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My review of Source Code is now up at Strange Horizons.

Moon is quiet, oppressive and uses an extremely muted color palette. It presents the universe as being grimly deterministic. Stevens, by contrast, is almost immediately aware of his situation and from there it is only a small step to accepting it and, ultimately, changing it. His journey much more conforms to the Hollywood archetype. Correspondingly, the color palette is reversed and the film is suffused with a self-help sensibility: carpe diem, every second counts, what you do if you only had a minute to live? Although Moon concluded with an unlikely happy ending, it always seemed bolted on. Source Code’s happy ending is never in doubt and Ben Ripley’s script could have been written by Basil Fotherington-Thomas (hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists). The film’s capacity for sentimentality still manages to surprise, though.

As it happens, I saw the film on the same day as both my current and previous editors at Strange Horizons (Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison). They both liked it rather more than be and Abigail published her review on Saturday:

Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film. What’s left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects. There’s been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don’t yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself. A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas.

There is also further discussion in the comments on both these reviews.

Written by Martin

11 April 2011 at 14:20

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper Has A Posse

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This, then, is the concept:

Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history.

And first off the blocks we have Jonathan Lethem writing about They Live, “John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop.” It is an unusual book, a flicker book of thoughts that often reads more like an extended blog post than a conventional work of criticism, despite rather grandly opening with the claim that this is “the first monograph” on the film. Lethem acknowledges Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look At Psycho as an aspiration but at the same time makes clear he lacks the space and skill required for such a project.

The book opens with five epigrams. Then five introductions. Then dozens of short chapters of only a couple of pages or so. These chapters are split between scene-by-scene dissections of the film and digressions on mood, theme, symbolism and anything else that pops into Lethem’s head. In his second introduction, Lethem notes that They Live is “howlingly blatant and obvious on many levels” yet “marvellously slippery and paradoxical”. I watched the film on Saturday night and it really is a deliberate B-movie, a bizarre collision of high and low art of the type you just don’t see any more in mainstream American cinema (Darren Aaronofsky’s Black Swan is the only recent example I can think of). Lethem deftly unpicks these contradictions and establishes Carpenter as a sort of gutter auteur.

Lethem is usually good and always readable, only occasionally collapsing into self-congatulatory praise for suriving his umpteen re-watches or going slightly stir-crazy from his intense focus. After commenting perceptively on the “bifurcation” of the film – not just high/low but, let’s be honest, the good first half and the bad second half – he closes the chapter by saying: “Or is it something between the two? Am I hedging here? Sure I am!” He is talking to the walls here.

Perhaps, though, Lethem never betters the concision of his very first page where, after a brilliantly brisk synopsis, he notes the two totemic sequences of the film that ensure its continued appeal:

One, when the wrestler first dons the sunglasses and, exiting an alley, walks through a city revealed. Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black-and-white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick.
Two, a fistfight in the same alley: crass, bruising farce stetched to an absurd limit, wagering the film’s whole stakes decisively on a pop-culture/”termite art” bet.

He concludes with another five quotes, a grading (B+) and – as if his thoughts hadn’t wandered freely enough – a selection of notes on his notes. That probbaly sums up exactly what Deep focus where after and, while none of the forthcoming titles (Death Wish, The Sting and Lethal Weapon) grab me in the same way as this book, I will definitely be keeping an eye on the series.

Written by Martin

1 February 2011 at 10:49

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There won’t be any Everything Is Nice Awards this year for the simple reason that most of what I watched was shit and I can’t talk about most of the good things I read. I still won’t be able to say much about science fiction literature in 2011 but I’m hoping to fit a few other reading projects in around the Clarke Award. And I’m certainly going to try and watch less bilge.

If you are desperate to know what I think about the state of SF in 2010, the Strange Horizons review of the year features a contribution from me. It is pretty clear that The Dervish House by Ian McDonald takes the lion’s share of the laurels over there. I am currently working on the end of the year issue of Vector, including the reviewers’ poll, and it seems likely that McDonald will place highly there too. But will it claim the top spot? And what else will make the podium?

Finally, all BSFA members, reviewers or otherwise, should nominate for this year’s BSFA Awards by 14 January 2011. Here is a list of nominations received so far to prompt your memory of what is eligible.

Written by Martin

4 January 2011 at 19:19

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Monsters (2010)

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Earlier in the year Patrick Hudson put forward the idea of Gap Year SF, named after the British tradition that school kids go off travelling for a year to see the world before going on to university. The aspiration is that you gain life skills by Peace Corp-style volunteering; the perception is that these life skills are more likely to involve having sex with other Westerners, learning rude words in foreign languages and doing a bit of minimum wage manual labour in Australia to make ends meet. As it relates to science fiction, the idea is that the United States has been the default future for so long that, as readers, we are predisposed to be attracted to SF set in the developing world. But, as with kids on a gap year, is our understanding and interest only likely to be superficial?

Sam (Whitney Able) is as close to a gap year student as you can be without actually being one. She is a trustafarian with a media mogul father and a honking great diamond engagement ring. We are never told why she is in San Jose but it is strongly implied she is in Central America to “find herself” before getting married, settling down and living the American Dream.

Then a disaster hits her hotel. She sprains her wrist and her father orders one of his locally based employees, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), to escort her home. Andrew is a photojournalist and he is as much an archetypal war photographer as Sam is Daddy’s little rich girl. He is cynical, reckless and arrogant (he hasn’t even bothered to learn Spanish). Above all, he has no interest in babysitting his boss’s daughter. So we are all set for a Hollywood romance, right?

Well, actually, we sort of are. But, of course, there is something I have been deliberately concealing, something signalled rather bluntly by the title of the film. That is to say, the disaster which struck Sam’s hotel wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack but rather a giant space squid.

Six years previously a NASA probe brought back extraterrestrial life but unfortunately crashed on re-entry. This resulted in the infestation of vast swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States with alien life forms and the subsequent coast-to-coast quarantine of a third of the continent. The whole of this area is a No Fly Zone so Andrew is unable to simply stick Sam on a plan. Instead they strike out for the nearest port using the traditional developing world combo of train, truck and shank’s pony. On arrival they find an equally traditional combo of corrupt officials, vibrant nightlife and passport stealing prostitutes. They miss the boat and – whoops – it is the last one for months because the alien mating season is just starting. Their only solution is for Sam to pawn her engagement ring and, in a nice piece of irony, employ coyotes to smuggle them over land through the quarantine zone and back into America (in a further irony, when they arrive at the border the anti-alien wall proves to be just as ineffectual as the current anti-Mexican fence). This all unfolds with a fluid naturalism which makes it possible to ignore the rather rudimentary construction of the plot.

So Monsters is fifty percent romance, fifty percent road movie. As they face travails both terrestrial and otherwise, Sam and Andrew grow closer to each other and start to question what is really of value in their lives. In her case, this means increasing doubts about whether she loves her fiancé; in his, increasing angst about the son he never sees and isn’t allowed to call him dad. The film ends with a genuinely beautiful moment of transcendence and emotional connection. Just like Gap Year students, they have found themselves by exposing themselves to an alien culture.

Monsters is the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, a British documentary maker. It was written, filmed and directed by him, he provided the visual effects and reputedly brought the whole film in for half a million dollars. Now, film budgets always need to be taken with a pinch of salt but regardless, it is an impressive achievement. And, in many ways, Monsters is an impressive film. I just wish I could have liked it more.

Its strengths can be seen in the obvious comparison to Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s schlocky 2008 re-imagining of Godzilla. Before are shot on hand-held cameras, although Edwards avoids the extreme contrivance of making the film an unedited, real time record. In both films, the monsters are usually glimpsed obliquely or in the dark. These two decisions were taken for financial rather artistic reasons but, although Reeve had fifty times Edwards’s budget, it is Edwards who has made the best of his constraints. He utilises the inherent intimacy of the shooting style to good effect in what is after al a small story but he also invites light, colour and scale onto the screen. More than this though, Monsters poses a refreshing question: what if NYC wasn’t the centre of the universe?

Once you’ve posed that question, you have to answer it though. Whilst it is always welcome to be reminded that cinematic science fiction can operate on another model to Hollywood, Monsters does not step too far from this path. The problem is not with its aesthetic but with its bones; Edwards is a Renaissance Man but I hope it is not uncharitable to suggest that he is one with a greater facility with images than words. If Hollywood (exemplified by the producer of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams) is habitually and accurately lambasted for preferring style to substance then where is substance to Monsters?

You may, for example, have detected a certain sarcasm to my introductory synopsis of the film. While I was aware of the many familiar elements of the film whilst watching it, it was only as I started to write this review that I became aware of just how many and how cumulative they are. Edwards is clearly striving for the universal but that is only a whisker away from the archetypal. Sam and Andrew are not clichés but they don’t rise far above them; they are characters we know well and whilst Able, McNairy and Edwards turn them into real people, they don’t turn them into particularly interesting characters. Their dilemmas are familiar, adolescent even. So too are their solutions.

Ultimately, I was reminded of Duncan Jones’s Moon: another recent debut by a British director, another quietly impressive science fiction film with a minimal cast, another rarity that was overly praised due to the paucity of similar films to act as any sort of benchmark. Isn’t the potential of science fiction cinema so much more than this though? Is the chasm between the boneheaded blockbuster behemoths and the slightly solipsistic small-budget films too wide to be bridged? Is there no room for an intelligent, exciting middle ground? I hope not and there is some evidence for this hope. Moon won the Hugo last year; I doubt Monsters will do the same and instead it will go to Inception, a blockbuster which, for all its undoubted flaws, had brains. Then there is next year’s Source Code, the next film from Jones and what (from the trailer) looks like an attempt to claim that very middle ground. Hopefully it will be artistically and commercially successful and this will be a progression that Edwards will also take. At the moment, Monsters is more of a calling card (one that is very likely to be successful). If someone hands him a bit more money and a good script I will be really exciting to see what he does with them.

Written by Martin

8 December 2010 at 09:59

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Mopping Up The Butcher’s Floor Of Your Broken Little Hearts

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After watching last year’s cack-handedly compressed Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince I wondered if the cynical marketing decision to split The Deathly Hallows into two films might pay artistic dividends as well as cold hard cash ones. To my pleasant surprise it has. Yes, it is still clogged with too many characters and minor plot cul-de-sacs but it has the time and – free of Hogwarts – the space to evolve.

My memory of JK Rowling’s novel is that it was 700 pages of wander aimlessly through a forest and 50 pages of a climactic battle at the end. My worry was that would be exactly the split of the two films. Luckily, whilst Harry, Hermione and Ron’s bickering peregrinations do take up a huge portion of Deathly Hallows Part 1, my memory was faulty and there a good few set-pieces. More importantly, it replaces Rowling’s childish prose with a tone of emotional maturity which turns the tedious squabbling that appears on the page into something approaching actual drama.

Of course, it would help if any of the three principal actors could actually act. After this many years together they certainly have some level of rapport and they have learnt to mask their limitations but still. Director David Yates makes the best of this by treating his cast as simply another prop, using his budget to conjure up tableaux in which he places them in some of the most scenic parts of the UK. Often, like a Take That concert, it resembles nothing more than a sustained advert for knitwear.

This sounds like sustained snark but I did enjoy the film. Where the books provide the reader with nothing but increasingly idiotic plotting, the adaptations have developed a rich and impressive visual language. Rowling’s novels moved through the years but they never grew up but this is exactly what the cast and the films themselves have done before our eyes. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is dark and violent and intense, it is a film you can get your teeth into and exactly the sort of blockbuster we should be making for children. It is also, for the first time, sexual.

At the beginning of the film, Ginny asks Harry to zip her up. The old ones are the best. This inevitably leads to kissing until the scene is punctured by the arrival of one of the Weasley twins. The scene is perfectly composed but unfortunately there is zero chemistry between the two actors. Daniel Radcliffe can brood but, for the Chosen One, he isn’t very charismatic. This actually works to the film’s advantage later on when Harry dances with Hermione to the slightly ironic sounds of ‘O Children’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing on the radio. When Harry initiates this, it is a moment ripe with sexual tension. I doubt if anyone in the audience I saw it with came within ten years of the films 12 Certificate and they were practically baying for penetrative sex on the tent floor, right then and there. Instead, Radcliffe’s immense gawkiness transforms it into an extremely touching that brings home the isolation of the protagonists. Still, the audience got what it felt it had been cheated out of: later on Ron is confronted with a CGI image of Harry and Hermoine, naked and touching each other up, that is straight out of a Zack Synder film. Good stuff.

Basically, everything the books do badly, the film does well. Conversely, everything bad about the films is because of the books. If you’ve grown up on the Harry Potter books (and millions of people have) then I can’t imagine a better realisation of their potential. Well, unless that casting session so many years ago had gone a bit differently.

Written by Martin

23 November 2010 at 11:00

Posted in films, sf

Cargo (2009)

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Your average woman of tomorrow will look at a spaceship and see something akin to a passenger liner or a freight train. Your average director of today looks at a spaceship and sees something akin to a haunted house. You can see why as it is a tried and tested formula: put ten little Indians in a metal box, chop ’em up, in space no one can hear you scream. Cargo, a Swiss SF film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, tries to move beyond this but keeps being drawn back to the utility of having someone jump out of a cupboard to provide tension. The result is a curious hybrid of Sunshine and Moon with all the strengths and weaknesses that suggests.

Which is not to say that those are the only two films it resembles. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job on a cargo ship, the Kassandra, to secure a fat paycheck which will allow her to join her sister on the idyllic colony world Rhea. The Kassandra itself is pretty much the Nostromo, right down to a pair of engineers (Michael Finger and Claude-Oliver Rudolph ) in the Yaphet Kotto/Harry Dean Stanton mold. The regular crew is joined a security officer, Lt. Decker (Martin Rapold), who initially appears to be taking the role of Ash as company man. He also acts as a sort of political commissar which is a reminder that dramas set on spaceships most closely resemble dramas set on submarines.

The ship sets off on its four year voyage and the crew enter cryosleep (a nicely realised version of this old standby). Three and a half years later Portmann is woken up, alone, for her shift. Engler and Etter capture the loneliness and introspection of self-enforced solitary confinement in a similar way to Duncan Jones’s Moon. But, of course, Portmann is not really alone. Dun dun duuunn! The rest of the crew are quickly awoken and things unravel from there as hidden motives boil to the surface.

The first image we see in Cargo is of a woman walking through a vast, sunlit cornfield. The camera pulls back and we see that this is, in fact, advert for Rhea being played on a huge screen. In other words, the first image we see in the film is a lie. This sets up the fact that Cargo is a film about secrets and lies. what is strange is how quick it is to give those secrets away.

Given that the Earth is blasted and barren and the remenants of humanity are crowded into orbital habitats we are more than a little suspicious of the paradise of Rhea where everyone has a schloss and two perfect children. The twist relating to this is telegraphed surprisingly early on when Portmann discovers what the cargo they are carrying actually is. Similarly Decker almost immediately abandons any pretense of being the baddie to become a standard leading man; this could have been a case of undercutting our expectations but the reversal is executed so quickly as to not be a reversal at all. That he embarks on an equally rushed romance with Portmann signals a further reliance on generic convention.

Four writers are credited – Engler, Arnold Bucher, Patrik Steinmann and Thilo Röscheisen – and I wonder if this is a case of a horse designed by committee. Cargo does keep some cards close to its chest but even these it discards abruptly. This echoes the pace of the film which tends to alternate between the frantic and the placid with little consistency. Plot holes and idiotic expedency abounds. My favourite example being Portmann as ship’s physician telling Decker to sling a crew member who has fallen several stories over his shoulder and run back to the medical bay. Proper ideas, interesting design and well-composed shots are strung at random along the thread of the film but, as in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in-between them is dross. Where Engler and Etter have succeed most is in establishing a tone of emotional and intellectual seriousness which, even when they are not actually present on screen, allows the viewer to navigate their absence.

Cargo came out last year so it has missed its chance at the Hugos but it is certainly better than 60% of the shortlist. I’m not sure I can agree with Ian Sales that it is the SF DVD of 2010 though. But that did get me thinking. What are the SF films of 2010? My mind is a total blank apart from Inception (and I would be amazed if it didn’t win the Hugo next year).

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 13:28

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Overthinking A Plate Of Brains

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I have written about zombies and velocity before but I haven’t written as much as Christopher Thorne. He’s just published ‘The Running Of The Dead’, a 9,000 word essay on the political philosophy of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Zack Synder’s Dawn Of The Dead and fast zombies. Admittedly, the first 2,000 words of this essay is a rather sloppy introduction to Hobbes but then we get to his moment of epiphany after watching Synder’s remake of George A Romero’s 1978 classic:

I was completely wrong. It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.

To condense his argument absurdly: slow zombies are about the fear of the state and society whereas fast zombies are about fear of the absence of the state and society (hence Hobbes). Over the final half of the essay, Thorne then contends that 28 Days Later deliberately subverts this:

the movie that for all intents and purposes created fast zombies, was already the movie that demystified them. The subgenre stands permanently indicted by its own author and source. Boyle’s movie is not the progenitor to [REC] and Quarantine and the Dawn remake and Justin Cronin’s vampire-zombie novel The Passage; it is their accuser, the one that calls them out on their despotism and aufgehobener race-hate.

It is an enjoyable if strained and rather hasty essay. (Via MetaFilter which has additional discussion.)

Written by Martin

7 September 2010 at 16:12

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