Friday, January 8, 2016

That Went Well: 2015

When I stop to think about the media I enjoy - prose, comics, film, video game - I can't quite escape a sense of ennui. Have I read every word worth reading? Seen every film worth watching? So much of what I find - old or new - is too familiar and I'm far too detached from the experience. I want to be entertained, but perhaps I've experienced too much?

But of course, then something comes along which I truly, unabashedly, enjoy. Sometimes it's not only good entertainment but even touches me personally. For that reason, I'm here to share my favourite discoveries of 2015.


I had once heard the book Hell on Ice by Edward Ellsberg dramatized by Orson Welles on the Mercury Theatre radio program. That was enough to convince me to read the book when a copy came past me for disposal. I wouldn't have otherwise glanced twice at it; it's the story of an expedition to the North Pole which goes horribly awry; it's a very long, slow burn, but when the explorers' ship is finally lost the tension of wondering how any of them could have survived sustains a heightened interest to the grim finale.

The graphic novel Unflattening led me to the work which (partially) inspired it, Edwin Abbott's Flatland, an engaging blend of drama, humour, philosophy and mathematics.

I read two more books by Paul Brickhill, best-known for The Great Escape. In Reach for the Sky, he told the story of aviator Douglas Bader, a man who is kept rather emotionally distant in the narrative, but his determination to resume flying planes after losing his legs is remarkable enough on its own. I also read Escape to Danger, a collection of stories about pilots who escaped from the Germans during World War II, many of them very unusual in terms of the near-deaths the pilots would survive and the oft-surprising ease with which they would escape.

After initially quite enjoying Fyodor Dostoevsky through Crime and Punishment, I'd begun to grow disenchanted with everything else of his I read, but his romance story White Nights helped bring me back - it's a brief read, but with palpable emotions.

My interest in Africa continues to lead me through various tomes on the subject, including two by Thomas Pakenham: The Scramble for Africa and The Mountains of Rasselas. The former explained the divvying up of the continent to me in a way I finally grasped (that it was told so that what each country was doing in relation to each other at each given time was most helpful) and the latter told of Pakenham's journey to Ethiopia in the 1950s with many beautiful photos; Ethiopia remains the African nation I most hope to visit one day.

As I've frequently remarked on this blog, I continue to enjoy the works of author Sax Rohmer, despite the frequent racism found therein. I read the biography Master of Villainy by Cay Van Ash but found the author far too willing to praise Rohmer to the heavens and wanted something less opinionated about him. The book The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia by Christopher Frayling was much more to my liking; it's meticulously researched to help explain the climate in England when the Fu Manchu stories first appeared and more interested in setting the facts straight than protecting Rohmer's reputation (which was Van Ash's problem).

I'm continuing to work my way through the original novels which inspired some of my favourite movies; in 2015 that included Deliverance by James Dickey, Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb, The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, Hell House by Richard Matheson, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins. I also delved into some good books about film and film people: Cagney by James Cagney and This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles.


At last, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo resumed regular publication (following his work on the 47 Ronin and Usagi Yojimbo: Senso mini-series) and, predictably, the quality is as high as before. Sakai continues to craft interesting tales about feudal Japan and the slow-yet-ever-changing cast of characters continue to progress. Usagi Yojimbo is the most dependable book on the market.

The Wild's End wrapped up, only to be followed by another mini-series, The Enemy Within. I need to post a review of this series as it isn't receiving a lot of notice, but Dan Abnett & I.N.J. Culbard are delivering a notably weird mash-up of two great institutions of British fiction: The Wind in the Willows and The War of the Worlds. The present series even includes a character who is vaguely analogous to H. G. Wells!

The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek & Benjamin Dewey is taking a measured pace (much about the human protagonist remains unexplained) but I trust in Busiek to make the journey worthwhile; in the meantime, Dewey is delivering dynamic art and distinctive animal-people. I'm still following Busiek's Astro City (in trades) as well, and between the two they remind me of why I first became so excited by his writing back in '97.

Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody reunited Priest & Mark Bright in a coda to their series. I gather Priest wasn't satisfied by the experience at all, but I enjoyed revisiting the characters and seeing Priest almost aggressively reject nostalgia in favour of continuing to move his cast forward.

The Complete Little Nemo was easily the best trade collection I picked up in 2015; I had eyed it for quite some time, but only moved on it when publisher Taschen ran a sale on their site. It is precisely what it claims to be - all of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo between two covers. What a delight!

Some other graphic novels I delved into were Deogratias by Jean-Philippe Stassen, Notes for a War Story by Gipi, Burma Chronicles by Guy DeLisle, Rose by Jeff Smith, On the Ropes and Kings in Disguise by James Vance, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, Laika by Nick Abadzis and War Brothers by Sharon E. McKay, while I continue to follow Winterworld by Chuck Dixon, G.I. Joe by Larry Hama and Ragnarok by Walter Simonson.


Mad Max: Fury Road My brief thoughts on this picture were ultimately the most-viewed blog entry of 2015, which certainly speaks to how gigantic this film's reception was. I've rewatched it a few times since then and continue to be impressed by the ease at which the story is told and the subtle character development which unfolds. This is cinema that brings to mind Hitchcock, Ford, Murnau... hands-down my favourite theatre-going experience of 2015.

I caught up on The Edge of Tomorrow on DVD, having been intrigued by it's advertising. The marketing really did not sell this film - it's quite funny (particularly in terms of black comedy) and uses star Tom Cruise in a role which is quite different from his usual fare. In fact, I came to realize this is now my favourite Tom Cruise movie; previously, I would have asserted I didn't have a favourite. I like Cruise's development from craven coward to hero; I like Emily Blunt's far more capable secondary character who has to train him; and I laughed at a lot of Cruise's darkly funny death scenes.

Life Itself is the documentary on Roger Ebert filmed at the end of his life and intentionally designed to show what his life was like at the time; it is at first startling to see Ebert missing his lower jaw and I appreciate that he didn't want to hide it from the camera. The biography of Ebert's life is also engaging, particularly to hear how wounded Ebert was when Siskel didn't inform him of his impending death.

Diagram for Delinquents is a terrific documentary from Sequart about the oft-despised Fredric Wertham, the psychologist who opposed comic books. Amazingly, this film offers a perspective on Wertham than that which comic book culture has absorbed; it actually brought me around to his side on some of his thinking. For that reason, this is easily the best comic book documentary I've ever seen - I actually learned something important!

There are other movies I quite enjoyed: The Citadel (1938), which touched on notions of the struggle to attain one's ideal life as in other King Vidor pictures; Johnny Got His Gun (1971), which I watched after having read the book; Ender's Game (2013) which I have not read in prose but I found it to be a good picture; 42 (2013) which interested me despite my lack of interest in baseball and led me to The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014), Knuckleball (2012), Moneyball (2011) and even Ken Burns' Baseball mini-series; Harold & Maude (1971), a picture I'd heard a lot about but didn't understand the appeal 'til I saw it; Romero (1989), with Raul Julia dramatizing the life of a murdered priest; A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) an adaptation of an Erich Maria Remarque novel which I haven't read (yet) but had an interesting look at Germany near the end of WW2; The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I had no idea had been adapted from a series of novels by the same woman who authored the stories adapted into Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train; Beasts of No Nation (2015) which examined African child soldiers and held up to everything I'd previously read on the subject; Nightcrawler (2014) I had heard praised in a few places and it turned out to be an extremely involving film with turns I couldn't quite predict and that's always a pleasure; finally, Bridge of Spies (2015) which is not what I'd have expected from a Spielberg/Coen Bros. mash-up, but told an interesting Cold War story in a very uncomplicated way.


In 2015, I upgraded to the Xbox One (or Xbone). I didn't plan to - I didn't want to shell out the money for what was (and is) still an expensive console when my Xbox 360 remained useful. Unfortunately, my 360 began to develop trouble reading discs and as it doubled as my DVD player, it crippled two modes of entertainment. Suddenly, the One seemed to make sense - it would mean upgrading to a blu-ray and, as my 360 friends had all abandoned that console for the One, it would mean having people to play games with again.

My mistake (and regret) was buying Destiny for the One. I already had it on 360 (Destiny was part of how I rationalized staying with the 360), but I wanted to play it with my friends as there were parts of the game you couldn't play without friends in your party. Unfortunately, by the time I got on the One my friends had given up on Destiny. I continued to play, but over time the game has actually become worse; the last update (The Taken King), which I avoided, actually barred me from accessing features I'd been able to use previously. That, coupled with the many behind-the-scenes troubles being reported on convinced me to stay away; if my friends went back to Destiny I'd consider giving it another go, but as it is I feel I've wasted enough money. It was good for what it was - that is, it kept me occupied until the release of...

Halo 5: Guardians. As I didn't plan on owning the One, I thought I'd played my last Halo game, but here I am. This game has a campaign story which is just okay; it turns a beloved character into a villain, which is unfortunate, yet never hits the emotions of the previous series entry (and I didn't think Halo 4's campaign matched the Bungie game entries). The campaign has some interesting fights, but the story's not as involving as it should be. Meanwhile, the matchmaking modes are pretty good; my favourite Halo mode, Firefight, remains MIA (was I the only one who liked it?) but the new Warzone mode finally perfects what some of the previous games were trying to accomplish; on the basis of Warzone mode alone, I'm very pleased with this game - I can happily play Warzone for hours. I still have hope there are other game types coming in future updates as this game is significantly smaller than Halo 4 was.

And those are my 2015 highlights!

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