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Readings & watchings #10, 2011

This is the final post detailing the books I read and the films I watched during 2011. I don’t think I’ll bother doing these in 2012 as I suspect I’m stretching myself a bit thin with them. They’re also a bit long, which probably puts some people off reading them. Perhaps I’ll just blog about individual books or films I consider worthy of recommendation on an ad hoc basis. What do people think?

For the time-being anyway, here it is, the culture (and I use the term loosely) I consumed right up until the 31 December 2011…

Books
Time to Live, John Rackham (1966) / The Man Without a Planet, Lin Carter (1966), was an Ace double I picked up at a convention chiefly, I seem to recall, because Rackham was a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s I’d not read. (Though he also wrote as John T Phillifent, his real name, and I think I’ve read one of his books published under that name.) And so… Well, it’s hackwork right from the first page. Time to Live opens with an amnesiac protagonist, and the entire story feels like it was made up as Rackham wrote it. The amnesiac is wanted for murder, but he didn’t commit it, of course. And the native race on the planet on which this takes place are all preternaturally good-looking, have psychic powers, are near-immortal, and have willingly turned their backs on high technology. The native woman who rescues the amnesiac when his car crashes quickly realises he is innocent and later falls in love with him. Of course. This is not a book that will ever make the British SF Masterworks list. Lin Carter, on the other hand, was not a Brit, and he also seems to have made a career from writing pastiches of sf and fantasy from an earlier age. His Callisto books, for example, take off Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories, and his Thongor is Conan in all but name. The Man Without a Planet belongs to Carter’s History of the Great Imperium trilogy, and it’s real swords & spaceships stuff. The protagonist is a naval hero who returns to his home world but doesn’t like what he finds there. He is reluctantly pushed into the arms of a displaced empress who wants her planet back. It’s all stupid cod mediaeval dialogue and most of the cast wearing next to nothing as manly men battle to protect feisty females and ensure that what is right prevails. I have to wonder how many readers lapped it up and didn’t realise Carter was taking the piss.

The Silent Land, Graham Joyce (2010), is likely to end up on a few short-lists this year was on several short-lists last year, though I ultimately found it an unsatisfactory read. A young couple are on a skiing holiday and get caught in an avalanche. They manage to rescue themselves, but when they return to the village where they’re staying, they find it deserted. Certain things don’t seem quite as they should, or as they remember them – candles don’t burn down, meat doesn’t go off, things don’t taste as they ought… and whenever they try to leave the village they find themselves circling back to it. The couple and their relationship are drawn exceedingly well, but most readers will probably figure out what’s going about halfway through, and it’s the lack of a final unexpected twist that left me slightly disappointed. Otherwise, a book definitely worth reading.

The Nemesis from Terra, Leigh Brackett (1951), was originally published in Startling Stories in 1944 as Shadow Over Mars, and that earlier title strikes me as the better of the two. Much as I like Brackett’s Mars stories, I don’t think this is one of her better ones. It’s pretty much a Western set on the Red Planet. Take away the mention of Mars’ ancient civilisations – and the trip to the Thinker’s dome at the pole, which adds little – and it’s not even science fiction. Most of the dialogue reads like Brackett was trying it out for her movie scripts, and the story is predictable from start to finish. Disappointing.

The Last Battle, CS Lewis (1956), is the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia. I can now cross them off the list. The battle of the title is the great battle for Narnia… Er, well, no: it’s not actually a “great” battle at all. There are less than a hundred on each side. A Talking Ape finds a dead lion and persuades his somewhat dim Donkey companion to dress up in its skin and pretend to be Aslan. Of course, everyone is taken in by the disguise – so much so that the King of Narnia is very surprised when he learns someone is chopping down the dyads’ trees. That someone proves to be Talking Animals in thrall to a group of Calormene. Who are, of course, smelly and evil and foreign. But then Eustace and Jill appear and help the king discover what’s really going on. Then a few more Pevensies turn up and there’s a small battle and Aslan turns up and Narnia gets rolled up and everyone ends up in a walled garden which has the whole world inside it including friends and loved ones who have died even those back in the real world because it’s really Heaven and if everyone is jolly nice then that’s where they’ll end up when they die. So there.

Solaris Rising, Ian Whates (2011), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. It’s a good showcase of contemporary science fiction, and Whates lets the stories speak for themselves.

The Witches Of Karres, James H Schmitz (1966), was short-listed for the Hugo Award in 1967, and appeared in three Locus All Time Best (SF) Novel polls. It was originally published in 1949 as a novelette, but expanded to novel-length in 1966. It is also shit. In fact, looking at that 1967 short-list, there’s perfect reason to be embarrassed at the poor taste frequently shown by the Hugo voters. That short-list included Babel-17 and Flowers For Algernon, both very good sf novels, but instead they gave it to… The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But The Witches Of Karres… Captain Pausert is a humorously incompetent space captain, trying to make a living and prove a point by operating a merchant starship. He inadvertently finds himself buying three slaves, all young girls whose owners are more than glad to get rid of them. That’s because the girls are witches from Karres. Which means they have mental powers. Sort of. Among which is the “Sheewash Drive”, a super-fast star drive powered by the three of them. Everyone else wants this magical drive, but Pausert – with much help from the witches – manages to prevent them from getting it. And, as a result, he becomes embroiled in a plot to save the galaxy from some worm-like aliens from an alternate dimension. The writing is bad, the world-building is bad, and the science fiction is bad. At one point, Pausert’s ship detects another “just ahead, some nine light years away”. That’s 85 trillion kilometres. People writing this sort of crap sf seem to think space is no bigger than the Atlantic ocean. The Witches Of Karres is a definite contender for Shittest Book To Be Short-Listed For A Hugo Award, a list which, it must be said, is far far longer than it should be.

Blood Count, Robert Goddard (2011), is the latest of Goddard’s potboilers, which, for some reason, I continue to read. His books are the sort which win the WH Smith “Thumping Good Read” Award, and I generally prefer fiction with somewhat higher aspirations. But never mind. There’s no point looking in Goddard’s novels for deep meaning, wonderful prose or profound insight. Instead, you get an everyman made victim to a conspiracy and which he must puzzle out to save himself. In Blood Count, the protagonist is a surgeon who performed a liver transplant on a Serbian warlord. Years later, the warlord is under trial at the International Court of Justice. The warlord’s daughter blackmails the surgeon into approaching the warlord’s ex-accountant who has control of the family’s ill-gotten gains. But it’s all a plot within a plot within a plot, and people get murdered and the warlord escapes and… Goddard’s books are fast mostly entertaining reads, and this one, I have to admit, was one of his better ones.

Engleby, Sebastian Faulks (2007), I wrote about here. It’s an improvement over On Green Dolphin Street, but not as good as Charlotte Gray or Birdsong.

The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (2009), I wrote about here. An odd book that to my mind didn’t entirely work.

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006), I wrote about here. Good, but nowhere near as good as Cloud Atlas.

Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn (1968). The Earth has been conquered and the remains of humanity now live like rats in the walls of the giant aliens’ dwellings. Eric the Only is a hunter in the forward-burrow tribe that calls itself Humanity. It’s his job to leave the tunnels and fetch alien food or artefacts – or, at least, small enough such things that he can carry them. It’s a conceit that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny – aliens so large aren’t that plausible, nor is a human civilisation surviving as household pests. Still, Of Men and Monsters is a neat little fable and an easy read. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a bona fide SF Masterwork, though there are certainly worse books already in the series.

Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree, Tariq Ali (1992), is the first book of the Islam Quintet, and opens in 1500 CE in Moorish Spain. The Catholic Spaniards reconquered Granada eight years previously but now a new archbishop has arrived and is determined to stamp out Islam. This is in direct contravention of the treaty signed between the Moors and the Castilian king and queen. But never mind. I mean, he’s doing it for God, so that’s all right isn’t it? That makes it okay to kill women and children, to burn books, to forbid the Moors from speaking Arabic or wearing their customary dress, to steal their lands from them, to torture them into confessing crimes/sins they have not committed… The story is told from the viewpoint of a single Muslim family, and it’s strong stuff. Ali’s frequently inelegant prose often works against the story, but never mind. I shall probably read the rest of the quintet, though I won’t be dashing out immediately to buy them.

The Recollection, Gareth L Powell (2011), was my final book of 2011. There’s a lot in The Recollection that’s typical, if not characteristic, of contemporary British commercial sf. It opens in the near-future, when strange arches appear throughout the world. Ed Rico’s brother, Verne, disappears into one such arch in a London Underground station, and Ed vows to find and rescue him. Meanwhile, four centuries hence, trader starship captain and black sheep Kat Abdulov has been welcomed back into the bosom of her powerful family because only she is in a position to beat a rival trader to the centennial Pep harvest on the world of Djatt. Throw in an enigmatic alien race inhabiting a vast slower-than-light starship, and the Bubble Belt, a mysterious BDO comprising millions of small habitats orbiting the Gnarl, an unknown energy source. And then there’s the eponymous Recollection itself, a “cloud” which devours everything in its path as it travels throughout the galaxy. I’d initially thought Powell was trying for Light territory with his two plot-threads separated by centuries, but the two tied up far too neatly for that. And besides, Kat’s space opera future was a little too generic for my taste, and the introduction of the Recollection then saw the book drift into Peter F Hamilton-esque sf. If The Recollection is a mélange of contemporary UK sf tropes and concerns, it’s a well put-together one. It did promise more in its early pages than it managed to deliver, but nonetheless a lot of people will find much to like in it.

Films
Star Trek: The Next Generation season five (1991) sees the USS Blanderprise continue in its ongoing mission to bring insipid sf to the masses – or to its fanbase, at least. As in previous seasons, the episodes all blur into the televisual equivalent of beige, with no real episodes standing out – not even the double-parter in which Spock contacts the Romulan underground because they want to reunite with the Vulcans. On the other hand, there are a number of embarrassingly bad ones. ‘The Outcast’, in which Riker falls in love with a member of a single-sexed race… though the story still manages to impose binary gender sensibilities on the neuter aliens. Or ‘I, Borg’, in which emotional attachment is seen as a perfectly valid reason not to commit genocide. Much of the writing in the series remains poor and ill thought-out. Ethics and morality take a back seat to story needs, and there’s often little consistency between the various ethical and/or political stances taken by the characters or various institutions from episode to episode. But that, I think, is a failing of all the Trek franchises, and may well be a result of US television’s habit of writing by committee.

Rosebud, Otto Preminger (1975), is a strange film. It’s a mostly forgettable euro-thriller, despite its director, albeit with a star-studded cast. Peter O’Toole plays a Brit ex-CIA agent currently working as a stringer in Rome. When the daughters of three European plutocrats are kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, he is employed to get them back in one piece. The girls are played by Lalla Ward, Isabelle Huppert and Kim Cattrall. The villain of the piece is Richard Attenborough, as an ex-SAS man convert to Islam. It’s all played very flat and affectless, and so despite its cosmopolitanism it seems bizarrely charmless.

Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985), may well be the best high fantasy film ever made. When Sonja – who doesn’t actually do anything during the film to earn the sobriquet “red”, though she does have improbably red hair – comes to beside the smoking ruins of her parents’ house, a ghostly creature helpfully explains to her in voice-over exactly what she has just experienced. Which Red Sonja already knows, of course, but the film has to get the story across to the viewer. It makes “As you know, Bob” dialogue look positively sophisticated. Then there’s Red Sonja herself, played by Brigitte Nielsen, who actually resembles a skinny boy with a bad mullet for much of the film. And the villainess lives in the Land of Perpetual Night, though it’s often daytime there. Not to mention that Red Sonja is allegedly a superlative sword-fighter – and is shown as such early in the film – but seems incapable of winning a duel against a man and must always be helped out by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character. Though Red Sonja does insist no man “can have her” unless he defeats her in a sword-fight – so the only man she manages to hold off with a sword is Schwarzenegger, as he wants to get into her chainmail pants. The climax of the film sees the world falling to pieces but the villainess of course insists on hanging onto the magical device causing the destruction because, well, because with it she can rule the world. Even, er, if there isn’t one left. Red Sonja is a gloriously inept sword & sorcery movie, which appears to have been written by a pair of drunks. Admittedly, the production design leaves a bit to be desired – the makers could have had so much more fun, but perhaps they reined it in for a PG certificate…

The Valley of the Bees, František Vláčil (1968), is a Czech film about the Teutonic knights, and for much of its length I thought it a little dull. Having said that, it presents a complex moral landscape, and so proved itself so much more satisfying than the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation season five. The film is black and white throughout and evokes its period well, but it’s also very slow. It’s been a few weeks since I watched it, and I can remember little about it. Having said that, I’d rather be bored by a film like The Valley of the Bees than have my intelligence beaten into submission by your typical Hollywood blockbuster…

The Man with the Golden Arm, Otto Preminger (1955), scored Frank Sinatra an Oscar nomination for the title role, though he lost out to Ernest Borgnine in Marty. That may well be because The Man with the Golden Arm deals with heroine addiction. Sinatra plays a small time crook who has just come out of rehab and dreams of being a drummer with a big band. But he soon picks up his drug habit again and his life duly falls to pieces. For all its plaudits, I found the film slow and not especially involving. Sinatra’s character is too self-centred to sympathise with, and the general dour tone of the story could only really appeal to masochists. Given that I disliked Kerouac’s On the Road when I read it, then it’s no real surprise that I didn’t enjoy The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Time that Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), I picked as one of the best films I watched in 2011, which is no real surprise as I count Suleiman as one of my favourite directors. He’s only made three feature-length films, and all three deal with Palestine / Israel in more or less the same fashion. They’re a commentary on the Occupation, built up from vignettes, some of which are taken from Suleiman’s own life. The Time that Remains is mostly the story of Suleiman’s father, and opens in 1948 with the Israeli invasion of territory mandated to the Palestinians. It continues through the decades to the present day, where Suleiman appears as himself. There are some excellent scenes, displaying some very funny black humour and an overall sense of very Arabic fatalism that only makes the story even more poignant. Highly recommended.

Sanctum, Alister Grierson (2011), I bought because it’s about an expedition to explore some underwater caves and I thought it might appeal. And it did. A little. Unfortunately, in amongst all the excellent photography of the underwater caves was a dumb father-son story filled with macho bullshit from start to finish. Manly explorer has neglected his son and thinks little of him. But they all get trapped deep underground when a monsoon hits, and must escape by following an underground river through a (astonishingly-filmed) flooded cave system. Son duly proves his manliness to father, who dies a happy man as his thrusting virility will now continue for another generation. This is probably a film best watched with the volume turned off.

Inception, Christopher Nolan (2010), I finally got around to watching a year after everyone else and… Well, there are some astonishing visuals, but the logic of the story doesn’t parse. There’s this Mission: Impossible-type team, led by Leonardo di Caprio, and what they do is invade people’s dreams to try and ferret out their secrets. But they can also do the opposite, though it is considered near-impossible: they can plant ideas in people’s heads in their dreams. This is known as an “inception”. To ensure the implanted idea takes in the head of their victim, the team play a shell-game, using dreams within dreams within dreams. But it all goes a bit wrong and di Caprio and victim end up in “limbo”, a dreamworld from which people rarely return (and in which years might pass in a matter of minutes). Given that di Caprio has only agreed to such a risky venture in order to be able to return to his family in the US, naturally everything in the film in some way links back to said family. And it’s implied at the end of Inception that what the viewer has been led to believe is actually just another layer of dream – and this is suggested by a token di Caprio uses to remind himself he’s dreaming. Except, of course, when he used it before it worked fine and did exactly that. There’s a sense throughout Inception that the film wants to have its cake and eat it. It pushes so hard to confuse reality and dream that it only ends up confusing itself.

The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov (1968), is on the BFI’s Top 100 films list, which is why I rented it. And… I like the idea of “poetic cinema”, and I’m a big fan of Andrei Tarkovsky… but The Colour of Pomegranates really is a very odd and slow and chiefly plot-less movie. You can’t watch it as you would other films, much as it’s impossible to watch and enjoy a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky while sober. The Colour of Pomegranates sort of tells the story of the life of Sayat Nova, a famous mediaeval Armenian poet. It does this not by dramatising scenes from his life, but by representing them through moving tableaux. They are beautifully staged and shot, but it’s difficult to decide what they’re actually telling you unless you’re familiar with Sayat Nova’s life. Which I’m not. I’m almost certain The Colour of Pomegranates is a film which needs to be watched a number of times. So I suppose I’ll have to go and buy a copy for myself…

Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek (2010), is an adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I read back in 2009. The problem with the book, which you manage to avoid thinking about for much of its length because of Ishiguro’s exploration of his characters, is that the story is predicated on a monstrous practice: human beings are grown specifically to be organ donors to “real” people. The moral implications of this, the fact such a practice would seem to be accepted by the population at large, is largely ignored by the novel, though by showing that the donors are entirely human Ishiguro is making oblique commentary. The film, unfortunately, can’t ignore its world’s central conceit though it tries to do so. The final confrontation between Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and Miss Emily fails to show how evil the world of the story is. There’s some wishy-washy mention of souls, but it’s not even a serious attempt at justification. Nor is “it was worse before and we can’t go back to that” any kind of rationale. The problem with the film – which, it must be said, is pretty faithful to the book – is that it not only fails to comment on the practice of raising humans to act merely as donors, presenting the practice as normal and acceptable, but it also fails to present enough to hooks to trigger outrage. This is not helped by the use of flat washed-out colours or low-key performances by the cast – if anything, these make the film appear more like a comment on the grimness of earlier decades than on the actual world of the story. It’s a bit like the way thrillers and detective television shows have desensitised us to the reality of gruesomely murdered victims to the extent that the outrage the crime itself should engender becomes lost in intellectual satisfaction in the exploration of the murder’s techniques, the investigation, or the world of the story. Sometimes, the bad stuff needs to be put front and centre, if only to stress to people that it is indeed bad.

Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002), is an attempt to “re-imagine” one of my favourite films, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. In Sirk’s masterpiece, a middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) enters into a relationship with her bohemian gardener (Rock Hudson) and is condemned by her friends and grown-up children for doing so. The film is beautifully played and shot, and makes a particular feature of its autumnal palette. In Far from Heaven, Haynes has taken that story and slapped on more, well, more stuff. The gardener is now black, which makes the relationship even more transgressive – except it’s not a relationship in Far from Heaven, the woman (Julianne Moore) is merely being friendly and polite with him. She’s not a widow either. And her husband (Dennis Quaid) has discovered that he is gay and is now having sex with other men. It’s all too much. The black gardener alone would have provided an interesting perspective on Sirk’s original, but to throw in a homosexual husband is over-egging the cake enormously. It dilutes the story’s focus. Haynes manages to recreate Sirk’s palette, and the production design throughout is evocative of the period. And yet… there seems to be something in Far from Heaven which reveals it is as a film set in the 1950s rather than a film shot in the 1950s. A valorous attempt, but it doesn’t quite win the cigar.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher (2011), I saw at the Kino Palæet in Lyngby, Denmark, over Christmas. Cinemas there are much more expensive than in the UK – a ticket cost Kr 100.00, which is just over £11. But then pretty much everything is more expensive in Denmark. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… I’ve not read the book, but I have seen the original Swedish film adaptation starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev. The US remake, of course, stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, and is directed by David Fincher. There’s little need to rehash the plot as I suspect everyone knows it. From what I remember of the Swedish film, Fincher’s version is broadly similar though better-paced, though I’ve no idea how faithful either were to the book. I don’t recall Salander going abroad and emptying Wennerström’s offshore bank accounts from Oplev’s version but that may just be faulty memory on my part. I do recall the rape scene being more brutal than it is in Fincher’s, however. And I seem to remember Rapace was presented as a more convincing hacker than Mara, though the latter is good in the role. Otherwise, Fincher plays the story straight, with little in the way of frills, though the climax turns brutal in a way that hints at Se7en. Craig is more of an action-man type than Nyqvist but still manages to convince as a journalist, though the relationship between Nyqvist and Salander never seems entirely plausible. After watching both films, I suspect I shall have to finally succumb and read the damn book. Happily, copies are readily available for much cheapness in charity shops throughout the UK…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season seven (1998), is the end of the franchise, and the first Trek franchise I have watched all the way to the final episode. Though Deep Space Nine had its cringe-worthy episodes – and the Ferengi should have been quietly forgotten after being introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I still think it had a more interesting cast and a more gripping story-arc than the rest of the stable. Having said that, I never understood the appeal of the holodeck episodes, and it’s toss-up as to which is less embarrassing: Next Gen’s Dixon Hill or DS9’s Vic Fontaine. Perhaps using Fontaine’s 1960s Las Vegas world as a way of allowing Nog to recover from the trauma of losing a leg showed a different approach to the usual Trek psychobabble, but it made the episodes feel like they were from a bad 1970s detective show. Likewise, the desperate desire to shoe-horn star villain Gul Dukat back into the story by making him some sort of dark messiah just felt like a narrative thread from an entirely different story. And then there were the Breen… In the final season, DS9 introduces a new super-technological race on the baddies’ side, but then decides it best to leave them mysterious. There are so many stories hiding in there, yet the writers blithely ignored them all. In fact, on reflection, the Breen added nothing to series’ story-arc. The season is not all bad, however. The wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels episode set on Romulus in which Bashir becomes an unwilling pawn of Section 31 was quite good. Damar’s gradual transformation from drunken lackey to rebel leader was played well, and even the Klingon political shenanigans managed to maintain my interest. Oh, and the replacement for Jadzia Dax, Ezri Dax was actually quite watchable initially. But then they blanded her out, and not even hot sex with Worf, or the bumbling screwball romance with Bashir, could make her interesting. But, as they say, all (good) things must come to an end, and Deep Space Nine sort of faded away rather than ending on anything that felt like closure. Yes, the various plot-threads were resolved, and everyone did their little speeches on what they were up to next, but it still felt like there should have been more episodes following. I’m also working my way through the Next Generation seasons (see above), but have yet to see anything that challenges the opinion that Deep Space Nine remains the best of the Trek franchises.

Source Code, Duncan Jones (2011), has at its core an intriguing premise, and manages to pull an action-packed 93 minutes from it. Jake Gyllenhaal is sent back in time to earlier that day into the body of a passenger on a train heading into Chicago. A bomb exploded on the train, and the bomber has a second bomb poised to inflict much greater damage within the city. Gyllenhaal has eight minutes to identify the bomber so that the authorities can prevent him setting off that second bomb. Each time Gyllenhaal fails, he is sent back to eight minutes prior to the train explosion. In between time-trips, it’s revealed he’s an Army helicopter pilot sent home injured from Afghanistan. Gyllenhaal’s visits are actually to an alternate timeline since he can’t prevent the train from blowing up in his timeline as it has already happened. Jones manages to get across a simplified version of the Many Worlds Hypothesis without confusing, or insulting the intelligence of, viewers. Personally, I was annoyed by the use of the term “source code” as the explanation for the name doesn’t fit the actual meaning of the term. All things considered, however, that’s a minor quibble. The fact that a helicopter pilot could disarm a bomb so quickly and easily is, however, more problematical. Unless, that is, you consider it a Hollywood convention. I could, of course, complain about the default Hollywood assumption that a time-travel project would be militarised, and that any benefits it might incur would be military. Not to mention the glorification of the military and its exploits. But why bother? Soldiers make for better heroes than scientists, and we know this because Hollywood has spent the last 100 years persuading us this is the case. If not all of us believe that, it must be because we’ve not been watching the right films…

Faces in the Crowd, Julien Magnat (2011), I watched for The Zone, and a review will appear there shortly.

The Ward, John Carpenter (2010), was another review copy for The Zone.

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Readings & watchings 2011 #7

A bit of an epic post this, partly because in my last readings & watchings I only gave the books I’d read and not the films I’ve watched. But how can more be bad, eh?

Books
Troika, Alastair Reynolds (2010), is the first piece of fiction Reynolds has had shortlisted for a Hugo. It lost out on best novella to Ted Chiang, which is unfortunate. With Chiang on the shortlist, everyone else stands little or no chance of taking the award. Having said that, I’ve yet to read Chiang’s award-winning The Lifecycle of Software Objects, though I have the Subterranean Press edition on my book-shelves. And the copy of Troika I read was also the Subterranean Press edition, although the novella originally appeared in Godlike Machines, a SFBC-only anthology. Clearly the US Science Fiction Book Club is quite influential in Hugo nominations. Troika is BDO sf meets alternate Soviet space history, but is not, I think, Reynolds’ best work to date, despite being short-listed. The BDO itself feels too enigmatic, and the final twist on the “present day” sections doesn’t quite make sense of the whole thing. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have nominated (had I chosen to pay for the privilege of doing so).

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991), I reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

SVK, Warren Ellis and d’Israeli (2011), was sold on a gimmick: it requires a black light torch (packaged with the comic) to read some of the speech balloons. It is otherwise a fairly typical Ellis sf piece, with a nice twist in the end. A freelance fixer is called in by a government department to recover a piece of technology, which, it transpires, allows a person to read the thoughts of other people (and it’s those which are printed in invisible ink). D’Israeli’s art is good, Ellis’ dialogue is also good, but it all feels a little thin and a bit overwhelmed by the invisible ink gimmick.

My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen (2006), I picked up in a local charity shop because I remembered enjoying her The Rapture (2009) (see here). That later novel had been marketed as literary fiction – Jensen herself is marketed as a literary fiction writer – but was plainly sf. And so the title of My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time suggested the same also held true for it. And so it does. A prostitute in late 19th century Copenhagen goes to work as a cleaner for the widow of an inventor who vanished several years before. In the basement of the widow’s house, the prostitute finds a strange device… and is inadvertently catapulted to modern-day London. There she discovers the inventor and a colony of time-displaced Danes, all of whom have chosen to build new lives in twenty-first century Britain. All have been warned, however, to keep their contact with the locals to a minimum. But then the prostitute falls in love with a London man… The story is told entirely in the prostitute’s voice, which gets a little wearying after a while, but it’s well-handled. I think I’ll seek out some more of Jensen’s books.

Silversands, Gareth L Powell (2010), is Powell’s first published novel. It was published by Pendragon Press – and Powell’s first novel by a major publisher, The Recollection, has just come out from Solaris. Something similar happened to Mark Charan Newton. Perhaps it’s a pattern. Silversands is a solid sf mystery set on a a colony world. When a ship from Earth arrives – it’s important to the plot that the wormholes which connect the colonies can’t be navigated – it triggers a series of events which threaten to bring down the colony’s government. Though only short, the novel is well-paced, the characters rounded, and the setting sketched in with skill. Despite all this, it’s not especially memorable, perhaps because its one big idea is peripheral to the plot and only impacts at the end.

Heaven’s Shadow, David S Goyer & Michael Cassutt (2011), I reviewed on SFF Chronicles here.

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years: Science Fiction by Women, Pamela Sargent ed. (1995), I reviewed on SF Mistressworks here and here. I need to track down a copy of the complimentary volume, Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.

Adventures in Capitalism, Toby Litt (1996). To be honest, the most interesting thing about Litt’s career so far has been his intention that each of his book be alphabetically titled. Which is not say that those of his books I’ve read so far have been bad. I quite enjoyed Corpsing (2000), and while Journey into Space (2009) was a little old-fashioned I did think it nicely-written. But the stories in this collection, Adventures in Capitalism, are somewhat variable, and several of them are, well, a bit dull.

Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2003), was August’s book for the reading challenge, and I wrote about here.

The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955), is the seventh Narnia book by year of publication, but the first according to internal chronology. In fact, it’s a prequel and explains the origin of Narnia. Which is that, well, Aslan made it. Just like that. But in a lot less time than six days. Neighbours Digory and Polly use one of Digory’s uncle’s magic rings and find themselves in a strange wood. In the wood are pools of water, and each pool leads to a different world. Unfortunately, the first world they visit is in some sort of magical stasis, after evil witch Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word in order to defeat her ruling sister (I can think of many deplorable words, so I’ve no idea which particular one Jadis actually used). Digory foolishly wakes Jadis, who follows them back to Victorian London, and promptly wreaks havoc as she tries to conquer it – despite her magic powers not working. In desperation, Digory and Polly use the rings… and send themselves, Jadis, a cabbie, his horse, and their uncle to a land of nothingness. Then they hear singing, light appears, and so too does Aslan, and Narnia is created. There are some nice touches: a piece of a street lamp used by Jadis as a weapon in London is dropped by her, and becomes the street lamp in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Jadis becomes the White Witch; and the cabbie and his wife become the first kind and queen of Narnia, despite being working class.The dialogue throughout is quite fun, although, the Garden of Eden rip-off was blatant and the general tone of the book is very preachy. Definitely one of the better books of the series, though I still wouldn’t recommend them to a kid.

From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957), is the fifth 007 book, but was the second film to be made. It was also a far more successful film than its predecessor Dr No, and so probably responsible for the existence of the franchise. Given that I’d previously read four Bond novels, you’d think I’d know what to expect from the fifth one. Admittedly, my memory’s vague on the plot of the film – I remember only the periscope, the attack in the gypsy camp, and the iconic punt through the Basilica Cistern. The first two certainly make an appearance in the book, but not the third. And if I’d thought the other Bond books contained an uncomfortable strand of misogyny, in From Russia with Love it’s downright offensive. Not only does Istanbul station chief Karim Bey insist that all women want to be raped, but the scene at the gypsy camp sees the women present treated as nothing more than amusement for the men. Then there’s the racial stereotyping and racism… Bond was better when he stayed in the UK. I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone, and the more of them I read the more I’m convinced they only remain in print because of the film franchise.

Orbital Vol 4: Ravages, Sylvain Runerg & Serge Pellé (2010) is, I think the last of this series – at least the ending suggests as much. Though it’s been sold as the fourth book of a series, it’s actually the second in a two-part story – with Volume 3 Nomads – as the story continues on directly from that earlier volume. Something alien and mysterious has been killing fish – and now people – in the mangrove swamps near Kuala Lumpur, just as the preparations for a celebration of the Human-Sanjarr alliance (they fought a war not so long ago) are in full swing. The locals are revolting and convinced some alien nomads who have settled in the swamp are responsible. They’re not, of course. At least, not directly. I’ve enjoyed this series – it’s good solid sf, nicely drawn and well thought-out. If it seems a bit abrupt in places, or choppy in others, I suspect that’s more the style of bandes desinée than it is the fault of the writer.

Dancer of the Sixth, Michelle Shirey Crean (1993), was a reread for review for SF Mistressworks here.

Films
What A Way To Go, dir. J Lee Thompson (1964). Every now and again I like to watch a bit of fluff. Once, my preferred choice had been crap science fiction films – of which there are very, very many – but watching them is actually hard work. Now, I’d much sooner watch something from the 1950s or early 1960s – they’re far more entertaining, there are no bad special effects to burn out your eyes, the acting is of a much higher calibre, and the scripts actually display some wit. Having said all that, What A Way To Go is a bit of an odd beast. Shirley MacLaine plays a young woman who inadvertently inspires each man she marries to become successful and rich. So much so, in fact, that on her last husband’s death, she is determined to give away the vast fortune she has amassed. But the government won’t accept it. (Things were clearly very different in those days.) Her husbands are played by Dick van Dyke, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Robert Mitchum – so this is a star-studded comedy. There’s even an extended dance number – with MacLaine and Kelly, of course – in the middle. It’s quite a strange film. I enjoyed it, though.

…All the Marbles, dir. Robert Aldrich (1981), was Aldrich’s last film, and while it has its moments, it’s not especially memorable. Peter Falk plays the manager of a female tag-team wrestling duo. Most of the matches are fixed, but the two wrestlers are determined to make it to the final in Las Vegas. And so they do – though not without Falk making some enemies along the way. This is a pretty grim film. The characters are just about hanging on, and the story takes them through some of the grimmer parts of the United States. I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, though there aren’t many laughs. At least, some of the characters are so broadly-drawn, they belong in a comedy. The wrestling itself reminds me wrestling on British telly back in the early 1980s, during the heyday of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the like. Although, of course, they weren’t women.

Where The Sidewalk Ends, dir. Otto Preminger (1950). I do like Preminger’s movies. I’m not so keen on Dana Andrews as a leading man, however. He always strikes me as a bit too louche and expressionless for the roles he plays. In this film – consider a classic noir – Andrews is a police detective who accidentally kills a suspect. He tries to cover up the death by accusing a cabbie who called on the victim. Except the cabbie is actually the victim’s father-in-law, and Andrews’ detective falls in love with the estranged wife (played by Gene Tierney). This is classic twisty-turny stuff, all baggy suits and trilbies and mean streets. They don’t make them like this anymore.

Skyline, dir. the Strause Brothers (2010), is, as far as I understand, a rip-off of Battle: Los Angeles, for which the Strause brothers provided special effects. For whatever reason, they decided they could do a better job themselves, and made their own film. Perhaps they should have stuck to special effects. There are some mysterious aliens. And they have attacked Los Angeles. And there is a bunch of bad actors stuck in a penthouse apartment, who try to escape. Er, that’s about it. Avoid.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, dir. Fritz Lang (1956), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Shirin, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2008). I’ve now seen three films by Kiarostami – and several more by other Iranian directors – and I’m still not quite what to make of him. Certified Copy (2010) was a clever and accomplished drama (see my VideoVista review here); Taste of Cherry (1997) was odd but entertaining, though the ending was near-genius; but Shirin… The film takes place in a cinema with an entirely female audience. The camera moves from face to face, while the dialogue from the movie being shown is heard (it’s the story of Khosrow and Shirin, a 800-year old Persian tale). That’s it. A series of close-ups of faces, many in hijab. For 92 minutes. I don’t think it works as a concept.

My Best Enemy, dir. Wolfgang Murnberger (2011), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Brief Encounter, dir. David Lean (1945). I’d never seen this before. I know, unbelievable. But there you go. And now that I have seen it… I was disappointed. Perhaps because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Celia Johnson travels regularly into town on the train. One day, she meets Leslie Howard. They enjoy each other’s company, so they meet whenever they’re in town. It goes further. Meanwhile, both have families at home. I actually felt sorry for Johnson’s husband – he seemed like a decent sort. And she was so drippy, the whole affair felt about as __

Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983), is another film I’ve somehow not seen in the twenty-seven years since it was released, though I have seen many of Cronenberg’s other films. It is… odd, though it hasn’t aged well. All that snuff television, screwing with your minds stuff is a little old. I suspect some of it was back in 1983. The weird organic gun was peculiar, as was the body-horror bits. Sometimes they felt like they belonged in a different film. And there was a surprising cheapness to the production, which I hadn’t expected – perhaps because Cronenberg’s later films have better production values. Oh well, I’ve seen it now.

La veuve de Saint-Pierre, dir. Patrice Leconte (2000), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Moolaadé, dir. Ousmane Sembène (2004). I’ve found myself watching a lot of African cinema in recent years, particularly North African. So when Lovefilm threw up Moolaadé – set in West Africa – I wasn’t especially interested in seeing it. But I stuck it on my “world cinema” list, and several weeks later it was sent to me. And i thought it excellent. It’s set in a small rural village in Burkina Faso. Three girls have run away from the traditional female circumcision ceremony and seek protection from Collé, who had refused to have her daughter’s genitals mutilated a few years before. Collé use moolaadé, magical protection, to ensure the girls are kept safe within her house – or rather, the house of her husband, which she shares with his other two wives. The men of the village are not amused, as they consider female circumcision necessary for marriage, as well as required by Islam (neither, of course, is true). In an effort to control the women of the village, the men gather up all their radios and destroy them. A visiting trader – a veteran of the local civil war – takes the side of the women, as does the headman’s son, who has recently returned from working in France. But the women are not empowered, and it does not go well. This is an excellent film, a definite contender for my best of the year. I’d like to see more by Sembène but, unfortunately, Moolaadé is the only film of his available on DVD in the UK. Make more available, please.

Star Trek: The Next Generation season 4 (1990), in which the Enterprise-D boldly goes on and on and on, in its continuing mission to provide bland science fiction television entertainment with the occasional episode which makes you sit up and take notice. Not to mention the several episodes which are downright embarrassing – like ‘Brothers’, in which Picard returns home to France and argues with his brother. Or ‘Data’s Day’ – but then, I never liked the character of Data. Or the one with Lwaxana Troi in it, another character I dislike. On the other hand, Legacy’, in which Tasha Yar’s sister plays one faction against the other against the Enterprise isn’t bad. And ‘The Drumhead’ manages a consistent feeling of paranoia throughout. But the overwhelming sense seems to be of blandness – bland uniforms, bland characters, bland stories. Four seasons in it and it feels like the programme is already well settled into a rut. It needs jollying out of it. Perhaps that happens in season 5. I can but hope.

Kiss Them for Me, dir. Stanley Donen (1957), I watched most of on Film4, but then ended up buying the DVD for a couple of quid. What an odd film. It’s ostensibly a screwball comedy, set during World War II, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Cary Grant plays a war hero Navy pilot who’s had enough, and wangles a week’s furlough in San Francisco with two buddies. The trio plan to get drunk and party the entire time. And so they mostly do. Jayne Mansfield plays a dumb blonde, with a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, as comic relief, but Grant has his eye set on Suzy Parker (who, for some bizarre reason, had her voice dubbed over by Deborah Kerr), the fiancée of an industrialist who could arrange for Grant and his buddies to sit out the rest of the war. Grant leers a lot, there are some strange comic turns, and the natives of San Francisco don’t exactly seem brimming over with patriotism.

Next, dir. Lee Tamahori (2007), stars Nicolas Cage, who perhaps in some alternate world hasn’t turned into a parody of himself. Perhaps in that same alternate world, Philip K Dick’s stories won’t have been bent and twisted in the service of Hollywood, and he’s mostly remembered as a sf author and not a provider of glossy middle-brow concept movies. In Next, Cage can see two minutes into the future, and the FBI are after him because they’ve figured this out and are convinced his talent can help them find the nuclear bomb terrorists have hidden somewhere in the US. It’s all very silly, Cage plays his part with a sort of wooden-faced intensity, and Tamahori manages some good action set-pieces. Dick’s stories demand you think about them; the films they’ve made of his stories demand you don’t.

Caramel, dir. Nadine Labaki (2007), was a surprise. It’s about three women who work in a beauty salon in Beirut. One is in an affair with a married man, and hasn’t noticed that the local policeman is in love with her. Another is a lesbian, and fancies one of the salon’s customers. And the third is engaged but has not told her husband she is not a virgin and is afraid of the consequences should he learn so. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The cast play their parts well, and there’s much about the story that is very Lebanese. While Caramel may be a feel-good movie, it’s not insultingly so.

Dark Matter, dir. Shi-Zheng Chen (2007), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Stoning of Soraya M, dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh (2008), I had mixed feelings about. Like the female circumcision in Moolaadé, stoning is barbaric and unjustifiable. The Stoning of Soraya M is apparently based on a true story. It’s set in a village in Iran, where a man falsely accuses his wife of adultery because she won’t divorce him and allow him to marry a younger woman. Stoning is barbaric. Any justice system in which women are judged more harshly than men is barbaric. any justice system which sentences people to death is barbaric. It doesn’t need for Soraya M to be innocent and virtuous. So what if she had committed adultery? The fact she was stone is condemnation enough of the village and its justice. Making the husband out to be a manipulative moustache-twirling villain is entirely unnecessary and feels like the story is pandering to people who might consider adultery crime enough – for a woman only, of course – to require severe punishment. The Stoning of Soraya M is a film worth seeing but, sadly, it undermines its own argument.

Twelfth Night, dir. John Gorrie (1980), I’m fairly sure I saw when I was at school, though the Shakespeare play I studied for English O Level was Henry IV, Part 1. It’s another typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities and cross-dressing. Felicity Kendall plays Viola/Cesario, Robert Hardy is Sir Toby Belch, Clive Arrindell is Orsino, and Sinéad Cusack is Olivia. Alec McCowen plays a good Malvolio, both unctuous and creepy. I was, incidentally, surprised to discover that the line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is from this play – specifically from a love letter written by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the jester, but purpotedly from his mistress, Olivia,  as revenge on Malvolio. In context, it seems an ironic choice of phrase for people who use it to justify their own over-inflated sense of worth. Much Ado About Nothing remains the best of the comedies I’ve seen so far, though this one comes a close second.

Blake’s Seven series 4 (1981) feels like an unwanted coda to the first three series. And so it was. The makers had not expected to be renewed after series three, and so had to quickly cobble together something for an additional thirteen episodes. Including a new spaceship, since they had blown up Liberator. Plus a new base. And several new additions to the “Seven”. The base is underground and belongs to a salvage-man of dubious legality who Avon’s gang defeat and kill in a story entirely ripped off from The Picture of Dorian Gray. His lover and partner, Soolin, joins Avon, and the obsequious computer of his ship, Scorpio, makes up the seven. The Federation/empire ruled by Servalan which Blake and co had destroyed is now busy recreating itself, but Servalan – believed dead – is reviled. So she has re-invented herself as Sleer, a police commissioner, and is busy planning a return to power. It’s as well Blake’s Seven finished after this season. The special effects are embarrassingly cheap, the sets more so, the stories don’t make much sense, and the story-arc seems to lurch about without coming close to any sort of end. So they killed everyone off. They should have kept it to three series.

Iron and Blood: The Legend of Taras Bulba, dir. Vladimir Bortko (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, dir. Michael Apted (2010), led to a small discussion on Twitter. I maintain the films are better than the books – I find the books deeply patronising, and their old-fashioned sensibilities often offensive. The films at least have modernised the books’ attitudes. However, as was pointed out to me, this has not always been done for the better. When on the island of the invisible Dufflepuds, in the book a magic tome allows Lucyto hear what everyone else thinks for her, whereas in the film she imagines what her life might be like were she as beautiful as her sister, Susan. It’s a step backwards as Lewis was mostly evenhanded in his treatment of gender, with the girls as noble and heroic as the boys. But then, the best bit of the Narnia books is that the Pevensie children remained in Narnia as kings and queens, grew up and ruled wisely… and then returned to their real lives as children, no more than minutes older than when they had left. Lewis throws all that away in a single line. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a string of minor adventures, in which Prince Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and cousin Useless Eustace try to discover the fates of the seven lost Lords of Narnia. Which they do.

Twin Daggers, dir. Keun-Hou Chen (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Only Angels Have Wings, dir. Howard Hawks (1939), is the sort of Hemingway-esque movie they don’t make any more. And with good reason: it’s mostly nonsense. Cary Grant plays the manager of a small fleet of aeroplanes which carry mail over the Andes. It’s a dangerous job because they don’t have radar, or even planes powerful enough to fly over the tops of the mountains. So they have a tendency to crash in the passes when the weather is bad. And it’s often bad. There’s lots of macho posturing, the dialogue is snappy, Cary Grant makes good fist of his role despite the part not requiring debonair charm, Rita Hayworth smoulders, and the model-work for the aeroplanes almost convinces. I do like the Silver Fox’s movies, and many of them are classics, but I’m finding that the ones I like are not always the ones everyone else likes…

30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, dir. Gabriel Bologna (2007), was produced by The Global Asylum. So when I sat down to watch it I knew I was going to get a shit film. I was not disappointed. It’s allegedly an update of Verne’s classic, though how increasing the number of leagues signals that fact is a mystery. A US ballistic missile sub has sunk in a deep marine trench, and so the Navy calls in Lieutenant Arronax and his deep sea submersible. To make matters more interesting, they put the submersible under the command of Arronax’s ex-wife, Lieutenant Commander Conciel. The submersible descends from the USS Abraham Lincoln (an Iowa-class battleship that can somehow manage 75 knots) to 20,000 feet, where the missile sub lies. Bizarrely, there is a bubble of reduced pressure there, which allows the crew of the submersible to use ordinary scuba gear. It doesn’t explain how the missile sub didn’t implode on its way down, however. Also down there is a vast submarine, commanded by Captain Nemo, who wants to use the sub’s nuclear missiles to destroy the world above the waves. Arronax must stop him, even though some of his crew have been brainwashed by a device of Nemo’s. This film has no redeeming qualities – the CGI is crap, the acting is worse, the script is dreadful – with exchanges such as “I want it soon.” “How soon?” “Immediately!” – and the story makes no sense. How The Global Asylum remains in business is a mystery.

Mammoth, dir. Lukas Moodysson (2009). I was not very impressed by Moodysson’s Container – although I like his other films, especially Lilya 4-Ever – so was somewhat afraid I’d feel the same about this film. But I actually thought it was superb. A young dotcom millionaire files out to Thailand to sign a deal with some venture capitalists. His wife is a surgeon in the ER at a New York hospital. Their nanny is a Filipina, who has left her two young sons back in the Philippines. But it’s a film mostly about children. In Thailand, the millionaire heads for the beach, bored by the negotiations, and there meets a young prostitute. He pays her to go home, rather than sleep with him. But she returns the following day and offers to be his guide. Meanwhile, the wife objects to the nanny introducing the couple’s young daughter to Filipino culture. While in the Philippines, the older of the two boys tries to make extra money by selling his body. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good as the young millionaire, but the rest of the cast are also very good. An excellent film, and another contender for the best of the year.

Moonwalk One, dir. Theo Kamecke (1970), I will be reviewing at some point on my Space Books blog. It’s a strangely hippie documentary of the Apollo 11 mission, which gives a very real idea of contemporary reactions to it.

Dark Descent, dir. Wilfred Schmidt (2004). When I saw a description of this, I thought it might prove interesting as it’s set in an undersea habitat in the Challenger Deep. What I hadn’t expected it to be is a complete rip-off of Outland (which was itself “inspired” by High Noon). Dean Cain (how the, er, super have fallen) plays the marshal of the aforementioned habitat, which is actually a mining-town. He’s cleaned the place up as it was a hive of scum and villainy – well, drunken violence, the occasional murder, prostitution and vice. Days before he is due to be relieved, he learns that three villains he put away are on their way back to take their revenge. But everyone else in the facility is afraid of them. There is too much in this film which makes no sense. The facility is at the deepest part of the ocean, and the pressure outside is seven tons per square inch. It’s such a dangerous place, in which survival is so totally dependent on machinery, you wouldn’t put there the sort of people who would booze it up, get violent, and behave like criminals. Stupid. The rest of the plot involves some drug which allows humans to take the pressure – water pressure or the stress of the job? Can’t be the water pressure, because no pill is going to make seven tons per square inch survivable. As is later proven when a jet of water at that pressure goes straight through a man. Anyway, the local doctor has been secretly trialling overdoses of the drug, and this has led to a series of suicides. When Cain gets suspicious, the company hires the three villains to sort him out. A film to avoid.

Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.


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readings & watchings 2011 #4

Here we go again – we know a song about that – it’s time for more scrapings from the petri-dish of popular and unpopular culture, as studied under the microscope by Your Scientifically-Minded Correspondent.

Books
Satan Wants Me, Robert Irwin (1999). Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare is one of the best fantasies of the 1980s, and his Night and Horses and the Desert (re-issued as The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature) is a highly-entertaining and informative study of, well, classical Arabic literature. Satan Wants Me – god knows what people thought when they saw me reading this on the tram during my commute to work – is presented as the journal of a hippie sociology doctoral student in early 1970s London. He has recently joined an occult group spun off from Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn. He’s also taking a lot of drugs. And he has some very weird friends. There are some very funny laugh-out-loud bits in this novel – which probably got me even stranger looks on the tram – and it’s sharply-observed throughout. Then it goes completely batshit weird towards the end. While not the classic The Arabian Nightmare is, it certainly confirms my belief that Irwin is a writer very much worth reading.

Cinco de Mayo, Michael Martineck (2010), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. I’ve known Michael for a long time, though we’ve never actually met in person. We’re both members of an informal critting group, with a couple of other people – i.e., we email each other stories, novel extracts, etc., for comments. So I saw bits of Cinco de Mayo several years ago. But I’d never seen the finished product. I have now, and I enjoyed it very much. And thought it a happily diverse and intelligently put-together story. Definitely worth a read.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (1870). This 1973 edition of Verne’s classic has my name and old school number written on the ffep, which means I’ve owned this book for just over thirty years. So I must have read it at some point. I know the story – everyone does – but is that from actually reading the book, or just from some form of cultural osmosis? This (re)read did demonstrate that there’s much about the story I’d forgotten / not known. It’s very dull, for one thing. There are endless pages listing ocean flora and fauna. Very little actually happens. Aronnax et al go hunting a mysterious sea monster which has been sinking ships. In an encounter with it, they are swept overboard and then rescued by the monster… which proves to be a submarine: Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The Nautilus sails around the world, and they do things every now and again. Eventually, Aronnax and his two companions manage to escape, and witness the Nautilus being sucked into a giant maelstrom. That’s pretty much it. Some of the science is impressively detailed; in other places it is impressively wrong – the quoted ocean depths, for instance, are out by quite a margin, claiming the deepest part of the Pacific is something like 15,000 fathoms deep – that’s 90,000 feet! Challenger Deep is actually almost 36,000 feet deep – I know this because of this. Still, despite Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea being a bit of a slog to read, I actually fancy trying a bit more Verne. Perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced by David Herter’s Evening’s Empire

Phase Space, Stephen Baxter (2002), is a collection of short stories, many of which are off-cuts from Baxter’s Manifold trilogy. I read those three books back in 1999, 2000 and 2001 – when they were published, in other words. But not Phase Space. I have a lot of time for Baxter’s fiction, both short and long; but this collection was a bit of a disappointment. There’s some good stuff in it – ‘War Birds’, for example, which won the BSFA Award for Best Short Story in 1998 (and unfortunately resembles something I’ve been working on myself; damn); ‘Tracks’, based on an interview Baxter conducted with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke; ‘Moon-Calf’, about a retired astronaut on holiday in south-west England; ‘Barrier’, which is the sort of sf I’d be happy to have in Rocket Science. Unfortunately, many of the other stories follow a similar pattern – the narrative is interspersed with italicised first-person infodumps – and so they tend to blur together. And one or two, well, I was surprised to see they’d originally been published by Asimov’s and Interzone… Phase Space is not Baxter’s strongest collection by any means, but there’s some good stuff in it.

High Vacuum, Charles Eric Maine (1957). I’m currently working on a two-hander review of this and Jeff Sutton’s First on the Moon for my Space Books blog. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to contrast two novels about Moon landings written before the Apollo programme with the real world lunar landings. While I would have said there was plenty of drama in actually trying to get to the Moon, both Sutton and Maine clearly felt what was need for real drama was… a crash-landing.

Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson (1984). I have planned a “cage-fight” – which I will write up on this blog – between this book and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which I will have to read first; sigh). Because Icehenge is a much better candidate for the SF Masterwork series. Some of the world-building is a little quaint now – USA vs USSR – but I’ll be completely unsurprised if I find that Icehenge shits all over the Heinlein.

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990), was April’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.

The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953), is the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia by publication date, but the sixth book by internal chronology. Useless Eustace and new-found friend Jill Pole escape from bullies at “modern” school Experiment House (dear god, but Lewis shows his reactionary side with his description of the school), because Aslan wants them to find Prince Rilian of Narnia, who was abducted ten years before. Aslan gives Jill four clues, which she manages to screw up, but it all works out in the end. And everyone gets lashings of buttered scones and hot chocolate at the end, or something. These books are a bit like your old Daily Mail-reading grandad telling a bedtime story – the only bits missing are rants against immigration and falling house prices…

Orbital Vol 3: Nomads, Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2011), is the third book of a bande desinée series published in English by Cinebook. It’s heartland sf, but far more adult than you’d expect of a science fiction “comic.” Earth is a reluctant new member of a galactic federation, after a war with the alien Sandjarr. A pair of special agents, one human and one Sandjarr, must ensure the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur to mark the end of the war, to which a Sandjarr delegation has been invited, goes without a hitch. But a nomadic alien race has settled nearby, and something is killing all the fish and the fisherman are not happy about it… Good stuff.

Films
Barbarossa – Siege Lord, Renzo Martinelli (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Ship That Died of Shame, Basil Deardon (1955), is an adaptation of a Nicholas Monsarrat short story of the same title. The crew of a wartime MGB are re-united when they find their old boat – stripped of her weapons, of course – for sale. So they buy her, make her seaworthy, and use her to run contraband across the Channel into post-war austerity Britain. But it all goes horribly wrong when they accept a job to smuggle a murderer to France. Good solid British film-making from the Fifties.

Tin Man (2007), is a mini-series “re-imagining” of The Wizard of Oz, in which Oz becomes the Outer Zone or “Oh Zee”. DG, not Dorothy Gale, finds herself embroiled in a plot by her evil sister to bring endless darkness to the OZ. DG hadn’t known she had a sister, or that the OZ even existed. But when the Midwest farmhouse where she lives with her parents is attacked by strange men in black uniforms, she escapes through a tornado – discovering as she does so that her parents are actually robots. Because she’s really a princess from the OZ. With the help of a heartless ex-law officer (i.e., a “tin man”), the queen’s old advisor who has had his brain removed, and a cowardly lion-like humanoid – oh, and her old tutor, who can transform into a small terrier – DG must find the Emerald of the Eclipse in order to defeat her sister. An interesting spin on a children’s classic which, to be honest, has never appealed to me; but it all felt a bit meh in places. Though it reminded me a lot of the Sci Fi Channel Flash Gordon telly series – which was cheap and a bit silly, but which I quite liked – it didn’t have that programme’s charm.

Rio Grande, John Ford (1950). I am not, I admit, a big fan of Westerns. In fact, the only one in my DVD collection is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo – which is actually an alternative name for the Rio Grande, the river forming part of the border between the US and Mexico. Rio Grande the film is the third in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, following on from Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, neither of which I’ve seen. It’s John Wayne doing manly men stuff in the Wild West as injuns run rampant and hide out in Mexico where Wayne’s cavalry can’t follow them. Except he does, even though it might provoke a diplomatic incident. Then he learns that the injuns have captured a wagonload of white kids, which only makes the mission more righteous. The US Cavalry must have been the biggest bunch of war criminals in uniform until the formation of the SS, and their portrayal in films such as Rio Grande has only romanticised their crimes. It’s unlikely a John Wayne film would be “warts and all”, given that there’s always been a strong element of fantasy to the depiction of the Wild West in Hollywood cinema. Wayne’s character may be a racist, but he’s still the hero…

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Martin Ritt (1965), is a curiously flat adaptation of Le Carré’s novel of the same name. Richard Burton, who always sounds as though he’s declaiming rather than acting, plays the head of the Berlin office who comes under a cloud when a defection from East Berlin is bungled. He is demoted to a lowly position in London, eventually leaves the “Circus”, and turns to drink and a succession of low-paid jobs. At which point he is approached by East German agents, and reluctantly defects to them. But, of course, it’s all a cunning plot. They’re a bit bloody convoluted these Le Carré films. I have the novel on the TBR; I shall have to read it.

An Autumn Tale, Éric Rohmer (1998). That’s it, all four of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons now watched. In this one, a forty-something woman attempts to matchmake for a winemaker friend of the same age. As does the winemaker’s son’s ex-girlfriend, who has just split up with her university professor lover and who she thinks is an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, most of the characters in An Autumn Tale aren’t especially likable. They prattle and pontificate too much. The ex-girlfriend is particularly annoying – she spouts off lots of arrogant drivel about love and people, but doesn’t actually display much insight. Some poor bloke who gets dragged in as a prospective suitor is horribly mistreated but still hangs in there, though he and the winemaker don’t appear all that well-suited to each other… I first came to Rohmer’s films after watching Triple Agent, and enjoyed its slow-burning drama very much. These Four Seasons films have been… mixed. A Summer’s Tale was easily the best one, with A Winter’s Tale a middling second. A Tale Of Springtime and An Autumn Tale both suffered from unlikable casts. All the same, I’ll be bunging Rohmer’s six Comédies et Proverbes films on the Lovefilm rental list.

Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929), I will be reviewing in more depth on my Space Books blog. For the time-being, I’ll just say that it’s badly-paced, with far too much silliness up-front and not enough screen-time devoted to the mission to the Moon.

The Objective, Daniel Myrick (2008), is advertised as being by the director of The Blair Witch Project, which I’ve never actually seen. A Special Forces team of walking clichés, led by a tight-lipped CIA agent, infiltrate the mountains of Afghanistan where satellites have spotted something very strange indeed. If you like films in which US military stereotypes spout manly men bullshit, and then shoot at things, you might find The Objective interesting inasmuch as it’s not wholly a war film: the eponymous, er, objective, is – keep this to yourselves – not of this world. The film felt a bit amateur in places, and probably would have benefitted from a couple of beers inside the viewer.

I Come With The Rain, Anh Hung Tran (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

Aliens From Outer Space, Bill Knell (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

The Small Back Room, The Archers (1949). Those back room boys… Without them, we’d never have won the war, you know. Though they don’t actually appear to do much in this film. Sammy Rice is one such back room boy. He has an artificial foot, which pains him; and a dependency on pills and alcohol. He’s also in a strange relationship with his boss’s secretary. When a new type of booby-trapped explosive device, dropped by Jerry planes, starts killing children, Rice is brought in to puzzle out how it works. Meanwhile, he’s crawling further into a bottle, politics at the office is causing major problems, and his increasing bitterness is jeopardising his relationship with his girlfriend. Despite some clever photography, the tension and drama in The Small Back Room never quite works, but as a study of a man succumbing to despair during wartime – including a bizarre drunken dream sequence – the film is very effective. The Archers – Powell and Pressburger – were bloody clever filmmakers, and it certainly shows in this. In lesser hands, The Small Back Room could have been just another anodyne WWII home-front melodrama. We need directors like the Archers in the twenty-first century.

Le Refuge, François Ozon (2009), was surprisingly ordinary and a bit dull for an Ozon film. Could it really have been directed by the same person who made 8 Women, Angel or Water Drops On Burning Rocks? Two junkies score some smack, but one dies of an overdose. The other, the dead man’s girlfriend, only just survives. And then discovers that she’s pregnant. The dead junkie’s family, who are wealthy, don’t want her to keep the baby. But she chooses to have it, so runs away to a friend’s house on the coast. A few months later, the dead junkie’s gay brother comes to visit, and ends up staying a week or so. And, er, that’s about it. There are a number of scenes filmed on a beach, in which the woman’s pregnant belly is plainly visible. I was quite impressed by the prostheses and make-up used for this effect, only to learn in a featurette on the DVD that the actress, Isabelle Carré, really was pregnant during the making of the film. You have to wonder if she was cast because she was pregnant; or did Ozon completely rewrite the script on learning she was pregnant? Le Refuge is a likable drama, but Ozon has made much more interesting films.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), I will be reviewing for VideoVista, but I decided to give it an early mention because it’s a pitch-perfect spoof of low-budget action/spy movies, and might well end up on my Best of the Year top five films.


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readings & watchings 2011 #2

Oops. Been a while since the last one of these, so this is going to be a bit of a marathon listing. You know how it goes…

Books
American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009). I thought Mercurio’s Ascent was excellent when I read it several years ago, and was much impressed by his intense, meticulously-researched prose. Admittedly, I was initially drawn to Ascent because of its subject – Russian fighter pilot becomes cosmonaut on secret mission – but even so I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else by Mercurio… And so I did. His third novel (his first, Bodies, is on the TBR) couldn’t be more different in subject. It’s a retelling of John F Kennedy’s presidency, couched as a medical report and focusing on his addiction to sex. JFK is often referred to throughout as “the subject”, and the prose dwells a great deal on his poor health. As in Ascent, Mercurio writes with impressive authority – I’m no expert on JFK, but I believed every word in American Adulterer. Mercurio is definitely a writer I’m watching.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (2008), was lent to me by my mother. The book of the title is a haggadah, a Jewish religious text used during Passover. In this somewhat melodramatic novel, a haggadah from the fourteenth century is uncovered in Sarajevo just after the collapse of Yugoslavia (the haggadah is apparently a real one). This particular one is unusual because it is illustrated, something which was previously unknown for such documents in Moorish Spain. An Australian manuscript restorer who specialises in haggadah travels to Sarajevo to verify and restore the document. She finds various bits of, well, stuff, in its binding. These spark off chapters describing, in reverse chronological order, the history of the book – the Balkans during WWII, Vienna, and so on back to Spain. Meanwhile, the restorer is having mother issues. An interesting novel for what it said about the haggadah, but the story wrapped around it was too much of a soap opera.

A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967), I read for my ongoing series on British SF Masterworks, and I wrote about it here.

Empress Of Outer Space, A Bertram Chandler (1965), is the first in the “Empress Irene” series by Chandler. It’s also a very short novel, one half of an Ace double. Oh, and it’s crap. Empress Irene has just put down a rebellion by a Navy captain who has set himself up as a demigod on a primitive world, when her yacht is stolen. So she commandeers a cruiser and hares off after it with a crew of seven. The narrator is her captain. They track the ship to a world, land, and captain and empress become trapped in a carpet of moss which emits an hallucinogen. They undergo a series of dream-like “adventures” conflated from 007, Shakespeare and ERB’s Barsoom, before eventually escaping. There’s much room here for commentary, but Chandler’s clanking prose treads all over it with a leaden foot. Eminently avoidable. Which is what I should have done…

To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967), has not aged especially gracefully, though it has a neat idea at its core. A new religion, Vorsterism, which seems pretty secular despite its creed, promises its followers real biological immortality (courtesy of a well-funded research programme which has yet to bear fruit). A glossed-over schism creates the Harmonists, who become not-so-friendly rivals and whose focus instead is human ESP. Because Noel Vorst, founder of Vorsterism, believes that the only way for humanity to survive is to settle the stars. And that can only be done using teleportation by immortal humans. The Vorsters control Earth, but the Harmonists control Venus, and there’s a bit of cunning plottery to heal the rift and so “open the sky”. Not one of Silverberg’s best, but not one of his worst either.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2007). There’s an interesting process at work in Moore’s comics and graphic novels in which he slowly disappears up his own backside. He’s always been a very referential writer, but this one takes it to an extreme. The series conceit, understandably, references all manner of other writers’ works – well, the characters are all well-known fictional characters. And there are even more references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Plus, who else but Moore would print a section of a book in 3D, and include a pair of cardboard-cutout 3D glasses for the reader? Not to mention a Jeeves & Wooster / Lovecraft pastiche. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is great fun. It’s a sort of reference module/interim work in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe, partly explaining the strange change in the story universe which resulted in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 1910 from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2. Good, if sometimes baffling, stuff.

Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces, edited by Almendro, Victor Selwyn & David Burk (1943), is the first of the Salamander anthologies of, well, poetry from those serving in the forces during World War 2. Good condition copies of this 64-page chapbook are hard to find, but I managed it (and yes, I have Return to Oasis and From Oasis into Italy, the other two Salamander anthologies). Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Some known names provide some good stuff, but there are less successful poems by others. Given that the Salamander people were stationed in Cairo, many of the poems feature the desert, Egypt, or Cairo itself. Not all of the poems are war poems – in fact, there’s a quite a spread of subjects.

Winterstrike, Liz Williams (2008), was the second book of this year’s women in sf reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, David Pringle (1985), does exactly what it says on the tin. Except for that “best”, of course. Pringle explains his choices in a lengthy introduction, and freely admits that some of his picks are not actually very good, nor does he like them very much. But he considered them important so he included them. He also points out that sf as a whole is not an especially well-written genre. I would guess about 70% of the books mentioned I’d classify as rubbish, and their stature within the genre is, to me, no good reason to hold them up as “best”. Um, there’s an idea for a project: my own choice of 100 best novels, posted here one a day…

Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), is the fifth and final in Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. I plan to write about the entire quintet in more detail at some point. Certainly they are amongst the most political science fiction novels I have ever read. They are also very good.

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro (2009), is a collection of five stories featuring Ishiguro’s trademark self-deluded, and never entirely likeable, narrators. The five stories all feature music in some fashion, and are set variously in Venice, London, Malvern Hills and Los Angeles. Like most of his fiction, the story-arc seems to dribble and die rather than actually concluding, but the writing is very good throughout. I suppose if you wanted an introduction to Ishiguro’s writing, this collection would be a good place to start.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986), was Ishiguro’s second novel and an improvement on his first, A Pale View of Hills. The book is set in Japan in 1948 and 1949, and the titular artist, about to marry off his twenty-six-year-old daughter, reflects over the events in his life before and during the war. Something he did may cause the marriage negotiations to fail (as they had done once before), but as usual Ishiguro doesn’t say what and only circles around the topic. In fact, An Artist of the Floating World is even more discursive than other books by Ishiguro I’ve read. The narrator is, typically, self-deluded – and, in this case, hugely self-important too. The book would have been much improved by a resolution.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), is a glossy coffee-table book published during Apollo 11’s fortieth anniversary. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Son of Heaven, David Wingrove (2011), is the first book, and a prequel of sorts, to the newly-relaunched, re-written and revamped Chung Kuo series. What was eight volumes is now twenty. And by the looks of it Corvus are doing an impressive job on these new editions. I read the book, and interviewed the author, for Interzone.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis (1952), is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book as written, that is; but the fifth following internal chronology. I’m way too old for these books, which is probably why I find them so annoyingly patronising; but I’d like to think I’d have felt the same if I’d read them when I was eight or nine. This one is at least better then the previous two, and has a bit more of a plot. Lucy and Edmund, plus horrible cousin Eustace, fall into a painting and find themselves aboard the titular ship with Prince Caspian. He’s heading east for the edge of the world to find seven missing lords and, perhaps, Aslan’s Land. They have adventures en route, and Eustace learns how to be a nice chap. What little charm these books possess has aged badly, but Lewis certainly proves he can stick the knife into his “muggles” so much more effectively than Rowling ever managed: “They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” Best line in the entire book, and it’s in the opening paragraph…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent, Part 1, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011). I don’t normally include graphic novels in these lists because they’re such quick reads. But this one is worth mentioning: the characters of Blake and Mortimer were invented by Belgian Edgar P Jacobs in the 1946 and first appeared in Hergé’s Tintin magazine. Blake is a captain in MI5 and Mortimer is a nuclear physicist, and together they’ve had numerous semi-science-fictional adventures. Sente and Juillard have, since the millennium, been adding to Jacobs’ series, and they’re doing an excellent job. Sente’s scripts are very much grounded in the period in which the stories take place – the 1950s – and real-world events are cleverly used. In this one, it’s India’s struggle for independence which drives the plot. The books still have a tendency to fill the frames with dialogue, and often use text boxes to describe what’s obvious from the art; but I much prefer these new stories to Jacobs’ originals.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010) does exactly what it says on the cover. The stories were selected, and the collection edited, by Jonathan Strahan, but KSR himself provides an afterword giving brief notes on each of the included pieces. The first three – ‘Venice Drowned’, ‘Ridge Running’ and ‘Before I Wake’ – are not especially strong, but ‘Black Air’ and ‘The Lucky Strike’ then demonstrate only too well why KSR is such a bloody good writer. There’s a sf baseball story, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the game or of writing about it. The remaining contents are strong, with some better than others. The final story, ‘The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942’, is original to the collection. I wasn’t entirely sure why it was genre… which is, I suppose, one of the reasons KSR’s fiction appeals so much. Definitely a collection which belongs on the book-shelves of any self-respecting sf fan.

Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), is the first book, internal chronology-wise, in Snow’s 11-volume Strangers and Brothers series. Lewis Elliott is the son of a bankrupt in an unnamed provincial Midlands town during the early 1920s. After leaving school with good exam results, he becomes a local government clerk in the education department. But he dreams of better things. After making friends with George Passant, a qualified lawyer working as a legal assistant in one of the town’s practices, Eliot decides that the law is the career for him – but not as a solicitor, as a barrister. He crams for the Bar examinations, passes them, uses contacts to get himself into an Inn, and so progresses his career. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with – and eventually marries – the neurotic but beautiful Sheila Knight. He also develops “pernicious anaemia” and is very ill for a while. But when this is re-diagnosed as “secondary anaemia”, he seems to miraculously recover – probably the only false note in the novel. Snow draws deep psychological portraits of his characters – it’s all told from Elliott’s point of view, but he’s a deeply analytical person. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I certainly plan to track down the remaining ten volumes and read them.

Films
Tell No-One, Guillaume Canet (2006), is a French adaptation of a novel by US writer Harlan Coben. Which pretty much explains why this film didn’t work. It’s not a French film. It feels like a US film played by a French-speaking cast. As a thriller, it’s not bad, but that dissonance between expectation and implementation made for an unsatisfactory viewing experience.

Fringe season 2 (2009), continues the 21st century “X-Files” as, in this season, the mythology is deepened as Olivia visits the alternate world at war with our world, and more of her background – and Walter’s experiments – are revealed. Walter’s ex-partner and semi-nemesis, Bell (played by creaking Leonard Nimoy), also features prominently, popping up in several episodes to explain what it is that’s actually going on. Fringe remains gripping telly, and I’ll be picking up season 3 when it hits DVD.

Julius Caesar, dir. Herbert Wise (1979), is the seventh of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve now seen. After watching it, I jokingly posted to a forum that it was a rip-off as Caesar dies halfway through. But then, of course, it’s not so much about Caesar himself as it is the plot which removes him and the power vacuum he leaves behind. Charles Gray played a somewhat effete title role, but the supporting cast were uniformly good. It’s a very manly men type of play – you’d expect the theatre to reek of sweat and blood if you saw it live. I must admit, from the ones I’ve seen so far, Shakespeare’s tragedies have been better than his comedies. Perhaps the comedy simply hasn’t travelled across the centuries, but tragedy is timeless. Still, Julius Caesar is a strong play and worth seeing.

The Racket, dir. John Cromwell (1951), is a somewhat preachy near-noir film I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009), is a remake of any one of the numerous Frankenstein movies that have been made over the decades. Sort of. Two research scientists create an artificial lifeform – they’re trying to create an artificial lifeform that can manufacture pharmaceuticals – but this latest one they’ve added some human DNA to the mix. It grows up – very quickly – into a strange-looking young woman (she certainly wouldn’t pass unnoticed on a busy street). But it all goes horribly wrong when male scientist cannot resist the monster’s charms, but is unfortunately caught in the act of boinking her by his wife, the other scientist. The monster then goes berserk. A cleverly-done film, but it never really struck me as quite as clever as it thought it was. It’s more like Frankenstein as if no one had ever written it before and it had been newly-thought-up in the twenty-first century. But since Mary Shelley got there first in 1818, the commentary all feels a bit obvious and old-hat. Worth watching, nonetheless.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks, dir. François Ozon (2000), is actually based on an unfilmed script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I really must watch some of his films some day). It’s not an easy film to describe… A middle-aged man arrives home with a twenty-year-old man, who becomes his live-in lover. Everything goes swimmingly for a while, but then the relationship begins to pall. When the older man is away on business, the younger man’s ex-fiancée turns up. This causes ructions, which are further exacerbated when the transsexual ex-girlfriend of the older man arrives. There’s a scene in the film, remarked on by all the critics, in which the four characters dance to a horrible piece of German pop. It is… astonishing. And while it may not sound like much, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Water Drops On Burning Rocks is one of those odd films that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1985), makes it eight. I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a copy of The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection boxed set, so I’ll have all of the plays on DVD. Except if I did that I’d probably never get around to watching them. But because I rent them, I feel obligated not to send them back unwatched (and it’d be a waste of money too). So perhaps for the time-being I’ll keep on doing that. Anyway, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy, and not an especially good one. although set in the Kingdom of Navarre, which existed from 824 to 1620, but the cast all wear eighteenth-century dress. The king and his men friends have decided to swear off all pleasures and devote themselves to scholarly study for seven years. This means no women. Which does not go down well. Unfortunately, along comes a princess of France on a diplomatic mission, and she’s unhappy at being told she cannot stay in the palace but must camp in a field outside it. So, of course, the men fall in love with the women, there’s some mistaken-identity comedy, a very strange play-within-a-play, and, strangely, an ending which defers the real ending for “a year and a day”. An odd play, and not the most enjoyable of those I’ve watched. According to Wikipedia, it’s often assumed that the play was written for student lawyers, which probably explains it.

Choose, dir. Marcus Graves (2010), is a low-budget thriller I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Millennium season 1 (1997), was Chris Carter’s new project after The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is an ex-FBI profiler with a gift: he can see what the killer saw. Unfortunately, this led him into a nervous breakdown and early retirement. So he moves back to his hometown of Seattle, and is recruited by the Millennium Group, who consult with the police on difficult murder cases. The series is as much about the mysterious agenda of the Millennium Group as it is about Black and his gift, or his relationship with his wife and young daughter (who may also have the same talent). While the IT in the series dates it, Millennium actually holds up really well. Except for those dial-up modems and CRTs, it could have been made last year. Despite being high-quality television, the programme only lasted three seasons. Happily, I have the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. (Bizarrely, search for “Millennium” on Amazon, and it doesn’t return the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. But search for “Millenium” and it does – despite the title clearly have two “n”s. Stupid search engine.)

The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961), is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who is terrorised by her two strange charges. This is on a list of Top 100 British Films I found somewhere online but, to be honest, I found it a bit dull. Kerr may have been good in her role, but any film in which the lead character spends most of her time running around with a look of horror on her face – with no apparent agency, in other words – is not going to keep my interest. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book.

Star Trek The Next Generation season 3 (1989), was actually the last full season on ST: TNG I’d seen. When I lived in the UAE, Star TV, Murdoch’s satellite channel for India, and the middle and Far Easts, bought the programme. They broadcast season one. The following year, they broadcast season one followed by season two. And the year after… You can probably guess. Star TV’s English-language channel then turned Hindi (and Baywatch in Hindi is actually better), and the new English-language channel was subscription only. So, as a result I’ve only seen scattered episodes of ST: TNG season 4 to 7. To be honest, I’d forgotten most of the episodes from season 3, although the few stand-outs I remembered were from this season. Especially ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, which is still a good piece of science fiction telly. Other episodes are less successful, but at least the season is a damn sight better than season two was.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an excellent Israeli film I review for VideoVista here.

If…., dir. Lindsay Anderson (1968), is another film from the Top 100 British Films list. I thought I’d actually seen this before, but on watching it discovered I never had. I’d just lived it. Sort of. I went to a public school not unlike the one in the film – but more than a decade later so many things had changed. Certainly the whole way of life was familiar to me, and I thought Anderson captured it well. The ending… well, perhaps it was shocking in 1968, but it all seems a bit meh these days. Perhaps it’s been copied so many times, it’s lost its power. A good film, with some very strange bits in it, and worth watching.

Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog (2009), is one of those films that almost defies criticism. Certainly Nicolas Cage in the title role defies any kind of commentary. He plays his character as a bucket of twitches and tics topped by a bad toupee. And yet it bizarrely seems to suit the film. The plot is a bog-standard thriller, with little to recommend it. But there is one scene that’s worth the price of admission alone, where Cage’s character says of a man he has just shot dead, “His soul’s still dancing”, while a doppelgänger of the dead man breakdances behind the corpse. Genius. I knew going in that a Herzog thriller was not going to be an ordinary thriller, but even then Herzog confounded my expectations and made it a Herzog film in ways I had not considered. Which was pretty foolish of me in the first place – this is, after all, the director who made a film with a cast who were all under hypnosis…