Off we go again. I’ve been getting quite a bit of writing and stuff done of late, but I still managed to read a lot of books and watch many DVDs. Not that the To Be Read pile is getting any smaller…
Moonraker, Ian Fleming (1955), is actually the third of the Bond novels, and is very much a book of its time. The first third is about a bridge game Bond plays with Hugo Drax – who cheats – and was completely lost on me as I don’t know how to play the game. The rest of the book is about Drax’s “atomic rocket” – what we would call nowadays a “nuclear missile” – and the plotting is like one of those dot-to-dot pictures where the dots are so close together it’s bloody obvious what the picture is. The writing throughout is dreadful – Drax is introduced via one of the clumsiest info-dumps I’ve ever come across… and I read science fiction. Having said that, the Bond of the books is a more interesting character than the Bond of the films.
Nova War, Gary Gibson (2009), is the second book in the space opera trilogy begun with Stealing Light. There are some really good bits in this – a nuclear-warhead-powered Project Orion-type spacecraft landing on a planet is one scene that sticks in memory – but I found it a less satisfying read than the preceding novel. The lead Shoal character, Trader in Faecal Matter of Animals, started to really irritate me. It didn’t help that while his language rightly stuck to marine turns of phrase (he’s a giant fish, after all), every now and again he’d use a sailing expression. Fish don’t sail. There were also a few “As you know…” conversations, and one construction I especially hate in sf novels: “If Trader had ever seen a terrestrial bat, he might have recognized a certain passing resemblance.” This is breaking voice, and it stands out in a sf novel like a fart in a spacesuit. Having said that, the introduction of the Emissaries – another alien race, and the giant fishes’ enemy – is… Really! Very! Funny! This book sees the plot escalated to a level I think might be difficult to sustain in the final book of the trilogy. Nevertheless, Nova War is pretty much a textbook example of High-Stakes Bloody Great Huge Idea space opera, written with wit and invention… but a bit rough in patches.
The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook, Suzette Hayden Elgin (2005), I bought and read because of my own poetry here. Elgin’s background in linguistics is clear in the detailed analysis she performs on her sample poems. This was an interesting and, I hope, useful, read.
The Desert King, David Howarth (1965), is a biography of Ibn Saud, the man who founded Saudi Arabia. It read like Dune without the sandworms. Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdul-Rahman al Faisal al Saud, was a prince of one of the two royal houses of the Bedouin who occupied the central regions of the Arabian peninsula. But he was an exiled prince, living in Kuwait since the House of Rashid had thrown his father out of their home town of Riyadh. Ibn Saud won back his kingdom, united the Bedouin, defeated the Rashidis, and eventually took over the Hijaz, the southern strip of land in which are located Mecca and Medina. He was helped by the British, although he never fought for them. It was the Sherif of Mecca with whom TE Lawrence fought against the Turks during World War I. Ibn Saud sat out the war; and the Second World War, too. Having grown up in the Middle East – although I never lived in Saudi – I’ve always been fascinated by the area. Even so, I was surprised at how fascinating a read The Desert King proved to be.
From Saturn to Glasgow: Fifty Favourite Poems, Edwin Morgan (2008), is a collection of Morgan’s poems, chosen as favourites by a poll of Scots. Each of the poems in this book has a small paragraph by someone, explaining why it is their favourite. I’m in two minds about Morgan’s poetry – it’s very clever, but the language often feels too prosaic. Some of them in this book I like; some of them, I can’t see the appeal.
Buck Rogers – A Life in the Future, Martin Caidin (1995). In 1988, TSR created a role-playing game based on the character of Buck Rogers. That lasted half a dozen years. Then, for some reason, they published a “re-imagining” of the character by Martin Caidin. In Buck Rogers – A Life in the Future, Rogers is an airline pilot who is fatally injured in a re-enactment of a WWI dogfight, and put into suspended animation in a secret government project. He is woken, and cured of his injuries, in the twenty-fifth century. Where he finds himself working for the military of the Federation of Amerigo against the Mongol Empire on an Earth only just recovered from a nuclear war a couple of centuries before. Oh, and there’s Atlantis, which is some sort of ancient history extra-terrestrial civilisation. It’s hard to describe quite how crap this book is – everyone is perfect, it’s sexist, Caidin’s attempt at science and technology is risible, the writing is appalling, and it’s put together in so slapdash a fashion the author contradicts himself from chapter to chapter. I have now read two sf novels by Caidin, and they were both shit. I won’t be reading any more by him. He gives hacks a bad name.
Exhibitionism, Toby Litt (2002), is a collection of short stories, most of which felt a little too self-consciously clever to work. When Litt stuck to more traditional narratives and structures, he was at his best – as in ‘My Own Cold War’ and ‘The New Puritans’. Not an embarrassing collection, but not an especially memorable one, either.
Voices Of A Distant Star, dir. Makoto Shinkai and Steven Foster (2003), is a 25-minute sf anime and would have been really good if it hadn’t been so, well, dull. A pair of friends – boy and girl – separate when she goes into space to fight in a war against aliens. They keep in touch by texting each other. It’s all very poignant, and some of the imagery from the space war is pretty good. But the pace is so slow that its short length feels like twice as long.
Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), is probably going to appear in my top five films of the year list. It’s an Iranian film and, like one of my favourite movies, Divine Intervention, it’s deadpan absurd humour. A female election agent is dropped off on a remote island to collect the votes of its inhabitants. She is accompanied round the island by one of the local soldiers. He’s as laconic and cynical as she is idealistic and voluble. It’s very funny. Recommended.
Superbad, dir. Greg Mottola (2007), is another Judd Apatow comedy, and as unlikeable and dumb as his others. The two main characters are prats, who do prattish things. With much foul language. One or two set-pieces are vaguely amusing, but it’s one of those films that fails to entertain because five minutes in and you just want a bus to appear and drive over the two leads.
Outlander, dir. Howard McCain (2009), I reviewed for The Zone – the review hasn’t gone up yet. I’ll link to it when it has.
Death Race, dir. Paul WS Anderson (2008), is yet another film by a man who doesn’t have a decent film in his oeuvre. It’s a remake of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 from 1975, and I can think of no good reason why the original should have been remade. In this version, the drivers are all prisoners, and the company which runs the prison makes huge profits from the race. Most of the film is taken up with the titular contest – which involves lots of crashes and people getting killed in various gruesome ways – and then star Jason Statham stages a jailbreak. Yawn. If by-the-numbers didn’t imply the ability to count to more than three, I’d have described Death Race as by-the-numbers…
A Sound Of Thunder, dir. Peter Hyams (2005), surprised me. It is actually dumber than Star Trek XI. I didn’t think that was possible. But then, I hadn’t considered someone trying to make a film adaptation of a short story in which a man steps on a butterfly during a time-travel trip to the Cretaceous, and returns to his present to find the world changed. Because, of course, that’s a story that’s pretty much immune to adaptation. So instead, this movie has “time waves” sweeping through the city every twenty-four hours after the butterfly-squashing incident, and these result in man-eating plants sprouting everywhere. And armoured reptilian baboons. Every time one of the characters attempts exposition, they open their mouth and complete and utter bollocks comes out. This is definitely a film to avoid.
The Apartment, dir. Billy Wilder (1960), won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1960, and is in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films. As a satire, it seems a bit feeble, although the world in which it’s set holds a certain fascination. Jack Lemmon plays a clerk in a New York insurance company (which employs over 35,000 in a single skyscraper). He allows a group of four executives to use his apartment for trysts with their mistresses and girlfriends. This arrangement comes to the attention of the director of human resources, who wants to join in. Lemmon is suitably rewarded – an office on the 27th floor, a key to the executive washroom – for agreeing. Meanwhile he’s fallen for elevator girl Shirley Maclaine, who also happens to be the director’s mistress… There are no real surprises in the plot, but it’s witty, well-played by its cast, and ends well.
Rien ne va plus, dir. Claude Chabrol (1997), is the second of Chabrol’s films I’ve seen, both of which I’ll happily admit I rented because they starred Isabelle Huppert. And both of which proved to be fairly ordinary thrillers, In this one, Huppert and her father (played by Michel Serrault) are con artists. They decide to rip off a courier who is carrying five million Swiss Francs to the Caribbean… but the owners of the cash prove to be somewhat less business-like and, well, legal, than they’d anticipated. The plot is as twisty-turny as a twisty-turny thing, but the mechanisms are all set up well in advance so it rolls along like a well-oiled machine. A well-made thriller, certainly; but not an especially memorable one.
Flash Gordon – Complete Series 1, Sci-Fi Channel (2007), has been roundly panned by all and sundry. But the more I watched it, the more I found it growing on me. It’s sort of like a high school version of Flash Gordon, put on by a group of people who didn’t actually know much about Flash Gordon in the first place. But what they’ve come up with actually works quite well. Unfortunately, the cast aren’t especially good. John Ralston plays Ming well, but the character is too erratically written. Amanda van Hooft plays Princess Aura as petulant and, er, that’s about it. But Karen Cliche as Mongo bounty hunter Baylin and Jody Racicot as Dr Zarkov aren’t bad. The world of Mongo makes more sense in this series than it does in the original – and has an interesting back-story – although it does look cheap and under-populated. It’s not great television by any means, but it’s less embarrassing than I expected it to be. A shame it got cancelled…
The International, dir. Tom Tykwer (2009), is a film of two very distinct halves. It starts off well, as a European thriller about international banking and the arms trade. A Luxembourg-based bank, the International Bank of Business and Credit – gosh, do you think that could be based on the BCCI? – is buying weapons, and both Interpol and the New York attorney’s office are interested. Then the action moves to New York… and the film turns into some implausible over-the-top Bruce Willis-type action movie. An Italian arms magnate backs out of his deal with the bank, and so the IBCC has him assassinated. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, the two stars, track the assassin to New York. Owen and a NYPD officer follow him to the Guggenheim, where he meets his handler from the IBCC. When they try to take them into custody, they’re attacked by fifty Uzi-wielding thugs, who shoot up the museum. Bah.
Atomised, dir. Oskar Roehler (2006). I read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised last July, and thought it good. I hadn’t known it had been made into a film, until I spotted this going cheap in HMV. So I bought it. It’s an excellent adaptation of the novel – especially the use of colour in the flashback sequences – and is as bleak as the source text. But, where the novel tried to turn the narrative on its head in an epilogue, the film tries to do the same with two paragraphs of text before the end. And it doesn’t quite work. I always felt the epilogue was meant to redeem the story, but in the novel it didn’t quite succeed. The film feels like it handles the story’s emotional arc better, but then flubs the epilogue. I’m not sure if this film will make my best of the year list, but it’ll probably get an honourable mention. Recommended.
Ministry Of Fear, dir. Fritz Lang (1944), is based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene. Which I read many years ago. Which means I can’t recall its plot. But surely it can’t have been this WWII clone of The Thirty-nine Steps? Ray Milland is released from a mental hospital after serving two years for assisted suicide. He stops off at a village fête, is mistaken for someone else by the fortune-teller and so given the cake from the Guess the Weight stall. It’s all to do with a spy ring based in Britain, with a contact in one of the ministries, and which for some bizarre reason uses village fêtes as dead letter drops. There’s some excellent camera-work and mise-en-scène, which lift this above other films of the period. It’s just a shame the plot is a by-the-numbers wartime thriller.