Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ranking the Stanley Kubrick films

2001 is one of my favourite films (best of luck, everyone), and I'd enjoyed a couple of the others too, but it was watching Jon Ronson's Stanley Kubrick's Boxes that made me want to know more about this passionate obsessive. It's a shame there's so little.

Here are my personal The Top 16 Kubrick Films. Three of them aren't films.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ranking the Alfred Hitchcock films

I've always felt directors get too much credit in the film business. Not to the overblown extent of actors, obviously, but it's your screenwriters – writing their own stories rather than adapting tried-and-tested best-sellers they've bought the rights to – and your sleep-deprived, script-editing showrunners I've got the greatest respect for.

So I never gave much of a toss about Alfred Hitchcock. He just seemed to be a fat, limey knock-off of Rod Serling, who didn't even write the stories he was presenting. But when I watched a couple of films, liked them a lot, then watched a couple more, I started to get it. So then I did my customary thing and scoffed the lot over a couple of months, including all the deservedly overlooked ones no one ever talks about because they're not really worth mentioning. Still, maybe I can pluck out a couple of obscure gems for you.

Here are a non-filmmaker's philistine first-timer reactions (I'd only seen Rear Window previously) to The Top 52 Hitchcock Films. Shorts, collaborations, foreign language remakes, TV things and ones I couldn't find not included.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Alrightreads: Dead Stuff

Dead good?

John Metcalfe, The Feasting Dead

1954 / Ebook / 123 pages / USA


Exhumed from the Arkham House archive, this vampiric ghost story is billed as a criminally overlooked horror classic. That's going a bit far.

If it was bundled with other novellas and short stories in an anthology of obscurities, there's a good chance it'd be one of the stand-outs. If it had been adapted for a murky seventies TV anthology, it'd be fondly remembered. But as a stand-alone volume, it doesn't do much to justify a place on your classics shelf.

Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

1969 / Audiobook / 190 pages / USA


Zelazny's anachronistic future has some unique touches that make it stand apart from your standard Silver Age sci-fi setting. So it's a shame he cheapens it by making it the story of an unenlightened 20th century businessman who made his way to the future the long way round and ends up doing preposterously well for himself in this brave new world. What's the male equivalent of a Mary Sue?

It might just be that I've watched a lot of Red Dwarf recently, but from prolonged suspended animation to psychic terraforming, I have a feeling this slim volume had a place on Grant Naylor's collective bookshelf.

Iain Banks, Dead Air

2002 / Audiobook / 408 pages / UK


Like Complicity, this is the story of an amoral local media figure who serves as a mouthpiece for the way Iain Banks sees things, and who gets caught up in an implausible cinematic thriller to keep things from getting too realistic.

There are some differences though. The author stand-in's monologues are now more tedious (even if he's basically right, I found myself siding with the interfering squares questioning the point of it all), his irresistibility to women comes off like wish fulfillment, the jeopardy's entirely his own fault, so he deserves what's coming to him, and Complicity wasn't turned around with ambitious haste to provocatively position itself as a landmark of Post-9/11 Literature.

It's not my least favourite Banks book, but that's only because he wrote Canal Dreams.

Various, Dead Funny Encore: More Horror Stories by Comedians

2016 / Ebook / 256 pages / UK/Australia


This feels like a more consistent collection than the first one, mainly because all the contributors understood what it was this time, and again it's mostly entertaining. The comedians don't all feel pressured to be funny, but it's better when they do.

Faves: Stewart Lee's 'Test Pressing,' Rufus Hound's 'Date Night,' Alan Moore's 'Cold Reading.'

Worsties: Alice Lowe's 'Carnival,' James Acaster's 'To Do,' Natalie Haynes' 'The Basement Conversion.'

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The 10,000-word Star Trek dissertation I somehow got away with writing for my 'English Literature' degree

Other people's opinions cobbled together to fit a prescribed word count and passed off as original. Of no intrinsic value, but useful experience for my subsequent career. And I got to watch loads of Star Trek under the guise of research rather than having to read hard books.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Alrightreads: Reekies

Is Edinburgh the greatest city in the world? It's my favourite anyway, and has been since I first went to the Fringe at 18 for a formative couple of days. I've seen enough cities since then and the verdict holds up, though those have mainly, admittedly, been at the developing end of the scale. Here are some Edinburgh-based books, because I like to torture myself or something.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes

1879 / Ebook / 61 pages / UK


I would have liked to have gone to school in Edinburgh. There wasn't much to learn about the South Cheshire village I grew up in, beyond the one 16th-century pub, whose Dick Turpin connection is optimistic at best, so it was nice to learn some of the history of my favourite city beyond the ghoulish side I already knew. Though Stevenson inevitably digs that stuff up too, it's Edinburgh after all.

This brief but intimate tour is dated in a very satisfying way, capturing a time when the New Town was actually new, Dean Village was still a village and Calton Hill was already a national embarrassment.

Ian Rankin, Knots & Crosses

1987 / Audiobook / 168 pages / UK


If the postgraduate Rankin had a premonition of how long his John Rebus series was going to last, he probably wouldn't have mined seemingly the whole backstory of the brooding inspector in his first outing. Those subsequent ones are also presumably less directly linked to the detective solving them, or he'd become a liability. And Edinburgh presumably calms down from its sensational spell as Europe's murder capital so readers don't feel increasingly alienated by the alternate reality setting.

I'm not the biggest fan of mudder mysteries, but it was alright. Though totally unsolvable until Rankin decides you can have the essential missing pieces now in that Agatha Christie way.

Iain Banks, Complicity

1993 / Physical book / 313 pages / UK


This was the reason behind my Edinburgh-themed reading, really. I picked this up in a used bookshop almost three years ago, and since then it's only served as an occasional mouse mat, eagerly awaiting the next time I'd take a couple of long solo flights and finally have a reason to read printed paper rather than a screen.

It's got the usual violence, rape, bondage and murder that hasn't been shocking for a good few books now, but it's more engaging than most of those were, and maybe my favourite '90s (i.e. second-tier) Banks. It's got to be the author's most indulgent stand-in work too, from the Edinburgh specifics to his appreciation of retro strategy games, whisky and other substances.

Jonathan Aycliffe, The Matrix

1994 / Ebook / 237 pages / UK


Don't let the '90s setting, sceptical debunking and drug references fool you; this Edinburgh-set occult horror is a complete throwback, and I appreciated the sincere pastiche. Let others take up the burden of innovation.

The author's done his research to make his doomed scholars and forbidden tomes more plausible than Lovecraft's (or he's just better at making up convincing-sounding names), even if the narrator's obliviousness and abrupt descent from rational sociologist to gibbering acolyte are similarly laughable. That can all be excused by the foreboding creepiness that hangs over much of it, which I've rarely felt outside of childhood horror books.

James Robertson, To Be Continued or, Conversations with a Toad

2016 / Ebook / 336 pages / UK


James Robertson has written some acclaimed and very serious-sounding novels about Scotland.  He also wrote this stream-of-consciousness ramble about a man's low-stakes midlife crisis odyssey across Scotland with a talking toad, which naturally struck me as more appealing. Having doggedly stuck with it through to its conclusion, I can certainly say it is one of the books I have read.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mental essays: Rear Window and the Perinatal Unconscious, or A Womb with a View

"A homo-erotic reading of Rear Window is reluctantly invited by the word ‘rear’ in the title ... the window’s position at the rear of the house may even imply a masculinised cervix" – my actual university essay

We've been working through the Hitchcock films recently, and when it got to that bit in Rear Window where Jeffries falls out of the window, I suddenly remembered that I once wrote a ridiculous essay at university making the case that – beyond the obvious analogies of voyeurism and impotence – the film was also clearly influenced by Hitchcock's repressed, traumatic memories of birth (whether he realised it or not).

I found it.

In fairness to my student self, this was a combination of psychoanalytical piss-taking and being too lazy to research a new theory from scratch. I'd come across Stanislav Grof's LSD research in the library some time before, when researching something different that I can't even remember now, and had been desperate to squeeze any work of fiction into its malleable framework as soon as it came up.

I may not have taken the ENGL307 Literature and Film unit very seriously, especially when they kept letting me get away with this stuff. The sketch show Big Train is cited as a reference, that's the level of academic professionalism we're dealing with.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Alrightreads: Prestige Who

The point of these 1,000-page slots was that I hoped they'd force me to read something a bit substantial each month. It's only March and I'm already on Doctor Who.

My excuse is that this vaguely-defined 'range' of Who books recruited established, proper authors to write something more worthwhile than the usual cash-in merchandise, even if their singular styles were being watered down to fit into the the magical world of a children's programme.

These had better be good, or I'm going to look really silly.

Michael Moorcock, Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles, or Pirates of the Second Aether

2010 / Audiobook / 343 pages / UK


After experimental, eccentric is one of my favourite flavours of Who, but it's a tricky tightrope. I enjoyed it when Douglas Adams wrote silly space pirates in the seventies (complete with robot parrot and LEGO® Technic eyepatch), but Moorcock's takes on anachronistic buccaneers and Wodehousian toffs come off like weak homages and don't give me much of an idea of what his own style might be like. I don't imagine many young readers made it through too many chapters, I would have called it a day too if it hadn't been in low-effort audiobook form.

This was written with the then-current stars Matt Smith & Karen Gillan in mind, but if the author didn't repeatedly perv over Amy Pond's beauty every time she stepped onto the page, you wouldn't know which iteration of the stock characters he was doing. When he even remembers that they're there.

Stephen Baxter, Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice

2012 / E-book / 311 pages / UK


Black-and-white Doctor Who collides with contemporaneous hard sci-fi in the Arthur C. Clarke mould, written by Clarke's frequent latter-day "collaborator" (i.e. the one who actually wrote Time Odyssey).

Baxter endeavours to tell a typically grandiose future tech tale in the style of a cheap sixties TV serial. These desires are fundamentally incompatible, but when the characters aren't explaining advanced sci-fi concepts or gazing at high-budget marvels of engineering, it's easy to imagine the cramped sets and guest cast putting on fake American accents to sound futuristic. It's a false-nostalgic treat, while the glow lasts.

Unfortunately, this authenticity extends to it being padded out with as much superfluous fluff as the old six-part serials. Was lumping future genius Zoe with babysitting duties while the men solve the sciencey problem some ironic period sexism too?

Alastair Reynolds, Doctor Who: Harvest of Time

2013 / Audiobook / 368 pages / UK


The very best Who stories are format-breaking. This isn't one of those, as Reynolds rebuilds the structure of the highly distinctive early-70s iteration of the series to an impeccable tee, basically giving us the best Pertwee serial never made. If you're a fan of the UNIT ensemble era, this is as good as Who lit gets. If you're an Alistair Reynolds fan, you'll presumably find it a bit confounding and embarrassing.

My only issue is that it's a bit hard to take seriously with that phallic spaceship cover and enemies called Sild.

A. L. Kennedy, Doctor Who: The Drosten's Curse

2015 / Audiobook / 368 pages / UK


It's foolish to get your hopes up when tie-in merchandise is set in the period of a series that happens to be your favourite, especially when it's a pastiche 40 years down the line.

Kennedy's Tom Baker horror story is as heartfelt and informed as her predecessors' were, her Tom Baker's spot-on, and she's got a nice turn of phrase like Adams and Moffat that keeps this story of a psychic monster lurking under a golf course appropriately light-hearted. It just comes off feeling more like one of those later Williams-era Gothic revivals than a classic from the Hinchcliffe years.

I almost lasted four books before my reviews descended to incomprehensible jargon, could have been worse.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Alrightreads: Castles

It took me the best part of a decade to make it through Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, so I don't feel like fortifying myself inside another castle-bound epic just yet. Here are some shorter books about castles, or that may turn out to be using 'castle' in the title symbolically or whatever, you know what authors are like.

P. G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh (a.k.a. Something New)

1915 / Audiobook / 190 pages / UK


I've never found Wodehouse to be the comedy god others do. He doesn't have the inherently funny way with words of a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, and his winding together of disparate, blatantly-telegraphed plot points isn't as satisfying as a David Renwick or Larry David. Plus, I know we're laughing at the idle, incompetent, undeserving rich, but spending so much time around these asses is still annoying.

It gets points for having a surprisingly strong female character and a character named Threepwood.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

1962 / Audiobook / 214 pages / USA


What if Wednesday Addams was a real person? What if American Psycho was palatable? What if a classic Gothic novel had a reasonable page count?

Shirley Jackson's final novel should be required reading for adolescent goth girls everywhere, and for grown men who are adolescent goth girls at heart.

Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Il castello dei destini incrociati)

1969 / Ebook / 144 pages / Italy


Italo Calvino wrote one of my favourite books of 2015 (not that I can remember anything about it now) and another one that amazed me in concept, but less in execution.

This tale of mysteriously mute travellers telling their stories via Tarot cards, unreliably interpreted by our narrator, falls into the latter category. My enthusiasm for playing along with the digital Visconti-Sforza deck on petered out after the first couple of yarns. Great idea though.

Gene Wolfe, The Castle of the Otter: A Book About the Book of the New Sun

1982 / Ebook / 117 pages / USA


Before The Book of the New Sun was even complete, its author unapologetically wrote his own fanzine/fansite in book form. Featuring self-interviews, answers to mainly imagined FAQs, glossaries of obscure words and names, a jokes page and, best of all, obsolete insights into the early-1980s US SF publishing industry.

Originally a very limited edition before it was collected with other odds and sods, I don't think Wolfe intended this vanity project to still be knocking about decades later. I enjoyed the New Sun books, though it wasn't totally my thing, and this had made me appreciate it more on a technical level at least. There's a chance I'm the least fanatical Gene Wolfe reader to ever bother reading this curio, and since even I got something out of it, I'm glad it exists.

Dave Morris, Knightmare: Fortress of Assassins

1990 / Ebook / 113 pages / UK


"The wight seizes you and proceeds to tear you limb from limb. A very disarming chap, as I'm sure you would agree if you were still alive."

I had one of these Knightmare books as a child, and won't have been alone in hugely preferring the interactive gamebook half to the opening novella, which barely has anything to do with the series. At least Treguard's in this one, albeit in name only. Its bloody tale of crusades, decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelling and child death is oddly targeted at slightly more mature readers than the usual Children's ITV demographic, but they probably tuned in for Knightmare anyway.

The gamebook part is fairly brief and repetitive, but still brilliant. Featuring familiar characters and scenarios and smart riddles that I didn't always crack even as someone way too old to be playing, it's just what the fans would have wanted and a perfect introduction to the gamebook format too. Much better than those rubbish Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks I moved on to next.

Iain Banks, A Song of Stone

1997 / Audiobook / 280 pages / UK


Banks' "mainstream" novels never shied away from being off-puttingly unpleasant, but he seems to be yearning for a Wasp Factory level of infamy here, only a lot more predictable. He wrote a better castle story in Walking on Glass, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick is a funnier take on the whole sordid business.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reviewing The Simpsons (seasons 1-9)

At what point did The Simpsons stop being good? I didn't hang around long enough to find out, bailing out of the nostalgic 25th anniversary rewatch as soon as the cracks started to show, so I could part with fond memories rather than frustration. I didn't want this to be another X-Files.

This is one series I really didn't need to watch again again again, but it was an enjoyable waste of time that I'll doubtless do again again again.