Tag Archives: review

Book Review – Hellstar

Hellstar by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

Cover picture from HellstarEarth’s first colony ship to the stars is going fine, several decades into its trip to a distant habitable planet. The 8000 inhabitants are healthy and happy in their metal torus. But slowly things start going wrong – mechanical failures and strange physical phenomena manifest themselves with increasing frequency, and soon the population starts showing the strain. A serial killer and a dangerous recreational drug don’t help things either.

Hellstar, despite the terrible title, is actually not a bad hard scifi (with a few mystical overtones) thriller. By no stretch of the imagination is it a good book, but it is well-paced and its only real major crime was being written in 1986. It’s time to bring out The Eighties Scifi Paperback Checklist:
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Film Review : Jodorowsky’s Dune

Alejandro Jodorowsky burst into world cinemas with the cultiest of 70’s cult films – El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I have seen The Holy Mountain (my review) and it was clear to me that Jodorowsky was a director with a great visual sense who had – how to put it? – a very different sense of reality than most of us. When I heard that somebody had made a documentary about Jodorowsky’s attempt to film Dune I knew I had to see it.
Title Card for Jodorowsky's Dune
Jodorowsky spent 2 years on the project, collecting his “spiritual warriors” to make what was to be a landmark project designed to expanded the consciousness of cinema-goers around the world. His casting was inspired – Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Dali as Leto, and “Baron Harkonnen is grotesque, fat and disgusting : Orson Wells!”. He also had an eye for artistic talent, gathering SFX genius Dan O’Bannon, and artists H.R. Giger and Chris Foss (who together went on to make Alien) along with others to produce the whole film in book form to show to American film studios.

Jodorowsky’s Dune mainly consists of Jodorowsky speaking about the project, with frequent cut aways to most of the other warriors, who all seem genuinely pleased to have been involved in such a huge but doomed undertaking. It is easy to see how Jodorowsky managed to woo people to his quest, he is a magnetic speaker and his enthusiasm is infectious even if much of what he says is crazy. It is lucky for the world that all he wanted to do was create films; as a politician or religious leader Jodorowsky would be dangerous.

Although not a single frame of film was shot, the complete storyboard was compiled and Jodorowshy’s Dune animates portions to show what the finished product would have looked like, backed by an an appropriately 70’s synth soundtrack. Jodorowsky is certain that he was on track to make a masterpiece, and I am not sure he is wrong. Maybe that film exists in another, better timeline.

Instead, in this timeline we got 80s Dune. David Lynch instead of Jodorowsky. Sting instead of Mick Jagger. Toto instead of Pink Floyd. These are not positive changes. Coke Zero instead of the original coca-infused Coke. Jodorowsky’s face lights up (more than usual) as he recounts seeing the film and realising it was a horrible failure.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating and often hilarious look into a project that was just to big for this world. Jodorowsky is the perfect subject, jabbering on in charmingly broken English about his film and his philosophy. By turns hilarious and draw-droppingly mad, Jodorowsky’s Dune is highly recommended.

Jodorowsky has a new film out soon – I’ll probably see it.

Film Review : The Wind Rises

Jiro Horikoshi is a young boy in provincial 1910s Japan when he realizes that his mission in life is to design airplanes. Becoming a top class engineer just in time to join Japan’s struggle to become a first-world nation, Jiro’s designs will be needed for certain national ambitions.

A frame from The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ) is the latest film from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, and it fits right in with the best of Miyazaki’s work. Although serious in tone and completely non-fantastical (except for a few dream sequences), it has the same gentle almost fairy-tale quality as earlier films such as Spirited Away. The the story moves gracefully along and artwork is top-notch, every frame could hang in a gallery. I particularly liked the way that the motion of air was portrayed, almost every scene has waves of grass in motion or smoke lazily drifting, very befitting for a film concerning an aviation engineer.

Viewers expecting a hard hitting film about the build up to WWII will be disappointed, the film doesn’t exactly skirt around the issue as it is just not interested with telling that story. The coming war is alluded to, and the changing nature of Japan’s ties with Germany comes into play at certain points, but the focus is firmly on the struggle to create in the face of great obstacles. That fact that the creation is a war machine is only lightly touched on.

This is not really a criticism, The Wind Rises is about mostly about creating rather than the thing created and it succeeds in its goal. However there does seem to be a large WWII shaped-hole leaving a slightly disjointed tale. But that disjointedness does play into the dreamlike feel that the film seems to be going for.

Moving and beautiful, The Wind Rises is worth watching. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Swerve : How the World Became Modern

The Swerve : How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
ISBN: 9780393064476

Cover picture from The SwerveThe dark ages took a pretty brutal toll on Europe and it is no surprise that scholars of that era looked back to the writings of the Roman Empire with a reverence that they probably didn’t deserve. But the rediscovery of one particular document, On The Nature of Things by the free thinking Lucretuis, inspired several generations of scholars and kickstarted the scientific revolution.

Or so Greenblatt’s impressively researched book argues. Actually, most of the page count is concerned with a monk named Poggio Bracciolini who led a fascinating life against a backdrop of distant monasteries and vicious vatican politics, before becoming something of a professional manuscript hunter with On The Nature of Things his greatest find.

On The Nature of Things certainly sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It asserts that the Gods (if they exist) take no interest in humanity and that natural laws (not to mention random chance) hold complete sway over events. It even claims that all matter is made of tiny particles, which is a remarkable guess. I imagine it was pretty heady stuff for stuffy 15th century society.

The Swerve is at its best when it is describing Bracciolini’s life and the state of 15th century Italy. But it makes an unconvincing argument that On The Nature of Things‘ rediscovery deflected caused the course of human thinking to swerve (to use the book’s tortured analogy) away from dogma towards science. There were lots of things going on, and the new found popularity of an ancient poem was only part of the story.

Despite that quibble, The Swerve is well written and informative if perhaps a little dense for summertime reading.

Film Review : The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug

The barrel escape fromThe HobbitAfter negotiating the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins and the party of dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain and their date with a dragon, pursued constantly by a band of murderous orcs hellbent on killing Thorin Oakensheild and adding some urgency to what would otherwise be a gentle stroll of a plot.

Another year, another Hobbit film. I was pretty lukewarm about the first film (my review), it was OK but seemed like a really good 90 minute film crammed into 3 hours. The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug (HobDoS) is also almost 3 hours long but I am glad to say that it hangs together a lot better and some clever choices have been made in what to add to bulk up the plot.

The Hobbit was never a story that would support 9 hours of film, it is a thin book, episodic and repetitive in nature as befits a story designed to be read to sleepy children. The producers of the films have had to scratch around to additional material to pad out time and to make the films fit in stylistically with the Lord of the Rings movies. In the first Hobbit film, this meant stretching out the fight scenes with the goblins to a ridiculous degree and adding some tediously canonical foreshadowing that made no sense unless you already knew the story. Somewhere during production of HobDos the decision was made to just start inventing new stuff and the film is much better for it. The journey through the elvish kingdom is enlivened by an unlikely love triangle and Laketown becomes an impoverished city of political intrigue.

The additions are all a little Shakespearean and make for entertaining viewing. What the new stuff isn’t is very Tolkenesque, and the seams show when scenes that are taken verbatim from the book (Bilbo talking with the dragon) are juxtaposed with 21st century comedy action fare (the dwarfs battle plan) and the horror styling of Gandalf’s pointless side quest. The over-the-top action scenes are still very long and sometime nonsensical but they do not outstay their welcome so much this time around.

Once again, I got sucked into paying extra for the high frame-rate 3D version. The 3D is very subtle this time around and I didn’t notice any problems with the high frame rate although I don’t know whether that is due to changes in the process, the crew learning how to light scenes for the new cameras, or just me getting used to the way it looks.

HobDos is an improvement on the first film and I enjoyed it.