Reviews: Sea Fever

Sea Fever,
Directed by Neasa Hardiman,
Starring Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze

After the film festival circuit – including a debut at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 – Neasa Hardiman’s Indy Irish horror movie arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand from this week. Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), is a marine biology student, and one who really isn’t a people-person (as we see right at the start, as her classmates pause in the lab to celebrate a birthday, despite warm invitations to join in, she remains aloof). She is reluctant to undertake a required field work segment of her course, but her tutor tells her firmly she has to get out of the lab and get her hands dirty. To this end she’s booked aboard a trawler for a few days, to examine their catch, looking for pattens and irregularities in the marine life.

The ship is captained by the grizzled, taciturn Gerard (Scots actor Dougray Scott essaying an Irish accent), and owned by his partner Freya (Wonder Woman’s Connie Nielsen), and they are glad of the money the university contract brings – like many independent trawlers the wolf is never far from the door. There is some reluctance from the crew, partly at having someone onboard who isn’t a sailor, let alone experienced on the hard life of the trawler ships, and her stand-offish behaviour doesn’t help, nor does the fact she is a redhead (seen a bad luck on a ship, although interestingly I noticed there was no mention of the other old superstition of a woman being bad luck aboard – in fact with Hermione there are now three women on the ship).

The ship is warned by the coastguard that they cannot continue to the spot they originally planned to trawl, a potentially rich source of fish, that the area is currently off-limits as whales and their calves are in that zone. Unknown to the crew or authorities, Freya and Gerard make the decision to cut through this forbidden zone anyway. Of course any seasoned horror buff will know that going into a forbidden zone is the equivalent of leaving the path in the deep, dark forest in a fairy tale – you don’t do it, and if you do, expect trouble…

The trouble arrives fairly swiftly – something strikes the trawler, despite it being in deep ocean waters. And then they notice some very peculiar shapes forming on the planking of the wooden hull’s interior, deforming the thick wood, softening it – prodding it with a pencil, it goes right through, letting water in and revealing a glimpse of… something. Siobhán had planned a diving session as part of her field work, and at Gerard’s suggestions she reluctantly dives to investigate whatever has been striking the hull, finding something she never expected, an unknown creature, huge and glowing with bioluminescence, its long tendrils attaching to the hull. Is it attacking them, or has it just mistaken the ship for normal prey, in the way sharks sometimes bite surfers or divers, mistaking them for seals?

I thought this was the point where Sea Fever became far more interesting – especially given the situation we are all in at the moment, although that is just a lucky coincidence in timing – because until now it is giving the impression of a fairly standard monster movie. People go out on a normal, routine journey, encounter something unknown, it hunts them, they must fight to understand and survive. Except, no, it doesn’t go down that very well-worn route. Instead this becomes more about different types of life and their rights to exist, how they try to live (human and marine), and also, in what is now suddenly a very contemporary slant, about infection and controlling any potential spread from contact with unknown new organisms.

I wondered at first if this change in tack was down to budgetary restraints – an Indy movie like this simply can’t afford numerous, convincing effects scenes a full-on monster movie would demand. But I don’t think that’s it, I think Hardiman is more interested in people and their web of relationships, their interdependencies, and the way all of the elements, such as the sea, and other life (the fish, the whales, the unknown creature), how they react under sudden stress. I think it doesn’t quite hit the high mark it is aiming for, although again I think that may be due to the budget limitations Indy movie makers labour under, but nevertheless I found this to be a more unusual and far more interesting slant on the horror movie than I was expecting, and well worth checking out.

Sea Fever is available from Signature Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand services from this week

Reviews: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec

Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1,
Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

And another Jacques Tardi piece I wrote for the now-defunct Forbidden Planet Blog, but somehow forgot to cross-post here on the Woolamaloo (in my defence I spent many of my own evenings writing or editing articles for the FP blog, unpaid, and didn’t have time or will to then do so on my own blog). So here below is my 2014 review of The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec:

French creator Jacques Tardi has to be one of the most respected writer-artists working in comics, European or world-wide, and he is also a huge favourite of ours. Like Bryan Talbot he seems to have an uncanny ability to move through different mediums, adapting his art and style to suit all sorts of stories, from his early work back in the 60s in the famed Pilote comics magazine through adapting hard-boiled urban crime novels and his anger-fuelled, horror-filled World War One strips, but he has also created one of the great heroines of European comics, Adele Blanc-Sec, a writer by day, adventurer by night, Set in early 20th Century Paris, just a few years before the Great War, Adele stands out in an era when women were expected to ‘know their place’ in society, being a single woman of means, more intelligent and observant than the men around her and certainly far more adventurous.

Like Tintin she is an intrepid investigator of mysteries, and there is also something of the classic Scooby-Doo here as well in that there is often a fantasy or supernatural element (or at least seemingly supernatural – or is it??) to her stories. Fantagraphics have been translating and publishing Tardi’s works in English, to much acclaim, a series largely driven by Fantagraphics’ own Kim Thompson, not only a champion of quality comics work but also a multi-lingual editor, translating these works himself until his recent death (a major blow for both the publisher and the comics community in general). This first volume has been out of print for a while, but with a fresh print run on the way it seemed like a good time to turn our Classic Comic spotlight on to it.

This handsome hardback, full-colour volume actually boasts two stories in the one volume, collecting two of the original Adele Blanc-Sec albums, Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. Pterror introduces Adele to us and also the bizarre stories she can be caught up in, in this case a madcap science fiction tale worthy of a Victorian writer like Verne or even Conan-Doyle (in his Professor Challenger mode), in which a peculiar experiment, part palaeontology, part medical science, part mystical-mental ESP powers (a not uncommon theme for the era) combine in an attempt to resurrect a Pterodactyl from its millions of years of fossilised slumber. Those same mental powers which brought this extinct flying dinosaur back from pre-history are meant to guide it, but the animal instincts are too powerful and freed from it’s tomb the creature soars into the night-time skies of 1911 Paris and hunts on the wing, as it was meant to, bring terror – or ‘Pterror’ as the title puns – to the City of Lights, and drawing in both Adele and the bumbling police inspector Caponi (who became a regular character in the series).

What follows is a spectacular piece of high adventure as the incompetent police, scientists from the Museum of Natural History (where the Pterodactyl emerged from) and Adele all follow the trail of death and destruction left in the dinosaur’s wake, each with their own ideas and agenda. As well as superb Boy’s Own style adventure moments (the beast swoops down and rescues a man falsely accused of murder right off the guillotine scaffold) there are nice touches of humour (government minister calls head of police to complain who in turn calls his senior officer who calls his district chief who calls the unfortunate Caponi in a classic bit of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel). The second story offers a classic supernatural cult conspiracy tale, an elite of the city’s movers and shakers, hungry for ever more power (as those types often are), seek to bring back into our world the demon Pazuzu. But who is truly controlling this cult, and is the demonic monster we glimpse (even entering Adele’s nightmares) real or a front, just a control method to garner more power for some?

And the art throughout is glorious – Tardi creates and portrays a strong female lead character but doesn’t sexualise her – Adele is written and drawn as what she is, a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and she isn’t waiting for some hero to come along, nor does she pine for romance. But away from the characters, there is also pure joy to be had in his depictions of early 20th century Paris. The scenes in the historic heart of this beautiful city are especially wonderful, because many of those locations are largely unchanged today. An opening scene in a wonderfully detailed Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes depicts its iconic great hall while a number of scenes on famous Parisian streets will be instantly recognisable if you have ever walked them, or even if you have only viewed them in photos and films, this realistic detailing giving the grounding that allows the more fantastical elements to take flight (in the case of our winged dinosaur, literally).

In the second tale we go from the famous Parisian underground tunnels to the heights of the majestic Eiffel Tower on a snowy, winter night, and it is all so beautifully executed you find yourself going back through the book’s pages after finishing the story, just so you can stop and admire many of the scenes, especially those beautiful cityscapes. Stunning art from a master of the medium, a strong female lead, fantastical adventures which both pay homage to those Victorian/Edwardian lost world science fiction tales while at the same time also clearly poking a little fun at how ludicrous the concept is to modern readers (but in a loving way), demonic being and ancient dinosaurs running amok in the Paris of a century ago, scenes filled with period detail, what’s not to love here?

Reviews: Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell

Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell Hardcover,
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

This is actually an older review which I wrote for the (sadly deceased) Forbidden Planet Blog back in 2015. Normally I would cross-post my reviews here on my personal blog too, but for some reason I hadn’t done so with this one, and it was while penning an article on the great French creator Jacques Tardi for Tripwire’s 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read feature that I realised I had never posted this one on the Woolamaloo, so here it is below:

Jean-Patrick Manchette was one of France’s powerhouse crime fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s, often hailed as one of the writers who put the pep back into the genre in France, and the great Jacques Tardi (surely one of the finest bande dessinee creators in the Franco-Belgian scene today) has turned to adapting his work into comics form before, to popular and critical acclaim. Fantagraphics has been publishing Tardi’s work in English for several years now, everything from his Adele Blanc-Sec adventure fantasies to his apocalyptic World War One works and the hardboiled crime tales. The loss of Kim Thompson at only 56 a couple of years ago has delayed the series somewhat – Thompson wasn’t just a major part of Fantagraphics and a champion of translating and publishing European cartoonists into English, he was also behind much of the translation work himself, and losing him so suddenly has naturally had an effect on their publishing. So it’s doubly good to see Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell finally coming out from Fantagraphics as it marks the resumption of their Tardi publications, which I imagine Thompson would have approved of.

There’s something about the 1970s and early 80s that seems especially well suited to crime fiction – the prose novels of the period, the television and the films, on both sides of the Atlantic, all seem to ooze a certain flair and style that adds hugely to their enjoyment, and Manchette was a part of that. In Run Like Crazy we follow Julie Ballanger, a troubled young woman who has spent the last five years – voluntarily – in a mental care facility. Enter Michael Hartog, a one-time struggling artist and architect who came into astonishing wealth when his brother and his wife were killed in an accident, leaving him with their fortune and company, and also Peter, his nephew. Hartog has built a reputation over the years since his inheritance for recruiting employees from the ranks of the dispossessed, the disabled, injured veterans and the like, and it seems now he is extending this to Julie, offering her a home and a job looking after young Peter after his old nanny left. She’s treated well, Hartog picking her up himself in his chauffer-driven limo to take her from the care home to his own large dwelling, her own place to stay, even new clothes in the wardrobe for her when she arrives. Is his philanthropy for real, or is there a hidden motivation behind his employment schemes?

Our other major character here is Thompson, a hitman for hire with a fearsome reputation in the French underworld. We meet him in the opening pages waiting in a dark apartment to plunge his knife brutally into the heart of a young man, a homosexual, although it’s not really clear if Thompson cares about his sexual orientation or if it is simply another contract to him, although the accompanying text hints at some homophobia (or it could just be an example of the period in which the tale was originally written). But Thompson, for all his brutal, cold efficiency and reputation, is actually a man struggling with his profession. While he doesn’t seem to suffer any deep questioning of the morality of how he makes a living, clearly something deep inside his psyche is troubled – he finds himself with stomach pains and cramps leading up to a job. He can’t even eat. And yet after the deed is done he feasts with gusto before driving off in his classic old Rover to meet a new client. And a new job which involves kidnapping Peter and Julie.

Oh, and framing poor Julie for it – hey, young woman with troubled past just out of psychiatric care? If well staged then why wouldn’t the cops believe she’s lost control once back in the outside world and gone crazy? A perfect crime, perhaps?

Except no crime ever is perfect and there are always unexpected kinks in any cunning plan – especially when the hard-headed Julie turns out to be capable of seemingly playing along then dealing out some improvised violence of her own back against the gangsters. This leads to a classic series of chases and cat-and-mouse manoeuvres as Thompson, increasingly and clearly beginning to manifest physical illness from the mental stress of his occupation, is determined to get Julie and her troublesome young charge and fulfil his contract like a true professional – nanny and child dealt with, blame pinned on her, as per the plan. A plan rapidly going belly-up and requiring swift improvisation by Thompson, wrong-footed by underestimating Julie. And then there’s the question of why anyone wants to kidnap Peter in the first place and why they would want to try and frame Julie for doing it.

As you’d expect from a crime tale of this era there’s some hard-edged dialogue, swearing, threats and backed up by some sudden bursts of hideous violence (one scene in the countryside involving a shotgun and a foot recalls an amped-up version of an infamous scene from Straw Dogs), and it is all carried out with great style and panache by Tardi in his dark-inked black and white art, some of his close up character scenes and their expressions being particularly superb. The whole work drips with style and that hardboiled 70s crime feeling – you could easily imagine this with a suitable soundtrack as a storyboard for a Tarantino movie. It cracks along at a great pace, helped by the regular use of smaller, more urgent-seeming panels, and manages to make you root for Julie (and Peter) despite not exactly painting them in the nicest light either – victims of this attempted crime, perhaps, but Julie’s violent temper and Peter’s spoiled tantrums mean neither is an unblemished character.

Tardi remains, for me, one of our finest comics creators, able to work in all sorts of genres, adapting his style and art accordingly (in this respect he reminds me of Bryan Talbot), and a selection of his body of work belongs on the shelves of any serious lover of the comics medium. Returning to Tarantino for a moment, I recall one review of Reservoir Dogs referring to it as an “awesome, pumping powerhouse of a film” and that feels appropriate for Tardi’s gripping take on Manchette’s crime fiction. Read it then maybe go enjoy a good crime movie too – maybe the French film Mesrine would be a good partner to a read of Run Like Crazy. A fabulous, hard, tough crime fiction ride, perfectly depicted by Tardi.

Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: Charlie’s Angels

Charlie’s Angels,
Directed by Elizabeth Banks,
Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks writes, directs and stars in this latest take on the all-woman super-team that was such a popular staple of 1970s TV viewing. Originally touted as a reboot several years after the frantically bonkers fun of the McG Angels films with Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, instead the decision was taken to make this a continuation of both the films and the original TV series. Not that this is a sequel – it is a new story and new Angels that you could take as stand-alone if you so wished, but it tips its hat with some montages and cameos to the TV series and the films, to include them in this history. This is, effectively, a new entry in those stories, set years on with the latest recruits, but, rather satisfyingly, I thought, including that previous history as a background (even including original 1970s Angel Jaclyn Smith in a cameo as one of the senior staff who train the new girls).

Since the events of the previous films the Townsend Agency has gone international, in an expansion lead by the main Bosley (now a rank in the organisation), John Bosley, played by Patrick Stewart (who looks as if he was having a lot of fun here), with other Bosleys in charge in offices in different cities and countries, and a larger roster of highly-trained Angels on call for missions around the globe (although here this is mostly background, with the story, wisely, sticking mostly to the tried and tested tradition of the triumvirate of three women agents and a Bosley to help). We open with a mission to bring in a creepy international fraudster, the sort of man who happily steals from disaster relief funds, brought down by his misogynistic take on women (Kristen Stewart’s Sabina using this weakness to infiltrate then take him down with help from the other Angels, including Ella Balinska’s impressive Jane Kano, a former MI6 operative). This success crowns John Bosley’s final act at the Townsend Agency as he is preparing to retire.

The main story follows Sabina and Jane in Europe, following up on Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), a programmer at a hi-tech firm with a radical (and badly needed) new power device for the world, which she has found has a serious problem – it can be hacked to be used as a deadly weapon rather than purely for good as an environmentally-friendly form of energy. Her attempts to tell the head of the company, Alexander Brock (Sam Claflin) about this and how she can fix it are thwarted by an oily supervisor, Fleming (Nat Faxon), and a cold and relentless assassin, Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), which is, of course, where our heroines step in.

I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going too far into the plot, which, anyway, is, as you’d probably expect from this kind of movie, delighting in twisting around with surprises and double-crosses and red-herrings as to who really is pulling the strings here, and why, and just how this involves the Townsend Agency in ways they never expected. Suffice to say it rolls along at a cracking pace, and while the style is different from the McG films (which had a very stylised look and cut), there is a similar mix of action and humour and some bonding between these very different but equally strong and determined women.

We get high-kicks, car chases, abseiling off tall buildings, clever gadgets (mostly non-lethal, these are the Angels, after all, they prefer not to just shoot people) and globe-trotting locations and stylish outfits. In other words we get pretty much what we want from this sort of film: it’s a great, fun ride of action and humour, with Stewart and Balinska particularly strong as two very different personalities that still manage to be complimentary despite those differences, and there is always that great underlying message that Angels, new and old, are unstoppable when they work together. A perfect Saturday night popcorn movie to enjoy.

Charlie’s Angels is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on digital on from March 23rd, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from April 6th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: the Wolf of Baghdad

The Wolf of Baghdad,
Carol Isaacs (aka The Surreal McCoy),
Myriad Editions

The Wolf of Baghdad opens a world away, with an aerial shot of London, our opening perspective a view over the Thames with many globally famous landmarks visible, from the old like Tower Bridge to the new, like the towering Shard. Over this splash page musical notes float languorously in little bubbles of their own. We follow this warm stream of music floating through the London air, across the cityscape, from the dome of Saint Paul’s to regular, the open space of parkland, then urban residential streets, until we find the source, in a woman’s living room. She is sitting alone, listening to the music coming forth from her stereo, lost in thoughts and reveries, the music sparking images of other times, other places, other people, now long gone, vanished into history.

Or no, not vanished. They live now in her memories, in the stories passed down through her family and their friends, in the music of those days, and in the box of photographs she is reaching for on top of her bookcase. She falls asleep on the sofa, photos strewn over her body. She wakes with a start, there is someone sitting in the armchair next to her. An old lady knitting. Except she’s not really there, she’s a projection, a ghost, summoned from her memories roused by the songs and the family photographs. Isaacs beautifully captures in a couple of small, brief panels, the emotion on her face, from shock at finding someone else in her home to the sheer delight at recognising a beloved family member to the disappointment that no, she isn’t really there, this is a dream, an echo.

I think many of us who have endured loss will feel the emotions of that seemingly simple scene deeply – how many of us have dreamed we’re walking with a long-gone loved one, woken smiling only to remember they’re gone and it was just a dream, that this is the only place they now live for us. Isaacs weaves this irresistible mixture of longing, of the happy warmth of memories, and the disappointment of the reality, the contrasting emotions contrasting and yet also in that peculiar way life manages, complimentary to each other.

Isaacs rises from her chair, leaving her spectral visitor behind, donning her grandmother’s old cape she would always wear outside the home, stepping through her front door, but not into her own apartment block, but the old family home in early 1900s Baghdad. She walks through the kitchen, the heart of any household, and ghostly, translucent images of the people who lived there – her people, her family – move around her, oblivious. It seemed to me that they were not the ghosts, but actually Isaacs herself was now the invisible phantom, a ghost from the future walking unseen through her own family past.

These scenes are lovely, warm, inviting – the family house, like many in the Middle East, built around an open courtyard so the family could sit outdoors in the heat but still be within the home. She passes her Rabbi grandfather’s study – a sudden splash of inviting, warm yellow colour spills out of the mostly blue palette of these pages, the lamp-light he is contentedly reading by, and on to the roof, which like many buildings in the region is flat, so that on hot nights the entire family, from baby in the crib to grandmother could sleep outside, under the starlight. This also affords Isaacs the perfect excuse to delight the reader with the glories of sunrise over the domes and minarets of early 1900s Baghdad, seen from the roof of the family house.

The view of the waking city entices Isaacs to venture outside into the bustling city streets, where Muslims and Jews and Christians all mingle. There are beautiful little details – a street urchin sneaking food from a street stall, a small child tugging on his mother’s hand when he sees a vendor selling sweet treats, the old men playing their games in the cafe, the bustle and life of the soukh,. The many other little details that bring it to life and make it so wonderfully personal and intimate – the children learning to swim in the Tigris (imagine your swimming pool being this great world river that has flowed past thousands of years of human civilisations growing around its banks), or being carried over the regularly overflowing small alleyways to get to school.

Despite Jewish people having lived in Baghdad since they were first captured and taken to ancient Babylon – a history of over two and a half millennia – sadly this will not last, and the latter part of the book sees our spectral narrator walking through the shadows of growing threats, shadows which soon grow into full-formed nightmares of hatred, killing, pogroms, as a rising Arab nationalism is fuelled in the 1930s and 40s by imported anti-Semitic rhetoric from distant Nazi Germany. It’s heartbreaking and sadly a story which has, in one form or another, happened far too often throughout human history.

We see the burnings and the beatings and the disappearances into dark jails. Again Isaacs conjures panels that pull forth the emotion of those moments, such as a scene showing her walking through the ransacked mess of what had been the family home, picking up a shattered photo frame, the people now all just silhouettes, or finding a torn Torah in the Synagogue.

From being almost a third of the population, through the 1940s and 50s and on most Jews were forced to flee forever, that history that had lasted millennia gone – today there are, perhaps, around half a dozen left in that ancient city.

Isaacs includes a lovely Afterword, which originally appeared in the Strumpet (which I am sure some of you will remember fondly), detailing some of her own memories this time, of family life when she was a wee girl, the family now settled in Britain. The regular suburbia is broken each month when visitors come from the old country to visit, bringing gifts and stories, her house-proud mother budding the family silver to a shine and creating a mountain of delicious food, the family friends so well-known they children would always refer to them as aunt or uncle – all small details which most of us probably also share from our childhood. And the hints of the past these visitors brought with them to suburban Britain, of the home now lost to them which they can never return to, but which haunts their dreams.

And the eponymous wolf of the title? An old Jewish tradition in Baghdad was that the wolf would protect the household, watch over the family, that any malicious Djinn would be too scared of the powerful wolf to dare to enter the house or harm those within. A wolf’s tooth would often be set in a small jewel to hang over the baby’s crib as a protection. Sadly, as Bardach observed many years ago, “man is wolf to man”, and despite appearances the man-wolf has a far more terrible bite than any canis lupus, even a mythical one unable to protect the family from the storm that befell the Jews of Baghdad. (or, perhaps the wolf did watch over them, seeing them to their new home, perhaps his glowing eyes still look after them as best he can in a strange land).

This is a remarkable book and, despite the horrors of the later section, ultimately it is a beautifully-crafted, warmly emotional work. While it sheds light on a period and events most of us, even those of us who read a lot of history, will not be familiar with (always good to learn), mostly, I felt, this was ultimately a very personal, very intimate story, and the warmth of memories, of family, of love and hearth and home outweigh even the darker moments, with Isaacs’s artwork deftly expressing and conveying much emotional richness.

Reviews: First Love

First Love,
Directed by Takashi Miike,
Starring Masataka Kubota, Nao Ohmori, Shōta Sometani, Becky, Sakurako Konishi

The superb and prolific Takashi Miike returns to our screens on Valentine’s Day, and that is, of course, a good thing for those of us who love film. In First Love Miike returns to the Yakuza gangster genre that he has done so well before, but, naturally being who he is, he gleefully plays with the expected elements of the genre too, while still delivering a strong narrative with a sense of fun. And, as the title intimates, there is some romance going on between the drug deals gone wrong, the inter-gang warfare, the bullets, the sword-based beheadings, the corrupt police and conniving gang lieutenants. Oh, and the ghost of a middle-aged man in his underpants.

While there’s a good array of cast members, the main focus here is on two innocents, Leo (Kubota) and Monica (Konishi), who become accidentally embroiled in inter-gang warfare between the traditional Yakuza of Japan (now somewhat in decline) and the opportunistic Chinese Triads moving into their turf. Leo is a failing boxer, skilled but somehow not quite getting his act in the ring together as he should,, and now living with recently revealed news that he has a terminal brain tumour. Monica (Konishi – Miike specifically wanted a newcomer for this role) is a troubled young woman, effectively sold by her father into sex work and living next to one of the Yakuza members and his rather nasty girlfriend with anger management issues. And poor Monica is also troubled by the spectre of her father appearing to her, clad only in his white underpants; a symptom of trauma brought on by abuse or just hallucinations brought on by drug use? Or both?

As the Yakuza and Triads fight one another over a bungled drug deal, and plotting gang members attempt double or more crosses to further their own personal gains, Monica is pursued, suspected of having a missing drug shipment. When she runs from a corrupt police detective who is involved with the Yakuza after being spooked by another ghostly vision (which no-one else can see), Leo rather gallantly floors the pursuing officer. Unfortunately he had no idea it was a policeman he had just knocked out, he thought he was protecting a young woman from a predatory older man.

The pursuit of these two young people, caught between competing Yakuza and Triads, is the main engine of the story here, but a simple description of the plot like that doesn’t do First Love justice. It is, after all, a film by Miike, so you will be unsurprised to hear me tell you that is is replete with some delicious, delectable moments of sly, often gallows-black humour (a fast editing cut from a falling boxer to a gangster’s head rolling across an alley after being decapitated by a katana blade, a conspiratorial gangster who ends up with an accidental dose of the missing drugs sparking both a sexual faux-pas and a hilarious inability to feel pain during a fight scene), while Miike, as always, takes generic elements and puts his own very stylish stamp on them to great effect, and yes, there is a romance here, but again it takes its own peculiar form.

Action, romance, humour, bullets, swords, drug deals gone bad, gang warfare and ghosts in underpants, First Love is an absolute pleasure.

This review was first penned for Live For Films.

First Love is released by Signature in UK cinemas and Digital HD from Februry 14th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 24th.

William Gibson returns with Agency

Agency,
William Gibson,
Viking Penguin,
Hardback, 416 pages, £18.99
Published January 2020

Bill Gibson, arguably one of the most influential SF writers of the last few decades, returned to full-on science fiction with The Peripheral several years back (reviewed here). Agency follows on from that book, but there has been a pretty substantial, five year gap between the two, much of this caused by the pesky Real World interfering in the plot. Agency is not so much a direct sequel to Peripheral as a story set in the same world established in the preceding novel, with some characters carrying over and new ones taking the lead. It retains the idea from the Peripheral of a century or so hence future where our world has been radically changed after the “Jackpot”, a series of events (environmental, war, disease, political, economic) which decimated the global population and left the descendants of the super-rich oligarchies (the “klepts”) in charge, democracy a distant memory, the world barely stabilised by the use of cutting edge tech.

And again it involves the “stubs” – these rich oligarchs have discovered a mysterious server which allows them to connect digitally to what seems like their past. They can’t go there physically – there is no actual time travel as such here in the traditional sense (although sometimes they can go visit via telepresence in a remote controlled artificial body) – but can exchange information, allowing them to interfere in those eras, some for entertainment (often for malign kicks), as if they were playing a Civilisation style video game, except these are real people’s lives that they are playing with, (not hard to see the real-world commentary here!). This has no effect on their own timeline’s history as the moment they make contact with any such past it branches off into a parallel timeline, the so-called “stub”.

The formidable police inspector Lowbeer is tasked with ensuring that none of these klepts acts in too outrageous a way, that could threaten the precarious stability of their society (a society run by corrupt oligarchs not exactly being too stable to begin with). A new stub has come to her attention, one where Trump lost the Presidential election and Brexit never happened – and this is where the long delay between the two books comes in. Poor Bill was taken by surprise by the results of both of those votes, as many were, and realised some of what his characters would be doing made no sense in a world in which Trump and Brexit existed, causing a long delay and much re-writing and new thinking.

However, if you didn’t know this I doubt you would pick up on it from the writing – Gibson is far too professional for that. He’s always had a knack for smooth descriptions and highly-crafted prose style, and I think that is a skill which has just become better over the years. Here it has resulted in him taking the world-building from The Peripheral but delivering a related but very different story. Despite avoiding some of our timeline’s mistakes the new stub is still facing similar dangers the main timeline did (the looming Jackpot disasters), not to mention a looming threat of war around Syria and Turkey that could spiral into nuclear Armageddon very easily.

In this stub, unlike the main timeline, what may be a true AI agent – Eunice – has emerged from a murky mixture of covert military tech and Silicon Valley development, and some are panicking about what they may have unleashed when testing her. Verity, an influencer and “app whisperer” has been given Eunice to test by a tech start-up, unaware of the vast conspiracy that comes with this until she is dropped into it, while Eunice is going to have to develop very quickly if she has any chance to survive and grow, let alone maybe, just maybe, be able to help the human characters steer her timeline from its destructive course. Lowbeer feels some responsibility to help this timeline, and Eunice, and recruits Wilf (last seen in the Peripheral) to aid in whatever way they can to protect this stub from disaster (both from her own interfering timeline and from the potential disasters of its own timeline).

The best science fiction has always, at its core, addressed the problems of the modern world and society, no matter how disguised by futuristic settings and tech, and of course Gibson is no stranger this; it is something he has done in most of his books from Neuromancer onwards. Agency continues this, very satisfyingly hitting a number of hot-topic buttons, from the One Percent and their unprecedented level of control and influence in larger society, environmental collapse, the role of tech in our society (for good and ill), potential global flashpoints like Syria Turkey and Russia that could easily spiral into something worldwide, the dangers of undermining democratic institutions, of taking moral responsibility for our actions.

Couple this with a tense narrative, delivered in short, punchy, often fast-pace chapters, and characters you can’t help but care about (I think I fell in love a little bit with Eunice and Verity in particular, and the odd relationship developing between the pair) and you are in for a terrific, involving read from a great author at the top of his game. Well worth the wait.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction, featuring short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and more.

Best of the Year 2019

Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.

Books

Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)

I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)

Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.

Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.

Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)

Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.

On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)

I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.

Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)

I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.

The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)

I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez

I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.

Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)

I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.

Americana, Luke Healy

Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.

The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)

The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.

Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)

I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.

Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).

Films

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.

1945

Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)

Jojo Rabbit

I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)

The Accountant of Auschwitz

A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)

Apollo 11

Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.

Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…

Stan and Ollie

I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)

The Wind

I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.

Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)

Reviews: Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts,
Jeff VanderMeer,
Fourth Estate

(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)

I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.

Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.

The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.

VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.

Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.

Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”

Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.

I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction and fantasy.

Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.

Reviews: Billionaires

Billionaires,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Ever since Blank Slate first published his achingly honest Psychiatric Tales I have eagerly anticipated each new work by Darryl Cunningham, who has, with a mixture of detailed research, touches of humour, savvy observation and sensitivity, become for me one of our finest cartoonists working in non-fiction fields. Billionaires is a very timely publication: while there has been a division between the richer and poorer probably since the earliest civilisations, the disparity has grown enormously since the 1800s until we now have a tiny amount of people – the “one percent” as they are often referred to in the media – who have more wealth than most of the rest of the billions of people on the planet combined.

While the sheer levels of wealth and indulgence and the differential between those at the top and the rest of us may now be hugely exacerbated, Darryl points out right from the introduction that this is not new, drawing parallels to the “Gilded Age” of tycoons like Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts. This is not just an examination of the sheer accumulation of wealth, however, this is more about the effects of that level of wealth both on those who have it and on the wider society around them (which doesn’t have it), and again Darryl points out historical antecedents to our modern One Percent-influenced world, with those early tycoons and their use of wealth to garner power and influence that can be used to shape government policy and public opinion to service their own beliefs and their own, short-term corporate goals (the dismantling of environmental controls, for instance, or laws safeguarding worker’s rights).

For the purposes of the book Darryl has chosen to focus on three billionaires – Rupert Murdoch (media baron), the Koch Brothers (oil and gas) and Jeff Bezos (online services and technology). As he points out himself this means all of his subjects here are male and white, but as he comments, most billionaires are white and male, and while he could cover female billionaires or billionaires of colour (and he hints perhaps he may some day), given Western society has been disproportionately shaped by wealthy, white males, it made sense to focus on them here. Elsewhere in the book Darryl also addresses the fact his choices here are all very right-wing in their political outlook, but notes that such is the influence given to these few super-rich individuals now that regardless of where they are on the political and moral spectrum (the two are often quite separate) the fact just a few people can hold such power over millions of others is worrying.

For each of the three main sections we follow each of the subjects, from early life and influences through to their current positions. In each case I must say that Darryl does his level best to be fair-handed, probably more so than many of us would have been in his place, and that is to his credit – this is no hatchet job, although, of course, it does cover many actions by these men that most of us would probably find morally reprehensible. But it also covers more positive aspects of their life stories – Charles and David Koch labouring on their father’s ranch as youngsters, to learn the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, their father trying to teach them a lesson and not allow them to grow up as what today we’d probably refer to as spoiled trust fund brats.

Or a young Bezos thriving despite a difficult start in life, with a wayward father, who was later replaced by an immigrant man who married his mother and who applied himself in the American Dream style to better himself and his family (and did), along the way encouraging the young Jeff, or showing that the self-capable Bezos starting Amazon in his garage, building office desks himself by woodworking some old doors into work tables. There are even some surprising revelations (well, at least to me!), such as young Murdoch arriving in the UK to study for his degree and becoming so attracted to left-wing politics his rich father was worried about him.

While the early life lessons that formed these men may differ in subject and time and place, there does seem to be a common theme, which is a slow but relentless push by all of them to accrue more power, and the more they have, the more they want. The wealth itself seems almost secondary in some ways, to the power and influence they allow them, be it being able to command the lives of thousands of employees as they wish (Bezos and his demand that everyone in the company works as many hours as him and to hell with family life and the like, for instance), to being able to directly influence the levers of governmental power (and indeed to do so on an international, not just national scale), be it the Koch’s use of vast funding to power so-called Think Tanks and policy groups or college programmes to create “research” that backs their own views, or Murdoch and his “king-maker” model, where his media empire could make or break a political leader, making even Prime Ministers dance to his tune rather than serving their electorate or the national interests (one telling scene with very contemporary overtones notes that Murdoch loathes the EU because in the UK he can lift the phone and tell the PM what to do, but in Europe they don’t care who he is).

The artwork is in Darryl’s familiar, cartoony style (down to the free-drawn lines of buildings, no rulers here!), which is a style I have to say I have tremendous affection for. It is also a style that serves Darryl’s work well – it is clear, concise but very easy on the eye, helping to render the mountains of research and complex details into very simple to understand, accessible graphics. He makes it look very simple, and I am sure it is anything but. The art also leavens the heavyweight subject matter with some welcome touches of humour here and there (a page on young Jeff Bezos on his grandfather’s ranch, learning hands-on skills, including how to castrate bulls, has a cartoon bull staring at the reader and asking in alarm “What?!?!”).

As someone who has read all of Darryl’s works, right back to when he was creating his humour strip on the now-vanished Forbidden Planet Blog years ago, I found Billionaires especially interesting. Not just because it is a fascinating subject and an erudite, accessible examination of these people who have far too much influence over their fellow citizens, not to mention very contemporary (we see laws and even entire government policies changed to suit a few billionaires, not the electorate), but because it ties in very nicely to much of Darryl’s earlier works. Taking in the lives of these billionaires also covers the economies (which Darryl has covered before, most notably in Supercrash) and the environment, which has featured in his science books. While they may not be designed as a connected series, for those of us who have read his previous works, it’s interesting and gratifying to notice many connections to elements of those earlier books.

As with all of Darryl’s works this takes some very important and complex subjects – many of them matters which directly impact on the lives of ourselves and millions of others around the world – and distils all of that huge amount of research into a clear, thoughtful narrative that delivers detail without overloading the reader, and does so in a hugely compelling and fascinating manner. At this rate I think Darryl Cunningham may be becoming the UK’s equivalent to the great Larry Gonick, and our vibrant comics scene is all the richer for his work. Hugely recommended reading.

You can read my reviews of Darryl’s Supercrash here on the blog, Graphic Science is reviewed here, and Psychiatric Tales is reviewed here.