Archive for March, 2011

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

March 31, 2011 1 comment

Well, our two grizzled veterans have been at it again. In Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have produced another classy anthology for which I can offer the headline that there are no weak links. Every story is significantly better than good.


We need to clear the decks for action as I ready myself to take on another of these heavy-weight books — an almost seven-hundred page behemoth. As an ex-Vance completist, I used to have all the Underwood Miller editions including their first which was, by coincidence, The Dying Earth. What looked rather beautiful in an oversized hardback edition is replicated in this standard trade edition with the pages framed and line illustrations as headers to each story. Frankly, at this scale, it wastes space to no useful purpose. The book would have been slightly lighter and easier to handle had this affectation been eliminated.


Secondly, I’m not sure how to review this anthology. The stories are in homage to Jack Vance who was, by any standards, one of the best of the writers at work from the late 1940s onwards. Jack has magnanimously agreed to allow a new crew to sail in his Dying Earth universe. This is a good thing. If we are denied work from the Old Master, we can see what others can produce in the same setting. So does that mean I’m to produce two scores on the doors? The first as an evaluation of each story on its own merits and then judging how well the story works as a Vance pastiche.

George R R Martin still able to hold up his end of a book


Take the first by the venerable Robert Silverberg to show the problem. ”The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale” is very respectful and worthy. We see how the poet Puillayne reacts when his daily routine of alcoholically-inspired versifying is interrupted by the arrival of Porlocking fans. In spirit, it very positively fits into the Vancean style and, much as we assume Coleridge would have wanted to react, demonstrates what may happen when guests overstep the bounds of social propriety. Except the result is slightly po-faced. In the disposition of the inconsiderate interlopers, I miss Vance’s sly sense of humour. So it’s a very good story in its own right, albeit perhaps slightly too long. But it lacks a key Vancean element. This lack of wit is remedied in “Grolion of Almery” by Matthew Hughes who has been writing in the style of Vance for years and has grown particularly good at it. This story recreates a Cugel-type confrontation in the manse of a Magician proving there’s no problem that cannot be solved with deftness of hand and acuity of mind. The results of the solution are, of course, usually neutral with survival for anyone in Grolion’s position and all spoils of manipulative extravagances lost.


“The Copsy Door” by Terry Dowling captures the magic literally as irony stalks the land like a one-eyed chicken with a limp and takes the prematurely triumphant for a ride. As the sun sets in the Clever Window, it’s always good to look in a mirror and see single become double-crossers before the light fades away. “Caulk the Witch-chaser” by Liz Williams demonstrates the old rule that, if you allow a hard-bitten supernatural writer loose in a fantasy land, you get unexpectedly tough results. This has a harder edge that would usually be associated with Vance, but it’s sufficiently good we can enjoy it anyway as a piece of real estate becomes vacant at an opportune time with a wedding in the air. “Inescapable” by Mike Resnick obeys another of Vance’s laws — that everyone who insists on having his own way, gets his just deserts. It’s not so much that selfishness is punished, but that a refusal to listen to wise advice usually presages disaster. The converse of this is found in “Abrizonde” by Walter Jon Williams. Here an unfortunate architectural student finds himself in a jam but, with the help of his madling Hegadil, he contrives not only to survive, but also to prosper. It was ever the way in Vance where the cautious prevail.

Gardner Dozois demonstrates the ancient art of writing


Even at my advanced age, it’s always a pleasure to encounter someone new. In “The Traditions of Karzh”, Paula Volsky produces a delightful story which reminds us all that, if a person is realistic and maximises his endeavours within the physical and intellectual limitations with which he was born, he’s set for life. If change does become possible, it’s simply in the means with which he can pursue his own interests. Jeff VanderMeer’s approach is not so much as to wander off the Vance reservation as to redefine it in ways rather more phantasmagorical. In the wildly entertaining “The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod”, two servants must survive the Underhind to rescue two prisoners. Except they find themselves endangered as fishes out of water in this strange world.


“The Green Bird” by Kage Baker offers another adventure for Cugel who was never one to be slow in coming forward when the prospect of riches is in the offing. He finds there’s more than meets the eye in the titular bird and unlike the bird that draws blood with his beak, Cugel bites off more than he can chew. “The Last Golden Thread” by Phllis Eisenstein has a young man learn that, sometimes, you have to give up the past birds to recognise the bird in the hand. While Elizabeth Moon takes us racing in “An Incident in Uskvesk” where we find good things can come in small packages if you have the right motivation and a good depilatory cream. Lucius Shephard‘s “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” reunites us with Cugel at a towering moment with the death of the sun imminent.


Tad Williams warns us in “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy” that even magicians serving suspension can be dangerous when provoked, while the Captain’s advice offered by Sir Henry Newbolt remains just as true today as when it was first written, “Play up! Play up! and play the game!” In “Guyal the Curator”, John C. Wright reminds us that disinterested intelligence underpins great investigative work. Honour satisfied may mean a form of contract or bargain between two people, but the availability and application of knowledge have the greatest value when the poor benefit, i.e. wisdom should be tempered by compassion. But, in “The Good Magician”, Glen Cook suggests that wisdom can be abused by those with selfish motives. Sometimes only the innocent should be allowed access to higher powers.


Which, of course, begs the question of what constitutes innocence. Can anyone with magical abilities ever be considered truly innocent? Morality is always flexible if one person may exert covert influence over another. So, “In the Return of the Fire Witch”, Elizabeth Hand would have us consider whether, even under duress, one witch should help another exterminate a malevolent ruling clan. “The Collegeum of Mauge” Byron Tetrick produces one of those causal loops in which time ill-spent by Cugel becomes the means of his rescue from the Spell of Forlorn Encystment. In Tanith Lee‘s “Evillo the Uncunning”, our hero finds his empty head apparently full of useful skills when he agrees to assist a snail. However, it may not be so convenient if this should become a more permanent arrangement, particularly if his name is known. And then when it comes to knowledge, what better place to find it than in a library, except to find the texts in readable form you need, “The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz” by Dan Simmons. This is wonderful peregrination halfway around the world without worrying how to get back. Such are the plans of mice and men. Included within these plans is the need for a librarian or, if the establishment is more a museum, then a curator. Recruiting such men at the end of the world is a challenge as Howard Waldrop explains in “Frogskin Hat”.


“A Night At the Tarn House” by George R R Martin shows an establishment that has given up its pursuit of a Michelin star, except when it comes to serving out deserts. Finally, “An Invocation of Incuriosity” by Neil Gaiman demonstrates the need to ensure you have everything you need when you evacuate from the end of the world.


All in all, Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is a double-plus-good book, crammed to the rafters with excellence from writers all fantastical.


For reviews of other anthologies edited by the dynamic duo, see Old Mars, Warriors and Songs of Love and Death.


For anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.


For the autobiography of Jack Vance, see This is me, Jack Vance!


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

March 28, 2011 2 comments

Michael Connelly is a highly successful writer of mystery and crime novels with one novel, Blood Work, already brought to the large screen by Clint Eastwood. The Lincoln Lawyer is the first of four-and-a-half novels featuring Mickey Haller. For the record, the half is 9 Dragons, and we’re not counting the short story “The Perfect Triangle”. Given the way Hollywood works, if this is a successful adaptation, we can probably expect to see Matthew McConaughey returning in the role. It’s the kind of series that could be the basis of a franchise, although my ten cents says the “pure” Harry Bosch books are better.


The reason for starting with Michael Connelly is that the structure of the film matches some of the density of detail we get in the books. For once, the screenplay by John Romano and the direction by Brad Furman allow for some character development. Further, the serial killer’s methodology is quite time-consuming and complex. It requires the identification of a prostitute as a victim and the framing of an “innocent” john for the murder. In this instance, the intention is to frame Eddie Vogel, the driver of the blue Mustang, for the murder of Reggie Campo. This would probably have succeeded but for the happy accident of a heavy bottle of spirits being to hand. Fortunately for our killer, he already has just the right attorney lined up. Mickey Haller was counsel to the first of the johns framed, and so convincing was the prosecution’s case, he persuaded his client to accept a plea to avoid the death penalty. As Haller is heard to say, an innocent man is the worst kind of client. Naturally, our killer presents himself as the innocent victim of an extortion plot. The prostitute and possibly an accomplice, are looking for major damages from the civil suit.

Marisa Tomei and Matthew McConaughey discuss family issues


Once his client’s guilt becomes obvious, the task for Haller is to see justice done without breaching the letter of his ethical duty to maintain attorney-client privilege. In this, he’s assisted by the fact that the Prosecutor is both ambitious and prepared to cut ethical corners himself. The trick for Haller is therefore to build a bear trap for the DA to fall into. Properly judged, this will produce a withdrawal of the case or a directed verdict of “not guilty”. Except a guilty client back on the streets is bad karma even if he’s seen to have done his job. Haller cannot allow the client to carry on killing prostitutes and framing innocent men. I will leave the detail of the plot to those who pay to see the film or read the book. Suffice it to say, it’s always useful to act for a host of criminals who all feel properly grateful for being helped by the ever reliable “shyster”.

Ryan Phillippe and a detective wonder whether it will rain


The success of the film is due in no small way to the quality of Matthew McConaughey’s performance. The role requires him to be a something more than a lovable rogue. It’s not that difficult to play a one-note scammer who works all the angles to earn a dollar. Indeed, some of the manipulation shows a high quality of inventiveness and, in a sense, proves the intelligence of the man and his ability to stand in front of a judge and jury and sell his client’s innocence. The actual role requires him to be a husband manqué, whose wife continues work in the DA’s office and can still be talked into bed when she’s drunk enough to see beyond the lawyer to the man she used to love enough to live with. He loves their daughter and is fiercely loyal to those who pay him — it’s a pleasingly Faustian deal because the clients appreciate they’re being bilked, but accept it because he usually keeps them out of jail. Indeed, he’s not above doing some cases for free if the client is particularly helpful.

Josh Lucas with the sense he's losing the case


The quality we must see in this performance is that the lawyer actually cares about abstract notions of justice. Although it suits him to play the role of ambulance chaser for the criminal low-lifes — after all, being paid in cash makes for a tax efficient lifestyle — he lives within a system where he’s needed to fight fire with fire. He tells the story of a client whose guilt was clear because he had kept the head of his victim in the fridge. But, when the DA and corrupt cops tried to frame him for two other unsolved murders, our hero couldn’t stand back and do nothing. It offended his sense of morality that the killer wasn’t being given a fair run through the courts. So this is a highly flexible view of the world and, if we are to suspend our disbelief, we must believe he would fight for justice in this case. If he was genuinely corrupt, he would take a large cash sum from the client, pull all the tricks in the book to get an acquittal, and then walk away. As it is, he ends up having to defend himself and his family because of his beliefs.


This is an ensemble piece with Marisa Tomei turning in a convincing performance as an ex-wife and prosecutor, William H Macey proving his skills in a cameo as the private investigator, and Josh Lucas as the DA who tries the case against our killer. If there is a weakness, it’s the performance of Ryan Phillippe as the killer. He’s moderately successful when pretending to be innocent, but lacks the edge when it comes to being a murderous sociopath.


Finally, the courtroom scenes are nicely realised with McConaughey’s cross-examination of the prostitute victim pleasingly nuanced. For once, it’s good to get beyond the dumbed down, everything’s all right once the arrest has been made approach to crime films. Too often, we see bullets fly and evidence compromised, all of which would significantly complicate securing a conviction. This time, we have a properly contextualised investigation and trial. All in all, this makes The Lincoln Lawyer an enjoyable mystery with some thrillerish aspirations as the plot unwinds.


The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 時をかける少女 or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 時をかける少女 or Toki o kakeru shôjo is the primary anime movie produced by Madhouse Studios which establishes an experience of time travel for a girl called Makoto and confirms the incentive for what will become the research programme to develop a time travel liquid. When the research is a success, it enables the time loop shown in the live action Time Traveller. The anime is based on the novel by Kasataka Tsutsui and directed by Mamoru Hosoda. In every way, it’s one of the most pleasing of time travel films, managing to blend insights into life as a teenager with an intelligent discussion of how you set about taking responsibility for your actions. Put another way, there comes a point when you have to stop playing children’s games and take life seriously.

Adolescence is one of those emotionally painful times in your life when you have no idea of the relative importance of anything. You have all these adults around, none of whom will give you a straight answer. Worse, you have your peers who are as likely to make stuff up as say anything meaningful. So how do you know how to take important decisions like deciding when to eat the jelly with your name on it in the fridge or agreeing to go out on a date for the first time?

Dates are funny things. They change the way you look at people. Until you set the status of the meeting, all social contact as friends is just part of growing up. You might throw pitches to each other on a baseball field or spend time talking about where to continue studies after school ends. Everything is routine. You think nothing is special. You also assume nothing will ever change, that you will always have the chance to throw pitches or talk about the future. Indeed, that thought gives you a sense of emotional security. You don’t want anything to change because that means having to confront the possibility that life won’t always be kind to you. So you will go out of your way to preserve the status quo. Even though, in your heart, you know you can’t hold back time, you fight for the now. Tomorrow, school will end, the holidays will start, and you will move on to university and the world of jobs. Until then, you want to live in the now and pray for it never to change.

Makoto, Chiaki and Kisuke ready themselves for class

There are three friends at school: Makoto Konno, Chiaki Mamiya (voiced by Takuya Ishida) and Kisuke Tsuda (voiced by Mitsutaka Itakura). For the record, Makoto is voiced by Riisa Naka who returns to play the daughter in the live action sequel. Their lives are tranquil. She’s still growing into her body and so can be a little unco-ordinated. Like Chiaki, she’s also perennially late for everything. Kisuke is the steady reliable one who organises the other two and gives them a sense of purpose. Kisuke would quite like to date but hesitates because this would break up the trio. Chiaki would like to date Makoto, but knows she’s not ready to take that big a step.

Everything would have carried on untroubled except Makoto is clumsy in a chemistry lab and breaks an oddly shaped ornament or small device. This gives her the ability literally to leap back through time. She has to run, straining every sinew and then jump without holding back. Then she can change her behaviour in the light of her known experiences. If you like, she gets the power to edit out her past mistakes. Except her wise aunt Kazuko Yoshiyama warns her that there are always consequences. Initially, Makoto is sceptical, seeing no-one apparently suffering from the changes she makes. But, slowly, a pattern emerges and she begins to understand that once you start playing with people’s lives, you can hurt them. In the end, she realises she also hurts herself. When she should just accept who she is and deal with reality, she hides behind her ability to edit the past. As a child, it’s too easy to avoid accountability. At the bitter-sweet end, she and Chiaki can see they could have had love, but the moment has passed. It’s all about what might have been as a “summer” romance if they had had the confidence of adults, leaving only a hope for tomorrow both know cannot be real.

Makoto finally surrenders the defences of childhood

When she finally meets the real time traveller whose device she accidentally broke, he expresses relief that the power fell into the hands of an idiot who did so little harm. The fear had been some bad person would cause major dislocations in the time line. On hearing this and realising what a sacrifice the time traveller has made despite her stupidity, she is motivated to make one last leap. This must be the one truly focussed jump with a clear objective in mind. It must represent her best effort to set everything right again. For once, this is a single-shot. If she fails then the meaning will have gone out of her life.

This is not a simple-minded romance nor is it a heavy-duty science fiction drama about time travel. It sits comfortably in the middle ground as a kind of romantic fantasy about growing up. Regardless of your prejudices, this is a mature film about the choices we make when changing from teens into adults. It’s touching without being overly sentimental. It’s not hard to understand why it has been recognised as one of the best animes of 2006, winning multiple awards. I unhesitatingly recommend it.

For a review of the live action sequel, see Time Traveller.

The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)

Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi (2007)

March 27, 2011 11 comments

This is a valiant first-effort film from Taiwan, written, directed by and starring Jay Chou who has recently made the transfer to Hollywood, sharing the star billing as Kato in the latest version of The Green Hornet. It’s always interesting to watch the development of a “talent”. In this case we have a musician who moves across the media to direct his own music videos and thence to this partly autobiographical film about students in a music school. For those who like details of awards, Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi was nominated as Best Asian Film for the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards and the music won the award for Best Original Score at the 44th Golden Horse Awards. It was voted the Outstanding Taiwanese Film for 2007. Not bad for someone’s first attempt at the actor/writer/director role.

Kwai Lun-Mei is ready for school


Secret starts off as one of these puzzle films. It’s obvious that something’s not right, but we have to wait for the answer to be revealed. Essentially, this should be simple. Ye Xiang Lun, played by Jay Chou, transfers to Danjiang Secondary School, a school specialising in music where he’s to continue his study of the piano. As he makes his first entry into the block full of practice rooms, he hears someone playing the piano. This is Lu Xiaoyu or Rain as played by Kwai Lunmei. The first half of the film therefore proceeds along conventional lines. Having met girl, boy loads her on the back of his bicycle and sweeps her off her feet.


The other key figures are the boy’s father, Chiu played by Anthony Wong Chau-sang who has been the coach to the rugby team and discipline master at Danjiang Secondary School for more than twenty years. Then there’s the “other” girl, Qing Yi played by Kai-xuan Tseng who’s sure she’s the one for Ye Xiang Lun. Mention should also be made of Da Yong the caretaker.


The second half of the film is an extended “explanation”. This is a time travel story. Rain moves forward and back exactly twenty years to the minute by playing a particular piece of music on a particular piano in a particular practice room in the piano block. Her life continues in a linear fashion so, each time she plays, she moves Monday to Monday, Tuesday to Tuesday, and so on at the same time of the day at each end. Once in the future, she can only be seen by and talk with the first person she “sees” (when she opens her eyes). No-one else can see her. The slight dissonance in the first half of the film is therefore explained because she’s been like a ghost with only our hero able to interact with her. Indeed, when we see the past unwind, it appears that Rain dies during an asthma attack (and of a broken heart). Her mother has kept her bedroom as a shrine to her memory and has never really forgiven herself for failing to believe her daughter’s story of time travel. When she sees Rain’s drawing of the “boy” she claimed to meet and compares it to Ye Xiang Lun, the truth is revealed to her. The other guilty party is Chiu. As the counsellor/discipline master at Danjiang Secondary School, Rain trusted him with the story and, thinking her mentally ill, he triggered an unfortunate sequence of events leading to the girl’s premature departure from school and treatment by a psychiatrist. He’s forced to admit the truth when he reads Rain’s note to his son on the last page of the score he has been keeping for twenty years. The only other person who “knows” what’s happening is Da Yong, the caretaker who overhears the original story and is sometimes the first one to see Rain as she emerges from the piano room twenty years later. However, he has suffered an unexplained health problem in the intervening years and cannot explain anything to those around him.

Jay Chou, pop star, actor, director and all-round good guy


So there are some good features to all this. The music is impressive. Jay Chou plays well and the original score, jointly credited to Chou and Therdsak Chanpan, creates a pleasing variety of music for both “live” performance and background. There’s no doubt of Chou’s musical abilities. His eye as a director is also sharp. There’s a pleasing flow to the way the whole film is put together, although some of the scenes are a little stagey, i.e. rather than emerging naturally from the action, some are gratuitously set up so that the lighting and camera angles can create a nice effect. I forgive the way the first half is shot. Since the point of view is intended to be Ye Xiang Lun, we are not allowed to see what must have appeared really weird behaviour to third party observers — talking to and interacting with invisible friends is behaviour that would almost certainly have been brought to the attention of his father. This is a necessary deception for the plot to develop albeit, truth be told, there are some oddities about that plot.


For example, the music score for the time-travel piano piece first seems to be left in the future, and then turns up again in the past so that she can give it to Chiu. Then we have the fact that she’s apparently tangible to whoever she first “sees” but, even though invisible to others, no-one collides with her when she moves through crowds in school corridors or on the dance floor. If we are going to have this arbitrary rule that only the first one “she” sees can see her, it should be consistent. The music teacher can hear her play, she can draw a picture of Ye Xiang Lun, she knows his name to write it on the score, she buys Ye Xiang Lun’s favourite piece of music in her time, and she sees Ye Xiang Lun kiss the other girl, so she must have a physical presence in the future time. We have her walking with her eyes closed and counting the steps from the music room to the classroom. As she does this, we should either see people walking through her, i.e. the transfer is not complete and she’s not physically present until she opens her eyes, or she must be dodging out of everyone’s way, except she can’t do this if her eyes are closed. Further, there should be an explanation of how she modifies her route to find him in different places, e.g. in a crowded dance hall. Finally, there are two real problems, one relatively minor and the other a major road block, that prevent the film from being emotionally satisfying.


The minor problem is the failure to age Chiu properly. Rain’s mother realistically adds twenty years, but Chiu looks pretty much the same apart from having more hair when he’s supposed to be younger. This leaves us with Jay Chou himself as the road block. No matter how benign a view you take of the performance as a performance, he’s just too old for this part. He does the sulky teen thing quite well except there’s no way he looks the right age. This prevents any realistic onscreen chemistry between Chou and Lunmei Kwai. She just looks too small and young against the obvious adult. So while I was prepared to close my eyes and feel for her as she first falls in love and is then overcome by jealousy when she thinks Qing Yi has stolen her “man”, he never engaged my interest.


As a final thought, we are left with the usual problems of temporal paradox. Since the time travel is exactly twenty years, he travels back after her death which, is every sense of the word, is a tragedy in the best traditions of Romeo and Juliet. That would leave her mother still grieving and. . . Well, perhaps that’s not what happens. Perhaps he’s actually killed in the demolition. There’s no reason why the music has to work for him. That way, there would be no paradox. The present would stay the same. His crushed remains would be cremated and his father would grieve his loss.


So, this is a story about what could have been. If Chou had cast someone to play the young hero against the excellent Kwai Lunmei, the ageing of Chiu was solved, and the script was tightened up, this could have been really first class. As it is, the result is merely interesting but promises well for the future.


For a review of the next film made starring Jay Chou, see Kung Fu Dunk.


Sucker Punch! (2011)

Sucker Punch! is, in every sense of the word, an extraordinary film, i.e it’s highly unusual or, even, remarkable. However, before I get to a spoiler-rich discussion of it, I need to refer, yet again, to the fundamental dishonesty of the trailer.


You can just imagine the elation when the creative marketing team learnt it had won the job of promoting the new film by Zack Snyder. Like, he’s hot, having just reeled off both 300 and Watchmen (carefully forgetting Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole which was a bit twee). Yet, after sitting through the rough cut, you can imagine their despair. How were they going to promote this little baby? Well, the one sure way to get all the fan boys paying their way into cinemas around the world is to highlight the fantasy CGI sequences. Babes kicking ass is a sure-fire winner. It’s just a shame that’s not at all representative of what the film is actually about and, although I didn’t take a stopwatch into the cinema with me, probably doesn’t occupy more than 30 of a total 110 minutes screen time. So, if all you want to see is scantily-clad females waving guns and swords around, measure your threshold of boredom carefully before going. There was a lot of restless shuffling of feet and coughing during the second half of the film when I saw it.


If you don’t want to know what this film is about stop reading here.

The girls pretending to be renegades from an anime


This is a bait-and-switch film nestling in a framework representing the Matrix trilogy or Inception redux. Let’s start off with the opening sequences. This is highly stylised, creating a visual impression of the late 1950s overlaid with a contemporary music track — a dissonance that continues to the end. We see a double murder with the step-daughter framed and taken off to a beautifully recreated loony bin of the most primitive variety. Here the step-father bribes the corrupt head nurse to arrange for the girl to be lobotomised at the earliest possible moment. Hearing this, the girl escapes into what I shall call Tier 1 fantasy. We have watched all the careful shot selections as she is taken into the asylum. Now all this vanishes, with the hospital and staff transforming into the team running a bordello servicing the needs of the local mayor, corrupt officials and mafia-style criminals.


Our heroine is named Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and meets with four other inmates: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). When she is persuaded to devise a dance that will endear her to the men who will buy time with her, she enters the Tier 2 fantasy. Here she meets a guide. This may be an “angel” or, if you prefer consistency with the first Tier 2 scenario, a kung fu master. Either way, he’s played by Scott Glen who struggles not to call the girl Grasshopper as he offers elliptical advice, drawing on elements we saw so lovingly highlighted as the girl was forcibly inducted into the asylum. This is the escape plan.

Emily Browning acting defensive


Now you should see the parallel with Inception. We have a multiple level framework in which the “real” world is overlaid with two layers of fantasy. To break free in the “real” world, the two levels of fantasy have to work together to collect the means of escape, i.e. a map of the asylum, a means to start a fire as a diversion, a knife for self-defence and a mystery ingredient that “she” will recognise when she sees it. Most of the action takes place in the Tier 1 bordello where the head nurse cum pimp played by a delightfully smarmy Oscar Isaac is first tricked and then vengeful when the trick is discovered. We have four CGI sequences. The second and third are magnificent of their type. Some of the imagery is genuinely striking with the WW I trench warfare scenes particularly effective as zombie soldiers, biplanes and zeppelins offer token resistance. In the third, the disposition of the baby dragon is pleasingly unsentimental and the fight with the mother strong because it does not go on too long. The final element where things really start to go wrong is somewhat repetitive and less than original but, all things considered, these CGI elements are impressive.


As the Tier 1 world also starts to fall apart, it’s up to the survivors to make their escape attempt and so, for the first time, we get back to the asylum proper. It’s at this point, however, that events take an unfortunate turn. I will leave you to see the ending and make up your own mind, but I think this is a serious misjudgment — a misjudgment that’s actually compounded by the appearance of the “angel” in the “real” world. Except, of course, it may be that the whole sequence of events from the moment she’s admitted into the asylum is a fantasy. I suggest this possibility based on the way the final scenes on the bus are shot. It has a look and feel suggesting it’s not real. Thus, the whole escape scenario could be fantasised as a defence-mechanism to cope with the threat of the lobotomy. This would fit the general relationship between the Tiers of fantasy given that the patients we see in the “real” auditorium become the whores become the anime heroines, i.e. the “girls” could all be aspects of Baby Doll’s personality.


To sum up, the acting is adequate. Let’s face it, the girls don’t have to do anything particularly demanding, while the principal guys are only required to move the plot forward. Everyone else is cannon fodder. But the resulting whole is a very effective visual experience. The general shot selection is excellent and the cinematography is pleasingly atmospheric in a gothic style. The CGI sequences are great fun even though the fourth and last grows slightly boring. So, allowing for the interesting way in which the whole film ends, I am inclined to like it. I’m disappointed by the failure to carry through to the more obvious emotional pay-off, but I guess that’s life. Just as not everyone gets to escape from imprisonment in a secure mental hospital, so we paying customers can’t always expect to get what we want — think Shutter Island and Identity with Baby Doll an extremely unreliable narrator. Ignore the trailer and, if you want to see something out of the ordinary (that’s extraordinary, you understand) then this is worth going to see in the same way the Matrix trilogy and Inception were worth seeing, i.e. none of the films are life as we know it, Jim, but they are life as imagined or dreamed or whatever.


Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

March 23, 2011 6 comments

Sometimes the eye can be seduced and not understand the reality of what it sees. Indeed, perhaps that’s the real point of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks. In our mundane world, people can wear different uniforms or be decorated with tattoos to suggest membership of one group yet, under the skin, they may be wolves dressed up as sheep, or vice versa. A novel based on this theme should come as a cautionary tale, encouraging the reader to look beyond the obvious to find the real beef (as Walter Mondale might say).


So we open up for business with the outside of the package. The jacket and endpaper designs by Lauren Panepinto are actually exploiting one of those mathematical things that we’ve adopted as art. Those who have the right computing power start off their machines with a Mandelbrot Set and then stand back with a critical eye as the equations propagate into infinite fractal patterns. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and, with the reflexes of a trained hunter, the trap is sprung just as the right visual effect walks into view. In this case, the eyes have it and, for the benefit of those who like a bigger image, I’ve posted one of the wallpaper versions from the Orbit site.


This is not a distraction from the book itself because, like much of the fiction by both the standard and the M-enhanced versions of Iain Banks, the book is very much about both the need to look beneath the surface of reality and the rich patterns that form the tapestry of life, or death, for that matter (pun intended). Looking back through time, there’s always been a stick and carrot approach to controlling people while on Earth. You have a great place everyone could go to when they die. The price of entry is to do whatever keeps the priests happy. But, if these poor supplicants step off the straight and narrow path devised by their priests, there’s a place of terrible punishment waiting. Well, in primitive times, this kind of threat system works rather well. As we grow a little more sophisticated, the potential for manipulation becomes more obvious and this can inspire us to a more cynical view. If we choose, we can look for evidence of what might be real.


Now the SFnal idea: everyone knows about the possibilities of virtualisation — a system that allows us to create a virtual rather than an actual version of reality. Modern technology is limited, but let’s suppose we can develop immersive systems where a user’s awareness of their surroundings is limited or excluded, leaving all the senses perceiving the virtual as real. With massive processing power, we could create entire artificial environments that users could experience as if physically there. So here comes the justification for the title. Without a helpful label floating somewhere in the mind’s eye saying “simulation”, there might be no way in which to see beyond the virtual surface to the real. It all comes down to the metaphysical paradox explored by many philosophers, writers and film-makers. How do we know we exist? We could just be dreaming this life, or death, for that matter (still punning).

Iain Banks models the new handheld blinkers


Perhaps entire civilisations might decide to create virtual hells and, on death, personalities that had offended local behavioural norms could literally be transferred into a purgatory. This then changes the balance of power within the civilisation. When there was no evidence to show a heaven and hell existed, religion would slowly wither as rationality replaced faith. But suppose you could actually organise visits to the virtual hell. It would be a really dramatic, not to say traumatic, experience for the living to be presented with a short experience of what it could be like for them if they are disobedient.


So now we have a major ethical debate across star systems and the civilised universe. The pro- and anti-Hell camps square off but, with no obvious way of resolving such emotional issues in a real way, perhaps they might agree some kind of contest. Not quite along the same lines as a chess match to decide the winner, but champions could be nominated. They could fight it out over a predetermined period of time in virtual space.


Yet what would happen if one side felt they were losing in this virtual conflict. Might they attempt to hack back into the real world to find some advantage to tip the final scales in their favour?


So we set off on another Culture novel and, from an early point, we meet one of the best and most engaging villains I’ve experienced in quite a long time. Veppers is a complete delight. He’s the key stimulus forcing the other characters, both real and artificial, to react. We can say approving things about Leddedje, an “owned” human, magnificently tattooed to demonstrate her status. Veppers murders her in the first chapter — unbeknown to him, she’s rescued by Culture technology. Or the wonderfully enthusiastic Demeisen, avatar of the appropriately-named ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, who revels in the chance to relive the excitement of being able to fire off all his weaponry in anger. But they are all slightly pallid shadows in pursuit of Veppers who, for various reasons that become clear as the plot unwinds, is at the centre of the debate about the virtual hells.


This is Iain Banks at his very best with a sly and engaging fable in which we can rehearse old arguments about superstition and its role in society, while enjoying full-blown space opera with AI ships blasting enemies without caring too much about the casualty rate in the various species that might be operating said enemy ships. For once, this is science fiction with a real sense of humour. While not laugh-out-loud, it certainly brings smiles of appreciation as wit positively crackles across the many worlds, both real and imagined. Whereas the last two Culture novels, Matter and Hydrogen Sonata, were a bit dowdy, this is a bright and hugely enjoyable romp through all the major SF space opera tropes. It’s definitely worth seeking out and reading.


This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.


Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stōrī (2006)

March 21, 2011 1 comment

Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stori began life as a novel written by Miyuki Miyabe with a transition into manga and then this full-length anime version produced by Gonzo, directed by Koichi Chigira. For the record, the film was nominated for “Animation of the Year” at the 2007 Japanese Academy Awards.


The best way to start thinking about this film is to consider what gives any work of art “universality”. It’s too easy to say anything that achieves consistency throughout time and in differing contexts is merely the opposite of relativism where meanings and interpretations might change. Why? Because when it comes to any work of art, how any viewer sees and interprets a work may differ significantly depending on their cultural background. The fact that A might like something because it reminds him of entirely human, moral values does not prevent B from liking it because it reminds her of Christian doctrine. Both may be equally valid interpretations.

Wataru Mitsuya wonders whether he's up to the challenge


So here’s a story about means and ends. To illustrate the choices we can make, we’ll start off with two boys. Both come from fresh tragedies. Wataru Mitsuya finds his life changed when his father leaves to live with another woman and his mother attempts suicide. Mitsuru loses not only his parents, but also a younger sister. They meet in the human world. A tentative bond is formed. Both then set off on a magical quest in a world called Vision, collecting magical gemstones to embed in the hilt of a sword or head of a staff respectively. They are motivated by the promise that the one who “wins” will be entitled to ask the Goddess of Destiny for one wish. That could change the events in the real world and restore one family. How will their approach differ?

Mitsuru is fixed on his path


Wataru enters this new world as an innocent, prepared to reach out and trust those around him. He’s not much interested in any power he may have. Indeed, instead of steady progress from step to the next, he rather stumbles or blunders from one crisis to the next. Fortunately, he has just enough wisdom or courage to survive each trial. He makes loyal friends, being deputised as a Northern enforcement officer and inspiring at least one young girl to fall for him. Mitsuru embraces the reality of his magical powers from the outset. There’s to be no holding back in his pursuit of the gemstones. His desire to recover the life of his younger sister means lives in Vision can be sacrificed. Indeed, he’s more than willing to destroy the entire world of Vision if that’s the price to be paid for realising his wish.


In one sense, we could dismiss this as being a rather trivial dungeons and dragons type of scenario. A quest to collect tokens with the winner to be granted a wish. Yet the execution achieves a kind of universality that makes it one of the most pleasing of stories of the last decade. Worse, it’s at this point that we have to begin talking about the symbols being used and the themes explored. As cultural anthropologists, we remind ourselves this is a Japanese story and therefore drawing from Shinto and Buddhism. Since the story is very much about life, this places us in the Shinto side of the equation and into the rites of purification. Before anyone can progress to a higher level, he or she must remove the “bad” side of their character. This would include all the fears, selfishness, anger and so on. This is, of course, parallelled in Christianity where the individual must accept the “bad” or sinful traits and heal the spirit. In Biblical terms, we should recall that Jesus accepts the sins of the world and forgives everyone. He also resists temptation, seeing through the devil’s tricks and holds true to His beliefs. That’s why His sacrifice saves this world. As an aside, not wholly irrelevant, I noticed the images of a cross prominent in the end sequences of Brave Story but, in Japanese anime, that has nothing to do with the Christian concepts.


From my own view as an atheist, this is a story about personal growth. Wataru starts off as focussed on his personal needs but, as he comes to understand the world in which he finds himself, he realises his moral code forbids the sacrifice of the world as the price of saving one person — he’s increasingly Utilitarian. No matter how dear a dying parent may be, the greater good is served by saving the world and all its people. To reach this new plateau of morality, he must confront the essential selfishness inside himself that would willingly condemn others. We can call this the Kantian triumph of a universal law that we should do no “evil”. Once he recognises the need to resolve the moral conflict, he reaches peace within himself and can move forward. The second boy, Mitsuru, embraces the amoral universal that the means always justify the end. He fails because he cannot reconcile the moral and amoral sides of his character. In a sense, the two sides of his character fight each other and both lose.

Wataru and the Northern leader make ties


The cast of characters in Vision is impressive with the water-loving Kee-Keema, the feline Meena who is redeemed from sin by her love for Wataru, and the Northern Highlanders whose pursuit of justice and order make them natural allies for Wataru. For those who just want to see this as an engaging adventure story with everything from dragons to demons, there’s plenty to enjoy. At a higher level, this attempts to be profound. I’m not prepared to say it achieves universality or even a completely satisfying level of discussion of the moral issues. But, when you think about it, that’s hardly surprising. Anime is the last place you would expect to find hard-core philosophy. So, no matter how you approach this, you’re going to find it enjoyable and, in its quieter moments, thought-provoking. Who could ask for any better combination.


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