Thursday, 28 May 2009

GUILTY PLEASURES

We all have them. Forms of entertainment that we know should be a little low-brow for our taste. But we enjoy them anyway. Except … you know what? If there’s one type of person that I’ve really come to hate, it’s the type who only ever reads, watches, listens to serious stuff, and then waves all that around as a symbol of how smart he is. How dumb does a person have to be not to recognise the value of straightforward fun?

On the book front, in my case, I’ve read almost every single one of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels, and enjoyed them thoroughly. To give O’Donnell proper credit, they’re a good sight better written and characterised than you’d suppose.

And in TV terms, it’s Alias. And US visitors to this blog are going to have to bear with me a few moments, because the fact is it’s a show that’s barely known in the UK. It got broadcast on Sky, but back in the day when a lot of people didn’t own a satellite dish. As for terrestrial TV, it was so incredibly badly scheduled (always late, at wildly different times) that it never picked up an audience. But in North America, the show ran five seasons, from 2001 to 2006, and was so wildly popular that its guest stars included Christian Slater, Isabella Rossellini, Quentin Tarantino, Joel Grey, Ethan Hawke, Faye Dunaway, Richard Roundtree, Rutger Hauer, and our own John Hannah and (in a straight bad-guy role) Ricky Gervais. And this was well before the day when movie people began emigrating to TV en masse.

At face value, Alias looks just about as daft as it gets. A James Bond style female secret agent gets done up in a new disguise, whizzes around on wires, kung-fu kicks some bad people, and saves the day every week. But -- rather like the equally daft-sounding Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- the show had a lot more going on than that.

Razor sharp scripts. A superb cast led by the award-winning Jennifer Garner (pictured) and added to regularly by Lena Olin (a terrific actress Hollywood never made enough use of). The male side of the line-up ranged from young turks like Michael Vartan and David Anders to distinguished older thesps such as Victor Garber and the incredible Ron Rifkin.

And -- like Buffy -- once you get past the high-kicks and high jinks, Alias has a deeply human side. You find yourself becoming drawn into the interplay between the characters, and a pretty mesmerising bunch they are. Carl Lumbly’s brooding black giant. Kevin Weisman’s burbling, bumbling ├╝bernerd. Rifkin as Arvin Sloane -- only a TV show be damned -- is one of the most complex and fascinating villains who has ever been created in a work of fiction. And Garber’s emotionally distant Jack Bristow is a masterpiece of multi-layered subtlety and understatement.

What I love about the show, as well, is the way it doesn’t recognise the usual limits. It pushes over into science fiction sometimes, as do other spy series. But, by way of the Rambaldi section of the plot, it pushes across into the realms of the supernatural as well, and I’ve rarely seen that done before. If you’re going to have fun, why not have really BIG fun? Go the whole nine yards? This was back in the day when the word ‘entertainment’ referred to something more intelligent than a bunch of slapstick and action sequences heaped together with no rhyme or reason … I’ve just stumbled back from the latest Star Trek wondering what on earth the fuss was all about. I won’t be going to see the sequel of that movie. But I’m just finishing up watching my Alias box set for the fourth time. And it won’t be the last.

Monday, 18 May 2009

MORE CONCERNING VAMPIRES

I have caught up with the movies that I promised I would. Despite reading some awful things about it on the Internet, I thoroughly enjoyed Twilight. The characters were interesting, the whole tone of the film was nicely moody, using the local weather to great effect. It segued pretty neatly from humour -- the baseball game -- to the threatening arrival of the bad vamps. And, despite the fact that we've met vampires who are on the side of good before now, it's still rare to meet any who are positively likable the way the Cullens are. What surprised me most, though, was that to my mind Twilight had a distinctly Sixties feel. Maybe it was the rather psychedelic soundtrack. Maybe it was Kristen Stewart's hippy-chick look. Maybe it was the way the Cullens -- who aren't related, after all -- reminded me more of a small commune than a family. But mostly, it was Robert Pattinson's dense-eyebrowed moodiness, which put me instantly in mind of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Times change. Even vampires have changed over the last handful of decades (see my earlier posting 'Red Xmas'). But teenagers don't seem to change at all.

Let the Right One In turned out to be another take on adolescent encounters with bloodsuckers, but a completely different one, with the emphasis on the frigid gloominess of a Stockholm suburb. Whether you think it the better film is purely a matter of taste. But it turned out to be the more seriously-minded of the two movies that had a lot more gore. It's not the first time that an arthouse movie has approached the subject of vampires. But 'Let the Right One In' is a superior example and, writing horror as I do, it was nice to see a theatre full of intelligent people treating the whole subject with attentive respect. Something else always amazes me too, and both films prove it. Even decades down the line, with thousands of such efforts behind us, some inventive mind is always finding a brand new twist on the vampire theme. And I expect that, years from now, I'll still be noticing that.

I'm currently looking through the page proofs for Raine's Landing Book #2, 'Night of Demons,' by the way. Which means the Advanced Readers' Copies should be available during the next few months.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

A PARTY TO END IT ALL

Usually, parties are thrown for happy reasons. Birthdays, anniversaries, seeing a new government come to office (and we regret that last one soon enough, don't we?). But after doing business for nearly forty years, The Fantasy Centre on the Holloway Road, London N1, is due to close at the end of this month. The lease has run out, and will not be renewed -- it's as simple and brutal as that. And considering that the store is Europe's oldest second-hand trader of science fiction and fantasy books, that is slightly tragic.

But proprietor Erik Arthur responded to this sad turn of events with typical aplomb, throwing a party for all his regular customers. Bonhomie and a community spirit prevailed throughout the evening. The shop is still open a few more weeks, and since you can find a lot of books there that are pretty hard to find anywhere else, I'll doubtless be dropping in. If you live in or near London, try to make a last pilgrimage too.