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
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker
Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.
We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.
When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.
Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.
The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.
While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.
And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses
Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.
But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?
This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.
It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.
The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau
Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.
It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.
Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.
When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.
It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.
This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.
Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.
Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story,
Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre
Kangaroo has been doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit, receiving quite a bit of acclaim, and now with it being eligible for the 2019 Oscars they are making a push to get it noticed a bit wider by cinema-goers (and the Academy, the old “for your consideration”), which is how yours truly managed to get a screener to watch. And although this is very, very hard to watch in places, I am glad I had the chance to see this Australian documentary. As the film-makers and others point out early on there is a real dichotomy in the image of the kangaroo – it is the national symbol of Australia, it’s on their coat of arms, that sports-mad nation nicknames many of its teams after roos. And yet they slaughter millions of these animals every single year.
Not just slaughter, but killed often in the most disgustingly inhumane ways. Make no mistake, although this is a compelling documentary, you will need a strong stomach in certain parts of this film, it does not pull many punches in depicting just what goes on, nor should it – one of the central points here is that so many, in Australia and around the world where roo products (meat, leather) are exported, are totally unaware of what is happening, aided by a complacent government that seems to be in cahoots with a wealthy, multi-million dollar industry (and isn’t that something we’ve seen all too often in many different industries in many different countries? Strange how easily morality and decency can go when big money is involved). There are some stomach-churning scenes filmed by activists who are determined to break that cover, bring these practises out into the light – literally, as most of the hunting is done at night.
The law says any kangaroos “harvested” need to be killed swiftly and humanely, as you’d expect from similar standards in any animal food industries – we all, rightly, get sickened and outraged if cattle, pigs and sheep are made to suffer before the inevitable abattoir date and we have built up laws to protect the animals from such needless suffering. But shooter firing at night from a truck bumping over rough terrain and firing at a moving target often miss. Many roos are hit but not fatally, some take hours, days or in one case the crew documents, two weeks to die. Two weeks of agony and suffering. And that’s not the worst – there are the baby Joeys, the mothers shot, the baby still alive but helpless. The hunters take the baby animal and swing it by its hind legs, dashing its head on the nearby Ute (that ubiquitous Aussie truck), or in one especially sickening scene, the man stands on a tiny infant Joey after pulling it from the pouch of the dead mother. Yes, I did warn you, there are some stomach-turning scenes here. I’m an old horror fiend, grew up in that first wave of unregulated “video nasties”, and can take all sorts of gore on film. If it is fictional. Seeing it inflicted on an animal for real. Not so much.
The film doesn’t use these tactics just as shockers to get your attention and raise your awareness though, it is quite clear how stressful and disturbing this is to the film-makers and to the activists who are gathering this evidence, often at the risk of their own life. One couple who film and collect evidence bought land as a preserve for wildlife, but the law allows neighbouring farmers to drive onto their land and kill roos legally. Yeah, imagine a bunch of gun nuts on a truck in the dark of an outback night driving right past your house on your ground firing away and imagine not just the animal slaughter on your own property but how easily that could end in a human tragedy too. They gather evidence in film and, gruesomely, in body parts, that are then examined by vets to prove violations of the hunting rules. The government has largely ignored such evidence before, but with green politicians getting into office now they have politicians who are able to highlight this evidence, and as well as taking it to Aussie authorities, media and people to expose the reality, they take it to other countries who import kangaroo products, which hits the industry where it hurts (suddenly big sports stars like Beckham find out their footie boot leather came from kangaroos and how they were killed, and the major companies like Adidas, unsurprisingly, soon also decide this is not good).
Maybe you aren’t an animal lover and are wondering why you should be bothered. There is more here than just respect for nature and animals though – the big industry sways government policy (you know, governments, who are meant to represent the people, not corporations) and attempts to do similar abroad (one sequence shows some rather underhand shenanigans as they try to influence Californian politicians to lift a ban in imports). And then there is the health question – the roo meat for human consumption does not get the same strict hygiene rules that beef or pork does. The shooters drive through the outback at night, shoot a roo, hang it on the back of the Ute, gut it then and there (another pretty awful scene to watch – blood, knife, innards and bolt-cutters for those strong legs. Yes, shudder), then drive on looking for more. They all have to be shot between dusk and dawn when it is cooler, but as this is allowed at night it can regularly be over 30 degrees centigrade. And it takes all night to fill the truck, so imagine all those corpses hanging in that heat for hours before being driven some distance to the nearest refrigerated storage chiller. Driven in heat on dusty, fly-ridden roads while exposed to all of that contamination and heat, spoiling away. Independent studies of roo meat on sale in shops showed high levels of salmonella and e.coli. So even if you don’t care about animal welfare and enjoy your red meat, you should be worried about this.
It’s often a hard film to watch, there are some truly disturbing scenes, but that’s part of what makes this such a powerful documentary, and the way it covers the other strands, from the big industry-government collusion, the media buying unquestioningly into the much-peddled lies (“they are vermin and need to be exterminated”, “upsetting the natural balance”), the clearly dodgy “science” government agencies use to “prove” animal numbers (which don’t stand up to even basic logical scrutiny) and the public health threat is well handled and gives a rounded picture, rather than simply dwelling on the hideously huge slaughter. The fact much of this is beautifully shot, taking in that astonishing Australian outback and the gorgeous, iconic animals themselves adds a powerful contrast to the more disturbing scenes, while the film itself lays bare not just the monstrous slaughter (millions of animals a year) and the inhumanity of it, but asks upsetting questions about just how humans, as a species, see the natural world as a resource to be used and consumed.
This review was originally penned for Live For Film
Directed by Richard Rowntree,
Starring Sam Saunders, Debra Leigh-Taylor, Nadia Lamin, Philip Ridout, Jo Southwell, Aiysha Jebali, Toby Wynn-Davies
Richard Rowntree has being paying his dues in the movie business for years, working on all sorts of productions large and small, crafting some of his own short films, and now his directorial feature debut, Dogged. And it is a rather tasty, creepy slice of British folk horror at that.
Young Sam (Sam Saunders) returns to his home, a small island whose causeway is submerged twice a day at high tide, leaving it isolated. The opening montage of rural and coastal scenes would normally be restful, but Rowntree picks angles and perspectives that right from the start convey an impression of something wrong, something out of kilter, of leaving the regular world behind and entering somewhere that conforms not to society’s wider norms but to its own, secretive rules. Just to reinforce the unwelcoming atmosphere, his father picks him up by the causeway without so much as a “hello”, just a bad-tempered “hurry up, the tide is coming in”, while the signs where causeway meets the island all make clear visitors are not welcome here.
Sam was born and raised on the island, but escaped its cloying, inward-looking small community to go to university. He’s only returned now, reluctantly, to attend the funeral of the young daughter of one of their neighbours, supposedly killed in an accidental fall from the cliffs. Except Sam finds it hard to believe this was an accident, all the local kids know to avoid the cliffs… At the memorial service in the small local church the vicar (a superbly, quietly menacing and creepy Toby Wynn-Davies) gives a sermon which seems more of a veiled warning to the mourners than it is a message of hope or comfort. The padre clearly has some power over his local community, more than just a spiritual leader, and he is less than happy to see Sam return as he knows his daughter is fond of Sam, and this is a man who obviously does not like challenges to his authority.
Rowntree litters Dogged with some inventive camera angles and perspectives that make even a leafy country lane or what should be a comforting house becoming filled with menace, along with other nice little touches (the young couple walking into the local tearoom sees all conversation stop as they are stared at, like a scene from a cowboy saloon in a Western). Figures are glimpsed in the woods, one even knocks Sam from his bike before running off, another is lurking near his gran’s house, and for some reason these young men all run around topless sporting animal head masks. It all builds tension throughout the film – it is clear some in the village are not who they seem, that there are secrets, but what secrets, and are they related to the death of the young girl?
Sam is as far from the pro-active horror hero as you can get, a young man who has been under his strict father’s thumb for so long that although he tries to investigate he is often fairly passive and pushed along by events and other characters, although it is hard not to feel sorry for him – he has escaped what he thought was an overbearing, isolated community, come back briefly and found himself not only drowning in it once more, but being submerged into darker, hidden depths that he hadn’t known were there.
I’m guessing Rowntree didn’t have access to a big budget, but he marshals what resources he has quite effectively. The aforementioned clever use of odd camera angles and perspectives, the expressions on the faces of the locals, the simple sight of half-naked male figures in animal head masks lurking in the woods, all combine to raise the tension steadily, leading to a satisfying final reel. Rural horror often plays on the sense of the small, isolated community, and by having this on an island cut off twice a day Rowntree increases that sense of isolation and difference, as well as adding a feeling of claustrophobia, both generally (across the whole community) and more personally (Sam’s own family) and that “you don’t really belong” sense. I was put in mind numerous times of the original Wicker Man, which I think Rowntree was channeling very well here, offering us a creepy, disturbing slice of Brit horror.
Music and cinema, two of my favourite things in life, and when combined those visuals flickering on the screen, the narrative, the actors, the dialogue and the music create something which is, when it really works, far greater than the sum of its parts. Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ score? Or the magic he brought to Jaws (Spielberg often remarked with all the effects problems with the mechanical shark models Williams’ iconic theme became the shark the visual effects couldn’t give him)? Or that Superman theme, that dum de de dum dumm dumm building rapidly to that triumphant, suitably heroic theme that makes you want to “do the Superman”, rip open your shirt to show that big S, so empowering, magical, inspiring, so perfectly in symbiosis with the visuals. Just a few bars from any of those themes is instantly iconic, we hear it and the magic of that film moment fills us. A few notes of it added to a comedy sketch works the same magic, it’s instantly recognisable and comes with a built-in recognition and series of memories and emotions.
And that’s only three examples from one – albeit masterful – composer. Score talks to, well a score or more (sorry) of contemporary composers, and this includes a large number of have worked on some of our favourite sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics-based movies, from Bear McCreary to Hans Zimmer, about their work, their inspirations, how they collaborate with directors and other musicians, from rousing themes like Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean to musicians who are generally seen as working outside the soundtrack composition world but who have been invited in, like Trent Reznor, bringing fascinating new ideas, rhythms, energies and passion to the world of film music, to its betterment.
(Hans Zimmer discussing his craft in Score)
That notion of change and evolution is strong in Score; while much of the running time, understandably, talks to contemporary composers – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and many more – about their craft, and commenting on the works of others they admire, past and present, the film also takes in the ever-changing nature of film music. From the mighty King Kong in the 1930s, a pioneer not just in visual effects but in using a full symphony orchestra to score the movie (that fabulous music as Kong scales the Empire State Building) – bear in mind at that point the “talkie”, the sound movie, was only a few years old, this was inventing new ways of storytelling for a new medium (although as the film also points out, even the preceding “silent” movies were never truly silent, there was always at least a piano playing along to them, or the famous Wurlitzer organ, or a small chamber orchestra in some cinemas, while some silent films had visual cues for those musical accompaniments – think Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, for example).
Like many things today we are so used to the notion of a film with carefully composed music being part of its fabric that it is easy to forget someone had to come up with these ideas originally, then others developed them, they became the standard approach. Then others would come along and shake that approach up with something new and fresh – that fabulous, then contemporary jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire replacing the notion of the symphonic suite to huge effect, a burning, modern, sexual, jazz that went with the story and visual so perfectly evoking and enhancing the mood, the feeling on levels that work beyond those paired with the visuals.
(the Air Studio in a converted London church)
The methods used for inspiration, for creation and recording are discussed, from hearing natural sounds and wondering how they might translate into music for a piece to feeling their way through how to translate that sound in their head into something tangible, experience and artistic intuition telling them how to continue, be it a simple, short piece that may be best on a solo piano to some great, iconic theme that requires a full orchestra (and then how to set up and record that orchestra, which space to use, how to deploy it, the changes in post production, so many choices that can make totally different sounds and feeling to the resulting music), or something new, digital electronica or contemporary jazz or rock or dance beats. There’s technical discussion, but mostly what comes across from all of these musicians is passion for their work, for what it adds to the cinematic medium, and the respect and admiration many of them show for the work of other musicians, contemporary and those who went before.
(Bear McCreary experimenting with different instruments and sounds)
This takes in a huge swathe of film music history, and of course it includes many of our beloved fantastical genres that have featured score which have become iconic – think on that intricate music for Inception, the big, brassy, sassy, swaggering music for James Bond, that Jaws theme, Mad Max, Close Encounters, Psycho, the Avengers movies, that great, swelling Lord of the Rings theme (and all the smaller character themes that weave through key moments). I play a lot of soundtracks when working in the Blogcave, and even divorced from the film they still inspire me, enthuse me, play with my emotions and the best ones, even played on their own, evoke memories of some of my favourite film moments, from Star Wars to Dunkirk. Score captures that feeling the music creates in us as the audience, how the finest soundtracks live in our heads afterwards, and that wonderful magic that happens when amazing musicians and remarkable film-makers come together.
I could easily have sat through much more of this, Score is by turns fascinating and inspiring, a glimpse into some of the creative processes that bring out favourite films to life, to the power of music to enhance the emotional experience.
It’s probably not surprising given I am a huge cinephile that I also really enjoy a lot of film soundtrack music. The other day I was listening to Gershwin when the album reach Rhapsody in Blue and right away I was mentally visualising that wonderful monochrome opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan “he adored New York… for him it still pulsated to the great music of George Gershwin…”
And it made me think how sometimes certain pieces of music can become eternally associated with a scene from a film. I don’t just mean original soundtrack music – like John Williams’ opening for the original Star Wars, for instance, conjuring up that amazing (for the time, young me had seen nothing like these gigantic ships thundering across the screen after the opening crawl of text) opening of that saga, or Hans Zimmer’s powerful Inception soundtrack. No, I was thinking on music which had existed in its own right before being borrowed for us in a film – sometimes it can be a little known piece of music, or at least little known to the wider public, such as Barber’s Adagio in Platoon or Strauss’ waltz in the famous space docking sequence in 2001. Obviously classical music admirers knew those, but the films brought them to a wider audience and also indelibly linked those pieces forever in most people’s minds with those scenes in the movies.
Of course there is Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” which originally dated from the early 1930s, but really became better known – any by better known I mean immortal – in the 1940s when used in Casablanca. If not for that I doubt most of us would ever have heard of the song, whereas now if we hear it we connect it to one of the best films of all time right away.
Sometimes it can be a well-known track a lot of folk had in their collection from years back, which suddenly leaps back into the pop-cultural landscape, fresh for a new audience, a nostalgic flashback for older fans. Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life suddenly gained a second lease of life when used in the pounding opening of the film version of Trainspotting:
Or Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for Donnie Darko:
And arguably these days for a lot of folk these days those songs will always be associated with the films. And then there’s the great use of Queen’s mid 1970s hit Bohemian Rhapsody for 90s cult hit Wayne’s World:
And Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” with a very young Tom Cruise dancing around in his socks in Risky Business:
And the Pixies’ brilliant “Where is my mind?” for the closing of Fight Club:
And a personal favourite of mine, Goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus used in the opening to The Hunger – this one going so far as to actually use Pete Murphy and the boys in the film:
And there are hundreds more – think Steppenwolf’s rock classic “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, the Doors and even Wagner in Apocalypse Now and goodness knows how many more, classical, jazz, pop, rock that either existed before but were little known until selected for use in a film scene or else they had enjoyed their moment of success and suddenly found themselves with a second bite at the cherry (Quentin Tarantino has done both numerous times in pretty much every film soundtrack he’s ever made). I’m sure you can think of plenty of other similar examples off the top of your head.
After reporting on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist earlier this week, here’s a round-up of some of the other genre-related, geek-friendly footage I managed to cram into my annual bash at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (it wasn’t all poncing around in a beret watching black and white films about human tragedy from Hungary, you know), with Indy flicks from North America, the UK (taking in alien monsters on the rampage, comics style vigilantes in York and an exploration of Star Wars fandom) and the live action version of the classic Lucky Luke comics from France
Crimefighters is a cracking wee comics-inspired black and white movie set in York, from Miles Watt (who is also involved in Zomblogalypse online), made on a shoestring budget and shot in a really nice, crisp, luminous black and white which makes the most of the small resources available to the film-makers. A trio of friends are attempting one of the most difficult endeavours of modern life – trying to avoid drinking for a month. Sipping soft drinks in the pub they start to notice that things in the fair city of York are getting worse – is anti-social behaviour (that great bugbear of modern Brit society that politicians so love to rant on about) really on the rise in the city or is it just because they’ve stopped drinking they’re getting a little paranoid?
An increase in fights and muggings does seem to be occurring and when the town’s CCTV cameras are deliberately targeted too it seems that it isn’t just random violent outbursts after closing time but part of someone’s diabolical plan. But why would someone want to cause more trouble in town? And with the authorities seemingly helpless isn’t it time to don the (home-made) masks and take the law into their own hands? Some of the dialogue and acting is a tad clunky; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but to be honest I got the impression that it was mostly by design, a nod to the often clichéd superhero comics which were part of the inspiration for the film and the foundation of the masked Crimefighters vigilantes. It may not be about to challenge Iron Man at the box office, but Crimefighters makes up for its minuscule budget with a good sense of fun, a knowing nod to its comics and movies inspirations and, more important than big budgets or sparkling dialogue re-writes, it’s got a lot of heart and I think that makes it a great Friday night movie for comics geeks. Crimefighters is getting a limited release this month and will be going around the UK via the Picturehouse chain of cinemas (starting in York today), so check their site for venue and screening date details and give them a bit of support if you can.
The People Versus George Lucas is Alexandre Philippe’s labour of love documentary, over two years in the making and involving a humongous amount of footage and then editing it down (apparently there are acres of scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including some famous contributors). Despite the adversarial title, this isn’t a Lucas-bashing movie; actually if anything it is a celebration of Star Wars and the huge part it’s played in the lives of legions of fans over the years. The film draws on archive footage, animations, photos, fan videos (and oh boy, has our Star Wars inspired a multitude of fan films!) and a slew of talking heads, from ordinary fans to some very famous ones, including David Brin, Francis Ford Coppola, Dave Prowse and Neil Gaiman among others (apparently Ray Harryhausen was also interviewed but didn’t make the final cut, which gives you an idea of the sheer amount of footage the film-makers had to try and edit in to the final cut).
The film dives into just why Star Wars, right from the start in ’77 (nostalgic sigh) became such a subject of passion for so many of us and how some aspects of the saga have had the opposite effect, infuriating fans – re-jigging the first trilogy years later and then not allowing the original cuts to be re-released for the many who want them (this was contrasted against a much younger Lucas who argues against the hideous 80s vogue for tinkering with classic movies), the still ongoing rumble over the ‘Han shot first’ in the reworked Episode IV and the contrast between the original trilogy and the later prequels. And oh yes, the Jar Jar thing (with due homage to Simon Pegg’s Spaced scene). Even when fans are venting their spleens about aspects of the series which annoy the hell out of them, though, it’s never mean – it’s the sort of emotion that can only be generated by people who really love the series. You can’t get that worked up if you don’t care, so even the criticism is a form of fan love. And before anyone outside of geekdom thinks typical geek behaviour to obsess over niggling points in something, it’s no different from the obsessive behaviour shown in any area where people have a passionate interest (take football for instance, where fans have memorised results from decades ago and still endlessly debate the minutiae of a play from 10 years back. It no different. Except we have cool lightsabres. And Slave Leias at conventions). Taking a balanced approach the film also discusses the creator’s right to make changes to their own works, whether it is what some fans want or not – Gaiman’s particularly good on this point, understanding both from the fan point of view but also from the successful creator perspective, where some fans really want you to continue doing what you did before.
The film also talks about how the enormous, unexpected success of Star Wars also, in a way, boxed in Lucas as a film-maker – as his friend and mentor Coppola put it, while he’s had huge success it also means he’s spent the rest of his life making Star Wars for the most part and we never got to see the other films that the man who made THX-1138 and American Graffiti might have made. I must confess I hadn’t considered that point before and I suppose it is the flipside of the cosmic level of success Star Wars enjoyed – it’s given Lucas fame, wealth and the love of millions, but did it also mean he never got to work on some of the other film projects the Lucas of the early 70s seemed eager to make? Overall though it’s a positive film about a series of amazing films that may drive us nuts sometimes but at the end of the day we still love deeply, laced with much affection (even when criticising) and often very, very funny. A great flick for Star Wars fans and indeed for any sort of fans – there’s a lot of ourselves to be recognised in the people in this film, because they’re us.
Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is another Indy movie and one where I didn’t know much more about it other than the blurb in the Film Fest programme – reporter is told by his boss to get his daughter back over the Mexican-US border. Problem being several years before a space probe sent to retrieve proof of organic life samples beyond Earth crash landed in northern Mexico and the lifeforms got free, mutated rapidly and spread, leaving the Zone, a quarantined area of alien monsters between most of Mexico and its border with America. Starting with some shaky night vision footage of an enormous monster attacking a city and being repelled by troops (in a scene that looks like CNN footage of combat from Baghdad, but with giant, tentacled aliens) Monsters straight away establishes an atmosphere of unease – talking to their taxi driver our protagonists ask how he can stay here when an attack like that can happen so randomly out of the Zone. Where else would I go, he asks. His life, his job, his family are all there. It’s another obvious echo of the problems faced by ordinary folks who happen to live in a city that’s become a trouble hotspot, be it insurgents in Iraq or Kabul or aliens in Mexico.
Photojournalist Kaulder is not happy at effectively being ordered to escort rich kid Samantha Wyden back over the border after her dad decides the attacks are getting too close. He’s there to cover them and looking for the one great shot that will make his name, seemingly less concerned with the human cost of what is happening than with how it will look in a news photo. But since Sam’s father owns his newspaper he doesn’t have much choice and as the infection leads to increasing disruption of transport links they have to take an increasingly off the beaten track route back home to the US, imbuing the monster flick with some of the road movie genre along the way. There are elements of other movies, from District 9 to Apocalypse Now in this belting, lo-fi movie (much of which was semi improvised along the way as they shot, for instance some of the armed troops you see aren’t all actors, some were the bodyguards provided for the crew by Mexican authorities, so they used them in their shots to work that small budget even further). Of course as they travel together Sam and Kaulder start to get to know one another more and the audience gets to know them right alongside. The effects are used sparingly – the budget would doubtless not stretch to too much of the monsters anyway but, like the much larger budgeted Cloverfield, Edwards knows that it is more about atmosphere and he deploys his monster shots sparsely but very effectively throughout (the director picked up the Moët New Directors Award at the Festival, in fact). Like District 9 this is a bit of a left field science fiction flick with a nice, Indy feel to it; one to watch for when it snags a general release.
(left to right: actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with director Gareth Edwards and one of the Film Fest organisers on stage in the Filmhouse at the Edinburgh International Film Festival Q&A after Monsters, pic from my Flickr)
One of the last films I saw during my Festival break was the French live action movie of the classic European comic Lucky Luke, by Goscinny and Morris, which Wim talked about a few months back when it was released on the Continent. I remember a wee bit of the comics cowboy from my childhood reading, although he was never as big here as he was in France (although I am glad to say Cinebook are doing their best to make his books available again here in English), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since live action movies based on other European all-ages comics like Asterix have been less than stellar. Boy, was I in for a very pleasant surprise – it wasn’t just okay, it wasn’t just good, it was bloody brilliant. Seriously. The style is somewhere between the comics (the sets are fabulous – the town is all weirdly shaped buildings, as if they were made from plans drawn without a ruler), Sergio Leone’s Westerns and a less adult version of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (still one of the funniest movies ever in my book). And it’s funny. Oh god, but it’s funny. Three of us went to see it and we laughed pretty much throughout the entire film (and indeed on into the credits, which had some jokes – in French – peppered throughout the credits and an extra little scene that makes a nod to the fact that in this day and age the child-friendly cowboy hero can’t be seen to smoke, but does so with some panache).
There are some great touches – the live action leans towards the real world but retains enough of a cartoons sensibility to make it recognisably Lucky Luke (the cowboy takes a bath but of course he keeps his cowboy boots on; the terrified locals of the town hide from the bad guys who run it by always hiding in barrels). A lot of the humour is visual and slapstick in nature, with plenty to make the younger audience members laugh, but there are plenty of lines there just for the adults too (after all, many who will watch this are adults who grew up reading the comics many years ago and they want – and get – a film that pleases the kid in them and the adult). For example Luke no longer smokes, as we know, so now he has a blade of grass in his mouth, which leads to Jesse James trying to smoke it and exclaiming that this grass is too strong to be smoking, a joke going past they kids in the audience but hitting the adults (and along the way paying homage to the scene in Blazing Saddles where our heroes get high); a scene in the president’s carriage if so full of powerful men smoking cigars that there is a cloud inside the train. I’m not going to go on too much about it – trying to explain how funny some scenes are to someone who hasn’t seen them yet rarely works and besides I don’t want to spoil it. I will say it is creative, incredibly funny and it is stuffed full of wonderful little details – when it gets its DVD release it’s a film that you can easily re-watch and spot even more that you missed first time around. No details on a UK release yet, but I’d imagine now it has subtitles added prints will make their way onto the arthouse circuit in due course, and if you want a great laugh you should saddle up when Lucky Luke comes to town.
Off down to BBC Scotland for a short time this afternoon to do a quick spot on the Movie Cafe, alongside historian Mark Jardine, talking about the resurgence in the big, tough hero again as Solomon Kane hits cinemas and another Robert E Howard creation, Conan, is heading back to cinemas too; show is available for a few days on the Listen Again feature.
Well we come to our last Best of the Year for the 2009 releases and before we embark on my own selection of graphic novels, books and movies from the previous year I’d like to thank all of the many guest bloggers who took part in our annual tradition; I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did and that the diversity of contributors meant there was an interesting variety of choices on offer. I certainly saw some I hadn’t had time to read yet but now want to track down (simply click on the Best of the Year 2009 tag or category to see them all). My own selections are, I’m afraid, less than concise and more rambling in nature (which is not unusual for me), but they were works that really stood out for me in 2009 from beautiful animations to dark and disturbing horror and comics work from glowing retro science fiction settings to real world reportage. I think again in terms of comics and in terms of SF&F publishing I was again utterly spoiled for choice; these works I’ve picked out here are only the tip of the iceberg, there were many more I thoroughly enjoyed this year, but there’s only so many you can squeeze into an article and I think I’ve squeezed in about as many as I dare, so here we go:
I’ve already flagged this up on the blog while I was in the process of reading it; with it only being published in December I think Footnotes has missed a lot of people’s Best of the Year selections, which is understandable but a shame, because it is a brilliant work. Not just because of its ‘worthy’ content which is a subject matter of recent and living history which demands further attention, not just because Sacco is so good at putting the intimate, personal face onto historical events, giving us real people we can relate to and empathise with and a voice to people who all too often are just background in a news report to most of us, but because as well as his well documented comics reportage (and I hugely admire him for going and living among the people he is covering, despite the not inconsiderable dangers to get those reports), he is also, quite simply, a bloody good cartoonist.
From small, almost cosy scenes inside small rooms to larger landscapes of the city and refugee camps, replete with fine details to draw the eye in, to good cutting, from the same location right after a massacre to the present day where it is a market, both on facing pages, one large panel each, simple, powerful. It’s a terrific comics achievement and, I think, the form makes the subject more accessible to many readers than any number of in depth prose pieces from well-meaning broadsheet reporters. It will make you angry at injustices and cruelties (on both sides), it will make you sad for the losses that seem to go on endlessly, but it will draw you in.
This graphic biography of one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century is one I had been eager to read for a couple of years, since we first blogged about Reinhard Kleist publishing it in Germany. When one English language edition seemed to evaporate into thin air I thought I wasn’t going to see it, until SelfMadeHero stepped in with what I think was their first translated work from a modern creator. It was worth the wait – Kleist uses a mixture of biographical scenes with comics renditions of some of Cash’s songs to give not a cradle to grave exhaustive biography but to give the flavour and essence of a fascinating figure and a passionate, troubled artist. Read it while listening to a playlist of your favourite Man in Black tracks. Simply brilliant. (see the full review for more)
Another work I had been eagerly anticipating – I remember seeing some art from Grandville the year before last at the Edinburgh Book Festival where Bryan was speaking. The lovely clothbound hardback is a lovely looking book and the work itself is a delightful Steampunk science fiction piece, set in an alternate history with anthropomorphic characters (our lead hero, a Scotland Yard detective, is a badger) entangled in an international conspiracy with echoes of our own troubled present. All of this is depicted in Bryan’s fabulous art, with wonderful characters, some truly gorgeous depictions of an alternative Belle Époque Paris – the eponymous Grandville. Add in a good murder-conspiracy tale and a ton of references of all sorts, from nods to famous performers of the period to Tintin to Rupert the Bear, you’ll find yourself going back over it again and finding more details and references you didn’t get before.
I was quite surprised not to see this being mentioned more in people’s favourites of the year, perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because it was way back in April and there’s been a lot of comics since then and its easy to forget just what you read this year among so many (I know I had to think about some, did I read that this year or the end of last? Oh yes…). Its a little annoying that its so open-ended, but then again its part of a triple whammy of new LOEG work, so that’s not really a criticism. Kev’s artwork is, as always, brilliant and full of little sneaky details that demand going back over it with a magnifying glass while Alan, of course, delivers an intriguing story layered in more references than I can take in, even after he discussed many of them with Pádraig here on the blog.
I missed reading this when D&Q first did it in North America but picked it up when Cape published the UK edition in 2009. Travel Literature is a very popular genre in prose books and its surprising that relatively few comics creators work in that area because the visual element adds a lot in describing other lands and cultures. With Delisle spending a good, long time in Burma (his wife is working for Médecins Sans Frontières there and he and their baby go along). Travel Lit, for me anyway, has always worked best when the writer is immersed into a country and culture most of us won’t get to know, which is harder and harder to do in our modern era of easy global travel. Burma, however, with its dreadful repressive regime of ‘the Generals’ remains inaccessible and secretive, so as with his previous works on China and North Korea Delisle is, like the best Travel Lit writers, exploring a place largely hidden to most of us and its fascinating.
Deslisle’s artwork is fairly simple but effective and enjoyably easy on the eye, whether he is describing Buddhist monks, the friends he makes locally or the rich heritage of that troubled country. Its often laced with humour, from Delisle preparing for foreign travel by checking the language options on his Star Trek DVDs to cultural misunderstandings and the way he depicts the tyrannical Generals (small, self important uniformed dwarves) pokes fun at people who deserve to be ridiculed – a small act which would cause dreadful consequences for a Burmese citizen though. As he settles into life in Burma there are constant reminders that he can’t take for granted those freedoms we have in Western countries; giving an interview to a Western magazine he finds out later he may inadvertently cause problems for friends he is teaching art and animation to as the repressive authorities will associate his comments with them. Trips into the countryside afford Delisle the chance to draw both simple village life scenes and glorious temples at holy sites.
Throughout it all the invisible shadow of Aung San Suu Kyi looms, referred to by locals simply as ‘The Lady’, never seen in her home imprisonment but a constant presence. Its funny, its charming, its moving in places and it explores a culture most of us will never get to experience directly. Absolutely wonderful stuff and a book I’ve been recommending to non comics readers to show how diverse and accessible the medium is.
The name’s Slade, Sam Slade. That’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you, tin head! Ah, Sam Slade, one of my earliest and happiest of 2000 AD memories. An old detective who hunts down errant robots, he is dispatched to a world built and ‘manned’ by robots in anticipation of human colonists – all of whom vanish never to be heard of again after landing. So Sam is sent by unscrupulous colony bosses, his lightspeed shields sabotaged so he arrives at Verdus some decades younger (his young pilot is regressed to a foul mouthed infant) and has to face down an entire planet of comically insane robots.
Wagner and Grant deliver a great science fiction gumshoe character with piles of often sarcastic humour (a 2000 AD trademark, SF and smartarse humour) while Ian Gibson comes up with some of the weirdest, whackiest and simply brilliant robot designs (a cast of thousands!) I’ve ever seen. Now collected into a huge, great value omnibus like the Judge Dredd Case Files series. Sure, some of this comes from it being a nostalgia trip for many of us, but nostalgia aside its still a bloody brilliant bit of Brit comics writing and art.
Okay, technically this is a children’s picture book rather than comic, but the two forms have a lot of overlap and one of our favourite comics creators, Sarah McIntyre, produced the art for Morris, a delightfully gross, disgusting monster that will make boring old adults feel sick while children (and big kids at heart, of course) will laugh and love it. Simply wonderful – and disgusting! – fun.
Like Kleist’s Cash book this is another work from Europe that I was waiting and hoping someone would translate into English and thankfully Fanfare/Ponent Mon stepped up. Its not the easiest read – the whole comic is Linthout, a hugely successful comics creator in Belgium, essentially trying to work through the turmoil of emotions caused by the suicide of his son. Losing a loved one is immensely hard, losing them suddenly harder still, but to lose a child and to suicide? How do you continue as a parent after your pride and joy has ripped themselves from your life by their own hand? Linthout’s art here is a deliberately rough and unfinished style, sharing some of the artist’s own sense of being bereft and rudderless, filled with conflicting emotions of deep sadness and anger.
His mental breakdown and increasing sense of unreality sometimes throws up scenes which seem almost humorous – a feeling emphasised by his art style, which has a humorous comic look to it – except of course, given the theme it isn’t funny at all, its sad, its disturbing. Throughout the rough artwork his son is a constant presence, but when seen its only ever as the chalk outline left by the police around his body after he leapt to his death, giving him a cartoony, almost Gumby-esque look which again, under other circumstances, would be humorous; the conflict between that humorous look of many images with the sadness of the events and feelings the portray is quite unsettling, as indeed it should be, and I’d assume that was part of Linthout’s intention, sharing a tiny fraction of the confusion and turmoil his mind is suffering as it tries to understand and process what has happened to his boy. I found it quite difficult to read to be honest; too upsetting sometimes, so I had to read it in little bursts, but I’m glad I did, its a remarkable, personal work from a European creator most of the Anglophone world (including me) won’t be familiar with, trying to come to terms with what must be every parent’s worst fear, losing their child.
Honourable mentions also go to Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan (UK edition again), which may not be up there her Exit Wounds but which still had some fine short gems in the collection of early work and a couple of nice little tricks on the reader too (not least those locked lips on the cover and what they actually denote when you read that story). I didn’t pick up Jeff Lemire’s Complete Essex County as I already had the original three volumes, but if you haven’t got those then I’ve also got to recommend the complete edition which came out in 2009 as a book you really should have.
Crumb’s The Book of Genesis also has to get a mention – its certainly not my favourite, but where I found some sections irritating that’s not Crumb’s fault, its his co-author who he is adapting (presumably Almighty God) and my own dislike of organised religion which made it difficult for me. And endless ‘this person begat this person who begat that person who lived 460 years and 460 years were his days’ is a bit wearisome (it may be the word of God if you are a believer, but man, that deity needed an editor badly). But that aside it’s a major work by one of our major, influential cartoonists and while the original stories he is drawing from (literally) may be, in my view, badly written and the religious beliefs of the characters want me to loose Richard Dawkins on the nearest Bible Class, the artwork is superb and a reminder of what a bloody good artist Crumb is. Yes, it is Crumb so there are a lot of very large bottomed women wandering the Holy Land, but still his art is a joy and the heavy black and white suits the Old Testament work very well. And he also gets props not just for the scope of the work but for a graphic novel which achieved widespread coverage well outside the comics sphere, hopefully getting some more non comics folk to dip their toes in the medium
This was a lovely surprise, a present from Leo and his wife Peggy and, I have to say, one of the most enjoyable books I read all year. I’ve been lucky enough to read Leo’s previous autobiographical works and I was delighted when he told me he was working on this new volume, which mostly covers more recent years. Leo opens with a short discourse on Comedy and his old friend, The Absurd, as if giving a cosmology lecture but instead of matter and anti-matter in the creation of the universe he discusses Comedy and the forces of Anti-Comedy and that oppressive Almighty Power, to which one should always make a certain two-fingered gesture.
This opening had me laughing out loud, rather disconcerting other passengers on the train I was on at the time, but I didn’t care. Leo makes a serious point about the events and the grim-faced, usually humourless people who can and do make life for everyone more miserable and how it is Comedy’s role to fight those forces (an assertion I completely agree with). Its not a flippant point, its serious, but delivered in a wonderfully humorous way. I could imagine the spirits of Buster Keaton, Spike Milligan and Bill Hicks nodding their agreement with him. There’s a lot of travel in this volume as Leo and Peggy are involved in various exhibitions and conventions at home and abroad. Its interesting to learn about the ways Leo has experimented with various folks over the years to achieve the best possible quality prints of some of his original work, which is too fragile and too susceptible to the ravages of age and environment (aren’t we all?) to travel for exhibitions; contemporary artists will almost certainly pick up some ideas for exhibiting their own work from his experiences.
Often these exhibitions involve more of the great and the good in the Brit comics community and it’s rather wonderful to read about some very famous names who all pitch in with suggestions and help for exhibitions. Leo also discusses his work for the Guardian and the approaches of the BBC for the Comics Britannia series, for which his presence was pretty much essential, and his own wariness over contracts with the media but how it all worked out. Its funny, it’s a nice insight into the life of one of our most esteemed comics creators, but mostly its simply a delightful read, mixing anecdotes and art, serious points and humour. It left me with a big smile on my face. The book itself is lovely – actually hand-bound, a rarity in this day and age, making it all the more special (and urging me to enjoy the tactile sense of it, running fingers along the spine, sniffing the paper). Of course this also means it is produced in a fairly small number and is quite pricey and, while its well worth it (as well as being a great read, it’s a highly collectable tome any bibliophile would love to have on their shelves) obviously not everyone who would love to read it could afford it, but don’t despair, because Leo has generously had the text placed onto his site for everyone to enjoy and you should take advantage of that.
Since Mike’s previous Felix Castor novels have all featured on my earlier Best of the Year picks it won’t be a surprise to regular readers that his latest one is again one of my faves. I admit it, I’m quite addicted to this series, although not for the first time I wonder where on earth Mike gets the time to pen multiple comics series and prose novels. Through the previous novels featuring our down-at-heels freelance exorcist Mike has provided not only a gripping story but built up the background around Castor and the other characters, a world almost like ours except the supernatural is real, the dead sometimes walk and there are other, more dangerous things out there.
Like a powerful demon welded to the soul of Castor’s best friend, kept safely caged for years and now loose and cutting a swathe through London. Driven by circumstances Castor is forced to return to his old employer, a ruthless scientist who experiments on the undead, werekind and ghosts with a total lack of morality. With more blood and guilt on his hands Mike seriously pushes Castor into events and actions which are totally gripping. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, its one of the best series going right now.
Another real world meets supernatural series that I’ve been addicted to and another book from a scribe also noted for his comics work, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series of novels, which have taken the often cliché-ridden vampire genre and given them a real Mean Streets edge to them, more Scorcese meets Chandler than Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Sadly this is the final book in the series and although I’ve been addicted to the series since the beginning I have to admit I think Charlie is right to contain it within a set limit and not simply keep going endlessly. It certainly piles on the dramatic tension – with the end coming, Pitt down and out (and indeed living in the sewers at the start), the various Manhattan vampire groups at war, the love of his life now vampirised and living in a vamp community now run by someone he despises, its all to play for and in the unflinchingly brutal world of street violence Charlie depicts you know that you can’t take the survival of any of the characters for granted, not even Pitt himself.
Its all rapidly going pear shaped in the Manhattan vampire world, with Pitt pulled every which way in his attempt to get to where he wants, making deals and double deals and all the time trying to work his own angle, his one aim to get back to his girl, knowing fine well that there’s every chance that even if he makes it to her against the odds she may well tell him to crawl right back down that sewer pipe. Add in a Romeo and Juliet romance with star-crossed mortal and vampire (Huston gleefully riffing on Twilight, perhaps, in his own inimitable style?) and you’ve got a vamp tale told in hardboiled Noir style. Many characters are going to be changed, maimed or even dead before the end of this and its hugely compelling.
Neal is one of the consistently best from the impressive roster of top class SF writers we’re lucky enough to have right now in the UK, one of my go-to writers for solid, inventive SF that also delivers a ton of action, not to mention some quite devious nastiness. Especially when Prador are involved. This follows on from events in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, with the Old Captain Orbus trying to overcome the last few centuries of his mis-spent past and personality changes brought about by the Spatterjay virus and the Prador Vrell now infected by the virus and mutating rapidly. Their paths will cross, drawing in the Prador Kingdom and the Polity, uncovering secrets, risking a new war and awakening something ancient which should be left well alone. Its fast paced, gripping, often downright brutal (although like Richard Morgan the violence rarely feels gratuitous, there’s a moral dimension and consequence to violent actions and pasts), solid right down the line.
The end of human civilisation has come, almost every single person wiped out in a short space of town. Towns and cities are deteriorating without maintenance and a few shattered survivors find a quite space in a country house, unsure why they were spared or what to do next, whiling away the time and their trauma swapping stories over some good beers at night. Ale is central to this apocalypse; it’s the social glue that helps the disparate survivors bond together and it’s the trigger for flashbacks to the better times before the end of the world. The aroma of a particular beer, its colour, its taste and how its bound in to memories of happier times, drinking a pint of this or that real ale on a warm, summer day in a pub’s beer garden, idly passing a day with the woman you love, talking, drinking, kissing…
But that world’s gone, isn’t it? And our survivors know their supplies are running low, but are loathe to face the reality of their situation or to go foraging for more because in the distance over the city there are shapes that aren’t birds… When a mysterious rider arrives and takes shelter for a few days with them he seems to know all about each of them and what they lost as the world of mankind crumbled. When he leaves they are all given the strong urge to set out on a quest – a very British quest. The world has ended and they are going to seek out the last pub in existence which their mystery guest told them about. Where there is endless food and beer and its safe. The world ended and the last great haven – if it actually exists – is a pub!
It sounds light-hearted, a bit Shaun of the Dead perhaps, but while there is humour it soon becomes dark and very nasty. Tim Lebbon is, after all, noted not only for his good tastes in fine beers but for writing some very dark fantasy works, full of horror elements and those are present here on the journey to the fabled last pub, braving the world that has passed and gone wild – and worse than just wild, there are things that simply shouldn’t be, but are… It’s a very British end of the world tale – even the chapter headings are drawn from the names of real ales – with real, creeping horror mixed with the mundane but lightened by the glow of warm memories of days now gone. Unusual and brilliant. But it will make you very thirsty.
This collection of short stories by Peter Beagle is a treasure chest of wonder; the award winning writer is probably still best known for The Last Unicorn and it is a pleasure to see Tachyon publishing more of his work. A peaceful king thinks about war as a way to be remembered, an old Jewish uncle paints an angel who comes to model for him, a middle aged American changes into the last, true Frenchman, a brother’s thoughts change the world to the dismay of his family, a criminal fleeing on a snowswept moor takes shelter by the fire of an old minister who tells him of being spirited away to Faerie… I really can’t do Peter’s writing justice; he’s not really a writer, he’s one of those rare breed of scribes who I think the old Scots term makkar suits, what Borges once referred to as a maker of words. Elegantly crafted glimpses into a variety of worlds; here is an author who gets praise from the likes of Ursula Le Guin – that should tell you all you need to know.
Jesse’s debut novel arrives with a recommendation from the quite excellent Jeff VanderMeer. Now that would be enough to pique my interest anyway, but when I picked it up I didn’t know that, but I had an instant feeling about it, I just knew this was a book I wanted to read. Taking old fashioned fairy tales long before they were cleaned up for children’s book Jesse spins a medieval, down and dirty, violent, often vulgar tale of the Brothers Grossbart, part of a line of grave-robbers, fighting, killing and stealing their way from the Germanic lands southward to ‘Gyptland’ to ransack the legendary tombs. Creatures in the dark woods threaten, demons can gobble souls, a moonlit monastery is deserted save for the dead, a witch resides in her cottage, a man monk raves in such a manner the Brothers assume he follows their own perverted form of worship… The action is brutal, the supernatural elements dealt with fairly matter of factly, the humour often vulgar, the language often very coarse – its not for the easily offended, but I loved it. Fantasy all too often can drown in clichés; Jesse takes the genre by the seat of its leather britches and kicks it solidly in the backside. An author to watch.
As I’ve noted a number of times over recent years we’re pretty much spoiled for some excellent science fiction and fantasy at the moment and space simply doesn’t allow me to list all of the other books which I really enjoyed this year, so quick honourable mentions also go to God of Clocks by Alan Campbell (a satisfying if slightly rushed end to his debut trilogy which was inventive and often disturbing), Charlie Stross’s Wireless, an enjoyable smorgasbord of his shorter fiction and Mike Cobley who moved from his fantasy roots to science fiction with the first part of a great new series, Seeds of the Earth. And throughout the year as usual that stalwart of the British science fiction publishing scene, Interzone magazine (and its darker sister Black Static), delivered some quite brilliant short SF, some from established names, some from authors totally new to me who I will be watching for in the future; still the place to check out fresh, new SF writing.
On the screen front its hard to ignore Cameron’s visually impressive Avatar; the story and characters are totally predictable, you can pretty much figure out early on how it will all work out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dazzling the audience with astonishingly rich visuals that immerse them into another world. And JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek overcame my old Trek fan cynicism at the thought of seeing other actors in those iconic roles to deliver a real shot in the arm to a tired franchise and successfully reboot it. Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was not his best work, but even a flawed Gilliam movie is still more interesting than many other directors at their best and, as always, was a delight in terms of imagery and rampant imagination.
But to be honest those weren’t my favourites – actually no less than three of my favourites of the year I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival and, sadly, two of them have still to gain general releases in the UK, while the other has gone on to great acclaim. Duncan Jones low budget British SF flick Moon was terrific; yes, I guessed the twist in advance, but it didn’t matter, it was well played and put together. I even appreciated the fact they had gone back to the old ways of physical effects even for the Lunar exteriors, giving an almost Gerry Anderson, Space 1999 feel to those scenes. Jones and his crew talked to the audience after the Festival debut and their enthusiasm for it was very clear and that carried over into the screen. (full review here)
The other two which I loved were both animated works, both quite different in style and target audience. Brendan and the Secret of Kells, a gorgeous, traditionally animated (no 3D CGI here) all-ages feature from Ireland centred around one of the glories of Western literature, The Book of Kells and like that remarkable work showcased some beautiful artwork (see the full review here). Also at the Festival I caught another traditional form of animation, this time stop motion, with the low budget Australian film, unusually an animation aimed squarely at an adult audience, Mary and Max. What could be a dodgy area – a growing long distance friendship between a lonely young girl in 70s Australia and a single, middle-aged man with mental health problems in New York, is actually a lovely, bittersweet tale and its infuriating to me that its done so well on the international festival circuit and yet is still to get a proper release in the UK — it got a fairly limited release in some US cities, I think (a full review can be found here); Kells did get a release in Europe (it was a combined Franco-Irish funded work) and its native Ireland but still, months later, hasn’t had a general release in the UK. Perhaps distributors are convinced that if it isn’t CGI and 3D then no-one will come to see it, which is short-sighted and means a lot of people are missing out on some wonderful films.