the least moving bit was the monster, a demon from an ancient civilization in the Hollow Earth, whose disconnect from corporeal form made it very inconsistent indeed.  Still, the civilization before time whose crumbling city was lost in the Sahara could do with another outing. 
The citations were a baffling jumble of the real—a Milton quotation that left me quite impressed—and the Mignola canon.

The only thing I can complain about was the end, which was laughably sudden and certainly the story deserved something more. 

The Power of Three (spoilers)

22/9/12 “The Power of Three”
“Go save every world you can.  Somebody’s got to water the plants.” –Brian Williams

Enjoyable and more good one-liners than the rest of the series put together.   A frenetic pace reminiscent of “42,” and yes, perhaps, a rib or a tribute to the RTD era—if so, the rapid wrap-up was far less effective even if it was parody.  I desperately wanted this to be a two-parter, but I got the impression that it was running out of steam about 30 minutes in and the flash-in-the-pan resolution was a compensation. 

I’m sure I must be evil, but I do wish they would kill off Amy and Rory already.  Dragging it out like this, as exploratory as it may be, feels like a re-hash of pretty much every nuance in their relationship since series 5 (though I grant you, the divorce from “Asylum” was about as far as they could push things).  The fact that they can’t have kids (unless they adopt or have a surrogate) means they are free to live their two sets of lives with impunity, whatever strain they may affect. 

From the zooming-in Earth shot, the minutia of daily Pond life is served up in RTD-style microcosm, from opticians leaving messages to running out of washing powder.  Amy and Rory note the difference between their two lives.  “What do we do?”  “Choose?”  Is this not what they had to do in “Amy’s Choice”?!  Also, what companion before has ever had the luxury of choosing?  As the Doctor says later in the episode, this hasn’t really ever happened before.  Why are the Ponds so special, other than being the parents of River?  I find it slightly irritating, especially as it seems to be bringing out a midlife crisis in the Doctor that would have been unthinkable before.  That’s just my opinion.

It is, according to Amy in one of those annoying but de rigeur narrations, “the year of the slow invasion.”  The Earth has been invaded by black boxes.  There’s a cameo from Brian Cox as he attempts to explain the boxes.  Fortunately another Brian also steps into this episode:  Brian Williams!  The Doctor arrives, intrigued by the boxes.  “I really don’t like not knowing,” which is a very Doctor-ish line.  He is surprised that Amy and Rory got jobs.  I am prepared to eat my words, because Amy has actually gotten a decent job—she writes for travel magazines.  Brava.  And Rory continues his career as a nurse.  Amy herself even suggests that the time for the Doctor’s constant presence in their lives has passed—it’s been 10 years “on and off,” and she is “all grown up.” 

Kate Stewart of UNIT shows up and is immediately likeable.  “You must be the Doctor,” she says.  “I’d hoped it’d be you.”  As a scientist at the head of UNIT, she says, “UNIT’s been adapting,” which frankly is a breath of fresh air after all those army colonels from the past few years.  Immediately after their arrival, she says there were a thousand Twitter accounts for the cubes (this story throws up some UNIT years/dating issues of its own).  The Doctor’s curiosity is sufficiently piqued for him to stay in Amy and Rory’s lounge for 4 days.  “You said we’d have to be patient!” snaps Rory.  “Patience is for wimps,” says the Doctor, which is a characteristic thing for him to say, but geez, can you imagine how many kids will be talking back to their parents with that line?  Doctor, tsk, tsk, you are not a good role model.

The Doctor is so agitated that he takes the opportunity to clean (who needs an Ood when you have a captive Doctor?) and play soccer.  I thought he should resonate some concrete.  The Doctor then disappears so months can pass, and Amy and Rory can get reconciled to the fact that they like life without the Doctor.  Work puts its own demands on Rory; “you’re a lifesaver, mate.  We can’t do without you.”  Brian, meanwhile, has taken the Doctor’s injunction against the cubes seriously and is doing a daily log without fail.  “Don’t mock my log.  I’m doing what the Doctor asked.”  I think Brian is universally liked in the same way that Wilf was.  Great characters who deserve to be companions.  I wish we could get a whole season of Brian and the Doctor. 

In the hospital, quite inexplicably, is the Empty Cube Child.  Nine months pass, til we’ve reached the Ponds’ wedding anniversary.  The Doctor, surprisingly, arrives and gives Amy a big bouquet.  She is in a beautiful dress, before he whisks her and Rory away in my first genuine WOW moment of the series as they arrive at the Savoy Hotel looking incredibly good, all in costume.  Sigh.  I had fleeting hopes they would stay there and it would somehow be related to the action of the present day, but alas I was left unrewarded; these comedy history-lite moments feel very easy to me.  Next Amy has somehow married Henry VIII.  When they return, Brian steps even more into Wilf’s shoes.  “How long were they away?”  “Seven weeks.”  “What happened to the other people who travel with you?”  The Doctor is forced to admit that “Some died.”  “Not them, not them, Brian,” has all the pathetic earnestness of the Ninth Doctor having his conversation with Jackie Tyler on keeping Rose safe just before they were in the cabinet in Downing Street.  The Doctor continues his midlife crisis pathos by asking Amy, “Can I stay here with you and Rory for a bit? . . . I . . . miss you.” 

The cubes come to life when people least expect it.  Even Brian has fallen asleep at his post.  The Doctor is obsessively playing the Wii.  “Out of the way, dear, I’m trying to . . .” he mutters to the cube as it flies into his face.  It then destroys the lounge, while Amy’s pricks her and Rory’s . . . just moves.  Apparently every single cube is acting up in its own way.  As people freak out, Rory is called to the hospital and Brian goes along to help.  “Take your dad to work night.”  The Doctor and Amy go to the Tower of London, where Kate Stewart’s “ravens of death” are housed.  (Anyone else saying this line could make it terribly wry, but I like this characterization of Kate a lot.)  In fact, the Doctor has realized that she is the Brig’s daughter!!  “How could you not be?” the Doctor asks.  “Though he guided me even to the end.”  I can’t help feeling a sentimental twinge for the Brig. 

The Doctor realizes that the cubes are a danger, which I think any one watching could have said as soon as we saw them.  Amy argues that even if the Doctor ordered everyone to stay away from the cubes, they wouldn’t have listened.  I think there is a way that damage could have been limited, but hey ho, I didn’t write the episode.  “I’m not running away,” shouts the Doctor.  “There is so much to see . . . because it goes so fast.  I am running to them.  . . . Because you were the first.  I’m running to you and Rory, before you fade for me.”  Mildly affecting dialogue, though I confess I think the Ninth Doctor could have positively made it sing. 

The cubes then count down and give people heart attacks, including the Doctor, who, of course, still has one functioning heart.  “How do people manage with one heart, it is pitiful!”  Meanwhile, Rory is following creepy-faced medics after they have kidnapped his dad, and shows admirable chutzpah in walking into a lift that becomes a spaceship.  One-third of people on Earth have been affected.  The Doctor and Amy manage to follow Rory and rescue him and Brian with some super-potent smelling salts (!).  Sadly, this is where the great build up fizzles out to not much.  There’s a confrontation between the Doctor and a hologram of some kind of Gallifrey bogeyman, the Shakri.  The Shakri have some reason for wanting to eliminate all humans; “like a talking propaganda poster.”  But off the hologram goes and the Doctor is able to miraculously save the day.  Perhaps it’s appropriate that Kate says, “you really are as remarkable as Dad said,” because the Doctor rigs up a Pertwee-esque type machine that brings back everyone who had died of a heart attack!  Quite remarkable indeed!