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Time for some Moving Pictures on a Friday and for no particular reason, I thought we’d all just spare a couple of minutes to admire Scotland. I mean, I do that all the time since it’s where I’m from and where I live, but the rest of you just get a couple of minutes …

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Aaaand I’m back on the blog treadmill after a festive break that ended up being a bit longer than intended. Busy, you know. Holidaying, working, thinking up new stuff. Got plans and hopes for 2014 – as I hope you all do, too! – but more on that another time.

Holidays mean holidaying, of course, but they also mean reading and watching, especially over Xmas/New Year. So here’s a quick summary of how some of my time got itself occupied while I’ve been keeping a low profile round here.

Reading first.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is something I got to later than most other folks with an interest in this kind of stuff, but courtesy of a well-judged Christmas present, I read it in the last week of December. Fascinating, for those of you with a longing to see what was wriggling under the rock of all those superhero comics that overtook the medium in the US in the second half of the last century. The lasting impression I’ll take away is of a company, and to some extent an industry, that was winging it most of the time, populated by big, often abrasive personalities, riding momentum without the time or inclination to pay much attention to what – or who – got trampled along the way. It’s kind of a feverish vision, but I’m glad to report it hasn’t put me off the idea of dipping my own toes into the comics waters.

Then, Stealing Light, by Gary Gibson. Got this on kind of an impulse, because the e-book happened to be (and still is) ‘competitively’ priced one day when I was browsing for an impulse buy. No regrets: a fun, accessible space opera, the first of a series, featuring engaging alien masterminds, bonkers human cultures, an interesting and sympathetic heroine, and a narrative that increases the scale of the action and concepts as it goes along. I’ll be giving part 2 a try at some point (which I guess = job done, competitive pricing).

And here’s an oddity, which I include to illustrate the randomness of some of my interests. River Monsters, by Jeremy Wade. The book of the TV series, in which Mr. Wade goes to remote places and catches large, dangerous freshwater fish. I’m a long-standing fan of the TV version. It combines lots of my interests – wildlife, unusual travel, fishing (yes, believe it or not I used to go fishing now and again in my youth, but no longer) – and I find both the TV and the book refreshingly different and novel, compared to most natural history stuff.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve heard of a lot more animals than most folks (being a naturalist/conservationist by inclination, education and past employment) but even I’d never heard of a Goliath tigerfish until Mr. Wade introduced me to it; and if you’ve not seen it’s teeth, well … check them out. Most surprisingly interesting bit of the River Monsters book, in a way, is the stuff about Jeremy Wade himself. Guy has issues – it’s not only aquatic monsters he has to deal with – and he’s pretty frank about discussing them.

On to the watching.

We’re experimenting with Netflix UK in the Ruckley household. As far as I can tell, the selection of stuff available on Netflix UK kind of sucks compared to what’s evidently available on the US service. But it’s easy and convenient and efficient and there’s still quite a lot of stuff on there. It’s meant I’ve watched more movies in the last month or so than in the preceding three or four at least.

For example: I re-watched Thor (the first one) and Captain America. That firmed up my initial impression: I much prefer Thor as a movie and a spectacle. Did reinvigorate my interest in seeing the imminent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Hot tip here, if you haven’t already heard: there’s rumours floating around the internet, from people who should know roughly what they’re talking about, that Winter Soldier is going to be something a little bit special. As in, seriously good film. Wouldn’t surprise me, because I really, really liked the trailer.

I also re-watched, after years, Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Palmer film. Michael Caine doing much darker, grimier, more realistic version of James Bond. They made three of these films back in the 60s (and crappy sequels much later, which are best ignored), and I like them all. Caine does tremendously under-stated yet magically charismatic and kind of sexy stuff here, working with a nice script. They just don’t make films like they used to, do they? You should check them out, if the idea of the young Michael Caine doing this kind of thing appeals:

And I watched, for the first time, Battle Royale. Holy cow. That, let me tell you, is … different. Difficult to explain just how fascinating I find it, beyond saying that just as I’m captivated by the strange things manga offers that Western comics don’t, so Battle Royale is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any US/European production. The sensibility, the preoccupations, the humour, the hyper-acting. The wonderful composition of some of the images. The bonkers violence. It’s kind of unique, and feels very, very Japanese. Extraordinary. Not sure what else I can say about it, really.

Oh, I know what else I could say: It’s crying out to be watched in a double bill with Lord of the Flies.

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It’s a neat trick, to still be able to spring little surprises upon fans in this age of social media saturation and secret leakage. Not a total surprise, mind you – I’d seen speculation nailing various bits, basically all the bits in fact, of this over the last few months – but still, plenty of folks seem to have been taken a bit off guard.

The Night of the Doctor, the prequel minisode that leads into the imminentish tsunami of Dr. Who revelations, nostalgia and celebration, arrives and it’s a pleasing little stitching together of hints and threads that, above all else I think, makes me really hope we’re going to get a properly generous helping of John Hurt as the Doctor in our near futures, not just a scene or two. But the thing that made me smile most is right there near the start: ‘Not the one you were expecting’. Kind of contrived line, maybe, but let them have their fun.  They earned it.

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Our future robot overlords are in active development at Boston Dynamics.

(a) Cool. (b) Creepy? Just a little bit?

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Just a bit of fun for a Friday afternoon. Test your awareness.

I’ve got an in-law who was not entirely uninvolved in bringing these into existence, but even allowing for the possibility of bias, I think they’re quite fun and clever, aren’t they? And all in a good cause.  And then there’s this one, which is a bit less fun really, but still clever:

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A first for me at the weekend.  My first airshow, that is.  The Scottish National Airshow, at the National Museum of Flight, to be specific.  Been to the Museum before (it’s good, incidentally, should you ever be in the area), but never to the annual Airshow before.

Conclusion?  Airshows are good. But also that the banal predictability of male responses means that some bits are gooder than others. It’s kind of discouraging (but also kind of comforting, in a self-identity sort of way) just how much the psyche of so many average adult males, such as yours truly, responds in the same way as that of a twelve year old to certain stimuli.

We’ll get to the stimuli in question in a minute, but first some admittedly amateurish photos.

A Fairey Swordfish, for starters.  One of the most charismatic old-school aircraft there, imho, complete with (dummy, thankfully) torpedo:

And then these folks, the Breitling Wingwalkers. Watching them really is a bit like being transported back to the 40s or 50s or whenever this whole wingwalking thing was in its heyday:

And in many ways the oddest, vaguely surreal element of the whole day, a genuine Vietnam Vet Huey sitting in a field just outside Edinburgh, beneath by then rather ominous skies, waiting to do its thing:

It’s earned its retirement, that helicopter, since it apparently survived over 100 flights and well over 500 combat hours in Vietnam.

You can see much, much better photos of the Airshow than mine, of all these and many more aircraft, over here, by the way.

I don’t know how many fly-bys and displays there were in all – fifteen or twenty, probably – and pretty much all of them were in one way or another interesting, beautiful, cool.  Those wingwalkers, for instance (apologies in advance for mildly shaky, even more amateurish filming):

I mean, that’s a fairly remarkable way to spend your time, don’t you think? Standing on top of a biplane doing a loop. And the noise is kind of appealing, too. But noise, it turns out, is at the heart of an Airshow’s ability to make me twelve again. The wingwalkers, and the historical aircraft all appeal to the heart, or the mind, and are great to see, but if you want to hit a man-boy in the gut and put a big, stupid grin on his face you let loose the dragons (volume needs to be up to 11 to hint at the gut-punching effect for this next clip):

Honestly, when that Eurofighter was doing its thing, it was just like having a dragon set loose in the sky above you. I kept thinking of Smaug. It made every other plane in the show – no matter how cool, how interesting, how beautiful – seem like a housefly, or a droning bee, by comparison.

And apart from raw power, what else makes little boys, however old, stand still and take heed? War, of course. Cultural connections to war movies, and a sound that’s instantly familiar, even though I’d never heard it before in real life: that of a Huey taking off and chuddering away over the fields. The mood music on this one’s not mine, by the way; inflicted on us by the Airshow organisers:

I was struck by how powerfully evoactive that sight, and that sound were, in ways that none of the many WWII era aircraft on show could match.  It occured to me that, even though I’m British, the Huey’s intrinsically and powerfully sumbolic of its entire war in a way that not even the Spitfire is of WWII for me.  The sight and sound of a Huey calls up every film or documentary I’ve ever seen about Vietnam, as immediately and simply as if a button has been pushed.

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Number 13

After doing a little digging on the web, although I’m still not clear about what exactly this is – trailer for a proposed film, animated pitch document, I think it’s the latter, really, but I’m not 100% sure  – I am at least clear that I think it’s kind of fun.  Part live action, part comics-influenced animation, part 300-ish CGI fest it works quite nicely as a self-contained glimpse into a world that looks interesting.  It’s based on a comic of the same name, which I’ve never read.

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So I noticed that there’s a new Blu-Ray/DVD release of Harold Lloyd’s most famous film coming out this summer.

Which made me wonder: how many people remember Harold Lloyd?  A lot, I hope.  When I was a kid, his silent movies – or at least excerpts from them – were on the TV quite a lot.  As were those of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton.  Thinking about it, I don’t think this stuff ever shows up on ‘mainstream’ TV channels now, does it?  What a shame.  Seeing that stuff when I was young felt perfectly natural, as if b&w silent comedies were just another part of the entertainment spectrum.  Now they’re being forgotten, bit by bit.  Made into a truly niche historical interest.

They deserve better, both the films and the superstar actors who made them.  And Harold Lloyd was my favourite of those actors when I was a child.  Chaplin’s films were too subtle and understated for my simple tastes at that tender age.  Laurel and Hardy were funny, for sure, but even back then I recognised them as caricatures (though I don’t suppose I knew what that word meant!).  Harold Lloyd was different: a real, ordinary guy doing funny things and – most important for the young me – also delivering crazy, crazy stunts and action.  He was, in my very humble opinion, a film genius.

And this is the most famous evidence in support of that humble opinion.  Ten minutes of stuntage, physical narrative, action, clever editing and interesting angles that would look good if it was made today, let alone ninety years ago:

Who needs CGI?  (Honestly, the more time goes by, the more I think CGI is just such an unfortunate development.  Inevitable, unavoidable, but unfortunate.)

Anyway, Harold Lloyd=Genius. I really don’t think there’s much room for doubt.

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A few miscellaneous bits. Starting with by far the most important thing, the minor frustrations of my life. Because that’s what really matters, right?

So, I’m going to talk to some students on the MLitt course at Stirling University today. Enthuse or dispirit them on the subject of the life of a published author; could go either way, I suspect. Naturally, given that appointment, today’s the day I wake up with a sore throat, cough and general feeling of mild grottiness. Typical. Harrumph. Does it affect the odds of the enthuse or dispirit outcome? Time will tell.

Raising my eyes (reluctantly) from my own travails, I see B&N is heading into turbulent waters. Looks like those hoping the Nook might save them from a slow fade into history might be disappointed. And for reasons that are mysterious to me, it seems the founder wants to break up the company, taking over the the bookselling bit and cutting adrift the digital/Nook bit. It all looks very much like decline to me, terminal or otherwise. Given they’ve already said they’re going to be closing stores, it’s the slow-motion chewing up of a formerly strong but now very definitely fragile company. I’m kind of sceptical, to put it extremely mildly, much of it’s going to be left intact by the time the mastication is over.

Creative destruction’s all very well, but the future of writing, publishing, selling and reading books does not look a hugely appealing place to me these days. Quasi-monopolistic dictatorships are rarely pretty. We’re all going to have to live there, though, so might as well try to make the best of it.  Enjoy your nearest bricks and mortar bookstore while you can.

And here’s The Miniature Earth. What the world would look like, numbers-wise, if it was a village of 100 souls. Not a great deal that’s hugely surprising, but it’s kind of interesting, and elegantly done.

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