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Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Rhesus Chart: A Changing Trend

While this summer’s weather has thus far been rather disappointing, I will say that it delivered something I’ve been waiting eagerly for: the opportunity to follow up on some predictions I’ve made in the past.

Two weeks ago Charles Stross added a new volume to his Laundry Files novels, the Rhesus Chart, featuring Bob Howard, a geeky computer programmer and computational demonologist working for the Laundry, otherwise known as the Counter-Possession Unit of Special Operations Executive. Its mission: to defend the United Kingdom against the supernatural vermin from beyond spacetime that threaten to eat our brains.

To recap briefly, the Laundry novels are based in a Lovecraftian universe, which stresses how insignificant humankind is in the vast emptiness of the universe and the immensity of time. And then, it fills time and space up with a hierarchy of beings so anathema to humankind, that they’re dangerous even when they aren’t trying to be.

Initially, the Laundry books were a kind of spooky comedy – Bob’s dry sense of humour and pop-culture references form his coping mechanism and his work politicking stressed him out more than the supernatural alien horrors. Bob’s – and his wife’s – rising status in the organization has brought them into contact, not only with terrifyingly powerful intelligences from beyond, but also the humans who fall down and worship them, usually in nauseatingly cruel rites. And the ultimate cosmic alignment – ‘when the stars are right’ in Lovecraft’s language and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in Laundry codetalk – is beginning.

In the Rhesus Chart, Bob has begun to move up into management, and to experiment in the use of the powers his rise has brought with it. And from that point of view, things are amiss: his experiments in occult early warning systems end up exposing a frightening rash of deaths by intantaneous dementia, and the cause – a form of vampirism – is running up against some strange walls of denial inside his organization. Just to make it worse, Bob’s unstable ex-girlfriend, now employed by one of London’s major investment banks, is back on the inside, and she’s brought her blood-hungry team along with her…

The previous book, the Apocalypse Codex, struck me at the time as being a bit of a middle-chapter laying in a lot of stuff that needed doing before it could be applied to book-yet-to-come. And indeed, that seems to be the case: Bob’s marital tensions, his new ally Pete and new higher-up Lockhart were all introduced in the last book and most of the payoff is to be found in the Rhesus Chart.

And it seemed at first that the Rhesus Chart wasn’t going to get a whole lot further. For one thing, the number of times Stross has used the ‘internal threat’ storyline (four if you count the novellas) is getting a little wearisome. For another thing, while the intricacies of the previous books are part of the reason I have re-read them many times, I feel like this one has been bulked out with lots of ‘let’s recap’ conversations, to the point I can’t get lost because I’m being whacked around the head with the all the important points on a regular basis, as well as the personal drama that Bob contends with as his ex returns to the Laundry fold (see what I did there?) which doesn’t really seem to pay off, at least not yet. I’m also starting to detect what seems like the odd inconsistency: it sometimes seems like the nature of the Laundry org chart mutates every book, as do some of the rules and terminology of the organization, and Bob’s former manager, Andy (with whom he’s now on equal terms) seems to have lost several IQ points since last I saw him.

From a storytelling standpoint, the sense of creepiness-out-of-sight which is, I think, a key factor of Cosmic Horror, has been losing its efficacy a little since the last book since, although the remained in shadow from our perspetive, the villains and characters outside of Bob’s immediate circle have been getting chapters from their perspective a lot more. It’s been an odd change and one which is, to me, removing the creepiness that gave the books a lot of their punch.

That said, I’m enjoying Bob’s character development: as the stakes to Bob, personally, have gone up, he’s gotten a lot more focused. The humour has been dialling down slowly since the Fuller Memorandum, and it’s done so at a pace entirely appropriate to the rising stakes. The twist ending of this book, and the personal cost to Bob and his wife Mo, have done a great job of getting me excited for the next round. Bob’s changing perspective has been interesting as he advances up the ladder has been fascinating, and increases the foreboding for when CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN kicks off properly. The power play happening behind the scenes in the Laundry increases the sense of insignificance, and the cost has ramped up the tension for things to get really hairy – or tentacle-y – down the line.

While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny any more, the confluence of business and civil service procedure and supernatural weirdness continues to amuse – I particularly like the vampire team brainstorming sessions. All things considered, apart from some pop-culture references, including to Bob’s American counterpart, Harry Dresden, surprisingly little hay is made of all the vampire-related content, but it’s a geeky good time regardless.

So I’m seriously excited for how things are going. The maintenance of that excitement will be that the next book makes something of the various threads set up or spun through this book. Another small battle laying groundwork for the big showdown is, I think, going to be one too many and it will start feeling a bit workaday. But Stross has done well so far, so let us wait and see.

Just don’t sit with your back to any dimensional portals.

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Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Book

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Mooks of Marvel

Marvel’s cinematic universe has been a clamouring success, and rightly so. However, with X-Men, Spiderman, Thor, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers in play, I’m beginning to think they might be in danger of strategic overreach.

They’re in better shape than DC, whose bull-headed refusal to make any use of their retinue of female superheroes has taken the steam out of their efforts. But Marvel’s next predicted installment is Ant-Man, whoever the heck that is, and their latest addition, Guardians of the Galaxy, shows worrying signs that they’re starting to strain themselves.

Young Earthling Peter Quill is kidnapped as a child from his mother’s deathbed on Earth and grows up to become an interstellar outlaw contracted to recover a mysterious orb. A recent peace brokered between two feuding empires is threatened when a fanatic of the Kree race and his minions determine to set out and destroy their traditional enemies anyway, and it turns out they need the orb to do it. Quill, already a wanted man, is thrown together with a beautiful turncoat from the enemy, out to keep the orb from anyone who wants it, two bounty hunters – a talking tree and a genetically enhanced raccoon – and an alien muscle man who seeks revenge against the villain for the death of his family.

With the possible exception of the tree and the racoon, what we have here is an absolutely breathtaking example of a generic setup for a story. It’s the old ‘ragtag bunch of misfits brought together for a common cause’ down to the bare bones. You notice how I didn’t name most of the characters above? It’s because I can’t remember half of them because they’re just such bloody cardboard cutouts!

Our protagonist is that kind of annoying species devised by marketing people who want to make a younger Han Solo: he’s is somehow supposed to be a notorious rogue, a loveable screwup and an idealistic romantic all at the same time, and manages to make any one of those traits look ridiculous. Besides that, he’s just…boring. He’s a late-twenties early-thirties white American guy with brown hair and designer stubble, like every protagonist from every work of popular fiction ever! I was having way more fun following just about every character except him. Here’s a challenge: next time you make a sci-fi action movie, make Djimon Honsou the hero and this guy the evil henchman. Just to throw our expectations a little!

Most of his eccentric entourage do at least have some kind of distinguishing trait, although ‘gimmick’ might be more apt a term: the tree, Groot, can only say ‘I am Groot’ and is, well, a tree. Avenging Muscle Man’s racial trait is a fundamental inability to understand metaphor or symbolism, which is played for laughs. The girl – a green Zoe Saldana – is skinny, violent and gets her softer side brought out by the dashing hero when the camera isn’t inviting us to stare at her ass. The villain’s your standard kill-everything whackjob…

Wanna know what’s sad? The freakin’ raccoon is easily the most interesting character. He has a tragic backstory and his emotional range is surprisingly broad even though his default state is hysterical sarscasm.

I probably should have taken it as a warning the sheer number of noted character actors in here. Many of them are excellent: Saldana, John C. Reilly, Djimon Honsou, Benicio del Toro, Ron Perlman and numerous others, but when you have that many of them in one place it somehow signals that you have a seriously B movie on your hands. I wonder if it’s because they needed to balance name recognition against a disproportionate special effects budget. It’s a pity they didn’t put more money into sound design, because part of the reason I can’t remember some of the character names is that the background sound effects overpowered the dialogue a number of times…

They also seem to have gone down market with their choice of directors: James Gunn’s most recent opus of note has been the live-action Scooby-Doo film. I remind you that Marvel movies to date have been able to attract such directorial talent as Joss Whedon and Sir Kenneth – freakin’ – Branagh so you’ll forgive me if I seem a little bit underwhelmed.

James Gunn’s IMDB page notes his ‘tongue-in-cheek’ style, which is true. Some of it even works. But if you spend an entire two hours with your tongue in your cheek, it will prove difficult to say anything interesting.

The main thing I get from this movie its that it’s in one serious hurry. Peter gets kidnapped and then instantly skips up to adult; setpieces come and go like lightning and the main cast decide that they’re friends and comrades forever without having even had much in the way of conversation.

Peter’s a bit like John Crichton from Farscape in that he uses the culture he came from as a way to keep himself grounded. This is reflected in the regular use of the music he listens to. Retro is all fair enough – it worked beautifully in Watchmen – and it serves the comedy as classic pop music in this context is pretty funny. But if you’re going to use 70’s and 80’s pop tunes, it would be more enjoyable if you confined yourself to ones that aren’t horrible. Seriously, would a single Queen or Zeppelin song have been too much to ask? The actual composed score of the film is as generic as the rest of it, offering little of the epic quality that Alan Silvestri brought to the Avengers.

There are all sorts of vague indicators of the kind of movie I’ve come to expect from Marvel: the design looks amazing, and while I’m suspicious of excess use of CGI, it actually looks quite good. Much like if Farscape had had a bigger budget, really; Saldana’s counterpart minion, her sister, played by Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan, has a lot of subtext that she’s got a shot at redemption, after the fashion of Loki in the Thor movies, but the movie’s over before it can be explored. John C. Reilly reappears at the end to help provide perspective, showing him and his family safe and sound after he’s thanked our heroes for seeing to that, which is rather gratifying.

I will say that for all its wallowing in silliness and vulgarity, the movie does come through toward the end. Rocket, the raccoon (knew I’d remember his name eventually) somehow manages to have a significant character arc, and his angst and sorrow at the trauma of having been a lab experiment and his friendship with Groot is, strangely, actually taken pretty seriously. Quill and Greeny Saldana don’t hook up at the end, although it is foreshadowed. Vengeful Literal Guy is a pretty decent, er, being. And for a CG entity with almost no vocabulary, Groot is incredibly expressive. The fleeing hordes get some actualy faces put on them for us to connect with. And the connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is made by demonstrating (at least if you waited through the credits of Thor: the Dark World) that the orb is in the same class as the Aether from that movie and the Tesseract from the Avengers.

Beyond that, the tongue-in-cheek dialogue seems to get recognized as such even by people in the movie, which makes the characters seem less idiotic. And when the cards are on the table, the dialogue gets very straightforward, serious, and sounds like the kinds of things real people with half a brain might say – especially Quill whenever he breaks up a fight between his comrades, which is often. And as it becomes more clear just how deep his mommy issues run, it makes him a more understandable and sympathetic character, although we get an awfully long way into the movie before that even gets started, really.

In summary, Guardians of the Galaxy had some good material to work with, but spends much of its runtime muddling around with it in a terminally unimaginative way. The bland premise and the goofy retro humour places it solidly as Thor and Iron Man’s poor relation. When the chips are down good things start to happen, but the rest of the time it can’t seem to pull itself together. Maybe a second movie will allow the writers to get to grips with the characters a bit more. And I have to give Gunn a chance. I have no choice ever since some B gore movie weirdo from New Zealand came flying out of nowhere and handed us the Lord of the Rings.

So is Guardians of the Galaxy good? No. Is it fun? Yeah. If you like that sort of thing, give it a go. Why not?

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in Movie