Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The Unewsual VI - the monolith

From BBC News: Metal monolith found by helicopter crew in Utah desert... For what it's worth, this clearly isn't a 2001-style monolith; readers of Clarke's novel will know that the monolith's proportions have a ratio 1:4:9, i.e. the squares of the first three ordinal numbers. Come on, art pranksters, if you're going to stick a monolith in the desert for a laugh, at least do it right...

Thursday, 12 November 2020

The Underappreciated: The First Great Train Robbery

A very occasional series, the purpose of which is to highlight films that are really underappreciated, and that you might get a kick out of viewing. Today, a late Seventies offering from the late Sean Connery.

I've been meaning to write about this film, as part of my Underappreciated series, for a long time, but just haven't got around to it. Well now Sean Connery has died, I really had better get myself in gear. Not that I would imagine for one minute he was waiting for me to write about him...

But anyway, in the wake of his passing it would be all too easy to write about Connery as Bond, his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, all the rest... I don't think I've seen anyone mention The First Great Train Robbery in their tributes though, and that's a real shame because it is an absolute cracker!

Connery plays Edward Pierce, charismatic man about London town and master thief. He plans to steal a shipment of gold meant to finance the Crimean War effort... from a moving train. But Pierce, much like Charlie Croker, Danny Ocean and countless others, needs a team to carry this off. His mistress Miriam, wonderfully played by Lesley-Anne Down, is first on-board, swiftly followed by master pickpocket and screwsman Agar (Donald Sutherland). Pierce's chauffeur is also in on the deal, and a train guard is bribed too. Essential to the plot is the recruitment of "Clean" Willy, played by a young Wayne Sleep - Willy is a snakesman, a cat burglar basically. He meets a sticky end too, but that's bordering on a spoiler, so I'll shut up and show you the very-much-of-its-time trailer:

So what makes this so good? What, apart from the starry cast, boys' own plot, crisp script (written and directed by Michael Crichton), Jerry Goldsmith's cracking score and a wonderful cinematic evocation of Victorian London? Aside from all that, you mean? It's even a Dino De Laurentis production, for goodness' sake, and if that doesn't give you a Proustian rush I don't know what will.

But more than that, I get a sense from this film that no-one put a foot wrong making it; everyone, from Connery right down to the minor players, is on form. I also get a sense that the cast had fun making this, and why not? This is a script shot through with humour, and with plenty of opportunity to make the most, in comic asides, of Victorian versions of modern tropes (like the 100mph Club, rather than the Mile High Club). Oh, and playboy Pierce gets to play innuendo bingo, in a scene that could be right out of Carry On:

And whilst this film is, like any good caper, primarily terrific fun, there are darker moments too... so sod spoilers, here's that moment when Clean Willy gets his comeuppance for turning snitch on Pierce and his well-tailored crew:

And there's so much more! Lesley-Anne Down's Miriam adopting multiple personae, Donald Sutherland's turn in a coffin, Clean Willy's jailbreak, the acquisition of the safe keys (one of which features the longest 75 seconds in cinematic history!), the robbery itself, the denouement... I could go on. But I won't, other than to say if you're a bit fed up with Lockdown II (The Corona Strikes Back) and have exhausted your box-sets, well, do yourself a favour, put the heating on, get comfy in your favourite chair and watch this instead - it's terrific! It's on Netflix and Prime Video for starters. I saw one reviewer call this the best Sean Connery film you've never seen, and he's right... but you can remedy your oversight right now...

Separated at birth IX - Lee Cain and Blofeld

No 10's suddenly-departed former Commuincations Officer Lee Cain
No 10's suddenly-departed former Commuincations Officer Lee Cain

I was not surprised to read that Lee Cain had quit working for Boris. No doubt he realised that rather than working with wannabe-Bond villains like Johnson and Dominic Cummings, he might as well set up his own hollowed-out volcano...

Thorn in Bond's side Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Thorn in Bond's side Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Previous separations at birth

Size is everything

It's four years and two months since I last changed my mobile phone. I'm only changing now because the battery in my old one doesn't hold a charge properly anymore, and is not replaceable. So... the battle to find a small, i.e. pocket-friendly phone was rejoined. And boy, it was hard. Seems that now, more than ever, bigger is seen as better when it comes to smartphones. Annoying... but time to update the mobile timeline, regardless. Here it is:

The most compact phone I could find, with the spec I require, is 8mm taller than the phone it has replaced. Oh well.

Because these photographs are inexplicably popular (in web searches, at least) they have their own label so, for completists (!) here are the previous posts in the series.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Twenty in '20: The Psychology of Time Travel

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

11/20: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The blurb: 1967. Four female scientists invent a time travel machine. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril...

2017. Ruby knows her Granny Bee was the scientist who went mad, but they never talk about it. Until they receive a message from the future, warning of an elderly woman's violent death...

2018. Odette found the dead women at work – shot in the head, door bolted from the inside. Now she can't get her out of her mind. Who was she? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder?

The review: I'm a sucker for a well-written or inventive time travel tale, and that's what led me to read a story by an author with whom I was unfamiliar. But maybe I'm in the minority in this respect, because if you just made your purchasing decision based on the blurb, you'd think that this was primarily a murder mystery tale, wouldn't you? Albeit one with a twist.

The thing is, whilst the whodunnit works well enough, without being outstanding, what does stand out in Mascharenas's novel is the inventiveness of imagining a world in which time travel has become routine, a commercial activity, governed with rules and organisations - a world in which "time traveller" is a career choice, a vocation with its own slang, initiation rites, protocols and faux pas. This aspect of the novel is very well realised, not least through the inclusion of two appendices, one a glossary of time travelling terminology and another detailing the psychometric tests that time travellers have to go through.

So, I said I was a sucker for a well-written or inventive time travel tale, and this is certainly inventive ... but is it well written too? Well ... for the most part, yes, it's pretty fair. Having said that, Mascarenhas is a little too prone to making bald statements - she tells, rather than shows. And maybe I just didn't notice it at the start, but it seemed to me that this overt storytelling increased as the novel progressed. It was almost like either the author or her editor got tired of making the subtle changes that would be necessary to remedy the problem (and it did become problematic, at times, for me).

Another point of note with The Psychology of Time Travel is that just about every protagonist is female - I'm trying to think of one significant male character, and am failing. This stands out, and is welcome, though it did make for little variation in the romantic and sexual sub-plots. It is refreshing ... but it feels like it's pushing at the bounds of credulity. Of course I accept that I'm a middle-aged man, with a whole host of subconscious preconceptions and biases ... but I do think that an invention of such global impact and significance, made by four women in the 1960s, would almost certainly have been subsumed by the patriarchy by 2018, sadly...

The bottom line: a decent book that describes a time-travelling world in a very satisfying way, with a serviceable if unremarkable murder-mystery tagged on.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★☆☆

Thursday, 22 October 2020

It's good to be sceptical

James Randi has died. It comes as no great shock - he was 92, after all, but I'm sad nonetheless, for Randi was something of a hero to me.

Starting his career as a magician, he quickly developed a style in which he told the audience that he was tricking them, rather than performing magic. It seemed a logical progression, then, to move from performing tricks to debunking others who claimed that they were magical, or paranormal or, in the case of Peter Popoff, receiving messages from God. Randi famously exposed Uri Geller on TV in the Seventies as a complete chancer (hooray!) - but it speaks volumes about people's gullibility and willingness (desperation?) to believe in something (anything?) that Geller continues to profit from his bunkum to this day (boo!). Depressingly, even Popoff was able to make a comeback. There will always be some who prefer snake oil to science, I guess...

A few years ago there was a BBC Storyville documentary about James that is most definitely worth watching. It's currently unavailable on the iPlayer, sadly, but you never know, they might reshow it now he's died, so keep an eyes on those BBC4 schedules. There's also the film An Honest Liar, which covers a lot of the same ground (and takes its title from a decription Randi applied to himself as a trickster who was open about the fact that he was tricking...)

There's oodles on YouTube too, of course... like his TED talk, for example:

And there's loads more. You can do your own search, I guess. You won't regret it, but you might find you've been on YouTube a lot longer than you'd planned. Sorry (not sorry) about that.

Oh, and James's One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offered a prize of a million US dollars to anyone who could demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event under test conditions agreed to by both parties, remained unclaimed at the time of his death. James Randi, RIP, after a life well led.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Public service announcement

Pixies had a new single out on Friday, co-penned and sung by non-Deal bassist Paz Lenchantin. And it's alright, maybe even a slow-burn grower.

If you're interested in this, or the T-Rex cover on the B-side, you can pick it up from the band's merch site, right here.