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Captain's Blog: Reflecting on the Plague Year

It’s been a while since I sat down to write a personal blog, and at the end of a strange year, to put it mildly – I thought it was time to sit down and write something (before I forget how.)

Traditionally, at this time of year, I bring out my trusty notebook and scan through the entries of films I’ve seen theatrically and decide which of the ones I’ve blessed with the red asterisk of approval go on my The Good, The Bad and The Fugly list and which of the ones I’ve damned with the purple asterisk of doom are named and shamed. (Yes, I still write things down with a pen in a notebook. I’m old fashioned that way.) As the good list is traditionally 10 films and the fugly are 3, that’s been written off this year as I’ve only seen ten films in total at the cinema.  There is a naming the best and shaming the rest, but that’s further down. I think I’ll take a look at the year in general first.

It seems incredible to me sitting here in Geek Central that the world has changed so much in the past twelve months. It was completely unthinkable to me that the country would be locked down at any time, because it had never happened before.  I don’t think the country even went into lockdown during the world wars. Think about it – the blitz failed to shut Britain down, but microscopic bacteria did. Repeatedly. A year ago, what is normal to us right now would be considered the basis of a sci-fi thriller. Everyday terms like “social distancing”, “lockdown” “furlough payments” weren’t a thing. And what the hell was a “Zoomer”?

But yet, here we are.

A year ago, Covid-19 was a problem in far away countries. We were told it was headed this way, but then the news media tells us so many things are “headed this way” during their perpetual 24 hours cycle of nothing but bad news that I guess we’re numbed to it. And despite warnings, it caught us by surprise.

The first I heard of it that made me sit up and take notice was November of last year while waiting to be cued on for my spot for Siren Radio’s Midweek Drive, when it was broadcast live on a Wednesday evening. (Wow, live radio) when I heard that the latest James Bond film No Time to Die had been postponed. And I truly thought it was a publicity stunt.

That was just the beginning – in the coming weeks, entire release slates were wiped clean as studios hurriedly rescheduled their films for a summer season that would be unprecedented in its hectic releases. (Also, a summer season unprecedented in that it never happened.)

I have to say, the year started off really well with films that were so big, I was surprised they weren’t summer tentpole releases, because January is kind of a dead spot on the calendar. We’ve had the big Christmas must-see blockbuster, and after that, traditionally the beginning of the year is a bleak and barren time. But this year, we had huge, big films worthy of a summer release. Movies like 1917, Bad Boys for Life, both of which I enjoyed for vastly different reasons. The Grudge was an original entry in a series I thought was long over and instilled some life into it while also tying in the Japanese AND American versions into a cohesive single series.

In February, we saw the release of what I had predicted to be the first film of a year of female comic book characters. (Hah! Little did I know that ten months on, I’d STILL be waiting for Wonder Woman ’84 and Black Widow) Harley Quinn formed her crew in Birds of Prey, which I loved. As much as I consider Christopher Reeve to be the definitive Superman and Robert Downey Jr the living embodiment of Tony Stark, Margot Robbie IS Harley Quinn in my book. Add in Ewan McGregor as Batman villain Black Mask and you have a gem of a movie that a lot of critics just didn’t get. But DC fans did, and we are the target audience. Am I right?

As an enthusiastic, lifelong fan of the Universal Horror cycle of the thirties and forties (how could you have missed THAT?) I was interested in seeing the latest take on The Invisible Man. THIS is how you make an updated version of a classic and make it credible, threatening and relevant to the modern day. 

Onward showed us that Pixar still have it in spades when it comes to heart-warming, original concepts.

Then it stopped.

Everything just stopped.

Cinemas closed on March 13 and wouldn’t re-open until August 14.

The whole country skidded to an emergency stop as the pandemic took control of our daily lives. We were told to stay at home, shops were closed, businesses were closed and we were subjected to the daily horror of ever mounting numbers of Covid-19 fatalities. It was what I imagine a wartime siege would feel like, except the enemy was invisible. And relentless.

From a personal point of view, it seemed that shortly after celebrating my 60th birthday, everything changed. Siren Radio suspended its operations through necessity, Starburst magazine had to skip a couple of months publishing, the Sci-Fi Weekender was cancelled, a screening of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan with William Shatner in attendance was cancelled. We even had to place our podcast Piercing the Veil on immediate hiatus, because we wouldn’t all get together. It was unprecedented that it was illegal for my daughter to come home for a recording.  A full diary suddenly became empty. All plans scrapped.

I remember feeling a bit lost, I guess is the word. My usual outlets gone for the foreseeable future. But one day, I looked at the site and noticed that the little counter had jumped up in numbers considerably. I was expecting a flatline, frankly – because there was nothing new on the site. No films to review, no podcasts with Steve and Tiff to be uploaded – in fact there was absolutely no activity to drive those numbers. And yet, here you all were.

So, I quickly concocted a plan. People were good enough to come here and look for something, the least I could do was to try and oblige, right? I resurrected Cult Corner and began to write up some reviews of some truly, hilariously bad monster movies that I have in my collection. I love really awful B movies and have a great time watching them, so that became a thing.

That and my grandiose plans for a the biggest Shocktober ever, where for the first time I’d publish a new review of an old horror movie every single day in October. And it gave me a perfect excuse to finally write about my beloved Universal Monsters. That project became so huge and time consuming, it took from March until August to complete. And all of October to publish. Great times.

Slowly, a small glimmer of normality began to return. The first green shoot of optimism came in the form of my good friend Alex Lewczuk who had cunningly formulated a means of bringing The Midweek Drive back to the air, despite not being able to be in the Siren Radio studio and having to observe social distancing. We began recording the show, while connecting via Zoom. It’s been a constant source of amazement to both of us that we’re actually conducting video calls – a regular staple of the sci-fi shows we both grew up with. Yes, Skype had been around, but I’ve only ever used that a couple of times at most. Zoom is now a major component of our new world and we facetime like the cool kids do (But with better enunciation and less slang.)

We even managed to launch a brand-new weekly show called Resonance Rewind where a team of us examine a TV episode or film from the archive.

It seemed to me that cinemas opened with a mild grunt of wakefulness rather than a bang. During that all too brief window, really big films weren’t being released and the audiences just weren’t there in any case. The country was open for business, but having been alarmed into staying at home, people were reluctant to venture out again, particularly to multiplexes despite social distancing, and the mandatory wearing of face coverings.

My first return to the cinema was an odd, almost surreal experience. No crowds, no queues, no clusters of people in groups in the foyer. Everybody keeping their distance. Everybody, staff included, masked. Who would’ve thought back in ’19 that would be the case?  I have to say though that I felt completely comfortable and safe during my visits to Cineworld. In fact, I’ve taken to the wearing of a mask quite well. As a personal preference, I don’t wear the surgical mask type, they make my ears stick out, but I’ve adopted the ways of the snood.

During this period, I saw Unhinged, which blew me away. I’ve always been un-nerved by films that I consider credible horror. No zombies, dream demons, curses, ghosts, malevolent spirits, vampires etc – just a seemingly ordinary person who goes nuts. The type of person who could be standing behind you at the supermarket checkout or sitting beside you on a bus. Just ticking away to a meltdown. In this case, it’s a road rage incident and an impatient and over-long sounding of a car horn that kicks off the mayhem. This film went straight into the category of that includes Falling Down and the classic One Hour Photo (which I still reckon to be Robin Williams’ finest performance)

Then there was the tentpole that really wasn’t. The high concept Tenet I think it was too deep for a summer blockbuster and certainly not the film to lure mainstream audiences back into cinemas. Think James Bond with time travel. Now, it strikes me that I was similarly indifferent to Interstellar when it was released, and that is now my favourite Christopher Nolan film. It just took a couple of viewings to fully appreciate. I’m hoping my next viewing of Tenet will alter my opinion and my perception of it. (But it’s still not the one to get audiences packed into cinemas.)

Then there was The New Mutants – Fox’s last gasp at the X-Men universe and it seemed they knew the writing was on the wall. Enough said.

As I write this in late December, this would normally be the time for those end of year lists. But, in these unprecedented times, I’ve taken an unprecedented step. Disney Plus premiered Pixar’s new film, Soul, which was intended for a theatrical release. So, I’m adding that to my list.

So, the good – or my top 5

5) Onward

4) Birds of Prey

3) The Invisible Man

2) Unhinged

1) And because it hit me personally with its themes of life, death, soul, inspiration, the hereafter – deep philosophical issues, and also made me laugh out loud and has a killer Jazz soundtrack, I’m officially naming Soul as my movie of the year.

Now, the bad. Note that I didn’t go into the cinema on purpose to see a bad movie. These are the ones that really disappointed. The ones that elicited an involuntary WTF reflex.

2) The New Mutants – Seriously, Fox. You had the whole X-Men universe to play with and …. This?

1) Underwater – a film so ineptly bad on every level, it hasn’t even managed a home video release yet. Imagine The Abyss impregnated by Alien and this is the messy outcome. No. Just…. no.

So, what’s ahead?

Streaming is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives and is posing a real competitive threat to traditional television. I haven’t watched the BBC since January 1 when I saw the season opener of Doctor Who and decided I had suffered enough. It’s been quite a bit longer since I watched ITV, or Channel 4. I have however enjoyed shows like Picard, Stargirl. I’m going to start Mandalorian season 2, but have decided to blitz Clone Wars, Rebels and Mandalorian season 1 again first to get the full benefit. And we have all those new Marvel shows incoming….

Cinemas will remain closed for the next few months. In the meantime, how about some more Cult Classics? Shall we do some more Killer Bs?

In time, Piercing the Veil will return, until then – all episodes are right here.

All the shows I do with Alex for Siren Radio can be linked to from here

And of course, Starburst will be back as soon as we have films in the pipeline that we can fill a magazine with. It’s been going for 43 years – we’re not going to stop now.

Hopefully the vaccine will help bring a touch of normality or at least a new form of normality back to the world. Realistically, things can never go back to the way they were – that was a pre-covid world. We can hopefully look forward to a post-covid world.

So, with that optimistic thought, let’s raise a glass of Romulan ale to 2021 and call it The Age of Recovery.

Stay low, stay sharp, stay safe my friends. 

Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.

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