Monday, 29 August 2011

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 312 pages
Genre: Fantasy, horror

Summary: While his family are murdered by a mysterious man named Jack, a baby crawls into a nearby graveyard where he is adopted by the ghosts that dwell there and named Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short).
Living among the ghosts in the graveyard, and guided by his mysterious guardian Silas, who belongs neither to the worlds of the living or the dead, Bod learns the ways and the secrets of the graveyard. He discovers the gateway to the nightmare desert city of the ghouls, and encounters the Sleer a powerful and dangerous spirit, guarding ancient treasure.
However the real dangers lurk in the world outside, for Jack is still out there, still hunting for Bod and will stop at nothing to finish what he started.

Opinions: As with the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, this multi-award winning, international bestselling novel has appealed to both children and adults alike. This is a genuinely magical and enchanting modern fairy-tale, which moves at a great pace. Packed with invention and imagination, this is a pretty dark book and there is a lot of scary stuff in it, but there is a lot of warmth and tenderness in there as well. I absolutely loved reading the book and found it one of the most striking and enjoyable reading experiences I have had in a very long time.
Neil Gaiman is one of the most acclaimed and successful of modern fantasy writers and has penned short stories, comic-books, scripts for film and television as well as bestselling novels for both adults and children. He has a unique touch, which is hard to pin down, both contemporary and timeless, and it is very much in evidence here. His fans, both young and old, will find plenty to enjoy here.
This novel deserves to become a classic of both children's and fantasy literature, and is bound to become a much-loved addition to countless bookshelves worldwide for many years to come.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

"Our Kind of Traitor" by John le Carre

Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 306 pages
Genre: Thriller, espionage, crime

Summary: Young English couple Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins are taking an off-peak holiday on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where they intend to spend their time relaxing and playing tennis. They meet an eccentric, wealthy Russian man named Dima and his large family. Dima challenges Perry to a game of tennis, and the couple end up becoming unwillingly attached to the family.
It turns out that Dima is a reknowned money launderer and is very high up in the Russian underworld. He is part of an extensive and complex multi-national criminal plot, but has become disillusioned following the suspicious death of his closest friend and associate. Knowing that time is running out for him, Dima plans to defect to Britain using his knowledge of the criminal syndicate and their plot as leverage. He wants Perry to broker the deal for him with the British intelligence services. Soon Perry and Gail find themselves drawn into a deadly game played between ruthless spies and a vast and murderous crime empire.

Opinions: British thriller author John le Carre first made his name with powerful and intelligent depictions of Cold War espionage such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1962) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (1974) in which the realism was in part due to the fact that le Carre himself was a spy for several years. More recently he has turned his gaze to more topical global problems and, with this novel, he focuses in on the banking and financial crisis.
There is plenty of anger here and, as usual, great sympathy towards the unfortunate individuals left twisting in the wind, at the mercy of ruthless and brutal powers on both sides.
The story moves well and there is plenty of suspense and action. Le Carre also has a natural ear for dialogue and a gift for characterisation, as well as a strong eye for detail. Powerful, disturbing and thrilling, this is a must read for thriller fans.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Near Dark

Year: 1987
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Janette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Joshua Miller, Marcie Leeds
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre: Horror, action, supernatural

Summary: Oklahoma: One night Caleb Cotton (Pasdar) meets Mae (Wright), an attractive young drifter. There is a real attraction between them and, after some flirting, he tries to kiss her, but instead she bites his neck and runs off. Caleb starts to feel severely sick, and the sun causes his flesh to smoke and burn. As he heads home to his vetinerian father, Loy (Thomerson) and young sister Sarah (Leeds), Caleb is abducted by Mae's "family" who turn out to be a nomadic band of vampires who travel around in stolen cars and mobile homes searching for blood and trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the law and the daylight. The group is led by the charismatic Jessie Hooker (Henriksen) and his "wife" Diamondback (Goldstein), and is also made up of the callous psychopath Severen (Paxton), and Homer (Miller), who is forver trapped in the body of a child, at odds with his adult mind and drives.
Caleb tries to fit in with the group, who give him a week to prove that he deserves to be among them, or they will kill him, while Loy and Sarah travel the South in a desperate bid to rescue him.

Opinions: This film is a very effective blend of action and vampire horror. The film was originally intended by Bigelow to be a revisionist Western, but she found it diffcult to get financing for a Western movie (at that time the genre, unlike vampires, was calmly resting in peace), however, mixing it with a more commerical genre made it a far more palatable prospect for investors.
The movie, however, was a commercial failure. It was released in summer 1987 at the same time as the more comedy oriented The Lost Boys, which was far more successful and has a very similar plot.
However, reviews were strong, and this has grown into quite a major cult film. The film is beautifully shot with some impressive panoramas of the desert landscapes and glittering night-time images that evoke the romance of the vampire lifestyle. The vampires themselves are well handled. Far from the glamorous, sexy vampires that have always been so popular, these ones are grimy, dirty and perpetual outsiders. Despite some of the horrible things that they do, the vampires become weirdly likeable and almost sympathetic. Their murderous ways are more or less enforced on them by their condition, and they also genuinely care about each other. Ultimately the film is about family, the conflict between the "bad" family (the vampires) and the "good" family (Caleb's sister and father) for Caleb's soul.
Kathryn Bigelow is a brilliant action movie director and she handles the action sequences here expertly, giving them a genuine sense of excitement. The film is also well-paced. It moves fast and is empty of all unessentials. Exciting, tense and, at times, genuinely scary, this is one of the best vampire movies of the 1980s.
In one scene Caleb walks past a cinema marquee advertising Aliens (1986). Lance Henriksen, Janette Goldstein and Bill Paxton all appeared in Aliens and Kathryn Bigelow was later married to the film's director James Cameron.

"Howdy. I'm gonna seperate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don't mind none."
- Severen (Bill Paxton) makes new friends in Near Dark

Bill Paxton and Adrian Pasdar stop for a drink in Near Dark

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Quatermass 2

Year: 1957
Director: Val Guest
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale and Val Guest, from a story by Nigel Kneale
Starring: Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sydney James, Bryan Forbes, William Frankly, Vera Day
Running Time: 85 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror

Summary: Professor Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy), head of the British Rocket Group, is frustrated that the Government are threatening to shut down his project to send manned spacecraft to the Moon in order to build a lunar colony. They believe that Quatermass' experimental rocket is too dangerous.
However, Quatermass is distracted by reports of large numbers strange, symmetrically shaped meteorites landing in a small remote area of the country. Heading off to investigate, Quatermass, and his assistant Marsh (Forbes), are shocked to find a mysterious refinery facility which seems to be designed exactly like Quatermass' lunar colony, they are also disturbed by the secretive and violent nature of the guards surrounding the plant.
Examining the meteorites, it turns out that they are hollow and filled with ammonia gas and an alien parasite which infects and controls the mind of the nearest human host.
Quatermass discovers that the plant is ostensibly making processed foodstuff, but he suspects a more sinister purpose and as he tries to uncover the truth, discovers a sinister alien conspiracy that reaches to the top levels of Government.

Opinions: Following the huge success of their film of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Hammer Films were keen to adapt the second of Nigel Kneale's highly popular and hugely influential Quatermass TV serials, and bought the rights before the series had even begun transmission.
Kneale was unhappy with The Quatermass Xperiment film, partly due to the changes made to his original television script. With this one he made sure that he had much greater input and wrote the first draft of the script himself, but director Val Guest, much to Kneale's displeasure, rewrote it to shorten it and make it more cinematic.
The finished film is pretty faithful to the Quatermass II TV serial, although heavily condensed (the original six part TV serial is about twice the length of the film). It tells an interesting and involving story of alien possession, and paranoid conspiracy. It utilises an almost documentary style feel and gets a lot of milage from the pipes, domes and canister's of it's refinery setting.
Hollywood actor Brian Donlevy, reprising his role from The Quatermass Xperiment film, makes an effective Quatermass, giving the role a hard-boiled film noir quality, although his perfomance was heavily criticised by Kneale, and future Carry On star Sydney James appears as an alcoholic reporter.
It is an effective and entertaining piece of work and, if not exactly a classic, is an above average slice of 1950s British science-fiction. It was released in the USA as Enemy From Space.

Sydney James, Brian Donlevy and John Longden in Quatermass 2

Saturday, 13 August 2011

"Harbour" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 650 pages
Genre: Horror, supernatural, drama

Summary: Every year Anders and his wife Cecilia and six year old daughter Maja go on holiday to the island of Dommaro off the coast of Sweden, where Anders and Cecilia spent summers as children. However tragedy strikes when Maja vanishes in plain sight and in broad daylight. No trace of her is found and there is nowhere she could have fallen or hidden, it is simply as if she disappeared.
Two years later, Anders' life has fallen apart. Divorced from his wife and drinking heavily, he is lost in guilt and self-pity. Finally realising that he has hit rock bottom, he returns to Dommaro where his grandfather Simon, a one-time magician, still lives.
Returning to his old holiday home, Anders attempts to find out once and for all what happened to his daughter. However, he quickly comes to believe that Maja's still there and trying to communicate with him. However, Dommaro, which has a long and disturbing history of strange occurances and disappearances, is plagued by bizarre happenings as malevolent ghostly figures cruise around on mopeds, mysterious acts of arson flare up all over the island, and the residents begin to act in increasingly strange and violent ways.
Anders and Simon soon find themselves pitted against a powerful and ancient force lurking in the waters around the island. A force which demands sacrifice.

Summary: This is the third novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist to be translated into English following Let the Right One In (2004) and Handling the Undead (2006). After dealing with vampires and zombies in his previous works, Lindqvist here deals with old superstitions and traditions dealing with the sea, as well as ghosts and spirits.
The main narrative of the book covers a number of weeks but is full of flashbacks, and digressions. It has a pretty epic scope and covers a large number of events and characters. The main flaw with the novel is that not all of the digressions and sub plots work and some of it take away from the pace of the novel. Mostly however it works well and the novel is a tense and at times genuinely chilling piece of work. Many of Lindqvist's characters and events are pretty memorable, with the ghosts riding mopeds and talking in quotes from The Smiths being a special standout (Lindqvist himself is a huge Morrissey fan).
Lindqvist has been described as "the Swedish Stephen King" which isn't really very fair, because his style and plots are very much his own. What he does share with King though is a real feel for the rhythms of daily life and an understanding of character.
Delivering traditional gothic horror thrills, with a uniquely contemporary Scandinavian flavour, Lindqvist is one of the most important new writers to emerge in the field of horror in the past decade and is well worth checking out, if you haven't already.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Year: 2011
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon,
Running Time: 130 minutes
Genre: fantasy, adventure

Summary: Teenage wizard Harry Potter (Radcliffe) and his friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) continue their quest to find and destroy the powerful "Horcruxes", which each contain part of the fragmented soul of the evil Lord Voldemort (Fiennes).
However, the sinister Severus Snape (Rickman) is now the headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As the school comes under seige from the evil "Death-Eaters", Harry finds that his situation is far more complex than he thought as he is forced to make a terrible sacrifice.

Opinions: This film adapts the second half of the seventh and, to date, final Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was released in November 2010. As a result, for newcomers to the series, this is not the best place to satrt. However, for fans, it gives the series the spectacular and emotional conclusion which it richly deserves.
The Harry Potter series is almost unique in the impact that it has had in such a short space of time. The first book was published in 1997 and the first film was released in 2001 and they were very much aimed at a children's audience, however each subsequent story has built upon and expanded what has gone before becoming a dark and compex fantasy saga. As the series has grown up along with it's audience so have the three main leads, Dabiel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, who have come to perfectly inhabit their roles.
As with the other entries in the series, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel and features spectaular special effects as well as impressive performances from a cast of celebrated British actors with Alan Rickman being a particular stand-out as the ambiguous Snape.
The film is well made with spectacular action set-pieces in impressive 3D but also packing a genuinely powerful emotional punch without being either melodramatic or overly sentimental.
If you enjoyed the Harry Potter seires you will not be disappointed.

"How dare you stand where he stood!"
- Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Year: 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic book Capatin America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neil McDonough, Derek Lake, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones
Running Time: 124 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, fantasy, war

Summary: In the present day a team of researchers in the Arctic discover a strange craft buried in the ice. Investigating it they discover a circular metal object with a distinctive red, white and blue insignia.
New York, 1942: Steven Rogers (Evans) is a frail, sickly young man who is nonetheless desperate to sign up for the Army and fight in World War II, like his friend Bucky Barnes (Stan). Unable to back away from a fight, which results in him frequently being beaten up, Rogers persists on trying to join up, even though he constantly fails the medical. His perserverance and strong code of honour attracts the attention of Doctor Abraham Erskine (Tucci) who allows Steven to join up as part of an experiment run by the US Military's Special Scientific Reserve to create a "super soldier". The operation is being run by Colonel Chester Phillips (Jones) and British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). Steven's bravery marks him out as the right person for the procedure, which consists of him being injected with a special serum and doused with "vita-rays". The experiment leaves Steven with superhuman strength, agility and speed.
Steven becomes a public hero after catching a murderous spy. As a publicity stunt for the war effort, Steven is sent to tour the US in the guise of costumed super-patriot "Captain America". The Captain America character is an instant hit and he soon becomes the star of movies and comic-books.
However, Steven Rogers was not the first person to try the "super-soldier serum". Johann Schmidt (Weaving), head of the sinister HYDRA organisation, underwent an imperfect, experimental version of the serum and suffered horrific side-effects which earned him the sobriquet of "Red Skull". Schmidt is searching for a mysterious tesseracht which is rumoured to contain vast supernatural powers.
Soon Steven Rogers is forced to become Captain America for real in order to save the world.

Opinions: This is an entertaining blend of superhero action and war movie. The World War II setting not only works for the character, who was originally created in 1941 and usually pitted against the Axis powers of World War II, but helps to set it apart from many of the current superhero movies. The film really goes back to basics with a storyline which harkens back to the early days of comic books and their roots in pulp fiction, and provides plenty of action.
In many ways this is a companion piece to Thor (2011), Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Incredible Hulk (2008), for example Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark (father of Iron Man Tony Stark) and the object which the Red Skull seeks in this film references Thor. All the films also feature appearances by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Fury is scheduled to unite Captain America, Thor, the Hulk and Iron Man in The Avengers which is due for release in May 2012.
The Summer of 2011 has featured so many superhero movies that there is real danger of overkill. However, this one is still worth checking out. The film features some great performances from a very strong cast and the whole thing is played seriously enough to be dramatic while still maintaining a sense of playfulness and humour. It also features some spectacular action scenes.
The film suffers from being fairly predictable, and the contemporary bookends, while understandable from a narrative sense, feel slightly redundant.
By the way, stick around until the end of the closing credits for an additional scene and a trailer for The Avengers.

"Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power..."
Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) explains his choices in Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans is Captain America: The First Avenger