MonthFebruary 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I’ll get to the film in a moment, but first let me tell you about a story – a story called ‘Last Contact’ by Stephen Baxter. The story is about the end of the Universe, as seen from an English country garden, and it is beautifully affecting. My problem after reading it was that, to achieve his effect, Baxter had to make his cosmic cataclysm take place unfeasibly soon (seventy years hence rather than the billions of years that has been predicted). He stretched the science to a point I just couldn’t accept; I had seen too much of the working, and it spoiled the trick for me. I mention this now because watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button left me in a very similar state of mind.

As the First World War ends, Thomas Button’s wife dies in childbirth. Unable to face the prospect of raising his son, Button (played by Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby on the steps of a care home. One of the nurses, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), takes the boy in and names him Benjamin. But Benjamin is unusual, because he was born with an aged body, and grows physically younger as the years go by.

As a youngster (though with the appearance of an old man), Benjamin meets Daisy Fuller, six years his junior and the granddaughter of one of the home’s residents. He is infatuated with her, and remains so throughout his life. But they can’t be together, not yet; and especially not after he joins the crew of a tugboat and she starts a career as a ballerina. These come to an end in time, as the tug is destroyed in the Second World War; and, several years later, Daisy is injured in a car accident. And, eventually, Benjamin and Daisy gain their happiness together, becoming parents – but Benjamin ultimately decides to leave, not wishing his child to have a father who’s growing younger.

The adult Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, and the adult Daisy by Cate Blanchett. Their performances are decent enough (though Pitt seems to spend a good deal of the film looking quizzical), but the real star of the movie is its visuals. That’s what won the Oscars, and deservedly so: I’m not sure when Pitt first appears properly ‘in the flesh’, but it must be at least half an hour into the running time; before then, Benjamin is CGI, and I couldn’t spot the point of transition. It’s undeniably impressive to see the actors at different stages of their characters’ lifespans (and there are others beside the two leads who are shown at multiple ages); but I also find there’s something creepy about it, particularly about seeing Pitt’s and Blanchett’s features on younger faces.

That’s not my main quibble with the movie, though. For one thing, I’m not sure that Curious Case really makes the most of its premise, because many of the situations feel as though they might as well be happening to someone ageing in the normal direction. The twenty-something Daisy does not fall for Benjamin, but what difference does it make that he has the body of an old man? The two would surely be estranged anyway, because he’s spent years at sea, and she’s moved on with her own life. When Benjamin contemplates being a father in his situation – well, anyone becoming a parent at the age of fifty would face similar issues.

And when Benjamin and Daisy do get together (when he is 44 and she 38), the ‘age difference’ just isn’t there; by then, he has matinée-idol looks, but she too looks younger than she is. They make a typically attractive Hollywood-movie couple; their life together is pretty much as perfect as it could be. The only fly in the ointment is that this won’t last forever – but then, it wouldn’t anyway. A true sense of otherness only emerges in the film’s closing stages, when the elderly Daisy encounters the ‘child’ Benjamin. But where was that otherness in the rest of the movie?

I also have a sense (as with the Stephen Baxter story I was talking about earlier) of seeing too much of the artifice behind the film – to tell its story, the movie makes choices that stretch probability. The key example is how Daisy ages: she is very fortunate in that regard for most of her life, as it suits the film (looking younger than her years for as long as she does, becoming a mother in her forties) – but then the plot needs her to be on her deathbed, and she goes from a vigorous, healthy old woman to being bedridden and decrepit in the space of two years. I don’t buy it. Yes, it’s all possible, but it’s too obvious that Daisy’s life takes the course it does because it serves the purpose of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad movie: it’s arresting to look at (if a little unsettling, as I said), it feels shorter than its running time of two-and-a-half hours – it is an impressive achievement. But it still feels to me as though it’s lacking something. The moral of the story can be summed up as ‘make the most of life and your talents’. Sounds a good idea to me – but it didn’t need a life lived backwards to make me think so.

Paris Motel – In the Salpêtrière

Paris Motel is the band/ensemble of singer and multi-instrumentalist Amy May. They sound like… well, imagine Kirsty MacColl fronting The Divine Comedyand you start to get an idea. But I don’t want to take that comparison too far, because that would undermine the distinctiveness of May’s own vision.

To explain the title and idea of the album, I’ll quote directly from a blog post by Amy May:

The Salpetriere is a hospital in Paris where they used to keep ‘undesirable’ women in the 18th and 19th century – madwomen, prostitutes, epileptics, paupers and unmarried mothers ended up there. I’m using the idea of the hospital as a metaphor for the collection of songs about extraordinary, interesting women (who may or may not have been mad, depending on your point of view).

Now, I already knew about this theme before I started listening to the album; but what often happens with me and story-based songs is that I don’t pick up all the details of the stories — and that’s what mostly happened here, too. Fortunately, that’s not disastrous, because there is still much to love about In the Salpêtrière: the music itself is lush, and Amy May’s vocal style is great, ‘classical’ but leavened with just enough of a London twang.

Singling out individual tracks seems almost unnecessary when the whole album is so impressive, but let’s have a go. ‘After Wanda’ starts out quite stately, and builds to a wonderful climax. ‘Three Steps’ is an epic sea shanty; and ‘Stockholm: The Art of Forgetting’ deftly combines a jauntier rhythm with a choral interlude. But the whole album is glorious, and highly recommended.

Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light

Antony Hegarty undoubtedly has one of the most extraordinary voices of any singer of his generation; and he has the ability to write songs that do that voice justice — and one song in particular, the magnificent ‘Hope There’s Someone’. Hegarty’s problem in the past has been consistency: ‘Hope There’s Someone’ overshadowed everything else on the second Antony and the Johnsons album, 2005’s I am a Bird Now, with only a couple of songs towards the end approaching it.

Now, four years later, comes The Crying Light. I don’t think any of its ten songs quite matches ‘Hope There’s Someone’ — but I do think the result is a better, more satisfying album than I am a Bird Now. The songs (as a whole) are stronger, and the music more varied — the texture is more orchestral this time around, and ‘Kiss My Name’ is heading towards jaunty (musically if not lyrically).

But it’s Hegarty’s voice that dominates, and when he gives it free rein to soar, that’s when the album is at its best — see, for example, the title track. The lyrics of ‘Another World’ may read simplistically (‘I’m gonna miss the sea, gonna miss the snow’), but when sung by Hegarty, they can still get under the skin. And the album has several big, orchestral epics, like ‘Everglade’.

Although The Crying Light hangs together as an album, musically and lyrically — themes and images of nature proliferate — I don’t know whether I’d want to listen to it all in one go again, at least not for a while. It seems the kind of music best heard piece by piece — and I’m pretty sure that there’s even more to appreciate in it than I’ve already found.

Hustle: further thoughts on series 5

Not very prompt of me, I know, but here are some more impressions of the latest series of Hustle, following on from my earlier post after the first episode:

It took three episodes before Albert got out of jail and the team was back together. That’s half the series, which was really too long; although the plot to get him released was wonderfully inventive.

Actually, this series had some of the most engagingly twisty plots I can remember on Hustle in quite some time. Frustratingly, I can’t remember the details of those plots, only that I enjoyed their twists and turns.

One I do remember is that of the last episode, which wasn’t one of the best. Some of the grifters’ former victims joined forces to con them; nice idea, but I could spot the ‘punchline’ a mile off. (Interestingly, the three episodes I liked best were the three not written by the series’ creator, Tony Jordan.)

This series didn’t really have the big, outlandish set-pieces Hustle has had previously (or, at least, they weren’t as outlandish), but that was certainly no impediment, and might even have strengthened the series. But Hustle still can’t do gritty, and should stop trying; Emma and Sean ae supposed to have grown up on the streets, but it doesn’t work. The hustlers exist in a world of glitz, glamour and froth; the show doesn’t work when it attempts to step out of that world.

Speaking of the new characters, Emma has proved a fine replacement for Stacie (though the romantic, will-they-won’t-they sub-plot between her and Mickey grew tedious, because it was clear that the series would never function if they did get together); but Sean is nowhere near as good a character as Danny. Sean doesn’t have Danny’s ragged-wideboy charm, and his protective attitude towards his sister is no substitute for Danny trying his luck with Stacie and never succeeding.

But, on the whole, it was a good series, it was great to have Hustle back, and it’s great to hear that we have a sixth series to look forward to.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (2009)

This is Adam Roberts’s tenth novel, which of course means there were nine before it. Nine that I haven’t read. How on Earth have I allowed this to happen? If they’re all as enjoyable as Yellow Blue Tibia, I have been missing out.

Yellow Blue Tibia is presented as the memoir of one Konstantin Skvorecky, a science fiction writer who was gathered together, along with four others, by Stalin in the aftermath of (what I know as) the Second World War. Stalin charged the writers with the task of creating a new enemy — an enemy from outer space — which the ruling party could claim to be fighting, thereby strengthening the prestige of communism. The authors come up with some outlandish nonsense about ‘radiation aliens’, and hammer out a future history — but the project is promptly cancelled, and the writers instructed never to speak of it again.

Skvorecky sees neither hide nor hair of the others until 1986, and a chance encounter with another of the group, Ivan Frenkel — who claims that the story they constructed four decades previously is now coming true, beginning with the Challenger disaster (caused by radiation aliens!!). Sounds ridiculous, of course: but then Skvorecky (who works as a translator) meets the American James Coyne, who insists something similar — and then dies in mysterious circumstances.

After various turns of the plot, we find Skvorecky racing to Chernobyl, along with Ivan Saltykov, a nuclear physicist turned taxi driver who says he has Asperger’s syndrome (though he never gets to name it in full), and ceaselessly reminds people of the fact; and Dora Norman, Coyne’s hugely overweight compatriot. And, after Skvorecky survives a grenade attack against all the odds, things start to get really strange…

My strongest abiding memory of Yellow Blue Tibia is how much of a pleasure it was to read. Though not (I would say) primarily a comedy, it is nevertheless one of the funniest books I have read in some time: witness, for example, the scene in which Skvorecky is first translating for the two Americans, and frantically trying to think of acceptable ways to ‘translate’ his colleague’s insults.

More than this, the novel also provides plenty to think about. Roberts bases his fiction on a paradox about UFOs: there are so many reports of them, yet such a paucity of evidence for their concrete existence. The author’s fictional solution to this paradox is fascinating to think about; I particularly like the wayhe takes some well-worn ideas and spins something fresh out of them.

Roberts also effectively plays tricks with the narrative. Skvorecky undergoes a pre-frontal lobotomy during the novel, which subtly alters his narrative voice,  and disrupts his sense of the passage of time, something Roberts exploits to extend the mystery of his plot. Skvorecky stresses at the beginning that ‘[t]here are no secrets in this book’, but of course there are — they’re just hidden from the narrator as much as from the reader (reading back the paragraph I’ve quoted from, I also discovered several subtle hints that seem innocuous at first, but change in meaning once you’ve read the book).

Another strand of Yellow Blue Tibia concerns parallels between science fiction and communism; but lacunae in my knowledge of history and politics prevent me from really getting to grips with it. A further strand that I did appreciate, though, was the love story. It might seem unexpected to find such an element in this novel, but its title refers to a phonetic way of saying, ‘I love you’ in Russian — and it is indeed central to the story.

One recurring feature of Yellow Blue Tibia is that a character may say that something can be in one state or another (one could go somewhere accompanied or alone, for example), but that there could (and, in some instances, could not) be a third option. Well, I finished the book with a big smile on my face. Or it could be that I finished it with my imagination fizzing over at the possibilities Roberts put forward. Then again, it was probably both.

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here

BOOK REVIEW: The Age of the Conglomerates by Thomas Nevins (2008)

Ah well, they can’t all be good. This novel has the unfortunate distinction of being the worst I have read in quite some time. It’s set in a future where the US government has been supplanted by a cartoon version of Faceless Big Business. Anything interesting, exciting, or engaging is lost in a sea of exposition.

Read the review in full at SF Site.

BOOK REVIEW: Orcs – Bad Blood, Vol. 1: Weapons of Magical Destruction by Stan Nicholls (2008)

Back in 2004, I reviewed (for The Alien Online) an omnibus edition of Stan Nicholls’ Orcs trilogy. It was fun to read, so I was quite pleased to hear that Nicholls was working on a sequel trilogy. The first volume of that series is now here, entitled Weapons of Magical Destruction, and I have reviewied it for The Zone. Again, it’s good fun, but it may end up being better in the context of the complete trilogy than on its own. I’d have given it 3.5 stars if The Zone allowed half marks; but they don’t, so it gets 4 instead.

Read the review in full.

Franz Ferdinand – Tonight

In a way, it felt strange to realise that this was the first time I had actually listened to a Franz Ferdinand album all the way through. But then again, after I’d listened to Tonight (the band’s third album, and first in four years), perhaps it’s not so strange; because it seems to me that Franz are much more of a singles band, or an individual songs band. I t hink the twelve tracks on Tonight would sound better in isolation than they did hearing them all together.

Franz Ferdinand have their own distinctive sound, which is essentially dancey guitar music with some unusual left turns. ‘Ulysses‘, the album opener and lead single is the same, but different: it has more of a groove, it sounds a bit… earthier, a cousin of ‘The Dark of the Matinee‘ that’s been around the block a few times and maybe dragged through a couple of hedges. Nothing in the next few songs matches it for impact; but, as I said, I suspect that may be because it’s first, and because I didn’t hear the others individually. (I ought to test that sometime.)

The real departures from what I’m used to hearing Franz sound like don’t come until the very end. First of all is ‘Lucid Dreams’: whilst all the other tracks don’t even reach four minutes, this one lasts for nearly eight — the reason for which is a four-minute techno bit stuck on the end. This is not necessarily the best way to make a long song, and it does seem rather superfluous.

The album’s closing track, ‘Katherine Kiss Me’, is acoustic, which I’m unused to hearing from Franz Ferdinand; but better — my favourite song on the album, in fact — is the song immediately before it, ‘Dream Again’. It’s slow, echoing, strange, and shows more of the range Franz Ferdinand capable of. Entertaining though Tonight is, I’d have liked to see more of that range on display.

A Camp – Colonia

A Camp is, of course, the solo project (though now more of a band) of Nina Persson from The Cardigans, a band I’ve never really listened to. Sure, I know two or three of the hits, but that’s all. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Colonia… but it’s great. Mainly an album of ballads, deftly constructed, but most of all, beautifully sung by Persson.

But what I really like about the album is the darkness of the lyrics compared to the sweetness of the music. Take ‘Love Has Left the Room‘, a soaring, romantic-sounding song about breaking up. Or the opener ‘The Crowning‘, in which “we’re gonna party like it’s 1699” at “the crowning of” someone’s “useless, ruthless head”.

In short, Colonia is the sort of album you have to go back and listen to again, if only to check that Persson just sang what you thought she did — but it’s far from the only reason when the songs are so good.

Quote of the Week

I was a week late coming across this article by Adam Roberts, but I must quote something he says in the comments:

“You shouldn’t read to pass the time, or to paint pretty mental pictures inside your head, or to learn things, or to be able to boast that you’ve read something, or because your teacher told you to: you should read to live.”

Hear, hear!

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