Saturday, 3 October 2015

Films: Shaun the Sheep (2015), and Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

And now for something completely different…

Aardman Animations is a spectacularly successful British film studio specialising in the "old fashioned" stop-motion clay animation technique. Ostensibly their films and TV series are aimed at children but their humour has universal appeal and they are very popular with adults. Characteristically, many of the jokes are so quick-fire that it takes more than one viewing to spot them all. Their most famous feature-length film is probably the multiple-award-winning Chicken Run (2000), but they were already very popular for their shorter films; Creature Comforts (1989) and, above all, the Wallace and Gromit series starting with A Grand Day Out (1989), then The Wrong Trousers (1993 – Academy Award winner), A Close Shave (1995 – Academy Award winner), and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), plus a feature film: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005 – Academy Award winner). Wallace and Gromit have now acquired the status of national treasures, with each new outing eagerly anticipated.

One of the characters in A Close Shave is a small, mischievous sheep who loses most of his wool after being shorn by one of Wallace's fantastic machines so was promptly dubbed Shaun. This character proved so popular that in 2007 he was given his own, long-running TV series Shaun the Sheep (130 seven-minute episodes and counting) and this year has appeared in a feature film with the same title. The setting for each TV episode is the same: a small, bucolic farm in which Shaun and the rest of the flock are always up to some mischief, despite the efforts of Bitzer the sheepdog and the (nameless) Farmer to keep them in line. One unusual feature is that there is no speech – neither dialogue nor voice-over – so the humour is entirely visual, but there is usually at least one laugh-out-loud moment for adults in every episode.

In the feature film, the Farmer is accidentally transported to the big city where he loses his memory. Shaun, Bitzer and the flock chase after him in order to rescue him but have to contend with Trumper, an evil catcher of stray animals. Needless to say, after many bizarre and hilarious adventures all ends happily with the recovered Farmer back on the farm and Trumper receiving his just desserts (that really isn't a spoiler – all of the Shaun series end in the same way!).

I was a bit concerned that stretching the adventure to a feature-length 85 minutes wouldn't work as well as the brilliant shorts, but I needn't have worried; the film maintains a high standard and has already received the universal critical acclaim which has become almost routine for Aardman's output. There is talk of a sequel, but the stop-motion technique is so painfully slow to produce that it will be a long time coming.


Race to Witch Mountain is nominally aimed at somewhat older youngsters. The plot is basically the same as Paul (reviewed here in May last year): alien(s) loose on Earth are being hunted by evil-minded authorities and recruit the help of ordinary people to escape and reach the location from which they can be returned to their native planet. The difference is that while Paul is an hilarious spoof of the genre, RTWM takes itself more seriously. Thankfully it does have some amusing moments, but the plot and production struck me as very routine and by-the-numbers, and the film was not really worth the time taken to watch it. Maybe I should have watched this before watching Paul

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Pavane by Keith Roberts

In my recent review of  The Owl Service by Alan Garner, I mentioned that the atmosphere created in the story reminded me of some of Robert Holdstock's work, and also (if a long-distant memory served me correctly) Pavane by Keith Roberts. Not having read this for some four decades, I decided to pull it off the shelf. This review contains some spoilers.

Pavane is an alternative history novel with the PoD (Point of Departure) being the assassination of Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1588, resulting in the subsequent success of the Spanish Armada's invasion of Britain, and with the long-term consequence of a Roman Catholic western world. And it's nothing like the present-day Catholic Church either; without any non-comformist countries to act as a safe haven, all attempts at reform had been suppressed, leaving a decidedly medieval kind of Church Militant strongly in control, in a very different 1960s.

After a brief scene-setting prologue, the novel consists of five linked but self-contained novelettes (originally published separately) and a final short story, all set in Dorset in south-west England, each exploring a different aspect of this world. Technology is far more primitive, because nothing new can be introduced without the formal approval of the Church, which first ensures that it does not conflict in any way with Catholic doctrine. Much of Dorset is still wild heathland, not safe to travel over.

The first story is The Lady Margaret, the title referring to a powerful steam traction engine of that name, used to pull road trains of goods wagons – the main method of commercial land transportation. Jesse, the young driver who has recently inherited the company from his late father, is about to set out on a round trip on a winter evening, braving the routiers (highwaymen) in search of both trade and romance. The world of traction engines is powerfully evoked, which would not have been a challenge for the author as many of these engines still survive and can be seen steaming every year at fairs around England.

The Signaller concerns a young boy who is fascinated by the towers and moving arms of the semaphore stations which handle all of the fast communications across the country. The story follows his life as he passes through training until he has his own small station to look after. Again, the author takes the reader into the signaller's world, their practices and procedures, in loving detail. Such semaphore systems used to exist in England, before being replaced by telegraphy. This story also features the concept of the Old Ones, the people of pre-Christian England who are still rumoured to survive in remote parts of the land, and it is in this that the similarity to Holdstock and Garner is most obvious.

The third story concerns Brother John, a monk who is a skilled illustrator. He is sent to Dover to draw the proceedings at the Court of Spiritual Welfare, previously known as the Inquisition. The horrors of the torture he witnesses there cost him his sanity and he leads a revolt against the Church.

Lords and Ladies takes us back to the Jesse, much later in his life, by which time he is immensely wealthy as he controls the steam traction trade throughout south-west England. His young niece Margaret meets Robert, heir to the Lordship of Purbeck and the story concerns the developing relationship between them in his home at Corfe Castle. 

The fifth novella, Corfe Gate, is set a generation later and features the Lady Eleanor, the young mistress of Corfe Castle and the daughter of Lord Robert, who is driven to defy the power of the Church and inspires another rebellion against it. This also has the final appearance of the old steam engine, The Lady Margaret.

The book finishes with a short story, Coda, which jumps yet another generation to a time after the control of the Catholic Church has finally collapsed, releasing a torrent of technology which had been developed but stored away unused, the world now looking much more like our own. A young man visits the now ruined Corfe Castle (just as it actually is today) to learn how he is associated with the place. Another strongly atmospheric story, although I couldn't help thinking that such dramatic changes would surely have taken longer than a generation.

Pavane provides a fascinating and carefully thought-through insight into a strange and forbidding alternative world.  The stories are beautifully written and powerfully evocative, giving the reader a strong impression of what it might be like to live in such a world. It is something of a dystopia, however, so don't expect happy endings.

I did a bit more research into Keith Roberts, since this book is the only work by him I have come across. Wiki informs me that he wrote many stories published between 1964 and 2000, the year that he died. Pavane does however seem to be his masterpiece, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction stating it is "now credited as the finest of all 'alternate histories'." Other opinions included "A rare and beautiful novel" (Brian Aldiss); "A tapestry of a book, a marvel of story-telling" (Algis Budrys); and "An imaginative tour de force" (Edmund Cooper). I wouldn't disagree with any of these, and am adding the book to my list of favourite SFF novels.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Film: Frequencies (2013)

I picked up a recommendation for this one from somewhere but couldn't recall what kind of story it was, so I watched Frequencies (also known as OXV: The Manual) without any expectations – and was rewarded with one of the most unusual, intriguing and enjoyable films I've seen in a long while.

It is set in an alternative world which differs from ours in that people are recognised as emitting different frequencies: the higher their frequency, the more in tune with nature they are. This not only has a direct bearing on intelligence but also on good luck; nature "works" to help those with high frequencies, so the highest of them can walk blindly across a busy road without getting hit, turn up at a station and never miss a train, find some money just when they need it, and so on. Furthermore, very high and very low frequency people can't mix for more than a minute, or unfortunate accidents start to befall the low-frequency person. This sounds crazy, but bear with me…

The film follows a group of young people with various frequency levels as they progress through junior and high school to university (three sets of actors are used). They are all extremely intelligent by normal standards and are taught in a special school, but some are more equal than others. The particular focus is on Zak, whose frequency is so low that he only just qualifies for the school, and Marie, the girl of his dreams who has the highest frequency on record but is an emotionless genius known as "the Machine". Zak's many attempts to get closer to her all fail until one of his friends, Theo, finds a way of temporarily boosting his frequency, to the benefit of Zak's romantic aspirations. The problem emerges that this method can be used for much more nefarious purposes, and raises the fundamental question of the strength of free will versus fate. The government gets involved and there is a scramble to try to find an antidote.

Frequencies is light-hearted and amusing, with the virtually unknown cast performing well. It has an unusual structure as well as theme, with the same scenes shown from the viewpoints of different characters, and it has a teaser of an ending. The writer/director/producer is Darren Paul Fisher, a Brit who is currently a lecturer at Australia's Bond University.  The film received excellent reviews, unlike his two previous efforts, Inbetweeners and Popcorn. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Veiled by Benedict Jacka

This is the sixth novel in Jacka's highly entertaining Alex Verus series, about practitioners of genuine magic in present-day London. Reviews of the earlier five are on this blog and, if you are new to this series, it is best to start at the beginning with Fated because although each book has one major, self-contained plot, there are sub-plots which develop through the series, which the reader is assumed to know about.

There are some spoilers in the following review.

The key plot element this time is that Verus, feeling threatened by what Richard Drakh, his former master and Dark Mage of immense power, might do to him on his return from a ten-year absence, decides in the interest of survival to join the Keepers, the police force of the Council of Light Mages. Only to find himself in the centre of a crisis between Light and Dark Mages concerning the White Rose, a magical organisation which provides exactly what its customers require to achieve sexual gratification. The moral ambiguity and lack of any clear right and wrong sides in the crisis means that Verus is faced with an uncomfortable decision about who to support between two factions, both of which he despises. In the meantime somebody wants him dead – as usual!

Veiled is just as easy and enjoyable to read as the earlier volumes, but is less satisfying. Apart from Verus joining the Keepers and learning the ins and outs of Light Council office politics there is nothing very new in this one, no further revelations concerning Verus and his friends; just more of the same. Drakh continues to be a distant threat so his relationship with Verus is taken no further, and a sub-plot concerning the advanced training of his apprentice Luna barely has a chance to get going before the end of the book.

I do hope that Jacka isn't running out of steam or, if he is, that he brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion soon. As the old show-biz saying goes: "Always leave the audience wanting more!"

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Film: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

This film was produced, directed and written by the Wachowskis, best known for the Matrix trilogy – which suggests that, while probably flawed, it should offer something different from the usual space opera. The basic plot of an ordinary girl who is elevated from poverty to nobility is hardly original, being just a variation on the traditional Cinderella fairy story, but as always it is how the plot is handled that really matters. There are spoilers in the following review so if you don't want to read them, just note that the flaws are indeed there – and considerable – but the film does have a few mitigating aspects which prevent it from being a complete disaster.

The story begins with Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a member of an immigrant family from Russia, working unhappily as a domestic cleaner in present-day Chicago. She is completely unaware that she has come to the attention of the House of Abrasax, the ruling aristocracy of a galactic empire which regards the Earth as their possession, because she is genetically identical to the late matriarch of the House and is by their rules entitled to inherit her position. This does not please the heir of the House, Balem (Eddie Redmayne) who orders her death, but his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) has other plans and sends in Caine (Channing Tatum), a former soldier and a human/wolf hybrid or "splice", to rescue her. Cue a running battle that goes on and on and on interminably, with lots and lots of explosions (I read afterwards that the producers are proud that this scene lasted eight minutes – which is six or seven minutes too long for my taste).

This sets the pattern for much of the rest of the film: the occasional quiet interlude to provide brief periods of recovery between the overlong chase n' fight scenes, of which there are too many to remember. Worse, I found these action scenes mostly uninvolving and was distracted by the obtrusive background music sawing frantically away the whole time. Fortunately the climactic action scene, in a vast, collapsing refinery in Jupiter's Red Spot, was the best, and the only one to get me anywhere near the edge of my seat.

Any redeeming features of this film must therefore lie in the quieter interludes, and these are a mixed bag. Undoubtedly the outstanding one is a bizarre comedy sequence in which the heroine has to work her way through layer after layer of bureaucracy in order to claim her position in the House of Abrasax. That seemed to belong to an entirely different film, something like Alice in Wonderland perhaps. There are other rather surreal moments, such as the performance by Tuppence Middleton as Kalique, the third member of the dynastic rulers, chatting brightly to the heroine rather than making the usual potenteous speeches about destiny.

The plot holes are many and varied, and the not insignificant acting talent deployed in this film is largely wasted, with most of the characters struggling to develop more than one dimension and Eddie Redmayne's curious portrayal of Balem, while admittedly different from the usual super-villain, failing to convince me. At least the ending is a bit unconventional and rounds off the film reasonably well. While the drama is complete there is clearly room for sequels, although given that the film took something of a critical pasting and only just managed to cover its costs it is questionable whether these will ever appear.

Is it worth watching? Probably not; I frequently wondered why I was bothering. I would have liked to see those action scenes chopped drastically and replaced by opportunities to give the characters at least two dimensions and, especially, more of that quirky humour.