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Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.

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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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The enmity of postmen

It has been a good month for the book collection and a bad month for the TBR: both have grown larger. As follows…

Some charity shop finds to start: Maureen Kincaid Speller has been singing the praises of Alan Garner for decades, though my only exposure to him has been the children’s classic fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor and The Owl Service. Time to remedy that with Strandloper, methinks. Despite thinking they’re really bad, I’m determined to work my way through Fleming’s Bond novels – hence, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I remember being impressed by Palliser’s The Quincunx when I read it back in the early 1990s, and also enjoyed his The Unburied some ten years ago. But he’s not an author who appears often in charity shops, so I was pleased to pick up Betrayals. The infamous, and expensive, Warhammer 40, 000: Space Marine by Ian Watson I didn’t find in a charity shop but bought off a seller in Canada on eBay. I got it for less than the going rate – especially considering its condition – so I’m happy. And now I get to read it, too.

New paperbacks: Infidel is the sequel to the excellent God’s War (see here). A third book, Rapture, is I believe due next year. The Recollection is Gareth Powell’s debut novel from a big publisher. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of the year list back in 2006 (see here), so I felt it was time to try his next book, Case Closed. And Maul is this month’s book for my 2011 reading challenge (see here).

Graphic novels: I like Jacques Tardi’s bandes dessinée, and these Fanatagraphics editions are handsome volumes, so I’ve been buying them. It Was the War of the Trenches is about, well, World War I. The Gondwana Shrine is the eleventh volume of the adventures of Blake and Mortimer, and is another one by the team of Yves Sente and André Juillard (series creator Edgar P Jacobs died in 1987). The books have all the intense seriousness of Tintin, but where Hergé tempers his stories with slapstick humour, Jacobs (and now Sente) marry them with bonkers pulp scientific romance. It makes for an entertaining combination. Then there’s the first two books of Jean-Claude Mézière and Pierre Christin’s Valérian et Laureline, Agents Spatio-Temporel, now in English translation – and published by Cinebook, who are doing excellent work. The series currently stands at 21 volumes, although previously only seven have been translated into English (I have them all). Both The City of Shifting Waters and The Empire of a Thousand Planets are a bit clumsily written, but they’re fun – and the series does improve a great deal. There are, incidentally, some interesting similarities between elements of the latter and the Star Wars films, though The Empire of a Thousand Planets was originally published in 1971. Coincidence? Ascent is a graphic novel adaptation of Jed Mercurio’s excellent novel of the same title (see here).

For the space books collection: The Conquest of Space contains some lovely art by Chesley Bonestell, which are worth the price of admission alone. Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Alan Bean has been on the wants list for a while. It’s a signed first edition. Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn was, er, cheap.

And more space books: All Systems Go is a self-published memoir by an engineer involved in a number of NASA and US military projects, including SAGE, Apollo, Skylab, and the TOW missile. The Mammoth Book of Space Exploration and Disasters was a charity shop find. I suppose the publishers thought exploration on its own wasn’t exciting enough – people would only buy the book if it included shit blowing up.

A trio for the Baxter collection: Sunstorm, book two of the A Time Odyssey trilogy, completes it for me; Conqueror is the second of the Time Tapestry quartet and I still need to get books 3 and 4; and Bronze Summer is the sequel to Stone Spring, which I have yet to pick up a copy of.

More first editions: Paul Scott’s The Bender was lucky find on eBay. As was Compton’s Synthajoy, though it’s a tatty copy. …And the Angel with Television Eyes is the signed slipcased edition from Night Shade Books, which includes a chapbook, the box in my head, of lyrics and poems.


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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.