Monday, March 20, 2017

Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

This is a poorly-made movie and that immediately makes it the best of the Kong/Godzilla reboots that have bellowed and crashed their way into multiplexes over the last decade and a bit. I include Godzilla in the mix because whether the star monster is covered in scales or fur, the films they're in all follow the same playbook. Where previous iterations have gone wrong is in trying to be conventionally good films--you know, the kind with properly developed characters, plausible dialogue, and believable human relationships. That's not what monster movies (or "kaiju" films if you want to get excessively nerdy) are supposed to be about. The appeal of these films is in watching outsized critters kick ass. That's it. No one wants anything more. The original Toho films stuck to this formula and surrounded the smackdown sequences with preposterous dialogue, barely-there plots, and stock characters. Kong: Skull Island is a return to those roots.

The smashing, the roaring, and the screaming of terrified humans starts early and rarely lets up. The effects are fine, and kids, the real and traditional audience for this kind of film, should have a joyous time at the theatre. The rest of us can marvel at how little in the way of directorial competence and script writing ability one gets for a budget of $200m. There are far too many supporting actors (none of whom are introduced properly), all the dialogue is flat, and most of the actors seem unsure of what tone to adopt. Samuel L. Jackson takes his part very, very seriously, John C. Reilly is looking around for Will Ferrell to riff with, Brie Larson seems distracted, and Tom Hiddleston gives us the poshest ex-SAS mercenary ever--instead of a gun I was expecting him to be armed with a Fortnum & Mason's picnic hamper.

As shambolic as most of the film is, it at least delivers lots of visual thrills in a reasonable running time, something that none of the recent monster megafauna movies have managed to do. Peter Jackson's King Kong was farcical, Pacific Rim was tedious and visually muddy, and, the worst of all, Godzilla (2014) was perversely determined to not show off its titular hero. So let's hope the Kong: Skull Island sequels are all as enthusiastically dumb.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bring Back the Red Menace!

If you enjoy paid vacations, free healthcare and a pension, you might
want to thank this guy.
I'm guessing here, but I'd say every second opinion piece produced online or in print over the last three months has fallen into one of three camps: Why Trump? Why Brexit? Why rabid, right-wing ethno-nationalism? And here's my answer to all three questions: the collapse of the USSR in 1991. More specifically, the eclipse of communism as a political, economic alternative to capitalism. Communism's utility as an antidote to capitalism didn't come from direct opposition, it came from its magnetic pull on socialist parties.

In David Sasson's 1998 book One Hundred Years of Socialism, he makes the case that the presence of communist states and strong communist parties in places like France and Italy effectively emboldened socialist parties in their demands for worker's rights and strong social welfare policies. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the western political world, particularly in Europe, was terrified by the possibility of communist parties coming to power. The fear of communism forced or encouraged parties of the left and centre, and even some on the right, to move their politics further to the left as a strategy to draw the teeth of the red menace. The idea was simple: if the working classes were well, or at least adequately, provided with living wages, legal protection for unions, free healthcare, pensions, low or free university tuition, and unemployment benefits, then they would be less likely to turn to communist parties. Socialist parties in particular benefited from the red menace. The perceived threat of communism allowed them to build strong social welfare policies, nationalize various industries, and establish high tax rates for the wealthy. These policies were palatable to the middle classes and above because the communist alternative was far more alarming.

The appeal of communism and the influence of the USSR began to decline with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and accelerated with their invasion of Afghanistan eleven years later. The failure of communist economies to provide a consumerist lifestyle equal to that of the west was yet another, and equally important factor, in its decline. With the election of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in 1980, the conservative counter-revolution against the social welfare state was underway. When the USSR shifted to a more western and liberal outlook under Gorbachev, and then broke apart, in '91, conservatives were quick to claim that this was the inevitable triumph of capitalism.

The end of communism produced two swift, and parallel, responses. One was the rightward shift of leftist parties, most notably Britain's Labour Party, which morphed into so-called New Labour. These new socialist parties embraced capitalist concepts like globalization, deregulation, lower corporate taxes,  and privatization once they no longer had to contend with competing communist parties. The other immediate response came from capitalists and rightists who became solidly triumphalist in their outlook. For them, capitalism had been proven to be the only viable political/economic reality. Parties of the left offered minimal or non-existent resistance to this view, and from '91 onwards voters in the developed world were left with a choice between different flavours of capitalism. Terms like "working class" and "underclass" disappeared from the lexicon of leftist parties to be replaced by the more aspirational "middle class," a group everyone was trying to get in or stay in.

The triumphalism of capitalism since 1991 has led to what I'd call Manichean capitalism--any public policy which adds to a company's bottom line is incontrovertibly good, while one which hinders or reduces profitability is bad in an almost existential sense. We've now reached a stage where being opposed to capitalism is seen in many quarters as being deviant or immoral or criminal. The angry reactions from the right to the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 are an illustration of this. More recently, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour party produced a vituperative reaction in British right wing circles because Corbyn was, by their definition, an extreme leftist. By the political standards of the 1960s and '70s Corbyn was your average leftist, but in 2015 he was a "loony" lefty, to use the parlance of Brit tabloids. The prospect of someone of that ilk becoming PM was enough to send the capitalist establishment into a fury of denunciations, smear jobs, and dark warnings about the future of Britain.

Now that the major political parties in most developed countries have tacitly agreed that capitalism, preferably the Manichean variety, is the bedrock upon which all public policy is built, how do they differentiate between themselves come election day? Through nationalism, sidebar issues, scandal-mongering and identity politics. Political policy and campaigning built around the concept of national programs that benefit the majority have gone by the wayside, replaced by bickering over local and regional interests, and venomous arguments over people who are supposedly getting more than their fair share. In Britain, the tabloids work tirelessly to demonize migrants, so-called "benefits cheats", and a dozen other fringe and minority groups, all of whom, according to the tabs, are parasitical in one way or another. The last US election was built on scapegoating minority groups.

Whether it's a government of the left or right, the developed world is in a rush to abandon the activist social welfare policies that characterized governments in the post-war era. Ethno-nationalism, the most abstract, meaningless and vicious of political concepts, is what has often replaced it, Communism (in theory if not always in practice) acted as a counterweight to this political philosophy by taking a rational, analytical and critical look at the relationship between labour and capital. And perhaps more importantly, communism kept alive the concept of actions taken for the collective good. What we're left with now is irrational invective, jingoism and hate-mongering. Communism was never a panacea, but it's role in retarding the growth of Manichean capitalism has largely been overlooked.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trilogies of Terror!

If you're an aspiring novelist who wants to work in the mystery, SF or fantasy field, you'd better roll your up sleeves and get busy because no one's going to take you seriously unless you've got at least a trio of linked novels to your credit. Part of my job at the library consists of selecting books to send to shut-ins, and it's always a nuisance wrangling a trilogy for delivery because volume ones are inevitably checked out for months. Volume threes are always readily available, and that says something about the literary staying power of most writers; writing a gripping volume one is relatively easy, but keeping the quality up for two more outings? Not so easy. So here's the bad and the good of the trilogy business:

Paul Cornell has a CV thick with Doctor Who novelizations, comic books, and scripts for various Brit TV series. His Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?) follows a group of London cops who police the supernatural underworld. So far, so high concept. The first novel, London Falling, was about a murderous witch and was solidly written and quite entertaining. The Severed Streets was dreadful. For one thing, having an actual writer, Neil Gaiman, appear as a secondary character in the novel must violate some kind of literary fourth wall protocol. It's also just silly. In addition to that faux pas, the novel had a murky, sluggish plot, and, worst of all, things got too serious. I can stomach an over-the-top fantasy/SF concept if the author gives me a wink every now and then to let me know he or she's aware of the silliness on offer, but a writer who can't crack a smile at their own bizarre creation? No thanks. Throughout volume two, all the main cop characters are living in various kinds of existential hell, and that made reading it a joyless slog. You must be wondering at this point why I bothered to read the next one. Foolishly, I was intrigued by the concept (someone kills the ghost of Sherlock Holmes) and hoped that an editor might have warned Cornell that his weapons-grade gravitas was misplaced. No such luck. The most recent novel is more of the same gloomy, turgid writing. It should also be pointed out that Cornell is poaching on a genre established by Ben Aaronovitch in his Rivers of London series which features--wait for it--a group of London coppers who police the supernatural. What are the odds? And why was Aaronovitch kind enough to put a blurb on Cornell's book? That's taking English politeness too far. So that's it, Cornell, you're now undead to me.

And then we have Robin Stevens. Her threesome of cozy murder mysteries for young readers are set in the 1930s and feature a pair of teenage sleuths, Mabel Wong and Daisy Wells, who go to a posh all-girls school in England. At first glance this sounds like something a committee made up of the BBC, the National Trust, and Country Life magazine might have cobbled together. Normally I'd run far, far away from something like this, but I'd come across a mention of the series in the Guardian that praised the quality of the writing. It also helped that I was working my way through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels at the time and I needed some reading material to, as it were, detoxify with. Good choice on my part; although, oddly enough, like Ferrante's novels, Stevens' novels also feature a spiky female friendship. Her mysteries (Murder Most Unladylike, Arsenic for Tea, First Class Murder) distinguish themselves by being as well-written as anything in the cozy field, adult or otherwise. Stevens does not write down to her intended audience; in fact, it feels like she wants to challenge her readers. The characters and plots are far more complex than you'd expect to find in books aimed at early teen readers, there's a nice vein of humor running through all the books, and the mystery elements are really strong. The locked room mystery in First Class Murder is an excellent introduction to this sub-genre for young readers and compares well with adult examples. Stevens is writing more in this series, but I'd really like to see her take a crack at a full-on adult mystery.

I've started a great many trilogies but not finished most of them. The lesson here is that writers, even very good ones, have trouble spinning out a high-concept premise over more than one book. The fault lies with publishers, who are always trying to find ways to hook readers into committing to a series of books (and purchases). It's hard to blame them for trying to maximize profits, but it's counter-productive when you kill a reader's interest in an author by pushing him or her into producing crappy work. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

The most interesting part of this film is its subject matter, not the filmmaking itself. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medical orderly in the Confederate Army who deserts after learning that a new law allows the sons of the richest slaveholders to be excused military service. Knight returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, where he's hunted by the local Confederate militia. After they burn down his home, Knight hides out in a swamp with some runaway slaves. This becomes the nucleus of a guerilla group that eventually numbers in the hundreds and battles the local Confederate forces. Knight and his men end up controlling a significant swath of Mississippi and declare the "free state of Jones", a land dedicated to the principle of egalitarianism for all men, no matter what their colour. The war ends and the Reconstruction period is followed by brutal suppression of black political activism by the KKK and plantation owners. Knight takes a black woman as his wife after the war, and a sub-plot set in the 1950s shows one of his male descendants, who is one-eighth black, fighting Jim Crow laws for the right to marry his white fiance.

The earnest, plodding, clunkiness of this biopic feels, at times, like a throwback to film styles and tropes from the '50s and '60s. 12 Years a Slave and Glory are set in the same era, but they told their stories with subtlety and cinematic flair without diminishing the messages they wanted to get across. Jones has no time for artistry. Dramatic and romantic elements are handled like assignments for a required university course, and the action sequences are staged like pageants. One battle set in a graveyard actually borders on the farcical.

By this point you might think I didn't like this film. Wrong. What sets it apart from a Glory or 12 Years a Slave is that it's eager and willing to tackle issues that don't normally get an airing in American films, specifically the subject of class warfare. At several points in the film it's explicitly stated that the Civil War was primarily about plantation owners, the plutocracy of the South, defending their capital interests with the lives of poor whites. Most films about this period in history might have ended with the conclusion of the war. Jones continues its study of class politics with the Reconstruction period, which, as far as I know, has never been dealt with in any film. The film makes it clear that the efforts of the KKK and their capitalist supporters were directed at denying blacks political power because that kind of power meant a tidal shift in the relationship between capital and labour. All those notions about white Southern notions of "honour" and ''tradition" and fear of black violence were just hogwash. Whites were only interested in instituting a system of legal peonage to replace slavery. In this way Jones emerges as a superior film to Glory and 12 Years a Slave because the latter two films are dealing in honorable platitudes: racism are slavery were bad. This film brings something new to the discussion by showing how racism is so often a screen behind which politicians and capitalists practice their black arts.

Free State of Jones is a flawed film from a purely cinematic point of view, but as an examination of an often poorly understood part of American history it really has no equal. And lest you think that this subject matter isn't worth re-examining in this day and age, check out the interview below with legendary film director William Friedkin. From the 6:23 mark onwards Friedkin defends the birth of the KKK. It's jaw-dropping stuff, and this from someone who's from the allegedly liberal bastion of Hollywood.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: The Fall of the House of Cabal (2016) by Jonathan L. Howard

Let's play sports analogies: In the field of fantasy/horror fiction, Jonathan L. Howard is a decathlete who regularly ends up on the podium. He's a 20-game winning pitcher who can paint the corners with the fastball, freeze batters with his curveball, and make them look foolish with the breaking ball. He's a centre in hockey who plays a 200-foot game and can be counted on for some Gordie Howe hat tricks every season. And now I've run out of sports I know anything about. My point, and I do have one, is that Howard is a writer who, within his particular field, is adept at any literary style you care to think of. Depending on what's called for, or as the mood takes him, he can do comedy (high and low), horror, big action set-pieces, mystery, wit, spookiness, and good old-fashioned ripping yarn adventure. His masterful skill as a literary shape-shifter is always most evident in his Cabal books, of which this is the fifth in the series.

This time out Johannes and his brother Horst are on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. To get there they require the assistance of a three women: a spider demon, a witch, and a detective. The Cabal novels take place in a steampunky Europe that looks and sounds roughly like the 1920s. Cabal & Co. journey to several supernatural realms, fight everything from ghouls to vampiric bankers to Satan himself, and it's all done with style and effervescent inventiveness. That description might make it sound like the author has overegged his pudding (a common fault in the steampunk genre), but Howard is disciplined enough to never introduce a new story element without giving it the proper level of development and creative attention. 

What might be most striking about this latest entry in the Cabal franchise is that it still holds the reader's attention. The woods are full of fantasy writers who crank out trilogies, quartets, and quintets, but it's rare for any of these shelf-fillers to maintain a high standard beyond the first in the series. The Cabal books are consistently excellent. One reason for this is that Howard dabbles in a different type of story with each outing. The series has included a mystery story, a picaresque adventure set in a carnival, a Lovecraftian epic, and a war story of sorts. The other factor that accounts for the longevity of the series is that Howard brought in Horst to be a foil for Johannes. Horst is a vampire with a heart of gold, and his geniality,humour and humanity act to leaven the sardonic misanthropy of Johannes. 

You don't have to be a fantasy/horror fan to enjoy this series. Howard's main aim is to amuse, and what stands out most strongly about the Cabal books is their wit. There are lots of things that go bump, slither, and bite in the night, but the overall tone is comic with a generous side order of rip-roaring adventure. The humour is often acidic, the writing sometimes donnish and orotund (I sense the ghost of mystery writer Michael Innes is present here), and there is absolutely never a dull moment. And here's hoping Horst Cabal gets a standalone novel in the Cabal universe. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: The Neapolitan Novels (2011-14) by Elena Ferrante

It's hard to know where to begin in describing or evaluating the four novels that comprise Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, so I'll start by declaring that the foursome are among the best works of fiction I've ever read. And here goes my plot synopsis: the story follows two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood to late middle-age, charting their intense, sometimes antagonistic, friendship, and their life in one of Naples rougher areas. Both women, to differing degrees, rise above their surroundings and backgrounds, but the struggle to do so is daunting and costly, So that describes about 9% of the novels.

The single feature that to my mind sets Ferrante above so many other writers is her single-minded devotion to subverting almost every expectation we have about how a fictional narrative is supposed to unfold. Very near the end of the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, one of the two main characters says this:

Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.

The above quote succinctly describes the antithesis of the Neapolitan novels. Many novels and novelists are promoted as realistic or truthful or uncompromising, but within that realism, more often than not, there's a solid structure of cause and effect, and most problems or conflicts find a resolution. It's probably the most difficult thing for a novelist to do: put aside their omniscience and let characters and events sprawl out in all kinds of messy directions without providing any pat rationales or conclusions. Stories are really about endings, or at the very least summations, and to avoid this almost seems like a violation of the storyteller's craft.

Graham Greene once said that "a writer must have a sliver of ice in their heart," and by that standard Ferrante has an iceberg in hers, as she's absolutely merciless in showing the faults and frailties of Lila and Elena. The two of them make good, bad and foolish decisions, are brave, stupid, reckless, loving, careless, spiteful, generous, kind, and bitter, and Ferrante dissects, with forensic detail, every aspect of their thinking and emotions. The psychological depth she gives her characters is virtually unsurpassed.

Ferrante also weaves an metafiction element through her novels. Elena is the narrator, and a novelist, and there is much discussion of how personal narratives are unreliable or can even be shared by different people. By the end of the quartet it's even possible to question whether Elena or Lila has been the narrator.

The only bumpy part of the series comes at the end, when Elena moves back to Naples after years away. It's a questionable decision on her part, but why she doesn't leave again, given how rocky her life in Naples gets, seems odd. Also, her problems with her teenage daughters aren't fleshed out and feel gratuitously dramatic. Beyond that, the novels are astonishingly perfect, although their emotional intensity often becomes hard to bear. So take my advice and detox between each novel with some light reading--Dostoevsky, perhaps.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

If this summer's film slate of superheroes and reboots and sequels, all of them CGI-heavy, has tired you out, cast your eyes on Hell or High Water. It's a modern western set in the driest, most destitute corner of Texas that borrows tropes from the horse-powered westerns of yesteryear to tell the story of two brothers who rob banks to pay off the mortgage on their mother's land.

The brothers are Tanner and Toby. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a career criminal and all-around hell raiser. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who needs to pay off the mortgage on his late mother's land. The land isn't worth much, but the oil underneath it, which has just been discovered, is worth $50k a month. But if he can't pay off the mortgage the bank will get the land and the oil. Toby has not, we gather, been a good husband or father, so as an act of redemption he wants to put the land in a trust for his kids once he's cleared the mortgage. The amount he needs isn't much, but it involves robbing banks in a variety of flyblown towns across west Texas. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on their trail.

What's striking about this film is its conscious effort to harken back to the American filmmaking aesthetic of the late 1960s and early '70s. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands are obvious visual influences, also the use of local, non-professional actors in small roles. Director David Mackenzie has clearly absorbed the feel of those films and tried to bring them back to life, particularly in the handling of the brothers. Tanner and Toby are the kind of antiheroes that were common in the '70s. They aren't well-equipped in temperament or skills to deal with normal life and have ended up living on the fringes of society, which also makes them unconsciously anti-establishment, a key element of the films of that era.

The most modern aspect of the film is its emphasis on the poverty and despair gripping this part of world. Billboards for payday loan  and debt relief companies dot the landscape, most businesses are shuttered, and the population seems either very old or very unemployed. This is Tea Party America, even though the film never makes any direct political statements along these lines. The bad guys, as in so many old westerns, are the banks, who are eagerly foreclosing on anyone and everything. A briefly glimpsed piece of graffiti at the beginning of the film neatly captures the film's political viewpoint: THREE TOURS OF IRAQ BUT I NEVER GOT A BAILOUT. Sadly, the film is content to just blame the banks rather than drilling down deeper to the politicians who are the banking industry's enablers. The western tropes are cleverly woven through the film, especially during a climactic bank heist that results in an impromptu posse chasing the brothers out of town, and, like the legendary James brothers, Toby and Tanner receive protection from some of the locals. Nobody likes banks.

But this isn't a perfect film. The character of Tanner is too much of a generic crazy cowboy, and Ben Foster overacts accordingly. Chris Pine as Toby is fine, but it's not a very demanding role since he's mostly asked to just look hurt or depressed. Although kudos to Pine or the director for the visual motif of Toby constantly hanging his head down as though literally beaten down by Fate. Only at the very end do we see him standing proud. There are some plot holes, and some awkward and superfluous scenes (did we really need to see Tanner bonking a hotel receptionist?) that mar what's otherwise a lean and efficient film. Part of the blame for that, aside from the script, might be due to the director being a Brit. This kind of gritty, regional story is hard for outsiders to get right when it comes to the details, and Mackenzie is sometimes tone deaf when it comes handling his Texan characters. On the plus side, you can count on Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar nom for best supporting actor.