Recommendation: Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse

If you get the chance then I highly recommend going to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I can’t say I had high expectations for this when I first saw the trailers. My initial thoughts were that this would be a cynical cash grab by a studio desperate to wring out as much money from the IP before Marvel inevitably took back all the film rights. But after glowing reviews we decided to give it a look, and boy was it worth it.

Other than being an interesting and engaging take on the Spider-Man concept (pudgy, tired, over-the-hill, Spider-Man anyone?), this movie is simply a love letter to the comics. The look is amazing, even going as far as using that old fashions colour bleed outside of the lines.

The writing is fresh, the look beautiful, and the characters new and engaging. Sometime you wonder how there can be so many different versions of the same character without exhausting the audience. Then something like this comes out and reminds you of that unique attribute of certain iconic comic book characters that allows them to be reinvented over and over.

But if you’ve ever felt ill watching a 2D film, be warned. I don’t think the camera was still for more than a second for the entire film. It’s a swirl of colour and art. All of it’s beautiful, but the least descriptive word I can think of is “kinetic”.

Recommendation: Free Fire

When you’re pretty certain that a film is going to be good, but then when you start watching you discover Sharlto Copley is in it…


We had a great time watching ‘Free Fire’ and highly recommend it. It’s wonderful to see a film that sticks to a nice, tight 90 minute run time. The plot of this film couldn’t be simpler – a gun deal goes bad and turns into a multi-sided shootout – and with no padding or unnecessary vanity, it’s a slick, fun, exciting movie.

It’s also a reminder that if you put good actors together they spectacle or computer graphics to make the scene watchable. When you boil this film down there is hardly anything to it, but the actors work together so that you don’t even notice. I know very few directors who could pull that off. The great thing about Wheatley as a writer and director is that he never gives you anything more than you need to get the film. It’s always there, but he’ll never put it out there or draw attention to it. His films don’t even know the word “flabby”. It’s a Ben Wheatley action movie. With Sharlto Copley. Why wouldn’t you go and see it?

I’d happily watch a *bad* movie with Sharlto Copley and go away happy.

My 2016 Game of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

While SOMA came out in 2015, I played it over the winter and completed it in 2016.

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Suffering from brain damage after a car crash, Simon Jarrett agrees to an experiment brain-scan. Blacking out half way through, he wakes to find himself in a seemingly abandoned deep sea research facility in the year 2104. What follows, as Simon tries to work out what has happened, is a terrifying exploration of the nature of the human soul and the sense of self.

This is one of those games you irritatingly can’t say much about in a review for fear of giving too much away. Half the appeal of SOMA is the experience of playing and discovering the story for yourself.

If you’ve played any of the Amnesia series of games, then you’ll have an idea of the gameplay. But SOMA is a massive step up in terms of story and voice acting. This is a story-driven, survival horror game, so you’re not going to be battling monsters. Rather, you’ll be running from them, helpless, as you solve puzzles and try to work out what the hell is going on. But as you creep or spirit through the game world you discover a plot that’s both depressing and fascinating. It will make you really think about who “you” are, and then leave you in a deep, existential mire.

Honestly, when I finished this game I lay awake at night with an honest to god existential crisis. It will make you question your very existence.

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I wouldn’t exactly call this a “fun” game, although I don’t want to give the wrong impression from that statement. What I mean is, this isn’t something you throw on after a stressful day at work when you just want to switch your brain off for some mindless entertainment. You’re going to have to think through this one. Not because it’s especially hard, but because the story is so smart and thought provoking that you will need to pay attention to get all the benefit. But don’t worry, it’s so well written and perfectly balanced that it never feels like a chore to do so.

I would say the better descriptions for this are “rewarding” and “satisfying”, rather than “fun”. But, damn, is it both of those in spades.

 

My 2016 TV Show of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one gave me a little difficulty. We all know that we’re in a so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and as much as that phrase is tired and overused I can’t deny that with subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime I’ve had copious excellent television to get through. By rather than one of the series that everyone’s already raved about online, I’m going to pick one that we started watching on a whim without knowing anything about it and turned out to the be one of the cleverest TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

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On the day Rebecca Bunch is finally about to reach her lifelong goal of being made a Partner in a prestigious New York legal firm, she is suddenly struck by just how miserable she truly is. Then, mid-breakdown – she runs into an old boyfriend. Releasing that the time she dated him – for just 3 months one summer over a decade ago – was the last time she was truly happy, Rebecca drops everything and follows him across the country to win him back.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest pieces of television writing I’ve watched in years. While the premise could be one of a thousand bland rom-coms or generic sitcoms, writer and star Rachel Bloom instead created something that’s both a fun musical show and a deep look into the divide between what society has taught us to think we want and what we actually need.

Rebecca drops a high-flying legal career to be with the boy of her dreams. Why wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? They had a Meet-Cute on the day she needed it the most. That’s what television and movies have taught us; that our fairytale will come true if we just believe enough to fight through all obstacles. Why should it matter that she’s stalked him across the country? Or that he’s been with the same girlfriend for fifteen years? Or that her actions throw the lives of so many people into chaos? It’s meant to be!

Ultimately, this show is about the delusions we build for ourselves to hide from the truths we don’t want to face.

While also being a light-hearted musical.

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It’s the layers to the characters and the plots that make this show unmissable. They’ve managed to avoid or subvert every trope in their path, without a single lazy path taken. If two characters have an ‘amusing misunderstanding’, rather than stretching that out for an entire episode they will talk it out and focus instead on the underlying issues. We’re introduced to characters such as “the boss who wants to be everyone’s friend”, or “the controlling bitch girlfriend”, or “the love interest”, but as the series progresses you see how none of them are solely defined by these labels. You also see why they are this way. Why does the boss so desperately want people to like him? Why is the love interest’s girlfriend such a controlling bitch? Why does the love interest stay with his girlfriend even though she’s so unpleasant and demanding? And, most impressively, all of them change and grow in a way that suit the character rather than the longevity of the show. Or getting preachy.

Basically, if you’ve not caught this show I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do. It’s currently half way through its second season, and you won’t find many shows so that subvert television character tropes so well.

 

Ride the dragon

Happy St. George’s Day everyone.

You know, I’ve never quite understood why you’d choose to kill the dragon when instead you could tame and ride it instead.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to ride a dragon?

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If you’ve ever read Noami Novik’s Temeraire series, that is this world’s version of the story (in my personal head-canon, at least). The story of the first man to ride a dragon. I haven’t finished the full series yet so this may be completely contradicted somewhere in the books, but I love the idea.

And if you haven’t tried these books yet, consider this a recommendation. Imagine the Dragon Riders of Pern, but set in the real world during the Napoleonic Wars using dragons as an airforce. Book one is definitely better that book two, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the third.

International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day, so let’s take a moment to share and celebrate some of the awesome women writers out there. And having looked through my bookshelves I’ve decided to share a series by one of the authors my mother introduced me to way back when I was a teenager; Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’.

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‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ is an award winning contemporary interpretation of ancient celtic and Arthurian legends. Consisting of five novels written between 1965 and 1977, the Sequence tells the story of several children drawn into an ancient conflict between good and evil that dates back to the time of King Arthur.

This series really stuck with me when I first read it. So much so that it became one of those series that, once I had moved out and begun building my own library, I immediately looked out and purchased my own hardback copy. Cooper pulls together aspects of traditional Arthurian stories, celtic myths and legends, Welsh and British history and weaves them into a story that acts as both a wonderfully realised adventure story in its own right, and also as a perfect introduction to British fantasy traditions and stories that encouraged me to continue on into these stories that have been around for so many centuries, and how different writers now interpret them.

(Just avoid the film adaptation. Seriously, don’t even try. It’s not even bad enough to be good. You’ll regret both the wasted time and your life choices.)

Spike Milligan: musician, comedian, writer, hero

Everyone needs a hero, but the concept of a personal “hero” is a strange concept. What are they? They can’t be someone who you simply want to emulate. They shouldn’t simply be someone you want to be, rather someone you admire, someone who lived a life that you feel exemplifies attributes and goals you believe in. And they have to be flawed. An important part of having a hero is recognising that they were human and had the same flaws as the rest of us.

That’s why my hero is Spike Milligan.

Spike Milligan

If you don’t know who Spike Milligan, well firstly you need to know that you know nothing about comedy. Secondly, and more helpfully, he was a writer, comedian, musician and manic depressive. Oh, and he’s the grandfather of all modern of British Comedy.

He is most famously remembered for being the main driving force of The Goon Show, the radio comedy series that ran throughout most of the 1950s and changed the face of British comedy forever. This was a show that had 6 month runs. 26 episodes a season, one season a year. He wrote almost all of them, only missing them on the occasions when his mental health collapsed. His own description of that workload was “If you to want to torture someone, sentence them to have to write 26 funny half hour [scripts]”

This was a truly ground breaking show, using surrealism and sound effects and music (both groundbreaking for the time) to create a nonsense world that nevertheless always had a vein of logic running through it. He then went on to create the Q Series, which is best described as Monty Python before Monty Python came along

He was also a talented jazz musician (his first love, his career as a singer and trumpet player had been interrupted by the outbreak of the war) and an amazing writer and poet. For those who know him only for his comedy, discovering his more serious writing is a bit of a surprise. Like the clichés would have you believe, this clown was crying on the inside. His poetry is beautifully mournful, born from the sadness of a man shellshocked out of the war and who suffered with manic depression the whole of his life.

The best way to experience the full gamut of Spike Milligan’s style is his war memoirs. Telling the story of him time between conscription into the Army in 1940 to being demobbed in 1945, it’s a perfect blend of the zany and the moving.

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Starting as a lighthearted reminiscence of the days of basic training, meeting people who became his lifelong friends and seemingly getting up to more trouble than anything else, the seven book series moves through the “gentleman’s war” Milligan experienced in Africa, then on to the battles for Italy where he was shellshocked out of active service. After a time living the almost pointless life of a invalid soldier he eventually moves into the Central Pool of Artists, where we get to experience the story of his first true love, before being demobbed and moving back to England.

What’s wonderful about these books is they give a wonderful soldiers eye view of the war, without the poe-faced seriousness of so many other accounts. Milligan doesn’t shy away from the horror and the awful experiences of these years of his life, but he doesn’t take everything too seriously either. The books highlight the contrary fact that for this generation the war corresponded with the best years of their lives. For all they were engaged in a global act of industrialised killing, you can’t ignore that fact that these were a bunch of men in the prime of their lives and determined to make the best of it. They are human beings going through one of the most powerful experiences of their lives.

There are flaws. As a product of the ’30s and ’40s there is an amount of casual racism threaded throughout his work. For all I can argue that it was all meant as harmless fun, it’s still a little uncomfortable from a modern viewpoint. You can see the colonial viewpoint that people of the time subscribed to throughout the work. But that, in a way, only makes it more fascinating. There’s no whitewashing. It’s a view into how this generation thought. They weren’t bad people, they just grew up in a time where is was okay to think in a way we’ve since recognised is unacceptable.

As I mentioned above, recognising these flaws is a vital part of having a personal hero. I would never argue that Spike Milligan was a perfect person. In many respects he was deeply flawed. But this just makes him more fascinating. I don’t want to be him. I admire him and his work. What he went through and what he did.

So if you haven’t experienced Spike Milligan’s work I cannot recommend more highly that you do so. Find some episodes of The Goon Show and give it a listen. Look up the Q Series (A bunch of it is on YouTube). Read his poetry, his …according to Spike Milligan series (where he rewrites classic literature in his own style) and his other collections. I guarantee that you will find something both funny and fascinating.

And he’s my hero. A man who faced horrific events, had his mind broken by shell-shock, suffered a lifetime of the dizzying highs and crippling lows of bi-polar disorder, created mould-breaking comedy and beautiful poetry. A man who was unique and wonderful, contradictory and combative. Who felt a deep anger at the injustices of the world yet suffered from the same flaws as every other human being.

 

(And if you’re interested in the most honest appraisal of Spike Milligan as a man I recommend Spike: An Intimate Memoir by Norma Farnes, his manager from the 1960s until his death. It’s a brutally honest story of the life of the person who probably knew Spike better than anyone in the world, warts and all.)

Recommendation: The SCP Foundation

Part of writing horror is having an excuse to seek out and experience as many examples of the genre. I don’t really need an excuse of course, but it’s nice to have one if I ever need it. And, as with any genre, sometimes the examples I find just aren’t that good. But that just makes it all the more exciting when you discover something truly brilliant. Something that really gets horror. Something that chills and unsettles me, or makes me think. Something that goes beyond the easy jump scare of splatter gore.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an easy jump scare or a bit of gore. They’re just – in my own, personal and maybe slightly snobbish opinion – the easy way. To get my recommendation, a movie, book or game needs something more. Something that’s original, unique, especially creative, or simply just hits the right horror buttons and leaves me honestly chilled.

So I thought I should share with people the things I discover that I really think are worth sharing. To spread the word, as it were. And for my first choice I’m sharing something a little different. It’s not the work of one creator, but rather a community created online database of themed creepypasta stories.

It’s the SCP Foundation.

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So what is it?

The SCP Foundation is a fictional, global organisation tasked with the collection, identification and – if necessary – isolation and neutralisation of ‘anomalies’. Items, places, people, or… other… that have no place in the “real world”. Items from civilisations long forgotten. Locations of events both ancient and modern which are no longer safe. Religious artefacts. Anything with strange and dangerous properties that have no explanation.

It’s the Foundation’s self imposed mandate to locate, and catalogue these objects. To study them, neutralise them if possible, but essentially to ensure that the danger they pose to the world is minimised.

The website is a community project presented as the Foundation’s database of items. Each entry describes one of the items in the collection; detailing the level of danger it presents, how the item was discovered/acquired, and a description. You can read the stories in any order, including the option to read them in ranked order. Stories are ranked based on members voting them up for down, and anyone if able to become a member.

Any member can write and submit their own entries for consideration to be added to the database. While there are templates and guidelines to adhere to, in theory you can create an entry about absolutely anything; from a coffin that creates clones of anyone who falls asleep in it, a stairwell with no end, a rock that causes procrastination, or a robot determined to destroy mankind but gifted with absolutely no ability to do so. The sky’s the limit.

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Why it’s a recommendation

First off, the set up and style of the website is wonderfully immersive. With the number of entries available (currently somewhere over 2000) written by so many different people you really do get the feel of this being the database of a huge organisation. It’s not something you can just sit down and read through in one or two sittings. This combined with the variety and length of the entries gives it a real sense of scale and depth.

Each entry is essentially its own unique creepypasta. Entries range from small, safe but unusual items locked away in a warehouse, locations with strange properties that need to be cordoned off for the safety of the public, to religious artefacts and locations up to and including the Angel of Death standing guard over the gates to the Garden of Eden.

As with any collection of creepypasta not every entry is pure gold. But while some are not greats, most are solid, journeyman entries while others are stroke of pure genius. There is no strict continuity. Different people interpret the idea differently, and while many items entries link directly to others I don’t believe there is any master plan ensuring that no entry contradicts any other. And with the length and number of entries, when you do come across a dud you can simply skip through to the next.

The SCP wiki lends itself perfectly as something to drop in and out of over time. If you’re not a fan of creepypasta then it might not be exactly the sort of thing you’d enjoy, but I would still recommend you give it a try. Each entry is short enough to read while waiting for a bus, or in the five minutes before you need to leave the house, so it’s not going to take up a whole lot of your time it give it a try. My suggestion is to start with the list of top rated entires. That’ll give you a feel for some off the best entries. Then if you’re a bit of a completionist, you can start from number one and keep reading. One entry each time you get a spare couple of minutes.

So give it a go, and try to ignore the growing sense that the world may contain more than you’re comfortable being aware of.