It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Moving pictures, #43

Well, 2016 is definitely turning into the year of movies. To date, I’ve seen 431 movies, mostly on DVD and Blu-ray, mostly my own or from LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso or on Amazon Prime. Some of them have been very good indeed, and I will probably watch them again (if I haven’t done so already). Some were rentals I liked so much, I went and bought a copy of my own. And some… well, best not mention them…

Anyway, on with the next half-dozen adventures on the silver screen wot I have partaked:

arabesqueArabesque, Stanley Donen (1966, USA). Who remembers Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Paris. Lee Marvin as the villain. Missing millions. Which turned out to be a rare stamp on an innocuous envelope. It’s a film with bags of 1960s charm – with a pair of leads like Grant and Hepburn, how can it not have charm? Arabesque was apparently Donen’s attempt to hit the same sweet spot again. Unfortunately, while Donen wanted Grant, he got Peck. And Grant’s dialogue doesn’t work when coming from Peck. Sophia Loren manages to hold up her end, however. But both are hampered by a convoluted plot that’s almost impossible to follow. Donen apparently remarked that the film could only succeed if he made it “so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. And having now seen it, I can certainly vouch for the second half of that statement. Peck plays an Eygptologist who is asked to translate a message in heiroglyphics by head of an Arab state. It’s all to do with some big oil develoment deal and a plan to assassinate the ruler, but most of the plot consists of Peck getting beaten up by the villain’s henchmen or Peck and Loren chasing around London after the scrap of paper with the heiroglyphics on it. Not a high point on all three cvs, to be honest.

texasThe Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Michael Ritchie (1993, USA). In the normal course of events, I’d not give this film a second look, or indeed even a first one. But a film blog I read, Antagony & Ecstasy, wrote a long semi-approving piece on it, and a week or two later I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop… But, well, I guess this is not a movie that travels well. I’ve never seen the appeal of, or humour in, films depicting US white trailer trash or working class, and that’s pretty much what this is – although it’s based on a true story. Holly Hunter plays the title role, a mother who was so determined to see her daughter succeed she sort of agreed when her drunken brother-in-law (Beau Bridges) tried to entrap her into paying him to off a rival mother. The film is framed partly as Hunter preparing for an interview after the fact, and partly a dramatisation of events, and the whole thing seems mostly motivated by stupidity because the actual character motivations are somewhat opaque. Which makes Hunter’s character come across like a sociopath. Which, to me, sort of ruins the whole desperate housewife story. It’s not very funny film, either. I gave my copy to David Tallerman, so we’ll see if he makes anything of it.

crimesCrimes of Passion, Ken Russell (1984, USA). I don’t think I’d ever call Russell an “interesting” director – he made a handful of solid films, one or two near-classics, and a lot of self-indulgent crap. From the write-up, I suspected Crimes of Passion fell on the border between “solid work” and “self-indulgent crap”, so watching it was a bit of a gamble. And having now watched it… yes, it pretty much straddles the two groups. Kathleen Turner plays a fashion designer who moonlights as a prostitute, using the name China Blue. A surveillance expert is asked to spy on her because her employer suspects her of selling designs to competitors, and he becomes obsessed with her. There’s Anthony Perkins, in full frothing-at-the-mouth mode, wandering around as preacher, who alternately demands to “save” China Blue or have sex with her. He also frequents peep shows. And then there’s China Blue’s customers, with their fetishes… It all looks a bit cheap (and I mean that in its pecuniary sense), and with Perkins drooling and spraying spittle one minute, and then Turner chewing the scenery in the next, it makes it all look like a shoestring exploitation flick with bizarrely high production values. An odd film.

star_copsStar Cops (1987, UK). Many thanks to Paul Cornell for tweeting that a third-party seller on Amazon had clearly found a stash of these somewhere and was selling them at a decent prize (around £20, if you must know). I’d missed buying myself a copy of Star Cops before it was deleted, and by the time I wanted one the price had reached silly money. But now I have one. I remembered the series from its original broadcast back in 1987, although having now seen all nine episodes on the DVD I think I might have missed one or two of the episodes. Anyway, I remembered it as smartly-written, with slightly dodgy production design and cheap effects. What I’d certainly forgotten was the vastly irritating theme song by Justin Hayward, which, while not quite as bad as Enterprise‘s, does have the added horror of getting stuck in your head for days afterwards. David Calder plays a British police officer on 2017 who distrusts the computers and continues to investigate a case the computers have ruled a suicide. It turns out he’s right, of course; but it makes him enough enemies, and leads to the murder of his girlfriend, so he accepts a position as the new head of the International Space Police Force, based on a station in LEO. After a coupleof episodes there, the ISPF moves to an office at a base on the lunar surface (which was obviously a relief for the actors and the budget as it meant no more wires). One of the star cops is presented as a bit of an old-school dimwit, but he also does a nasty line in racist and sexist remarks. The other star cops are an Australian engineer, a US engineer, and a Japanese doctor. Most of the stories are pretty good, although the final one, ‘Little Green Men and Other Martians’, despite having a neat premise, does suggest the lunar base is wide open to whoever turns up – which I wouldn’t have thought all that likely. I’m glad I finally got hold of a copy. These days, sf television series may have fancy special effects, but they rarely have writing as good as this.

vidas_secasVidas Secas*, Nelson Pereiras dos Santos (1963, Brazil). This is generally reckoned to be the first film in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. I wanted to watch it because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and because I’d become a fan of Glauber Rocha after watching three of his Cinema Novo movies – but Vidas Secas is almost impossible to find on DVD (as I type this, there’s one copy available on Amazon for… £101.95). Fortunately, I managed to get a copy from another source, for no more than the price of a typical DVD. And yes, it was worth it. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same title, by Graciliano Ramos, and tells the story of a poor family in north-east Brazil. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and won the OCIC Award. Its plot isn’t easy to summarise, as it’s really just a series of incidents in which the family move from one place to another, try to scratch a living, are preyed on by those more powerful than themselves, and so move on elsewhere. In one village, a local policeman drags the husband into a card game, but when the husband leaves after losing his money, and so the policeman loses even more, the policeman goes after him, beats him up, and then arrests him for resisting arrest. The husband is thrown into jail and whipped. It’s a grim film, althugh not unaffecting – near the end, the family are so hungry the husband tries to shoot their dog, but it takes him ages to work up the courage to do it, and then he botches it and the dog crawls away to die slowly. This is not a film to watch if you’re not in a cheerful mood. It definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, though.

usherThe Fall of the Louse of Usher, Ken Russell (2002, UK). Well, I mentioned Russell’s self-indulgent crap earlier, and I hadn’t watched this. Which is absolutely awful. It’s Russell’s last film, was shot on his own property, and features himself and friends as the cast. A rock-star, Roddy Usher, played by James Johnston of Gallon Drunk, is consigned to a mental institution after killing his wife and walling up her body. His doctor is played by Russell himself. He gives Usher shock treatment and, well, lots of things happen, few of which I can, thanksfully, remember. It all looked horrible and cheap and amateurish, and I’m surprised it ever saw a general release. The DVD, released by Final Cut, calls it “the ultimate home movie”, but even that fails to convey how crap it is. This is definitely a film to avoid. It was Russell’s last feature film, and a poor epitaph for a man who did make some good stuff during his long career.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 794


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Reading diary, #35

As a general rule, I try to spread my reading across genders and genres, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So far this year, around forty percent of my reading has been science fiction, I suppose chiefly because when I fancy an easy read it’s my go-to mode of fiction. Which might tell you something about recent sf, except that quite a bit of my sf reading has been twenty- or thirty-year-old sf novels by women writers for review on SF Mistressworks…

nodNod, Adrian Barnes (2012). We’ve just had a somewhat controversial Clarke Award – but then, when hasn’t the Clarke been somewhat controversial? It was back in 2013, when Nod was shortlisted. From what I remember, Nod was seen as a quite baffling choice; although the same could also be said for The Dog Stars, also shortlisted that year, and which I read a year or two ago and thought not very good at all. Whereas NodNod is one of those books written with a strong, idiosyncratic voice – not idiosyncratic like Riddley Walker or Engine Summer – but the first person narrator is chatty and irreverent and likes to pepper his story with witticisms and snide remarks and it’s really fucking annoying. The central premise is nicely done – suddenly no one can sleep, except for a handful – and the breakdown of civilisation as sleep deprivation psychosis kicks in, as seen in the narrator’s home town of Vancouver, is well-handled… But the way the book is written, the prose style, is like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I hated it. It was a test of endurance to read it. This is one of those books which illustrates the difference between “this book is good” and “I enjoyed this book”. I hated it, didn’t enjoy it at all, but could see it was put together with skill. My response to it is entirely personal; the book’s quality is intrinsic to it. The two should not be confused.

exploration_space_smallThe Exploration of Space, Arthur C Clarke (1951). Why did I read a book about space exploration written more than half a century ago, when the appropriate science and engineering was in its infancy, I hear you ask? Er, I don’t know. But I thought it might be interesting to see what Sir Arthur had got right – the edition I read was an updated one published in 1960, so pre-Gagarin and -Apollo – and the answer is… not all that much, actually. His explanation of freefall, for example, is sort of right but doesn’t explain it very well. Astronauts at the ISS (which, of course, didn’t exist when the book was written, so Clarke’s example is hypothetical) are not experiencing zero gravity because the gravity in Low Earth Orbit is exactly the same as it is on the ground. The astronauts are falling toward the ground, and so is the ISS, at exactly the same speed; but the ground is rotating away from them, also at the same speed. So, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s description on how to fly, they’re throwing themselves at the ground… and missing. True, science and engineering didn’t know then what we now know, and the stuff Clarke gets right is the stuff that had been known for decades, if not centuries. The chapter on ‘The Lunar Base’ speculates the Moon would be exploited solely for minerals – thus ignoring the US Army’s Horizon lunar base study from 1959 – and that spacesuits would have to be hard-shelled. A later chapter on space stations claims their chief role would be in communications – and this from the man who “invented” the communications satellite… although first active repeater communications satellite wasn’t launched until 1960. The Exploration of Space is mostly good on the basics, and it has that weirdly unrealistic optimic take on its subject, much like those famous Colliers Magazine articles. But it’s very much an historical document, and no different in that respect to a science fiction novel published during the same year.

elysiumElysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014). I must be getting jaded. I mean, I know I apparently don’t see science fiction in the same way as many others do – for instance, I thought The Book of Phoenix a terrible book, and yet it received a huge amount of praise (and was even tipped by many to take the Clarke). Elysium is another sf novel which has received lots of praise, but has a much lower profile than the Okorafor. It is also a better novel than The Book of Phoenix, but… The book opens with a series of vignettes depicting Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette, in each of which the two are of different genders – male/female, male/male, female/female; as are also some of the supporting characters. This section (sections) reads like mimetic fiction, but breaking them up is what appears to be output from a computer program (in the form of error messages). The novel then takes an abrupt swerve into alternate history, in which Adrianne is a Vestal Virgin in a modern-day Western city, before then heading into post-apocalypse territory as off-stage alien invaders release some form of dust which mutates human beings and brings about the collapse of civilisation. One of the two main characters becomes one such mutant herself and develops wings. Another shift, and now Adrian is the chief designer of an underground city – a geofront, from the description – in which some of humanity plan to survive, safe from the mutagenic dust and the alien invaders. They’re also building starships to take them to another world. It is at this point in the story that the novel reveals a plan to use the atmosphere to store an archive of human civilisation, and it is the operating system of this which is genersating the computer messages and actually “telling” the story of Elysium. In the final section, Adrianne is a prisoner in a concentration camp run by the alien invaders, and when one of the aliens is imprisoned with them, she learns from it that the aliens had killed all the humans who had not escaped Earth, and that she is no more than a simulation run by the archive in the atmosphere (as, indeed, were all the other narratives in the novel). While Elysium certainly has its moments, the writing is rough to begin with – “The water of sorrow ran like a river down the curve of Adrianne’s cheek”? – but soon improves, or at least becomes less of a barrier. The gender- and sexuality-switching in the opening sections is also neat and cleverly-done, and I thought the Vestal Virgin part especially good… but the post-apocalypse section, and the geo-front section, were a bit dull, and the novel only picked up again with Adrianne in the prison camp, a section which pretty much seems to serve no purpose other than to explain the entire book. In many respects, Elysium reminded me a lot of Sue Thomas’s Correspondence, although I thought Correspondence a much more difficult, but more rewarding, read (see here). I bought Elysium at the end of last year, along with Jackie Hatton’s Flesh & Wires, Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and a pair of novellas, Lisa Shapter’s A Day in Deep Freeze and Lori Selke’s The XY Conspiracy, from Aqueduct Press (and I cannot recommend Aqueduct Press enough). The Shapter I thought good enough to nominate for the BSFA Award. I’ve yet to read the Taber; but of the other two novels, I think Hatton’s may just be the better one.

3bodyThe Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008). So the puppies managed to fuck up the Hugos in 2015, but one of the novels on their slate was pulled by its author, and The Three-Body Problem was promoted onto the shortlist… and went on to win the award. I don’t normally read books because they’ve won a Hugo – if anything, that’s a good indication I won’t like it – but the premise of The Three-Body Problem sounded interesting, and Liu is a big name in Chinese sf. (I have a collection of his three novellas, The Wandering Earth, knocking around somewhere, but have yet to get around to reading it.) So, anyway, The Three-Body Problem… I wasn’t expecting much: old school sf, but set in China, and with a clever premise. And so it initially seemed. The writing was serviceable at best, although the info-dumps were often intrusive and clumsy… but this is sf, this is what it looks like a lot of the time. However, when protagonist Wang Miao stumbles into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel, and the “end of science” is demonstrated to him through, first, a countdown mysteriously appearing on photographs he has taken, then in his actual vision, and then he witnesses the cosmic background radiation of the universe flicker… Well, this was a fascinating puzzle. Throw in a MMORPG set on a world orbiting three suns and in which players have to figure out a solution to the three-body problem – not that there is one, but the game proved an interesting illustration and history of the issue. It was all going so well: mysterious secret project, the end of science, clever VR game… And then Liu whips away the curtain to reveal what’s really going on and… big disappointment. It’s like a sf novel from the 2010s and a sf novel from the 1950s were welded together. Even that thing with the countdown proved to be a massive letdown. The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I won’t be bothering with them. But I will dig out that collection of novellas and read that, I think.

price_starsThe Price of the Stars, Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald (1992). This is the first book of the Mageworld series, as the cover helpfully explains. There are seven books in the series, the last in 2002 (the blurb for which does not read like it’s the final book of a series). Initially, I wasn’t all that impressed – The Price of the Stars wears its inspirations – kof kof St*r W*rs kof kof – far too openly, and even the changes it rings are overshadowed by that media behemoth. But I sort of got into it, and began enjoying the read… so I’ll probably end up tracking down the rest of the series and giving them a go, despite their faults.  I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

demonsDemons, John Shirley (2000). For some reason I have yet to figure out, I cottoned onto John Shirley as an author worth collecting… despite not being a fan of horror. I think it was partly because in the early 1990s, he was producing some exciting stuff – Wetbones, Heatseekers, Eclipse, A Splendid Chaos – and, like Lucius Shepard and Lewis Shiner, two genre writers I admire, he began publishing limited edition novellas through small presses. Anyway, I have a number of his books in those signed limited editions, and yet most of them are, well, pretty forgettable. Demons – not to be confused with the Ballantine collection of the same title which includes this novella/short novel (and which I’ve had to link to on Am*z*n because the Cemetery Dance limited edition is apparently very rare) – is fairly typical of Shirley’s output. The gonzo horror inventiveness, the slightly off-kilter approach to the world, nailed into place with the careful use of details, the often slapdash prose, and a story that’s usually more than it appears. In Demons, er, demons start to appear, all over the world. And they kill people, without rhyme or reason. There are seven specific types of demons, which a glossary before the story helpfully describes, and which artwork in the book depicts. Ira is an illustrator for an occult magazine and a bit of a slacker. He’s love with Melissa, the daughter of Dr Paymenz, an occultist professor at a California university. And he’s with them when the demons appear. The three manage to hook up with a symposium of like-minded academics, where Ira learns of the Conscious Circle of Humanity, a group of 23 psychically-gifted people who keep humanity safe, and about a conspiracy which prepared the world for the demons’ arrival. Eventually, they figure out that various large-scale industrial accidents were triggered to usher in the demons, so that a small group of men can use the ensuing slaughter as “sacrifices” to gain immortality. Cliver Barker would probably have made a 900-page epic out of this plot, but in Shirley’s hands it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Better than I had initially thought. But I’m still not sure why I collect Shirley’s books.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126