Animation at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I’ve been pretty busy watching lots of different types of movies during the Edinburgh International Film Festival over the last few days and it hasn’t left me much free time to pen some reviews, so apologies in advance for bundling one of the feature length animated films with a quick selection from some of the short animation programmes.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea,

Directed by Dash Shaw

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon

When I saw this appear in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival programme I must confess I was minded to book it just on the strength of that title alone – I mean, come on, how could I resist a film with a title like that? Then I found out it was from US comics creator Dash Shaw, so I was doubly determined to go and see it while I had the chance.

Dash and Assaf are best friends at school – in fact the don’t really have any other friends, although Dash, now growing out of his teen acne years, is trying to be more positive about the start of their sophomore year and with big plans for what he and Assaf will do on the school paper. Except Dash is a terrible writer and happy to make up screeds of nonsense flavoured with liberal amounts of purple prose. When the school paper’s editor Verti assigns Assaf a solo writing job it becomes clear that, in that ancient rights-of-teen-passage, two best friends are about to be parted by a woman coming into the lives of one of them, and Dash isn’t happy about it.

In fact Dash is so angry he concocts another of his fake news stories, but this time full of accusations about Assaf, hurtful and quite nasty stuff, which not only hurts their friendship, it earns Dash a visit to the office of Principal Grimm and a note on his permanent record. Still hurt and petulant, Dash sneaks into the archives – a rat-infested basement of cardboard boxes full of school records and confiscated cellphones – to grab his records, but when he does so he also finds some hidden documents about the new senior school auditorium which is about to open on the top floor of Tides High. And among them he finds paperwork from the state surveyor saying the building is already structurally unsound and the new addition will add to that, especially as the school sits above a fault line, right on a cliff by the ocean. Given the location and the film’s title (it really does do what it says on the tin!), I think you can see where this is going…

Dash finds that the principal has forged papers saying the building is sound – finally he actually has a real, important, powerful news story for the school paper. But in classic boy who cried wolf mode, nobody believes him even though this time he has a real story and even the documentary evidence. But events are about to prove him right, although too late for many, and crunch and splash, the school is indeed in the sea, and it is sinking. Cue survival time as former friends and mis-matched students and staff – including the formidable Lunch Lady Lorraine (played by Susan Sarandon, no less!) – choose their paths, some leading to watery death, some a possible, desperate way out.

This was huge fun – sure the animation is pretty basic, guessing executed on a really small budget, it’s kind of Daria-level animation, but Shaw and company don’t let that hinder then, in fact they seem to glory in it, delighting in using odd combinations of colours and perspectives so that, although fairly basic animation, visually it all works nicely, keeping the eyes interested while the story hooks the brain. And yes, the story is essentially mashing a bunch of 1980s high school movies mashed up with The Poseidon Adventure, but it really doesn’t matter, it’s just a great ride as the kids have to make hard decisions and work together to try and survive, all handled with some out-there artwork and perspectives. Inept teachers, a cool lunch lady, lost juniors, jock-like seniors, gruesome deaths, sinking high school and even sharks, plus friendship and romance and comedy, I mean what else do you need??

The McLaren Animation Awards

I always make a point of going to the annual McLaren Animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – there are so many interesting short animation works being produced and yet we so rarely get to see them properly, on the big screen in a cinema, so I usually try to get to both strands of the McLaren, which celebrates and promotes new and emerging UK-based animation talent, and, rather pleasingly I think, the awards are voted on by the actual audiences, so it is the people who came along to watch, enjoy and support the works who get to cast the votes which determine the winner.

This year’s McLaren Award for British Animation went to Paloma Baeza for Poles Apart, which was a lovely piece of stop-motion work in which a back-packing grizzly bear arrives in the Arctic, and meets a starving polar bear. Using humour and friendship this short story gently raises the increasingly dire spectre of climate change and the human impact on the natural world, without getting on a soap box – in fact at at Q&A after the screening Paloma noted she wanted to say something about this global problem, but not in a way that may put people off or come across as lecturing, and she succeeded admirably in this (and also raised smiles into the bargain, it is a lovely wee work),and kudos to her for getting a major actor like Helen Bonham Carter to voice the polar bear:

There are a good couple of dozen short animation works shown across the two annual McLaren screenings at the film fest, and there isn’t really space or time for me to mention each of them, and, as with any collection of quite different works (very different approaches in subject matter, style, execution and so on), some are going to appeal more to some viewers, while others may appeal more to different viewers. But there were so many interesting works that I have to pick out a few that struck me personally.

Will Adams’ Nothing to Declare starts as a warm, inviting piece – a young man off on his travels before he settles down to life, sends back a package for his little sister from South America. A little after this, right before Christmas, he returns back to chilly Scotland from Brazil, the family flat is warm and inviting, Christmas music plays, the windows glow with that warm, cosy glow that looks so inviting from a winter street. But when he gets inside it takes a very dark, actually quite gruesome twist that wouldn’t be out of place in an old EC Comic – I didn’t know until afterwards that the story here was from Scottish comics legend Frank Quitely. Will spoke at the Q&A afterwards and said he and some of those involved used to share space in the famous Hope Street studios in Glasgow with Frank and other creators, and when asked if there may be future collaborations between the animation team and Scottish comickers, he said they hoped to do more (although given the time even short animated films take, it could be a while before we see any new fruits of such collaborations, but fingers crossed!)

(home in time for Christmas – a scene from Nothing to Declare)

Elizabeth Hobbs’ G-AAAH was an utter delight. Elizabeth celebrated the epic solo flight from Britain to Australia by Amy Johnson in 1930 (the title refers to the plane’s call sign), and she does it all using an old Underwood Typewriter (Amy was a typist before she was a famous flyer). ASCII characters from the old typewriter come to life on the paper, taking the shapes of the aircraft, the stars in the skies, the seas below, it’s a beautiful example of the ways in which a talented animator can use almost any medium to create the sense of something vibrant and living.

G-AAAH from Lizzy Hobbs on Vimeo.

Jack Newman’s Escape From Syria – Faiza’s Story, was based on the testimony of a young mother, Faiza, who saw the slow disintegration of Syria, from their comfortable home to a place of horror and terror; by the time her brother is kidnapped the family realises they, like so many others, cannot stay any longer in their own land and have to flee – the artwork is based on drawings by Faiza’s own children, who have seen things no child should, and it gives an added power and emotive blow when watching the film. Jennifer Zheng’s Tough explored both the generational and cultural gaps that can happen in immigrant families, her parents Chinese who fled to Britain, the daughter considers herself British through and through, but as she gets older she starts to realise she has a whole cultural heritage she hasn’t explored. Sam Healy’s Wires (A Cyber Fairy Tale) was only four minutes, but managed to combine both comedy and tragedy as two small robots break the continual loop of their fellows’ existence, but find a price to pay.

Escape from Syria – Faiza’s story from Bullion on Vimeo.

Tough from Jennifer Zheng on Vimeo.

I loved Lila Babington’s Tunnel Vision, a mixture of stop-motion, live-action and puppetry, in which the protagonist chases her errant shoelaces, which slip away in the woods like a writhing worm and burrow underground – on chasing them she finds a strange chamber and an odd creature under the earth, in a short that has a pleasing nod to the great Jan Svankmajer (and perhaps to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth as well). Daisy Jacobs’ The Full Story uses mixed media animation and live action as a man is showing an estate agent his family home, in preparation for selling it, triggering flashbacks to his childhood and the magical happiness of being a kid slowly being pulled apart as his family breaks up; it’s very effective in the different styles used through the short film, and delivers a good emotional wallop. Karni & Saul’s Perfect World is an enchanting fairy tale of a mother and child told in a world made from the sugar granules on the kitchen table; it was made for Katie Melua’s album In Winter.

Perfect World – Katie Melua from Karni and Saul on Vimeo.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Doing the right thing…

I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.”

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor articulating a damned fine philosophy in Capaldi’s season finale of Doctor Who. I hope those words sink into many of the younger viewers of Doctor Who and stay with them. Fictional heroes and their examples can be as important to our development as the real world heroes, and it’s clear with this line that Steven Moffat understands this and is trying to make sure we got the hero we needed. Perhaps one day when they are older one of those former child fans will be faced with a difficult choice and they will think back on those lines, and they will know where they need to steer their moral compass.

This little piggy went to market – Okja

Okja,
Directed by Bong Joon Ho,
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Bong Joon Ho brought us the brilliant monster movie with a twist, The Host and the film adaptation of the Snowpiercer graphic novels, so when I saw his latest film, Okja, was due to make its bow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I had to grab myself a ticket. A Korean film in both Korean and English – and boasting a nice bonus in the form of the great Tilda Swinton – Okja sees a huge multinational attempting to rebrand itself away from its toxic image, with new CEO (Swinton) waging a PR blitz to try and make the company look warm, eco-friendly and fuzzy after the reign of her father (who even his own family admitted was psychopathic). And the main plank is the superpig, which, over the next ten years, as well as being studied by their own scientists, will be given to traditional farmers in different parts of the world to raise for ten years.

Following the slick (and sickeningly obviously fake) PR launch (riffing nicely not just on how heartless corporations try to hide their agendas with a feel-good PR blanket but also the way so many super-rich CEO seem to desperately want the public to love them), we move to the mountains of Korea and meet Seo-Hyun Ahn’s Mija, who loves with her grandfather and Okja, their now fully adult superpig. Okja is less farm animal and more family member/pet (let’s be honest, to most of us pets are family members), and we get to see Mija walking with him through the woods, playing with him, tapping the sleeping giant animal so he rolls over on his back and she can sleep on his tummy. It’s all quite adorable and I take my hat off to the very young Seo-Hyun Ahn for being able to give such a convincing and emotional acting job to a CG creation she couldn’t see when the film was shooting, it’s a terrific job for such a young actress, and it isn’t long before the audience totally buys into their relationship.

But the day is coming when the corporation wants to pick up Okja and take him back to their American facility, hold their even bigger publicity show and then… Well, gigantic or not, what usually happens to farmed pigs sooner or later? Mija is heartbroken at Okja being taken away from their hillside farm, this is her best friend in the world, and the animal is so clearly bonded with her too. She decides to set off to Seoul after Okja, in what could, in other hands, have become a clumsy Disney-esque “incredible journey” type tale, but fortunately never does. Enter some comedic light relief in the form of some animal liberation activists, apologising to everyone for any harm as they try to free Okja. They have a longer term plan though, and Okja and Mija become a part of it – and of course the corporation too has plans to use both superpig and adorable young girl for their own ends, and the pair are caught between them.

This was such an utter delight – adorable and emotional in places, often wonderfully funny in others, and with some deliciously satirical barbs, especially for giant corporations, the spin doctors who spend vast sums trying to persuade the public how nice they are (really, we are not evil, honest!), and most especially on the way humans treat animals, especially food animals. I don’t think the film is trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian (although some scenes made me glad that I am), but certainly to think about the mass-production of animals for food and the appalling way thousands of animals are treated every day so we can buy cheap food from the supermarket and not bother our consciences by thinking of what sort of life the animal that ended up on our plate had before its demise.

The story moves from sweetly emotional to gleefully satirical, with swipes at Almighty Power and healthy doses of our old friend The Absurd, saving perhaps for a later scene where we see what is to happen to the animals, which is just horrifying. The CG for Okja is terrific, the animated animal coming across much more like a giant, good-natured Labrador than pig, and young Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting with this creature added in post-production totally sells the relationship and is the heart of the film, while Tilda Swinton’s increasingly deranged CEO steals scenes left, right and centre. This is an absolute gem.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

In This Corner of the World

In This Corner of the World,
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi,
Starring Non, Megumi Han, Yoshimasa Hosoya

This animated film, based on the manga by Fumiyo Kōno, has been huge in Japan, and I’ve been eager to see it, so when it appeared on the programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival I booked myself a ticket right away (for those not lucky enough to get to the festival, it is getting a limited UK release over the next couple of weeks, so check your local listings). I was not disappointed; this is a beautiful piece of animation, and quite emotionally satisfying too.

The story is set in 1930s and 1940s Japan, and although the Second World War will be an important part, this is not a war movie. At least, not in the usual sense of a war movie – this is a slice of life, following a young woman, Suzu, from childhood through to early adulthood and marriage, and the wartime years give us a view of the conflict from the perspective of the home front, of civilians who don’t really know what it is all about (only what strictly controlled propaganda the Japanese government give out) and are, basically, increasingly caught in the middle of this titanic struggle, some of them paying the price for events they never instigated or had any real say in, just like untold legions of ordinary civilians through every war in history.

But the war, while important and having lasting ramifications for Suzu and her family, is only one part of the tale here – this is Suzu’s story of her life, not of the war, we concentrate on her and her family, and that gives the whole film a huge amount of emotional resonance. We see her as a little girl, helping her family to collect and dry seaweed, the story littered with loving little details of a bygone era, such as their family, on one special day of the year when the tides are exceptionally low, able to walk right across the now waterless bay to visit their relatives on the other shore (and rush back before the tide returns), a reminder of a time when most ordinary people rarely moved much further than their own small town (trains are pricey and cars very rare). This is a time not really that long ago – we’re talking about the sort of world many of our own grandparents would remember.

We see Suzu as a girl, a bit of a daydreamer, and an artist – a good one, at that. And she has an affinity to often see the art in many situations, although this often means she loses focus on the here and now (in one scene during an air raid the puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft fire become a beautiful Impressionist painting to her eyes – gorgeous but it also means she is too mesmerised to take cover…). Her family lives in Hiroshima, but when she turns eighteen Suzu is offered marriage to a young man she doesn’t know. It’s not an arranged marriage, as such, the families discuss it, and it is clear she can say no, but although allowed, it’s not really the done thing. And so she goes to live with her new husband and his family in Kure, some distance from Hiroshima (again, like her family across the bay it isn’t that far, not to us with cars and fast trains, but back then it’s a big wrench).

Kure is a major naval base, and as Suzu settles into her new life the ships of the Imperial navy are a backdrop – her husband is a civilian navy worker, and her adorable little niece Harumi loves looking at the ships and telling her new aunt which ones are which, while she sketches (this leads to an ugly scene where the military police almost arrest her as a spy for sketching the ships in the bay – this was a time where Japanese citizens could be arrested and disappeared for anything that might hint at questioning the wartime government). And of course as the years roll on the war draws closer – and a naval base like Kure is, inevitably, going to become a target. And such are the horrible fortunes of war that we know it won’t just be the military or industrial targets which end up in the bomber’s crosshairs, it will be the town, the people, including women and children.

In This Corner of the World powerfully illustrates the indiscriminate horror of mass bombing – this is Japan (at this time “the enemy”, as if that makes it any better), but it could have been Clydebank, Coventry, London, Dresden, Guernica or the cities of modern Syria, or anywhere else where civilians are seen as “collateral” damage, and the film shows this both on the personal scale for her family and friends, and on the wider scale (those classical wooden Japanese buildings razed to the foundations by fire-bombing, street after street gone). The atomic bombing of her hometown is, understandably, a major moment, and one we, with the benefit of historical hindsight, know is coming closer and closer, until the day we see that huge flash in the sky, and the awful blastwave that follows.

But while the film shows the hideous aftermath of this first use of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t just show Horishima as the city that the Bomb was dropped on, it shows us the city in the years before, a real, living place and people, and brings it to life, based on the memories of some older survivors and on period photographs, the now iconic Genbaku Dome – the Atomic Dome, one of the few structures close to the blast which survived, and is now a symbol of both the horrors of warfare and the need for peace – clearly visible as tram cars and people pass in the streets, then again in the irradiated ruins afterwards, but then there it still is, after all this passes and the city is reborn.

In This Corner of the World brings us happy moments and very sad ones, some utterly beautiful scenes and some steeped in sorrow; despite the intrusion of the huge, global-altering events of the war, it is, at heart, a family story, a story of a life, with the ups and downs, the moments that we all get, the moments where we feel life has broken us beyond repair but then the moments that make our souls sing with joy, and make it all worthwhile. This is an utterly gorgeous work, and one best seen on the big screen.



This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet International Blog

Review: our history in stone – A Castle in England

A Castle in England,

Jamie Rhodes, with art by Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg

Nobrow Press

Castles. There’s something wonderfully evocative about castles, our shared history in stone, some ruined, some, beautifully maintained, all evoke a sense of visual delight and a sense of wonder as we ponder what those walls have seen, great sentinels to centuries of history. They are visible history, history we can touch, walk around, take in, and in our small islands we are blessed with more than our share, from Highland tower houses to vast medieval castles. Every day on my way to work I pass a huge one, Edinburgh Castle, and every time I see it I consider how lucky I am that my commute to work – normally a mundane event for most of us – takes in this impressive piece of solid history standing above my city, still commanding after all these centuries.

Jamie Rhodes clearly understands this, and a spell in residence at Scotney Castle in Kent has doubtless impressed even further on him the fact that our castles are full of stories from across the centuries, from the everyday lives of those who lived or worked in them or around them to the Big History events of dramatic battles, they’ve marked their time through all the changes in our society across those years. In A Castle in England Jamie has written five stories, each drawn by a different artist – Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg – and taking in a different event in a different period in this Kentish castle’s life, from the medieval peasants of the castle’s earliest days through the religious strife of the reformation, the family drama of dynastic succession, smugglers and women emancipating themselves. It proves to be a lovely series of snapshots out of our shared history, and the use of different artists on each story works well here, giving each historical setting its own look and style.

One of the things Jamie and his collaborators do throughout is to give us stories which give us a sense of a distinct period in history while also showing how often events then are relevant to the here and now (which as a history buff I heartily approve of; history is never just past, it suffuses the present and is part of the tapestry of tomorrow).  The very first tale, set in 1381, as the castle is being completed, and the growing discontent of the mass of the population, the serfs, is about to explode into open rebellion (lead by the famous Wat Tyler, one of the original folk heroes). It’s a glimpse into a very hard life – today we are (justly) outraged at the inequalities in our society, the gulf between the super-rich minority and the rest of us, but for the serf it was even worse. Their rebellion, while unsuccessful, shook the small, ruling elite to the core and would in time lead to changes for the mass of ordinary folks that we benefit from today (and concerns from the powerful over what an angry mass, pushed too far, can do – still something rules and elites try to control today in their fear).

(the Medieval period with The Labourer,  art by Isaac Lenkiewicz)

The Priest, with art by Briony May Smith, takes us into Tudor period and the religious turmoil caused by Heny VIII’s break with Rome. Scotney is now home to the Darrell family; Catholics in a country where that is not just (very suddenly) a minority religion, but one suspected – to be a devout Catholic is to be suspected of being a possible deviant, a traitor, more loyal to a religious leader abroad than to your nation and monarch, dangerous, subversive. It leads to suspicion, persecution, division. It sounds, sadly, not too dissimilar to some of the troubles stalking modern Britain… William Etsey gives us a rollicking tale of smugglers – far from some cut-throat bunch though, most of these are locals, struggling in a depressed economy after losing one of their main industries, doing a bit on the side (and also subverting unfair taxes), against a background of unrest with the status quo of Britain coming from Jacobites in Scotland. Again there are echoes to some of today’s tensions, while the characters are well handled, they feel like real people, people we could know, neighbours, friends, not distant historical characters.

(above The Priest, art by Briony May Smith; below – The Smuggler, art by William Exley)

Becky Palmer’s The Widow brings us to the rational, sensible Victorians, although it opens with a rather less than rational suicide – by blunderbuss, no less… It’s an age of remodeling, the old Castle not so desirable in this modern age, the family now in a fine manor house, much more comfortable, but with that Victorian love of a romanticised past (something we’ve inherited today) the old castle is deliberately partially ruined to create a form of picturesque folly for them to enjoy on their walks round the estate, nicely depicted by Palmer with a giant figure of the lord of the manor, Edward Hussey III, pushing over blocks, blowing them down. There are some lovely scenes of Victorian domesticity too, with touches that made me smile – he showing off the fine, new manor house “this will be the billiard room” he tells his male friends, nearby his new wife chats to her girlfriends “I have plans for his billiard room”. How many couples have had that argument to this very day?!

(enter the Victorian era in The Widow, art by Becky Palmer)

The final piece, The Hunter, is illustrated by one of my favourites, Isabel Greenberg in her distinctive style, and brings us into the twentieth century, the highpoint of Empire, of the last great period of the rich gentry in their great houses before the calamity of the Great War helped hasten the end of that way of life for most. Times may have changed, but some societal rules are still stiff and divisive, the brother allowed to indulge in expensive travel  (which mostly takes the form of lording it over the natives and shooting every animal he sees), the sister stuck at home, not allowed the same privilege of travel but at the same time her station won’t allow her to join in more simple pleasures (she would like to join the working class families who come for working holidays to do the hop picking, but her mother considers this far too beneath her). Here Rhodes storytelling is playing right to Greenberg’s strengths, as the women, supposedly held in their rigid place in the pecking order, use their own guile to exploit circumstances to achieve what they want (the impish smile of success Isabel gives the sister is delightful).

(the twentieth century arrives in The Hunter, art by Isabel Greenberg)

Each story comes with a quick introduction to give some setting to the historical period, and a longer set of notes afterwards, explaining more about both the period, to give some context, and about the family resident in the castle during that time. All in all it’s an utterly charming delight, snapshots of British history viewed through the people who have lived in and around this castle for almost seven hundred years, a reminder, if one be needed, that these magnificent structures are more than just our architectural heritage, or reminders of Big History (kings, queens, civil wars) but the same everyday life each one of us, the loves, deaths, marriages, children, the struggle to get by in difficult times. These great walls have seen all of this and more. When I pass Edinburgh Castle on the way to work it never fails to spark ideas in my head, stories, pieces of history, there is, for me, a real sense of that past right there in the present, alive, not just a monument, and that’s what Rhodes et al do so very well here, remind us that these buildings aren’t just structures, they’re part of our lives and those who came before us, our collective history, our changing society (and the elements which never change, because, well, human nature…).

All delivered with a delicious variety of art styles by Rhodes’ collaborators, and bound in a handsome small hardback (Nobrow really do pay attention to the book itself as a lovely object, not just the contents), this is a lovely and unusual addition to British comics shelves, and a charming read for both those well-versed in history and those who are only dipping their toes in, curious to know more.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Mrs May should have just stayed away…

Theresa May made her regal way,

To the ravaged Tower Grenfell,

But the PM spoke to not a single survivor,

Because ordinary people make her feel quite ill

After the horrendous inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower, burning upwards, trapping god knows how many in upper floors who phoned or texted desperate messages knowing they were going to die, horribly, the lame duck prime minister arrives on the disaster scene. And by all reports spoke to not a single survivor. Survivors who are enraged because it looks very much like a report sat upon for years by the government into fire safety, and a later parliamentary bill to improve the standards and safety of rented housing that was defeated by the conservatives (many of those who voted against are landlords themselves, a clear and shameless conflict of interest), have paid a part in this awful calamity. And she doesn’t speak to a single survivor, for “security reasons”.

So security, not fear, not cowardice, not outright callous disregard for the simple human compassion any decent person should show another in such circumstances? Meantime those same ordinary people she ignored have donated so many items – clothes, kid’s toys, toiletries and more – to entire families in their community who have lost everything bar the pyjamas they had on their back as they fled (and those were the fortunate ones) that the local community centres and churches organising help have said they have enough. Local families offered food, drink and a place to rest for their suffering neighbours, people of every age and ethnic stripe. People of Kenginston rising to show strength, compassion and dignity while our feeble excuse for a government (and by all accounts the local council there are no better), flail hopelessly, and a prime minister who can’t even speak to the people involved when she visits. Utterly craven, shameful behaviour on her behalf and a clear signal that the same authorities who allowed a situation to evolve that could create this disaster still do not care one jot.

Review: a superhero story with an emotional punch – Ether

The Ether #1,

Matt Garvey, Dizevez

I’ve been hearing good things about Matt Garvey and Dizevez’s The Ether from colleagues in some other FP stores who had managed to get some copies in directly from Matt, so when some arrived in the branch where I’m based I was understandably curious to see what the fuss was about. I am very glad I did.

It’s a strong opening with a very upsetting scene – although one handled visually but Dizevez with some tact, keeping the emotional impact but not using any gratuitous details. Which I was glad of, because it involved the killing of a child, and while that’s a powerful narrative motivation, we really don’t want to see the details, the idea is horrible enough. Dizevez adds nice touches that you don’t notice straight off, attention on the foreground with the detective and a constable standing over shrouded body, but then you notice the light from a nearby doorway in the background and only then realise there’s another officer there, holding himself up by the door frame, shoulder heaving, physically sick at what he’s just witnessed.

Enter our masked vigilante, Ether, in a dapper suit that wouldn’t be out of place on a 60s UNCLE agent or other stylish superspy, but partnered with a daffodil yellow shirt and purple tie (nicely co-ordinated with purple gloves). And topped off by a mask which encompasses the entire head and face, a tight-fitting disguise which appears to have a map of a city printed all over it. The inescapable comparison to any comics reader is, of course, to Watchmen’s Rorschach – suit, gloves, that total head-covering mask. And as Ether offers to help the police find whoever is behind this, and other recent abductions and murders, embarking on a trawl through the local lowlife, asking questions and beating out answers, it reinforces that comparison…

…Except Garvey and Dizevez are obviously well aware readers are going to be thinking that way, and in the latter half we see… Well, actually, I really can’t go into that much because it’s a lovely change in the road that the story seemed to be following. And while I will refrain from describing it because of spoilers, I must say I loved it – it changed the entire tone of the comic and, more importantly, it brought in a very human-level to everything, an emotional engagement (actually a number of them), which was extremely satisfying, and which shattered that Rorschach-clone impression. No more on that, except to say it was brilliant – but you need to read it, not hear a reviewer outline it (and spoil it).

There are some lovely touches here too – there’s that background officer being ill at the sight of the small body I already mentioned, but there are other nicely crafted details throughout. Ether chiding the police for referring to the small body as “the victim”, “Can you both STOP referring to this child as The Victim? Show some respect.” Only to have the detective, his pose the one of a world-weary man who thought he had already saw the worst but had just found a new, lower level of horror, turn to him angrily and explain that he has kids himself and referring to the child as “the victim” is a distancing technique that allows him to process the crime scene and do his job, otherwise he’d fall apart. It’s a good addition to the story by Garvey and a reminder of how many wretched scenes our emergency services deal with (something we were most horrifically reminded of this week), and that for all their calm professionalism, they’re human, and these most awful moments they have to deal with leave a mark on their soul.

That sense of actual humanity is pervasive throughout this first issue and it was a quality which elevated this beyond just another superhero vigilante tale. Dizevez’s art exudes atmosphere, that Noir-esque night-time city, full of nocturnal predators, rain-slicked streets, scenes little by the sickly yellow glow of sodium street lamps, or in a fight in a seedy red-light district the mixture of the hooker-red neon “XXX” sign combined with the sodium yellow casting garish coloured light across the night.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the second issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Ether #1 is available in most Forbidden Planet International stores, or you can get it from Matt’s Big Cartel online shop here

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 - Mike Carey
(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Film Festival Planning

The box office opened for the world’s oldest continually running film festival on Friday, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which I usually take a week off to enjoy every year. Normally they send me a programme but nothing arrived this year, so on my day off, which coincided with the box office opening, I took myself off to the Filmhouse (long a second home for me in Edinburgh), grabbed the programme, parked myself in the cafe-bar (one of my favourite spots to relax in the city) and worked my way through it, circling the ones I most wanted to see, then checking them against the calendar section to see which ones conflicted with others and then back to the box office to book a whole block.

I’ve got a good mix, as usual, foreign language, animation, drama, documentary. I’ve got both strands of the McLaren Animation Awards, which celebrate the best in new animation talent, with the audience voting for the films showing, so the award goes to the one the actual film fest audiences think best deserves it. I often see some of the McLaren films turn up months later in the BAFTA and Oscars short animation nominations, which is always satisfying. Sadly the festival is about the only place I get to see these shown on the big screen – it’s a pity the tradition of showing a short before the feature film died out long ago, it would be nice if some of these short works got a few screenings in mainstream cinemas, would be a nice way for them to support new talent, even if they only did, say, one month a year where they had them as shorts before the main programme (and since it is all digital now it isn’t like they need expensive prints made and transported to the cinemas). Also on the animation front I’m really looking forward to In This Corner of the World, which the gravepine has been saying is one of the best Japanese animated movies in years.

When I saw Emer Reynolds’ The Farthest in the documentary section, I knew I had to put that one on my slate as well. The Farthest follows one of the greatest journeys of discovery in human history, the magnificent Voyager missions. Rushed into being when astronomers realised that a rare upcoming alignment of many of the planets would give them a unique opportunity, two probes were crafted in quite a short period, incredibly complex courses worked out for something never attempted before, sending a craft on a multi-planet mission. And all of this with early 1970s technology.., Technology which is still working.

After planetary encounters and sending back huge swathes of data on our neighbouring worlds that kept scientists busy for decades, following remarkable courses which used the gravity wells of the planets themselves to alter their routes, Voyager 1 and 2 both then took on a new mission, hurtling outwards to the final frontier, still sending weak signals home, searching for the point where the sun’s influence fades and interstellar space begins. Even then, once all power is gone, they still have on final mission, each carrying a gold disc with multiple-languages and music of the Planet Earth on them, just in case by some astonishing chance they are ever found by another species. A little snapshot of human life and culture that will, most likely, drift forever throughout the universe…

Manhattan

I claimed a bit of owed time back and left work slightly early to catch a classic screening of one of my favourite movies at the Filmhouse on the way home from work, Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. I have it on DVD at home in my (probably way too large) film collection, but it’s a different experience watching a movie in the cinema than it is at home. Not just the obvious screen size difference – you concentrate more on the film in the cinema, you’re there in the dark, with an audience all reacting to the scenes alongside you, not at home, pausing the DVD to go and put the kettle on or check your Twitter feed.

And it was still wonderful after all these years – I think Manhattan has one of the greatest openings in cinema, Woody’s dialogue, his writer trying out lines “he adored New York, he idolised it…” over a montage of all sorts of views of the city, from the expensive fashion stores to the family neighbourhood, that iconic skyline and then, as the Gershwin soundtrack soars that skyline erupts with fireworks, all of this in glowing black and white cinematography. New York has rarely looked more beautiful on film, it’s a magical movie moment (what I call a Triple-M, just perfect scenes in a film that live in your mind’s eye ever after and always raise that reaction no matter how often you see it). And then there’s that perfectly composed scene of Woody with Diane Keaton, sitting by a bench by the river next to the Queensboro Bridge, as dawn starts to break. Sublime.

I had a little time before the early evening showing, so I parked myself in the Filmhouse cafe-bar for some food and drink before the screening. The Filmhouse is one of my “happy places”, it’s been a second home for me since I moved to Edinburgh as a student a long time ago, and being there for a movie, the film fest or even just in the cafe-bar makes me content. As I was having my drink I was, of course, reading (always a book in my bag), in this case Simon Garfield’s On the Map, a history of cartography which I picked up in a charity store recently. And right before it was time to close the book and head up to the auditorium what do I read but a paragraph on the first appearances of America on world maps, and the first mention, in the mid 1600s, of Manhattan on a map, here referred to as “Manhattes”, just as I was about to go in to see the film Manhattan. I love little meaningless coincidences like that…

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Biting satire in Hannah Berry’s Livestock

Livestock,

Hannah Berry,

Jonathan Cape

I’ve admired Hannah Berry’s work since her impressive, beautifully painted debut Britten & Brulightly, and since then, when it may have been easier to stick with more stories featuring those same characters, she’s created something totally different each time, and I’m pleased to see she continues to do so with Livestock. Here we have political chicanery, corprorate skulldugery, the deliberate manipulation of the media to mislead public opinion, the obsession with celebrity culture that permeates much of Western society, all wrapped up in a vicious satire which shows how all these different facets of modern society are interconnected, from manufactured celebs to Malcolm Tucker-tinged PR svengali (with great lines like “man’s drier than a taxidermied arsehole”. Yes, this is funny, often exceedingly so, but that humour is angry humour, and so it should be, because the Britain painted in Livestock is awfully close to the bone.

In this world the public relations firms are even more powerful than they are in the real world (a scary thought by itself), effectively taking Herman and Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” ideas to a horrible and all-too-plausible extreme. Here Mr Rourke is the mover and shaker, organising both carefully contrived celebrities (of the type that would make the average boy band look like authentic indy rockers) and also PR work for the ruling government and major corporations. And here those are all very much entwined – we’ve had the nightmare of the “military-industrial complex” for many decades, and the mass media has played a role in promoting and normalising and legitimising for much of the 20th century (we can thank famous psychologist Freud’s descendants for much of that particular took becoming so commonly used to subvert democracy). Here the military-industrial complex comes with an entertainment division – I suppose some would argue it always has, to some extent, but here again it is taken to the logical and disturbing extreme.

Have a problem with a pesky government leak exposing some very dodgy legislation? No problem call Mr Rourke, he’ll have his minions spinning more than a legion of spiders on crack. In Livestock the story has broken that legislation passed several years previously contained laws concealed inside various clauses that actually made legal genetic research into human cloning. It will surprise no-one to learn this secretive law was pushed through by lobbyists for a large corporation; such shadowy deals sadly happen on a daily basis in the parliaments and congresses of most of our supposedly democratic societies. The bumbling, hapless minister responsible, a man who would make Jim Hacker look like Lloyd George, is flailing in public as the reporters pounce on a juicy story. Rourke’s team soon deflects public interest with a mixture of carefully-created personal stories (minister adopts hero dog who saved child!) and throwing every more equally carefully-created celebrity “gossip” (entirely manufactured and controlled) to deflect the public’s short attention span.

In Livestock the main glossy celeb in Rourke’s menagerie is Clementine Darling, twice winner of the Best Female Singer and Political Spokesperson at the Twammies awards. For all her celebrity power – media and public alike hanging off every word as this pop star is expected to speak on everything from her new (again manufactured) romance with a fellow star to the morality of genetic research and cloning, her thoughts (all finely rehearsed and fed to her in advance by the PR team) given as much, or indeed more, weight than those of actual experts, while light entertainment programmes are where these important issues are discussed (a total misuse of the term discussed) rather than on serious, hard news programmes. When Hannah was creating Livestock she couldn’t have known when it came out we’d be in the middle of another general election, and one that has seen the prime minister avoiding serious public discussion while happily appearing with her husband to talk inconsequential nonsense on lightweight entertainment shows, but we’ve had that just in the last few days and it makes Livestock feel all the more pertinent than it already was…

Clementine herself comes across as almost a blank slate, practically programmed for her public outings, be they making a new music video or a carefully orchestrated public spat with a rival. She’s treated almost like a child – her minders lead her to the limo after an event, strapping her into her seatbelt, asking if she wants her juice box and allowing her to “watch her programmes” (mostly a sickly soap opera which nicely parodies many aspects of the lives of the characters in Livestock). It’s exactly like parents taking a toddler on a trip, although there are hints that Clementine may be more than the quiet, docile, clay they shape, that she may be more aware of what’s going on. Her life may be even more arranged than those of a classic 30s Hollywood star (when the studio fixers would even go so far as to arrange marriages that suited the public persona of their big names), and her image may be used to not just sell records but sway the public focus on debates, but there’s a hint here that while she is exploited, and so are the press (and public), she may well be doing some exploiting of her own for her own gain.

It’s a very dark, bitter and entirely too plausible set of scenarios Hannah crafts here (all beautifully illustrated in her lovely, painted style), but fortunately there’s a lot of humour here to leaven those vicious barbs, from the ridiculous collapse of one of the few heavyweight news debates into celeb gossip oooh and ahhh-ing to a nice little aside at a celeb book launch (it took days to write!) where a group of real authors stand around looking at the media turnout and the champagne and muttering how their book launches aren’t like this. One of them adds “I didn’t even get a launch”; that particular author holds more than a passing resemblance to a certain Hannah Berry herself, to my eye. New headline pages of the clickbait variety punctuate the story; where RoboCop used hyped-up US style news programmes as a caustic sidebar to comment on the society portrayed in that film, here we’re down to quick soundbites and links which, frankly, while seemingly OTT for comic effect are actually not as bad as some actual media outlets use now (these also allow for a couple of other famous faces to cameo).

Livestock is dark, clever, bitter, biting and funny satire, laughing at the same time as it weeps at the way our media-saturated, high-channel, low-concentration level society is going, of how easily we can be manipulated, and how much of that blame is on the public as much as the companies, media and governments who try to spin that debate. It will make you laugh while also making you angry, and after the way politics has gone on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few months, Livestock is now even more topical and on the nose than when Hannah started it. Read it before our society devolves even further into the parody-satire that it seems to be becoming.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog