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Readings & watchings 11

It’s time for the last report of 2010 from the coalfaces down the side-tunnels of the mine that is popular culture. You know the drill (see what I did there?): these are the books wot I read, these are the films wot I watched…

Books
number9dream, David Mitchell (2001), is Mitchell’s second novel. It’s set in Japan. An orphaned young man is searching for his mysterious father, but inadvertently gets involved with the Yakuza. Like Cloud Atlas, the story doesn’t quite cohere, although about a third of the way in things do start to gel. The writing is excellent, the narrator is engaging, and the occasional over-the-top elements of the story are forgivable. Worth reading.

Intervention, Julian May (1987), sets the scene for her Galactic Milieu trilogy. I remember enjoying May’s Saga of the Exiles when I was in my teens, so I was surprised to discover that I hated this book. It’s basically about the development of super mind-powers among a group of Franco-Americans in New England. It’s supposed to be based on the memoirs of one of these, but breaks away from his narrative far too often for the conceit to stand up. The aliens are silly, the language is melodramatic, and the characters all come across as Mary Sues. Avoid.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953), is, as any fule kno, the first of Fleming’s James Bond novels. For reasons that continue to elude me, I am working my way through the 007 books. I know they’re not very good, I know they’re nothing like the films. But still I read them. Given the recent film of Casino Royale I had somewhat higher hopes of this novel. Sadly, it’s worse than the others I’ve read. The plot is thin: Bond plays Le Chiffre at cards, Bond wins, Le Chiffre kidnaps and tortures Bond, Bond is rescued. There’s loads of clumsy info-dumps. And Bond is even more offensively sexist than usual – the final line is “Besides, the bitch is dead”. Watch the movie, avoid the book.

Axiomatic, Greg Egan (1995), is Egan’s first collection. I’ve never really been a big fan of Egan’s fiction, but since he receives so much praise I though I’d better have another bash at him. I found this collection in a charity shop, bought it, read it and… I’m still not entirely convinced. He seems to take implausible ideas and stretch them to breaking point; and often beyond. There are some good stories in this collection, but there are many that are quite dull, whose single idea just isn’t worth the story around which it is built. There’s also a sameness to many of the stories. Still, the prose is quite polished.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (2009), has a central conceit that couldn’t help but appeal: in the 1940s, Joseph Stalin asks a group of science fiction writers to design an alien invasion, as part of a plot to create an enemy for the Soviet people in order to justify greater hardships and more invasive state control. You know, like the War on Terror. But nothing comes of it. Then, in the 1980s, it begins to look as though an alien invasion, exactly as planned forty years ago, is actually happening. Unfortunately, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn’t quite meet the promise of the conceit. It’s a very good novel, and the first half is an excellent and very funny satire. But about halfway through it changes direction, and eventually ends up in some sort of metaphysical area that didn’t strike me as interesting as the satire was. Definitely worth reading, however.

Ulverton, Adam Thorpe (1992), is a book I first tried reading over a decade ago, but put down after getting about halfway through it. It’s been sat on my book-shelves ever since. I’d always intended a second go at it, since what I had read had impressed me. But Ulverton is not an easy read. The title refers to a fictional village in the south of England, and the novel is structured as a series of incidents in the history of the village, beginning in the 17th century right up to the present day. Each section is told in the prose style of the time, and Thorpe uses a variety of formats as well – personal reminiscences, a sermon, eyewitness accounts, journals, a script, etc. This is a book that stands or falls on its writing, so it’s good that Thorpe’s prose is excellent. He maintains voice superbly in each of the settings, and gives a very real feel for his invented village. Worth the wait.

Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (2010), is the latest Culture novel and I wrote about it here.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (1963), is a slender book. The eponymous girls are all residents of the May of Teck Club, a hostel for single women under the age of thirty. The book takes place in the year following the end of WWII. Spark introduces the girls of the top floor, before leading up to a “tragedy” involving an unexploded bomb. There’s also a framing narrative set in the 1960s, in which various of the girls discuss a man one of them invited a couple of the times to the club, and who since became a missionary and has just been murdered in Haiti. I liked the way Sparks characterised the girls, but didn’t like her overly repetitive prose style. Nor was I especially keen on the framing narrative – not that I could see why it even needed to be there. Don’t think I’ll be dashing out to read any more books by Sparks.

A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982), is Ishiguro’s debut novel, and in no way compares to his later works. A Japanese woman, married to a Brit and resident in the UK, reminiscences about her previous marriage in Japan. Her daughter from that marriage has committed suicide, and her daughter from her second marriage is staying with her for a week. The events in Japan – in Nagasaki – revolve around an upper class Japanese woman fallen on hard times, who has an American boyfriend who has promised he’ll divorce his wife back home and take the Japanese woman to the US. This woman also has a wayward daughter, who was traumatised by something she witnessed during the bombing raids on Tokyo during WWII. The prose is not as sharp as Ishiguro’s later books – in fact, the dialogue is tin-eared throughout. And the plot sort of peters out, rather being resolved. Disappointing.

Ninety-eight point four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969), is one of my British SF Masterworks and I wrote a review of it here.

Long Time Coming, Robert Goddard (2010). One day I’ll work out why I continue to read Goddard’s novels (I say that every time, don’t I?). It’s probably because no thought is required – this one took me a day – and they’re usually diverting. Despite being formulaic. His last one was rubbish, but this one is a bit better. A man discovers that his uncle, who he’d been told was dead, had actually been in an Irish prison since 1940 for an unrevealed crime (the book is set in 1976). It’s all to do with some Picasso paintings, which were forged by an ex-IRA painter, used to replace the real paintings owned by a Belgian diamond merchant who dies when the ship in which he was travelling to the US was sunk by a German U-boat. There’s more to the plot than just that, and it does get a bit unbelievable in the middle, but it’s better than some of Goddard’s other novels.

U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton (2009). The central conceit driving this alphabetical series is starting to unravel: the novels are presented as the reports of cases investigated by PI Kinsey Millhone. This one is a case in point: two of the three narrative threads are in the third-person and by those involved in the crime Kinsey is investigating. Which is the disappearance in 1967 of a four-year old girl – she was kidnapped, but not returned by the kidnappers. Like Goddard’s, these books are easy reads – and this one only took a day too. Grafton has rounded out the last few with Kinsey’s complicated family history – she thought she was an orphan, but her dead mother was actually the estranged daughter of a well-to-do matriarch. Sometimes Kinsey’s familial woes feel a bit like padding; sometimes they give her depth. But at no time do they actually add to, or illuminate, the plot of the novel. Grafton is no Paretsky, but never mind.

The Battle of Forever, AE van Vogt (1971), is typical van Vogt. Which is to say: it’s complete and utter nonsense. On good days, van Vogt’s nonsense is pacey and entertaining nonsense. On bad days, it’s just too silly to suspend disbelief. The Battle of Forever was plainly written on a bad day. It doesn’t help that it clearly reads as though van Vogt made it up as he went along – well, much more so than his other novels. In the distant future, one thousand humans are all that remain of the race, and they live as giant heads with atrophied bodies in an idyllic enclave. As an experiment, one of them, Modyun, grows a proper human body and heads out into the outside world as an experiment. He finds an Earth inhabited by the humanoid descendants of animals and apparently ruled by an alien bureaucracy. The novel may have been published in the 1970s, making it late-period van Vogt, but the society depicted seems more 1940s than anything else. Modyun accompanies some new-found animal people friends onto a giant spaceship, has various run-ins with members of the alien race in which they try to out-think each other, learns all the other humans have been killed as part of the aliens’ final act of Earth subjugation and… It all gets a bit wearying after a while, as van Vogt nears the end of each scene and hunts desperately for a hook to continue the story… often manufacturing one out of nothing simply in order to bang out more words. The Battle of Forever is a logic-free freefall through a story which rarely makes sense, and which reads like it was written when movies were black and white. Even for a fan of van Vogt, it’s putdownable.

Films
A Tale Of Springtime, Éric Rohmer (1990), is the first of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons quartet, and the second film I’ve seen by him – the first was Triple Agent, which I thought slow but strangely involving, even though it didn’t seem to reach any sort of resolution. A Tale Of Springtime is much the same. A woman, Jeanne, attends a friend’s party and meets a young woman, Natasha, who befriends her. Jeanne doesn’t want to stay in her boyfriend’s flat while he’s away, and she’s lent her own flat to a cousin, so Natasha offers her a bed for the night and Jeanne accepts. Jeanne subsequently gets drawn into Natasha’s life, especially her father’s relationship with his new girlfriend, who Natasha does not like. This involves several trips to a house they own in a country village, which needs work done in its garden. If someone who didn’t like French cinema wanted to characterise it, they’d probably use A Tale Of Springtime as an exemplar. Yes, it’s a languorously-paced relationship drama, well-played but not dramatic. It’s unfair to describe it, as a comment on imdb.com does, as “not the for the general film-going public”, which seems such a wrong phrase on so many levels. It will not, however, be everyone’s cup of tea. I liked it.

They Flew Alone, Herbert Wilcox (1942), is a biopic of Amy Johnson. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

Brooklyn’s Finest, Anthony Fuqua (2009), is yet another bad New York cop movie. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

The Blue Gardenia, Fritz Lang (1953), is a film noir from master director Lang. The title refers to a club, where Raymond Burr (best known as Perry Mason) takes Anne Baxter, who is out drowning her sorrows after being ditched by her boyfriend. Burr is found dead the next morning, his head bashed in. Baxter can’t remember anything after leaving the club. A reporter believes her to be innocent and so tries to help find the real killer. There’a lot of evidence stacked up against Baxter, but it’s all cleverly shown to be either coincidental or a mistake on the witness’s part. There’s a lot in The Blue Gardenia that’s not dissimilar to While the City Sleeps, a 1956 film also by Fritz Lang. Both feature stalwart newsmen solving murders. I guess reporters were held in higher esteem in those days…

Comédie l’innocence, Raúl Ruiz (2000), I rented because it stars Isabelle Huppert, who is, I think, one of the best actors of her generation. The title of the film belies its somewhat unsettling story. On his ninth birthday, a young boy tells his mother that he wants to return to his “real” mother. He’s not adopted, but instead seems to believe he is the reincarnation – or has been possessed by – a young boy who died several years earlier. The boy’s mother, played by Huppert, tracks down the “real” mother, and, bizarrely, the two start sharing the boy. In parts, Comédie l’innocence is not unlike Don’t Look Now – the chills lie in what is implied, in the way something which has no rational explanation pulls apart domestic routine. The ending does resolve the plot, but it’s a taut journey there. Recommended.

Threads (1984), is a BBC two-part drama, first broadcast in 1984, about the effects of a nuclear war on Britain, and specifically on the city of Sheffield. It’s effectively done. These days, they’d CGI the nuclear explosion itself, and you’d see walls of flame ripping through the city, buildings exploding and falling over, all that sort of thing: nuclear explosion as spectacle. Threads skates quickly past that and onto the aftermath, as survivors eke out a living in the ruins, and succumb to radiation sickness, disease, violence and starvation. I missed this when it was first broadcast, but I’m glad I finally got to see it. A classic piece of British television, and much better than the inferior US takes on the same subject.

This Island Earth, Joseph M Newman (1955), is one of those films which helped define the popular perception of 1950s cinema sf, along with When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon and The Day The Earth Stood Still. This Island Earth is based on a book of the same title by Raymond F Jones. Rex Reason – actors had proper actorly names in those days – plays a scientist who is recruited by a strange think-tank of platinum blond Tefal men. They’re interested in his research on nuclear power generation and are keen to fund his research. But it’s all a plot, because the Tefal men are really aliens from the planet Metaluna – as if their appearance wasn’t much of a clue. Reason and a female scientist played by Faith Domergue are taken by the aliens to their planet, which is at war with another race. There’s a giant mutant creature in there, too. The film was sold using stills of the mutant holding up a fainted Demorgue. This Island Earth is an entertaining piece of historical sf, although the first half of the film is better than the second. Now I have the original novel, I’ll have to see how far it deviates from the source text.

It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934), is on one of those Top 100 Films, but I forget which one. It was the first film to win the top five Oscars: best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Claudette Colbert plays a rich socialite with an overbearing father. He isn’t happy that she married a fortune-hunting aviator, so she runs away. On a Greyhound bus, she meets Clark Gable, a reporter, who recognises her and smells a story. He helps her to return to New York, although she has no money and he has very little. En route, they fall in love. It Happened One Night is your classic screwball rom com. Enough said.

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese (2010). I’ve always thought Scorsese an over-rated director. Half the time he makes forgettable crowd-pleasers, the rest of the time he remakes Mean Streets. This falls into the former category and is based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane. The island of the title is the site of a hospital for the criminally insane. One of the prisoners has disappeared, so FBI agent Leonardo DiCaprio and partner are sent to investigate. The twist in the film is obvious right from the start, the Civil War fort which forms the secure wing of the hospital looks like something out of Dracula, and Max von Sydow keeps on popping up and spouting wodges of psychobabble plainly designed to confuse the viewer. Avoidable.

The Colour Of Paradise, Majid Majidi (1999), is an Iranian film, and proved much better than I’d expected it to be. Mohammed, a young boy at the Tehran Institute for the Blind, is picked up by his widowed father and taken to their home in the mountains. The father wants to remarry, but he can’t cope with a blind son. So he takes Mohammed to visit a blind carpenter and apprentices him to him. Mohammed doesn’t understand why he can’t stay at home with his father, grandmother and sisters. He may be blind, but with his Braille books he can keep up with the sighted kids in the village school. But the father is adamant. Then things start to go wrong, and the father’s plans and life unravel… I’ve seen two Iranian films before this – Secret Ballot, which made my top five of the year, and Taste Of Cherry – and they were both very good. As is The Colour Of Paradise. I didn’t expect it to be as affecting as it was, because, let’s face it, the story sounds more “worthy” than watchable. The boy who plays Mohammed is very good, the scenery is beautiful, and the slow unfolding of the story is cleverly done. I’ve already added Majidi’s other films to my rental list.


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Readings and watchings 10

It’s been a month since the last one, so here goes:

Books
Interstellar Empire, John Brunner (1976), is a fix-up of three novellas from 1953, 1958 and 1965. They’re juvenilia and it shows. For a start, it’s “enslaved”, not “slavered”. Gah. And despite being set in a post-collapse galactic empire, everyone talks like comedy barbarians. Brunner admits in an included essay that the novellas were partly inspired by a desire to invent a workable swords & spaceships universe – ie, interstellar travel but each world possessing no more than Dark Ages tech (although a helicopter does make an appearance). The mention of mutants and telepathic powers, however, in no way explains the magic powers which feature in one of the novellas. Aldiss did it much better in Starswarm and Galaxies Like Grains of Sand.

Ascendancies, DG Compton (1980), I wrote about here.

Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boulle (1963), was terrible. The film is a great deal better. Although originally published in France in 1963, this book reads like it was written forty years earlier. And, annoyingly, the author (or perhaps the translator of the Penguin edition I read) refers to chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans throughout as “monkeys”. That’s in spite the book’s title. Gah. The story opens with a couple in a spaceship finding a message in a bottle floating in space – which is too dumb a concept to be taken seriously, as paper simply wouldn’t survive in space. The message is the story of Ulysse Mérou, who lands on an inhabitable planet in the Betelgeuse system and is captured by intelligent apes. He’s an unpleasant narrator, the swapping of humans for apes and vice versa is painfully obvious a conceit, and the details of the apes’ world don’t really add up. Avoid.

Alanya to Alanya (2005), Renegade (2006) and Tsunami (2007), L Timmel Duchamp, are the first three books of the Marq’ssan Cycle. I’m currently reading the fourth book, and I plan to write about all five once I’m done. Just like I planned to write about the five books of Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love Cycle – the piece on those is almost done, and should be going up here soon-ish. So far, however, the Marq’ssan Cycle is proving an excellent thought-provoking read, and I’d certainly recommend it.

The Collector, John Fowles (1963). Perhaps when reading an author’s oeuvre, you should start with their debut novel. I didn’t. The first novel I read by Fowles was A Maggot, and I thought it was excellent. When I later read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I was even more impressed. The Collector can’t match either of those. Fowles’ maintenance of his two characters’ voices is good throughout The Collector, and the novel is cleverly-structured. But it all seems a bit, well, tame. The eponymous entomologist kidnaps Miranda, locks her in his cellar, and then treats her like an imprisoned princess. When you compare that to similar situations from television shows such as CSI, or even from the real world, it all seems a bit too comfortable and home counties. Disappointing.

The Girl At The Lion d’Or, Sebastian Faulks (1989), is Faulks’ second novel. The eponymous character is a young woman of mysterious background who takes a waitress job at the titular hotel in France during the early 1930s. She immediately falls in love with wealthy lawyer Charles Hartmann. The two have an affair, and she tells him her secret. This changes his view of her, and so he breaks off the relationship… The Girl At The Lion d’Or has a good sense of time and place – and the heroine’s secret is very much a product of the time – but the writing is a little too flowery in places. But then it is only Faulks’ second novel…

The Secret History Omnibus Volume 1, Jean-Pierre Pécau (2010), is a graphic novel. Back in the Stone Age, four youths were each gifted with a powerful magic rune – the shield, sword, chalice and lance. These four Archons were immortal, and have battled throughout human history for supremacy. When one’s plan backfired during the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, it created William of Lecce, an evil immortal, who has subsequently been responsible for all the wars and tribulations since. There’s a good idea at the heart of this graphic novel, and the historical periods are handled well. But a lot seems unexplained, and it’s easy to get confused. This first volume covers from the Stone Age to the First World War, with episodes set in Ancient Egypt, the reign of Frederick I, the Great Fire of London, and Napoleonic France. I’ll be picking up Volume 2 when that becomes available.

The Flying Saucer, Bernard Newman (1950), I read to review for Interzone.

Films
Déjà Vu, dir. Tony Scott (2006), is one of those high-concept thrillers Hollywood likes to rip bleeding from the oeuvre of Philip K Dick. Except this one isn’t based on anything by PKD. A bomb explodes on a ferry in New Orleans, killing everyone aboard. Denzel Washington investigates, and is seconded to a super-secret taskforce which has access to… a time portal. They can see back in time, to the very moment of the explosion. There’s some guff about wormholes and Einstein-Rosen Bridges, but this is Hollywood so it’s not very plausible. It all ends up with Washington getting sent back in time to rescue a woman who might hold a clue to the bomber’s identity. Entertaining, but it’s best not to think about it too hard.

The Men Who Stare At Goats, dir. Grant Heslov (2009), surprised me. I was expecting some stupid gung-ho thriller related to the title, but it turned out to be a funny and slightly offbeat comedy. The book on which it was based is actually non-fiction. Yes, the US military really did train soldiers in telepathy and telekinesis. Not to mention lots of other weird hippy-type crap. Not that they were successful. At least, not in the real world. In this movie, it’s left open. George Clooney is good, Spacey plays a nasty piece of work convincingly, but Ewan McGregor seems a bit out of place. A fun film.

Lured, dir. Douglas Sirk (1947), is an early thriller by the master of melodrama. It’s set in London, but made in the US with a US cast. Which makes for an odd viewing experience as the accents are variable. Lucille Ball plays an American, however. She gets embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer when Scotland Yard ask her to act as bait. There are several Sirk touches in the film, but it’s not a patch on his later stuff. It’s too light-hearted to really pass as noir, and a bit too bizarre in places as well; and some of the faux Hitchcockian staging sits at odds with the more conventionally-filmed interior scenes. One for fans.

Fanboys, dir. Kyle Newman (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, dir. Robert Schwentke (2009), I watched because I’ll probably never get around to reading the book. And, to be honest, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Man stalks woman through time, right from when she was really young. It struck me as a bit unhealthy. Meh.

Black Lightning, dir. Dimitriy Kiselev & Aleksandr Voytinskiy (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Sherlock Holmes, dir. Guy Ritchie (2009), entertained me more than I expected. I don’t have much time for Ritchie’s films, but a few people had told me Sherlock Holmes was actually quite good. And so it proved. Nothing to do with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, though. Well, it was about a detective and his sidekick; and they happened to be named Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But that’s about as far as it went. Entertaining, if supremely silly. It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film, and I find I can’t remember any of the plot. Which pretty much sums it up.

The Woman In Question, dir. Anthony Asquith (1950), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

La Reine Margot, dir. Patrice Chéreau (1994). They were a nasty lot those French royals in the 16th century. We might piss and moan about our current government dumping on the population from a great height, but at least they haven’t manufactured a massacre just to keep themselves in power. That’s what the mother of King Charles IX did in France in 1572. Since he was Catholic, and she didn’t want the Protestants to gain the throne, she had a bunch of them killed, which in turn sparked off a wave of mob violence. As many as 30,000 might have died (estimates vary). The title character is the sister of King Charles IX, who is married off to Henri, King of Navarre (a separate kingdom in the Pyrenees), who is Protestant. This is allegedly to placate the French Protestants, but it doesn’t go very well. Henri is imprisoned, and forced to convert to Catholicism. He eventually escapes, with the help of his wife. But not before King Charles IX’s mother tries to poison him, but inadvertently poisons her son, the king. When he dies, his brother takes the throne. But then he dies too, and Henri ends up as King of France. So he got the last laugh, after all. You couldn’t make this sort of stuff up. If you put it in a fantasy novel, readers would say it was too implausible. This film adaptation is noted for its excellence, and it’s easy to see why. Although sixteenth century France seems a bit minimalist and flat, and there are lots of meaningful glances between members of the cast. And it’s a long film. But it’s definitely worth seeing.

Edge of Darkness (1985), is the original BBC television series, not the inferior Hollywood remake. I thought I’d seen this before, perhaps when it was originally broadcast. But apparently not. Bob Peck plays a Yorkshire policeman, whose activist daughter is shot by an assassin on his doorstep. It turns out it’s all to do with Northmoor, a nearby nuclear waste facility based in an old mine. Peck’s character was a bit odd, even kissing one suspect in order to get him to confess, and later trying a similar trick on the assassin. Also bonkers was Joe Don Baker’s CIA agent, who helps Peck to crack the case because it’s in the interest of the US to blow the lid on the secret British plutonium project and the sale of Northmoor to a US billionaire. I can see why the series has become a cult favourite – it’s not the straightforward thriller a summary of its plot might suggest. It’s a little odd, but compelling viewing nonetheless. And the ending is completely mad.

The Last Mimzy, dir. Robert Shaye (2007), is a genre film which seems to have slipped beneath a lot of people’s radars. It’s based on a short story by Lewis Padgett (AKA husband and wife Henry Kuttner and CL Moore). Basically, the future is in trouble, so they send kids’ toys back into the distant past in the hope of educating a child to send them what they need. A brother and sister, aged six and twelve, who live in Seattle in the present day find the toys. And they make the kids smarter. And also provide some good sfx. While this is a family film, I think it’s concept is a little too high for its target audience. It’s done well, but it tries too hard to get its central conceit across and comes close to losing its viewers in parts. Entertaining, but, well, perhaps the filmmakers shouldn’t have thought about it too hard.

Death Watch, dir. Bertrand Tavernier (1980), I wrote about here.


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Readings & watchings 9

Apologies for the delay since the last one of these. I’ve posted a number of reviews of individual books to this blog over the past few weeks, but they haven’t been all I’ve read during that time. Here’s all of them – with the links to the aforementioned reviews where appropriate, of course. And there’s also all those DVDs I’ve watched since my last readings & watchings post…

Books
Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds (2010). I’m working on a review of this for SFF Chronicles. I promise to post it up there soon. Suffice it to say, my feelings about this novel probably echo those of most of Reynolds’ fans.

Corpsing, Toby Litt (2000), is, as you can no doubt tell from the title, Litt’s third book. (Each of his books is titled alphabetically, although they are not a series or linked in any way.) I first came across Litt’s name when his tenth book, Journey into Space, a science fiction novel set aboard a generation starship, was reviewed in Interzone. I found a copy of that book (see here), enjoyed it, and so decided to read more by the author. Corpsing is a mystery novel, of sorts. The first-person narrator, Conrad, meets his ex-girlfriend, an up-and-coming actress, for a meal in a posh restaurant. During the main course, a hitman enters, kills the ex-girlfriend and mortally wounds Conrad. When he comes out of the resulting coma, he determines to discover who ordered the hit on his ex-girlfriend, and why. The solution to the mystery is not entirely what he expected. While the resolution is a little disappointing, the journey to it is very good. Conrad is an engaging narrator, there’s some perceptive writing in the book, and it’s also funny in parts and clever in others. I shall certainly be reading more by Litt.

Thousandth Night / Minla’s Flowers, Alastair Reynolds (2009), is a signed limited back-to-back double of a pair of Reynolds’ novellas from Subterranean Press. I’d read ‘Minla’s Flowers’ in The New Space Opera, but ‘Thousandth Night’ was new to me as it first appeared in a SF Book Club anthology One Million A.D. I have, however, read House of Suns, which is a novel-length sequel-of-sorts to ‘Thousandth Night’. The title refers to a year-long reunion of the Gentian Line, immortal clones descended from a single woman, albeit engineered to be individual, who travel the galaxy alone for 10,000 years doing touristy-type things. At the reunion, each member of the line creates a dream of what they have experienced during their travels, each of which is played to the clones each night. The narrator, Campion, however, notices some discrepancies in the dream, or “threading”, of one the other clones. With the help of Purslane, a female clone, he investigates… and uncovers a dastardly plot which could impact both the Gentian Line and the entire galaxy. The central conceit is pretty cool, and there is some impressive sf imagery in the story – the flying whales surely could have been inspired by the album art from Gojiro’s From Mars to Sirius (but then Reynolds has written a story name-checking Elton John, so perhaps not…). The characters in ‘Thousandth Night’ are better differentiated than they are in House of Suns, where they did tend to blur together. However, I was amused by the line: “It’s like trying to play chequers on a chess board” (p 33). For a start, we call it “draughts” in the UK; it’s called “checkers”, and spelled that way, in the US. And you do play it on a chessboard. I couldn’t actually work out if Reynolds was having a joke, or a brainfart.

Bold as Love (2001), Castles Made of Sand (2002), Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsys (2005) and Rainbow Bridge (2006), Gwyneth Jones. The Bold as Love Cycle was the first quintet of my summer reading project (see here). I’m working on a piece about the five books, which I’ll post here when it’s finished. I hope to have it done before the end of the month.

The Stainless Steel Rat, Kelvin Gosnell and Carols Ezquerra (1979 – 1985). This is an omnibus edition of the comic adaptation of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels which first appeared in 2000AD. I may no longer be a big fan of the books (see here), but I do have fond memories of the comic strip and didn’t think it could be any worse than the novels. And, well, I’m not so sure… Ezquerra’s art is always distinctive, and mostly very good; although it does seem a bit slapdash in some of the later stories. However, important chunks of the plots seem to be missing. In the first strip, an adaptation of The Stainless Steel Rat, Jim DiGriz refers to the villain as Pepe Nero, despite him never having been named previously. The same thing happens in ‘The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World’ – there’s a leap from “someone messing about with the distant past” to “plot by Him to destroy the universe”. We know DiGriz and family, but the villains need to be introduced too. As does the plot. Ah well. Now, if 2000AD will only publish an omnibus of their take on Dan Dare…

No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956), is one of my British SF Masterworks, and I reviewed it here.

Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt Jr (2010), I read for review for Interzone. I’d never read Modesitt before, although I was aware of the name. I won’t be reading him again. Ever.

A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965), is another of my British SF Masterworks, and I reviewed it here.

Disgrace, JM Coetzee (1999), won the Booker Prize in 1999 and is the first book by Coetzee I’ve read. A university professor in Cape Town has an affair with a student which sours. A complaint is raised against him. Rather than defend himself, the professor stands on principle and is subsequently fired. So he goes to visit his daughter, a lesbian farmer in the East Cape region. But several weeks after his arrival, the farm is attacked by three bandits, who rape the daughter. She refuses to acknowledge this, and he finds himself helpless in the face of her refusal. It’s easy to cast the relationship as a metaphor for South Africa, but I’m not sure Coetzee’s unadorned prose works in the story’s favour – it’s good, but feels a bit too stark to really appeal. I may try more by the author, but I shan’t make a point of seeking out his books.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1962), I wrote about here.

Gherman Titov’s Flight into Space, Wilfred Burchett & Anthony Purdy (1962), I will be reviewing on my Space Books blog soon.

The Guardians 1: The Krilov Continuum, JMH (James) Lovegrove (1998), was , the author freely admits, work-for-hire. Orbit came up with the concept, and did a cross-promotional deal with the Sci-Fi Channel. Lovegrove was interested in the topic, so was keen to work on the project. It’s alt history UFO mythology type stuff, with the Tunguska explosion caused by the crash of a craft powered by anti-gravity. It was invented by a Russian scientist, Krilov, although he unknowingly had help from an extra-dimensional race… because it seems there is a war being fought on Earth between two groups from that race, and the chief weapon is Progress. One side – the good guys – want to keep progress at a level where the human race neither destroys itself, nor attacks the extra-dimensional race – as happened in Atlantis eons before. The bad guys, however, like to mess things up by introducing alien technology here and there. A bit of a potboiler, to tell the truth. Lovegrove has written much better. The Sci-Fi Channel apparently failed to keep up their end of the deal and sales were so poor the series was cancelled after two books. I’m not sure I can be bothered to track down the sequel.

Little Birds, Anaïs Nin (1979). I suspect I came across mention of Nin through her link with Lawrence Durrell, and so when I stumbled across this thin collection of her short fiction – well, erotica – in a charity shop, I bought it. And… Sorry, not impressed. Some of the stories skated dangerously close to paedophilia and rape, and very few of them actually struck me as erotic. They were apparently written in the 1940s – although Nin did not allow them to be published until the late 1970s – so clearly they did things very differently back in those days…

The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears (2002), was another one I picked up in a charity shop. But I did so because I’d read and enjoyed Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost back in 1998. A fifth-century bishop, a fifteenth-century poet, and a WWII academic, all in Provence, each studying the earlier person, and each in some sort of relationship with a Jewish woman, in interlinked stories which are part history lesson, part discussions of philosophy and religion, and part love story. Admittedly, much of the philosophy was lost on me – the title is shared with a treatise by Cicero, and it’s referenced many times during the story. But the historical periods were handled well, the characters were interesting, and although the book was slow to start, I did like it a lot. It not as good as An Instance of the Fingerpost, but I’ll certainly be reading more by Pears.

Films
Under The Sand, dir. François Ozon (2000). I like Ozon’s films, but this one dragged a bit. Charlotte Rampling and her husband go on holiday to their seaside chalet. They head down to the beach, she settles down with a book, and he goes for a swim. And doesn’t come back. She calls the life guards, but there’s no sign of him. Eventually, they decide he must have drowned. She heads back to Paris and tries to get on with her life. But she refuses to admit that her husband is dead. Even when the police ask her to identify a body washed up on the beach, she claims it is not her husband’s though it plainly is. Meanwhile, her friends try to match-make, and she enters into a relationship with another man. Throughout this time, at home she hallucinates that her husband is alive and well. She tells him what she’s been up to, including the man she is seeing… I like the idea at the core of the story, but I suspect it’s not strong enough for a 94-minute film.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, dir. David Hugh Jones (1982), is another of the BBC’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this one starring Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, and Prunella Scales as one of the eponymous wives. Not one of the Bard’s better ones, I thought; more like an Elizabethan Carry On film than anything else. Some of the jokes I’m sure I’ve seen in other plays, and the characters were just broad stereotypes. Griffiths didn’t seem quite big enough a presence as Falstaff, and the ending was completely bonkers. Falstaff tries to get it on with two of the wives, but they reject his advances. One of the husbands mistakenly believes Falstaff has succeeded and so pretends to be a secret admirer of his own wife needing Falstaff’s help to enter into an affair with her. It’s the usual mistaken/hidden identity Shakespearean thing. Oh, and there’s a daughter who loves one person, but her father wants her to marry someone else, and her mother wants her to marry yet another man. Once everything is sorted out, the good burghers of Windsor decide to have their revenge on the fat letcher, and trick him into meeting in a nearby wood at midnight. Where they’ve arranged for the local kids to dress up as fairies and sing and dance about him. And, of course, Falstaff thinks they’re real fairies…

The 7th Dimension, dir. Brad Watson (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here. Some interesting ideas, but the director threw too much into the pot and it all turned into a bit of mess.

All That Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk (1955), was a rewatch, and remains a favourite film. It is almost note-perfect throughout. Jane Wyman plays an upper-middle class widow with two grown-up children. Rock Hudson is the man who comes round to trim her trees. They get talking, and subsequently fall in love. But all Wyman’s friends, and her two kids, frown on her relationship with the bohemian gardener. All That Heaven Allows is a very autumnal film, and is beautifully photographed. Like all of Sirk’s films, there’s much more going on that the melodramatic story suggests – here, it’s a biting critique of US society of the time. A film I will certainly watch again and again.

Hierro, dir. Gabe Ibáñez (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here. It is excellent.

Planet 51, dir. Jorge Blanco, Javier and Marcos Martínez (2009), is one of a spate of recent genre-ish animated films, aimed at kids, but including something for adults. This one is a reverse of all those 1950s alien invasion B-movies – it’s the humans who invade. Well, human. A lone astronaut lands on the eponymous world, whose alien inhabitants bizarrely resemble those of a 1950s USA. There are some amusing little jokes – a pet which resembles an alien from the Alien franchise, for example – but like all films of this ilk, the clever visuals can’t disguise a story straight from the pro-family values conservative school of Hollywood script-writing.

While the City Sleeps, dir. Fritz Lang (1956), I reviewed for VideoVista here. A good noir-ish film, although Dana Andrews appears a bit too louche to convince as the sharp investigate reporter protagonist.

Pandorum, dir. Christian Alvart (2009), I’d been meaning to get hold of for a while, but after seeing a few ambivalent reviews I decided not to shell out for the DVD. So I rented it instead. And I’m glad I did. Because it’s rubbish. Man wakes on giant spaceship. He’s all alone. Except for the zombie-like creatures. And the few survivors of, well, of something, who have managed to eke out a living. Nothing in this story made any sense whatsoever. Cargo did it so much better. Avoid.

Fish Tank, dir. Andrea Arnold (2009), is the second feature-length film by the director of Red Road, which I saw on DVD back in 2007. Teenage Mia lives on a sink estate but dreams of making it as a dancer. She practices daily in an abandoned flat. Her drunken young mother is in a relationship with a security guard at the local DIY superstore (played by Michael Fassbender). This is not one of those films with a well-defined beginning, middle and end, but it’s all the better for it. The cast are mostly excellent, particularly Fassbender and Katie Jarvis as Mia. Not an easy film to watch, but definitely worth seeing.

Blood Diamond, dir. Edward Zwick (2006), I liked more than I thought I would. Hollywood takes on the blood diamond trade, starring Leonardo DiCaprio – nothing there to signal it would be a good film, I’d have thought. But it proved to be a reasonably even-handed take on its subject, and DiCaprio, who seems to be getting better as he gets older, was good in the main role. The obligatory female role, played by Jennifer Connolly, struck me as a bit unnecessary, but Djimon Hounsou, as the man kidnapped by rebels to work in the diamond mine, played a good part.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: The Complete BBC Series (1979). I recently watched an episode of Spooks. I’d never bothered watching it before. Now I understand why. Spooks is the direct opposite of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is slow and requires much thought to follow; Spooks is fast-paced and completely stupid. Admittedly, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does take a couple of episodes to get going, and you might initially wonder why you’re bothering as nothing actually appears to be happening. It doesn’t help that the characters seem to have been written by a public schoolboy. But having recently read Smiley’s People (see here), I think I’m happy to have seen the television series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy rather than read the book. I intend, of course, to rent Smiley’s People too. That should prove a more interesting viewing experience as I’ll be able to compare it to the book.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2009). Another quirky genre-ish animated family film. This time it’s about male bonding and family ties and, like Planet 51, the inventive visuals can’t disguise that humdrum story and its middle-class moralising. It is, apparently, based on a series of children’s books, which probably explains why it exists as a movie. I can’t see Hollywood ever coming up with something as plain weird as Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘s central premise – food raining from the sky – unless the concept had proven itself in another media and there was perceived ready market for it.

Hunter Prey, dir. Sandy Collora (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista here. Star Wars fanfic stretched out to feature-length. Disappointing.

The Big Clock, dir. John Farrow (1948), I reviewed for VideoVista here. For some reason, this film reminded me of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, but I’m not entirely sure why. Rand’s book is risible, but this film is quite watchable.

The Sword With No Name, dir. Yong-gyun Kim (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here. It was a lot better than I expected it to be. In fact, it was pretty good.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1984), was Studio Ghibli’s first feature-length film, although it was apparently released before the studio was founded. However, it certainly looks like a Ghibli film. It’s set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, which a voiceover by the title character tries to explain, but the explanation doesn’t really make sense, But that’s okay, because it’s the Ghibli visuals which are the film’s main draw. Sometimes the animation seemed a bit jerky, and the story didn’t always add up, but the film was better-paced than many anime films I’ve seen and it had a distinct story-arc from start to finish. Not a bad film – I enjoyed it, although I’ll not be dashing out to buy my own copy.

The Hurt Locker, dir. Kathryn Bigelow. (2008). Cor, guess what. US soldiers are trigger-happy idiots. But that’s okay, because war is dehumanising. Hollywood films about war seem to either cast American soldiers as noble heroes or murdering incompetent dolts. The Hurt Locker falls into the second category. A member of a US Army bomb disposal squad in Baghdad takes insane risks because war has made him that way. What this is meant to illustrate is anybody’s guess. Certainly the film does demonstrate that the Iraqi people are considered to be little more than an amorphous faceless enemy, that the US shouldn’t go round invading sovereign nations, and that the reputation of the US armed forces for effectiveness is ill-deserved. I’m surprised this film won so many awards – six Oscars, six BAFTAs, and a host of others. Perhaps that’s because it’s a war film that doesn’t glorify war – which is nothing knew, I admit – but it does it in reference to the invasion of Iraq (rather than Vietnam). I’m not overly fond of morons-with-guns films, military or otherwise, and even less fond of ones that don’t even bother to treat the victims of said morons as human beings.


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Readings & watchings 8

July felt like a month of molasses – everything seemed a bit of a struggle. I thought I hadn’t read as much as usual, nor written as much. And yet, looking back, I seem to have read as many books as I typically do in a month. Perhaps I wasn’t exactly prolific on the writing-front during the same period – not that I ever am – but I did manage to start and finish a couple of new pieces. Happily, August felt a little better. Although, having said that, I’ve only just started on my Summer Reading Project (see here); and I’d planned to read the first book in July…

Anyway, you know how it goes: books wot I read and films wot I watched since the last post on this wot I wrote.

Books
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1975), I wrote about here.

Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates (2010), I reviewed for Interzone. A mixed bag: some good ones, but not so good – as I hope my review makes clear.

Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975), is Eric Brown’s favourite sf novel – he even managed to sneak it onto the Grauniad’s 1000 novels everyone must read last year. I’m surprised I’d not read this sooner. Coney’s name is not unknown to me, but I seem to have managed to avoid his novels over the years. Yet I vaguely recall having his books recommended to me at cons as much as twenty years ago. I should have read them then, because Hello Summer, Goodbye is good. The world-building is excellent, it’s well-plotted, and the characters are drawn well. It’s set on a world with extreme seasons and human-like people. Drove, a young teenager, and his parents have moved to Pallahaxi, a seaside town, because of the war with a neighbouring nation. The previous year Drove had fallen in love with a town resident, Browneyes, and he’s keen to renew his friendship with her. Which he does. He also learns more about the war, and about his world. Drove is admittedly a bit of a prat, and he matures surprisingly quickly about halfway through the book. But the ending is cleverly done. There’s a sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, which I wouldn’t mind reading.

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq (2005), is the second Houellebecq novel I’ve read and, while the story is different, it’s very much like Atomised. The same concerns – immortality and sex – are there, the same misanthropic and nihilistic tone is there. In this one, Daniel is a French comedian, fêted for his edginess. As he grows older, he finds his libido waning and his ennui waxing. By accident, he gets involved with the Elohimites, your typical nutjob alien-saviours/creators cult/religion. Except the Elohimits are serious about genetically-engineering humanity to be immortal, and have the scientific chops to make a proper job of it. Daniel takes on the role of documenting the Elohimites’ quest for immortality, an important aspect of the stopgap measure they introduce – as indicated by short interspersed chapters by Daniel26 (i.e., the 26th incarnation of Daniel). There’s something about Houellebecq’s writing which carries you through his novels – despite the misery; the unhealthy, and often misogynistic, focus on sex; and the weak sfnal ideas around which he builds his plots, and the unconvincing way he often deploys those ideas. I have Platform on the TBR.

Anna Mercury Volume 1: The Cutter, Warren Ellis & Facundo Percio (2009), and Ignition City Volume 1, Warren Ellis & Gianluca Pagliarani (2010), are a pair of mini-series collected as trade paperbacks. Both are sf. In Anna Mercury Volume 1: The Cutter, the title character is an agent of a secret organisation who travels to alternate Earths. There are apparently nine of these alternate Earths, and they were discovered when the USS Eldridge disappeared in 1943 during the Philadelphia Experiment. The means of travel used by Mercury means she has, effectively, superpowers. In this story, she’s attempting to prevent a war between two powers. The aggressors are the nation where the USS Eldridge arrived, and they’ve reverse-engineered the technology they glimpsed and built a cargo-cult around the ship’s appearance. Ignition City Volume 1 is, I think, the better of the two, although its premise isn’t as interesting, or off-the-wall, as the other one. It’s set in a post-Flash Gordon 1970s, after the Earth has fared badly since defeating Kharg (Ming, in other words). Flash Gordon is named Lightning Bowman, and he’s not heroic anymore. Mary Raven, daughter of another such space hero, has come to Ignition City to learn how her father died. He was murdered in his sleep, probably by Lightning Bowman. But why? There’s a brilliant exchange in this: when Mary meets the Professor Zarkov character and is invited into his house, she says, “… your house smells weird.” He replies, “It smells of SCIENCE.” I hope they do another series of this one. The art in both, by the way, is uniformly very good.

The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976). Ten-year-old Hubert Anvil is a chorister, with perhaps the best voice in Christendom, and so the abbot of his school decides he should have a glittering career as a singer. There’s only one thing that needs to be done first: castrate him. In the world of The Alteration, there was no Protestantism and so the Roman Catholic Church “rules” all of Europe. Technology has reached about mid-Victorian levels, although the book is set in 1976. Anvil’s impending “alteration” sets off a chain of events: he meets the pope, runs away from school, is abducted by a Jewish kidnapper who uses ransom money to finance Aliyah, and tries to escape to North America. Amis’ alternate world is cleverly done, there are some excellent sf in-jokes in the story, and the plot canters along at a comfortable pace. The writing’s a bit clumsy in one or two places, and the fact it’s a “satire” is plainly meant to justify the frankly disappointing ending. Still a fun read, though.

The Chimpanzee Complex Vol 3: Civilisation, Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio (2010), is the final part of this French graphic novel trilogy, and… Something doesn’t quite add up. Parts one and two both had really cool ideas, but this one feels like it belongs to another story. It’s also a little odd reading a comic which doesn’t use decompression. I think I need to reread all three parts of The Chimpanzee Complex… and then I will write about it here. Maybe.

Starswarm, Brian W Aldiss (1964), is another attempt by Aldiss to do Last and First Men, much like he tried in Galaxies Like Grains of Sand. I like Aldiss’s fiction, and I have a high regard for it, but a month after reading this collection I can remember almost nothing of it.

Veteran, Gavin G Smith (2010). I met Gavin at alt.fiction (see here), and he arranged for me to be sent a review copy of this, his debut novel. My review is up on SFF Chronicles here. It’s not a book I enjoyed reading a great deal – I didn’t like the world, and I’m not a fan of military sf. It’s a polished debut, there’s no doubt about that; but it’s not for me.

The Inward Animal, Terence Tiller (1943), is a collection of Tiller’s poetry. There’s a faint stamp on the cover of this first edition which reads, ‘Burma Educational Bookshop, 549 Merchant Street, Rangoon’, so it’s not only come a long way in time but also in space to reach my bookshelves. The poems are war poems, inasmuch as they attempt what Tiller describes in a foreword as the three parts of a pattern of experience: “a shocked and defensive rebellion; reconciliation must follow; the birth of some mutual thing in which the old and the new, the self and the alien, are combined after war”. Tiller I find a very technical poet, a skilled practitioner of form and imagery, and The Inward Animal shows this more than his other collections. Several of the poems were composed in Cairo, where Tiller taught during World War II and was a member of both the Personal Landscape and Salamander groups.

Smiley’s People, John Le Carré (1980), I read because it was on one of those 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die lists (but not the Grauniad one). I’ve read a number of Le Carré’s novels over the years but not, apparently, this one. I don’t think I even saw the BBC dramatisation, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley; although I wouldn’t mind doing so (in fact, I think I’ll stick it on the DVD rental list; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy too). Anyway, as a novel, Smiley’s People was slow, and seemed to veer strangely from narrative to reportage and back. Le Carré also appeared more interested in Smiley-as-enigma than he did in the actual story. But it had a good sense of place, and the way the plot was slowly revealed was cleverly done.

Roads Not Taken, edited by Gardner Dozois & Stanley Schmidt (1998), is one of those anthologies cobbled together from recycled stories from Asimov’s. This one is themed and the theme is, er, alternate history. The usual suspects are all present and correct: Harry Turtledove, Mike Resnick and, um, Gene Wolfe. I got this book free from readitswapit.co.uk, which is just as well as it’s crap. It takes real skill as an editor to put together an anthology that contains not one single decent story, but they managed it with this one.

The Restoration Game, Ken MacLeod (2010), I enjoyed a lot more than I’d expected to. My review of it can be found at SFF Chronicles here.

Films
Moon, dir. Duncan Jones (2009), is the best film on the Hugo ballot for “Dramatic Presentation, Long Form” (what a horrible mouthful). I wrote about it here.

Surrogates, dir. Jonathan Mostow (2009), is your usual Hollywood tosh masquerading as science fiction. It embodies a couple of perversions which seem to be part of the so-called American Dream – a) true success for a company means dominating 100% of the market (which requires corrupting the legislature in order to make that legal); and b) any idealistic leader who opposes the successful company must be corrupt. I don’t think this is what neocons mean when they complain about “Hollywood liberals”. The surrogates of the title are near-indestructible robot bodies which people use every day – while they stay at home, safe and sound, operating their robot bodies through VR. Of course, the surrogates are prettified versions of the real people – except for star Bruce Willis’s surrogate, which actually looks quite creepy. Which is weirdly fitting, because the entire concept is creepy. Willis is a FBI agent tasked with investigating the bizarre murders of some surrogates – murders which also kill the surrogates’ operators. Definitely a film to avoid. But you knew that already because Bruce Willis has hair in it.

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, dir. James Edward Olmos (2009), was, well, odd. I like Battlestar Galactica, I even like the hiccup ending they put in because of the writers’ strike; and I like the actual real ending which had so many people annoyed. Which is why I bought Battlestar Galactica: The Plan. It’s a feature-length television movie which tells the story of all four seasons of the television series from the point of view of the Cylons. And chiefly from the point of view of a pair of them played by Dean Stockwell. If you’ve not watched the TV series, you won’t understand this. If you have, you’ll wonder why they thought they needed to make it.

Humanoid Woman, dir. Richard Victorov (1981), was a rewatch, but I decided to write about it here as I hadn’t done so before. It’s an English-dubbed and much-mangled version of a Russian film, Через тернии к звездам (To The Stars By Hard Ways). There’s an official site here in Russian. A starship comes across the wreck of an alien ship. The crew explore the wreck, and find a number of dead humanoid bodies and a single survivor. This section was filmed underwater to simulate zero gravity – which works quite well, but does look weirdly murky. The survivor, Niya, is taken to Earth and invited to stay with a scientist, his family and crap-looking robot. She has lost her memory, but appears to have weird supernatural abilities such as teleportation. She recovers her memory, and remembers that she is from the planet of Dessa, which has suffered a catastrophic ecological collapse due to over-industrialisation. Earth puts together a rescue mission, with Niya, and heads for Dessa. But the Dessans are split into two warring factions, and one manages to control Niya telepathically. She breaks their control, and releases some sort of intelligent foam, which seems to clean up the planet. This is a very strange film, and I’m not entirely sure whether it makes sense. That may be an artefact of being mangled and dubbed for the English-language market, but I suspect the original Russian version was also very odd. A director’s cut with new special effects was apparently released a couple of years ago on DVD by the director’s son. If it was available with English subtitles, I’d seriously consider buying a copy.

Cargo, dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009), I reviewed for The Zone here. It is also the best sf film I have seen for several years, and should have been on the Hugo shortlist.

Gentlemen Broncos, dir. Jared Hess (2009), is by the director of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s about a sf fan and a sf writer. It is also stupid and rubbish. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Romeo & Juliet, dir. Alvin Rakoff (1978), is another one of the BBC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare adaptations. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the story is known by pretty much everyone. Likewise, almost everyone forgets a few details – as I had. Such as the fact that Juliet is only thirteen when she secretly marries Romeo. In this adaptation, the actress playing Juliet, Rebecca Saire, is close to that age – she’s fourteen. And Romeo, who is almost twice her age, snogs her repeatedly. Otherwise… John Gielgud’s plummy tones bookend the story as the chorus, Michael Hordern plays the head of the Capulets well, but both Romeo and Juliet are a bit bland, and Anthony Andrews hams it up shamelessly as Mercutio. Not one of the BBC’s better adaptations.

The Damned United, dir. Tom Hooper (2009), I watched because I’d read the book and I wanted to see how it differed. Not much. Although they did tone down the swearing quite a lot. The film also missed out some of the story, especially some of Clough’s early life. But that’s not unexpected. Not being a fan of football, the subject of the film was hardly going to appeal, but I liked the book and that carried over into the film. Michael Sheen managed to turn Clough into a likable bloke, which might have been doing Clough a great disservice but certainly made for an entertaining film.

Timecrimes, dir. Nacho Vigalondo (2007), is one of those twisty-turny time-travel films like Primer but, well, is nowhere near as fiendishly twisty-turny as Primer. Héctor and his wife have just moved into their new house. While the wife heads off to the shops, Héctor relaxes in the garden. But he spots something in the woods up the hill from his house. It’s a young woman undressing. He investigates, finds the young woman seemingly out cold, is attacked by a mysterious figure with its head wrapped in bandages… and runs away to find himself in a laboratory with a strange machine. The scientist present urges him to hide in the machine, which proves to be a time machine, so he travels back in time… and sort of recreates the plot of Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’… A clever and entertaining film.

Up, dir. Peter Docter and Bob Peterson (2009), is the last of the “long forms” (ugh) from the Hugo awards shortlist. As everyone has said, the opening section showing Carl Fredricksen meeting his wife-to-be Ellie, the two of them growing up together, marrying, living to a ripe old age, her death… is superb. That’s not to say the remainder of the film is rubbish – it’s not as strong, but it’s still very good. And if I were voting on the Hugo, I think I’d place Moon first, followed by Up, Avatar, and then No Award – as I disliked District 9 and thought Star Trek XI so monumentally stupid it should never have been shortlisted. But Up… The whole balloon thing is a bit too whimsical, but sort of works. The bird is annoying – as is the fat kid, but only initially as he soon grows on you. The dogs are excellent – the best things in the film, in fact. It’s a fun movie, worth seeing. And it may well win the Hugo, although I suspect not.

Out Of The Past, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1947), is film noir starring Robert Mitchum, and is generally considered one of the greatest of all film noir. I like film noir, but strangely this one didn’t appeal. It wasn’t Mitchum, who I find perfectly watchable; nor Jane Greer, who was good in her role. Perhaps it’s just one of those films you simply don’t connect with. I may have to watch it again some day.

Homecoming, dir. Morgan J Freeman (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here. No, it’s not that Morgan Freeman. Also, it stars Mischa Barton.

Body Of Lies, dir. Ridley Scott (2008). Once upon a time, I was big fan of Scott’s films. Well, yes, he directed Alien and Blade Runner. But then he did Legend. And after that he only managed the occasional film which seemed to rise above their story. Plus many that didn’t – I mean, G.I. Jane? Anyway, I hadn’t even recognised Body Of Lies as one of his when I sat down to watch it… and discovered it was in the opening credits. It is, essentially, Syriana with more guns. Sort of. A perfectly respectable thriller, in other words, and happily not one of the gung-ho Republican thrillers which attempts to justify US foreign policy, torture, rendition or Gitmo. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a CIA Arabist (who speaks Arabic with a terrible accent) in Iraq. His handler, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a fascist prick… and it’s DiCaprio’s attempt to do the job right, as he’s the man on the ground, against Hoffman’s neocon steamroller tactics which drives the plot. The action starts in post-invasion Iraq, but soon moves to Jordan and the hunt for an Al-Qa’eda terrorist cell. Better than I expected.

Mesrine 1: Killer Instinct and Mesrine 2: Public Enemy No. 1, dir. Jean-François Richet (2008), were an odd pair of films. They’re about the eponymous gangster, played extremely well by Vincent Cassel, from his beginnings as a soldier in Algeria to his ignominious end as public enemy number one. The films present his life without moralising, which made for a nice change, but about halfway through they started to turn increasingly less realistic. After fleeing to Canada, Mesrine is arrested and jailed in a high security prison which makes Gitmo look like Disney World. This was during the 1970s. He escapes, and returns to shoot the place up – ostensibly to free the other prisoners, but he fails. He returns to France, continues to rob banks, and is eventually killed in a shoot-out with the police. Mesrine was, apparently, a real person, and the events of the two films are mostly based on true events – despite seeming in places like something out of a Hollywood thriller. These are good films, well-made thrillers, and definitely worth seeing.

The Day The Earth Stood Still, dir. Scott Derrickson (2008). Well, I’d been warned. This film is bad, they said. I’d seen the trailer and, despite starring Keanu Reeves, it didn’t look like it could be as dreadful as described. But I was wrong and they were right. The Day The Earth Stood Still is terrible. Reeves is even more wooden than usual, the plot is stupid, the story doesn’t make much sense, and even the message of the original has been garbled. Avoid.

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