Monthly Archives: September 2005

Christopher Brookmyre – The Sacred Art Of Stealing

This is the follow-up to Brookmyre’s earlier book, A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away. Angelique de Xavia finds herself dealing with a group of bank robbers who dress up as clowns, and falls under the charms of the group’s leader. The crimes are beautifully executed, and the cop/robber love dynamic is played out with gusto. The book starts off a bit slow, as Brookmyre spends a lot of time digging around in the characters’ minds, but once things get moving, it’s as fast and funny as anything he’s done.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Abi came up with the best summary of this film, and it’s taken from Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s introduction to the New Magics anthology: “In fantasy, you can do anything; and therefore, the one thing you must not do is ‘just anything.’

Howl’s Moving Castle does just anything. Its story is completely buried beneath themes and metaphors. It’s never clear who is fighting for whom (or what), and why. The film provides no background for the characters and their world–no rules about what can happen and what can’t–so when magical events happen, it’s like they are drawn from a hat. (Oh, the curse is broken. How did that happen?)

Without knowing what they have to achieve, the characters have no goals. Without goals, the plot has no momentum. It’s a very beautiful film, but extraordinarily dull.


Serenity is the film that follows on from the short-lived much much-loved TV series Firefly, which was created by Joss Whedon–the guy behind Buffy. The TV series is a cross between a Western and a Space Opera. It follows the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds and his crew on board the ship Serenity as they ply their trade–a little cargo hauling, a little thievery–among the outer planets. The series was cancelled after just 13 episodes, but it has gained a large cult audience on DVD, because it is a damn fine show with rich characters, a vivid setting, and Whedon’s characteristic sarcastic humour.

Fans of the series will want to know one thing: does Serenity work, or has it been spoiled by its transition to the big screen? The answer: it works. Whedon has had to make a few sacrifices to make it accessible to people who aren’t aware of the back story, but they’re forgiveable. The biggest is that early on, Mal is prepared to ditch Simon and River, because they have become too dangerous to keep around. This doesn’t square away with his firm insistence in the series that they are indisputably part of his crew–and from the series, we know that Mal is the very epitome of “a man of his word”.

But very quickly, the rough transition from TV to film is smoothed away, and the story is in full flow. River and Simon have been on the run from the Alliance since Simon helped her escape from the top secret institute that had been training and brainwashing her. The Alliance is now getting serious about getting her back, and they have sent a deadly Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to hunt her down and bring her back–or kill her–to safeguard the secrets she knows. Can Simon convince Mal to keep helping them? Can they find some way to escape this unstoppable force, or defuse the knowledge locked in River’s head?

Just as the series, Firefly is filled with action: daring rescue scenes, gunplay, and fistfights galore. The characters and dialogue are as rich as ever. The plot reveals a lot of answers about the Firefly universe, and although it would have been easy for Whedon to leave an obvious hook for a sequel, the ending is dramatic and rather final. It doesn’t kill off the possibility of more films, or a revival of the series, but the dynamic would be forever changed. In this sense, Serenity is much more than just a two-hour extended episode. It is a cap on the series, and a thing of its own.

The one thing I really can’t say about the film is how I think it will appeal to you if you haven’t watched Firefly. I suppose it would be a bit like watching the X-Files movie cold, without being aware of its history. Space Adventure. Woo-hoo. But would you think it was anything special? I’m not sure.

Part of Firefly’s appeal is that it was cancelled before it had a chance to get crap. Just like Farscape, it ended while its audience still wanted more. Serenity is a chance to dive back into that universe again, even if just for a few hours. And it doesn’t disappoint.

David Sklansky – The Theory Of Poker

Not a quick read, and not an easy read, at least for a beginning poker player. There’s a lot of (admittedly fairly simple) mathematics here, and a lot of statistics. Not a lot of anecdotes. If you play poker for the fun of it, or for its social aspects, this is not going to inspire you to go out and lay your money down at the card table. What it does do is explain how to win at poker, and it explains very clearly that the only way to do that consistently is to calculate odds. That’s what the book focuses on, and it does it well.

Elizabeth Bear – Hammered

It took me about a quarter of the book to really get sucked into what was happening–there are several plot threads running right from the start, and I couldn’t quite see how they were connected–but I liked it once I got with its flow. Judging by its cover (a bad thing, so I’m told), which shows a woman from the neck down wearing a military-style jumpsuit and holding a pistol in her metal cyborg hand, you think this might be on the militaristic side of SF, but it isn’t really. The main character, Jenny Casey, is ex-military, and a lot of the plot surrounds the Canadian army trying to reel her back in, but there are no big space battles in sight.

What you do get is a scene-setting novel filled with interesting characters who are being drawn against their will into a Cold War-style secret project to be the first nation to build and fly a starship. It is very clearly the first novel in a sequence (trilogy?), and it doesn’t really end–the last pages open up a vista onto what is to come in book two. Which is now sitting in my Amazon shopping cart.


One of the key rules of storytelling is that your characters should change in the course of the story. Normally, a film or a novel will take a couple, maybe a small handful of core characters, and show them being altered by their experiences. If the story is intense enough, you can end up really caring for and empathizing with these characters as if they were close friends. In Crash there are a dozen key characters, all of whom undergo enormous upheavals in their lives. The crises all stem from racism, both understated and overt, and from the distance we keep from each other.

The cast is amazing, and the performances they give uniformly excellent. The script is astonishing, and the direction is calculated to wring the maximum effect from it. Even though there are very few truly terrible things that happen in the film, the constant likelihood and imminence of those terrible things keeps you on a knife edge. The relief when they don’t come to pass is like dams bursting. Make no mistake: this film will put you through a wringer. I’m a big softy, so it’s not unusual for me to cry at the end of a film. What is unusual is for me to be in tears from the middle of a film onwards, and an emotional wreck for hours afterwards.

Crash is a truly great film. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Pieces Of April

April, the black sheep of the family, is trying to pull her life together, and has invited her family to Thanksgiving dinner in the tiny New York apartment she shares with her boyfriend. This may be her last chance to make things up with her mother, who is dying of cancer.

The film shows two stories in parallel: April’s frantic attempts to get dinner ready after her oven packs up and dies before she has cooked the turkey, and her family’s trip from their comfortable Connecticut house into the city. It’s shot in low-budget digital video, which gives it a down-to-earth, home movie feel. The characters are appropriately stressed about the whole affair, and they react with varying degrees of panic, despair, and hope. Despite the heavy emotional content, it’s is also a very funny film. The varying tone breathes life into the characters, and elevates mundane situations into life-altering interactions. Sweet, honest, and highly recommended.

Road To Perdition

Young Mike Sullivan hides in the back of his father’s car one night, to find out what it is he really does. Knowing peripherally that his family ows its living to crime, what he sees forces full realization upon him: his father Michael (Tom Hanks) is a killer. Unfortunately, young Mike is now also a witness to what happened. Connor Rooney, son of the local boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), was the one who loosed the first shot, and he doesn’t trust Mike to keep his mouth shut.

What follows is a powerful tale of father-son relationships, loyalty, and revenge. It’s an astonishingly beautiful film, shot with exquisite care and attention to every last detail of its 1930s setting. But I thought that the sheer precision of its beauty made the characters seem distant. It was almost like a museum piece: meant to be admired, but not touched. I appreciated the emotion of the story, but I didn’t feel it as strongly as I felt I ought to have. But it that’s the film’s biggest flaw, it’s a relatively small failing.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin

After stepping in to fill a space in their poker game, full-time nerd Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) finds himself taken under the wing of his new best buddies. They have learned that he is still a virgin, and they make it their mission to get him laid. Andy reluctantly goes along with their plans and schemes, while at the same time starting a relationship with the woman who runs the shop across the road from his (Catherine Keener), and trying to stop her from finding out how awkward he is about the whole sex thing.

With a setup like this, it is inevitable that there will be a truckload of embarrassing and cringeable scenes, but they are never all that bad, and they’re more than matched by the funny bits. I also found that the film actually got funnier as it went along. The supporting characters–Andy’s well-meaning buddies–are changed by their friendship with Andy as much as he is by them, which leads to richer and more amusing situations later on. The script balances these characters well, though, never allowing them to overwhelm Andy as the central figure and the source of all the biggest laughs. And for a film that looks like it’s going to be all about casual sex, it ends up being much more about friendship, love and commitment.