Archive for March, 2018

Arrival

Posted: March 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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arrivalBy Ted Chiang

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a novelisation of the movie, instead it’s a repackaged anthology of stories by American science fiction writer Chiang, which does include Story of Your Life, the novella the film was adapted from, but also contains seven other stories. Given there’s only eight stories in the book I’ll talk a little about each one. Some I liked, some I was less keen on. C’est la vie…

The anthology opens with Tower of Babylon, a curious tale set in an alternate world where the titular tower was actually built. It took me a little while to get into this, it goes on a bit and it feels a tad repetitive at times (but this might have been intentional to serve as a metaphor for the time taken to climb the tower) and the ending, where it turns out cosmology functions differently in this universe, left me cold, but Chiang’s world building inside the tower that’s so huge it takes a year to climb is certainly evocative, and it’s original if nothing else.

Next up is Understand, where a man given a revolutionary drug to regenerate brain tissue following an accident finds his intelligence increasing at an exponential rate. I liked this, especially the fact that the protagonist starts to become quite alien in his interactions with the rest of humanity, and despite his superior intellect he doesn’t seem to really do anything with it. It reminded me a lot of the film Lucy, which the story obviously predates. Only the ending lets this down.

Division by Zero is something I just couldn’t get my head around, as a genius mathematician finds her mind unravelling when she discovers a fundamental flaw at the heart of mathematics. It left me a trifle cold if I’m honest.

Story of Your Life is probably the best tale in the book, and you can see why someone in Hollywood decided this would make a great science fiction movie. Chiang’s story delves more into the nature of time, or more specifically the perception of time, and explains why the Heptapods see things so differently. There’s a lot of science here, and even some diagrams, yet Chiang never lost me and there remains an emotional core to the story that’s mirrored in the film, and the end did bring a lump to my throat.

Seventy-Two Letters is another tale bordering on fantasy, set in an alternate Victorian England where golems are an everyday part of life, each bought into existence by the writing of names, each of which can command a golem to do different things. That’s where the 72 letters of the title come from. There’s a hefty dash of Jewish mythology here, but Chiang grounds it. Much like Tower of Babylon this is a universe where the natural laws we are used to don’t function the same, only here it’s the basis of biology, and specifically reproduction, that’s different. It’s certainly inventive but I think Chiang asked more of a leap of faith than I was prepared to give it. Maybe if I’d just gone with it I’d have enjoyed it more.

The Evolution of Human Science is a short sharp tale positing how learning would look in a world where super intelligence existed. It’s ok but it’s a trifle too short to really grab you.

Hell is the Absence of God is another alternate Earth story, this time one where Angelic visitations are commonplace, but where they’re perceived almost like natural disasters, and each time an Angel manifests on Earth destruction is wrought in the immediate vicinity and as many people are likely to be injured or killed as are those who are healed by the Angel’s power. It’s a very interesting story around faith, and I loved the idea of Angel’s being perceived, well, as an act of God, with no rhyme or reason sometimes to who they kill and who they save. Infuriatingly yet again it’s the ending that lets it down.

The final story is perhaps my second favourite. Liking What You See: A Documentary posits an intriguing near future where a science known as Calliagnosia can affect your perception so that you no longer recognise if someone is aesthetically beautiful. The story is told in epistolary form, in interviews with people on both sides of the argument. It’s an interesting and very even handed take on something that could change humanity, perhaps for the better, perhaps not, and Chiang is smart enough to leave the interpretation to the reader.

Over all Chiang seems to be an incredibly imaginative writer, coming up with radical and inventive ideas. Whilst these are universally intriguing, the execution is variable. At times he pitches the science at a level I could understand, at times it goes over my head. Several of his more fantastical tales require a suspension of disbelief and I found this harder to undertake in some stories than others.

In addition his prose is a little too academic and anaemic at times. It isn’t that he doesn’t weave emotion into his stories, just that at times is writing felt a little dry, to me.

Still I did enjoy the book and wouldn’t rule out reading more of his stories in future, though I can’t say I feel the urge to suddenly rush out and buy everything he’s ever written!

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Tomb Raider

Posted: March 24, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Roar Uthaug. Starring Alicia Vikander, Dominic West and Walton Goggins.

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You won’t believe what the robot from Ex Machina looks like now!

Lara Croft (Vikander) is a young woman living hand to mouth in London. She can’t afford to pay the gym where she kickboxes, and her job as a cycle courier barely pays the bills. Of course, given she’s the heir to the vast Croft fortune it’s strange that she’s struggling, but in order to inherit the fortune she’d have to sign the papers declaring her father Richard (West) legally dead. Richard, a noted adventurer, disappeared in mysterious circumstances seven years before. Lara is reluctant but after she’s arrested when an urban cycle race goes wrong, she’s bailed out by her father’s former partner Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) who encourages her again to sign the paperwork and let her father go.

Lara agrees, but after she does she finds evidence that her father had travelled to a mysterious island where a mythical Japanese queen, Himiko, was supposedly entombed. Himiko was known as the ‘Death Queen’ and Richard feared her powers would fall into the wrong hands. In a video he encourages Lara to destroy all his work, so no one can locate Himiko, but instead she travels to Hong Kong in hopes of discovering what happened to her father.

Enlisting the help of drunken sea captain Lu Ren (an engaging turn from Daniel Wu) whose father vanished along with Richard, Lara travels into the Devil’s Sea. She locates the lost island but fierce storms shipwreck her. On the island she finds a group of mercenaries led by the villainous Mathias Vogel (Goggins) who have been desperately searching for Himiko’s tomb. Suddenly Lara finds herself in a battle for not only her own life, but potentially for millions more should Himiko’s curse escape the island…

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Computer game adaptations are always tricky business, and whilst it wouldn’t be fair to say they all fail, on average the bad outweigh the good. Lara Croft, of course, has been on celluloid before, twice in fact, both times played by Angelina Jolie essaying the then voluptuous, somewhat more sexualised video game version. I’ve seen both but could barely remember anything about them aside from the fact that Chris Barrie was quite amusing as her butler, of and one of them starred a future James Bond!

The 2018 version of Lara Croft owes more to the more modern version of the game, with Lara as a grittier, more grounded character, but despite the hiring of a great actress, the results are as uneven as they were back when Jolie played the part.

The trouble is that computer games are made to be played, and films are meant to be watched, and if you make a film too much like a game, what you end up with is viewers feeling like they’re watching someone else playing a game (this of course reached a nadir a year ago when in Assassin’s Creed we watched Michael Fassbender watching someone else playing a video game!).

Too often with Tomb Raider it feels like we’re watching Lara tackle different levels, each with increasing levels of difficulty. So first she has to cycle through London, then escape some muggers in Hong Kong, then things get more serious as she has to escape from the wreck of a plane that’s about to drop over a waterfall…and so on and so on…

All of this is fine, and most action films will throw their protagonists into increasing amounts of danger. It’s just that it feels so contrived and obvious in this case. At times I almost felt like I could pick up a joypad and make Lara run a bit faster or jump a bit higher if I could just tap a button fast enough.

The other problem with Tomb Raider is, of course, the fact that we’ve seen this all before, and usually we’ve seen it done better. The film tries, with an Asian-centric myth at its heart, but in the end Himiko’s tomb isn’t that radically different from the Well of Souls or the last resting place of the Holy Grail.

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“Hey I’m the star so how come I get the bow and arrow and he gets the assault rifle?”

Vikander is a great actress, it’s just a shame that she’s in a film that doesn’t require her to do a great deal of acting. She has her moments, notably after the first time she kills someone, it’s a great little scene and it would have been nice to see more of the psychological impact of her actions, but sadly this isn’t that kind of film, so soon enough she’s off firing arrows into men’s chests without a second thought, and much of her acting is relegated to looking slightly miffed, as if someone in the supermarket ahead of her just nabbed the last jar of humus. Kudos for the effort she put into her training through because she really does look like she could run/jump/fight like that.

Tonal problem dogs the film throughout. The early scenes in London are especially painful, playing out like a not very subtle romcom, but even on the island the film can’t quite decide how gritty it wants to be, so it very much falls between two stools. Not harsh enough to stand out, but a little too violent to be multiplex friendly.

The cast surrounding Vikander aren’t terrible, but nobody has to make much effort. West is reliably stoic, Goggins reliably villainous, Scott Thomas is reliably Machiavellian, and Derek Jacobi is reliably, well reliably Derek Jacobi. It’s just a pity as I know they’re all capable of so much more.

The stand outs, Vikander aside, are Wu as Lara’s sidekick, who manages not to be either a bumbling idiot or a potential love interest, and Nick Frost, whose cameo might be the best bit of the film.

It’s not terrible. The set pieces on the whole are well done, it’s coherent and I was never really bored, but overall it’s just terribly average, and given a great actress and an iconic character we deserve better.

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“Aren’t you a little short for a tomb raider?”

You Were Never Really Here

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_ca63efc0-22d8-11e8-8ccc-a83211a65142Joe (Phoenix) is a contract killer with a very particular specialism. He rescues children from sexual exploitation and, if required (and it usually is), exacts a brutal and bloody revenge on those responsible for the child’s torment. He’s no clean-cut hero however. He’s a broken man suffering from PTSD, not only from his experiences in the Gulf War, but also from his own childhood trauma.

After completing a job in Cincinnati he returns home to New York and his aged mother (Judith Roberts). He has little time to relax however, because all to soon he’s made aware of another job. Senator Albert Votto’s teenage daughter Nina (An eerie Ekaterina Samsonov) has disappeared, but the Senator has learned that she’s being held in a brothel catering to powerful men with a desire for underage girls.

Taking on the job Joe prepares himself for the task, purchasing his weapon of choice, a hammer, but there’s more going on than he thinks. Can he rescue Nina or will he fall victim to a vile conspiracy?

 

In some ways You Were Never Really Here is a very familiar kind of film, and yet in others it really isn’t that familiar at all. It has more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver, and in it’s burley, bearded, broken protagonist endeavouring to protect a younger female character it echoes more recent films such as Logan and Mel Gibson’s Blood Father.

What is different is Ramsey’s approach to the subject matter. This isn’t always an easy film to watch, but that’s not in the way you might imagine. Yes, it deals with a harrowing subject, and yes it’s violent, but when I say it isn’t an easy watch, in part this is because Ramsey doesn’t give you what you expect, subverting all your expectations of what a film like this should be like.

Take the violence, and yes some of it is very gruesome, yet Ramsey rarely shows it head on, instead we view it obliquely; sometimes via CCTV footage, sometimes its seen only in reflection, and sometimes it occurs off screen altogether. For the viewer this lends the film an odd lack of catharsis, because we’re conditioned to want to see the hero mete out justice to the vile villains. Which doesn’t mean that justice isn’t meted out, just not in the way you might imagine, and on occasion the viewer’s frustration might mirror Joe’s, and that’s uncomfortable because it suggests we want to see the violence, and what does that say about us?

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“What’s in this body sized bag? Er…would you believe Koi Carp?”

Though there are other characters, really this is a one man show, and Phoenix is mesmerizingly good. A broken bear of a man, Joe is at once painfully human, and at others frighteningly inhuman. Witness him tenderly sing along with his mother, or gently comfort Nina, whilst at others he dispenses violence as casually as one might wave hello to a vague acquaintance spotted across the street. His brooding presence is supplemented by an intense thousand-yard stare. If you saw Joe on the tube you’d probably want to sit as far away from him as possible, and yet despite the similarity to Taxi Driver, Joe is no Travis Bickle, he’s infinitely more noble.

In showing us the broken nature of a man suffering from PTSD Ramsey’s direction is all about chaos, from fragmented imagery to an incredibly discordant soundtrack, and she provides no glib answers, leaving it up to us to piece together the precise nature of the traumas that have shattered Joes psyche. There are several moments of symbolic suicide for Joe, as if she’s showing us a man who’s constantly being reborn yet never seems to get the redemption he probably deserves.

A short sharp hammer blow to the head of a film, but one that Ramsey isn’t afraid to slow down at times, You Were Never Really Here is an intriguing entry into the genre, and one that will probably reward repeat viewings, but if Joaquin Phoenix ever asks if you’d like to go to B&Q, I’d pass if I were you!

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Joe liked his knife, but he really wanted a hammer.

Lady Bird

Posted: March 13, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

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Young love. What could possibly go wrong?

Seventeen-year-old Christine McPherson (Ronan) is a high school senior in Sacramento in 2002. Desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing she insists everyone calls her Lady Bird, and she’s determined to get a place in an East coast college, where she imagines artists and more cultured people live, despite the fact that her grades aren’t that great, and her family is living under severe financial pressure since her dad lost his job.

Lady Bird is constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Metcalf). Lady Bird feels like her mother is always getting on her back, while Marion despairs at what she perceives as Lady Bird’s snobbish attitude to her family and her home, and her selfishness at not understanding the economic peril the family are in.

As Lady Bird approaches adulthood she struggles to fulfil her dream of an Ivy League college, and as relationships and friendships come and go she will finally come to realise who she really is, but will this come too late to prevent permanent estrangement from her mother?

 

Lady Bird is a small scale, and intimate film, but that doesn’t mean you should perceive it as merely lightweight fluff; with a good script, assured direction and superb performances this is a film greater than the sum of its parts, and whilst I don’t think it was ever really strong enough to challenge for the best picture Oscar, I can certainly see why it was nominated, and frankly on another year I could totally have seen Ronan snagging a golden statuette.

Written and directed by Gerwig this is clearly a story that was very personal to her, and whilst she’s said that it isn’t strictly speaking autobiographical, and that none of the events depicted happened to her, it’s clear that her own teenage years have informed this script, which lends it an authenticity that many similar coming of age films lack. There’s a sense that the film directed itself, so easy does it all seem, but somehow I doubt it was that straightforward. It takes real skill to make something look effortless, and Lady Bird really does have an effortless feel to it.

Aside from her direction, Gerwig’s script is very good. In particular her dialogue feels natural. Each of the characters has their own voice, and at no point do you feel like characters are having words they wouldn’t say put in their mouths. Never is this more evident than in the moments where Lady Bird and her mother go from arguing to agreement then back to arguing in the space of a single conversation and it never, ever feels forced.

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You can argue the plot, such as it is, is wafer thin, but then this is a film based around character much more than narrative, it’s about watching a girl transition to womanhood, with all the attendant heartbreak, humour and awkwardness that entails.

For me my first sight of Saoirse Ronan was in Atonement, and it was clear even then that she had the potential to be a fantastic actor. Of course not every great child actor goes on to become a great adult actor, but Ronan genuinely has. In particular her ability with accents is amazing, and the girl who grew up in Ireland utterly convinces as a Californian native. She’s a subtle actor, but not afraid to go big as the scene requires. On the whole this is a nuanced performance though, with every ounce of the character’s pain, elation and frustration reflected in those expressive pale blue eyes. She may have lost out at the Oscars this time, but it’s a case of when, not if, she eventually wins one.

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As Marion Laurie Metcalf is similarly wonder, albeit in a different way. The character’s frustration with Lady Bird is palpable, and she moves around the screen with the weight of the world on her shoulders. You really do feel like she’s just pulled a double shift at the hospital at times. It’s a wonderfully weary performance.

As dad Tracy Lett’s gets to play the good cop to Mom’s bad, but he too gets to shine on occasion. Special mention has to also go to Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Lucas Hedges (seen recently in Three Billboards) as her boyfriend, and arguably it’s Hedges who has the most heart-breaking moment in the film as he breaks down on Lady Bird’s shoulders.

In the end this is a nice film, nothing truly terrible happens to Lady Bird and there is a certain diaphanous quality to it. That said just writing about it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed it, so I suspect it’s something I’ll return to from time to time and constantly be surprised at just how good it is.

At times very funny, at times heart-breaking, shifting from melancholic to joyous in the space of a single scene at times, this is an assured showcase for Gerwig’s skill as writer and director, and Ronan and Metcalf’s skill as actors.

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It was only a matter of time before a female led reboot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was greenlit.

 

 

isbn9781473222687.jpgBy Philip K. Dick

In the future (ok it’s 1992 but it was the future when this was written, ok) and World War Terminus has devastated much of the Earth. With the atmosphere polluted by radiation mass emigration to off-world colonies has begun, with the human emigres incentivised by the presence of humanoid robots (or Andys as they’re known) to provide slave labour and satisfy humanity’s every whim. Those left behind on Earth struggle to survive, taking solace in the ability to dial moods, and to connect with the Christlike figure of Wilber Mercer via the use of empathy boxes. In this world bereft of so much flora and fauna the greatest status symbol you can possess is an animal, preferably a real one but if not an android animal will do.

In San Francisco Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and retire (a polite term for kill) andys that have gone rogue. When six highly advanced Nexus-6 andys arrive on Earth, having violently escaped Mars, Deckard is given the task of tracking them down. But few bounty hunters have ever retired six replicants in a single day, and never the Nexus-6 models, andys built by the Rosen Association that are so advanced that even Deckard’s Voight-Kampff empathy test might not pick them up…

 

As a fan of Blade Runner, it’s hard not to be interested in the source material. I had read this before, but that was many, many years ago. To be honest I didn’t much enjoy it first time around but, having picked up a copy free with the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049, I thought I might give it another go.

Whilst I still wouldn’t call it a great novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more second time around, and it made a lot more sense to me. There are many parts of the book that ended up in the film, Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachel is word for word in places, but in many other respects this is a very different beast.

For starters the term Blade Runner is never used, Deckard is merely a bounty hunter, and Replicant isn’t used either. It’s hard to imagine how the term Blade Runner first sounded, because now its iconic, but it’s hard to say that using the term replicant isn’t a huge improvement on andy!

Whilst animals—real and fake—play their part in the film, their importance isn’t highlighted as much as here, and their existence in both organic and artificial form feeds into Dick’s wider story about empathy. Deckard feels empathy towards animals, and even his robot sheep, yet he, along with everyone else, sees no contradiction in fawning over animals yet having no empathy for humanoid robots, and one of the major strands of the book is Deckard’s growing empathy towards the Nexus-6s he’s hunting.

Another change is that here Deckard is married, to a woman named Iran with whom he has a fractious relationship, although Rachel is still involved in the mix, only here she’s Rachel Rosen; there’s no Tyrell Corporation, only the Rosen Association (interesting side note, in 1975 an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured a killer robot built by the Tyrell Institute!)

In many ways Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a product of its time; whilst there are some female characters of note, in Deckard’s world they’re mainly secretaries rather than cops or bounty hunters, and even the female andys have feminine roles. Dick’s world building is at times really good, and at others quite laughable (men have to wear lead lined codpieces because of all of the radiation.).

The prose is variable. At times it’s quite wonderful, and at others its dreadfully clunky. There’s a palpable lack of tension at times too. Many of the Nexus-6s become quite passive when they’re about to be retired, resigned to their fate—no beating at the hands of Leon or being hunted by a deranged Rutger Hauer here—and it does tend to suck the drama out of things, but then I guess Dick was more interested in meditating on empathy than producing a thrilling detective novel.

For a story about empathy the book still feels a trifle lifeless to me, and too often it wanders off down dead ends to do with Mercerism when what you really want is for Deckard to go andy hunting, but it’s surprising how much of this does translate to the film, even down to the notion that Deckard might be an andy himself (though this strand is resolved rather than being left open as it is in the film) and a trip to a mysterious alternative police precinct existing side by side with Deckard’s is a wonderful mind-bender of a plot twist.

It’s a tad old fashioned and clunky, but this is a more interesting book than I once thought, even if its main significance is as the basis for a film I love way more than I could ever love the book.