It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


10 Comments

Reading diary 2021, #5

It’s time to retire this blog. All I’m doing is posting mini-rants-masquerading-as-reviews of books and movies, and that at increasingly longer intervals. Plus, WordPress have gone and fucked up a perfectly good product, and their new “Gutenberg” block editor is shit. It now takes ten times longer to format a blog post, and I had to trash the one I’d planned to post before this one because I couldn’t get the editor to let me format it how I wanted. If I want to use the old editor, I have to pay extra money. I’ve no desire to support a business that blackmails its customers by removing functionality and then demanding money to return it. So, fuck them.

I could, I suppose, move to another platform. Not Blogger. I was on that originally. But they kept on randomly blocking my blog because their AI had decided it was spam… and Blogger made it increasingly difficult to get it unblocked. “Customer support” is not a phrase that seems to be in Google’s vocabulary. I’ve also heard their current version is even worse than WordPress.

Other blogging platforms seem more in the nature of website-building platforms for complete idiots. All drag and drop and fixed templates and zero actual control on the part of the user. And yes, I do still use the CLI in $dayjob.

Anyway, blogs are dead, social media is a cesspool of stupidity and tribalism, fandom is a pitched battle between various groups determined to police and/or gatekeep everyone else, and who knows when physical conventions will be a thing again? (I refer, of course, to English-language genre culture.)

Anyway, for this ultimate post, I shall finish much as I’ve been going on these last few years. With sort of reviews of half a dozen books.

submissionSubmission, Michel Houellebecq (2015, France). I can’t decide if this novel is irresponsible race-baiting or a clever commentary on the culture war. It’s probably both. In Submission‘s 2022, a moderate Muslim candidate becomes president of France and remakes French society along moderate Islamic lines – which are not all that moderate. In a word, the patriarchy is back. Women can no longer work. The narrator is a professor at a Parisian university, who is forced to retire when the new regime takes over. While the new government greatly reduces crime, it is at the cost of women’s freedoms. Professors are “bribed” back into their positions by finding them biddable female students as wives. Which, to be fair, is not how Islam works. It is, however, how patriarchy works. And that’s definitely one of the unacknowledged planks of the right-wing adherents of the “culture war”. They hate Muslims. But they want women back in the kitchen and no brown people in sight. But I’m not sure this novel is commenting on them, and I don’t think Islam is a good vehicle to make that point. But then France has a different reaction to its Muslim citizens than the UK, and I grew up in the Middle East so I’ve lived in actual Islamic countries, and Houellebecq’s presentation of Islam is hopelessly simplified, even though he provides a character to actually explain the religion. There’s also an unacknowledged issue here. I’ve seen it in the real world. In Houellebecq’s France, women can still study, but they cannot work. So their studies are worthless. But those women don’t want their daughters to suffer the same fate, so they agitate for jobs. It’s what’s been happing in the Gulf states for the past 30 years. Houllebecq’s interpretation of an Islamic Europe is unsustainable. You can’t disenfranchise half of the population and expect that to continue unopposed. Houellebecq is a controversial figure, but much of the controversy he has manufactured himself. Submission is the sort of novel that will upset people, but it’s not really a thought experiment. it’s a piss-take. Houellebecq is upsetting the people he’s taking the piss out of. Seems fair to me.

binaryBinary System, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This was originally published as two ebooks in 2016 and 2017, but that seems an odd decision since neither seem to stand on their own. It is good old-fashioned – where “old-fashioned” means 1990s – science fiction, but with updated sensibilities. To be fair, UK sf of the 1990s and English-language sf of today doesn’t require much in the way of “re-alignment”. Female protagonists were common in male-authored sf by UK writers in the 1990s; the fact it took an additional decade for female protagonists to begin appearing in US male-authored sf is another matter. And, to be fair, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US published a great deal more women genre writers than the UK did. Anyway. In Binary System, Delia Kemp is the sole survivor of an explosion as a ship is translating through a wormhole type thing, and finds herself marooned on a world thousands of light years away. It is inhabited by several alien races – and Earth has yet to encounter any aliens. She is taken prisoner by insectoid aliens, but then broken free by gibbon-like alien, and with him she agrees to travel south to witness the ten-yearly appearance of his god. They’re helped by a “spider-crab” alien. The insectoid aliens, she learns, are invaders, devolved ones, it’s true; but the other races, native to the planet, would be happy to be rid of them, and Kemp is worried they might at some point reach Earth. Not that she expects to ever reach Earth herself as she’s marooned so far away. It’s all very trad sf, and there are few real surprises – other than wondering how they story could have been split into two – but it’s well-crafted stuff. And if some of the tropes are a little shiny around the edges, they’re at least used by someone who knows what he’s doing. This is not Brown’s best book, but it’s emblematic of the solid, heartland, unassuming science fiction that he writes when he’s writing moderate to good sf. He’s actually written some excellent sf, but has never been popular enough for it to be noticed. Which is a shame.

empty_quarterIn the Empty Quarter, G Willow Wilson (2021, USA). This was actually free, and I don’t think I’ve read anything by Wilson before – although I do remember she was flavour of the month some ten years ago, but has been writing comics the last few years. An American couple are in an invented city in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, as the husband is part of a team prospecting for oil. The wife, Jean, has been shown about town – as much as she can be – by a local contact of her husband, Mahmoud, and while she’s starting to harbour romantic thoughts toward him, she’s also bored. So she persuades her husband to allow her to accompany him on a trip into the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al-Khali. But she finds herself even more bored, standing around while he works, so she explores a cave she finds in a sabkha, gets trapped, and is rescued by a djinn. I’ve actually camped in the Empty Quarter, so I know what it’s like, and I’m not really convinced by Willow’s description (which does not mean she has never visited it, of course). For one thing, she doesn’t use the term sabkha, and her description of one doesn’t quite ring true. Despite all that, the entire novella feels like packaging for a single line, “You’ve been treating me like a guest, but I’m here without an invitation”. Which is, of course, true – of the Brits and French in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. But the novella’s story isn’t really a commentary on that one line, just its delivery vehicle. And that, I think, is where it fails. Jean sees Saudi Arabia as “exotic”, which fits her character, but Willow seems more interested in commenting on the US’s exploitation of the Arabian peninsula than US, or indeed Western, attitudes to the cultures of the region. Having said that, this is a novella. If it disappoints, it’s because it implies a wider remit than it actually delivers on.

pincherPincher Martin, William Golding (1957, UK). Some friends of mine have recently been writing about William Golding, although they initially encountered him many decades ago. I did too, in a fashion, as I read Lord of the Flies at school – at least, I’m pretty sure I did – but I didn’t try another Golding novel until only a couple of years ago. So I’ve not had that long an appreciation of his books, and the few that I’ve read so far have been somewhat variable: Rites of Passage is amazing, The Inheritors is very good, but The Pyramid and The Paper Men are only mildly amusing. Pincher Martin is a remarkable book, and I think if it had been one of the first books by Golding I’d read I might perhaps hold him in as high esteem as the aforementioned friends. The title refers to a RNVR lieutenant in a destroyer in a trans-Atlantic WW2 convoy. The ship is sunk – probably by a U-Boat – and Martin finds himself on his own floating in mid-Atlantic. He manages to land himself on a tiny rock island, and has to subsist on rain water and mussels until he is rescued. As he waits, and suffers from exposure and malnutrition, flashbacks, some of which are more or less stream-of-consciousness, tell something of his past. And he was not a nice man. Much of the novel recounts, in excruciating detail, Martin’s situation and efforts to keep himself alive. It’s hard reading. And then there’s the final chapter… I’ll say there’s a twist, but I won’t spoil it. Recommended.

mitfordChristmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford (1932, UK). The second of The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, and it’s more of the same as the first. But much funnier. Some of the characters featured in Highland Fling (like Waugh, Mitford seems to have a stable of characters for her books), but this time they’re spending Christmas in the country. Amabelle Fortescue, rich widow and ex-sex worker, has hired a cottage in Gloucestershire. She invites the Monteaths to join her. Meanwhile, novelist Paul Fotheringay, a friend of Amabelle’s, whose tragic debut novel has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, deeply hurting him, has decided a biography of his favourite Victorian poet is what is needed to convince people of his serious literary nature. So he wangles a post, under a false name, as tutor to the poet’s descendant, a teenage baronet, whose home is near the country cottage rented by Amabelle. Some of the poet’s verse is reproduced, and it’s brilliant – “Think only, love, upon our wedding day / The lilies and the sunshine and the bells / Of how, the service o’er, we drove away / To our blest honeymoon at Tunbridge Wells.” The cast are grotesques, even when presented as relatively normal for the milieu, and it’s Mitford has a sharp tongue when poking fun at them and their world. But this is no social commentary – nor was Waugh’s, to be fair – and if Mitford’s humour is at the expense of her characters, it’s at least it’s  not Waugh’s contemptuous cynicism. They’re well put-together these novels. Recommended.

vanished birdsThe Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez (2020, USA). I’d given up on reading US genre debuts, but then I go and pick one up and read it. To be fair, I’d heard good things of The Vanished Birds from people whose opinion I trust, and I’ve not seen it mentioned often on social media, which means it probably doesn’t appeal to the sort of people who champion books I’ve found I definitely don’t like. (And it hasn’t made any award shortlists this year.) But, oh dear. Tricked again. On the plus side, it’s better written than is usually the case – but given it was apparently a thesis for a Creative Writing MFA, that’s hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, it fails pretty much everywhere else. It opens with a section set on a world which is visited by twelve spaceships every fifteen years, there to collect… a fruit which apparently stays fresh for up to fifteen years after harvesting. The economics make no sense – there are other villages, and hence more spaceships, on different schedules, so demand for this fruit must be huge. Except… the ships only appear every fifteen years, but for them the trip takes days, and they’re away from their destination for only months. (This time discrepancy in FTL applies nowhere else in the novel.) All this has little to do with the story, which is all about a mysterious boy one such ship picks up on a trip to the planet. There are a series of spacestations, in a universe that borrows most of its visuals from media sf, especially Star Wars, and which are shaped like birds because… because why? Their architect is treated more or less like an empress, for no discernible reason. She goes into cold sleep at regular intervals and has now lived for over a thousand years. She has determined the mysterious boy has the ability to “jaunt”, ie, travel from planet to planet without a spaceship. This ability could, understandably, upset the standard corporatist US-imagined space opera bollocks universe, with its serfs and one-percenters and child abuse and slavery, all of which exist because. For all its praise, The Vanished Birds is a creative writing exercise that strives more for effect than rigour, has a plot that makes little sense, and  a universe  cobbled together from a dozen ro so properties and overlaid with the usual US science fiction fascist nonsense. (In one scene, 2,500 innocent men, women and children are herded into a room and shot dead by corporate soldiers in order to “punish” the aforementioned architect who had created the secret complex where they lived and worked. Seriously, this fascist shit needs to stop. It’s a failure of imagination, and says more about US culture than it does English-language science fiction. And The Vanished Birds will definitely be the last twenty-first century US genre debut novel I ever read – at least until those authors have several more novels under their belt.

So, that’s it. The end of a blog. It had a good run – November 2006 to April 2021. I’ll keep it up, as there are one or two posts that still get visitors, like 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. But I’ll no longer be adding new content. And the URL may change as I no longer see the point in paying to redirect to my own domain.


8 Comments

Reading diary 2021, #4

I had a week off work, and spent most of it stretched out on the sofa, reading. Which is not that much different, these days, to a working day – with me stretched out on the sofa, doing $dayjob on the MacBook. I’d hoped to read more during my holiday, but got bogged down in the Márquez, which I appreciated more than I liked. Having said that, on the whole not a bad selection of books…

Highland Fling, Nancy Mitford (1931, UK). Once upon a time, I had an idea to focus my reading on British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century – I even wrote a blog post about it, here. I was already a fan of the novels of Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), so it wasn’t much of a stretch. In the event, I only read a dozen or so qualifying novels, but it did introduce me to writers whose oeuvres I wanted to further explore – such as Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz. I later read novels by Hilda Vaughn and Rosamund Lehmann. Nancy Mitford, however, was not on my list, possibly because she was best-known for her 1930s novels, which was a little earlier than I was interested in. But then I started reading Evelyn Waugh, and Mitford’s novels are often compared to his, and – which is probably the most important factor – The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford on Kindle was on offer for £2.99 (that’s eight novels, btw). Comparisons with Waugh are inevitable – both wrote satirically about “Bright Young Things” during the inter-war years. Waugh’s prose is sharper, but his satire is meaner; Mitford plainly doesn’t hold her subjects in contempt, and her set-pieces are slightly more absurd than Waugh’s. In this, her first novel, her characters are put in charge of Highland castle for a shoot, despite being complete upper class twits. And destitute. Because, like Waugh, Mitford is keen to stress how poor most of the upper classes are. It doesn’t wash. Poor working class person asks bank for loan, bank says fuck off. Poor upper class person asks for bank loan, bank throws bundles of cash at them. The upper classes have always been the UK’s worst enemy, and that’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. Or even the 1130s. Highland Fling is mildly amusing – not as cutting as Waugh, but not as racist either – but, you know, if everyone wiped out the entire English upper classes I would not shed a single tear. I might fucking celebrate, though.

Love in the Time of Cholera*, Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Colombia). The title of the book and the name of the author were known to me – and are no doubt known to many people – but I had absolutely no idea about the story. And while I’ve read and enjoyed some South American literature, it’s not a tradition that figures highly in my chosen reading. The book was, of course, on offer, and it’s also on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I thought it worth a punt. And after a diet of far too much bad high fantasy, it was surprisingly refreshing to read prose by someone who could actually put a sentence together. An old man in a South American country dies. The novel then flashes back fifty years to a fifteen-year-old girl, who is being wooed by a young man of middling means. Her father takes her on a road trip to stay with relatives inland in order to block the relationship. When she returns a couple of years later, she finds herself suddenly no longer in love with her suitor. He, however, continues to love her. She marries an urbane and wealthy doctor who studied in France. The story then follows both her paramour, and the years – decades – he spends trying to get on with his life, while loving her from afar, and her own life. She is seemingly content in a marriage that gives her everything but love. Her husband is widely admired, which is all he ever wanted. And the old suitor has a string of jobs and affairs, none of which change him in any meaningful way. It gets distinctly dodgy some three-quarters of the way in, when the suitor takes charge of a thirteen-year-old cousin, and then makes her his lover. That’s straight up paedophilia. I don’t care when and where the book was set, and whether it was even considered acceptable in that time and place – and surely it wasn’t? – but writers choose what they write about, and García Márquez chose to write about a relationship between a man in his fifties and a girl not yet fifteen years old. As for the rest… the story jumps around a little, and I got a bit lost in the internal chronology – suitor works for the telegraph office, then he lives in a brothel, then he gets a job with a telegraph office, and somewhere in there he unsuccessfully tries to retrieve some sunken treasure… The novel revels in the filth and squalor of its setting – obviously the cause of the frequent cholera outbreaks which lend the book its title – and though ostensibly about love and romance, its female characters often feel like walking plot-points. The novel has its moments, but its blithe treatment of paedophilia, not to mention honour killings. or just plain indifference to the preventable squalor and deaths of the poor, make it a hard book to read in the twenty-first century. García Márquez’s other really famous novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suspect I’ll give it a miss.

Master of Paxwax, Phillip Mann (1986, New Zealand). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction for many years, and even reviewed several of his books – positively, of course – for the BSFA’s critical journal, Vector, back in the day. I liked that Mann was considerably more literate than most of his peers, and exhibited a somewhat sideways approach to common science fiction tropes. I’d forgotten that Master of Paxwax, followed by The Fall of the Families, was Mann’s second novel, but I’d remember the broad shape of the story. What had not occurred to me at the time, and struck me quite strongly on this decades-later reread, was how much Master of Paxwax is a pastiche of Frank Herbert’s Dune. More than that – and the timing is tight, so perhaps I’m reaching – but quite a bit of the imagery in Master of Paxwax evokes David Lynch’s movie adaptation of Dune, released in late 1984. After discovering an alien Way Gate, humanity spread out into the galaxy and wiped out all (alien) competitors. This was the Great Push. Centuries later, human society has ossified into an imperium ruled by eleven Great Families, and countless other ones. The Paxwax are the Fifth Family, and Pawl, the third son, finds himself head of the family when his father and elder brother die. The second brother had joined the Inner Circle, ostensibly a semi-religious order of diplomats and advisors, but secretly the last refuge of the alien races subjugated, or even destroyed, by humanity. The Inner Circle has determined that Pawl Paxwax will return the galaxy to the aliens; Pawl Paxwax just wants to break with tradition and marry someone he loves, who is not of the Eleven Families. On the surface, this is a space opera that makes free use of the subgenre’s tropes. But there are many similarities with Dune, while not mapping directly onto its story – no white saviour narrative, no appropriation… And there’s all those aliens, of course. It is, perhaps, a more sensitively-written Dune… but it never manages Herbert’s book’s weight of background, one of Dune‘s chief appeals, because Master of Paxwax relies overmuch on space opera tropes. It’s a good book, perhaps even a forgotten space opera masterpiece, although I suspect that’s a label that applies to a great many books given the low bar most fans seem to apply to space opera…

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2008, USA). I had the title of this book written down on a list of books I wanted to read, and for the life of me I can’t remember why I’d listed it. But it popped up for 99p on Kindle, I remembered the title, and my finger went straight to the “buy now” button. And having now read it, I still can’t remember why it was on that list. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’ve never read a book simply because it won that prize – although I’ve read books that have won it. Olive Kitteridge reminds me a great deal of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction – and I’m a huge fan of her novels; signed first editions only sort of fan – but it doesn’t have the warmth and easy domesticity of her prose. It’s set in small town USA, a foreign country of not much interest to me, north or south, and any familiarity I might have with that world, in broad stroke, is down to a shared language only and the vigorously exported parts of a culture that has pretty much inundated the rest of the Anglophone sphere. The novel is about the eponymous woman. It’s part of a fictional universe built up over several works – in this case, all contained in this “novel”, and a later novel published in 2019. Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of linked stories, in which the title character appears, either as the PoV character or in a supporting role. She was a maths teacher at the local school, but is retired at the time the novel opens. The comparison to Robinson is not entirely unfair – both writers detail a small community in their fiction, telling the stories of several interlinked families. The Wikipedia page for Olive Kitteridge boasts a complete cast of characters from the book – that’s eight families, and half a dozen assorted other groups. Strout manages to make her characters believable – although one or two seem to be defined solely by a couple of traits – despite the fact most of them only appear for a handful of pages. Much as I enjoyed the Olive Kitteridge, I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel.

Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1, (Frank Herbert), Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Raúl Allén & Patricia Martín (2020, USA). Despite repeated attempts to find further means of cashing in on the Dune corpus, by 2010 interest had clearly begun to wane and two planned Dune books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson were quietly cancelled (although another trilogy was completed and published). With, it must be said, good reason: their additions to the Dune universe have been uniformly shit. But then the Dune film – its second movie adaptation – was greenlighted, with no less than semi-auteur box-office darling Denis Villeneuve at the helm, and the Dune universe suddenly got a shot in the arm. I’d thought this graphic novel adaptation was, like the earlier Marvel one, tied in to the new movie adaptation. But now I’m not so sure. The artwork in the graphic novel doesn’t appear to match the production design from the Dune movie trailer. Which suggests it’s yet another cash-in. On the one hand, the graphic novel is faithful to the novel. But it fluffs some scenes – the banquet scene especially – and puts too much emphasis on others, such as the gom jabbar scene. But, worse than that, everything looks disappointingly generic. Lynch’s film had its problems, but it looked absolutely gorgeous. It had exactly that level of over-elaborate design you’d expect of Frank Herbert’s universe. I doubt Villeneuve’s production design will match it. The graphic novel art looks, well, boring. The characters appear far too ordinary and similar and, disappointingly, there’s no intricate detail in the backgrounds. This is the blandest version of Dune that has been produced yet. I will, of course, be buying books two and three.


Leave a comment

Watching diary 2021, #7

We had a fit of spring weather, then another week of snow and sub-zero temperatures, and now the sun is shining again… It seems weird to mention the weather, given what’s currently happening. I remain fervently glad I’m in Sweden. It’s not handled the pandemic well but, unlike the UK, it has at least not descended in fascism. On the other hand, I’m reminded of the same fascist tricks being pulled by Thatcher’s government back in the 1980s. They ultimately failed then, they will ultimately fail now. Although the current crop of greedy intellectual lightweights have had much greater impact  – first Austerity, and now Brexit. As I’ve said before, they belong in prison.

No box-set bingeing this time. Still working my way through Water Rats. Which has started to get increasingly implausible. What is it about TV programmes? TV show starts to shed audience, so let’s make it even less fucking believable? I read somewhere about the “idiot ball”, the mythical token held by the character who has to act like a complete idiot – usually out of character – in order for that episode’s plot to work. Now, let’s be clear. This is shit writing. It’s not a TV writing convention. It’s a consequence of TV writers being bad at their jobs. As is my own invention: the “penis hat”. This is worn by the character who acts like a complete dick to make the episode work. This may not necessarily be out of character, and may even be a character parachuted in just for that episode. Sadly, penis hats are all too common in real life, so their presence in a TV drama is hardly implausible… but it’s still a cheap trope, and any writer worth their salt would avoid it.

A Cat in Paris, Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol (2010, France). An animated feature about a cat who accompanies a cat burglar – get it? – called Mr Cat – get it? – during his burglaries. The cat spends its days as the pet of Zoé, whose mother is a police inspector trying to prevent a known gangster from stealing a priceless statue. Zoé and Mr Cat get dragged into it all when Zoé’s nanny turns out to be an accomplice of the gangster. I wasn’t too keen on the highly stylised look of the animation, and the film never really seemed to be sure whether it was a comedy or a drama. The version I watched was dubbed into English, with a weird mix of US and UK actors, and so accents. While the setting was identifiably Paris, it all felt a little trans-Atlantic. Meh.

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth, Joseph Lawson (2012, USA). I have no fucking idea why I watched this. Okay, it’s by the Asylum, and while their “mockbusters” are pretty much always really bad, they sometimes spin a few interesting changes on the original material. The title to this film, like that of most of their films, is perhaps more descriptive than the movie they’re ripping off, but I’m fairly sure Nazis at the Centre of the Earth is a pastiche of Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race. But it’s not always easy to tell, because the Asylum usually don’t even bother spoofing the original’s plot. Here, a team of international scientists at the South Pole inadvertently find an entrance to the hollow Earth, where the Nazis have set up shop after losing WWII. Doctor Mengele has been trying to find a means to extend the lives of the surviving upper echelon Nazis, but grafting on the skins of those they capture is not doing the trick. (This is not a film that’s high on, well, credibility.) One of the American scientists introduces Mengele to foetal stem cells, which Mengele uses to reanimate Hitler’s head on a robot body. And Hitler is going to use his zombie Nazi army to take over the world… It would all be sorts of fun if it weren’t so badly done. But then that pretty much describes all of the Asylum’s movies…

Alternative 3, Christopher Miles (1977, UK). I thought I’d seen this before, but apparently I was familiar only with the title. It’s highly regarded as a piece of 1970s British science fiction television, and that’s during a period which produced a lot of really strong science fiction television. And  having now seen it, I can understand why. Alternative 3 was originally intended to be broadcast as an April Fool’s joke, but not actually shown until June. It opens discussing the mysterious deaths and disappearances of several people in the UK from various professions, and gradually leads up to the suggestion they’ve become part of a programme to settle Mars because Earth is due to suffer imminent climate crash. Alternative 3 is very much a product of its time – a 1970s UK documentary. But it’s cleverly done, and if the UK it presents has none of the actual diversity of the UK of the 1970s, that was the nature of British television back then. Which is still a tad better than that of other nations. Most present-day viewers won’t relate to the 1970s setting, but it’s worth a go for sf fans (and those of us who do remember the 1970s).

Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara (1992, USA). The sequel to this film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans, is in many respects a typical Nicolas Cage movie – ie, completely batshit and more often bad than it’s anything else – but it was also directed by Werner Herzog, who also does batshit but does it well. And in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans that manifests in a single scene that is just so bizarre it is inexplicably good. Bad Lieutenant, on the other hand, is a cheap thriller made by a cast and crew that were mostly drugged up at the time, and directed by a man who was usually good at making cheap thrillers that sometimes transcended their origins. I’m not convinced this one does. Keitel plays Keitel, and I’ve never really understood why people cast him, although he has more screen presence here than in other films I’ve seen him in. The plot runs on well-oiled rails, the supporting cast are a collection of genre stereotypes, and it all seems entirely pointed, in a sort of more-by-accident-than-design sort of way. Worth seeing once.

White Cargo, Ray Selfe (1973, UK). The title alone is red flag here – but this is the early 1970s, and the UK, and and there’s a good reason why most early 1970s British films – and not just “British sex comedies” – have vanished into obscurity… And this should almost certainly have been one of them. But somebody somewhere decided to upload it to Amazon Prime. And I was foolish enough to watch it. David Jason, who has apparently not aged for at least half a century, plays a hapless government clerk who becomes embroiled with a group which smuggles British women to overseas markets – the old “white slavery” trope… which was little more than an astoundingly racist and sexist white male sex fantasy. I write “was”, although I suspect there are many men who still subscribe to it. White Cargo makes an especially poor fist of it even for its time – with an inept hero who fantasises success before failing in reality, racist caricatures for the villains, and women with zero agency. One aspect I suspect is relevant to our times – the hero who imagines himself 007, but fails to even open a door without falling over, which is a pretty good description of the UK’s current government…

Carol, Todd Haynes (2015, UK). I’ve always wanted to like Haynes’s films more than I do. After all, he made a pretty good homage, Far from Heaven, to my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. And the first half of Safe is a pretty good commentary on the central character’s life-style, before the film turns into some weird treatise on “chemical sensitivity”. Carol is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, and is very much unlike her other novel – but the film is not unlike Haynes’s other movies. Highsmith’s life was… complicated. More so during its time than it would be now, of course. And its time was 1950s USA. Carol is the glamorous wife of a successful husband. She meets a young woman who works in the toy department of a department store. The two enter into an affair. And the rest plays out pretty much as you’d expect it to in 1950s USA. The whole is beautifully shot and played, much more so than Haynes’s other films – but also slightly less interesting because of that. His other films subverted expectations, but Carol does not.

The World’s Fastest Indian, Roger Donaldson (2005, New Zealand). The title refers to a motorcycle.  It was perhaps not the most culturally-sensitive name for a motorcycle marque, but the film takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the motorcycle itself dates from the 1920s. The film is also based on a true story. New Zealand motorcyclist rebuilds an Indian Scout motorcycle so it can break the world land speed record for motorcycles with engines of less than 1000 cc capacity. He travels to the US with his motorbike, take part in Speed Week, and eventually breaks the record. Along the way, he makes lots of friends. While Munro was reputedly an easy-going and likeable bloke, the film pretty much condenses his decades-long record-breaking career into a single trip to the US, in which Munro had no idea what needed to be done or what would happen. Little of which was true. By all accounts, Munro’s character is close to that depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the film. Although Hopkins’s accent was far from close to Munro’s. Or even a New Zealander’s. The rest is fantasy. But it’s an entertaining feel-good family film, and not your usual subject. Enjoyable.


Leave a comment

Watching diary 2021, #6

Yet more Aussie crime shows. Water Rats, this time, which is about the Sydney Water Police, although they seem to get involved in all sorts of crimes. Part of the fun is spotting faces and then figuring out where you first saw them. And it’s not always another Aussie police series. One minor character turned out to be a major character from Canadian series The Murdoch Mysteries a decade or so later. And Claudia Black plays the cheating wife of the victim in another episode. Amazon Prime have also done the usual and screwed up the seasons, not only broadcasting them in the wrong order, but even mis-numbering and misnaming them. So Season 4 Episode 13 ‘Double Play’, according to Amazon Prime, turns out to actually be Season 3 Episode 14 ‘Soft Target’. While not a problem normally, both of the two principal detectives are away for several episodes at different times, so others fill in – and it’s all bit random which of those replacement partners is going to appear in the next episode. Not to mention episodes referencing events in episodes that have yet to be shown. Amazon’s curation of their data is piss-poor. Sooner or later, it will be their undoing. Assuming anyone actually gives a shit about accuracy or facts or even truth by then…

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2011, USA). Soderbergh is sort of like an auteur but not really an auteur. He makes films as if he were an auteur but he makes resolutely commercial films. If Terence Malick has amassed so much influence he can make the films he wants in Hollywood, then Soderbergh can do the same… as long as the films are commercial. In Haywire, Gina Carano – you know, the Trumpist actor who got fired from The Mandalorian for tweeting fascist shit – plays a US government assassin who is specifically recruited for a protection job, only for it to go horribly wrong, and then certain other things happen, which persuade her everyone is out to kill her. It’s all completely implausible, but Soderbergh is a safe pair of hands and the end result is a polished thriller. Apparently, he wanted the fight scenes to be as realistic as possible… and it works. A good cast – except for Carano; let’s not ignore someone’s shitty views just because they were involved in a project you liked – and a convoluted plot, although not too convoluted, and good action sequences. You could watch worse.

I Vinti, Michelangelo Antonioni (1952, Italy). The film opens with an assortment of scans of newspaper stories apparently showing the lawlessness of the immediately post-war youth. The newspapers look genuine, and the three stories which make up the film are apparently based on true stories… but it’s all very lurid and sensationalised, and even the fact it’s by Antonioni can’t really make much of such thin material. The first is set in France. A pair of teenage boys – although these are 1950s teenagers, so they look like they’re in their late twenties – shoot a friend who claims to have buried treasure. The second takes place in Italy, and concerns a youth involved in smuggling cigarettes. The third, set in the UK, is the most interesting. A young man finds a murdered woman’s body on a nearby common, and uses it to get himself in the newspapers. Eventually, he admits he murdered the woman, but only after his new-found fame as the body’s discoverer has failed to earn him the admiration of the young ladies. I was somewhat surprised the man was allowed to write his own story for the newspapers. Seems extremely unlikely. One for completists.

Il merlo maschio, Pasquale Festa Campanile (1970, Italy). The image depicted on the poster for this film is pretty much all I can really remember from this movie – a fevered dream in which the protagonist, a cellist in an orchestra, played his wife’s naked body instead of his instrument at a concert. The cellist’s career is stalling, his conductor picks on him repeatedly… but he finds solace in his wife’s appearance. His wife’s naked appearance. Only in Italy. And only in the 1970s…. The cellist’s fantasies grow ever more lurid, and his wife seems content to go along – and everything climaxes at a concert where the cellist’s wife is accidentally disrobed. The words “Italian sex comedy” generally indicate a film is definitely to be avoided, especially when it was made in either the 1960s or 1970s. Much like “British sex comedy”. Sadly, Il merlo maschio is pretty much a textbook example.

Shree 420, Raj Kapoor (1955, India). The “420” refers the section of the Indian Penal code for “cheating”, much like advance-fee frauds are known as 419s after the Nigerian Criminal Code section number. The director plays a country bumpkin – modelled on Chaplin’s Little Tramp – who moves to Mumbai and ends up a con man after falling in with the wrong crowd. But this is a Bollywood film, so there has to be a boys-meets-girl, etc, plot, and here, Kapoor meets the love of his life on his way to Mumbai, but she rejects him when she learns he’s defrauding the poor. Of course, he eventually sees the error of his ways and wins back his lady love. This is classic rom com Bollywood (rather than cast-of-thousands historical epic Bollywood) at its best, and the signature song, which is performed twice, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’ (‘My Shoes are Japanese’), is definitely one of the catchiest Bollywood songs I’ve heard.

Slave of the Cannibal Gods, Sergio Martino (1978, Italy). Yet another Shameless release available on Amazon Prime. I’ve no idea how many I’ve watched so far, but it must be at least thirty or forty. I only rate three or four of them, which is not a particularly good hit ratio, but most are worth seeing at least once. Except perhaps not this one. Ursula Andress plays the wife of an anthropologist who disappeared while on an expedition in New Guinea. She arranges with a local anthropologist, played by Stacy Keach, to retrace her husband’s movements… Which leads them to a sacred island. Which all the locals are too scared to visit. For good reason. The title is a clue. But not fearless Ursula! You can guess the rest. This film is from the lower end of the Shameless gialli releases, and even though it was filmed in Sri Lanka, and so the scenery looks convincing, it’s hammy stuff. One for fans.

To the Wire, Károly Ujj Mészáros (2018, Hungary). Amazon Prime insists on recommending the latest shit Hollywood movies to me, despite the fact I don’t watch them, but there’s some good stuff available on the platform. It just takes a fuck of a lot of searching. I don’t recall how I found this Hungarian thriller, but it was a good find. A detective with severe anxiety issues is called to help when it looks like two murders are connected. Except it seems there are several more, and so a serial killer must be operating in Budapest. To the Wire (AKA X or The eXploited; the Hungarian original title apparently translates as X – Deleted from the System) was clearly inspired by David Fincher’s Se7en, but actually presents a story that is very much tied in with the country’s culture and recent history. This isn’t serial killer murders people because psychopathology – as pretty much all such US films are. Here, the victims were killed, and their deaths staged as suicides, for a solid reason. The film has a dark washed-out look in keeping with its story, and most scenes open with aerial upside shots of the city. An interesting, if overly quirky, lead, a solid serial killer mystery, a resolution that’s specific to Hungary and its recent history, and good cinematography. Definitely worth tracking down.

The Daughter, Simon Stone (2015, Australia). A man who has lived in the US for decades returns to Australia for his father’s second marriage – to his much younger housekeeper. The “American” is a reformed alcoholic, but events in Australia drive him back to drink. It’s all to do with the daughter of his best mate, and the identity of her real father. The American’s father owns the local mill, the town’s single biggest employer, and it has just declared bankruptcy, which has created a lot of bad feeling. Mostly a small Australian town drama – where the one big false note is when the two blokes head to the nearest big town, end up in pub near the university, and are later picked up by two female uni students. A strong cast – Sam Neill is excellent as the crotchety granddad, Geoffrey Rush is under-used as the mill-owner, and Anna Torv mostly sleepwalks through her role as the housekeeper/bride-to-be. The rest were pretty much unknown to me.


2 Comments

Reading diary 2021, #3

My reading remains a little bit all over the place. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kindle daily deals, and picking up books that look interesting when they’re going cheap. I’ve even bought a few I’ve read previously and have in storage back in the UK. I’ve had the Kindle now for two years, and it has 200 books on it already. Which, when I think about it, is certainly less than I used to buy when I lived in the UK and bought paperbacks and hardbacks from all manner of places, online and IRL. Even better, I’ve read about 70% of the books I have here, although there are still half a dozen or so I brought with me two years ago that are still unread…

The Master & Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1966, Russia). This is a book that’s mentioned often, sometimes in genre conversations given its fantastical content. In brief, the devil visits Moscow and involves himself – with the help of a personal assistant and a very large cat, that talks and walks upright – with various people, who suffer as a consequence. I’m not a big reader of Russian fiction – in translation, obviously – War and Peace many years ago, a couple of novels by the Strugatsky brothers, some Solzhenitsyn, We last year, and now this. I remember enjoying War and Peace, and the Solzhenitsyns were good, but the translations of the Strugatskys’ novels into idiomatic American English didn’t do them any favours… But I can’t say I thought either We or The Master & Margarita particularly good books or enjoyable reads. The story leaps all over the place, and it’s all very excitable. Some parts consist of one character telling another character what happened to them. Other parts seem to make little sense or directly contradict themselves. On the plus-side, it’s all very Russian and the culture in which the novel is set comes through on every page – which is more than could be said for the Strugatskys novels I read. The Master & Margarita is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, and while it’s preferable to yet another literary novel about a college professor suffering a mid-life crisis, is it really the best mid-twentieth-century Soviet literature could produce? Or is it chiefly revered because it’s critical of the USSR? Some of the best Soviet films are pretty much propaganda – being anti-USSR does not make a Russian novel, or film, good in and of itself. The US spent almost a century so worried its proletariat would see through its structural inequality, it demonised communism to the extent half of the population still believe social healthcare is evil, and most of them can’t see that Putin,. ie capitalist Russia, is far more dangerous than the USSR ever was. Sigh.

By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar (2020, Israel). I’d say the last thing the Matter of Britain needs is another interpretation, but King Arthur has been reinvented a number of times, and it does seem somewhat fitting given the nature of the myth – a hero for a time when he’s needed. Except, of course, most retellings of the Matter of Britain aren’t actually about the time of the retelling, and are usually no more than badly-faked historical stories distorted by the lens of the present. Which is also true of By Force Alone. But here it’s deliberate, very much so. In typical Tidhar fashion, By Force Alone makes heavy play with present-day cultural references. Arthur’s early years, and the formation of the Round Table, read like a cross between The Sopranos and a Guy Ritchie movie. But, Tidhar being a genre author, the novel features a weird mix of fantasy and science fiction tropes. It’s very much a book of two halves; and in the second half, a meteor impacts in Scotland, thought by all to be a dragon, and the area around the impact site is heavily poisoned, but also generates strange magical effects. Tidhar manages to graft the Grail Quest onto this, including rivalry among the Fae over the champions they have chosen. By Force Alone hits the main beats of the legend, but it’s a singular interpretation of it, one which, unlike most Matter of Britain stories, neither romanticises nor valorises Arthur and his knights, nor presents them as avatars of English exceptionalism (they weren’t, of course, English; assuming they ever existed, that is). I didn’t need another spin on King Arthur, but Tidhar delivered one and I find myself glad he did. If there’s any justice, this novel will kill the Arthuriana genre stone dead. And Guy Ritchie’s career.

Devil’s Road, Gary Gibson (2020, UK). I think this novella is set in a world explored in other works by Gibson – a novel, I believe, or perhaps more than one. I’ve not read his last few books, so I’m not sure. In the world of Devil’s Road, an experiment gone horribly wrong opened a portal to other dimensions in an invented island nation in the Far East, and out of this portal came various kaiju – ie, monsters. They’re confined to the island by an international blockade, and once a year because reasons a handful of people are allowed to race around the island for prize money. Dutch McGuire, the only person to have survived repeated races, is broken out of a Russian prison to compete once more. But this time she’s to help an industrialist get hold of some alien tech discovered on the island by a rival corporation. I didn’t think people still wrote science fiction like this. The whole ersatz cyberpunk kick-ass heroine thing is pure 1990s, although the kaiju add a twenty-first century spin. I really like Gibson’s space opera series, but this novella did nothing for me. But then I’m the sort of person who loves the films of Ishiro Honda but thought Pacific Rim was rubbish.

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (1977, USA). It was on offer, okay? TThe Sword of Shannara was also the first of the high fantasy best-sellers, and since I’m in the middle of a (partial) reread of the Wheel of Time series, I thought it might be worth seeing what this novel was like. I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s fucking dreadful. A “Valeman” on his way home one night is scared by some giant flappy thing in the sky, and then waylaid by a scary man over seven foot tall with a goatee. Except the scary man is well-known to the Valemen (they live in a vale, see), although he is very mysterious. Cue info-dump. The Valeman’s adopted brother is half-elvish, and is actually the only surviving relative of an ancient elvish king. Because of this, he’s the only person who can wield the Sword of Shannara, an ancient, er, sword, and defeat the Warlock Lord, an evil sorcerer who is about to invade the Four Lands and kill everyone. Or maybe just enslave them. It’s not clear. There’s the good guys – one of which is a dwarf, and another is Boromir in all but name – and they have to make their way to Druid’s Keep to retrieve the sword before the evil gnome army. But the gnomes get there first, and Shea (the naming is absolutely terrible in this book), the half-elf half-not-a-hobbit-honestly, is separated from the others and ends up travelling into absolutely-not-Mordor chasing after the titular sword. Meanwhile, the others are involved in defending Tyrsis – which is definitely not Minas Tirith – against a huge army of gnomes and rock trolls… This was the first of the big-selling Tolkien rip-offs, and I can’t honestly see what its appeal is. Did people just want another LotR with the serial numbers filed off? And were they so desperate for it, they’d accept this sub-literate crap? Even now, fantasy fans still recommend this book – and then they do that thing, which is absolutely fucking stupid, of explaining that the first few books are not very good but “it gets a lot better around book four or five”. Seriously, fuck off. I’m not going to read half a dozen shit 700-page novels to reach one which is “better”, especially since as a fan of the series, the person recommending it clearly has no idea what a good book actually is. Books like this should no longer be in print. They do the genre a disservice, they do its readers a disservice.

Settling the World, M John Harrison (2020, UK). Harrison is a writer whose works I admire more than I like. I do indeed like some of Harrison’s novels a great deal, but they’re the more explicitly genre works, and the sort of liminal fantasy he usually writes doesn’t appeal to me all that much. Settling the World is a career retrospective of sorts, so it includes both the stuff I like and the stuff that does little for me. Although all of it, of course, is beautifully written. The early works are those sort of mannered, very English, almost a pastiche of 1940s and 1950s English prose, stories, but twisted through a genre sensibility. Well-written, but there’s little here to stand out. True, there’s a strange imagination at work, which lifts even those sorts of stories above others of the same type. The title story is a case in point – the narrator is a very English agent of some unidentified bureaucratic service, who is tasked with spying on “God’s Highway”, a stretch of alien road that appeared on UK soil after God – a giant insect – was discovered on the far side of the Moon (only in the UK, apparently, which is also typical of this sort of fiction). The final line of the story is not the kicker it may have been when the story was published, but then the story is nearly half a century old. But the title story is not the collection, and what Harrison wrote in the early 1970s is not what he wrote in later decades. And is still writing. As I mentioned before, I find the liminal stuff doesn’t work as well for me, but even in those stories Harrison has a real genius for dropping in snippets of conversation that sound like parts of actual real conversations. And even if the individual story doesn’t seem to quite gel, there’s more than enough good writing to carry the reader through. At a time when publishers seem to want us to read only debuts, we need to support those writers who have had careers lasting several decades. It might sound like heresy, but a new novel by someone whose debut was twenty years ago is likely to be a better novel than someone whose debut novel was last month. We need to support a rich ecosystem of genre writers, so they have careers stretching decades, so they improve, the genre improves, our appreciation and enjoyment improves. Chasing the shiny new is a mug’s game, and just means readers are buying into the publishers’ desperate scramble for quick profit.

Walking to Aldebaran, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2020, UK). Some time around 2028 or 2030, British science fiction will consist only of books published by Adrian Tchaikovsky. But there will still be several hundred such books published each year. I’ve no idea how he manages to write so much. True, Walking to Aldebaran is a novella and, it has to be said, clearly written quickly. I’ve not read much of Tchaikovsky’s fiction, but certainly the other works I’ve read were quite huge novels with much better prose than this. Walking to Aldebaran is narrated by Gary Rendell, an astronaut who was part of a mission to explore an alien object discovered in the Oort Cloud. A team is landed in an opening in the artefact, and it becomes clear it’s some sort of space/time gateway that provides access, via tunnels and corridors and chambers, to an uncountable number of planets scattered throughout the galaxy. The novella is told in alternating chapters, in which Rendell describes how the mission to the artefact, called the Crypts, came together, and his experiences since the mission landed on/in the Crypts. Unfortunately, Walking to Aldebaran reads like someone wandering through a dungeon – the tunnels are apparently made of stone, which makes no sense… until you realise it’s just a dungeon. The final twist – that the narrator has become a dungeon monster themself – really does little to redeem a dungeon-exploration story layered onto a fairly standard Big Dumb Object. This is a series of well-used fantasy RPG tropes given a science-fictional spin, with no real resolution. Expect it to appear on an award shortlist or two next year.


4 Comments

Watching diary 2021. #5

Not much box-set bingeing this time. There was The Broker’s Man, a TV series starring Kevin Whately, apparently filmed in between episodes of Lewis. Despite being made in the late 1990s, it feels like it was made a decade earlier. It’s no surprise Whately is better remembered for Lewis. He plays an ex-copper who now investigates insurance claims. The first season saw him end up in hospital every episode. The series changed format for the second season, and budget too, it seemed – and two of the supporting characters were played by entirely different actors… I missed The Broker’s Man when ti was broadcast on British TV because I was in the Middle East. Should have left it like that.

Band of Thieves, Peter Bezencenet (1962, UK). I’ve mentioned the Renown Pictures available on Amazon Prime before. This one has a simple plot – while in prison, a group of inmates form a jazz band under the auspices of the warden. They are eventually released. An upper crust wastrel sort of chap hires them to play in his new café, but also to follow their previous careers during a tour of the country – his contacts among the gentry, their criminal skill-set. All very British, and entirely implausible in 21st century UK. The leader of the band is Acker Bilk, who I once saw perform live in Abu Dhabi in the early 1980s. I remember it well. It was by the side of the pool at the Sheraton Hotel. One bloke was so drunk he fell in the pool. Another couldn’t get his disposable camera to work and threw it over the wall in disgust. Bilk was drunk, but didn’t drop a note. He did tell several off-colour jokes, however. Fun times.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Terence Fisher (1974, UK). An admirer of Frankenstein – and there’s a red flag – approaches the sanatorium where Frankenstein died, and discovers he didn’t die after all and in fact is continuing his experiments. The two continue to experiment, which basically involves creating a monster from a couple of sanatorium inmates… Neither of which, I think, were actually dead when they were chosen as donors. The nubile mute daughter character also pops up again – seems to have been quite a popular trope at Hammer… I have a lot of time for Hammer films, although they’re very much of their time, and even then that’s probably giving them more credit than they’re due. They were made on the cheap and it usually shows. They made a brand out of tackling the best-known horror monsters of their time, but they managed to do it with a level po-faced seriousness only the British, and possibly the French, ever really pulled off. They’ll never be great cinema, but there’s something to be admired about them.

The Age of Shadows, Kim Jee-woon (2016, South Korea). During the 1920s, Korea was occupied by the Japanese, and they were brutal occupiers. A police captain, working for the Japanese, who used to be a member of the resistance, is present when a friend who stayed in the resistance movement is shot to death by the police. He’s then tasked by the new Japanese head of the police in Seoul with tracking down and apprehending the head of the resistance. But when he realises that a Japanese police officer has been undermining his investigation and that, as a Korean, he was never going to be rewarded for his work… then the police captain begins to work with the resistance, helping them to smuggle some explosives from Shanghai to Seoul on the train. An excellent period drama. Despite an action-packed opening sequence, it takes a while for the plot to shift into gear, but once the characters have sort of settled and the story gets going, this is good stuff. Recommended.

Loaded Guns, Fernando di Leo (1975, Italy). Ursula Andress plays an air hostess who gets unwittingly involved in a war between two drug lords. At least, I think it was unwittingly. She is asked to deliver a message to one drug lord, but there seems to be a third group who steal drugs from one drug lord’s goons and money from the other’s, and interrupt deals, until a war kicks off. And Andress seems to be involved. The story was a fairly typical poliziottesco, but it seemed the film was mainly made in order for Andress to display her legs as often as possible. The film had its moments – an all-out fist-fight between the two drug gangs in an empty funfair at the end has to be seen to be believed – but the story tried to be a bit too clever and failed dismally to pull it off.

Space Sweepers, Jo Sung-hee (2021. South Korea). I’ve seen so much love for this film, but it strikes me they’re all missing the point. Yes, it presents a multi-cultural future – but it’s only US and UK films that don’t. Don’t celebrate something that’s common in other cinemas because it doesn’t exist in yours. Sadly, in all other respects, Space Sweepers is the usual neoliberal near-futura corporatist bollocks. Earth is near-dead, and the super-rich – or, “citizens” – all live comfortable and privileged lives in some giant orbital habitat. But, being in orbit, there’s a lot of  space junk… The “space sweepers”, who are all non-citizens, and one unsuccessful flight away from having their ships impounded – could it get any more clichéd? – collect the junk. One such ship finds a young girl in a piece of wreckage. She’s alive… and also apparently an android who contains a fusion bomb. Eco-terrorists plan to use her to destroy the citizens’ habitat. Except, she’s not a bomb. And the terrorists aren’t terrorists. But the villain of the piece is a pantomime billionaire fascist piece of shit (all credit to the actor for managing to play the role without permanently corpsing). Having said all that, the special effects are quite spectacular. But a lot of the science is complete bollocks. “Krypton waves”? WTF? An entertaining pizza-and-beer sf tentpole blockbuster, that’s fun if you don’t think too hard – well, don’t think at all – and if you’re happy with all that 1980s cyberpunk crypto-fascist bullshit. Of course, it will probably win the Hugo Award this year.

Despicable Me 2, Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud (2013, USA). I have been known to actually laugh while watching films, even comedy films, but it doesn’t happen very often. I don’t mean laughs of disbelief, those are quite common. But actual that’s-really-funny laughs. Apparently, Confucius once said the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof, which I guess means he was a fan of slapstick. Despicable Me, and this sequel, Despicable Me 2, being animated, include a lot of slapstick, a lot of very funny slapstick. You know, with the Minions. But it also makes clever use of its premise. And if it tends to mawkishness as, inevitably, all US animated films do, because it probably says they need to do that in some book about a cat or something, well, you can always fast-forward through those bits these days. Formulas for success are usually self-fulfilling because only the formulaic then becomes successful. Which the Despicable Me films are mostly not. A twenty-first century US animated film that made me laugh. Worth seeing.

Nick the Sting, Fernando di Leo (1976, Italy). A mobster boss fakes having his safe robbed, and plants a ring from the “stolen” jewellery on a small-time con man, in the hope the con man is either arrested or fences the ring, and so provides evidence of the robbery. The mobster will then claim the insurance. After two failed attempts on his life, the con man hatches an overly-elaborate sting to have his revenge on the mobster, which involves a feeble disguise no one seems to see through, and a mock-up of a Lugarno police station with a cast of a hundred or so extras. None of it seems to go smoothly, although that’s all part of the con man’s cunning plan. There’s an interesting use of split-screen at times, but the rest of it is stupidly complicated and stupidly implausible. Di Leo apparently worked as a director-for-hire, and was not happy with the finished movie. Hard to disagree.

The Titan, Lennart Ruff (2018, UK). A few years from now, the climate has crashed and the NATO governments decide there’s a desperate need for a new home for humanity. They pick Titan. As you would. I mean, so what if it has a surface pressure of 1.45 atmospheres, surface temperature of -180C, completely toxic atmosphere, and is flooded with radiation from Jupiter? Oh, and it’s 1.3 billion kilometres from Earth. Obviously, it’s the, er, obvious choice. Settling the moon without either terraforming it or altering humanity is impossible. They decide to re-engineer a squad of military volunteers to survive on Titan. So, pretty much Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, then, but with Titan instead of Mars. But this is a movie, so a serious commentary on the difficulty, ethics or ramifications of the process is not going to happen. Instead, the sole survivor of the programme goes on a murderous rampage because lost humanity. Complete tosh. Avoid.


Leave a comment

Watching diary 2021, #4

I’m beginning to wonder when normal service will resume, so to speak, on this blog. I remember there being a vibrant conversation about science fiction online, but these days it’s all squee or uncritical promotion by friends of creators. I’m not interested in marketing. Online debate is effectively dead. The so-called “culture wars” have seen to that. You can’t debate bad ideas away. Because the people who hold those bad ideas, the stupid makes them invulnerable to debate. You can only de-platform them.

These days, I tend to think of this blog as little more than a diary open to the public. “Today, I went to Systembolaget. An issue of a UK magazine I subscribe to was delivered. I had to pay one crown import duty (plus fees). Fucking Brexit.” Yes, my life – during this pandemic, at least – is as boring as that. So thank fuck for books and, in this case, TV series and films…

I tried a couple of episodes of The New Professionals, a Sky-only reboot of the 1970s series, this time with Edward Woodward as the head of CI5 (which was now international). It was… fucking awful. I can see why it was killed after a single season. Lexa Doig, the ship’s avatar from Andromeda, played one of the team, called “Back-up” because – and yes, this is racist – her real name was foreign and sounded a little bit like like the word “back-up”. Ugh.

The Blue Rose, a single-season New Zealand series, was actually really good. A temp joins a law firm as a PA, and is then approached by the best friend of the woman who’d previously held the position. She’d drowned a week or so earlier, after drunkenly falling into a canal. But the best friend thinks it was murder… The mystery of her death lasts the entire season, but in each episode the central four characters play Robin Hood and fix social injustices they either come across or are brought to their notice. Definitely worth a go.

I also watched the one and only season of Young Lions, an Australian cop show… and it’s easy to see why it never made it to a second season. Four likeable leads, yes, but the writing was pretty crook, the second episode is horribly transphobic, and the lives of the detectives outside of work careered from the implausible to the clichéd. Avoid.

Smokescreen, Jim O’Connolly (1964, UK). Peter Vaughn plays a penny-pinching, and perpetually smirking, claims adjuster who investigates the alleged suicide of a businessman who drove his car off a cliff. It’s clearly murder, but by whom? The business partner and the wife both benefit. Vaughn investigates, as cheaply as possible, and solves the crime. Renown Pictures have dumped a lot of forgotten 1950s and 1960s British films on Amazon Prime, and from the few I’ve seen it’s no surprise they were forgotten. True, the English-language world is flooded with US culture, with the in-built assumption it’s better than all the others. It isn’t. It’s more prolific, certainly. But the funny thing about British films is their cultural references make more sense to British viewers than US ones do. I may love me some classic Hollywood movies, but they might as well be foreign language films most of the time. British films are actual historical documents for British viewers. Never discount that.

Franklyn, Gerald McMorrow (2008, UK). My first thought on watching this was it was trying too hard to be Dark City, a  film I’d liked a great deal when it was released some twenty-plus years ago, My second one was, when the central character can move from London to a dystopian alternate universe and back again, why is it that present-day London looks more dystopian than the dystopia? Oh wait, that’d because of ten years of corrupt Conservative government… And, after all that, I was seriously underwhelmed by Franklyn, although friends of mine, whose opinions I trust, liked it. Perhaps it was lead Ryan Philippe, whose entire face appears to have been Botoxed, and who I find an implausible lead at best. Plus, the whole Gothic architecture as “dystopian” is just bollocks because, as any fule kno, it should be Brutalism. And if it had been I’d have loved the film. Because I love Brutalist architecture. True, not enough is said about the fascist and dystopian elements of Victorian Britain, and no fascist regime ever actually embraced Brutalism, but it does sometimes feel – post- His Dark Materials and all that – that British dystopias are more about service staff at Oxbridge colleges who weren’t sufficiently servile to over-privileged academics and students than actual inequality. And fuck that for a game of soldiers.

The Tunnel, Pål Øie (2019, Norway). There are apparently a lot of tunnels in Norway. The opening to this film actually gives the number, but I can’t remember it. The plot of The Tunnel is gloriously simple. A tanker truck overturns in a tunnel and starts a fire. Emergency services struggle to rescue those trapped in the tunnel – which includes the estranged daughter of one of the firemen. It’s clichés all the way down, and they don’t get any more original for being presented in Norwegian. The scenery is, unsurprisingly, spectacular, and a good cast do the best they can with poor material. But this is dull, predictable stuff. Expect a Hollywood remake any day now.

The Confidant, Juraj Nvota (2012, Slovakia). A young man in Communist Czechoslovakia joins the secret police, only to discover he’s under surveillance himself. He accepts the job offer chiefly because he and his wife can’t get an apartment.. but suddenly they can once he’s a secret policeman. Hs job is mainly listening in on conversations at a countryside cottage occupied by an old poet, and whenever the poet’s friends say anything subversive, the eavesdropper makes sure it’s not recorded. Fortunately, the secret policeman has evidence of a past crime by the powerful police captain who’s nurtured his career. Not that it helps when it comes to the crunch. As a fictionalised account of living under a repressive communist regime – and let’s be clear, communism as practiced by the USSR, and its satellites, under Stalin and afterwards, was closer to totalitarianism than anything Marx, Lenin or Trotsky might have envisaged – The Confidant is good. Unfortunately, that version of communism has made a handy bogeyman for the US for around 100 years, and some Americans still can’t get over it. The Confidant is not going to help them – but, you know, when you think about it, how is the Czechoslovakian secret police of the 1950s any different to the NSA of today?

Freaky Deaky, Charles Matthau (2012, USA). Elmore Leonard’s books make good films. Well, perhaps not good, but certainly entertaining. They’re well-plotted, funny, with snappy dialogue and slightly off-the-wall characters. We’re not talking great literature here, but certainly something worth a night with pizza and beer. Freaky Deaky is set in 1974 in Detroit. A pair of hippies try to extort money from a drugged-out millionaire playboy by threatening to kill him with a bomb. But their bombs fail to kill him, and he’s so spaced out he’s no clue what’s going on. And then a disgraced detective is pulled onto the case… No insight into the human condition here, but a couple of amusing set-pieces, the cast play their parts well, and it raises a smile or two. One of Leonard’s better tricks, according to my pet theory, based on the few film adaptations of his novels I’ve seen, is he makes the victims more sympathetic than either the villains or good guys, even though the victims are often pretty horrible people. But it’s all about them somehow surviving, rather than good or bad winning. It makes for entertaining books and films, but it does all feel a bit disposable.

Through Black Spruce, Don McKellar (2018, Canada). The background of the author of the novel on which this film is based has apparently been questioned. He claims First Nations ancestry, but there’s no evidence of it. Sadly, the controversy around the author has reflected on this movie. A Cree woman goes missing in Toronto, and her identical twin sister goes looking for her. The missing sister had been working as a fashion model, but her disappearance could be tied in with drug runners back in her home town. I have no way of judging the presentation of the First Nations experience in present-day Canada, but I thought this a well-paced thriller with an interesting lead in Tanaya Beatty. The part where the uncle flies off into the country, and bumps into a family out hunting, may not have added much to the plot, but certainly helped lift this thriller above the ordinary. A nice, slow, well-shot thriller.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Patrick Hughes (2017, USA). I think this must be the laziest-made film I’ve ever seen. Set in the UK and the Netherlands, although apparently very little of the UK-set bits were actually filmed in the UK. And it got pretty much everything wrong. Gary Oldman is the despotic leader of Belarus, currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague for crimes against humanity. If he is not found guilty, he will apparently be reinstated as leader of Belarus, which is not how I thought it worked, but never mind. All the witnesses against Oldman have either disappeared or died, and the only one left is Samuel L Jackson, an assassin, currently incarcerated in a Manchester prison. So Interpol arrange for him to be transported to The Hague to give testimony. But their plan comes a cropper in Coventry, and Ryan Reynolds, a private bodyguard, is brought in by an ex-girlfriend Interpol agent. Jackson and Reynolds cross the UK, chased by Oldman’s goons, then catch a ferry across the Channel – despite not having passports – and are then chased around Amsterdam before Jackson makes his way to the Hague and his appearance in court. I went to university in Coventry. I know the city well. And while it may well have changed in the 30 years since I was last there, the Coventry in this film was not actually Coventry. It wasn’t even an English city. You can tell from the architecture. You also can’t enter the Netherlands from the UK without a passport. And you can’t cross the Channel in a twenty-metre river ferry. And cross-Channel ferries to Amsterdam don’t actually go to Amsterdam. This was a film made by Americans who knew nothing about Europe and were too lazy to learn. Avoid.

The Princess and the Pirate, David Butler (1944, USA). Virginia Mayo is a princess on the run because she’s fallen in love with a commoner. Bob Hope is an impressionist. The two are on the same ship, which is captured by pirates, and Hope impersonates the pirate captain so they escape. Oh, and then Hope has the map to the pirates’ treasure tattooed on his back, not that he knows that. This is peak Hollywood – a vehicle for Hope, a leading lady popular at the time, a plot designed to showcase a) Hope’s self-deprecating wit, and b) Mayo’s legs. High culture, this is not. The only really interesting thing about these Hope films is the jokes they played on the Road to… series of movies. The fact the studios were so comfortable with Hope as a lead they’d end the films with a joke at Hope’s expense using Bing Crosby is… remarkable. I can’t think of anything remotely like it in the present day.


Leave a comment

Watching diary 2021, #3

I’ve no idea what’s been happening to my movie watching of late. It seems a bit all over the place. Likewise, the TV series. First up, there was UK six-part TV series Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw as a Catholic priest who ends up in a personal battle with a demon bent on recruiting him for Satan. An interesting treatment of demons and the Catholic Church – and I’m no fan of religion. I tried the first season of the much-lauded Stranger Things, but didn’t like it at all. Derivative, the kids were annoying, RPGs were presented as something only twelve-year-olds played, the uncritical depiction of bullying, the fact a modern-day Mengele was experimenting away in middle America and no one seemed to have a problem with that… Not impressed. I doubt I’ll bother with seasons 2 and 3. And then there’s The Flight Attendant, about a, well, a flight attendant. Who wakes up in a Bangkok hotel room, next to the bloody corpse of the man she’d met the previous night and gone to bed with. It’s all to do with a big finance conspiracy – fucking one-percenters, they’re a blight on global society – but what lifted this series above other thriller series was the flight attendant hallucinating commentary sessions with the murder victim, and her general cluelessness. I enjoyed it.

The Message, Moustapha Akkad, (1995, Lebanon). Another film about Islam, but this one at least mentions the religion. The Prophet, of course, is not mentioned by name, nor seen on the screen. While his presence is not there, enough of Islam is there for the story to make sense. However, there’s a problem here – Muslim viewers will see what they already know, non-Muslim viewers will not see anything that provides any kind of commentary on the history or origin of Islam. True, The Message is no different to the vast number of straight-to-DVD movies churned out by the “Christian” film industry – and I’ve inadvertently seen some of them – but it at least has the integrity not to hide the fact it’s religious propaganda. I would much sooner watch The Message, a movie about Islam, than some fantasy film with “Christian values”. But, to be honest, I don’t think I benefit from either. Cinema may be a powerful medium for propaganda, as Goebbels no doubt said at least once, but it does often seem the most partisan cinema is often aimed at those who share the same values as the film-makers. There’s no changing minds here, only validating worldviews.

The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery, Paul L Stein (1950, UK). The title refers to a popular radio programme back in the day – from 1947 to 1976, apparently. And while I know of the concept, I was not aware of the radio show. The stars of that show appear in this film, in which a person writes in with a phrase for the panel to guess, only for someone to be murdered a day or two later in a fashion relating to the phrase. And that’s only the first of several murders. It’s all to do with a man who was imprisoned while serving in India during WWII, and his revenge on those who put him in prison. There simply aren’t enough clues initially to guess the murderer – plenty of red herrings, however – but then two-thirds of the way in, it’s obvious who the killer is, and it’s then annoying how slow on the uptake the cast are. This is very much a film of its time – the cast are all terribly terribly, and terribly enthusiastic and energetic, and not a little dim with it, and the use of actual real life celebrities of the day is treated like some sort of jolly jape. And if there’s a deeper message in there about the behaviour of British troops in India post-war, it’s… No, WTF am I thinking? Of course there’s no such thing. English culture is nothing if not resolutely non-self-critical. Self-deprecating, yes. Self-critical, never.

Accumulator 1, Jan Svěrák (1994, Czechia). If there is one cinematic tradition in Europe that could plausibly be from another planet, it’s Czech films. Well, maybe except for Hungarian films – or at least movies by Miklós Jancsó. Or Armenian ones – or at least movies by Sergei Parajanaov. I don’t know. Maybe the two directors were descended from Czechs… Having said that, there could be a perfectly normal and resolutely commercial domestic Czech cinema industry, whose output is considered too low-brow, too banal, and too unoriginal to be released outside the country. But I suspect none of that is true. Accumulator 1, however, is a Czech film and I have no fucking idea what it is about. I am, I hasten to add, a huge admirer of Czech cinema, which has both been technically innovative and used cinematic narratives to comment entertainingly, and not always obviously, on its various regimes. In Accumulator 1, surveyor mysteriously collapses and while in hospital meets a man who can draw energy form his surroundings. The surveyor develops this, so much so he becomes more or less the battery of the title. Meanwhile, he’s met this girl and he fancies her, but his Lothario colleague is making things difficult, and then the surveyor’s energy problems begin to affect those about him so he has to come up with some plan to dispel that energy… It all feels like a clever analogy that isn’t quite clear enough. Much of the film plays like an off-centre rom com – in other words, a Czech rom com –  but the final act is all pyrotechnics, and  all I could think of was there were Polish films that did something similar but better. Although, to be fair, Accumulator 1 was likely better than any Hollywood attempt at the same material.

Hollywood Boulevard, Allan Arkush & Joe Dante (1976, USA). And  speaking of Hollywood… When a film was made because of a bet, it’s a fair guess the film is shit. When the bet was whether the directors could make the cheapest film ever for a studio, New World Pictures, which was not exactly known for the lavishness of its budgets… Well, “shit” is perhaps over-estimating the film’s quality. Hollywood Boulevard won the bet by making extensive use of stock footage. It’s likely that’s where the bulk of its budget went. The story follows three women who, via an agent, sign on as contract players at Miracle Pictures, a studio even cheaper than New World. Except someone is killing off female Miracle Pictures stars, and basically figuring out who the villain is simply a matter of seeing who’s still standing by the start of the third act. Hollywood Boulevard is not just cheap, it aspires to being cheap. It may have won the bet, but it actually detracted from the sum of culture produced by Hollywood. If you know someone who watched this film, feel for them. Do not be them.

The Last King, Nils Gaup (2016, Norway). It’s sometimes easy to forget that pretty much every European’s nation’s history is as fucked up as that of England. Until moving to Sweden, my knowledge of Scandinavian history was pretty much non-existent, which is hardly surprising, and if I’d imagined it to be the usual run of  invaders and dynastic struggles and shifting borders, I would not have been entirely wrong, if not entirely close to the truth. In Norway, for example, in the 1200s, there was a dynastic struggle between supporters of a family from the south, the Baglers, and the incumbents, from the north, the Birkebeiners. Which at one point resulted in the Birkebeiner heir, while a baby, being spirited north to save him from death at the hands of the Baglers. The Baglers had the support of the (Roman) Church, but the Birkebeiners had history, and the general populace, behind them. There is a happy ending – the baby eventually assumed the throne and proved one of the best kings of Norway of the period. But this is is a movie, and chiefly about the Birkebeiners keeping the baby Håkon Håkonsson, later King Håkon IV, out of the hands of the nasties. Infotaining stuff, with a lot of snow and beards and faces familiar from pretty much every other Norwegian film I’ve watched. You could do much worse.

A Song is Born, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). Many directors have remade one of their own films. Hitchcock did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Capra did it with Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). There’s Haneke and his Funny Games (1997 and 2007), although the latter was an English-language remake… And many other directors have made English-language remakes of their non-Anglophone movies. A Song is Born is Hawks remaking Ball of Fire, in which a nightclub singer on the lam hides out in an institute where a group of professors are putting together a comprehensive encyclopaedia of music, and have been doing so for the past decade. In the original film, it’s Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, and the sparks are visible on the screen. In A Song is Born, it’s Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and… oh dear. Reputedly put together to cash in on the craze for jazz, the film certainly features a number of impressive performances by a lot of well-known names. But Kaye had just split from his wife and refused to sing (she was his lyricist), and was also apparently disappearing off to therapy every day – and it’s almost like he’s phoning in his performance. Mayo vamps as best she can, but she can’t match Stanwyck. The end result is a Technicolor remake that feels colourless compared to the original. One for fans.

Almost Human, Umberto Lenzi (1974, Italy). Grateful as I am to Shameless for dumping all these gialli and poliziotteschi films on Amazon Prime, I suspect I’ve heard Italian spoken more than Swedish over the last twelve months, and they do not speak Italian here. Most gialli/poliziotteschi are, of course, complete trash, but quite a few are weirdly good, even if mostly it comes down to sheer style, something the Italians do so effortlessly. But other such films are clumsily “European”, which often adds a charm all its own. They may have their faults in  plotting and story, but they there’s still something weirdly compelling about them. Almost Human, sadly, is not one of them. It’s the life of a minor criminal who finds himself committing ever more heinous crimes simply in order to stay ahead of the law. And when he’s finally caught, and released on a technicality, the cop who had pursued him kills him. Some of these Shameless releases are, as I have said worth a go. This one is entirely missable.

Come and Get It, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Another controversial Hawks picture. Controversial chiefly because he was fired, and the film was finished and recut by William Wyler. Who then refused to have his name on it. The story is adapted from a multi-generational novel about loggers in late nineteenth-century Wisconsin. The source novel is a paean to North America’s natural resources and a criticism of their pillaging by “robber barons”. The Silver Fox turned it into a romantic triangle. Sigh. Hawks could cheapen anything, and often did, but he could also make damn a good film out of it. Unfortunately, in this case, his interpretation of the story drew the wrath of the studio, ie Samuel Goldwyn, and Hawks was sacked. Wyler was bought in to “fix” the film, but could do little to rescue it. And, other than reshooting it all from scratch, it’s hard to see how he could have rescued it. There’s some good cinematography here, but the story is trite and banal, and the larger themes implied to exist in the novel are hastily pushed to one side here as the hero of the story lusts after the daughter of an old flame but she’s already fallen in love with his son. It’s pure soap opera – and that’s soap opera at its least imaginative. One for fans.


4 Comments

Watching diary 2021, #2

Eight films and eight countries. Been a while since I last managed that. Admittedly, one movie is from the US, but it’s definitely not a Hollywood film, although it is pretty recent.

As for TV series… I  worked my way through all five seasons of Black Mirror, although I’d seen the first season several years ago. The change from UK series to US was somewhat abrupt, and not helped by the opening episode of the US-produced series being a bit pants. The series had its moments, but it lost its bite when it moved to Netflix.

Then there was Bridgerton, which was… a thing. I read Heyer, so I’m familiar with the whole Regency romance thing, and seeing it on a screen was certainly something I’d looked forward to. But… the whole Quality thing is dodgy at best, and Bridgerton‘s use of a diverse cast (which was good to see) couldn’t make it palatable (and sectors of society other than the aristocracy were notable by their absence). There were also times when it felt a little bit, well, off, not something that had been written by a Brit. Plus, everything was so bright and clean, more like a picture postcard than an actual historical period. There are plenty of Regency book series Netflix could have adapted for TV, this one was not a good choice. (And it’s “duchy”, FFS, not “dukedom”.)

I also watched Proof, an Irish mini-series from 2004, in which a discredited journalist discovers evidence that the leading candidate in a general election is being funded by thousands of dodgy shell companies, each of which have donated one cent less than the minimum amount that needs to be reported. And one of the firms funding those shell companies is a local night-club run by Albanians (the villains du jour of the early 2000s) who sex-traffic young women into Dublin. The proof is on a CD-ROM, and the disk continually changes hands but not a single person thinks to copy the data on it. So the villain wins because he ends up with the CD-ROM. Rubbish.

The Dress, Alex van Warmerdam (1996, Netherlands). Black comedy from the Netherlands, a country I don’t really associate with black comedies. (Although, on reflection, haven’t pretty much all of Paul Verhoeven’s movies been black comedies?) Anyway, a print designer witnesses some racist violence outside his house while working on a fabric design. The design – large orange leaves on a blue background – is printed onto material, which is then made into summer dresses. An old woman buys one of the dresses… and everyone, including her, who comes into contact with the dress suffers, well, a bit more than just “bad luck”. As black comedies go, this is grim stuff, with not much in the way of the absurd – other than the way the dress moves from person to person – to offset the misery. A good film, but definitely not a cheerful one.

Mothra, Ishiro Honda (1961, Japan). I’m somewhat late to appreciating Honda’s films, but I seem to have timed it right as it’s only now remastered editions of his films are starting to appear. Those of his films I’d seen previously were bad transfers of US-dubbed versions, probably from video-cassettes hastilu banged out back in the 1980s. But Eureka! have done this edition of Mothra proud, including both the original Japanese audio and dubbed versions. And the film is, well, an Ishiro Honda film. Mothra is, obviously, a giant moth-like creature, which causes global havoc, including laying a giant egg – do moths lay eggs? – on the Eiffel Tower. It’s complete nonsense form start to finish, but the commitment of the cast and crew to the premise is worthy of admiration. I remember many years ago Patrick Troughton being quizzed on, I think, Pebble Mill at One about playing Doctor Who and whether he was into all that sci-fi stuff. He looked quite offended. “It’s a job,” he replied. There’s something about Honda’s films which make it seem like it’s all more than a job to those involved. Plus monsters. Which are men and women in rubber suits. Good stuff.

White Space, Ken Locsmandi (2018, USA). There are a lot of US straight-to-DVD sf movies on Amazon Prime, and I normally avoid them because, well, there’s usually a good reason they went straight to DVD. There are also a lot of sf movies that rip off the plot from Moby Dick. White Space is both of these – but actually proved slightly better than I expected. It’s not a good film, by any means. It’s the usual neoliberal corporate crypto-fascist future Americans seem to think is the only future imaginable. The characters – the crew of a “space whaling” ship – are all stereotypes, and the jeopardy is created as much by their stupidity as it is by events beyond their control. But the production design, sets and effects aren’t too bad, and it all hangs together entertainingly. I’ve seen worse, much worse.

Guardian, Helfi CH Kardit (2014, Indonesia). This was my very first Indonesian film. A teenage girl becomes the target of kidnappers but she doesn’t understand why. Nor does she understand why her mother has been teaching her martial arts and self defence since she was little. Meanwhile, a North American woman has broken out of prison, and she and three others also help defend the girl from the kidnappers… And it turns out the girl is the daughter of gang lord who has since gone legit and is about to be elected to high office. The North American woman is the girl’s mother. And the girl’s mother is her guardian. Not a bad action film, although the production values were not especially high. I suspect most of the budget went on all the cars that were destroyed during the film.

Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, H Vinoth (2017, India). This was actually based on a true story, and covers the long-running investigation into a series of robberies and murders which took place along national highways in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh between 1995 and 2006. It takes the police a while to figure out it is a gang of lorry drivers, all of whom are from a village of bandits, but they cannot prove it. The fact the perpetrators were eventually caught pretty much comes down to the determination of a single police inspector, who spent eight years hunting down the members of the gang and gathering evidence against them. Watching this film, which is set this decade, it’s surprising how much of India still remains effectively lawless. The nature of the investigation means the film drags in places, but some of the set-pieces are well-staged, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the beleaguered police. Worth seeing.

Baby Jane, Katja Gauriloff (2019, Finland). A young woman from a small town arrives in Helsinki and hooks up with a charismatic woman some years older. The two move in together, and life seems to go well. But then they fall apart, the young woman leaves, marries and becomes more or less a regular member of Helsinki’s middle class. Then she discovers her old partner is ill and dying and… No synopsis is really going to do this film justice, although much of the marketing seems to have focused on the older woman’s death – was it assisted? and who assisted it? But that’s more or less a coda to the third act. The story is mainly about their relationship, and the young woman’s walking away from it, to her cost. A good drama.

Macadam Stories, Samuel Benchetrit (2015, France). The original French title for this Asphalte, and asphalt is a term that some people still use in English. But no one ever says “macadam”. “Tarmac”, yes; “tarmacadam”, very very rarely; “macadam”, never. And it’s not like the title is actually relevant to the film. It is, ostensibly, based on the director’s own experiences growing up in a run-down apartment block in a poor suburb of Paris. I find it doubtful a US astronaut parachuted onto the roof of his building after his spacecraft went ballistic while returning from the ISS, but perhaps that’s meant to be a metaphor or something. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert as the alcoholic struggling actor new neighbour is, well, who wouldn’t cast Huppert as their neighbour? For all that, the film was actually entertaining, contained a few good, if very gentle, comedic set-pieces, and no one involved need walk away embarrassed. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a Huppert completist – and who isn’t? – but I’ve seen much, much worse.

Telstar, Nick Moran (2008, UK). I was not aware of record producer Joe Meek, although I’d certainly heard the song ‘Telstar’, which was the most successful song he ever produced. What I hadn’t known was that both Ritchie Blackmore and Mitch Mitchell started their career with Meek. Mitchell was a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance, but Blackmore was a regular member of Meek’s house-band, The Outlaws, which also included Chas Hodges of Chas & Dave, as well as the band that backed Screaming Lord Sutch on tour. Meek comes across as a complete nightmare to work for, and while much is made of the fact he’s gay in his biography little of that comes across in the film (and yes, I know, “family entertainment”, and homosexuality was criminalised then, and gay culture was very much underground – Polari and the handkerchief code and all that – but there’s barely a hint of it in the film). There is also little about Meek’s actual technical innovations in producing music. In fact, the whole thing is mostly a horrible boss comedy, with a tragic third act. Dear god, if you’re going to celebrate the man’s achievements, at least actually fucking show them, and not just present the bland instrumental ‘Telstar’ as the highlight of what was an influential career. For all that Telstar was educational, it did a piss-poor job on its subject. But that, unfortunately, is the English film industry for you.


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2021, #2

Something of a first here – some Swedish fiction. Sadly, read in English. But given how bad the appalling translation of The Millennium trilogy was, and the simple prose of Still Waters, I’m tempted to try both series of books in Swedish…

The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley (2017, USA). I was a big fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, but was put off her later works after failing to finish The Mirror Empire. But she continued to get good notices and this, her first novel for the newly-formed Saga imprint – as of 2017 – is explicitly science fiction. And, yes, okay, so the sf novel after this, The Light Brigade, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year and I had a brainfart one day and saw The Stars are Legion for 99p on Kindle and thought it was the Clarke-nominated novel… The Stars are Legion is set aboard an organic starship the size of a small planet which is part of a large fleet. It’s not clear whether they’re moving, or stopped, or where they’re going. The two protagonists have a plan which will allow them to refurbish an abandoned and dying starship which has the unique ability to leave the fleet. One of the protagonists has lost her memory – deliberately, it seems, in order to safeguard the plan. As with Hurley’s other fiction, this is brutal stuff, with a body count that can probably be measured in five figures, if not more. The world-building with all the organic technology is cleverly done. But the novel really comes into its own when Zan – that’s the one who’s lost her memory – is left for dead and dumped down a tube leading to the starship’s lower levels. She has to climb back up, passing through vast internal spaces, each with their own populations and flora and fauna, in order to reach the surface. The battles and various political machinations I found less interesting. Oh, and the book is entirely populated by women. There isn’t a single male character in it, or in, it is implied, the entire fleet. Even though I bought The Stars are Legion by accident, I enjoyed it and thought it a lot better than I’d expected. I think I’ll stay away from The Mirror Empire and its sequels, but I’m now more keen than before to read The Light Brigade.

The Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson (2005 – 2007, Sweden). I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (AKA Män som hatar kvinnor) back in 2012, and I’ve seen both the Swedish adaptations of all three books, starring Noomi Rapace, and the Hollywood adaptation of the first by David Fincher, starring Rooney Mara; and even though it may jeopardise my standing in Sweden I actually prefer the Fincher film. But then, that’s part of the problem with this trilogy. The first book is an excellent thriller about the accidental uncovering of a serial killer. But as the two sequels dig into Lisbeth Salander’s past, so the entire thing begins hurdling one shark after another. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander develops an interest in advanced mathematics, as you do, despite never finishing school. After six months of reading, she manages to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem using only the mathematics that had been available to Fermat. FFS. At the end of the book, she is shot in the head and buried alive by her estranged father. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, she is in hospital, recovering from brain surgery to remove the bullet, and the only ill effect seems to be she can no longer remember her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Sigh. The idea of a secretive department in the Swedish intelligence community which went rogue is interesting, but Salander is such an over-powered and implausible protagonist the novels don’t so much teeter on the edge of suspension of disbelief as joyfully dive into the depths of WTF. It didn’t help that the translations were terrible – I don’t mean I compared the original Swedish text to the English text and found it wanting – but they’re so clumsy and ill-written the translator did an Alan Smithee on them. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, but also details which made it plain the translator knew very little about Sweden or its society. There was, for example, a mention of Myorna which implied it was a clothing shop, when in fact it’s a chain of charity shops. There were also a number of continuity errors – Lisbeth Salander’s height varied from 4 foot 11 inches to 124 centimetres (!). The tattoo of a wasp on the side of her neck apparently was 25 cm long, which would mean she had a neck like a giraffe. The books use Fröken throughout for Miss, but the word is pretty old-fashioned and rarely used these days. Every single red wine in all three novels is described as “robust”. Most of the frobt doors in the books open inwards, when here the reverse is true. The novels also do that thing where people entering a country have their luggage searched, which has not been in common in Europe since the 1980s (Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and the Schengen Area in 2001; the books were published 2004 – 2006, but had been written over a ten-year prior to that.). I’m reliably informed the original Swedish version are much better, but if I’m not really convinced by the story I don’t think better prose is going to make me like or admire this trilogy.

XX: A Novel, Graphic, Rian Hughes (2020, UK). I bought this mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel, and remembering Hughes’s name from the excellent Dare from 1990, which, yes, was thirty years ago (and yes, I have a copy) and was probably not a good reason to shell out for a first edition hardback but it looked interesting… And it was not what I expected at all, it’s an actual prose novel, but it’s also really good. Jodrell Bank receives a “Signal from Space”, and after some investigation discovers it is the DNA of billions of aliens, of millions of alien races, encoded. Meanwhile, an alien spacecraft has crashed into the Moon, and the astronaut sent to investigate finds a (barely) live alien, which dumps its memories into her brain. Back on Earth, an AI start-up, whose lead programmer (of a team of two) seems to have implausibly built half the computer systems mentioned in the novel, gets involved and discovers a way to a) create AIs from memes, which represent the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (the 20th Century one is called XX, as in the novel’s title, which, given the story, seems a strange choice of title), and b) thoroughly explore the “Grid”, which is a virtual representation of the aliens in the Signal from Space, including digging through its layers to uncover its history, and so the history of the universe. It all gets a bit cosmological, and the hacker character’s skills and experience are hardly plausible… Not to mention that the story is basically resolved through his genius and the implanted alien memories in the astronaut’s head… But I did enjoy the ride. There’s lots of typographical tricks used throughout the novel, as well as a number of “found documents”, including a mock-up of a serialised novel from an invented Golden Age sf magazine… which reminds me of a book by someone or other that did something similar… Recommended.

Exile’s End, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2020, USA). I’m a big fan of Gilman’s fiction. Her Isles of the Forsaken duology is a superior fantasy, but she has also spent a lot of time exploring her “Twenty Planets” universe – in two novels, two novellas, and several short stories. And now three novellas. A member of a believed-to-be-extinct race, the Atoka, turns up to a museum 700 years after the race were reputedly wiped out. This person wants to reclaim some of the museum’s Atoka artefacts. A small community managed to escape and survive on a distant world, and they want what belongs to them. Unfortunately, there are, as far as the museum is concerned, two problems. First, the main artefact, a painting of a young woman, has been adopted by the museum planet’s people and is central to their history of settling the planet. Second, the Atoka would periodically destroy all their possessions, and start again from scratch. It’s an argument perhaps more topical than it would have been, say, twenty years ago. While there have been repeated calls for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece for several decades, for example, it’s only in the last couple of years that historical statues have been toppled by members of the general public who find them, and what they represent, offensive. The artefacts of Exile’s End are closer to the Elgin Marbles than Edward Colston’s statue, but they are all symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Gilman stacks the decks by making it plain the Atoka remnants will destroy the painting, thus manufacturing opposition to giving it back. But Gilman works through her argument carefully and clearly, and provides sufficient grounding for the position of the Atoka. Unfortunately, the Twenty Planets have only STL travel between worlds, meaning interstellar journeys separate origin and destination by decades. Which means there is a weird break in chronology in the novella, as its resolution takes place so many years later than its opening. The end is… fitting, but I do wonder if the story really needed it, and could have ended before everything arrived at the Atoka’s current home. Still, I would not be unhappy to see this on a few award shortlists next year. Gilman is under-appreciated. The novella can also be read for free here on tor.com.

Still Waters, Viveca Sten (2008, Sweden). I watched the TV adaptation of this – called Morden i Sandhamn – and bought my mother the book for Christmas, and then spotted the ebook was only 99p so I decided to give it a go myself. I couldn’t actually remember the plot of the TV episode based on this novel, although bits of it seemed familiar. But then about halfway in, I suddenly remembered who the murderer was. Oh well. But I’m fairly sure there’s an entire subplot that never made it into the TV adaptation. Sandhamn is the only village on the island of Sandön, which means “the sand island”, because it’s known for being sandy rather than rocky, as all the other islands in the Stockholm archipelago are. Thomas Andreasson is from Sandhamn, but currently works for the Stockholm police in Nacka. When a body washes ashore at Sandhamn, and the victim has no connection to the village or island, it’s initially thought to be an accident. But then the victim’s only living relative, his cousin, is murdered, and it’s starting to look like something strange is going on… The book pushes one theory of the crimes for much of its length, before more or less stumbling over the real motive, and murderer. The prose is basic at best, and I wonder how much of that is down to the translation. Annoyingly, everything has been translated from metric to Imperial (for the US market, obviously). It made for an entertaining piece of television but felt a bit slow for a novel of 448 pages. There are currently ten books in the series. If the Swedish prose is as simple as the English prose, I’m tempted to try one in its original language…

On, Adam Roberts (2001, UK). This was Roberts’s second novel, and it’s now twenty years old, which I suppose explains some aspects of it – but I really could not understand what this novel was supposed to be about or how it was meant to explore its central premise. Tighe lives on the worldwall, a seemingly infinitely tall vertical surface, on which humanity ekes out a precarious existence on “shelves” and “ledges” and “crags”. Tighe’s village lives in abject poverty. And yet there are marginally more prosperous towns nearby, one of which charges a toll to climb the ladder to reach it. Tighe’s father is prince of the village, although this title is apparently meaningless, and his grandfather is the head priest. Tighe’s parents disappear, and he is taken in by his grandfather but soon realises the man is petty and venal (as if religious leaders are never that…), and after various arguments and such, Tighe… falls off the village ledge. This is usually a death sentence. However, several miles below, Tighe lands on a partially deflated balloon belonging to a small empire occupying several ledges. Tighe is badly injured but recovers, and is pressganged as a kite-pilot in the imperial army. The empire invades a neighbouring state, which apparently guards a door through the worldwall. The invasion goes badly, the empire is defeated, and Tighe is captured and made a slave. He is purchased by a man who takes him further east, a man who repeatedly rapes one of his female slaves, and kills and eats another of his male slaves. Tighe is rescued by a mysterious man in a silver flying craft – centuries more technologically advanced than the people on the worldwall – who explains the world to him – which has been pretty obvious for more than two-thirds of the book – and plans to use Tighe, through the machinery implanted in Tighe’s brain, to return the world to its former state. It’s all complete nonsense. Roberts provides appendices explaining the set-up, but they’re so dull it’s hard to believe he expected anyone to either read them or believe them. There’s no justification for the poverty and cruelty endemic on the worldwall, and certainly none for the cannibalism and casual rape. The door through the worldwall, and the occasional theological discussions, are complete red herrings. The invasion achieves nothing except subject Tighe to jeopardy and deprivation. I’ve always found Roberts’s novels a bit hit and miss, but the general consensus on this one seems to be it’s a substantial miss. It tells a pointless story set in a horrible world, and shows all the amoral disregard for cruelty and violence of the worst grimdark.