Sunday, 14 May 2017

"The Pigeon Tunnel" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  342 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction, autobiography

In a career that has lasted 55 years, ex-spy turned novelist David Cornwell (who writes under the pseudonym John le Carre) has become one of the greatest living authors.   Initially writing intelligent Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), le Carre has come to use the structure of the espionage thriller to explore human psychology and explore the political and moral climate of modern geopolitics.  This book is not really an autobiography, but it is likely as close to one as we are ever likely to get.  It collects reminiscences and anecdotes of events and people in le Carre's life, that have helped shape his remarkable career.  We are presented with a cast of actors, spies, directors, politicians, journalists, crooks, prisoners and fellow authors.  Beautifully written, and full of interesting stories, by turns funny and dark, and sometime both, particularly in one of the book's best stories where le Carre writes about his complex relationship with his con-man father.  This is a book to treasure.

"I'm a liar... Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.  As an maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists."
- John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel    

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Year of Release:  2017  
Director:  James Gunn
Screenplay:  James Gunn, based on the comic Guardians of the Galaxy created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klemetieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone
Running Time:  136 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, comedy

The Guardians of the Galaxy are: Peter Quill a.k.a "Starlord" (Pratt) from Earth; ex-assassin Gamora (Saldana); warrior Drax (Bautista); wise-cracking thief Rocket (Cooper)  a genetically modified raccoon; and Groot (Diesel), a plant-like humanoid who is still a sapling, after the events of the first film.  After being hired by the arrogant and easily insulted Sovereign race to defeat a huge inter-dimensional monster, the Guardians find themselves being hunted by them due to Rocket stealing some valuable batteries and insulting their leader, Ayesha (Debicki).  Ayesha hires intergalactic pirate Yondu (Rooker) to hunt them down.  Meanwhile, Quill discovers the truth behind his mysterious origins.

When it was originally released in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a huge surprise.  It was a risky film, even from the mighty Marvel Studios because it was so far removed from the rest of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Instead of being a real superhero film, this was an out and out space opera, featuring a talking raccoon, and a walking tree, and the general feeling before release was that it might be too bizarre for general audiences.  However, people loved it.  It was exciting, playful and funny. Director James Gunn does not tamper too much with a winning system in this sequel.  There is all the humour, action, spectacle and '80s tunes that fans could want.  Familiarity may mean that this is not as fresh and surprising as the original, but with the character being more familiar there is more depth to their relationships.  If the first film was about getting the band together, here we see them grow and strengthen.  The performances are good, and there are several welcome additions to the team.  This is a hugely enjoyable film, the pace hardly ever flags despite running well over two hours and it provides solid entertainment.

The Guardians of the Galaxy left to right: Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klemnetieff, Dave Bautista

Thursday, 11 May 2017

"The Blade Artist" by Irvine Welsh

Year of Publication:  2016
Number of Pages:  273 pages
Genre:  Crime

The brutal, violent, alcoholic thug Frank Begbie has terrorized the streets of his native Edinburgh for decades.  However now it appears as if the unthinkable has happened:  Frank Begbie has straightened out and cleaned up.  Having seemingly renounced his violent past, Begbie is now a successful artist, living in California under the name of Jim Francis, with a beautiful wife and two young daughters.  Until he learns that his estranged son, Sean, who Begbie barely knew, has been savagely murdered.  Returning to Scotland for the funeral, Begbie sets out to find his son's killer.  As he finds himself among his old Edinburgh, surrounded by old friends and enemies, Begbie finds his past violently catching up with him.      

First appearing in Irvine Welsh's 1993 debut novel Trainspotting, and memorably played by Robert Carlyle in the 1996 film adaptation and it's sequel T2: Trainspotting, Frank Begbie is one of Welsh's most popular characters, appearing in several other books.  However, this is the first time that he has been the lead character in a novel, and there is the problem of having a hugely popular supporting character becoming the lead, and it does dilute the character's impact.  It's entertaining enough, but there are no real surprises, the central murder mystery is not particularly engaging.  It's funny though and moves along at a good pace.    

Sunday, 7 May 2017

"The Star Diaries" by Stanislaw Lem

Year of Publication:  1971
Number of Pages:  338
Genre:  Science-fiction, satire

This is a collection of linked short stories detailing the adventures of accident-prone astronaut Ijon Tichy as he explores time and space, dealing with time paradoxes, clones, aliens, hostile robots, malfunctioning matter-transmitters, attempts to "fix" human history, and killer potatoes.

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is possibly best known for his 1962 novel Solaris which was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002.  Lem wrote the Ijon Tichy short stories over a period of twenty years, and only some of them are published in The Star Diaries.  Reading them you can see how Lem moved from playful, humorous science-fiction, to deeper, philosophical fiction.  The stories are inventive, absurd, philosophical, heavily satirical and sometimes very funny.  It deals with some serious themes such as the nature of existence.  Some people may be put off by the long philosophical and theological discussions in the book, but there is enough hilarious invention to make it worth while.  

Saturday, 15 April 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Screenplay:  Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring:  Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marno, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama

In a bleak Iranian city, Arash (Marandi) works hard to take care of his heroin-addicted father (Manesh), and trying to survive the daily grind of crime and misery that surrounds him.  However, the local drug dealers and pimps are being stalked by a mysterious woman (Vand), who is, in fact, a vampire.

The vampire film genre often seems to have been played out, however there are occasional films such as this one that show there is still life in it yet.  A kind of neo-noir, vampire Western, this is an Iranian language film, that is set in Iran, although it is an American film and was shot in California.  It looks gorgeous, filmed in crisp monochrome.  Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour described the film as "the lovechild of Sergio Leone and David Lynch, babysat by Nosferatu", and it certainly has a very Lynchian flavour to it.  The film hasn't much of a plot, it's more about atmosphere, and it does have a strange dreamlike quality, which makes it more haunting than frightening.   It's one of those films where whatever time of the day you watch it, it feels like three in the morning.  Swathed in a black chador, Sheila Vand is great as the unnamed, enigmatic vampire, both terrifying and alluring at the same time, she has a real otherworldly quality.  There is a strong feminist theme, the vampire usually preying upon men she witnesses abusing or disrespecting women.    The events take place against the backdrop of a gritty backdrop of drugs and crime, where vampires are probably far from the worst thing out there.

 Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut

Year of Publication:  1963
Length:  206 pages
Genre:  Satire

An American journalist, John, is working on a book about what prominent Americans were doing on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  He is particularly keen to find out about the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the "fathers" of the atomic bomb, and finds himself fascinated by Hoenikker's three eccentric children.  His investigations lead him to the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the strange new religion of Bokononism is covertly practiced.  John becomes involved in the political machinations of the island, and learns of Dr. Hoenikker's last legacy to humanity, a substance called "ice-nine" which can freeze the entire planet within a few days.

One of prolific American novelist Kurt Vonnegut's best known works, Vonnegut rated this and Slaughterhouse 5 as his personal favourites among his own works, this is a clever, funny and frightening little book.  Almost every page is packed with jokes and quotable lines.  It is also a frighteningly believable look at how the world could end.  The book takes swipes at religion, politics, patriotism, science and the foibles of human nature.  However the tone is ultimately compassionate and warm, rather than unrelentingly despairing.  It's the voice of a disappointed father who loves his children despite their many, many flaws.  Read it and you'll find yourself laughing even as your blood chills faster than a glassful of ice-nine.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Rogue One

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Gareth Edwards
Screenplay:  Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker,
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, adventure

Jyn Erso (Jones) is a young convict, who is rescued by the Rebel Alliance.  Jyn's father, Galen (Mikkelsen), is a scientist who has been recruited by the evil Galactic Empire to work on a devastating new weapon known as the Death Star, which has the power to destroy an entire planet.  Jyn is partnered with Cassian Andor (Luna) on a mission to find and rescue her father, so that the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star.  However, unbeknownst to her, Andor's orders are to kill Galen.

If you remember the opening text to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) about the Rebel spies stealing the plans for the Death Star, well this is their story, expanding a scant few words into a two hour plus film.  The Star Wars series made a triumphant return to screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, and the current thinking is that there will be a new Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future with a new entry in the ongoing storyline every two years, and in the interim a standalone film set in the Star Wars universe but not part of the ongoing saga.  Rogue One is the first of these standalone films, although it is intrinsically linked to the Star Wars storyline.  This does not open with the Star Wars title, or have the traditional opening text crawl.  It's also darker and grittier, more of a war movie in space.  Set just before the first Star Wars film, it manages the difficult task of combining cutting edge digital special effects, with technology that would not look out of place in that first film back in 1977, for example the Death Star plans are contained in what looks like an old Betamax cassette, which gives it a nice, chunky physical appeal.  It's a film full of adventure, excitement, and entertainment for Star Wars fans old and new, combined with some stunning visuals and real emotional heft at times.   Cutting edge digital effects allow for moving cameos from some favorite characters.  With appealing characters, well-played by the cast, the conclusion of the film has some real weight to it.

Felicity Jones in Rogue One