Friday Fiction Fixes #12…

Velocity by Dean Koontz – 2005

Koontz-Dean-Velocity-4003-pI’ve read dozens of Koontz novels over the years – from the pretty terrible to the pretty terrific – but the man has earned my respect and gets a pass for the odd misfire. He is one of those authors I will always find a way back to if I can’t think of anything else to read. I’ve always envied his style. Koontz doesn’t write long-winded paragraphs but squeezes a lot of character into so few words. It’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s definitely a skill I admire, and there are very few people who can do it better.

For the first third of Velocity, I really thought it was going to be up there with his best. The idea is great: Billy Wile, finds a hand-written note under his windshield wiper (see the set-up spoiling cover picture above) and that’s it. Then we’re off to the races. It runs at a blistering pace, with a few clever moral quandaries to mull over along the way. The first two-thirds of the novel is fantastic, but once Billy starts to gain a little perspective on the situation, the story slows down, and it really isn’t as exciting or interesting anymore. Unfortunately it pulls towards a fairly unsatisfying conclusion with a couple of plot holes that you could drive a truck through.

Koontz knows how to pace a very good chase thriller, so even if the story wanes you never feel as though you’re sinking into quicksand because you’re always out the other side before you know it. Does he sometimes phone it in? Sure, that’s a valid criticism: his work can be a little formulaic at times, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. People like what’s familiar. If you enjoy beer, you don’t stop drinking it because it tastes the same as last time, do you?

Tuesday TV Testimonials #12…

Ghostwatch (1992)

4880It may be hard to believe nowadays with how street-smart we all think we are, but back in 1992 Ghostwatch scared a lot of people. These days the internet would have burst the bubble of doubt long before the show even made it into our living rooms and the broadcast would have lost any ability it had to shock, but back then we were a little more naive and (apparently) a lot more gullible.

ghostwatch_webGhostwatch was listed as a drama and had been pre-taped, but it was presented as if it was real and live on Halloween night. I think the primary reason a lot of people fell for the ruse was that it was hosted by Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, and Mike Smith. We trusted those guys, and there was no expectation of them being involved with something that was… well, kind of tacky.

The ‘script’ moved between studio analysis of the eerie happenings, and what can probably be described as an early form of ‘found footage’ long before The Blair Witch Project kickstarted the cinema sub-genre, as the cameras followed a team of investigators around an English family home which was alleged to be haunted by a poltergeist. It wasn’t long before things started to go bump in the night.

I was sixteen at the time, and the day after it aired I was on my paper round. The headlines were all about how irresponsible the BBC was. Thousands of viewers had called in to voice their disgust and (in some cases) outright fear at what they had witnessed the night before. In some ways it was a modern day representation of that infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds all over again. And no, I’m not overstating it.

Yeah, Ghostwatch was fake. It’s easy to see that now, but there’s a reason it hasn’t been repeated on UK television in the twenty-five years since. Trust me: watching it ‘live’ back then, it felt real.

Monday Movie Mentions #12…

Enter the Dragon (1973)

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Bruce Lee was a cinematic superhero – truly larger than life, which is ironic as he stood 5 foot 8 inches and weighed a mere 140 pounds. He only starred in four movies* before his premature death at the age of thirty-two, but he left behind a legacy that is as great today as it ever was. He is often referred to as the father of mixed martial arts, because what he was doing then – when nobody else was – is big business now.

Yeah, it’s true: I’ve got a bit of a man-crush.

My dad performed taekwondo to a very high standard for several years, and his fingerprints are all over the genesis of my enjoyment of Bruce Lee… although I never saw my dad bust out the nunchuks the way Lee does in Enter the Dragon.

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The biggest problem with this movie (in fact, all of Lee’s movies) is that he never seems in any real danger of getting his ass kicked. Even if you suspend your disbelief, it’s hard to forget that he is far and away the best fighter on screen, and you know that the bad guy is going to need more than #spoiler# a removable claw-hand to take him down.

Lee died six days before the movie was released to the world, so he never saw it become the seminal piece that it is considered today. Enter the Dragon certainly benefits from its Hollywood production, and although in many ways his earlier Hong Kong movies are more brutal and graphic, as a total package it’s hard to deny Lee’s masterwork its place in history.

*Yes, for you aficionados out there, I said four movies. The abomination that is Game of Death doesn’t count… and you guys will know why.

Sunday Song Suggestions #12…

Dazed and Confused – Led Zeppelin – 1968

The term ‘heavy metal’ didn’t really catch on until the seventies, and you can argue about when and with whom the style began, but if you said right here – when it was still called rock – I don’t think you would be too far wrong.

Led Zeppelin was certainly one of the bands that took the genre in its infancy and throttled it into life, and Dazed and Confused – from their debut album – is the best song they ever released. Yes, that’s right – contrary to popular belief, it’s not Stairway to Heaven.

Robert Plant delivers here with such passion and emotion that it’s hard to believe he was only twenty years old when this was recorded. Meanwhile Jimmy Page wails on the guitar, and John Bonham smacks the skins like they owe him money.

At a blistering six and a half minutes Dazed and Confused is quite lengthy for the time, but it’s merely a commercial break compared to the extended ad-libbed versions Led Zeppelin were known to have performed at their concerts, which sometimes went in excess of half an hour.

Yes, the fidelity of music has moved on since the late sixties, but while hard rock certainly sounds cleaner and more crisp these days, I don’t know if it has ever sounded as raw and alive as it did almost fifty years ago when these four young English guys did it.

Friday Fiction Fixes #11…

Dracula by Bram Stoker – 1897

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Probably not Stoker’s original vision.

I have spent a fair portion of my life writing dark fiction, but somewhat surprisingly I was a little late to the party with this one, and I didn’t read Dracula – the grand-daddy of horror literature – until I was thirty. Perhaps it’s because vampires have never really done it for me as a sub-genre. Then again, if you want to be a film director, you watch Hitchcock movies. If you want a career in porn, Ron Jeremy’s your man… well, you know, so I’ve heard.

Literature of such vintage is often stigmatised by its stagnant use of language, but although Dracula is now one hundred and twenty years old, it still feels quite fresh and accessible. The narrative takes the non-traditional form of letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles, but despite this often clunky way of storytelling, it’s still a much easier read than you may expect going in – testament to how well the story is told.

Is it worthy of being held in such high regard? Possibly. It’s difficult to be objective with a property as ubiquitous as Dracula. It’s certainly not the greatest horror novel I have read – I’ve had more fun with stories published both before and after – but cinema has been in love with the character for decades, so there’s something to be said about the reach of the chilling and iconic Count.

Tuesday TV Testimonials #11…

Ally McBeal (1997 – 2002)

AMC_1LAlly McBeal was a dramedy, before the term had really gained much traction, and when it hit television there was nothing quite like it. It’s probably difficult to fathom for those who weren’t around at the time, but twenty years ago Ally’s particular brand of trippy plot devices and wealth of quirky characters was extremely rare, and the show helped to pave the way for others to colour outside the lines as well.

Set in a Boston law firm, the show’s humour was often edgy, and it relied heavily on surreal fantasy sequences, usually as a way to explore Ally’s feelings and/or fears. This sometimes added new directions that a more traditional episodic format would have been unable to achieve.

d160865ceb86ba78711702ade79b8830--ally-mcbeal-im-sadAlly herself was one of the most talked about TV characters of the nineties. She was roundly lambasted for setting feminism back several generations and – by extension – Calista Flockhart, who played her, was also criticised for allowing it to happen. In essence there were a whole lot of people who took her far too seriously. I didn’t view her that way at all… but of course, being a guy in my early twenties, I was not the target demographic of either the show or the criticism.

fbd75f3749a3cb8e_ally-mcbeal-face-bra-e1295186067943Ally McBeal had a truly ensemble cast, and every character was memorable, unique, and ripe with soundbites and quotable lines. Although the show was ultimately about Ally and her relationships with her friends and co-workers, the dialogue was so sharp and each character had been built so well, that the show ticked over effortlessly even when she wasn’t on screen.

0c52ef779b33be468fd6ffef7dbbe028And of course, as any fan knows, John Cage is one of the best TV characters ever. A walking neurosis, he was often the best thing about any scene in which he appeared, and his back and forths with business partner Richard Fish was so good, it’s a crime those two never spawned a spin-off.

Ally McBeal was even (at least partly) responsible for bringing Robert Downey Jr back into the limelight, so even the mighty Iron Man owes Ally a debt of gratitude.

Monday Movie Mentions #11…

Bronco Billy (1980)

v1.bTsxMTYxNDQ5OTtqOzE3NTA0OzEyMDA7NDk1OzY2MAAbout twenty years ago there was a seemingly endless festival of Clint Eastwood movies on TV – this was, of course, back when people still watched TV. It was during this time that I was introduced to a lot of his performances – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bad joke, I know.

As director as well as lead actor, Bronco Billy is one of the handful of movies where Clint managed to shoehorn his long-time love interest Sondra Locke into the mix. She always felt surplus to requirements for me, and no matter what else she has done in her career, her legacy will always and only be as Clint Eastwood’s girl.

Bronco Billy is far from Clint’s most well known film, and I can name a dozen off the top of my head that are better, but it is somewhat of a forgotten minor gem in his vast catalogue. It’s a light comedy in which Clint riffs on his long-standing cowboy persona in an old-fashioned travelling circus, as the self-proclaimed ‘fastest gun in the West’.

Antoinette: Have you ever been married?
Bronco Billy: Sure. A long time ago.
Antoinette: Did you love her?
Bronco Billy: With all my heart. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.
Antoinette: What happened?
Bronco Billy: I caught her in bed with my best friend.
Antoinette: What did you do to him?
Bronco Billy: I shot her.
Antoinette: What! What about him?
Bronco Billy: He was my best friend!

So, why do I remember fondly watching Bronco Billy from a run on television two decades ago? It’s a metaphor for where I was in my life: a simple movie that reminds me of a simpler time. And sometimes, the memory and the smile is enough.