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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

WINTER FILMS: PRISONERS, BLUE JASMINE, HUNGER GAMES, DRINKING BUDDIES.

PRISONERS  is not for the faint hearted. Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) plays a man whose eight year old daughter, along with her friend, is kidnapped. The chief suspect, a man whose has a mental age of 10, is arrested and then released. Jackman's character goes to extreme lengths to track the guy down and attempt to find his kid.


The film maintains the tension expertly, inching the story along, teasing the viewer with clues and hints and suggestions, though the ultimate solution to the mystery is more or less signposted fairly early, and is not in fact such a massive twist.

There are some interesting moral questions, about what is a valid course of action to protect your family, how far is too far, etc. The film is effective in exploring these ideas.

It is, though, unremittingly hard and brutal. There is some heavy violence, and a lot of pain and dread, and - naturally, considering we are talking about child abduction - there are no lighter moments to relieve the gloom. It's a film that has to be endured, and admired, rather than enjoyed.

BLUE JASMINE is a Woody Allen film, though it is unlike the vast majority of his work. It is a tragedy, not a comedy. Though it retains a lot of the director's light touch, there is little to laugh at here.

The central character is Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett. Her marriage to millionaire Alec Baldwin collapses when he is indicted on fraud charges and sent to prison for setting up a Ponzi scheme. She has a breakdown and goes to live with her foster sister, who she has only ever barely tolerated before her change in fortunes. Now she finds herself dependent on her.

The key problem with the film is that it is almost impossible to feel any sympathy for the central character. She is snobby, presumptuous, contemptuous of the people - working class San Franciscans - that her sister introduces her to.

In flashbacks we see that Jasmine is in fact partly to blame for her husband's downfall, and turned a blind eye to the strokes and dodgy dealings that she knew he was involved in. Jasmine does attempt to put her life together a little, before falling back into old patterns of lying and self-deception.

But it is hard to care about her, hard to root for her, hard to be moved by her successes and failures. And that is the failure of the film itself, it fails to create a complex enough protagonist that is anything more than the haughty cold-fish that she appears to be in the beginning.

Best film of the winter so far has to be THE HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, the second in the series. The books that the films are based on are aimed at the teenage/young adult market, but the reason that the films work so well is the their themes and atmosphere are profoundly grown up.

The dystopia that acts as setting for The Hunger Games movies is a future United States that is divided into Sections and ruled by a dictatorship, Donald Sutherland again playing the dictator. The ruling classes use various forms of oppression to maintain order, including the annual Hunger Games, where teens from each of the Sections compete in a winner-takes-all battle to the death.

The games are entertainment for the masses, intended to distract them from the multitudes of limitations in their everyday lives. The losers are killed, the winners feted and gifted with unimaginable wealth and prestige.


Katniss Everdeen is the central character, another in a line of female protagonists in the sci-fi, fantasy genre, and is in truth probably the best and most complex of them all. She is brave, tough, principled, talented, contemptuous of the brutal status quo, willing to sacrifice herself for others.

In the second film, the past winners, including Katniss herself, are forced into competing in a grand Hunger Games, to discover the overall champion of the last twenty five years. It is the administration's attempt to quell a growing rebellion and threat to its rule.

These games, though, are different from the ones in the first film, partially because they now have Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character, Plutarch Heavensbee, running them. They are more brutal, and complex and dangerous than previous versions.

And there is more, too, a twist near the end that opens up the claustrophobia of the games and gives a new perspective on all of the action up until that moment. Throughout, the film is brooding, dark, threatening, though Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Bishop, who play Haymitch Abernathy and Effie Trinket, do provide some light relief.

Yet it is this taut, suspenseful ambience that gives the movie its impact, and the performance of Jennifer Lawrence - who deservedly won an Oscar last year for Silver Linings - as Katniss, that holds the whole enterprise together.

Lawrence is mesmeric in the role, tortured and struggling and constantly attempting to control her disdain for the regime, and her fear for the ones she loves. Katniss is a reluctant heroine, but a heroine nonetheless, and Jennifer Lawrence communicates all of her character's conflicts perfectly. She is also stunningly beautiful in this movie, impossible to look away from whenever she is on screen.

The Hunger Games works mainly as it contains themes and ideas that are much more grown up than you would expect from a film aimed at the adolescent masses.

DRINKING BUDDIES is a frustrating film. It is frustrating, primarily because almost no character at any time actually says what they really mean.

It is not that they lie, it is just that every truth about them is left unsaid, they talk and act in a certain way, and never face up to what is really going on.


The film focuses on a number of employees of a small brewing company. Kate (Olivia Wilde, from House, among other things) is seeing Dave, but obviously has a thing for co-worker, Luke (Jake Johnson, playing practically the same role as his character, Nick, in New Girl). Luke, in turn, clearly likes Kate back, but is in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick).


Things develop, but only a little, and not as much as they should. The film spends a lot of time promising action and events that it never delivers on. It has potential, and a certain subtle charm, but never becomes what it should.

Monday, 5 August 2013

JOHN BUTLER - THE TENDERLOIN. NOVEL.

The Tenderloin is the name of this novel, but it is also a seedy area of the city of San Francisco where the protagonist and narrator lives. The city itself is a character in the book, its hills, parks, trams and landmarks, as well as the resonant titles of some of the locations there - Nob Hill, Alcatraz, Haight, Fisherman's Wharf - are all an intrinsic part of the tale.

The central character, Evan, is a twenty-one year old Irishman who goes to San Francisco in 1995, just when it is on the cusp of the Internet revolution. He spends most of the first few months in penury until he gets a low level job in a technology TV station and his world opens up.

The novel is good on this, the burgeoning tech sector in California, the chancers, innovators, nerds, forward thinkers, and also the skeptics and Luddites, like Evan's friend, Milo, who don't believe that this Internet thing will ever catch on.

It is also good on the experience of being young and clueless and living in a foreign city. Evan is constantly tripping up, flailing around in his attempt to adapt to a place where potatoes are only a rare optional accompaniment to a meal and not the central part of it, where people really do sleep their way to the top, and where nerds camp overnight on the street in order to be in line to buy a new version of Windows.

Evan, as a central character, is a little annoying, however. He spends most of the novel messing up, taking his boss's car out  though he has never learned to drive, almost causing a boat he is on to crash, alienating friends, losing jobs. Towards the end he is a complete mess, alcoholic, utterly confused about his sexuality, not even very likeable.

And he never reaches any kind of resolution. He goes back home, just as confused as he was when he arrived.

The strength of The Tenderloin lies in the writing, which is zippy and funny and smart, full of pop culture references, wry observations and sharp dialogue. Girls are described as "Anistonian", in a slick reference to the Friends character. People talk in short, smart, pithy conversations, say things like "Boo ya," and "Feel me?", and the spirit of the times is constantly sketched out using markers like the OJ trial.

There are a number of weaknesses in the book though. It is frequently unclear, characters are introduced, not really described properly, and then briefly reappear again later when you have forgotten who they are. And even the title is never actually explained in the text of the book, a trip to Wikipedia is necessary to find out what relevance The Tenderloin has to the actual story. Unexplained, the title just hangs there as a needless mystery that is not very interesting when it is solved.

The biggest weakness though, is in the story and the central character. It is laid out like a coming of age story, though in fact Evan doesn't actually mature or grow at all. He doesn't seem to learn any important thing about himself in his time in San Francisco, and I found it difficult to even care about his development towards the end of the novel.


The Tenderloin is a vibrantly written, funny, smart book, that is let down a little by a weak protagonist and a narrative that doesn't really progress.

Monday, 29 July 2013

BEFORE MIDNIGHT. FILM

Before Midnight is part of a franchise, the third film in a series that began eighteen years ago with Before Sunset. The central characters of all three films are Jesse, an American student and then writer, and Celine, a Parisian idealist who ends up working on environmental projects.

The story so far. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train, and wander around Vienna all night, talking and falling in love. They promise to meet again, one year from the day they met.

In the second film, Before Sunset, nine years later, Jesse has written a book about his and Celine's night together. She turns up at a reading he does in Paris, and they reconnect. We learn that Celine never showed up for their meeting the year after, and also that Jesse wrote the book, in part, in order to find Celine again.

The first two films are incredibly simple, each basically consisting of one long extended conversation between the two leads, one as they walk through Vienna, the other as they stroll around Paris.

The films are simple on the surface, but embrace romance, regret, the passing of time, the difficulty of love, the spirit and hope of youth, and show us the slow, meandering development of a relationship between two people from different sides of the world. They are subtle, gentle, profound pieces of cinema.

In the third film, Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are now together and in their forties. It is nine years after the second film and they have twin girls, and are on holiday in Greece.

Immediately, this film feels different. For one thing, there are other significant characters, the couple's daughters, their hosts in Greece, their Greek friends. The film is full, compared to the first two.

There is one great scene where all of the guests in the villa sit around and talk after dinner. They talk about memory, love, the battle of the sexes, and tell stories and gossip. It is a group of people happy to talk about ideas and fittingly, as they are in Greece, not afraid of musing about philosophy.

Then their friends offer to look after the kids, and our two central characters go off together for a night away, just Jesse and Celine alone, as in the first two movies. In their hotel room they argue, tell stories, reminisce, worry and argue. And then they argue some more. And then this becomes all that they do.

In fact, most of the second half is taken up with the pair bickering, just like any other middle-aged married couple. It is like This is 40, but without the jokes.


The point of the argument is the inability of them both, in their different ways, - but especially anxiety-driven Celine - to deal with reality. And this is reality, the film seems to be saying. Relationships are not all romance and passion and destiny, like the first two films. Life and marriage are hard, complex, things get messy.

This is all very well, and true, I'm sure, but it is no fun to watch two characters - especially characters you have come to like and identify with over two films - bicker and argue and be petty and neurotic. By the end they had both lost my sympathy, and I didn't care if they really did split.

It's a pity, because it all started so well. It was witty, philosophical, there was the interplay between the characters, they were uncertain and charming and funny. The film set itself up to be a mature continuation of the first two in the series, and ended up somehow being the antithesis of the subtlety, humour and magic of its predecessors.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset worked because they were a magical escape from reality, or else a heightening of this reality, an exploration of the possible. The characters were on the move right through the films, walking, travelling on boats, wandering from place to place, changing their environment as they attempted to change themselves and their world.

Before Midnight brings us right back down to a mundane, soured present that is really not much fun anymore. In contrast to the first two films they spend most of their time in a hotel room, the claustrophobia of the setting mirroring the stifling nature of their relationship. The magic is gone, for Jesse and Celine, and also, sadly, for us the viewers.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

PACIFIC RIM. FILM

What is the story with apocalypses this summer?

In the Superman movie Zod wants to destroy Earth, in World War Z, the zombies threaten to wipe out humanity, in Oblivion the Earth is already mostly laid waste to, and in This is the End the apocalypse arrives complete with demons and devils and hell. And that's not even to mention World's End, the new Simon Pegg movie, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory.

And now comes Pacific Rim. The end of all humanity is threatened this time from under the sea. More specifically this threat comes from a breach in the Earth's crust somewhere the Pacific Ocean, from where monsters called Kaiju emerge to wreak havoc on the coastal areas of Asia, Australia and the US.

As the attacks increase the world must come together to combat the monsters. Gigantic robots called Jaegers are built that have the size and fire-power to defeat the Kaiju. The robots need to be piloted by two people, and because of a neural link between the pilots, they are normally relatives, brothers, fathers and sons, triplets.

The showdown happens as the Kaiju attacks increase in frequency, and the agency (led by Idris Elba, from The Wire, whose character's name in Pacific Rim is the fabulous Stacker Pentecost) plan to try and nuke the breach in the ocean's crust in order to close it.

Cue massive explosions, cartoon type violence, combat between mountain-sized creatures and gargantuan robots, destruction on an incomprehensible scale, and then an attempted mind-meld with a Kaiju.

It is a silly, entertaining, vivid, spectacular piece of nonsense. There are two things that I think are especially worth noting about the film, beyond the CGI and the implausible plot.

Firstly, at least it is an original idea from an original script, and not a remake, or a sequel, or a reimagining, or a tired new treatment of an old theme, like ninety percent of the big-budget movies of this year.

Secondly it is not as massively Amero-centric as most of the Hollywood films produced at the moment. Involved in the final battle are robots from Russia, Australia and China, as well as the American one, and it is a Japanese woman who accompanies our hero on his mission to save the world.

This, I assume, is down to Guillermo del Toro, who directs this film, a Mexican who has worked in Spain. It is safe to say that the more international feel to the movie is down to his wider perspective, and also to the Asian influence that can be seen in the Godzilla-type monsters and the fact that a lot of the film is set in Hong Kong.

For these two reasons alone it is worth seeing. It just remains to wonder about this obsession about the end of the world at the moment. Is it born of some kind of preoccupation with coming environmental calamity, or else the feelings of insecurity in the US (where all of these films are produced) about economic collapse and the terrorist threat?

Whatever the reason, it has now become a trend. The world is about to end, who will save us? Is everything really that tenuous? Is humanity truly in that much danger? If you watch Hollywood blockbusters at the moment, you could be forgiven for believing that the end is very much nigh.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

HENRY JAMES - THE GOLDEN BOWL. NOVEL.

Reading Henry James from a twenty-first century perspective is a very strange experience. Written in 1904 The Golden Bowl is Henry James' last novel, and was included in a list of the one hundred greatest American novels that I read recently.

 
People certainly do not write like Henry James anymore, and if they did they wouldn't get published. For one thing, almost nothing happens in this 450 page novel. The plot can be safely summarised in a two paragraphs.

Adam Verver, millionaire, collector and widower, has a daughter, Maggie, who falls in love with and marries an Italian prince, Amerigo. It is clear that Amerigo has married for money, as he is impoverished. He had a relationship with another American woman, Charlotte Stant, but as she was poor they couldn't marry.

Later, Adam, Maggie's father, marries Charlotte. Charlotte and the Prince resume their relationship, this time adulterously. Maggie finds out and is unsure how to react.

And that's really it. James' style though, is so dense, so obsessive about examining and poring over every implication of every sentence of every conversation, and every detail of every action, that scenes and conversations take ten, twenty, thirty pages to describe.

His style is very opaque too, sometimes it is necessary to read lines and paragraphs two, three, four times to find out what they are saying. At times it is not even English, as we would recognise it - "Only see me through now......and I leave you a hand the freedom of which isn't to be said!" There are many sentences like this, that use strange constructions and unusual combinations of words that are either particular to the early twentieth century or more likely, of James' own making.

And at times he is not a very clear writer. He will write a paragraph talking about "she" and "her", and it will be unclear if he is talking about Charlotte or Maggie. References are seemingly deliberately ambiguous, conversations are vague and cryptic, and he hardly describes anyone or anything physically so it is difficult to get an image of the characters. It is at times like reading through a fog.

In fact Henry James does exactly what you are told not to do in writing courses, he doesn't "show" he "tells". Everything is intellectualised, over explained, pulled one way and the other, he doesn't give the reader any real leeway to make up his own mind. James is in charge, and he tells you what to think.

Also, the world that the characters live in is very claustrophobic, the action takes place in two or three grand houses in London, and one mansion in the country. And the five or six main characters are all turned inward, in towards their own thoughts and obsessions and betrayals, in to their own little privileged world. It is difficult to identify with them.

They are people with immense amounts of money, and moreover people who do no work whatsoever. They spend their time going for luncheon (it is never lunch) and talking in drawing rooms and telling each other that they are "beautiful", "splendid", "extraordinary".

The other thing they do best is not talk about what is really happening. Everything about the affair between Charlotte and Amerigo is unspoken, Maggie finds out but does her best to make sure that no-one knows that she knows, and in fact never at any stage confronts anyone with her knowledge. They are a small society devoted to covering up, to not talking about what is really happening, to maintaining what James himself calls "the silver tissue of decorum."

It is a bizarre world, and an intriguing novel, for all of the opaque writing, the incomprehensible paragraphs, the endless sentences. Our view of events is so dense, black-hole dense, with layer after layer of detail and thought and analysis, one on top of another, that it is like going deep and deeper still into the characters' motivations and beliefs and emotions.

Their relationships are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Maggie and her father, Adam, have a definite Oedipal thing going on. There is a hint from Charlotte near the end when we finally get to some honesty, that the father-daughter bond has made her own marriage to Adam difficult, as if she were always in competition with Maggie.

Though of course we never hear about sex. We are left in the dark - just as Maggie herself is, as she hints at later - as to whether Charlotte and Amerigo's affair is a sexual one. We assume so, but it is never made explicit.

It is a hypnotic, at times irritating, slice of fiction, brought together by the golden bowl of the title. This is an artefact that Maggie buys on a whim, until she discovers the crack in its perfection, a symbol of the flaw at the heart of their seemingly perfect lives.

The Golden Bowl requires patience, though does pull the reader along relentlessly, sucking you in to their airless world. It may be just too much for a lot of people, too dense, too slow, too claustrophobic, too incomprehensible at times, but it is also a strange, unsettling, intriguing experience. Frustrating but with its own fascination.




Sunday, 7 July 2013

THE INTERNSHIP and THIS IS THE END. FILMS BOTH.

Two comedies this week, showing that this is seemingly the only genre that Hollywood will now commission original scripts for. They are both patchy efforts, hit and miss, have their moments of humour and originality, while also slouching into longueurs of laziness and predictability.

The Internship is saved by the charm and likeability of Owen Wilson, and by his double act with Vince Vaughan. Their characters are called Nick and Billy, but this is really a pretence, we are watching Wilson and Vaughan playing a version of every other character they have played in previous films.

They are two guys in their forties, who end up as interns in Google, among a bunch of over-achieving twenty year olds. This is a neat set-up with a lot of potential, something that the movie just fails to adequately exploit.

There are the usual clichés and predictable plot turns. We have the sheltered, home-schooled Asian kid driven with a dragon for a mother, the cute manager (Rose Byrne) who Owen Wilson falls for, the bullying, contemptuous nemesis of our two heroes, played with no subtlety by Max Minghella, and the socially awkward nerd who has a crush on his dance teacher.

Naturally, the outcasts, - or outliers, as one of the characters calls them - form a team to try and win the full time jobs on offer at Google, and overcome their own lack of belief and inability to work together. It is the classic underdog tale, and has its moments of charm and likeability, but is all wrapped up a little too neatly, with no effort really on the part of the central characters.

There are some good jokes though, and an attempt at a message here, that human values like communication and invention are just as important as technology for human progress, but overall this is a vehicle for Wilson and Vaughan. How you feel about them will colour whether this is worth seeing or not.

If Vaughan and Wilson are basically playing a version of themselves in The Internship, there is a gang of actors in This is the End that is doing literally that. James Franco plays James Franco, Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill plays Jonah Hill.

They are not the only ones. The film centres on a party at Franco's house in LA, where many of the great and good of the entertainment world are. Rihanna makes an appearance, Emma Watson from Harry Potter shows up, twice, and Michael Cera steals the show as a coke-addled, ass-hole version of himself.
 
And then the Apocalypse happens, and the good people begin to be called up into heaven. The joke here is that all of the famous people are either pulled into hell, or left on Earth to deal with demons and devils and the end of days.

This becomes the central theme of the film, the attempt to satirise rich, famous people's self-regard and self-obsession. And it works, largely. We see the actors forming a kind of alliance that constantly breaks down when confronted with their own selfishness and cowardice, and we get to laugh at their cluelessness and avarice.

And yet this kind of ironic meta-narrative is also a kind of a sign of solipsism and self-regard. Rogen, Franco, Hill et al are all so desperate to make fun of themselves, so insistent on showing us how self-deprecating they are, that this in itself becomes a kind of narcissism. "Look at us," the actors, and the characters in the movie are saying, "look at how self-deprecating and self-aware we are. Look at how we can make fun of ourselves."


Still, it is a lot of fun, and though it does turn into a bit of a mess towards the end (with a bizarre appearance from the Backstreet Boys), there are original ideas here, carried out with energy and wit and irreverence.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

WORLD WAR Z. FILM.


Film after film this summer is offering us a supposedly new twist on an old theme. Star Trek Into Darkness provided us with a reimagining of the characters of the Starship Enterprise, Man of Steel did the same for Superman, and Byzantium tried to give the audience a new way of looking at vampires.

And so, inevitably, we come to zombies. The story is familiar, people are infected by.....,well by something, which turns them within ten seconds into a rabid, ultra-violent biting machine. They then infect others, and the plague spreads rapidly.

Jerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is the man charged with finding a solution to the now world-wide crisis that is quickly making global cities
no-go areas for human beings.

There are some impressive set pieces in the movie. The shots of the wave after wave of zombie-ness assaulting cities, buildings, people, vehicles, as if they have become a murderous mass rather that a collection of individuals, are terrifying and impactful.

The scene where Brad has to do something drastic to save an Israeli soldier from turning Zombie is stomach-churning and compelling.

And yet, the constant zombie attacks quickly become boring. Moreover, there is absolutely no character development here, we know almost nothing about what kind of people we are watching on screen. Even Brad is a mystery. All subtlety is washed away in this constant stream of scenes where characters are running away from zombies, fighting zombies, being eaten by zombies, escaping zombies.

Brad saves the day in the end, of course, more or less, but in a way that is totally unconvincing. We are asked to accept a range of assumptions and poorly explained solutions that assume that the viewer isn't going to think too much about Brad's magical discovery of how to defeat the zombie hoards.

What's more, we've seen this before, just like all of the other films this summer. We've seen 28 Days Later, and 28 Weeks Later, and The Living Dead and In the Flesh and Boy Eats Girl and I am Legend, and we've laughed at Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. It's been done, it's been done, and it's been done again.

And even by the end there is still no explanation of what is causing the zombies to turn, is it a virus, is it supernatural? Why are they impervious to bullets to the torso? Nothing is never explained adequately.

Despite the unconvincing elements, there are things to enjoy about the film. It is well paced, and the scenes depicting besieged cities from the air do communicate well the sheer catastrophe that has befallen the planet.

Yet, in the end it leaves you crying out for just one original idea, just one real innovation, just one new way of looking at these tired old genres. And this film didn't provide any of this, it is more film-making by numbers, incorporating elements you have seen a hundred times before. Has "ORIGINALITY" become a dirty word in Hollywood?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

MAN OF STEEL. FILM.

I asked the question recently about Byzantium, about whether the world needed another vampire film. The same question can be asked about Man of Steel. Does the world need a new Superman movie?

The answer, of course, is "no".

If your summer blockbuster doesn't try something new, or give a novel slant on a familiar theme, then it is simply a piece of merchandise, a product, like the Coca Cola or popcorn you consume while watching it. And that is, fundamentally, what Man of Steel is.

It is like the director took a slice from every sci-fi film of the last twenty years and squashed them all together. There are the flying beasts from Avatar, the inside of the ship from Prometheus, the space ship looming over the city from Independence Day, the Thing's massive leaps from Avengers Assemble, and the explosions and effects from Thor and Iron Man and literally every action film of recent times.

And then of course there is the story. They didn't even make the effort to think up a new bad guy for Superman, instead the writers recycled the plot of the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie, where General Zod and his henchmen come to Earth in search of their enemy's son, Kal-El.

What the film is trying to do is to portray Clark Kent as an outsider, basically as a misunderstood X-Men character. He grows up a freak, and is isolated as a child because of his super powers. As an adult Clark gets lost in the wilderness, a la Wolverine, as he can't deal with his difference from normal humans.

Finally, he finds a ship sent from his home planet which contains a message from his father (played very po-faced by Russell Crowe), and discovers who he is, the last of his race from the now destroyed planet Krypton.

Of course he is 33 years old when he discovers his destiny and finds out who his real father is. The Jesus Christ parallels are not subtle in the movie, the message from his parents - both on Krypton and on Earth - is that Clark (or Kal-El, his Krypton name) has a special destiny as an inspiration for mankind, as an example of how to be good. Superman as Messiah.

Yet all of this is done with a script that feels like it was written by a computer. The characters are constantly having conversations that you have heard a million times before, and saying lines that can be accurately predicted well before they utter them. The movie is filled with cornball platitudes and weak exposition - "you have to trust me, I'm a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist", Lois Lane says to her editor at one stage.

And the theme of the film, such as it is, is trite and unexplored, the message fatuous and flimsy. People have the potential for good, and it is up to Superman to bring this out in them. Yet the movie spends little time with this idea, and ends up becoming a tedious orgy of special effects, explosions, CGI, as Superman battles his Krypton nemeses.

And the thing about these bad guys is that they are boring. They are simply psychopaths, willing to commit genocide at the drop of a hat without any real strong motivation behind them. There is no complexity to them, no explanation for the lack of morality that they glory in.

This is true about the film as a whole. There is no real attempt at intelligence or complexity. It is a story we have seen before, filled with images and plot points and characters and set pieces that have been done a million times in other movies. 

The last hour is basically fight scene after fight scene, destruction on a massive scale that becomes like a cartoon. The most common image of this part of the film is of a bunch of random puny humans looking up with wonder and terror (and possibly boredom) at the battling aliens above. The extras in this movie must have had serious cricks in the neck after shooting ended. 

It is lazy and derivative and was obviously written to a formula. Blockbuster by numbers. It is not even any fun, as it takes its ridiculous self very seriously. It is indicative of the weakness of the whole enterprise when the best thing about the movie is that it is Toby from the West Wing - in this film the nerdy scientist - who saves humanity in the end. Superman? More like Super-meh.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

BYZANTIUM. FILM.


Do we really need more vampires? It has been done to death at this stage, Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One in, there is nothing new left to say about these immortal blood suckers, no novel slant left that hasn't been used.


In Neil Jordan's latest film we are introduced to two female vampires, Clara and Eleanor, played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, who live an unstable life, travelling around from place to place, scraping a living. Clara introduces herself as Eleanor's sister, but we soon learn that she is in fact her mother.

They end up in a seaside resort where Clara quickly sets about establishing a brothel in an old guest house, the Byzantium of the title. Eleanor goes to school and meets a boy her age.

Things get complicated when Eleanor breaks the golden rule that the two vampires have lived by for their whole lives, and decides to tell her boyfriend the real story of who she is.

And that's really most of the plot. The film is very slow to get going, for the first hour it stutters and the story takes a long time to unfold. The pace picks up once we have learned most of the back-story of how the two women came to be vampires and the second half is an improvement, yet the overall impression is of a film that isn't sure what it is about.

What's more, Byzantium's efforts to refresh the genre are pretty weak. In this film the vampires grow a thumb nail in order to pierce the veins of their victims. And there is some kind of misogynistic brotherhood of vampires which sees female vampires as an aberration, something to be wiped out.

And that's it. There is little here that could be called a real addition to the genre. These vampires have to be invited in, and yet don't seem to have a problem with daylight. They have little fangs, but we don't find out if they can tolerate garlic. It is hard to see what the point is of a new film on the undead if you're just going to go over old ground.

There are things to admire about the film, though. For me the strongest part was the complex mother-daughter relationship between Clara and Eleanor, the two central vampire characters. Between the two women there is resentment, love, attachment, dependence, hatred, built up over the two centuries of their existence.

Yet I was left with the impression, at the end, of a film with a lot of holes, that meandered too much and that decided to focus on an area
that has been done, literally, to death.

Monday, 3 June 2013

KEVIN BARRY - DARK LIES THE ISLAND. SHORT STORIES.


Kevin Barry's characters are outsiders, criminals, addicts in one way or another, intellectually challenged, society's outcasts. He seems to have an affinity with these people on the margins, the ones who are, for one reason or another, not part of regular society.


In this new book of short stories, Dark lies the Island, he takes us on a tour of the seedy, the sinister, the run-down, the criminal, the alcoholic. The characters are nearly all doomed, they are failures, have had bad luck, made bad choices, some of them are simply bad and toxic to society.

The most sinister story is called Ernestine and Kit. It is a simple tale about two elderly women who travel around Ireland's North-West. They are maiden-aunt-like, innocent-looking, one thin as a rake, the other plump and apparently kindly. Only that their hobby is kidnapping children. We never find out exactly what they do with them when they manage to nab one, but that just makes the story all the more creepy.

Then there is Beer Trip to Llandudno, which won the Sunday Times Short Story Award last year. It is easy to see why. It is a simple enough narrative about six friends who are members of a Real Ale Club, who travel from Liverpool to the Welsh town of the title for a day trip.

To themselves they are simply hobbyists, a group of friends out on a day trip just as others go hill-walking or rock-climbing. Soon though we see that the men all have a loss in their lives, and have filled their quiet desperation with beer and the companionship of their group.

When one of them meets an old flame in Llandudno, their delicate balance is disrupted.

The success of Beer Trip to Llandudno is the way Barry exploits the gap between appearances and reality, between the men's own image of themselves, and the sad reality of their lives.

Some of the stories are more successful than others. Wifey Redux is set in middle-class south Dublin, and describes the hostility of a father towards his daughter's boyfriend. But it is clumsily written and constantly strikes a wrong note. The story is just a heavy-handed attempt at satirising what Ross O'Carroll Kelly has done much better.

Some of the other stories are no more than snatches in time, little scenes involving one or two people where there is no real narrative, just a brief glimpse into someone's life. Snapshots that give the reader a tiny window into another person's existence, before fizzling out.

At times this works, at others this is just not enough. The stories are delicate, and self contained, but frequently limited, and often the writing is not strong enough to carry the slightness of narrative.

As with any short story collection there is a mixture of tales here. There are some that are forgettable, or else that just strike a wrong note, and disappear as soon as you have read them.

And yet others work perfectly, are touching, creepy, funny, and self-contained enough to be a little universe just on their own. The last story - Berlin Arkanoplatz, My Lesbian Summer - is one of these, a perfect capturing of a particular slice of the Berlin art world, and the illusions of a young Cork man who intersects with it.

What is always true, though, is Kevin Barry's ear for dialogue, and for being able to transcribe what Irish people actually say, and the way we use words when we speak.

People in his stories ask "What's it they call you?" when they want to know someone's name.

Ernestine and Kit, in discussing what they are going to have when they stop in a roadside cafe have the following exchange... "..would we chance a scone, Kit?". "It would hardly put us in the ground, Ernestine."

And that is the pleasure in reading Kevin Barry, to see and feel characters come richly to life in the space of a few pages, through the words that they say, and also what is left unsaid. 




Monday, 20 May 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY. FILM.

The Great Gatsby is a central myth in the American story, like the Iliad was to the ancient Greeks, or the story of Cuchulainn to the Irish of pre-history.

It brings together those classic American ideas of reinvention of the self, and the American dream. Gatsby is the epitome of this, the poor boy made good, driven on by a dream and a pure desire to better himself.

In the end though, the story of Gatsby is a tragedy, almost Shakespearian. Gatsby is the tragic hero, with a fatal flaw. His flaw is that he is unable to accept that you cannot repeat the past. Gatsby is an absolutist, something that has driven him on to succeed, but which also gets in the way of his happiness.

In this film Gatsby is played by Leo di Caprio, who also worked with Baz Luhrmann, the director, on Romeo and Juliet, more than a decade ago now. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who meets the immensely rich Jay Gatsby while in the Hamptons during the summer of 1922.

Gatsby is a mysterious figure but his story slowly comes out. Five years previously he left his lover, Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin, to go to fight in Europe in the World War. He realised that he wasn't rich enough to marry old-money Daisy, and so after the war set about trying to make enough money to be worthy of her.

Daisy, thinking him dead, marries Tom Buchanan, a brute and an adulterer, but someone even richer than her.

Gatsby succeeds in becoming fabulously rich, and builds an enormous mansion just across the bay from Daisy and her husband's equally grand Big House.

We see that everything that Gatsby does after the war is dedicated to making himself worthy of Daisy, and to winning her back. He throws these elaborate parties every weekend, just in the hope that she will show up to one. He befriends Nick because he knows that he is Daisy's cousin. He succeeds in seeing Daisy, though everything doesn't go according to plan.

The strength of the film for me was exemplified in the way Gatsby's parties were filmed. They look spectacular, Gatsby's orgiastic celebrations are a sensory attack, dancing, music, throngs and throngs of people, decadence, movement, vibrant colours, the whole thing is thrilling, gorgeous, luxurious. 

Then there is the music. Luhrmann uses contemporary sounds to soundtrack the movie, from Jay-Z, Lana del Rey, the XX, Jack White, Florence and the Machine. Emeli Sandé covers Beyoncé's Crazy in Love, while Beyoncé in turns does Amy Whitehouse's Back to Black.

And it fits, there is no disconnect between the nineteen-twenties setting and the twenty-first century music. The suspension of disbelief is easy, we are in an alternative, heightened universe anyway, the music coming from a different century is no problem to accept.

The settings also are striking. East and West Egg, where the characters live, are shown as some kind of paradise with rich, tropical vegetation and the sprawling residences of the super rich. The industrial zone between the Hamptons and New York City is like something from Lord of the Rings, Mordor-like, emphasising the massive gap between the idle rich and the miserable working poor.

And the shots with Gatsby driving his luminous yellow car through the city are futuristic, like the year 2222, not 1922. He weaves in and out of traffic like Blade Runner, or Luke Skywalker.

The visuals are sumptuous, delicious, magical. The impact almost overwhelms the story, and so, in the final act, when there is a lot of dialogue and less action, the movie slows down and begins to drag a little.

It is unavoidable, it looks so fantastic, and has so much energy and colour and vibrancy in the first half, that when the actual story has to be told the simple human interactions cannot match up to the gorgeousness of the previous hour. It is almost too much, too exquisite, and the look of the movie comes close to drowning out the actual narrative.

Yet it is a cinematic experience above all, a visual representation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's words, and is as brilliant and bright as Gatsby's dreams and ambitions. The film is dazzling, and much better than I was expecting.

A.M. HOMES - THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. NOVEL.

This is a very curious book. And also kind of addictive and wonderful.

It is the story of Richard Novak, who lives in LA and who has made money in finance.

We know almost nothing about him at first, he is undescribed, faceless, seemingly anonymous.

Los Angeles, and its natural environment, are also key elements in the novel. There is a sink-hole in the ground that is expanding and threatening to envelop Richard's house. Also there is tar soaking through walls and into buildings. Then forest fires start, and threaten to burn down the whole city. Things are unstable, crumbling.

This is mirrored in the character of the protagonist, Richard. His world too is unstable. He has tried to gain a measure of control over everything by sticking to a routine, hardly leaving his house, shutting himself off from new experiences, keeping to a strict diet.

Yet one day he experiences a bout of intense, full-body pain that throws him into agony and forces him to go to the hospital. His health issue makes him reassess his life, and prods him back out into the world again, to meet people and take chances again.

And he goes from one extreme to another. From the life of a quasi-hermit to someone who performs acts of great bravery, who becomes friends with famous people, who attracts all kinds of eccentrics. "You're like a freak magnet," one of the other characters says to him at one stage.

Like The Place Beyond the Pines, this is another story of fathers and sons. Richard's key trauma is his lack of a relationship with his son, Ben. Richard's regret at not being there for Ben when he was growing up is the central reason for the existential crisis that he goes through, and their reconnection is the key to Richard's reawakening.

The book is curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, the novel is peopled with characters, famous, eccentric, colourful, though we hardly know what any of them look like. They are kind of faceless. The reader has to do the work of imagining a physical presence for each of them.

And the narrative just proceeds along relentlessly, from one strange and slightly surreal encounter to the next bizarre happening, all told as if we were listening to the news, totally deadpan. It is all so underplayed, and yet so intriguing and entertaining, that it takes a while to get used to the style.

Once you do, it is a story that draws you in, slowly but steadily. It also succeeds in making you want the best for all the characters, they are all flawed and ambivalent, but also completely likeable.

The novel is funny, horrifying, intriguing, perplexing, addictive. It may not save your life, but it will make it briefly better.


Monday, 13 May 2013

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. FILM


This is fun, but nothing more.

Star Trek, on a character level, has always been about the conflict between gut and logic.

Gut, of course, is Captain Kirk. He acts on instinct, acts according to how he feels, is at times irrational and hasty, gets himself and his crew into trouble.

Logic is, naturally, Spock. He has taught himself not to feel, and bases his decisions on simple probability and rationality.

The journey of the Enterprise also contains the journeys of the two main characters, Kirk learning how to control his impulses, Spock learning how to feel.

And this film is no different. In the beginning of the film, precisely because he has acted without thinking, Kirk is relieved of his duties. And Spock, who thinks without feeling, alienates his now girlfriend, Uhura, and Kirk too, who has just saved his life.

Each episode of the old series, and each new film, explore these themes, and the growth of each of the main characters towards something more than their natures.

This film is no different. The problem is that we have seen this before. And in fact we have seen most of this before. There is nothing new here. The new generation Scotty, Bones and Chekov are barely more than impersonations of their original manifestations. The supporting cast have become caricatures of who they are representing.

The whole thing has the feeling of a cartoon or comic-book. There are so many life-threatening situations, so little damage. Time and again the characters are on the verge of death or serious injury, and emerge unscathed.

There is no depth to the story. We meet an old Star Trek villain, Khan, who is homicidal and cunning. He has a destructive plan, our heroes are out to foil him. There are scrapes, explosions, betrayals, battles, holes in the hull, problems with the warp drive. The Enterprise comes close to total collapse a number of times. Par for the course.

There are some spectacular set-pieces, and another scene of Kirk falling headlong through space while trying to steer himself in a certain direction, as in the first film. But that's the least you can expect from a movie that cost hundreds of millions to make.

Fundamentally, there is nothing new here. It is a slick rehash of elements that even I, who only has a passing interest in the franchise, have seen many times before.

As I said, it is fun, but the film lacks any of the greater significance that the previous Star Trek films seemed able to achieve.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. FILM


Fathers and sons. This is the theme of this film directed by Derek Cianfrance.

Ryan Gosling stars in this film, as he did in Cianfrance's previous movie, Blue Valentine. In this film he plays almost the same character, a tough, working class guy who has a tendency to be violent but who is also defined by his very strong paternal instinct.

Gosling's character, Luke, discovers that he has a son by a woman who he met in a small town in New York State, played by Eva Mendes. He decides to turn to a life of crime to be able to contribute to his son's upbringing.

Cue Bradley Cooper. He plays a cop, Avery Cross, who finally catches up with Luke after he robs one bank too many. The police officer has his own run in with authority and later sparks an internal police investigation to save his own skin.


Move forward fifteen years, and the two men's sons, now both seventeen, encounter each other in the small town where their respective fathers had their fateful meeting.

There is the predictable influence of history on this new generation. The sons know nothing about the connection between their parents, but the past inevitably makes itself known. The two younger men have their own entanglement, and things come to a head with the violence, and the threat of worse.

This is a curious film. It is slow, and long, and should really drag, though does somehow manage to maintain interest. The changing of the perspectives helps here, we move from Gosling's character to Cooper, to then looking at the lives of the sons.

For me the differing narratives are what makes the film interesting. Ryan Gosling's character is central for nearly an hour, and then Bradley Cooper's compromised cop takes over, almost seamlessly. There is a development to the story that holds the viewer, and a form of resolution in the last half an hour that succeeds in fitting the narratives together, of making sense.

It is not as profound as it thinks it is, but the movie does have elements that raise it above what could have been an overly sentimental story of family, fathers and sons.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

MARK HADDON. THE RED HOUSE. NOVEL.


Mark Haddon made his name with a book for children, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. He has now written a book for adults.

The novel is set in a house in Wales - the red house of the title - where eight members of an extended family, aunts, parents, children, step-cousins, spend a week's holidays.

Inevitably, with eight people squashed into a remote house in the countryside for seven days, there are conflicts, revelations, epiphanies, growth, life changes, arguments, fallings out and makings up.

In fact it almost feels like a list of issues to be addressed - homosexuality - check, sibling rivalry - check, an extramarital affair - check, mental illness - check, bullying - check.

The setting is also important. These are all urban people, who are unused to being in the country. Most of them, except the teenage Alex, are uncomfortable outside the city. As Richard thinks, "The deep greens of the foliage. You didn't get this in a city, the way the light changed constantly."

Taken out of their comfort zone they all react in different ways. Some reject the nature around them, some embrace it, some try to defeat it.

The setting is the catalyst for the drama. The four adults and four children are squashed together in one house away from everything they know. There is a spark of romance between some of the teenagers, suspicion among the men, incomprehension between the two women, a near death experience.

The style is very distinctive. The writing jumps from person to person, describing each scene almost simultaneously from differing viewpoints. We get a paragraph from Dominic's perspective, then from his son, Alex, then from his daughter Daisy, then we hear from his brother-in-law, Richard. Jump, jump, jump, jump.

It can be disorientating to read this, with the perspective constantly changing. At times it is not clear who we are reading about, and by the time we work it out we are on to some other character. Though the style does manage to create a wholeness, a sense of completeness to the narrative. We see the events through all of the characters' eyes, and so we have the opportunity of being inside the heads of all the important people in the story. It is intense but largely successful.

Overall the novel has some interesting elements, and is enjoyable to read. But I didn't really connect with any person in the story, the issue driven narrative is a bit trite and predictable, at the expense of the characters.

The book is saved from being a kind of literary soap-opera by the strength of the writing and the pace of the narrative. And at least, in the end, while there has been change and development, there are no simplistic solutions, no easy resolution. As Dominic thinks, towards the end of the book, "when Alex grabbed hold of him he thought something would change. Revelation, turning point, but it doesn't happen, it never happens."

They leave, having learned important things about themselves, but with no more answers than they had when they arrived.