“We’re on a mission for God…”

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.…”

Spotted while walking along the lovely beach at North Berwick, one of the houses which is built right by the beach has a decked area a few feet above the beach, and in this small back garden spot who is sitting there, enjoying the sea view but Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers!!! Made me smile…

The Blessings of the Blues Brothers be Upon You 01

The Blessings of the Blues Brothers be Upon You 02

Submergence

Submergence,
Directed by Wim Wenders,
Starring Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Alexander Siddig

Submergence, based on the novel by J.M Ledgard, has what on paper sounds like a straightforward plot structure – two people, Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a scientist exploring the deepest parts of the ocean for life, meets James More (James McAvoy), a former Scottish soldier turned water engineer, both taking a break in a beautiful Normandy hotel before their next missions, she off to sea on the research vessel L’Atalante (a nod to the famous film of the same name, I would imagine), and he to Africa for a new water project. After some playful banter the two start to fall for each other, Danny at first reluctant, mostly married to her research, but drawn to James, with what could have been a brief, happy fling flowering into something far deeper. And then they are pulled apart to go their ways, but both now eager to meet once more, to develop their relationship further.

Except that while James did tell Danny he was a former soldier turned engineer, he didn’t tell her that his water engineer life is a cover for spy work for British intelligence, and he’s not going to dig wells in Kenya, but to Somalia, where he is soon taken prisoner by Jihadist terrorists. The film cuts back and forth between James, held prisoner in Africa, and Danny at sea, James clinging to warm memories of her face, her voice, her touch and dreaming of seeing her again, Danny, oblivious to his plight is growing increasingly anxious about not being able to contact him on his phone, their thoughts and dreams cross-connecting the two strands of their stories as they are separated.

As I said, the lovers brought together then pushed apart by fate is a fairly simple narrative device, but veteran director Wenders is not noted for sticking to the plain and simple – I must confess I have a huge admiration for his work such as Paris, Texas, Until the End of the World and, of course, the achingly beautiful Wings of Desire. And I appreciate that he rarely takes the obvious path, although I think perhaps this film is less unusual than many of his other works, in some way more straightforward and accessible to the non-Wenders initiate than some of his earlier films.

It is, unsurprisingly for one of Wenders’ movies, beautifully shot, be it the Normandy coast, the landscapes of Africa, the open ocean or the deepest, darkest places of the vast oceans. Even the prison cell takes on a strange beauty and symbolism – dark save for one shaft of light from a window high, high above, reached by a sloping shaft, it echoes Danny’s descent into the lightless ocean floor, and James finds himself musing about how he too has found himself in his own deep abyss, just like his lover. Orpheus and Eurydice, perhaps, except here it is Orpheus who is lost in the gloom of the Underworld.

I did have some issues with the film though – some of the dialogue felt rather stilted, something that should have been worked out better in rehearsals and editing, I feel, and for such a career-driven person it sometimes felt a little off that Danny becomes so emotionally churned up from not being able to contact James and wondering why he won’t reply to her. But I mostly forgive the film the flaws, because it is, as always with Wenders, a beautiful piece of work to watch, the gorgeous cinematography matched by having two very attractive actors in the lead roles, the music (by Fernando Velazquez) is wonderfully atmospheric, and a luscious compliment to Wenders’ rich visual tapestry. It’s an unusual love story, mixed with elements of the spy thriller, exploration and environmental change, with two gifted and very beautiful stars and luscious cinematography. While not ranking with Wenders’ best, this is still worthy of a couple of hours of your time. And let’s be honest, if you are already a Wenders fan, you know you’re going to have to see it, just because it is by Wenders…

Submergence is available from Lionsgate on digital download from March 4th, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 11th

World on a Wire

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht),
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder,
Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck
Second Sight Films

The world in a nutshell...”

Here’s a remarkably unusual 1973 film by famous (and often infamous to some) film-maker Fassbinder, an intriguing slice of science fiction that’s very much ahead of its time. Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this German language film (originally made for television and shown in two parts), a production I’ve heard mention in discussions about science fiction history, but never seen. World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, to give it its original title). The German government (or the West German government as it would have been back then) funds a cybernetics research programme which has developed a next-generation computer, which they intend to use to model events and trends in society.

That may sound fairly normal to our modern-day sensibilities, given organisations and governments have used detailed data on computers to run predictions, trends and modelling to help predict what resources may be required in the future – are birth trends indicating we will need more schools and teachers in a few years, for instance. Simulacron, however, is indeed some next-generation level modelling – this computer has created a virtual world, a small town of around ten thousand digital inhabitants (“identity units” as the programmers refer to them), all effectively living their lives, the programmers able to observe them, tweak their personalities and world. Modelling the real world, combined with some unusual anthropology.

The programme is a high priority for the government, but hits a stumbling block when the main creator, Vollmer, dies in mysterious circumstances (is it an accident or something more sinister?), his friend Dr Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is asked to take over the project, reluctant at first but soon persuaded by the oily Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau). It’s just the start of his problems though – a a party hosted by Siskins his friend Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the head of the project’s security vanishes, just after talking to Stiller about his misgivings about Vollmer’s death not being an accident. And I mean vanishes – one minute he is there in a chair in the middle of the crowded room at the party, Stiller turns away for something, turns back and he is gone.

It becomes increasingly peculiar after this – Stiller reports Lause’s disappearance to the company and the police, but only a few days later nobody even remember the man existed, and he is introduced to another man who is the head of security, and has been for years. Even the police detective he reported it to has no memory of Lause or of Stiller telling him of his disappearance. His regular secretary takes ill and is moved away, to be replaced by a new assistant appointed by Siskins, played by Barbara Valentin (one time paramour of Freddie Mercury), and he can’t help but feel despite her being very friendly to him, that she is perhaps there to keep an eye on him.

As he continues to investigate the death and disappearance while working on the Simulacron project, Stiller becomes increasingly agitated and disturbed – he has himself linked into the simulation, effectively riding one of the virtual people’s lives, to observe, but while there the entire street blanks out on him several times. A glitch or something else? A colleague discusses the “reality” of the virtual lives lived in the simulation, commenting on how Vollmer spent so long programming every aspect of humanity into them, wondering if it could create something akin to actual consciousness. And then he finds a record of Lause – not by name in the database, but by searching through descriptions, there he is in the Simulacron database, programmed by the deceased Vollmer himself.

This is a real slow-build into a series of increasingly disturbing concepts (it’s over three hours, you can see why it aired over two evenings, originally!) – Stiller starts to lose his grip on what reality could be. Is he the puppet master, the god of this virtual construction and the digital lives within, or is he another puppet, but a puppet who is starting to see some of the strings? Is he even real? He is so sure at the beginning that he is in the real world, crafting Simulacron, but as the discrepancies pile up he starts to wonder if the digital beings from Simulacron are somehow crossing over to the real world, taking over the bodies of the programmers who enter the simulation. Or is it even more complex, can he be sure he is the one running the simulation? What if he himself is in a simulation (and running a simulation?). It sounds like psychotic delusion, but really, how do any of us know, much less prove, that the world we see around us is real?

Bear in mind this is some three decades before the Matrix introduced the wider cinematic audience to concepts like this, this is pretty high concept for 1973, and really it’s still high concept today, in my opinion, because it is a great piece of drama laced with philosophy, and that philosophical question about the nature of reality and perception is, as the Matrix and others have shown, still one which perplexes us to this day, and is the subject of scientific debate too as our computing abilities become ever more powerful, it is a legitimate question to consider if a more advanced species could be running what we perceive as the real world and our lives as a vast simulation. How would we know? Imagine if that thought got into your head as it does with Stiller, how would it affect you? Would anything matter anymore if you thought none of it was real?

I can’t be alone in thinking nothing really exists.”

 

While the concepts are both disturbing and perplexing, the visuals are highly stylised – many of the actors move in a very unnatural manner, posed in scenes almost like carefully arranged mannequins in a display, many conversations are shot with one actor reflected in a shiny surface or through a distorted lens, scenes are framed in non-realistic ways (one actor on top of the stairs talks to someone below rather than walk down to talk to them as you’d expect). At first I thought this was mostly Fassbinder choosing a deliberate, non-natural style of acting and framing for his cast, but as the film goes on I started to feel perhaps it wasn’t just a style but a deliberate move to create a feeling of wrongness, that the people and places simply aren’t quite real, and it does add to the increasing sense of disconnection and confusion Stiller is experiencing.

This is a very unusual, thought-heavy slice of 70s science fiction, and while the look – many of the offices are designed to look ultra-modern, except what was ultra-modern in 1973 looks unbelievably kitschy and dated now – has not aged well, the concepts and the depiction of a man losing his grip on reality, and perhaps even discovering that there is no reality, remains very powerful and compelling, even in our post-Matrix world (the film even boasts a scene where Stiller exits Simulacron via a phone booth – sound familiar??). Here is a remarkable piece of German film and science fiction history by a major cinematic figure, lovingly restored by Second Sight, collaborating with the Fassbinder Foundation, and being issued in a limited edition packed with extras (featurettes, interviews, documentary, booklet and more), this has clearly been designed for the serious lover of cinema.

The limited edition Blu-Ray of World on a Wire is released on February 18th.

The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band,
Directed by William Friedkin,
Starring Kenneth Nelson, Robert La Tourneaux, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White, Reuben Greene, Leonard Frey

If there’s on thing I’m not ready for it’s five screaming queens singing ‘happy birthday’.”

Here’s an unusual slice of cinematic history for film fans: an early work from a director who would go on to be one of the major American helmers, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). The Boys in the Band also stands out as one of the first mainstream movies about gay culture, with an all-gay cast of actors, still not exactly a regular occurrence today, remarkable for 1970. Adapted from Mart Crowley’s hit Broadway play (Crowley adapted it for a screenplay himself), it also boasts the original stage cast. The film was, unsurprisingly, controversial at the time (and since), not just with more conservative audiences uncomfortable with gay culture being so openly displayed, it also split some of the gay community, with some angry at the way it portrayed gay men, others were delighted to see gay lives being portrayed on the big screen.

The plot revolves around a birthday party for Harold, one of a circle of friends, all gay men in New York, with Michael (Kenneth Nelson) setting up his apartment for the party and welcoming his other friends who arrive one by one. Birthday boy Harold is the last to arrive, fashionably late (one can’t help but feel deliberately so, especially given his prickly character), and a good bit of the running time actually passes with the friends exchanging gossip and small talk, mixed with barbed comments, until he arrives. Despite being a circle of friends it is clear there are a lot of cracks and a lot of tension in this group too, and those are heightened by Michael’s straight friend Alan appearing during the party (he has known Michael since college and doesn’t know – or claims not to know – that Michael is gay).

And Harold arrives. Harold the thirty-something gay Jewish man in his green velvet suit and tinted glasses, a tongue barbed like a rose bush and with a dry, often cruel wit that’s like Oscar Wilde lines shaped into a rapier, perhaps the one person in the group who has an even sharper (and oft-times nastier) wit than Michael, and he takes savage delight in reminding him of that fact as the evening progresses. The party passes through stages rapidly, from a happy period as they prepare for the evening (comments are exchanged, but they feel like banter rather than nasty at this stage), then it starts to become uncomfortable with Alan’s arrival, then when Harold appears the comments become sharper, nastier, confessions come, arguments, secrets revealed.

In many ways the film shows its theatrical roots – the vast bulk of it is all set in Michael’s apartment, and you can see how that worked well for a stage performance. The thing is that apartment is essentially a crucible in which the different friends and their simmering passions and resentments can come to the boil, there is no need to open it out to other locations that cinema can use, and it is to Friedkin’s credit that he understands this and resists any attempt to insert unnecessary settings or imagery, he shoots around the apartment and the cast, putting us right in there with them.

It can be argued that despite the all-gay cast the film (and play) suffer from having too many stereotypes (the sashaying overly effeminate one, the straight acting one, the super promiscuous one, the gorgeous but dumb one etc), and while there is some truth to this, as Mark Gatis notes in one of the disc’s extras this was one of the first times these types were shown so prominently in mainstream cinema (Gatis is interviewed in the extras as he is acting in a revival of the play), and as he further points out, those characters aren’t claiming to represent every different kind of gay person, but they do make a good selection to try and shine a light into a group that hadn’t been featured much outside of underground cinema till then. And of course this pre-dates the awful horror of the AIDS crisis a decade or so later, and even pre-dates the events of Stonewall, and we have to take it in that context.

Those barbed one-liners and comments are one of the jewel’s of Crowley’s script, they flow pretty much from the start – Michael showing Donald to the guest room, pointing out he got him his own toothbrush as he’s sick of Donald borrowing his. “How do you think I feel?” retorts Donald. “Oh, you’ve had worse things than that in your mouth…,” replies Michael, archly. Or Michael commenting about “tired fairies” and “screaming queens” at the party night, Donald asks good-humouredly “Are you calling me a screaming queen of a tired fairy?” “Oh I beg your pardon, there will be six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer,” responds Michael.

The lines just keep flowing like that and had me smiling and laughing at their tartness, but as the party goes on the comments become increasingly cutting and painful, it almost seems like they hate each other (in one very emotional scene Michael sobs that they have to learn to stop hating themselves so much), and yet… And yet there is far more going on here; while those vicious, bitchy lines escalate from nasty barbs to poisonous harpoons there is also a feeling that they are all still connected, still friends, that they need each other, that they can only be this dysfunctional around each other in a way they can’t in the rest of society (and isn’t that the case with many of us and our friends? Only around them can we really be that vulnerable or wrong-headed and yet still be accepted). Each of them exposes their weaknesses and wishes, and for me that took them past any “stereotyping” and made them real people that I could emote with and empathise with.

This is a delight of sharp-toothed wit, a rare early mainstream cinematic exploration of queer culture and lives, and an important entry on the film-roll of a major director (Friedkin says that it is one of his films he is still very proud of), and for all those reasons it’s great that Second Sight are bringing it back to film lovers. You’ll find yourself saving some of those biting one-liners to use yourself at some point.

The Boys in the Band is released by Second Sight on Blu-Ray (with a bunch of extras, including the aforementioned Mark Gatis interview, and commentary from Friedkin and Crowley), on February 11th, some fifty years from the debut of the play.

Reign of the Supermen

Reign of the Superman,
Directed by Sam Liu
Starring Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Cameron Monaghan, Cress Williams, Patrick Fabian, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Tony Todd

The Death of Superman epic back in the early 1990s made waves around the globe – such is the place of the Big Blue Boy Scout in popular culture that the story went far beyond the comicsphere into the mainstream media. As with last year’s animated Death of Superman from Warner Animation and DC, this is an animated take on those early 90s comics that followed the loss of Superman, the world coping with his loss, and the appearance of four new Supermen trying to claim the mantle of the red cape.

The world is still mourning the loss of its mightiest protector, and on a more personal level we see the impact on Lois Lane, grieving for Superman/Clark Kent, with Clark’s adopted human parents, none of them able to tell anyone that Clark (officially listed as missing in the disaster of the Doomsday attack in the previous film) was actually Superman. In the editorial meeting room of the Daily Planet Perry calls each journalist for their input on a new story before calling for Clark’s take, only for them all to pause and remember he’s not there anymore. It’s just a moment, but a good one, reminding us that in his human guise Clark had friends and they are having trouble dealing with his loss.

Lois hasn’t been into the Planet since Superman’s death, but we all know that Lois is tough and resourceful, and she decides to fight through her grief in her own style – by going out and doing what a good journalist does, asking questions and digging behind the scenes. She wants to know who these mysterious four new Supermen are – the vicious Eradicator who targets anyone he considers criminal and is prepared to kill, unlike the real Man of Steel, the teenage Superboy (a cocky young lad), a cyborg Superman and an armoured man who calls himself Steel and wears the S symbol in honour of his fallen hero.

As with the previous Death of Superman, this follows the original comics for most of the narrative, with some changes here and there (which I have to say worked better for the pacing of a film). Lois calls on Diana as she begins her investigation – Diana is relieved to find she hadn’t come to grieve with her, commenting “Thank Hera! Despite my reputation I’m not so good at the touchy-feely!”. She adds that she’s not always great at this kind of thing, not having had many girlfriends, and hard-working Lois nods that she knows that feeling. There’s a nice feeling of the two bonding more here, which is picked up again later.

Diana and the Justice League don’t know anymore about the new Supermen than Lois though, and are just as concerned about them – who they are and what their real agenda may be. So Lois continues her digging, soon discovering more about each of them – I won’t reveal too much about what she finds out here, as that would be venturing a little too far into Spoiler Country. And yes, I know many of you will know much of this story, having read the original comics from the 90s, but these animated films are also clearly aimed to embrace new fans (and perhaps younger ones too) who may not know those stories yet, so I won’t risk the possible spoilers.

I will say thought that this, like the preceding Death of Superman animated film, is a nicely-paced piece – from a serious, brooding atmosphere of loss over Superman at the start it is only a short time into the story before we get our first super-powered brawl with Superboy and the Eradicator, which quickly spirals into a four-way slugfest as Steel and the Cyborg Superman arrive on the scene. They don’t hang about here, set things up, establish some emotional atmosphere and then pow, right into some serious action. Looking back I think the live action films could learn a bit from the pacing here – Batman Vs Superman could have been much better with sharper pacing and editing like this, for instance.

Despite the themes of grief and loss following Superman’s death, for the most part this is actually a great ride – lots of action, delivered frequently throughout, and some nice character moments, Perry uttering his trademark “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, which made me chuckle, Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) regarding the Cyborg Superman and asking the Justice League’s Cyborg to talk to him (“what, you think all cyborgs know each other??”). And that aforementioned bonding between Lois and Diana also includes the girls enjoying an ice-cream together (yes, Wonder Woman eating ice-cream, sweet, funny and also a nice nod to the scene in the live-action WW movie), and we even get to see Diana do the “twirl” Lynda Carter style.

There is some great voice talent to enjoy here too – Serenity’s Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern, Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman, Sliders’ Jerry O’Connell voicing the various Supermen, X-Men’s Rebecca Romijn voicing Lois and genre fave Tony Todd lending his voice to the villainous Darkseid. The animation style is clear and dynamic, the style and the story perfectly suitable for younger fans as well as the grown-ups, and it and the previous film offer a nice take on a classic 90s Superman story-arc for older fans but especially for newer, younger fans too – or better still, watch it together with your little superheroes! And do stick to the end for a post-credit sequence (a hint at another animated film to come?), while this sharp Blu-Ray also comes with several extras. Reign of the Supermen is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand.

Crucible of the Vampire

Crucible of the Vampire,
Directed by Iain Ross-McNamee,
Starring Katie Goldfinch, Florence Cady, Neil Morrisey, Larry Rew, Babette Barat

We begin this new British horror with a flashback, in monochrome, to forest clearing where a man is stirring a large, bubbling cauldron. He is surprised by several soldiers in what looks like Civil War-era uniforms (a nod to Witchfinder General, perhaps?), the officer in charge grabbing him and accusing him of witchcraft; his dead daughter has been seen by several witnesses walking again after her burial. The cauldron, he claims is being used to create a potion which is fuelling her resurrection – the officer takes one of the soldier’s swords and cleaves the old cauldron in two, before ordering the accused man to be strung up from the nearest tree.

We move to the present day, and Isabelle (Kate Goldfinch), a young museum curator, is called into her director’s office, where he explains that renovations in a remote, rural country house have turned up one half of the cauldron glimpsed in the prologue. The museum has had the other half for some years and is understandably keen to obtain the other segment for study – in fact Isabelle is surprised that her boss is asking her to head out to the house to verify the find instead of going herself, but of course she can’t say no.

Arriving at the once-grand but now partly dilapidated country house she is met by Karl (Larry Rew), his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat) and their strange, pale daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). She is welcomed in, given a room to stay in, invited to dinner, all the signs of hospitality are there and yet… Yet there is a distinct feeling right from the beginning that something is simply not right here – the family (especially Scarlet), there is something unsettling about them, and there is a feeling around the house that builds unease, a sensation heightened by first hearing someone walking around at night then later seeing Scarlet prowling the dark halls at night, even following her to the bathroom and at one point sneaking into Isabelle’s room (and rather strangely showing a keen interest in the other woman’s underwear), and there is the question of a strange music which haunts her.

A visit to the local village pub builds this feeling of wrongness – a disgruntled younger man seems to be stalking her, warning her not to return to the estate or it will go badly for her. A threat? Or a warning? The family’s gardener (played by popular actor Neil Morrisey) seems friendly, although his story of the previous gardener (incidentally father to the angry young man following Isabelle) who was found with massive throat trauma and blood loss in the woods (passed off as a freak accident) again raises Isabelle’s concerns about staying in the house.

Karl seems keen for her to finish her work and verify the find; she assumes he is just after money for the artefact, but Isabelle starts to wonder if there is another, secret motive. When she finds a hidden journal entry in the library in the house, detailing a former owner’s encounter with the cauldron fragment, and his subsequent series of nocturnal visitations, visions and what sounds very much like the same mysterious music she has heard herself. It seems this 19th century owner was trying to warn future occupants of the house, but what was he warning them against, and does it have anything to do with the cauldron she is investigating?

This was a pleasure for me to watch, Iain Ross-McNamee has crafted a film which draws heavily on old-school British horror movies. Crucible draws on some classic Hammer inspiration – the creepy, old house surrounded by dark woods, the host who on the surface is welcoming but you just feel is hiding something. There are numerous other homages and references worked in here, notably a nod to Carmilla/The Vampire Lovers, and includes some nice phantasmagorical images and visions that, while this is very much a modern film, also gives it some of the airs of the 19th century Gothic novel. In a world where too many horror movies rely on sudden jump-scares or OTT gore, Crucible of the Vampire takes its time to build an increasing atmosphere of unease and a slow-burn of ever-increasing tension, laced with some beautiful cinematography and imagery, while upcoming young talent Goldfinch and Cady are especially good.

A modern horror that draws on classic, older Brit horror film traditions, while also mixing in a touch of ancient folklore and Celtic myth, there’s a lot to love here, especially for those of us still in love with Hammer.

Crucible of the Vampire is getting a limited theatrical release by Screenbound on February 1st, and will be available on DVD and on-demand services from February 4th

“It’s only a movie…” – Reel Love

Reel Love: the Complete Collection,
Owen Michael Johnson,
Unbound

I first heard of Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love project quite a while back when it became an Unbound project, looking for backers. Given it combined two of my favourite things in the whole world, comics and cinema, I joined the group of people backing the project. As with many of the best movies, Reel Love is arranged in three acts, each taking in a different part of our film-obsessed protagonist’s life, starting off with his very first memories of a trip to the cinema. This is before the massive multiplexes that dominate today, and as we follow the wide-eyed and nervous wee boy walking in with his dad, there will be a rush of nostalgia for many of us of a certain age – the heavy curtains that pull back to gain entrance, the ushers with the wee plastic torches.

Sadly it is not an auspicious start – the darkness, the noise, the special effects, they are all too much for a young boy, he gets more and more upset until, bawling his eyes out, his dad has to take him home. But the siren song of the cinema will not be denied, and he returns. And returns. An enjoyable day out starts to become a way of life then an obsession. Friendships develop, always seen through the lens of movie characters and stories, he grows older, his small town is boring, doesn’t look like there is anything much for him to look forward to as he gets older, but the movies are always there, an escape, and naturally he gets an old camera and tries to make his own.

After school comes getting a job and unsurprisingly he gets work in a nearby cinema – his favourite old fleapit of a cinema is on its last legs, the old man who runs it and knows him well from all his visits knows his time is limited in the face of the giant, new multi-screen multiplex cinemas and that’s where he gets his job. The total newbie, no real drive or qualifications or career path, like so many of us he falls into something he has a love for, but working in a multiplex isn’t quite the stepping stone into the film industry. He does make some new friends though – the “Monster Squad”, the late-night shift of other misfits around his own age, each of them with a strong obsession with cinema. He’s found his tribe and even finds first love among their number.

But nothing lasts forever, friends drift apart, each has their own life and has to move on at some point, to a new job, new town, college, and Johnson captures that odd mixture we’ve all been through growing up, friends you were so sure would be your best pals forever and ever, but life – your own and their lives – just gets in the way, things change; it can be exciting, but it is also scary, a feeling of being left behind, left alone, that you’ve somehow been a non-starter, and again the book captures that mix of emotions that growing up and change brings to all of our lives, again reflected through the prism of film. First loves leave, both people and places (there goes that first girlfriend, there goes that first cinema he loved so much). By the third act our protagonist is an adult, now lecturing about film in a small college, looking at his students, young, dreams of taking on the world and making their Great Film, while he has grown cynical and jaded, until a new student shoves his way into class.

There’s much to love here – the three acts, corresponding to a Three Ages of man is a good one, from wide-eyed youth to teen desperate for connections and a place and not knowing how to achieve those, to the adult looking back and wondering how did I get here in my life, what happened to those dreams of youth? These scenes are beautifully handled by Owen, they don’t shy away from embarrassing details (of the sorts of things we all probably did at some point growing up) but they are also depicted with sympathy, and they will echo with so many of us.

The flashbacks to the early cinema trips are a delight, and the way it shows how deeply some of those stories embed themselves into our minds, especially at a young age, will again chime for so many of us – watching the original Star Wars as a kid in the cinema is beautifully rendered, the glimpses of the action on the screen with the wide-eyed looks of wonder on the faces of the kids, the way lines from those movies becomes a part of your life; an early, important friendship and its later break-up is shown through Hobbit characters from Lord of the Rings. The film imagery bleeds into the everyday, which is as it is for a lot of us – the films we love, the books and comics we read, the music we listen to, they all embed themselves into our lives in both good and bad ways. Reel Love celebrates that through a mix of coming of age and dealing with grown up life, all embroidered by the stories, characters and imagery of cinema, from Star Wars to Bogie.

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo,
Directed by Ali Soozandeh,
Peccadillo Pictures

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is a single mother in Tehran, struggling to look after her mute young son Elias (Bilal Yasar), while her worthless husband is in jail on drugs charge, and refusing continually to sign consent forms for a divorce to let her go free. Meantime she is forced into sex work to try and make ends meet, leading to a pretty interesting opening scene in Ali Soozandeh’s intriguing look at the sides of life in modern Tehran that the religious rulers of that country like to pretend only exist in morally corrupt other societies, but of course regardless of what supposed standards they might claim exist people are people in any city anywhere.

We first see Pari being picked up by a middle-aged man cruising the streets; soon she is in his car (her young son in the back, as she has no-one to look after him), and her John is haggling over price (Pari is pretty good at standing up for herself), until she tells him firmly the best he is getting for that money is fellatio. This proceeds as the car is driving through a busy evening in the city and any hints of exploitation or titillation are quickly dispelled between, shall we say, performance issues for the John, then he catches sight of a young woman walking the busy night-time streets with a boyfriend. He realises it is his own daughter and moves to Indignant Protective Dad mode (despite having Pari’s head in his lap), the boy is – gasp – holding her hand! “Pervert!” he shouts. Raising her head from his groin Pari can’t help but comment “look who’s talking.”

This very much sets the tone for Soozandeh’s film – looking at the intimate, hidden sides of life (in a society where unwed couples holding hands in public can be arrested for indecency), but doing so with a nicely irreverent touch (not so much broad comedy, more the sort of humour that just often comes out of situations in everyday life). The film follows several characters like Pari, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi ), the daughter-in-law of her neighbours in the new apartment she is moved into (the same judge who refuses to sign her divorce without the husband’s papers is happy to arrange to have her as a sexual partner on the side), and Babak (Arash Marandi), a young musician. Pari pretends her husband is a long-distance truck driver to explain his absence and that she works as a nurse, hence her regular night-time excursions, but they all have secrets to keep hidden.

We start to learn those secret lives in the individual strands, which then cross lines with Pari’s story throughout the film, a little like Short Cuts, all of which is delivered with Rotoscoping animation over the live actors, giving the film a very interesting visual style, like Waltz With Bashir or A Scanner Darkly. This approach allows for some interesting visuals – Babak, attempting to take an intimate phone call on the train where you never know who may be listening (and happy to report you to the religious police), turns towards the window, and the camera moves outside the carriage to look in at him on the other side of the window, or Pari and Sara having an evening out eating in an open-air cafe in a beautiful, colourfully-lit square at night, or a view from the apartment over an animated, nocturnal cityscape of Tehran.

Running throughout these tales of hidden lives and secrets is a strong theme of hypocrisy, of those standing up and pretending to be ultra-moral while content to indulge in any number of prescribed acts, most especially the men in positions of authority who continually try to control the women in society (they can do almost nothing without having a form signed by a husband or father), who act as if such moral “deviancy” is beneath them (one is reminded of the string of high profile televangelists in the US who condemn “sin” then we find out they’ve been indulging in endless extra-marital affairs and drugs).

It’s a theme that could have been delivered in a grimmer, darker fashion, but Soozandeh’s lighter touch manages to bring over these serious subjects (ones rarely discussed openly in such a conservative, highly monitored society) without wearing down the viewer; there are some upsetting and emotional scenes, but the humour of the everyday, and the satirical touches riffing on the hypocritical nature of a society pretending these problems only happen in decadent Western countries when in reality the same troubles happen to people, well, everywhere, no matter what any politician or religious leader likes to say.

Peccadillo Pictures has a reputation for bringing us intriguing films from different countries, often dealing with hidden, moral, sexual or taboo subjects, and Tehran Taboo fits very nicely into their stable of films, with the added bonus of giving us a glimpse into a society most of us don’t see in cinema too often, from a very human, everyday life perspective.

Tehran Taboo is out now on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures

Spaghetti Western meets Holocaust in the remarkable 1945

1945,
Directed by Ferenc Török,
Starring Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Iván Angelus, Marcell Nagy

If someone had told me that there existed a Hungarian film in black and white which draws heavily on the style of Sergio Leone’s Westerns to create a different angle on the Holocaust, I think I would have been scornful, and yet that’s essentially what Ferenc Török has done with this astonishing film.

In a railway halt by a tiny Hungarian village, still transitioning from Nazi to Soviet occupation, the station master sweats in the summer heat, then sweats more from nerves as he observes to Orthodox Jewish men, a father an son (Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy), disembarking the train, with two large chests which they have loaded onto a waiting horse and cart. As the pair walk slowly behind the cart towards the village, the station master cycles hurriedly ahead to warn the locals. What exactly do they have to fear from a middle aged man and his son? It isn’t clear at first (although if you know your history you may well guess).

Péter Rudolf’s town clerk is especially worried by this arrival a small, rotund, bald man who clearly enjoys having power and status in the village (and is worried about the changes the Soviet occupation may bring), and word soon spreads throughout the village about the imminent arrivals. Adding to this stew, this is the day of the clerk’s son’s wedding, and the entire village is involved – a chance for him to peacock his way around town and appear benevolent while really reinforcing his authority. And suddenly his little kingdom is falling apart as these two men approach, and his family and neighbours whisper about them, which family they are from, what they will demand when they arrive in town.

It’s soon apparent that most of the town fears the arrivals of these two Jewish men – as happened in many small towns across Europe the local Jews were rounded up by the Nazis, deported to the camps, and few lived to return. Meanwhile some of their former friends and neighbours made out rather well, taking their belongings, businesses and homes (Spiegelman included a section on this in his masterpiece, Maus). Safe to say they did not anticipate any of their Hebrew neighbours returning from that deportation. Some feel renewed guilt over what they did, how they profited, others hide their guilt with anger – how dare they try to take back these homes!

One of the most remarkable aspects of 1945 is that the Jewish father and son whose arrival precipitates this tsunami of guilt and soul-searching do very little in this narrative – they are glimpsed time and again, slowly walking through the heat-haze of the summer day, behind the wagon with their long trunks on the back, like a slow, dignified funeral procession. Their approaching presence is sufficient drive as the camera moves around the village, shots seen through twitching net curtains, guilty glances exchanged in the heat, recriminations start to mount, past sins surface, “foul deed will rise”.

Török allows all of this to stir and simmer, the villagers creating their own downfalls from their own past sins, their own darkness eating their souls. His director of photography Elemér Ragályi can’t be praised highly enough for his work lensing 1945 – his lighting and camera work allows Török to let the camera linger over the faces of the villagers, much the way Leone does with many of his (often unusual looking) subjects, in long, slow close-ups, taking time to build it all up. The white-washed village buildings glow in the strong sunlight, like the Mexican towns of an old Western, the black and white creating delicious, sharp contrasts with the shadows indoors, or low angles across the stubble of freshly harvested fields, through the heat haze towards the approaching father and son walking slowly, oh so slowly, towards the village.

It’s gorgeous-looking cinematography, and the use of numerous Western tropes fits this narrative of sin and guilt remarkably well, the father and son seen from one angle resemble mourners walking behind a hearse, from another angle they look like avenging gunfighters coming into a wicked town for some violent redemption (you could almost imagine the pocket watch music from For a Few Dollars More playing over these scenes).

The film is littered with other symbols the viewer can interpret (is the smoke from the steam train just smoke, or a metaphor for the smoke that bellowed from the chimneys of the death camps? The harvesting of the summer fields shorthand for the lives mown down? You’re free to interpret). 1945 is a stunning-looking piece of cinema that simmers slowly through deep emotions of guilt, anger and grief, and hints that the worst monster isn’t the spectre of eventual revenge for one’s sins but the poison those sins spill within our souls. I’m very glad my local Filmhouse picked this as one of their best 2018 films deserving re-screening. This would make an interesting double screening with Der Haputmann, which I reviewed a few months ago.

It’s not over till the fat lady screams: Opera

Opera,
Directed by Dario Argento,
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Ian Charleson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, William McNamara,
CultFilms

A young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the temperamental diva storms out of a rehearsal of the opera of Macbeth, slap into an oncoming car outside the opera house. In a bizarre mixture of elements of Phantom of the Opera with the Giallo serial killer sub-genre, this accidental promotion to leading lady on a major production proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, as attacks and bodies start to mount rapidly, all happening around Betty in a deliberate and sadistic campaign of terror.

So much for the plot: this is, after all, a Dario Argento film, and as such the narrative is neither the strongest or most important element for the most part. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way; like many of my fellow horror-hounds I have long loved Argento’s films, but most really are frequently bonkers on the logical story front. Not that it matters, as, in my opinion anyway, Argento horrors are far more about the experience, the dream (or nightmare) imagery and sounds, the emotional reactions these draw, and it is part of what makes his body of work so distinctive and visceral.

Opera is one of Argento’s more lavish works, making great use of the grand opera house location, but doing so in a very Argento manner. The opening scenes of the rehearsal give us great views of the interior of this grand theatre, but from perspectives that are unusual, even distorted, while the collection of ravens being used in the production caw ominously, followed by a long reverse tracking shot, all seen from the diva’s perspective, as she storms out. Another (handheld this time?) tracking shot takes us through young Betty’s apartment in an almost Sam Raimi-esque fashion, intimating an immediate threat to her, only for the tension to dissipate when we see it is just her friend visiting.

The film is replete with clever camera moves like these, or shots which go through the claustrophobia of a ventilation duct out into the vast, baroque space of the opera house interior and swings around the stage, creating not only some stunning visuals but also generating a disturbing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, of someone or something watching, just out of sight. When not indulging in some skilfully mobile camera moves Argento also creates some more close-up, intimate moments of tension and horror, such as the killer’s point of view perspective (just those iconic Giallo killer’s leather gloves visible).

And then there is that scene – many of you will know the one I mean, it has passed into horror movie history as an incredibly inventive, disturbing and iconic shots. Betty, tied up by the killer (again only glimpses of his leather gloves), but she is not the main target, rather she is the sadistic victim, restrained, needles taped to her cheeks below her eyes so she dare not blink, forcing her to watch as the killer waits for her boyfriend to enter and be slaughtered.

From Un Chien Andalou onwards film horror has often had a fascination with the eye – even for those of us brought up on the body horror of Cronenberg and others, there remains something compelling and sickening about a threat to the eyeball. And of course it isn’t just about the Giallo killer’s desire to torture Betty by making her watch him kill the victims before her helpless, captive gaze, it is, by extension including the audience, our perverse thrill at watching such scenes, a feeling reinforced by often shooting from the killer’s perspective, placing the audience in his shoes (or in this case his leather gloves), giving us both the thrill while also disturbing us with the thought we are virtually complicit in these horrors.

CultFilm’s loving 2K restoration gives these astonishing, bravura locations and inventively shot scenes the lustre and beauty they richly deserve, allowing the viewer to glory in that partly-insane, dream/nightmare trip that is Argento’s mind.

Opera is released by CultFilms on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD on January 21st, and includes several tasty extras such as an interview with Argento himself

Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie,
Directed by Jon S Baird,
Starring John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

This is one of 2019’s films which I have been eagerly awaiting. I should explain that my father ensured as a youngster that I was brought up in The Faith: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Tom’n’Jerry and of course, Laurel and Hardy. We still watch their films together today. So you will understand that while in some ways I may be predisposed towards a film about one of the greatest filmic double acts of all time, my lifelong love of Stan and Ollie also means I could be more critical of how anyone portrays them. I imagine that for many of us that will be the case, L&H have engendered life-long love in us, it’s not easy to see someone else portray them. Well, friends and Sons of the Desert, you can breathe easy, for Coogan and Reilly are clearly like us, in love with Stan and Ollie, and it is obvious this is a great labour of love for both of those actors, determined to do justice to their cinematic heroes.

While the film mostly circles around the events during Stan and Ollie’s final tour, through post-war Britain (their final performances together), it opens in 1937 in the legendary Hal Roach Studios, with the pair getting ready to film the dance scene from the brilliant Way Out West, while arguing with Roach (the always excellent Huston) about money and control of their films, hinting at the break which will come soon when Stan, his contract finishing before Ollie’s, tries to break out and set up in control of their own films, but Babe doesn’t follow for various reasons, causing a personal as well as professional rift just as the pair are at the peak of their global stardom.

Moving forward to the post-war era we find the pair being dropped off at their hotel in Newcastle for the start of their UK and Irish tour (the one which would finally prove to be their last). It is clear from the start that their star has fallen – the hotel is just a general inn, not one of the fancier, big hotels you’d expect Hollywood royalty to be staying in, and then they find that the smooth stage impressario arranging their UK tour has them booked to play small venues, not the big theatres. And even those smaller venues are not exactly packed. While they are still a beloved act, it has been many years since they performed in a film together, and it seems the fickle public demand and attention has slipped away from the duo. Fortunately some PR stunts (you can see many of those in newsreel footage on YouTube) helps to whip up interest and leads to a boom in ticket sales.

The film, however, isn’t really about a pair of stars trying to continue years after their heyday, however, that is just the backdrop; the real story here is about friendship and love, the stresses and strains of a long relationship. We all know from our own personal experiences that even our oldest friends can sometimes drive us crazy or upset us (and we them), and how much harder are those strains when you add global fame to the mix? There are sparks of the old magic, laughter mixed with a tinge of melancholy, moments of bitter recrimination and regrets voiced to hurt, but most of all there’s a feeling of two men who for all of that remain closer than close, their personal timing (that hallmark of all great comedians) so beautifully attuned to one another’s rhythms. “I love him,” Stan tells his wife, simply. In another scene after Ollie falls ill Stan lies down next to him in the bed, like one of the film scenes, comforting his old pal, his other half, arguments forgotten.

Coogan and Reilly’s performances are simply outstanding. It isn’t just that they re-create the look and mannerisms (even the expressions) of Stan and Ollie, it’s deeper than that. This was a partnership that flourishes for years, the two perfectly attuned to each other’s beats, the sort of partnership that comes out of years of being together, and somehow Reilly and Coogan summon up that feeling here, they really come across as if they are a couple of pals who have known each other for decades, their timing and interaction is that convincing. The film itself made me both cry and laugh, it is touching, in places reflective, but it also celebrates one of the great filmic partnerships, it celebrates their work, work which has lasted it through the test of time, it celebrates the pure joy that Laurel and Hardy brought to millions.

The recreations of some of their classic scenes in the film still reduced the audience I was with to gales of laughter, they still worked, they still made the audience roar. There are so many hard trials in life, but there are also those moments of delight and joy, and for many of us Laurel and Hardy were there to be one of those sources of joy the world needs. They still are, and this film celebrates that legacy.

Best of the Year 2018

Time for my annual Best of the Year 2018 selection where I traditionally pick out some of my favourite books, comics/graphic novels and films of the year. I suspect they will not generate the interest they garnered back when I was posting them on the now sadly vanished Forbidden Planet Blog, but it’s something I’ve done for years so I thought why not continue?

Books

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,
Steve Brusatte,
Macmillan

I’ve been fascinated by these magnificent creatures from millions of years ago since I was a very small boy, and I’ve never grown out of that fascination. Edinburgh University professor Brusatte gives a great overview of some of the amazing research and discoveries from the last few decades which have vastly increased out understanding of how these animals developed, how different types coped with changing environments and climates (of great interest to our own species given the climate change we’re causing), through to their decline and the legacy they left behind. This is all delivered in a wonderfully enthusiastic and open manner, and with Brusatte also including descriptions of his own personal expeditions and the others he has worked with it has a nice, warm, personal aspect to it too.

Arm of the Sphinx,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books

I thought Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel was ““An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” In fact that quote from my review of the first book is on the back cover of this second volume, and it applies equally to this impressive sequel. The innocent abroad Senlin has been rapidly having to learn his way through the ringdoms of the tower as he is exposed to new challenges well beyond what he has been used to. Taking the moniker Tom Mudd he has commandeered an airship and with a small crew carries out some peculiar piracy to keep themselves going as he plans new – an increasingly dangerous and desperate – ways to ascend further and seek his missing wife. While the tensions are increased here and we see the toll they take on the characters, we also get to learn far more about the fascinating Tower and the multiple societies which inhabit it, all wrapped up in Bancroft’s utterly gorgeous prose. The full review can be read here.

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit

The ninth entry in the excellent Laundry Files series, which sees an especially secret part of the Intelligence Services that deals with the unusual threats, from things that go bump in the night right up to incursions from adjacent dimensions of awakening, Lovecraftian dark gods. The last couple of volumes have changed the game for this series, with the service outed to the public (and government scrutiny) after a disaster that couldn’t be concealed, and a desperate better-the-devil-you-know move at the end of the last volume which saw a conspiracy to bring in a dark elder god which could lead to the end of humanity thwarted by making a deal with another – slightly more reasonable – dark god, who has now taken on a human mask and become the prime minister…

Just as it seems our real world is spiraling into ever great darkness and mad governments, so too here, as strange things are afoot in the USA, where the president hasn’t been seen for months, and most people don’t even remember the word “president”, while the Laundry’s counterparts in the US – the Nazgul, as they are termed, not affectionately – seem deeply involved, leading the new PM to dispatch a secret Laundry team to America. Part political satire, part spy thriller, part fantasy, laced with dark humour, the Laundry Files simply keeps becoming better and better. I am amazed Netflix hasn’t tried to make a series from these books yet.

Red Moon,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit

Robinson has been one of the most outstanding and thoughtful SF writers of the last couple of decades – his Mars trilogy is pretty much required reading at NASA. In this near future book we move back and forth from China to the Moon, now home to bases by many nations and freelance prospectors too, but mostly dominated by China which invests in the Moon the way they have invested in massive infrastructure projects back home.

A conspiracy between factions in China vying for leadership of the party coincides with a rising people power movement and international problems, with an American man and a Chinese woman thrown together as an odd couple buffeted by these titanic forces, and also sees the return of the wonderful Ta Shu from Robinson’s Antarctica novel. As with all of his books it is well researched (both the science and the possible government and economic models) but retains a warm interest in the people involved. Thoughtful and compelling.

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

I’ve been a huge fan of Morgan’s since I was sent an advanced copy of his debut Altered Carbon years ago, it was also the first book my long-running SF Book Group ever discussed. After a series of fantasy novels Morgan is back in hard-boiled SF with Thin Air, and Hakan Veil, a former corporate mercenary now eking out a living in Bradbury, the main Martian city. With the arrival of an Earth oversight committee politics, policing and the criminal network on Mars is put into a turmoil, with Hak hired by the police to supposedly babysit a junior member of the oversight team.

Of course nothing is as it seems here, and there are plans and counterplans from Earth, Mars and corporations which dominate the solar system, as well as more local-level shenanigans between police, crime gangs and politicians (the three are often closely connected). This is all driver by Morgan’s very Noir style, like a science fiction Raymond Chandler, with powerful action sequences and a labyrinth of conspiracies to navigate, layered with social commentary on the failure of politics, the inequality of wealth and the reach of giant corporations.

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books

The prolific Jane Yolen returns with an unusual entry in Tor’s very welcome series of SF&F short novellas, this time giving us a reworking of the ancient folklore of the Baba Yaga, told in poetical form in this brief but magical book. Natasha is a young girl fleeing a broken home; like many lost souls before her she enters the Deep Dark Woods, and there she encounters the chicken-legged house of the famous witch, the Baba Yaga.

Where a young boy might have been gobbled up by the Baba Yaga, the house seems to welcome the young girl, as it it had been waiting for her, the old witch herself, grumpy and yet seemingly accepting of Natasha. This is one of those stories that welcomes re-readings as there are multiple layers and possible meanings to be teased from it, from a parable about growing up, finding your way, being different to ruminating on the power of myth and folklore, this is one to get lost in. You can read my full review here.

Rosewater,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit

There are times when I get sent a book, the author is new to me and I know nothing of it other than what the blurb says on the press sheet, but I somehow just know it is going to be good, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years. I got that vibe with Thompson’s Rosewater, winner of the first Nommo Award for speculative fiction in Africa. Set in a strange, circular town in a future Nigeria, which has sprung up around what seems to be an alien structure it follows a decidedly non-heroic (and yet very still likeable) lead character, a “sensitive” with psi powers who has a day job as part of a psionic firewall for a bank, but is really a reluctant member of the intelligence services.

The story weaves his tale of growing up with the increase in such sensitives and his own awareness of his growing ability, the alien artefact and combines them with elements of Nigerian social and folkloric norms and a beautifully described setting that practically has you tasting and smelling this strange African city. It’s refreshing to have Africa so beautifully used and described, and the setting and culture add hugely to the pleasure of reading Rosewater. A stunning debut, I can’t wait for the second book in 2019…

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

I loved the first of Shaw’s Greta Helsing books last year (in fact there’s a quote from my review of that on the cover of this volume), introducing the GP who ministers to an unusual patient group, the supernatural creatures of London, from pregnant ghouls to depressed vampires. This time Greta is taking a break to attend a conference in Paris, in the company of her elegant friend, the vampire Lord Ruthven, when she is kidnapped.

There follows a delightfully tense story as her friends attempt to find and rescue her, while the resourceful Greta makes her own attempts to rescue herself. Along the way the world of Greta is expanded, with new characters and creatures, and the book is layered with multiple references to earlier fiction from Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat to Leroux’s classic Phantom of the Opera, and even manages to reference The Prisoner! Compelling story, wonderful characters and a delightful sense of fun, this is a total pleasure to read. You can read the full review here.

Comics/Graphic Novels

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,
Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,
SelfMadeHero

Back in the summer of 2015 I heard Jean-Pierre Filiu, former French diplomat turned history lecturer, discuss the first two volumes of his collaboration with the brilliant David B (Epileptic) with their graphic history Best of Enemies. You could be forgiven for thinking three volumes of a history of the relationship between the America (right from early days of the Republic) and the Middle East may be dry, but this is anything but. Instead driven by Filiu’s extensive research, and in later sections drawing on his own experiences, and with David B’s astonishing artwork, this is a remarkable way to explore some of the pivotal events and relationships which have influenced the region, and in return, the politics of the entire globe; essential reading for trying to understand something of how our world has become the way it is. The full review is here

Out in the Open,
Javi Rey, adapted from the novel by Jesús Carrasco,
SelfMadeHero

I had the pleasure of chairing Javi at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, where he explained that the Spanish publisher of Jesús Carrasco’s acclaimed Out in the Open approached him to adapt it into graphic novel form. Where Carrasco’s novel is noted for its beautiful prose, Javi takes a different approach, using very few works, making the artwork carry the story, and it does so quite magnificently, from vast, open desert landscapes (you can almost imagine an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to it) to more intimate scenes as we see a terrified young boy who has fled a useless, violent father and an abusive local sheriff. So much emotion is conveyed through the almost silent art panels, it is a truly remarkable read, powerful and emotional.

Tumult,
John Harris Dunning, Michael Kennedy,
SelfMadeHero

This was another book festival event for me, in fact John and Mikey were sharing the stage with Javi Rey and myself as we discussed their very fine graphic novels at the festival. Tumult is a gorgeous-looking work, which deftly mixes various elements – midlife crisis, the self-destructive urge, romance (of an unusual form), and the thriller, dealing with a film-maker dealing with where his life has gone to so far encountering an enigmatic woman who he has an affair with, but the next time he sees her she says she doesn’t know who he is.

Slowly we begin to realise that her body is home to several distinct personalities, and the woman he made love to was just one of them. There are hints of the old-school spy thriller too here – her multiple personality disorder may be in part due to a shadowy and supposedly defunct secret programme, and we can’t always be sure quite what is true and what is not. Dunning’s script and Kennedy’s art work perfectly together, using expression, inflection and colour to help give the impression of the distinctly different personalities manifesting themselves. A gripping, superb book and one of the best comics I’ve read all year.

The Inking Woman,
Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,
Myriad Editions

In the year of #MeToo and a very welcome strong surge in artistic projects of all sorts by and about women, The Inking Woman made its bow from Myriad Editions (a treasure of an Indy publisher, one which really encourages and fosters new talent and celebrates different voices). Comics and cartooning have often, with some justification, been labelled a boy’s club, but The Inking Woman shines a light on and celebrates some 250 years of British women cartoonists, from Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era through to the Underground Comix of the 60s, the women of the 70s and 80s growing up in the era of Women’s Lib and powerful feminist voices, right through to the contemporary crop of exceptionally fine female creators we have in the UK right now (especially in the Indy comics scene). This is a reference work that should be read by anyone with an interest in UK comics and cartooning. It’s also often very funny, a celebration of some creators that will already be familiar to you and a good pointer to others whose work will be new to you.

The full review is here

It Don’t Come Easy,
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,
Drawn & Quarterly

I’m a long-time admirer of the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian (even reading some of their works in the original French, no meant feat given how rusty my French language skills are), and this volume collects several of the later Monsieur Jean albums into one large collection. The usual gang is all here but much older, and with the Real Life thing getting in the way just as it does for all of us – from living in each other’s pockets they are all still friends but with jobs, families of their own and even living in different cities, they don’t see each other as much as they did before.

The author Jean is still a ball of neuroses (as in earlier volumes still often illustrated in his unusual and often amusing dreams), despite having has success as a writer, a wife and a child (and old Felix who is almost a surrogate child as much as friend, and his son). The story moves from Paris to New York and takes in a lot of the ups and downs of life that we can all empathise with as we rejoin our old (and getting older!) friends, mixed with the trademark flights of fancy that have figured throughout the series. The full review is here

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

When a new Brubaker and Phillips collaboration is announced I know I am going to be reading it – personally it doesn’t matter the subject, I’ll read anything Ed and Phillip create. This starts off seeming like a cross between Romeo and Juliet (the star-crossed lovers) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as we meet Ellie and Skip in the group therapy room of a rehab clinic, both clearly more interested in flirting with one another than the supposed remedy of the therapy.

As both are addicts we often can’t trust what they tell us about themselves – there is no godlike narrator here giving the reader the inside scoop, we pick up bits and pieces and can’t be certain which facts are true. It could have alienated the reader but instead it is used as a way of bringing us deeper into the character’s lives, and then there is the whole youthful rebellion aspect of it, which always has a certain doomed appeal. There’s a lot more going on as we move further into the tale, but to say anymore would be to risk spoilers, suffice to say this is a clever, engrossing and damned stylish tale. The full review is here

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

I’m always happy when I have  new Neil Slorance work to read – I’ve been reading and reviewing his work for several years since first coming across some of his self-published works, and have a special fondness for his travel comics. Neil has a lovely knack of showing and exploring the new places he is visiting in a warm, open, often smile-inducing manner. Here he has won a trip to an art colony in Finland where he will be creating new work but also using it as a base to go and explore further afield, the cities, museums and as always in his travel works, the food (quite how Neil lost so much weight when he fills his comics travels with dining, I don’t know!). Unusually this one is in colour and Neil takes advantage of this to give his art an extra layer of expression. Lovely, warm, smile-inducing work.The full review is here

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist

Like the better-known Joe Sacco, Kugler practices a form of graphic journalism, although in a very different style. The refugee crisis has dominated headlines across Europe and further afield, and for every piece of proper reporting there seems to be ten baseless scare stories motivated purely by bigotry and xenophobia. What Kugler does so well here is to step back, still his own voice and instead do his best to give that voice to the refugees themselves.

What becomes clear in this book is the basic shared humanity of these people in a desperate plight. This isn’t the “horde” of “foreigners” that the likes of the hate-filled Mail shouts about, these are people, many of them had highly respected roles in their society – doctors, lawyers, architects, midwifes – and good homes for their families. All of which were ripped away just like that, home, loved ones, sometimes even most of their town just gone. It shows how horribly easy it is for even what seems like a stable society to be broken and produce refugees who rely on the help of their fellow humans. It puts a very human, individual face on people all too often vilified in the press and by certain politicians for their own ends, and reminds us how we are all of us vulnerable and may at some point rely on the kindness of strangers. The full review is here

Punk’s Not Dead,
David Barnett, Martin Simmonds,
Black Crown/IDW

Music, a supernatural threat and the ghost of Sid Vicious – how could I not read this?!?! Barnett and Simmonds bring us a troubled teen and his huckster single mother (putting on different fake personas to appear for money on reality shows), who encounters the ghost of the punk rocker Sid Vicious in, of all places, the bathroom in the airport (Sid, who no-one else can see, explains his mum dropped his ashes in the airport bringing his remains home from New York). There’s a peculiar, mis-matched buddy story here but allied to a rising tide of unusual, supernatural events happening in the UK and a very odd and possibly mad older woman (who used to have eternal youth until something went wrong) who works for a covert part of British Intelligence which covers the supernatural beat, and who is very interested in the musical spook…

Black Hammer Volume 3: Age of Doom Part One,
Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston,
Dark Horse

I’ve had Jeff Lemire down as one of the best talents to watch in comics since his early works like Essex County for Top Shelf years back. Since then he’s gone on to write and draw a range of works for both the big publishers and maintaining an impressive output of Indy works. With Black Hammer and the associated spin-off mini-series he and Ormston have created a hugely intriguing tale (a group of heroes who saved the world in one desperate battle but awoke to find themselves stuck in a small farming town they can’t leave and no idea how it happened) and then proceeded to layer this mystery, mining the rich legacy of decades of superhero comics, riffing deliciously on many golden age style heroes and plots but in a very contemporary way. It’s a gripping story with some terrific characters (playing with the older superhero tropes but also showing the human side of their lives) and a deep mystery, an absolutely fabulous series.

Film

The Shape of Water,
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Ever since the highly unusual vampire tale Cronos many years back I have been following the work of Guillermo Del Toro and loving it, but with The Shape of Water (which swept many awards) he excelled himself. Del Toro has often mined folklore and the darker side of fairy tales for his stories; here he mixes that dark fairy tale magic with loving homages to earlier movie genres, notably the golden age musicals and a glorious, wonderfully odd romance, powered by the fabulous Sally Hawkins’s mute woman and the amphibian creature played by Del Toro regular, Doug Jones, who again gives an amazing performance, he’s an incredible physical actor. Simply a gorgeous film.

BlackKklansman,
Directed by Spike Lee

Playing with some actual events but highly fictionalised, Lee’s latest takes the highly improbable scenario of a black detective in the 1970s blags his way into joining the KKK over the phone, then has to persuade his white colleagues to back him up, with one having to pretend to be him in real life to join. In a period where most police were more worried about civil rights activists than white supremacist terrorism (still an area much of law enforcement tends to ignore in the US, despite the deaths they have caused).

It gives great scope for comedy and Lee does work in plenty of humour, contrasting with the far heavier subject of bigotry and racism, with a strong feeling of many being “woke” as they say. There are some very cool visuals – faces floating out of the darkness in an auditorium during a talk by an activist, a sense of individuals realising they have some knowledge and power, and a use of recent news footage which hammers the viewer with an inescapable brutality, linking the racism of the 70s to today.

Ghost Stories,
Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

Taking the anthology approach as made famous by 70s horrors like the Amicus Productions, Ghost Stories, adapted from Nyman and Dyson’s own stage play, has several supernatural tales linked by a professional debunker who normally disproves cases (such as supposed ghosts or fake psychics conning people), who is challenged by the man who had been his inspiration to try and disprove several cases he couldn’t.

The linked tales are all handled with an elegant less is more simplicity – traditional effects rather than CG (even the old fishing wire to move objects, which the actors said actually helped them on set), this establishes a growing sense of disturbing unease early on (a tale of a night watchmen in an old asylum) and it just gets creepier and creepier. I love a good horror but rarely find any today that genuinely give me chills – Ghost Stories even made the mundane location of a suburban house seem worryingly scary (you really, really don’t want the character to step out into the dark staircase landing). It’s just been added recently to Netflix, so if you missed it you can catch it on there.

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail

It’s horror! It’s comedy! It’s romance! It’s a zombie apocalypse! It’s a Christmas movie! It’s a musical! This was my last movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was sooo much fun the audience was clapping and joining in. Taking the mickey out of the American teen high school musical (but in a wee west coast Scotland school, complete with dancing dinner ladies) this takes The Usual Suspects like the pretty, talented one, her best friend (who is clearly in love with her), the silly one, the ditzy but lovable one, the jock who hides a better nature, gives them the last Christmas concert of their school life before they have to face the outside world, then drops in the zombie apocalypse. Enormous fun. My full review is here

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers

Another of my film festival screenings from 2018, this was one of those movies I knew nothing about other than the short description in the film fest programme, but I just had a feeling about this Belgian flick, and there’s something great about discovering an unknown gem like this – that’s partly what film festivals are for, after all.

Shot mostly in black and white (apart from some brief, lurid colour) this is a charming, funny, eccentric film as Charlie and Hannah, two best friends, have a big night out and encounter increasingly surreal events, from Catherine the Great bumming a smoke in the garden of a party or a brothel where all the ladies of the night are famous literary figures, to full out fantasy sequences, this has the sort of magical charm of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Lisa the Fox Fairy. The full review is here

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne

Another Edinburgh Film Festival find for me, and in fact my favourite movie of the many I watched in 2018. A documentary about the Brinton Collection, a treasure trove of works from a turn of the 20th century showman and his wife who travelled the US but were based in a tiny Iowa town. Local resident Mike Zahs (looking like a genial cross between Santa Claus and Gandalf) has for decades preserved this material, which includes showbills, magic lantern slides and some incredibly early silent films. How early? Well as Mike himself said at the talk after the screening, the big names we think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Clara Bow’s etc, were children when these films were made.

After decades of struggling to interest a wider audience Mike finally gets local, then national, then international academics interested, and the collection gets the attention it requires and deserves, with excited scholars finding Mike has preserved works thought lost for a century. But it isn’t just about preserving this treasure of early cinema, the film is as much about the local community – Mike has shown some of these treasure for years in the local cinema (which, by the way, is now Guinness certified as the oldest continually running cinema in the world – not a cinema in Paris or London or New York but a wee farm town in Iowa, there is something pleasing about that). This is utterly charming and wonderful, a must-see for any of us who love cinema. My full review is here