Monthly Archives: November 2005

Ken Macleod – Learning The World

Learning The World tells the far-future story of a human colony ship making first contact with a race of bat-like aliens. The chapters alternate between following a group of alien scientists as they try to deal with the imminent contact, and a variety of humans on board their ship, which has been underway for hundreds of years. Mankind (now stretched over thousands of worlds) has never encountered another intelligent species before, and bumping up against these aliens comes as a huge shock. Especially as there is a generation of colonists eager to get out and lay their claims on the real estate of the alien system.

I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but this seemed like an easier read than McLeod’s previous novels. It explores his favourite social and economic themes, and the alien society gives him an interesting new point of view to play with. At times the alien narrative can feel a bit like a lecture, as they (re)discover science that is familiar to the reader, but I think that the process of making the aliens seem human and familiar (after all, it’s not they who are the aliens), has given McLeod’s writing a much more human feel overall.

xXx2 – The Next Level

I knew this was going to be rubbish when I sat down to watch it. So why did I watch it? I often wonder what I get out of crappy action films. I think it’s that no matter how bad the script, or how poorly acted or directed, they usually have some unique and inventive way of putting lives in danger. That’s the hook an action flick uses to pull you in. Once you’re there, it has to pay off its promise with chase scenes, fight scenes, stunt work, and explosions. None of which are particularly easy to do–even to do badly. See? There’s a craft there that I can appreciate, even while I’m despairing over the hammy dialogue.

xXx2 lacks that initial hook. For the original film, the premiss was that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel, and you can slag him all you like, but I dig the Vinster) was an extreme sports fanatic with an attitude problem, who gets recruited by a secretive US government department to go on an undercover mission in Eastern Europe. You knew that this would lead to brash James Bond-style stunts and escapades with an extreme sports twist: snowboarding, bungee-jumping, and all that. It was the Extremeness that gave the film its very name, and which tantalized you with its novelty. I enjoyed it.

Vin Diesel dropped out of the (inevitable) sequel, and was replaced by Ice Cube, another man who takes a lot of heat for the quality of his acting, but whom I like. In the story, Xander Cage has been killed, and Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) has to come up with a new xXx (the code name for extreme deep undercover agents). The new agent has to be tougher, more extreme, more “off the grid”. And they come up with…Darius Stone (Ice Cube), a former US Navy SEAL who served with Gibbons, but who is now languishing in military prison for insubordination and breaking a General’s jaw. He has bags of attitude, and the combat skills to back it up. But Extremeness? Not so much. He’s just another cookie-cutter action hero.

The replacement hook for the film takes the form of a plot by the US Secretary of Defence (Willem Dafoe) to stage a coup during the President’s State of the Union address. Taken on its own, that is a perfectly acceptable concept. But to do it justice, you’d need the characters to be close to the President, and for most of the action to take place in and around that setting. Most of xXx2, however, is taken up by Stone and Gibbons trying first to figure out what the conspiracy is, and then how to get close enough to the coup to throw a spanner in the works. It takes far too long for the hook to kick in, and by the time it does, its impact has been squandered by a dreadful succession of movie stereotypes of government agents (Scott Speedman), politicians (Peter Strauss), and gangsta homies (Xzibit).

In short, it falls flat. Waaaay flat. By delaying the hook, it even failed to live up to my low standards of what constitutes a decent action flick. There are a few nice fight scenes, and one good set piece where Darius uses an aircraft carrier’s launch catapult for target practice, but it didn’t deserve to be released under the xXx brand. DTV is would have been more appropriate.

(Oh: and as a last note, if you’re going to spend two minutes on a scene where the resident geek introduces a cool gadget like a powerful electromagnetic suction glove then I EXPECT TO SEE THE HERO ACTUALLY USING IT TO GET HIMSELF OUT OF A TIGHT SPOT BEFORE THE CREDITS ROLL. Come on, people. Get with the program.)

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Delightful post-modern take on the 80’s buddy movie. Some of the jokes don’t come off as well as they could, but there is much more on ffer here than just a comedy/buddy/detective caper. The way it twists many of the genre stereotypes is excellent. It’s great to see Robert Downer Jr. back in action again, and Val Kilmer gets his best role since Thunderheart.

Eric Garcia – Hot And Sweaty Rex

Probably the best of the Rex series so far. Anonymous Rex introduced the shadowy world in which dinosaurs secretly live side-by-side with humans, cleverly disguised by prosthetic human suits, and Casual Rex dealt with a lot of back story that had been left blank by the first book. Now that all this has been established, Garcia seems to feel a lot more free and open in his storytelling. Hot And Sweaty Rex sees Vincent Rubio hired by one dino mafia family to spy on another. And as if that wasn’t challenging enough, it turns out that one of the families is run by his closest childhood friend, to whose sister he was once engaged. And she still hasn’t forgiven him.

You never forget that you’re reading about a bunch of dinosaurs dressed up in rubber suits, but the story is strong enough that it would have worked even without the element of fantasy. Given that this is the case, you might wonder why Garcia chose to do it as a dino story at all, rather than as a stand-alone contemporary thriller, and the answer is: Vincent Rubio, raptor detective. The plot may revolve around a vicious turf war, but It’s Rubio whose heart is mangled by the process. Garcia didn’t want to tell just another crime story–he wanted to write about Vincent.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I’ve given up on watching Wes Anderson’s films with any kind of expectation of plot. Now I just kick back and enjoy the sprawling web of messed-up relationships, wry emotional insights, and peculiarly intellectual comedy. Zissou is very clever, but it never really comes together into a coherent whole.

Night Watch (Nochnoy dozor)

The “Others” are humans who possess supernatural abilities, such as seers, vampires, and shapeshifters. Each one must choose whether they are on the side of Dark, or Light. The forces of Light and Darkness called a truce many hundreds of years ago, because they found that they were completely evenly matched. Now, in modern-day Russia, agents of both sides (the Night Watch and Day Watch) enforce an uneasy peace.

The film follows Anton Gorodetsky, a seer whose talent first manifested itself when he tried to make a bargain with a sorceress to make his unfaithful wife return to him. Now, eleven years later, he works for the Night Watch (the side of Light) in tracking down newly emerging Others. On one mission he inadvertently kills a dark Other (against the rules), an event which precipitates a race to find the Chosen One, who will finally tip the balance between the sides, and herald the final battle.

Pretty standard stuff in terms of its mythology, but the film’s attraction lies in the way it is executed. The setting is plain and unglamorous, the heroes aren’t rugged and good-looking, and you relatively few supernatural occurrences are shown on screen. Unusual camera moves and a series of wide-ranging and seemingly disconnected plot elements create a sense of uncertainty right up until the end. It’s the first episode in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of it turns out.