December is a rather busy month for most of us, but there still might be days or evenings when we have time to unwind and the notion of picking up an old-fashioned book or movie is more appealing than whatever is on the screen of our cell phone. The following recently have occupied some of my time (mostly in the middle of the night) with mixed results:
Earth Descended by Fred Saberhagen
20th century science fiction by the better authors has a special quality to it. Even when the themes are adult (as they often were by the 1960s) the tales to modern eyes commonly have a refreshing innocence. Even when they are un-PC (as they often were throughout the era) they are absent the meanness that permeates so much of present day writing and culture. Saberhagen is one of the better authors, best known for his “berserker” stories about self-replicating doomsday weapons. Earth Descended is a collection of a dozen of his short stories written between 1968 and 1981. Saberhagen’s style evolves interestingly in this period from straightforward to experimental and from optimistic to cynical.
The stories bear little similarity to each other in any way other than in prose style and by broadly fitting a definition of scifi. They include a berserker tale that intersects (really) with Sherlock Holmes. There is a magic-filled fantasy story (“Earthshade”) originally written for Larry Niven’s Warlock series. There is an interstellar generation ship (“Birthdays”) of a peculiar type. Observer created reality becomes all too literal in “Recessional.” Mortality is optional in “Calendars.” There is even his own scifi version of Theseus in Crete. The collection is science fiction as we all too seldom encounter it anymore. Recommended.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
This dramedy was recommended to me by the Amazon algorithm as a movie I might like. It is reassuring to know that Amazon and Google don’t know everything about me yet, perhaps because Alexa isn’t listening in my house. (It amazes me that so many people are complaisant about installing web-connected listening devices in their own homes: devices that listen carefully enough to judge the quality of the relationships in those homes. The Independent reported research by Imperial College Business School concluding that “digital assistants could predict with 75 per cent accuracy the likelihood of a relationship or marriage being a success.” I’m sure the unsuccessful will get unsolicited ads for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys on their smart phones.) Anyway, this movie by the Duplass brothers just didn’t work for me.
Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old man-child living in his mother’s basement in Baton Rouge. He doesn’t believe money is one of the important things in life but does believe in fate and the interconnectedness of the universe. Signs is his favorite movie. When he gets a wrongly dialed call from someone seeking “Kevin,” he takes it as a sign to seek out Kevin. Along the way he interacts with his ultra-materialistic brother Pat (Ed Helms) who is letting his marriage and other important things in life fall apart. Pat suspects his wife might be cheating on him, though it would be hard to blame her under the circumstances. The frustrated hardworking mother (Susan Sarandon) of Pat and Jeff, meantime, has a secret admirer at work. All of them end up en route to New Orleans. Events occur on the trip that are supposed to be heartwarming (I think), but to me they seem so contrived as to take the viewer (this viewer, anyway) out of the moment. The supposed denouement of the film (the revelation that Jeff is not such a loser after all) is frankly still up for debate at the end. One good deed during a crisis on a road trip is not a validation of a general lifestyle; it just means that Jeff is a nice person, which no one ever doubted.
This film has generally positive reviews, with the adjective “amiable” turning up a lot, but to me its mere 83 minutes seemed very long. Thumbs Down.
Killing Dylan by Alastair Puddick
This mystery novel published in 2016 is enjoyable from start to finish.
Freddie Winters is a mystery writer who was college friends with fellow writer Dylan St. James. Freddie is published and modestly well-known but he has to scratch for every pound and frequently has to dodge his landlord for lack of funds. Dylan, by contrast, is enormously successful with his more literary fiction that, according to Freddie, “has me choking on my own bile. Fortunately for Dylan, however, it is the same type of stuff that has middle-aged, middle-class women recommending it to their book clubs.” If you detect resentment at Dylan’s success in that, you’re right, and Freddie avoids Dylan for that reason.
Dylan doesn’t return the ill feelings, however, and one day he shows up at the coffee shop where Freddie commonly uses the free Wi-Fi. Dylan says that someone is trying to kill him but the police aren’t taking his claims seriously. He asks for Freddie’s help as someone good with mysteries. Attacks by auto, letter bomb, and even a speargun lend credibility to Dylan’s claims. Freddie looks for a motive from Dylan’s ex-wives, doctor, publisher, and others. The writing is good, the characters engaging, and the plot twists are clever, suspenseful, and funny. Thumbs Up.
The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
The plot device of an ordinary person caught up against his or her will in a spy adventure (e.g. the esteemed North by Northwest and the disposable The Man Who Knew Too Little) is an old one, but it still can work if done right. This one is done sufficiently right: it is no modern classic, but it is amusing and is full of more well-choreographed mayhem than any Bond film.
Audrey (Mila Kunis) discovers the hard way that her boyfriend Drew is an agent. When he is shot in front of her, she and her friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon), believing they are in danger whatever they do, try to complete Drew’s mission by delivering a flash drive to Vienna. It doesn’t go well. In chases from Vienna to Prague to Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin they try to stay alive as the body count mounts and they try to figure out who is on whose side. And yes, it is a comedy, sort of. Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.
Trailer: The Spy Who Dumped Me