Monday, 18 September 2017

"A Legacy of Spies" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  264
Genre:  Thriller, espionage

Moving between past and present, the novel follows Peter Guillam, retired British spy and former right-hand man of legendary spymaster George Smiley, living peacefully on his family farm in Brittany, until he is summoned back to London by the Secret Service who are investigating an operation Guillam was involved in over fifty years ago.  Forced to rake over his murky past in Cold War espionage, Guillam is forced to reckon with the consequences of a life of personal and professional betrayal.

This fine novel returns to the world of Cold War spying that made John le Carre's name and features the return of his best-loved character, tubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken, but ruthless spymaster George Smiley.  The novel is a kind of follow-up to le Carre's 1962 breakthrough novel The Spy Who came in From the Cold, and also calls back to his other best known book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1973).  Written in spare terse prose, this is nevertheless complex and emotionally devastating.  As with many le Carre novels, this deals with the psychology of a spy, and the moral and psychological consequences of that lifestyle.  This is John le Carre at his best.   


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Mother!

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay:  Darren Aronofsky
Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama,

A young woman (Lawrence), referred to as "Mother" in the credits, although nine of the characters are named in the film, is married to a successful poet (Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block.  They live together in a rambling country house which she is renovating after a severe fire.  One night a strange couple (Harris and Pfeiffer) arrive and insinuate themselves into the lives of the homeowners.  It then gets progressively darker and weirder as more and more people invade the couple's home.

This film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky is frankly bizarre.  It's full of striking, memorable images and sequences, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a fantastic, tortured performance.  Some of it though is frankly tedious, and almost the whole thing makes very little sense.  It's probably best to see the film as an allegory, not to be taken literally, and there is likely to be a lot of discussion about what it actually means.  My take on it is that Jennifer Lawrence just wants to be left in piece with her family, but it's impossible to escape from the demands and intrusion of the world outside.  It's worth watching for it's sheer ambition.  You'll likely not see much like this, certainly not from a mainstream Hollywood release.  Personally I didn't enjoy the film, but I'm glad that I saw it, and I*'m still trying to decode what the hell it's all about.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year of Release:  1984
Director:  Wes Craven
Screenplay:  Wes Craven
Starring:  Heather Langenkemp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  Horror

 A group of teenage friends in a small American town find themselves pursued in their dreams by a horrifically burned figure armed with a glove which has razor-sharp blades attached to the fingers.  If they are killed in their dreams, they die in reality too.  As the friends are killed off one by one, the survivors have to stay awake long enough to figure out a way to fight their dreams.

This film is one of the most influential horror films of the 1980s and possibly one of the most influential horror movies of all time, introducing the iconic movie villain Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund), and spawning six direct sequels, a TV series (Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990)), a crossover with the Friday the 13th franchise (Freddy vs. Jason (2003)) and a remake in 2010.  By and large the film sticks to the well-established slasher movie formula, but given a supernatural twist.  The death scenes are, by and large, imaginative and well-staged.  Another reason why the film works so well is the simple fact that everyone sleeps and dreams, and our dreams are always beyond our control, and it plays with the idea that is we are harmed in a dream we could be harmed in real-life as well (the idea that dying in a dream equals dying in real life is a very old one, and it used to be believed that this is why we wake up at the very last minute, a kind of psychological escape hatch so we don't snuff it in our sleep because we happened to have a midnight snack).  Writer-director Wes Craven was inspired by a series of disturbing real-lifer incidents from the 1970s where refugees from Southeast Asia refused to sleep after suffering terrifying nightmares, some of them subsequently died in their sleep.
The film creates a believably cluttered suburban setting, and is elevated by Craven's obvious affection for his teenage characters, who are played by a talented cast headed by Heather Langenkemp who gives a great performance mixing vulnerability and strength as the strong-minded Nancy, and a very young Johnny Depp as her boyfriend Glen.  Of course, the standout performance is Freddy Krueger who, coupled with his memorable appearance, gives Freddy a gleefully cruel wit, before the character became a pop culture joke.
This is one of the purely fun horror movies.  Full of shocks and scares and a few jokes, and nasty enough to raise a gasp, but not nasty enough to be too disturbing for non-horror fans.

Heather Langenkemp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street           

Saturday, 9 September 2017

It

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Andy Muschietti
Screenplay:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; based on the novel It by Stephen King
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Bill Skarsgard
Running Time:  135 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is an adaptation of the 1986 novel by Stephen King.  Set in 1989 (as opposed to the novel's 1958 setting) in the small town of Derry, Maine, which has been terrorised by a spate of mysterious disappearances of children.  Seven young outcasts, who call themselves "The Loser's Club" decide to put a stop to it:  Bill Denbrough (Lieberher) has a bad stutter and his younger brother, Georgie, is among the missing; Ben Hanscom (Taylor) is picked on because he is overweight; Beverley Marsh (Lillis) is abused by her father and is the subject of cruel rumours; Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is the group clown, often getting in trouble due to his loud mouth and foul language; Stan Uris (Oleff) is picked on because he is Jewish; Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is subjected to racist bullying; and Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac due to his over-protective mother.  They discover that the culprit is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Skarsgard), who is in reality an evil, shapeshifting entity which feeds on fear, particularly children's fear.

Previously adapted as a two part TV miniseries in 1990 which was re-edited into a feature film; It is one of Stephen King's best known books.  The film lacks the richness of the book, but is an effective horror film, although, like many horror films, it relies too much on sudden jump scares and CGI trickery, and  there is less of the idea that was depicted so well in the book, of It mining the deepest subconscious fears of it's victims.  It is well acted, and the film really shines in  the quieter character moments.

Clowing around:  Bill Skarsgard is It

Thursday, 7 September 2017

"The Girl with All the Gifts" by M. R. Carey

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  460
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, thriller  


This 2014 novel from writer M. R. Carey (the pen-name of British writer Mike Carey, whose probably best known as a comics writer probably best known for his runs on X-MenJohn Constantine: HellblazerLucifer and his own series The Unwritten), is a striking post-apocalyptic science-fiction / horror tale.  Set in a near future Britain, ten year old Melanie is a bright, intelligent, friendly girl who loves school, particularly her favourite teacher Miss Justineau.  She lives in a cell on a military base.  Every day soldiers strap her to a wheelchair at gunpoint, muzzle her and take her to her classes with the other children on the base, similarly strapped and muzzled.  Occasionally there are new faces.  More often children disappear and are never seen again.  Outside the  world is gone, most of the population has become infected by a fungus that turns humans into cannibalistic zombies known as "Hungries".

This a deeply affecting, exciting, thrilling, and occasionally surprisingly tender story.  The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with interesting and engaging characters.  The are some plot contrivances, with characters often being rescued from certain death at the very last moment, and it's full of stuff that you will probably have seen before in many other zombie apocalypse stories (of which there have been a lot!).


Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Juan Carlos Medina
Screenplay:  Jane Goldman, based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd
Starring:  Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins, Eddie Marsan
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Horror, crime, period drama, mystery, thriller

Limehouse is one of the poorest and roughest areas of Victorian London where every kind of crime, degradation and vice is rampant, and now it is targeted by a brutal serial killer, the so-called "Limehouse Golem" which strikes seemingly at random, targeting the young, the old, men and women.  World weary Police Inspector John Kildare (Nighy), who has been passed over for promotion due to rumours about his private life, is put in charge of the case and during the investigation finds himself drawn to troubled music hall actress Elizabeth Cree (Cooke), who is on trial for the poisoning of her husband, one of several suspects in the Golem case.

This is a lurid, full-blooded Victorian melodrama, rich with atmosphere and period detail.  It's full of gore and horror, but also works as an intriguing mystery.  The film uses historical figures as characters, such as Karl Marx (Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Watkins) and comedian Dan Leno (Booth).  Bill Nighy is great as the sensitive, troubled police inspector and the connection he forms with  Elizabeth is genuinely touching.  The film explores themes of social inequality and the pursuit of fame.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem

Thursday, 31 August 2017

"Moon Palace" by Paul Auster

Year of Publication:  1989
Number of Pages:  298
Genre:  Literary fiction

This novel by American novelist Paul Auster opens in 1969 and follows recent graduate Marco Stanley Fogg in a quest for family and identity which takes him from New York City to the desolate beauty of American West.  Along the way he encounters various characters who all have their stories to tell.

The book deals with familiar Paul Auster themes such as the relationship between life and art, the role that chance plays in life and unreliable narrators.  It's a novel about exploration in both the literal, external sense of going out into the world, but also in the internal, spiritual sense.  It's a coming of age story spanning three generations, and ultimately it's a story of America itself.  It is beautifully written and full of memorable characters.