Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: A Face Like Glass (2012) by Frances Hardinge

So how do I describe Caverna, the underground city that`s one of the major characters in this young adult fantasy novel, in a way that doesn`t make it sound completely preposterous? Well, here goes: imagine the Most Serene Republic of Venice circa 1750, but ruled by the Borgias at their Machiavellian, poisoning peak,  and with an economy based around the production of magical and hallucinogenic luxury goods, chiefly wines and cheeses. Also, the inhabitants of this world can only use a limited variety of facial expressions. Drudges, who make up the proletariat, are only allowed one bland, dutiful expression. Members of the Court and Craftsmen classes (aristos to you and me) can "buy" a wide variety of facial expressions. And no one, whether weak or powerful, is allowed (or wants) to go up to the "overground". Did I forget to mention the light-emitting man-eating plants, or the Cartographers who only need to chat with a person to drive them mad? They're in here, too.

It's clear that author Hardinge decided to let her imagination off its leash and only got it back after it had assaulted some neighbours, chased things up trees, and made a mess on the carpet. And it's a good thing she did. There are linear miles of shelving filled with YA books that are so high concept they can make your nose bleed just by reading the blurbs on the back covers. Almost all of them are shite because the creativity ends with the basic concept. A Face Like Glass delivers the goods. The writing is far, far above average for this genre, at times reaching a Geraldine McCaughrean level of excellence. The tough part with this kind of imaginative story is the world-building, and Hardinge manages this with ease. She doesn't bludgeon the reader with details or elaborate background info, instead she parcels out descriptions of Caverna as they're discovered by her protagonist, a young girl named Neverfell. The quality of the world-building can be judged by fact that the workings and ecology of Caverna are just as interesting as the machinations of the lead characters. In many ways this novel is the YA equivalent to Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast in its creation of a self-enclosed world populated by eccentrics and obsessed with form and ceremony.

Neverfell is an orphan who mysteriously appears in Caverna at the age of five and is raised in secret by Grandible, a master cheesemaker. The reason for the secrecy is that Neverfell, unlike any other resident of the underworld, has no control over her facial expressions: she shows every emotion that occurs to her as it happens. As usually happens to orphans in stories like this, Neverfell draws the attention of some powerful and dangerous people. From there on she becomes a pawn and a conspirator in a struggle for control of Caverna. The plotting is tight and energetic, with lots of twists, and we even get a Spartacus-like uprising by the Drudges.

If I have any complaint about this novel it's that the concept of people having a set number of facial expressions to go through life with is fascinating, but the execution of it is weak. A lot of time is spent describing this aspect of Caverna society, but I just didn't feel that the idea was worked out enough to make seem believable, even in the context of a fantasy novel. Fortunately, Hardinge fleshes out her other imaginative concepts with originality, humour and a lot of energy.

Related posts:

Book Review: Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: A History of Modern Palestine (2004) and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006) by Ilan Pappe

Many nations have foundational myths, and for the most part they're the equivalent of corporate PR; a bundle of warm and fuzzy half-truths that spin a positive message about a country's character and roots. The US has loads of myths about its founding fathers, various presidents, and the aspirations and struggles of the early settlers, all of it used to build of a portrait of a nation that's resourceful and determined. France looks to the revolution of 1789 to define itself as the bastion of liberty and equality. Britain reaches all the way back to the signing of Magna Carta to help define itself as a land resistant to tyrannies and proud of its individual liberties. But then there are the countries that use or create a myth to rationalize or justify contemporary political policies, and that's where danger lies. Dictators as different as Hitler and the Kims of North Korea have constructed myths to justify the most heinous crimes. The most fascinating revelation in these two books, at least for those who haven't paid a lot of attention to goings-on in the Middle East, is that Israel's foundational mythos has been used as a tool and a smokescreen to facilitate the colonization and exploitation of Palestinian land that was, for the most part, either stolen or conquered.

Ilan Pappe is one of Israel's "new historians", a group of academics who have started examining the dirty secrets of Israel's short history. One of the key Israeli myths is that in 1948, as the British Mandate in Palestine was expiring, the Jews in Palestine were outnumbered and outgunned by surrounding Arab countries intent on massacring them. Pappe neatly exposes this as a grotesque exaggeration. Neighbouring countries were more interested in a land grab than any kind of pogrom, and in military terms the Jewish forces were their equal in numbers and superior to them in training and quality of arms. Myth number two that Pappe demolishes is that the Palestinians who fled the land during the 1948 made the choice to abandon their land because they feared being caught up in the conflict. In fact, Jewish forces were busily engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing before and during the conflict. Palestinian villages and communities were subjected to intimidation tactics that ranged all the way up to full-scale massacres of civilians. In short, many Palestinians fled their land because of Jewish terror tactics.

From its earliest days, Israel's politicians and supporters have used the myth of Israel as a David surrounded by Goliaths to curry favour and support from the West. Israel has cast itself as an underdog faced by bullies in order to justify oppressive security restrictions on Israeli Palestinians as well as military attacks on anyone, individuals or nations, deemed a threat to Israel. The idea that Israel might be a threat to its own (Palestinian) citizens and neighbours isn't talked about much in the West. The fiction that Palestinians fled Palestine in 1948 to escape invading Arab armies is the most pernicious of the two myths because it covers up crimes committed by Jewish forces and is used to justify Israel's refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their land.

Don't think that these two books are merely opinion pieces; these are solidly researched works of history with citations for every damning fact and statistic. I've concentrated on Pappe's unraveling of Israel's foundational myths, but he has a lot more to reveal, all of it damaging to any view of Israel as a benign and democratic nation. I have to say that the two books make for depressing reading, given that so much suffering by Palestinians has been ignored or dismissed thanks to the relentless promotion of Israel's foundational myths in the mainstream media. This also explains why Israel, and lobbying groups working on its behalf in the West, react so hysterically to honest critiques of Israel's history. They know that these myths are one of the pillars of Israel's claim to moral superiority in the Middle East, and they'll do and say anything to defend them. And it seems Pappe is also one of the victims of those who fight to safeguard mythology: in 2007 he left his teaching position at Haifa University due to criticism from within and without the university. He now teaches at the University of Exeter in England. These two volumes don't make for pleasant reading, but they're essential for any unfiltered understanding of Middle Eastern politics.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Film Review: Innocence (2004)

Prepare yourself to be either infuriated or fascinated by this French film. There's no in-between reaction available here.When people talk about seeing a really weird film where nothing happened and the end didn't make any sense, this is the film they're probably talking about. I'd call it fascinating, but I'm well aware that I'm probably in the minority. Try this synopsis on for size: the film begins with a young girl, Iris, arriving in a coffin at some kind of all-girls boarding school. Some other little girls open the coffin and Iris awakes to her new life at the school. The school sits in a forest that's surrounded by a high stone wall. The girls are forbidden to leave the school. A handful of teachers (one of whom is played by Marion Cotillard) educate the girls in ballet and natural history. There appear to be no other subjects. After several years at the school the girls who are just entering puberty board an underground train which takes them to...Sorry, no spoilers.

If the lack of a comprehensible story doesn't offend you, there's a lot on offer in Innocence. The director, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is a genius at creating an atmosphere that's both charming and deeply menacing. One minute you're wowed by a beautifully composed shot of young girls playing in a river or walking down a forest path at twilight, and the next moment you're gripped by a feeling of dread that something very sick and twisted is about to be revealed. Because we're left so in the dark about the whys and wherefores of this school our imagination runs amok, and various visual nudges help us imagine all kinds of terrible things going on behind the scenes. Without using any overtly alarming cues, Innocence manages to build up a lot of tension.

This is also a film that can be enjoyed just for its technical qualities. The cinematography and art direction are superb. A lot of care and thought went into every frame of this film and the effort was well worth it. This is also goes to show that a low budget film can punch above its weight just through aesthetic excellence; lots of art and indie films can claim to have cleverer, more intelligent plots than Hollywood films, but to succeed like this purely on a visual level is perhaps even more difficult. Creating a look this beautiful, this evocative, can't be done quickly, and normally time isn't something low budget films can spare.

And now the big question: what the heck is this film about? There's no easy answer to that. Part of the pleasure of Innocence is that it throws out a dozen questions for every answer it provides. One thing does seem (relatively) clear: it's meant to be taken as an allegory about the mysteries of childhood as seen from a feminine perspective. When Iris (a six year-old?) arrives in a coffin and comes to life, as it were, I think it's meant to represent the birth of self-consciousness. What comes after that is an allegory of the uncertainties and mysteries young girls face as they move towards adolescence, and the way in which they're trained up in the roles society expects of their gender. But I'm only guessing. I recommend seeing this film with a friend. That way two things are guaranteed: you'll be entranced by the visuals and the two of you are certain to get into a testy argument over whether it was a great film or two hours of your life you'll never get back. But you can be sure that you'll probably never see another film like it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review: The Borribles (1976) and The Borribles Go for Broke (1981) by Michael de Larrabeiti

If you like your kids' lit to include a bracing dose of class warfare and anarchism, I can't recommend these two novels enough. I actually read them more than twenty years ago, but I recently found out that a third was written in 1986 (The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis), which, unfortunately, I haven't been able to find. And how politically feisty are these books? The third volume was held back from publication because Collins, the publisher, felt that the book's anti-police message was too strong in the aftermath of the Brixton riots in London. Pan eventually published the third volume, and all three are now available on Amazon.

Plenty of kids' books have been suppressed because they offended the religious or the squeamish, but not many that I can think of have been frowned upon for their politics. Borribles are kids who've run away from home or are otherwise deemed "unmanageable." In this urban fantasy London such children turn into Borribles. Their "wildness" takes physical form in their pointed ears, which they keep hidden lest they be spotted by the police, their sworn enemies. Borribles live in groups, stealing food and clothing, but spurning material possessions and money. They live in abandoned buildings and London's secret, empty places, and as long as their pointy ear aren't "clipped", they remain children forever. The police are always on the lookout for Borribles. When they catch one, his or her ears are clipped and they start growing up again. It's a fate worse than death for Borribles.

Just from that short synopsis you can see that for an overly sensitive and censorious parent these books offer a laundry list of objectionable elements: approval of theft; scorn for the police; a celebration of life without adults; contempt for consumerism; and an energetic dislike of street-level capitalism. The overall anarchic character of these books is what has made them suspect in the eyes of many, but it also makes them delightful to read. I read them as an adult so I can only imagine how transgressive they would seem to a kid used to earnest do-gooders like Harry Potter.

Don't be worried that the novels are distractingly political. These are adventure stores first and foremost, and Larrabeiti knows his way around a ripping yarn. The first novel has the Borribles in conflict with the Rumbles, a race of mole-like creatures who talk like members of the Drones Club (Borribles have Cockney accents) and are trying to take over Borrible territory. The second novel, as far as I can remember, continues the story and ends in a rather spectacular sequence by a river running underneath London. Sadly, Larrabeiti died in 2008. His obituary, which I've linked here, is well worth reading: his life sounds as interesting as his fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is a Post About Heist Films!

Yes, this should be adequate protection for my pog collection.
So a week ago I caught Ocean's Eleven, the Steven Soderbergh version, on TV. I never thought that version or the original were particularly good, but it got me thinking about the whole genre of heist movies. First, I should set out my own definition of what a heist movie is. A heist movie should be about one particular robbery, not a story about a string of robberies. Second, the theft is the work of a team rather than an individual. Third, the item being stolen has to be elaborately protected: lots of guards, motion sensors, lasers, moats, dobermans, and anything else that's pointy or stabby. By my rules films like Heat, Thief and The Friends of Eddie Coyle are not heist movies. There are heists in them, but they're really about the lives of career criminals. In short, a carefully planned robbery and/or getaway is at the heart of any heist movie. Films such as The Italian Job, They Came to Rob Las Vegas, Topkapi, The Bank Job, and, yes, Ocean's Eleven qualify as heist films in my book.

The first thing that strikes me about the heist genre is that it's odd that it even exists. Big heists are something that only exist in the world of fiction. Yes, there is the occasional real-life heist such as the Lufthansa robbery shown in Goodfellas, and over the years various art galleries have been raided, but almost all these affairs have succeeded without much sophistication: windows and doors are smashed in, guards have guns stuck in their faces, and that's the job done. In the case of the Lufthansa robbery all that was needed was access to a key. So if heists, like serial killers, are something that's more common in films than in real life, why does this genre have such an enduring appeal?

One reason is that the structure of the heist story has its roots in folktales. One of the most common motifs in folktales is of the hero who sets out on a quest to steal a golden horde, a magical sword, or a princess. Along the way he befriends men or animals with special skills or powers who later help him achieve his goal. In other words, they're the team that's assembled in every heist film to help carry out the theft. You know the drill: there's the electronics whizz; the explosives expert; the master of disguises; the femme fatale who distracts somebody or other; and so on and so on. So at a deep level heist films tap into our warm and fuzzy memories of fairy tales and legends.

Another interesting aspect of heist films is that they're a relatively new phenomenon. As far as I can figure heist films didn't begin until the 1950s, and the first I can think of is The Killing (1956) by Stanley Kubrick. But why the '50s and not an earlier era? The Depression seemed tailor-made for films about getting rich quick and illegally, but the only rough equivalent at the time were gangster movies, and they were rigorously moral in that the crooks never lived to enjoy their loot. With heist films, the robbers sometimes, but not always, head into the sunset with millions tucked away somewhere safe. In relation to this, one of the key aspects of any heist film is that the thief is the one we're rooting for. Why should we cheer for these guys? A film about a someone breaking into a pharmacy to steal OxyContin won't garner any sympathy for the thief, but if he assembles a team to loot a bank vault or lift a priceless painting we're on his side all the way. On one level this is an example of the Robin Hood syndrome: we enjoy seeing the rich brought low and the little guy get his slice of the pie. I think it also has to do with the rise of the consumer society, which goes a fair way to explaining why the heist genre didn't come into existence until the '50s. One of the characteristics of the post-war affluent society was the celebration of wealth, or at least a craving for the trappings of wealth. Cheering on enterprising criminals is a vicarious way of lusting for riches. It's the imaginative equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, and it harkens back, in yet another way, to folktales about poor farmers' sons winning land and riches through bravery, audacity and cunning. But then there a variety of heist films about rich men or pure adventurers who steal things just for the pleasure of it. The Jokers and The Thomas Crown Affair are examples of this kind of heist film, and I think they endorse my theory that wealth, and the worship of it, is one of the important attractions of heist films.

Christopher Walken, Sean Connery & Martin Balsam in The Anderson Tapes
There's one other angle to heist films that stands out: the role of women in them. In most heist films the hero's romantic or sexual relationships form an important, even essential, part of the story. And these relationships can be roughly categorized according to the type of robbery being undertaken. Films about smash and grab raids, robberies that entail violence and the use of force, these stories usually show women as disposable sexual objects. The heist films that involve the complex and subtle infiltration of a highly secure area often feature a sub-plot that has the criminal hero romancing a woman. In bald terms, the former variety of heist film is about rape, while the latter is about seduction. "Rape" heist films would include Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Italian Job and The Anderson Tapes. "Seduction" films would include 11 Harrowhouse, How to Steal a Million and The Thomas Crown Affair. I'll admit I'm not entirely confident in this theory; perhaps I should just say that it's a feeling I have about a lot of heist films.

And now here's my personal list of heist films that are either favourites or little known. Some are linked to full reviews I've done of them.

They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968): A nasty, clever European production shot in Spain and CA that has more energy and style than any of the Ocean's films.


The League of Gentlemen (1960): Jack Hawkins leads a team of English gentlemen in a raid on a bank. Great character actors, witty script, and a very believable heist.

The Jokers (1967): More English gentlemen. This time it's two brothers, Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed, who decide to steal the crown jewels just for the fun of it. Slightly dated, but very entertaining.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges rob a bank in Montana in a film that's filled with weird sexual overtones.

Adieu l'Ami (1968): The stars are Charles Bronson and Alain Delon, but the real attraction is the script by Sebastian Japrisot, the crown prince of devious, improbable plots. This film's also called Honor Among Thieves.

The Anderson Tapes (1971): Sean Connery and his gang pillage an exclusive New York apartment building. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it's one of the best crime films of the 1970s.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Film Review: Plot of Fear (1976)

Do you have one of those co-workers who pulls you aside to tell you jokes that are so filthy you wouldn't repeat them in a Tijuana holding cell? Or maybe he likes showing you "interesting" things he's found on the Internet. And you can count on him to make the least PC comment at the worst possible time. This Italian giallo thriller is that guy. It's one hot mess of a movie, and it's so eager to be edgy and transgressive (by 1976 standards) that it's practically quivering with delight.

Giallo films are one of the sinful, sleazy delights of Italian cinema in the 1970s. Basically, a giallo film combines a murder mystery with graphic violence and sex, preferably something kinky. These films certainly served up a healthy dose of lurid entertainment, but they were also a nervous by-product of the massive changes and stresses Italian society was experiencing. In 1976 Italy was deep into the so-called "Years of Lead." Terrorist groups from the the left and right were carrying out bombings and assassinations, and many Italians were preparing for either a fascist coup or Europe's first elected Communist government. On top of all this there were the stresses of a once conservative, priest-ridden country moving rapidly in a more secular and hedonistic direction. It's no wonder so many of the Italian B-movies of that era feel like everyone involved in their production was either drunk or on amphetamines. Their corner of Europe looked set to explode or implode at any moment, and the giallo films reflect that nervous fear and energy; they're trying to be as volatile and transgressive as the society around them.

Plot of Fear ticks all the giallo boxes. It's got technicolor blood spilling out of bodies, gratuitous sex and nudity, and decadent upper-class types indulging in sex games and crimes. And like the better giallos this one actually has a plot that's cleverer than you might expect. The film starts out as a serial killer story, with the murderer leaving illustrations from a children's book beside each body. The victims were all once members of The Fauna Club, a group of animal lovers who met at a villa outside of Milan. Commissario Lomenzo heads the investigation and soon finds that the club's members were not really all that interested in animals.

But enough about the plot. It's good, but it's not the reason to watch the film. I love the look of this film: the fogs and mists filling the streets; Milan's grungy, decrepit urban architecture; the garish decor of the haute bourgeoisie homes; and all those boxy Fiats zipping around Milan, their drivers working the stick shifts like one-armed bandits as they nip past trams and trucks. And then there's the sex. To fulfill the kinky quotient we get a masochistic sex game (it ends badly), and some goings-on at the villa that include a seriously filthy cartoon and a prostitute plying her trade under a dining room table. But wait, there's more! Lomenzo is given a black girlfriend, which was pretty wild stuff for the time and place. She dumps him and he immediately takes up with a model who's connected to the Fauna Club. Of course, this being a giallo we get to see him have sex with both women, and they are two of the most awkward sex scenes you'll ever find. Nobody looks like they were enjoying themselves. And finally, we also get a whiff of politics. The film's political stance is a bit opaque (undoubtedly less so for Italians), but there seems to be an anti-fascist tone to the story.

The acting is pretty wonky. Michele Placido plays Lomenzo, and he doesn't appear at all comfortable in the role; in one fight scene I could swear he actually appears to be terrified of being hit for real by the stuntman. The others actors range from mediocre to weak,, but they make up for it by attacking their roles with gusto. They all have energy, that's for certain. Eli Wallach also has a supporting role, which isn't as strange as it sounds. He got a lot work in Europe in the '70s thanks to appearing in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What's odder is that Tom Skerritt turns up in an even smaller role. This was three years before he played Dallas in Alien, so how he ended up in this is anyone's guess.

There's nothing quite like a giallo. B-movies from other parts of the world were usually all about the violence or all about the sex. Only the Italians had the bright idea to throw everything in the pot along with perviness, frenzied acting, twisted plots, and some seriously demented interior decoration. Films like this aren't for everyone, but I have a mile-wide weak spot for Italian cinema from this era. Finally, if you're a regular reader of my blog, and you're an eccentric millionaire who loves to give gifts to lovers of Italian culture, I'd really, really, really like to get one of those Fiat 500s this Christmas. Just saying.

Related posts:

Film Review: Almost Human
Film Review: The Best of Youth 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

TV Review: A Touch of Cloth (2012)

Sometimes satire, like a parasitic insect or plant, can kill its host. After Dr. Strangelove it was impossible to take a thriller about nuclear terror seriously. Testament was an early '80s film about nuclear war that positively wallowed in the horrors of life after the bomb. I saw it with some friends from film school, and after about fifteen minutes we were helpless with laughter thanks to goading each other with Strangelove references. And just try watching one of Universal's Frankenstein films from the '30s without quoting from Young Frankenstein. 

A Touch of Cloth does to hard-edged Brit TV cop dramas what Mel Brooks did to Frankenstein.  Be warned that if you're a fan of shows like Prime Suspect or Waking the Dead the two half-hour episodes of A Touch of Cloth are almost certain to ruin your enjoyment of them. No longer will you be able to hear the line, "You'd better take a look at this, Guv'nor" without sniggering. Tense sessions in police interview rooms (a staple of Brit cop shows) will lose their edge as you fondly recall PC Cardboard Cutout's strong, if stiff, presence in Cloth's interview scenes. And even something as simple as seeing a TV detective holding a flashlight as he searches a dark and dangerous dwelling might bring on giggles.

A Touch of Cloth brilliantly deconstructs and ridicules every aspect of cop dramas. The writers, Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier, have taken the Airplane/Naked Gun approach and stuffed their script with at least three gags per minute. There's nothing subtle about this satire, but the writers deserve a lot of credit for scoring such a high percentage of hits with their gags. I take that back a bit. There are some subtleties, most notably in the background gags, which are everywhere and often require the use of the pause button. My favourite might be a poster showing "Fruits Other Than Oranges." Explaining the gag would kill it, but it's brilliant, believe me.

John Hannah, who's been in at least a couple of Brit cop dramas, stars as DI Jack Cloth, and he does a fantastic job of satirizing the poker-faced gravitas of his dramatic counterparts. And you'd be amazed how many puns can be wrung out of his character's last name (that last one is courtesy of me). There's supposed to be another two-parter on the way, which is probably unfortunate because it's hard to imagine how they can come up with any new material after this thorough an evisceration. The clip below is a trailer for the show.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Film Review: Skyfall (2012)

I don't get it. From the reviews Skyfall's been getting I'd expected something pretty damn special, a new standard in Bond films. What were the critics seeing? It's not bad, not at all, and it's better than Quantum of Solace, but it's not as good as Casino Royale. This is an OK film, but by a narrow margin there's more that's wrong with it than right with it.

Plot has never been the strong suit of Bond films. The high point in that regard was From Russia With Love and it's been downhill ever since. But even by the weak standards of this franchise, Skyfall gets demerit points. In a nutshell, an ex-agent played by Javier Bardem feels he was betrayed by M (Judi Dench) and decides to humiliate and kill her. And to accomplish this he sets up a vast criminal organization that's entirely devoted to offing her. It really doesn't get much more complicated than that. The plot is simplistic, but it also becomes annoying because various key plot points revolve around the villain's genius at hacking computers. This has got to stop. Filmmakers have to stop using hacking and hackers as plot devices to explain away the success or failure of complex schemes. They might just as well  hand one of the characters a magic wand and have them solve problems with that. What's worse is that the audience's intelligence is usually being insulted at the same time. Most people are intimately familiar with computers, but filmmakers seem to think they can getaway with showing computers doing all kinds of unlikely things, and this film features a giant computer display that even the most computer-illiterate person is going to find fatuous.

The other problem with Skyfall is that it neglects Daniel Craig. Craig is the best actor to have held the 007 license, but in this outing he seems to have been shorted in the dialogue department. What a waste of talent. Bardem and Dench get the longish speeches while Craig is left with nothing but quipy or stoic one-liners. Admittedly, Bond and one-liners go together like bacon and eggs, but this isn't Roger Moore we're dealing with.

On the plus side, the action elements are up to snuff, and the finale in the Scottish Highlands has a moodiness that's a first for a Bond film .Although when Bond and M head into the Highlands for the showdown with the villain, for a brief moment the scenery made me think they were heading to Hogwarts. Bardem is a good villain, far better than that anonymous, weaselly-looking French baddie in Quantum, and the overall look of the film is pleasingly sleek: just what we expect from a Bond film. The massive success Skyfall is enjoying is probably due to it being an action movie for grownups. The screening I attended was a sea of silver hair (mine included) and everyone seemed to be enjoying a movie devoid of superheroes, cartoon characters and Adam Sandler.

Finally, I have to mention that this has to be the most English of the Bond films. In fact, it seems to make a point of wrapping itself in the Union Jack. There's a shot of M standing in front of a row of coffins convered in Union Jacks; a poem by Tennyson is quoted that has a very patriotic tone; M has a china bulldog on her desk that's emblazoned with the flag; and, most interestingly, one of the last shots of the film shows Bond, looking very stalwart, standing on a rooftop staring out over the rooftops of Whitehall. A number of flags are waving from the rooftops in the background, and their positioning against the sky is meant, I think, to bring back memories of barrage balloons flying over London during the Blitz. In sum, this is the most Rule Britannia of the Bond films. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's certainly worth noting.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Film Review: Twins of Evil (1971)

So let's say you're a B-movie producer in 1966. To sell your product you create films that are just that little bit more sexy and violent than what the big boys are doing. The problem is that various censorship laws, and the prudishness of film distributors, prevent you from going the full monty. Fast forward only a few years and the barriers have come down. Yeehaw! Now you can get busy having those starlets doff their tops and have the boys in the props department lay in an extra drum or two of fake blood. In their eagerness to exploit the new freedoms a lot of the B-movie guys forgot they were also in the storytelling business. Twins of Evil is the blood-splattered cheesecake proof of this.

Hammer Films made Twins of Evil and it marks the beginning of their slide into irrelevance and bankruptcy. In the '50s and '60s Hammer made its name with cheap and cheerful horror films that were solidly crafted, stylish, and a bit edgy. Twins of Evil is entirely about blood and boobs. There's a vague, half-assed plot about witch-hunters and vampires, but the main purpose of the film is to show off as much cleavage as possible. You wouldn't see this many low-cut tops at a convention of Las Vegas cocktail waitresses. The twins of the title were played by real life twins Mary and Madeleine Collinson, and each girl's, er, twin set is on constant display.  Really, it might have been more accurate to call the film Quadruplets of Evil.

The only plus to the cheesecake portion of the film is that Hammer actually took care to cast some attractive women. None of them could act, even slightly, but they knew how to fill out, or pop out of, a nightie. God, I wish I'd been legally eligible to see this film at the time it came out. The blood-soaked side of the film is really bad. The camera lingers pointlessly on blood geysering out of chests and necks but there's no style to it; it's all staged like a demo sequence in a special effects class. Even Peter Cushing, who plays the chief witch-hunter, seems bored with what's going on. Hammer never manged to figure out that they needed some wit and style to go along with the T & A and gore, and before the decade was over they'd disappeared like a vampire at dawn.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: The Peacock Throne (2007) by Sujit Saraf

Maybe I'm just lucky or perhaps writers from the Indian subcontinent are a cut above everyone else, but every novel I've read from that part of the world seems to be better than the last. The Peacock Throne is the best so far. Although it was only published in 2007 it already seems to have fallen into the category of forgotten gems. I say this because it appears to be out of print, and it has only garnered a measly three reviews on Amazon. Make that four reviews after I post this one.

The first and most obvious point of reference for describing The Peacock Throne is to compare it to a Dickens novel. There's the same multitude of characters, the journalistic attention to detail, and a fascination with the sheer variety of human experience. The central character is Gopal, a lowly tea seller in the sprawling Chandi Chowk market of New Delhi. His life becomes the central point in a carousel of schemes and plots and crimes that, in turn, have their roots in some of the seismic events in the political life of India between the years 1984 and 1998.

Saraf has chosen a very large canvas for his story and he fills every inch of it with incident and detail. What makes this saga different from run-of-the-mill epics is that Saraf is passionate about his characters. Many of the people we meet are venal, shifty or corrupt, but they're brought to life so emphatically, so enthusiastically one ends up with a rooting interest in all but the worst of them. I have only the barest knowledge of recent Indian history, but it's pretty clear that one of Saraf's aims with his novel is to show that the average Indian, as represented by Gopal, is both a victim and a tool of India's political and mercantile elites. Democracy is alive in India, but it's often drunk and disorderly. Speaking of which, don't think that because there's a political angle to this novel it's confusing or tedious. This is a wildly entertaining novel. There's sex, violence, humour and intrigue aplenty: all the ingredients of a best-seller with the added bonus that they've been put together by a superb writer. Now that I think of it, another writer Saraf should be compared to is Balzac. Saraf has the same fondness and gift for describing the Byzantine scheming of the merchant classes as they scramble for wealth and power.

An excellent companion piece to this novel is Serious Men by Manu Joseph. It's central character is also low on the totem pole, but, unlike Gopal, he decides to get a measure of revenge on his superiors. It's interesting that both novels (as far as I can tell by Googling reviews) did not receive a warm reception in India. I think if you're writing any kind of epic novel about a nation you should take that as a compliment.

Related posts:
Book Review: Serious Men by Manu Joseph
Book Review: The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne
Book Review: Partitions by Amit Majmudar

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-Election Ramblings

Gore Vidal famously said that there's one political party in the US and it's called the Property Owning Party. The Democrats represent the right wing of the party, and the Republicans represent the reactionary wing. Gore continues to be accurate in his analysis. Here are some other random thoughts on what went down last night:

Let the Racist Backlash Commence

TV talking heads on all the networks couldn't stop talking about the Latino vote and the GOP's inability to capture it. Watch for the more rabid, bug-eyed Republicans to start screeching about American politics being hijacked by Hispanics and blacks, who, you know, aren't really Americans.

The Republicans Score a False Positive

Rightist commentators will probably try and take comfort in the fact that the popular vote was almost a draw. That's a false positive. Obama won despite the Republicans having an unofficial propaganda wing consisting of FOX News and almost all of talk radio. Those media outlets have been flaying Obama and the Democrats for four years. There is no countervailing liberal media to negate this advantage for the GOP. If the GOP's private sector propaganda apparatus didn't exist it's likely Obama would have enjoyed a wider margin of victory.

Don't Talk About War

The taboo subject for all concerned in this election was military spending. Both candidates, not surprisingly, voiced support for "our brave men and women in the armed forces", and Romney of course wants to make the military even stronger. Nobody wanted to talk about the fact that the trillions spent on the military is the dirty secret behind America's fiscal defecit; that, and certain people hiding their money in the Cayman Islands.

Watch the Republicans Split In Two

The Tea Party section of the GOP is likely to get even more bitter and angry and eliminationist. They might feel so alienated from more moderate Republicans that they'll form a breakaway party. In same the way that the Green Party under Ralph Nader became a home (temporarily) for Democrats who felt their party was drifting right, the Tea Party people might strike out on their own. It's not hard to imagine a narcissistic publicity hound like Sarah Palin happily heading such a party.

No More Birthers!

This issue is now officially dead. If Donald Trump brings it up again he should be hauled in front of a state psychiatric board and declared incompetent.

Any Other Democracy is Better Than American Democracy

For those observing this election from next door, it once again offered proof that the American electoral process is part museum piece, part corporate exercise. Electoral College? A low population state like Maine gets the same number of senators as California? $6bn in campaign costs? Corporations can run ads against candidates?  This isn't a democracy, it's democracy-lite.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"You've Had Your Six"

I feel I should write something to mark the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movies, but the internet's already clogged with lists of favourite Bond girls/films/gadgets/actors/locations so I'll keep things simple by looking at a scene in Dr. No that marks a turning point in film history and also helps explain the cachet of the Bond character. Here it is:



Pretty cold-blooded, eh? This was shocking stuff for 1962. Up until this moment heroes did not shoot unarmed villains, even the ones who were determined to kill them. Bond even gives his enemy a second shot for good measure, and it's a shot in the back, no less. And what makes this scene even more unusual for the time (and became a hallmark of the Bond series) is that James makes a quip as he kills his would-be assassin. "You've had your six" is a cricket reference, which makes this witticism at once one of the driest and also the most English in film history.

This one brief scene was, with its combination of lethal viciousness and humour, a watershed moment in film history. It was the first depiction of a hero who is absolutely ruthless and even cruel. The unwritten rule prior to Bond was that a hero always "played the game" more honourably than the enemy; unarmed men aren't to be shot, especially in the back, and levity has no place at a killing. Bond's role as a remorseless jester of death struck a chord with audiences, and I think the answer to why that happened lies in World War II. Bond is the personification of the character of that war. My dad and John F. Kennedy had only two things in common: they both loved James Bond and both were WW II vets. The things they saw in the war were never shown in films. When men died in war movies there was no blood, no viscera, and the Allies followed the rules of the Geneva Conventions to the letter. My dad and J.F.K., like millions of other vets, knew better. They knew first hand that war was about killing that was without remorse or regret and by any means possible. Bond was not fighting WW II, but the manner in which he waged his war against SPECTRE and SMERSH was an accurate reflection of what a large chunk of the viewing and reading public had experienced less than twenty years previously.

Bond's gallows humour also has its roots in the war. Thanks to some of the more recent histories of  WW II by writers such as Paul Fussell, Stephen Ambrose, and Max Hastings we have a better idea of how dehumanizing the war was for its participants. And one way they reacted to its horrors was to make fun of them. One of the great slaughters of WW II took place in the battle of the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, during which the entire German Army Group B was essentially wiped out. There were so many German dead they couldn't be buried, and the ones lying on the roads were simply driven over by Allied vehicles. My dad's unit drove through the pocket and he and his buddies, as he told me later, found the sight of pancaked Germans to be hilarious. Everyone took turns cracking bad jokes about the flattened enemy. And when he was part of a detail burying the dead the gags kept coming. The bodies, the ones not made wafer-thin by trucks and tanks, were bloated to an enormous size and their stomachs had to be pierced to release the gases before they could be moved. Cue the laugh track as Private Watson and the men manhandle blimp-like corpses emitting odours from Hell. So when Bond was cracking wise as he dispatched a baddie in some absurd way, what my dad and others were hearing was a very watered-down version of their own black humour.

The action hero as a pitiless, joke-spewing killing machine started with Bond, and soon became the norm for a great many other film heroes. The next in line was The Man With No Name character in Sergio Leone's westerns, although in those films the humour was more muted. In the ''80s and '90s Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger built their careers around playing this kind of character.But divorced from the context of a war, these kinds of heroes begin to seem like homicidal maniacs, fantasy figures for sadists. As Bond celebrates 50 years in film, his main competition is represented by the Jason Bourne types: heroes who are more like hyper-efficient killing apps than flesh and blood people. There's something comforting in Bond having a taste for booze, games of chance, and casual sex. It makes him human. The soullessness of Bourne makes him less of a hero and more like one of the all-star villains Bond has bumped off over the years. And perhaps that's why Bond lives on and the other guys end up looking forward to doing cameos in the next The Expendables movie.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Film Review: The Jokers (1967)

I didn't think I'd ever see this film again. It used to crop up on TV from time to time in the early 1970s, but after that it seemed to disappear completely, and a check on Amazon and eBay shows that it's not available in any kind of format. This is effectively a lost film; although I think it might also be called an unofficially banned film. Why would it be banned? Not because of violence or sex or politics, but due to the plot.

This is a heist movie about two brothers, played by Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford, who decide to steal the crown jewels just for the hell of it.  That's the steak part of the film. The sizzle portion is a dryly comic look at Swinging London. The brothers are members of the upper classes, their lives a series of balls and coming out parties and nights at champagne-soaked nightclubs. As much as the brothers enjoy their lifestyle and position, they are also apart from it; they see the pretensions and silliness of their peers and can't resist taking a poke at them. What better way to infuriate the establishment than to filch the Queen's favourite bits of jewelery? And the best part is that they intend to return the loot after one week. They're only in it for the glory, just like any other self-respecting, upper-class English amateur adventurers.

The brothers' plan to get the jewels from the Tower of London involves mounting a bombing campaign aimed at London landmarks. The bombs are real but they always give the bomb squad enough warning to get to the bombs in plenty of time. Once they've established a pattern, they put a bomb in the jewel room of the Tower and masquerade as two members of the bomb squad. The jewels are stolen, but, as is always the case in heist films, there are complications.

In 1967 a bombing campaign in central London conducted in the name of fun and social criticism seemed like an amusing plot device. The Troubles in Northern Ireland kicked off a short time later, and after that bombs didn't seem so funny anymore. And the UK wasn't the only place that bombs began to go off in: Spain, Italy and a host of other countries were soon dealing with lethal and determined bombing campaigns. That was one reason to bury The Jokers. The other reason is that the plan used in the film might actually work in the real world. I also wonder if every time the film was shown on TV it didn't give rise to a flurry of phony bomb threats. In sum, The Jokers ended up being too mischievous for its own good.

Explosives issues aside, The Jokers holds up pretty well. The story is clever, there are loads of  familiar English character actors doing great work, and Crawford and Reed make a charismatic team. Reed is especially good, and his performance is another reminder that a talent that big should never have been wasted on booze. If you want to watch this film you'll have to take the piratical download route.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Book Review: The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

For the most rabid fans of supernatural/horror fiction, utter and complete weirdness counts for a lot; it's a spice that lifts otherwise straightforward genre material into an exalted realm of deliriously entertaining oddness. H.P Lovecraft is the poster boy in the field of determined weirdness. His work isn't brilliantly written or exceptionally scary, but his single-minded focus on describing horrors that are so hideous, so cosmic, that they can't, well, be described adequately except by screaming hysterically, has given him an enduring cult status amongst horror mavens. On a more exalted literary level there's Mervyn Peake, whose sublimely unusual novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast defy categorization, although they're often shelved in the fantasy section of libraries and bookstores.

The House on the Borderland is a book Lovecraft praised often, and it's easy to see the influence it had on him. The story starts off in traditional late-Victorian style with the discovery, in deepest, darkest, rural Ireland, of a manuscript written by an unnamed man who wished to record the events he experienced in his stately home. The site where the home once stood is now an overgrown ruin next to a massive pit into which a river flows and then disappears underground. The story revealed in the manuscript is of a house under siege by demonic creatures that are half-swine, half-human. But that's not all, not by a long shot. The house also appears to be a portal or stargate to another house on another planet (?) in another dimension (?), perhaps even in a separate universe. The alternate house is a duplicate of the Irish one, except for the notable addition of a surrounding mountain range of Himalayan proportions peopled by hideous gods, all of them staring down at the house. And now for the strangest part of the story. In the last third of the novel our hero witnesses the speeding up of time and the aging and destruction of our solar system and the universe. Yes, things get that crazy.

Published in 1908, Borderland is very much supernatural fiction for the 20th century. Up until then the genre had revolved around ghosts, more ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the occasional ghoul or church grim. In short, supernatural fiction was largely based on familiar creatures and characters from folktales that had been around since forever. Hodgson imagined a new world of terrors. His swine creatures aren't just terrestrial monsters, but, it would appear, emissaries of something vastly more powerful and evil. The final third of the story, with its unprecedented journey to the end of Time, is a triumph of imagination. The only way to adequately describe it is to try and imagine what a Stephen Hawking fever dream might be like. It's more than worth the price of admission, and it's hard to imagine how a sequence such as this could be described better. Borderland might also represent the first time a supernatural story has used the Is This Real Or Is It The Ravings Of A Madman? gambit. If you pay close attention to the actions of the narrator's sister (the only other occupant of the house) you begin to realize that the entire story could be taking place in the narrator's mind.

The House on the Borderland is very entertaining, always surprising, and has more than a few shivery moments. I first read it as a teenager, and the intervening years have been very kind to it. The only knock against it might be that the final section of the story almost feels like an add-on rather than a part of the whole. Hodgson wrote a few other novels and some excellent short stories, all of which are worth reading. The only exception is The Night Land, an even stranger (if that's possible) novel that's fatally flawed by being written in an intentionally archaic style. There's something ironic in the fact that Hodgson wrote his tales of cosmic terror only a few years before the real life horrors of World War I. Hodgson joined the British Army and was blown apart by an artillery shell in April 1918 at Ypres. One can only wonder at what he might have written had he survived the war; even his singular imagination might not have been prepared for what he saw on the Western Front.

Related posts:

Book Review: Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Film Review: Seven Psychopaths (2012)

There's always a danger with rookie film directors that if their first outing is a success, they end up in a creative death spiral of trying to repeat that success. It happened to Quentin Tarantino after Jackie Brown, and it's happened to Martin McDonagh with Seven Psychopaths. His first, and previous, film was In Bruges, which was well-liked by everyone who enjoys dark, quirky, violent films. In Bruges worked because it managed to balance a solid story and excellent acting with some oddball characters and quirky, eccentric moments of violence and humour.

Seven Psychopaths gets the mix all wrong. The first danger signal is that the lead character, played by Colin Farrell, is a scriptwriter in L.A. trying to come up with a story to flesh out the title (Seven Psychopaths) he's dreamed up. With the exception of Fellini's 8 1/2, films about filmmakers struggling with creative problems don't have a great track record, and this one is one of the worst. Farrell's character has a violent title for his script but he doesn't want to write any more stories about evil men with guns doing terrible things. So off the top it looks like this film's going to be a commentary about senseless action movies. If only. Films are made to make money, so of course Seven Psychopaths quickly turns into yet another senseless action movie about evil men blowing holes in people.

McDonagh tries to paper over the ramshackle story (the plot revolves around a fatuous dognapping scheme) with bits and pieces of black comedy, but it all feels half-hearted and poorly imagined. And someone has to declare a moratorium on using Christopher Walken in dark, quirky films. He's now become a parody of himself, and directors trot him out to deliver eccentric dialogue in his own distinctively loopy style as though he's some kind of circus performer. It's like there's a formula for edgy indie films and part of it involves a triple helping of Walken to two parts ironic attitude. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson take the other major roles and they don't do anything we haven't seen from them before. The worst thing about the film, however, is that McDonagh appears to think doubling down on the violence and weirdness represents creativity. The only good thing about the film is that Farrell gets to keep his Irish accent. He always seems to be less of an actor without it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: Lovesong (1996) by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read four of McCaughrean's novels so far this year and at this point I'm just going to declare that she's the best living writer I can think of. Her writerly talents are, well, obscene. She can toss off more brilliant metaphors and similes on a single page than most writers can muster in an entire novel, and her storytelling imagination is fully the equal of her other skills. She's so good I actually find it a bit odd that she hasn't attracted more critical attention. One possible reason is that most of her output has been for the kids' lit and young adult market, and I think big time reviewers and critics are probably loath to take heed of someone who doesn't write for the grownups. Jealousy may also be part of the equation. I barely count as a writer, but I'm jealous that one individual should be so supremely gifted, so I can only imagine what the average professional writer thinks of a person who can apparently toss off sublime prose every time she puts her fingers on a keyboard.

Lovesong is one of a handful of adult novels McCaughrean has written. It's set in France and the Middle East during the last half of the 12th century and is described as a novel of "courtly love," which is rather like calling The Iliad a story about a package tour to Turkey. The French nobility in the 12th century was in the throes of an obsession with knight-troubadours and the formalities and demands of courtly love. As McCaughrean makes clear, it was a highly ritualized game or cult that was neither courtly nor loving. Her main characters are Amaury and Foulque, knight-troubadours; Oriole, a jongleur (a poet) in the employ of Amaury; and Ouallada, Oriole's daughter who eventually becomes a jongleuse. The story covers everything from the Crusades to tragic love affairs to mad nobles to the slaughter of the Cathars, and there are healthy helpings of violence, intrigue, sex, exotic locales, and lots of stomach-churning detail about the grimness of life in the Middle Ages.

The heart of the novel is the long and tortured relationship between Foulque and Ouallada. The sub-plots that spin off from their relationship are multitudinous, but to keep things simple just imagine Foulque as Mr Rochester and Ouallada as Jane Eyre. But don't let that comparison make you think that this novel is basically a historical romance. McCaughrean tackles some weighty themes in Lovesong, chiefly the idea that love and faith are blind. She doesn't, however, take a sentimental view of this kind of faith . Blind love and faith in this world leads to harrowing examples of violence and betrayal. McCaughrean would explore the idea of blind faith even more thoroughly in Not the End of the World (2004), a young adult book that takes a hyper-realistic look at the Noah's Ark myth. In Lovesong, religion and the informal institution of courtly love are used as pretexts for astonishing crimes; for furthering the interests of the ruling classes; and for asserting the dominance of men over women.

As excellent as Lovesong is, it does go on just a tad too long. Ouallada and Foulque get kicked in the shins by Fate and History so many times it's a wonder they can walk, and the fact that it takes Foulque forever to notice that Ouallada is in love with him defies logic. Similarly, Foulque's infatuation with Aude, a shallow but beautiful noble, really only makes sense as a plot device. Even with these minor deficiencies Lovesong is still one of the very best historical novels you'll ever find.

Related posts:

Book Review: Not the End of the World
Book Review: Pull Out All the Stops!
Book Review: The Death Defying Pepper Roux