In lieu of intelligent content, here’s another trawl through the books what I’ve read and the films what I’ve watched since the last time I did one of these posts…
Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming (1954), I found in a local charity shop and I’m glad I got it cheap. The films are much better than the books. The books may be very much products of their time, but the casual racism and sexism makes them hard to enjoy. The plot, incidentally, only vaguely resembles that of the movie.
Fantasms and Magics, Jack Vance (1969), is a collection of short stories. The opening novella, ‘The Miracle Workers’, is classic Vance, and ‘Guyal of Sfere’ (which I kept on misreading as ‘Gruyere’) is a Dying Earth novella and quite good. The rest are forgettable.
The Dan Dare Dossier, Frank Hampson et al (1990), is the last of the thirteen volume series of Dan Dare reprints issued by Hawk Publishing. Unlike the others it’s not a reprint of strips from Eagle, but a discussion of Hampson, his studio of artists, the characters, world, and merchandising associated with the strip. The text could have done with some serious editing, but if you’re a fan of Dan Dare – as I am – then it’s all interesting and useful information.
Shades of Gray, Lewis Shiner (2008), is a chapbook given away with purchases of the limited edition of Shiner’s last novel, Black & White. Shiner himself describes the four stories in Shades of Gray as either too rough, too slight, or too silly to go into the upcoming Collected Stories. It’s hard not to disagree.
Shifts, Adam Thorpe (2000), is themed collection of short stories, the theme being careers and people whose lives are defined by their careers. The stand-out is the title story, about a Ghanaian immigrant eking out a living in London in 1966. ‘Sawmill’ is a Greenesque tale set in, I think, an invented African nation, and is also very good. Some of the others don’t seem to do much, but the writing throughout is of a very high standard. I plan to read more Thorpe.
The Lordly Ones, Keith Roberts (1986), is also a collection of short stories. I like Roberts’ fiction – in fact, one of his short stories is a favourite, ‘The Lake of Tuonela’. Sadly, there’s nothing as good as that in this; nor indeed is The Lordly Ones as good a collection as the collection in which that appears, The Grain Kings. On the whole, some lovely writing in places, but a little dated in execution.
Transition, Iain Banks (2009). A new novel by Banks deserves a review all its own. And it shall get one. Soon. Keep watching.
Highlander, dir. Russell Mulcahy (1986), I first saw when it came out twenty-three years ago. I remember at the time thinking it reminded me of an sf novel – one I later identified as George Turner’s Vaneglory. Watching it again, it’s not so close to the novel, but it is, well, very camp. All that posing in dark alleys and lights shining through rain and steam. And the Queen soundtrack. I also seem to recall the film being held in relatively high regard, although I can’t see why. There’s the bizarre casting: a Frenchman as a Scot, and a Scot as a Spaniard (well, Egyptian originally). The badly-choreographed fight scenes. The stereotype characters. And the franchise degraded in quality, too.
The Spirit, dir. Frank Miller (2008), I’d heard plenty of bad words about, but I decided to see for myself. It is bad. The look of the film aping a comic – like Sin City and 300 – is just a gimmick. The story is silly, the characters are paper-thin, the women are there to make the men look good, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy. Not impressed.
The Faculty, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1998), has to be one of the most blatant metaphors ever committed to celluloid. Oh noes, the teachers have all been taken over by aliens! But it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek, and even Josh Hartnett’s brainiac slacker character doesn’t spoil the fun. Plus there’s a few mentions of sf and sf authors by someone who clearly knew what they were talking about. A fun film.
Total Reality, dir. Philip J Roth (1997), is a bad straight-to-DVD sf film. That should be enough to make me avoid it, but in fact the opposite happens. I want to watch these sort of films, no matter how crap they are. And I never really enjoy them. Because they’re so bad. But I keep on watching them. In this one, a team of soldiers sentenced to death for treason are sent back in time on the trail of a pair of rebels. They have to prevent the murder of the self-help guru whose “system” was adopted by a politician and subsequently resulted in a brutal interstellar empire several centuries later. The CGI is terrible, the production design is awful, and the acting is poor. But the explosion of the guru’s house is pretty impressive.
Futuresport, dir. Ernest R Dickerson (1998), is another bad straight-to-DVD sf film. But with a surprisingly high-powered cast: Wesley Snipes, Vanessa Williams and Dean Cain. How the mighty have fallen. Well, not Dean Cain – he was never A-list. Futuresport is little more than a remake of Rollerball, but nowhere near as good as that film. All you really need to know is that it’s about a new ball game, called Futuresport. If you were going to invent a new ball game, why would you call it “futuresport”? It’s a dumb name.
Letter From An Unknown Woman, dir. Max Ophüls (1948), is another film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 films list. I have three lists on Lovefilm DVD rentals – one for recent films, one for foreign films, and one for films from the Time Out list. Each month, I’m sent two from each list. Not all the films from the Time Out list have struck me as enjoyable or impressive. Letter From An Unknown Woman was one such. Louis Jourdan plays a self-centred concert pianist who sleeps with, and then discards, a young woman – played by Joan Fontaine – who has had a crush on him since she was a girl. The story is framed as a letter written by the woman, and sent to Jourdan after she’s died. I found it a bit dull.
Soldier, dir. Paul WS Anderson (1998). Yes, I know: Anderson has never made a good film. (Although his television movie, The Sight, is actually not bad.) Soldier is certainly worse than Event Horizon (see here). It’s Rambo in all but setting. Which is a planet on which some vaguely-defined interstellar human federation dumps its rubbish (shades of Futurama). Kurt Russell plays a genetically-engineered soldier who is left for dead and dumped on the planet of rubbish after losing in a demonstration fight against a newer model. Where he is taken in by a lost colony. And those exact same newer models just happen to visit the planet of rubbish on manoeuvres. They attack the colonists. Russell fights back. It’s another Anderson film which makes very little sense if you think about it too hard. The story follows through from beginning to middle to end, but there’s no logic to it, or to the world on which it takes place.
Earth Alien, dir. Kevin Tenney (2002), is yet another crap sf film. It doesn’t boast the talent of Futuresport, but it’s not that far off – Eric Roberts, Arnold Vosloo and the ubiquitous John Rhys Davies. Someone is killing people in gyms, and Roberts is the detective investigating. Turns out the serial killer is an alien on hunting trip. Earth is a game reserve, humans are the prey, and Vosloo is the game warden. A very silly film. There’s not even a good explosion in it.
Daratt, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2006), I rented after enjoying Haroun’s earlier Abouna. Like that film, it’s set in Haroun’s native Chad. Sixteen-year-old Atim, orphaned by the civil war, determines to find the man who killed his father – as all war criminals have been given amnesty by the government now that the civil war has finally ended. He heads for, I think, the capital N’Djamena, where he discovers that his father’s killer, Nassara, is now a baker, attends mosque regularly, and has a young pregnant wife. In order to get close to the man and so find an opportunity for revenge, Atim apprentices himself to Nassara. And as he gets to know him, the less he wants to kill him. An excellent film. Recommended.
Privates On Parade, dir. Michael Blakemore (1982), is based on a play by Peter Nicholls, which is in turn based on his own experiences, as described in his autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, which I read several years ago. The film is about a British armed forces concert party in Malaysia in 1948. Many of the characters are apparently based on real-life individuals. It’s a comedy, but it’s hard to know exactly who or what are its targets. John Cleese plays the commanding officer, and he’s a typical John Cleese character. The rest of the cast are just as much caricatures. And the English countryside makes a poor stand-in for the Malayan jungle. Mildly amusing.
Burn After Reading, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (2008). I’m not a big fan of the Coen brothers’ films. I’ll watch them, and I sort of enjoy them. But that’s about all. This one is fairly typical of their oeuvre. John Malkovich plays a nasty intelligence analyst fired by the CIA, who subsequently starts writing his memoirs. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt plays a pair of dim-witted gym employees who find a CD-ROM containing Malkovich’s memoir. George Clooney plays an equally dim-witted philanderer who gets involved with Malkovich’s wife and McDormand, and so gets dragged into the whole sorry mess. More amusing than Privates On Parade, but not by a great deal.
The Stepford Wives, dir. Bryan Forbes (1975), is the original adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. Which makes it the superior adaptation. It’s certainly an unsettling film, but not a very scary one. The plot staggers around a little and the sub-Hitchcockian ending is a bit of a let down, but it hangs together entertainingly.
All That Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk (1955), is from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 films list and… it couldn’t have been more different than Letter From An Unknown Woman. I don’t recall ever watching a film by Sirk before, and I didn’t expect much of this. A 1950s melodrama, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. But. I loved it. So much so that I immediately went and bought the Directed By Douglas Sirk boxed set from Amazon – well, it was reduced from £69.99 to £13.48. Bargain. So All That Heaven Allows is just Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in 1950s USA, but it’s beautifully done and the 1950s Technicolour looks wonderful. You expect some wit in films of that period, but the condemnation of contemporary society and mores is done with surprising subtlety. A new film for the favourites list. Recommended.
Loulou, dir. Maurice Pialat (1980), stars a very young-looking Isabelle Huppert, and Gérard Depardieu, who seems to have looked the same for the past three decades. Huppert leaves her husband and shacks up with aimless drifter Depardieu. Things happen. It’s all very 1970s, very French and very sexist. Enjoyable, but I felt no desire to dash out and buy the DVD.