Friday 27 June 2014

Film: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I found the original film of this series surprisingly enjoyable (I am not a particular fan of the superhero genre, but somehow seem to watch a lot of the films) and posted my review of that film on this blog in December 2011. So I looked forward to this sequel with more than usual interest.

Thor: The Dark World is set a couple of years after the events in Thor, and has the hero still pining for the girl he left behind on Earth. In the meantime he has been sorting out the mess left by the events in the first film, and has just managed to finish that job when a new threat emerges – the Dark Elves, thought to have all died in a war with Odin's father long ago. But a rare convergence of the Nine Realms results in the reactivation of a deadly substance called Aether, and with it the surviving Elves who had used the Aether as a weapon. What's worse, the Aether has taken up residence inside Jane, Thor's human sweetheart (Natalie Portman), and is slowly killing her as well as making her the prime target of the Elves. Thor and his friends have their work cut out in battling the Elves, whose weaponry is far superior, while trying to prevent them from extracting the Aether from Jane.

As with the original film, many of the scenes are set on Earth (and even better, in London) and these are much more fun than the overblown fantasy film set of Asgard. The conjunction of the classical buildings of the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich with a vast alien spaceship is the most memorable scene in the film, making it worth seeing for that alone. Chris Hemsworth continues to do a good job as Thor, although not as impressively as in the original (not his fault; the script provides fewer opportunities to show his acting range) and what made the film particularly enjoyable was the retention of the humour which ran through the original. Often this can be found in very minor details that nonetheless caused me to laugh out loud, such as Thor, on entering a human house, politely hanging his Hammer on the coat stand.

So overall, a worthy successor to Thor, with an ending that sets up the next episode. By the way, the film doesn't end when the credits start to roll: there are both mid-credit and post-credit scenes, so don't switch off too soon!

Saturday 21 June 2014

Kraken by China Miéville

China Miéville is one of the most interesting writers around, and unlike most modern authors who just drop into a comfortable series groove, he has produced a remarkably varied body of work. The City and The City (reviewed on this blog in March 2012) just blew me away, and is the finest new work categorised as SFF to come my way in many years. I say "categorised as" because I'm not really sure what genre it fits into, but it certainly isn't mainstream! On the other hand, I have been less impressed by his other work I have read so far, and didn't even finish Perdito Station.

Kraken ticks important boxes, as it's one of many "parallel supernatural contemporary London" books (and series) kicked off by Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, although the origins could arguably be traced to Christopher Fowler's Roofworld and Rune (all of which I really must read again sometime), if not even further back. Other authors to have published novels recently in what has virtually become a sub-genre of its own include Tony Ballantyne, Kate Griffin, Ben Aaronovitch and Benedict Jacka. If anyone knows of any others, please tell me!

So I settled down to read Kraken with great anticipation. The protagonist is Billy Harrow, a biologist and an expert on giant squid. He is responsible for the preservation and care of a remarkable specimen on display in the Natural History museum – which disappears one night, complete with its huge tank of preservative. Billy discovers that there is a previously unsuspected magical underworld in the city, including a Church of the Kraken that worships the giant squid as a god. There are many others who are interested in discovering what happened to the Kraken, as well as a very special branch of the police who are well aware of the supernatural underworld. Billy is hunted through London by various evil and highly baroque villains including the Tattoo and the horrifying Goss and Subby, as they believe that he knows where the Kraken may be found and that the fate of the giant squid may presage that of the entire world.

I initially found the story hard to get into, partly because I was short of reading time and rarely managed to read more than a few chapters every now and then. Since the story is complex with many characters, this made remembering who was who and what they were doing to each other a considerable struggle each time I picked up the book. At one point I nearly stopped reading, but remained sufficiently interested to persevere, which is just as well because the pace gradually picked up and the flow of twists, turns and surprises held my attention to the end. Although I did have a few nagging doubts about the internal logic of the conclusion…

In summary; worth persevering with, but make sure that you can devote the time to give your full attention to it.

Friday 13 June 2014

Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), and TV - Continuum

I had a rather ambivalent response to the first film of The Hunger Games series, which I reviewed on this blog in January last year. I thought it was an exciting drama, but was unconvinced by Jennifer Lawrence in the primary role. This sequel carries straight on with the story, and suffers from the common mid-trilogy problem of not having a proper beginning (that was in the first film) or ending (that will be in the last – although I see that the final book is to be split into two films), so it lacks a satisfying dramatic structure. Furthermore, there is much repetition in the basic action scenario of jungle combat. However, the plot does take a new turn, focusing on the growing spirit of rebellion in the regions and the President's reaction it, and it remains interesting throughout. Despite this, I still don't understand why Ms Lawrence receives such praise; apart from a few crying fits she spends most of the time looking blandly impassive – animated she is not! Some of the supporting characters are much more memorable, particularly Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks. Sadly, Philip Seymour Hoffman died before completing work on the next film.


I have now finished the second season of Continuum. While inevitably lacking the freshness and originality of the first season, this is still well worth watching. Rachel Nichols continues to deliver an impressive performance as the law officer from the future who is stranded in our present, with the help of a strong supporting cast. For the first time, I did find something to irritate me, though. She finally decides to confess to her police partner that she comes from the future, but he is totally incredulous and thinks she is insane. This goes on for a while, when all the time she is wearing a suit which makes her invisible at will and a weapon which unfolds itself before use, but it never seems to occur to her to prove her case in a few seconds by demonstrating these to him. I do hate this obvious kind of plot hole, contrived purely to spin out the drama, as the programme makers seem to assume that the audience is so stupid that we won't notice. Despite this, I will still look forward to the third season becoming available in the UK.

Saturday 7 June 2014

The Patterns of Chaos by Colin Kapp

I bought my copy of The Patterns of Chaos in the early 1970s, shortly after the book was first published. It has managed to survive my occasional culls ever since so I must have been impressed, but since I couldn't recall anything about it (and it's handily short at just under 200 pages) I thought I'd try it again. There are some minor initial spoilers in this review, so if you don't want these read no further – I'll just say that it's an interesting, fast-moving and mind-stretching adventure typical of 1960s and 70s SF.

The time is the far future in which humanity has spread through a large part of the galaxy but is divided into two rival empires – Terra and the Destroyers; the latter don't just strip planets they raid, they blow them up afterwards (no partiality there, then!). Bron is a senior officer in the Terran Commando Central Intelligence Bureau who has been sent undercover to a world in the path of the Destroyer advance, in the hope that he will be picked up by them and can then find the location of their home world.  This works, but he suffers from concussion and memory loss in the attack. However, he is in constant communication (and frequent conflict) with a relay of three very different handlers via an FTL communicator link in his head, so they keep advising him on what to do next.

Bron is posing as a specialist in the Patterns of Chaos, a new field of study. This works by analysing the consequences of significant events and how they interact with each other. The analogy given is with the ripples that spread out from any disturbance in a pond. In principle, the pattern of ripples can be analysed and tracked back to identify the precise location, size and time of every event that created them – and projected forwards to determine how they will look in the future. So far so good, but the Patterns of Chaos also spread across time in that they are affected by events which have not yet happened. This enables Chaos analysts to predict future events, although the exact nature of such events may not be clear. As the plot develops it gradually becomes obvious that nothing is quite as it seems, and that Bron has a special part to play in affecting the Patterns of Chaos to suit his own ends.

This is an engaging tale, well worth reading, and I couldn't help thinking that with modern CGI it could make a decent movie. I hadn't known anything about Kapp before now, but on looking him up on Wiki I see that he was a British author (1928-2007) who wrote a dozen novels and many short stories, all published between 1959 and 1986. I also discovered that he wrote another book featuring the same basic concept, The Chaos Weapon, so I'll have to get a copy of that to add to my ever-growing reading pile.