Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Someone You Can Build a Nest In

Someone You Can Build a Nest In,
John Wiswell,
Published Jo Fletcher Books,
Hardback, Published April 2024
ISBN 9781529431339

I’ve heard of Nebula-winning John Wiswell before, but not actually had a chance to read him, until Jo Fletcher books spotted me talking about another book and sendt me an advance copy, thinking if I liked that one I might like this. They were correct, and I am delighted that they sent it to me out of the blue like that, as this was one of those rather lovely reads that you don’t just enjoy for good story and characters, but come away sporting a big smile and a warm feeling inside.

It’s your classic love story – monster is feared and hunted by locals, convinced she is devouring people (well, okay, she does sometimes, mostly bad people, or people trying to hurt her though, to be fair), hides in ruins in a remote, dank area (shades of Shrek’s swamp home) where she can have privacy and safety, and also because, although she can shape-shift into human form, she hates having to talk to people and doesn’t quite understand how interpersonal relationships work. And then, injured in her human guise, she is found and tended to by Homily, one of those kind-hearted people who tries to help others.

This has never happened before, and Shesheshen – going under the name Siobhan here – finds herself at first alarmed and wondering what is going on, preparing to defend herself, then slowly realising that Homily helps because, well, that’s just who she is. And as she finds out more about Homily, how her good nature is a reaction to the awful behaviour of most of her family, and how they treat her, the more Shesheshen, still not understanding fully these relationships, finds herself becoming very attached to Homily, and protective of her, in a way a monster really shouldn’t with a human…

As I said, it is the old love story – monster falls for kind-hearted human, who doesn’t know they are really a monster, both have their vulnerabilities and foibles that they share, as they slowly fall for each other in a queer, cross-species fantasy romance, but will it survive when the truth is revealed? Romeo and Juliet, but with monster hunters, people eating and psychotic, aristocratic relatives. And running through it, a delicious sense of dark humour – Shesheshen, hearing monster hunters mutter that they should have brought priests with them thinks, oh, yes, I like priests, they taste so righteous, or having warm memories of being an infant monster, kept warm in the next by being surrounded by her late father’s intestines (he was a very good father, she thinks nostalgically).

It’s about identity, not fitting in, but sometimes finding there are others you can not fit in with in a way you never expected, and how that can really change your life in the most unexpected of ways (although still with people eating – a monster girl has to eat, after all). An absolute delight.

If you are ordering this book, please buy from your local, Indy bookshop if you can – Jeff Bezos does not need more of your money! If you don’t live near a local bookshop, you can order directly from the website of many of them, or go through Bookshop Dot Org, which allows you to support independent bookshops of your choice.

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

Taking the night tram

I rarely use the trams in Edinburgh, as the nearest stop is almost twenty minutes from my apartment (and I can walk to Princes Street in twenty-five). However, the redesign of Leith Walk and the big roundabout at the top at Picardy Place has made road traffic a horrible, slow, frustrating mess – I can get a bus from right by my flat, right down to Leith, but that bottleneck is so frustrating that on the return I decided since a tram stop was right outside the venue I was in, I would get it back, dismount at Haymarket and walk the twenty minutes, as it was still better than the almost direct bus that gets screwed up by the council’s Escher-like designs for the road traffic system around the top of the Walk.

Night Tram 01

And of course, since I was down there, I decided to take some night shots, because where I go, the camera goes too!

Vid - Night Tram

Tram Stop At Night 01

Tram Stop At Night 03

Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!

Dark nights, bright lights

Dark along the Union Canal, by Harrison Park, but the night lit up by the festive lights strung along the lovely, old boathouse, reflecting in the dark, nocturnal waters

Festive Boathouse 03

Vid - Two Wheels In The Night

Coming out of the side doors of the National Gallery of Scotland, which opens out into a lower part of East Princes Street Gardens – the festive market was going on up on the higher path levels, and the colourful lights of the giant Ferris Wheel were reflecting on the wet paving stones in front of me, in a smeared, rainbow reflection, like an oil slick on a puddle

Colourful Reflections

Looking across the open square in front of the Usher Hall, towards Lothian Road, just after winter sunset. You can see the curving glass wall of the modern extension to the Hall on the far right, reflecting back some of the scene

Lothian Road, Dusk 07

Waiting on the night bus, Lothian Road

Lothian Road, Dusk 06

Sitting in front of the Usher Hall – I was just setting up this pic, using the tiny, mini tripod (only 3 inches high, with bendy legs, fits right in my satchel), when this couple sat down on the stairs near me. I actually quite like the way they add to the scene.

Sitting Outside The Usher Hall

Nocturnal scenes

With it now being dark by four in the afternoon, I tend to take a lot more night photography around this time of year, which is something I have always liked doing since I was a kid with my first cameras. There’s something about the way the camera sees a city at night, drinking in the available light on a long exposure to show more than the naked eye sees, the way the long exposure turns passing people into translucent blurs, like ghosts walking past your lens.

Victoria Street After Dark 03

Victoria Street is one of the prettiest in Edinburgh, which is saying something in this remarkable city. It curves steeply up from the Grassmarket, below the Castle, to George IV Bridge above, and along the way it showcases the many levels the tall, old, historic buildings of the Old Town are contructed on as they descend the steep, volcanic slopes of the ridge they are based on, running down either side of the famous Royal Mile.

Victoria Street After Dark 04

The Last Drop

The Grassmarket on a winter evening, taken with the wee, mini-tripod (just 3 inches high, bendy legs, small enough to go in my satchel) to steady the camera. Situated on an open square right below the Castle, at the bottom of the Old Town, this area contains many old pubs, most of which were old even when Robert Burns stayed in them, and started off as coaching inns centuries ago (a couple still have the larger entrance next to them for carriages to go round the back for the night).

Grassmarket At Night 03

Grassmarket At Night 04

Grassmarket At Night 07

Crispy Potato Skewers

Steam rising from hot food on a cold night at the festive market

Christmas In The Quad 01

Christmas tree in the handsome quadrangle of the Old College building

Christmas In The Quad 02

Biblos 01

Biblos cafe, bar and restaurant at night, Southbridge

Biblos 02

Bento

Bento noodle shack after dark (above), Southbridge at night (below)

Southbridge After Dark 01

Noodles Or Pizza
Pizza or noodles???

Christmassy Cockburn Street
Beautiful Cockburn Street with its festive lights – this street curves down from the Royal Mile to Waverley Bridge and the railway station below.

Zepheniah

I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.

I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don’t like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.

I come from a beautiful place
Where girls cannot go to school
There you are told what to believe
And even young boys must grow beards.

I come from a great old forest
I think it is now a field
And the people I once knew
Are not there now.

We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go,
We can be hated by someone
For being someone.

I come from a beautiful place
Where the valley floods each year
And each year the hurricane tells us
That we must keep moving on.

I come from an ancient place
All my family were born there
And I would like to go there
But I really want to live.

I come from a sunny, sandy place
Where tourists go to darken skin
And dealers like to sell guns there
I just can’t tell you what’s the price.

I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie
I am told that modern history books
May forget my name.

We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody’s here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.”

From “We Refugees”, by Benjamin Zepheniah. Shocked to learn that we lost this unique voice, and far, far too damned early.

Edinburgh After Dark

As we move through late November and towards December, it is now dark here before four in the afternoon, so I have a bit more time for some night photography!

Malt Shovel
The Malt Shovel pub at night, on the steep, curving Cockburn Street, which links the Old Town to the New Town

Cockburn Street At Night 02
Cockburn Street after dark

Cockburn Street At Night 01
The bottom end of Cockburn Street, viewed from Waverley Bridge

Night Crossing
Lady waiting to cross the Royal Mile at night

Nocturnal Telephonic Trio
Classic British telephone boxes at night, on the Royal Mile

Royal Mile At Night 04
Looking towards the junction of Southbridge with the Royal Mile

Royal Mile At Night 01
Looking down the Royal Mile at night

Remembrance

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Garden of Remembrance at night, Princes Street Gardens. In the background you can see the historic Bank of Scotland building lit up red for Armistice Day (see closer up shot in the next pic). As ever you can see the larger versions on my Flickr.

Lit Up In Remembrance

Crafted Remembrance
hand crocheted poppies decorating the railings outside Gorgie Parish Church for the Remembrance Weekend.

French film festival: Anatomy of a Fall

French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…

Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.

Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.

The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?

Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…

Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.

It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films