Friday, December 28, 2012

TV Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Snowmen (2012)

I liked the bit where Matt made a birdhouse out of a milk carton & pipe cleaners
When a TV series loses its head and embroils its characters in plots and incidents that strain the internal logic of the show it's known as "jumping the shark." But what colourful phrase do you use when a program does the exact opposite? When the show's producer throws in the creative towel and takes a long lunch, leaving a temp to stitch together a tired facsimile of previous shows? How about...taking the zombie for a walk? I think it gets across the idea of something tame, animate and yet lifeless, but be my guest and invent your own term; whatever you come up with will be a perfect description of the latest Doctor Who Christmas special.

I was a very late convert to the charms of the Doctor, only coming on board with the arrival of David Tennant. Nice timing on my part, because some of those shows aren't just great Doctor Who stories, they're excellent sci-fi films by any standard. The Matt Smith years have seen a slow and steady erosion in the quality of the series. The first problem is that Smith's Doctor is a watered-down, emasculated version of Tennant's Doctor. With Smith I can't shake the feeling I'm watching the host of an after school show for kids, the kind of program that features a lot of handicrafts and visits from zookeepers. There's no sense of darkness or anger with Smith, just a lot of bubbly conviviality. Another problem is that the plotting has become frenzied and slapdash. The final story of the last series, The Angels Take Manhattan, was a hot mess of opaque plotting and wholesale quantities of exposition delivered at auctioneer speed. Steven Moffat, the head writer/producer, thinks manic activity is entertaining all by itself. He's especially fond of having the Doctor and his companions trade His Girl Friday-ish banter at lightning speed; nothing wrong with that, but Moffat just doesn't do it very well. In relation to this, the trope of the Doctor and his companions having platonic love affairs has run its course. Can't they just be friends? Please?

This year's special managed to highlight all the faults of the Smith era. The story was a half-baked, underdeveloped piece of glittery, Victoriana-themed nonsense about sentient snow taking the form of killer snowmen. Sounds decent on paper, but the execution was awful, beginning with the problem that snowmen, even if they are equipped with mouths full of sharp teeth, can't do much when they lack arms and legs. They're essentially stationary, weaponless Daleks. Clearly, no one thought this idea through. In one scene snowmen "attack" some workers, and it's obvious the unfortunate director had no idea how to solve the thorny problem of immobile monsters, so he just shot close-ups of men shrieking and snowmen growling. It's inept beyond belief. The villain of the piece is played by Richard E. Grant, who can eat up the scenery with the best of them. Why, then, was he cast in a role in which he remains stone-faced throughout? It's a bit like hiring a top-class dancer and then asking them to sit quietly in a chair. The Doctor's new companion, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, looks to be a retread of Amy Pond: sassy, independent, flirty, and sexy. She and the Doctor got into the machine gun-paced bantering within moments of meeting, and in due course she locks lips with the Doctor in what's sure to be yet another unfulfilled romantic relationship played out over the upcoming season.

The fundamental problem with the Who franchise at this point is that it's ossifying. It saw spectacular success with Tennant on the the job, and now the handlers are wary about meddling with a winning formula and have ended up becoming formulaic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pope Bites Dog!

After his speech Pope Benedict taped the latest episode of Pontiffs & Tiaras
On Friday, December 21, a wrinkly, delusional white man delivered a speech in which he tried to stem the tide of history with arguments based on fear and the kind of warped logic usually used by 10-year-olds to settle playground disputes. Oh, and some guy from the NRA had something to say, too.

Yes, Pope Benedict will be in an ugly papal sulk for a while because his state of the Catholic nation speech was kicked to the back pages by Wayne LaPierre's star turn for the NRA in Washington. The pope's speech was essentially a call to arms against gay marriage. Now, the Pope speaking out against gay marriage is just about as predictable as, say, the head of the NRA standing firm against proposals for gun control. As any politician would put it, they're simply appealing to their base. What was fascinating about the Pope's broadside was that he indicated an interest in cooperating with other faiths in the campaign against gay marriage. Really? And thus we get an object lesson in how the reactionary mind works in the endgame phase of a shift in a society's mores: resort to hysteria and ally yourself with anyone or anything that will buttress your cause.

The logic of monotheism dictates that the pope should be devoting his energies to either converting or castigating those of other faiths. At the very least you'd think he'd be more interested in battling secularism and atheism. But the papacy hasn't been up for a big challenge since the Crusades, and so they've reached a point where the dragon they've chosen to slay is a subset of a very small minority group. The fact that Benedict is willing to ally with other religions is the smoking gun proof of his hysteria and the bankruptcy of his ideas. His medieval predecessors would have roasted him on a spit for the heresy of cooperating with rabbis and mullahs. They might also have taken him aside and told him, sotto voce, that gay men and women should be directed towards a life in the Church, which is where families often sent children who seemed a bit different from the rest.

This kind of hysterical tilting at windmills often occurs when an elitist, hermetically-isolated institution begins to feel the winds of change. The USSR waged a low grade war against the intrusion of Western pop music in the 1970s; the Tea Party is the Republican Party's bug-eyed reaction to a non-white president; China got completely draconian when faced with the Falun Gong, a tepid quasi-religion; and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot shows how tight-assed Putin's Russia is when faced with the slightest criticism. It would seem that the more a regime realizes that it doesn't have a legitimate claim to power, or is due to exit stage right from the stage of history, the more likely it is to become a terrified bully, seeing dangerous mountains where there are only molehills.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Film Review: Across 110th Street (1972)

I've written about what I call "cop noir" in a previous post on The Seven-Ups, but it's worth repeating in the context of this film: Cop noir begins with The French Connection (1971). If film noir was all about doomed lovers, laconic private detectives, and moody cinematography, cop noir was about documenting the decline and fall of American cities and the institutions that make them function as seen through cop eyes. Cop noir looks raw, sounds raw, and shows big American cities torn apart by street crime, organized crime, drug addiction, poverty, and corruption. Hard on the heels of The French Connection came Dirty Harry, Across 110th Street, Busting, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham 123, Badge 373, The Seven-Ups and a number of similar films.

 Across 110th Street is one of the highlights of the genre. All cop noir films are aggressive in showing just how rotten their urban environments are, but this film does it with real ferocity. One way it does this is by showing the racial fear and hatred that was one of the causes of the decline of American cities in the 1970s. The film begins with three black robbers knocking over a cash counting house run by the Mafia and a black Harlem gangster. They make off with 300k after killing five mobsters and two cops, and within hours the Mafia and the Harlem hoods have joined forces to track down the culprits. They join forces despite the fact that they can't stand each other. Nick, the Mafia lieutenant given the task of finding the thieves, gleefully uses the N-word every chance he gets, and Doc, the Harlem boss, happily responds in kind. The detectives in charge of the case (played by Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn) are almost equally at odds because of race. All in all, this had to be an exceedingly uncomfortable film for both black and white audiences to sit through.

Across also gets marks for being non-judgmental about its villains. The three thieves are shown to be acting out of desperation and fear, and the leader of the gang, Jim, gets a compelling speech in which he describes just what's led him to taking such an enormous risk. Paul Benjamin plays Jim, and it's a wonder his performance didn't lead to bigger and better roles. Not surprisingly, it was Sidney Lumet, a director with an amazing ability to spot new talent, who gave him one of his first roles in The Anderson Tapes (1971). All the cast performs well, and even Anthony Quinn manages to tone down his hamminess a wee bit. The look of the film is another of its strengths; it's almost entirely shot with handheld cameras, and the slums and cop shops most of the action takes place in are so gritty you may need to wipe down your TV screen after viewing. The documentary look in cop noir was pioneered in The French Connection, but Across takes it to the next level.

Cop noir took a dystopian view of American society, and it's a perspective that didn't last out the decade. Through the '80s and '90s cops became one-dimensional superheroes played by Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy. These cops were wisecracking killers, and their enemies were cartoon villains or demonized proles interfering with the safe running of the American Dream. The cops in cop noir movies are sometimes corrupt, and when they solve a case it usually produces a lot of collateral damage, both physical and emotional. This harsh view of American life reflected the reality of the nation's cities, but, as it turned out, the public had a limited appetite for it. In the last decade TV shows like The Wire have partially resurrected cop noir, so here's hoping we get a film revival of the genre sometime soon. Are you listening, Quentin Tarantino?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway

No matter how much you read or how varied your taste in literature, there are bound to be yawning gaps in your literary CV; there are just too many great books and authors for one lifetime. One of the gaps in my reading history is, was, Hemingway. I dipped my toe into his novels once or twice a long time ago, but never stuck around long enough to see how the water was. And now I have. I can't say it was worth the wait.  

The Sun Also Rises has not aged well. In 1926 it represented the cutting edge in modern literature with a prose style that was as crisp and declarative as a telegram or newspaper. The circumlocutions and metaphorical excesses of Victorian fiction have been cast aside and what we're left with is a novel that sometimes feel like it's being told in morse code. This is all well and good, a breath of fresh air and all that, but this doesn't get around its main weakness as a novel. One of the hallmarks of pre-WW I literature is that its characters are usually full of ambition or purpose, or, lacking those two qualities, are strongly wedded to, or trapped by, moral and social codes of behavior that dictate their course through life. Hemingway's characters, as he says off the top, are part of a "lost generation," people who are no longer anchored to institutions, beliefs or codes of conduct. Even the plot reflects this idea; the story rambles from Paris to Spain following its small cast of characters as they drink, bicker, have affairs, and soak up the sights. This aspect of The Sun Also Rises makes it feel very modern, but for me Jake Barnes, Cohn, Lady Brett and the other major characters seem more like symbols than flesh and blood people. Their dialogue is so stilted and spiky the impression we're left with is of people playing roles, or of an author who's uncertain of how to create a fully realized character.

One odd aspect of this novel is that it sometimes feels like an excellent travel book marred by outbreaks of fiction. Hemingway loved travel, and that's what shines through most strongly in his writing. His prose style is spare, to say the least, but with a minimum of fuss he manages to capture the appeal of living abroad and being exposed to new sights, sounds and sensations. The best example of this is a section of the novel that describes a fishing trip in rural Spain. A ruthless editor might have excised it as superfluous, but as an aside that describes the pleasures of travel and the outdoor life it can't be beat. I wonder if one reason for its initial and enduring success was that its picture of the hedonistic expatriate lifestyle had a powerful appeal to American readers who found their conservative, church-going society an uncomfortable fit.

Another damaging aspect of the novel is its anti-semitism. The character of Robert Cohn is Jewish, and all the other characters seem to have a visceral dislike of his Jewishness, even Jake, who is the central and most likable character. This anti-semitism isn't examined critically, it seems to be something Hemingway feels is natural and unremarkable. Finally, The Sun Also Rises seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, which I read earlier this year. Huxley's novel also had a lost generation theme, but takes place entirely in London. Huxley's style couldn't be more different from Hemingway's, but I'm betting Papa was influenced by Antic Hay. Both novels feature a small cast of characters, none of whom are presented realistically, drifting through life. My review of Antic Hay is here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best Books of 2012

Here it is: my 16-volume list of the books I enjoyed the most this year. You can click on the titles to link to my full-length reviews. And in no particular order they are...

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

An audacious blend of occult horror, mystery, humour and steampunk. What makes it work brilliantly isn't that it's a genre mashup; it's because Howard is an excellent writer who would undoubtedly succeed in any conventional genre.

The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

When it comes to craftiness and duplicity nobody can beat the French bourgeoisie of the 19th century. The characters in this story expend more mental energy on scamming each other than NASA has used in putting men in space.

The Third Reich In Power 1933-39 by Richard J. Evans

The best book I've ever read about how the Nazis came to power and what they did to warp Germany in their image. 

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read five books by McCaughrean this year and all of them could be on this list, but I'll stick with this one and the one below. Roux is a Candide-like tale for the Young Adult market, but the main attraction is the author's prose. McCaughrean is simply the one of the very best writers, all genres included, working today.

Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean retells the legend of Noah's Ark as though it actually happened and in the process gives a sublime kicking to religious fanaticism.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

A couple of teenage boys sail to the Far East in the Victorian era as part of a small team looking to capture a Komodo dragon. Disaster ensues. A superb example of historical fiction. The seafaring sections are the equal, or better, of anything Patrick O'Brian ever wrote.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami

Schami writes about Syria with the same intensity and brilliance that Faulkner wrote about Mississippi or Dickens wrote about London. This guy's going to pick up a Nobel Prize for Literature one of these days so get on the bandwagon now.

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

McKinty is just about the only reason I'm still reading crime/mystery fiction. This is the first in a trilogy about Sean Duffy, a cop with the RUC in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. McKinty gets bonus marks just for setting a police procedural during this era. Why didn't anyone else think of doing this? Duffy's a great character and N.I. is brought to vivid and uncomfortable life.

The Judgement of Paris by Ross King

Think nothing new can be written about the Impressionists? Think again, Jean-Claude. This is an amazing blend of art criticism and social history that's more entertaining than most novels.

The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

An amazing subversion of the crime thriller genre. It has all the deviousness and bloodshed you expect in this genre, but it also rubbishes all its conventions. 

Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess

Here's another example of why adults should be checking out the Teen/Young Adult shelves: this novel about a seriously dystopian future is off-the-charts imaginative, combining Norse mythology with, well, everything but the kitchen sink. Think Dr Who on meth.

This Green Land by John Fullerton

Here's a worthy successor to John Le Carre and Eric Ambler. Fullerton seems to be almost unknown, especially in North America, and that's probably because he isn't a huge fan (and that's putting it mildly) of U.S. imperialism. This novel is a thriller set at the height of the Lebanese Civil War and it succeeds on all levels.

 The Big Roads by Earl Swift

A history of the U.S. Interstate Highway System doesn't sound like a page-turner, but it turns out to be a fascinating story about the rise and fall of our love affair with the car.

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Pearson

Pearson shines a light on the atrocities committed by both sides (primarily the rebels) during the Spanish Civil War. It's a harrowing book but it's a needed look at crimes that are virtually forgotten.

A History of Modern Palestine by Ilan Pappe

A history of the Middle East that demolishes most of the pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist rhetoric and mythology that's written about the region. Pappe is both Jewish and Israeli so no one can accuse him of being an anti-Semitic outsider.

The Pursued by C.S. Forester

Yes, this is the same guy who wrote the Hornblower novels. This novel, however, is a tawdry tale of lower-middle-class sin and murder. Forester isn't the greatest writer, but his evocation of small lives filled with class anxieties makes this read like something Orwell might have written had he turned to crime fiction.

So there you have it, my best of the year. If there's been one big change in my reading habits over the past year it's that I've been enjoying mystery/crime fiction a lot less. I'm finding that the whole genre is getting a bit stale, something I discuss here. The only reason I don't have a worst books of the year list is that I've finally developed the healthy habit of giving up on books if they're not doing anything for me after 50 or so pages. But if I did have such a list Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo would take top honours. To my eternal regret I read all of it, and here's my angry review.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Housing + Hipsters + Hamilton = Homelessness?

The Mayan calendar predicted Hamilton would be invaded by hipsters.
We moved to Hamilton four and a half years ago from Toronto, and when we told our friends and relations about our relocation their various reactions amounted to one big...WTF? Yes, that's pretty much how Torontonians have regarded Hamilton since forever. Hamilton, for those of you not from Ontario, sits at the southwest corner of Lake Ontario about 70km from Toronto and has a population of just over 500,000. Once upon a time it was the Pittsburgh of Canada: a grimy, rough-edged, steel-producing city that measured civic success in the amount of smoke belching from the chimneys of its mills and factories. Down the road in Toronto success was, and is, gauged by the rise of gleaming glass cubes filled with offices and condo units. If Hamilton was Pittsburgh, then Toronto was New York. When smokestack industries began their North American-wide decline in the 1980s Hamilton was hit very hard, and in many parts of the city it looks like time has stood still since then.

It appears that this is all about to change. In the last week, two Toronto newspapers have run major features (read them here and here) on Hamilton as the next big destination for the arts and IT crowd, and for Torontonians looking for affordable housing. Both articles rightly point out some of Hamilton's advantages: cheap housing; quick connections to Toronto; a vibrant arts scene that's growing exponentially; and a pleasing lack of crowds competing for space and services. That's all well and good, but if Hamilton does become the promised land for the next generation of urban pioneers it could be bad news for some Hamiltonians.

One of the important things people should know about Hamilton is that it has one of the highest levels of poverty in the country. When the smokestack industries were going strong in Hamilton no one told their kids it might be a good idea to get a post-secondary education. Why bother? The city was full of blue collar jobs that asked for nothing more than elbow grease and a tolerance for noise and heat. When these industries collapsed the city was left with a sizable population of people with none of the qualifications needed for the New Economy. The ones with an education and/or ambition moved to Toronto or Ottawa or points west, and thus the city's intellectual and entrepreneurial base became hollowed out. What was left were a lot of people on social assistance or working for minimum wage, a depressed housing market, and whole streets of shuttered or declining businesses. It's no accident that the reboot of Robocop was shot in Hamilton this past year; we've got mean streets aplenty.

So why might it be a bad thing for Hamilton to enjoy a wave of what the French like to call bobos (bourgeois bohemians)? It's all about the housing. Both newspaper articles practically salivate over the low cost of homes in Hamilton. As it happens, both articles underestimate the savings to be had. The writers of the articles, clearly aware that their Toronto readership wants housing of a certain quality, talk about the easy availability of ample or characterful homes in the 200-400k range. Speaking from experience, that price range can get you an awful lot of house in Hamilton. But try this on for size: as I write this there are 144 homes for sale in lower Hamilton for 150k or less. You can't buy a bachelor condo in Toronto for that.

Because housing is so cheap, Hamilton has become something of a haven for people on limited incomes. In fact, it's known that aid agencies throughout Ontario will unofficially tell their clients that Hamilton might be a good place to move to in order to make their dollars go further. You don't have to be in Hamilton for long before noticing that it has more than its share of the elderly, infirm and people who have clearly spent their entire lives on the margins of society. Many of them live in cheap rental accommodations, and if a tsunami of affluent Torontonians descend on the city it's these people who are going to suffer. Landlords are going to be turfing tenants so as to renovate their properties and sell them on. Unfortunately, there is no other place for these low-income families and individuals to go to. Ontario is tapped-out when it comes to cheap places to live. It would seem the only two outcomes to such a situation are overcrowding and homelessness.

Given the huge disparity in housing prices between Hamilton and Toronto it seems inevitable that in the near future Hamilton will go through a real estate boom. I can't see how that won't be disastrous for a significant number of Hamiltonians. That being the case, it provides one more reason to support a stronger social safety net. A lot of Hamiltonians just manage to scrape by, so any significant upward shift in accommodation costs is going to have a huge impact on them. Not surprisingly, civic leaders in Hamilton are all aflutter over the prospect of hipsters coming to the city, and this means their attention turns to efforts to gentrify and prettify Hamilton. But if attention isn't paid to the human cost of Hamilton's upcoming demographic shift the consequences will be ugly. Given today's political climate of austerity before all else, it's doubtful any politician is going to step forward to ask for more social assistance for Hamilton, and that might very well create an equation in which each new hipster or yuppie welcomed to Hamilton equals one more person in line at the food bank or killing time inside a shelter. If we are going to be deluged with hipsters, perhaps the city can put a tax on skinny jeans, ironic facial hair, and macchiatos; that should pay for some public housing.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dead Bunny is on Kindle!

I travel the subway in Toronto pretty frequently so there's no missing the fact that a lot of people are doing their reading on Kindle and a wide variety of other electronic devices with equally unlikely names. And up until now my mystery novel Dead Bunny was only available in that primitive "book" format. Hard to believe people still risk injury to fingers and wrists by manipulating those clumsy masses of paper and glue. I've heard that until the Kindle came along, 3 out of every 19 bibliophiles died of paper cuts before the age of ninety-three. Now that Dead Bunny can be yours for only $5.99 on Kindle there's no reason I shouldn't be a millionaire by Christmas. Help make it happen.

So much for the ruthless shilling of my book. I've actually managed to sell a couple of dozen copies of Dead Bunny, and the feedback has been very encouraging. I even have a couple of 5 star reviews on Amazon that are guaranteed sock puppet-free. Several readers have told me they're looking forward to another mystery featuring Quentin Winchester, and that's a real compliment. If they were being polite they'd probably just say they enjoyed it and leave it at that. To ask for another book seems like genuine appreciation for what I wrote. Guess I'll have to write one more...and earn that second million. To order the Kindle version click here or on the image on the right or go to Amazon's Kindle store. And thanks to everyone who's read Dead Bunny.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Noir More Crime Fiction

He'd slap contemporary noir writers silly.
I used to read a fair amount of crime fiction. A lot, actually. In the last three or four years I've found myself reading less of it, and in the last year or so I find that the novels I give up on the soonest are crime novels. Just this week I had to throw in the towel on The White Road by John Connolly. Connolly sells a lot of books and collects some enthusiastic reviews, but he's not much of a writer. The White Road is a clumsy, sluggish mashup of the private eye genre allied with a whiff of Stephen King horror. Oddly, Connolly is an Irish writer who sets his crime novels in the US. I say oddly because based on the 200 or so pages I read, Connolly's knowledge of America has come entirely from occasional glances at CNN. I could forgive him for calling sneakers "trainers", but when he has three elderly rednecks sitting in a bar in the Deep South watching "a rerun of a classic hockey game" you have to wonder if he could actually find the US on a globe. But enough about Connolly; my real beef here is with crime fiction, particularly the writers, like Connolly, who are described as "noir".

In truth, publishers and critics use the term "noir" with the same promiscuity as the snack food industry uses "Cajun-style." It's a buzzword. Too often what it means are writers who follow a formula that's as trite and predictable as a cosy mystery featuring cats and vicars. One aspect of noir that really tires me out are detectives who are emotionally scarred by a) the tragic death of a wife and/or child, or b) a horrible crime from the past that they were unable to prevent and/or solve. And for some unlucky detectives options A and B are combined in one horrible event. Too often writers seem to think that going this route is a quick and easy way to give their protagonist depth and gravitas. Declan Hughes, Ken Bruen and Connolly all have detectives living with terrible memories, but none of these psychological scars seem convincing; it's all window dressing in the Noir Crime Shop.

The noir detective also needs to be a substance abuser to hold onto his street cred. In The Dying Breed by Declan Hughes his detective, Ed Loy, almost always has a glass in his hand. One reason I quit that book is that Ed's drinking became farcical: in the course of one day's investigation he sinks so much booze he should have ended up in a coma. It's at that point that one realizes the author isn't really paying attention to reality or logic, he's just playing the noir game. Fellow noirists like Bruen, Colin Bateman and Ray Banks also like to keep their detectives pickled and/or pilled up. As with personal tragedies, the drinking detective has come to feel like a paint-by-numbers way of creating a character.

Noir crime writers are also overly fond of letting us know what their detectives like to listen to. In the past few years I've read mysteries by Ken Bruen, Massimo Carlotto, and Gianfranco Carofiglio in which their detectives' musical preferences are regularly mentioned. It's a pedestrian way to build a character, and the worst part is that these Desert Island Discs moments always (for me) break down the fourth wall. I feel like I'm being buttonholed by the author for a bit of a natter about his favourite songs and artists. Not surprisingly, these detectives always have excellent taste in music. I blame Elmore Leonard. He introduced the idea of characters referencing their choices in music and movies, and after that the genie was out of the bottle. One of these days I'd like to see a mystery writer give us a brilliant detective with really horrible taste in music. How about a sleuth who only listens to ABBA and Slim Whitman?

The problem with some of today's noir writers is that they feel all aspects of their stories have to be dark and tragic, including their detectives. The detectives created by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the original noir crime writers, weren't steeped in darkness. Those detectives were cynical, rough-edged and world-weary, yes, but it was their environment and job that was noir, not the detectives themselves. Part of what made them interesting as characters is that they were apart from the world they moved in. They had the psychic toughness to survive in that world, but they are observers of the noir world, not direct participants.

Now that I've vented, here are some writers who have a better idea of what constitutes noir crime writing. First up is Adrian McKinty, originally from Northern Ireland and now residing in Australia. His trilogy of crime novels featuring the roguish Michael Forsythe are fast, violent, nasty and written with a gleeful, feverish imagination. Most importantly, the Forsythe character steers clear of the usual noir tropes. He's funny, smart and has few regrets. McKinty's newest creation is Sean Duffy, a RUC cop in Belfast circa 1981. Duffy is the rarest kind of cop: he actually likes his work, and if drinks it's for the pleasure of drinking, not to drown sorrows.

Next up is Dominique Manotti, a French writer who specializes in gritty, sexy police procedurals that lay bare the corrupt inner workings of French high society. Manotti has a political axe to grind and she's not afraid to name names as she kicks the crap out of big business and the political elites. Her detective is Commissaire Daquin, who's tough, mean and enthusiastically gay. Manotti's got my vote as best current crime writer anywhere; I just wish she'd speed up her writing schedule.

And last we come to Mike Carey. Carey's detective is Felix Castor, and he's Philip Marlowe in everything but name. Here's the catch, though: Castor is an exorcist. The Castor novels are in the urban fantasy genre, but are, in fact, the best pure noir novels being written today. Castor investigates and battles demons and ghosts, but they might just as well be kidnappers or murderers; the language, the characters, the plotting, it's all pure, classic noir, and Casey's a vastly entertaining writer.

I'll keep plugging away at finding decent crime writers, but from now on if I see the word "noir" used in a blurb or review I'll be looking elsewhere.

Related posts:

Book Review: The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
A Tale of Two Dominiques (an overview of Manotti's work)
Book Review: Thicker Than Water by Mike Carey

Monday, December 3, 2012

Film Review: The Magic Christian (1969)

I'm not going to pretend that this is a good film, but it can be enjoyed in bits and pieces, rather like a box of chocolates that has too many squishy, fruity selections but does have a few chocolate-covered almonds. The good bits in The Magic Christian are the Monty Python sections. Yes, this film almost qualifies as the first Monty Python film. Graham Chapman and John Cleese have small roles and also contributed to the screenplay. There's also a short piece of animation in the film that I'd swear was by Terry Gilliam, but his name isn't anywhere on the credits.

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a wildly eccentric English millionaire who sets out to prove that anyone, especially members of the upper classes, will do anything if bribed with enough money. Grand begins the film by adopting a tramp (Ringo Starr) he finds in Hyde Park. The pair immediately begin a campaign of financial terrorism, seeing just how much havoc they can cause with a well-placed bribe. What ensues is a series of skits, each one populated by the cream of Britain's character actors and a fair sprinkling of cameos by various stars. Most of the skits are pretty lame; a lot of so-so ad-libbing from Sellers and other stuff that Monty Python was just about to start doing a whole lot better on TV.

The things that work are two comic bits set at Sotheby's auction house, which were written by Chapman and Cleese, and a scene at an expensive restaurant that feels like a dry run for the restaurant sequence in The Meaning of Life. Other than that there's the odd line or two that works, and some of the character actors show their skills by improving weak material to something that's almost watchable. All in all, this isn't a film that can be recommended, but if you can't get enough of Python-related entertainment it might be worth a look.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Madness of King Ford

Mayor Mussolini Ford feels the heat
Once upon a time the wealthy and powerful would gather their male children together and pass judgement on them. The best and brightest would be put in line to take over the family business or launched into careers in Law. The boys who had trouble with maths or had taken too many headfirst tumbles from ponies were bundled off to the Army. Finally, the strange boy, the one no one liked making eye contact with, the one who liked to conduct physics experiments on kittens, the one with an obsessive interest in playing doctor or dress-up games past the age of puberty, that one was sent into the Church. The Church isn't what it used to be, so nowadays these boys are, apparently, directed towards municipal politics. This is one possible explanation for the high percentage of nutjobs in local politics, and I think it might explain why Rob Ford is, for the moment, the mayor of Toronto.

For those reading this outside of Canada some background information is in order. Ford was elected mayor in 2010 on an anti-tax, anti-union, I'm-for-the-little-guy platform. The fact that Ford has never been, financially speaking, a "little guy" didn't seem to bother the voters, and neither did the fact that during his career as a city councillor he'd been arrested twice, once for DUI and once for domestic violence, in addition to going on a drunken verbal rampage at a public event. He's also a serial liar, given to racist remarks, would rather set fire to his head than acknowledge Toronto's large gay community, and is notorious for having little grasp of civic issues that are more complex than dog licensing. In sum, he's Homer Simpson made flesh...lots of flesh. Since becoming mayor he's stumbled, nay, sprinted from one PR disaster to another. The latest scandal (there could be another within the hour; you never know with Rob) is that it seems he's spent most of his working hours over the past few months coaching his beloved high school football team rather than directing the affairs of North America's fifth-largest city. This past week a judge ordered him from office for violating conflict of interest guidelines. Ford is, of course, appealing the decision, but in the short-term it looks like he'll go back to being one of the idle rich.

So then why am I writing this post if Ford is on his way out? Because a mayoral election is in the offing and it will be interesting to see if the politicians of the left and centre in Toronto are able to screw up this election like they did the last one. In 2010 Rob Ford seemed unelectable. In addition to his crimes and misdemeanors, Rob is plain old dumb. Famously so. There's a reason he wasn't left in charge of his late father's $100m company. So how did he win? There are three reasons. First, his opponent, George Smitherman, was a bland centrist who took the high road and didn't stoop to pointing out that Ford is a doltish criminal with anger management issues. Second, Smitherman is openly gay, and the Ford camp, according to rumour, worked overtime to point this out in a whisper campaign aimed at conservative ethnic voters. Three, voter turnout is so low in municipal elections it becomes easier for fringe/loony candidates to scrape together sufficient votes from the mouth-breathing section of electorate. Add in some voter anger over a strike by garbage workers during the previous administration, and what we got was the reign of Rob Ford, king of the dunces who elected him.

There's a real risk history is going to repeat itself. This past week has seen a variety of left-wing politicians and commentators getting all magnanimous and civic-minded about Ford's ouster. There's been a lot of discussion about the law that got him bounced being too harsh, too inflexible, and that, after all, Ford wasn't profiting from his indiscretion. His crime? He solicited donations in his official capacity as mayor for his beloved football "charity". The donations, totalling just over $3,000, came from lobbyists, among others. Is the amount small? Yes, but the thinking behind the law is that public officials are held to a higher standard because of the tremendous influence they have over the disbursement of vast amounts of public funds. The fact that the money was going to a charity is irrelevant. It's no exaggeration to say that Ford is besotted with football, and so it's clear that any lobbyist who contributed to the charity was, in effect, giving money to support Ford's personal hobby. If I'm a lobbyist, I'm thinking that's worth a favour or two.

Speaking as an anxious lefty, what worries me about the next mayoral election is that this golden opportunity for a left-wing candidate like Olivia Chow or Adam Vaughan to step into the mayor's office will be wasted by the left's tedious insistence on playing"nice." No matter if the public office is dogcatcher or prime minister, leftist politicians have an infuriating habit of being unwilling to give their opponents the boots when they're down. During the Reagan/Thatcher era the right learned that fighting without scruples, waving your enemy's dirty laundry from a flagpole, worked wonders at the polls. The left has never quite grasped that the ground rules for politics have changed: it's not Marquess of Queensbury rules anymore, it's Marquis de Sade. The US right (and to a lesser extent the Canadian right) has spent the last decade hysterically smearing the left as everything from Nazis to Marxists, and the venom directed towards Obama qualifies as hate literature. And does the left respond in kind? Rarely. Satirists and comedians take some shots at easy targets on the right, but left-wing politicians just keep smiling gamely as rhetorical rocks are bounced off their heads. God forbid they should pick one up and heave it back. And so we return to Ford, who has said he will be running in the next election whether he's in or out of office. It would not surprise me at all if Chow or Vaughan waged a clean campaign and went down to polite, tasteful defeat.

I'm fairly confident that Ford will sooner or later be turfed from office (even his most ardent supporters are beginning to hold their noses near him), but until Toronto's left-wing politicos learn to get down and dirty they'll be waging election campaigns with one arm tied behind their backs. And the chattering classes would do well to realize that the gibbering classes have learned that they can elect one of their own; it's entirely possible another hooligan will swing down from the trees to replace Ford. I'll finish with an aside: is it just me or does anyone else find it intriguing that Ford, apparently homophobic to the core, likes to spend a lot of his free time in the company of very fit teenage boys? Just saying.

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