Monday, April 30, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

What a weird film. I've never read the book and its been a while since I heard any reviews of this film, so I had forgotten what to expect. All I knew was that it was set in France and involved someone with an astounding sense of smell trying to capture the scent of women... and murdering them to get it.

Its a slow starter. It took a long time for me to get hooked by the story - I could easily have switched off and walked away at any point in the first hour or so. But the film did eventually hold my attention. I guess one of the main problems this film has is that there is nobody for you to like and relate to. The main character is someone you would certainly cross the street to avoid, and none of the other characters, at least in the first hour or so, are in any way likeable. But at least many of the unlikable characters die in horrible ways when they pass out of the life of the main character, so at least there is black comedy there.

The bit with Dustin Hoffman should have improved the film, but he got annoying quite quickly and was part of the plot for longer than was necessary. The film really picked up when our perfumer got to Provence and started killing beautiful girls in quick sucession. For the first few it was reasonably entertaining, but after that it began to drag again. Had it not been for the Alan Rickman character and his daughter, I may have got to the point of switching off again, but somehow they kept me watching.

Along the way, the film manages to make you want the perfumer to kill all the girls he sets out to get. And for that reason I'm not sure I can forgive this film. Murder is a horrible thing and anything that seduces us into desiring it (even in fictional form) or even accepting it is not good.

And then we get to the ending of the story...

I'm quite good at suspending disbelief - most of my favourite books and films require this - but I'm sorry, I just couldn't suspend disbelief that much. The effects fo the completed perfume on the general public are just ridiculous. Especially the response of Alan Rickman's character - even when everyone else was seduced byt the scent, I can't believe that he would be too.

So was it a good film?

Visually, yes. But the plot was muddled and the acting was over. It was compelling, but perhaps not for good reasons. And the end was just silly - although I'm not sure how else the story could have ended.

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Doctor Who: Daleks in Manhattan & Evolution of the Daleks

Interesting, yet strangely dull. Lots of overacting from many of the cast. Why do the BBC cast Brits as Americans - its not as if there's a shortage of American actors over here?

Anyway, the pigmen were silly, the daleks were more stupid than usual (they're usually just emotionless, not dumb - supreme beings, you know?) and I'm not sure the Human-Dalek hybrid worked.

For a story with quite a bit of action, the in-between bits were too long and too full of pointless dialogue.

Although, I really liked the bit when Martha, Lazlo & Tallulah were defending themselves from the pigmen in the lift. "That might just work..."

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Marillion: Somewhere Else

I may have to rethink who I list as being my favourite bands. For the past 10-15 years I would almost certainly have listed Marillion in the top five (see here, for example), and it is the case that they have produced some of my favourite albums. But, on reflection, I can't say that they consistently produce great albums.

The public perception of Marillion is the band, fronted by Fish, that formed in the late 70s and split in 1987. Fish was replaced by Steve 'h' Hogarth and the band have subsequently produced ten albums of varying quality.

Three of those albums, namely Brave (1994), This Strange Engine (1997) and Anoraknophobia (2001) have been excellent. Two of those albums, namely Holidays in Eden (1991) and Radiation (1998) have been merely OK. The rest have been between these two extremes.

The new album, Somewhere Else, is adequate. Nothing more. Sadly, it doesn't even have those moments of greatness that some of the earlier poorer albums have shown. As I said, this is the 10th album by this version of Marillion, and I'm beginning to think that they have now used all their musical ideas. This album seems very much like an album made out of the ideas that they have already used on previous albums.

If you haven't heard their back catalogue, this might be a great album for you, but most of the sounds and ideas on this album have been used before, generally in better songs.
  1. The Other Half
    The last Marillion album, Marbles, started with a sprawling song that I have never managed to get into. It just doesn't work for me. At first listen, this track seemed to be much the same. But after a few listens I got it. Its quite good.
  2. See It Like A Baby
    The first single. I thought it was adequate the first time I heard it, but it is a much better song in the album context than as a stand alone song. (Oddly enough, the first single from Marbles, You're Gone, was much like this - adequate on its own, but much better in context.) This song has a much stronger verse than the chorus, which is over repetitive.
  3. Thankyou Whoever You Are
    A bit whiny, but a reasonable song. Still nothing fab on the album yet...
  4. Most Toys
    Possibly the next single. Please no. This song has no tune on the verse and a highly irritating chorus.
  5. Somewhere Else
    This is much more like it. A good song, but quite reminiscent of previous Marillion songs.
  6. A Voice From The Past
    [review to follow, I can't remember anything about this song at the moment]
  7. No Such Thing
    Take a minor variation on the riff from 'fruit of the wild rose' (from Anoraknophobia) and wrap it up in a dull and really repetitive song, and this is what you get.
  8. The Wound
    The best song on the album.
  9. The Last Century For Man
    [review to follow, I can't remember anything about this song at the moment]
  10. Faith
    A b-side from one of the singles off Marbles. Sounds like a b-side.
So, all in all, fairly disappointing. Nothing outstanding, lots of filler material. No new ideas. But I'm going to see them live in concert in a few weeks time. So maybe I'll 'get' it then.

As Marillion are stereotypically associated with sad geeky types, I thought I'd prove the point by closing this post with a graph of my opinions of the quality of the last ten Marillion albums:

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Sea of Souls

Sea of Souls is a BBC Scotland drama series, starring Bill Patterson as Dr Douglas Monaghan, a university lecturer with interests in paranormal and supernatural things. Over the past few years there have been three short series, the last of which hardly featured Monaghan at all - it followed the Mulder-and-Scully-esque pair of research assistants. However, in the stand alone two parter that was on last week, the research assistants were nowhere to be seen, indeed the dialogue featured one of the characters telling Monaghan that he needed some research assistants... I guess research funding is just as bad in fiction as it is in the real world.

Anyway, the two parter last week was pretty good. However, the feel of the show was totally different from the earlier series. In the first series it really was up to the viewer as to whether supernatural things were going on, with plausible natural explanations being proposed to explain the weird things. In the second series, there was more weight given to supernatural explanations, indeed, supernatural things did happen. In the third series (last year) even the skeptical research assistant, Craig, was believing the paranormal explanations...

But in this story it was clear that the supernatural was real. Furthermore, this story was considerably creepier than anything they've done before. In fact, it verged on actually scary at points. I really wasn't sure where the plot was going for the most part (in a good way) and there were some nice twists towards the end, although the actual resolution at the end could be guessed about 15 minutes before it happened. But it was good, if perhaps unnecessarily creepy.

But I think the research assistants should be brought back.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Desktop of the week

Isle of Arran with Seagul. Taken from the ferry to Ardrossan about 20 minutes after leaving the island on Friday 13th April.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Machrie Moor

For the first fifteen years of my life I spent part of my Easter and summer holidays in Arran - staying with my Mum's Aunt May (my maternal grandfather's elder sister). In all those holidays I got to know (and love) much of the north part of Arran; Lochranza, Catacol, Pirnmill, Sannox, Corrie and as far down the east coast as Brodick, Lamlash and Whiting Bay. After Aunt May died (in 1985) we never went back to Arran. I have always meant to go back, but never quite made it. Until last week.

We had three days in Arran last week, in glorious sunshine. Nearly 22 years since the last time I had been there I did a whistle-stop tour of many of the places I remember from my childhood. Few of them have changed.

But I also had the chance to go to a few places that I had never been to before. I don't know why, but I had never been to Machrie Moor before, despite being quite interested in stone circles and the like. So I went and was very impressed.

I did a tour of all the stone circles on Mull a few years ago, and they were interesting, but nothing like as good as Machrie. The sheer quantity of prehistoric stone circles at Machrie is astounding. And some of the larger stones are still standing after 5000+ years.

All this by means of introduction... here are three of my photos:
This photo doesn't convey the size of the stone. If I was standing next to it, I wouldn't be half the height of it.

There are five stone 'circles' in this field. And archaeologists have uncovered evidence of others and several timber circles which predate them.

Once again, this photo doesn't convey the size of these. Suffice it to say that they're big and impressive.

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Even cheaper CDs on the internet...

Handy hint if you have an American Express card and buy CDs online. Most CDs are cheaper on if you use this web address:

On the three last CDs I bought from them, one was £9.24 instead of £9.99, another was £6.24 instead of £6.99 and the third was £6.99 instead of £7.99.

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'please do not upload this to the internet...'

Marillion's new album 'Somewhere Else' was released last Monday. I didn't buy it then, I was on holiday last week. I just bought it (online) but haven't received it yet (the post isn't that good). However, I did download some of the tracks from it this morning from the internet - patience (in waiting for the CD to arrive from is not a virtue I have.

During the instrumental sections of the downloaded versions, a voice clearly says "You are listening to an advance promotional copy of Marillion's new album, Somewhere Else. Please do not upload this to the internet."

I guess that request was not heeded.

First impressions are pretty good. I'll give a full review after a few listens to the actual CD...

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Doctor Who: Gridlock

Boring. Yawn. Next...

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Code

Ah. The difficult second episode. In the 2005 series we travelled to the extreme far future and met Cassandra, the face of Bo and others for the first time in 'The end of the world'. It was an episode with lots of effects but not much story to it. Last year for the second episode, 'Tooth and claw', we travelled to Victorian Scotland and fended off an alien werewolf, whilst trying to set up the premise for 'Torchwood' - lots of effects, story a bit slight. This year the second episode again featured lots of big sets, costumes and some effects, but the story was once again a bit on the thin side.

The problem I have with supernatural stories in Doctor Who is that they can't let them actually be supernatural. They have to find some technobabble sci-fi explanation for the apparently magical goings on. Which cheapens it a bit.

And the witches looked like Zelda from the Terrahawks (see right if you can't remember the 80s), which was a bit naff.

But it wasn't bad. The sets and effects were nice, it was a bit silly, it would have been scary for my 5 year old (if I'd let her watch it, which I hadn't), the script was reasonably entertaining and the actors were all fine. The actress playing the lead witch, Christina Cole, seems to have made a career playing witches and murder suspects, and she does a really good evil cackle. She was quite good here, so I hope she can find some bigger roles on the back of this. But she did have a blink-and-you'd-miss-it role in the last Bond film, so maybe her career's on the up.

Next week's Doctor Who episode looks good - quite 'the fifth element' but that's a good thing in my book.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters' by G.W. Dahlquist

For the past few months I've taken to listening to the BBC's 'Daily Mayo' podcast - or rather some of them. Every week one of the podcasts features a bunch of literary types reviewing some new books. Generally two books a week. Almost always they select books which are 'literary fiction' and which all the reviewers enthuse about at length.

A couple of months ago, one book divided the reviewers, some loved it, others didn't. Perhaps it says something about my character that, of all the books I've heard reviewed on the podcast, this is the only one I've bought for myself...

Midway through reading this book, my wife asked me what kind of book it was, what genre? I found it quite hard to find a simple answer to that question. Some reviews have described it as 'Victorian Sci-fi' which is probably accurate, but misleading. I think I'll stick with my eventual answer - its simply an 'Adventure' story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although it was frustrating at times and highly rude. It's certainly not an adventure story for kids!

So what's it about? Well, its set (for the most part) in 'the city' - somewhere that clearly is Victorian London, without actually being Victorian London. This is a city filled with posh hotels, parks and train stations that have never existed in London. Furthermore, when the story strays out of the city, we are taken to towns, railway stations and country houses that have never existed. But we have characters from England, Germany, France and other real places mixing here.

The story follows three very different characters: a young lady who came to the city to find a husband, a rogue for hire who is employed to kill a nobleman and a German naval doctor, who starts off in the retinue of a visiting German prince.

The book was originally published in ten smaller books, delivered in weekly installments. Each of the installments follows one of the three main characters, although they all come together in the fourth section, before going their separate ways again. These sections are not subdivided into chapters and each makes for quite a long read (especially the last one).

Fundamental to the books is the 'alchemical science' of the cabal of baddies who use the strange powers of a mineral called 'indigo clay' to empower, control and brainwash certain characters in the story. The powers of indigo clay or the blue glass which it can be made into are slowly revealed as the story goes on, so I won't spoil any of the surprises here. What we know initially (from the book cover, indeed) is that the blue glass can be used to store (or steal) the memories of people. What we also learn, early on, is that there is a 'process', using the blue glass, by which people are transformed into (apparently) more empowered, determined, ruthless and capable people than they had been before the process. Initially, it appears that those transformed by the process are driven by a heady cocktail of most of the seven deadly sins (most notably lust, pride and wrath) without being fettered by feelings of guilt or equivalent. But more is revealed as the book goes on.

While no mention of anything biblical is made in this book, I couldn't help but be reminded of Romans 1v21-32 when reading about the baddies in this book:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

This kind of describes the folk who have been transformed by the process. It is against this that our three unlikely heroes find themselves fighting.

Along the way, as in all good stories, the three heroes also undergo a kind of transformation. The virgin Miss Temple finds out an awful lot about sex and sexual depravity, the killer 'Cardinal Chang' (neither a cardinal nor asian; long story) ends up saving people out of love and Dr Svenson ends up killing a lot of people, contrary to his own life-saving beliefs.

OK. Let's talk about sex. There appears to be an awful lot of sex in this book, but actually most of it doesn't happen. The first few sections of the book each appear to be building up to inevitable sexual encounters... which don't actually happen. In much of the middle section of the book the sexual encounters mentioned happen 'off screen', as it were, and are referred to but not described. On a few occasions in the book, the heroes witness the baddies in a few sexual acts, but these are not actually described in much detail - most is left to the imagination of the reader. But the baddies are people driven by lust, amongst other things, so they talk about it and refer to it and attempt to control others by it, so something implicitly sexual pervades quite a lot of this book. At one point Miss Temple wonders "if she has become the most depraved virgin in history" and that kind of says it all. But the book is not about sex, it is just a book full of sexual references. One further thought about sex before I move on to other aspects of the book. When 'given over' to their desires by the 'process' it appears that women are equally happy to engage in sexual encounters with other women as well as men, but the men feel no such urge... why is this?

Anyway, as we find out, sex is used by the baddies as a control mechanism on others, and the real plan of the baddies is to take control of key players in the government of both England and Germany. There's lots of to-ing and fro-ing, politics and backstabbing, a bit of swashbuckling, quite a lot of fighting and also quite a bit of that erudite word play that Victorians seem to engage in, usually while sitting in 'parlours' or 'drawing rooms'. All this is written, with relish, by a man who clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language. The story is, for the most part, really gripping and you really want to know what happens next... I found myself planning ahead to the next time I'd have an opportunity to read, and really appreciated the fact that I had four flights to various European locations in the past couple of weeks.

The book doesn't reveal things very quickly. It is a bit of a tease really - it hints at things but never goes for the full reveal until much later in the book. Indeed, some things are never revealed, and I, having finished the book now, found that quite annoying at the end. I am still left with questions.

Take the whole 'alchemical science' thing - who invented it? It is referred to as being 'old' and 'ancient' in the book, but how did the villains find out about it? And speaking as a scientist, I want to know how its supposed to work - there are machines and pipes and electricity and steam and furnaces and bellows, but no clear explanation (or even tantalising hints) about how the thing is supposed to actually work.

And what about the missing artist? OK, so I figured out what had actually happened to him quite a long time before it was revealed, but his back story isn't adequately painted in.

But most of this is nit-picking. For at least nine tenths of the book - that is, while you're immersed in the story - it is a highly enjoyable and gripping ride. Its just a shame that not everything is neatly sewn up at the end and that the ending itself is very abrupt. I want to know what happens next - there's not another novel there, but there is at least a half chapter missing where we should see how the remaining characters try to fit back into their old lives.

The book is not a book which tackles issues, but a few philosophical points are flirted with along the way. Are we simply the sum total of our experiences? If some of those experiences were taken away from us (so that we not only couldn't remember them, but didn't know that there was anything to remember) would we still be the same people? What if we could experience things that other people had experienced, and could remember their memories - would we then be different people? Or is there something inherently me that is independent of experience and memory?

For example, in the story, the virgin Miss Temple experiences the senstations of somone else's sexual encounter, and is left with the same memories that the other person had. She knows what it felt like and can remember it. Is she still a virgin after the experience? Given that she experienced and could remember the depravity of the others, would that make her depraved? In the book, the author seemed to think not. Miss Temple's resolve was even more against the villains after she shared their experience than before.

The problem I am left with after reading this book is can I recommend it to anyone? Certainly, I enjoyed it. But if I recommended it to you, would your opinion of me be changed?

You probably would enjoy it though.

Sorry for the extreme length of this posing. It wasn't intended. Next on my reading list is 'Ysabel' by Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite author and the only author I have read multiple books by where I haven't been disappointed by any of his books... yet.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Google having a laugh...

Just spotted my first 'April Fool' this year...

Google 's new toilet based wi-fi internet service.


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Doctor Who: Smith and Jones

So the 29th series of Doctor Who (or should I say the third series of the new Doctor Who?) burst on to our screens last night. A new companion and new aliens were introduced. It was silly, entertaining and slightly moving - which is to say it was everything it was trying to be. Great.

Martha Jones has potential to be a good companion - she'll certainly not be the type who just stands around asking 'Doctor, what's happening?' and screaming a lot (which is all I can remember 'Peri' doing in the good old days). I hope she actually figures out how to use a sonic screwdriver for herself.

I watched it with my five year old daughter and, seen through her eyes, it was a bit scary, but not too much. She quite enjoyed it I think.

But having seen the trailer for next week's episode, I'm not sure I'll be letting her watch that one.

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The rain in Spain...

... falls mainly on me!

Typical, isn't it? I go to Spain for three days with work and it is cold and rainy the entire time. Meanwhile, Edinburgh in Scotland is basking in the sun.

Its not fair. I was in Paris last week for a day and it rained then too. What's going on?

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