Sunday, 27 January 2019

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2018

As ever, I should caveat this with "that I've managed to see", shouldn't I?  I'm kicking myself for not managing to catch I Kill Giants last year, since it would easily have made it into the upper half of my top ten, and I'm sure there are a few great movies I've similarly missed in 2018.  All the same, I've done my due diligence as well as I could, which is why it's nearly February as I post this.  And I feel safe in saying that 2019 was a year that squandered no end of opportunities.  In particular, Marvel settled clearly into a trench of making very good but not great movies, as did Pixar, the newly reborn Star Wars franchise settled for likable mediocrity, and Disney - I mean, I know they're all Disney, but let's pretend for the sake of my sanity - decided to release what by all accounts may be their worst cinematic moment ever.  I honestly can't say, because the Wreck It Ralph 2 trailer alone made me want to burn down a cinema to halt the flood of product placement and cross-branding that is twenty-first century film-making at its trashiest.

But let's move on from the obligatory ranting portion of the post!  Because honestly it feels like things have picked up in 2018.  The giddy heights are still a touch empty, but all told this is quite a fine selection of movies.  Oh, and also, if it was released into UK cinemas in 2018 then I'm calling it a 2018 film, no matter what the IMDB may say.  These articles are quite enough work without inventing time travel!  And as usual, the bottom slots came down to a total lottery: Deadpool 2, Aquaman, Coco, Black Panther and - to my utter shock! - Pacific Rim: Uprising all got awfully close, and lost out mostly because I didn't have much to say about them.

10) Annihilation 

I'm hopelessly torn on Annihilation, which I'd planned to wait and watch on blu-ray because I wanted to see it at its best - I mean, I wanted to see it in a goddamn cinema, but that's a whole 'nother story - and then caved in on for this article and found to be a mildly crushing disappointment, and yet has somehow lodged itself in my subconscious to the point where I feel bad about not including it.  So ... I dunno!  Garland's second shot at being a writer / director felt half-baked, flirting with ideas that didn't add up to a great deal, kind of like Stalker if Stalker ended with an artsy dance-off boss fight instead of one of the greatest sequences ever filmed.  Yet on a scene by scene basis, Annihilation has stuck with me.  Maybe that means it's an okay movie with some great moments.  Maybe that means I misjudged it.  I can't say, and for our current purposes it doesn't matter: tot up the best of Annihilation and you've something astonishing, which surely should earn it a place on a list that includes our next film.

9) Bumblebee

You have to be careful not to give bonus points to something for not being hateful crap, but it's extra tricky with Bumblebee, a film that seems at least a thousand times better for not having Michael Bay's name attached.  (Okay, he's the producer, but I'd bet you good money he was off doing coke somewhere while this thing was being made.)  There aren't many properties I feel nostalgic affection for, but Simon Furman's vast run on the Transformers comics was legitimately good stuff, enough so that I've been waiting with increasing longing for a movie that did it some measure of justice.  And lo, Bumblebee is ... kind of that film?  I mean, it a) has characters that behave like actual human beings / sentient robots and b) contains transformers that look like their respective counterparts and c) includes transformation sequences that actively resemble one thing turning into another, which immediately puts it well ahead of Bay's vomitous efforts.  On the other hand, if one was to be absolutely fair, it's hard to deny that whenever Hailee Steinfeld and / or a transforming robot isn't on screen, Bumblebee is pretty much mediocre boilerplate Hollywood film-making.  The result is a huge step in the right direction, but next time can we please not have the actual Transformers movie crammed into a five minute prologue?

8) Ant-Man and the Wasp

Look, I know an awful lot of people loved the hell out of Black Panther, and I won't pretend there wasn't stuff to love.  Maybe if I'd squinted a bit harder through the godawful CGI and fallen asleep before the woefully bland third act I'd have seen more of it.  But ultimately, Christopher Priest's run on the comics is among my favourite things ever, and reducing a character who's always at least nineteen moves ahead of everyone in the room to a stabby kitty guy who could be outwitted by passing traffic was never going to work for me.  Anyway, this is a lot of explaining to justify why Black Panther isn't here and Ant-Man and the Wasp is, when the truth is probably more along the lines of, Black Panther mixed a lot of stuff I loved with a lot I actively hated, whereas Ant-Man and the Wasp simply managed to be a solid film from start to finish.  I feel sort of dreadful for commending what amounts to Marvel making movies in their sleep, but if the results were always this fun and charming, I guess things could be worse.

7) Avengers: Infinity War

Oh look, it's Marvel again!  There's no way whatsoever that Avengers: Infinity War will stand the test of time, and I suspect that even watching it on anything smaller than a multiplex screen will be enough to erase most of its appeal.  But if you love cinema then you can't altogether neglect event cinema, and in 2018 we got event cinema at its peak: a film that seemed utterly doomed to failure until the moment it lumbered into the world.  It helps, of course, that the Russo brothers are the very best craftsmen that Marvel has at their disposal right now.  And if that sounds like damning praise then, yes, of course it is, but I dare say no one else could have kept this absurd carnival from exploding, and that it manages to function on a scene by scene basis is a heck of an accomplishment in itself.  If you were prepared to buy into Marvel's shared universe even after the idea had stopped being terribly interesting or exciting then Avengers: Infinity War was a just reward, a once in a lifetime moment that I found thrilling as heck at the time, even if I can barely remember a second of it now.

6) The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles 2 really ought to have sucked, given the colossal admission of defeat it felt like: for Pixar, obviously, but then sequalitis had long since proved to be a hill they had no plans to die on, but more so for Brad Bird, who'd put all this animation nonsense behind him to make proper grown-up movies and certainly didn't want to be dragged back to follow up an utter classic that required no following up whatsoever.  So perhaps the weirdest thing about The Incredibles 2 is how much it feels as though Bird wanted to develop these characters and this universe: whatever its imperfections, there's a sense of joy here that's almost tangible, like being reunited with old friends you'd forgotten how much you loved.  if the price is that nothing's terribly surprising - heck, certainly not the plot twist that was obvious from about five minutes in - then so be it.  For a movie that I actively didn't want to exist, The Incredibles 2 turned out to be an unexpected joy.

5) The Shape of Water

Okay, so this is probably stretching the 2018 thing the furthest, but what can you do?  I saw it in February, when it came out in the UK, it's not my fault studios are dicks.  To be honest, I'd given up on del Toro, after both Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak proved he'd cheerfully direct your grandma's shopping list if you chucked in a ghost or a giant robot.  The flip side turned out to be that, given a script that isn't crap, del Toro can still conjure magic as few directors can, treating the fantastic with the sort of earnestness and weight that most don't even understand it needs.  In fact, the bulk of what works best in The Shape of Water, starting with that exemplary Sally Hawkins performance, has nothing to do with genre, and its those foundations that make the later shift into more obvious fantasy storytelling so rewarding.  And underlying all that, I suspect there's quite an interesting thesis here about just how America got into the state it's currently in, viewed through the distorted lens of goofy fifties sci-fi movies.  If not then, hey, it's still del Toro mostly back on form, and that's not nothing.

4) Illang: The Wolf Brigade

And the award for this year's Asian genre masterpiece buried by its studio on Netflix because most people can't be bothered to read subtitles?  Why it's only the film I was most excited for back in 2017!  My favourite Korean director, Kim Jee-woon, the genius behind films like A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, remaking one of my all-time favourite anime movies, the Mamoru Oshi-penned Jin-Roh.  And I guess it's sort of a bad sign that it only made number seven, but I'm confident that if I could have watched this in a cinema, or even on blu-ray, it would have rated higher.  Goddamn Netflix.  As it is, we get a a savage, compulsive, bitterly twisted sci-fi movie cum conspiracy thriller with a number of the year's best action sequences, that's maybe a dash too long and sacrifices a touch too much of the original's soulful angst and refusal to be any fun.  Still, good rather than great Kim Jee-woon gets you more bravura movie-making then most anyone else can offer.  In its best moments, Illang is phenomenal, and it deserves infinitely better treatment (and reviews) than it's received.

3) First Man

What do you mean, a biography of Neil Armstrong that doubles as a history of the defining moments of the American space program isn't science-fiction at all?  Oh, yeah, that's actually a fair point.  But look, it was one of my favourite films of the year, and I'd argue that there's a way in which it refuses to play the traditional games of either biography or history that does edge it, tenuously, into the territory of science fiction.  I mean, it's not a very good biography, emphasising as it does a version of Armstrong that's barely functional as a human being when he's not in life or death situations.  The earthbound stuff is deliberately flat, while at the same time kind of fascinating in its way, but once First Man gets into the upper atmosphere it delivers probably the most heart-stopping, thrilling, fascinating sequences of 2018, culminating - spoiler alert! - in a moon landing that manages to be achingly tense despite the fact that probably every human being on the planet knows it's going to end up okay.

2) Isle of Dogs

I suppose I was predisposed to love this, given that I've loved everything Wes Anderson has done post the mediocre The Darjeeling Limited, the cut-off point that, for whatever reason, made him decide to become the best fantasy filmmaker working in America today.  Given how solidly great everything he's crafted since has been, it's pointless to talk about best movies, but Isle of Dogs is certainly on a par with anything he's done, and a more satisfying animated film than the excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox.  It's also, despite those people who insist in the face of all possible evidence that Anderson is a one trick pony, yet another evolution in his storytelling: looser, darker, more visceral, and decidedly uglier, in so much as all those words are compatible with such a meticulous and lovely aesthetic.  Also, it's just a flat-out great genre picture, full of enticing ideas that it commits to wholeheartedly, building the sort of world that makes perfect sense within its own nonsensical terms.  Which is the whole Wes Anderson thing from top to bottom I suppose, but I can't quite get past how fun it is having him making actual, honest-to-goodness genre fare.

1) Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse

If you want to know why Solo isn't anywhere on this list then here, obliquely, is your answer: whatever you do, don't fire Phil Lord and Chris Miller, because they're geniuses who could spin gold from horsefeathers.  And if there was ever a case in point of their astonishing gifts then - well, it's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, I guess, that perfect masterpiece that should really have been utter garbage, and which launched their careers as Hollywood wunderkind.  But there's also Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, a movie they merely wrote and produced that still manages to be more innovate and exciting than the vast majority of film-making in the last two decades.  Honestly, it's getting a bit boring how much Lord and Miller show up the state of American animation by exceeding it effortlessly, or reveal that blockbusters can also be smart in ways no one else even seems to be exploring, or find humour in places most writers wouldn't think to consider.  And none of that's truer than here, a colossal breath of fresh air wrenched from what should have been the most unnecessary, corporate, characterless piece of crap ever.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 45

Personally I thought the eighties were rubbish at the time.  My abiding childhood memory of the decade is waking up in the middle of a thunder storm and thinking nuclear war had kicked off, which I'd argue shouldn't be anyone's abiding childhood memory of any decade ever.  Yet it's hard to be really in love with nineties anime without acknowledging that eighties anime was up to some pretty cool stuff too, what with the nature of linear time and everything, and it's just as hard to truly understand the nineties stuff without getting a handle on what came before.  And yes, I realise this absolutely doesn't get us nearer to an end point for this series.  I mean, what's next, a seventies special?  The sixties?  Was there nineteen-forties anime?

Yup, it's the obsession that keeps on giving, all right, or possibly the hole that has no bottom.  Either way, this time around we'll be looking at: Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the PocketGoShogun: The Time ÉtrangerLily C.A.T, and Arcadia of My Youth...

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, 1989, dir: Fumihiko Takayama

For anyone wondering why it's taken me more than forty of these posts to get to perhaps the biggest franchise in all of anime, well, it's very simple.  You see, at my school, you were either a Macross kid or a Gundam kid, and woe betide anyone who crossed from one camp to the other.  Every day in the playground, we'd strap ourselves into cardboard recreations of our favourite bipedal war machines and battle with lasers and missiles - or rather, silly string and thrown polystyrene cups.  This would go on until the dinner ladies broke up our frantic interstellar conflicts, at which point we'd retire inside for pancakes and peanut butter.

Actually, that's an obvious lie.  The reason I'm only now dipping a toe into the boundless ocean of Gundam is because there's too damn much of it and I was scared.  However, once I stumbled across a couple of releases that were rumoured to be fairly standalone, I knew the time had come.  And that introductory nonsense wasn't altogether for nothing: War in the Pocket, the six part OVA made to celebrate the show's ten year anniversary, is very much about the notion of kids thinking that giant robots battering each other is just the best damn thing.  One in particular is the show's focus, young Al Izuruha, who by the start of the second episode has befriended a crash-landed pilot named Bernie after a violent clash on his supposedly neutral artificial homeworld.  Al is only too eager to help Bernie and his mercenary mates in their hunt for a secret weapon that the enemy appears to have stashed somewhere nearby, but it's not long before the consequences - and the casualties - begin to stack up.

So it's a coming of age tale then, along with something of an antiwar parable; Al's harsh lesson that dead isn't something you play is the heart of a story that prefers to operate on a small scale and at ground level, emphasising not the coolness of its robots but their appalling size and capacity for inadvertent destruction.  And this is an approach I'm totally behind, as well as an extraordinary surprise from a three decade old OVA from a franchise about giant robots punching each other.  We're awfully close here to exactly what I'd want from a tale like this, enough so that I'm kicking myself for a lifetime of Gundam neglect.  This is gloriously serious stuff told with the resources you'd expect of an anniversary release and with the benefit of some phenomenal talent.  I was frequently reminded of two of my favourite anime, Wings of Honneamise and Orguss 02, and it turns out there's a good reason: War in the Pocket shares the scriptwriter from the former and the director from the latter.

With all of that, it's not perfect.  For a start, it's wildly dreadful science fiction of the sort that cheerfully expects you to believe that people living on a space station as long as a small nation will still use wired phones and drive about in cars.  And while the characters and backgrounds are terrific in and of themselves, the former do have a tendency to appear as though they're floating on the latter.  For that matter, I suppose there are some storytelling mishaps as well: a budding romance between opposing pilots who don't know they're opposing pilots feels like it's stretching for one dramatic irony too many.  And the music is fine, but it doesn't always seem to get that this isn't supposed to be rousing fun.  Yet those are niggles compared with how War in the Pocket contorts the conventions of giant robot anime to tell a deeply personal story about growing up and learning that war is good, above all, for robbing people of the things they love.  That a show like this can exist is a great example of why I adore anime, and since it's even been recently re-released, it's pretty much a must-buy.

GoShogun: The Time Étranger, 1985, dir: Kunihiko Yuyama

One of my passions as a writer is imagining how real, functioning people would behave if they were trapped within the confines of pulp fiction, the sort of stories where traumas are shrugged off effortlessly and scars heal overnight and the general level of psychological insight is as deep as the average puddle.  This is something anime has done a uniquely good job of exploring: we need only look to the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion, which concludes in no uncertain terms that what would really happen if you told a teenager to pilot a giant robot and save the world is that their poor young mind would snap like a dried-up rubber band.  That's not everyone's cup of tea, I'll admit, but for me it's fascinating: silly stories are fine, but sometimes you need to step back and plug in genuine emotions, to recognise how innately ridiculous and fallacious it all is.

Now, this isn't quite the game The Time Étranger is playing, but it's certainly a big part: revisiting a long-running, thoroughly daft-looking giant robot show* from an infinitely more mature perspective, treating its characters with the gravity normally reserved for bleak European art house movies.  And even that barely gets us halfway, if only because the film is up to a lot, all of it interesting.  Our protagonist is Remy Shimada, one-time pilot of the GoShogun and now, forty years later ... well, we never quite find out where Remy's at now, and the only sure fact we're allowed is that she turned down a medal in recognition of her heroism.  This also happens to be all anyone else remembers about her, more so even than why she was up for a medal in the first place - and if that feels like it might be significant then, yeah, you're getting the idea.  Anyway, Remy is on her way to a reunion with her former buddies when she suffers a car accident, brought on by a severe illness that alone would have been life-threatening.  Both together leave her in a hospital bed with at most a couple of days to live.

Ah, but meanwhile a much younger Remy is in a hotel room in a phantasmagorical Middle Eastern city, and she hasn't been there long before she's informed that she'll be dead in two days, and her death will be indescribably nasty, and there isn't a thing she can do.  Remy, being a former superhero, doesn't take this news lying down, but everyone she meets is quick to point out that, struggle all she might, fate is fate.  And also meanwhile, an even younger Remy is battling to survive on the streets after the death of her prostitute mother, and doesn't even younger Remy look like the creepy kid who's trying to persuade young Remy that her death is just around the corner and she better damn well accept it?

It's a head game, then, basically, and quite literally so in its central section.  It's also a character study of a really terrific character, and on top of that it's a dissection of superhero mythology, asking deeply pertinent questions about where old heroes go once the heroics are done with.  But within all of that, it's fun, and often funny, and brashly exciting, and frequently horrifying, juggling a complex array of tones that frankly I wouldn't have expected in a million years from the future director of Pokémon: The First Movie.  Oh, and it looks stunning; very eighties of course, because it was the eighties, but the animation is consistently superb, with an attention to weight and physicality that only really committed animators tend to get right.

In short, The Time Étranger is masterpiece.  A minor one, I suppose, since there's something innately audience-limiting about a Bergman-esque tale of life, death, and everything in-between that's also a sequel to a big, dumb giant robot show.  Then again, The Time Étranger couldn't have the heft it does without the knowledge that it's a sequel to a big, dumb giant robot show.  Its starting point is an assault on the very notion of sequelling such material.  Anyway, it's brilliant, and if someone had told me it was the long-lost debut of Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon I'd have been infinitely less surprised than I would have been to hear that this is what the guy who made pretty much every Pokémon movie ever could have been doing.  It's extraordinary stuff, it's readily available, and it deserves a place in any anime collection, so for goodness' sake hurry up and grab a copy.

Lily C.A.T, 1987, dir: Hisayuki Toriumi

For the first fifteen minutes or so, it seems like Lily C.A.T is going to be the most blatantly plagiaristic thing you've ever seen.  And this is surprising, because though anime in the eighties and nineties lifted heavily from Western influences - you can't watch a lot from those decades and not realise that The Terminator, the Alien movies, and Blade Runner had a major cultural impact in Japan - nevertheless the tendency is to tweak rather than pillage, often by incorporating recognizably Eastern ingredients to flesh the material out in unexpected ways.  But for a good quarter of an hour, Lily C.A.T has none of that: it's Alien, plain and simple, with the only meaningful changes being that the space parasite in question is picked up in transit and that in this future, everyone dresses like it's 1987 and will be forever.

Lily C.A.T never gets more original, but it does do something interesting in itself: while it doesn't stop cribbing from Alien, it does begin to steal from other places as well, until the range of influences becomes exciting in its own right.  I mean, imagine what Alien would look like if you threw in The Thing, 2001, Joe Haldeman's sci-fi classic The Forever War, the previous year's They Were Eleven, and Midnight Run - which, okay, came out the year after and so couldn't have been an influence, but I can't think of an earlier example for that particular cliché.  The point being, if you fling enough influences together, the result inevitably becomes sort of unique.  And Alien, but with the monster from The Thing and the time dilation mechanics of The Forever War and the "not everyone's who they seem to be!" gimmick from They Were Eleven and no end of scenes pilfered from 2001 and a bit where a cop and a crook have to team up though they hate each other is a whole 'nother thing from just a straight-up Alien rip-off.

Does any of this make Lily C.A.T good?  That's harder to say.  It's nicely animated, with a somewhat realistic style, a nod to sensible spaceship design, and some efficient scenes of horror, much more so that animation tends to achieve.  Toriumi is a dab hand at building atmosphere and tension, and there are a couple of genuine shocks in here, along with some effectively unnerving sequences and a bit of truly shocking gore.  And the mad confluence of influences at least makes it tough to predict: you can see the general shape of what Lily C.A.T will be within the first five minutes, but its refusal to stick to any one mode provides plenty of twists along the way.  Plus it takes itself seriously, which turns out to be beneficial: there's nothing worse than the knowing rip-off that feels a need to nod and wink.

Beyond that, I suppose the most I can say is that I enjoyed it.  There's only so much I can criticise a good, well-animated Alien rip-off that brings a few interesting (if also stolen) ideas to the table.  I've seen it declared a lost classic and a total travesty and the truth is nearer the middle: it's a solid slice of eighties anime that really could have done to hew to its influences less closely.  Hardly indispensable then, but a solid way to pass a little over an hour.**  Oh, but if you're a cat lover - yeah, maybe you'll want to skip this one.

Arcadia of My Youth, 1982, dir: Tomoharu Katsumata

Arcadia of My Youth has a reputation for being both epic and a classic of its era, and it's certainly both of those things.  At a stonking one hundred and thirty minutes, it's certainly not skimping on running time, and it's easy to see why the story has stuck with so many, even nearly four decades after its release: on the one hand, we have something of an origin tale for Leiji Matsumoto's beloved hero Captain Harlock and a number of the Harlock-verse's core elements and relationships.  On the other, there's a huge narrative of a resistance war for Earth against alien invaders, one with plenty of real world parallels.  And in case anyone should miss them, they're hammered home in no uncertain terms by the flashbacks to Harlock's gloriously named ancestor Phantom F. Harlock as a World War Two pilot, which open the movie and remain a thread throughout.

When Arcadia of My Youth was first released in the US, it was under the less poetic title Vengeance of the Space Pirate and with forty minutes, including the opening Phantom F. Harlock prologue, excised.  And though this is a testament to the crappy way anime and anime viewers were treated in those days - the WW2-era material is among the film's best - it also raises certain doubts about how much absolutely needs to be here.  Because the truth is that one hundred and thirty minutes is a heck of a running time for what's an awfully slender story, especially if you do choose to ignore the historical aspects.  Harlock lands on Earth as effectively a prisoner of war, hooks up with the resistance, guided by old flame Maya, and eventually intervenes in the battle for another planet under the aliens' occupation.

In a sense, then, the epic-ness happens mostly on the level of heightened emotions: for better or worse, these are mythic characters caught up in a self-consciously mythic universe.  How you respond to that is entirely personal - I'm slowly warming to Matsumoto's shtick - but the fact remains that there are definite issues on a storytelling level.  At the risk of sounding like the dumbasses who sanctioned Vengeance of the Space Pirate, this material could do to be a little more pacy and action-packed.  There are odd moments of delirious excitement - the first launch of the Arcadia is giddy space opera at its finest - but they're few and far between, and too lumped among all that weighty mythic-ness.  And there are other issues too, foremost that nobody really does a great deal.  That's especially, dispiritingly true of the female characters: at one point, Emeraldas even explains to Maya that everyone would have done much the same had she just minded her own business.

At any rate, there's no faulting the production values.  Actually, as much as I'm warming to Matsumoto's very specific design ethos, the characters look a little horrible in motion, with their overly squashed-up faces; but the backgrounds, and particularly the preposterous spaceships, are utterly marvelous, and worth the price of admission alone.  And while the score is good enough, fine use is made of a handful of pieces by composer Antonín Dvořák that do an exemplary job of elevating the material to that legendary register it's so keen to gain.  Put it all together and you have a film that certainly succeeds in its aims, and strikingly so in its better moments.  It's only a shame it didn't also set out to be a bit more fun, or give its characters a little agency.  As such, Queen Emeraldas remains my favourite bit of Harlockana, but I'm glad I tracked this one down.


God damn it, I'm becoming an eighties anime nerd, aren't I?  With an end to this trawl through anime history actually somewhere in sight, that's the last thing I needed.  Although, let's face it, if that means I have to watch stuff like Gundam: War in the Pocket and The Time Étranger then I could be wasting my life in infinitely worse ways.  The latter, in particular, went straight into not only the upper tier of my anime favourites but my favourite movies full stop.  In fact, given that time and capitalism have ensured that any eighties anime you can buy today is sure to be pretty respectable, there's an argument that says this might actually go better than the nineties stuff.

No!  That way lies madness!  Next time: back to nineties anime!

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* Though they don't feel the need to mention the fact anywhere on the packaging, Eastern Star's recent DVD release actually also includes the GoShogun film from 1982, which is basically two episodes cobbled together with scraps from here and there and some weirdly hilarious fake in-universe trailers.  It's an amusing watch that does a respectable job of providing the necessary background for The Time Étranger, but mostly what it's good for is underlining how The Time Étranger is not a damn thing like GoShogun.

** Or 91 minutes, if you believe the wholly dishonest packaging. ***

*** And my major takeaway from this post is that whoever's writing the cover material at Eastern Star ought to be out on their ear, because they suck at their job.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Guest Post: The Headless Earl of Dean Castle, by Catherine Cavendish

Robert the Bruce gave the land on which the castle stands to the Boyd family to thank them for their support of him at the Battle of Bannockburn and in 1350 work was begun on building a fine castle keep. In the 1460s a palace was built following Thomas Boyd’s marriage to Princess Mary.

For over four hundred years, Dean Castle was home to successive generations of Boyds until the 4th Earl – William – was captured at the Battle of Culloden. Fighting as a Jacobite, the Earl fell victim to an ambush created by his own son. It would prove the ruination of him. He seems to have gone willingly to his inevitable death by beheading. His only wish was that his severed head be caught in a large cloth. He couldn’t stomach the idea of it rolling around in the dirt.

His wishes were duly carried out but it seems his head is still around. People have reported seeing it rolling along the floor of the corridors as if propelled by someone using it for a bowling ball.

But the headless Earl is not the only spirit apparently tied to the Castle. The 4th Earl was the last of the Boyd family to live there and even then – as a result of a devastating fire in 1735 – the building was in a parlous state which he couldn’t afford to repair. James Boyd sold the castle in 1746 and it passed through a number of hands until the 8th Lord Howard de Walden inherited it and commenced some serious restoration work. Finally in 1975 the 9th Lord Howard de Walden gifted the keep, the estate, his father’s collection of militaria and his grandfather’s collection of musical instruments to the people of Kilmarnock. Since then it has been open as a museum and the ghosts have been active.

Guides and visitors alike have reported seeing an elderly woman in an ankle length dress, with a plaid shawl covering her head. She is most frequently witnessed along the walkway overlooking the courtyard but has also been known to manifest in the kitchen. In 1992, the ghost beckoned to a guide who then followed her into a room used as an office. Immediately, the guide became violently ill, yelling for something to get out of her and apparently oozing a nasty substance from her skin. She subsequently recovered and continued working at the Castle.

Other people have reported hearing ghostly medieval music coming from the Minstrels’ Gallery and a portrait of the ill-fated William Boyd has a habit of dropping off the wall in the study.

In keeping with many castles, Dean Castle has a dungeon complete with an oubliette. Here, prisoners would be thrown down and left to rot without food or water until they died. It is believed that the last woman to suffer such a fate still haunts the dungeon to this day. She was a supporter of the Covenanters and affects visitors by constricting their breathing.

Sadly, if you want to visit the Castle you will need to wait as its website reports that it is currently closed for restoration work (reopening in 2020 I believe). The park and grounds are open though and some beautiful walks are to be experienced there.

For ghosts of a different kind, here’s what to expect from The Haunting of Henderson Close:

Ghosts have always walked there. Now they’re not alone… 

In the depths of Edinburgh, an evil presence is released. Hannah and her colleagues are tour guides who lead their visitors along the spooky, derelict Henderson Close, thrilling them with tales of spectres and murder. For Hannah it is her dream job, but not for long. Who is the mysterious figure that disappears around a corner? What is happening in the old print shop? And who is the little girl with no face? The legends of Henderson Close are becoming all too real. 

The Auld De’il is out – and even the spirits are afraid.

The Haunting of Henderson Close is available from:

About the author:

Following a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance, Catherine Cavendish is now the full-time author of a number of paranormal, ghostly and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. In addition to The Haunting of Henderson Close, Cat’s novels include the Nemesis of the Gods trilogy - Wrath of the Ancients, Waking the Ancients and Damned by the Ancients, plus The Devil’s Serenade, The Pendle Curse and Saving Grace Devine. 

Her novellas include Linden Manor, Cold Revenge, Miss Abigail’s Room, The Demons of Cambian Street, Dark Avenging Angel, The Devil Inside Her, and The Second Wife 

She lives near Liverpool with her long-suffering husband, and a black cat who has never forgotten that her species used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt. She sees no reason why that practice should not continue. 

You can connect with Cat here:

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Guest Postage

Tomorrow will see the birth of a grand new dawn on this blog, albeit one that admittedly only involves catching up with the entire rest of the internet!  At any rate, I'll be hosting my first ever guest post, which is fairly exciting, but also likely to cause a bit of confusion for anyone who's forgotten this isn't just where I ramble on about ancient, long-forgotten anime.  So I figured I'd better offer a bit of forewarning: tomorrow it won't be me here, it'll be my Flame Tree Press stablemate Catherine Cavendish, and there'll actually be something interesting on offer, in the shape of Catherine talking about the morbid history and tenacious occupants of Kilmarnock's Dean Castle, in service of getting the word out about her new novel, The Haunting of Henderson Close.

Which looks something like this:

Ghosts have always walked there. Now they’re not alone… 

In the depths of Edinburgh, an evil presence is released. Hannah and her colleagues are tour guides who lead their visitors along the spooky, derelict Henderson Close, thrilling them with tales of spectres and murder. For Hannah it is her dream job, but not for long. Who is the mysterious figure that disappears around a corner? What is happening in the old print shop? And who is the little girl with no face? The legends of Henderson Close are becoming all too real. 

The Auld De’il is out – and even the spirits are afraid.

See you back here tomorrow!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 44

I swear that, averaged out, this stuff is getting better.  And really, so far in, that's not what you'd expect.  But when was the last post when everything was rubbish, or even mediocre?  Could it be that I've finally exhausted the dross?  Or is the - far more terrifying! - truth that, forty-some posts in, I'm still only scratching the surface, and there are no end of swells and lulls to come?  One thing's for sure, that was a heck of a bad mixed metaphor!  And you know what, I'm not going to turn my nose up at a post where everything's more good than not, so I'll stop doing that right now.

This time around: Ellcia, Super Atragon, Robot Carnival, and Master of Mosquiton...

Ellcia, 1993, dir: Noriyasu Kogawa

If there's one format I particularly love in anime that's practically unique to the medium, it's the OVA miniseries: three or four hours is such a great length to dig into an involved, complex story, yet you can watch it in an evening, without the commitment that even a half season of a regular show requires.  And this is all the truer given that anime plotting tends toward the breakneck, cramming in back story and characterisation with fierce economy.  It's fair to say that many of my favourite finds fall into this category, and for that and other reasons I was hopeful for Ellcia.

With all of that setup, I feel like I should be saying it turned out to be a disappointment, and I suppose that is where I was heading.  Yet maybe the point is more that my hopes were too high, because it's a long way from bad.  It certainly starts from an intriguing enough place.  Aided greatly by the discovery of advanced technology from an ancient age, the kingdom of Megaronia has done a merry old job of crushing its neighbours, so when the king's scholarly advisor notes that the holy book of one of the suppressed local nations has a) started spontaneously bleeding and b) talks specifically about a prophesy of Megaronia's destruction by some sort of ancient, divine ship, the king's daughter Crystel jumps to a rash conclusion: if all that's needed to lay hands on this awesome magical vessel is angering their neighbours' gods, why not do so and then pinch it for themselves?  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, teenage pirate queen Eira is leading her plucky band of buccaneers in a half-hearted continuation of the war that killed most of their parents.  What's the betting her path's going to cross with Crystel's and that maybe she has her own connection to this mysterious ship?

Okay, so spelling it out, it does sound a bit hackneyed, though with interesting quirks: fantasy kingdoms mining the technological relics of their ancestors are at least a little out of the ordinary, as are piratical female heroes, and as plot MacGuffin relics go, giant futuristic ships make a change from magic swords (though, sure, Ellcia has one of those too.)  On the whole, however, it's elements that work rather than the whole: Crystel and Eira are solid leads, neither especially eager to slot into easy villain / hero roles, there's a grittiness to the material that keeps it from getting too trivial, and the action is lively and exciting.  Best of all, the animation is more than respectable, bolstered by distinctive design work, both of characters and of bizarre, ancient technologies.  Though on that front, one decision didn't sit well with me: Ellcia is the most singularly orange show I've seen.  I remember praising Madara for how obsessively purple its palette was, but purple is a great colour, and orange?  Not so much.  I guess it's nice to see such a conscious artistic choice being made, but man ... orange.

Really, though, Ellcia's main shortcoming is that, with a plot rife with divine prophecies and chosen ones and fetch quests and all the other clichés of epic fantasy, it doesn't do more to set itself apart.  There are fun twists and turns along the way, and yet the more it goes on, the more predictable it gets, leaving the last episode with little to do expect unravel events we effectively already know.  The result is a pleasant enough diversion if you've any affection for this sort of thing, but not exactly a standout, much as I kept hoping it might be.

Super Atragon, 1996, dir's: Kazuyoshi Katayama, Mitsuo Fukuda

To get your head around what Super Atragon is up to, it's important to grasp that it's basically being a sixties Japanese sci-fi movie a good deal more than it's being a nineties Japanese anime movie.  And this absolutely makes sense if you're familiar with its pedigree: the last time the novels it's based on were adapted, the result was the live-action Atragon, brought to the screen by Godzilla director and absolute sodding legend Ishirō Honda.*

It's really quite startling how closely Super Atragon sticks to that template in its first half, before drifting away into somewhat more familiar anime territory in its second (those parts being the two OVA episodes of which it consists, incidentally.)  For much of its running time, it's at once tremendously wacky and deathly serious, mingling outrageous science-fiction action with the sort of leaden character drama that plagued damn near every kaiju movie ever.  And unsurprisingly, the plot, which finds a Japanese supersubmarine powered by an inexplicable found energy source returning from the watery grave it was consigned to near the end of the Second World War to battle invaders from the centre of the Earth, is about as much a product of times past as anything could be.

The obvious question becomes, then: do you like sixties Japanese SF movies?  Because I sure do.  And in many ways, Super Atragon keeps up with the best of them: the sole aspect that feels like an aspect of its true time is the technological designs, which are superb, and contribute to some thrilling, imaginative sequences that would have exploded even the grandest live action budget.  By the same measure, its bombastic score, while not quite on a par with the work of Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube it's clearly emulating**, is a splendid homage that does everything it needs to.  And the film's flaws are no worse than the average better Godzilla movie: its plot wouldn't stand up to much in the way of analysis and the characters really aren't terribly interesting, alone or apart, hero Go Arisaka being particularly dull and redundant.

Oh, and it's noticeably anti-American, which might be a problem if you're American, I suppose.  And the animation, while great in places, isn't what you'd call consistent - though in fairness, the odd wonky shot is all that keeps it from the lower end of cinema quality.  But that feels a lot like nitpicking in the face of something so fundamentally enjoyable and full of neat ideas and thrilling action.  I suppose we can't pretend Super Atragon is a classic, since it's effectively a somewhat flawed pastiche of (at the time) thirty-year-old cinematic conventions.  But it's all sorts of fun for what it is, and a grand bit of mad science fiction of the sort that I, for one, totally adore.

Robot Carnival, 1987, dir's: Atsuko Fukushima, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Kôji Morimoto, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu, Manabu Ôhashi, Hidetoshi Ômori, Katsuhiro Ôtomo

Having enthusiastically bought Robot Carnival many a moon ago based on its strong reputation, I then let it sit on my shelf because I knew I'd be reviewing it here and anthology films are a sod to review.  Do you treat each short separately?  Do you look for overarching patterns or struggle for vague generalisations?  And it's all the harder because you can just about guarantee that one or two segments won't be up to scratch, dragging down the better material.

I needn't have worried.  What surprised me most about Robot Carnival was that, despite the relative individual merits of the parts, it's remarkably solid as a movie in and of itself.  The theme helps, I suppose, though it's hardly adhered to religiously; there are a couple of episodes that would work just fine with the robots swapped out.  No, what ties it together first and foremost is the technical quality, which is outstanding.  View the film as an animation showcase and you can't be disappointed, because this is state of the art stuff for the late eighties, in many ways the last great bastion of hand-drawn animation, before computers changed things forever.  Animated on ones - that is, at the full twenty-four frames per second - it's as superlative as anything you're likely to come across, be it Disney, Ghibli, or anyone else.  Which is to say, truly gorgeous animation conducted with vast amounts of energy and glee in even its quieter moments.  And it's that air of excitement at the possibilities of the medium, outside the usual restraints of narrative, budget, or common sense, that's the strongest unifying element.  But to that you can add the score by Hayao Miyazaki's go-to guy Jo Hisaishi: having a single composer across all eight shorts is a wise choice, and picking one of the geniuses of the industry an even wiser one.

I'm still ducking talking about the content, and part of the reason is that it doesn't feel terribly useful to do so.  There are clear standouts, of course: Yasuomi "Kite" Umetsu's Presence, the most narrative-heavy piece, is a splendid bit of melancholy, and at the other end of the spectrum,  Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner's Invasion is gloriously daft.  Of the rest, Kitazume's feather-light Starlight Angel and the most conventional piece, Ōmori's five-minute retelling of Casshan: Robot Hunter, Deprive, are probably the weakest solely on their own merits.  But what edges Robot Carnival from good to masterpiece is that for once the shorts are perfectly ordered and work to complement each other, while nothing outstays its welcome.  For example, stick the most obviously artsy piece, Ōhashi's tale of mechanical life, the universe, and everything Cloud into another film and it might fall flat; in its context here, it's exactly the right change of pace at exactly the right time.

So, yes, you heard right: I'm calling Robot Carnival a masterpiece.  If we're being brutally honest, the caveat there is probably whether you have any love at all for animation as an art form, because it's on that level the film shines, with narrative coming a distant second.  But this is my blog and I adore hand-drawn animation about as much as I adore anything, and ninety minutes of some of anime's greats going nuts with too much money was never going to get anything less than a recommendation.  That the result is genuinely wonderful in its own right just makes it all the sweeter.

Master of Mosquiton, 1996, dir: Yûsuke Yamamoto

Anime tends to be good at filtering traditional Western genre fare and coming up with something entirely distinct-feeling, and Master of Mosquiton is a fine example of that.  Its core is a very European, Hammer-like work of vampire mythology, and the nineteen-twenties setting is certainly of a piece with that.  Yet the actual end product is altogether its own thing, while at the same time staying faithful enough to its source material not to feel like out-and-out pastiche or mockery.  Though it gets awfully close to both at times, in ways that are invariably more fun than not.

The titular master of unfortunate quarter-vampire Mosquiton is seventeen year old Inaho, who opens the first of the show's six episodes by dropping a little of her blood into his coffin and thereby binding the two of them together, with him - and by default his own superpowered underlings - as her servant.  But Mosquiton is only a means to an end for the single-minded, petulant, and self-absorbed Inaho, as much as she seems genuinely fond of her immortal factotum.  For Inaho wants to live forever too, and not as a vampire, which is kind of icky, but exactly as she is now.  She's convinced she can accomplish just that if she can only track down a mystical knickknack called the O-part, and wouldn't you know it but a pyramid's appeared in the middle of London that seems awfully like it might contain said relic.

From there, things get busier and a good deal sillier.  By the standards of these comedy-horror OVAs, of which there seem to have been no end, Master of Mosquiton actually has a fair bit of plot.  And an unexpectedly sound plot, too, one that leans more heavily into Lovecraft that Stoker, while chucking in a few real-life historical figures for good measure: Hubble is hilarious and Schrödinger's cameo downright priceless.  Unfortunately, it also has a fair bit of non-plot, most of which gets bunched toward the end, in an interlude that has Mosquiton's frequently naked vampire ex-wife turn up and Inaho get predictably jealous, resulting in precisely the short of shenanigans that this style of comedy likes to get bogged down in.  Heck, there's even a cooking contest, just like that bit in Photon where the story got put on hold for a spot of light misogyny!  Fortunately, Master of Mosquiton is quicker to pick itself back up, and also manages to wring a few genuine laughs out of such hackneyed material.  In general, it's actually pretty funny, and also surprisingly unnerving; the points where Mosquiton goes blood-crazy and turns into an evil version of himself with boggling crimson eyes have a real air of menace that the surrounding comedy doesn't dispel.  For that matter, there are even some solid emotional beats too, especially near the end.

All of this is wrapped up in animation that doesn't let the material down but never elevates it either.  The design work is fun and the historical locations actually feel as if some research went into them, but it's obvious the budget was far from huge.  The suitably jazzy score is rather better, even if it doesn't stick in the memory.  The result is a show that flirts with greatness but is mostly content to do its thing really well: it has a solid story, some genuine laughs, creepy villains and a creepier hero, and if you can tolerate the somewhat annoying Inaho, a likable cast with a nice, lived-in dynamic.  On the whole, in fact, I'd say it's probably my favourite of these comedy-horror OVAs, and were the production values a little higher or the cooking contest interlude a little shorter, I'd really be raving about it.  Nevertheless, it's an appealing title that deserves more than the utter obscurity it appears to dwell in.


After all those recent themed posts, it's been a pleasure to have a selection where the only unifying element is "random crap off my to-watch shelf."  And it's even nicer to have four titles together that, regardless of whether they were altogether great, I really did enjoy.  If my low points going forward were the likes of Ellcia or Master of Mosquiton then this blog series would be a joyous place!  Heck, I already want to rewatch both of them.  And Super Atragon I already have watched again, and liked just as much, while Robot Carnival immediately became a new favourite.  I seriously don't have any complaints this time around!  Mind you, with a staggering ten of these posts currently on the go, I have no idea if I'll be saying the same next time around...

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* It's quite fun if you can track a copy a down, but definitely no Godzilla.

** Because nothing is, or will be, ever.