Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

Film #274: Se7en (1995)

aka: Seven (much more sensible)
director: David Fincher
language: English
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 12 March 2017

I’ve dropped off the radar a bit with this blog – blame sickness. I had some grand plans to go on a cycling trip this month, but I had some kind of nasty throat infection and that looks like it’s not going ahead either. But I’ll have a few days off at least.

But anyway, this post is meant to be about the film I watched. It’s now been one month, and not a lot of Se7en has stuck with me. I had wondered why I waited so long to watch it, but 18-rated films that came out when I was a kid were never really on my radar, that much is obvious.

And the film has that rating for good reason – it’s pretty gruesome. There are a lot of mutilated bodies in it, and we follow two detectives, the old-timer Morgan Freeman and the newbie Brad Pitt, in their search for a serial killer who’s killing people he believes have committed the seven deadly sins.

The film is now over twenty years old and is considered a classic of the crime-thriller genre, so it’s pretty easy to go out there and find information about it. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed. I did think it was thrilling and exciting, to a degree, and I was interested to see what would happen next and so on. But there’s a major twist near the end that turns Pitt and Freeman’s decisions into a moral quandary, and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders at that point.

The rest of the film is mostly a bit monochrome, like I wished they would add a bit more colour into it.

But I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone to see this film or not by writing this – it’s a pretty old movie – so let’s turn it into a conversation: what do you think? I’d like to hear your comments!

Film #251: The Infiltrator (2016)

infiltratordirector: Brad Furman
language: English and Spanish (plus a bit of French)
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 2/5)

Just for a bit of a contrast to the movie I’d just watched, I decided to watch this thriller-type movie with Bryan Cranston. I heard about it a few months ago, and I guess I’m a fan of the guy. He’s a good actor, after all.

Drug cartels are, of course, no stranger to Bryan Cranston, but he’s on the opposite side of the conflict than he was in Breaking Bad this time, as a undercover CIA agent who pulls a sting on some bad guys, but not before becoming best friends with the guy at the head of the cartel. Apparently it’s based on a true story.

The movie is set in the 80s, and I think it’s partly so the makers had the excuse to homage some outrageous insults to the art of interior design and personal fashion. Cranston starts out the movie with a 70s porn ‘stache and Paul Rudd’s hair. There are also some “chic” design choices and a distinct lack of mobile phones. In that it’s very similar to Stranger Things, but that series was quite in-your-face about its dated style – this movie reminds you of it occasionally, pulling you slightly out of suspension of disbelief as you marvel at the weirdly shaped landline phone.

Drama comes because Cranston’s character can’t quite keep his family life and his alterego separate – he invents a fiancée to get out of sleeping with a hooker, which leads his CIA bosses to get angry but assign him a bombshell blonde as his potential wife, much to the chagrin of his actual wife. Later, he is accosted by one of his cartel buddies in a restaurant, and ends up punching out the waiter, in front of his wife, in order to save face.

I don’t really want to spoil the ending too much – the final scene worked pretty well, I thought. The problem is that the rest of the movie didn’t really make up for it. It dragged a bit in the unmemorable middle sections, but more importantly, the characters’ attitude to women is really atrocious. The amount of misogyny in this movie might be accurate and justified in the sense that this is what people are really like, but I don’t think the movie did a good enough job in denouncing this outright.

Whatever, really, though. The movie is enjoyable and all that, but it’s no classic. It doesn’t live up to Breaking Bad, of course. But I’m happy that Cranston is still getting heavyweight roles like this. I wonder if he’ll ever go back to comedy.

Anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Film #218: The Descent (2005)

the-descentdirector: Neil Marshall
language: English
length: 99 minutes
watched on: 4 August 2016

We actually watched three films in one day – the first was The Purge and the second was actually Leon – but I’m not going to re-review that. I mentioned it when I reviewed Nikita, though. My thoughts haven’t changed a lot (Natalie Portman and Jean Reno’s relationship is still creepy), although the visual style is dated.

As for this movie, it’s very famous, and I was much more apprehensive about this movie than The Purge, because it’s actually straight-up horror in a way that the other isn’t. And apparently I talk a lot during the movie when I’m nervous – maybe, yeah, although I think I just talk during movies anyway. But like the last movie, it wasn’t nearly as bad to watch as I expected. I think I just had some bad experiences with horror when I was a child, such as The Witches (I had nightmares about that!), and it’s put me off. I still wouldn’t choose to watch it by myself – I’m still a wuss – but this is teaching me perhaps they’ll be OK.

It’s about some cavers who go astray and get lost in a cave, which turns out to (spoilers) have some monstrous post-humans in it, evolved away when a group of Swiss cavers got trapped (or something), cannibalistic and blind, so the characters have to walk around silently.

The first half of the movie is suspense, and in many ways was more scary and creepy than the second half, which becomes more jump-scares. Of course I get scared by them too, but there’s a certain predictability about jump-scares that there isn’t when it’s people getting trapped in a creepy cave.

One nice thing about this movie that you still don’t see enough is that the human characters are all women. (It was also nice to hear Scottish voices and a variety of accents in there, too.) Since all the monsters are played by men, I think, it lends a certain insidious aspect to it, like there’s a subtle implication of sexual violence, and I think this was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Relatedly, we spent half the movie discussing who would be picked off first. Obviously the feisty one goes first, and the one who forgot to bring her pills for her mental illness is going to stick around. The others were interchangeable. There was a subplot that one of them had slept with the other’s husband, but I didn’t see the point in this argument – it just created drama where it didn’t need to be.

Anyway my main problem with the movie is the director’s cut ending. (So obviously spoilers coming up!) The original ending is that one of the characters escapes – the director’s cut ends with her realizing it’s been a schizophrenic dream and that she’s still in the cave. It’s signposted throughout the movie as her mental illness gets worse and worse – still, I get annoyed when I sit through ten to fifteen minutes of something that turns out to be unreal. On the other hand, since it’s in the realm of unreliable narrator, it does raise the question whether the whole experience was real or not. Or did she just kill all her friends – is she the monster? It’s not all bad, but it left a sour taste in my mouth right at the end.

And anyway, I’m eleven years too late to see this movie, but I liked it overall – I just think the original cut might be better.

Film #217: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

purge3director: James DeMonaco
language: English
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 4 Aug 2016

My friend was in a horror movie mood when we went over to her house in August. I was a bit apprehensive, but it turned out fine. Actually this isn’t really horror, it’s more of a gory thriller where everyone is maimed in inventive ways. Well, that’s okay then…

The premise is that once a year, there is a “purge” in America, when all crime is made legal for one day and the country descends into chaos. This movie is the third in the series (apparently) and has a political bent to it – one of the main characters is a woman hoping to overthrow the fascists in charge and ban the Purge. Sounds a bit familiar…

The premise is patently ridiculous, but it did lead to conversations like “What would you do if there was a Purge?” (I’d try to hide!) and “What way would you like to go?”, and other such morbid questions. It was also as trashy as I expected but in an enjoyable way, and it was fun to watch.

I’ve heard the other movies in the series are better, though – the first one is home-invasion horror, for instance. This is more of a caper, with very light political satire thrown in. It’s no classic, but it’ll entertain.

Film #202: Nikita (1990)

nikitaaka: La Femme Nikita (in America)
Director: Luc Besson
Language: French
Length: 115 minutes
Watched on: 29 June 2016

I watch new stuff all the time, and this was one of the few things I’ve watched recently that I’ve seen before. I’ve caught wind that there’s been an American remake of this movie much more recently, and a TV series, but this is the original by Luc Besson, following the story of a drug addict who is forced to become a secret agent for the French government.

The film is a good balance of some light and very, very dark humour (a sequence near the end with Jean Reno comes to mind), and a bit of action-thriller and romance thrown in. Ultimately it’s a very complex film and it’s entertaining. It shows Luc Besson’s talent developing strongly close to the beginning of his career – there are obvious signs of later films such as The Fifth Element.

Perhaps unfairly to the film, that’s not what I wanted to write about today. I last watched it during my year of films in 2008, and it was somewhat drowned out in the surrounding haze of other films – so watching it again this year I noticed a lot more than I remember from before. I paid a bit more attention during the opening sequence in the training facility, and the film felt more connected together – although as it is, it’s structured as separate episodes in Nikita’s life.

No, the main thing is that I noticed how utterly dated the movie feels now – especially things like the hairstyles and the contemporary idea of what a strong, confident woman should look like – a three year period disappears without so much as a montage, and Nikita comes back looking like a parody of late-80s/early-90s fashion. I think the last eight years since I watched the film have made all the difference, actually – now that the 90s is two decades ago, this movie 26 years old, such differences are more stark.

In exactly the same fashion, I rewatched two more of Besson’s movies recently, The Fifth Element and Leon – and also Trainspotting (I don’t want to re-review any of them, that would be overkill). None of them have dated quite as much, and it’s been less time since I watched them (Leon and Trainspotting were both in 2011, and The Fifth Element maybe two years ago) but I had to stifle a groan at some of Trainspotting’s soundtrack, which screams 90s from every corner.

Leon has also dated a bit, but perhaps just because the New York depicted is grimier than I’m used to seeing in other movies. The Fifth Element has hardly dated at all, of course, but there are references to 90s songs like All Night Long, and I reckon if it were made today it would look slicker and have more CGI. Incidentally, I did get the “ultimate edition” DVD of The Fifth Element, mainly to see the behind the scenes bits that I hadn’t seen before. The most interesting is the “full” Diva Dance without cutting back and forth to a fighting scene as happens in the movie itself.

Anyway, that’s all an aside – 90s atmosphere notwithstanding, Nikita is good and you should watch it too!

Book #101: The Girl on the Train (2015)

girlontrainauthor: Paula Hawkins
language: English
length: 657 minutes (10 hours, 57 minutes)
finished listening on: 31 March 2016

This book has been hawked on Audible’s front page for the last year or so, and I decided I might as well try it, see what’s popular at the moment.

All I can say is, is this really how most straight people view their relationships? Between this and Gone Girl, to which it’s often compared, I’m not filled with hope (I haven’t read the book of Gone Girl, though, only the movie). It’s a story of mental illness and spousal abuse, and it has the air of a thriller. The main character (or, one of the three, who all had different narrators in the audiobook), Sarah, is an alcoholic, and the main incident of the book happens when she’s blacked out, so she has to find out what happened.

As with most stories, there came a point soon before it was revealed when everything fell into place and it was obvious how the story would be resolved, but the author is skilled enough to string us along with something false for most of the book, and so I was suitably surprised when it started to become clear. The unreliable narrator aspects allowed me to experience this along with Sarah, so that worked well.

The train in the title comes in because Sarah is on the train kind of spying into others’ lives on her commute into London, and constructs elaborate fantasies about a couple she sees. And the same woman then goes missing, so she becomes embroiled in the investigation.

As an exploration of misogyny and abuse it works very well and doesn’t shy away from anything. The atmosphere is very foreboding, especially when she blacks out and you know that something bad has happened.

Anyway, there is a lot of good things about this book, but the subject matter was pretty dark. Like the last movie I reviewed, I feel like people could have been a bit more honest and upfront with each other and a lot of the problems would have been resolved. I also don’t think the comparison with Gone Girl is the most apt, because it’s not as nuanced. But it was worth listening to.

Film #151: Gone Girl (2014)

gone-girl-movie-still-4Director: David Fincher
Language: English
Length: 149 minutes
Watched on: June 30 2015 (1 of 3 on my flight to the UK)

In July I went back to the UK for a few weeks, as it was my mum’s wedding. It was good fun, but as usually happens, I had to endure a long-haul flight on the way there. This was the first movie that I watched on the plane.

I’d been avoiding spoilers about this movie, but it was almost impossible to completely remove it from my sight in the end: I’d managed to be careful enough not to really know anything about the characters, but a mixture of narrative inevitability and the trickling of a few assorted spoilers meant that the main storyline was reasonably predictable.

In the story, Ben Affleck’s character and Rosamund Pike’s Amy are the two main characters. One day he comes home to find that she’s not there, and that there’s evidence of a struggle, or even that she might have been murdered, and then he launches a police investigation, in which he becomes the prime suspect. There’s also an ensuing media circus, as Pike’s character is famous. Of course, we soon find out that all is not as it seems, and that she’s not really dead at all (but you could see that coming, right? Nevertheless, I’m going to start discussing a few plot points, even if indirectly, so if you don’t want to read spoilers, you’d better look away now).

A lot of what I’d heard already about the movie was that it was a great divider of the genders: men would routinely side with Affleck, and women would side with Pike in the great battle of the sexes. I didn’t feel this when I watched it: I more felt that everyone was a wrongdoer in the great scheme of things. Clearly the two protagonists are trapped in a loveless marriage, and the actions that both take in the end are reprehensible.

There’s hints of Affleck’s character’s infidelity throughout, and plenty to suggest that the relationship with Pike’s character is strained at best, but more likely with a lowkey abusive element. It’s obvious that this is what drove Amy to do what she did in the movie, but the actions seem calculated and cold in such a way that they are undoubtedly disproportionate.

I also perhaps have a bit of trouble understanding or sympathizing with the idea that men and women are so different as to suggest that all heterosexual relationships are doomed in such a way, and I find the trope that marriage is such a cumbersome chore trite. Too often, irreconcilable differences such as are shown here are dismissed as the genders being incompatible. Perhaps it’s radical, but I think these characters could have worked out their differences if they’d just talked!

Aside from that, though, the movie was stylish and held my attention for most of it. It can be classed as a thriller, and it had enough shocking elements to be worth the watch. I definitely recommend it. Perhaps you’ll take away a different opinion about the gender divide. (I’d like to hear about it!)

Book #68: Rules of Prey (1989)

rulesofpreyauthor: John Sanford
language: English
length: 715 minutes (11 hours 55 minutes)
finished listening on: 30 July 2014

This is yet another Humble Bundle entry I’m afraid. Cycling and audiobooks go hand-in-hand, a very convenient way to do exercise and get some extra enjoyment and cultural enrichment out of it. This book is a crime thriller about a serial killer and the grizzled detective (maybe an overdone trope if you ask me) who tracks him down.

What distinguished this book from other crime novels I’ve read recently is that this one also has every so often a chapter written from the killer’s POV, and considering that he’s a very misogynistic character, I found those chapters very hard to stomach, even at times downright disgusted at the author for putting so much thought into it.

I actually can’t remember anything else significant about the novel because this overshadowed everything else. Sure, the characters were well thought out, and the thriller-esque plot interesting, and it is useful to remind myself that writing a misogynistic character does not make one misogynistic too, but scenes detailing the killer’s throbbing penis as he prepares to disembowel a defenseless young woman crossed a line, danced over it and ran away so far that I can’t possibly recommend this book to anyone.

TV: Orphan Black Season 1 (2013)

OrphanBlack-Blog-1-1024x576creators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
language: English (and a bit of French)
length: 10 episodes, 44 minutes each
finished watching on: 20 June 2013

I came across this show via tumblr, where I saw gifs of its gay side-character. I had a quick look at the premise – a woman discovers accidentally that she has genetic clones after an illegal experiment in the 1980s, and a whole conspiracy unravels around her. In many ways it was like the show “United States of Tara” (which I watched last year), in that one actress plays multiple characters, and there are gay side-characters, although at the same time almost completely different.

The main character is Sarah, who is impulsive and experienced in being underneath the law. Unlike her counterparts, she speaks with an English accent (although apparently she came to America at the age of 12, so I’m surprised she hasn’t lost that). She witnesses a woman who looks just like her committing suicide, and decides to pretend to die, and rob the woman’s purse in order to gain some cash quickly, although it doesn’t go to plan, mainly because the other woman was a cop, and she’s forced into rejoining the force in her place.

It escalates from there quite quickly – unlike other American productions, this has only 10 episodes, so character development and plot twists happen almost every episode. She meets other clones in the second episode, and by the end of the season at least 9 clones have been shown or mentioned. The actress who plays all the clones is particularly talented in this respect, as they all have very different personalities, despite being essentially identical twins. Many scenes consist of her having a conversation with herself, which must have been especially difficult to film and act.

The other characters were also great – Sarah’s adoptive brother is Felix, a flamboyant rent boy who lives in a grimy apartment, and like many gay characters, he gets all the best lines. Like her, he’s got a faux-British accent, which sometimes slips and sounds strange to my ears. I think the actors are Canadian. There was the Irish adoptive mother, and then the various other supporting characters too, like the police detective partner, who loses contact with the main character halfway through the season and starts to make his own headway into piecing together the conspiracy. Sarah’s clones are varied too – at least one of those is also gay and has a romantic storyline. Each has their own associates and friends, and it’s shown that some of them are there to spy on them. In the latter half of the season, we also meet the heads of an extreme, very cultish body and genetic modification project who are probably behind the whole conspiracy. And the series ends on a massive cliffhanger.

I enjoyed it a lot. I do have to pace myself, though; I watched something like 8 episodes at once, and then watched the final two the next morning before going to work. I should perhaps get more into the habit of finding shows that I want to watch and only watching one or two episodes at once, so that I can spread the enjoyment out and actually feel some excitement after the cliffhanger of every show. Since the season only finished recently, I now have to wait a year to find out what happens next, and I will probably forget about the series in that time! I mentioned this problem with the recent series of “How I Met Your Mother”, too, which I also pretty much watched in two days. The other problem with watching it all at once is that I then feel at a bit of a loss the next day because I still want to watch it. I now don’t know what I should watch next. But Breaking Bad should be coming out soon so maybe that’s the answer.