Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Number 11 (2015) by Jonathan Coe

There's a Christmas hamper quality to Jonathan Coe's writing--a really superior Christmas hamper, the kind Fortnum & Mason's sells, or the ones Billy Bunter lusted after. In both Number 11 and its prequel, The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe artfully and fluently combines multiple plot lines, a score of characters, elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, social commentary, and a touch of the the polemical (my review). And in Number 11 Coe does all this while also slipping from one literary genre to another without, as it were, grinding the gears. This novel begins with a subtle pastiche of an Enid Blyton-ish story, then adds an epistolary quest tale, a Holmesian mystery, and ends with something that smacks of Dr Who. As a purely literary experience, Number 11 is almost overstuffed with pleasures.

Rachel and Alison are the central characters, and we meet them at age ten when they're staying with Rachel's grandparents while their mothers are on holiday together. The pair aren't really friends at this point, but after an Adventure with a Mysterious Stranger, the two form a bond that lasts, with some major detours, into adulthood. From this point on the narrative resembles a Venn diagram. The centre circle contains a set of Winshaws, a family of media barons, industrialists, and politicians who define themselves by how savagely they can remake Britain into their own avaricious, graceless, cruel and wanton image. The Winshaws were at the centre of the previous novel, but here it's their influence that's being felt--it's now the Winshaws' Britain, and everyone else is trying to eke out a living in it.

Coe uses his wide cast of characters to give us micro and macro views of what modern Britain has become. There's a failed singer who's lured into a dreadful reality show; an Oxford professor whose husband meets with what could be called death by nostalgia; an insufferably wealthy trophy wife whose architectural ambitions lead to disaster; a Katie Hopkins-like columnist who fabricates a story that sends a woman to jail; and a range of more minor characters who all have their role to play in illustrating the decline and fall of the social welfare state.

Although Coe has a lot to say about the state of the UK, Number 11 is not an editorial or opinion piece dressed up in literary finery. His writing is witty, psychologically acute, elegant, and he's not too proud to throw in the broadest of jokes occasionally. Coe is also acutely aware that his kind of comic writing does little or nothing to influence the political climate. In a section of the novel dealing with the murder of some stand-up comedians, he even argues that political satire can actually be counter-productive since it provides the illusion of lively opposition to people like the Winshaws (I actually wrote a piece on this very subject which you can read here). Another idea explored in the novel is that the speed and variety of modern communication is a poisoned chalice. A simple typo on SnapChat breaks up a friendship, and the cynical editing of a TV show almost ruins a woman's life. But Coe is not a Luddite. A sub-plot detailing a man's search for a lost film that he saw as a child in the 1960s is a warning that retreating into rosy memories of the past is not a healthy option.

The only problem with Coe's fiction is that it doesn't move at the speed of politics. The Winshaw Legacy seemed outrageous until Tony Blair and David Cameron came along, and Number 11, which was published less than a year ago, would undoubtedly be a much different novel if it had been written in a post-Brexit vote world. Fortunately, that means we're almost certain to get a third novel in this series, one in which Coe shows how the vulturous Winshaws plan and profit from Brexit. I look forward to it already. I even have a possible title: Wrexit.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Gialli Good Fun

You simply can't beat a giallo film for tawdry entertainment value. Gialli were one of the staples of Italian cinema from the late 1960s to the mid '70s, offering a lurid mix of violence, sadism, voyeurism, sex, and deeply twisted plots. They were what Alfred Hitchcock might have made had he let his freak flag fly. In Italian, giallo means yellow, and the films were given this name as a reference to a publisher who reprinted English mystery/thriller novels with distinctive yellow covers. The films themselves owe a big debt to Hitchcock, Psycho in particular. Many of the films feature heavily disguised killers who attack beautiful women (always with bladed instruments) for a variety of warped or mercenary reasons.

Exploitation elements aside, gialli deserve appreciation for their cinematic qualities and enthusiastic attempts to befuddle the audience with devious plots. These were low to middling budget films, but they certainly tried to put on a good visual show. The interiors and women's fashions in gialli are usually the epitome of '70s style, which is both good and bad, but always eye-catching and/or eye-watering. The musical soundtracks are a mix of the weird and the overblown, and even a big name like Ennio Morricone did work on some gialli. What really keeps these films worth watching are the plots. The producers couldn't invest much money in stars or stunts, but they certainly urged the scriptwriters give it their all. The mystery at the centre of each giallo may be highly improbable, but the plotting is often surprisingly clever and keeps the audience on board, which is crucial since gialli also suffer from some pronounced defects.
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You don't watch these films for the acting. Or the dialogue. Some performances are respectable, the remainder range from wooden to overwrought. Interestingly, it's usually the women who give the better performances. The men often seem more interested in modeling their turtleneck sweaters (a fashion staple in gialli) than doing any actual acting.

So the reason for this post is that I recently got a Roku attachment to my TV, which means I can stream films from YouTube onto the big screen, and the first thing I did was have a giallo film festival with myself as the guest of honour. Herewith are some of the better ones I've seen.


Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Did I mention that gialli often have ludicrous titles? This one starts out as a standard story of a beautiful woman pursued by a masked madman, but then gets progressively more complicated and surprising. When the mystery is finally unraveled you'll be applauding the scriptwriter for his amazingly intricate and logical, if  bizarre, plotting. The acting here is mostly over the top, at times leading to unintended laughter, but everyone attacks their roles with gusto, especially the actor who utters the immortal line, "Porco!" when confronted with a transvestite.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

The young daughter of a sculptor living in Venice is murdered and he tracks down her killer. The plot isn't much to speak of, but the location photography is stunning. The director, Aldo Lado, was from Venice and he clearly knew all the best locations for capturing the spooky oddness of the city. I can't help wondering if this film somehow inspired or influenced Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which came out a year later.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Another Byzantine plot from the director of Death Walks on High Heels. This time a fashion model witnesses a murder in the building across from her apartment but can't prove that it actually happened. There are some plot holes in this one, but it's still very intriguing and the look of the film is '70s to the max. A sidenote: based on all the gialli I've seen, 80% of the Italian female population at this time were models with the remainder strippers and/or homicidal maniacs.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

If you're going to dive into the giallo genre you have to see at least one starring the gorgeous Edwige Fenech. Fenech is to Italian B-movies of the '70s what the Virgin Mary is to Catholicism. She starred in gialli, cop movies, horror films, and lots and lots of sex comedies. In Iris she wears a variety of improbable outifts, including body paint, and spends the rest of the time forgetting to lock her windows and doors, thus allowing maniacs access to her at all hours of the day and night.

Footprints on the Moon (1975)

This is the outlier in the giallo genre. It begins like many gialli, with a beautiful woman facing a seemingly impossible puzzle: she appears to be missing two days from her life. It's soon clear that this isn't any kind of exploitation film. Florinda Bolkan plays the lead character and she's a superb actress. More importantly, the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro, the genius behind the camera on films such as Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Woody Allen's latest, Cafe Society. The look of the film is amazing, and the story is an elegant, mysterious, subtle attempt to visualize a kind of waking dream. There's no big pay-off to the film, but it's a crime that it's not more widely known or available on DVD. Are you listening, Criterion Collection?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: The Lie Tree (2015) by Frances Hardinge

Part of my job at the Toronto Public Library involves selecting books for shut-ins, a few of whom are teenagers. This means I regularly spend time combing through dozens of thumbnail descriptions of young adult novels. That translates into a lot of stories about dystopias, mental illness, broken homes, and the paranormal. Most YA novels are written for girls, and one trope that seems to be common to many of them is that girls can and should kick ass, metaphorically and, in the case of dystopian and paranormal lit, literally. In short, there's  a strong and healthy feminist streak running through contemporary YA writing.

Frances Hardinge's novels have all featured underage heroines who get things done through grit, bravery and smarts. So far, so normal. What sets Hardinge apart (far apart) from others in her field is her rich, inventive prose, and you can read my gushing praise of her writing here and here. In The Lie Tree she tries something a bit different. Whereas her previous novels were firmly and fully in the fantasy wing of the YA building, this one has is more grounded in reality. But not entirely.

The story mixes together archeology,  the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution,  and a murder mystery in a late-Victorian setting. The heroine is Faith Sunderly, the teenage daughter of  Erasmus Sunderly, a reverend with who has lost his faith and replaced it with a mad passion for archeology. On a trip to Asia he acquired the eponymous plant, which grows when it's told lies, and produces a fruit, when eaten, that reveals secrets. This is the most fantastical part of the story, but the tree exists more on a symbolic level than as part of a fantasy world. Faith's father is murdered (it looks like a suicide) and she must investigate the crime.

The plot synopsis makes it sound just another example of YA historical fiction in which a plucky heroine proves that the "fairer" sex is no to be taken lightly. Hardinge goes beyond all that by giving her novel a psychological depth that's missing from almost YA titles of this type. Her focus is on the sheer mental torture suffered by women who have wit, talent, intelligence and ambition, but are denied the chance to use their skills at every turn. Faith isn't the only woman caught in the webs of Victorian social strictures. Her mother must play the coquette to acquire a new husband after the death of Erasmus.Faith is initially shocked at this, but by the end of the novel realizes that her mother is doing the best for herself and her family given the limited arsenal she has to work with. Without an income to fall back on, a middle-classwoman must be wed. The fantasy elements are deftly handled, but what makes this book stand out (and covered Hardinge's mantelpiece with awards) is its examination of the psychological toll exacted on people who are denied basic rights by virtue of their gender. And on that basis The Lie Tree also carries a lot of contemporary resonance.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ron MacLean

Ron breathes the clean, white, air of the country.
I'm usually good for only one sports-related blog post every year, so there must be a great disturbance in the force for me to dash off my second on the subject this year. The disturbance is the news that George Stroumboulopoulos, after only two seasons as the host of Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada, has been dumped for the muppet man he originally replaced: Ron MacLean. The perceived reason for the change is that ratings for HNIC have gone down in the last two seasons. Sportsnet figured Strombo was just the young, hip, urban, cool cat who'd pull in a different, and broader, demographic. Apparently the fact that Canadian hockey teams have largely sucked over the last two seasons (I'm looking at you, Toronto) and that the game itself has become progressively less entertaining didn't factor into Sportnet's understanding of the ratings slip. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that although they changed the host, the supporting cast of dull, witless, cranky, reactionary, inarticulate colour commentators and analysts has never been tampered with. No, it was all George's fault. But I don't want this to be a blog about what's wrong with HNIC (you can read my post on that here), or why I think Ron MacLean is a puerile, narcissistic, self-important twat and a craven, simpering, enabler of Don Cherry's bigotry. No, what I want talk about here is that by canning GS and resurrecting RM, Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet, has effectively stuck a big sign on the metaphorical front door of Sportsnet that says, "Whites Only."

A bold statement, I know, but bear with me. The Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario, which encompasses Toronto, and the cities of Vancouver and Montreal (and their suburbs) represent the bulk of the population of Canada. These areas are highly urbanized and very multicultural, especially Toronto and Vancouver. These three areas drive hockey viewership in Canada, and their essential makeup is enthusiastically unrepresented on HNIC. Look at the faces on HNIC and it's pretty much wall-to-wall middle-aged white guys. There are two token women, and two visible minority men who get even less airtime than the women. Compare and contrast with any local TV news crew in any of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver; diversity, diversity, diversity.

The resolute whiteness of HNIC (and this also applies to every other hockey broadcast in Canada) is, on one level, simply a reflection of hockey culture in North America. The cost of playing hockey for kids and teens is now so prohibitive it's become difficult for anyone but the overwhelmingly white middle and upper-middle classes to participate in it. Look around the NHL today and you see only a bare handful of visible minorities playing the game. Sportsnet isn't responsible for who is or isn't playing the game, but through their choices in on-air personalities and the editorial tone of the hockey broadcasts, Sportsnet is sending a clear message about who they think the game is for and about. And that brings us back to Ron MacLean.

MacLean might be a crap host, but he's the perfect choice if, as it would seem, Sportsnet is only interested in going after the suburban/rural, conservative, white male in the age range of 40 to dead. Ron launches into a bromantic paean whenever he gets to talk about the small-town roots of this or that player. The gushing gets even more torrid if the player is from the Prairies, which, in the minds of Ron and his on-camera cohorts, seems to be the abode of the gods. If a player is from Saskatchewan or Alberta, Ron is sure to mention that "They raise them tough out there" or "He's a good Saskatchewan boy" or "Those long western bus rides build character." Players from the cities don't get any extra praise, unless, of course, they have an Irish last name, which means we're bound to hear either "He's a tough Irishman" or "He's a fine broth of a lad." It's enough to make you gag on your soda bread. And if you're a visible minority the message is clear: don't bother playing or watching hockey...we don't want you.

As though to underline its commitment to an aging, white demographic, two years ago Sportsnet gave MacLean his own show, Hometown Hockey, which saw him hosting NHL games from a different suburb or small town each Sunday. The idea of celebrating places where the vast majority of people don't live seems odd and/or foolish when you're in the business of pulling in viewers. Sportsnet markets the show as a celebration of Canada and Canadians, but the sub-text of the show is that white, non-urban Canadians is who hockey is for. Visible minorities are in the majority in both Vancouver and Toronto, but  good luck seeing any on Sportsnet hockey broadcasts. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to move to a Newfoundland fishing village or a Manitoba farming community.

I'm part of that aging, white demographic, but I work in Toronto with a very diverse group of people, many of whom are young. They talk a lot about basketball and soccer, even baseball, but the subject of hockey is pretty much left to us old guys. Is this what Sportsnet wants? For some of these young Canadians hockey is as remote and irrelevant as jai alai or Australian football. Hockey broadcasting bears a large part of the blame for this situation. Instead of reaching out to the next generation of sports fans, they have turned their backs on them, almost thumbed their nose at them, with their ceaseless and mawkish love affair with a Canada that hasn't existed for at least a generation. Strombo was a weak choice to pull in new viewers, but bringing back MacLean to front Sportsnet's marquee hockey broadcast probably puts HNIC on the black diamond slope to ratings oblivion. And it's what they deserve.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review: The Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley

The DNA for this wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling novel of the supernatural set in the 1970s can be found in two places. The first is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. What Waters did in her novel was overlay a ghost story on a story that's largely about the social upheaval in post-war Britain as it moved rapidly to a social welfare state. This gave her novel a complexity and resonance that's lacking in most horror/supernatural fiction, which tend to have a relentless focus on nothing but the scares. Like Waters, Hurley has crafted a solid, complex, elegantly-written novel that includes a horror element, but it's not all about the horror. Take away the supernatural element and The Loney could still stand on its merits as a straight novel about faith, especially its blindness.

The other strand of DNA in Hurley's novel comes from Barbara Pym, a forgotten and then rediscovered novelist from the 1960s and '70s. Pym wrote gently comic novels about the English middle-classes. Her characters place great importance on social rank and the proper observance of social customs and traditions, often in the context of the Anglican church. Hurley gives us a group of people who could easily have wandered in from a Pym novel One couple even has a wonderfully fruity and Pym-like surname: Mr and Mrs Belderboss. Like Pym's characters, Hurley's are middle-class and carefully, constantly snobbish about their inferiors, especially those who don't appear to be sufficiently pious. And at times, between the chills and frights, Hurley invites us to smile, if not laugh, at their buttoned-down silliness.

And so on to the plot: the unnamed narrator is a fifteen year-old boy who is the chief carer for his brother Andrew, who is mute, probably autistic, and several years older. Their parents, the Smiths, are devout Catholics and their lives revolve around their church, which has recently changed priestly hands. Father Bernard is the new, young, Irish priest. His predecessor died "suddenly," as they say. The Smiths and Belderbosses aren't keen on this disturbance to their routine, and their first chance to put the new dog collar-wearer to the test comes on their annual Easter pilgrimage. They go to a place on the northwest coast of England called the Loney. It's a bit of untamed coastline that's infamous for is deadly tides and bogs. The house they stay in, called the Moorings, is architecturally in keeping with the gloomy, haunted surroundings. The pilgrimage is a both a retreat and a chance to visit various local shrines. The Smiths fervently believe that God will cure Andrew on one of these pilgrimages.

The Smiths and Belderbosses have happy memories of previous trips to the Moorings, but nothing goes right this time. A third couple, Miss Bunce and her fiance David, had lobbied to go to Wales instead, and Bunce is quick to voice her displeasure at the roughness of the land and the accommodations. None of them are entirely happy with Father Bernard, who seems insufficiently stern, and the weather is thoroughly crappy. And then there's those locals; they're an ominous crew with yeasty accents and a habit of making startling and unnerving appearances.

Without dropping spoilers all over the place it's tricky to describe what constitutes the horror in The Loney. Hurley achieves his goal by layering episodes and glimpses of savagery, menace, eeriness, and disquietude. What it all seems to add up to is that the Loney is a patch of England where pagan beliefs and spirits still hold sway, not to mention some nasty black magic. All this pagan horror is nicely contrasted with the religious activities of the pilgrims at the Moorings, who are equally obsessed with the magic in the form of prayers, holy talismans and Christian shrines. It's a case of two sides of the same coin, only the pagans appear to have backed the winning side.

Hurley's deftness with character-building really puts this novel on a different plane. Tonto, who we meet as an adult at the beginning and end of the novel, is shrewd, caring, perceptive and agnostic, if not atheist, at an early age. He's wise enough to see that the faith of his parents and their peers is equal parts hobby and play-acting. The adult characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn. The Smiths and their friends could have easily been portrayed as purely fatuous or shallow, but Hurley takes the harder route of showing people whose often foolish belief in faith arises from being wounded or frightened, or in wishing not to offend loved ones.

So this'll be my book of the year so far, and it also has to be one of the most sophisticated horror novels I've ever read. And now please hurry up with the film version, which is in the capable hands of the people who produced Ex Machina.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Film Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Shane Black, the testosterone-addled writer/director behind such guys with guns films as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Last Boy Scout, isn't wholly to blame for this embalmed-in-nostalgia disaster. It's clear he didn't get the memo. No one who has read the memo would have cast Russell Crowe in anything remotely resembling a comedy. I'm positive a memo was sent out to everyone in Hollywood letting them know that Crowe can't do funny in the same way that Donald Trump can't do rational. The proof is the romantic-comedy A Good Year (2006), in which Russ tried to go the full Hugh Grant and ended up doing a career face-plant that registered on the Richter scale. And I`m positive another memo will shortly be doing the rounds in Hollywood letting people know that Ryan Gosling also appears to be comedy-impaired.

The plot, such as it is, has Crowe and Gosling as, respectively, Jackson Healey,an enforcer for hire, and Holland March, a boozy P.I., joining forces to find a missing girl in 1977 Los Angeles. Also along for the ride is Angourie Rice playing March's precocious 13 year-old daughter. The missing girl, Elaine, is somehow involved in both the porn business and a scandal affecting Detroit's automakers. Various people want her dead and are happy to take out anyone looking for her. As you can see, Black repeatedly hit the cliche key on his laptop when he sat down to write this mess. The thin plot is just a rickety framework for a barrage of dead-on-arrival gags and glitzy, extravagant production design that recreates in lurid detail the era that good taste forgot.

Even if Crowe and Gosling were born comics it's hard to imagine them wringing laughs out of this material. A typical gag has March asking Healey, "What do you call those guys without balls?" March is thinking of eunuchs, but Healey wittily replies, "Married?" This would have been a tired gag in 1977, but Black thinks it's so funny he has his duo do another variation of it later on. Adding a precocious kid into the mix just makes things more like a bad sitcom, and when the girl ends up at a porn producer's party the film takes a turn into the unsavory that it never recovers from. None of the actors survive this train wreck. Gosling and Crowe are poor, Rice is awful, and Kim Basinger as an attorney general is...very odd. When she first appeared on screen I wasn't sure what I was looking at. A Pixar creation? A hologram? And then I remembered that some actors now have it in their contracts that they must be digitally altered to look younger. Basinger doesn't look younger, she looks like a replicant auditioning for a Blade Runner sequel.

Shane Black clearly set out to make a guns and gags version of Boogie Nights. The latter film, however, wasn't fixated on period detail and had a laser-sharp focus on character. The Nice Guys is just a collection of bad jokes dressed up in wide lapels and garish colours. And even the action elements are lacking, which is a shocker in a Shane Black film. Avoid this one and just watch something nasty and funny that was actually made in the '70s like Freebie and the Bean or Busting.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2015)

Of all the qualities that help make a horror movie succeed, acting usually isn't at the top of the list. Editing, cinematography, makeup and special effects are normally the most mentioned aspects of horror films. In The Witch, the acting is everything. The setting is colonial America in the early 1600s, and the story focuses entirely on a family of Pilgrims who are trying to farm (not very successfully) in the middle of the wilderness. An opening scene establishes that they have been exiled from a Pilgrim settlement due to some transgression on the part of William, the head of the family. Based on how he behaves with his family, it seems likely that his sin was being too pious for his peers, if that's possible. One day the family's infant son is snatched away by a witch, and so begins the disintegration and destruction of the entire family.

The story is rigorously straight-forward, steeped in folkloric imagery, stripped of all modern sensibilities, and doesn't have any of the cliche plot twists and jump scares that are standard issue in most modern horror films. This is a true horror film in that what rivets our attention is the horror of what's happening to the characters, not the scares inflicted on us by things jumping out of the dark or crashing sound effects or blood-soaked visuals. This makes the acting all the more important because it's the actors who largely carry the burden of transmitting the horror to the audience. The small, ensemble cast is superb, and writer/director Robert Eggers has given them rich, chewy, period dialogue that the actors make sound completely natural. There isn't one performance that stands out from the others, but Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the eldest son, deserves special mention for a scene in which he wakes from a fever that is so intense it'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The acting is supported by the look of the film, which is sombre, gloomy and classically understated. Showy camerawork would have taken the audience out of the reality created by the story and the actors, so kudos to the director for that decision. Another subtle and effective touch is that each character is given a flaw that they keep hidden. The father is an incompetent farmer; the mother resents having come to America; the daughter isn't quite pious enough; the son is casting lustful looks at his sister; and the young twins are out and out holy terrors. This isn't a simplistic crew of God-bothering Pilgrims. All in all, the best film I've seen so far this year