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Inexplicably (you might think that’s irony, but I couldn’t possibly comment) watching horror movies continues to feel like a not inappropriate way to start 2017. And I got two more under my belt in the last couple of weeks.

Extinction

Misleading trailer alert! Well, slightly misleading. This is a more character-led and less action-driven movie than that trailer would suggest. For big chunks of the movie, it’s two guys and a young girl working out some of their issues in a bleak, wintry, post-apocalyptic world. But there are monsters, and they’re quite nicely conceived and designed. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but it’s a movie with its good points: some decent acting, a cool ice age-ish environment and some effective chills and creeps especially as it gets to the climax. If you like your horror with a healthy dose of character work and a focus on mood rather than all-out action, and your apocalypses kind of intimate instead of wide-screen, might be worth your time.

Train To Busan

Everyone knows East Asia is a bit of the world that knows how to do horror movies, right? Train To Busan is a nice bit of further supporting evidence for that. South Korea gets the zombie apocalypse treatment, and we see almost all of it through the eyes of a train-load of (mostly doomed, obviously) passengers who just want to stay alive long enough to reach some kind of sanctuary. There’s an array of fairly off-the-shelf characters – sports team, neglectfully work-oriented dad, daughter who wants her dad back, selfish businessman etc. – but they’re all made to bounce off each other very entertainingly and the zombie action (fast zombies, my favourite sort) is frantic and fun. And the way the movie uses the train as setting and plot device and action-architecture is great. It’s already slated for an English-language remake, which is rarely a recipe for improving on the original – so if you’re into zombie action, check out this version. I seriously doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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… which may or may not prove to be an appropriate curtain-raiser for the year. We shall see.

Anyway, I’m not that big on horror movies but I do indulge now and again. So here’re the three in which I recently indulged, all very different but all with much (or at least, in one case, something) to recommend them:

Green Room

Part horror, part violent thriller really, I suppose; no supernatural elements as such. Either way, a very tightly and smartly written, well-acted, engaging bit of film-making. It’s unsettling and unnerving rather than utterly horrific on the whole, but there are occasional outbursts of uncompromising and somewhat gruesome violence. It’s all the more effective because the violence just kind of … happens. It’s not artificially sign-posted or artfully choreographed. It just happens. Patrick Stewart and the sadly late Anton Yelchin are great in their roles.

Bone Tomahawk

Well that … that was … that was not a film I’m going to forget in a hurry. A very unusual horror-western. The first three quarters of it are mostly an intense, slow, very involving character study: bringing together four men into a posse and following them out into a harsh and unforgiving landscape. The script is extraordinary, with dialogue that’s both sort of naturalistic (as is everything else about the film – lighting, sound, etc.) and at the same time heightened and a bit baroque. The acting, from Kurt Russell and everyone else, is fairly low key, but brilliant. (In fact, I thought this was as good as I’ve seen Kurt Russell in years. Possibly ever!).

So yes. For the first 3/4 of the film, you’re watching a very good, if slightly odd, Western. And then … then it becomes an at times intensely disturbing horror movie. There is properly appalling violence in here – one scene in particular that I had to avert my eyes from – and it’s all the more effective because the character development has been so strong in what went before. I thought the whole thing was kind of brilliant, in its deeply idiosyncratic way. Despite the full-on horror, it’s in no sense a run-of-the-mill gorefest. This is almost arthouse horror.

I should probably add, I’m not sure the film quite earns the pass it’s trying for on its treatment of Native Americans. It does try, but I’m not sure it quite manages it. That caveat aside, it’s a remarkable piece of film-making. Which some people will hate, some will love. I’m a lot closer to the latter than the former.

The Return of the Living Dead

So, I said at the start of this that all these films have much to recommend them. That might have been stretching things a bit.

Truth is, the reason I watched this one is also the main thing it has going for it, really: nostalgia. I loved this movie when I was a teen. I loved its humour, its soundtrack, its general nuttiness. As zombie movies go, it’s far more interested in making you laugh – or at least smile – than in scaring you or creeping you out. Watching it as an adult, you do kind of notice some slightly dodgy acting among the minor characters, some pacing and structural issues. But it’s still kind of fun. And it’s definitely got that nostalgic kick for those of us (you?) who view the 1980s with a certain sort of affection …

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Time for a few posts just catching up on various things as 2016 (that was some year, eh?) draws to an end.

First up, my return to writing comics. A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of writing a Rogue Trooper comic for IDW – still easy to get the collected edition, should you be so inclined (e.g. Amazon US or Amazon UK).

highlander-1-francavillaThat was a huge amount of fun, but now I have the even greater pleasure of writing a Highlander comic, again for IDW. You know Highlander, right? 1980s movie: immortals, swords, a Queen soundtrack. 80s awesomeness, really.

I’ve got to say, writing comics is intensely enjoyable after having spent so much time over the last few years working away at novel-length prose. The collaborative aspect of it – writer, editor, artist, colorist, letterer teaming up and trying steer the ship to a destination everyone can enjoy and be proud of – makes it a profoundly different writing experience. And it causes my e-mail traffic to increase by a factor of ten, easily, which makes me feel important. So that’s good.

The artist for Highlander is Andrea Mutti, and he’s doing an amazing job. Which is high praise, because it’s not an easy job I’ve given him. This is Highlander – immortals battling throughout history – so of course the story I’m telling spans a looooong time; different periods, different looks, different styles. It’s a direct prequel to the original movie, so any fans of that celebration of immortal mayhem should definitely check it out. The first issue’ll hit the shelves of comic book stores, and digital comics vendors, in February 2017, sporting a very fine cover – as you can see up above – by comic artist legend Francesco Francavilla.

You can pre-order it right now, though, at your local comic shop – and if you do you might be able to snag yourself a copy with the special subscription variant cover by Claudia Gironi:Highlander -1-cover-Claudia Gironi

Cool, no? Correct answer is ‘Yes, Brian. Cool.’

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I wrote this mini-essay ages ago – it was intended for publication elsewhere, but that never happened. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it but then the trailer for the re-make of The Magnificent Seven came out and … well, why it reminded me of this will be obvious once you read on!

It’s timely for another reason, mind you. It’s mostly about The Free, my most recently published novel, and some of the specific influences on that book. As I might have mentioned here, The Free is getting some companion e-novellas now. The first, Corsair, is out now everywhere e-books are sold, ready for your downloading and reading pleasure. So seems like a sensible time to revisit this discussion about what was going on in my head when I wrote The Free in the first place …

I’ve always got little movies playing in my head when I’m writing, especially action scenes. Not the details, but things like movement, its pattern and rhythm, and – bizarrely – lighting. So basically, my little mental movies are kind of blurry but full of movement and very well-lit.

When it came to writing The Free, though, things got a whole lot more specific. Once I had the basic story in my head I realised it had a lot on common with particular movies that I really like, and I decided to dig around in those commonalities and see what popped up. It was a first for me; usually (I think) my influences are a bit more subterranean and a good deal less conscious. This time, for better or worse, I was paying close attention.

The movies in question are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and to an extent 13 Assassins. Not enough people have seen the last of those: it’s kind of a modern, streamlined version of Seven Samurai, turned up to a violent eleven. It’s beautiful, brutal and clever stuff.

So, I thought, what do I like about these movies, and what would a novel that tried to achieve a similar effect look like? Not all of the answers I came up with actually made it into The Free, but some did. It wound up being a book that’s deliberately reminiscent of those movies, but not a slavish retread – it has its own story to tell. Some of the similarities are pretty obvious (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean), others maybe not so much, and it’s a couple of the latter I wanted to discuss here.

Exhibit One: Endings. All four of the films I’ve name-dropped are to a greater or lesser extent about endings in particular ways and combinations that I reckon are interesting. They share an elegiac tone, and underneath their narrative skin are positively thick with the notion of ending, or passing. The end of the age of gunslingers or samurai, the age of the individual man of violence (women of violence too, in The Free). The ending of specific lives; lives of which we see only the final few days, but they’re days that seem to sum up the years that have preceded them. I like that model. Beginning a story right near its end appeals to me.

The other thing about these movies and endings is that in all of them, from early on, the plot’s end-point is made very, very clear. In three of the four movies, you even know where the climax is going to take place, who the antagonists will be, what the specific numerical odds against the protagonists will be, within the first … I don’t know, twenty minutes maybe?

On some level, all of this is back to front. You might even call it spoilerific. I don’t go quite that far in The Free, because I couldn’t resist putting in one or two twists, but the sustained action of the last 80+ pages of the book is in a sense the obviously intended destination, and I assume – want, even – the reader to recognise that from pretty early on.

The thing about having what you might call a ‘flagged climax’ like this is that it pulls the plot and narrative towards it. It exerts a sort of gravitational tug that by its nature puts a bit of momentum and energy and tension into the tale. The fact that you know the shape, if not the detail, of Seven Samurai’s ending from very near the start imbues the whole movie with a rich cocktail of meaning and foreboding and questioning.

Exhibit Two: Otherness and violence. Much of the distinctive magic and tone of all these movies resides in the otherness of their central characters. They exist in tightly defined ‘bands of brothers’ socially and psychologically isolated from everyone else – but I reckon their otherness is also fundamentally about their relationship to violence. How they in particular use violence, how they view its purpose, and how its application has shaped, bonded and isolated them.

The thing that struck me, though, was that in the case of the movies with seven in the title, many different views (and consequences) of violence are represented both within and without the central band of brothers. Violence is what defines many of these characters, but it does it in radically different ways. I don’t make a big thing of it in The Free – it’s supposed to be entertainment, not meditation – but nevertheless it’s there; everyone in the book, consciously or unconsciously, has their own particular reason for enacting violence, and feels its effects and consequences in different ways. The central characters are mercenaries, but simple greed is not one of the reasons. Because that would be kind of dull, right?

And the other thing about violence, of course, is that it’s exciting. The movies I’m talking about are all, in their different ways, steeped in the horrible beauty of violence on the screen. They’re not celebrating it exactly, but they undeniably embrace its visceral, choreographed appeal when presented as spectacle. It’s an abiding puzzle to me why something that most of us, if confronted with it in real life, would find horrible and traumatizing is so exciting and engaging to watch in a cinema.

To make violence both cruel and exciting, horrible and fascinating, folly and triumph, that’s clever. Embodying mutual contradictions without breaking the narrative vessel they’re contained within can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth trying, particularly in the case of violence. And in that I’ve always thought Seven Samurai is the champion. Its final battle scenes, amidst mud and teeming rain, are so loaded with contradictory beauty and horror, tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t fall apart. But it doesn’t, because it’s a masterpiece.

The Free gave me an excuse to think about it and those other films – not masterpieces perhaps, the other three, but well worth a wee think – and that if nothing else made the writing process fun.

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Here we are, back with Moving Pictures on a Friday, because this caught my eye:

Not even sure I knew it was coming, to be honest. Maybe I did and then forgot. Either way … five things about it:

1) That’s one film that really didn’t need remaking, don’t you think? Not that that ever stops a remake nowadays, I guess. So fair enough. Have at it, Hollywood!

2) Denzel’s sporting some fine facial hair. Not as good as Yul’s bald pate, but at least a little bit eye-catching.

3) Chris Pratt is going to be in every big film from now on. Is that the plan? Because I like him a lot, but it’s starting to get hard to see him as anything other than CHRIS PRATT. Whatever character he’s playing is disappearing behind the fame that is CHRIS PRATT.

4) Looks rather like they might have one token good Native American and one token bad Native American.  I really, really hope they don’t play those tokens and then have them fight each other to the death, because if the good Native American’s purpose in the plot is to kill the bad Native American that’s just … well, it seems like a lousy idea, that’s all. Deeply last century.

5)  Have I mentioned that I wrote a book – The Free – partially inspired by The Magnificent Seven? Or, more accurately, inspired by the film M7 itself is a remake of: Seven Samurai.

Have I further mentioned that there are three e-novella prequels to The Free coming out this year? Oh, I have: all the details are here. Anyway, the first of those prequels is available right now, everywhere e-books are sold. It’s called Corsair, and it’s over 20,000 words of mayhem and formative character moments in a world where magic is dangerous, unpredictable and at best a double-edged sword. A little taste of my version of The Magnificent Seven!

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Went to see Song of the Sea a few days ago:

Song of the Sea – Official US Trailer from GKIDS on Vimeo.

It’s by an Irish production company called Cartoon Salon. Didn’t know at the time I saw it that Song of the Sea was an Oscare nominee last year, but it was well worth that nomination. The trailer really doesn’t do it justice, I don’t think: a rare(ish) case where the actual film is way better than the trailer makes it look. It’s gorgeous to look at, loaded with emotion and mythic resonance.

Like a vast army of folk, I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli – the Japanese wonder-workers behind things like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro etc. etc. The thing about Song of the Sea is, I was completely gobsmacked by how much it reminded me of the tone, feel and thematic weight of Studio Ghibli’s output. It’s not copying the Japanese style or preoccupations, but it’s the only Western animated film I’ve seen in years – maybe ever – that matches Ghibli’s artistic ambitions, mythic aspirations. It’s really good. You should check it out sometime if you like that kind of thing.

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The world’s so big and complicated these days I imagine there’s always some kind of golden age going on in some corner of it, geographical, cultural, commercial, whatever.

It occurred to me that there’re arguably three golden ages going on in bits of the cultural/media world that I pay attention to. I have caveats and pessimisms for this post,too, but let’s do the happy stuff first.

TV drama. I seriously doubt there’s ever been more scripted TV of decent or better quality available for our viewing pleasure. We have relatively modest TV pipes running into the Ruckley residence – Netflix and (only the Brits’ll know what this means) Freeview – but they still churn out more stuff than it’s possible to stay on top of, given the fairly limited time that gets spent on watching the box. But the choice is there.

TV drama reflects, like so many other bits of the cultural landscape, the invasion of the ‘mainstream’ by geek-accented product and I couldn’t be happier about that. And of course with Netflix, the multiplication of broadcast channels and the advent of the DVR there’s an ocean of both old and new material to merrily drown yourself in. I was about to namedrop specific TV shows here, but to be honest there’s no point. The list could go on almost indefinitely. That’s a total transformation of what the TV world was like just a few years ago. And the reponse to that blossoming of availability has been the production of more good stuff than ever before.

Comics. Comics actually have a specifically defined Golden Age, so this isn’t The Golden Age, but it’s surely a golden age. There’s a greater variety of comics and graphic novels more widely available – digitally or on paper – than there has been in a long time. Probably ever. Online bookshops make them accessible in collected form to almost anyone. The graphic novel section is, by all accounts, one of the bits of bricks-and-mortar bookshops that’s actually thriving. They’re a big deal in libraries.

Unless you’ve been reading comics for a while, there’s something you might not be aware of, though. For all that certain types of comics (superheroes, notably) used to sell way more twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I can absolutely assure you of one thing: waaaay more objectively well-crafted and smart and technically accomplished comics are being produced now than was the case back then. The average quality of art and writing has improved a lot. The sheer volume and diversity of comics and titles and graphic novels being published has been accompanied by an uptick not only in the obvious measure – choice – but also in quality of craft and in ambition.

Podcasts. I talk about podcasts often enough here, so I won’t belabour this one. But come on: this has to be a golden age of podcasting, doesn’t it? There are uncounted thousands of the things, in every imaginable genre, covering every imaginable topic, taking every imaginable form. I spend far more time consuming podcasts than I do any other medium and I can’t do more than scrape the surface of the possibilities.

On one level podcasts are nothing more than radio on demand, but my ears are constantly filled with stuff that would never get on radio in a million years, for commercial reasons or because of silly geographic restrictions or whatever. Whoever you are, there are quality podcasts about almost exactly your interests, and accessing them is childishly simple. That’s pretty amazing.

Which is the peak of my merriment and optimism.

A couple of golden ages I’m pretty sure we’re not in. Movies and novels. It’s a commonplace to moan about the current state of Hollywood movies, so I won’t go overboard. I enjoy a spectacular blockbuster as much as the next person, but … well, I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for trying to claim the golden age of the franchise blockbuster as a particularly worthwhile kind of golden age.

Talking about novels, I’m on much shakier ground. I don’t read many these days, so I’m barely qualified to comment I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like a golden age. In many ways it feels just like business as usual, with at best an average distribution of quality product. I don’t detect a glut of innovation, boundary-expansion, inarguable genius. That’s OK. It’s just not what you’d call a golden age.

All the media – every single one – I’ve mentioned above are in the grip of ongoing technological and distributional revolutions. Those revolutions have, I think, caused or at the very least facilitated golden ages in TV and podcasting (comics to a lesser extent, but they’re part of the mix there too). But those same revolutions have emphatically not triggered golden ages in music, movies or prose fiction. If anything, I’d say they’ve had the opposite effect. Funny how things turn out.

Which brings me to my final point: how things might turn out. I reckon two of my three golden ages are heading for a fall. TV and comics. It might take years, but because of the revolutions in distribution and technology, and because of the ‘buzz’ surrounding these media, there’s an inevitable consequence: oversupply.

Once you reach a certain mass of available content, you can add as much new high quality content as you like and people just won’t have the time or inclination to consume it. So producers overextend. Retrenchment sets in. The golden ages wither and fade. I’m far from the first to suggest a tight, maybe imminent, time limit on TV’s golden age. In the case of comics, there might even be a crash – it’s a much smaller and more fragile market and it’s done that before. Probably not, though. Probably just a decline, a re-setting of the baseline. Fingers crossed.

Podcasts, though. Their golden age has legs, I reckon. Obviously, I’m biased, being an addict, but think about it. They’re new, and their audience still has lots of room to grow. They’re the only one of these media that can be easily consumed while you’re doing something else. Digital audio players in cars are only just really becoming 100% standard. And they have one other huge advantage over most other media: they’re free. We have a winner!

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As noted many times here, I’m a hopeless podcast addict. The rest of the world seems to be slowly catching up with my good taste, but frankly there are still too many of you out there who need to get on the bandwagon asap. Therefore I stubbornly keep proselytizing.

I’m not much of a binge watcher (or reader for that matter). I’ve got neither the time nor the inclination to gorge myself on exciting new TV shows. One episode a day is more than enough, and more than I can usually manage, no matter how awesome the show is. For the record, the closest I’ve got to binge-watching anything in years was Netflix’s Daredevil, and that took me about three weeks I think – which is not very close to bingeing at all, really. (Liked it a lot, for the record).

Podcasts are a bit different, though. When I happen across one that’s been around for a while, if I like it I tend to power through the back catalgoue pretty fast. That’s the joy of a medium you can consume while doing other things, I guess. So, here are some well-established podcasts that I discovered long after they launched and therefore was able to binge on. Perhaps there’s something here to tempt you?

I Was There Too. Conversations with supporting or bit-part actors from famous movies. Enormous fun, especially when you know the movie in question well. Lots of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, interesting snippets about acting, nostalgia for the movies of your (my) youth.

You Must Remember This. Still on a movie theme, but now with a hint of a historical flavour. As the podcast itself puts it, it’s about ‘the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century’. Mostly, it’s about the lives of the stars and the culture of their times, with bits of specific film history thrown in. It’s often fascinating stuff. The most recent season was entirely devoted to the Manson Family – their crimes and numerous connections to the film and music scenes of Hollywood. Extremely creepy – even disturbing – in parts, but enormously detailed and interesting.

The British History Podcast. Gliding on over to full on history now, and it doesn’t get much more full on than this. This might be the most bonkers (in a good way) podcast history project I’ve come across. The aim is to recount the entire history of Britain, and as of today we’re at episode episode 173 (173!) and haven’t even reached the 9th Century Viking invasions. Everything you ever wanted to know, and a huge amount of stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to know, about the early history of Britain is right here waiting for your ears to be applied.

The History of English Podcast. And continuing our smooth thematic links, here we’ve got history but now with added linguistics. The effort, research and knowledge that goes into this podcast boggles the mind. It’s the history of the English language, from its very earliest roots in prehistoric Indo-European to the modern day. It’s a mixture of historical narrative with heavy – and sometimes I really do mean heavy – doses of linguistics, phonetics, etymologies. For a writer, it’s utterly fascinating. Just as interesting for a reader, really. It does require your attention, though. The information is conveyed very clearly and carefully, but there’s a lot of it and it’s undeniably sometimes complicated and a bit arcane. But if you like words and language, listening to this is endlessly surprising and revelatory in a ‘So that’s why …’ sort of way.

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Breaking myself into renewed blogging gently with an easy Moving Pictures on a Friday post. Easy, because there’s sooo much to be said about this trailer and yet at the same time it completely and utterly speaks for itself, so I’ll just let it do that:

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Time to get back to the blogging business, I think. And here’s some trailers to grease the rusty wheels.

Hellblazer was one of the more important comics of the 1980s, for my money. It was one of the key foundation stones of DC’s Vertigo imprint, which punched way above its weight in terms of profile and significance in the industry as a whole. And it was a bit of a flagship for the transformative ‘British invasion’ of the US comics scene.

It had a damp squib of a Keanu Reeves film adaptation, under the title of its lead character Constantine, a while back (which I confess I always thought was sort of not totally terrible as a movie, just not very good as a Hellblazer movie). Now it’s coming to TV – again as Constantine. The first trailer, a few weeks back, didn’t really do much for me but now there’s trailer v2.0 and it’s looking better, if you ask me. I might actually be able to get on board with this …

And talking about things that were important in their time, they don’t come much more important for me personally than Mad Max. The first two films – let us not speak of the third, which was a sad misfire if you ask me – made a big impression on young me when I saw them, videotaped of course. A new outing for the franchise has been floating on the horizon for years, tantalisingly never quite coming to fruition. Well, now it’s actually going to happen, in the shape of Mad Max: Fury Road and here’s what it’s going to look like:

More promising than I feared, even if not quite everything I would have hoped. Looks to be plugging right into the vibe of Mad Max 2, and doing it with a certain style – the visuals and the music are on the moody money, I’d say. Plenty of tone and ‘voice’ in there. The actual action that dominates the trailer looks a bit less moody and a bit more in-your-face, though – I kind of hope the final movie isn’t just wall to wall chasing and driving and mayhem (fun, and indeed essential, as all that is), and retains something of the bleak tone hinted at in the trailer. But hey: it’s Mad Max, it’s Tom Hardy and it looks interesting. That’s enough to put a smile on my face.

Truly, and I mean this without a trace of irony or sarcasm or exaggeration, we live in an age of total, unremitting sf, fantasy and horror saturation. We – those of us who always liked this stuff – are not so much inheriting the media world as consuming it, monopolising it.

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