Cracking short film by Nick Ryan, The German sees a the pilot of an RAF Spitfire locked in a duel with a Luftwaffe ME 109 during the Battle of Britain. Determined to claim the Nazi pilot who shot down his friend the Spitfire pilot pursues the fleeing Messerschmit, the two exchanging fire, evading, chasing, diving through clouds, to a surprising conclusion:
Having a look around Vimeo I spotted another short ten minute film by Nick, A Lonely Sky, a gripping short movie about the attempts to break the sound barrier in the 1940s, complete with an appearance by Keir Dullea of 2001 fame, well worth a watch:
TiM is a wonderful short animated film from Ken Turner, about a little boy who is different and relies on his own imagination to get him through, losing himself in drawing, making his own films and watching movies. But most of all he wants, when he grows up, to be Tim Burton. A lovely little homage to being different and how we all find little pieces of wonder that, even if most others don’t understand, mean the world to us and make life more magical.
Adrien is a piano prodigy, but when he fails to win the music prize he worked so hard for his life falls apart and he retreats into work as a piano tuner, but then he creates a pretend persona as a blind man, finding his clients are more trusting and kinder and more intimate with him when they believe he is blind. And then on one visit he sees something he shouldn’t, and the question is does his client think a blind man may stumble on their secret or not? Very stylish short French film, with English subtitles:
Another late night horror gem unearthed during my week at one of the world’s oldest movie fests, the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right now I will raise my hand and happily admit that I circled this film in the programme as one I wanted to see the instant I saw the title; seriously, folks, how could I pass by a film with a title like that? It called to the horror and humour geek parts of my cine-soul and, as I was to find out, my instinct to jump straight into booking that film was a good call.
Eddie: the Sleepwalking Cannibal (not to be confused with Eddie the Sleepwalking Campbell, comics peeps) is a Danish-Canadian co-production (now there’s something you don’t often say in a film review). Lars Olafssen (Thure Lindhart) is a Danish artist who achieved some level of celebrity in the arts world a few years before, but now seems to be a bit burnt out, unable to inspire himself to paint anything new in years, with his agent having arranged a change of scene for him, teaching in a remote, rural art school at Koda Lake in wintry Canada. The move doesn’t start well for Lars when, too busy checking his map while driving, he hits a deer on a country road. Worse the creature isn’t dead but is dying in agony; he hesitates for a moment then realises he has to put it out of its misery. He’s repeatedly striking the unfortunate animal on the head with a rock when a police cruiser pulls up behind him…
Not his best introduction to his new community, and at the art school he quickly gets the impression that some want him there thinking he will produce new work and so put their art school on the map while others are simply jealous that he has had success as an artist while they never have (including his colleague and neighbour, a philandering artist with a constantly barking dog he leaves out all night keeping Lars awake). In his class we meet Eddie (Dylan Smith), a largely mute, developmentally challenged man. His elderly relative has looked after him since his parents were killed in nasty circumstances in front of him as a child, something he has never recovered from. The same old lady generously endows the school so as a thank you they let Eddie paint away in the back of the classes, producing work like a small child, but happy. When his relative dies Lars is persuaded to look after Eddie – if he goes to a care home the school loses the endowment and no-one else seems to want him. But on the first night with his silent man-child charge Lars is rather startled to find Eddie has left the house in the middle of the night. He’s even more alarmed when following him reveals a recently killed and partly devoured animals in the woods nearby and Eddie, almost naked, blood caked around his mouth, and quite asleep…
And so begins a series of blackly comical horror scenes. He finds out that Eddie has done this sort of thing before, but as a child years ago after the death of his parents – perhaps he is just emotionally upset again and it has come back, he will settle down soon once he feels secure with Lars. Deciding on preventative medicine Lars is going to nail Eddie’s bedroom window closed so he can’t open it in his sleep and go outside. Until the constantly barking dog of his unfriendly neighbour catches his attention and slowly Lars puts down the nails. I wish I could get some sleep, if only we could do something about that dog, he remarks, seemingly casually, before wishing Eddie goodnight. And a little while later, just as he hoped, sleepwalking Eddie drifts out into the night and the dog barks no more. But when he follows to make sure Eddie is okay he finds out somnambulistic Eddie has sunk his fangs and terrifying physical strength into more than the dog…
Lars is horrified but at the same time exhilarated – returning to his studio with images of blood and dismemberment flashing in his brain he stares at that damned blank canvas on his easel that has been teasing him with it’s untouched whiteness. And suddenly he is painting, with manic energy, creating his best work in years. When his agent comments that his last big creative burst came after he was in a bad accident, perhaps he needs pain and blood and suffering to gain inspiration, Lars laughs at him, but we can see his discomfort. Perhaps his agent is correct – is the violence stimulating his desire to create art? And if so dare he indulge in more?
(director Boris Rodriguez (on right) in a Q&A after the Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, pic from my Flickr, click for larger image)
Boris Rodriguez delivers a pretty much pitch-perfect dark comedy-horror – yes, the humour is as dark as tar in a barrel, but it’s the sort of bloody (literally sometimes) humour many horror fans will love, and the relationship between Lars and Eddie is well handled. Dylan Smith is a stand-out as the simple, backwards innocent (except in his sleepwalking excursions) Eddie, a really superb piece of acting, and the dynamic between the lead pair is rewarding: yes, it seems like Lars may manipulate and use poor Eddie for his own ends, but at the same time he clearly comes to care for the big lug and looks after him. There are evil acts of violence on here, slowly escalating, but there is no true villain, just a simple man-child who really doesn’t know what he’s been doing and an artist who is increasingly prepared to take suffering for artistic creation to an entirely new level… It’s funny, bloody and frequently touching, the scenes between Lars and Eddie giving it a nice emotional context that keeps it from becoming a slice of mere exploitation movie, the bitching and jealousy between the artistic community is amusing and the entire film has something of the Coen Brothers to it (which is a huge compliment, Ethan and Joel are cinematic gods as far as I am concerned) with a mixture of comedy, horror, drama and absurd farce. It’s still on the festival circuit and I don’t know when it will get a UK general release, but trust me, this is one to keep an eye out for, it is destined to become a cult classic.
This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Edinburgh Film Fest: Edinburgh Film Fest: Grabbers
Dir: Jon Wright
Another late evening science fiction-horror screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and another absolute gem with this monster movie with a strong comedy undercurrent. A glowing fireball streaks across the night sky off the coast of Ireland, past a solitary nocturnal fishing boat. Mistaking the green glow for a distress flare they set off thinking someone needs helps, but it’s not another vessel they encounter…
Daybreak on a small island off the mainland and young career-girl policewoman Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is arriving on the ferry, taking what she thinks should be a wee change of pace for a couple of weeks duty, swapping the hustle-bustle of a city centre Dublin copshop to provide temporary cover on the rural island while one Garda officer is on his break. The remaining officer, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) – a constant alcoholic – is less than happy to have anyone else drafted in to keep an eye on him, let alone an eager, fresh-faced female officer from the big city, but soon they will have more important issues to deal with. The trawler has been found adrift with no crew off the coast, then a local doctor walking his dog on the beach comes across the horrific sight of an entire pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.
Such sad sights are not unknown to coastal communities, of course but when the local marine scientist Doctor Adam Smith (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) examines them he finds huge wounds and concludes they didn’t beach themselves but died at sea and were washed in by the tide. Quite why a whole pod would be killed at sea like this no-one can say. Meanwhile one of our local drunken fishermen finds some very odd creature caught in his lobster pot. Deciding it might be worth money he hides it in his bath before, this being Ireland, he heads to the pub, gets drunk and tells everyone he has a ‘sea monster’ in the bath. Of course, no-one believes him. Until people start to go missing and there’s a storm coming that will cut off the island from any outside help, even if those on the mainland believe what they tell them…
Okay, so far I imagine for anyone who loves their SF and horror we’re on fairly familiar ground here – small, isolated rural community, an outside menace arrives, stealthily at first, picking off one or two people in the dark before anyone can notice, only being properly revealed when it seems it may be too late to protect themselves. We even have the couple of outsiders who come into the close knit community in so many tales of this kind. The pure joy of Grabbers is that the folks who made it clearly know and love the genre; they take these familiar characters and situations then play them absolutely pitch-perfectly, with a good combination of horror and humour, with the latter deriving less from any puns but evolving naturally from the interaction of the characters.
Grabbers is also proud to wear its Irishness on its sleeve and not try to Americanise itself for the international cinema market. This is a classic monster movie like many an American B flick, sure, but one that could only work in Ireland – where else (excepting perhaps parts of Scotland, perhaps!) could part of the protection against devilish, blood drinking sea monsters involve a lock in inside the village pub and getting drunk? Where else would you get a shout of “aw, shut yer fecking hole!” as a hero wallops the giant monster? A great combination of B-movie SciFi roots, horror and character driven humour, great cast and a lot of heart (plus some nice homages to other genre greats, including a brilliant Aliens pastiche), Grabbers is simply perfect late night movie viewing – in fact I think this is the most enjoyable comedy-horror I have seen since the Nathan Fillion-starring Slither.
And if my opinion doesn’t convince you then consider the fact that the late night film festival audience gave the movie a huge round of applause – when a festival crowd does that, it’s the mark of a great film. This time last year I saw a wee horror movie called Troll Hunter at the film fest and told you it was one to watch for. Well, Grabbers is slated for general release later this summer in Ireland (hopefully UK soon thereafter) and I’m telling you that for me it’s this year’s Troll Hunter.
This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.
A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).
The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…
Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.
The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…
Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.
(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)
Well, as you may infer from the title, this is not a film for anyone who dislikes felines. That said you don’t have to be a cat lover to take enjoyment from this film (although it helps, those of us who are were sitting in the audience going aww at particularly cute kitty antics) as Naoko Ogigami’s film is a rather lovely, slow-paced, gentle look at life and urban loneliness in modern day Japan, how one can be living in a busy city with a huge population and yet remain isolated, alone despite being surrounded by people. And the wonderful power of our animals to enrich our lives; we know sometimes we may be projecting our own human emotions and motivations on them, but as anyone who has ever lived with animals knows they do seem to set up a familiar domestic habit with their humans, both ‘owner’ (not a title that really can apply to a cat, as anyone who lives with them knows) and pet settle into their rhythms around each other, making their own household, an ersatz extended family.
Sayoko lives alone in her small house, overlooked in her garden by her odd neighbour (who has a remarkable resemblance to a sort of Japanese Ronnie Corbett in drag). Since she was a child she’s never found it easy to make friends, let alone find romance, but while other humans don’t seem to warm to her for some reason cats do. Each day she pulls a small cart along near the river, crying out through a bull horn that if you are lonely she can rent you a cat. It’s not as bizarre a business idea as you might think (although some of the local schoolkids have already branded her as the crazy cat lady archetype) – I’ve read of professionally run cafés in Japan where cats live and the customers come not just for tea and cake but to stroke the cats, people who love animals but for whatever reason (not enough space, not allowed pets in their rented home, only staying a few months) they can’t have animals at home, so they come for the undeniable comfort that stroking a purring kitty can give.
One of Sayoko’s first customers we see is a very old lady, looking through the cats napping contentedly in her cart. She is taken straightaway not with the youngest or cutest but with a mature ‘grand old lady’ of a ginger cat, who reminds her very much of her own cat who has passed on. Her cat had helped her fill that awful hole after losing her husband, her son, we get the impression, is pretty distant from his elderly mum, and now with her beloved pet gone she is alone, the apartment empty, lifeless to her. When Sayoko checks her home to make sure it is suitable for cats she can see right away the old woman is perfect for this – she desperately wants another cat to bring some warmth and companionship into her life, but being so old she has decided pragmatically she can’t have one as who would look after it when she dies (a genuine worry for many elderly who value their animal companions even more than the rest of us)? But here she can have the cat from Sayoko and know she will come to take her home when the old lady is gone, that the kitty will still be looked after and loved – hearing this she knows the old woman has a good heart and that the cat will make her remaining weeks better. It’s incredibly touching and, animal lover or not, you’d have to be a brick not to feel empathy for the old woman’s situation and the pleasure she gets from the cat’s company.
The film moves through some more encounters with people in the city – a businessman who has to work away from his family and home and is lonely in his isolated city home, a young girl working dedicatedly away reciting her company mantra but realising she spends all day at work then at home mostly alone. Through her encounters Sayoko’s own faults and problems are as on show as much as those lonely souls she helps with her cats – on her own since her gran’s death (rather sweetly she talks to the departed old lady every day at her household shrine), she writes goals up for herself, such as find a husband, but has no idea how to attain them, tells her clients when she charges them only a pittance to rent the cats that she doesn’t need the money because she makes lots as a stockbroker playing the markets, or as a famous psychic. We can never really tell how much of this may be genuine and just how much is a Walter Mitty fantasy of Sayoko’s to make herself feel better.
Rent-a-Cat moves at a very slow pace and, like the pets who help to fill the holes in people’s lives, it doesn’t render a judgement on the poor, lonely humans who move through its scenes; they and their lives and flaws are simply presented as is and while you may not identify totally with any one character there are elements of each that pretty much all of us will recognise and empathise with. Sweet, gentle, moving and touching, a lovely little flower of a film that you should stop to inhale the scent from. Then go tickle a cat’s soft tummy afterwards.
Starring Jean Dujardin, Michael Youn, Sylvie Testud, Daniel Prevost, Alexandra Lamy
Lucky Luke, the lonesome cowboy who can drawn and shoot faster than his shadow has been around for a long time – 1946, in fact, since the great Morris first drew his Wild West hero. Over the decades he’s remained popular, being translated into many languages (including, now, a good array of BD albums from Cinebook in the UK) and into other media. Previous filmic outings have never proven as good as the long-running comic though – until now. I actually first saw this live action take on Lucky Luke a couple of years ago at my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I’d decided to go but didn’t have high expectations – to be honest I was thinking it was likely to be around the level of the live action Asterix films from France, that is to say passable but not especially good. I was pleasantly surprised – my friends and I at that Film Festival screening laughed continually throughout the film and spent a good while in the pub discussing it afterwards. All of us agreed it was so choc-full of details it demanded another viewing on DVD at home.
And then a couple of years passed and for some reason it simply never got a UK release, which infuriated me – terrible to see a great film at a festival, tell everyone about it but they can’t see it… I’m delighted to say that now that is being rectified with a DVD release at the end of this month. I was lucky enough to get an advance disc and re-watching the film I found it even funnier than the first time around. In fact it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years (puns and jokes abound even in the closing credits although it might stretch your French a little to get them!). The film is loaded with humour, from jokey dialogue and characters through to more subtle jokes in the background or in the wonderfully detailed sets, which are as close as a live-action can get to re-creating the look of a comic, all the buildings looking like they have been sketched freehand without a ruler, giving Luke’s world an appropriately cartoony appearance while still remaining very Western. Visually it draws on the comics but also from a rich tradition of American Westerns, from the iconic landscapes of a John Ford flick to the Spaghetti Westerns of the great Sergio Leone (with, I think a tip of the hat to Mel Brook’s magnificent Blazing Saddles).
In fact the opening flashback of young Luke witnessing the murder of his parents by desperadoes is heavily indebted stylistically to Sergio Leone (no bad thing in my book). Flash forward again and we have our cowboy hero meeting the President in a special railroad car (comically wreathed in cigar smoke, a jokey nod to the fact our once smoking cowboy now just has a blade of grass in his lips instead of ciggies – better example for the kids!), in a scene that borrows from Leone’s operatic Once Upon a Time in the West. The railroad is coming to unite both side of the United States and make it into a full nation. But before he can drive in the golden rail spike to unite the lines to the coasts Luke’s old stomping ground of Daisy Town has to be sorted out. Once a peaceful haven it is now a riot of outlaws under the leadership of gambler and conjurer Poker; the President asks Luke to clean up the town and so our hero rides in alone to the viper’s nest. He may be outnumbered and out-gunned but Luke, with his trusty steed Jolly Jumper, is in a class of his own and the jail is soon full of villains. All seems well until Poker forces a proper, old school Western showdown in the street. Needless to say he can’t outdraw Luke, and as the shot rings out he falls dead… Luke is mortified, he uses his guns but never kills, and thinking he’s taken a life could destroy him faster than any gang of bandidos…
And I won’t tell you anymore of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But the story is only one half of the tremendous fun on offer here. The film is quickfire gags and some brilliant characters (Calamity Jane, toughest gal gun in the West, but with a girly crush on Luke under that hard as nails exterior, Jesse James constantly quoting Shakespeare like a true ham, James and Billy the Kid trying to light one of Luke’s blades of grass to smoke it and getting wasted), the cowering locals in Daisy Town will only venture outdoors in barrels for protection, the details in sets and even clothes are just perfect. It’s full of enough humour so that the younger readers the the comics are aimed at will be kept laughing, but it also has plenty of little asides aimed at the adult audiences, not to mention the plethora of references to other classic Western film that will reward the adult viewer. It’s pure, wonderfully played, wonderfully detailed fun throughout and Dujardin, here in a pre The Artist role, is perfect as a live action Luke, although of course when the French cast talk to him he sounds more like Looky Luke! But the French language in such an American genre as a Western actually adds to the good natured humour of the whole film. Unmissable fun and one of the funniest flicks I have seen in years.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog, where there is a competition currently running to win a DVD of the film.
This was originally penned for my traditional Best of the Year, part of an annual series I run on the Forbidden Planet blog, following on from a month-long series of guest Best Of posts that ran daily from the first week of December:
It’s been another quite superb year for good reading and, like last year’s Best Of selection, I’ve been delighted at the diversity and quality of comics work coming out of the UK publishing scene, which seems to be going from strength to strength and like the more established science fiction and fantasy publishing in the UK, it’s putting out works that are getting worldwide attention. SelfMadehero and Blank Slate especially have had a cracking year. I’ll apologise in advance – as usual I’m going to go on longer than I meant to, but I blame all those too damned talented writers and artists for that, made trying to narrow down my selection extremely difficult and I must apologise to some because I know that there are some I have probably missed out, but we better get on with this list:
The new chapter has just started this very week online, but over the last few months few things have made me laugh out loud as much as Jamie Smart’s Corporate Skull, taking the mickey out of big business and corporate office culture, loaded with cynicism and sarcasm, decorated liberally with bad language, foul behaviour and violence and bodily excretions. It’s everything rude and crude but expertly and cleverly crafted. I said several months ago that it was “arse splittingly funny” and I stand by that comment, mostly because the aforementioned bum is still recuperating from the previous comedic splitting. Sick genius. The doctors say it is good therapy for Jamie to work it out of his system.
For my money Jacques Tardi is one of Europe’s great comics creators, a true maestro who can turn his hand and alter his style to suit almost any genre, from gruesome, angry It Was The War of the Trenches to hardboiled 70s crime and, of course, his famous Adele Blanc-Sec series. A plucky heroine writer who investigates the bizarre and always becomes entangled in the oddest conspiracies and plans. This second helping collects two of the original French albums and serves up a heady cocktail of conspiracies, secret societies, black magic practiocners, mad scientists (and boy does Tardi do a great, cackling mad scientist – he even brings in some from his brilliant The Arctic Maruader into this) and all set against a beautifully realised backdrop of Belle Epoque, pre-war Paris. Fantagraphics are translating a huge swathe of Tardi’s work and in fact I’d recommend and and everything they have so far translated and republished, but for the sake of this piece I’ll go with the wonderful Adele.
This is a superb, dark piece from SMH, a labyrinthean maze of childhood memories and how they shape and influence the character and outlook of the protagonists as adults, set in one of those depressing, featureless “it could be anywhere” type of towns, with emotional paths triggered by the reconnection between childhood friends and almost-sweethearts John and Naomi, it’s a fascinating through a glass darkly tale that I could see making an engrossing film in the hands of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Dark, brooding, intense and fascinating.
Spiegelman’s Maus must be about the most famous graphic novel on the planet, known not only to comics readers like Watchmen but to the wider reading public because of its reception and the Pulitzer Prize highlighting it even to readers who normally don’t read in the comics medium. That, however, is also something of a millstone for a young artist to carry around for the next few decades of his career and Spiegelman talks about that, as well as how he came to make the original comic, discussing the craft, the family history, his relationship with his father, the approach to the art and layout, it’s a truly exhaustive (it comes with a DVD packed with more material) look inside one of the major literary works of the 20th century, but it is also deeply personal too, not just in terms of discussing Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, the man whose tale he is telling, but also how the book has affected his own children growing up in its shadow. Penguin also republished the original Complete Maus in the same hardback format as MetaMaus to mark the anniversary of its publication, they make a very handsome set.
Don Quixote, Migeul de Cervantes with some help from Rob Davis, SelfMadeHero
Several years ago a poll of some of the best writers from many countries picked out this masterpiece of Spanish literature as the favourite novel for most of today’s respected international authors. They were right. It’s an astonishing book that has crossed centuries, influencing artists, writers, playwrights, poets, painters, film-makers and readers; several centuries of readers have fallen in love with this mad knight who dreams of a golden past of chivalry and adventure. Is Quixote a dreaming madman in a cynical age or is it the world that is wrong and his vision which is the more wonderful? Is it a Quixotic madness to even attempt to adapt this great work into comics? Perhaps, but as one who has loved this book for years I think Rob too has supped from the same cup of divinely inspired madness that made our tottering knight charge at windmills; it’s a wonderful madness we all need to embrace from time to time to rise above the mundanity of the everyday. Rob has put a Herculean effort into this adaptation – a read of his blog shows the effort and thought and love he’s put into each frame, how to approach the characters, even the effect of changing colours and shadows, and it shows in the finished work.
Quixote is one of those books that belong to the world and to the ages, given that immortality that belongs to few books across the long centuries, the few that become immortal, the Poes, the Dickens, the Austens, that will be read for as long as there are books and stories. If you’ve loved Quixote you will delight in this joyful adaptation of the work, if you haven’t had that pleasure yet then Rob’s is the perfect, accessible introduction to it, and afterwards you’ll want to read the book itself and treasure it. As a bookseller and booklover I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
Much acclaimed on it’s German language release I was delighted to see Blank Slate translating Uli Oesterle’s brilliant Hector Umbra, his first full length work to make it into English. A brilliant mixture of buddy movie, religious conspiracy, science fiction and dark magics, with more than a tinge of the excellent Mike Mignola flavouring it as Hector, between drinks, tries to find his missing DJ friend Osaka, stumbles into a megolomaniac attempt to subvert humanity, even finds himself, in an almost Hellboy moment, entering into Hell to be given information from a recently dead friend. Stylish and funny as we see bizarre sights, drinking, shagging, lunacy and more around Munich and strange realms hidden away from normal sight. Think Mike Mignola meets Quentin Tarantino meets Wim Wenders.
Coleridge’s famous poetical work, inspired in part by the great age of exploration as ships sailed to undiscovered corners of the world, is reworked visually here to great effect by Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes, who follows the rhyme and beat of Coleridge but refashions the work to a more contemporary topic of the environment and man’s disastrous effect on those great, world-spanning oceans, the cradle of all life. The book itself is unusual for a graphic work, being similar in format to a thick hardback novel rather than the normally larger album format, but this is perfect for the few frames on each page, designed to work in time to the beat of the verse. There’s some lovely work in there too – Nick did a Director’s Commentary for us back in the spring, where he talked us through some of the work in his own words, go and have a look.
(Nick Hayes and William Goldsmith at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011, pic from my Flickr)
Another unusual work from Cape in 2011 was this first major work from Will Goldsmith, whose work can also be seen in the Imagined Cities anthology Karrie Fransman put together. Ostensibly a series of short, two-page tales, each taking in a different story of a different (and usually eccentric and odd) dweller in a fictional, roughly Eastern European city, although the stories slowly start to become interlinked as you progress through, a little like Carver’s Short Cuts. Visually it is unlike anything else I’ve read in recent years, it’s a remarkable, unusual art style that demands re-reading to take it in. Unique.
I’m a 2000 AD boy, no question about it, original generation there right for the very first Prog and I still like to dive into the tales from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic today, with a special fondness for the Dredd-verse. This story from veterans Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil is set in Dredd’s universe but doesn’t feature him, taking place on a Mega City colony in deep space, fighting for independence. Following an alien attack where the Judges ignored pleas for aid everyone, including sentient robots, genetically uplifted apes and mutants, were given citizenship in return for fighting to save the colony. War over they judge marshal is told to revoke that citizenship, which he refuses, leading to a colossal showdown with the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad we first really saw way back in The Day The Law Died years ago, the Judges who investigate the other Judges. It’s a great future war tale, seemingly good guys against bad, but Abnett deliberately muddles the morality to make it more dramatic while MacNeil creates some brilliant B&W art (see my review here for more).
Batwoman – the New 52, JH Williams III & W Haden Blackman,published DC Comics
Over the years I have largely slipped out of the habit of picking up monthly or weekly issues – yes, I know, sounds sacriligeous for someone in my position, but I have collected them for more years than I care to recall and these days I generally prefer to wait for the collected trade edition. But along with the rest of the blog gang I had to have a look at DC hugely ambitious New 52 experiment, effectively rebooting the main DC Universe, all re-starting at issue 1, a great spot to leap on for anyone new to them, or, like me, who had missed out several years of continuity. It was a great success for the most part and now 5 issues later I find myself still checking the racks for some of them, most notably Batwoman.
I can’t help but go back to it every month – interesting storyline with Kate Kane’s Batwoman facing a supernatural, very creepy threat as well as a more natural world threat from a government agency and a screwed up wannabe sidekick. But the team also deliver a good personal side to Kate’s non superhero life – the problems with her sidekick being emlematic of her her problems with relationships in general, like her missing, presumed dead, twin who returned as a psychotic villain, her estranged father, her detective lover who doesn’t know she is Batwoman… But mostly it is JH Williams III’s art. Simply fabulous, probably some of the best artwork you will see in a mainstream comic right now, achingly gorgeous, atmospheric and with some fantastically kinetic layouts across double pages that as well as looking great scream out to me this is comics and this is the sort of wonderful visualisations of a story only this medium can do.
And as a bonus we have a very strong female lead, every inch the equal of the Batman, quite independent of him, strong but with doubts and troubles but a tremendous determination to do her ‘duty’ honourably. And the fact that she is a lesbian is, I am glad to say, simply a part of her character, played for emotional nuances but not for titillation or exotic allure. Kudos to the guys for that too. And on the New 52 front I also need to give shout outs for Gail Simone’s Batgirl and Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s The Flash. And boy, am I surprised to find myself reading Flash again after all these years, but there you have it…
Nelson, edited Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, published Blank Slate Books
It’s been an outstanding year for comics work again, and especially for the UK scene. Nobrow, Blank Slate, SelfMadeHero and Cape have all distinguished themselves and it feels to me like the UK scene, both professional Indy presses and the self published small presses, are just getting better, more diverse and more intersting. Good time to be a reader – the only drawback is more good books than I have time to read and it is murder trying to make a list like this out of so many fine candidates! But, hand on heart, I have to stick with what I said in my review (see here) of Nelson, where I called it:
“a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now.”
In a year of quite brilliant works Nelson still stands out for me, a bold experiment by Messrs Phoenix and Davis and all at Blank Slate to craft a single tale covering decades of a woman’s life, each segment by a different artist yet all coming together as more than the sum of it’s parts. I think it is one of those books we will still talk about looking back from future years, a major moment in the renaissance of UK comics publishing. And we even got to raise money for Shelter just by buying it. I’m running up my flag and saluting Nelson as my best graphic novel read of 2011.
Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, Tor/Macmillan
First book of the Gravedigger Chronicles from the Scottish author Alan Campbell who impressed with his previous debut series, the Deepgate Trilogy. As with that debut his new series is an inventive, different and often disturbing take on a genre which can all too often fall into formulaic generic tropes. What starts as a fantasy on a world in which magic is real mutates throughout until it becomes half science fiction, half fantasy, with a compelling, driven lead character and a world where even the oceans have been poisoned by magica;/scientific meddling to become The Brine, the simplest splash of which is toxic and has horrible effects on the human body – and Campbell excels in grisly fates in a manner equalled only by veteran SF scribe Neal Asher. Compelling but not for the faint hearted.
The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley, Orbit
Book three of the Humanity’s Fire series sees Michael Cobley really coming of age – I enjoyed his original fantasy series he debuted with, but I think Mike’s switch to grand space opera science fiction was a wise one and this entire series marks him really growing into a much more assured, mature writer, with a brilliant tale of lost human colonies, major intrigues among major alien powers, a strong evnironmental thread and an exciting mixture of the big scale (major starship battles) and the personal (we get to know our heroes very well as they struggle for freedom), and his main planet with a colony composed of Scots, Norwegian and Russian descendants sharing their world with a friendly native species makes for a great and memorable cast of characters. Enjoy Ken MacLeod and Iain M Banks? Then you should be reading this.
The Reapers are the Angels, Alden Bell, Tor/Macmillan
Years ago a papercut from a radioactive book gave me special bookseller senses – sometimes a publisher will send me a book I know nothing about, the author is totally new to me, the book I know nothing about other than the blurb on the PR handout, and yet I get the tingle. And when I get that tingle it means I just know that this book is good, that I am going to like it and I trust the tingle because that instinct rarely leads me astray when it comes to reading. And I got the tingle for Reapers are the Angels and it was, again, pointing me to some bloody good reading. Both zombie tales and post-apocalyptic SF are ten a penny, it takes something to do either sub genre in a fresh way – Bell’s book combines both sub genres and it does so superbly, with his young girl wandering the remains of America after a zombie outbreak, trying her best to survive in a lethal, brutal world (where the remaining humans can be as dangerous as the walking dead), yet she has evolved her own quite moral code and a unique way of looking at the world and still seeing some wonder in it. It’s an amazing piece of work and – thank you – Bell is assured enough to keep it to a decent length and not feel compelled to bloat it to some 600 page monster as too many modern writers do. Beautifully self contained work.
Germline, T.C. McCarthy, Orbit
Another book that gave me the tingle is TC McCarthy’s Germline, a tale of future-war which draws on elements of the contemporary war on terror campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with the historic (like Vietnam) with science fiction (parts of it are reminiscent of 2000 AD’s Rogue Trooper, including regiments of genetically created super soldiers). This is no war for ideal, not even pretending to be for ideals, it is purely for the remaining resources on the planet, and for every hi-tech future weapon there is the down and dirty tunneling and trenches of the Great War. Our main character is a reporter, but this is a war where you can’t stay an observer and our drug loving hack finds himself going through an Apocalypse Now like journey into the heart of darkness, along the way finding some strange buddies and even falling for one of the genetic infantry women. It’s dirty, gritty, very realistic and utterly gripping.
Echo City, Tim Lebbon, Orbit
I’ve been reading Tim’s work for a good while, he’s a brilliant, very unusual writer, coming from a horror background that also permeates his fantasy and I’ve often found it galling that he wasn’t published by a major imprint in his own country. Well this year Orbit fixed that and gave us his Echo City, a bizarre conurbation, totally self enclosed, wrapped around by an impassible, toxic desert, ruled over by a despotic family, political dissidents banished to a ghetto strip between the city walls and the desert proper. But someone has created a genetically manipulated being to cross that desert – and return. And on the return they learn that something – something unspeakable – is happening. Not just the fight between dissidents and the ruling elite or old and new ways of thinking, but something is rising from beneath the city. A city built endlessly on the bones of it’s own past, layer upon layer of new city built atop the old, vast undercity beneath, the river running through to vanish into the shadows below, where the city’s dead are fed into the falls to vanish – something is rising from deeper than even these dark levels… Scary, different, disturbing, mature dark fantasy from one of our very best.
Rule 34, Charles Stross, Orbit
Charlie is another writer I have admired for years, endlessly inventive, with a great take on using technological and societal trends to great (and cynically funny) effect. In Rule 34 he gets to indulge in the Great Edinburgh Detective Novel along with some near future science fiction, with a unit dedicated to policing all the weird cases that are spawned via the web, and our long suffering but tenacious female detective finds a bizarre murder case rapidly spinning into something much larger, going well beyond the city and even the country. It’s fast-paced, well delivered, clever and darkly humorous stuff from the guy who has become one of the best of the UK SF crop.
Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape
Half a potted history of the superhero comics and half a form of biography, Grant’s Supergods is an interesting read for anyone who’s grown up reading the four-colour pages. The earlier chapters dealing with the history of the early capes is fine but not anything you don’t really know already, although it has the benefit of having someone who has himself written many of these characters commenting on them and their creators. But for me the book really becomes much more interesting when we get to the 60s and Grant talks not only about the comics from then but on the ones he as a youngster was picking up and what they meant to him personally, then on to his early work (an anthology put out by the old Edinburgh SF Bookshop, which would eventually be the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet), constantly changing his style as the years pass, it offers an interesting insight into his own creative processes as well as his views on other trends in comics publishing and other writers and artists – you won’t always agree with them, but it’s always interesting.
Film & TV
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Luc Besson’s big screen adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s Belle Epoque heroine takes elements from a couple of the original bande dessinee to make it to it’s running length, but despite mashing together different story elements from different books it cracks along at a good pace and delivers much of the same joy of adventure and gorgeous visuals (especially of Paris in the 1910s), a very fine comics adaptation and sheer fun throughout – here’s hoping he adapts some more.
One of my highlights of my annual sojourn at the Edinburgh Film Festival was this Indy monster flick from Norwegian director/writer André Øvredal. Made on a budget of only three million Euros it uses the found footage device like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, but much better (and less annoying) than either of those, supposedly recordings by media students doing a video project, reporting on a licensed bear hunt when they find a loner who follows the hunt for the rogue animal but never takes part. Tracking him night after night they find out he is actually a member of a secret government department tasked with keeping the public safe from (and ignorant of) trolls. And we get to see all manner of trolls, from forest to cave to gigantic beasts who roam above the Arctic Circle. Funny and very inventive, never showing its tiny budget, it is sheer fun and the film fest audience gave the director a huge cheer at the end. (see here for a spoiler-free review)
The brilliant Martin Scorcese adapts Selznick’s wonderful tale, his first foray into 3D (and surprisingly not annoying in 3D), turning the book into a fairy tale – an orphan living within the walls and tunnels of a 1920s Parisian train station, mending and maintaining the clocks while avoiding the station police who will bundle him off to the orphanage, working on restoring a 19th century automation his father was trying to repair before his death. Befriended by a young girl (Kick-Ass’s Chloe Moritz), menaced by a grumpy toy shop owner (her godfather) the pair are lead not only into the mystery of the clockwork mechanical man but of one of the great magicians of the 19th century, a curator of automata and wonders and the first, great genius of the early cinema. The dawn days of the film become part of the magical, fairy tale like story. 20s Paris in winter is a magical, enchanting land, and Scorcese makes much of the giant cogs and wheels of that era’s engineering and machinery while celebrating the first wonders of the silver screen. A pure joy.
The Borrower Arrietty
Another gem from the Film Fest for me was the new Studio Ghibli – I know I’m far from alone in being a huge admirer of Myazaki-san’s studio and their wonderful animations and the chance to see this tale, adapted from Mary Norton’s classic book The Borrowers, is a visual wonder as we see the tiny Borrowers living hidden in the human household, and how one Borrower girl and one seriously ill human boy come together despite the vast difference in sizes. The art is a delight showing our world at the Borrower’s tiny scale (so small when they pour tea from the pot it doesn’t flow like our water does, it comes out as large droplets), even the sound is used to convey the scale, the rustling of shirt fabric enormously loud to Arrietty’s miniscule ears. It is charming and a pure visual feast of traditional animation (with a few CG elements). See here for a review
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Maverick director Werner Herzhog gained exclusive camera access to the Chauvet caves of southern France, one of the great historical discoveries of the last couple of decades, a series of caves used by our ancestors for rituals, for art… For the oldest human artwork we know of, a glorious series of cave paintings over 32, 000 years old. Just consider that for a moment – human artwork many times older than any beautiful work that survives from Rome, Ancient Greece or even Egypt or Ur or Babylon. These may have been stone-age people, but they are modern humans, just like us physically, and in their art we can see they are much like us mentally, spiritually. Art paintedin darkness lit only by flickering torches, which would have made the animals depicted seem to move. The artists are clever, using their material wisely, using the surface qualities of the rock and the curves and undulations to emphasise the art, making a horse seem dynamic as it curves around a bend in the wall. The work is far too delicate to be open to the public, only scientific teams are allowed in to a now sealed, climate controlled environment, Herzhog’s access therefore as close as we can get to this miraculous find. It’s a treasure in paint and stone and human effort and cleverness reaching out of the darkness across long millennia to us. It’s so beautiful it will make you cry with wonder. The human spirit and art eternal…
As usual I have rambled on far, far too long and been a bit self indulgent, but again my excuse is that I read far too many extremely good comics, books and saw some fabulous films again through the year, and this is me missing out many I would have liked to include as well (I haven’t even managed space to give proper mentions to the Big Bang Theory – much improved this year with a stronger female strand to the regular male geek cast – or Doctor Who or the surprise that was The Fades, the brilliant adaptation that is A Game of Thrones, the growing pleasure of Fringe (one of the best SF shows of recent years, I think), SyFy’s Haven, Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl).
Looking forward to in 2012
Okay, as I said I have gone on too long already, but what the smeg, a very brief look at some books and comics coming up that I’m looking forward to this coming year: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Mary & Bryan Talbot, Jonathan Cape. Bryan was kind enough to give me a peek at some of this collaboration with his wife Mary some months ago and I’m eager to read the finished book – Mary was kind enough to to pen a Director’s Commentary about Dotter for us and I’m delighted to say you will be able to read it on the blog tomorrow. Kochi Wanaba, Jamie Smart, Blank Slate – I love Jamie’s work and adored what I saw of Kochi online. It’s an amazing mixture of the supercute and the bizarre, almost grotesque and I’m chuffed to see him getting this lovely hardback edition from Blank Slate.
One of the great European classic has been promised in new English editions to use several times over recent years, but never appeared – now, at last we’re going to see it again: Corto Maltese: the Ballad of the Salt Sea, Hugo Pratt, Universe. Hopefully this summer sees the third part of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, Knockabout/Top Shelf. This final part brings us up to contemporary times after we last saw the League in the Swinging Sixties (with a coda in the punk era of the 70s). Peepholes, Laurie J Proud, Blank Slate Books looks absolutely fascinating – it was due late 2011 but will now be this year, but a pleasure delayed simply increases the final satisfaction (and I hope to have Laurie also doing a Commentary for us too in the near future).
And I’ll leave you with a couple of 2012′s science fiction works that caught my eye – Empire State, Adam Christopher, Angry Robot. I was treated to an advance copy at the end of 2011 but the book is out this month – if you follow our Twitter feed you’ll already have seen me singing the praises of Adam’s novel – set in a 1930s/40s city that seems like New York but is actually the Empire State, like an alternative version of the New York we know, with gangsters and speakeasys and superheroes in rocket boots like characters from the old Republic serials of the day. A city that is all that exists, surrounded by a mist around its rivers, and yet there is a mysterious enemy ships sail off to fight… Somewhere. Hugely stylish, with elements that reminded me of hardboiled noir of the 40s and 50s, the old serial movies, Rocketeer and Dark City- probably the first really interesting SF book of the New Year for me. And this year also sees the return of one of my long-term favourites, Ken MacLeod, with Intrusion (Orbit) – Cory Doctorow has seen it already and described it as “a new kind of dystopian novel: a vision of a near future “benevolent dictatorship” run by Tony Blair-style technocrats who believe freedom isn’t the right to choose, it’s the right to have the government decide what you would choose, if only you knew what they knew. ” Ken told me a little about it recently but to be really honest all I need to know is it is a new Ken MacLeod and that means I’ll be reading it.
Classic war film The Battle of Midway was on this weekend and as the feature film uses some genuine wartime footage (notably in the ariel combat scenes) it reminded me of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford, who shot some of the most famous American films of the mid 20th century (and is largely responsible for the visual look of the classic Western). Ford volunteered to take a documentary film crew to the tiny island of Midway ahead of the expected Japanese attack, to record it for the US Navy. He didn’t just make fictional tales of combat and heroism, he actually dodged bullets and bombs to record what would be a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific, when the US fleet, so badly damaged after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour the year before, struck back and seriously wounded the seemingly omnipotent Imperial Japanese Navy. The war in the Pacific would rage on for several more bloody years and cost both sides dearly, but this was one of those pivotal moments when the Americans showed their enemies that they weren’t the soft, decadent people they had assumed but a ferocious force determined to finish what the bad guys had started (ah, the days when we didn’t worry about the morality of US foreign policy because it was a clear cut us and them, good guys versus the bad guys war…). Checking the web I found you can actually watch Ford’s original short documentary footage online – no CGI and special effects here, no actors who have spent a few weeks in a mock boot camp to be trained, this is the real thing and recorded at enormous risk. Makes James Cameron going to the depths of the oceans in a submersible look kind of tame in directing derring-do terms, doesn’t it?
Just over a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying my annual week off at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, taking in all sorts of cinema, from hard-hitting documentaries from modern combat reporters to stylish French crime thrillers. And of course I took in several science fiction and horror themed flicks along the way, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the ones that I enjoyed the most:
I was told by a friend who had already seen a press screening of Xavier Gens’ The Divide that it was ‘very disturbing’. She meant this as a warning, but to me it was an endorsement! The Divide opens with a moment of sheer, modern, urban terror as a young woman gazes terrified out of her skyscraper window across New York – as a nuclear device is detonated. Screaming, panicking residents flee down the stairwells as the shock front approaches their building, a few manage to rush down to the basement and force their way past a reinforced door as their building superintendent tries to close it. The shockwave reaches them, and in the dark basement of their huge block the ground shakes, pieces fall from the roof and the sound is awful, reminiscent of the fall of the Twin Towers.
(Director Xavier Gens talks about The Divide at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)
A handful of terrified, disparate survivors pick themselves up to realise they are trapped in a subterranean sarcophagus – will rescue teams come looking for them? Are they safe until they do? When will they come? Why is the super (genre stalwart Michael Biehn) acting so oddly? What secrets does he have in his underground domain that he is now forced to share with the motley survivors that have been forced on him? The tension and claustrophobia builds and when a much hoped for rescue turns out to be something quite different it becomes clear our dwindling band of survivors are on their own, sealed in, and slowly they lose cohesion, breaking into groups, suspicious, violent… The nuclear attack and the bizarre ‘rescue’ are never really explained and they don’t need to be, the film is really an exercise in claustrophobic horror and the resulting breakdown of the people trapped in this situation, until we have a post 9-11 war on terror meets Lord of the Flies scenario. Compelling.
Alejandor Molina’s slice of Mexican science fiction has a real 60s/70s SF feel to it, with a future dystopian society controlled by a mostly unseen group of scientific despots (unseen except for a few delightfully odd looking scenes between one leader and a dissident scientist which recall the 60s Prisoner series with their bizarre styles and angles) and science has been used to divide the population medically into day and night shifts, one half going to sleep as the other wakes to work. Families are banned, children are looked after in a formal manner by guardians rather than loving parents and following the rules is all in this society, questioning is not permitted, the past is largely a blank, sanitised book and the outside of the sealed city is off limits (see what I mean about that 70s SF vibe?).
Of course no amount of scientific tinkering with the human body and mind can eliminate human nature completely and we see one woman from the day shift distraught at the disappearance of her young girl ward, displaying a motherly concern that is not desired in this society, while a night shift doctor takes charge of a mysterious, unidentified body of a young girl, but a body that turns out to be comatose, not dead as his colleagues think, and he secretly takes her in, his formal life rapidly changing as the girl bonds with him and brings out his paternal, caring instincts. As the man, woman and girl converge the question is can their medically programmed nature of night and day rhythms be crossed and can they find somewhere where they can actually learn to express a parental love for the child? The pace of By day and By Night is very, very slow, quite gentle actually, but stick with that slow pace to find a quite charming and, for modern cinema, unusual slice of thoughtful, old-fashioned (in the good way, reminiscent of short tales by Silverberg or Bradbury) piece of science fiction.
Director Nicolas Goldbart’s slice of post-Apocalypse medical horror from Argentina proved to be a hugely enjoyable work. Guillermo Del Toro regular Federico Luppi lends his dignified presence as a quiet, elderly resident in an apartment block, downstairs neighbour to Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart). A dull routine of shopping, domestic chores and residents meetings are suddenly derailed when it is suspected someone in their block has a new and highly contagious disease and the authorities seal them in while tests are carried out. What starts as an all in this together for a few days bit of almost-fun soon turns nasty, however: cut off from the outside world they watch TV news reports of more cases of the disease breaking out around the world. As what starts as a swine flu like media panic becomes a pandemic reality. Soon the authorities stop their visits, alarms and gunshots are heard outside their sealed block in the streets of the city and as it becomes clear how large a scale the problem is the neighbours begin to plot in small groups against one another…
Luppi’s distinguished elderly resident seems like a likely first victim as one group of neighbours plot to break into his apartment, supposedly over concerns he is infected, to help him, but really because they think he has a large stash of food. Little do they know he is a former big game hunter… Coco proves pretty hapless throughout but luckily for him his next door neighbour turns out to be a survival nut who has been preparing for something like this (he is sure it is a conspiracy by world governments to reduce the population strain on the planet). In fact his neighbour turns out to be Phase 7′s answer to Tremors’ Burt Gummer (which is a compliment) and he has a soft spot for Coco and his pregnant wife. As events escalate the pair of them are drawn into confrontations with the surviving residents and Luppi’s formerly Nice Old man turned shotgun toting hunter. It isn’t all The End of Society, disease and neighbourly violence though, Phase 7 is well laced with humour throughout giving it a perfect balance of characters, story, action, violence and some decent laughs too. A real find.
Welcome to Stormhouse, a secret, underground black-ops base for the British Army. It is just a few months before the invasion of Iraq and a covert unit has a very special prisoner deep within this subterranean complex. No, not some black-hooded terror suspect (although there is that too) but something else, something not human – the Entity. The British Army has managed not only to find a ghost but to imprison it. Now they want to find a way to use this supernatural entity as a secret weapon, but other than putting the heebie-jeebies up all the squaddies on the base they’ve had little success in communicating with it, much less getting it to perform to their orders. So the Minister for Defence sends in Hayley Sands, a ‘ghost whisperer’ psychic to help them make contact. She’s talked to the dead before but is amazed to find out that the Army has managed to hold a ghost (through an electro magnetic barrier) and wonders how they brought it over from the other side in the first place. Of course, she is told that is on a need-to-know basis and the commanding officer, clearly unhappy with her presence, is acting very oddly, as are many of his soldiers after prolonged exposure to the entity.
Stormhouse is one of those horror films where you have a fair idea of where it is going to go, but that isn’t really a handicap as it gets around its small budget by concentrating mostly on atmosphere and in this it is highly effective. The underground bunker setting generates a seriously tense sense of claustrophobia, the soldiers inside effectively as trapped as the mysterious ghostly entity is and despite the electromagnetic field containing it, it becomes clear some of its influence is seeping out into that dark, dank, underground lair to effect them all and the arrival of a single, young, attractive female presence into this all-male environment doesn’t help either. Stormhouse plays its small budget cleverly – the ghostly effects are few but effective; in fact the director in a post screening Q&A said they could have stretched to some more ghost effects but decided to tone it way down so we get tiny but terrifying sudden glimpses on a monitor. And as things unravel, as you know they will, Hayley may find out just how the army got themselves a ghost – and wish she hadn’t… An interesting, atmospheric piece of low-budget Brit horror, playing cleverly on both the fear of the supernatural and creeping, unseen but always present feeling of unease in society post 9-11 and 7/7.
(director/writer Dan Turner and some of the cast of Stormhouse on stage at the Filmhouse after their Edinburgh Film Festival debut, pic from my Flickr)
This Indy slice of fantasy from Norway from director/writer André Øvredal was, without a doubt, my highlight from this year’s Edinburgh Film Fest (with the exception of the new Studio Ghibli film, which I reviewed here). A group of media students are making a video news article for their college, following a group of bear hunters in the Norwegian countryside when their attention is drawn to an odd man who follows the hunters but stays apart from them, coming and going late at night on his own. Is he a poacher? Following him into the deep, dark woods they soon find out he is after a very different game when roars echo frighteningly through the dark trees and the man runs out of the forest yelling “Ttttroooooolllllllllll!!!!!!”
And this is the set up, our mystery man is an operative for a secret branch of the Norwegian government which looks after any rogue trolls which threaten human areas of habitation. Sick of years of working unappreciated in a covert role (and with no hazard pay!) he agrees to let the students follow him as he deals with all sorts of trolls, forest trolls, cave trolls, even gigantic trolls which stride across the frozen northern landscape. The format is ‘found footage’, as with Cloverfield or the Blair Witch, but much more knowing and more tongue in cheek about it than either of those films and the effects are excellent, the film looking far more than the 3 million Euro budget it was made on. It has a terrifically enjoyable mix of action, scares, cool effects, characters and humour (a moment on a bridge with three billy goats gruff had everyone in the audience laughing) in just the right proportions, pretty much a perfect Saturday night movie. Chris Columbus has already bought the rights to an English language remake, so Hollywood has already taken as much note as festival audiences have of this cracker of a fantasy flick. You could almost imagine some of Troll Hunter as a story from a Hellboy comic, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Troll Hunter is getting a general UK release in September – trust me, you want to go and see it!
(director/writer André Øvredal in a post screening Q&A in the Cameo Cinema at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)