I got caught up in my studies this month and so didn't have anawfullot of time to spend on reading – though having said that, it's a bit scary to look back and realize how much material I managed towatch. I'm currently writing a sub-series for my column on Helen Lowe's blog called "Fantasy Movies from the Eighties that Weren't that Bad," which gave me the perfect excuse to revisit some of the movies I grew up with, and Ifinallygot around to installing the requisite apps on my Tablet so I can access ebooks from the library.
But it was a varied month, with stuff dating from 1985 to 2015: murders in India, intrigue in Ancient Egypt, romance in South Africa, and politics in a galaxy far, far away.
The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly
This is a book that became one of my favourite "comfort reads" without me fully realizing it. I don't actually own a copy, but I revisit it every few years and enjoy it a little more each time. In the summer of 1922 Inspector Joe Sandilands is called to the Bengal province to investigate a series of strange deaths. Every year in March, one of the wives of an upstanding British officer is found dead in mysterious circumstances, the latest with her wrists slit in a bathtub. Her husband is convinced it's not suicide, and her best friend Nancy Drummond has an even darker hypothesis: that the women are being deliberately targeted as part of some inexplicable vendetta.
It's up to Sandilands to figure out the connection between the five deaths, and though the solution to the mystery is revealed fairly early on, Cleverly manages to elegantly shift her whodunit into an equally compelling "why-dunit".
I have no idea whether her portrayal of the British Raj in 1920s India is accurate or fanciful, but I do know that it's vividly rendered: the heat, the smells, the culture, and the history (in fact, much of the tension surrounding the murders is the community's fear that the deaths of the memsahibs could spark the flames of another mutiny).
If you're a fan of ITV's Indian Summers, then I'm confident you'll enjoy this as well.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster
Any given novelization of a film will never be great literature, but I had heard interesting things about Alan Dean Foster's fleshed-out version of The Force Awakens. Naturally there are plenty of variations between film and book, everything from lengthy deleted scenes to tiny deviations in the dialogue, and I'd love to know what exactly Foster is basing these changes on. An early script? Or his own imagination? And are we meant to consider his additions as canon?
Because apart from some of the major plot-holes and other oddities that the novelization covers (such as how Poe got off Jakku and why the camera lingered on the young black woman when Hosnian Prime blew up) there are some fascinating little details sprinkled throughout. For instance, in the vision Rey has during her visit to Maz Kanata's cantina, she hears the voice of the person who abandoned her on Jakku: "Stay here. I'll come back for you. I'll come back, sweetheart. I promise." Though it doesn't specify whether the voice was male or female, the endearment of "sweetheart" certainly suggests a parent as opposed to Kylo Ren (as I know a popular theory is that he that saved her from the Jedi massacre).
The novelization also informs us that Leia knew Supreme Leader Snoke had been monitoring Kylo from an early age, that the moment Han confronts Kylo on the catwalk is actually the first time he's seen his son as an adult, and that Kylo and Rey do have a history together: when she claims Luke's lightsabre in their climactic confrontation, Kylo mutters: "it is you."
It's certainly food for thought, and it'll be interesting to see if Foster's tweaks are consistent with whatever revelations emerge in the upcoming films.
The Lost Mask by Ashley Capes
I was sent this book (and its predecessor) by the author in exchange for an honest review, and you can find my full thoughts at Fantasy.Lit. So far the two books contain a solid, enjoyable story, with their most notable conceit being the existence of mysterious bone masks that allow the wearer to communicate with equally mysterious god-like entities whose origins and purpose remain clouded.
The first book introduced us to three distinct plots headed by three different characters: mercenary and war-hero Notch who wakes up in a prison cell, accused of a crime he's sure he didn’t commit, high-born Sofia Falco who is devastated to learn she's inherited the Greatmask Argeon in the wake of her brother's death, and Ain, a desert-dweller who is chosen by his people to seek out a mysterious shrine that may hold the key to winning back ancestral lands lost to them.
Naturally the storylines begin to converge as the book goes on, and this is followed up nicely in the sequel. The Lost Mask expands on characterization and world-building without getting too bogged down in extraneous detail, and the pacing is spot-on. Every chapter adds something new, though with an emphasis on action and suspense over the political intrigue inherent throughout City of Masks.
One of the entries in my "Fantasy Films from the Eighties that Weren't that Bad" column, Willow is one of the touchstones of my late childhood (let's say age ten to twelve) and best described as the love child of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Seriously, pretty much every single character and narrative trope has its equivalent in one of those older trilogies. Mad Martigan = Aragon/Han Solo. Willow = Luke Skywalker/Frodo Baggins. Finn Raziel = Gandalf/Obi Wan. Sorsha = Leia/Eowyn. Though okay, I have to concede some variation with Sorsha, as she starts out on the wrong side of this particular battle between good and evil, eventually being won over to the heroic side by how hot Val Kilmer looks when he's slaying dragons.
It's not uncanny but downright fun to find all the similarities, though of course I didn't know any of this as a ten year old. To me, Willow was a masterpiece of original fantasy. It gave us an eighteen-year old Warwick Davies! Joanne Whalley as a red-headed woman-warrior! (My first introduction to this particular character type. It was love at first sight). New Zealand standing in for a fantasy realm a good decade before Peter Jackson co-opted it for Middle Earth! My full review is found on Helen's blog, and though I admit the tone of the movie is a little dodgy (any Millennial who grew up with it will assume it's kid friendly, but it's really not) and the entire plot based on a premise that's proven to be completely meaningless (that magical baby everyone is obsessed with? Could have been any old baby for all the difference it makes) but it's still one of the seminal fantasy films of the Eighties.
The Princess Bride (1987)
But nowhere near as seminal as The Princess Bride. This is also in my column, though with the disclaimer that it doesn't fall into the "not that bad" category, as it is in fact a beloved cult classic in every sense of the word. It's the source of a whopping thirteen Trope Names (well, they've renamed As You Wish to Something Only They Would Say) and can be quoted extensively by everyone aged twenty to fifty.
The strange thing is that The Princess Bride barely classifies as a "fantasy" story. The only elements that put it into that genre are some giant rats, a weird swamp and a single miracle. Everything else is better described as a comedic costume drama with an underlying strain of true sincerity when it comes to its affirmation of True Love. I've heard some say it's this very blend of parody and earnestness that makes it so popular, eclipsing even the book upon which it's based. (Which I've read, and I have to say I infinitely prefer the framing device of the film over that of William Goldman's book).
I have a few unpopular opinions regarding the film – namely that I'm not totally convinced by Westley and Buttercup's love story, and that the plot gets considerably less interesting after the Fire Swamp (not counting Inigo's duel with the six-fingered man) but you'll find my full review on Helen's blog.
One thing remains to be said: on watching the film for the umpteenth time in preparation for my review, I realized for the first time that Westley's declaration of love, hidden in the words "as you wish", aren't spoken only by him. The Grandfather utters the same phrase when he leaves his Grandson's room at the end of the film, and it took me this long to realize what he was truly saying to the boy who goes from smarmy cynic to enraptured believer over the course of the story. Well played, movie. I'm just sorry it took me twenty years to figure it out.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Okay, so this isn't a part of my Eighties Fantasy column – just a movie I was curious about and had extremely vague memories of watching as a child. As it happens Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain are some of my favourite books, and without wanting to diminish them in any way, they're best described as The Lord of the Rings for young readers, containing everything that would imply: an fantasy world, a coming of age story, a range of archetypal characters, a conflict between good and evil, a collection of magical artefacts – but also Alexander's trademark sense of humour.
It's a fantastic series, and much like Ursula le Guin's Earthsea books, one that hasn't been done justice in any cinematic medium. Generally considered the Red-Headed Stepchild of the Disney canon, The Black Cauldron is pretty much a mess. The story is an awkward melding of The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron (the first and second books in the series), a creative decision which only manages to short-change both of them. Characters such as Gwydion and Coll are dropped entirely, and the plot keeps changing its mind on what it's attempting to achieve: firstly in taking Hen Wen to safety, then rescuing Hen Wen from the Horned King, then escaping the Horned King's castle, then searching for the Black Cauldron, then trying to destroy the Black Cauldron...
Add to that the muddle of characters (most of which are simply there without any narrative purpose) and a half-hearted attempt to capture some of the underlying themes of the books, and you're left with a pretty weak effort. I'm assuming Disney still holds the rights to the series, so here's hoping they'll commit to a more faithful attempt in the near future.
Thunderbirds Are Go! (2015 – 2016)
I'll admit, I watched mainly because I knew Angel Coubly was voicing one of the characters, and I have a strange sense of loyalty when it comes to the Merlin cast. As a child, I was only peripherally aware of Thunderbirds, and had little interest in its plots or vehicles, finding most of my enjoyment in the marionettes and the theme music.
It was a point of contention to many old-time fans that the rebooted series dispatched the marionettes in favour of CGI characters, but I can't imagine any network green-lighting the puppets in 2015. Let's be brutally honest here: they were slow, they were expressionless, and they made any sort of suspenseful action completely impossible. Plus, they still use models and miniatures for the vehicles and sets, courtesy of Weta Workshops.
It's definitely a children's show, with cookie-cutter characters, a moustache-twirling villain and relatively simplistic plots, but in the final handful of episodes, things actually get pretty good – and it's largely thanks to Angel's character Kayo. She's the Head of Security on Tracy Island, but she also argues that International Rescue should use their resources to hunt down bad guys as well as rescue people in need. It makes sense considering her uncle is The Hood (not that any of the Tracy brothers know this) and their secret familial relationship forms the crux of the last two episodes.
Angel always lamented the fact she wasn't allowed to do much sword-fighting on Merlin, so she must be pretty happy that Kayo is easily the most kickass character on Thunderbirds.
Vincent (2005 – 2006)
Yes, this was also part of my ongoing project to seek out the back-logs of former Merlin stars. Running for two seasons with four episodes each, Vincent starred Ray Winstone as a former cop turned private investigator, and a team comprised of Suranne Jones, Ian Puleston-Davies and Angel Coulby. Rather dark and gritty, it dealt with a number of violent crimes in Northern England (drugs, gangs, extortion) and how Vincent's underdog team always managed to see justice done, despite the considerable danger they put themselves in.
It was pretty much a vehicle for Ray Winstone and his usual "gruff exterior hides a heart of gold" persona, but hey – the man has a character type and plays it well. Unfortunately Angel's role isn't particularly interesting: she plays a glorified secretary who is consistently ordered to leave whenever things look like they're getting dangerous, though Suranne Jones gets a juicer role as Vincent's cool and competent second-in-command.
It fell to the "two season" curse, in which a show is good enough to extend past its first season, but can't seem to garner enough traction for a third, and so ends on an oddly open-ended note that seems to be holding out for ensuing episodes that were never commissioned. In all, it's not a bad show exactly, just a by-the-numbers one.
Leading Lady (2015)
So here's a question for you: is it better for an actor to have supporting roles in quality material, or leading roles in a bunch of crap? That's pretty much the difference in seeking out Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath's pre/post-Merlin work.
Leading Lady is about a diffident teacher called Jodi Rutherford who dates a self-absorbed director in the hope he'll give her the starring role in a film about an Afrikaans war heroine – a nationality she doesn't belong to in a country she's never set foot in. She ends up travelling to South Africa to prepare for the role, and ends up on a farm that's run by a man who wears a cap, has a dog, and strums a guitar. Guess what happens next!
I enjoy watching Katie McGrath, but it's obvious to me that she's much better as a dramatic actress than a nuanced one. Over the course of Merlin I was always completely sold on Morgana's rage, terror and/or desperation, but romantic comedies like this are the wrong niche for her. It's difficult to articulate the problem, but when she's called upon to be natural and unaffected, she can never quite get rid of an inner tension that renders her performance as - well, a performance.
In this case the script certainly doesn't help, filled as it is with wall-to-wall clichés and some really weird attempts at humour (a South African housekeeper puts Jodi's clothes in the washing machine, she responds with the line: "I'm against all forms of racism!") but I think she needs to stick with broader, larger-than-life roles. She's better suited as a Character Actor along the lines of Gina Torres or Hayley Atwell.
Peter Pan Live! (2015)
I watched The Wiz Live! last month and enjoyed it, so decided to skip back a year and check out its immediate predecessor (though that's as far as it'll go – I can't see myself ever inflicting Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live! on my eyes/ears). Turns out that Peter Pan Live! was a pleasantly diverting experience, though nothing that'll stand the test of time.
I'm not hugely familiar with J. M. Barrie's stage show (only the novel, which he wrote at a later date) but I'm under the impression that a lot of the dialogue was changed for this production, leaving only the songs intact. However, it keeps some of its most iconic elements: the obvious wire-work, a flashing light portraying the movement of Tinkerbell, and an actress in the role of Peter (though oddly, the actor who usually pulls double-duty as both Mr Darling and Captain Hook instead plays Mr Darling and Smee instead) and also takes advantage of the unique theatre/television format.
As such, the cameras are forever swooping above and across the impressive set: not only throughout the hall and bedroom of the Darling residence (though at one point they panned too far left and got one of the lights in-shot) but also the tropical island of Neverland and its hills, beaches, lagoons and secret lairs. The choreography is great, the costumes are suitably bright and colourful, and after the fiasco of Pan the show deserves credit for casting real Native American performers as Tiger Lily and her tribe.
But the strangest casting decision has to be Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. He commits to the role and is clearly having a good time, but definitely sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to his singing/dancing talent. Perhaps they wanted at least one recognizable name in the cast? They got it, but it's also an incongruous presence among the trained stage performers.
This miniseries was announced about the same time Scott Ridley's Exodus was released, and I remember it being lauded for actually casting actors of colour to play the Ancient Egyptians (in the wake of Gods of Egypt, its existence feels even more pertinent). I was looking forward to it, especially with news of the cast: Avan Jogia, Alexander Siddig, Nonso Anozie, Peter Gadiot, Ben Kingsley – that's a promising collection of actors right there.
I was less familiar with its leading ladies, Sibylla Dean and Kylie Bunbury, but knew that the latter had starred alongside Avan Jogia in a show called Twisted that apparently dropped the ball when it came to its shipping endgame. As I understand it, Jogia and Bunbury's characters made up the show's Fan Preferred Couple, only for Jogia to be paired up with another girl, so it must have been a treat for fans to see the actors reunited as the Official Couple on Tut.
Unfortunately, the miniseries itself simply isn't very good. The narrative lacks a sense of urgency, with sluggish pacing and gaping plot holes. The actors wander lackadaisically through their scenes, conveying no sense of what's at stake and giving the audience no reason to care about their lives. The sets and costumes look exactly like what they are: sets and costumes, which make it difficult to lose yourself in the grandeur and opulence of Ancient Egypt.
I wanted this to be good, I really did, but the lack of solid information we have on the real Tutankhamun means great swaths of the story is made up of the usual "epic" tropes and archetypes that appear in these types of films: ambushes, intrigue, coups, the scheming wife, the backstabbing friend, the loyal general – it all felt so rote and predictable, with only the occasional glimmer of true pathos surrounding Tut's strange, short life.