Tuesday, October 20, 2009


This little big movie has tiptoed into theatres as quietly as a moon landing hoax set in the Nevada desert. Chris had suggested we go see it, but apart from that I hadn’t even heard a word of it until two different friends trotted off to see it on the same day. As Chris unenthusiastically went with me to see Whip It a few weeks ago, I agreed to go with him to see Moon, directed and written by Duncan Jones. Jones is the son of David Bowie, a piece of information that I am somewhat reluctant to share because it has no real bearing on the film but I cannot deny my enthusiasm for a bit of non-salacious industry gossip.

Three years into his solitary posting on the moon as a mining company employee, Sam Bell is just a couple of weeks away from returning to Earth, and to his beloved wife Tess and young daughter Eve. His enthusiasm for this return is tempered only by the frustration he feels over the slow passing of time—and by the things he is beginning to see.

From the flash of a woman on the chair in the rec room to a figure he sees outside on the surface of the moon, he cannot believe what he sees, until a disastrous accident during the investigation of a malfunctioning harvester renders him unconscious—and then changes everything.

It’s hard to really explain much further without ruining the surprise, which actually occurs fairly early in the movie. The cast list is quite small, with, amongst not many others, Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell and Kevin Spacey voicing Sam's non-HAL robot companion, Gerty. Gerty is a chunky and cumbersome contraption who converses much like a human (or one of those finicky humans who likes to correct you, at least) and supplants this with a screen that shows his reactions through a series of emoticons. This may seem gimmicky but when, late into the movie, Gerty says something moving and his emoticon is a sad face with a tear, you actually feel quite emotionally connected to him. Gerty is full of surprises throughout the movie and I ended up coming home quite disappointed to find that the closest thing I had to a robot companion was a cat that had pooped in the bathtub and a pint-sized Wall-E that waves his arms around and says, “EE-VAH!”

Moon is a study in what we would become after three years alone in space, and what lengths the forces that sent you there would go to keeping you safe and happy and, most importantly, a functioning member of staff. It is also, in a way, the moving tale of a man and his enormous grey calculator. As Sam becomes more confused and frustrated with what is happening and it begins to dawn on him what is going to occur, it is a devastating moment for the audience when he drives out of the lunar base in his big grey Hummer and finds himself looking up at the full Earth. He starts to cry and wails, “I just want to go home!” and I swear if it was possible you’d jump through that screen to hold him if only you’d brought your spacesuit and didn’t have to worry about Total Recall head-explosions.

The exterior elements are not CG but are miniatures, little trucks rolling about on a little rocky set. To be honest, I’ve always preferred miniatures. CG has come a long way and on the whole looks fantastic, but I still think you can tell if something was really there, in front of the camera when it was recording. A set of three buildings and one truck on a grey landscape doesn’t take much but it looks perfectly spot-on, no doubt because so few of us have actually been there to say otherwise. The budget for this movie could have been tiny but it’s hard to tell, because Jones’ script is perfectly tuned and despite the limited characters and set options this movie is never boring and always compelling. Chris and I had an argument afterwards about whether humanity could reach the point where what happens in the movie could really occur—I say no, he says yes—so if you see it, I’d love to hear what you think. Do make the effort though; I think Moon is only showing in ye olde arthouse cinemas, but it deserves a general release, and I genuinely enjoyed it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

the raveonettes, in and out of control

At the last Raveonettes show at the HiFi Bar, I passed out. I can only assume, as I don’t drink or take drugs, that their frightening amount of cool overwhelmed me and I came over all faint. I’m still not sure. I regained consciousness after a few seconds and demanded of a worried Chris that we had to stay until they’d played one of my favourite tracks from previous album Lust Lust Lust—“Aly, Walk With Me”. This swoon-inducing band is made up of Sharin Foo and Sune Rose Wagner, who hail from Denmark but now live in the US. The two of them sing, play guitar, have a drum machine and enjoy a bit of feedback.

The Raveonettes, mostly, aren’t an overly complicated band. They sing about dancing and love and summer and heartbreak. They did a brilliant rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” on their 2005 album Pretty in Black. They are a rock band in the pure sense—they write great songs and you love them, want to dance to them and sing them really loud in a convertible Cadillac along Palm Beach. Track one from In and Out of Control, the impossibly cheery “Bang”, declares that “kids wanna bop/out in the street/fu-fu-fun/all summer long”. It’s a hard sentiment not to agree with. I’d like to have fun all summer long too, though it’s a shame it can’t extend to other seasons.

Personally, I find them to be the perfect band to listen to when you’re driving along at night. Somewhere between The Beach Boys, hipster rock and rockabilly, I feel a bit cooler just by listening to them. I’ll suggest their style is surfabilly, but keep in mind that I’m a bookseller who likes music and I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Not all their songs are sunny—or at least as sunny as the music itself sounds. A good example up until now would have been the essentially happy but initially sad tale “Love in a Trash Can”, another song from Pretty in Black and which I listened to on heavy repeat. Now, their harder tracks are best explained through track four of this new album. The first time I heard the song, in the car on the way home from work, me and Chris both started at the chorus and looked at each other, whispering, “What...what did she just say there?” The song, I learned after groping through my bag for the cover, is called “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)”. It’s a small song. “3 to 1 girl/how can you win/one horrid night/you hope that it’s a bad dream/they rip you to shreds/make you feel useless/you’ll never forget/those fuckers stay in your head.” The upbeat feel of the song really throws you for a loop, and to be honest it’s probably the catchiest song on the album, too. The chorus has an echo, which makes it even more compelling to sing with a friend, though you’ll undoubtedly feel a bit awkward doing so in a shopping centre when you remember what you’re actually singing.

There’s not a Raveonettes song out there that I don’t like. Their guitar licks are catchy and vibrant, Sharin Foo is cute as hell, and their tunes will probably make you want to dance with a tall, skinny guy with a quiff and Cuban heels. Don’t resist it. I certainly can’t.

Friday, October 9, 2009

stieg larsson, the girl who kicked the hornets' nest

I’ve been a bit lax on the reviewing front of late, but I have an excuse—Stieg Larsson. If I’m reading a 600-page Swedish novel I can’t be expected to even be thinking about anything else. This feeling was summed up nicely by a colleague today, who is in the midst of reading the same book: “I’m jealous that you’ve finished Hornets. It means you’ve got your life back!”

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is book three in the Millennium Trilogy. In the book world, it’s been a phenomenon, creeping up towards Twilight/Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code territory, but with a much more interesting back story. Author Stieg Larsson wrote the three books in the trilogy but died of a heart attack at age fifty, just before the books were published and adored both in his native Sweden and internationally. There are rumours that Larsson, an investigative journalist like his male protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, was actually killed off due to his profession. I’m not sure whether this is true—though he almost certainly received death threats—or if it is a marketing ploy. Either way, he died young, and it’s sad. Because the Millennium Trilogy is a downright excellent series, and Larsson himself comes across as a genuinely bang-up guy.

It’s hard to review the last book in a series without in some way spoiling the contents of the others. But once you’ve read the blurb, you know two things: one, the main characters live through the first books; and two, they’re pissed. Book one, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, felt in some ways like a locked-room Agatha Christie book: there was a crime on an island with no viable escape routes. Mikael Blomkvist is summoned, in the mysterious way that non-police detectives often are, to help solve this crime, now decades old. He’s happy to lie low after being jailed for libel after breaking an uncorroborated story, so he accepts the challenge. (Incidentally, Swedish prisons come across as luxury spa retreats.) Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, the most unlikely and therefore most fabulous heroine in the history of fiction, is just trying to survive in a world that conspires against her. Twenty-five years old, tattooed, pierced, skinny, and able to pass for a teenager, she hates everyone and with good reason. After having her mental state questioned all her life, she is given a guardian who uses his position to abuse her in a truly horrifying scene that literally made me break out into a sweat on the tram. Lisbeth is not the kind of person who lets such things go by unpunished, luckily, and her story, which becomes linked to Blomkvist’s, makes for fascinating reading. Book two, The Girl who Played with Fire, follows the two of them as they go their separate ways—Lisbeth to search out and avenge her childhood wrongs, and Blomkvist back to what he does best, exposing bad guys. The death of two of Blomkvist’s colleagues bring them together yet again as Salander is accused of all number of crimes, not least Looking Scary and Being Uncommunicative.

Knowing that the characters survive each book isn’t the same as knowing what condition they will be by the next one. Book three begins with Lisbeth in hospital, fiercely unwell and accused of some more crimes and barely metres from the man who is the reason for most of the crimes perpetrated against her. Blomkvist is out and about trying with all he has to get her vindicated and to expose the enormity of the situation that led to Lisbeth’s current state. This is not light reading, and while I’m generally a fast reader it’s because I skip through sentences and rush to the end of the page. The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest isn’t the kind of book you can do that in, so laden is it with Swedish politics from decades ago and countless new characters who are all equally important. While this may make it seem like hard work, it’s still an exciting thriller. One of Larsson’s best talents is to spend the first two-thirds of a book revealing the atrocities of humanity and then, in the
final third, letting all the bad guys get their comeuppance.

But these aren’t simple spy thrillers. The most important part of these books is said by a character in Hornets: “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” Lisbeth, along with her mother and many other females in the books—as well as in reality—are treated appallingly. If it takes a bestselling thriller to bring facts like these to light, so be it.

This may be the one flaw in the books—that some of the women suffer, others are brave and powerful, but I can’t recall any of them being a villain. Larsson isn’t denying the existence of t
hem as such; they’re just not here, for these occasions.

I know this is a painfully long review—worse still, it’s my third draft—but I’m putting the effort in because they’re books worth reading. They’re not always pleasant, and sometimes very complex, but they are undoubtedly rewarding. With Larsson’s death, the trilogy is all we have of him. The third book ties up nicely, apart from one very very small loose end, which he could perhaps have followed through with in another story. We won’t know.

Sweden is ahead of us in making movies of the series (with all the characters looking wrong, ugh) but there are rumours going around—just rumours—that the person grabbing at the American film rights is young Mr Quentin Tarantino himself, purveyor of girl-power movies (Death Proof, anyone?) I believe he’ll do it justice, but you may as well grab a copy now and read it for yourself before the movie comes out, no?