Thursday, January 7, 2016

Robin of Sherwood Season 1 - Episodes 4 - 6

A few things got in the way of this watch (a build up of other stuff and the New Year), but back on track now.

I felt the final 3 episodes allowed the show to hit it's stride and settle down into something better than what the 3 openers promised. A few things assisted this for me. The group was largely settled (Robin, Marian, Much, Tuck, Little John, Nasir and Will comprise it, Alan A' Dale enters later on and he's considered less important in this particular retelling) which allows the show to concentrate on it's major players, with the occasional redshirt thrown in when they need a larger band of outlaws or someone to cop an arrow in the back (even Gisborne's generally hapless band of soldiers don't always miss). They removed some inconvenient characters (Abbot Hugo is largely sidelined and not missed, the Sheriff and Guy are villain enough). The episodes were all self contained. There was less mysticism. I find this a rather unnecessary component and it doesn't sit well with the rest of the story. It does appear in the final episode (King's Fool) of the season, but I'll cover that a bit more as I talk about the individual episodes.

Episode 4 was called Seven Poor Knights from Acre and it concerns a band of Templars returning from the Crusades. This gives the audience a good sense of time and political situation. Prior to this we really only have Nasir to remind us that the Crusades are happening. There's been very little mention of King Richard (probably imprisoned in Germany at the time) or King John.

In recent years there's been a lot of romance surrounding the Knights Templar and they're often remembered fondly and with some sympathy for the end that they meet with the burning of Simon De Montfort and the acquisition of a greedy church for a lot of their goods and wealth. Back in the 1980's they were more villain than hero. This lot are particularly nasty. 

They take a village hostage and meet with the Sheriff and Guy as they ride through. Guy wants to order them off the land, but when they mention that they're after Robin and his band for stealing from them, the Sheriff decides to let the Templars do his dirty work for him.

The reason they want Robin is that they believe he stole a golden standard of theirs and they cannot return to the order's base in Lincoln without it. The standard was really stolen by a one-eyed thief from Nottingham and it falls into the Sheriff's hands, so he sees a way of having his cake and eating it too. The Templars kill Robin Hood for him and he winds up with a valuable piece of gold.

The Templars take Much and hold him as hostage (I'm not thrilled with Much's presentation in this. He's generally an idiot, but not a mentally deficient child as he is portrayed here). Robin goes in to rescue him, loses a trial by combat against another Templar (a big German) and has to agree to retrieve their standard to save Much, the village and he and his band. On that I don't know why when the outlaws had the Templars in their sights they didn't simply shoot them. They're quite good at hand to hand, but they don't match Robin and Co with bows. Initially I thought that it was because the Templars were wearing mail and that may protect them, although I was doubtful. Later on this can't have been the case, because they shoot Gisborne's mail clad soldiers dead easily. One of those plot holes that TV like to hand wave I guess.

Robin steals the standard from the Sheriff and then gives it to the village. The Templars have the tables turned on them by means of guerrilla warfare and are sent in disgrace back to the order's headquarters in Lincoln.

Alan A'Dale brings us the last of the band. When they first encounter him, he's riding through the forest singing mournfully and badly. They try to rob him, but he has nothing other than his horse, if he's trying to make his living out of music this isn't at all surprising. He comes across as rather wet to be totally honest. He's in love with a nobleman's daughter and said daughter has been promised to the Sheriff in marriage along with a chest full of silver as a dowery.

Robin agrees to liberate the girl, return her to Alan and of course take the silver. The rescue is a horrible mess. For some reason the girl rides away with Guy and Robin pursues alone while the rest of the gang take the wagon containing the dowery. The fight in the mud between Robin and Guy is one of the more pointless scenes I've witnessed. I'm sure it sounded great on paper, on screen it looks silly, rather than comical and it goes on far too long, accomplishing nothing other than letting the Sheriff unload on Gisborne again (I was starting to feel rather sorry for him by this point). The wagon theft is a bust too. The Sheriff anticipated Gisborne's ineptitude and the silver took a different route. The box that Robin's men and woman steal is full of rocks. I also don't understand why the nobleman's daughter (Margaret) simply sat on her horse and watched Guy and Robin flounder around in the mud, rather than riding away, she seemed to be a pretty good rider during the chase.

There's a side plot concerning Little John's girlfriend Meg, from a nearby village and how the Sheriff threatens to tax them heavily because they harboured one of Robin's men.

To stop Alan whining and because Margaret seems a decent sort they mess up the Sheriff's wedding and steal Margaret. The Sheriff manages to keep his silver by claiming that it was stolen. Margaret and Alan are married by Tuck and she gives Robin a valuable necklace that the Sheriff gave her to pay the tax levied on Meg's village (exactly how he's going to sell it to turn it into the tax money I do not know) and they ride off into the sunset. At this stage it's unclear as to whether Alan will reappear or not and naming the episode after him is a bit like fan service.

That was a lightweight episode and they had to finish the season with a heavyweight one. This they accomplished by casting John Rhys Davies as King Richard (he hadn't been Gimli yet, but he had been in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Initially Richard represents himself as a knight returning from the Crusades. He accepts the 'hospitality' of Robin's band after they rescue him from a group of attackers. He gauges their opinion and motivation while he eats with them. Things turn nasty when Robin demands payment for the meal. He claims to have no money, so Robin says they'll take his horse. He offers to fight someone for it. It is decide to have him wrestle John. First to win two falls takes all.

The two are evenly matched and after Richard wins the match he reveals who he really is. He also invites them as his guests to Nottingham. While Will isn't considered all that smart and he can be quite impulsive he has a healthy paranoia and refuses to accompany the others to Nottingham.

His fears seem to be unfounded. Richard accepts Robin and his friends with open arms and they all get very drunk. The next day his true colours come out. He offers them all pardons and to make Robin and the rest wardens of the forest (that means that they can hunt the deer with impunity and continue to protect the people around the forest) and return Marion's lands to her. The catch is that they have to fight for him in Normandy, as John gave away some of the lands Richard regards as his own.

I must admit it took some courage to show Richard in a negative light then, when he was largely regarded as The Lionheart by many people.

Robin is all for it, but doesn't realise that in doing this he has become as John puts it the 'Kings Fool' (hence the episode title, that was done very neatly). Back in the forest Will receives a message from Herne carved on the shaft of an arrow that opens Robin's eyes and forces he and his friends to run. There's a very good escape scene, where Robin shows that he's almost as good with a sword as he is with a bow. In the escape though, Guy shoots Marion in the back with a crossbow bolt.

This is where the episode lost it for me. If you're going to kill someone then kill them, don't just introduce some magical deus ex machina to save them. If you don't want to kill Marion then don't kill her, just wound her or kill someone else. Herne of course saves the day and Marion, and the season ends with Marion in Robin's arms and they all live to fight and steal another day.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

That Time of Year

December 31, also known as New Years Eve. This is the time of year when I look back over what I read throughout the year and picky my favourites. For the first time in a few years I reached triple figures. I managed 101 books, which is a pretty fair effort.

Of that 101 I chose 11 favourites. Bear in mind though that I made a very conscious effort to reread this year, so some of those comprise the 101 and it's not really fair to include them in this list. The majority of them are recent releases, although there is one older work amongst them. As always this is in no particular order, I don't rank things like that. They're listed as I read them.

 The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

By the time I found out about this it had already been out for a while and I had trouble finding the trilogy opener down here. It's a hard one to classify. On the face of it, it's science fiction as the Tao of the title is a member of an alien species who have to use a human host when on Earth. There's a historical fiction component as many of Tao's hosts have been figures of historical importance (Genghis Khan and Vercingetorix to name two of them) and he's an awful name dropper. Tao basically turns his host, the hapless Roen from an overweight, ambitionless slob into an ass kicking covert operative in a fight for control of the world's future. It's a wild thrill ride with plenty of humour and thoroughly entertaining. The two sequels: The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao continue the fun and the story.

Soda Pop Soldier by Nick Cole

I loved Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and this is in a similar vein, although it has a harder edge, and while I never really felt that the Wade in Ready Player One was ever in genuine trouble I didn't get that with Soda Pop Soldier. The title refers to what the main character does for a living. He competes in an online war game for money and works for a soft drink company. He finds out that the combat he's engaged in is very real and for a lot more than he ever thought. The action is brilliantly done and the reader feels like they've been thrown right into the thick of it and they're getting into firefights along with the online gamers. Highly recommended, especially if someone liked Ready Player One.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

This is the oldie. Up until this I had only read the Hugo Award winning Among Others by Jo Walton. Tooth and Claw, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2004, is completely different to that. It is an extraordinary book. After reading this no one can ever look at dragons in fantasy quite the same way again. Jo Walton's dragons love their gold, and they're large scaly beasts who breathe fire and have ferocious tempers, but everything else comes straight from the pages of Jane Austen. If Jane Austen were a dragon then she would have written Tooth and Claw. Other authors I've read have tried to mimic Austen's style and language, but no one has nailed it the way Jo Walton did in Tooth and Claw. Recommended for lovers of dragons, Jane Austen and anyone who appreciates good literature.

Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I cheated a bit this year and included a few novellas in my list. Rolling in the Deep is one of them. Mira Grant for anyone who doesn't know, is the pen name of urban fantasy (October Daye, InCryptid) author Seanan McGuire. Whereas Seanan McGuire writes dark but often amusing urban fantasy, Mira Grant has made her name writing zombie fiction (Newsflesh, Parasitology). I really loved Newsflesh, especially the series opener; Feed, but was less taken by Parasitology, in fact I bailed after the second book and didn't bother with the third. After reading Rolling in the Deep, I am convinced that Mira should give up the zombies and branch out into other weirdness. Rolling in the Deep isn't about zombies, it's about mermaids. It's written about a team going in search of mermaids for the purposes of a mockumentary. Bit by bit they discover that mermaids are in fact real and that they should never have gone searching for them. It's done so well that while reading it I was convinced I'd seen it on TV. Someone should really pick this up and make it into a one off TV special. It would hardly require any adapting from how the novella is written.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis first came on my radar with the utterly brilliant Milkweed triptych (Gretel *shudder*). I was eager to read The Mechanical, the first of The Alchemy Wars trilogy. He did not disappoint. Ian Tregillis' books tend to defy easy categorisation. Milkweed had elements of science fiction, fantasy and alternate history. The Mechanical has all those and he's thrown steampunk into the mix this time. It's set in an alternate early 20th century where through their ability to control robots, the Dutch have become the world's pre eminent superpower and are engaged in a war on North America with the French, who are attempting to resist them. The story of the book follows Jax, a 'mechanical' who finds out how to resist the geas that compels him to do whatever his masters order him and thus becomes an important pawn desperately wanted by both sides for the potential and the threat that he represents. I've also read the sequel; The Rising, and if the 3rd book delivers then Tregillis has created another classic. Possibly one of the most underrated authors in the genre at present.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

An aptly named book. It's a short, nasty little fable. Brutal in both the way it is told and the language it uses. No one gets out of this one unscathed. I was often reminded of Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black books when reading it. The short punchy way Schwab tells her story is reminiscent of Wendig's writing, although she's less visceral. Nothing is wasted, though. It doesn't use many words and the reader doesn't need them. Plenty of others could take note of the bare bones approach and their own bloated tomes may benefit from application of it. The lead characters have powers that they don't want and rather than helping them, they have become a curse that they can't escape. A book that stays with the reader long after they have finished it.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

I really enjoy what Austin Grossman writes (he's the twin brother of Magicians author Lev Grossman). The only thing that his three books so far have in common is that they're all fictional autobiographies. Whereas his first two (Soon I Will Be Invincible and You) were about fictional characters, one set in a world that most definitely wasn't real and one in a world that was, Crooked is about Richard Nixon (yes, that Richard Nixon) and is by the former President of the US himself. It sets out to put the record straight. Nixon was wronged. He spent most of his life fighting to save the world from a dimension of demons that sought to control it. It would explain an awful lot if it was true. It's funny, scary and informative. It probably won't get the recognition it deserves, although io9 did list it as one of their favourites for 2015.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I don't generally rank one of these books above any of the others, but if pressed I'd have to put Becky Chambers' debut on top. It is an extraordinary book. I don't generally play well with science fiction, but this one held me from go to whoa. I literally couldn't put it down at times. I laughed and I cried. There isn't a lot of story really, but it's just a wonderful tale about the crew of the small craft as they travel through space doing their job and living their lives. It's one of the few science fiction stories I've seen where it has genuinely alien races that seem real. Becky Chambers managed to create a highly believable future. I felt that I could get in a time machine, fast forward a few hundred years and I'd be in her world. Everyone should read this, absolutely everyone!

Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

This is another of the novellas. I adore what Valente does with words. I'm convinced that she met the devil one night at a crossroads, pricked her finger with the point of a fountain pen, then signed a contract with her own blood to make her the best wordsmith in the world. I don't even really know what the story of Speak Easy was (it's apparently a retelling of the story of Twelve Dancing Princesses set in a lushly imagined jazz age), but I was just transported by her incredible descriptions and the concepts that she deals in. When I open up a Valente book I'm taken into a world of words and concepts so real that I can almost touch them, and I'm somewhat disappointed when I close it and know that this only exists in our imaginations.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

At just over 200 pages The Builders is long for a novella, but that's how it's described. Considering that some pages only contain a paragraph, the page count is cheating a bit. Polansky is considered one of the wave of grim dark authors out there, and The Builders fits that. Imagine if The Wind in the Willows had been discovered and adapted for the screen by Quentin Tarantino and you'll get some idea of what The Builders is. It's a sort of blood soaked Magnificent Seven, only Yul Brunner is a world weary, one eyed rat. I was held entranced by the whole thing, it's one of those ideas that seems so mad it can't possibly work, but it does. I read it over the space of a day. Well worth taking the chance on.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

This is the book based on the highly successful podcast. I hadn't actually ever listened to the podcast when I picked the book up (I have since and it's a wonderful little piece of insanity). I can't really describe the book. It's largely about two residents of the strange little desert community of Night Vale trying to escape the odd town. A town where librarians are dangerous and where angels all called Erika live with and help out Old Woman Josie. The whole thing made no sense, but at the same time was compelling in that if I thought about it I could see metaphors for everything so it therefore made perfect sense. One of the oddest things I've ever read, but also very satisfying.

That's my 2015 through the pages of a book.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Robin of Sherwood Season 1 - Episodes 1 - 3

Yes it is that time of year again. You know when the TV networks assume that EVERYONE goes on holiday and NO ONE EVER watches TV, unless it's sport, so they show absolute garbage (even more so than usual). When that happens and we've run out of stuff to watch we either watch or rewatch something and I blog it.

The last couple of years have been my choice. Disney animated films one year and last year the great James Bond rewatch. This year my wife chose and she went for Robin of Sherwood, the mid 80's TV version of the heroic archer/thief.

This year I'm in the same boat as she was last year. She'd never seen any Bonds prior to Pierce Brosnan, so only had limited knowledge of the franchise. I did see the first few episodes of Robin of Sherwood when they first came out, but they didn't rate well here and the network showing it started to play lucky dip with the timeslot, so I lost track of it. Then I saw and ad for the show and Michael Praed had suddenly morphed into Jason Connery and I thought I was pretty well out of it.

I have to say I really like the casting of Michael Praed as Robin and always have. I can get behind a long haired brunette Robin with dark hot eyes. He's probably a little too clean, but you can't have everything.

The show begins with a good old fashioned village burning. Robin's father Ailric (how he wound up being called Robin, when his father has a very Saxon sounding name I do not know) saving him and then confronting the Sheriff of Nottingham at a sort of mini Stonehenge. Apparently Ailfric was the keeper of an arrow with mystical properties. The mystical thing is one part of Robin of Sherwood that differs significantly from past and future attempts to chronicle Robin Hood in film and TV. There are mystical overtones throughout the show. This was big at the time the show was made (mid 80's) for anything that was set in medieval times, and when you take into account that the show runner; Richard Carpenter, was best known for a comedy series about a time travelling medieval monk (Catweazle) it's probably now that surprising.

After the Sheriff has killed Ailfric and taken the arrow (it was silver and rather resembled a cartoonish cruise missile) the show jumps forward 15 years and an adult Robin is shown rescuing his imbecilic foster brother Much from killing a deer in the forest. It's a staple of the Robin Hood legend that no one other than licenced foresters could hunt in the King's forests (all of England's woods) and to get caught doing carried severe penalties. If the hunter was lucky they'd be maimed and if unlucky executed.

This leads to a confrontation with Guy of Gisborne. I was used to Richard Armitage's portrayal of Guy in Robin Hood and even with  his vinyl drizabone he was more menacing than Robert Addie's version. He's very fair and looks quite young, he's also not all that convincing, he tries, but I just can't take him very seriously.

Over the course of the 3 opening episodes Robin gets into and out of scrapes, generally makes Guy look quite stupid and survives plenty of scheming from Nickolas Grace's Sheriff (also outplayed by both Alan Rickman in the Kevin Costner version Prince of Thieves and Keith Allen in the earlier mentioned Robin Hood) and the Sheriff's rather dopey younger brother Hugo (the requisite evil cleric).

Audiences also meet most of the Merry Men: Will Scathlock (a very young and surprisingly good looking Ray Winstone, with a much softer accent and voice than I was used to hearing from him), Friar Tuck, Little John (originally under a compulsion to serve the devil worshipping Baron Simon de Belleme - I kind of thought that they were shaping him up to be another antagonist like Guy, the Sheriff and Hugo, but he was killed off in the second episode.) Maid Marion (interestingly enough with curly red hair, first time I've ever seen that casting decision made, although I guess a case could be made for the one in Disney's animated Robin Hood being a redhead as she was a fox) and Nasir the Saracen, this was the first time a Saracen was cast as a Merry Man, but since that it's become fairly common. Apparently Alan A'Dale also appears, but he hadn't by the end of episode 3. We had two others Tom and Dickon, but they died in episode 2, so I assume that they were the show's equivalent of red shirts.

One interesting addition is that of Herne the Hunter, who adds to the mysticism angle. This is helped by Clannad's haunting theme Robin (The Hooded Man) and the fact that episode one and two were called Robin Hood and The Sorcerer and episode 3 The Witch of Eilsdon. I did find it eyebrow raising that Robin develops a sort of ceremony honouring Herne and both Marion (previously promised by Hugo to the church as a nun) and Tuck go along with this, not only not protesting, but happily drinking from the bowl representing blood and murmuring 'prayers' to the pagan idol.

Production values are quite high, some of it is dated and they cut the fight scenes to limit the depiction of violence and death, but that's all part of making a TV show, which may be of interest to minors in the 1980's. Acting is spirited if not necessarily high class, and it's quite interesting. The first 3 were all quite self contained  and have familiar scenes from the legend: Much killing the deer, Robin escaping Nottingham, showing up in disguise to win an archery contest, rescuing Marion, attacking a tax collector, fighting Little John in a river with staffs.

I will be interested to see what else they do with the accepted legend and how they depart as the show unfolds.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars and Me

I'm one of those people who is old enough to remember seeing Star Wars (it wasn't called A New Hope then, in fact I don't think we knew it was Episode IV until a fair while after release) at the cinema when it was a new release.

This isn't really a review of The Force Awakens (there are at least 1,000,001 of those already out there and people loved it, hated it or are somewhere in between) it's more of a personal journey through my Star Wars experience up until last Friday when I saw The Force Awakens.

My initial introduction to Star Wars was not through the first movie. My interest was sparked by seeing a trailer for that film at a screening of something else. I don't remember what that film was, but I do remember being enraptured by the trailer for Star Wars and every other person in the cinema (except for perhaps my mother who never understood the appeal of Star Wars) thinking 'I want to see that film!'

By the time Star Wars hit our screens (back then Australia was about 6 months behind the US for new releases, and as there was no internet then very little chance of being spoiled) I'd toys, cards in gum and a novelisation subtitled The Adventures of Luke Skywalker (that intrigued me more than anything really).

I adored Star Wars. It had flaws, but 11 yo me didn't see them. This was the best film ever. Flaws and all (I can see them now) it still remains one of my favourite films. Han Solo became my favourite character. People played at being all sorts of characters, but I always wanted to be Han. He was just so effortlessly cool.

Waiting for a new film was torture, but there were other things to occupy the young minds that Star Wars had captured.

One of them was this novel. I didn't know anything about a sequel. Then a friend of mine brought this to school one day. Note the name on the cover: Alan Dean Foster. I actually really like Foster as an author (his Spellsinger series is a personal favourite), at the time he had never been given a credit on the cover of the Star Wars novelisation, which he wrote. George Lucas' name appeared as author of both the film and the book.  

Splinter of the Mind's Eye gets a pretty bad rap these days. I don't know why. I've read it a few times and find it an entertaining science fiction novel. It is true that if it had been the sequel to A New Hope, it would have sucked. It just doesn't have that epic feel to it. However I don't think that was anyone's intention. It was just a story set in the Star Wars universe. Reading it also readers are left in no doubt that Luke and Leia are not brother and sister. Foster has said that at the time he wrote the novel he had no idea that was the direction that George Lucas was heading with them.

One quibble with Splinter of the Mind's Eye is that there's no Han, however I soon found something else to satisfy that longing.

Respected science fiction author Brian Daley decided to do a trilogy focussing on everyone's favourite space smuggler. I first found out about the existence of the books from an excerpt that was somehow published in one of the magazines my grandmother read when I was staying at her house during a school holiday. Not long after reading it, little old Star Wars obsessed me had tracked down the novels.

I'd read at least the first two before The Empire Strikes Back hit our screens. The final was published in 1980, but I probably didn't get my hot little hands on it until after Episode V had premiered here. They're set not long before Han and Chewbacca meet Luke and Ben in the seedy dive in Mos Eisley. I think Han is talking about taking on the Kessel Run at the end of the last book.

I loved seeing Han star in books and filling in some of his back story. A hot shot pilot, who was betrayed by his commanding officer over an affair of the heart and then drummed out of the force, because the only person who was willing to speak up for him was over 2 metres tall and covered with hair. As Han himself bitterly said when asked about the incident, "Who's going to believe a Wookiee?" Ann Crispin also later wrote a series about Han pre A New Hope, which may have explored that further, but I think it fell into the EU category and none of that is canon anymore. The last Han novel I read was Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn, and to be honest it left me kind of cold.

Despite really wanting to see this I wound up having to make two treks into the city (the new releases were always on in the city and we had to wait sometimes months for them to hit the suburban cinemas) to see this. The first time was with my friend Oscar and we took one look at the lines and said forget about it. My parents took me in a week or so later, we got in that time, but even then there was a lengthy wait and an absolutely packed cinema.

I know plenty of people swear this is the best Star Wars movie ever. I'm not one of them. Don't get me wrong, it's a damned good film, but I just didn't get the OMG best film ever! vibe from it. Oh, yes my mouth dropped open when Vader let fly with 'I am your father.' I always found Yoda kind of annoying and never liked the way he treated Artoo (who is probably my favourite character after Han).

Liked it a lot, but didn't love it and while I wanted to see how it turned out I wasn't left with the 'must see more' feel I had after coming out of the cinema seeing A New Hope for the first time.

I kind of drifted away from science fiction, even pulpy stuff, and got more into fantasy over the intervening years.

After hearing a fairly lukewarm interview by Harrison Ford about the 3rd film in the trilogy, although even then Lucas was making noises about doing Episodes 1, 2 & 3, followed by 7, 8 & 9, I had misgivings about this one. I didn't know at the time that Harrison Ford had never really been that enamoured of his role and had been trying to get written out since A New Hope. Considering that neither he or Alec Guinness ever really liked the films, it gives their performances even more weight and shows what professionals they are.

Then a few friends saw it and they weren't that keen on it, either. This could be due to the fact that what really excites you at the age of 11 or 12, does not do the same to a jaded 17 or 18 year old cinematic palate.

I liked it as a film, but again it was more a sense of relief that it was all over and finished off properly rather than anything else. The Ewoks were cute, but their part in the film was overlong and became tiresome rather than funny after a while. I still can't believe they got their own film later on.  

I've never really been a fan of the Luke and Leia long lost twins idea. I always found Vader's turnaround to be incredibly unbelievable and I still wonder at how Palpatine suddenly got all that power. Not even the prequels really explained why he has the head of the Sith, If anything that should have been Count Dooku and he wasn't even a Sith Lord.

After Return of the Jedi Star Wars was pretty much over for me. I had heard rumours that Lucas wanted to make the other 6 films in his originally envisioned 9 episode series, but no one knew if he really would do that, and he seemed to have plenty of other things on his plate at the time.

I did read some of the sequels that were written after when the EU kind of kicked off, but they didn't really grab me. They didn't have the same sense of wonder that the original films and related novels had for me. I also realised that they were going to keep putting out these things endlessly and I didn't want to be locked into that.

So, the next Star Wars moment for me was:

Okay, the title sucked, but it had Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman in it, and it was Star Wars, how could it miss? Oh, how naive we all were. The only person to come out of this film with his reputation intact was Liam Neeson. Qui Gonn should have been Obi Wan. Qui Gonn was cool, Han Solo cool. Totally believable, except for the bit where Darth Maul killed him. That wouldn't have happened. Qui Gonn could play Maul on a break and still come out on top.

Pretty much everything else they got wrong. Natalie Portman, good actress though she is, suffered from a lack of direction and bad dialog. Ewan McGregor tried hard, but I always felt he was miscast as Obi Wan, even 30 years on and having led a hard life as a hermit in the desert world of Tattooine I just couldn't see him turning out as Alec Guinness (I have similar issues with James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier in the X-Men films, he just doesn't turn into Patrick Stewart). Jar Jar was simply a bad idea and totally unbelievable. There's a bit where Qui Gonn grabs his tongue, because he keeps flicking it out at the dinner table, he should have yanked it right out.

I liked Watto, but God that kid annoyed me. He does not turn into Darth Vader! He cannot! Then there were the midichlorians and so many other things that just didn't work for the audience.

Despite this we all turned up a few years later when this hit our screens:

I'd always been fascinated by the concept of the Clone Wars right from the time they were first mentioned in Obi Wan's cave, but then I saw this film and a friend and I came out saying to each other: 'What? How can the stormtroopers be clones? That just doesn't work. They've screwed up A New Hope for us.' Apparently if people watch the animated series it fills in some blanks. I never did that. I just can't come at the idea of Star Wars as a cartoon.

Again there's just so much wrong with this film. Once again the dialog sucks. I would have begged George Lucas at this point to hire someone who can write dialog, because he can't. Even as far back as A New Hope, Harrison Ford was telling him: "You can write this shit, George, but we can't say it." The one bright spark and something that may have made it a better film was the distinct lack of screen time given to Jar Jar. I also liked seeing Yoda fight. Most people hate that, but to me it made sense. What else was he going to do? Spout Jedi logic at Dooku while he gets sliced and diced?

Yep, came out of that one feeling more than a bit ripped off. However nothing was going to stop me from seeing the conclusion.

I don't know that it was really revenge as such. I still call it Rise of the Sith in my head. I think it got the title because Return of the Jedi was initially going to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but it was scrapped because it didn't test as family friendly.

Again story and dialog sucked. For God's sake, George hire a proper writer! It's not like you can't afford it. Acting was barely adequate. It felt rushed. They compressed the extermination of the Jedi and Anakin's turn to the dark side into a very short space of time, so the audience never really bought it. Natalie Portman had an incredibly short pregnancy. It also required retconning of one of Leia's speeches in the original trilogy when she talks about remembering her mother. I assume she's talking about Bail Organa's wife, who she believed was her mother up until Return of the Jedi (I'm going with the fan theory that Luke and Leia are not Anakin's kids, but Obi Wan's and in my head Owen Lars is actually Obi Wan's brother, not Anakin Skywalker's step brother). At the end I kept wondering how on Earth did Obi Wan age about 40 years in 20, as well.

I never really invested in the film and during it I kept wondering if Richmond had won their football match that night and couldn't wait to get back to the car so I could turn on the radio and find out. I also missed the first episode of the new Doctor Who to see the film. Took me years to catch up on that episode, too. Yes, I am a nerd, and damn proud of it!

In hindsight the prequels were a mistake and I don't just mean that they were bad films, poorly written and suffering from pedestrian directing, but there was a whole air of them: 'We know what happened. These are just expensive ways of filling in some minor blanks.' No one ever really wants to go into a film knowing the ending, and we went through 3 of these. In many ways it would have been better if they'd never been made and fans filled in their own blanks or read professionally written novels covering the events before A New Hope. If only Lucas had realised that he didn't need to start with Episode IV.

I won't say much about The Force Awakens, other than I frakking love it! I'll need time to watch it again and think about it before I can give much more of a review than that. As far as where do I put it in terms of rating the films? IV always comes first, I put The Force Awakens on a par with V, then VI (I wasn't impressed with Return of the Jedi) and the sequels are varying levels of bad, if I have to rate them then it's II, followed by I (Jar Jar loses it points) and III comes a very distant last. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen.

The Force Awakens almost wipes the prequels away for me. It's new, it has new characters and old characters, we love the world, it reminds us of what we love without going over the top and totally just fan servicing. Yes, the plot is very similar to A New Hope, but A New Hope itself is a fairy tale set in outer space. Luke is a farm boy who rescues a princess from an evil wizard for God's sake!

What The Force Awakens does is feel like an old fashioned Star Wars film. The sense of wonder I got as an 11 yo watching that trailer all those years ago is back.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015


It's out, and I have seen it. Here comes the bit where I share my thoughts. WARNING, if anyone hasn't seen this, then it's wise to not read past this point, because there will be SPOILERS.

Background: none of the drama that had surrounded the previous Daniel Craig Bond films was around this one. The franchise had a stability that hadn't been present since the days of Roger Moore and John Glenn, unfortunately that created a odd sort of inertia that led to some very lacklustre entries in the franchise.

Sam Mendes directed again, making him the first person since Glenn to direct two consecutive Bond films (Martin Campbell directed 2, but they were separated by 4 films). The majority of the regular cast members, Daniel Craig included, were all signed for reprisals of their roles in Skyfall.

This stability and the success of Skyfall had fans looking forward to this one with anticipation, rather than trepidation which had been the case with Quantum of Solace (could it live up to Casino Royale? Ultimately it failed) and even Skyfall (would it be another Quantum of Solace, how badly had the delays affected it, would the money issues experience between films affect the production?). There was optimism about Spectre and I think the very fact that a villainous organisation that the fans were familiar with in Spectre, also helped with that.

The move of having Neil Purvis and Robert Wade polish the script rather than write it entirely was also a good one. They've written scripts from The World is Not Enough to this one and they can occasionally miss the mark if they're given too much latitude as happened with Quantum of Solace and Die Another Day.

Story: this is a complicated one and delves deep into Bond's personal history. It struck me while watching this that, with the possible exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the audience has found out more about the character's background in these last 4 films than any of the preceding 20.

Bond follows a lead that M sent him from beyond the grave. This takes him to Mexico City where he causes an international incident acting alone. The resulting fall out with the Gareth Mallory, the new M, is not that far removed from the previous M's reaction to his African adventure at the start of Casino Royale.

A lot of M's concern is driven by Max Denbigh, a young political animal, who wants to bring all the world's secret services into line and control it all, thus doing away with the 00 program, which he sees as antiquated. Bond meets Denbigh and doesn't much like him, tagging him with the name C, one of the initials in the organisation he heads up.

Despite warnings from M to stay in the country and even having Q inject nannites into his bloodstream to keep track of him, Bond still pursues his personal mission, bringing Moneypenny into the team and Q, even stealing the prototype DB that Q had been tricking out for 009.

He winds up first in Rome, attending the funeral of the man he killed in Mexico City, he then meets his widow, Lucia Sciarra, saves her from assassination, seduces her and then using a ring with a curious octopus device gains entry into a secret meeting.

The meeting is one of Spectre's and when the head of the organisation attends, Bond realises he knows the man. Franz Oberhauser, who was supposed to have died in a climbing accident decades ago. He's also James Bond's foster brother, the son of the man who briefly fostered a young James, following the death of his parents. He knows James is there and he's not all that chuffed about it. This results in a fantastic car chase through Rome, with Bond in the specially equipped DB, being pursued by Mr Hinx, a muscled up henchman of Oberhauser's, who is physically capable of crushing a man's skull with his bare hands.

Bond totals the car, but does escape and heads to Austria, following the trail of his old sparring partner Mr White. White is dying, but wants to protect his daughter from Oberhauser, Bond tells him that if he gives him the information he needs, he'll allow him to go to his grave easy. White gives Bond the name the Americain, then shoots himself in the head.

Bond turns up at a health institution on a mountain side (shades of On Her Majesty's Secret Service there), and meets with Madeline Swann. She doesn't believe him or like him and arranges to have him thrown out. Q also turns up there and takes the ring from Bond for analysis, he's almost caught, but proves equal to the task of evasion.

Bond and Madeline find themselves running from Hinx and a squad of Spectre goons and with the use of an airplane, some skills and lots of explosions get away and head for a train to the middle east, where Madeline will take Bond to the American, which isn't a person, but a hotel.

Bond eventually finds White's secret room in the hotel, where he kept information about Spectre, Oberhauser and everything else, there's even a video of Vesper's interview when they brought her in to spy on Bond.

The two take a train across Africa to find an installation occupied by Oberhauser. Hinx turns up on the train and there's an awesome fight between he and Bond. It's very reminiscent of the battle between Bond and Grant in From Russia With Love and the one between he and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond manages to take Hinx out, but just like with Grant and Jaws he has to cheat to do it. Hinx would have actually given Jaws a run for his money physically.

Oberhauser sends a car to transport Bond and Madeline to his installation. It's a meteorite crater in the desert and I kept thinking of Blofeld's lair in You Only Live Twice. Sure enough, while torturing Bond, Oberhauser reveals that he uses the name Blofeld (from his mother's side of the family) now. Using an explosive watch from Q, Bond and Madeline escape and head back to London.

C, who was working for Blofeld, then takes measures to try and take everyone else out. Moneypenny and Q escape. M confronts C and kills him. Meanwhile Bond is taken and delivered to the old MI6 building, the one that got blown up in Skyfall. He follows leads and eventually finds himself facing a badly scarred Blofeld. He sets off an explosion timed to go in 3 minutes and leaves Bond to try and locate Madeline. He does this and rescues her, then shoots down Blofeld's helicopter and lets him be taken into custody.

Bond will return, but will Blofeld?

CastingThe casting of the director, the main character and the regularly recurring peripherals went so smoothly this time around, that there’s not a lot to say about it all, really.

Sam Mendes, once he’d heard what Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli intended to do this time around, signed up very quickly to direct again. No doubt his decision was influenced by the positive reaction to Skyfall. He did another sterling job. He uses his locations so well, and he had some good ones in this film: Mexico City, Rome, the Austrian alps, somewhere in the North African desert and London. Mendes makes the viewer feel like they’re actually there. He had developed a good relationship with his regular cast in the last film and got solid performances out of them. I think he, and they, lifted the bar this time, and they nailed it.

Bond: for once there wasn’t a whole lot of speculation over who was going to play the pivotal role. People accepted that it was Daniel Craig and just let him get on with it. The usual suspects for who could play the role in the future, or maybe even do it better currently, cropped up. Usually from the same sources who are never happy with the status quo, but no one played them a whole lot of attention. Craig was devastating as usual. He’s a suaver, more assured Bond than when he first stepped into the role with Casino Royale (maybe a bit too unruffled, veering into Roger Moore territory at times, although I do like the cuff shooting thing). Occasionally he’s a bit more Superman than James Bond. He shouldn’t have recovered from the fight with Hinx as quickly as he did and the same with the torturing from Blofeld. I know he’s a good shot, but bringing down the helicopter with one shot, come on. The actor has been fairly non comittal about whether he’ll saddle up again. Personally I think he’ll do one more and then hand the baton over. He’s not saying anything at present, but I think 5 is a nice number and a good legacy.

Peripherals: as flagged in Skyfall, Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory stepped into Judi Dench’s very large shoes and carried it off seamlessly. He’s clearly younger and therefore more spry than previous M’s, so he can get involved in the action a little more. At times, especially in the office scenes, he looked so much like a younger Bernard Lee that it was actually scary. Naomie Harris was his always present PA, Moneypenny. She, unlike previous incarnations, can also get involved in the action and is a useful tool for Bond when he needs information that he shouldn’t be able to access. She’s also delightfully snarky about her boss, the line about missing her birthday was priceless. Ben Whishaw’s Q is also a delight, again he’s younger than Desmond Llewellyn ever was in the role, so can do things like turn up in Austria and find himself in a spot of bother. His interactions with Craig’s Bond, though show that he’s an old man in a young body, and has the same combative relationship that Llewellyn’s Q shared with Connery, LazenbyMoore, Dalton and Brosnan. Rory Kinnear plays Tanner the way the role was meant to be, he’s always there, you just don’t notice him a lot of the time.

The villain/s: securing the services of two time Oscar winner Christophe Waltz as Oberhauser/Blofeld, was a real coup for the franchise. The guy is such a professional and you can really believe him as the psychotic Blofeld. Although the backstory abouthim being James’ foster brother is a stretch, he made me buy into it and I didn’t have any issues seeing him as the hand holding the strings of Le Chiffre, Greene and Silva. He also took great delight in engineering Bond’s pain by killing Vesper and M, and now planning to take the very thing that defines the agent, his job and his country’s safety. He survived and acquired the facial scar that made Donald Pleasance's portrayal so effective (I always wondered why the next two incarnations of the character played by Telly Savalas and Charles Gray never had it), so hopefully he’ll return in the next film to plague Bond some more.

Mr Hinx: we never find out his first name and considering his demise we probably never will. Surprisingly given the rather cartoonish nature of many of the physical villians Bond faces, they haven’t often mined the world of professional wrestling for talent (Harold Sakata’s Oddjob is one exception), but this time they did and cast the imposing Dave Bautista (who wrestles under the name Batista) as Hinx. He doesn’t have to do a lot of acting, but he does do a lot of fighting, and that he’s very good at. I haven’t seen Bond thrown about like that since Jaws, and given Richard Kiel was over 7 feet tall that wasn’t surprising. Dave Bautista is 6’6” and weighs well over 250 pounds, most of it muscle. The fight was brilliantly choreographed and Craig’s stunt performer earned every one of his dollars. The only odd thing about the fight was that Bond survived long enough to vanquish Hinx.

Max Denbigh/C: I like Andrew Scott and I was pleased when I heard he’s be a villain in this. He was a little disappointing. I’d hoped he’d be more than just a Blofeld/Specre pawn and actually turn the tables the way his Moriarty does. He was suitably weaselly, though and it was nice to see him be thrown off the top floor of his own building and shatter on the stones below.

Mr White: hard to say if he’s really a villain this time. He was, but he’s so broken now, that he’s not anymore. I don’t think the audience felt sorry for him, but they probably weren’t threatened by him like they were previously.

The girls: I have two instead of the usual one this time. I’ll begin with Lucia Sciarra. The widow of the person Bond throws out a helicopter in the pre credit sequence. She was played by Monica Bellucci. The Italian actress is all class and even at the age of 50+ still one of the world’s most beautiful woman. A lot was made about casting her. The story emerged that she’d been considered for the role of Paris Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies before Teri Hatcher won the role. Something that upset Pierce Brosnan. He and Hatcher did not like each other and it showed in their lack of chemistry. I’m sure Monica Bellucci would have done a better job. There was speculation that her character was deeply involved with Spectre and rumours that she was Blofeld’s daughter or even Blofeld. The actress herself did a piece where she spoke about how unique it was to see Bond with a woman older than himself, because this had never been done before. She was wrong there Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore was older than Sean Connery in Goldfinger (although they never specified that Pussy was older than Bond, as they did with Lucia). However she seemed to be there just to meet and sleep with Bond and give him the Spectre ring. She played it with her usual class, but it was such a nothing role that they could have cast any number of attractive older women in that I felt a bit cheated and wondered why they bothered.

Lea Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, though. Now that was something. I must have seen here in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards, but didn’t recall her. She was amazing. Great chemistry with Craig, genuine acting chops, stunningly beautiful. I’m not sure it was intentional, but in the train wearing the silver dress she looked like a blonde Vesper. If anyone can survive the franchise’s supposed curse it will be Lea Seydoux, although I argue that there are a number of actresses that have already done that: the names Diana Rigg, Jane Seymour, Michelle Yeoh, Sophie MarceauHalle Berry and Eva Green immediately spring to mind.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: it’s still too early to call this on Lea Seydoux. She’s done a couple of Hollywood films before and had a very solid background in French films. If this film doesn’t bring Hollywood knocking, then they’ve got rocks in their head. Future superstar for mine. The character doesn’t eclipse Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, but Lea Seydoux is a better actress than Eva Green, and she hasn’t been short of work since Casino Royale.

Gadgets: the car was nice. It had arms, although the ammunition wasn’t loaded. It had atmosphere, which was actually music, chosen to 009’s taste. Fire was useful, it nearly incinerated Hinx’s car. Air was the piece de resistance, though. It was an updated ejector seat. Attached a parachute to Bond, catapulted him out of the car and he landed safely a few streets away without a hair out of place. The exploding watch was a bit cliché, but it worked. Q must have confiscated the signature gun, or not supplied 007 with a replacement after he left the last one in Macao. The tracking blood probably also qualifies as a gadget of sorts.

Music: hard to say if they got the music right yet. I think they did. I’m not really a fan of Sam Smith, and I wouldn’t rush out to buy the title track or listen to it much, but it does suit the film. It’s case of a song being specifically supplied for the film. It will be a commercial hit, because it’s a good song, just not to my taste, but I doubt it will do what Adele’s theme for Skyfall did, either to the market or garner quite the same acclaim.

Pre credit sequence: there were reports that this was the most expensive pre credit sequence they’ve done, and I can see where the money went. Costumes, enormous amounts of extra, shutting down parts of Mexico City to film, stunts, they blew stuff up and helicopter flying like that doesn’t come cheap. I preferred the pre credits of Casino Royale and even Skyfall, but this one was very good and continued the franchise’s reputation for getting these right. It was key to the main story as well, because it was Bond carrying out the mission that Judi Dench’s M had tasked him with, and it led to Spectre and Blofeld. Interestingly the credits showed images and characters from Casino Royale and Skyfall, but nothing from Quantum of Solace and it was only fleetingly mentioned in the film. It’s one of those films the franchise would like to sweep under the carpet.

Overall: I liked it. I’ll need to see it again to make a real judgement, although at this stage I’m giving it a shaken not stirred. It’s very good, just not great. My opinion may change a little on subsequent viewings, although I doubt it. The ranking will probably stay. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this. The change of M’s, and the reintroduction of Moneypenny and Q (very different from previous versions of them), as well as the rumours about Blofeld, gave a bit of a wildcard feel to the film. It wasn’t a reboot, not the way Casino Royale was. It does however open up new directions for the story to go in. The franchise has been reluctant to remake films. The only instance is Thunderball being remade as Never Say Never Again, and the latter is not considered an official Bond film, despite the appearance of Sean Connery. However I think the time is now ripe to do this. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the most important films in the whole canon, because of what happens in it. Unfortunately the original, while still being a better film than I had through for many years, suffers badly from poor direction, a less than brilliant script, an inexperienced actor and a lack of chemistry between the male and female leads. Blofeld’s second actual screen appearance was in OHMSS. Prior to meeting the criminal mastermind face to face, Bond had tangled with his organisation three times. This is the same situation we have at the end of Spectre. It would take some significant rewriting (I still can’t understand how putting Bond in a kilt and giving him a Scottish accent and changing his name means Blofeld won’t recognise him, even if he was played by a different actor), but I think they’re equal to it. Not sure who would direct, I think Mendes wants a break and three films in a row may be pushing it a bit and lead to staleness. It would however be the perfect way for Craig to go out and put right a wrong that has blighted the franchise for nearly 50 years.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Richmond V North Melbourne 04/09/2015 (Etihad)

I know I've used the word weird to describe a number of the games this year, but I'm going to have to use it again. This was a weird game for a whole bunch of reasons.

Firstly it was Round 23. Now that's not new. For while now the AFL has stretched a 22 round season into 23 by giving teams a shifting bye. (My own solution to this is to have 2 byes. One mid year and every team has it. For one weekend no AFL team plays and you can promote the lower levels of the game. That way it doesn't require mucking around with the fixture and every team returns on an equal footing. The second one is after the final round of the season. You can hold the Brownlow on that Monday night and it gives the finalists a week off before the finals).

Secondly it was held in September. September is generally reserved for finals, but because the Cricket World Cup forced the season to start later and the AFL have to have that mid season bye, it pushed the regular home and away season out to September.

Thirdly the final 8 was set. The only question was the order of it. Quite often games in the final round can determine who makes the 8 and who misses out. For instance last year, Richmond HAD to beat Sydney in the final round to make it into the 8.

Lastly, and this is partly driven by the previous point, North Melbourne coach Brad Scott:

Have you ever seen a more sooky looking person?

Had decided to rest 9 of his best players. He had little to lose. They couldn't be knocked out of the 8. However he may have felt he had more to gain by losing than winning. If they lost they'd wind up 8th, and then face Richmond again in the first round of the finals, if they won they could face Adelaide in Adelaide or maybe the Western Bulldogs. They've had a hold on the Tigers for a fair while, so clearly see us as less of a threat than the other teams.

Due to Brad Scott's controversial selection policy, Ivan Maric wound up facing off against Majak Daw, rather than Todd Goldstein. I actually felt a bit sorry for Daw. He tried his heart out and probably won the contest in the first half, largely due to his athleticism (he can mark and kick fine, but doesn't read the play well), but big Ivan prevailed in the second and Daw never had any chance of playing in the first round of finals.

Early on the inexperienced Roos outfit had the ascendancy, but Richmond steadied and were all over them in the second half. Returning skipper Trent Cotchin led his Tigers to a 41 point victory.

Even though it was an undermanned Kangaroos we've broken the hold they had on us. They're going into the finals with 2 losses in a row, and as the game isn't played until Sunday, the Tigers still get a decent break and the rested Roos have put themselves in danger of being rusty. I'm never confident, but these Tigers seem a bit different to the ones of 2013 and 2014.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Essendon V Richmond - 29/08/2015 (MCG)

Ty Vickery in his 100th game on Saturday night.

The rematch against Essendon is generally less exciting than the first time we play them. This is largely because the first game is the Dreamtime and the second one is just another game, it's also late in the season and rarely has much impact on the ladder itself.

This time it was even more lack lustre. Essendon's season had fallen off the rails some weeks ago, the resulting fall out saw their coach resign. They had no hope of making the 8 and even with their recent good form against the Tigers they were still the underdogs. Richmond had managed to nail themselves into the top 8, and even a loss wouldn't see them fall out. So not a lot to play for on either side.

About the only real things of note were two milestones, one on either side. Following his best ever performance against the Pies, Ty Vickery was playing his 100th game. On the other end of the spectrum former Geelong Premiership player Paul Chapman had jumped sides to the Bombers, played for a couple of years and decided to make this match his retirement game.

Essendon players chair off the retiring Paul Chapman.

I don't think the Tigers really did it for Ty as such, but Essendon didn't do 'Chappy' any real favours either.

The rain made this a slog with poor skills. Richmond got it inside 50 a lot more, but kicked points early. Somewhere in the 3rd term the worm turned and the Tigers got well and truly on top.

The only other notable incident was the suplex tackle by Courtenay Dempsey on Brett Deledio with about 3 minutes left on the clock. Fortunately Deledio was not seriously hurt, and Dempsey got 4 weeks for doing it.

Bring on the Roos in Rd 23 and the finals!

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