Friday, 6 March 2020

You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Watch This...

I spend way too much time talking about my own projects here on the blog, and definitely way too much time talking about vintage anime, so it's nice to have a topic that's neither of those things.  Okay, it is a little bit about me, but we'll come back to that.  In the meantime, take a minute to watch the following short trailer.  Don't worry, I'll wait.


That was a bit more than a minute, wasn't it?  But hey, it's fine, it's not like I've anything better to be doing.  Anyway, great trailer, right?  Awesome concept, right?  You want to watch more, right?  Well, you can, right now, for free, because the entire show, in eleven mini-episodes, is available at this link.  But hey, this time maybe wait until I've finished the post, huh?

Right.  Good.  So, that's You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps..., and it's the brainchild of my oldest and dearest friend Lawrence Axe, and an endeavour more years in the making than either of us would entirely care to think about: Lawrence because it's always frustrating when you have a fantastic idea that refuses to quite get to the point where you can show it to other people and me because I've been radiating around this project ever since the beginning.

Indeed, for a while I was doing more than that: there's a version of a feature film-length script in existence that I had a hand in, and for a while it looked as though that would be the form that saw the light of day.  I love that script with all my heart, but in hindsight, it's right that the version that eventually made it to screens was principally Lawrence's creation: he co-directed the web series that its become along with fellow filmmaker Robbie Gibbon, wrote the bulk of the script, did the editing, and was responsible for a whole bunch of other behind-the-scenes stuff too.  And the upshot of that is that its current incarnation is about as unfiltered as any version got; people like me tended to get itchy about his mixing up of heroes and villains and comic book characters with cartoon characters, and to not realise that doing that is just plain funny.  I mean, it is; watch the show!  It's the perfect combination of affection and disrespect, and if its off-kilter skewering of our childhood nostalgia was a neat idea when Lawrence first had it, it's a downright perfect one now, when we're being fed all the childhood nostalgia we can stomach on a minutely basis.

And let me stress again, it really is funny.  The show, I mean, not the endless parade of nostalgia.  The funniest bits in the trailer are by no means the funniest bits full stop, I know for a fact that Lawrence picked them largely at random, and could get away with doing so because every minute is crammed to the rafters with great gags and generally amusing weirdness.  There were some lines in the treatment I worked on that still crack me up to remember, and obviously it would have been nice for both of us to go to Hollywood and drink margaritas with George Clooney and whatever it is Hollywood people do, but, again, these glorious bite-sized chunks of silliness are the ideal form for You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps..., in all its wry dementedness.

And here I am talking it up when you could just as easily be watching it yourself.  Go on, now's your chance!  Unlike, say, Avengers: Infinity War, you can binge watch all of You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps... in a long lunch break, which of course makes it much better.  And to save you wasting precious seconds by scrolling all the way back up to the top, here's that link again...

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 63

The posts where I randomly talk about whatever happens to come off the to-watch shelf have been getting increasingly uncommon of late, but to make up for it, this is about as random as it could get: a couple of very different flavours of sci-fi, a bit of raunchy comedy, and is this the first straight-up romance anime that I've covered?  I think it might be.

Put all  that together and we have: Golden BoyMegazone 23 Part 2: Please Give Me Your Secret, Marriage, and Harlock Saga...

Golden Boy, 1995, dir: Hiroyuki Kitakubo

Here's what happens in the first episode of the six part OVA Golden Boy: twenty-five-year-old Kintaro begs his way into a job at a software development firm staffed entirely by women, then proceeds to screw up repeatedly while behaving like a massive sex pest.  (He has a particular fondness for rubbing himself on toilets.)  He somehow manages to get away with this behaviour for a few weeks, until a particularly catastrophic mistake sees the studio's latest project deleted and him unceremoniously fired.  But there's a twist!  While Kintaro was giving every impression of being useless, he was actually learning everything the women around him knew, and he single-handedly rewrites the software, only in a fraction of the time and better!  Needless to say, his former boss deeply regrets firing the young genius, but too late, he's already moved on - because, as will become apparent from the subsequent episodes, Kintaro's basically the Littlest Hobo if the Littlest Hobo was a colossal pervert instead of, you know, a dog.

What's galling - I mean, other than the entire concept! - is that when Golden Boy isn't embracing this formula, it's much, much better and often legitimately funny.  I mean, I guess there are people who find watching a guy rubbing himself on a toilet funny, what with humour being subjective and everything, so perhaps what I mean is that it's legitimately clever and novel in its humour: when the stentorian announcer who closes off each episode first reveals the secret behind Kintaro's weird lifestyle, for instance, it's a truly excellent gag.  And the better episodes stray far enough from the core idea of "Kintaro behaves like a letch, then is better than women at everything" to become genuinely entertaining stories in their own right.  For the most part, also, Golden Boy gets better as it goes along, and the last two episodes are comfortably the best.  For that matter, when Kintaro isn't being a jerk who literally can't see women as human beings, he's kind of a decent guy, one with a sound work ethic and a fascinating outlook: he roams the land taking job after job because he sees life as an opportunity to learn as much as possible.

Ultimately, though, what made it tough for me to dislike Golden Boy the way I felt I was going to based on the first episode is that it looks terrific.  I'd go so far as to say that it's one of the best-looking OVAs I've encountered, and there are scenes that wouldn't embarrass themselves in a feature from the time; a bike versus motorbike race in the penultimate episode is a tremendous sequence, not to mention a comic high point, and the opening credits are a sterling piece of animation in their own right.  Indeed, there's a real sense of love for the medium, as evidenced by the final episode, which is set in an anime studio and manages to wrap up proceedings on a far less sour note than the one they began on.  The result is a show that I flat-out hated at points, but also one that I can see why there's so much affection for out there.  I found too much of it obnoxious to go that far, but if ecchi humour is your thing, there are reasons why Golden Boy is considered a paragon of that subgenre.


If you haven't seen the original Megazone 23 in roughly the last ten minutes, this second part is assuredly not for you.  It couldn't make less effort to fill in vital back story or to avoid chucking the viewer in at the deep end and then not much caring whether they swim.  However, if you have seen Megazone 23 recently, you might find yourself equally as confused; months have elapsed since its ambiguous finale with little explanation, and perhaps more crucially, all of the character designs have changed, as indeed has the entire aesthetic, replacing its softer, curvier, cartoonier look with something a good deal busier and grittier.

And that's Megazone 23: Part 2 all over, really.  I genuinely get the impression it considers itself a faithful sequel: the actual part 2 that it claims to be, and so effectively the second half of a single entity.  Plot-wise that makes a considerable amount of sense; we're watching the same characters in broadly the same scenario, and all the dangling threads left over by Megazone 23's very open ending are picked up and dealt with to at least some degree.  So it's surprising how tonally at odds it manages to feel.  It's hard to fault the creators for that decision: our protagonist, Shogo Yahagi, is a very different person in very different circumstances to the cheerful, naive hero of the first part, and he can't unlearn that movie's twists.  But it doesn't altogether explain how much darker everything has suddenly got, let alone how violent.  I'm not easily shocked, but, in part because the first movie was so relatively tame, I was taken aback by how gory this second entry got in places: one sequence in particular is downright nasty.  And for that matter, there's a sex scene that makes the one in Megazone 23, and indeed those in ninety-nine percent of anime that isn't actual hentai, look awfully timid.

Then there's the animation - and I hardly know what to say about the animation.  I don't doubt for a second that it cost a lot of money, because it's littered with the sorts of ambitious shots that don't come cheap, and the level of detail is overwhelming in places, to an extent that I've seen almost nowhere else in anime.  It's tremendously busy work, and tremendously show-offy, and at the same time, it's frequently a little bit terrible.  Countless shots are subtly but distinctively off in a manner that you wouldn't expect from experienced animators, as though everyone was so caught up in the ambition of what they were doing that they never entirely got around to finishing anything.

Taken all together, it really is befuddling: it feels like a sequel made by people who were given all the resources they could need on the back of a successful first entry, and were determined to do it justice and to make its fans happy and to draw its narrative to a satisfactory conclusion, and at the same time didn't really like it very much and secretly wanted to chuck the lot out the window and do their own thing.  Really, Megazone 23: Part 2 is closer to what would have happened if Akira had continued in the vein of its opening twenty minutes for its entire length, only with the plot of Megazone 23 intruding every so often.  And as much as I've probably made this sound terrible, the truth is that I found it exhilarating, and in many ways exactly the sequel I'd have hoped would follow the fun, imaginative, but ever-so-slightly lacklustre first entry.  Megazone 23: Part 2 is nuts, and a mess, and for every moment of brilliance, there's a shot that's totally wonky or an element that doesn't work, but by damn its not short of energy or risk-taking or moments of visual brilliance.


Marriage, 1995, dir: Kazuhiro Ozawa

It's hard to know what to make of the 1995 OVA Marriage.  Even pinning down precisely what it is hasn't been as easy as I'd have hoped, and though the most plausible suggestion I've come across is that it's an adaptation of one of those dating simulator games that are such an untranslatable feature of the Japanese cultural landscape, I'm not altogether certain that's the case.  It certainly has to be the epitome of AnimeWorks fetish for releasing anything they could lay their hands on, though who they were imagining the target audience to be is anyone's guess.  Oh, I totally see an argument for bringing romance anime over, and that's kind of what I was expecting this to be.  But, based largely on this release and its reviews, it seems fair to say that, at least in 1995, what counted as romantic in Japan was very much not what counted as romantic in the US or Europe.  Because Marriage is hella unromantic.  It's actually kind of forcibly anti-romantic for the most part, in its headlong focus on a single goal at the exclusion of all else.  And you can guess what that goal is, right?  It's there in the title.

What we have amounts to two short stories.  At the time, I thought that many of the cast of twenty-something career women and their male friends and co-workers carried over from one to the other, but having read the back of the box, they're apparently different people who just look the same.  Anyway, in the first, the group try and find a match for the shy Shizuka, by any and all means necessary, and the result is a moderately charming insight into the life of Japanese career women in the mid-nineties, along with the arcane mysteries of the dating scene they put themselves though.  The characters are shallow, but they're deftly portrayed, and though she's subjected to a tooth-grittingly ghastly date at one point, there's the sense that things are going to work out okay for Shizuka.  But then comes along episode two - with a different writer, notably - and boy does everything just explode into a horrible mess.  In this one, the clones of the cast from part one are four sisters trying to fix up their fifth sibling, Kiyomi, the only one not yet to tie the knot.  And wouldn't you know it, even as the topic gets raised, a suitor arrives, in the shape of Mikimaro, who's been hankering after Kiyomi in secret for goodness knows how long.  Well, what can the sisters do except school him on how best to propose?

The correct answer is anything, because Mikimaro is a creepy little sod without a single redeeming feature, and the closest he comes to displaying an actual personality is when he loses his temper at Kiyomi for not taking him seriously, a genuinely shocking moment that couldn't ring many more alarm bells if it tried.  Add to that the fact that Kiyomi is clearly hung up on her philandering ex, and her seemingly overwhelming indifference to Mikimaro, and the strong implication that she has no real interest in getting married full stop, and the result is excruciating, not to mention impossible to parse as entertainment.  Surely we're not supposed to be on man-child Mikimaro's side?  Surely our role as audience members isn't to will Kiyomi into this miserable union?  Who the hell knows?  But it's an agonising experience, all right.

What that means is one episode that's vaguely interesting on the level of cultural insight, though certainly not as romance, and one episode that's actively uncomfortable on any level whatsoever.  And neither of them has anything remotely exciting happening on the level of animation or design, though they look fine as these things go, and certainly neither impresses with their achingly bland music.  So unless you're researching dating practices in nineties Japan, or obsessively picking up AnimeWorks' bewildering catalogue so that you can be snarky about it on your blog, it's tough to say why anyone might consider tracking this one down.  I won't pretend it wasn't a little fascinating, but then so are car crashes, and you probably oughtn't to spend money to watch one of those.

Harlock Saga, 1999, dir: Yoshio Takeuchi

It makes me a touch sad that, with the occasional exception, I can't quite fall in love with the works of Leiji Matsumoto, because I feel like I should.  And that's truer of Harlock Saga than most of what I've come across, which has all the virtues of the better entries - the grand scope, the dizzy romanticism, the treatment of absolutely preposterous notions with such straight-faced solemnity that you can't but buy into them - and adds a whole extra layer of ludicrous ambition.  For Harlock Saga, you see, is not just any Matsumoto story, but an adaptation of Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first part of his vast musical drama Der Ring des Nibelungen.

That right: it's Wagner dressed up as space opera.  And if you're anything like me, and even if you don't like Wagner - do people like Wagner these days? - it's awfully hard not to get excited about the sheer, crazy aspiration of that prospect.  Not only that, but if anyone in the world of manga and anime was likely to be a solid fit for a science-fictional Wagner adaptation, it would surely be Matsumoto, whose Harlock universe operates in precisely that sort of mythic register, where everything and everyone is larger than life and the fates of entire galaxies rest on the shoulders of a stoic few.  Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the Harlock-verse actually works better with an injection of Wagner, since it means that the material is firing on all the same cylinders as the general atmosphere.

And that's not mentioning the production standards.  Aside from the odd bit of misjudged CG work, this is as good looking as any Matsumoto adaptation, and he's a writer who invariably seems to get the deluxe treatment.  That CG aside, there's nothing that would place it at the back end of the 1990's; indeed, a faithful adherence to Matsumoto's distinctive aesthetic gives it such an air of timelessness that it could easily have been made ten or even twenty years earlier.  Probably the animation was computer-assisted to a greater or lesser degree, but it certainly looks hand drawn, and wonderfully so.  There are no end of elaborate shots, all pulled off with considerable flourish, and the animators rise to the challenge of conjuring the scale and majesty that's integral to such a story.  Though arguably even better is Kaoru Wada's score, which draws extensively on Wagner's influence without lifting directly - the exception, perhaps inevitably, being an appearance of that most famous of pieces, Ride of the Valkyries.  At any rate, pair that music and those images together and the results are frequently magical.

So what's the problem?  The problem is exactly the same one I've had with every Harlock story I've come across: Matsumoto has no time for those aspects of storytelling that everyone else considers to be more or less essential.  Want even a hint of character development?  Not a chance!  Heck, for the most part, the cast of Harlock Saga don't even do anything, and that's truest of Harlock himself, who effectively stands around being inscrutable until he's required to act, for all of about thirty seconds, in the last of the show's six episodes.  As outrageously epic as the proceedings may be, on a minute by minute basis, they're hollow, a tale of puppets that could never be mistaken for living, breathing people.  Truth be told, that's less bothersome here than elsewhere - it's Wagner, for crying out loud, it's not like we really need relatable, dynamic characters - and for that reason, I'd rate this that bit higher than other Matsumoto adaptations I've come across.  Still, it's a shame, because as special as Harlock Saga undoubtedly is, it wouldn't have taken a lot to nudge it into genuine masterpiece territory.

-oOo-

Unsurprisingly, the results were just as random as the choice of titles: Harlock Saga and Megazone Part 2 are both pretty splendid, though with obvious flaws, Golden Boy bounces between good and dreadful, and Marriage ... well, the first episode was okay, I guess?  Then again, the second episode is among the most painful things I've ever sat through, so overall it's pretty damn wretched.

Next time around: we're heading back to the eighties again without a hint of shame, because I'm not really pretending anymore that I'm keeping this Sisyphean lunacy to a single decade!



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

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Announcing To End All Wars

It felt like I spent the back end of last year sitting on more news than I was sharing, but finally I get to announce one of those big secrets that it's been driving me crazy to keep quiet about, and that's that my novel To End All Wars will be coming out this year from publisher Aethon Books.  Indeed, it's actually quite far on in the process, as I'll come to in a minute, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's out sooner rather than later.

To End All Wars was one of three novels that materialised out of the reckless burst of creativity that was my first year of writing full time - the other two being The Bad Neighbour and what ended up as A Savage Generation, both of which have since come out via Flame Tree Press.  But of those projects, To End All Wars was by far the most personal, the most ambitious, and probably in many ways the most difficult, both from the point of view of writing it and the point of view of subsequently convincing anyone that it was a valid commercial prospect.  For To End All Wars belongs to what, so far as I can tell, is an extremely small sub-genre, maybe even a sub-genre of one: it's a serious science-fiction story set during the First World War.  Or, thinking about it, maybe it's a novel about the First World War that happens to contain some elements of science-fiction, but either way, there are surprisingly few books out there that bring the two together.

But Aethon, thank goodness, were willing to look past that hard-to-categorise awkwardness to the equally hard to categorise book underneath.  They're a new publisher for me, and their approach is excitingly different to what I'm used to: To End All Wars will be out in all the usual formats, but there's an added focus on the audio edition, which they're putting a good deal more care into than usual.  And for that reason and others, while I've been unusually lucky on that front, I  suspect this one's going to be in a whole 'nother league.  The book's currently in the hands of actor Macleod Andrews and, based on the brief sample I've heard, I've got absolute confidence that he'll bring infinitely more to it than a mere reading, because that sample was as faithful to the tone of To End All Wars as I could have hoped for.  Oh, and the same, by the way, goes for the cover art; isn't that stunning?  I'm still amazed every time I see it, it's so precisely what I had in mind and so full of the sort of period-specific detail that only a seriously dedicated artist would bother to get right.

The upshot is, the book of mine that I'm perhaps proudest of, and certainly poured most of myself into, is finally close to seeing the light of the day, Aethon are knocking it out of the park on the presentation front, and I can't wait to have it out there and in people's hands - and, perhaps even more so, their ears.  As ever, I'm bound to be talking a lot more about this one now that the cat's out of the bag, and hopefully that'll include a release date in the not-too-distant future.  But for the moment, I guess I'll just go back to gaping at that cover art in slack-jawed delight and listening to Macleod's sample recording over and over again.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 62

It says a lot about the breadth and depth of nineties anime - and of how grossly I underestimated that when I began this! - that here, some sixty and a bit posts in, we're finally getting to one of its most seminal and enduring franchises.  But there's no more putting it off: it's time to grapple with Sailor Moon, which until this post I'd only seen a few episodes of from the original TV series.  However, there were movies too, and three of them fell in our decade of choice, so there's really no excuse not to take a look, is there?

This time around: Sailor Moon R: The Movie: The Promise of the Rose, Sailor Moon S: The Movie: Hearts in Ice, Sailor Moon Super S The Movie: Black Dream Hole, and, er, Sailor Victory...

Sailor Moon R: The Movie: The Promise of the Rose, 1993, dir: Kunihiko Ikuhara

Sailor Moon is a heck of an interesting series in and of itself, one that countless essays could and no doubt have been written about; even a straightforward-seeming question like "Is it feminist" is rife with complications when viewed through the lens of three decades.  But while all of that's hard to ignore if you happen to be coming back to the franchise after many years away, it ended up not being what intrigued me most with this first film.  Because Sailor Moon R: The Movie happens to have been directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, and Ikuhara would go on to direct Revolutionary Girl Utena, and I happen to consider Revolutionary Girl Utena one of the finest anime shows ever created, not to mention one of the finest cultural works of the twentieth century full stop.

Given the extent to which Utena would revolve around confronting traditional notions of gender and sexuality, and how explicitly queer its narrative would become by the time it got around to Adolescence of Utena, it's no surprise to find similar subject matter being explored here, albeit less directly.  The main antagonist's motivation is born of what amounts to a misplaced gay crush, though importantly there's never any suggestion that the gayness is the part of that equation that's misplaced.  It's easy to imagine a very different take on the narrative, and to suppose that the reason we got a version that refuses to remotely judge its nominal villain for his sexuality is down to the fact that Ikuhara was at the helm.

Still, not judging is a far cry from Utena's eager embracing, and in truth, on that and other levels, the most unsatisfying aspect of the Sailor Moon R movie is that it doesn't push further into being a Kunihiko Ikuhara film.  Though it would be another three years before he stepped away due to a lack of creative control, you can feel him champing at the bit, teasing the limits of what something like this could be.  There's a deep streak of surrealism that bubbles through frequently, a visual boldness that hints at the sort of off-kilter imagery that would dominate in Utena, and more generally, a wealth of details that are simply weird or interesting for no apparent reason other than that Ikuhara takes pleasure in interesting weirdness.  Take, for example, the first time we see Tuxedo Mask, where he steps from a billboard poster showing similarly dressed figures, or the faintly distressing sequence in which child character Chibi-Usa conjures a very real-looking gun from thin air and shoots Sailor Moon at point blank range with what turns out to be a motivational message.

As such, the worst that can be said about the film is that it feels as though it could be more than it is.  That's aggravated by the slender running time: though many an anime movie has done wonders in making an hour feel like feature length, here the result is more like an extended episode (albeit with considerably classier animation) and we're never really encouraged to take the end-of-the-world conflict seriously.  For better or worse, the focus is always on personal, individual stakes.  No, let's be fair, it mostly is for the better, and aside from Ikuhara's attempts to do legitimately creative things with what might easily have been a bit of insubstantial fluff, it's where Sailor Moon R: The Movie most succeeds: for all that it's surprisingly violent in places, the end result is tremendously kind-hearted and positive.  I guess that makes it a very good Sailor Moon movie, and one only kept from full-on greatness by a lack of ambition and the unfair knowledge that its creator would go on to something that allowed him a far broader canvas on which to experiment.

Sailor Moon S: The Movie: Hearts in Ice, 1994, dir: Hiroki Shibata

Compared with the first film, Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice is a trivial bit of business, and it's not as if Sailor Moon R: The Movie was exactly weighty drama.  Still, by comparison with the fluffy non-crisis on offer here, it feels as though it was.  Our nominal antagonist is some sort of extraterrestrial ice witch by the name of Princess Snow Kaguya, but the film doesn't foreground her much or take her very seriously, and in fact it's much more concerned with what you'd normally expect to be its B plot, in which Luna - Luna, importantly, is a talking cat - falls in love with a young astronomer who is himself in love with his astronaut girlfriend Himeko, but unwilling to fully admit it because she won't take his theories about a strange princess living on the moon seriously.  (A side point: how could anyone exist in the Sailor Moon universe and think that lunar royalty was a remotely outlandish notion?)  The point being, what the Sailor Moon S movie primarily wants to concern itself with is a tale of unrequited love in which one of the parties is a cat.

This probably all sounds like I'm criticising, and I suppose to an extent I am: Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice is the sort of frivolity you find yourself forgetting practically as you're watching it.  But Sailor Moon isn't about epic, detailed storylines, it's about goofy humour, friendship, and swooning romance, and by those criteria it gets the job done fine.  Between the efforts of the animators and Keiko Han's heartfelt vocal performance, there's actually something rather sweet and sad about the central relationship, and it helps that both the film and Sailor Moon herself treat it with proper seriousness.  It's flimsy stuff, to be sure, but it's cute enough to work in this kind of context.

Elsewhere, everything is largely business as usual.  You've got the bouncy theme tune, the lengthy transformation sequences, the special-move-heavy fights that lack even the vaguest sense of danger, and visuals that are just sufficiently beyond what you'd expect of a long-running show with a respectable budget to warrant a cinematic release - though fair play to the special effects team, there's some noticeably nice work on that front.  For that matter, while Hiroki Shibata may be no Kunihiko Ikuhara, he's a perfectly capable director, if somewhat workmanlike.  Which I guess is Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice all over, really, with the proviso that with a franchise this basically solid, even a run-of-the-mill tale with no ambitions beyond "Let's tell a gentle little story about a talking cat falling in love, with maybe some stuff about an evil space witch ticking away in the background" is a charming experience for as long as it lasts.

Sailor Moon Super S The Movie: Black Dream Hole, 1995, dir: Hiroki Shibata

There's no getting around the fact that the third Sailor Moon movie is the most minor and trivial-feeling, in a series that's never strayed far from being either.  Indeed, for the first half of its running time, it's almost impossible not to mistake it for a regular episode of the show, so unhurried and inconsequential is every single thing that happens.  I mean, there's a scene that seems to go on for about five hours wherein the sailor scouts bake cookies and discuss the baking of cookies and generally get very into all things cookie-baking related, and while it sort of informs the subsequent plot, it could easily have been trimmed to half its length without consequence.  Which isn't to say it's not pleasurable on its own terms - if there's one thing Sailor Moon is good for, it's being basically entertaining to be around - only that it doesn't feel like it belongs in anything so grandiose as a feature film.  And for that matter, the first half is lodged firmly in the realms of TV animation too, though if you squint, it's actually a little better than all that.  The point, I suppose, is that's it's as happy to look like a TV episode as it is to behave like one.

There's a plot to all this, though you'd barely know it for a good long while, and as with the first two, it's not what you'd call a priority.  What starts out as a riff on the Pied Piper story, as presented in a rather fantastic cold open that's one of the more interesting sequences anywhere in the movie, drifts eventually into a story of interstellar child theft, before shifting into a more science-fictional gear in the closing third.  Not by coincidence, this is also where stuff actually begins to happen in earnest, and the frivolous tone turns deadly serious with such shocking speed that you can practically hear the tires screeching.  As is already obvious by then, the film doesn't give much of a damn for its plot, nor its disposable villain, but it's heartily invested in the relationship between Usagi / Sailor Moon and Chibiusa / Sailor Chibi Moon, her [consults Wikipedia] ... um, time travelling future daughter?  Wait, that can't be right, can it?  At any rate, whatever the hell's going on, the real core of the narrative is Usagi being kind of a jerk to Chibiusa and then having to rescue her from certain death and in doing so dealing with the realisation that she probably shouldn't be jealous of a little kid that she'll eventually give birth to in a few thousand years' time.

Damn but Sailor Moon is weird!

Anyway, the point I'm aiming for is that, while you can certainly see what Sailor Moon Super S The Movie is trying to accomplish and how the focus on one particular relationship might justify an hour-long story, it's not altogether successful, in part because the last third is so drastically different in tone that it feels like a whole 'nother film has been stapled on - indeed, one with distinctly better animation of a sort that might actually have deserved to grace a cinema in 1995.  Neither section is what you'd call bad, at least if you have any affection for what Sailor Moon is up to, but nor are they sturdy enough to survive the drastic shift of the third act.  That's odd in a sense, since the first two movies functioned in precisely the same way - structurally they're all but identical - but then those two had sturdier foundations than this one, and also didn't rely on their protagonist being obnoxious to a little kid for a significant chunk of their running time.  The result is hardly horrible, but it's unmistakably the weakest entry in a series that peaked with its first attempt.

Sailor Victory, 1995, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

I'll come clean: Sailor Victory has nothing to do with Sailor Moon.  Or perhaps not quite nothing; we're firmly in the realms of parody anime here, and it's safe to say that a certain bunch of sailor scouts are among the many victims.  But Sailor Victory is too scattershot to pin itself down to lampooning any one show, and I won't pretend I got a fraction of the gags, though Patlabor is an obvious and repeated target.  After all, what need would there be for our five sailor-suit-wearing heroines if the local police and their goofy mechanical armours were up to dealing with the recent rash of giant-robot-related crime that's been inflicted on their fair city?

Mind you, this doesn't quite explain why anyone thought that three colour-coded, ninja-themed robots were the ideal solution, or how we ended up with these particular pilots, none of whom seem especially qualified.  Kiyomi is holding down a dogs-body job with the cops under the pretence of spying on them, Mika delivers noodles, and Mami is such a dope that she can't get halfway through the first episode without being replaced by her own less useless robot double.  Their wealthy sponsor Reiko and her tech genius Shizuka round out the team, and offer limited support via a helicopter that launches out of a swimming pool, because why shouldn't Thunderbirds get a nod too?

Sailor Victory consists of two episodes and runs to just under an hour, and that's perfect for what it is.  There's no meat on these bones whatsoever, it's silly, wacky, frivolous stuff, and yet for sixty minutes, it's a bit of a delight.  There's absolutely nothing exemplary here: it's easy on the eyes, the opening and closing themes are fun, there are enough genuinely funny jokes to keep things moving, and in so much as the plot is basically "giant robots fight!" there's enough imagination on display to keep the material feeling fresh.  The characters are absolutely one-note, but as is often the case with anime, the designs and performance add an extra layer that makes them distinctive company for a brief while.  I could happily have kept watching, but it was also nice to get a satisfactory ending out of one of these short AnimeWorks releases, something that's by no means guaranteed.

Sailor Victory is nothing special in the grand scheme of things.  Yet, for me, these shorter releases that manage to provide an hour's worth of self-contained fun are kind of special.  Sailor Victory is by no means the best, but it was a compact pleasure, briefly entertaining and nice to be around with a few good gags.  I suppose that lumps it into the vast collection of titles that would be worth tracking down if they hadn't been out of print for a couple of decades, but personally, I'm glad I made the effort.

-oOo-

So that was Sailor Moon (well, mostly.)  And my main take is that, much as I'm fond of the franchise, I'm not sure that any of these three films, except perhaps the first, do it justice.  Then again, perhaps the perfect Sailor Moon movie would be an oxymoron, since even dragging something this breezy out to feature length starts to impinge on what it is.  For that matter, while the first movie is the only one I'd be inclined to wholeheartedly recommend, the three work quite nicely together, teasing similar material in different directions and finding subtly different areas to concentrate on, even if that only means feline / human romance or watching our hero bully her time-displaced future daughter.

Hey, did I mention how weird Sailor Moon is?



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

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Five Things Short Fiction Magazines Might Want to Reconsider

It's fair to say that I've sent off quite a few short fiction submissions in the fifteen years I've been doing so.  Indeed, it appears I've got through somewhere in the region of fourteen hundred of the things, if my trusty spreadsheet is to be believed!  And it's equally fair to say that, while most of those submissions have been at worst a fairly neutral experience, there are those that have been needlessly irritating in one way or another.  And after fifteen years, it gets hard not to notice that those irritations tend to be the same handful of unnecessary slips that market after market makes.  But nobody wants to be irritating, right?  Of course they don't.  So, eternal optimist that I am, I reckon the problem is that nobody's taken the time to put together a blog post flagging up all of these issues so that no-one need ever drop these particular balls again.  I mean, that's got to be it, right?

Pedantic Formatting Requirements
Ugh, formatting guidelines!  This is actually the whole reason for this post, but I figured, why rant about one annoyance when you can rant about a whole bunch?  Anyway, here's the thing: expecting every submitter to reformat their story to suit your specific needs is a heck of a waste of everybody's time.  Has anyone stopped to work out the total hours that go into hundreds of writers changing their work into fourteen point Comic Sans with four inch margins and asterisks instead of quote marks and every third word highlighted in purple just because a particular editor likes it that way?  I bet they haven't.  And is it really so difficult to read subs in standard manuscript format, or even in something that's pretty close to it?  Here's my suggestion: if you genuinely can't be bothered to spend an hour or so per issue reformatting whatever you ultimately accept, why not just specify in the guidelines that submissions will have to be revised once they're accepted?  That way, maybe five people a month are going through this, and with good reason, rather than five hundred people for no reason at all.
Burying Charges
Not really one for the genre markets, thank goodness, but this is a personal bugbear because I have one damn poem that I've been trying to shift for who knows how many years now.  (And yes, I realise it's probably just terrible!)  For those poor suckers over on the literary side of things, submission fees are a standard feature of life, presumably because everyone accepts that the only way literary magazines can support themselves is by gouging their submitters.  But if you're going to charge, have the decency to be upfront about it, don't hide the fact three pages deep into your submission process, presumably in the hope that people will be so excited over the possibility of being paid three dollars for their work that they won't object to paying two dollars and ninety-nine cents to submit in the first place.
Waffly Guidelines
Halfway through the list and it occurs to me that a lot of these points add up to the same thing, which amounts to respecting other people's time.  It's nice when editors are enthusiastic, but when that enthusiasm takes the form of a page-long essay about how a childhood water polo accident gave them the emotional fortitude to, twenty years later, found a magazine, and the crucial information needed to submit is hidden amid the third and fifth paragraphs, that enthusiasm crosses over into being kind of annoying.  In general, submitting authors want to know what a market's after, how they want it, how to submit it, and what's offered in return, and they want that information to be up front and unmissable.
Bafflingly Worded Rejection E-mails
A few days back I got a rejection e-mail that said "We're afraid we're unable to publish your submission" and my instinctive reaction was, Wait, why?  I could totally get that they might not want to publish it, but that they were unable to?  That was a mystery right there.  Had the magazine closed down, or was there some darker possibility?  Maybe their hands had fallen off?  Maybe their office was full of bees?  Ought I to be contacting the emergency services?
Bad rejection e-mails tend to veer in one of two directions, and obviously the flat-out offensive ones are objectively the worst, those that are quite happy to leave a writer with the impression that the problem's absolutely with them and their work.  But sometimes it's easier to dismiss rudeness than e-mails that feel like they're ducking responsibility for the whole sorry business.  Nobody's ever going to enjoy getting a rejection e-mail, but all it takes is to say is that the story didn't quite work for you; it's hard to be offended by the revelation that not every editor in the world likes every story.
Demanding You Buy an Issue
Here's a confession: I've never once bought a magazine to get a sense of what they publish, however many times I've been encouraged to do so.  And while I'm far from being the best-selling short fiction writer of all time, I've done okay.  Obviously it's not unreasonable for editors to push writers toward also being readers, so I'm not at all suggesting that a nudge in that direction is out of order, or that writers shouldn't help to keep the markets they value alive.  But there are always those that take things too far, who spout cryptic nonsense and end with a declaration that the only way to work out their profoundly idiosyncratic requirements is to see what they've picked in the past.  All else aside, this feels like a general red flag, because not being able to articulate what you're after is hardly an appealing quality in an editor, nor is only selecting work that's of a piece with what you've picked in the past.
There!  Hopefully I've fixed the short fiction scene for all time.  Or, more probably, alienated every short fiction editor on the planet.  Then again, most of the markets I submit to regularly don't do most of these things, a big percentage don't do any of them, and in general, my experiences with short fiction editors have been pretty good, so ... hopefully not?  And, you know, I get that these are minor niggles at most, but wouldn't it be a slightly better world if everyone quit doing them?  I think it would. 

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 61

There are anime franchises that are fondly remembered to this day, there are some that have never really gone away, and there are a few that history has been less kind to.  The Gall Force series ran to a feature film and eight OVAs, not to mention a video game, and yet the last of those entries - an attempted re-imagining that never made it to the West - came out over two decades ago, and it's rare to hear the series get much mention even among vintage anime buffs.

This, of course, is all the more reason to track down what's available and take a good hard look!  Not an easy task these days, it has to be said, since the entire lot is majorly out of print and incredibly hard to come by.  But is doing so worth the effort?  Here's my thoughts on Gall Force: Eternal Story, Gall Force: Destruction, Gall Force: Stardust War, and Rhea Gall Force...

Gall Force: Eternal Story, 1986, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Gall Force: Eternal Story contains a great many things that I  like in my vintage anime: some high-concept, epic science fiction; an almost entirely female cast made up for the most part of competent, capable characters; some pretty-cool-for-the-time designs, including distinctive character work from Kenichi "Gunsmith Cats" Sonoda; an actual plot, with its fair share of ideas and unexpected developments; the odd neat pop song; moments of genuinely ambitious animation, despite a clearly somewhat constrained budget; and, er, rocket swarms.  Look, I'm a sucker for rocket swarms, all right?  You know, that cheap eighties effect where they basically simulate massive ship-to-ship attacks using lots of lines?  For me, nothing screams eighties sci-fi anime more, and I love it utterly.

Inevitably, Gall Force: Eternal Story also contains a few elements I was less enthusiastic for.  There's an awful lot of fan service, for example, to the point where you sort of begin to wonder if that wasn't a factor in having a ship crewed entirely by women.  At first, it's quite unobtrusive, but by the fourth or fifth time in a ninety minute movie, it starts to seem more gratuitous.  And as much as I basically liked the plot, it ends with a twist that I've seen done at least once before, in another vintage anime no less, and for which I have no sympathy at all, for reasons I can't go into without spoilers.  Suffice to say that to get much satisfaction from it, you need to buy into a set of beliefs that I don't personally share.  Though it's a testament (hee, clue!) to the good work done elsewhere that the final turn didn't bother me a great deal.  The plot is rather rambling and perhaps doesn't altogether tie up in the final analysis, but it's also hugely cynical about the notion of gigantic space wars, and wars in general, in a way you hardly ever see in this sort of material.  It's not exactly Gunbuster, but it's certainly up to similar business, and with similarly pleasurable results.

The end result was a nice surprise - or, rather, a nice lack of disappointment, since I'd been quite hopeful for this one.  It's not a masterpiece or anything, the ambling plot and notable borrowing from other franchises see to that.  (Take, for example, the point where the narrative basically stops to play at being Alien for five minutes.)  But slagging off eighties sci-fi anime for being derivative is a lost cause, let's face it, and that Gall Force: Eternal Story manages to feel very much like it's own thing despite those points of unoriginality, along with its other virtues, is enough to make it a definite recommendation.  And I can see why this would spawn a franchise: for a film of its length, there's some respectable world-building, and enough hints at a wider universe that I'm eager to see where things go next.

Gall Force 2: Destruction, 1987, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Really, there's only one way in which the second Gall Force film isn't at least as good or better than the first, but unfortunately it's a big one: it's a whole lot shorter.  I mean, the first Gall Force felt like a movie.  Destruction does not feel like a movie.  And that's disappointing, because if it was a movie, it would be a great one, with some splendid animation and fantastic design work and a cool, eighties-tastic score, along with a startlingly good end theme, and some hefty antiwar themes of the sort it's already evident are going to be a staple of the series.

But it's fifty minutes long, and there's only so much you can do with fifty minutes.  Destruction uses its running time to the max, as so many of these shorter anime films do, and to its great credit, it never feels rushed.  Though it does certainly skimp on the back story: having let a few months pass since I watched Eternal Story, it took me a fair few minutes to regain my footing.  Not that the plot is especially complicated.  The war between the Solnoid and Paranoid races that was introduced in part one has escalated to the point where, a couple of minutes in, neither has a home planet to go back to anymore, and both seem entirely bent on ridding the galaxy of the other at whatever cost, even if the whatever in question is mutual annihilation.  But there are a minority among the Solnoid forces who'd like to leave at least something or someone behind, and it so happens that a few of their number are the ones who rescue Lufy, the crack pilot who was among the few survivors of Eternal Story.  After a (rather awesome!) battle, they decide they trust her enough to let her in on their plan, but Lufy isn't so sure that fighting the war to its ugly end is that bad of an idea.

Actually, that's a fair bit of story, isn't it?  And as I say, it's told well, with no sense of rushing from A to B.  Akiyama does a fine job of introducing his cast while the larger conflict ticks away in the background, so that when the climax kicks into gear, we feel as though we've been hanging out with these characters for a lot longer than we have.  Still, as good as Destruction is - and I must stress, it's very good indeed - it still never quite feels like a proper movie.  And it doesn't help that it's very much a middle part, with an ending that wraps up its own central conflict in fine style but makes no efforts to hide that we'll be seeing the climax of the larger narrative in part three.  Yet I can't bring myself to complain too much.  I'm pretty much in love with the Gall Force universe by this point, with its weird mix of cheerful female protagonists and horribly bleak anti-war themes and wildly cool action sequences.  So if nothing else, Destruction has left me craving more than ever to get my hands on the basically impossible to find third part.  I've a feeling that, if by some miracle I track down a reasonably priced copy, it's going to be pretty damn special.

Gall Force 3: Stardust War, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

One thing that's remarkable about the Gall Force series is its consistency, and I don't just mean in terms of quality, though that too.  All of its parts feel very much of a piece with each other, which isn't something you can take for granted.  Every one of the core entries was directed by Akiyama, every one used Kenichi Sonoda's character designs, and every other aspect - the high quality of the animation, the excellent scores, the superlative design work elsewhere - has either stayed the same or got a little better with each entry.  And indeed, by the time you get to Stardust War, it's hard not to start thinking of these initial three parts as a single entity.  At the very least, it's impossible to view this as anything besides a sequel to Destruction, which it follows directly on from, a matter of what can at most be days and is possibly mere minutes later.

That means, somewhat surprisingly, that we get to keep the same core cast for another go round, which is no given in a franchise so willing to kill off protagonists as this.  Which isn't to say that the franchise's standards of bleakness have been relaxed in the slightest.  Really, this is about as dark as it gets!  With both sides of the Solnoid / Paranoid war toting weaponry capable of annihilating entire star systems, and neither having a home to return to, the stakes are more than ever to try and ensure that something survives this futile genocide, with the potential added bonus that it would be great if whatever successors are left behind could learn from the idiocy of their forebears.  If Gall Force has always been that conspicuously anti-war anime franchise, this is the point where it goes all in on its message, and at the same time begins to feel altogether like a product of the Cold War era.  Indeed, there's even a mention of that most on the nose of acronyms, Mutual Assured Destruction.

If there's a criticism to be made of Stardust War, aside from the fact that it doesn't stand alone in the slightest, it's that it's awfully talky, and its first half is often talky about facts we either know or have good reason to believe if we've been following along until this point.  That said, it's a mark of the all-round quality that such a hefty focus on exposition really isn't a problem; indeed, it's rather satisfying to have the jumble of plot points we've been presented piecemeal laid out and analysed in such stark terms by characters as eager for answers as we are.  Nevertheless, and while we do get some epic space battling toward the end, I couldn't help missing the terrific, smaller scale action sequences that were a highlight of the previous two entries.  If there was a way to split the difference between Stardust War and Destruction, which leaned too far in the other direction, the result would be a definite classic.

But look, these are niggles, and I've no qualms about calling these first three Gall Force entries one of the highlights of pre twenty-first century anime.  This is mature, intelligent space opera of a sort you simply don't see outside of books, with a strong feminist bent, big ideas, and the technical values to do its material justice.  Indeed, it's fair to say that Gall Force has never looked better: for this entry, the series acquired some astonishing lighting and special effects, and it really does look superb.  Eternal Story was great, Destruction was great, and Stardust War doesn't drop the ball, bringing an epic narrative to a thoroughly satisfying close.

Rhea Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Just a line ago I was pointing out what a solid, self-contained narrative the first three Gall Force movies formed, and yet here we are, looking at another sequel, and one to a film that left practically no scope for a follow-up.  Which means we've officially entered the second Gall Force "arc", which would continue a few months later with the three part Earth Chapter, reviewed all the way back in post number four when I really had no idea what I was on about.

None of which altogether tells us what Rhea Gall Force actually is - and that's a question that, even having watched it, I'm still trying to pin down, since it's not often that sequels pick up entire millennia after their original casts have died along with their entire species.  The Solnoid and Paranoid races of the first three films are now ancient history, and would have stayed that way, but for the discovery of a Paranoid ship on the moon at precisely the worst time: with the planet already divided by a global conflict, advanced alien technology has proved to be gasoline poured on an already out of control fire.  The result, by a circuitous chain of events, is that both sides are now fighting in grudging truce against the robot soldiers they created to kill each other with, and which have since gained sentience and decided they really ought to be wiping out their fleshy former masters, because this is a movie containing robots made in the eighties.

That leaves us with something that, on the one hand, has bugger all to do with the events that we've previously witnessed, and on the other is infused with a great deal of Gall Force DNA.  It's there in the slick, detailed animation, and particularly in the superlative mechanical designs; it's there in the strong female protagonists, though it's a shock to the system to have a number of male characters milling about also, albeit one that makes perfect sense given what's come before.  And it's definitely there in the cynicism and lengthy pacifist streak; our hero even gets a showpiece speech about the virtues of cooperation.  War is hell, be it against killer robots or other humans, and there are some particularly bloody and unexpected deaths along the way to underscore that point.

Nonetheless, the result is definitely the least Gall Force-y of Gall Forces.  Or to put it another way, eighties cinema wasn't exactly overloaded with complex anti-war space opera fables, whereas however much you dress up a tale of brave resistance fighters battling the robot foe on a ruined Earth, it's still going to end up feeling a lot like The Terminator.  That leaves Rhea Gall Force as an above-par example of what it is, with impressive visuals and some interesting wrinkles, but with that thing being inherently less exciting than what's gone before - and thus the franchise's first real disappointment.

-oOo-

Yup, Gall Force is great.  I mean, the core trilogy is now high in my list of personal favourites, and even Rhea is well above average.  And it's one heck of shame that this franchise above all others has vanished into the mists of history.  Somebody definitely needs to get working on a blu-ray box set.  Eastern StarAnimeEigo?  Anybody?  In the meantime, those hard-to-find DVDs are a definite highlight of my collection, and for everyone less obsessive, you can find at least a couple of them on shameless piracy giant Youtube.



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

Friday, 10 January 2020

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2019

As usual, putting together this list has made me feel more positive about the fate of genre film-making than I did throughout the year.  At any rate, the developing trends feel positive.  Marvel may have bottomed out with the shabbily constructed Captain Marvel and wrapped up phase three with a five hour scrap in a gravel pit, but their slate going forward looks like a drift back toward the more standalone, experimental (by big-budget movie standards!) style of their best outings.  And by being that bit quicker to realise that giant interconnected universes are less fun than we all somehow expected them to be, despite decades of them screwing up good comic books, DC are one step ahead, with increasingly exciting results.  Speaking of exciting, we're finally, definitely at the point where CG is cheap enough that pretty much anyone can afford to make good use of it, including directors with actual ideas, who - the really crazy part! - sometimes don't even speak English as their first language.  And as much as I hate to admit it, it's possible that one of the main driving forces there is Netflix, who may at last be getting free of their lengthy "pair gimmicky idea A with talented-but-cheap director B and give them either too much or too little money" phase.

Oh, and also, there was a Star Wars.  But let us never speak of that again.

10) Gemini Man

Hey, you've got to start somewhere.  Gemini Man is what happens when you throw a director of immense but inconsistent talent at material so beneath them that they can't help but dredge up something intermittently special.  Sure, it's a shame that Ang Lee is much more bothered about playing with new technological toys that making great films these days, and sure his CV is getting awfully spotty, but still, as hackneyed as "government assassin faces off against a cloned younger version of himself!" is as a concept, Gemini Man is still capable of throwing up the odd sequence of terrific b-movie action.  My enthusiasm has died down a lot since I watched it, and even then didn't get much beyond "well, that was better than it might have been," and I'm mostly sticking it on here because it deserved fractionally more attention than it got, and also to look a bit prescient: I've a feeling that in 2020 we'll all be talking about the sort of digital technologies put to use in making this, as deepfake takes fake news to society-wrecking new levels.

9) Aniara

Okay, so depending who you ask, this one actually belongs to 2018, but I'm desperate and it's this or The Wandering Earth, which was pretty much a mess (though one that's admittedly worth a watch if you're in the right mood for a bonkers two hour sci-fi epic.)  I'd be lying if I said that I thought Aniara succeeds in what it's trying to do, or even that I could say for absolutely certain what it was trying to do, but that it's all sorts of ambitious?  That much is certain.  Admittedly, the very notion of a Swedish space opera is pretty damn ambitious, and an interesting testament to the steady sea change that cheaper CG is bringing to genre film-making.  If the poetry-inspired end result resembles a really long, depressing IKEA advert, I'd still much rather live in a world where we get challenging, miserabilist movies like this than one where Hollywood alone gets to determine what the future looks like.

8) Spiderman: Far From Home

A pretty good Spiderman film hiding in a mediocre Iron Man film wrapped in a thoroughly unnecessary epilogue to the already over-epilogued Avengers: Endgame, this did a good job of illustrating everything I've come to find annoying about the MCU.  Still, there's something to be said for a pretty good Spiderman film, even when it's one that could easily have been much better.  Jake Gyllenhaal made for such a legitimately great villain that it didn't matter that anyone who's ever picked up a comic knew what twist was coming, the returning cast were as charming as in the first one, the action was a marked step up from anything Marvel have offered in a good long while, as was the effects work, but most importantly, there were a few stray moments of genuine comic-book brilliance mixed in there, and one sequence in particular that felt unlike anything we've seen before up on the screen.  With innovation becoming ever more the opposite of what these things seem to be trying to accomplish, that was definitely a nice surprise.

7) Pokémon Detective Pikachu

A film that had no right to be anything except terrible - despite having a couple of my favourite preview posters of recent years - I still haven't quite figured out how Detective Pikachu got away with being so joyous and charming.  We could put it down to the presence of Ryan Reynolds, and he certainly does as fine a job of bringing life to a certain rosy-cheeked, lightning-bolt-tailed critter as anyone could have (or anyone who's not Ikue Ôtani, anyway) but Reynolds's presence is perhaps more a symptom than a cause, in a movie that sets itself the nigh-impossible task of threading the needle between breezy, brightly coloured kids' movie and darkly funny noir pastiche for adults and somehow mostly pulls it off.  The human cast are largely just there and the plot is disposable nonsense, but it's still a million times better than anyone could have reasonably expected, and even if it hadn't been, it would probably have got this spot for including every one of my favourite Pokémon.  (Admittedly, that's not a very long list.)

6) Shazam!

Shazam! looked kind of shrill and irritating and like yet another attempt to mine nostalgia by dressing up in the clothes of an eighties genre movie, and even when people kept saying it was actually really good, I stuck to my guns and avoided it.  Yeah, shows what I know!  Except that I was exactly right, and yet somehow the film managed to transform all its flaws into virtues.  When I finally caught up with it, Shazam! turned out to be an adorably goofy, kind-hearted, and fresh stab at a genre I've been getting increasingly bored with.  At its best, this doesn't feel like a superhero movie at all, more an indy comedy drama that happens to have found itself trapped inside of a superhero movie, but what's most incredible is that it actually found something genuine in all that.  It would have been so easy for its themes of building a family from the leftover scraps of others to come off as cynical window-dressing, and it's pretty much a miracle that instead, they end up informing every aspect and providing moments of real emotional heft.  Oh, and it's also pretty damn funny.

5) Us

Just enough of a drift away from horror to warrant a place here, Jordan Peele's second movie was, for my money, a marked step up from his first.  Sure, Get Out had two great acts, but Us sticks the landing, besides being something a lot more interesting in general.  It's the sort of film that only gets made with a certain amount of prior financial success to back it up, and hats off to Peele for risking so much goodwill on something so downright weird and nasty and uncompromising.  One other boon over Get Out: this time, the fact that the concept is basically familiar is a boon, as Peele plays on our preconceptions to really twist the knife and screw with our sympathies.  If the price of such daring and audience-bating is that it doesn't always work, or have an altogether clear message, or necessarily make a lot of sense, then what the heck?  The world is full of films that do those things, but sadly lacking in demented experimentation with moments of real nightmare logic and the budget to back up their weirdest ambitions.

4) Frozen 2

All right, so the plot's a bit of a mess, and by a bit I mean a lot, and by plot I mean "series of events that happen within the same film and so presumably fit together," but is that the criteria we're judging Disney movies by now?  In what seems to be becoming a running theme, there was no reason to expect much of a transparently cash-grabbing sequel to a movie that had no need or even space for one.  So, for me anyway, the fact that Frozen 2 was a triumph in all sorts of ways was one of the nicest treats of my movie year: a melancholy, sometimes outright bleak character piece with some hefty themes to back it up that at least made bold, interesting choices even when they weren't necessarily, categorically the right ones.  As such, I'm happy to call this the best Disney sequel of all time.  Yes, better than Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time!  Better than Pocahontas 2: The Quickening!  And while I'm making controversial statements, am I alone in thinking that Frozen 2 has an overall better soundtrack than Frozen did?  Okay so maybe Into the Unknown isn't quite the equal of Let it Go, but Let it Go is all the Frozen soundtrack had, whereas Frozen 2 hasn't a single real weak spot.  And it has the secret weapon that is Do The Next Right Thing, which in a juster world would have been the anthem for the blazing trash fire that was 2019.

3) Joker

Since I was much less of a DC fanboy at the start of 2019 than I seem to have become by the start of 2020, I didn't expect to like Joker any more than I did Shazam!  That first trailer made it look like precisely the film that many have taken it to be, often without watching it first: yet another study of yet another poor white guy being pushed too far and exacting violent revenge.  Probably there's no convincing anyone that, in actual fact, Joker is the inverse of that, a story of how only a monster would use their ill-treatment as an excuse to exact similar ill-treatment on others; indeed, I have genuine doubts that Todd Phillips wasn't trying to make that first film rather than the second.  Nonetheless, one of the great things about art is that once it's out of the bag, we all get to interpret it, and one of the great things about Joker is that it's such a legitimately demented piece of work that it's hard not to bring your own take to the material.  I'd have loved it for the gorgeous lighting and photography and the pitch-perfect homage to the heyday of American cinema, not to mention Phoenix's extraordinary portrayal of a man who realises his personality can be whatever he chooses from one minute to the next, but that it's such a slippery, troublesome piece of work is the icing on the cake.  How anything that feels this legitimately dangerous came from a major studio in 2019 is beyond me.

2) I am Mother

I'd convinced myself that 2019 wasn't going to offer up a single film in my favourite genre niche, that of the smart science-fiction film with some genuinely challenging ideas under its belt.  And even if I'd been holding out hope that one might appear, I wouldn't have looked to Netflix, whose contributions to previous lists have entirely consisted of movies that lost out on even a limited cinema release because the platform got their grubby mitts on them, rather than those original creations that routinely get critically trashed.  But I am Mother was the rare Netflix exclusive that not only got great reviews but deserved them, a fabulous, difficult chamber piece of a morality play that also managed to be pretty thrilling and epic when it needed to be.  In a year when it was more apparent than ever that human beings probably shouldn't be left to manage our own affairs, Rose Byrne's robotic Mother was either the perfect villain or the hero we didn't know we needed, but either way, her masterful performance of subtle inhumanity provided a cold, calm, terrifying voice of reason to a movie of uncomfortable questions and distressing answers.

1) Alita: Battle Angel

From the moment I sat down to watch this one and realised that somehow, impossibly, it wasn't going to be an utter disaster, there probably wasn't a chance of anything else pinching the top spot.  If ever a film seemed to have been made expressly for me, this was it, because after all there can't be that many people crying out for adaptations of decades-old and mostly forgotten manga and anime.  Yet what really stood out was the painstaking care that had gone into each and every aspect: it seems ridiculous to say of a Hollywood tentpole, but this feels like a movie crafted from the ground up with love.  It's there in every aspect, from the heartfelt performances to the adorably fussed-over mise en scène to a plot that's far too busy only because it obviously wants to cram in everything it conceivably can to Rodriguez's joyful direction, unrecognisable as the work of a director who's been on autopilot for over a decade.  Of course, inevitably all people could do was bleat on about how they couldn't cope with Alita's big eyes, and we probably won't be getting a sequel, because even if the movie had performed mind-blowingly the franchise never stood a chance amid the ongoing Disneyfication of everything, and that all means I'll never get my Bubblegum Crisis movie, and still I'm happy.  The very existence of Alita: Battle Angel is a goddamn miracle and that it somehow turned out to be utterly wonderful in its own right feels downright surreal.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

2019: Is It Bad to Have Had a Good Year?

Looking back, it feels absurd to say that 2019 was a good year, even when I'm only trying to sum up my own experiences.  Whatever your stance, it's safe to assume you probably got as fed up as everyone did with the unremitting tire fire that was British and US politics, which increasingly looked like a cruel parody of how you might imagine modern democracies ought to be run.  And even all that seemed like nothing besides a messy sideshow to far more cataclysmic problems, as the world in general finally caught on to the fact that we're not centuries but decades away from irreparably trashing the only planet we have and then proceeded to go back to sticking its fingers in its ears and whistling.  In the face of all that, anything that's not screaming despair seems a bit silly.

Still.  Personally I had a pretty good year, all told.

To immediately row back from that glimpse of optimism, it's fair to say that probably had a lot to do with 2019 not being the horror show of 2018, and thus being better basically by default.  But it's also fair to say that, while it had its share of tribulations, nothing went horrifically wrong, and there were a lot of happier moments along the way.  On the writing front, I was convinced at the end of 2018 that I wouldn't still be in business by this point, and I am, and I have four books lined up, among them a project with one of my favourite publishers that came absolutely out of the blue.  In that sense, it's probably also true that 2019's biggest virtue is the extent to which it set up good stuff for 2020.  Okay, so I have no clue how I'm going to get through this one, either, the money hasn't exactly been rolling in and I can't keep on operating at a loss forever, but this time I'm determined to stick with the writing career for another twelve months at least.  Things have gone well enough to warrant that commitment, but even if they hadn't, there are a couple of novels I'm itching to write and I'd really like to get one of them out of my system.


And it's not as though 2019 didn't have a few legitimate high points.  I've had a couple more books released, that's certainly something.  With some doubts towards the end of last year as to the future of the Black River Chronicles, it was a tremendous relief to get book three, Eye of the Observer, out there, knowing I'd be wrapping up the series exactly as I was hoping to in the upcoming Graduate or Die.  And while the release of my standalone thriller A Savage Generation wasn't such a joyous experience - the reception has been on the decidedly quiet side - I was still glad to finally usher it into the world after a gestation period of nigh on a decade.  After all that time and so much revision, I was past the point where I could objectively say whether it was any good, so the fact that what reviews there have been are positive was a big weight off.  Sad to say, the under-performance of both my books with Flame Tree Press means that writing more thrillers in the foreseeable future feels like too big a gamble, but I hope it's something I'll return to eventually, since I feel like I didn't altogether suck at it.

Elsewhere, while the short story side of things didn't prove terribly profitable, a lot of what I had out was exciting in its own right.  After a desperately slow start, the year saw my first translations into Italian and Japanese, my first pick for a best-of anthology, a return to Interzone after too long a gap and my fourth appearance in those stunning hardback anthologies the other branch of Flame Tree have been routinely putting out.  Add to that a couple of new stories appearing and a couple more reprint sales upcoming for this year, and the short fiction front definitely offered up its share of treats, not to mention a reminder that it's something I really want to go back to devoting more energy to if I can possibly find the time.

And then there's the personal stuff, which hasn't been particularly dramatic and was all the better for that.  Mostly it was a case of plodding along, both figuratively and literally; most of my happiest moments were spent wandering in the wilds, and the highlight of my year was getting through all twenty-six miles of the Yorkshire Three Peaks on my own, an achievement I've been meaning to tick off my bucket list for an awfully long time but certainly didn't expect to enjoy half so much as I did, or to get such phenomenal weather for.  Oh, and I got to the end of my first fully fledged D&D campaign, which was an awesome experience ... thank you, Jimi, if you happen to read this, for the immense amounts of work you put into our crazy epic of an adventure, I'm about to wrap up a four book series and I still don't have a clue how you pulled it all together!

Now, I'm not much for new year's resolutions, and if I was going to make any, they'd mostly involve continuing stuff I've already started.  Foremost is a bid to stop working such nutty hours, which I've made some real advances with - yay for not hammering away until nine o'clock most nights! - but still have a way to go on.  Generally I've come to appreciate that you can't become a successful writer by simply throwing every waking hour at your career, or that maybe you can, but it's probably never going to be worth it in the long term from the point of view of not becoming a burned-out shell of a human being.  This job has demanded a lot of me over the last decade, and I don't resent that - I hope to have fourteen or fifteen books out by the end of 2020, and that seems a fair payoff - but there are other things I'd like to be devoting attention to, and it would be amazing to get to the end of a year and not feel ready to drop.  Actually, I think that maybe is my new year's resolution: to not put writing first to the extent that it totally kicks my ass.  That seems reasonable, right?  If I could pull that off, get these upcoming books out, and, I dunno, maybe make some proper headway with my snail-paced attempts to learn Japanese, then I reckon that'll be 2020 put to good use.