Wednesday, August 12, 2015

TV Review: Penny Dreadful

When I was growing up in the 1960s, horror films came in two varieties; there were American creature features like Them or The Thing, and then there was Hammer Films. Hammer had the smart idea to take classic horror icons such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman and give them a bit of a polish--Technicolor, more realistic violence, and, most importantly, much better acting than was the norm in horror films. The style, professionalism and gravitas of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is what gave Hammer its unique appeal.

In truth, Hammer's output was very spotty. For every Horror of Dracula there was a piece of dreck like Twins of Evil. And even Hammer's best efforts can today be looked at as respectable, slightly earnest Masterpiece Theater-style attempts at horror. Nostalgia has made Hammer into something better than it actually was. The brilliance and appeal of Showtime's Penny Dreadful is that it gives us Hammeresque horror that actually matches up to our fond and fuzzy memories of Lee, Cushing & Co.

The central characters, or what turns out to be a sort of Marvel Avengers team of supernatural superheroes, are Dorian Gray, Viktor Frankenstein, Frankenstein's monster (called John Clare), the Werewolf, an Allan Quatermain clone, and Vanessa Ives, who is some variety of witch. Season one had the crew battling a vampire who has taken possession of Vanessa's childhood friend, Mina Harker. Yes, that Mina Harker. Season two has our late-Victorian heroes up against a coven of witches who want to offer up Vanessa to Satan for breeding purposes.

As is usual with limited run series on specialty channels, the plot is spread out very thinly over a few too many episodes. I can easily forgive that sin in this case. Penny Dreadful is a luxurious exercise in the visual and literary tropes of Victorian horror, with a dash of steampunk thrown in. The production design is sometimes breathtaking, the costumes magnificent, and the bloodletting is abundant. Even better is the acting. Eva Green as Vanessa is asked to chew up copious amounts of scenery and she does so with absolute gusto. It's a wonder she didn't permanently damage some facial muscles with all the weeping, screaming, howling and raging she's required to do. The other standout in the cast is Rory Kinnear as John Clare, Frankenstein's monster and easily the most complex character in the show. He's subject to murderous rages, but at heart he has the soul of a poet. Kinnear brings intense humanity to the role and banishes any comparisons with other actors who've played this character. Honourable mention goes to Simon Russell Beale as Ferdinand Lyle, in a performance that's so camp he must have channeled the spirit of Kenneth Williams. The only slightly disappointing thespian is Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray. Dorian is supposed to be a decadent, world-weary aesthete, but Carney makes him into more of a decadent, world-weary barista.

Penny Dreadful also earns marks for being dead serious about its basically absurd concept. John Logan, the screenwriter/producer, never gives the audience any knowing winks, and I think there's only one scripted joke in the entirety of the two series. This seriousness helps pulls the audience into the story because we never get the feeling that we're watching an homage or pastiche. Logan also gives his series an overall philosophical theme: the destructive and redemptive power of love. There's something you won't find in Hammer films. All of Penny Dreadful's main characters wrestle with the problem of love in all its forms: forbidden, unrequited, impossible, tragic, sexual, and platonic. In fact, Penny Dreadful could be described thusly: when loves goes wrong, the supernatural shit hits the fan.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Film Review: Delitto d'amore (1974)

In the 1960s and '70s Italian cinema seemed to specialize in reinventing film genres from other countries. The spaghetti western was a deconstruction of the American western with an added dollop of Japanese samurai films; giallo films were Hitchcock with more blood and less humour; and poliziotteschi were American cop noir films like The French Connection given a frenzied and feverish makeover. Or to look at it another way, Italians were the counterfeit designer label purveyors of the film world. But this ersatz cinema was always vastly entertaining.

Delitto d'amore is Love Story (1970) redone with bonus Marxism, environmentalism, political violence, labour activism, and angry debate about Italy's north-south divide. The lovers are Nullo and Carmela, both of whom work in a noisy, smoky metalworks factory in Milan. Nullo is a northerner whose family are all anarchists. Carmela and her very traditional Catholic family are recent arrivals from Sicily. They live in a crowded hovel in a part of town that looks as if it would be more habitable if it was bulldozed. Carmela falls in love with Nullo at first sight, he takes a little longer to come around to her charms. They want to get married but fight over her demand for a religious marriage and his insistence on a civil marriage only. Carmela gets a fatal illness from toxic fumes in the factory, and marries Nullo in a civil ceremony on her deathbed. The last shot of the film has Nullo walking through a crowd of workers protesting the factory's working conditions, and as he goes off-camera we hear a pistol shot as he shoots (we assume) one of the factory managers.

There are a lot of raw edges in this film, but it's charm and power comes from its dogged enthusiasm in embracing every hot button issue of the day, and subtlety be damned. Pollution? How about a scene by a river that was once pristine (according to Nullo) but is now foaming with industrial effluents and bordered by trash heaps. Poverty? Carmela's tenement is horribly overcrowded and surrounded by wasteland. The screenwriter was Ugo Pirro, who, not surprisingly, also did the script for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (my review). This was a guy who knew how to tackle themes like social injustice and make them entertaining.

The film really has a bit too much on its plate, but that's par for the course in Italian films of that era. Some of the giallos of that period (Death Walks on High Heels comes to mind) had enough plot for three or four movies. Considering how politically-neutered Hollywood filmmaking has been over the years, it's always refreshing to watch a film that sinks its teeth into big issues and won't let go. The location photography is great. Milan in winter is wrapped in perpetual fogs and mists, and as is usual in Italian films of that time, the cinematographer seems to go out of his way to avoid locations that show the country's natural and architectural beauty. The acting is all over the map. Stefania Sandrelli is very good as Carmela, but Giulano Gemma is a bit meh. Like too many leading men from '70s Italian cinema, Gemma is a pretty face and a cool haircut in search of an acting class. He tries, though.

Delitto d'amore (Crime of Love in English) isn't a classic, but it's energetic, angry and clumsily entertaining. The gold standard for films about the Italian proletariat and labour strife has to go to The Organizer (my review), but there are several other films in a similar vein (1900, The Working Class Goes to Heaven, The Railroad Man) so I'm thinking there needs to be a genre classification for them. How about classe operaia films?

Related Posts:

Review of Plot of Fear 
Review of Almost Human

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Film Review: It Follows (2015)

The horror genre has always been kind to directors who want to showcase a particular style or indulge in directorial affectations. Directors from Jacques Tourneur to Brian de Palma to Stanley Kubrick to Sam Raimi used horror films to highlight their eccentric talents. It Follows takes the generic 1980's horror film (Halloween is the template here), passes it through a film school aesthetic, and what comes out at the other end is stylish, but ultimately rather dull.

The terror at the heart of teen horror movies isn't really a maniac wielding something sharp and stabby, it's sex. It's old news that this genre revels in t & a, punishes its sexually active characters with gruesome deaths, and makes the virginal into heroes. It Follows has the clever idea to cut to the chase by having its titular nasty be a new kind of STD--a sexually transmitted demon. If you have sex with an "infected" person they will pass on a curse to you. The curse is that you'll be followed (at a walking pace) by an evil spirit that will kill you if it catches you. The spirit or demon can take any human form, but is only visible to its victim. By having sex you can pass the demon on to the next person. So there it is, all the dread, guilt and anxiety teens feel about sex wrapped into one tidy concept. The execution is the problem.

The story unfolds in a very low-key manner by the standards of the genre. Jump scares are kept to a minimum, characters have aimless conversations that don't include the use of word "dude", and very little is done in a rush. It all has the feel of something done in film school that's self-consciously trying to avoid the cliches of the genre but can't find anything better to replace them with. The cinematography is moody, and the director plays with the time period it's set in (is it contemporary? Is it the '80s?), but the visual and tonal conceits can't paper over the weak internal logic of the story. We don't get a back story to the curse, which is OK, but the logic of how the curse works and how the demon is defeated seems arbitrary. Also, at the end of the day this is essentially a zombie movie with only one zombie, and I hate the zombie genre.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairies are overlooked in most contemporary fantasy and YA literature. It's werewolves and vampires who rule the roost these days when it comes to folkloric creatures. Clearly, fairies need better representation; a high-profile PR firm, perhaps, or maybe a top agent at CAA. Once upon a time, as they say, fairies were a staple of fantasy stories stretching all the way back to Shakespeare. For quite a while now, however, fairies have been relegated to picture books and junior fiction that presents them as Barbie dolls with wings. Frances Hardinge's fairies are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The setting is a fictional English town in the early 1920s. Triss Crescent, age thirteen, has just woken from a coma that resulted from a fall into a pond. She seems fine, but Triss knows that somehow she's not the same person she was. For one thing, she has an insatiable appetite that no amount of food can satisfy. And what about those cobweb tears? Pen, Triss' younger sister, angrily declares that Triss is not, in fact, Triss: she's an impostor. Their parents don't know what to make of the changes in Triss, and Pen's accusations are simply ignored. It's clear Pen has always ranked lower on the family totem pole than Triss. The family is also haunted by the loss of their adult son, Sebastian, who died five years previously in World War One. His former fiance, Violet, is also on the scene, and her independent, motorcycle-riding, ciggy-smoking, jazz-loving ways deeply offend Mr and Mrs Crescent. In short order we, and Triss, come to the realization that she's a changeling, swapped by the fairies (called Besiders here) in order to punish Mr Crescent. The novel is essentially a mystery-thriller, as Triss tries to uncover the secret of her origin, retrieve the real Triss from the fairy kingdom, and find out what the Architect (the Oberon of the Besiders) is up to.

Hardinge's plot is lean, cleverly put together, and always exciting, but what sets her apart from almost everyone else in this field is the quality of her prose and her unbridled imagination. The average writer in the YA/fantasy world is obsessed with world-building, to the point where some novels read like computer software manuals. One gets the feeling that Hardinge writes in this field because it allows the greatest scope for her prose, especially her exquisitely-crafted metaphors and similes. Here's a sample:

Every time she closed her eyes, she could sense dreams waiting at the mouse hole of her mind's edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go.

Hardinge's world-building is right up there with her prose. She ticks all the fairy lore boxes, but in each case adds an extra ingredient or a twist on the conventions of the genre. One example: there's a fairy ride at midnight that both honours convention (humans think it sounds like a flight of geese) but takes the form of a tram filled with fairies that bounds over snowy rooftops in a sequence that brings to mind the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. And then there's Violet, whose grief for the dead Sebastian takes magical shape in cold, ice and snow if she stays in one place for more than a few hours. It's an outstanding visual metaphor for sorrow and loss.

The fairy characters are true to their roots in folklore. They're feral, hostile to humans, kindly on occasion, unintentionally persecuted by the spread of civilization, and largely unknowable. But mostly they're dangerous, and Hardinge even gives us Mr Grace, a fairy hunter (fairybuster?) who specializes in ridding the world of changelings. Hardinge isn't the first writer to give us fairies cast in the role of sharp-fanged villains. Alice Thomas Ellis did something similar in A Fairytale (my review), and Chris Adrian wrote a modern and very, very dark version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review) set in San Francisco. Both are excellent and definitely not for the YA demographic. As I read Cuckoo Song I got the sneaking suspicion that it may have been inspired by a poem called The Changeling written by Charlotte Mew, a British poet who died in 1928. I may be wrong but the poem certainly captures some of the tone of the novel, and here it is:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child!

In the garden at play, all day, last summer,
Far and away I heard
The sweet "tweet-tweet" of a strange new-comer,
The dearest, clearest call of a bird.
It lived down there in the deep green hollow,
My own old home, and the fairies say
The word of a bird is a thing to follow,
So I was away a night and a day.

One evening, too, by the nursery fire,
We snuggled close and sat roudn so still,
When suddenly as the wind blew higher,
Something scratched on the window-sill,
A pinched brown face peered in--I shivered;
No one listened or seemed to see;
The arms of it waved and the wings of it quivered,
Whoo--I knew it had come for me!
Some are as bad as bad can be!
All night long they danced in the rain,
Round and round in a dripping chain,
Threw their caps at the window-pane,
Tried to make me scream and shout
And fling the bedclothes all about:
I meant to stay in bed that night,
And if only you had left a light
They would never have got me out!

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!

'Times I pleased you, dear Father, dear Mother,
Learned all my lessons and liked to play,
And dearly I loved the little pale brother
Whom some other bird must have called away.
Why did they bring me here to make me
Not quite bad and not quite good,
Why, unless They're wicked, do They want, in spite,
to take me
Back to Their wet, wild wood?
Now, every nithing I shall see the windows shining,
The gold lamp's glow, and the fire's red gleam,
While the best of us are twining twigs and the rest of us
are whining
In the hollow by the stream.
Black and chill are Their nights on the wold;
And They live so long and They feel no pain:
I shall grow up, but never grow old,
I shall always, always be very cold,
I shall never come back again! 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It seems that Hollywood has learned something from the fast food industry. Until recently, burger chains and the like competed on price, but over the last decade their strategy has shifted to inventing ridiculous and/or oversized food items that attract publicity as well as diners. That's why we get things like the Krispy Kreme burger or KFC's Double Down sandwich, and so on and so on. Fury Road is the supersized, high fat and sodium content addition to the Mad Max franchise. Instead of one kick ass lead character (Max), why not two? Why cheap out with only one evil, ugly, deranged warlord? Let's have three! And keep the car chases virtually continuous, sort of like the free refills at McDonalds' pop machines.

Fury Road isn't bad, and by the standards of most contemporary action films it's quite good, but measured against the standards of the first two films in the series (we'll try and forget the egregious Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), it's a bit of a disappointment. To begin with, even though the car chases are bigger and longer, they aren't any cleverer. In fact, you could say they've been dumbed down a bit since this time around guns play a larger role in the action. In Road Warrior bullets were a scarce and precious resource, to be used only in extreme occasions. Here our heroes use them, in relative terms, with abandon. And the problem with unending car chases is that after a while you run out of ways to attack and crash vehicles. The violence is on a bigger and louder scale (although not R-rated, unlike the first two films), but it lacks the spark of demented originality the first two films had.

The oversupply of goodies and baddies means that characterization is an afterthought. Furiosa, the Charlize Theron character, is all-steely resolve, all the time. And Max, the titular star of the show, is reduced to a weapon or tool to be used only during action set pieces. He barely speaks, and, unfortunately, when he or Furiosa do say anything they're given to pompous utterances about looking for "hope" and "redemption." The Warboys and their leader Immortan Joe are visually splendid, but with so many characters involved in the action there isn't time to develop Joe into a memorable villain. He does have a respiratory problem, however, something that's de rigueur for all your top villains.

On the plus side, Fury Road is an emphatically feminist narrative with Furiosa leading the way against Joe's women-enslaving death cult; a cult that bears a strong resemblance to groups like ISIS and the Taliban. The use of a starter pack of supermodels to play Joe's "brides" undercuts the feminism somewhat, but that's only a minor glitch. Charlize Theron definitely earns her stripes as an action hero, and a Furiosa sequel seems both inevitable and welcome. As for Tom Hardy, he needs a sequel just so his character can be properly introduced.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Film Review: '71 (2015)

If you want to make a decent thriller these days, your first step to success is to make sure your budget is low. The lower the better. A budget that wouldn't pay for Robert Downey Jr's per diem on The Avengers: Age of Ultron is ideal. Minuscule funding means your film can't rely on extravagant action set pieces or big stars like, uh, Robert Downey Jr. Instead of those two crutches, your film will have to focus on character and plot, on the writing, in other words. '71 is a beautiful example of this.

The story is set in Belfast in, of course, 1971. The Troubles have reached a full, rolling boil, and a raw group of Brit soldiers have been sent out into a Catholic area to provide protection for a group of RUC officers (the Protestant-dominated police force loathed by Catholics) who are conducting a raid on a house. A riot ensues, one soldier is killed and another, Pvt. Gary Hook, becomes separated from his platoon and must go on the run through enemy territory. Hook sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to his accent and uniform, and nothing has prepared him for this kind of situation. The action takes place over one night, and Hook becomes the prize quarry for two different IRA groups, a trio of ruthless MI5 men, and his own platoon.

The hunt for Hook is deftly handled. The different groups looking for him have motives that aren't immediately apparent, and the double-crosses and deaths soon begin to mount. The different narrative strands are kept coherent, and thanks to the low budget, there's no time wasted on pointless relationships or redundant background information. In short, the strength of '71 lies in the script's efficiency and attention to detail. One standout example of this is our brief intro to Hook. Before he arrives in Northern Ireland we learn (or infer) from only a few brief scenes that Hook is from a poor background, has no girlfriend, and his only relative is his young brother who's living in an orphanage. This intro gives us a rooting interest in Hook, but it stops well short of an assault on our tear ducts, which a fatter, lazier film might have done. Even minor characters are given a polish that makes them more than predictable storytelling pawns. The platoon's commander is initially presented as a bit of an ineffectual, upper-class twit, but at the end he's got more backbone and more of our sympathy. And what might be the most memorable character is a Protestant boy, who can't be older than ten, who has been transformed by the Troubles into a menacing, pint-sized Liam Neeson.

What gives the film a lot of its tension is that Hook is played by a relative unknown. Put a big star in this role and the audience knows he's going to survive until the end. Stick a nobody in the role and now we're not so sure. Also, I wonder if calling the soldier Hook isn't an ironic nod to the Pvt. Hook in Zulu? The latter film is about heroic empire-building, while this one is about an empire falling apart. And that brings us back to the budget. A Marvel-sized payroll would have given us superfluous characters, action scenes that went on too long, and preening superstars. A low budget, like living on a low income, forces filmmakers into smart and creative choices. They can't paper over plot holes with money. The French film industry has been cranking out smart action-thrillers like '71 for years, and I can only wish there were filmmakers doing the same.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: American Rust (2009) by Philipp Meyer

This is Meyer's debut novel, and I'm so glad I read his second, The Son (my review), before this one. The Son is big, bold, self-assured and its few flaws are the result of too much ambition. American Rust reads like a novel created by a committee tasked with putting out a literary version of a multi-part New York Times piece on life in the Rust Belt. That Meyer is a good writer isn't in doubt; he writes sharp dialogue, his characters (the male ones, anyway) are rugged, edgy and painfully real, and his descriptions of landscapes, urban and natural, are superb. The problem here is that his novel doesn't have the ambition to be more than just a literary litany of what ails Pennsylvania's coal and steel towns.

The two central characters are Isaac and Billy, best friends, both barely out of their teens, and both unsure what to do with their lives. They live in Buell, PA, and like every other town in the region it's been economically devastated by the death of the US steel industry. Those who aren't unemployed are working for minimum wage or are living a semi-criminal life. Isaac steals some money from his crippled father and decides to hit the road to California by hopping freight trains. Billy, an ex-high school football star, opts to accompany him for no better reason than it seems like a good idea at the time. They are an unlikely pair; Isaac is a weedy brainiac and Billy is a jock with a penchant for violence. They've barely started on their journey when they have an altercation with three homeless men that ends with Isaac accidentally killing one of them by way of defending Billy. A few days later Billy is arrested and charged with the murder, which he doesn't deny in an act of self-sacrifice to give some meaning to his selfish and wasted life. Isaac, meanwhile, goes on the run. Isaac's and Billy's fractured families are drawn into the story, but it's at this point that the story runs aground. The novel is told from the POV of a half dozen or so characters, but what's missing is a compelling narrative. Once Billy's arrested the story drags its feet as we hear from the different characters and their stories of despair and struggle in the heart of the Rust Belt. The only tension or narrative momentum is provided by Billy's stint in jail as he awaits trial and faces the wrath of prison gangs. The writing in this section is excellent, but it could just as well have been dropped in from a standard crime fiction novel.

American Rust is brimming with sympathy for its beaten-down characters and the region that's become an industrial dust bowl. What's missing from this story, what makes the novel so frustrating, is that Meyer shies away from bringing politics into the story. The plight of people in the Rust Belt is entirely the result of a series of ruinous political and economic decisions made by politicians and corporate executives stretching back decades. Meyer barely hints at the factors that impoverished this region. It's akin to writing a novel set in Vichy France and not mentioning the war or the Nazis. The virtually apolitical outlook of the novel isn't unusual in American literature. European writers, especially in the crime fiction field, enthusiastically bring politics and big business into their stories. American writers can't seem to get past their nation's religious belief that the individual and the individualism is everything. They don't seem happy with the idea that a character can be a hopeless victim or puppet of forces beyond his control. Or perhaps they feel that the nuts and bolts of politics and high finance don't have a place in literature. Nineteenth century writers such as Zola, Balzac, and Trollope happily took on these subjects, but the only American of that ilk that comes to mind is Gore Vidal.

Meyer's novel ticks all the boxes when it comes to mentioning issues like drug abuse, unemployment, underemployment, municipal underfunding, poor healthcare, and so on, but without giving these issues any historical or sociological context, Meyer is doing a disservice to the very people he so clearly sympathizes with. The people in the Rust Belt know they've been victimized by politicians and big business, but in American Rust this catastrophe is almost presented as a natural disaster, something that happened for no rhyme or reason.

The committee feel to the novel comes from the inclusion of far too many stock characters and tropes from modern literary fiction. There's the suicide of a mother that damages the children; the Ivy League woman who can't resist the manly charms of Billy the jock; the embittered father, broken in body and mind; and the young, tortured genius who's just too sensitive for this world. And does anyone actually ride the rails these days? Last of all, it has to be said that Meyer is poaching on literary territory created and mastered by K.C. Constantine (my piece on hiin is here), who wrote a series of crime novels set in Pennsylvania's coal and steel country. Constantine, however, was not afraid to bring politics into the mix.