Video Review – Apt Pupil, Saving Private Ryan, Forces of Nature, Entrapment, The Fast Show

The Great Dictator

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

Apt Pupil is the film we’ve all been waiting for. You didn’t know you’d been waiting for it? What if I told you that this is Bryan Singer’s long-awaited follow-up to The Usual Suspects? Well, I was waiting for it, and here it is, straight to video.

Sicko weirdo Brad Renfro (or is it Jared Leto?) is the school kid of the title and a right little horror he is too. He recognises Ian McKellen on a bus. Rather than go up and congratulate him on his performance in Gods And Monsters, Renfro/Leto blackmails him, for McKellen is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Leto/Renfro is strangely fascinated by him. You can tell nobody is going to come out of this well, not least the formerly esteemed director.

Apt Pupil is one of the ‘other ones’’ of the quartet of short stories that Stephen King published and which have had great success as movies (Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption are the most well-known). This one didn’t fare so well, not least because it is draped in controversy and not just because of its subject matter. It spent a long time in the courts after allegations were made about a shower scene featuring some underage boys. The fact that it didn’t occur to Singer that some people might have objections to this sort of thing sums up this film, wherein a director hot off the back of a modern classic feels he can do anything.

How else can you explain a film centred around two of the most unsympathetic characters in film history? Even the friendly appearance of an actor from Friends – especially chosen to be friendsome, it seems, although it doesn’t matter which one it is – can’t lighten the weight of thorough dislikability that Apt Pupil exudes. Singer must be congratulated for presenting an uncompromising vision but even the most sympathetic viewer will leave this film with a taste of ‘ick’.

Still, if you really want to lose your lunch in the privacy of your own home, Saving Private Ryan is now available to purchase. One of the greatest modern films certainly, and an unforgettable slice of pure ‘impact’ cinema, but how many people are going to be reliving this one again and again?

In contrast to all this bleakness you can either have Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock canoodling in Forces of Nature, or Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones palling up in Entrapment to cheer you up. Both films hark back ti an earlier, more innocent age – long before Spielberg started cutting up bodies on the Normandy beaches or Singer thought he could encourage sympathy for Nazis.

Forces of Nature tries to capture the feel of the early Screwball comedies, notably Bringing Up Baby, with ditzy Bullock causing all manner of mayhem for exasperated Affleck. That this is actually entertaining is one of the surprises of the year and the two leads are just sugar-free enough to keep you watching without having to resort to hefting bricks at the screen. Entrapment is less successful – mostly because of bad casting – but as a virtual remake of The Thomas Crown Affair it is perfect video fluff. Connery is gruff, Zeta-Jones is sexy as hell and all’s right with the world.

The usual torrent of stuff from the BBC in anticipation of Christmas is upon us. The Fast Show – You Ain’t Seen All of These… Right? is a box set comprising the last series of the catchphrase-friendly comedy plus, seemingly sneaked on, that recently broadcast show of stuff that was rejected. For the most part you can see why some of these alleged pieces of comedy were never shown but why on earth wasn’t Simon Day’s sadistic king (“cut his bollocks off!”) not included in the original series? Other stuff emanating from the BBC includes box sets for Jonathan Creek, Only Fools and Horses and, weirdly, Are You Being Served. Now you know what to get that hated cousin for Christmas.

Television Review – Late Review, MacIntyre Undercover, Extremely Dangerous, Hippies, Casting Couch

Final Answer

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

The sheer pointlessness of Craig Brown’s occasional appearances on Late Review (Thursdays, BBC2) was further highlighted recently when the snotty doofus sniffed at Donal MacIntyre’s attempts to make a documentary about hooliganism. Brown, who in 45 minutes barely managed not one honest and well-thought out opinion, said that MacIntyre’s efforts were pointless because we knew what hooligans were like.

Brown – whose usual contribution is to inarticulately say he didn’t like things that other people have articulately said they’ve liked – is one of those idiots who gets his appearance fees by being entertainingly obnoxious. Tony Parsons wasn’t the only person who was livid with the smug git.

The actual programme under discussion, MacIntyre Undercover (Wednesdays, BBC1) was heralded by a Radio Times front cover; the appearance of which on the nation’s news stands must have really pleased the people he duped over the course of the series. Our hero went undercover with a thuggish carload of Chelsea fans, acquiring a genuine CFC tattoo in the process. For the rest of the programme you could only watch through hand-covered eyes as he hung around the sort of people who would kick the shit out of you for talking about last night’s Seinfeld.

Brown missed the point of the show by quite some distance. Yes, we know what hooligans are like but that doesn’t make them less fascinating. People don’t watch Coronation Street because it’s the same characters every night. We watch it to see what happens next and, in doing this with a remarkably brave (or stupid) reporter, the BBC have conjured up one of those ‘much watch’ shows they habitually produce.

ITV, having got rid of News At Ten, have been wallowing in the huge ratings they’ve been getting as a result. Must see TV, for them, usually involves night after night of Chris Tarrant saying “final answer?” ad infinitum, or at least until the infinitum ads manage to interrupt him. “I just got us a personal loan,” is my current favourite. So they can afford to relax when something like Extremely Dangerous (Thursdays ITV) arrives direct from the U-Bend of Network Centre.

Sean Bean, who almost had a film career for a moment there, plays a man convicted of the murder of his wife and children who breaks free of his captors on a train. Sounds like The Fugitive doesn’t it? Well you can forget about that pal! Because rather than disguising himself and running around furtively like Harrison Ford, Bean cunningly conceals himself by cutting off his pony tail and getting a job as a taxi driver.

“Are you sure you’re not going to change your mind? You’re going to go with that answer?” Having successfully hidden himself away it’s up to the viewer to try and find the plot. Bean looks gaunt and doesn’t say much. Juliet Aubrey walks around with little on. Ralph Brown has never looked balder. Did Bean kill his wife? Who was he working for? Who was he really working for? No doubt there are answers to these questions but being gripped is failing to materialise in my mindset. “You had £32,000…”

The first episode of Hippies (Fridays, BBC2) was as good as a first episode of a new comedy series can be. Perhaps you can reassure me though. There are comedy actors who aren’t called Simon Pegg aren’t there?

There were two major shocks recently in TV land, both acted out on a Monday. Channel 5 actually came up with an original drama called The Alchemists which, wait for it, wasn’t half bad. Meanwhile Casting Couch (Mondays, ITV) goes someway to disproving the old chestnut that ITV can’t do comedy shows. All they needed, it seems, was to employ the genuinely funny Mel and Sue. They must be kicking themselves.

Film Review – The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Ride With the Devil, We Love You John Salt, The World Is Not Enough

No Spoilers

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

The Sixth Sense, despite being remarkably difficult to to say without sounding like Biggus Dickus, is one of those films that are virtually reviewer-proof. You’ll see a lot of “I won’t spoil it for you, just go and see it” reviews for this transcendent little masterpiece. Unless you’re Philip French of the Observer who managed to totally ruin it by comparing it to another film – a double whammy. It really helps your appreciation if you know nothing whatsoever about it, but since I’ve got a word count to maintain I’ll just say a few things without going into too much detail.

Young Cole Seer (Hailey Joel Osment) is a weird lad. He speaks Latin, wears lenseless glasses and can open all the cupboards in his house instantaneously. He also gets mysterious scars on his body, which is where child psychologist Bruce Willis comes in. As Willis slowly gains Cole’s trust, he discovers the frightening gift the lad possesses. Director M. Night Shyamalan has delivered a truly original film, able to contain long scenes of near silence and odd comedy sidetracks whilst remaining confidently focused on its story. I won’t spoil it for you, just go and see it.

There are more twists in Fight Club although you wouldn’t know that from the way it’s been marketed. This could be a subversive way to hide what is an absolute doozy of an “I never saw that coming”. The Blair Witch Project was promoted as the scariest film ever made. Fight Club is marketed as the most violent. I’m eagerly awaiting She’s Gotta Have Shoes! – the most shoey film ever made.

Fight Club does feature Edward Norton and Brad Pitt beating the hell out of each other and anyone else who joins their titular group, but it also has the following things: Pitt makes soap out of human fat, he holds up convenience stores but doesn’t take anything and he wears a truly horrible red leather jacket. Drawing the subversion of the marketing into the film itself also sees an ending where everybody’s credit card details are wiped out. But that won’t be what you remember. I won’t spoil it for you, just go and see it.

At least Fight Club actually has a club that indulges in fighting and The Sixth Sense touches lightly on ESP. What the title of Ride With the Devil has to do with its contents, Leonard Maltin knows. It is an Ang Lee film, so a title more associated with Heavy Metal albums seems a bit out of place with a particularly talky Western. It has already been hailed as a modern Gone With the Wind and I can state with authority that it definitely takes place during the American Civil War. Tobey Maguire plays a sort-of Confederate soldier (i.e. he’s too nice to ever have slaves) who gets involved with a group of Southern Gentlemen fighting in one of the many guerrilla wars that were adjunct to the ‘official’ war. As the people around him are slowly dissipated, Maguire finds peace with a widow, played by pop star Jewel. I was holding out for Fiona Apple but what’re you gonna do.

Like Ang Lee’s previous films there is a lot of effortless handling of emotional stuff. It is also agonizingly tedious. Gone With the Wine lasted four hours. Ride With the Devil is a mere two yet they both feel about as long. That’s another thing they’ve got in common then.

A more remarkable film is We Love You, John Salt, which was made in and around this very city and cost £3,000 to make – or roughly 10% of the Blair Witch Project if you’re fiercely into cost breakdowns. By turns comic and tragic in a way reminiscent of a bone-dry Boys from the Blackstuff, this rough and ready piece of filmmaking – made by the sort of passionate fools who should really be running Hollywood – is a quite extraordinary achievement for something that cost less than a Fiat Punto. A distribution deal hasn’t been arranged yet so I won’t say more about it. Keep your eyes open.

The World Is Not Enough has all the usual stunts and innuendos we all secretly love Bond films for, as well as a decent plot and top performances from Robert Carlysle and Sophie Marceau. Great stuff.

Article – Film Twists

Look Out! It’s Jeff Bridges!

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

Although Roald Dahl will always be the God, Hollywood has also had a tradition of stories with a sting in the tail. The Sixth Sense, which has just been released, is merely the latest in a long line of films that have attempted to convince the viewer that, just when you think everything has wrapped up nicely, there’s always a gap in the tissue paper.

WARNING! Don’t read this is you don’t want to know the ending to any of the films highlighted.

Of course it all starts with Rosebud. Before Citizen Kane (1941), movies merely concerned themselves with a beginning, a middle and an end – and in that order. If every plot strand wasn’t wrapped up in the the final reel, then it was because the makers had screwed up. But a lot of the impact of Orson Welles’s cinematic masterpiece – still voted the best film ever by critics – comes from the revelation at the end that Charles Foster Kane’s last words referred to the mouldy old sleigh he abandoned as a child.

And that’s what last-reel twists trade off: impact. The resolution of a mystery you hadn’t – or couldn’t possibly – guess, or the realisation that what you had assumed was completely wrong. Done well they can creep up on you totally unawares and land on your head with the same force as you kicking yourself there. Done badly – i.e. predictably – and they can be laughable. Rosebud may not be something you should have guessed all along, but it has a satisfying ‘rightness’ to it, and makes you want to watch the film again. But there’s nothing a viewer likes better than be able to say, “Oh, I guessed it all along.” The general public likes to be surprised, as well as delighted.

So filmmakers have essentially been playing games with viewers ever since. There will always be the obnoxious bore who delights in telling his friends how he knew what was happening all along, but they’re usually film buffs so just ignore them. These people tend towards horror films, which have laid claim to the twist ending. Justifiably, in most cases, since a lot of twists aim to shock.

Early ‘horror’ movies generally had no budget and sudden appearances by blokes dressed in silly costumes were more often laughed at than shrieked over. Les Diaboliques (1954), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, was the film that changed the way a lot of filmmakers approached the power of shock. Essentially a murder plot conspired by two women, the twist in the tale is that the man they supposedly killed turns out to be alive, not through supernatural means but as a further plot to literally scare one of the women to death. It wasn’t just her who was scared; the audiences were too and that impressed a certain rotund ex-pat director.

Alfred Hitchcock was already renowned as the master of suspense but it wasn’t until Psycho (1960) that he used the shock twist to up the ante on his usual bag of sweaty tricks. Naturally, being Hitchcock, this could well be the best twist of all. For a start, we spend most of the film recovering from the shower scene (which is just as much a twist as, up until that point, the film was going in an entirely different direction) before the revelation that the Psycho of the title isn’t Norman Bates’s mother but Norman himself, in wig and funny voice. Who saw that one coming? Well, apart from the afore-mentioned obnoxious film bore.

By rights the unmasking – or should that be de-shawling – of Norman should be as famous as the shower scene itself (the image of the dead mother and the swinging lightbulb in the basement is just as imprinted on the audience’s memory as Janet Leigh’s unfocused eyes) but there is an element of not spoiling it for anybody else that still exists 40 years after the film’s release. Word of mouth on films like these runs merely to just “go see it”, and a crafty smile covers the twist that the recommender knows about that the recommendee doesn’t.

“Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” ran the tagline to Psycho’s posters, and films have been trying to outdo it ever since. Even more than horror films, courtroom dramas are heavily dependent on What Happens At the End. And the more that ending surprises, the better. Witness for the Prosecution (1957), adapted by Billy Wilder from the Agatha Christie play, relies heavily on its surprise denouement, although the effect is somewhat lessened by the reliance on one of the most recognisable icons of cinema, Marlene Dietrich, being necessarily impenetrable in disguise.

A more successful surprise verdict in a courtroom drama occurred in Jagged Edge (1985), wherein the discovery that nice ol’ Jeff Bridges is the wielder of the said serrated implement heralded a whole new raft of twisty-turny films, after they had fallen out of favour in the more ‘realistic’ seventies. Jagged Edge writer Joe Eszterhas tried the same trick again in Basic Instinct, but the film is more remembered for Sharon Stone crossing her legs; a ‘twist’ everyone say coming, so to speak.

In modern times, audiences – used to the epoch-defining moment when Darth Vader ‘fessed up to being Luke’s dad – are more clued up on what to expect, resulting in filmmakers having to try that bit harder. The ending of Carrie (1976) may have had audiences leaping up in the air but it’s not really a twist, more a fine example of the un-earned blatancy Brian de Palma specialises in. A better example would be The Crying Game (1992), a film which entirely relies on its shock twist even if, in disregard of common practice, it doesn’t happen at the end. A triumph of Psycho-like marketing, its teasingly concealed gender twist suffered the unique fate of being ruined for millions when Jaye Davidson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

This year’s The Sixth Sense is a classic twist movie, and the major reason for its unexpected success at the US Box Office this summer, beating many effects-laden blockbusters. It is proof that a good moment of “where the hell did that come from” can equal any amount of money.

Article – The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Trial

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

There’s a man in America whose entire family life was ruined by The Blair Witch Project. Having seen the film he had to sleep with the light on. He is 27. Someone else keeps imagining they can see a man standing in the corner of their bedroom and has been kipping on the couch for three weeks. Is this justified? Is this film that terrifying? We dissect the Blair Witch debate – and then bicker amongst ourselves for a bit…

Before The Blair Witch Project was released in this country, Channel 4 helpfully screened a half-hour documentary about it hosted by Mark Kermode. Except it wasn’t. There were some minimal interviews with the filmmakers conducted over a year ago, but mostly it was given over to Mark and his snooty appraisal of the film. As well as the usual ego-puffing reviewer tricks – to wit, spoiling the film as much as possible – he disdainfully compared it to some obscure horror flicks and cast a damningly sneering eye over the attendant hype the film had generated, as if this was the sole responsibility of the makers. Not a mention that it was critics just like him who were responsible for most of this hype. If hype worked in the way Mr. Kermode suggests it did in this case, Batman and Robin would be the most successful film of all time.

To me, the criticisms that the Blair Witch Project have received have been extraordinary. Aside from the spectacle of talking it up like the second messiah at first then damning it when the general public dared to make it a blockbuster, there has also been the hilariously insightful condemnation dished out by a lot of otherwise intelligent people: “it’s not scary.”

Because we live on a planet where the genuinely gory Saving Private Ryan is not regarded as a horror film whilst the no-onscreen-violence Seven is, people are pretty screwed up at the moment, not least critics. It’s no longer acceptable just to say whether a film is good or bad, it has to be categorised and labeled. When it comes to stuff like comedy films it’s no problem – a deliberately intended comedy film stand or falls on being funny. Things get a little murkier when you view a film that just happens to have funny bits, but then people don’t usually actively look out for those sort of things.

But they do look for horror films. I have a friend who regularly comes round to my flat scabbing for videos and, without fail, he always trots out the same mantra, “Have you got any horror films?” Why on earth is this? Films and films and anything daring to place itself in such a narrow category can’t possibly be any good, can it? And is it any wonder that the likes of this person (a fellow writer on this magazine, so he has got a brain) went to see The Blair Witch Project – which some critics have lazily dubbed ‘the scariest film ever made’ – and gone “um”?

There is a mentality to the horror buff. Like a drug-addled addict, they want their fix of blood and gore and are often prepared to sit through poorly made tripe to get it. Most film critics working today are horror buffs: a film critic is usually someone whose only qualification is that he’s seen more films than you, so sitting through the like of Skullcrusher III and Eye Gouger II looking for their latest fix of disembowelments usually gets them the job. How often have you seen reviews where the writer does nothing but compare the work in question to other films? That’ll be your horror buff critic in action, boasting about how many films he’s seen. So when something genuinely original comes along, they get stumped.

The Blair Witch Project has been labeled as a horror film. It’s not, although the promoters did it no favours by releasing it on Halloween. There are no brutal killings, no sudden shocks, no clammy hands on twitchy shoulders. All those dullards, de-sensitized by years of blatant horror pap, came out of the cinema going, “that wasn’t scary,” as if that’s what films are all about. They didn’t take the film for what it is: a highly effective dose of something you very really see in the movies today, realism.

The Blair Witch Project isn’t scary in the way we’re used to. It needed genuine outsiders from the movie system to make us aware of something that we’ve all seemingly forgotten about thanks to our bloated Independence Day cynicism. That when the lights go down in the Picture House, movies can immerse us like no other medium. Although we might know beforehand that Heather, Josh and Michael are just actors, the sheer believability of the film gets to you.

The Blair Witch Project is hardly what you’d call ambitious. If anything, it’s shoestring budget and attendant limitations are all too apparent. On viewing it, some people have actually said, “why didn’t we see the Witch?” Because that would have cost money you twit, and if you happen to using that cheapness to deliberately limit what is seen, showing something so obvious would have fatally undermined what had gone before. This is realism, and if the cameraman is there when the really interesting shit is going down – as witnessed by the recent televised parliamentary shootings in the former Soviet Union – it never fails to disappoint.

Okay, the marketing of the Blair Witch Project has gotten out of hand and expectations were built up to impossible-to-fulfil levels, but how patronising is it to expect none of us to be able to forget all that rubbish when the lights go down? Well, judging by the legions of disappointed viewers willing to moan at great length about how crap it is, it seems that there are more idiots willing to be lead by prior expectation than was previously thought of.

Who hasn’t got the sort of friend who predictably denounces talked-up films – more because they are talked-up than for any critical judgement they may possess? “Well, that was disappointing.” Wait a few years and they’ll end up as film critics, writing 1,000 passionate word articles on why Mutant Nosepicker VI is the best film ever made. Or The Exorcist, if you want to believe film critic and horror fan Mark Kermode, although I suspect he may change his opinion now that it’s finally gone on general release, and is not a barely seen cult classic with a ‘reputation’. These people are as guilty of pre-judgement as the people who queued up for the Phantom Menace three months in advance and then claimed to be disappointed. Who’s making the more effort to be disappointed here, the filmmaker or the film watcher? For them a film as breathtakingly original and downright different as The Blair Witch Project was always going to be disappointing anyway. They didn’t actually need to see the bloody thing.

What’s the point in making challenging, provoking films if it’s deservedly obscure shit that gets the plaudits? I despair.

Film Review – Charlie’s Angels, Bedazzled, Small Time Crooks, Flawless, The Grinch

Gazing At the Stars

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 2000)

Charlie’s Angels is the latest in a long line of movies adapted from television shows. Generally, these adaptations live up to the law of diminishing returns that also applies to sequels. Lost In Space, The Avengers and Flintstones are every bit as rubbish as Another 48 Hours, Candy Man 2 and Blair Witch Project: Book of Shadows. Why is there this need amongst producers to hamstring themselves before they’ve begun?

Still, Charlie’s Angels is also the latest in a long line of movies starring Cameron Diaz. Not all of them have been fantastic, but they all benefit enormously from her presence. Here she supplements her pinball smile with some serious ass-kicking, as well as her previously seen gift for comedy. There’s something about an incredibly beautiful woman goofing around that is inherently appealing, and she more or less carries this film on her own. Even Bill Murray (as Bosley) can’t match her.

Cameron Diaz defines ‘movie star’ more than anyone else does at the moment. Elizabeth Hurley seems to be one of the these as well, but her position is a lot more mysterious. A ‘movie star’ should be appealing in some way, and while La Hurley may be beautiful, everything else about her is hideously ugly. In Bedazzled she plays the role previously essayed by Peter Cook. Naturally, she doesn’t compare in wit, but the fact that she makes the notoriously wooden Cook look like Laurence Olivier is quite an achievement. Along with her recent run-ins with the American Actors’ Union, her deeply unpleasant Sloane Ranger voice and dimness akin to the light of suns galaxies away, she is sadly living proof that all you really need to get on is a good pair of tits.

Bedazzled isn’t totally hopeless but then it is almost entirely carried by Brendan Fraser, the male Cameron Diaz. One can’t help but feel that all films should star the two of them, but then writers and directors would get lazy, knowing that their input isn’t as important as the film’s stars. Well, lazier.

It’s hard to know how Woody Allen can get any lazier. Although he keeps up a busy workrate of a film a year, just about all his recent films have been about as sharp as 70s fashions. His latest, Small Time Crooks, is as dryly predictable as all the rest, right down to the supposed twist, lifted straight from his earlier Bullets Over Broadway. Still, it’s weird how Tracey Ullman hasn’t changed one bit in twenty years.

Neither has Joel Schumacher, despite his constant reinventions. ‘Flashy’ may as well be this director’s middle name as he seems incapable of producing anything with any depth. The latter Batman films are obvious but even when he’s trying to be edgy and introspective it still comes across as cheesy as two pounds of Edam. His earlier attempt, Falling Down, was an unpleasantly cynical attempt to appeal to a different audience; now his latest, Flawless, is as emptily shallow as a focus group, despite its author’s intentions to surf the current low-budget zeitgeist.

Schumacher may put more effort than most into varying his career but he is as lazy as Woody Allen in his attempts to do something unpredictable. This is magpie filmmaking at its worst, with Schumacher thinking he can get away with ideas nicked from other people. Despite a rather good performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a morose gay guy (virtually the same thing he did in Boogie nights, which is probably why he was cast), Flawless is predictable, shallow and makes Ron Howard’s new film The Grinch look daring and introspective.

In it, Jim Carrey is virtually unrecognisable under a whole mound of make-up and latex. There is something inherently pleasing about burying possibly the world’s most famous and highly paid actor like this. Unfortunately, this may be the only reason to see the film.

Book Review – Iain M. Banks: Look To Windward

Lapsed Pacifist

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 2000)

It is with sweaty nervousness that the spine is cracked on the latest book to plop on my doormat. Possibly my favourite author and possibly my favourite series of stories at the moment can cause palpitations in the sturdiest of hearts. What if it doesn’t compare with what’s gone before? Iain M. Banks’s Look To Windward (Orbit, £16.99), the latest Culture novel, will be arresting my attention for the foreseeable.

I’m strongly of the opinion that, much like the works of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen were seen as populist fluff but are now heralded as great literature (whilst those books of the time which really got the critics frothing have disappeared without trace), so Banks’s anthology of tales from a futuristic, and very Socialist, society will come to be seen as classics in years to come.

For a start they are populist; that this is ever thought of as a bad thing is the biggest crime most highbrow critics have ever bestowed upon printed fiction. Iain Banks, when addressing matters termed science fiction, doesn’t write book you exactly struggle through. His first Culture book, Consider Phlebas, was a rip-roaring space opera deserving of a multiplex movie. That he added some gorgeous themes and parallels to what was a very basic plot didn’t hurt either. This stuff of ‘hard’ literature should always enrich a story, never replace it.

Recently, he seems to have been seduced by the allure of the literary crowd. His last Culture book, Excession, was dislikably obtuse as all hell and seemed to be the work of an author who no longer respected his own creation. People can laud Revolution No. 9 for its bravery all they want. It doesn’t exist on the same level as I Am The Walrus. Thankfully, Banks seems to have learnt this lesson as Look To Windward returns to what Banks does so well.

In fact there has never been a Banks book that looks so much to his past. But this is no self-reverential return to past glories. Here, Banks knowingly plays with the perception of his toys. Even the now-expected role call of space ships’ names is playfully presented as a not-entirely serious drunken conversation. It’s as if the author knows that people are compiling lists of these things on the internet. But at least we still get a warship called Lacking That Small Match Temperament.

Look To Windward, despite its gravedigging in the past, possesses a beautiful originality. It’s a mature work, not afraid to pace its story much slower than those early space battles. The dedication to the now largely forgotten Gulf War veterans is apt here, as Banks contrasts the Culture population’s happy, consequence-free delight in death-defying games with the livid scars of those who played the game for real.

This book has as many parallels and themes as Banks’s recent, more stodgy output, but it dares to spin these off a fascinating story that slowly constricts you until you can feel the tightness in your stomach. Sub-plots slowly converge but never in a way you were expecting. As with Consider Phlebas it has a sort of inexorable inevitability but never strays into contrivances. Events happen logically but never predictably. Much like real life; that state that never seems to appeal much to most writers, who tend to celebrate their ironic fictionality. You believe in this story, despite it happening half a galaxy away on a huge artificial ring world.

Iain Banks has virtually reinvented science fiction, dispensing with much of its menky technobabble and introducing a level of literary intelligence and outright political comment that is slowly being taken up by others. And, through all this intellectualizing, he still writes stuff you actually want to read. The generations of tomorrow will be grateful and I can return this book to the shelf satisfied that the great man has done it again.

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