We Read Comics podcast

Radio Summerhall, which operates a small studio for podcasting from Edinburgh’s very splendid Summerhall arts hub, boasts We Read Comics among its show, a new monthly series of podcasts discussing comics and graphic novels. Jenny Mayhew, Martin Zeller-Jacques, John McShane and myself follow a book group style format, where we take it in turns to choose a graphic novel to read then discuss.

Jenny, Marty and myself (sadly John couldn’t make it this month) recorded the May show this week, discussing Archer Coe: the Thousand Natural Shocks, by Jamie S Rich and Dan Christensen, published by American Indy outfit Oni Press. It’s a very Noir-style tale of a masked stage hypnotist who also takes on extra work for rich clients. When a wealthy banker asks him to use his mental powers to help cure his wife of her sexual problems, it seems straightforward, but in true Noir fashion of course it is anything but, and our man soon finds himself lost in a conspiracy and potentially framed for murder. Everyone has a secret and he can trust no-one – including himself and his own memories.

Is he being set up or has he been acting like a split personality and committing acts he has no conscious awareness of? Why does Hope, the business man’s wife, seem to know him when he has never seen her before? And what’s with the talking cats (who warn him not to get involved, smart kitties!)? Warning, there are some possible slight spoilers during the discussion, although given the twisting nature of the narrative I doubt they will spoil anyone’s rading of the book. You can find the previous three episodes on Mixcloud and on the Radio Summerhall site here.

Destroyer

Destroyer,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebell, Tatiana Maslany, Scott McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn

The detective haunted by past mistakes is such a regular part of the crime movie, that it can be tempting to shrug your shoulders when you see another, but that would be a mistake in the case of Destroyer. Yes, it does mine that oft-excavated vein of mistakes and regrets, but there are several aspects to it that I found made it stand out from so many others. First of all it’s relatively rare to see a woman in the haunted, broken detective role (let alone a woman who carries much of the film), secondly the film takes a very realistic, almost dirty approach to its world and its characters (there is no glamour here, no stylised Noir look to soften the brutality and the regrets, Julie Kirkwood’s outstanding cinematography alternates lonely highways, bleached sunlight or miserable rain, or decrepit, filthy apartments), and thirdly, there is an absolute stand-out (and indeed Golden Globe-nominated) performance from an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman (hats off to Bill Corso, Tamil Lane and the rest of the make-up team).

Kidman’s Erin Bell is a burned-out LAPD detective, fallen from her heights as a hot-shot, undercover FBI agent. The special make-up and her performance combine to give us a woman who isn’t just haunted by past mistakes, she’s all but broken under their weight, everything from her blotchy skin and dishevelled hair and clothes to her limping walk and body posture indicates someone not just burdened with a heavy past, but someone who is deep in self-loathing and guilt from it. This isn’t just the mistakes made, this is a person who hates themselves. As the film progresses we flashback between the case Bell is investigating now and the one which went so wrong during her FBI days, the two less colliding together, more being woven into one narrative separated by the years.

The film takes a much more realistic approach than many other crime films – when people fight here there is none of the usual tropes of a grunt when hit then our hero gets right back up, when Bell gets punched, she falls like a real person in pain, throwing up, bleeding. That lack of glamour extends well beyond Kidman’s disfiguring make-up and shabby appearance, even to a sex scene which is possibly one of the least erotic I’ve seen in cinema (a grudging, miserable sex act performed as the price for information, another part of her eroded self-respect worn away). Her self-loathing has alienated all around her, from her partner in the force to her estranged husband and an out of control daughter, everything she is involved in seems toxic, and yet there are hints here of a desperation for some sort of redemption, to help her daughter, to stop her partner being dragged into her mess.

Toby Kebell’s Silas (the criminal behind the incident which ruined her career and toxified her life), and her former FBI partner and lover Chris (Avengers’ Sebastian Stan) both offer excellent support, while the structure of the film toys a little with our expectations of just what mistakes younger Bell made, revealing pieces, tying in to the present-day case and narrative in a very satisfying way, aided by that atmospheric cinematography, the sight of the younger Bell contrasting strongly with the older, ruined version.

But really this is Kidman’s film, she buries herself into the role of Bell, emotionally, physically and mentally, you can feel the damaged edges of Bell’s life, the raw guilt that leaves her feeling that she doesn’t deserve any better, yet still clutches at a chance for some tiny redemption. I’m not going to risk spoilers by going into the plot too much, besides a lot of what works here is the atmosphere, the visuals and the raw, damaged, emotionally-scarred performance by Kidman. A powerful, unusual and haunting addition to the cop with a dark past oeuvre.

Destroyer is released on Digital Download from May 20th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray by Lionsgate from May 27th

New life

Out walking along the nearby Union Canal, and at last managed to get some decent photos of the swans with this year’s cygnets. I’ve managed to bag pics of them in previous years (I wonder if it is the same swan couple who return to this area each year?), and had heard from friends that they and their babies were in the area, but each time I walked along that way I didn’t encounter them, until a few days ago.

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The whole family was on the ramp by the towpath, across from the old boathouse at Harrison Park, some preening themselves while out of the water, others sleeping, while the mother and father swans kept guard so nobody got too close. I managed to take several photos, the cygnets still in the utterly adorable “fluffy” stage of down rather than full feathers yet, beautiful wee things. Amazing the magical sights you can find just a few moments from your home…

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I’ve seen the swans and the ducks along this stretch of the canal with their babies a number of times over the years, but each spring it is still something special and quite wonderful to see, and with so much uncertainty and trouble in the world it’s no bad thing to be reminded of the magic and beauty of nature all around us.

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And there goes the whole family, off for a wee paddle down the canal after their rest!

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Blue

Blue,
Directed by Karina Holden,
Sparky Pictures

Wherever you live on our planet, you are connected to the sea.”

This powerful and thoughtful documentary by Karina Holden (Magical Land of Oz) arrives at a very opportune time, as recent reports on the unbelievable amounts of plastic waste in our oceans is highlighted in reports and the media, and the Extinction Rebellion movement is pushing the environment further up the news and political agenda. Blue is a sort of ensemble documentary, taking in different aspects of human-made problems in different parts of our vast world oceans, with several guides, Lucas Handley, Madison Stewart, Philip Mango, Doctor Jennifer Lavers, Tim Silverwood, Mark Dia and veteran diver and campaigner for aquatic life, Valerie Taylor, taking us from bleached corals to the industrial slaughter of sharks to seabirds dying of malnutrition with stomachs full of small pieces of plastic and sea turtles dying a long, slow, lingering death caught in abandoned old fishing nets.

From that you may well infer that Blue is pretty heavy going, and in places you are correct – in fact there are moments here that are not just disturbing but sickening and horrific. Lavers performs an autopsy on a young fledgling, which died while still in the “fluffy” stage, its flight feathers not even fully formed. She strokes the tiny, vulnerable body very gently, her sorrow as yet another animal killed by our throwaway junk culture quite clear from her body language and how she handles the small body. When her autopsy reaches the stomach it crunches when pressed, because inside it is full of pieces of plastic, bits of old buttons, pen tops and more, which the chick’s parents had seen floating in the water, mistaken for food and taken back to feed the chick.

Stewart walks among Indonesian fisherman landing large numbers of sharks. She spots many species she has swum with back home in Australian waters, but these are all relatively small, because the fishermen are catching younger and younger sharks, and since this species is slow to mature and reach sexual reproduction levels, this over-fishing is especially devastating, giving little space for the species to recover, new sharks to mature. As the lifeless corpses are hauled into the sheds with hooks, they are lined up and then assaulted with knives, cutting off the fins – the mutilated remains of the bodies are then dumped back in the oceans, the fins sent off to richer markets, often China. It is to Stewart’s credit that while clearly revolted by this mass slaughter for so little (over seventy million sharks a year), she doesn’t blame the fisherman entirely, she is aware that most of these coastal villages are extremely poor, that they know the sea, they know they cannot continue like this, and yet if they don’t then they and their families will starve, they have nothing else but to harvest these creature’s fins to sell to richer markets.

Each of the experts and campaigners here shines a light on different aspects of how humanity is destroying the oceans, from industrialised fishing that exhausts the seas far beyond their ability to regenerate, to disgusting, huge amounts of plastic pollution (not just floating and looking bad but breaking into smaller pieces that life, from microscopic krill upwards eat, then they are eaten by larger fish, dolphins and whales and birds, moving this pollution up the food-chain – eventually to humans), to the increasing damage to delicate corals (and the great array of life they support around them) to the many old nets cut loose by fishermen around the world, drifting slowly in the currents and all-too often claiming more lives – an especially horrific scene shows a long string of nets, dotted with several bodies of seals, gently bobbing in the underwater current, dead. It’s sickening. And as one expert replies when asked who is responsible for all of this, we all are.

But no, this is not just about the horrors humans have inflicted – often not deliberately, just mindlessly, careless of the consequences of our actions – there is also a huge amount of beauty and even wonder to take in here too. There is some truly beautiful cinematography on offer in Blue, which stands in stark contrast to the vileness of the scenes of pollution or the large-scale slaughter. An early aerial shot shows clear water with moving dark patches – for a moment it looks like oil slicks, but then the dark patches move and it becomes clear these are huge shoals of fish, their movements synchronised, creating what looks from the air like dark moving blobs, then we are below the waves, the silvery, teeming balls of fish zipping and darting around Silverwood as he free-dives among them. In another scene he floats upside down as a whale floats above him, as if man and cetacean are observing one another peacefully. It’s stunningly beautiful, majestic, delivering a real sense of wonder – and reminding us what we’re fighting to save.

Blue is a mixture of the shocking and disturbing and even horrific contrasted with remarkable beauty and wonder, and for all the human-made disasters visited on the oceans – the seat of all life on our blue planet – there is a positive message here: we can slow then stop this brutal assault on the natural world (which is, in the long-term, an assault on ourselves too), we can undo some of the damage, protect others sites (the film highlights how some parts of the seas are now getting the protection national parks enjoy on land), and the film actively encourages the viewers to consider what we can all do as individuals to try and help.

There’s a fight going on here, and despite a depressing toll of awfulness, there is hope, there is still a chance, and Blue, for all the devastation in our oceans that it shows, retains a lot of positive energy and optimism that is infectious. More of us should be watching this and thinking about these issues, no matter how far from our own shores some of these events may be, as the opening quote reminds us, all our shores are connected to those great, globe-spanning tides on our vast world of water, and we all have a responsibility to it.

Blue Trailer from Blue The Film on Vimeo.

Blue is available now on digital on demand, and will be released on DVD on July 1st by Sparky Pictures Ltd.

Orkestra Obsolete

Loving this – Orkestra Obsolete plays pop classic “Blue Monday” using 1930s instruments, old equipment and bits and pieces like wine glasses and a musical saw. Fabulous:

Rosewater Insurrection

Rosewater Insurrection,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit
Paperback, 375 pages

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson’s first Rosewater novel since I first read it last autumn, and it went on to feature prominently on my annual Best of the Year list for 2018 books, so to say I have been looking forward to this second volume is something of an understatement. In fact when I read the original book I had no idea it was actually going to be a series – it felt very self-contained, in and of itself, although the world Thompson has conjured up was so rich I was very glad to learn he was going to explore it further. With Insurrection Tade has side-stepped the normal serial approach of most multi-volume SF&F, instead rather than lead simply and directly from the previous events he takes different angles here, some of which give another perspective on what we saw in the first book, others moving on the story.

Rather than following Kaaro from the first book, Insurrection follows several other characters, some we are familiar with from Rosewater, others new, prominent among them Eric (another intelligence operative and along with Kaaro the only psychic sensitive left alive), the mayor Jack Jacques (who chose his public name for PR purposes, a real politician!) and Aminat, a scientist and another S45 secret service operative, who is also the girlfriend of Kaaro (in some nice touches which help round out the emotional believability of the characters we see more of their relationship from Aminat’s perspective, and why they love each other, despite Kaaro’s many failings).

This multi-character perspective could be confusing in the wrong hands, but Thompson keeps a tight reign on his narrative and his different characters, each chapter labelled with the name of the person we are following in those pages. This allows for a much wider view of the events taking place in the second book, there’s a real sense of Thompson, having established the world of Rosewater in book one now opening it up. We see not only the ongoing potential threat from the alien presence in Rosewater (perhaps the most slow-motion alien invasion ever in SF?) but the personal lives of various people, from those working like Kaaro did in S45 to gangsters and the political elite (the two not being entirely separate, no-one will be shocked to hear).

The title may refer to the political insurrection, as Jacques attempts to proclaim Rosewater as an independent city-state, evoking a predictably aggressive response from the main Nigerian government. But it may also refer to a secretive society that moves behind the scenes (shades of the Illimunati and other such conspiracies) which Jacques is a part of (but not always following their hidden agenda, perhaps following his own), or even a schism between the lifeforms that have come from the alien presence in Rosewater, with different creatures who may have very different ideas of what they want from planet Earth (while the humans are tossed in the middle, many still unaware of what is really happening).

It’s a much wider-ranging story than the first Rosewater, but the solidity of that first book setting the scenery allows for this expansion, while the multiple character views give not only more angles on what is happening, they also often show conflicting ideas and agendas, reminding us that each person here has their own ideas and goals, and ways they are willing to try and achieve them, which makes them much more believable as characters.

The increase in the threat to humanity from the aliens is ratcheted up several levels here too, and between the Big Threat and the Personal Threats it’s a damned good mix for snaring the reader into this book, while, as with the first book, Thompson’s descriptive prose really gives you a feel for the sights, sounds and smells of this future Nigeria. Thompson builds on the promise of his debut novel brilliantly, clearly a talent to watch out for. I can’t wait for book three…

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Rolling Waves

Tried a wee experiment this afternoon – I rarely use the video mode on my camera, but it has a facility to shoot in a smaller format than the usual widescreen version, but in a high 120 frames per second rate. It was high tide at North Berwick, and with a cold wind blowing down the coast from the Arctic, the swell was high and the waves topped with whitecaps, so I thought I would try the 120 fps mode looking out to the sea and the Bass Rock, and found it slowed the motion down in a rather nice way. Not sure what else I may try using that mode for, but quite liked the effect here:

Video - Bass Rock and Waves 120fps

And here’s a still of the Bass Rock today with the same camera:

Bass Rock and Rolling Waves

Meanwhile in Portobello this morning, after I had been in for a job interview I walked round to the promenade and had lunch by the beach, where I noticed this chap taking advantage of the coastal winds to enjoy some kite surfing:

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Prospect

Prospect,
Directed by Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl,
Starring Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass

Prospect is one of those small-budget, Indy films that can all too easily slip by without you noticing, and that would be a shame, because this is a very interesting wee science fiction piece, which also borrows liberally from the Western genre. Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and Damon (Jay Duplass), are a daughter and father team of prospectors, with a lot in common with the classic image of the Old West prospectors, except instead of a wagon train they hitch a ride on a space freighter, and rather than a pack mule they have a basic “drop pod”, a small capsule (not a proper ship) which is both cramped home for them and which takes them down to the planet at the end of their hitch on the freighter.

Cee is young and clearly starting to chafe at the itinerant lifestyle, tramping cargo class through space on long hauls to find one place where they can land and try to eke out a living. As the film opens she’s trying to find some space of her own, out of that cramped capsule, prowling the adjoining freighter, listening to music on her headphones. Thatcher conveys well that frustration of being young, of only knowing one, narrow kind of life but yearning for something, anything more, but not sure what or how. Her father, though, is excited, he is convinced that they finally have the jump on other prospectors, the big score, the one that will earn them so much they will finally be set up, and she reluctantly follows because, what else does she have?

Naturally things do not go as smoothly as planned. As Cee and her father start to explore for their big score, they are ambushed by another pair of less than friendly prospectors, who demand whatever they have at gunpoint. And there are others here and there on this otherwise uninhabited planet, few of them any more friendly than these bushwhackers. Prospect soon becomes as much as about trying to survive on a hostile alien world, with equally hostile humans all after the same harvest our prospectors are looking for, as it is a quest to make that One Big Score. And of course I am not going to say any more about how that pans out for fear of spoilers.

Prospect grew out of a short film by Caldwell and Earl, which established the look and feel of this universe, which the feature draws on. This is no Star Trek, gleaming future of a post-scarcity society, this is the ragged frontier, where people scratch a hard living from an unforgiving universe. No mighty warp-vessels here, scratched and dented old freighters that have to obey the laws of physics, a long, slow haul looping around their various planets to release drop pods and landers, that are then stuck there until the ship’s return loop (and if you miss that, you’re marooned). This is a blue-collar future of hard-work, trying to keep the wolves from the door any way you can, it looks lived in, hard lived in – it has more in common with the worn working space of the Nostromo in Alien than it does the Enterprise.

I mentioned the Western tropes that are woven into Prospect, and that extends beyond a science fiction version of those old-time prospectors into the style – Ezra (Pedro Pascal), one of the others who try to get the jump on Cee and Damon, talks in a very stylised, loquacious manner, the verbose style used for more than a few Western characters who like to talk all high-falutin’. Pascal, who you may have seen in Game of Thrones or Kingsman 2, delivers a very nuanced take on his character, taking him from the verbally dextrous but ruthless bushwhacker to something more as the film progresses, crafting a believable, three dimensional character rather than just some cut-out villain. Stand-out performance here, however, is Sophie Thatcher as Cee; Cee is in almost every single scene in the film, she is its spine, carrying the entire movie, and it is a terrific performance, all the more remarkable given it is her film debut and she was only seventeen years old at the time.

This is a clever, low-fi pieces of science fiction tinged with the Western, that works past its small budget with good ideas and locations, and some terrific performances from the leads. As I said at the start, it is too easy for small movies like this to slip by us without noticing them – no big press budget to shout them out, and it’s a shame because this sort of Indy film-making is where we often find little gems like this.

Prospect is out now on DVD and digital online from Signature Entertainment