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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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I like parasites.  They do the craziest things; things that rightfully belong in sf, fantasy or horrror fiction rather than the real world.  Like create zombie ants. Biology’s a great place to trawl for story ideas.

If you’re currently eating anything, might be an idea to finish that before watching this.  Just saying.

CreatureCast – Lancet Liver Fluke from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

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In years gone by, I’ve tended to pop out a Miscellany post to mark the festive season.  Don’t know why.  Don’t know why I’m about to do it again, but here I go.

For Likers of Sketches

D(ungeons) & D(ragons) & D(oodles) is a fun little tumblr from Tom Fowler, featuring amusing and striking sketches of a fantastical sort.  Only a handful of images there so far, but it’s worth a look.  Guy can draw.

Image is (c) 2012 Tom Fowler /  Just so you know.

Weekly Sketch Up is a weekly (funnily enough) column at iFanboy that collates and reposts some of the nicest recent comics-related sketches showing up on the interwebs.  Well worth a browse if you like to see comics artists having a bit of fun.

For Likers of Expensive/Dangerous Toys

Probably too late for this year, but how about asking for a JetLev Flyer when the next gift-giving season comes around?

Or perhaps I could tempt you with a wingsuit?

For Likers of Photography

2012 was, I think, one of the better recent years for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a long-running British institution for those of us who like (a) wildlife and (b) pictures of it.

You can browse a full online gallery of the best images of 2012 on the Natural History Museum website. I confess, it’s a bit of a pig of a site, navigation-wise; but with a little bit of pointing and clicking you can get a look at some stunning wildlife photos (when you eventually find an ‘Enlarge’ button, click that and you will be amply rewarded). And if that tickles your fancy, well you can browse another seven years’ worth of photos there as well.

The exhibition of the winning photos has already started a global tour which runs through next year, and if it’s showing up anywhere near you I’d highly recommend checking it out. Seeing the actual photos at full size is quite the experience if you’re into this kind of thing. Mysteriously, the tour doesn’t seem to include the USA – sorry, USA folks.

For Likers of … Well, Wild Scots Really

These folks show up on the streets of Edinburgh most summers, always drawing a big crowd of passers-by and always being about the best street theatre you could ever wish for: Albannach

Albannach @ Sunday Pub Sing from Highland Renfair on Vimeo.

And since I’m on the subject of music, let’s repeat my old and tired trick of putting a bit of guitar in these miscellany posts. This time, it’s courtesy of Antoine Dufour:

For Likers of Apocalypses (and Podcasts)

As the world’s ending … tomorrow, is it? … why not treat yourself to a podcast on the topics of apocalypses?

Apocalypse Now and Then from the BackStory podcast is a fun and informative dig around in the history of apocalypses and end-times in the USA.

And thanks to Edd Vick for directing me to the BackStory podcast as a whole, back in the comments on this post.  That’s how us podcast lovers spread the love, after all; it’s all about word of mouth.  So why not check out this extensive exercise in word of mouth over at SF Signal on the subject of SF/F podcasts, and do some exploring in the audio wonderland?  There’s something in there for everyone. (Everyone who likes a bit of sf or F, anyway).

Should, for some unforeseen reason, the world fail to end, Happy Holidays to one and all.  Hope everyone gets a minimum of stress and a maximum of happiness over the festive season.  (If the world does end, that minimum and maximum will no doubt be reversed, but don’t fret it; it’ll all be over soon, I imagine).

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Amazing what a dose of obsession and some money can achieve.

A couple of weeks ago, the Sailrocket 2 became the fastest sailboat in history.  This very nice clip shows it covering a nautical mile faster than anything powered by nothing more than the wind has ever done before.  Average speed: 55.3 knots, which is 63.6 mph or just over 102 kmh.  So they’re going faster, on water and under just sail power, than I’m allowed to drive on any road except a motorway in the UK.  And their peak speed during the run?  Almost 65 knots.  74mph, 120 kph.  Which is faster than I’m allowed to go even on a motorway.

As I said: amazing what people can do.  Kind of pointless on one level; full of point on another.

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A mere four days late, it’s time for … Moving Pictures on a Friday, on a Tuesday.  No point in being overly literal about these categories, I say; go with the flow.

A friend of mine was a point of light in this rather crowd-sourced performance, called Speed of Light, during the recent Edinburgh festival.  It’s a fun show, made by the context: a big dark hill, with an illuminated Edinburgh as the backdrop.  Especially cool: the point just over a minute in when fireworks start erupting from the Castle (a fortuitous part of an entirely unrelated show):

And in other news: if, a couple of weeks ago, you had asked me whether I had read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I would have unhesitatingly, confidently said ‘Yes. Liked it quite a bit. Literary fiction with an SF spin. Jolly good.’ Then I saw this trailer, and I was befuddled:

It looks like a pretty interesting, ambitious, thoughtful bit of sf movie-making. And it bears almost no relation to my memories of the book I thought I had read. Now, those memories are decidedly vague, more to do with the overall tone and feel of the book than its details, but even so it’s amazing how little overlap there is between them and the content of the trailer.

What am I to make of this?  Have the film-makers produced what you might call a ‘loose’ adaptation, working some kind of transformation on the source material?  Have the trailer-makers gone nuts and cut together a completely misleading (though really quite interesting) advert for the film?  Or, as seems more likely, is the problem at my end?

I guess it’s possible that I got completely the wrong end of the stick about the book when I read it, and consequently have an accurate memory of a completely inaccurate impression of it.  I don’t think that’s the answer.  It’s also possible I’m an idiot, and have never actually read Cloud Atlas.  Maybe I saw it at the time and thought ‘I really should read that’, and the progressive degradation of my brain has somehow convinced that I did in fact read it, and enjoy it, and formed an opinion about it.  Yikes.  I wish I could be absolutely certain that’s not the answer … but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Most likely, though, seems that I’ve forgotten far more than I would have thought plausible about a book I have indeed read, and enjoyed.  That seems a pity, if true.  Has my head space reached saturation point, where stuff – even stuff that’s worth remembering – is getting squeezed out to make way for new stuff?  It’s not just book-reading, but experience in general: if something has given me pleasure, I want to be able to remember it.  Is an unremembered pleasure worth as much as a remembered one?  Does it even exist, as an experience, if I’ve forgotten or misremembered it?  Memory.  It’s not a simple thing.

Anyway.  Cloud Atlas.  Good book.  I recommend it, to anyone who likes literary fiction with an SF spin.  At least I think I do.  Not really sure.

So, we – as a species, obviously; I had nothing to do with it personally – landed a thing the size of a small car on Mars.

It’s amazing, I think.  On a clear night, you can sometimes see a particular point of light in the sky, and we sent a robot car there.  It’s up there, trundling about on that tiny point of light in the sky right now.  A trivial miracle in the world of science fiction space operas, but in the more modest reality we’re required to live in it’s a wonderful thing.

I get all the reasons why the various exploratory space programs have been so curtailed over recent decades; I understand why the miracle of putting men on the Moon forty plus years ago hasn’t led to the still greater miracles it could (and in a perfect world, perhaps would) have led to.

It’s a shame, though, that our astounding capacities – which the Curiosity rover demonstrates in a relatively modest way – haven’t had the chance to bloom unchecked. If they had, we’d probably be drilling down through Europa’s ice by now, and enjoying the visions of planetary dystopia provided by multiple probe landings on the Earth’s psychotic twin.

But for now I guess it’s enough to look at an apparently mundane image like this, taken within the last 24 hours:

and reflect on the fact that it is, and always will be, amazing to get photos from another world.  Especially when, as this rather over-excited video explains, the method of getting a camera into place to take those photos is so wonderfully, spectacularly like something out of a science fiction movie it seems wildly improbable:

I mean, they landed this car-sized thing, on a planet millions upon millions of miles away, with a rocket-powered Skycrane. Seriously? To me, that looks like the kind of wildly over-optimistic concept put about by technologists or futurists now and again; looks fantastic, but somehow never quite works out, because of all the technical and practical complications they never mention in the full flow of their optimisim.  But this time, they really did it.  Cool.

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I don’t go to the cinema much these days (boo hoo, poor me).  I did get out to see Amazing Spider-Man last week, though.  Enjoyed it – didn’t feel I wanted to reclaim the three hours of my life seeing it involved or anything – but for almost everything I liked about it there’s something that didn’t quite work for me to put on the other side of scales.

Liked: the grounded, realistic feel; the casting and perfomances, especially Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone; the first half hour, maybe the first hour; Uncle Ben and Aunt May.  Not so much: the CGI Lizard; the studio editing job, which I’d guess has chopped out big chunks of the movie, some of which I suspect should have stayed in there – or at the very least the focus on making what was left coherent, flowing and evenly-toned needed to be a notch more obsessive; the last half hour plus, especially hokey elements (like the thing with the cranes) that to me undercut the aforementioned grounded, realistic feel.

There’s a lot more I could include in both lists, but instead I thought I’d talk about a movie I saw on TV recently, and probably enjoyed rather more: Attack The Block, written and directed by Joe Cornish.  Amazing Spider-Man exists mostly for corporate, commercial reasons (entirely, in fact.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to qualify that with ‘mostly’); Attack the Block mostly – I suspect – for creative, enjoyment ones.  That’s a gigantic difference, right there.  Either set of motivations can deliver satisfying entertainment, but only one of them’s really likely to generate something you haven’t seen before.

Attack The Block, which came out last year, is a pretty low budget British sf/horror romp set almost entirely in and around a tower block on a housing estate (would that be apartment block on a housing project for American readers/viewers?).  For long stretches, it’s great fun and well worth the watch.

It has absolutely nothing in common with The Wire (world’s greatest ever TV series) save this: it’s loaded with street-level accents and argot.  It’s not quite as uncompromising in its realism in that regard as is The Wire, but it’s nevertheless a mode of speech that, to put it mildly, you don’t see all that often in sf movies. It’s not at all hard to follow for any Brit with a passing familiarity with contemporary urban yoof culture (I’m pretty confident of that, because my familiarity with said culture is passing at very best), but I’d guess it might take non-Brit viewers a bit longer to get their ear in.  Other than that, it’s perfectly accessible to anyone, and I’d recommend it to all who’d like to see what a bit of imagination, the British sense of humour and a limited budget can do with alien invasion sf.

A bunch of furry aliens with big, lumniscent teeth go up against the local gang on a housing estate, and chaos ensues. That’s all there is to it, really.  It’s done with a heavy dose of dark humour, a great sense for visual action and a lively pace. The dialogue’s slick and snappy, and it’s delivered pretty well, especially by the young members of the cast. That’s something I always used to think was a bit of a weakness of UK films: child actors over here tended not to be quite as preternaturally (disconcertingly?) polished and accomplished as their US counterparts. But I’ve thought for a while now that that’s been changing, and the performances from the youngsters in Attack the Block are seriously good. The lead – John Boyega – actually has one of the less colourful, more monotonic parts, but I think that’s down to scripting and directing and he looks a highly promising prospect for future stardom, if you ask me. A British Denzel Washington in embryo.

The design and execution of the aliens themselves is cleverly effective, capitalising on – rather than compromised by – budgetary constraints. Texture-less black voids in the shape of wild-furred ape-things, with glowing jaws that draw the viewer’s eye and make for very effective creepy frights. There’s a good deal of violence, a fair amount of blood and death, but it doesn’t descend into an out and out splatterfest, relying as much on energy and implication to keep things moving.

I thought it lost just a fraction of its oomph towards the end, and the actual conclusion isn’t quite as violently cathartic as it could have been. It’s also ever so slightly too feel-good for me, with a bow of neighbourliness tied atop an otherwise potentially quite nuanced ending. But all in all it’s a big breath of fresh air compared to Spider-Man and its ilk, the extruded product of the hyper-budgeted entertainment-industrial complex.  Go search it out, if you fancy something a bit different and distinctive.  And fun.

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