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Moving pictures 2019, #25

A couple more of these posts and I’ll be up to date. Then I can start watching the Blu-rays I brought six months ago in my suitcase…

Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg (2019, USA). I have this as a graphic novel in storage. Well, an omnibus of the comic story of it anyway. But that’s not what this film is. I remember quite liking it. The comic series, that is. One of Chris Claremont’s better storylines, I thought. I was slightly predisposed toward liking his material because I liked the sf trilogy he published about space pilot Nicole Shea, which were not great but very readable. I forget their titles. I probably have them in storage in the UK. None of which is in the slightest bit relevant. Anyway, the gist of the Dark Phoenix story, both comic and movie, is that Jean Grey, AKA Marvel Girl, and second only to Professor X in the X-Men, has some sort of weird space encounter which multiplies her powers and turns her to the dark side. In the comic she was a mature, established character, as indeed she was when the same thing sort of happened in the second of the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. But in this new retconned version, it happens when she is young and impressionable and not well established. In other words, this is a “teenager goes off the rails” movie but said teenager has fantastic powers. And the end result is surprisingly dull. I really didn’t care about the characters, even though most were played my actors I admire. Nor did I care about the story, most of which I must admit I’ve already forgotten. Although not a comics fan, I’ve always liked the X-Men more than other superhero groups, but this new version of them is very boring.

Mulan, Barry Cook & Tony Bancroft (1998, USA). I wanted to like this as the story is quite good: young woman takes her father’s place in army, is trained as warrior while masquerading as male, becomes hero in battle thanks to a clever decision during a battle rather than some manufactured reason. Her situation gets complicated when romance, with the emperor’s son, enters the picture. As trans narratives go, it’s safe for massmarket consumption and predictable. But this is Disney, so that’s hardly unexpected. But this is also Disney, so there are songs. And they’re bad. I cannot remember a single song from the movie, they are totally unmemorable. In all other respects – well, technical respects – Mulan wasn’t too bad. The characters were well-designed and readily identifiable, and the look and feel of everything was appropriate to the time and place of the setting (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). The narrative is one that appeals to me… but I really didn’t think a great deal of Mulan. I’ve remarked before that Disney films almost weaponise charm, and it’s the ones that are charming I find more successful – personally – than others. Mulan was good but not charming. I can’t put it up there with the Disney films I really liked. But it’s still worth watching if you’ve not seen it before.

The Olive Tree, Icíar Bollaín (2016, Spain). A young woman has a close relationship with her grandfather. But he has never really recovered from selling the ancient olive tree which formed the centre-piece of his olive grove. When he suffers a stroke, the young woman decides to track down the sold olive tree in the  hope it will improve his condition. This puts her at odds with the rest of the family. Eventually, she manages to find it… in Germany. Where it forms part of a company’s corporate identity, so they’re not going to part with it… This was one of those films you stumble across on Amazon Prime – because its recommendation algorithm is shit: I watch one Guru Dutt film and the only drama and comedy movies it recommends are Bollywood films. FFS. It’s not like you can browse the movies available using the website, either. There’s loads of good stuff there free to watch with Prime membership, but finding it is stupidly difficult. Anyway, The Olive Tree was a well-played drama, and one of the few Spanish dramas I’ve seen, as most Spanish films I’ve watched, the oeuvre of Pedro Almodóvar aside, have been thrillers. And pretty good ones too. Worth seeing.

White Vengeance, Daniel Lee (2011, China). China has a long tradition of making movies about its history, and the last couple of decades have seen a steady stream of lush CGI-heavy Chinese historical films. But then, it’s not like they’re short of history to make movies about. Unlike another country with a huge film industry… And like that other country, China seems to prefer making films about the bloodier periods of its history. White Vengeance is set during the interregnum between the Qin and Han dynasties, 206 – 202 BC. That’s a long time ago, and even with China’s long, long history, the production design of White Vengeance made it all look more mediaeval (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). Basically, two generals of a rebel king are charged with conquering a Qin kingdom, and the winner will sit on its throne. So there are lots of battles. and, to be honest, I got a bit lost in the middle. One scene, however, has stuck in memory: the generals challenge each other to a game of weiqi, which looks a lot like go, and each puts forward a champion. But one general’s champion is blind, so the other must blindfold himself, and they play five games simultaneously, from memory, to the death. It’s weirdly impressive and overly melodramatic. White Vengeance is not helped by a confusing structure, in which most of the plot is told in flashbacks, or crosscuts between the two groups, who seem remarkably similar in dress and appearance (all armoured, and beards and pony-tails). It looks fantastic, but it’s hard work figuring what’s going on. I’m tempted to give the film another go, because the history it depicts is quite fascinating and it’s a very immersive film. But I’ll have to concentrate…

Memory: The Origins of Alien, Alexandre O Philippe (2019 USA). Alien is one of my favourite films, and has been pretty much since its release. Although I didn’t see it first then, of course, as I was only 13 in 1979, and Alien was released with an 18 certificate. But I had loads of books about it. Memory: The Origins of Alien, however, slightly oversells its connection to that film as it’s mostly about Dan O’Bannon, the writer of the original script. O’Bannon also worked on Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie, and later created Farscape (ETA: as pointed out in a comment below, Farscape was created by Rockne O’Bannon, who is not related; whoops). It was after Dune had folded, that O’Bannon came up with the idea for Alien, which, to be honest, is not all that original. He called it Star Beast, and eventually sold the script to Walter Hill’s production company. But Hill hated the script and wanted to completely rewrite it. It all fell through, but Hill’s involvement gave the script a higher profile than previously. One of the directors O’Bannon sent it to was Ridley Scott, who apparently loved the chestburster scene – even though at that point Scott had only directed commercials and The Duellists, a historical film. Memory: The Origins of Alien doesn’t go into the making of Alien in great detail. There are a number of talking heads – but not O’Bannon, who died in 2009; or Ridley Scott – who describe what it was like on the production. It’s fascinating stuff, although perhaps more for fans of Alien. Which seems to be getting some sort of push at the moment, with a number of coffee-table books about the franchise being published this year, even though a sequel to Alien: Covenant (2017) is still a couple of years away. Worth seeing.

100, Sam Anton (1019, India). The title of this Kollywood movie refers to the 100th emergency call received by the protagonist, who, despite wanting to be out on the streets solving crimes and catching criminals, has been assigned to the emergency call control room. I wasn’t entirely sure if 100 was meant to be a thriller or a comedy as it seemed to be a bit of both. The hero is nowhere near as competent as he thinks he is, and other members of the cast seemed more like comic sidekicks. But the plot was almost pure thriller, with that 100th call leading the hero to discover that a young girl thought dead is actually the victim of a kidnapping, and she’s not the first… I’ve seen Kollywood – and Bollywood and Tollywood – films with better production values than 100, and, to be honest, better plots, but this was still pretty enjoyable. I’ve been watching a lot of Indian films recently – there’s lots of them on Amazon Prime, although not all have English subtitles, which can be bloody annoying – and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Most of them are not great films, but they’ve all been very entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Film challenge, reloaded

Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.

For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:

10 Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (2011, UK)
9 Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK)
8 Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea)
7 Predestination, Michael and Peter Spierig (2014, Australia)
6 District 9, Neill Blomkamp (2009, South Africa)
5 Super 8, JJ Abrams (2011, USA)
4 Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006, UK)
3 The Cell, Tarsem Singh (2000, USA)
2 Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, UK)
1 Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2014, UK)

I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).

Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…

This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.

9 Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?

8 Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.

7 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.

6 Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.

5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.

4 Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.

3 The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.

2 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.

1 Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.

There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…


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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #23

It’s been an odd summer – my first here in Uppsala – but things are starting to settle down and the year has, so to speak, begun again. I expect I’ll be watching more movies as the Scandinavian winter nights close in, so I need to get up to date with the films I have watched over the past couple of months.

Men in Black: International, F Gary Gray (2019, USA). It’s obvious that what the world really needed was an addition to the Men in Black series, the last instalment of which was released seven years ago. Anyway, that’s what the world got. And, to be honest, it’s an innocuous, if unnecessary, addition to the series. Tessa Thompson plays a young woman who witnessed the Men in Black in action as a child and has been determined to join them ever since. She tries the FBI, the CIA… but no joy. Eventually, she stumbles across a MiB incident and follows the agents back to their secret headquarters. Which she infiltrates. And is caught. But is given a chance to join the organisation. She’s teamed up with Chris Hemsworth, who’s considered a bit useless, a favourite of the boss, Liam Neeson, and forever coasting on past glory (several years ago, he and Neeson closed a wormhole to another world and prevented an invasion of Earth). It’s all very formulaic, very twenty-first century action movie, with exotic locations, decorative sidekicks, a few gender-flipped stereotypes, a couple of racial stereotypes masquerading as aliens, and a plot that’s nowhere near as complex as it likes to think it is. It’s as memorable as the last Men in Black movie, which was, er, three? four? A Saturday movie to enjoy with pizza and beer and brain disengaged.

Miss Montigny, Miel Van Hoogenbemt (2005, Belgium). Small town girl desperate to break out into the wider world is hardly the most original story ever, and using a beauty pageant to do so is a tried and tested story in movieland, perhaps even in real life. It’s also a bit, well, old-fashioned, as no one really makes films featuring pageants anymore, not unless they’re mockumentaries or sarcastic documentaries. Which is not to say that beauty pageants no longer take place. They do, all over the world. Even in Belgium. As evidenced by Miss Montigny, which is about a young woman who tries to break out of her restrictive small village life by entering a local beauty contest. But she has to cheat in order to qualify and later is kicked out when that cheating is spotted. (She lied about her bra size, as the minimum chest measurement is larger than her own.) The film is more about the young woman and her life than it is the pageant, although the latter certainly features quite a bit. As small town dramas go, particularly Belgian ones, Miss Montigny was enjoyable, if low-key. Despite its story, it didn’t feel at all dated. Worth seeing.

2.0, S Shankar (2018, India). This is actually a sequel – well, that should be blindingly obvious from the title. I’ve not seen the preceding movie, Enthiran, from 2010, but happily 2.0 stood perfectly well on its own. Perhaps “well” is not the right word. This film was absolutely bonkers in a definitely WTF?! sort of way. It opens with everyone’s mobile phones in Chennai flying out of their hands and into the sky. Replacement phones suffer the same fate. The desperate city calls on a discredited scientist, who de-mothballs Chitti, the android he built in the earlier film. Chitti discovers that the mobile phones have been possessed by the ghost of an ornithologist who was at war with the mobile telephone company because their towers were killing birds (as they do). All the phones join up into a giant monster, and terrorise Chennai. The scientist builds an army of Chittis – oh, and there’s a bit where Chitti goes bad or something – and then the Chittis form a giant Chitti, which goes into battle with the phone monster, at a football match. 2.0 is one of those movies that convinces you you’re drunk, despite not having had a drop. It was, in other words, great fun. Definitely worth seeing. Preferable with alcohol.

Burlesque, Tereza Kopáčová (2019, Czechia). Yes, yes, there’s a terrible US film with the same title; and yes, I’ve seen it – many years ago. And it was shit. But this is a new Czech film and it’s actually pretty good. A young teacher is fat-shamed by her pupils, is persuaded to sign up for a burlesque class, and so comes to accept her size. And, er, that’s it. A Czech social drama about a teacher who is curvier than her peers. The two main characters – the teacher and her dance tutor – are well-drawn and sympathetic, and one or two of the routines are titillating in, well, exactly the way burlesque is intended to be. This is a likeable film but it’s not a memorable one. It’s not because of the subject – it’s easy to identify with the lead character. I enjoyed it, it felt like a real drama of a sort Hollywood doesn’t make any more (the same is also true of Miss Montigny). On the other hand, when did Hollywood ever really document the human condition? I mean, I love me some 1950s Hollywood melodramas but they were as close to reality as Lord of the Rings. That’s part of their charm. Burlesque – this version certainly, the Hollywood one certainly not – is most definitely close to reality. And it’s also another film that isn’t in imdb.com or Wikipedia because it’s not Anglophone and the internet is apparently only for the use of English-speakers. Well, bollocks to that.

Lifechanger, Justin McConnell (2013, Canada). One type of genre story that has fascinated me for many years has been that of the body-hopper. There have been several notable genre novels based on the conceit; and Jack L Chalker, who never actually managed to write a decent novel, made his entire career out of it… But in movies, it’s been less used, and when it is, it’s seen more as a horror trope. As it is in Lifechanger. The title refers to a consciousness which takes over people’s bodies, but as soon as it takes possession the bodies start to deteriorate, so it must move on. But now the process is accelerating. So you have a “character” which hops from body to body, and I think there was a plot in there somewhere but for the life of me (see what I did there?) I can’t remember what it was. I’ve seen other films with a similar conceit and they treated it better. Lifechanger felt more like an attempt at a high concept horror film… and it’s always amused me that “high concept”, which sounds like it should mean something clever, just basically means a premise you can describe in two or three words. And that’s Lifechanger in a nutshell.

Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK). The event this film depicts has been a footnote in the history books for many years but recent events have given it added poignancy. And importance. It’s all too easy to forget at times, especially during the twentieth century when the middle classes were essentially in charge, that the English upper class is populated entirely by sociopathic shits. Of course, things worsen year on year because they all interbreed like royalty. In 1819, a group of reformists held a rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester and some 60,000 to 80,000 working class people turned up to hear orator Henry Hunt talk about universal suffrage. The local magistrates sent in the troops, and eighteen people were killed. The thing the people at the meeting wanted? A Member of Parliament for Manchester. They wanted representation in the government of the land. And the upper class sent in armed troops. Against women and children. True, the history of England, and the UK too, is filled with incidents that are reprehensible to any semi-intelligent person. Peterloo takes a didactic approach to its material, carefully laying the political groundwork for the meeting that turned into a massacre. In fact, while watching it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Ken Loach film and not a Mike Leigh one. Except Leigh seems to be able to command higher budgets. (And if you haven’t seen any films by Loach, why not? He has an excellent and extensive filmography.) The evocation of the period is extremely well, and it’s refreshing to watch a film set in Manchester that features actors with actual Lancashire accents and not just generic Northern ones. Peterloo is a very good film about an event in English history that should be better known than it is. Go see it.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #22

Well, that’s five seasons of Elementary binge-watched. I liked the set-up, and the series had its moments, but it also had a tendency to jump the shark every now and again. And the fifth season was basically a serial with  a not particularly interesting story arc. But here are some films…

Padosan, Jyoti Swaroop (1968, India). Given how many films Bollywood has made, and given that pretty much all of them follow the pattern boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, sooner or later one of the ones I watched was going to “borrow” the plot from Cyrano de Bergerac. The difference here is that the suitor uses song to charm his beloved – or rather, he lipsynchs to a friend singing out of sight of his beloved (who loves in the house next-door, and they’re conducting their love affair from the window of one house to a window of the other. There’s an unintended irony here, given that the vast majority of Bollywood stars don’t sing their own songs but mime to playback singers, and some of the playback singers are as famous as the Bollywood stars whose singing voices they provide. This, of course, is only the first part of the formula. The girl discovers the fakery and retaliates by agreeing to a marriage proposal from the boy’s uncle (although they’re not “boy” and “girl” as he’s in his late thirties and she’s in her mid-twenties). In an effort to win back his love, the boy goes all Romeo & Juliet and fakes his suicide. This is not a good idea, in fact it’s a really bad idea. But it appears to work, and the two are finally reunited. Despite some dodgy bits, this is a fun film, chiefly because its cast looks like they’re having fun. It’s considered “one of the best comedy films made in Hindi film history”, according to Wikipedia, and it’s not hard to see why.

Stockholm, Robert Budreau (2018, USA). When I saw this film, it was titled Stockholm, after Stockholm Syndrome, which was named for the bank robbery depicted in this film. But apparently the UK DVD distributors are preparing for Brexit by removing the name of an EU capital from the cover. Because The Captor is a really dumb title, and pretty much ignores the whole point of the film. Although it is, to be fair, not a great movie. Its cast is predominantly British or American, but they all put on bad Swedish accents. Except they pronounce all the Swedish names incorrectly. Anyway, habitual criminal and his accomplices rob bank, end up in hostage situation, and it all escalates quickly, with the prime minister involved and all sorts of demands and promises made. Oh, and one of the hostages started to identify with the bank robbers. Dodgy Swedish accents aside, Stockholm fails dismally because it makes a bank robbery boring. I mean, hostage situations should be tense and dramatic, even if nothing is actually happening, but Stockholm is just Ethan Hawke stomping about the place like a television cowboy. Avoid.

The Last of England, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). If you had asked me twenty years ago what I thought of Derek Jarman’s films, I might have mentioned being impressed in my teens by Caravaggio but otherwise thinking his work pretentious tosh. But a few years I watched Wittgenstein and thought it really good, and then the BFI released the Derek Jarman Volume 1: 1972 – 1986 Blu-ray collection, and I bought it on a whim… and now I’m a bit of a fan of his movies and I have Volume 2: 1987 – 1994. Part of the reason I’ve become a fan is because Jarman was an experimental film-maker, and while I’ve re-evaluated those of his movies I’d seen before, it’s his experimental films I find myself liking the most. Such as The Last of England. It’s almost impossible to describe, a series of images and scenes set in a post-apocalyptic UK, inspired by Thatcher’s Britain (we didn’t know when we were well off, not that we were: but compared to now? If Thatcher was still alive, this Brexshit would probably see even her rehabilitated. Ugh. What a horrible thought), a painting by Ford Madox Brown, whose title the film takes, and a number of poems. It’s surprisingly effective, both chilling and elegiac. More so, I think, because I remember the late 1980s, and I remember Thatcher’s Britain and Clause 28 and all the things that fed into The Last of England. Good stuff.

The Aristocats, Wolfgang Reitherman (1970, USA). One of many informal film projects I’ve been running – if that’s not too, well, organised a way to describe it – is working my way through all the Disney films. The classic animated films, of course; but even the obscure live action ones, if I can find them. Some of the animated films I obviously saw as a kid (many of them are older than me; yes, hard to believe); but my memories of them are spotty at best. I think I saw The Aristocats back then. I’ve certainly been aware of the movie since I was a child. But then we had a LP of songs from Disney films when I was young and perhaps it was appearing about the film from listening to that… Stereotypical rich old cat woman plans to leave her riches to her cat, but greedy butler overhears and kidnaps the felines – it should be “catnap”, shouldn’t it, but that means something different… Anyway, he dumps the cats in the country (this is early twentieth century France), but they are rescued by a streetwise alley cat, who helps them return home. For some reason, I remembered the characters from this film, but not the story, nor quite how, well, charming it is. It’s been a mixed bag watching these classic Disney animated films, and I’ve been surprised by which ones I’ve really liked and which I’ve found disappointing.The Aristocats definitely goes in the first group.

Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez (2019,USA). So where my childhood was Disney cartoons and surreal British kids’ TV series and bad US TV shows like The Incredible Hulk, people much younger than myself grew up with Japanese properties mangled for the US market. And this film is a US adaptation of an early 1990s Japanese manga/anime series that is apparently quite well-known among a certain age-group. Which si not me. So I knew nothing about it when I sat down to watch the film… and I know just as little having watched it. Christophe Waltz plays a scientist who runs a sort of street clinic for robots and cyborgs, and who discovers a cyborg head on a rubbish heap. He builds a body for the head, a teenage girl’s body, of course, because he lost his daughter years before. And the cyborg turns out to be some sort of super-soldier or something and there’s a powerplay between various people in a floating city of ultra-rich people and I really couldn’t give a toss abut an hour into the movie… and those eyes. They were… offputting. Yes, there is a style of anime which features over-sized eyes, and in the original manga on which Alita: Battle Angel Alita’s eyes were indeed larger than normal, if not as large as in other manga… But it looks weird in a live-action film, sort of like it’s gone through the uncanny valley and come out the other side. I didn’t like this film, and I’m really tired of cyberpunk dystopian futures (although I recognise the original property on which this film is based is thirty years old). Meh.

Singh is Kinng, Anees Bazmee (2008, India). Amazon Prime is proving really good for Indian films. Not just Bollywood, but also Tollywood and Kollywood. And classic movies as well as more recent fare. Singh is Kinng opens with a remarkable comedy sequence in which the title character, Happy Singh, attempts to catch a chicken and manages to demolish his village. Actually, it opens with a piece of OTT gangster violence in Australia. But the chicken sequence is really good. Anyway, the gangster, Lucky Singh, is Happy’s cousin and someone is out to kill him, and the village wants to get rid of Happy… so they send him to Australia to help out his cousin. After a detour via Egypt, where Happy meets the love of his life, he ends up in Australia, where he inadvertently puts Lucky into a coma. And everyone persuades themselves that Happy is the perfect person to run Lucky’s huge criminal empire while Lucky is indisposed. This was a lot of fun. The humour’s broad, and the characters a bit stereotypical, but the set-pieces are good and the film is genuinely funny in places. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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A Tale of three cons

In the past four months I’ve attended three science fiction conventions in three different countries. Three con reports in one post would be a bit much, however, so I’ll keep these short.

The first was Åcon, in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, a part of Finland. I hadn’t initially planned to attend a con so soon after my move north, but was persuaded to go by members of Uppsala fandom – well, one member: Johan Anglemark. And I’m glad I bowed to the pressure. The trip to Mariehamn was ridiculously easy – and the first time I’ve travelled to another country with liquids for many years. A group of fans from Malmö and Copenhagen came up to Uppsala by train the night before, and the following morning we all caught a coach to Grisslehamn on the coast. It takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s two hours on a ferry to Eckerö in the Åland Islands, followed by another 45-minutes coach-ride. It’s been many many years since I was last on a ferry, but they don’t appear to have changed much: a bar with a band murdering hits of the late twentieth century, a huge duty-free store (and, in fact, the chief reason why people take the ferry), and gently shifting motion that had me thinking I was a fraction of a degree away from falling over most of the time.

Åcon takes place in the Hotel Adlon, which may share its name with the Berlin hotel which appears in Philip Kerr’s excellent Bernie Gunther novels set in Nazi Germany, but is entirely the opposite. Sort of. It’s perhaps a bit tired these days, but it’s only a year or two past needing refurbishment and, to be honest, being a little behind the times seems entirely fitting in Mariehamn. While I was there, I actually saw someone delivering newspapers to people’s doors. I didn’t see a milk float, although I don’t think they’re a Finnish or Swedish thing, but if they were, they’d be still be using them in Mariehamn. It’s a bit like time travel. Which is, of course, entirely fitting for a science fiction convention.

Åcon is characterised as a relaxacon, with a single Guest of Honour. This year, the GoH was Amal El-Mohtar, a Canadian writer of Lebanese extraction who used to live in Glasgow, and who I last met in 2013 when she had a quite pronounced Scottish accent. To be honest, I’d thought then she was a Scottish writer. The Åcon way is to schedule 60-minute programme items 90 minutes apart. Everything is in English.

On the first night, I accompanied the GoH and several others to Dino’s, an upmarket burger/steak place. I like eating in Finland. Finns suffer from lactose intolerance, as I do, to such an extent that pretty much all eateries cater to both lactose- and gluten-intolerant diners to a massively better degree than any other country on the planet. The sports bar attached to the Hotel Adlon, for example, served only pizzas, but they were all made with lactose-free cheese… because it’s easier to do that than cater for those tolerant to it and those who aren’t. I love Finland for that.

I was put on two programme items at Åcon, one on how the genre treats the six senses, which I moderated. Yes, six. Because proprioreception is generally considered a sense now. That went so well, it overran its spot and I had trouble bringing it to a close. My second panel was about fairytales and I was probably the least-qualified person on the panel to discuss the topic. Oh well. I attended a couple of items I was not on. I do that at Nordic cons. I find their programmes more interesting because they scratch more itches as a science fiction fan. I was also chosen as a team captain for Jukka’s infamous quiz, but we lost by a single point.

On the Saturday, myself and a Finnish fan called Orjo visited the nearby Sjöfart Museum (Maritime Museum), which includes one of the last sailing ships used in trade by the Åland Islands. That was interesting. In the afternoon was a con-arranged trip to a craft brewery, Open Water Brewery on Lemland, one of the other Åland Islands. There we were given a quick lecture on brewing, and tried several of the breweries beers. Including its cider, new that year. And, I think, the first ever made in the Åland Islands (which actually provides 80% of Finland’s apples).

The final programme item – other than the “gripe session” – was a William Shatner karaoke. This turned out to be performing songs in the style of William Shatner. So, no actual singing. Which I cannot do. I have often said I could not carry a tune even if it came in a bucket. William Shatner karaoke sounds like something worth running from. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It was definitely one of the funniest things I’ve seen at a con for years. Shout out to Regina from Shanghai, who not only travelled all the way from China to Åcon but also performed a jaw-dropping Mandarin song in William Shatner style.

My second convention was Replicon, the annual Swedish national con, Swecon, this year held in Västerås. Which is west of Stockholm and 80 minutes by coach from Uppsala. The con took place in the CuLTUREN, an old copper foundry (hence “Cu”) converted into function space. Replicon occupied the central foyer and made use of three function rooms – two for the programme, and one for the Fantikvariat, a charity that sells secondhand genre books, mostly UK or US. There were a couple of smaller rooms used for other programme items. The venue boasted a small coffee shop and a restaurant – which normally serves Lebanese food but for some bizarre reason decided for the con to become a pizzeria. I’d jokingly said the year before that eating Lebanese on the first night of Swecon had almost become a tradition (we did it in both 2017 and 2018). And this year, while I didn’t have Lebanese food on the Friday evening, I ate in what is normally a Lebanese restaurant. So I think that counts.

Anyway, I arrived at CuLTUREN and immediately bumped into the Anders. Who I’d not seen for over a year, and who was unaware I was now living in Uppsala. He took me to the Bishops Arms for a few beers. The Västerås Bishop Arms is the original one. There are now over 40 scattered around Sweden. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the venue for the Opening Ceremony. Which introduced the two Guests of Honour, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, both names known to me but I’ve not read anything by either. I didn’t attend that many programme items – there seemed to be more Swedish-language ones than in previous years; hopefully, by next year’s Swecon, that will make no difference to me. I spent both Friday and Saturday evenings in BierKeller with some Swedish and Finnish fans. This did entail the drinking of a couple of beers that cost 199 crowns each (in 500 ml bottles), although myself and Anders split both the cost and the beers.

While I may not have attended every programme item – although the ones I saw were good, particularly Anna Bark Persson’s talk on “Female masculinity in SF” – I did better in the Fantikvariat than I’ve done recently in dealers’ room: I bought eight books, two were in Swedish and four were books I already owned (but in storage in the UK). For the past couple of years, I’ve bought more second-hand books at Nordic cons than I have at UK cons. Go figure.

Replicon was a smaller affair than other Swecons I’ve attended, but it was well-organised, the venue worked, and Västerås is a pleasant town. In Swedish terms, I think Västerås fandom well and truly put themselves on the map in terms of con-running. Should they ever plan to run another Swecon, they’ll likely get more attendees.

The big con this year was, of course, the Worldcon, which took place at the Convention Centre in Dublin. I last visited the city when I was two years old so I remember nothing of the trip. And it’s undoubtedly changed a great deal since then. (I mentioned this to the cab driver taking me to the airport after the con. The area where my hotel was sited has been extensively redeveloped, and for all of the buildings we passed he pointed out what had been there before.) I’d booked rooms in the Grand Canal Hotel, a ten-minute walk from the Convention Centre, which no doubt contributed to my 10-km a day average for walking (when I normally average 8 km a day). But then there were a lot of floors in the Convention Centre and a lot of walking required between the various rooms. There were not, in fact, many chairs. Seriously, given the greying of fandom, cons need to provide more areas where people can sit down and relax.

The other notable aspect of this particular Worldcon was the queuing. I didn’t actually attend any programme items other than those I was on (more on them below), but I was told it was almost impossible to leave one panel and then get into the next because of the queues. Several people told me during the weekend that high levels of attendance for the programme seemed to be a new thing. Dublin2019 was only my third Worldcon, and while I remember lots of queues at Worldcon75 in Helsinki, I don’t remember any at Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. Fandom really has changed over the past decade; and for the better. There seems to be far more engagement, and it’s less of a private club.

But. My panels. The first was Apollo at 50, first thing on the Friday, with Dr Jeanette Epps, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dr David Stephens and Geoff Landis. When we arrived in the room – the 600-seat room – only two of the microphones were working, those in front of Epps and Kowal. So they suggested they talk while tech fixed the other mikes. And the subject they chose was… going to the toilet in space. It became a bit of theme during the panel. I thought the discussion went really well. The panellists were excellent, especially Dr Epps. Later that same day, I was on Artemis: Apollo’s Big Sister, again with Dr Epps and Geoff Landis, but also Becky Chambers and moderator Alan Smale. The panel went reasonably well, but I would have enjoyed it more if Becky Chambers had not sat with her back to me for its entire length.

My next panel was early afternoon on the Saturday. It was about Alternate Apollos. It came very close to becoming the Panel from Hell. It is my practice when moderating panels at cons to contact the panellists by email a week or so before. So we can introduce ourselves to each other and get some discussion going, and no one is ambushed during the actual panel. One member of the panel managed to offend another. The day before the panel. I demanded the person send out an apology. They objected, but sent the apology (which was, to be honest, pretty much a non-apology apology, you know the sort). The next morning I get an email asking me to visit Programme Ops. I’m told one member of the panel has dropped out (the offeendee, so to speak), and the offender has been removed from the panel. They’re looking for replacements, but not having much success. I spend half an hour running around the con, trying to find replacements of my own, before making my way up to the green room to break the news to the remaining panellist. Except, it turns out her partner is just as qualified for the panel and is downstairs queuing for it. “Get him up here,” I tell her. He joins us. And when we get to the room, it transpires Programme Ops has managed to get one of their alternates to volunteer – and my preferred choice, too. After all that, the panel went pretty well. I hadn’t wanted to get too space-geeky, but we had an audience of space geeks, and they seemed to enjoy the panel. But I didn’t enjoy running around trying to rescue the panel in the hour before it started.

Happily, my final panel, on the Monday morning, went reasonably smoothly. Admittedly, after four days of Worldcon, my ability to brain was badly impaired. The topic was lunar depictions in science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want it to turn into fifty minutes of recommendations of books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Panellists Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffrey Reynolds and GoH Ian McDonald, however, managed to get some intelligent discussion going about depictions of the Moon in historical and mythological texts around the globe… and then we ended up recommending books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Ah well.

The highlight of the con for me was being approached by Dr Jeanette Epps on the Sunday evening as I was heading out for a meal. she told me I was her favourite moderator. It’s not every day an actual astronaut says something like that to you. (To be fair, the  Apollo at 50 panel was good. It was informative and entertaining, and it stayed on topic. But I had excellent panellists and, even if I say so myself, it was probably one of the best jobs at moderation I’ve done in twenty years of appearing on panels at cons.)

I suppose I should mention the dealers room. It was big. But, unfortunately, the only books available were either brand new or self-published. No second-hand book dealers. I returned home with a single book purchased at the con:

My next convention this year will be held in a fourth country: Fantasticon in Copenhagen, Denmark. Maybe I’ll see you there.