It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Airs of empire

I have for the last few years documented my reading in Reading diary posts, where I typically write about – “review” is probably too strong a word – half a dozen books. I haven’t written a blog post about a single book for quite a while – chiefly because I sort of lost the habit of blogging regularly enough for me to write about a book within days of finishing it.

But sometimes books, or films, make good springboards for more general commentary on genre, and I think that makes for a more interesting blog post than a straight-up review. In this particular case, it’s a relatively recent space opera novel which triggered some thoughts on twenty-first century science fiction, particularly space opera; and that space opera novel is Heirs of Empire by Evan Currie, published in 2015 by 47North. It’s the first in a two-book series and is followed by An Empire Asunder (2016). I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy and read Heirs of Empire, to be honest. The 99p price point certainly helped. Or it could have been the fact it’s a space opera which features knights. I’ve been there, done that, so there was a certain curiosity in seeing how Currie had handled it.

But. Oh dear. Heirs of Empire reads like a self-published novel. 47North, Amazon’s own publishing imprint, is a reputable publisher – it published last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner! – but I find it hard to believe Heirs of Empire was actually edited. It’s not just that the prose relies overly on cliché for cheap and easy description. Or the dialogue is completely tin-eared. Or the characters are stereotypes, and not very interesting ones at that. Or even that the world-building is cobbled together from assorted past science fiction works…

A general of the emperor’s personal hyper-trained elite, the Cadre, is being transported to a remote high-security prison after a failed attempt on the throne. The train, which is travelling at hypersonic speeds, is derailed by the usurper’s confederates. He escapes, steals an advanced super-secret warship, and uses it to attack the imperial palace and seize power. Even though he failed once – or perhaps he was captured before he made his move, I forget – apparently he can still throw together a successful rebellion. He kills the emperor, but the youngest members of the imperial family, fourteen year old twins, escape. Eventually the twins are discovered by loyalist forces, and are instrumental in retaking the throne. And that’s it. The plot. Pretty much.

It doesn’t take a savvy sf reader to figure out the story is set on the inside surface of a Dyson Sphere, although the empire is bounded on all sides by an impassably high “God Wall”. Several items of technology used by the empire are also artefacts of an earlier civilisation and not understood. Much like the author and science. There is suspension of disbelief and then there is a completely inability by the writer to present anything remotely plausible even in an invented universe. That earlier hypersonic train crash? The villain survives it, losing a leg and an eye and suffering a few minor injuries. That’s: a hypersonic train crash. A few days later, sporting a prosthetic leg a few inches too short, he manages to defeat the emperor, a highly-trained swordsman, in single combat. Later, another hypersonic train is hijacked by loyalist pirates (don’t ask). But this one is pulling 30 million tons of carriages. It’s like Currie added a couple of zeroes to every figure in the story and so rendered them completely implausible. There’s a missile that apparently accelerates at 40,000 G, not to mention some parachuters who are identifiable by their terminal velocity. And cannons which can shoot 10,000 feet straight up.

In other words, the science in Heirs of Empire is complete bollocks. There’s an attempt at some sort of steampunk atmosphere, with the ships having sails and poop decks and cannons, but none of it really fits together.

It occurred to me that deploying physics uncritically – ie, without any understanding of how it works – as Currie has done in Heirs of Empire is little different in principle to deploying science fiction tropes uncritically. Which is something space opera routinely does, even twenty-first century space opera, if not especially twenty-first century space opera. Those tropes have meaning and history, they have baggage. Spaceships are basically cruise liners – and not the floating hotels of today, whose passengers rarely step foot on land during their holidays; but the cruise liners of the early twentieth century, with their “exotic” destinations and colourful posters which blatantly othered the inhabitants of those destinations. Robots are either a metaphor for slaves (in the US sf tradition) or possibly service (from a UK perspective), but given the history of automata, the trope could also be seen as a metaphor for biddable women. Real robots, CNC machines, are perfect production line workers, but you don’t see them in science fiction.

It hasn’t always been this way. New British Space Opera introduced four new elements to space opera, each one embodied by a germinal work. Consider Phlebas (1987), in fact all of Iain M Banks’s oeuvre, introduced a left-wing sensibility to a right-wing subgenre. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990) made knowing use of its science fiction tropes. Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley melded space opera and hard sf, applying a high level of rigour in the world-building. And… it’s a cheat, but John Clute’s Appleseed (2001), for its use of literary metaphor as signifiers for genre tropes, and which has definitely influenced current space opera, although it was published too late to be classified as New British Space Opera. Which is a term that has apparently been wiped from genre history, thanks to The Space Opera Renaissance, which repositioned it as American and re-labelled it as simply New Space Opera.

We have been here before, of course: the New Wave.

New British Space Opera was new, but not everything it introduced took hold – Alastair Reynolds has had a great deal of success with melding space opera and hard sf, for example; but where are all the left-wing space operas now that Banks is gone? New Space Opera, the US re-imagining, was a step backwards. The only element it kept was the one introduced last, the use of metaphor to disguise tropes. Yet tropes are themselves metaphors. When a space opera author uses the word “moth” to refer to spaceships, they’re applying a metaphor to a metaphor.

True, space opera was not the first to do this. When you use your computer’s graphical user interface, you’re using a metaphor of the way the computer stores and accesses data. Cyberpunk took that and invented a second-order metaphor: cyberspace. Twenty-first century space opera no longer bothers with rigour, left-wing sensibilities or a knowing use of genre tropes, but it certainly does love its second-order metaphors.

It also apparently loves overt slavery, inequality, psychopaths and sociopaths, mega-violence and seven-figure bodycounts.

There have been some improvements, however. Space opera is now a much more diverse subgenre. There are no more Men In Fucking Hats™. This can only be applauded.

It could be argued that Currie’s appalling grasp of physics in Heirs of Empire is not so much a lack of rigour in a space opera universe than an outright rejection of it, inspired perhaps by the film industry’s creative approach to the laws of physics. And so too, by extension, for twenty-first century space opera: the use of metaphors to disguise genre tropes could be seen as a rejection of what those tropes actually represent. Mind you, given that space opera seems more than happy to incorporate uncritically what was being represented in the first place… Tropes have become decoupled. All is subject to authorial fiat. Physics has become magic; space opera has become fantasy.

Space opera has thrown away the hats, but it has also thrown away the science. And these days we need science more than ever.


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Fantasticon 2019

Fantasticon happens every year in Copenhagen, usually in September. It’s not the only con of that name, but it is the only Nordic con of that name. This year was my third Fantasticon. For the past few years, it’s been themed, and for 2019 the theme was Afrofuturism, and the guest of honour was US writer Nisi Shawl.

On previous visits – I’ve now visited the city over a dozen times – I flew from the UK, but now I’m resident in Sweden, and there’s a regular train service between Stockholm and, as we say here, Köpenhamn. Train travel is much superior to flying. And Swedish train are vastly superior to UK trains. In the company of Johan Anglemark, who had not attended Fantasticon since it moved to its current venue, I caught the train from Uppsala to Stockholm Central Station, and changed there onto the train to Copenhagen. The trip was unsurprisingly stress-free. We sat on the train for about five and a half hours, and though we crossed an international border we didn’t have to show any ID. This is not something I’m happy to give up just so a handful of very rich old white men won’t have to pay their fair portion of taxes. Fuck’ em. Better yet: lock them up.

Do you know how difficult it is to take a good photo of the Öresund while crossing the bridge on a fast-moving train?

We were joined on the train at Malmö by a Swedish fan from Göteborg, Patrik Centerwall. On arrival in Copenhagen, we trekked along Vesterbrogade from the main station to our hotel, where we bumped into a couple more familiar faces. After checking in and dumping our stuff in our rooms, we headed for the Serapions Order, where the con was taking place. It’s the lodge of a sort of Danish Masonic order, in Frederiksberg, a weird sort of enclave within Copenhagen. No sooner had we met up with various other fans, then around a dozen of us, led by Danish fan Sanna Bo Claumarch, caught a bus for the now-traditional Friday night oysters, at a French restaurant, L’Éducation Nationale. Some people also had snails. I played it safe and had entrecôte. We stayed until the restaurant closed, and a group of four of us – Johan, myself, Sanna and Sidsel Pedersen – set off to walk back to Frederiksberg, a distance of about 2 km. We stopped off en route at another bar. And closed that. And then Sidsel had to catch a taxi to Valby because Edmund Schluessel’s key wasn’t working on the entrance door to his hotel. The three of us left walked back via Sankt Jøgens Sø, and I was in bed by about 3 am.

The next day, I spent the morning briefly at the con, then headed into the centre of Copenhagen – basically a march the length of Vesterbrogade to Rådhuspladsen, where I met my sister. We went for a bite to eat, followed by a wander around the comics branch of Faraos Cigarer, and then the games branch. I returned to the con in time for a programme item celebrating Samuel R Delany and his work.

Saturday evenings at Fantasticon are typically taken up with a banquet, at which the guest of honour gives their speech. I’ve attended at all three of the Fantasticons I’ve, er, attended, and the food has been excellent. After the meal, there is filk. I am, I admit, not a fan of filk. I don’t get the appeal of rewriting the lyrics of folk songs so they refer to science fiction works or fannish traditions. Apparently, the Nordic filk tradition is very much a singalong style, unlike the UK and US traditions. Unfortunately, the person invited to lead the filking did not know this. So there wasn’t much of a singalong. Also unfortunately, the lyrics to the half-dozen songs performed, which were projected onto a screen, were hardly appropriate: one featured the term “nancy boys” and jocular references to rape. The most recent sfnal reference in them was Return of the Jedi (1982). Fortunately, I’d spotted a racial slur in the lyrics sheet as the projector was being tested, and asked for it to be removed. Which it was. Shit like that should not be happening in 2019.

After the banquet, and filk, had finished, a group of us headed to Vesterbro Torv. The bar we’d visited the year before had gone, replaced by some sort of posh pizzeria. So we ended up at a bar next door, which was not as good. At midnight, they packed up the outside tables, and only Sanna, Sidsel and myself moved inside. After we’d finished our drinks, we made our way to Mikkeller, probably my favourite bar in Copenhagen (in my defence, I have not visited that many). I was back in my hotel bed by about 2 am.

View of Tycho Brahe Planetarium across Sankt Jørgens Sø

Sunday morning demonstrated I really am getting too old for this shit. I had a bit of a lie-in – but still managed to catch hotel breakfast. I sat about and socialised for much of the day until my interview. 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am allegedly knowledgeable on the subject – which no doubt explained why I was put on four panels about Apollo and the Moon at Worldcon this August, including two featuring an actual NASA astronaut (one of which I moderated). This likely explains why Flemming Rasch interviewing me about the Apollo programme, and my Apollo Quartet, was added to the Fantasticon programme. Amusingly, Johan had told me earlier that day about his experience at a con some years previously interviewing Iain Banks. He’d been asked to interview Banks for the programme booklet and had done so. On arrival at the con, he was then asked to interview Banks again as part of the programme. But, as he pointed out to Banks just before the programme item, he’d already asked the questions he wanted to ask. So he asked Banks if he would cooperate… and Johan admitted he asked only four questions and Banks gave 15 minute answers to each…

Which is sort of what happened in my interview. Flemming asked a question… and I was off. He managed to squeeze in another three questions. And even then he had to cut me short because the hour was up. I hadn’t actually prepared for the interview, so everything I said was completely off-the-cuff. I’m of the opinion that writers discussing how they write is boring, so instead I decided to focus on what I wrote – which I thought was interesting in its own right: the Apollo programme, Mercury 13, bathyscaphe Trieste, astronaut biographies… Plus, of course, how I came to write the Apollo Quartet, and the many non-genre inspirations I folded into it: the films of Douglas Sirk, Michael Haneke and James Benning; the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and WG Sebald… I enjoyed myself and it seemed the audience found it interesting. I was actually surprised at how much I’d managed to retain (although apparently not enough to turn straight to a page in All That Outer Space Allows to read an excerpt to demonstrate a point; oh well). Of course, as soon as the interview was over and I was back in the lounge area, I thought of loads things I could have mentioned…

View from Frederiksberg Have

Finally, there was the closing ceremony, in which con chairperson Knud Larn handed the baton over to Flemming. And then there was the dead dog party, which takes place in Cafe Asta, next to Hotel Fy og Bi, in Valby, a 2 km walk from the con venue. (Fantasticon used to be held around the corner from Cafe Asta. Fy and Bi were a Danish silent film comedy duo.) A group of us took a route there through Frederiksberg Gardens, which features one of Copenhagen’s few hills. After sushi, we joined the others at the Cafe Asta. Which closed at half past nine. Boo. Sanna, Johan and I walked back to Frederiksberg, this time detouring through the Carlsberg Brewery, which is in the process of being gentrified into posh offices and apartments. Johan and I looked for a bar that was still open in Vesterbrogade but without success. So it was an early night. Which was probably just as well as our train back to Stockholm departed at 8:23 the next morning.

Somewhere in the Carlsberg Brewery

So that was my third Fantasticon. Nisi Shawl was an excellent guest of honour, extremely approachable and friendly, and very knowledgeable. I purchased three books – well, four, as one was an Ace double – for 5 Danish crowns each (the con was selling off a late fan’s book collection of old sf paperbacks). That’s better than I did at Worldcon. Even if three of the books I already have in storage back in the UK. There’s definitely a Nordic fan group coming together, one that attends cons in all five Nordic countries, numbering between a dozen and two dozen people. You can always be sure of spotting a familiar face, whether the con is in Reykjavik or Helsinki. One of the excellent things about this group is its multilingualism, even if it often uses English as a lingua franca. At Fantasticon, I witnessed a Danish fan and a Swedish fan in conversation, and they were each speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the Scandinavian languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, although not to everyone; but I certainly found myself understanding more Danish than on previous visits after studying Swedish for four months.

Fantasticon is not a big convention – around sixty to seventy people – but it’s a friendly one. And Copenhagen is a lovely city. It’s definitely worth attending. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open to learn what next year’s theme will be and the identity of the guest(s) of honour…

(Apologies for not name-checking everyone I met and spoke to during the weekend.)

 


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Moving pictures 2019, #25

A couple more of these posts and I’ll be up to date. Then I can start watching the Blu-rays I brought six months ago in my suitcase…

Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg (2019, USA). I have this as a graphic novel in storage. Well, an omnibus of the comic story of it anyway. But that’s not what this film is. I remember quite liking it. The comic series, that is. One of Chris Claremont’s better storylines, I thought. I was slightly predisposed toward liking his material because I liked the sf trilogy he published about space pilot Nicole Shea, which were not great but very readable. I forget their titles. I probably have them in storage in the UK. None of which is in the slightest bit relevant. Anyway, the gist of the Dark Phoenix story, both comic and movie, is that Jean Grey, AKA Marvel Girl, and second only to Professor X in the X-Men, has some sort of weird space encounter which multiplies her powers and turns her to the dark side. In the comic she was a mature, established character, as indeed she was when the same thing sort of happened in the second of the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. But in this new retconned version, it happens when she is young and impressionable and not well established. In other words, this is a “teenager goes off the rails” movie but said teenager has fantastic powers. And the end result is surprisingly dull. I really didn’t care about the characters, even though most were played my actors I admire. Nor did I care about the story, most of which I must admit I’ve already forgotten. Although not a comics fan, I’ve always liked the X-Men more than other superhero groups, but this new version of them is very boring.

Mulan, Barry Cook & Tony Bancroft (1998, USA). I wanted to like this as the story is quite good: young woman takes her father’s place in army, is trained as warrior while masquerading as male, becomes hero in battle thanks to a clever decision during a battle rather than some manufactured reason. Her situation gets complicated when romance, with the emperor’s son, enters the picture. As trans narratives go, it’s safe for massmarket consumption and predictable. But this is Disney, so that’s hardly unexpected. But this is also Disney, so there are songs. And they’re bad. I cannot remember a single song from the movie, they are totally unmemorable. In all other respects – well, technical respects – Mulan wasn’t too bad. The characters were well-designed and readily identifiable, and the look and feel of everything was appropriate to the time and place of the setting (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). The narrative is one that appeals to me… but I really didn’t think a great deal of Mulan. I’ve remarked before that Disney films almost weaponise charm, and it’s the ones that are charming I find more successful – personally – than others. Mulan was good but not charming. I can’t put it up there with the Disney films I really liked. But it’s still worth watching if you’ve not seen it before.

The Olive Tree, Icíar Bollaín (2016, Spain). A young woman has a close relationship with her grandfather. But he has never really recovered from selling the ancient olive tree which formed the centre-piece of his olive grove. When he suffers a stroke, the young woman decides to track down the sold olive tree in the  hope it will improve his condition. This puts her at odds with the rest of the family. Eventually, she manages to find it… in Germany. Where it forms part of a company’s corporate identity, so they’re not going to part with it… This was one of those films you stumble across on Amazon Prime – because its recommendation algorithm is shit: I watch one Guru Dutt film and the only drama and comedy movies it recommends are Bollywood films. FFS. It’s not like you can browse the movies available using the website, either. There’s loads of good stuff there free to watch with Prime membership, but finding it is stupidly difficult. Anyway, The Olive Tree was a well-played drama, and one of the few Spanish dramas I’ve seen, as most Spanish films I’ve watched, the oeuvre of Pedro Almodóvar aside, have been thrillers. And pretty good ones too. Worth seeing.

White Vengeance, Daniel Lee (2011, China). China has a long tradition of making movies about its history, and the last couple of decades have seen a steady stream of lush CGI-heavy Chinese historical films. But then, it’s not like they’re short of history to make movies about. Unlike another country with a huge film industry… And like that other country, China seems to prefer making films about the bloodier periods of its history. White Vengeance is set during the interregnum between the Qin and Han dynasties, 206 – 202 BC. That’s a long time ago, and even with China’s long, long history, the production design of White Vengeance made it all look more mediaeval (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). Basically, two generals of a rebel king are charged with conquering a Qin kingdom, and the winner will sit on its throne. So there are lots of battles. and, to be honest, I got a bit lost in the middle. One scene, however, has stuck in memory: the generals challenge each other to a game of weiqi, which looks a lot like go, and each puts forward a champion. But one general’s champion is blind, so the other must blindfold himself, and they play five games simultaneously, from memory, to the death. It’s weirdly impressive and overly melodramatic. White Vengeance is not helped by a confusing structure, in which most of the plot is told in flashbacks, or crosscuts between the two groups, who seem remarkably similar in dress and appearance (all armoured, and beards and pony-tails). It looks fantastic, but it’s hard work figuring what’s going on. I’m tempted to give the film another go, because the history it depicts is quite fascinating and it’s a very immersive film. But I’ll have to concentrate…

Memory: The Origins of Alien, Alexandre O Philippe (2019 USA). Alien is one of my favourite films, and has been pretty much since its release. Although I didn’t see it first then, of course, as I was only 13 in 1979, and Alien was released with an 18 certificate. But I had loads of books about it. Memory: The Origins of Alien, however, slightly oversells its connection to that film as it’s mostly about Dan O’Bannon, the writer of the original script. O’Bannon also worked on Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie, and later created Farscape (ETA: as pointed out in a comment below, Farscape was created by Rockne O’Bannon, who is not related; whoops). It was after Dune had folded, that O’Bannon came up with the idea for Alien, which, to be honest, is not all that original. He called it Star Beast, and eventually sold the script to Walter Hill’s production company. But Hill hated the script and wanted to completely rewrite it. It all fell through, but Hill’s involvement gave the script a higher profile than previously. One of the directors O’Bannon sent it to was Ridley Scott, who apparently loved the chestburster scene – even though at that point Scott had only directed commercials and The Duellists, a historical film. Memory: The Origins of Alien doesn’t go into the making of Alien in great detail. There are a number of talking heads – but not O’Bannon, who died in 2009; or Ridley Scott – who describe what it was like on the production. It’s fascinating stuff, although perhaps more for fans of Alien. Which seems to be getting some sort of push at the moment, with a number of coffee-table books about the franchise being published this year, even though a sequel to Alien: Covenant (2017) is still a couple of years away. Worth seeing.

100, Sam Anton (1019, India). The title of this Kollywood movie refers to the 100th emergency call received by the protagonist, who, despite wanting to be out on the streets solving crimes and catching criminals, has been assigned to the emergency call control room. I wasn’t entirely sure if 100 was meant to be a thriller or a comedy as it seemed to be a bit of both. The hero is nowhere near as competent as he thinks he is, and other members of the cast seemed more like comic sidekicks. But the plot was almost pure thriller, with that 100th call leading the hero to discover that a young girl thought dead is actually the victim of a kidnapping, and she’s not the first… I’ve seen Kollywood – and Bollywood and Tollywood – films with better production values than 100, and, to be honest, better plots, but this was still pretty enjoyable. I’ve been watching a lot of Indian films recently – there’s lots of them on Amazon Prime, although not all have English subtitles, which can be bloody annoying – and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Most of them are not great films, but they’ve all been very entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Film challenge, reloaded

Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.

For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:

10 Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (2011, UK)
9 Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK)
8 Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea)
7 Predestination, Michael and Peter Spierig (2014, Australia)
6 District 9, Neill Blomkamp (2009, South Africa)
5 Super 8, JJ Abrams (2011, USA)
4 Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006, UK)
3 The Cell, Tarsem Singh (2000, USA)
2 Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, UK)
1 Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2014, UK)

I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).

Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…

This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.

9 Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?

8 Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.

7 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.

6 Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.

5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.

4 Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.

3 The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.

2 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.

1 Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.

There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…


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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #23

It’s been an odd summer – my first here in Uppsala – but things are starting to settle down and the year has, so to speak, begun again. I expect I’ll be watching more movies as the Scandinavian winter nights close in, so I need to get up to date with the films I have watched over the past couple of months.

Men in Black: International, F Gary Gray (2019, USA). It’s obvious that what the world really needed was an addition to the Men in Black series, the last instalment of which was released seven years ago. Anyway, that’s what the world got. And, to be honest, it’s an innocuous, if unnecessary, addition to the series. Tessa Thompson plays a young woman who witnessed the Men in Black in action as a child and has been determined to join them ever since. She tries the FBI, the CIA… but no joy. Eventually, she stumbles across a MiB incident and follows the agents back to their secret headquarters. Which she infiltrates. And is caught. But is given a chance to join the organisation. She’s teamed up with Chris Hemsworth, who’s considered a bit useless, a favourite of the boss, Liam Neeson, and forever coasting on past glory (several years ago, he and Neeson closed a wormhole to another world and prevented an invasion of Earth). It’s all very formulaic, very twenty-first century action movie, with exotic locations, decorative sidekicks, a few gender-flipped stereotypes, a couple of racial stereotypes masquerading as aliens, and a plot that’s nowhere near as complex as it likes to think it is. It’s as memorable as the last Men in Black movie, which was, er, three? four? A Saturday movie to enjoy with pizza and beer and brain disengaged.

Miss Montigny, Miel Van Hoogenbemt (2005, Belgium). Small town girl desperate to break out into the wider world is hardly the most original story ever, and using a beauty pageant to do so is a tried and tested story in movieland, perhaps even in real life. It’s also a bit, well, old-fashioned, as no one really makes films featuring pageants anymore, not unless they’re mockumentaries or sarcastic documentaries. Which is not to say that beauty pageants no longer take place. They do, all over the world. Even in Belgium. As evidenced by Miss Montigny, which is about a young woman who tries to break out of her restrictive small village life by entering a local beauty contest. But she has to cheat in order to qualify and later is kicked out when that cheating is spotted. (She lied about her bra size, as the minimum chest measurement is larger than her own.) The film is more about the young woman and her life than it is the pageant, although the latter certainly features quite a bit. As small town dramas go, particularly Belgian ones, Miss Montigny was enjoyable, if low-key. Despite its story, it didn’t feel at all dated. Worth seeing.

2.0, S Shankar (2018, India). This is actually a sequel – well, that should be blindingly obvious from the title. I’ve not seen the preceding movie, Enthiran, from 2010, but happily 2.0 stood perfectly well on its own. Perhaps “well” is not the right word. This film was absolutely bonkers in a definitely WTF?! sort of way. It opens with everyone’s mobile phones in Chennai flying out of their hands and into the sky. Replacement phones suffer the same fate. The desperate city calls on a discredited scientist, who de-mothballs Chitti, the android he built in the earlier film. Chitti discovers that the mobile phones have been possessed by the ghost of an ornithologist who was at war with the mobile telephone company because their towers were killing birds (as they do). All the phones join up into a giant monster, and terrorise Chennai. The scientist builds an army of Chittis – oh, and there’s a bit where Chitti goes bad or something – and then the Chittis form a giant Chitti, which goes into battle with the phone monster, at a football match. 2.0 is one of those movies that convinces you you’re drunk, despite not having had a drop. It was, in other words, great fun. Definitely worth seeing. Preferable with alcohol.

Burlesque, Tereza Kopáčová (2019, Czechia). Yes, yes, there’s a terrible US film with the same title; and yes, I’ve seen it – many years ago. And it was shit. But this is a new Czech film and it’s actually pretty good. A young teacher is fat-shamed by her pupils, is persuaded to sign up for a burlesque class, and so comes to accept her size. And, er, that’s it. A Czech social drama about a teacher who is curvier than her peers. The two main characters – the teacher and her dance tutor – are well-drawn and sympathetic, and one or two of the routines are titillating in, well, exactly the way burlesque is intended to be. This is a likeable film but it’s not a memorable one. It’s not because of the subject – it’s easy to identify with the lead character. I enjoyed it, it felt like a real drama of a sort Hollywood doesn’t make any more (the same is also true of Miss Montigny). On the other hand, when did Hollywood ever really document the human condition? I mean, I love me some 1950s Hollywood melodramas but they were as close to reality as Lord of the Rings. That’s part of their charm. Burlesque – this version certainly, the Hollywood one certainly not – is most definitely close to reality. And it’s also another film that isn’t in imdb.com or Wikipedia because it’s not Anglophone and the internet is apparently only for the use of English-speakers. Well, bollocks to that.

Lifechanger, Justin McConnell (2013, Canada). One type of genre story that has fascinated me for many years has been that of the body-hopper. There have been several notable genre novels based on the conceit; and Jack L Chalker, who never actually managed to write a decent novel, made his entire career out of it… But in movies, it’s been less used, and when it is, it’s seen more as a horror trope. As it is in Lifechanger. The title refers to a consciousness which takes over people’s bodies, but as soon as it takes possession the bodies start to deteriorate, so it must move on. But now the process is accelerating. So you have a “character” which hops from body to body, and I think there was a plot in there somewhere but for the life of me (see what I did there?) I can’t remember what it was. I’ve seen other films with a similar conceit and they treated it better. Lifechanger felt more like an attempt at a high concept horror film… and it’s always amused me that “high concept”, which sounds like it should mean something clever, just basically means a premise you can describe in two or three words. And that’s Lifechanger in a nutshell.

Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK). The event this film depicts has been a footnote in the history books for many years but recent events have given it added poignancy. And importance. It’s all too easy to forget at times, especially during the twentieth century when the middle classes were essentially in charge, that the English upper class is populated entirely by sociopathic shits. Of course, things worsen year on year because they all interbreed like royalty. In 1819, a group of reformists held a rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester and some 60,000 to 80,000 working class people turned up to hear orator Henry Hunt talk about universal suffrage. The local magistrates sent in the troops, and eighteen people were killed. The thing the people at the meeting wanted? A Member of Parliament for Manchester. They wanted representation in the government of the land. And the upper class sent in armed troops. Against women and children. True, the history of England, and the UK too, is filled with incidents that are reprehensible to any semi-intelligent person. Peterloo takes a didactic approach to its material, carefully laying the political groundwork for the meeting that turned into a massacre. In fact, while watching it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Ken Loach film and not a Mike Leigh one. Except Leigh seems to be able to command higher budgets. (And if you haven’t seen any films by Loach, why not? He has an excellent and extensive filmography.) The evocation of the period is extremely well, and it’s refreshing to watch a film set in Manchester that features actors with actual Lancashire accents and not just generic Northern ones. Peterloo is a very good film about an event in English history that should be better known than it is. Go see it.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 940