Reign of the Supermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucible of the Vampire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s only a movie…” – Reel Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo,
Directed by Ali Soozandeh,
Peccadillo Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spaghetti Western meets Holocaust in the remarkable 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan and Ollie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the Year 2018

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

Books

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

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

Arm of the Sphinx,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books

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

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit

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

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

Red Moon,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit

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

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

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

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

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

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books

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

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

Rosewater,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit

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

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

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

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

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

Comics/Graphic Novels

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

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

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

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

Tumult,
John Harris Dunning, Michael Kennedy,
SelfMadeHero

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

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

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

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

The full review is here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film

The Shape of Water,
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

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

BlackKklansman,
Directed by Spike Lee

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

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

Ghost Stories,
Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

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

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

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail

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

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

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

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

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne

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

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

The Favourite

The Favourite,
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

My first film of the New Year and, oh boy, it was a damned good one too! You wait ages for a good historical, period film with strong female leads to come along, then January delivers us two, Mary Queen of Scots and this, Lanthinos’ rather excellent The Favourite. I’ve been itching to see this since I first saw the trailer a while back – Olivia Colman, here playing Queen Anne in the early 1700s (just before the Act of Union) is, for my money, one of our best UK thesps. Colman can play anything, from broad comedy to tragedy to kitchen-sink, emotional heavy drama, and here she uses her formidable acting skills to craft a layered performance where some others may have settled for something less complex, and it plays remarkably in the favour of The Favourite.

A synopsis of the plot makes it all sound rather straightforward and predictable: Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the powerful and influential wife of the war hero the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) has made herself the favourite of the often emotionally vulnerable and fragile Queen Anne, becoming so beloved by the Queen and so indispensable that her “advice” is often little more than her pushing her own agenda on the Queen and getting it through Parliament, while continually conspiring and scheming to ensure her own place.

Enter Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a cousin of Sarah’s fallen on hard times (the family fortune gone). Abigail appears sweet and innocent, but it is soon clear she is anything but, and she is determined to use her cunning to learn from her cousin and work her way up from lowly servant back to being a lady of society. Sarah, of course, is unlikely to simply let anything threaten her position with the Queen, leading to a battle of wits and changing conspiracies and alliances made in dark rooms, all concealed behind courtly protocol and polite masks, as we watch to see which can manipulate their way to a winning hand.

Except that really, really doesn’t do The Favourite justice. The complex webs of plans and blatant emotional manipulation practised by both Sarah and Abigail, and the way they dance around each other is a delicious delight to watch, and avoids the simplistic approach of one being good, one bad, both are conniving, ruthless, determined and others, including nobles, MPs, the Prime Minister and even Queen Anne herself are simply part of their Machiavellian scheming. The interplay between the two is just fabulous to watch.

Colman’s Queen Anne, a woman marked by loss (seventeen pregnancies, seventeen lost children, stillbirths or miscarriages, quite terrible) starts off like a moody child, Weisz’s Sarah knowing how to cajole, persuade (or even slightly threaten) her to get her to behave, but as the film goes on Colman’s superb acting gives glimpses of far more emotional complexity, of a real person with real emotional and health problems, and, quite possibly, one who is not the innocent victim in this tug of war between the other two, but is perhaps well aware of their goings-on and maybe even secretly encouraging it and enjoying it…

The interplay between these three women is wonderful to watch, and the ridiculously complex court protocols and life are humorously undercut by humour, often quite bawdy (the C word features more than a few times and I was reminded of the poetry of Lord Rochester from that period several times). And how refreshing to watch a film not just with three very powerful and nuanced female leads, but females leads who totally (and rightly) dominate this story – the men, even historical heavyweights like Gatis’s Duke of Marlborough, are very secondary, there to move parts of the plot along but always behind these three formidable women characters.

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

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

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.