Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers,
Starring Evelien Bosmans, Daphne Wellens, , Frances Lefebure, Patrick Vervueren

I don’t know Bert Scholiers or the starts of his Belgian film, but sometimes I just get a vibe from a film or book and know I am likely to enjoy it even before I start. Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out was another of those that I just had that feeling about as soon as I spotted it going through the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme. I am happy to say that gut instinct was on target, and that this was a film which had me smiling throughout.

Shot mostly in black and white (save for a short segment in strong, almost lurid colours), the basic premise – two girls, best friends, Hannah (Daphne Wellens) and Charlie (Evelien Bosmans) head out on the town for a night out with friends – doesn’t really do this justice. What starts as a pair of slightly kooky but charming young women, joking and laughing as they try to have a nice night out while figuring out their place in the world and why they are as they are (jobs, boyfriends, work, life, the same things we all think about), soon starts to bend off into a more unusual track, starting with some fourth wall breaking as they occasionally talk to the audience, then slowly starts to feed some fantastical elements in (after the pair have swallowed some magic candies which, they explain with a smile are certainly not drugs, they’re “homeopathic”).

Starting small – at a small party with friends Hannah’s breasts start talking (strangely in male voices for some reason), offering advice, bickering with her and each other (one breast complains that it has to get up early tomorrow to work on an opera libretto). Charlie goes out into the garden for a smoke, hears what sounds like someone having some sexual fun in the bushes and yes, indeed there is, it’s Catherine the Great (a horse can be glimpsed in the background, playing on the old myth) and naturally she bums a smoke from Charlie before offering some advice on not sleeping with some famous Russian historical figures. Soon, however, it goes off onto an increasingly surreal bent.

The pair talk about testing their friend Fons (Patrick Vervueren), making him perform odd tasks such as finding a “mummy in denial” (the bandage-wrapped Egyptian style mummy, not the maternal type), their friends produce a picture book of Hannah’s life to explain things, then flip to later pages to show what’s just about to happen next. As the evening wears on with the inevitable “I should go home” moments from the various friends, Charlie and Hannah go off on their own routes, each with a different man, but their evenings still revolve around each other as even apart they talk to their male friends about one another (the men are, well, not exactly superfluous, they have a role, indeed there are many men in this, but this is very much a film about the two women).

The evening – or now early hours of the morning – become increasingly fantastical, travelling to strange places, transformations, a magical mystery tour that takes in talking buildings and haunted houses and bordellos staffed by famous literary characters (fancy a Jane Austen foursome?). Imagine mid to late 70s era Woody Allen, if the films were more female-oriented, mixed with a dash of a more light-hearted Francis Ha, and fantastical flights of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and a friend suggested to me perhaps a touch of Mighty Boosh). Fun, funny, silly, sweet, touching, surreal and totally charming and smile-inducing. Loved it.

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World,
Directed by Franck Ribière,
Starring Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Julie Recoing, Michel Fau, André Wilms

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and another intriguing film, this time from French director Franck Ribière, this partakes of elements of murder-thriller, period piece and delightfully lurid horror. Set in the famous/infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris during the 1920s, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World takes real-life settings and historical characters – most notably the theatre’s great scream-queen, Marie-Thérèse Beau, better known by her stage name of Paula Maxa, played by Mouglalis, an actress who was slaughtered in thousands of violent and gorey ways every night on the tiny stage of the theatre. It’s claimed she was “killed” some ten thousand times, and early on her character lists many of the ways, from strangling to stabbing, slashing, burning, boiling, decapitation, being pulverised. And yet, she shrugs, here I still am…

In some ways this listing of nightly horrors enacted on the stage of this notorious theatre (which only closed in the 1960s) and the fact that Paula “survives” it all and keeps going is part of the central theme here: we were told in the post screening Q&A with the film-makers that they were not aware of a violent assault Paula had endured in her younger years, and yet they had written such a scene in affecting her and a sibling, in an uncanny art imitating life moment. They were exploring the nature of horror and violence, how it affects people, even the pretend violence of the horror on stage or in the movies, both those who watch and those who act it out (imagine being an actor having to be killed in inventively gruesome manners every single night). Experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, another real-life character involved with the actual theatre, is also, appropriately, a figure here, helping owner De Lorde construct not just physically awful torments and demises for Paula, but mentally brutal as well, pushing, pushing, pushing, aided by the giant figure of Paul, the special effects wizard (another real life character, apparently his stage blood formula is still used to this day).

Mixed into these factual elements are more fictional dramatic ones – a young journalist from Le Petit Journal, Jean (Niels Schneider), investigating both the moral brigade demanding the theatre should be closed for indecency (forerunners of later “we should control what everyone can see, for their own good” types that burned rock and roll records or the Mary Whitehouse mob) but also a series of disappearances and murders around the Pigalle and Montmartre areas (loved by tourists today, but rather rougher back then). Is the murdered inspired by what he sees on stage, is it driving his fantasies to act them out for real? Who are the figures haunting Paula? Does her work help her excise her own demons or is it all pushing her to brink – and do those in control of the theatre even care or are they happy to push beyond the limit?

The film is set in mid 1920s Paris, but the cobbled back streets, the heels clicking on them through foggy nights, the evening capes, they could all come from a Victorian-set Hammer film, and the gallons of luridly red “Kensington Gore” as the blood flows scarlet stands out against the dark, mostly nocturnal scenes, as vivid a claret as ever flowed in a Hammer film. Interestingly they film-makers told the festival audience that originally this was to be an English language film, set in New York, but as they explored it more, found the historical Paula Maxa, it became clear they really needed it to be a French film, set in Paris. They struggled for funding, but a Belgian film fund stepped up, as did Netflix, who they thought would ask for it to revert to the original English language premise, but instead were quite happy for it to be a period French piece.

In fact Franck Ribière commented on the “Netflix issue” which has come up at quite a number of film festivals around the world, most notably at Cannes, where some are glad of the new stream of funding and distribution while many others are horrified and say it is killing cinema with movies going straight to television streaming and bypassing cinemas. I can see arguments on both sides, but that’s a debate for another article, not a review. I will note that Franck Ribière explained he didn’t see the problem, it was another welcome source of funding for film-makers, and nobody makes a director or writer work with Netflix, it is up to them to approach them about partnerships, and that he is happy to be able to watch films as he wants, in cinemas, on TV, on his phone. Many other directors, I am sure, disagree, but it was interesting to hear him comment.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Most Assassinated Woman in the World 02
(Director Franck Ribière in dark shirt on the right and his colleagues at the post-festival screening Q&A with the audience)

No news on a UK release for this one yet, but as it is co-funded by Netflix I assume it won’t be long before it appears online, so those of you who don’t have a film festival or arthouse cinema nearby will be able to see it too. All in all I really enjoyed this, it offered both the over-the-top horror the Grand Guignol was famed for (and which it has given its name to as a general term in horror now) mixed with a more psychological aspect, and layers of “plays within plays” as we see fictional and real elements of Paula’s life mixed with pretend versions for the film and more pretend but almost real versions on the stage, until we’re left wondering what elements are real, what scenes are what they seem to be and which are theatrical artifice, all shot in a beautifully sensual manner. One of the smarter, classier horrors I’ve seen recently, and yet one which happily plays with elements of classic horror too.

Huge fun in Blood Fest

Blood Fest,
Directed by Owen Egerton,
Starring Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi

It will surprise no-one who is a fan of fun, punk-ethos Indy studio Rooster Teeth their latest live-action film is a supercharged, gleefully genre-mashing and referencing outing with as many laughs as it has splatter (and even the odd quiet, emotional, character moment). Owen Egerton writes, directs and indeed stars as the leering, bloodthirsty showman (I could imagine Alice Cooper playing this role when younger) who orchestrates the eponymous Blood Fest, a festival for horror fans. Within the large, walled grounds (actually a re-dressed Renaissance Fest location in Texas, we were told at the post-show Q&A) there are multiple locations based on horror genre tropes – the high school prowled by a serial killer, the circus with evil clowns, vampire girls seducing drunken lads, zombies and more.

In a film which revels in multiple, loving references and homages both to other Rooster Teeth creations and many horror movies (even the title is a nod to the famous/infamous Blood Feast), Blood Fest opens, rather nicely for an old horror fan like me, with a nod to Carpenter’s Halloween, zooming in on the suburban American neighbourhood on Halloween, and a young boy watching classic Universal horrors with his mum. Until a shadowy figure is glimpsed when she goes to the kitchen for snacks (a scene telegraphed by the tell-tale sign of the room light refusing to come on, a deliberate take on a generic device in slashers). Fast forward and that young boy, Dax (Robbie Kay) is now a young man, and one who has embraced the horror genre as a coping method for dealing with his fears and his horrible experience of seeing his mother murdered in front of him, before being rescued by his father. His father who is a famous psychologist and who blames the entire horror genre for creating the urge for violence that killed his wife (carefully ignoring his own culpability – the murderer was one of his own patients).

Needless to say the father is not going to allow his son to go off with his friends, Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and Krill (Spider-Man Homecoming’s Jacob Batalon) to the largest, splatterest horror gathering ever, and equally needless to say our plucky teens find a way around dear old dad, who is busy telling network television how horror is to blame for everything bad in society while the kids sneak off to indulge their love of the genre. And I doubt it will surprise any horror fans that (bit of a spoiler alert!) that Blood Fest is not exactly what it seems. When the showman takes the stage for the opening ceremony (Egerton again) and bemoans how stale the genre has become, how mainstream (“we put Freddy on a lunchbox!”) then cries out to his baying crowd that they want to make horror scary again, I think most genre fans will suspect what is coming (and if not the bouncers standing between the crowd and stage, clad in pig-head masks also telegraph trouble in advance). The blood here is not fake, the fans are trapped inside this compound as the showman makes his own demented horror to end all horrors by filming them as they are slaughtered in a variety of horror tropes (this includes zombies with Go-Pro cameras strapped to them to record the carnage!).

I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler though, as this happens very early on in the film and is pretty much the basis of it – also, as I said I think serious horror fans (who are the main audience for this, after all) will guess what is coming, at least for that part. After that reveal and the commencement of the carnage it becomes a battle of survival for our young friends who have to cross the various themed horror locations to try and escape. Along the way Egerton packs in so many references to a multitude of horror films, but this is done in a fast-paced, loving and hugely fun manner – this is the film-makers letting us know they too are fans and winking to us, we’re all in on this together. Who is going to make it, who is going to die, how are they going to die? Egerton and his team take us on a well-paced rollercoaster, gleefully throwing in slapstick as well as splatter, and sometimes both at the same time, as well as delighting in doing a little genre-mashing.

For all the well-paced fun and loving references to the genre’s history, however, there are some serious elements in here; not for the first time horror, that genre often much-maligned by certain groups in society, holds up a distorting mirror to that society. The reactionary elements blame the genre for everything bad in the world – this is not unlike the idiotic Wertham “Seduction of the Innocent” which blamed comics, especially horror comics, for a perceived growth in societal ills. In recent decades is has been horror movies, rock music, rap music, video games and others that are easy to blame rather than turn attention to what is really wrong, what really causes violence in society, and, without giving too much away, there is a later element in this frantic fight for survival where Egerton makes clear that there are other forces in society that we should be far more worried about than horror-inspired slashers, killer clowns and monsters.

It’s clever, fun, well-paced, packed with multiple references for fans to pick up on, laced with dark humour and even a few gentle character moments and emotional elements, it’s pretty much ideal for most horror fans, I think, I can easily see this becoming a future cult horror flick. Egerton and a bunch of the Rooster Teeth family were at the Edinburgh Film Festival UK premiere of Blood Fest, and Egerton especially was on terrific form, full of energy, talking up the crowd both before and after the showing like a delightfully demented horror version of PT Barnum. There was a group of Rooster Teeth fans in the audience and the interaction between them and the film crew, and the other audience members (some of whom were new to RT productions but clearly looking forward to seeing more), was terrific, there was just such a huge, positive, good-natured vibe at this late night festival screening, and Egerton et al seemed more than happy to be invited to such a prestigious film festival and join their long-running roster of late-night horror delights.

One of the Rooster Teeth producers was asked when the film would be getting a UK release; he replied they couldn’t say just yet, but that they would be making an announcement very soon, so keep an eye on the RT site and twitter for more, because this is one horror hounds are going to lap up.

Talking silent movies: Saving Brinton

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne,
Starring Mike Zahs

Saving Brinton is one of the movies that leapt out at me when I was busy circling the movies I most wanted to try and get tickets for at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival: a documentary about a man, Mike Zahs, in a tiny Iowa farm town, who just happened to have collected, protected and shared some gems from the very, very earliest days of cinematic history. It’s an irresistible subject for those of us who love film.

William Franklin Brinton was an itinerant showman, he and his wife travelled up and down the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from Texas to Minnesota, with shows which included music, gadgets (some of the existing music boxes are preserved in the collection as well as film), attempts at heavier than air flight (several years before the Wright Brothers managed several seconds in the air), some truly enchanting magic lantern slides and, always a sharp showman with one eye on getting those bums on seats, but another eye always on technological innovation, which fascinated this intelligent, curious man, he was an early adopter of the new miracle of the Victorian era: moving pictures. Some, even innovators like Edison who would contribute to the development of the medium, saw film as a passing fad. To be fair, he was not alone, few could have predicted film would grow to be one of the great art forms and mediums of the following century and into the next, let alone that it would become so entangled with our own lives, our dreams, fears, aspirations and hopes.

Brinton saw more in this infant medium, and in a later, more settled part of his career he managed the Graham Opera House in the small town of Washington, Iowa, which has been showing film pretty much since the birth of the medium, and has now been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating cinema on the planet. There is something rather pleasing that such an accolade goes not to some historic old cinema in Paris, or London or New York, but a wee town in the middle of the great farming fields of Iowa, right in the heart of the vast American continent. Once every town had such palaces of delights, but most are long gone in the US, as here, long since converted to other uses or ripped down and built over. Here though, a slice of entertainment history still lives, still serves its community, and for around three decades it has also seen some of the rarest early film works from the Brinton collection projected on its venerable screen.

Zahs, an incredibly genial, modest and charming man with a mighty beard (he looks like Gandalf crossed with Father Christmas, perhaps), a teacher, historian and collector, has been saving and documenting this collection for years, trying to interest the wider world in these treasures. There is a delicious irony that the small community here has been watching films, some of which cinema historians had, for years, lamented as lost, totally unaware of Mike’s collection. But eventually perseverance pays off, local academics from the University of Iowa work with Mike, and as academics do, they bring in other experts, including the Library of Congress. It’s soon recognised that the collection has remarkable works, such as rare moving images of Teddy Roosevelt, the first known film from Burma (how astonishing and exotic would that have seemed to an 1890s audience in an era before television, internet and easy international travel?), absolute gold: works by the first true genius of our beloved cinematic medium, Georges Méliès. Actually scratch that, Georges Méliès is not so much a genius as a wizard.


(above, Brinton projecting one of his shows, image from University of Iowa’s Brinton collection; below, Mike Zahs and the film-makers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 03

All of this “lost” cinematic history being rediscovered as academics finally take notice, increasingly enthusiastically, of what Mike has been trying to show them for years, would be fascinating enough, and the triumph, from only local folks watching to international recognition of the importance of this collection (complete with showbills, photographs, glass slides for the magic lanterns, projectors and more along with the actual nitrate films) is satisfying: Mike goes from showing the works to his local friends and community to an outdoor film festival screening in an ancient square in Bologna, and the international film festival circuit. But there is much more to Saving Brinton than the rare works saved from vanishing into history: this is a film which is as much about people and about community as anything else.

It’s to the credit of the film-makers that they spend quite a bit of the running time on Saving Britnon exploring this small local community, and Mike is their way into this small farming town. As well as putting on shows with Brinton’s films, magic lantern slides (some very sophisticated, allowing for overlaps and dissolves which are still gorgeous looking even to modern eyes used to CGI wonders), we see Mike planting peach trees on the family farm close to others that go back generation in his family, Mike delighting young kids at the local school showing them all sorts of odd-looking historical artifacts from his collection and engaging them into learning without even realising it (always a good trick to play on kids to enthuse them), even giving a talk to some of the local Amish families on local history. As Mike said himself at the Edinburgh screening, the most important part of the world “history” is “story”, and stories are about people. And Saving Brinton shows how that remarkable collection is more than preserved celluloid frames and ephemera, it has been woven into the local communities since 1895 when Brinton took it from town to town.

At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening we were lucky enough to have the film-makers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbune present, as well as Mike himself, who seemed utterly delighted to be showing this work at the world’s oldest continually running film festival (quite an appropriate venue for such a subject, surely), and in person he was as delightful and fascinating as he was to watch in the film. As a bonus, after the film and a Q&A we were treated to ten minutes of these very short works – works that, as is said in the film, were made when the people we now think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Keatons, would still have been children, they are that early. These included the “flying machines” which many in the UK will recognise (created by Brinton’s contemporary Sir Hiram Maxim, still flying at Blackpool today), some truly glorious early 1900s colour film (each frame painstakingly hand-tinted to produce the effect, which still looks magical), and treasure upon treasure, a Georges Méliès film which was thought lost for most of the last century, and here Mike and his small town had been enjoying watching it for the last thirty years…

This is just an utterly enchanting, beautiful film about shared history, community, art, lives. Mike and his wife have donated the collection to the University of Iowa Libraries, where it is being carefully examined, conserved and digitally copied so it can be shared. There is a dedicated site for the Brinton Collection run by the university, which I highly recommend visiting for more information and also to find links to watch some of these incredibly early films online, such as the hand-coloured Serpentine Dance and other little gems that were so nearly lost forever, and the official Saving Brinton site has more information. This is an absolutely magical, warm, smile-inducing documentary that is a must-see for anyone with a passion for film.

Delightful chills in The Secret of Marrowbone

The Secret of Marrowbone,
Directed by Sergio G Sánchez,
Starring George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Nicola Harrison

My first movie at the world’s longest continually running film festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it is one I have been eagerly anticipating, arriving with some good word of mouth. It marks the directorial debut of Sergio G Sánchez, who also wrote the story; although this is his first time as a director many film-lovers will know his name from writing the likes of the superbly creepy The Orphanage.

Marrowbone itself is the name of an old, semi-derelict, sprawling house in an isolated rural part of America, the family home of the mother (Nicola Harrison). She returns here after decades away, bringing her young family, fleeing some horrible catastrophe which has left a trauma on them all, some terrible event way back across the ocean in Britian. She draws a line in the dusty floor and declares to all of them that when they cross it and join her they leave their past and memories behind, and even their family name, for now they will take the surname of their home estate and be the Marrowbones, starting a new life, a free life, a new beginning.

Brave words and at first it seems they are starting a new chapter, the youngsters coming out from that dark cloud, almost literally as Sánchez has them exploring the nearby countryside and beach in glorious summer sunlight, meeting Allie (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) at a skull-shaped rock where she is one of the few to get to know the withdrawn, secretive family, to become close to them. For a few scenes it seems they have turned that corner, playing with delight in the sun with their new friend, smiles, laughter.

But the family has run away from a terrible past and harbours a horrible secret, and the past never really releases us, no matter how we try to move on. Their mother knows she is dying and fears what will happen – Jack, her eldest, must reach his 21st birthday to claim his inheritance and to be legal guardian to his siblings. She makes him promise to always keep the family together, even though it means concealing her death until his birthday allows him to legally take over. He vows to keep his family together, but it is not going to be easy.

Their lawyer is suspicious of this family which rarely leaves their dilapidated home, keeps itself to itself, he is jealous too of Allie’s obvious attraction to Jack, and he wonders why their mother is always too ill to see him to sign important papers. He also hints ominously to Allie about the dark secret the family is running from, that their father was a monstrous figures who was eventually brought to justice back in Britain for his crimes but later escaped. Jack tells her he was indeed a monster, hence their flight to Marrowbone, to changing their name, trying to keep a low profile, but he also adds that their father is dead.

If he is dead, though, what are they hiding from? And what is the ghost that young Sam talks about hearing in the middle of the night. Why are all the mirrors in the home taken down and shoved into one room they never enter, save for a couple too large to move, instead covered up, including a huge one on the staircase, which seems to drop its dustcover by itself? What are those many noises? The soundscape here is exploited well, Sánchez mines the old, wooden country home location for maximum effect, every creaking floorboard, and sigh of wind through gaps in windows serves to immerse the viewer into the film, building layer upon tense layer, crafting an atmosphere of wrongness, a sense of something unnatural, disturbed.

Even when nothing obvious threatens the chill of fear and menace is palpable. And there are questions outside the family – their lawyer wonders why the mother is always too ill to see him, and he is increasingly jealous of the obvious love growing between Allie and Jack. He knows a little of their secret, but not all of it, there are layers here, to be excavated like an archaeological dig; the past does not let go with a simple act of starting again, but neither does it give up its secrets easily or quickly…

Sánchez avoids the cheap “jump scares” too many modern horror film-makers use to get a quick scare (I don’t count those as real scares, it’s just reflex, real scares are when they storyteller plants unsettling ideas right into your mind). Instead this film takes its time to patiently build that disturbing atmosphere, giving more hints at the secrets the family is hiding from, slowly cranking it up, trusting the viewers to invest into it until they too are permeated with that atmosphere and almost feel like they too are in that old, creaking house, slowly building to a climax, which I will not ruin here save to say it was, refreshingly, not what I expected and again show trust in the audience to interpret much themselves.

Sánchez and some of his young cast were at the festival screening last night, and he commented that he never set out to be a screenwriter (I am glad that he did though!), and that he and his regular film-making partner had been looking for something just like this to be his first directing gig, and what a wonderfully disturbing, chilling debut it is, moving from the sunny moments of friendship at the start (reminiscent of some old Enid Blyton tale of children’s adventures away from the adults) to the increasingly shadow-laden, creaking sound infested house and a feeling of the past closing like a noose around them and a secret that just cannot be contained. There is a timeless quality to the film, it feels like it could be set in 1860 as easily as the modern day for much of the running, until we see a 1960s wall calendar in one scene and 60s cars on a rare trip into the small town nearby.

Sánchez praised his young cast saying how lucky he was to have them for his debut, and indeed they were superb, despite their youth. It is a lot for such young actors to carry most of a film, but they do it so well, not least the youngest, wee Matthew Stagg, who takes little Sam from wide-eyed childish joy playing with Allie or his big brother Jack showing him how to send Allie morse code signals by light at night to her nearby farmhouse, to wide-eyed fear at this “ghost” and the sounds and movements in the old house, and grief at the loss of his mother. This is a slow-burn film, trusting the audience to wait, to slowly let themselves be immersed into that ever more disturbing atmosphere, leaving you wondering how much is true, is there a supernatural element here or is it all in their traumatised imaginations? What is the secret they must contain, what causes those noises, why does the top staircase end in a bricked up doorway? This is a delicious chiller that draws you into film beautifully. It is on general release in mid July.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1,
Mark Waid, Javier Garron, Israel Silva,
Marvel Comics

I must confess I’ve not read a lot of Ant-Man comics over the years, and I was among the doubters when Marvel announced the film a couple of years back, thinking ah, is this the moment where they stumble with a character not as widely known as others? And of course that film turned out to be an absolute joy (putting so much fun into superhero movies again, which was good – much as I love many of the recent crop, too many are dark and forget comics are also meant to be fun). So with Mark Waid, Javier Garron and Israel Silva starting a brand-new Ant-Man and the Wasp just ahead of the new movie I thought it would be a good time for someone like me, relatively unread in this character, to dip a toe into the microverse.

And I am glad I did, because this was so much darned fun. The first page starts with the original duo, Hank Pym and his wife Janet Van Dyne, what an awesome team they made as superheroes, as scientists and also as a loving couple. Before then tripping up the reader with “this is not their story” and flipping us into their daughter, Nadia muttering “I hate you”. Second page and we see her ire is being directed towards Scott Lang, the current Ant-Man, currently calling her on a video screen from the headquarters of the Nova Corps. Scott had been on an adventure helping the Guardians of the Galaxy (a good fit of characters!) and now needs a ride home, so he asks Nova Corps to call the smartest person he knows.

Of course Nadia is still annoyed with Scott, but she still helps him – “give me… ten minutes, forty-five seconds,” she tells him and true to her word when she comes back after this she has worked out a way for Scott to use his miniaturisation powers to travel at a quantum level via the signal carrier (in a technobabble speech that is up there with Brannon Bragga’s in Star Trek!). But it must be timed precisely, otherwise Scott will miss her and could end up anywhere in time and space and the various states inbetween everything. And naturally you know Scott will get distracted and things will not go according to plan. I mean it wouldn’t be much of a story if it did now, would it? And I will leave it there on the narrative as I have no wish to spoil it for you.

As I said earlier this is just so much fun – yes, I know I am harping on about that a bit, but face it, far too many of our comics and comics-based films dwell way too much on the dark side, gritty, full of troubled souls. Yes, I have no problem with that, it makes for more drama quite often, but I think both comics and comics film have too much of that kind of thing, there is room for the simple joyful fun and still have good characters you care about and an adventurous story to follow. I miss that quality in too many modern mainstream comics and film, it’s why I’ve loved comics like Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero’s Kate Bishop, Hawkeye series – they remind me that we can still have smile-inducing fun in our comics.

And I think Waid, Garron and Silva manage that rather nicely here too. The relationship between the bumbling former thief Scott and the brilliantly gifted genius of Nadia is deliciously handled, even that oh-so-awkward third party moment – you know when a couple are arguing in front of you and you stand there feeling very much that you don’t want to be there as they do so? Garron depicts the unfortunate Nova Corps officer in this scene so well, sighing as he stands behind Scott at the video screen, clearly not wanting to be involved, almost forgotten by both of them and knowing it but not able to just walk out; the comedy and character here comes out so much in the art depicting these scenes as it does the verbal sparring.

Scott comes across as the guy who manages to bumble his way through it all, infuriating the super-sharp, so-efficient Nadia. And in some way he is so much less able than her, not as skilled, certainly nowhere near as smart and yet there is a lovely moment where the thing that makes him a hero shines through, even to her, its his everyday humanity. He’s a good guy, and he’s been given this chance as Ant-Man to help others, and he really does try, because he’s a decent guy.

As I said, I’ve not read much Ant-Man over the years; I have some knowledge of the character, but not a lot of experience reading his stories. But even I found this first issue to be a perfect stepping on point, so if like me you are relatively new to reading Ant-Man and fancy trying some before the new movie, this is pretty much ideal. And it is (yes, I am using the “F” word again) fun.

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: “Be seeing you” – the Prisoner returns

The Prisoner,
Peter Milligan, Colin Lorimer, Joana Lafluente, Simon Bowland,
Titan Comics

Patrick McGoohan’s mind-twisting The Prisoner is pretty much the definition of cult television, a show that was as fascinating and perplexing as it could be confusing and exasperating (and yet always compelling to watch). There’s nothing quite like it (we shall ignore the lamentable modern attempt in TV-land). It was a regular repeat on TV when I was a kid in the 70s, and it still crops up today, is still often discussed by both fans and academics, referenced endlessly in articles and debates, it has permeated the culture. To this day I often take my leave of colleagues with a “be seeing you” and the little salute, although I am not sure most of them know what I am alluding to. But they’ve never been chased along a Welsh beach by a giant inflatable ball roaring away…

Trying to do a modern take on a classic, especially a super-weird classic, is pretty difficult – even the presence of Ian McKellen couldn’t rescue the modern television version (yeah, I know, I just said we’d ignore that, sorry!). But the fact Peter Milligan is writing this take for Titan gave me some confidence that it would be done right, with respect for the original but not a pale imitation or parody, because Peter’s too experienced a scribe for that, and I was glad to see Colin Lorimer joining him as artist.

This is a contemporary tale – Peter and Colin are using the myth of The Village, but it is a modern setting, the post-9/11 world of fractured alliances and counter-counter intelligences and where anything and anyone may not be as they seem. We follow Breen, an MI5 agent on the run – actually on the run from page one, leaping through a window to escape pursuers from his own organisation. It looks like a stereotypical superspy/action moment, the protagonist leaping through shattering glass from an upper storey window to land, deal with his pursuers violently and flee. Except he has been caught with his pants down, literally, having to pull them up while berating himself for being caught off guard so easily, and it’s a lovely touch showing Peter and Colin are going to take some of the well-worn tropes of the superspy genre but also play with them, knowing how ridiculous some of them are in reality. It’s a good sign…

Breen is wanted as a traitor, and this isn’t just the security services sweeping covertly for an agent gone bad, his face is plastered on the media as a wanted man. He needs to get out of town fast, adopting disguises, travelling across counties, looking over his shoulder, watching for possible tails and other spies. Along the way we get flashbacks to a mission gone wrong, a colleague he became involved with in the field being captured while he escaped, of orders given once home, orders he can’t stomach, a man who signed up for Queen and Country but is now jaded and sees it is all short-term political gains, not really about security of the realm. And now he is being hunted by his own people…

Or is he? Is he really a traitor, and is the mysterious Village – a myth to most in security services – likely to sweep him up to interrogate or use? Or has his treachery and escape run been carefully manufactued by MI5 to be the perfect bait to tempt the Village to try to capture Breen, the ideal way to infilitrate this organisation with no affiliations to any nation? Or could Breen be playing both sides with his own agenda? You see how convoluted this is, even only one issue in? This is The Prisoner though, so it should be twisted and convoluted and the truth should always be shimmering like a mirage.

I’m not going to get too deep into more of the plot for fear of spoilers. However it cracks along at a damned good pace, right from that opening page dramatic/comedy escape, and Colin takes care to give us some more delgihtfully odd-looking, almsot surreal images, such as a man, resplendent in chequeboard suit, playing chess by himself over the sink in a lavatory of King’s Cross station (hardly the oddest thing that’s happened around that area though, I’d wager). All very in keeping with the visual oddities of the original series. And, without giving too much away, there are a couple of moments that fans of the original TV series will find familiar and be pleased with (I could almost hear the series’ music at one particular reveal, it is so ingrained in my mind).

Playing on the classic series and acknowledging it (one character refers to The Village as not a myth, and a place only one man has ever escaped from, I think we all know which blazer-wearing chap he is talking about), but very modern, this first issue did what a first issue should, got me hooked and intrigued to see where it goes next. I think it will be a very interesting and twisted ride…

Be seeing you…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog