Sunday, January 31, 2010


Blink and you'd've missed it but the new year has begun, nay, a new decade.

2010: The year we make contact. ( well according to Arthur C. Clarke anyway )
Before I start losing myself in the wilderness of pop-culture and adventure that 2010 has to offer I thought I would take a spell to sit, rest, reflect back on the year that has just transpired, mull over the many moments, and experiences, smoke my pipe and rattle away on the various peaks, and occasional valleys, i traversed throughout 2009.

I'll do my best to keep it simple, but you know how I can get so pardon me if i do prattle on...


* 'The Hurt Locker'
Karthyrn Bigelow's incredibly tight, unbelievably suspenseful and painfully realistic portrayl of US servicemen in Iraq, focusing on a trio of soldiers serving in the bomb disposal squad is one of the most realistic depictions of the soldier, and the military psychology I've seen. Sensational performances all round, with the lead Jeremy Renner excelling. Warfare has never been represented with so little romance, and so much compassion. The handheld camera is intimate, without being nauseating. Eschewing the need to display carnage in order to horrify and dismay the audience Bigelow delivers an amazing, unforgettable film. Testament to the accuracy of the film the dismay felt by one soldier at civilian life, the very instance that he feels it, echoes a comment made to me by a servicemen a time back, long before either of us had even heard of the film. This is not a film about the current climate of this interminable, internecine conflict, passing comment or criticism; it remains an apolitical exercise that concentrates on those servicemen at the sharp end, revealing them as flawed, frightened individuals capable of incredible bravery, and humanity.

* Moon

A knock-out debut from Duncan Jones (one time Zowie Bowie ). An intelligent, philosophical, film with a career best turn from Sam Rockwell (one that the critics and awards committees seem to have forgotten) in a film that is most certainly pastiches several great sci-fi films from the decades previous, yet stands with enough of his own ingenuity to make this more than some patchwork of plagiarism. Oh, how I loved to see model work back on the big screen, the sort of screen effects that would have had Gerry Anderson in a foaming fervour.

* District 9

As with 'Moon' Neil Blomkamp's debut is another ball-tearer, with many transparent influences but more that enough genius flying about to warrant that Blomkamp is a major talent to watch. Having the purse and patronage of Peter Jackson must have helped a little too. The switch from quasi-doco to an objective POV didn't clang like it should have, because I have to admit I thought it would. The novelty of the South African setting, the journey of the protagonist, and the attention to detail with the effects, the characters and the righteous rage of the subtext prove, much like 'Moon', that sci-fi really is the best platform for parables of the human condition. Throwing in everything and a kitchen sink, from Cronenberg body horror to camp comedy, 'District 9' is provocative and punchy. The prawns look fantastic, and Sharlto Copley’s Wikus is a wonderful rounded character. To say I'm look forward to Blomkamp's next picture is a considerable understatement.

* Star Trek

Who would have thought it? A 'Star Trek' film that everyone enjoyed and no geek had to defend. Even girls liked it. The first ten minutes of the film would have to be one of the most exciting opening reels I have seen in a very long time. Mindboggling action and effects, with great use of sound, JJ Abrams (who really may well be the man with the golden touch) brings the staid, pinched-sphincter of the original 'Star Trek' series (I abstain from using the word ‘classic’ ) into the noughties as a confident, masculine, update with energy to spare. This is the first film I have seen at the cinema twice in ages. Probably since the eight screenings of De Palma's 'Mission: Impossible' way back when. I've never really been a Trekkie, though I've watched 'Next Gen', 'DS9', and a few of the old movies. (a viewing of 'The Wrath of Khan' the night before seeing ST’09 proved a wonderful wander down memory lane. I mean how great is Ricardo Montalban in that? ) I can assure you I will be more than happy to see more of this crew in action. Funny, thrilling, cast to perfection. ( I mean find someone better to play the young Spock ). I was sweating for Simon Pegg to show up, and when he did he nearly walked away with the film. Hilarious. Chris Pine, with the toughest job of all, channelled the Shat while filtering out the shit. Oh, and Eric Bana as a Romulan...fantastic. A surprisingly convoluted plot, with a clever conceit for the franchise renewal, some skewed science, exciting action sequences, an unexpected cameo, and a genuine sense of wonder throughout, add up to make 'Star Trek' one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a very long time.

* Female Agents

Sophie Marceau in a Nazi uniform firing guns.
Right, that has your attention. It was the image that certainly assured mine.
I love a men-on-a-mission film. It’s one of my favourite sub-genres. 'The Dirty Dozen', 'The Guns of Navarone', 'Where Eagles Dare', 'Above us the Waves', 'Sea of Sand' to name a few. I just love the sort of narrative that details a band of men thrown together to pull of some sort of impossible act, to blow something up or prevent an assassination, that results in dissolution of dislike and distrust, the loss of life as bravery brings tears to the eyes. Tension, action, adventure, the triumph of the human spirit. Hands up who didn’t cry at least once during 'Band of Brothers'. Take all of that and base it on ‘true events’ and I’m positively in tears by the time the opening credits have finished. 'Female Agents' is all of the things I love with the added appeal to my egalitarian interests, a near-feminist piece, unraveling the story of a number of women roped in by the British to fulfill a mission in Nazi occupied France mere days before the Normandy D-Day landing. Following 'The Dirty Dozen' format, the truly beautiful Sophie Marceau, in a performance of considerable strength, and sensitivity, saves prostitutes and traitors from the noose, only to lead them to certain death. What initially seems like so much ho-hum swiftly develops into an intensely suspenseful and ultimately moving film, functioning as both a thriller and caustic comment on the role women were expected to play during the war, especially in times of extremity. Violent, compelling both on a visceral level and emotion, 'Female Agents' proved a genuine surprise with a resolve that is heart-breaking.

* Sherlock Holmes

I’ll admit when this production was first announced I was skeptical and slightly sombre at the thought of the uber-producer, Joel Silver, who gave us 'The Matrix' trilogy and the 'Lethal Weapon' films, serving up a ‘modern take’ on the classic hero. I’m a huge Conan Doyle fan (not just the Homes stuff) and I rankled for his sake. What was to become of his beloved hero, and his sidekick Dr. John Watson, after Silver turned them into a pair of heroes for the Friday night Highpoint crowd? Then Guy Ritchie became attached, and in spite of his earlier glory and the return to form with the entertaining 'Rocknrolla', this would prove his first ‘big’ budget film, and my anxiety persisted. Well, I can assure you that my fears were ungrounded, and that Ritchie has turned out a n espeically entertaining film. Downey Jr., full of twitches and mania, and his arch accomplice Jude Law make a faithful Homes and Watson, playing up the under-current of fondness for one another with perfect pitch. The seemingly ubiquitous Mark Strong (and rightly so) makes a dour, determined and deliciously diabolic villain. Rachel McAdams makes her Irene Adler feisty, and as much a foil for Holmes as Watson, but she alas does feel a bit too contemporary. Neither anachronistic, nor anchored by attention to archaic expressions, and mode, the dialogue bristles and bounds along accompanying a clever narrative, wild, woolly and wonderfully Holmesian. The most significant character in the film, though, is the world that Ritchie and his production team have created. As someone whose reading consists mostly of Victorian (and Edwardian) crime and mystery fiction the London that Ritchie fills the screen with seems to have emerged from my skull to be stretched across the big screen before me. A murky blue-black world, grimy, cluttered, desperate, all romanticism removed. Hans Zimmer, who has a tendency to reproduce samey-same-same scores, has created his best in years; pub-house piano, accordion and violins conjuring the music of the time while remaining a jocular, energetic elan to support the action. A genuine surprise and treat. Ritchie really has triumphed here; working with a larger canvas and story than before, he manages to retain his cleverness with slow-mo shots, whipping edits, and sense of energy without resorting to posturing pyrotechnics to baffle. In fact there is a palpable sense of the camera constantly being forced to slow down, to be at ease. Again, as with 'Star Trek', this is the first film in a long time that I have left the cinema dying to see again. Full of great moments, (the sequence at the shipyards is a nail biting delight), whirling witty banter, envy inspiring costumes, it stands as something rare these days: an intelligent ‘blockbuster’. A frustrating tease to set up a certain adversary of Holmes’ leaves the script feeling truncated, and a little flat, reminding the viewer that this is, after all, Hollywood baby, and that you can’t have a hit without first considering the franchise possibilities. All in all, a major score from Ritchie. I think even Conan Doyle would have approved.

* Watchmen
While there was certainly a fair share of directors who had at one point attempted to adapt Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel, let alone dreamt of it, I don’t think anyone wanted to be in Zack Snyder’s shoes prior to the release of this. If he’d fucked it up no-one was going to forget it any time soon. Thankfully, much to the relief of all he didn’t. Not completely. 'Watchmen' is far from perfect but it’s as good as it was going to get without adapting the text as a HBO series or a six hour film. I’m sure longer cuts with emerge eventually. The opening fifteen minutes of the film, establishing the parallel universe, is a brilliant achievement, engrossing and moving, swollen with ironic imagery and visual exposition, Snyder proves what an intelligent and skilled film maker he can actually be. The core problem with the film is a simple one: while an exorbitant amount of time was invested in the production design, and the accuracy in visualizing the world from Moore’s imagination and Dave Gibbon’s pen, the heart of the film seems to have been overlooked. Sure the message is there but the end feels rushed, almost perfunctory, and so the film seems to fall short. The cast are good if not particularly inspiring in spite of looking the part; with Jeffrey Dean Morgan electric as the maniacal mercenary Comedian, though it is Jackie Earle Haley who steals the film as the infamous Rorschach. Tortured, sociopathic, fanatical and frail, his performance is indomitable; from his million-Malboros voice (showing Bale a thing or too) to the wretched figure he reveals beneath the mask. The scene in which Rorschach looks deeps into the abyss, and passes himself into the world of violence, is more explosively engaging than any Martian landscape, or CGI catastrophe. This is old school. A moment that stands like the bastard child of Nietszche and Peckinpah. Excessive violence, the trite use of "Hallelujah", and a lag in pace towards the downbeat denouement disappoint after a brilliant opening. Not as strong as the sum of its parts Watchmen is none-the-less a significant achievement, and an excellent film regardless of the flaws.

* Avatar

Okay, so the plot is pretty much that of 'Dances with Wolves' and could be written on the back of fag packet, and it’s as predictable as a porno, but James Cameron’s first film in five hundred years was my first time seeing a 3D film, and what a treat 'Avatar' is for the senses. Out of the glut of 3D films currently being released I’m glad this was my first because I have to admit to being utterly blown away by the experience. Eschewing traditional 3D gimmicks, such as thrusting things at the audience to garner a physical reaction, Cameron opts instead to create a depth to the vision that is staggering. While I’m sure if Jackson had employed this technology Cameron developed 'King Kong' would be just as magical. Flights of insects, or drifts of ash, move between the viewer and the screen, fronds of ferns flip out of the frame, constantly creating the feeling that at any given moment you could stand up, and walk down out of the cinema and directly into the jungle. It has to be said that the photo-realism of the world of Pandora is frequently breathtaking; the tableaux of the floating mountains and the climactic battle that fills the last 30 minutes are stunning sequences. Every time I started to adjust and become used to the mise-en-scene Cameron would dazzle me once more. Go Aussie! Sam Worthington is becoming quite ubiquitous with his Ordinary Joe hero schtick. There’s something a little Kurt Russell about him. Zoe Saldana, so great as Uhura in 'Star Trek', is a delight as the Na’vi that Worthington’s Scully befriends; her performance a fine balance of feline grace and jungle bestiality. It was great to see Sigourney Weaver back and in fine form, clipped and caustic, and Stephen Lang, so memorable as the ill-fated journo in Michael Mann’s 'Manhunter' is manically over-the-top as the muscular uber-mensch military menace. The supporting characters are sadly underwritten, which little inspires a sense of ambivalence that creeps into the story. Some grey introduced into the monotone morality may have made the story a little more dense, though Cameron’s message, with a barely veiled illustration of the horrors that ‘our’ greed has led to, is admirable blunt and worthy. 'Avatar' may be miles from perfect, yet it remains stirring, and staggering, and offers plenty of room to consider where Cameron’s developments will lead to. I can only hope that when Peter Jackson sets to filming Naomi Novik’s brilliant 'Temeraire' novels that is made using 'Avatar' as a springboard. Cameron has always been the guy to set the pace and he doesn’t seem to be showing any sign of slowing up. The most visually impressive film of the film? Absolutely. The best film? Not by a long shot. That honour belongs to 'The Hurt Locker' . Interestingly, considering both are neck-and-neck it seems for 'best film' honours, both are about a military presence in a foreign land, and the repurcussions and the responsibilities of their actions.

* Eden Lake

I missed this at the film festival and managed to catch it a few weeks later at home and was pleasantly surprised, for in spite of the rather generic title James Watkins’ lean thriller plays more like a riff on ‘Straw Dogs’ than a modern day massacre in the vein of ‘I spit on your grave’. Starring the star-in-the-making Michael Fassbender ( check him out in ‘Hunger’ )and the excellent Kelly Reilly ( seen in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as Watson’s fiancĂ© Mary, and who stands as an exception to my better-dead-than-red rule ) as a young couple who holiday at the titular lake only to be menaced and set upon only by a group of local youths, ‘Eden Lake’ is as much a social comment, and character study, as much as it is an exercise in suspense. Jack O’Connell, as the alpha-dog youth, is commanding and chilling. The scenes in which he manipulates and bullies his mates into complicity are gripping, and frighteningly plausible. There were echoes of those young bastards here in Werribee who assaulted a handicapped girl from their school and filmed it, all for a lark. Dour and downbeat to say the least, with a particularly grim finale, ‘Eden Lark’ sets itself above the recent spate of low-budget ‘survival’ thrillers such as 'Severance' or 'Turisas', playing more like Ken Loach neo-realist picture about the rising concern of youth-based crime in the UK, the hereditary nature of violence and the thin-red-line that survival would push us over. There are no easy answers to the questions the film asks, though it is brazen enough to explore them, leaving the viewer conflicted without feeling manipulated.

* Inglorious Basterds

I've been vocal in my disdain for QT for some time now. I really dug 'Reservoir Dogs' when it came out, was disappointed by the derivative and more-often-than-not dull 'Pulp Fiction' , and it was all downhill form there with my contempt climaxing as I fell asleep in the cinema during 'Kill Bill vol.2' and aged 72 years while enduring the tedious 'Deathproof'. Not ever a badder-than-bad Kurt Russell (who I want to be when I grow up), and cool car-chase stunt work could prevent that from being the pits. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that Taratino's attempt at making a WW2 film is actually really good. Darn good. Really darn good. QT isn't the sort of film-maker who is going to make an outright action thriller in the vein of 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'The Guns of Navarone' ( and you know how much I love those films ) but what you have instead is a slow-burning fuse of a film, a series of set-peices, mini plays-acts, contrived with ersatz artifice and pastiche of countless films portraying that era, that successfully sets a tension and builds to gloriously over-the-top climax. The typically sterling camera-work from the always great Robert Richardson is a boon. Whether it's a set piece straight from Leone, with Morricone-esque music, or the staircase from 'Scarface', QT can't quite help himself, but the one thing he has always been prolific with is banter, for better or for worse. In his previous films, especially 'Deathproof'' the banter has been little more than concentric spirals of unending uber-text, over-the-top, mannered, stylized, deliberate with the intention to be 'cool'. Everyone wants to be Mamet, but Mamet is Mamet, and that's that. With 'Inglorious Basterds' QT rolls out the banter turning each act into a triumph of ratcheting tension; especially any scenes with the deliciously diabolical Christoph Waltz as he switches from casual conversation to intense interrogation. Where in the past puff about pastries and cream would have made me want to leave the cinema, here I found myself holding my breath along with our heroine. The acting ensemble are all excellent: Brad Pitt's over-the-top-and-into-glory-ride Aldo Raine seems to have been cut from the same cloth as some of the buffoon's his mate Clooney often plays, the one-to-watch Michael Fassbender with his tally-ho-boys bravado, Diane Kruger's tightly coiled film star, even film-maker Eli Roth puts in a decent show, and Mike Myers has a funny cameo, but it is Waltz who steals the film with his Lt. Landa: urbane, charming, educated, intelligent, intimidating and frightening without ever having to raise his voice. A true companion to Hans Gruber as one of the great move villains of all time. I found it interesting too that Goebbel's Nation's Pride film bears a striking similarity to the climax to 'Saving Private Ryan', which left me pondering whether this was a pop-cultural tic, for it surely isn't abitrary, or if it was some indictment on Spielberg's self-aggrandizing. Hmm...?
A real score for QT here; a big surprise and a real treat.


* Martyrs

Harrowing. That’s the perfect world to describe the experience of watching this film. Harrowing. I left the late night session of the Film Festival screening shaken, bilious, feeling emotionally abused. So much more extreme than so called ‘torture porn’ films like 'Hostel' and its imitators like such as the dismal 'Frontier(s)', 'Martyrs' was both riveting and incredibly disconcerting with an excruciating tension. I may never forget that horrible moment, a fist that gripped my stomach, as I was struck by the ghastly realisation of how the film was going to play out. Little was I aware the extremity that the denouement would be taken to. That the director, Pascal Laugier, is skilled, I have no doubt. That his motivations for making this film are confused, and curious, is also without question. The decision to film such violence and cruelty with such an unblinking eye is admirable, forcing me to consider what actually is ‘entertaining’ and where would I draw the line and cease to watch, while his reasons for wanting to, though, are perhaps murky. Both leads are impressive, with Morjana Alaoui, in particular, a stand out. I cannot even begin to imagine the mood on the set during the filming of the third act. Hampered by a derivative plot concept and a closing scene an almost direct lift from Juame Bagalero’s 'Los Sin Nombre', his adaptation of Ramsey Campbell’s novel ‘The Nameless’ which served to obliterate what admiration I had, which left feeling cheated. More-so though, I felt unwell. Genuinely intimidating in its unflinching portrayal of violence the director proves himself a true ‘l’enfant terrible’, replete with palpable pastiches and pilfering, but full of promise none-the-less. I have read this director’s name attached to the re-make of ‘Hellraiser’ and considering ‘Martyrs’ concern with the adoration of suffering, and the similar excesses of both films he would seem a perfect choice. I'll admit to being a little apprehensive about watching it. ( Besides the original is perfect ) It’s been a long time since a film challenged me as this one did. Hopefully it will be a while before I have to experience something like it again, and I dread to think what that may be like. A dark journey that is most definitely not for the faint of heart. Nothing will ever eclipse the jaw-dropping moment when the extent of ‘stage 3’ was revealed. Harrowing stuff.

* * *


Dark Moor “Autumnal”

My most played album of the year. A tremendous collection of diverse songs, brimming with classical briol. Catchy songs, each independent and identifiable. From the grandiose cover of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’, to the folk-infused gallop of ‘Phantom Queen’ to the thunder of ‘The Sphinx’, which contains one of my favourite solos for a long time, while ‘For her’ and ‘The Enchanted Forest’ offer Bic-fanning sing-a-longs. Managing to do in four minutes what Nightwish take ten to do, Dark Moor have not only crafted their best album but one I would call an essential title to have. Absolutely perfect in every way.

Dreadnaught “Dreadnaught”

I’ve long been a fan of this Melbourne band and I’d waited a long time for this. I loved their previous effort ‘Dirty Music’, and was keen for more, more , more. Initially disappointed that they hadn’t continued with the aggressive rock vibe they devastated audiences with following the earlier release, which in itself was considerably different from their other progressive power metal, but I swiftly grew to really love this disc. Less a collection of songs then a slab of music, linked in tone, lyrics and stance, Dreadnaught here show their musical maturity with a blending of unpredictable song writing, power, pathos and passion. Musicianship is excellent, with Richie’s guitar and Greg’s furious howl never better. New drummer Matt brings a very aggressive, and technical, ‘metal’ foundation to the songs. The final track 'Buried’ is one of the most vitriolic songs ever written, with a blinding solo from Richie. (If you get a chance to see them live make sure you watch it and be astounded.) No argument shall be countenanced on that topic. This is a great band absolutely at their peak. No angry artifice here, just raw emotion.
Alestorm “Black Sails at Midnight”

The heirs to Running Wild’s mantle of the true pirate metal status outdid themselves with their second release, evolving from a keyboard-laden thrash attack into a nautical Nightwish, tongue in cheek and self indulgence firmly in check. Without a dud to be heard Alestorm offer a rare collection of strong songs that often results in multiple listens in one sitting. ‘The famous ole spiced’, ‘Keelhauled’ and ‘Leviathan’ stand as favourites, but then I love the whole album, right down to their fantastically funny cover of the Latvian Eurovision entry ‘Wolves of the Sea.’ Taking the piss, and yet delivering the goods. I await the next album eagerly. More than enough ‘you ho ho’s’ to bring delight to even the blackest of metallers.

Cradle of Filth “God Speed on the Devil’s Thunder”

Never has a band reached such a musical apotheosis as Cradle of Filth did with this release. No other band could have taken the subject matter, the story of Gilles De Rais, and crafted such an amazing record. Potent, powerful, aggressive, Dani’s rasp and roar never so embittered and emotional. Blasting into life with the amusingly entitled ‘Shat out of Hell’ the band howls their way through ripping riff, slashing blasts, and dirge chunks, the metal emboldened by keyboard swells (as in ‘The Thirteenth Caesar’) and the classical and choral arrangements that embroider and unite the songs. ‘Honey and Sulphur’ charged with chilling choir, and a venomous frenzy is one of my favourite songs of theirs of all time. Marred my over-length, this is still a staggering record. Savoured best as a whole, it none-the-less manages that each song stands alone, independent and unique, something few ‘concept’ albums manage. A major achievement from the band who have nothing to prove but continue to prove that they do have something else to offer. Also, the familiar presence of Doug Bradley ( Pinhead from ‘Hellraiser’ ) offers suitably commanding solemnity with his sephucral soliloquies.

Satyricon “The Age of Nero”
Very much a continuation of the vibe they established with the ‘eminence noir’ that was ‘Now, Diabolical’ Satyricon deliver another slab of molar grinding intensity with this follow up. ‘The Wolf Pack’ was probably my most played song of the year, a definite day-starter, that I often marched to, and into, work with. Frost perpetuates his status as one of the most amazing drummers in the scene, with a biomechanical precision, and energy that is astounding to hear. Listen to his footwork in ‘The Sign of the Trident’ if you don’t believe me. Malignant, moody, malevolent, majestically magnificent. Satyr may look more New Romantic than Norwegian Black these days, but this album proves that beyond alterations in aesthetic Satyricon are still darker than most who claim to be something ‘true’.

Other top albums of the year:
Megadeth “Endgame”
Slayer “World Painted Blood”
My Dying Bride “For Lies I Sire”
Amon Amarth “Twilight of the Thunder God” Paolo Nutini “Sunny Side Up” Tyr “By the Light of the Northern Star”
Bleeding Through “Declaration”
Rammstein “Liebe Ist Feur Alle Da”
Candlemass "Death Magic Doom"

* * *

Best Books:

Wilkie Collins “The Moonstone”
The ‘original’ detective story lived up to its reputation. Tighter than Collins other famous novel "The Woman in White" this novel is indeed the template for a glut of fiction that followed in its wake. (Inspired by the events detailed in "The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher" no less.) Fluffs about a bit, but builds to a tense resolve.

Dan Simmons “Drood”

Having just read both of Wilkie Collins’ major works and Dicken’s "Bleak House" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" the arrival of this enormous book not long after was a gem. I think without those other titles under my belt, as impressive as the extent of Simmon’s research and detail is, I don’t think the story would have resonated as much. Ultimately a shaggy dog story, that is a bit of a let down, the world that Simmons transports the reader to is so richly vivid, and densely evoked, that the success of his text and prose greatly outweighs any deficit the book has.

Tom Holland “Deliver Us from Evil"

My first taste of Holland was the near-brilliant "Supping with Panthers" and this later novel is another historically set horror tale, epic in scale and concept, and as equally fantastic. Juggling vampires, the Earl of Rochester, John Milton, John Dee and alchemical magick, the plague and the Great Fire, this globe trotting tome is another sterling effort from an author that seems to be unfairly neglected.
Iain Pears “An Instance of the Fingerpost”

An enormous slab of erudition I read during my September-in-the 16th Century phase, a "Rashomon"-type murder mystery. In spite of its length, and three house-brick thick size this turned out to be an incredibly suspenseful, and emotional, story, that I absolutely hammered through.

Kate Summerscale “The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher”

Excellent ‘fictionalised’ non-fiction account of one of England’s most notorious unsolved murders and the early days of Scotland Yard.

Sapper’s “Bulldog Drummond”

Four tales of the classic Edwardian adventurer, a precursor to James Bond, with stories laden with spies, industrial espionage, chemical warfare, terrorists and threats of revolution, beer fro breakfast, plenty of biffo and a pal called Algy. You can imagine the young Ian Fleming’s inspiration mounting as you read these stories. Full of hilarious lingo from the period, and near calumnious cultural cringes, these stories are wonderful windows to a bygone time that still manage to entertain.

Guy Boothby “Dr. Nikola”

Two stories from the Australian writer Boothby, inspired by Conan Doyle ( and in turn influencing Sapper: both books have almost identical opening scenes ) with great joy to be had in the first story as the action moves from a 19th Century London to Melbourne and Sydney. It was most amusing to read about the train ride from Williamstown to the city taking an hour and a half. Seems some things don’t change. Another great find from the Wordsworth Mystery & Suspense collection.

Shaun Hutson “Unmarked Graves”

The master of the no-cocking-about horror thriller had a massive return to form with this book. Zombies, African crime-lords, tons of violence, lean, mean prose, Hutson writes the sort of book that has you flipping through the pages frantically, while making you feel as if you are fighting off a pack of wild dogs. A ripper of a twist on the very last page.

Christopher Fowler “Full Dark House” or “Spanky”
The first title is the first of the ‘Bryant and May’ novels, detailing the adventures of two aged detectives working in the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London, focussing on their early days during the Blitz with a Phantom of the Opera type story. Whereas as Spanky is a modern-day twist on the Faust story; Cliver Barker-esque, clever, savvy, and knotted-of-plot, buoyed with Fowler’s great phrasing, and dialogue. Another writer, like Holland, who should be more widely known.

Russell T. Davies/ Benjamin Cook “The Writer’s Tale.”

Consisting of email exchanges between the producer and core writer of the current Doctor Who and journalist Ben Cook this is an extremely rare book, offering a singular insight into the creation of the show, and that of an artist. Davies’s exposes himself in a such a raw manner; his late-night emails revealing a multifaceted character: humble, arrogant, insecure, proud, garrulous, grumpy and most of all inspiring. In many ways a slog, but the intimacy of the journey is unique. So much more than just a book about a television show, in many ways it isn’t that at all, "The Writer’s Tale" is a rare insight into the creative mind, and the very struggle that all artists endure.

* * *


Being Human

Sounding like a shaggy joke, with the core conceit of a vampire, a werewolf and ghost sharing a flat, 'Being Human' turned out to be the surprise of the year. Funny, tense, moving and full…humanity. The three leads are uniformly charismatic and canny, though it is Russell Tovey who steals the show with his nervous nelly werewolf wimp. With vampires shows clogging the screens at the moment, whether cinema or TV, this small show stands above all the others, even the terrific 'True Blood', with nary a lull in energy or quality. The second series is on it’s way and I can’t wait. More, more, more.

True Blood

The other vampire show worth watching. Antipodeans Anna Paquin and Ryan Kwanten lead a great ensemble cast in Alan Ball’s multilayered adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. Losing it’s way mid-season, and weighted with a few too many vampire cliches, 'True Blood' none-the-less makes for engaging viewing, a murder-mystery swathed in social comment. Potent sex scenes, combined with a raw explorations of addiction, segregation and, sharp writing, character observation, spearheaded by Paquin’s performance, add to make this a winner. The opening titles and that signature tune are one of the best credit segues I have seen in ages. ‘…I wanna do bad things to you…’


As soon as I read about this show in development I was all over it: an exorcist played by Martin 'The Professionals' Shaw, written and directed by Joe Ahearne, the man who gave us 'Ultraviolet' and that ever so scary Doctor Who story 'The Empty Child'. Do I need to say any more to persuade you? Six episodes. How I love the UK tradition of the succinct series? Martin Shaw makes for a great Father Jacob, in spite of initially seeming an odd choice, his grizzled, gaunt features lend authority and severity to the character, a he battles a demonic presence that manifests itself in a recognisable, urban setting. The homeless, and a single father, fall prey to this malignancy, offering a welcome, more realistic approach to what is typically hoary old material. Lots of great frights with a preponderance of mumbo jumbo balanced by the grounded performances of the cast. Sean Dooley puts in a typically menacing turn (eclipsed only by his frightening spot in 'Eden Lake') and John Shrapnel likewise is his gravelly, sinister best. The episodes aren’t exactly consistent in quality, but when the show peaks the results are certainly scary; wonderfully so.

Torchwood: Children of Earth

After a patchy first season, and a superior successor, when it was announced that 'Torchwood' was taking some time off for a re-jig and BBC1 re-launch, I resolved myself to the fact that the show was going to implode from the weight of it’s own ambitions (and/or John Barrowman’s) and collapse short of being a true success. 'Children of Earth', a five part ‘mini-series’ is a corker, a modern day 'Quatermass'-type tale, made as if an episode of '24' via a dash of 'Fail Safe', with plot, energy, and twists to spare. I hooked through the five hours in one sitting, pitying the poor souls in the UK who had to watch this across the week, for this is a creepy, suspenseful, sci-fi thriller the likes of which may be some time in gracing the screens again. Euros Lyn, a look time 'Doctor Who' director, outdid himself with the neo-realist approach, and dense structure. The sequence when Frobisher officially holds court with the 456 for the first time, as Lois watches on feeding the Torchwood team the live feed via her special contacts, is a textbook example of planning and editing, as the audience is able to experience the disparate strands of this important symposium. Utterly riveting TV. That a moodily illuminated tank of smoke, and a placid voice, can be so unsettling is a major score for the production. While there are a number of plot holes, the bulkf of the miniseries is enormously entertaing. The truth behind the 456’s presence on earth is disturbing indeed. Goosebumps, tears, laughs, and a lot of sitting forward in my seat biting my nails, 'Children of Earth' left me wanting more of this mini-series format, deeper, darker, more dynamic. Flawed but still an excellent experience.

Doctor Who

David Tennant is no longer The Doctor. Lips trembled. Chins wobbled. Tears Flowed.
A typically over-blown Russell T.Davies plot, with the return of the maniacal Master, and a significant surprise along with him. The two-and-a-half hour finale to Tennant’s tenure was both a worthy last hoorah, and a testament to the fact that the actor’s time was indeed up. The extended epilogue to the tale stopped short of a ticker-tape parade, mawkish and mopey, in some ways justified but there was a sense that it was a celebration of the performer as much as the character. By all accounts during the lead up to the finale Tennant was appearing on every show, and in every piece of print media, possible stopping short of reading the nightly news or posing for a page 3. Throw in the fact that the boss was also signing off on his own little sci-fi soap opera the results ended up as a slightly saggy, sentimental story, spectacular in many ways, though showing signs of RTD trotting out a few too many of his bog standard tricks. There was a definite feeling of over-familiarity. The most significant guest actor (whom shall remain nameless so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen it) was a welcome treat, if only they had been rewarded with a little more to do. Beyond Tennant’s typically powerful performance this episode belongs to Bernard Cribbins. What a fantastic, moving story he offered us. It’s a shame that this series climax wasn’t part of a traditional season, as I found the space between ‘special’ episodes defused my enthusiasm somewhat. After the grim, and disjointed 'Waters of Mars' there was still that nagging sense of the plot being disposable, and that all that really mattered was the pay-off.
Past that though, the final revelation of the truth behind the prophecy ‘he will knock four times’ is fantastic. Gobsmacking. Simple, stunning, and stark in its tragedy. It is during these scenes that Tennant really shines. He’s always been a brilliant actor, beyond being a top Doctor, and his final scenes will ensure that he is long-remembered for being both.
Hats off to Matt Smith who had the almost impossible job of delivering a thumbnail turn as the eleventh Doctor, bursting with energy and enthusiasm, amid a chaotic closing scene.
I will miss Tennant, for sure, but with a new actor, and show-runner in the form of the near genius that is Steven Moffatt I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for the return of a proper series, with a sense of the joy found in uncertainty and expectation.

* * *

I'll start with the nadir of the year which is an obvious one. Ignoring the depressing thought that another year has passed as water through my fingers, leaving me pretty much in the same spot I was in the year before, one of the lowest points of the year was the demise of Downriver. Notwithstanding my friendship with the boys, in one case spanning two decades, the loss of this band is a real blow. Like so many bands they imploded right as they were hitting their stride. Thankfully they left behind two full length releases ( one of which has a particularly righteous cover painting ) that remain as testament to their greatness. 'Seethin' Heathen' is a world class, mean motherfucker mongrel of an album, with a top-notch sound, and one of the most consistent track listings of any album I can think of. The rock that men do lives on and on...

Queensryche @ Billboards. Totally not into it. I was tired, bored, restless and couldn't wait for it to be over. The arrival of 'Jet City Woman' and 'Empire' could do little to assuage my apathy.

As I said earlier the departure of David Tennant didn't devastate me as much as I had expected, as his time was up and his departure was suitably sorrowful though hardly succint. His was a dynamic Doctor with the actor having the luxury of being offered the opportunity to explore the character in ways and to depths never before seen. Manic, bitter, barmy, bilious, boisterous, broken-hearted and all round brilliant!

* * *

Now to the hightlights, and to be honest there were a plenty of magnificent moments from 2009.
Janeane Garofolo and Steve Coogan during the comedy festival.
Several grand gigs:
Satyricon with the scary, stylish, Satyr and the biomechanical bewilderment known as Frost on the drums with 'The Wolf Pack', 'Fuel for Hatred', 'The Pentagram Burns' and the monstrous 'To the Mountains' stand outs.
Cradle of Filth sadly sans spectacle though frightening and ferocious. Looking down from the centre of the middle balcony was just about one of the best vantage points I've ever had for a show, enabling me to enjoy all of the action on stage as much as the impressive light show.''Shat out of Hell', 'Nymphetamine' and 'Honey & Sulphur' with the lights most effective here during the choral climax.

Antoinette Halloran singing the title role in 'Tosca'. Gooesbumps and glistening eyes all the way.

This year I attended more screenings during the Melbourne Film Festival than ever before. 10 in total. I had a couple up my sleeve that I wasn't able to see because I was simply burnt out from films towards the end, or the damned things were on about midnight, or conflicting with other obligations. For example, journeying all the way out to Cranbourne to have a beer with Dave-of-Metal for his birthday before tearing-arse back into the city in order to see 'An Education' and the Norwegian Nazi-Zombie film 'Dead Snow'.

My core reason for seeing 'An Education' was the lead actress Carey Mulligan, the very talented young star-in-ascendence, who was in attendance. Who is Carey Mulligan you ask? Well to a lot of nerds, and those in the know out there, she will always be Sally Sparrow from Steve Moffatt's eerie episode of 'Doctor Who' "Blink". The one with the stone angels. With me now? So, anyhoo, she was attending the screening and doing a Q&A afterwards. After a few fairly typical questions, and a hastened prayer to my Gods that I had sobered enough to be coherent ( fear was no doubt simmering the cider right out of me ) I had the chance to congratulate her on her performance, but most importantly mention her role in 'Doctor Who'. I pointed out that she was the only person in the room who had been inside the TARDIS to which she laughed and, ignoring festival curator Richard Moore's disdain for the show, waxed on the strength of that role, especially for a younger woman, and how it set the template for the sort of work she wanted, and would be offered, claiming it to be a rare chance, and that she was glad she played Sally for if not for that role she wouldn't be here with the current film. The look on Richard Moore's face was priceless. She had all but turned around and given him the finger. Stick thin, but dead gorgeous and glamourous I was pleased to see her acknowledge with award nominations for her role. We'll be seeing more of here no doubt.

A lunch-time sprint to the ABC shop in the city afforded me the opportunity to see Dylan Moran up close and personal as he did a signing. There wasn't enough time to join the line, even though it was fairly short, but he was just as dishevelled, and dry-of-wit as you'd imagine him to be. Much better than trying to do a Sodoku while eating lasagne and chips in a cafe somewhere.

Serendipity knocked me for six when I ran into Merrin after all those years.
That was sensational.

The best moment of 2009 is a hands down winner.
In fact, it may remain a golden moment for some time: I met Peter Davison.
Peter Davison one of my fave Doctors, and fave actors. There's Doctor Who, obviously, as well as The Last Detective, The Complete Guide to Parenting, Distant Shores ( check this out for the hilarious Wicker Man pastiche ) and the old chestnut A Very Perculiar Practise proving what a prolific and diverse actor he is. For a while there he was in something almost every night of the week.
This was only my second time at something geeky like this, the first being when I met Colin Baker ( gentleman and good guy ), Sylvester McCoy ( gruff old cunt ) and Katy Manning ( lovely lady ), and that was more of a family affair, publicized widely, hosted in the Palais. Content was lacking, but it was still great to see, and meet those actors. Sort of. As the poet said 'two outta three aint bad'.
This was almost the opposite, held in a tiny theatre the size of a couple of toilet cubicules, with the most annoying self-laudatory twat to twitter into a microphone acting as MC. Acting an arsehole more likely. The 'talent' content was spread across a long day, almost 7 hours, with the clips played mere low-res rips, no drinks available, and an interminable and embaressing hour or more of this cock and baffled Adam Richards fighting for the spotlight to regurgitate every biot of geek news they read during the week. Woeful. The audience seemed to consist of the MC's mates with only a few stragglers to make up the scant numbers.
Dismissing all of that Davison was a dude. Mark Strickson perhaps more-so, surprisingly.Very charismatic, both guys wove anecdotes around idiotic questions, including one of my own. Mercifully I later remembered what it was I had to ask and had the chance to put it to Peter. Can't tell you how much that was a relief. Endless sleepless nights otherwise. 'What did I ask?' you ask. I asked him about an old TV series he starred in called 'Campion' in which he played a young gent in the Edwardian age, bored and wealthy, who sets himself up as an amateur detective. I asked about that and a hilarious radio comedy he performed in titled 'Rigor Mortis' in which he plays a wacky pathologist. Very funny stuff, worth checking out. I forked out a small fortune but I had the chance to have my photo taken with him, which was subsequently signed.
Hands up how many people up there have had the chance to meet one of their childhood heroes? When I was a little snowy haired kid and was old enough to really 'get' Doctor Who Tom Baker ceded the character to Davison, and a lot of those shows are the ones that I remember seeing first. Baker re-runs would eclipse everything else later on, of course, but stories like 'Four to Doomsday', 'Warriors of the Deep' and 'The Visitation' were deeply impressed upon my mind, so much so that when I watch those shows again on DVD as they are released now it is as if the last 25 or 30 years have simply dissolved away. A little scary really. All in all all, it was simply brilliant to actually stand there, say g'day, share a laugh while the photographer faffed about, and experience Davison as an affable and amusing guy, less than some visiting actor.

Phew. There you go, my 2009. to get busy with 2010.