Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

Numbers 2-4

Our survey of the decade is drawing to a close, with my favourite ready to be announced on New Year's Day.  For today, though, three remarkable forays onto the big screen worth the attention of all SF/F fans.

4. Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005

I might have done better to treat Nolan's Batman franchise as a single entity, but both films are so remarkable that they deserve their own space.  Batman, of course, had a long (and to my mind, not particularly interesting) history before Nolan's involvement; Batman Begins is a thrilling journey into how Bruce Wayne/Batman came to be.  There is always a fascination with origin myths.  The material could easily be flaccid and cliched: boy experiences trauma, but returns stronger to exact his revenge*.  Christian Bale is such an effective Bruce Wayne that the audience never feels they are watching something they have seen before, and the film is particularly impressive in the way it demonstrates the darkness at Wayne's core--and shows that as essential to the 'Batman' persona.  I prefered it, by a whisker, to The Dark Knight, because the emphasis was so squarely on Wayne/Batman; the later film's focus on The Joker and Harvey Dent for me dilutes that a fraction.  But they are two magnificent films.

3. Inception, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010
You may by now get the idea that I'm a fan of Nolan's work, and you'd be right.  Always willing to challenge the boundaries of commercial cinema, Nolan has a deep understanding of how to construct a story to keep the audience's attention.  Inception has all the trappings of a Philip K Dick story - games about the nature of consciousness and identity, weird but consistent inner worlds - but with an adamantine control of structure.  It works as a film not because of all the Dickery, but because the underlying model is the old-fashioned heist movie.  Nolan works with a number of his favoured actors--Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy--and Leonardo di Caprio is no Christian Bale, he is strong enough to lead this film.  The film explores three dreamscapes, and had the third been as strong as the first two, Inception would have been top of my list.  As it stands, the comparative weakness of that last section just tarnishes the lustre of what remains an extraordinarily accomplished and ambitious film.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-03
If The Lord of the Rings was conceived as a single novel, then the film sequence should also be regarded as one--very long!--piece.  It is not flawless--some of the minor characters are stock buffoons, and the triple ending of the final film is deeply wearisome--but it has such epic scope and brio that almost everything can be forgiven.  Fidelity to the source material is not always necessary in film, and Jackson tweaks where he needs to, and in some respects he improves on Tolkien.  The monumental scale of the battle scenes astounds even today, and the quality of the ensemble cast (especially in the first film) is compelling.  The sense that the fate of the world is at stake is much more present in Jackson than Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, on the big screen as on the page, remains the touchstone against which future fantasy will be measured.

* a description which fits The Dog of the North and Vance's Emphyrio equally well.  It ain't the plot which does it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

Numbers 5-7
Did you agree with the inclusion of No.8-10 on the list?  Today we'll be looking at an altogether more impressive set of films.

7.  Minority Report, dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002
Philip K. Dick's fiction has been fruitful ground for film-makers, dating right back to Bladerunner.  Dick was much better as a writer at throwing out brilliant ideas than he was at translating them into formally satisfying fiction, but those brilliant ideas make fantastic elevator pitches.   Minority Report is certainly not especially faithful to its source, but it builds on the idea of a police force which maintains order by being able to see crimes about to be committed.  This future, and the tensions and contradictions it embodies, are neatly realised in Spielberg's vision, and the presence of Tom Cruise at the height of his stardom does not unbalance the whole.  A pacy thriller and subtle exploration of a deterministic future, Minority Report remains an underrated piece.

6. The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008
Nolan has an extraordinary body of work, and although The Dark Knight is remembered primarily for Heath Ledger's bravura turn as The Joker, the film is much more impressive than that would suggest.  Most comic book adaptations rarely impress on the big screen, but Nolan's vision of a dark and corrupt Gotham City never fails to grip.  Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is a dark, unhappy soul and he's entirely at home here.  Anyone who remembers the earlier film representations of the Caped Crusader will be astonished at the power and resonance Nolan has extracted from the source material.  The special effects are stunning, but the viewer is so caught up in the narrative that they are hardly noticed.

5. Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon, 2005
Whedon is in some ways Nolan's antithesis.  Every bit as talented, he has the sad knack of creating excellent work which fails to score the commercial success necessary to continue.  Firefly and Dollhouse were both remarkable TV series and both were canned prematurely (especially Firefly).  Serenity is the film we got to round off the Firefly series instead.  It's a fine film, pleasantly low-tech, with nuanced characters and a script well above the norm for the genre.  An ensemble cast create a believable and likeable crew, enhanced by a crackingly menacing turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Whedon's vision here is the nearest cinema gets to Jack Vance.  It's a fine end to the Firefly experiment, but it leaves the reader melancholy for all the TV series we might have had.

Next: films 2, 3 and 4.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

With the first decade of the new millennium coming to a close, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the best movies of the period; this being an SF/F blog, though, I'll focus on that genre.  I don't claim to have seen every film released, so my list is necessarily partial.  If your favourite is omitted, it may simply because I never caught it (although if your favourite is 2012, it's not on the list because it's sh*te).

Today we look at films No.8 to 10 on the list.

10. The Butterfly Effect, dir. Eric Bress &  J.Mackye Gruber (2004)
This was pretty much uniformly panned on release; time and two worthless sequels haven't helped its reputation either.  Starring Ashton Kutcher (bear with me here) as a time-traveller who can go back an alter the past, The Butterfly Effect is not particularly original in concept, but it scores points for the bleakness of its vision.  Evan Treborn (Kutcher) repeatedly goes back in time to right past wrongs, only to find that his efforts make matters progressively worse.  This plays out--in the directors' cut at least--to an inevitable but grim conclusion.  The logic of the time-travelling works more logically than in many such films, and while it is not a classic, The Butterfly Effect deserves more credit than it gets.

9. Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
I described this at the time as great cinema, but not a great film, and that still feels about right.  The 3D pyrotechnics overshadow a plot which never rises above the serviceable, but the overall effect is certainly dramatic.  3D does not in itself make an exciting film (step forward Alice in Wonderland), so Cameron deserves credit for making a picture which fairly skips along.   A science-fiction film which gets so many people through the doors can't be all bad.

8. Harry Potter sequence, dir. various (2001-11)
Harry Potter, whether on the page or on screen, tends to polarise opinion.  I'm a fan of the books, and the films have been enjoyable, if undemanding, entertainment.  They deserve credit for fidelity to the books, and the quality of the child actors is much better than generally recognised.  The films are likely to remain staples for years to come, and to bring a new generation to the books.  The special effects are consistently excellent, but--unlike Avatar--never outshine the plot or the characters.

Come back soon to see the films I've rated No.5, 6 and 7!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 - Best and Worst

The year has come and all but gone with extraordinary rapidity.  Before it fleets away, I thought I'd encapsulate the artistic highlights of the year (which, to be fully appreciated, must be counterpointed by the lowlights).

Best Writing Achievement
The publication by Editions Andreas Irle of the German edition of DragonchaserSerendip may not be setting the publishing world alight, but it's always good to have a new book out.

Worst Writing Achievement
The stalling of current WIP The Fall of the Fireduke at the 20,000 word-mark.  Re-reading bits of it last night, it's not quite as bad as I thought, but there's still plenty of work to do.  Big decisions need to be made on whether to continue with this project.

Best Film Seen
The Town, Ben Affleck's slick heist movie.  It does nothing original, but does it all brilliantly.  An honourable mention for Christopher Nolan's Inception, a far more ambitious picture which with a more ruthless editor might have touched greatness.

Worst Film Seen
2012.  A film to make me despair at the state of the movie industry.  Everybody involved should feel an abiding shame.  Awful on every conceivable level, a monstrous misuse of time, money and creativity.  Makes The Poseidon Adventure look like Citizen Kane.  At least I didn't pay to see it at the cinema.

Best Book Read
Now this one's difficult.  David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali, King of the World, was spectacular, RJ Ellory's A Quiet Vendetta maintained his exemplary standards and Ian Mortimer's The Time-Traveller's Guide to Medieval England was a wonderfully fresh and accessible take on a well-worn subject.  I was delighted too that Sharon Penman proved with Here Be Dragons that The Sunne in Splendour was not a one-off.  To avoid chosing among them, I'll note that I re-read Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy, and that trumped the lot.

Worst Book Read
These days I'm much more ruthless at abandoning early books I don't enjoy.  Of those I finished, I ended up weary of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, although I admired the craftsmanship (and Beyond Black was a contender for Best Book); the wooden spoon must therefore go to Ken Follett's truly appalling World Without End, which managed to be boring, leaden and offensive.

Best Blog
I've greatly enjoyed Nevets.QST, and not just because Nevets gave The Dog of the North a glowing review.  Nevets charts his progress as a writer with clarity and sometimes lacerating honesty--as well as a lot of generosity

Worst Blog
::Acquired Taste.  Hands up here; we've been bloody feeble this year...

But let's finish on a positive note with a look ahead to 2011.  Three standout titles are on the horizon: award-winning Ryan David Jahn's The Dispatcher; L.C. Tyler latest Ethelred and Elsie mystery, The Herring on the Nile, and Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, which looks set to be another gritty deconstruction of the sanitised fantasy tropes.

Best wishes to all visitors for Christmas and the New Year!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Season of Economy

No doubt many of you will be wanting to buy copies of The Dog of the North for friends and family; and has taken unscrupulous advantage of this by increasing the price of the paperback from £5.99 to £7.19.  As a service to prospective readers, therefore, I have researched those online retailers who now undercut Amazon.  In the UK the book can be acquired most cheaply at the always competitive Book Depository for £5.98 with free postage.  I suspect that German retailer Hitmeister, charging £26.73 plus postage, will probably not be selling out.  German readers will also find the UK Book Depository site the cheapest, retailing at EUR7.15.  For US readers, postage is again free from Book Depository, with the book selling for $9.43.  (, by contrast, charges $11.66 plus postage).

For those of you with Kindles, this edition is usually the cheapest.  Now you can all get back to your Christmas shopping!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Dog of the North - now on the Kindle

Tempted by the idea of reading some fantasy fiction but too lazy to prop up a 474-page book?  Or no more room on your groaning bookshelves?  Perhaps you baulk at paying £5.99 for a reading experience but regard £5.69 as entirely reasonable?

If so, the new Kindle edition of The Dog of the North  is just the thing for you.  I've had my Kindle for a couple of months and I'm very taken with it.  My only gripe has been the relatively limited range of books available, a concern I now feel has been entirely addressed by this latest development...