Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: Moonfleet (1898) by J. Meade Falkner

"Ripping yarn" is a mostly English literary term used to describe a story that's packed with action, cliffhangers, adventure and sturdy heroism. Moonfleet represents the gold standard in this genre.  Set in the English coastal village of  Moonfleet in 1757, the plucky lad at the centre of the story (ripping yarns require a minimum of one plucky lad) is John Trenchard, a teenage orphan who falls in with smugglers and the search for a diamond once owned by a notorious smuggler named Blackbeard, whose ghost supposedly haunts the town's churchyard. After John makes a hair-raising visit to a crypt under the church, the action and tension never let up in a story that ends up spanning decades. Cliffhanger follows cliffhanger (literally, in one case), and the novel ends up feeling like a slimmer, more entertaining version of Les Miserables.

The striking thing about Moonfleet is that it works so well as a thriller. Thrillers seem like a relatively modern genre, but Moonfleet certainly manages to tick most of the thriller boxes. Each challenge the hero is faced with is overcome with difficulty, and no sooner has he jumped out of the frying pan then he's into the fire. And the story is filled with a variety of thrills: a clifftop chase, disasters at sea, betrayals, and the 18th century equivalent of a big heist. The trials and tribulations of John and his companion Elzevir seem to be strongly influenced by Jean Valjean's ordeal in Les Miserables, or Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. But this isn't just a pastiche; Moonfleet has a distinct style and a great sense of place.

What's also amazing about the book is that it's only been filmed once, in 1955, and based on the plot description on IMDB the filmmakers made major changes to the story. Moonfleet is ridiculously entertaining, and the only minor mark against it is that sometimes the dialogue is excessively archaic. Falkner wrote two other novels, one of which was The Lost Stradivarius, an odd story about a man seemingly possessed by a violin, although the sub-text seems to be a veiled warning about the evils of homosexuality.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Long Lankin (2011) by Lindsey Barraclough

Lindsey Barraclough is a decent writer, and Long Lankin has a setting and concept that should have created a solid, young adult horror novel. What Lindsey didn't have was a good editor. Like so many horror/fantasy writers Barraclough has an almost OCD-like desire to pile on the scene setting and world-building to the exclusion of plot.

In this case the author seems more interested in creating a portrait of a particular place and time than she is in crafting a compelling story. The action is set in a small village on the English coast sometime in the late 1950s. Two young sisters, Cora and Mimi, are sent from London to live with their Aunt Ida in a house outside the village. Naturally enough, Ida lives in a large, rambling, decaying house that doubles down on the spookiness: cobwebs, frightening portraits of ancestors on the wall, strange noises, hidden passages, and locked rooms that YOU MUST NOT GO INTO UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! The immediate neighbourhood isn't much better. There's a gloomy, semi-abandoned church that YOU MUST NEVER GO NEAR! A cemetery that you are FORBIDDEN TO ENTER! filled with ruined, gaping tombs. And the marsh surrounding Ida's house will SUCK DOWN ALL WHO SET FOOT IN IT! THIS MEANS YOU! Add in an ancient family curse and a child-eating creature and the scene is set.

The above sounds like a surfeit of ingredients for a fun, scary read, but it's pretty much ruined by the author's self-indulgence. Most of this novel is a loving, but misguided, attempt to recreate life in England in the 1950s. Barraclough piles on the period detail with a vengeance. Every detail of lower-middle-class life gets a mention, right down to name-branding all kinds of household products. Things reach a nadir when an entire chapter is devoted to a lengthy description of a village cricket match that's both twee and pointless. And there are pages and pages of this kind of cheap nostalgia. Part of it seems to be an attempt to replicate the style of a particular kind of English kids' lit; the type popularized by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome in which a gang of kids get together to solve a mystery in between larking about and sitting down to scarf cream teas. Adult readers might find this kind of homage entertaining, but young readers are probably going to be bored witless. I was.

An editor should have noticed that by the halfway mark very little has happened. We've heard a few things go bump in the night, glimpsed things that might be scary, but beyond that it's been a long, uneventful walk down memory lane. That same editor should have asked Barraclough to trim her novel by a third, if only to prevent trees being felled for no purpose. As I said before, she's a decent writer, but a smooth prose style isn't worth much when the plot is spinning its wheels. It's easy to rip a writer for making mistakes, but no novel gets published without an editor's OK, and in this case the editor in question has done an above average writer a great disservice. Two writers of young adult fiction who are masters of  both prose and plotting are Geraldine McCaughrean and Melvin Burgess. My most recent reviews of their novels are here and here.

Film Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

The Bourne Legacy provides an interesting example of why actors matter, and why top of the line actors matter even more. The latest Bourne film is a minor reboot of the series that formerly starred Matt Damon. The new star is Jeremy Renner who plays Aaron Cross, yet another product of the secret CIA program that produced hyper-efficient assassin Jason Bourne. As in the other Bourne films, Cross finds himself double-crossed by the CIA and has to go on the run, changing his identity and ruthlessly eliminating the CIA goons sent to kill him. Also along for the ride is Rachel Weisz as Marta Shearing, a research doctor who can provide Cross with a virus he needs to stay alive.

The plot is almost paper-thin. Basically, Aaron and Marta have to play a simplistic game of cat and mouse with the CIA and that's it. The reason the acting is vitally important in this film is that the script is a heaping mountain of scientific bafflegab and acronyms. The CIA baddies, led by Edward Norton, are continually in crisis mode, shouting orders and instructions about uplinks, identity checks, visual feeds, agency protocols, and so on and so forth. It's not overstating things to say that 90% of the dialogue in this movie consists of people outlining case histories, briefing their peers, or, as already mentioned, barking out orders. Dialogue that might be considered personal or expressive of character is almost non-existent. The overall effect is rather like listening to people read out instruction manuals in loud, commanding voices.

Thank God the cast is up the challenge posed by this script. From Renner and Weisz all the way down to those filling the smallest roles, every one of them manages to make the steely, rapid fire, jargon-laden dialogue sound interesting. If any one of them hadn't been up to the task it would have made the nonsensical nature of the story painfully apparent. Renner is especially good, and his performance is a reminder that his predecessor, Matt Damon, isn't much of an actor. Damon can do boyish charm and innocence but anything else always seems to be a struggle for him. Weisz, as per usual, is excellent.

As good as the actors are, Legacy is still only just a slightly above average film. The action sequences are generic, with far too many brawls shot in such tight closeups we might as well be looking at clothes tumbling around in a dryer. The plot also suffers from a science fiction-y element that somehow seems out of place in the Bourne universe.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: The Enemy at the Gate (2008) by Andrew Wheatcroft

In 1683 the Ottoman Empire, which at the time controlled most of the lands now comprising Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, sent a massive army against Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire and the gateway to the rest of Europe. The Siege of Vienna lasted for two months, ending on September 12 when a Habsburg relief army reached the city and routed the besieging Ottoman forces. It's popularly believed that this event marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's decline, culminating in the nineteenth century when it became known as the "sick man of Europe."

Andrew Wheatcroft's book is an excellent precis of a big chunk of European history, and his description of the siege reads like a thriller or adventure novel. He also makes it clear that the siege marked the culmination of the first wave of what we now call Islamophobia. For generations prior to the siege the words "Ottoman" and "Turk" were synonyms for cruelty, fanaticism, and bloodlust. It was a toss-up what scared the West more about the Ottomans: their religion or the military threat they posed. The more things change...

In the 30 or so years that followed the siege, the Habsburgs, with the financial and political support of the Vatican, launched a de facto holy war against the Ottomans. This new crusade, which had the military support of many other European monarchs, pushed the Ottomans back from most of their possessions. The lengthy war was bloody and vicious, leaving both sides confirmed in their bad opinions of each other. And this is what makes this history particularly interesting. Modern Islamophobes often use the Siege of Vienna as an example (in their view) of the bloodthirsty expansionism that's integral to Islam. Of course, looking at history from a Muslim perspective what one sees in the years after the Siege of Vienna is yet another Christian crusade. And so when Christianophobe Muslims see what the US does in Pakistan with its drone strikes and the Israelis do when putting settlers on illegally seized Palestinian land, they think, the more things change...

This is popular history at its best, as well as being a useful look at a place and period in European history that doesn't normally get a lot of attention.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Film Review: Zulu (1964)

The love that dares not speak its name left the closet quite a few years ago. Most people thought that there was nothing left in the closet. Not so. There is another love that still lurks in there, quietly muttering things like, "Front rank fire! Rear rank fire!" It's the love for Zulu, an action epic about the defence of Rorke's Drift in South Africa by a small group of British soldiers against an overwhelming force of Zulu warriors in 1879. Before I get to the forbidden love aspect of Zulu I'll just say that it's one of the great action movies of all time. It's beautifully paced, the locations are striking, it looks great, the action elements are both plentiful and rousing, and the acting, although occasionally hammy and exceedingly stiff upper lippy, is always entertaining. In it's own way Zulu compares favourably with Lawrence of Arabia, a film that came out only two years previously.

The problem with loving Zulu, or at least admitting to such an amour, is that this film asks us to cheer for a group of whites acting for an imperialist power who use modern weaponry against indigenous blacks armed only with spears. We see the Zulus slaughtered in their hundreds, and as if to underline the technological superiority of the British soldiers, the final shot of the battle is of a twitching heap of Zulu corpses that have just been mowed down by massed, coordinated British fire. What's worse, from a 2012 point of view, is that historically speaking what we're seeing is paving the way for apartheid. And it's not as though apartheid wasn't an issue when Zulu was filmed. Only four years previously South African police had opened fire on a crowd of black demonstrators and killed 69 of them. The Sharpeville Massacre, as it was called, was an international scandal that led to both South Africa's diplomatic isolation and the beginning of more militant anti-apartheid activities within the country and without. Zulu tries to be honourable by having various English characters compliment the Zulu warriors on their bravery, but that's just a moral fig leaf, and it's telling that no Zulu has a speaking part (in English). So from a politically correct point of view there is nothing to recommend about Zulu. And yet...

If you can wear a pair of political and social blinkers while watching Zulu there is no escaping its allure. It's macho filmmaking at its most hairy-chested, and it's celebration of military camaraderie and bravery is hard to resist. One reason it works so well in this regard is that the soldiers are not setting out to be heroes. They're at Rorke's Drift to build a bridge, and are hardly considered front-line soldiers. These guys aren't looking for a fight. We end up rooting for them because, like many other average guy battling the odds films, they find themselves in a situation they aren't equipped for and appear to have no chance of escaping from in one piece. It's a classic David vs. Goliath story. This also makes it typical of a lot of the "Rule Britannia" films that came out in the 1950s and '60s. A partial list would include Lawrence of Arabia, Khartoum, The Cockleshell Heroes, Ill Met By Moonlight, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Battle of Britain, and The Dam Busters. These films emphasize defensive actions or commando operations by plucky, gifted amateurs who are facing long odds. They also build up the image of Brits at war as being unflappable, cool under fire, dogged, and unfailingly civilized. This contrast between the ferocity of war and participants who seem in most respects so unwar-like, gives these films a strong dramatic, and sometimes comedic, edge.The last of the Rule Britannia films was probably A Bridge Too Far, the story of an epic, but plucky, failure.

Are there any other films lurking out of sight in the closet of disreputable loves? Indeed there are. The most famous example is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. This documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg is an innovative masterpiece in documentary filmmaking, but watching it is still a difficult experience when you see so much artistic and technical skill being used in the service of the definitive monster of the 20th century.

And speaking about being on the wrong side of World War Two, this brings me to a director whose career should stay cowering in the closet: Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah's films regularly turn up on lists of the best westerns/action movies and even films in general. In Cross of Iron (1977) Peckinpah tells the story of a German unit fighting on the Russian front. The film has an uninspired and perfunctory anti-Nazi, anti-war stance that acts as a mask for its real purpose of showing Germans mowing down Russian soldiers. Excuse me? The Russians who were the single biggest reason for Hitler's defeat? Yup, those Russians. It's not even a good action movie, and yet it has never been castigated for being propaganda on the level of Triumph of the Will.

The esteem Peckinpah is held in is further proof, as if any was needed, that the world of film criticism and commentary is dominated by men.Why? Because Peckinpah was the most consistently and enthusiastically misogynist mainstream director there has ever been. The degradation and abuse of women is a theme that runs through many of his films. Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia feature explicit and salacious rape scenes; The Getaway has a sub-plot revolving around a female character (Sally Struthers) who is abused by a kidnapper and reacts by becoming his mistress; and even The Wild Bunch, probably his most critically admired film, is littered with examples of sexism and misogyny. The fact that Peckinpah has so much street cred as a director speaks to the high tolerance the film world has for the exploitation of women.

In comparison to Peckinpah and Triumph of the Will, Zulu begins to look pretty good. It's had some high-profile fans over the years: evidently it's one of Ridley Scott's favourite films and Peter Jackson used its battle scenes as a template for the Helm's Deep battle in LOTR: The Two Towers. It's well worth seeing, even if it does reside in that twilight zone of films that could be regarded as very guilty pleasures. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Scribble Scribble, Hiss Scratch

Irvine Welsh squares off against Hilary Mantel for the Booker prize.
Oh, dear, the literati are at it again. That's them you hear down at the end of the garden, yowling and screeching, spitting and biting. Want to stop the noise? A bucket of water should do the trick, or you could try shouting, "Who'd like a nice, tasty Man Booker Prize?" Either should get their attention. Several recent news items/articles are proving, once again, that novelists are, pound for pound, the cattiest people on the planet.

First up is Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, who complained at this past week's Edinburgh international writers' conference that the judges of the Man Booker Prize discriminate against Scottish writers. He even calls them racist. Next up is Declan Burke, an Irish crime writer. In an article for the Irish Examiner he interviews three crime writers on the subject of whether crime fiction can also be called literature, and whether a crime novel will ever scoop a Booker. We also learn in this article that at an upcoming crime fiction conference in Scotland, two noted crime writers (Ian Rankin and Peter James) will actually debate this question (get your tickets now before scalpers jack the prices up). Finally, we have Laura Miller in a piece at opining that the reason the young adult fiction market is dominated by female writers is that male writers feel that there's no prestige attached to this genre. Men, she argues, concentrate their writing efforts in fields that earn critical accolades. Like the Booker, I assume.

What these stories and opinion pieces reveal is the green-eyed jealousy and animosity so many writers exhibit towards their brethren, and their willingness to make their feelings public. There are the genre writers who feel that room should be made for them at the grown-ups' table, and then we have the literary writers who claim they're being insufficiently praised, or that the wrong writers are getting the kudos. And God forbid if you're a writer who sells books in the millions. A mega-selling author like, say, J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown inevitably attracts a ton of ridicule from their peers.

It seems to me that all this very public angst and anger is unique to the world of fiction writing. No other art form has participants who are so anxious to engage in public acts of criticism and cannibalism. Last time I checked, David Hockney had no issues with Thomas Kinkade's success, and unless I missed something in art history class, sculptors have never felt they were being taken less seriously than painters or vice versa. Does Yo-Yo Ma make snide remarks about Steve Martin's banjo playing? Is Andre Rieu venting on Twitter about the fact that he hasn't been offered the baton with the New York Philharmonic? Did Jean-Luc Godard ever complain that he should have been given a shot at directing one of the Star Wars sequels?

It's certainly true that all cultural fields have their share of in-fighting and backbiting, but the literary world seems to be filled with a constant background hum of anger at the other guy or girl. Why is this? I think writers believe that their particular art form is the big kahuna of creativity: painting, music, dance, and films are, in their view, either ephemeral, limited in intellectual scope, ghettoized in galleries, or too populist. Literature, they feel, is, and always will be, the art form of record. And if that's the case, deciding what's literature and what isn't, and who gets the gold stars for good work, becomes exceedingly important.

What makes all this invective and bitterness amusing is its utter pointlessness. There has never been a universally agreed upon definition of "literary" fiction, so it becomes futile to try and describe a novel as being literary or merely genre. There's simply no benchmark for defining the difference between the two. There's good writing and bad writing, just as there's good sculptures and bad ones, and great songs and lousy ones.  And crime fiction writers really do have to shut up and stop whining about not being taken seriously; you guys sell a ton of books and the quality of your writing is frequently superb. You should spare some sympathy for those boobs still writing westerns: nobody pays them any attention. Speaking of westerns, that's the only rebuttal needed for Laura Miller's argument; that particular genre's a prestige-free zone and it's solidly male. And as for Irvine Welsh, he makes a very poor case for the idea that Scottish writers are being scorned by the Booker judges. He bases his argument on the fact that in the history of the Booker only 11 out of 255 nominees were Scots. That's roughly 5% of the total. Sounds low until you remember that the Booker is open to writers in the UK and the Commonwealth, and that represents a population of well over a billion people. That makes Scotland, with its population of just over 5m, wildly over-represented on the list of nominees. Of course, England also gets far more than its fair share of nominees, so it's really authors from India who should be doing the complaining here. The Booker prize judges are clearly biased in favour of UK writers. What Welsh seems to want is a greater share of that bias.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book Review: The Locktender's House (2007) by Steven Sherrill

Steven Sherrill is an all-around talented guy; a five tool player, as they say in baseball. He's a novelist, poet, painter, and he plays the banjo. His first novel was The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (my review here), and it was an audacious success, placing the Minotaur from Greek mythology into everyday life in North Carolina. Locktender's is almost as audacious but not as successful. The audacity comes from trying to mix William Faulkner with Stephen King. Sherrill is a fine writer, with a real talent for deftly describing roadside America and the thoughts and feelings of its average citizens. Here's an example from Locktender's:

"Janice sat at the cramped kitchen table and wondered if he had all the pomp and circumstance the military liked to muster up as filler for the void left by doubt and sorrow. Thanks for dying. Here's your twenty-one-gun salute, and a seriously folded flag."

In three short sentences Sherrill neatly sums up the bitterness and meaningless of a life wasted in the war in Iraq. The Faulkner side of things comes through in this passage:

"What happened in the smokehouse was almost more than she could endure. Endure. She had to endure. Despite the unknowing, she felt closer--beaten, tired and hungry and sore to the core of her being--but closer to, within reach of, that nebulous and fleeting sense of understanding something."

It's a bit opaque and elliptical, just like Faulkner, but it sets a mood perfectly. The main character is Janice, whose boyfriend dies in Iraq as the story begins. This event gives Janice a psychic shock that she reacts to by abandoning her life in North Carolina and setting out on the highway with no clear idea of where she's going. Janice, whose nervous breakdown soon begins to border on madness, ends up at a seemingly abandoned house in Pennsylvania located at the end of the portentously named Sabbath Rest Road. The old clapboard house sits by an abandoned canal and has no running water or electricity. Oddly, though, the kitchen is provisioned with preserves of various kinds. Janice's breakdown moves closer to madness as she begins to have dreams about a horrible event in the past which took place when the canal was operational. She then meets Stephen, a sculptor who lives a relatively short distance away. Stephen befriends her, but even his kindness and warmth can't stop Janice's decline. It's at this point that Janice's dreams seem to come to life, and what began as a nervous breakdown may in fact be a haunting. I'll stop here to keep things spoiler-free.

The problem with the novel is that Sherrill doesn't commit fully to the idea of telling a ghost story. He trots out all the tropes of the modern ghost story (is it all in her head or is it real? Is she possessed or haunted?), but he seems to get shy about going the whole Stephen King. I mention King because the supernatural aspect of the plot has certain similarities to King's Bag of Bones, the only King novel I've ever read, as it happens. Locktender's could probably have stood on its own as a psychological study, but once things that go bump in the night are introduced they can't be left underdeveloped; it's a genie that can't be put back in the bottle. When Sherrill does concentrate on making things creepy he's quite effective, but then Stephen gets in the way, and I don't mean King.

The character of Stephen is the shoddy weld that joins the spooky and non-spooky parts of the novel. He's that stock character of romantic fiction: the artist who's hunky, healing, sensitive, cool, just that little bit kooky, and fun to be around. Janice shows up on his doorstep acting strangely and just gets nuttier as the story unfolds. Despite the abundant evidence that this is not a woman to get hooked up with, unless it involves steering her towards the nearest hospital, Stephen continues to help and comfort her, and even romance her. I know people in ghost stories are occasionally supposed to make unwise decisions ("Let's see what's making that screaming sound in the basement."), but Stephen's actions make no sense at all. And their scenes together are further marred by bantering dialogue that sounds like it was generated by a rom-com bot. It could also be argued that Stephen has no real role in the novel except as someone for Janice to bounce her craziness off of.

Early in the novel there's a hint that the madness and violence on display might be a symptom of contemporary (and historical) life in the U.S. This idea isn't developed, which is unfortunate because it might have given the book some resonance. The best modern ghost story I've read is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It's set in a decaying English manor house in 1947, and the upper crust family to whom the house belongs are living in genteel poverty. They're also having poltergeist problems. On one level the story is about whether the male protagonist is the source of the ghostly problems. On a whole other level the novel is about the sweeping cultural and political changes taking place in Britain thanks to the Labour Party. The occupants of the manor are seeing their wealth greatly diminished, their social status eroded, and their land is being sold for council housing. For the aristos, it would seem that Britain's zeitgeist has manifested into a poltergeist. The Locktender's House is missing this extra layer of meaning to make it more than just a well-crafted piece of Southern Gothic spookiness.

It's always a pleasure to read Sherrill's prose, but his ability as a storyteller isn't up to snuff here. It feels like he wasn't entirely sure which direction to take his novel in and he's ended up with something that's slightly pregnant.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Film Review: Vidocq (2001)

Based on Vidocq, it's easy to see why Hollywood thought Pitof, Vidocq's director, might be a good choice to helm Catwoman in 2004. Well, the world knows how that turned out. But don't let the wet furball on the carpet that was Catwoman stop you from seeing Vidocq. Vidocq was an actual, larger-than-life figure from nineteenth-century French history. He was a master criminial who then became the founder and head of the French police, and after leaving the police he became the world's first private detective. Not one to undersell his abilities, Vidocq called his detective agency the Bureau of Universal Intelligence.

This film is not a biopic, although it's amazing that no one has attempted such a film. This is a Vidocq story as might be imagined by Stan Lee. Things begin with Vidocq (played by Gerard Depardieu) brawling in a glassblowing factory with a mysterious figure wearing a voluminous cape and a mirrored mask. This is the Alchemist, a spectral terror who supposedly haunts Paris' grimmest arrondissements. Vidocq is killed by the Alchemist and the story switches to Etienne Boisset, a young journalist who wants to be Vidocq's biographer and is trying to find out what clues led Vidocq to the Alchemist. I'll draw a veil over the rest of the plot to avoid spoilers.

For a movie that feels and looks very much like a comic book (in the best sense of the term), Vidocq is solidly plotted. This isn't just an exercise in visual tricks and gratuitous action sequences. The basic concept is ridiculous, but its internal logic is flawless. What undoubtedly drew Hollywood's attention to Pitof is is his visual flair, which is on constant display. The film was the  first to be shot with digital equipment, and Pitof  jumps at the chance to use the new technology to create fantastical cityscapes and eye-catching landscapes. And the Alchemist is a damn cool villain, combining kung fu-ish moves with a serously sinister lair and a very nasty taste in young girls. The only flaw in the look of the film is Pitof's fondness for extreme closeups, which look like bad TV thanks to the (then) limitations of digital equipment. Even with that minor problem Vidocq is still outlandish fun. If you haven't had enough of cartoon superheroes and villains this summer, hunt this one down.

The trailer below is in French, but it gives a good idea of the look of the film, including the dodgy closeups.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review: Sixty-One Nails (2009) by Mike Shevdon

I wouldn't normally review a book I quit halfway through, but in this case the novel's failures point out the strengths of two very similar authors. Sixty-One Nails is in the urban fantasy genre, the urban in this case being London. The protagonist is Niall, a nobody-in-particular until he collapses on a Tube platform with what looks like a heart attack. It turns out he's just survived an attack by the Untainted, the name given to pure blood fairies, or Feyre, as they're called here. It seems that Niall is some kind of half-breed fairy and the Untainted want to kill people of his ilk. Niall is saved by Blackbird, a fairy woman, and she explains that there are seven Feyre courts residing in London, and Niall must seek the protection of one of them.

I threw in the towel on Nails for two reasons: one, the plot kept slipping back and forth from first to neutral. Two, Shevdon is vanilla all the way when it comes to prose and world-building his magical London. The pedestrian prose isn't a major problem (J.K. Rowling has made billions with an ABC writing style), but when it's allied with a second-rate imagination it creates a fatal problem. Shevdon's attempts to describe magic and the magical world are weak and infrequent; they all feel like slightly reworked bits from Harry Potter and Star Wars. He also succumbs to the curse of many fantasy writers: prolixity. Rowling was one of the worst offenders in this regard in the last four Potter books, but she's far from alone. I know from having shelved books at the library for five plus years that sci-fi/fantasy writers are the pulp and paper industry's best friends. In Nails, a lot of the excess paper consumption stems from the characters spending far too much time debating their every move and option. Poor Niall can't open a door without having a long natter about it. And London, as a setting, is not used to full advantage. A few place names are mentioned, but other than that the action might as well be taking place in Chicago.

Shevdon is working the same side of the street as Mike Carey and Ben Aaronovitch. Both of these authors write urban fantasy series set in London. Carey's features a private eye/exorcist named Felix Castor, and Aaaronovitch's hero is Peter Grant, a young copper and apprentice wizard. Both writers keep their stories moving at a brisk pace, and their magical elements are clever and believable, not just add-ons to liven up a standard adventure story. Both of these writers make London come alive in their novels; in fact, in both series London qualifies as an important secondary character, not just a location. Carey & Aaronovitch have their faults (Carey's books could use some pruning), but if you want to attempt an urban fantasy series they're the boys to measure yourself against. Here are my reviews of the latest appearances by Felix Castor and Peter Grant.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

A confession: I haven't liked any of the Batman films. It hasn't mattered if it was Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher or Christopher Nolan doing the directing, I've found all of them fatuous, overblown and dreary. It turns out, however, that TDKR is the least annoying of the bunch. That doesn't mean it's good, just that it doesn't commit any epic blunders. It's worst sin is that it's utterly pedestrian. It's not dull, but it's not exciting; it's not dumb, but it's not clever; and the acting is competent, but not gripping.

The major improvement in Nolan's third crack at Batman is that the speechifying has been cut way back. The previous film, The Dark Knight, was stuffed with tedious, stilted orations about morality, personal responsibility, yadda, yadda, yadda. Each of the major characters got the chance to yak it up, and each time one of them opened their mouth the film ground to a halt. If this film's been greatly improved by a decrease in pretentious chatter, it's a bit surprising to report that the action elements have become weaker. We get some generic fistfights between Bane (the villain du jour) and Batman, Catwoman roughs up some people, and that`s about it. The action set-piece is supposed to be a fight between hundreds of cops and an equal force of Bane`s henchmen, but the sequence is practically over before it begins and it isn`t filmed with any visual imagination. All of the action is accompanied by Hans Zimmer's hyper-bombastic soundtrack, which is scored exclusively for tea kettle drums and tubas, and sounds like a symphonic ode to dinosaur flatulence. On the plus side, the pacing is good and the special effects are seamless.

A strippergram girl on the Planet Adolescentia
The mega-success of Nolan`s Batman films has always struck me as a bit surprising. I think the main reason for it is that Nolan`s films appeal to the demographic that takes their comic books very, very seriously. For decades comics were only of interest to kids and teens. In 1977 Heavy Metal magazine appeared in North America and the ground rules in the comic book industry changed. Heavy Metal was a mix of sci-fi and fantasy comics, all of them featuring copious amounts of violence, nudity and  rough sex. Batman`s Marquis of Queensbury rules-violence and chaste lifestyle couldn`t compete with Heavy Metal, at least among teen readers. Heavy Metal (and its imitators) also pulled in adult male readers, and suddenly the superheroes of the Marvel and D.C. universes had to get dark, dirty and serious to keep up with Joneses. It`s from that point onwards that "serious" superhero comics became an obsession amongst precocious 12-year-olds and thirtysomethings suffering from arrested intellectual development. And that's exactly the demographic, I suspect, that appreciates Nolan's approach, which, according to the fans, adds psychological depth to the superhero genre. The comic book people have finally found a director who takes their hero (and their obsessions) as seriously as they do.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: Equator (2003) by Miguel Sousa Tavares

I was about halfway through this novel, and enjoying it quite a bit, when it decided to veer off the road, plough through a fence, rollover five times and burst into flames. I couldn't stop it, there was nothing I could do, really. It started off as fairly unique story about Portugese colonial affairs in the early 1900s, but then...I'd better start at the beginning.

Luis Bernardo is a well-off member of Portugal's ruling classes, spending his time in leisure pursuits and not working too hard at the family shipping business. He's not, however, an empty-handed playboy; he also writes liberal-minded articles on the subject of Portugal's colonies. His well-regarded articles bring him to the attention of King Dom Carlos, who decides to appoint him Governor of Sao Tome, a Portugese-owned island off the coast of Africa. Portugal is coming under pressure from Britain to end its de facto slavery on the cocoa plantations on Sao Tome. Bernardo's job is to try and ascertain if slavery does exist on Sao Tome and, if it does, persuade the plantation owners to loosen the shackles, as it were. Time is of the essence because the British are going to appoint a consul to the island, and he's going to be investigating the situation as well. If the consul decides that slavery exists, the British will ban imports of Sao Tome cocoa, which would be disastrous for the island's economy, not to mention Portugal's image.

The novel starts off well with its portrait of colonial society and plantation life on Sao Tome. We soon realize that Luis' principled stand against slavery is going to make him a lot of enemies on the island, not to mention making his job alsmost impossible. Just when the novel should be getting deeper into the issue of slavery the story suddenly jumps to India where we meet David Jameson, the man who will become the British consul in Sao Tome. It's here that the car wreck begins. Up until this point the writing had been unspectacular but decent. From here on in the novel becomes a telenovela. A bad telenovela. Jameson's backstory is described at ridiculous length and by the time he gets to Sao Tome the novel has become a combination soap opera and bodice ripper. The last half of the novel is dominated by Luis' affair with David's wife, Ann, and there's nothing good to be said about it except that Tavares might be a nominee for the Literary Review's bad sex in literature award.

Equator would be just another bad novel if it didn't wander over the line into racism. The first example of this is that not one of the main or secondary characters is black. How do you write a modern novel about slavery and not include a black character? The only black characters we get are a faithful manservant, a nubile, but silent, maid, and Gabriel, a plantation worker who leads a brief rebellion on the plantation he works at. This is racism by omission. A nastier example of racism comes at the very end when Luis goes to see Ann with the intention of taking her off the island with him. He finds her having a roll in the hay with Gabriel. Luis promptly goes back home and kills himself. The relationship, if there is one, between Ann and Gabriel hasn't been set up, so their bonking session is simply a plot device to cause Luis to kill himself. The way the scene is written one gets the impression that the author is equally horrified that Ann is getting it on with a black man. Not nice.

Equator is further hampered by a few too many passages that read like high school history lessons and a translation that's pretty sloppy. I don't suppose a translator can rewrite whole passages, but you'd think he could iron out some of the lumpy syntax. Peter Bush, the translator, has won various awards for his work but this effort looks to be a blot on his record.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Film Review: Malena (2000)

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s my friend Andrew and I were frequent attendees at Toronto's trio of grindhouse cinemas: the Rio, the Biltmore and the Coronet. Of course, back then the term grindhouse didn't exist. We just thought of these theatres as places where for one low price you could watch five extravagantly crappy movies. The patrons were exclusively male and either retired, unemployed or homeless. A lot of snoozing went on at these grindhouses. One of the three had a cat that liked to patrol up and down the aisle, feasting on the mice that hoovered up the spilled popcorn. And the washroom of the Biltmore was either a gay cruising spot or a drug den. I never hung around long enough to find out which.

The bill of fare at these cinemas usually consisted of a kung fu film, a horror/slasher offering, an action movie of some kind (western, cop, adventure), an older A-list film, and finally, and inevitably, some softcore porn. The porn usually took the form of a sex comedy, and they came from the four corners of the world, although by the time they made it to Toronto they were usually heavily scratched and missing whole scenes. And in this way I received a beginner's course in sexy-time world cinema.

Robin Askwith-Jagger
The Brits were represented by the Confessions of (a Window Cleaner/Driving Instructor, etc.) series of films, and, to a less sexy degree, the Carry On films. The Confessions franchise (four in all) starred Robin Askwith, an actor who owed his success to looking like Mick Jagger's brother. Whether he was a better-looking or uglier brother is up for debate. Anyway, Robin's role was always that of a cheery, chirpy working-class bloke, Cockney division, who stumbles and bumbles his way into ogling, or having sex with, a variety of women, most of whom sit a few rungs up on the social ladder. The key point in these films (and the Carry On films) is that the men are generally reluctant Lotharios. They always seem baffled or embarrassed by the prospect of sex. This certainly helps fuel the comedy, but the lesson learned is that Brits find sex to be an essentially ridiculous activity.

As for German sex comedies...well, comedy in reference to anything German is probably stretching a point, but they did try. Their films often took the form of traveler's tales, beginning with a group of men and women meeting in a railway carriage, bar or hotel who decide to pass the time by telling stories of sexual escapades. As a storytelling device this format dates back to Boccaccio's The Decameron, but it was an effective way to trot out six or seven erotic tales. And the Germans were all about the eroticism. No fannying about like the English; the German films kept the comedy at its most basic level ("Oh, no! Your badly-behaved dachsund has torn my dress off!") and moved straight to the romping. Germans seem to take their sex seriously.

American sex comedies ran towards stories about horny teenagers in high school. They were dull and predictable, and the teenagers always looked closer to their thirties than their teens. Occasionally the grindhouse would offer up an older American blue movie, the sort of film that featured tales of wife-swapping and lots of polyester clothing. I'd have to say Americans just don't approach sex with any kind of imagination.

And now we come to the Italians. As you would expect from a country that produced Silvio "Bunga Bunga" Berlusconi, Italian sex comedies have off-the-charts levels of testosterone. The men in these films are inflamed and engorged by the slightest glimpse of a woman's anatomy, and to that end a lot of time is spent in scenes of voyeurism. And once they spot naked female flesh, their exaggerated cries and hoots act like a Greek chorus of lust . Need I mention the accompanying hand gestures and arm waving? Interestingly, these films often had the least amount of actual sex. The whole point of them was apparently to show male desire reaching the boiling point. The other peculiarity of these films is that they often feature young teens (sometimes very young teens) lusting after adult woman and even bedding them. Want another oddity? Each of these films seemed to have a requirement for one terrifically ugly male to end up getting it on with a Sophia Loren lookalike. I suppose the answer to all this weirdness lies in the toxic combination of Catholicism, machismo and patriarchy, but it makes for some awesomely bad and entertaining schlock.

And how does Malena fit into all this? The answer is that it's nothing less than a big budget, epically-scaled version of the classic Italian sex comedy, which thereby makes it possibly the worst Italian film of all time. Why? Because it's attempting to hide it's softcore, exploitation roots behind a patina of production values, top quality cinematography, hordes of extras, and the heady combination of Monica Belluci's sex appeal and acting ability. I hope she got a boatload of lira for this film because the director doesn't miss a chance to exploit her body. When she isn't being spied upon while undressing, she's being groped by a conga line of gargoyle-ugly men. On top of all this we have a boy barely in his teens who worships her from afar and likes to imagine himself in her arms, breasts, legs and so on. The plot? Malena (Belluci) is the town hottie and all the men lust after her. Vile rumours circulate that she's bedding men for money, rumours that everyone is happy to believe in. Malena eventually decides she might as well profit from her reputation and becomes a prostitute, largely because it's the only way she can provide for herself in World War II Italy.

Malena is also a blatant ripoff of Fellini's Amarcord, copying that classic's comic tone and style down to the last detail. There's a definitely a case of copyright infringement here. The other film it steals from is Malizia, a classic cheapo sex comedy from the 1970s starring Laura Antonelli, the Monica Belluci of her day. That film was also rife with voyeurism and horny little boys. The most shocking thing about Malena is the respect it's garnered over the years. There are special edition DVDs, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Criterion Collection added it to its catalogue one of these days. This is further proof, as if any was needed, that the film world is still in the sweaty hands of 16-year-old boys.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Paintings In The Flesh

I just got back from a trip to Windsor/Detroit which included a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, a mid-sized gem of an art museum located just on the edge of the downtown area. I have no background in art, but I've always been enthralled by paintings, largely because my own talent for drawing or painting begins and ends with stick men. Clumsily-drawn stick men. Growing up I was painfully aware that my classmates, parents and sister could sketch anything, and with more than a fair amount of skill. It was all enormously unfair and that childhood trauma has left me haunting art museums, staring with envy and awe at what people with actual skill can do.

This is a roundabout way of introducing something I noticed while walking through the galleries of the DIA: some paintings have more impact when seen in the flesh, as it were, than they do when reproduced in art books or prints. It's also true that other paintings look no better or worse than their reproductions. Here's what started me thinking about this at the DIA:

This is Van Gogh's Bank of the Oise at Auvers, and what you're looking at, as beautiful as it is, offers only the vaguest hint of the ferocious visual intensity of this painting. You stand in front it and wonder if it's being lit from within.Van Gogh's Good & Plenty-sized brushstrokes, nestled together with the well-ordered charm of a brand new box of crayons, produce a pixel-like effect of illumination. No reproduction captures this eerie luminosity. Some of the Van Goghs I've seen in the Musee d'Orsay are equally bright, but this one stood out even more because the DIA keeps its galleries dimly-lit except for spotlights shining down on the paintings.

Here's another painting at the DIA called Zodiacal Light by Sylvia Mangold:

This is an even better example of a painting that suffers by not being viewed in situ. For one thing, nothing can capture its size, which is a healthy 152x254 cms. And this particular photo of the painting suffers from harsh lighting. Zodiacal Light is an attempt to capture a particular kind of night sky, and if the painting isn't seen in exactly the right lighting conditions (low), the magic in this image is lost. The Van Gogh's brightness leaps out you, while Zodiacal's size, super-subtle gradations of grey, inky blacks, and shocking pinpoints of white light draw you into an ordinary landscape made spectral and poetic.

The Hood Museum of Art is part of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and they have a painting that combines both size and visual intensity called Standard Station by Ed Ruscha:

Standard is a whopper of a painting, measuring 64x121 ins. It's size and the jolting contrasts between the red, white, yellow, and black wedges of colour make this an entrancing, intimidating painting to stand in front of. That isn't something you can get across in an art book. The size is the key to the painting's power. This expanse of canvas was traditionally reserved for depicting scenes of martial glory or biblical significance, and Ruscha gives his gas station the same epic treatment to indicate the significance of the car in American culture.

And on the other hand we have Dancers in the Green Room by Edgar Degas, also in the DIA:

Yup, the above image is pretty much exactly as the original looks. It's certainly worthwhile to see it in the flesh, but it doesn't have the same "pop" as the other paintings I've described have. I'm not the first to notice this sort of thing. Hang out near the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and you'll hear lots of people mention how underwhelming it is to see it first hand.

The moral of this story seems to be that none of our hi-res, 1080p, 3D, 48fps technology can replace the emotional, visceral impact created by eyeballing a painting in the flesh. Some paintings don't suffer from being viewed through a filter of photography, but it's more than worth the effort to journey out to nearest gallery or museum to find the the ones that seem to be as alive as the people viewing them.