This week I’d like to tell you about The Good, The Bad and The Oddball. And I’m starting off with The Oddball because I really, really don’t know how to rate this movie on the good/bad scale. I mean, I like the look of it; I guess you could call it “Mad Max Lite”—there aren’t any baddies zooming around the outback (yes, it’s Australia) dressed in “retro Post-Apocalyptic” gear; but it is post-apocalyptic, at least according to the words on the screen just after the titles. It says something like “Australia. Ten years after The Collapse.” It doesn’t tell you what The Collapse is, nor whether it’s limited to Australia, or if it’s worldwide. (If you do an online search, you’ll find that—according to writer/director David Michôd—it’s a “world-wide economic collapse.”) Okay, I’m a big fan of George Miller’s series starring Mel (“Before I went nuts”) Gibson as Max Rocketansky. (You know, Mad Max; The Road Warrior; and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.) Not that they’re perfect, but they’re all non-CGI—practical effects and stuntwork—and exciting and involving filmmaking. So I went into this with high hopes, not even knowing who the stars are, since I saw it on Netflix and they’re sometimes short with their information.
Capsule review of The Rover (2014) (The next paragraph gives my impression of the film and the stars, but if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next “capsule review” at the end of this one): The Rover’s hard to pin down as a “good” or as a “bad” movie. I didn’t particularly love it, but I didn’t dislike it, either. My wife (the Lovely And Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) and I watched it to the end, in spite of its sometimes casual brutality. The only car chase comes early in the film, and probably occupies less than ten minutes; the speeds reached are probably only like 60 m.p.h. down to a walking speed. The main character (whose name, Eric, we never learn in the film until the credits) goes for most of the movie without talking (or, as my Aussie mother would have said, “saying bugger-all.”) Despite the ten-year-old collapse we’re told about at the beginning, people are selling food and gas (and motel rooms) for cash, although most people prefer American dollars. There is an active military (apparently doubling for the constabulary), and at least some trains are running, although heavily guarded by lots of armed men. The main character (played by Guy Pearce, who’s been in Iron Man 3, Prometheus, Lawless, Lockout, The King’s Speech, The Road and The Hurt Locker) is a cipher—we don’t know his background or his motivation until at least three-quarters of the way through the film; likewise his co-star Rey (played by ex-sparkly-vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga, Robert Pattinson, who’s also been in movies like Maps to the Stars, Water for Elephants as well as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where he played Cedric Diggory), although he has the opposite problem: he almost never shuts up. He has a weird Southern accent reminiscent of Lucas Black’s (American Gothic); and his brother, Henry, played by Scoot McNairy (known most recently for the TV series Halt and Catch Fire, but also for Gone Girl, Non-Stop, Frank and 12 Years a Slave) appears not to. During the whole movie, Eric appears to be disassociated from everything except his focus, which is on retrieving his car, which had been stolen from him by Henry and his friends. We literally know nothing of the reason for that focus until the last scene of the film. I recommend this movie, but not wholeheartedly for everyone. You need patience and a certain tolerance for infrequent but violent action to enjoy it.
SPOILER review: For the first few minutes of the film, Eric says nothing, and merely sits in his car outside what appears to be a set of deserted buildings, although one seems to have a row of jerry cans outside the door. Eric goes in, and it’s a large cluttered room with some kind of Asian music (sounds vaguely Chinese) playing loudly; there are a couple of Asian men sitting/lying on a couch. He continues past them into what appears to be a kitchen; there is a large pot and a couple of pans are hanging on the wall by it. He dips his hands into the pot and washes his face with the contents, apparently water. This is only one of the enigmatic things that go on in this film. He goes back to the first room, which has a large window by the door; he takes a bottle (possibly water) from a counter and sits to drink. While he is doing that, we cut to Henry and his two friends (one Black, one white) driving and arguing about whether they should have left Henry’s brother (“He was dead!” “No! I saw him move!”); the Black driver (Caleb) says, “We killed people; we have to go!”) Henry and Archie, the man in back, start fighting; Henry grabs the wheel, and the vehicle rolls at high speed. We cut back to Eric, drinking his water, and he doesn’t seem to notice or react when the vehicle rolls over past the window at high speed. When the ute (Australian utility vehicle) comes to rest on its wheels, Caleb tries to drive off, but the ute is stalled in a pile of garbage including some tubing. Archie gets out of the ute, walks over to Eric’s car—which Eric had left outside the drinking establishment—breaks the window and uses an electronic pick to start Eric’s car. The three of them drive off; the inhabitants of the “bar” come out to see this. Eric belatedly follows; gets in the three men’s ute, and manages to get it started and out of the tangle of tubes it was stuck in. Without a word to the bar people, Eric takes off after his car.
He pursues the three men, who shoot at him, at high or low speeds, until they finally stop; he then tells them he wants his car back and there is a bit of physical contact until one of them knocks him out. He comes to off the road, has to search for the ute key because they had apparently thrown it in the weeds, and continues his search. Again, here, motivations are not shown: we don’t know why—though we suspect that maybe there’s something in the car he wants back—Eric is pursuing them when he now has a working vehicle (and apparently a very sturdy one!) or why they refused to change back. Eric obtains a gun by the simple expedient of shooting the circus dwarf who tries to sell him one; then he meets Rey, who has been shot in the side, threatens him to find out where Henry is, and ends up by taking him to a doctor who is apparently really a vet. The circus people pursue, and the vet’s assistant is shot; Eric ends up shooting and killing the circus people. Rey is hardly the brightest bulb in the pack, but Eric needs him to find Henry, so the two begin traveling together.
There are more shootings, including a couple of killings of military men, apparently acting as police; after they capture Eric for the killing of one of their own, the leader says he’s sending him to Sydney for judgment. While the military leader fills out forms, Eric tells him that he, Eric, killed his wife and his neighbour ten years ago, but nothing happened. He was never arrested or charged, which is when he knew the world had changed and nothing mattered. He urges the military man to shoot him, but Rey rescues Eric, and all three of the military men end up dead. In the end, all but Eric die; and we finally find out his motivation, which I won’t spoil for you here. As I said, the action is hardly fast and furious; it’s sporadic, really, but quite violent when it does happen. Pearce does a great job as a man who apparently has disconnected from almost everything around him, except for his driving force. Pattinson proves he really can act, by making us believe that Rey is playing with less than a full deck both mentally and emotionally. And the landscape of (I guess) New South Wales proves a bleak reminder that the world of man is transitory at best.
CAPSULE REVIEW: Seventh Son (2014): In an Australian mood, I’m reminded of a Monty Python sketch from years past about an Australian wine. “This is not a wine for drinking,” the wine reviewer says; “this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.” That sentiment, unfortunately, holds true for this movie. Set in the usual generic fantasy world, where no infrastructure is visible, yet people manage to build towns and cities, separate themselves into social structures, and have common currencies and commerce.
In this particular world, protection from witches, boggarts and other bad things is provided by “spooks,” who are all seventh sons of seventh sons. (Supposedly, a seventh son is powerful in magical ways—and, according to Jeff Bridges’s character, physically stronger—and a seventh son of a seventh son gets to have a Johnny Rivers song named after him. No, wait, I mean is even more magical and powerful than the ordinary kind. Bridges, the local spook—and why call this type of character “spook,” when that word has at least two well-accepted meanings which are not this?—is getting on in years, and is looking for a new apprentice; his old one (Kit Harington, “Jon Snow” from Game of Thrones) came to a bad end at the very beginning of the movie. Anyway, he rows across a lake and comes to the cottage where the Ward family farms; Tom Ward (Ben Barnes, known for playing Prince Caspian in the Narnia movies as well as Dorian Gray in the recent remake), the titular seventh son, is feeding the pigs. Bridges, playing “Master Gregory,” speaks in the same sort of mumble (only worse) that he used in R.I.P.D., where he played a dead lawman, gives Ward’s father a bag of gold pieces (who mints these? Part of that invisible infrastructure I talked about) and Tom’s mother gives him her amulet that she’s always worn. About Bridges’s mumble: half the time you can’t figure out what he’s said until the moment has passed! Anyway, they’re all being threatened by Julianne Moore as Mother Malkin, the most powerful of the local witches, who can fix a decaying castle or burn down a town with a wave of her hand, but who really, really doesn’t like being disrespected. Especially by her old lover, Master Gregory, who stuck her in a hole in a mountain under an iron grill for, like, a hundred years or something. Anyway, she’s loose and wants revenge. One of the questions that never gets asked in this kind of movie is: “If you have that kind of power; if you can shapeshift into a giant dragon, then why are you wasting your time seeking to either rule a bunch of peasants or to get revenge for some real or imagined injury? You could live like a queen or a minor god, but this is what you choose to do? There are a number of good (or at least competent) actors in this, like Djimon Honsou and Jason Scott Lee, and their talents are very much underused. Tons of CGI, which isn’t badly done at all, but the storyline is so confused, and the underpinnings of the whole thing are so weak, that after a while I just found myself wishing it would end. It did, eventually. Definitely NOT recommended.
And now we come to the good stuff: a review of the Ellen Datlow anthology The Doll Collection, from Tor Books (March 2015), available from your local retailer or Amazon or even Audible.com as an audio book. No capsule review, because I don’t think I can give a spoiler review of an anthology—all I can do is mention certain stories and tell a bit about them. Today, anthologies abound—as do SF/F books and ebooks, but back in the late ‘50s and the ‘60s, there were fewer of both. I learned fairly early to separate the wheat from the chaff; there were a number of anthology series and/or anthologists who never let me down: there were the Galaxy anthologies (which I got from the library or from a friend who was in the SF Book Club, which my parents wouldn’t let me join), there were the Star Science Fiction anthologies edited by Fred Pohl, there were the Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction annual anthologies, and the Year’s Best SF anthologies edited by T.E. (Ted) Dikty and Everett F. Bleiler; and then there were anthologists you just looked for, like H.L. Gold, Groff Conklin and the modern anthologists you can always depend on, like Gardner Dozois and yes, Ellen Datlow. (This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; there are literally tens of really good editors today, including Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ann and Jeff Van Der Meer, and so on… no criticism is intended to editors not mentioned here. I’m merely talking about some of the editors who have affected me—hey, isn’t everything about me?—and who continue to do so.) I cannot adequately describe the thrill I got from reading a new Star SF or Galaxy (new to me, as I would usually have to get them from the library or friends, or the Salvation Army Thrift Store—so I often went weeks or months before finding some new SF/F treasure to read. And I got the same kind of thrill from today’s review book!
We’ve all seen “evil doll” movies (the Puppet Master series, Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black, etc.) or read “evil doll” books and stories. One thing Datlow did, when asking authors for these 17 all-original tales, was to specify “no evil doll” stories. And it worked; she got top-notch stories in which dolls feature significantly, but are not the hackneyed “evil doll” tales one might expect, from such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Pat Cadigan, Mary Robinette Kowal and fourteen more, some of whom are new to me, and many of whom I will look for from now on. The contents are:
- Skin and Bone by Tim Lebbon
• Heroes and Villains by Stephen Gallagher
• The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates
• Gaze by Gemma Files
• In Case of Zebras by Pat Cadigan
• There Is No Place For Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold by Seanan McGuire
• Goodness and Kindness by Carrie Vaughn
• Daniel’s Theory About Dolls by Stephen Graham Jones
• After and Back Before by Miranda Siemienowicz
• Doctor Faustus by Mary Robinette Kowal
• Doll Court by Richard Bowes
• Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line by Genevieve Valentine
• Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey
• Miss Sibyl-Cassandra by Lucy Sussex
• The Permanent Collection by Veronica Schanoes
• Homemade Monsters by John Langan
• Word Doll by Jeffrey Ford
In Tim Lebbon’s Skin and Bone, Kurt and his friend Marshall are exploring Antarctica; they’ve been to the South Pole, but they’re continuing to explore. Sixty-two days on, Kurt finds a pair of bodies… that are featureless enough to just be dolls. Which are they? In Stephen Gallagher’s Heroes and Villains, the old ventriloquist doll trope, seen in such movies as Magic, with Anthony Hopkins, is turned on its head. Joyce Carol Oates reminds us why she is one of America’s premier writers with The Doll-Master. You won’t easily forget “found dolls.” (And in many ways, this story reminds me of my writing friend, Billie Sue Mosiman’s, books—shameless plug—available from Amazon as ebooks.) Gaze, by Gemma Files, explores the possibilities inherent in heterochromia (having two different-coloured eyes), and just what the Victorians might have done with it. An excellently-written story, which made me curious about how much of this was fiction. (You’ll have to look it up yourself. Ha.) In In Case of Zebras, Pat Cadigan has found a whole new use for dolls—or maybe a very old use. The story, There Is No Place For Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold, by Seanan McGuire, is one of the best in the whole anthology, and after reading it you might know a bit more about why some people collect dolls. After reading Carrie Vaughn’s Goodness and Kindness, you might think differently about that Rose O’Neill original Kewpie doll on your shelf. Are you the right sort of person to have it? Daniel’s Theory About Dolls, by Stephen Graham Jones, involves two brothers, a stillborn baby sister, a possum and a doll named Janine. And a soul or two. Chilling. After and Back Before by Miranda Siemienowicz is another chilling little tale; this one about some survivors—it appears—of some nuclear holocaust; their group is getting smaller, but there’s a way involving dolls, of preserving someone. Eek. Mary Robinette Kowal’s story, Doctor Faustus, is about a deal with the Devil—involving marionettes—and a fateful dot in a sigil of summoning. Doll Court by Richard Bowes tells us about the power of dolls, and what happens when you—innocently or not—wrong them. Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line by Genevieve Valentine is a travelogue of sorts. If you see a young girl sitting alone in a compartment with just a doll for company, I advise you to pass by quickly, and don’t look or linger. Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey is something you might have read in a David Schow and John Skipp horror anthology. And it doesn’t end well for the protagonists, either. I liked it a lot. Lucy Sussex, in Miss Sybil-Cassandra, points out the aptness of the doll’s name. She is more an augur than a fortune-teller, though that was her original intent. And she comes with a literary surprise! The Permanent Collection, by Veronica Schanoes, tells us what happened to the Last Doll Hospital in New York City. Homemade Monsters, by John Langan, is a cautionary tale for parents with agressive little kids who bully smaller ones… especially those who are fond of Godzilla dolls. (Bob Eggleton, artist and Godzilla artist especially, would love this one!) And finally, Word Doll, by Jeffrey Ford, shows how one can carefully craft a modern folk tale and have it appear to be as real as any old folk tale. A beautifully, well-written story.
Do I recommend this anthology? Unreservedly!
I would appreciate any comment on this week’s column. You can comment here, or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!