Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: Antic Hay (1923) by Aldous Huxley

Most people know Aldous Huxley only from having read his Brave New World (1931), probably as part of a course on Utopian literature. It's one of those books that a great many people end up having to read, rather than wanting to read. It's a good novel, but it's not really a fair representation of what Huxley the novelist was all about. Huxley began his career as a satirist, and Antic Hay is a dark and vicious look at the poseurs and pseuds inhabiting London's bohemian world just after WW I. Evelyn Waugh would follow very closely in Huxley's creative footsteps only a few years later and ended up with more popular and enduring success. Both writers took a caustic look at their contemporaries, but Waugh's less abstruse prose style and clear plots have kept him popular with readers and BBC film producers.

Antic Hay follows a half-dozen or so characters who form a kind of sampler pack of bohemians; there's Mercaptan the effete, womanizing writer of irrelevant scholarly articles; Lypiatt the blustering, self-important artist; Coleman the bombastic hedonist; and Theodore Gumbril, the main character, a dissatisfied intellectual who quits his teaching job to pursue a fatuous scheme to invent and sell trousers containing an inflatable seat for added comfort. The women in the group include Myra, a dark muse to two of the male characters, and Rosie, a bored housewife.

The plot is a kind of dance in which various characters pair off for an hour, an evening or a day to expound their beliefs, strike intellectual poses or seduce each other. More often than not they come across as monstrously affected, self-absorbed and pretentious. Although Huxley's intention is satirical (characters are given ludicrous names like Bruin Opps), the novel has a dark edge that makes it more than just a benign jab at some ridiculous personalities. Myra appears to be a casually cruel, cold-hearted beauty, but Huxley shows that she's been terribly damaged, like so many others, by the death of a loved one in the war. Similarly, Lypiatt initially comes across as a buffoon, but at the end of the novel he comes to a devastating realization that his artistic life has been a failure and a farce. The last we see of him he's probably on the verge of blowing his brains out.

Something that all the characters share is a realization that the world has changed profoundly and that there are no certainties or truths to anchor themselves to anymore. The nineteenth century ended with WW I, and the years following the war saw a sea change in the arts, fashion, politics and music. Huxley's characters are lost in this new world and their eccentric behaviour can be seen as a way of dealing with the stress of these changes. Huxley's writing also reflects the changes going on at the time. On the one hand he flaunts his classical education with references and quotes from Greek and Latin (not to mention his characters occasionally using those languages as well as French and Italian), but on the other hand he abandons a traditional plot structure in favour of something more freewheeling and unpredicatable. Huxley is clearly aware that thanks to Marcel Proust and James Joyce the idea of what a novel should be has been utterly transformed. Huxley produced an even more non-traditional novel, Eyeless In Gaza, in 1936.

Antic Hay is a mostly amusing novel, although at times Huxley's erudite style can be grating, and the changes in tone from comic to serious to philosophical aren't always managed well. The strength of the novel lies in Huxley's ability to tease out the fear and uncertainty at the heart of his main characters. The spirit of the novel is captured best in this passage:

"And besides, when the future and the past are abolished, when it is only the present instant, whether enchanted or unenchanted, that counts, when there are no causes or motives, no future consequences to be considered, how can there be responsibility, even for those who are not clowns?"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Great Horror Movie No One's Seen

This is repost of a review I wrote about a year ago. I wanted to post it again after seeing and reviewing The Cabin In the Woods, which is a good enough horror film, but it's getting far too much praise, largely, I think, because it's original concept seems all that more imaginative given that horror movies, as a genre, have become extremely stale with most of them reduced to torture porn. Lake Mungo, as far as I can tell, has never received any kind of theatrical release. It's done the round of second-string film festivals and that's it. That's a crime, as I explain in the review below. So if you enjoyed Cabin because it offered a twist on the horror genre, Lake Mungo should knock your socks off, but to see it you'll need to order the DVD from Amazon.

The Australian film Lake Mungo is a faux documentary; let's get that out of the way right off the top. I make a point of mentioning this because if you see this film you will, at several points, have to remind yourself that it is not actually a doc. The director, Joel Anderson, has done an amazing job of creating a film that looks and feels as though it was created by a world-class documentary maker. This is not one of those Blair Witch-type films filmed entirely with shaky-cam shots and grainy video footage. There is some of that in Lake Mungo, but its restrained use makes these scenes all the more effective.

The film is about the Palmer family, who come to believe that they're being haunted by their 16 year-old daughter, Alice, after she drowns in a lake. The family seeks the aid of a psychic and uses video cameras to help determine if they are, in fact, being haunted.

That quick summary makes Lake Mungo sound like just another Paranormal Activity clone, the kind of film in which we wait for the next moment when something jumps out at us and the screaming ensues. Lake Mungo is quite definitely about the supernatural, and there is a ghost, but it is much more than a scarefest. It's one the finest dramas I've seen in quite a few years.

You could say that this film is primarily a study of grief; an incisive, sympathetic, nuts and bolts look at how a family copes with a tragic loss. In fact, the more times you view this film, the more you concentrate on the family drama side of the story and less on the supernatural. Lake Mungo is also about family secrets, about the way otherwise normal, happy families can keep things from one another. One of the biggest shocks in the movie is not caused by a spectral figure, but by a revelation about Alice.

A great deal of the strength of this film comes from its cast, who improvised their dialogue based on plot points they had to hit. If this is what improvisation can achieve, why bother with scriptwriters? Another aspect that merits praise is the look of the film. Anderson and his cinematographer have a knack for choosing just the right angles and lighting tones for their interior shots. Even better is their sensational use of time lapse photography, striking night skies, and electronic sound effects to make the Palmer's house and the surrounding town seem that much eerier.

Is Lake Mungo scary? It's definitely creepy, unsettling, chilling, and there's certainly one jump-in-your-seat moment. Comments about it I've read online, mostly from diehard horror fans, express annoyance that it isn't scary enough. My daughter (a generally sensible third-year law student) found it so frightening she watched (heard) most of the film from behind a pillow, and then spent the next five nights sleeping with the lights on. I think it works brilliantly as both a ghost story and a drama. After seeing it for the first time I left the film feeling terribly sad rather than frightened. I felt as though I'd shared the Palmer's loss, rather than suffered through a haunting.

Lake Mungo is supposed to be remade by an American studio (now that's scary), so order it from Amazon before it turns up in your local cinema starring Lady GaGa and David Hasselhoff. Here's a link to the trailer at YouTube:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Film Review: The Cabin In the Woods (2012)

The slasher/horror genre, like zombies and vampires, just goes on and on and on, and it produces almost as many spoofs and variations on the theme as it does straight horror films. The Cabin In the Woods is the latest attempt to add a twist to the slasher film and it succeeds, but only to a degree. The variation in this case is that the college kids who make the unwise decision to visit a lonely, spooky cabin in the wilderness for a weekend of booze and sex have actually been lured there by some governmental(?) organization that needs warm bodies for a ritual sacrifice. Below the Earth, it seems, lie ancient, evil gods who wish to ravage humankind; the only thing that holds them back is a yearly sacrifice of five young people. The gods find that a sacrifice that takes the form of the plot of a horror movie is very pleasing. This means that the world's nations covertly run real-life horror movie scenarios in an effort placate the gods.

High concept doesn't come much higher than this, and bits and pieces of Cabin succeed, but overall it's just an OK film. The scenes set in the control centre where the ghouls and kids are manipulated by geeky techies are clever and fun and give the film its originality. Unfortunately the third or so of the film that's all-slasher is all-dull. The slasher genre is almost completely played out (hence the existence of this film), and even in this case, a deconstructed slasher film, the chasing, screaming and killing is strictly paint-by-numbers. The longer the film goes on the more you want to get away from the cabin and see what's going on at the control centre.

Of course the main inspiration for this film comes courtesy of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror short stories often featured unnamed ancient gods who were constantly threatening to break through into our world. Lovecraft had a feverish, if limited, imagination, and the same could be said of Cabin. The horror movie command centre, complete with its stable of ghosts, killers and monsters, is a great idea that deserves it's own movie. Mind you, more time in the command centre would be require filling in some of the enormous plot holes. The story doesn't have an ounce of internal logic, but its energy and humour papers over that problem more or less successfully. Cabin is half good, half meh, but the good half is a lot of fun.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Jamrach's Menagerie (2011) by Carol Birch

For those of you thinking that Patrick O'Brian can't be equalled in the field of naval historical fiction, let alone historical fiction in general, introduce yourself to this novel. Jamrach's Menagerie would leave O'Brian green with envy, and possibly green with nausea after reading the climactic final section of the novel, but more about that later. With this novel Birch isn't simply trying to one-up O'Brian, she's bringing an intense emotional and spiritual richness and lyricism to the story of an adventurous voyage to the Far East in the mid-Victorian era.

The protagonist is Jaffy Brown, a Dickensian urchin living in the slums of London. At the age of eight an escaped tiger picks him up in its jaws and holds him like a toy until Mr. Jamrach, the owner of the tiger, rescues Jaffy and returns the tiger to his menagerie. Jamrach is a dealer in exotic animals, and out of a sense of guilt he gives Jaffy a job at the menagerie. Jaffy prospers at the job and becomes a close friend to a boy his own age, Tim, and Tim's twin sister Ishbel. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy and Tim are sent by Jamrach on a voyage on a whaling ship that's heading to Java. Dan Rymer, Jamrach's second-in-command, is in charge of the boys and he's also tasked with capturing a Komodo dragon. Jaffy and Tim are to help with the capture and will then mind the beast once it's on board ship. The dragon is captured, but a few weeks later the ship is sunk in a storm and the surviving crew, including Jaffy, Tim and Dan, find themselves in lifeboats in the middle of the Pacific. Things go from bad to worse to unbearable. And those with delicate stomachs are advised to lay in a supply of Gravol before reading this lengthy and gruesome part of the story.

The seafaring sections of this novel rank right up there with the best that have ever been written. Her descriptions of life on board ship, the bloody reality of whaling, and the dynamics of friendships and hatreds on a long and stressful voyage are superb. What makes these sections especially brilliant is that Birch doesn't let historical details get in the way of her storytelling, something David Mitchell couldn't manage in his overly praised historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (review here). Birch tells a spellbinding story, but one that's also imbued with a ferocious attention to the emotional and psychological state of the characters. Jaffy goes through hell and Birch makes us feel every bit of his pain by showing his existential despair at what Fate has done to him. Without this added layer the lifeboat section of the story would be merely horrible instead of the harrowing masterpiece it is.

The novel is richly detailed, which is usually the norm in historical fiction, but it also features some of the finest prose I've read in quite a while. Birch is endlessly inventive in describing the physical world, and, when needed, she can write with brutal realism or poetic dreaminess. If there's one quality that moves this novel into the realm of greatness is its humanity. This is primarily a novel about friendship, loss, love, coming to terms with mortality, and the pain of realizing that life can be cruel and capricious and unfathomable; all the stuff that makes being human wonderful and horrible. The only miniscule flaw I could find in the novel is that in the initial London sections Birch tries a little too hard to create a suitably Dickensian tone. Aside from that, Jamrach's Menagerie is pretty much flawless and totally unforgettable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Film Review: A Dangerous Method (2011)

Keira had an allergic reaction to an ill-fitting costume
The credits say that David Cronenberg directed A Dangerous Method, but I'm pretty sure at some early stage in the production he was kidnapped by the set decorator and the head of the costume department. They allowed him to jot down brief notes on directing the actors, which they handled in his stead in a perfunctory manner, but mostly they just took the opportunity to run amok in their respective fields. Imagine David's horror when he was released from his spider hole and saw that his idea for a steamy, kinky, dramatic look at the birth of modern psychology had been turned into the cinematic equivalent of a Sacher torte: sweet, terribly attractive and full of empty calories.

I know period pieces like to wallow in historical detail, but this film takes it to the next level. Every interior is stuffed with period bric-a-bric, all of it in pristine condition and looking like everything had just been walked over from an episode of the Antiques Roadshow. The period cars and carriages are just off the showroom floor, their brass fittings gleaming like the sun. And the costumes, my dear, the costumes! The most imaginative designs! The finest materials! Perfect fits for all! Not a stain or a wrinkle or a loose thread anywhere! Even the exteriors in Zurich and Vienna are buffed up, their streets only occupied by immaculately dressed burghers and burgheresses, all of them moving slowly in the background so that their finery can be appreciated. These streets aren't sullied by horse manure, urchins, beggars, dogs, street vendors or smoky chimneys. You could eat a Sacher torte off those cobblestone streets.

Starring Jeff Goldblum as the Sacher torte

The ridiculously glossy, Vogue magazine look of A Dangerous Method stuck out for me because the story just couldn't get any traction. The problem is that trying to cram in multiple storylines about the birth of psychology, the conflict between Freud and Jung, and an affair between Jung and one his patients is simply way too much. None of the separate stories are handled well, and there's the additional problem that a film about a long-running intellectual debate is just going to be way too talky. Not to mention that trying to do a film precis of a subject as complex as the birth of psychology is just asking for trouble. I think this is what explains the Better Period Homes & Costumes approach Cronenberg took. He realized that if he was going to make audiences sit through scenes of people having calm discussions about the Ego and the Id, he'd better provide some ravishing eye candy to relieve the tedium. Unfortunately, the film's look becomes what the film's about.

The acting is very good, although Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson aren't required to do much more than look serious, thoughtful and concerned. Keira Knightley has to do the heavy lifting in this film, and she's very good, but her role as a woman gripped by hysteria and a sexual obsession is very shouty and showy. The woman she's playing was undoubtedly like this, but she's such a contrast to the placid performances of Fassbender and Mortenson that her scenery-chewing becomes somewhat distracting. Cronenberg may have intended to place her hysterical character in stark contrast to the academic calmness of Jung and Freud, but it ends up making us concentrate on her acting rather than her character.

A Dangerous Method isn't outrageously bad, just dry, dull, cloyingly pretty, and unimaginative. It's like an episode of Downton Abbey with an added dollop of nudity and kinky sex.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism

This post is actually a reprint, as it were, of an article I wrote for Z magazine ten years ago. I was noodling around on the web and came across it and thought it was worth adding to my blog. Z magazine features a lot of solid reporting on left-wing issues and interviews with people like Noam Chomsky. Some of the references in my article are a tad old, but the points the article makes still hold up (I hope) fairly well. Enjoy.

When President George W. Bush (among many politicians) advised Americans that an effective way to respond to September 11 was to “go to the mall,” it was made clear that the business of America, as Calvin Coolidge once put it, is business. That being said, is there any anti-capitalist rhetoric or discussion out there in the mainstream media? There is, but it's not to be found in the op-ed pages of the New York Times or on any of CNN's innumerable panel discussions featuring middle-aged suits vigorously agreeing that America is infallible. 

Have you seen the sports pages lately? Heard any sports talk radio? Watched an ESPN commentary show? That's where you'll find some of the most vituperative anti-capitalist rhetoric since Pravda folded.
Columnists, reporters, and fans use these media outlets to relentlessly vilify the major sports leagues. League officials, team owners, player agents, and the athletes are all exposed to ridicule, scorn, and contempt. Greedy, arrogant, selfish, oafish, cruel, racist, criminal, parasitic, and insane, these are just a sample of the terms fans throw at those who play and control pro sports. The basis for all this anger is almost invariably the big money in sports. 

Listen to sports radio for a few days and one quickly gets the clear impression that what helps fuel this anger is the sense of betrayal fans feel toward their favorite team or sport. Fans are, first of all, lovers of a sport. The emotional and intellectual investment a fan makes in a team represents an exploitable resource for the owners of pro sports teams. Admission prices have skyrocketed to the point where the best seats to a sports event can cost as much as a night's stay in a five-star hotel. The remaining seats are largely priced for upper middle class incomes and the cheaper seats are often monopolized by those who can afford season tickets or, if the team is popular, those who can afford scalper's prices. Television, once the great popularizer of pro sports, has progressively become more exclusive, with sports programming moving to specialty cable channels such as ESPN or pay-per-view. 

Is the anger of sports fans meaningful? Does it represent anything other than irritation with the vagaries of a favored leisure activity? For several reasons I think it does, the first being that pro sports exposes people to a portrait of capitalism without the usual scrim of corporate/governmental PR and propaganda. When NFL owners like Art Modell, Al Davis, Georgia Frontiere, and others move their teams from one city to another in return for tax breaks, subsidized or free playing facilities, and a whole package of other inducements, they aren't acting any differently than American corporations that move factories to states or other countries that offer low wages, low taxes, or other economic come-ons. The only difference is that football owners don't bother with spin control. A factory that closes in Michigan to be replaced by one in Mexico is described as “rationalization,” “strategic re-allocation of assets” or “a necessary step to stay globally competitive.” When Robert Irsay moved his tradition-rich Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis he didn't even bother with an explanation; he packed up the team's equipment and ran out of town. 

Similarly, the New York Yankees don't apologize when they snatch up the top talent from small market teams. The contracts these individual players receive can sometimes equal the entire payroll of the team the player came from. This is similar, say, to an agribusiness going into the Third World and buying up or contracting all the best land to produce “cash crops” for export while the indigenous peasantry starves for lack of arable land. The deleterious effect of these exports is papered over with talk of “aiding the balance of payments” or “bringing agricultural expertise to the underdeveloped nations of the world.” 

It seems clear that when sports fans react with rage at the actions of the Yankees and Irsays of the world, they're not just bemoaning the state of the game. Part of this fury stems from the realization that money, capital, is being used as a weapon, and a blunt one, at that. It's capitalism unmasked and a significant number of people, most of whom wouldn't describe themselves as socialists if their lives depended on it, are appalled by what they see.

Another interesting aspect of fan anger is that the public forums it finds voice in—the sports pages, phone-in shows, sports commentary TV programs—are probably the only major media-sanctioned outlets for anti-capitalist sentiment in the U.S. These outlets probably don't realize that what's being discussed would be branded as “dangerously socialist” if it appeared in a different context or forum. 

Although much of the public criticism directed at pro sports doesn't rise much above the level of name-calling, it's significant that it exists at all. It's hard to imagine a newspaper or cable channel regularly devoting a section or program to the sins of capitalism, but certainly on many days the sports media seems wholly concerned with trashing the finances and corporate structure of pro sports. 

The breadth and depth of critical comment in the sports world stands in stark relief to “regular” news. The mainstream press, for instance, has handled the Enron debacle as though it was a kind of corporate train wreck, the blame for which can be safely pinned on some rogue accountants and executives. There has been little serious discussion about Enron being the end result of willful government deregulation and a corporate culture that rewards and encourages fiscal avarice. Mainstream media chooses to portray the Enron meltdown as an aberration, albeit a spectacular one. For comparison look to the way the sports media has been handling major league baseball's plan to “contract” teams. Commentators (and fans) have been virtually unanimous in deriding baseball commissioner Bud Selig's explanation that the health of the sport depends on shedding teams, pointing out that this move is more about dividing up the TV-rights revenue pie amongst fewer teams, while at the same time dropping two teams, Montreal and Minnesota, that add virtually nothing to national TV ratings. Further, this attempted move has exposed baseball to a blizzard of critical comment on all its activities, from exorbitant free agent signings to the fan-unfriendly actions of stars. 

Capitalist indiscretions in the sports world are thoroughly and critically examined. This critical analysis pro sport receives on a near daily basis has helped create fan disenchantment and, in some cases, fan rebellion. Baseball, the major league sport most egregiously dominated by big money, has been the most seriously damaged by fan anger. In the years since the labor lockout in 1994, fan support at the turnstile and in front of the TV has declined severely, a spectacular example being the Montreal Expos, a team that now struggles to draw AAA-sized crowds 

One sure sign of growing fan disenchantment with the capitalist knife fight that pro sports has become is the number of franchises that jump from city to city looking for greenbacker pastures. Unlike the expansionist 1970s and 1980s, when new franchises and pro leagues popped up everywhere, the last ten years have seen pro sport franchises move around like a traveling carnival. Now, a handful of super-rich teams in each pro league dominate the elite player talent pool. This results in a long list of have-not teams that struggle futilely to achieve a winning record. Fans are painfully and angrily aware of this inequity 
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the anti-capitalist bent of so many fans and sports journalists is that it creates a fertile environment in which to educate people about the larger problems created by a capitalist economy. Thanks to the mendacious and piratical behavior of pro sports, millions of fans are savvy to the ways and means a huge bankroll can stack the deck against their rooting interests and the interests of their sport. It's not a huge jump from there to show people how the capitalism that ruins their favorite team or sport can, and is, ruining lives within and without the U.S. 

Any fan who has wept over his or her team skipping town to set up in a more financially accommodating city should be able to see and understand one of the main problems of globalization; that is, the damaging effect of capital chasing cheap labor and low taxes around the world. Similarly, fans of small market teams who gnash their teeth when their team's best talent is siphoned off to major market teams would undoubtedly have a keen appreciation for the destructive power of capital in the Third World, where the most lucrative natural resources (land, minerals, oil) are largely controlled by foreign multinationals, who leave behind poverty and pollution after they've exported products and profits to the Western World. 

In these red, white and blue post-September 11 days, with media-encouraged jingoism at an all-time high, and a president and Congress that can be charitably described as corporate America's courtesans, it's somewhat comforting to realize that a rich vein of anti-capitalist emotion and thought still exists in America, even if one has to go to a sports bar to hear it. Chicken wings, anyone?       

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: The Devil (2010) by Ken Bruen

WTF? I say again, WTF? This is my first Ken Bruen novel, and I had understood that he's a crime writer, but what we have here is a private eye taking on...Satan. And this isn't a one-off novel, it's the latest in a series featuring p.i. Jack Taylor, who works out of Galway, Ireland. As far as I know the previous Taylor novels have no supernatural content. So, the Devil comes to Galway and begins committing a series of exceedingly nasty and cruel murders. The victims are people Jack knows or has recently met. The Devil's motivation, aside from being, well, fiendish and evil, is that Jack unknowingly interfered with one of his petty schemes in a previous novel. Naturally enough, Jack doesn't believe he's dealing with the Devil off the top, but by the end of the novel he, and we, are convinced that the mysterious and wealthy Kurt is the Prince of Darkness.

Needless to say, the basic concept of The Devil is absolutely bonkers, even laughable. Somehow, though, the ridiculousness of the story didn't bother me that much. The main reason is that Bruen is a spectacularly good writer. His prose is electric with tension and violence, and his humour is very, very dark. I say prose, but at points his style becomes consciously poetic with paragraphs and sentences broken down in to something like stanzas. Bruen, like so many Irish writers past and present, is clearly in love with words, the sound of them, the meaning of them, even the look of them. With writing this good, story and plot almost becomes of secondary interest.

I said almost. There are two ways to look at the Devil's presence in the story. First, he could be a paranoid delusion that exists only in Jack's mind. One character even suggests this, and it does seem possible since Jack exists solely on a diet of Jameson's whiskey, Guinness and Xanax. This doesn't seem likely given that another character, Ridge, independently comes to the conclusion that Kurt is the Devil. The other way to look at this novel is to see the Devil as a symbol of Ireland's moral and financial collapse. This seems like the most plausible explanation. The novel's major theme is Ireland's decline and the horrors of the recent past, from the Troubles to the revelations about abusive priests and nuns. When not trying to figure out if he's dealing with the Devil, Jack is constantly harping about everything in Ireland having turned to "shite." There's really no aspect of modern Ireland Jack doesn't run roughshod over, and he can't forget the crimes of the past. He also seems miffed that so many non-Irish are living and working in Ireland, and it's interesting that Kurt is described by witnesses as speaking with an accent that is, at times, either French or German. Hmm, sounds like Bruen's not a great fan of the EU. Another possible clue that The Devil is intended as a rant about Ireland is that one point Jack mentions that maybe he should just hole up and read his collection of K.C. Constantine novels. Constantine is a mostly obscure American crime writer who, like Bruen, is brilliant at writing dialogue. His detective is Mario Balzic, a small town police chief in Pennsylvania. Balzic appeared in eleven books and one of the later novels was a hardcore rant about the awful state of the USA in the Reagan years. There was no real mystery in that novel (the title escapes me), just the spewing of a lot of pent-up venom. I have a piece on Constantine here. The Devil seems to have been written in a similar vein; it's the eighth Jack Taylor novel and it has very little mystery but a lot of rage that Bruen wants to get out of his system.

As loopy as the Devil's presence is it didn't bother quite as much as the character of Jack Taylor. Jack isn't a poorly written character, but I have a low tolerance for tormented detectives, and Jack has a black belt in self-loathing. Outside of cosy mysteries, it sometimes seems like all detectives are tormented in one way or another; in fact, I think it must be an EU regulation that all Scandinavian fictional detectives must be angst-ridden. In short, the tortured detective is a cliche, and while Jack is certainly entertaining, it bothered me that he was yet another in a long and tedious line of detectives who only find comfort in the bottom of a bottle.

Whether the Devil is real or symbolic or a delusion doesn't change the fact that The Devil is a lot of fun. Fun might not sound like the right word, but Bruen's way with words kept me delighted throughout. And the plot certainly has its fair share of tension and violence. I'm going to try the first Jack Taylor novel and, fingers crossed, it won't involve poltergeists or elementals; best to leave that kind of thing to Mike Carey.

Book Review: A Brief History of the Samurai (2010) by Jonathan Clements

To be honest, the real reason I read this book was to satisfy my curiosity about the historical reality of samurai films. Are they as mythical and over-the-top as, say, American westerns? As it turns out, samurai films don't stray too far from the historical truth. A case in point: in the recent samurai film 13 Assassins (review here), a small group of samurai must defend themselves from 200 warriors. One of their defensive tricks is to set fire to the backs of several bulls and send them careening angrily into the heart of the opposing forces. It's the kind of scene in an action movie you laugh at while at the same time applauding the filmmaker's crazy ass imagination. Well, it seems that there wasn't any imagination involved. During one of Japans interminable civil wars one army released a herd of flaming cattle into the ranks of their opponents. It worked a treat. And I have to wonder if just before the blazing herd hove into view one luckless samurai turned to another and asked, "Do you smell something good? I don't know why, but I've got this sudden urge for some Kobe beef."

Although this is supposed to be a history of the samurai, it would be more accurate to say that it's a lean and efficient political and military history of Japan from the Dark Ages up to the 1860s. It's not a pretty or noble history. For century after century Japan was consumed with civil wars and insurrections pitting clan and against clan. These bloody conflicts were often spectacular but, in essence, they were no different than the various turf wars between New York's mafia families. It was all about acquiring land and wealth. Militarism and intramural conflict so gripped Japan's ruling classes that there was little energy or wealth left over to develop the arts or sciences. The lack of vision or curiosity amongst Japan's ruling classes reached its zenith in the 1630s when the Shogun decided to effectively seal Japan off from the outside world. For the next 200 years Japan was preserved in amber.
"Take Your Kid To Work Day" originated in Japan
But back to the movies. Yes, the samurai were as ferocious and honour-obsessed as the films tell us; swordfights could erupt over points of etiquette, and seppuku (ritual suicide) was frighteningly common. What the movies don't tell us is that seppuku became a samurai favourite because it was the most painful way to die. It gave a wonderful, final boost to a samurai's street cred. Films usually show a warrior slicing himself once, groaning, and then keeling over. It was much nastier than that. Jonathan Clements, the author, does an excellent job of compressing a lot of history into a fairly short book, and his writing style is more populist than academic. But, like I said, I'm just glad that a great samurai film like The Sword of Doom (review here) turns out to have a basis in fact.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Film Review: The Prey (2011)

Once again the French are showing the rest of the world how to make a thriller.  In the last year I've seen Point Blank (review here) and Chamber of Death (review here); both were superb French thrillers. The Prey is not quite up to their level, but it's very, very good. What French thrillers lack in budget they more than make up for in plot. Prey artfully combines a prison drama, a man on the run thriller, and a hunt for a serial killer. This layering of plots was done spectacularly in Chamber of Death, and is a hallmark of Sebastien Japrisot, a French mystery/thriller writer whose novels and screenplays always featured ultra-devious plots. It could be that this is simply a characteristic of French culture. Nineteenth-century French novels are often wall-to-wall with schemes and schemers. One I reviewed recently called The Black Sheep by Balzac represented the gold standard in twisty plotting. In fact, the French should have an award for depictions of scheming in the arts and it should be called the Grand Prix de Cesar et Ugolin, in honour of the conniving peasants in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring.

But back to the movie. In Prey, the main character is Franck, an imprisoned bank robber. He's only a few months away from getting out and collecting the two million euros he has stashed from his last robbery. The problem is that his criminal partner wants to know where the money is right now. So does Franck's wife, who has their daughter to support and is having trouble making ends meet. Franck also finds himself reluctantly protecting his wimpy cellmate, a man apparently wrongfully accused of attacking a teenage girl. Franck refuses to tell anyone where the money is. He trusts no one, not even his wife. Franck becomes a wanted man in prison and when a opportunity presents itself he escapes. And here's where things get complicated. I won't let slip any spoilers, but let's just say that Franck has to run for his life and freedom while at the same time tracking down a serial killer.

A lot of the pleasure in this film comes from watching how the script manages to juggle different characters and plot elements and have them all come together in the end in a very satisfying way. You have to admire the skill that went into crafting this story. The film doesn't stint on the action, either. There are beaucoup chases, fights and gunplay, and the finale is a literal cliffhanger. The only weaknesses in the film are a couple of so-so performances by actors in secondary roles and some moments in the action sequences that just don't work. Albert Dupontel plays Franck and certainly looks the part of a hard-bitten con. Dupontel was also in A Very Long Engagement, written, of course, by Sebastien Japrisot.

If you're trying to track this film down beware of a similarly-titled French film called Proie. It was complete crap. This one's French title is La Proie, and it's well worth hunting down.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: Moon Over Soho (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch; Vicious Circle (2006) by Mike Carey

I'm reviewing these two supernatural mystery/thrillers together because the authors are creatively joined at the hip. Both have created an alternate reality London in which the supernatural is very real and very dangerous.

Aaronovitch's previous novel featuring DC Peter Grant was Rivers of London (my review here), and it was a very successful attempt to combine the world of the supernatural with a police procedural. It sounds unlikely, but he pulled it off. The only serious problem with Rivers was that the plotting was weak, with a major sub-plot about the gods of London's rivers going nowhere. Moon is equally entertaining, but also suffers from plot problems. The story this time revolves around the mysterious deaths of various jazz musicians, and then there's the strange and dangerous Pale Lady, a woman with a very feline personality. Moon is a very fun read, but once again Aaronovitch does a poor job of handling multiple storylines. The Pale Lady story eventually connects with the deaths of the musicians, but it's not obvious how or why it does. Or maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention.

Mike Carey has no problem with plots. His novels are rich with incident and detail, and the plots are well-developed. In the second Felix Castor novel (the first is reviewed  here) Felix is up against a cult seeking to raise one of Hell's fiercest demons. Carey takes the private eye route with his novels, making Castor a Philip Marlowe of magic. The previous Castor novel was way too long, and this one is also a bit prolix. One example: long after Carey has established that Castor is good at picking locks, he has his hero give a long description of a lock he ends up not picking. Simply put, Vicious could be significantly leaner with no drop in literary quality.

An interesting thing about Aaaronovitch and Carey is that they make London one of their main characters. In both novels the action rarely moves out of the city, and the authors are almost loving in their descriptions of the city's streets, buildings and neighbourhoods. Both writers are also equally good at world-building. London invaded by the supernatural seems quite likely in the hands of these writers. Finally, the Grant and Castor novels deserve to be praised as mysteries every bit as much as they get respect as supernatural thrillers. Plot problems and prolixity aside, these writers create more  mystery and excitement than a great many straight mystery writers.

7 Weird Things About Hamilton

A mullet you can set your watch by
So yesterday I was in a barber shop here in Hamilton waiting for my turn in the chair when I realized just what a weird ass place this city is. I moved here almost four years ago from Toronto, and some differences were almost immediately noticeable such as the lack of traffic and no condo towers popping up everywhere like dandelions in the spring. Over the years some subtle, but profound, differences have become more obvious. The guy in the barber's chair ahead of me was one of them. He had a mullet, and he wasn't just getting it trimmed, he was having a full-blown mullet maintenance procedure. He was in his 50s, which was odd to begin with; how many middle-aged mullets do you see? But what was really weird was that the barber spent a good ten minutes wielding various hot irons and crimping tools to add volume to the mullet. It was a virtuoso performance, but where else in the world, I wondered, would someone be able to find a place that specializes in enhancing the world's most risible hairstyle. Only Hamilton, of course. Here are some other weird things about Hamilton:

1.Old Cars

There are a lot of old cars on the road in Hamilton. Some are vintage and lovingly maintained, but many more are just mufflerless rustmobiles that carry their original owners around town. Partly this is down to Hamilton not being very affluent, but it's also because Hamiltonians aren't embarrassed to be seen driving clunkers. A Torontonian would die rather be seen in a car with a single rust spot, but in here in Steeltown it's almost a badge of pride to be driving something that looks like a chunk of the Rust Belt come to life.

2. Shirtless Men

Anytime the sun is out Hamilton men doff their tops. Young, old, fat, pasty, skinny, buff, sunken-chested or hairy, it doesn't matter, the guys love to soak up the rays. It doesn't actually have to be warm for the T-shirts to come off. Even if the temperature is barely over 10 Celsius, as long as the sun is shining then it's time for a tan in Hamilton. And on days that are truly hot the city actually fines men caught out in public with their shirts on.

3. Pierogies

Starchy, stodgy and usually adorned with fatty sour cream, pierogies have to be the least glamorous food dish. No Michelin-starred chef ever rose to fame on the strength of his or her pierogies. Hamilton loves them. All non-chain restaurants have them on the menu and supermarkets sell them frozen in bags the size of pillowcases. If iron ore is the main ingredient in steel making, then pierogies must be the main ingredient in steelworkers.

4. Children Playing In The Streets

What's so odd about that, you ask? Well in Toronto kids are so rigorously nannyed, playdated and daycared that they almost never appear in public. Hamilton kids are out in the streets playing road hockey, skipping rope, hopscotching, biking, running, jumping, in short, acting like kids from when I was a kid. And all of them unsupervised! Seeing an unchaperoned child in Toronto is virtually cause to call 911, but Hamilton's urchins traipse around all over the place, mostly going to Tim Horton's to pick up coffee for their parents.

5. Mobility Scooters

Could he make it to Tim's before closing time?
The first-time visitor to Hamilton will immediately notice the abundance of people in mobility scooters, usually by being bumped off the sidewalk by one. It sometimes seems they outnumber bikes. Hamilton does have more than its fair share of the elderly and infirm, but there are an astonishingly large number of fit-looking people humming along in scooters. In fact, kids (see above) often purloin or borrow grandad's scooter to make Tim Horton's runs.

6. Incompetent Jaywalkers

Based on roadkill evidence squirrels and raccoons are the worst mammals at crossing the road. Hamiltonians come a close third. Hamilton's citizenry, seemingly heedless of the advent of the horseless carriage, will blunder into the roadway without taking any notice of squealing tires, blaring horns or shrieking, swearing drivers. I have no explanation for this behavior; perhaps they want to get themselves into a scooter (see above).

7. No-Frills Restaurants

Gordon Ramsay regretted hiring a Hamilton interior designer
Hamilton has the usual selection of chain restaurants, but the local diners are unique for their complete disregard for interior design or atmosphere. Not every local eatery is like this, but an amazing number of them have less charm than a canteen in a Soviet tractor factory circa 1957.  Some of the ones I've been in feature colour schemes borrowed from prisons, furniture direct from Goodwill, and menus handwritten with Sharpies and taped to the wall. It says something about Hamilton's restaurant scene that its homegrown themed restaurant, the Bedrock Bistro, celebrates the Flintstones. The Flintstones? Really?