Friday, 30 December 2011

"Damned" by Chuck Palahniuk

Year of Publication:  2011
Number of Pages:  247 pages
Genre:  Comedy, horror

This is the story of thirteen year old Madison Spencer, the daughter of a world famous movie star and a billionaire, who dies and finds herself condemned to Hell, a place where  the newly dead are locked into filthy cages, there are mountians of toenail clippings and used razor blades, along with lakes consisting of insects and seas of various bodily fluids.  Grotesque demons munch on damned souls, the only currency is candy and the only jobs are internet porn or telemarketing.  Also the only entertainment on offer are endless showings of The English Patient.  However, Madison is not sure why she is there and so she, along with some new friends that she meets along the way, travels towards the centre of Hell in order to find her answers.

This book basically mixes the Dante Alighieri's Inferno with The Breakfast Club and Judy Blume novels.  It's told in the first person by Madison and moves between her adventures in Hell with her life on Earth.  Frequently very funny, it is highly readable and very imaginative.  It might not rank as one of the best of Palahniuk's works, but it is entertaining, and his familiar style is very much in evidence.  The book pokes fun at the lifestyles of the super rich and famous, as well as teenage fiction and Hell itself.  The lead character of Madison Spencer is engaging and likeable, even if few of the secondary characters really register.  Even if you are not a Palahniuk fan, this is enjoyable enough to make it worth checking out.   

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Year:  2011
Director:  David Fincher
Screenplay:  Steven Zaillian, based on the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Starring:  Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joley Richardson
Running Time:  158 minutes
Genre:  Thriller, crime, drama, mystery

This is the English language film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Steig Larsson, which was first published in 2005, and was already the subject of a 2009 Swedish film.

Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) is hired by Henrik Vanger (Plummer) the wealthy, elderly patriarch of a large and powerful family, ostensibly to write his biography, but in reality to investigate the murder of his beloved neice, who disappeared almost forty years previously.  Vanger is convinced that one of the family killed her.  As he investigates, Blomkvist enlists the help of troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara).  Together the two begin to discover some shocking secrets about the Vanger family.  Secrets that some would kill to keep hidden.

This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel.  Visually it is very impressive, with the bleak, wintery landscapes giving the film an almost dreamlike atmosphere.  The cast are uniformly brilliant, with Rooney Mara exceptional in the difficult role of Lisbeth Salander, who is already one of the most memorable characters in modern popular fiction.  The film also manages to condense a complex and long novel into a coherent film.  The film retains the Swedish setting of the original novel, but all the dialogue is English language, with the cast basically speaking in Swedish accents, which seems slightly bizarre.  Also the film moves at a fairly sedate pace, although there are sudden bursts of violence, a couple of which are genuinely shocking and disturbing.  

However, it is a fierce and powerful piece of work, with a superb visual sense and would be worth watching just for Rooney Mara's performance alone.

Rooney Mara is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Year:  2011
Director:  Brad Bird
Screenplay:  Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, based on the television series Mission:  Impossible created by Bruce Geller
Starring:  Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Running Time:  133 minutes
Genre:  Spy, thriller, action

After escaping from a Russian prison, secret agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), a member of the top secret Impossible Mission Force, finds himself pitted against a ruthless terrorist (Michale Nyqvist) who has stolen the codes to launch Russian nuclear missiles and plans to use them to start an all out nuclear war.  However Hunt has the aid of Jane Carter (Patton) who has her own personal reasons for targeting the terrorist group, computer specialist Benji Dunn (Pegg), and IMF chief analyst William Brandt (Renner).  However Hunt and his team have been set up to take the blame for an attack on the Kremlin, and the US Government have instituted a "Ghost Protocol", which effectively means that they have disavowed all knowledge of Hunt and his team's existence.

This film is the fourth movie to be spun off from the popular Mission:  Impossible TV series which ran from 1966 to 1973, and is best enjoyed as a ride.  Shown in the IMAX format it is a delirious range of spectacular action set pieces, however it does get bogged down in the dialogue scenes.  It's full of narrow escapes and miraculous survival, however while the film is running it's too entertaining to really bother with plot details.  The movie is like a James Bond film.  It sets out to give the audience an entertaining ride with plenty of action and stunts and special effects and it succeeds in that.  The cast are engaging enough, especially Simon Pegg who injects warmth and humour into his part as newly minted agent Benji Dunn.  The main problem is that the storyline plays a little too much like a video game, and the villains never really make much of an impression.
It's an entertaining, enjoyable movie and it's a lot of fun.

Tom Cruise wishes he had taken the stairs in Mission:  Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Friday, 16 December 2011

"The Cut" by George Pelecanos

Year of Publication:  2011
Number of Pages:  292 pages
Genre:  Crime, thriller

Since his debut in 1992, American novelist George Pelecanos has carved out a niche for himself chronicling the dark side of life in Washington D.C., as well as writing for such acclaimed television series as The Wire (2002-2008) and Treme (2010 - ongoing).

The Cut tells the story of Spero Lucas, who has recently returned to his hometown of Washington D.C. after serving a tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq, and now works as a private investigator for a defence attorney.  Lucas' speciality is recovering stolen property, no questions asked, for which he receives a fee ("the cut" of the title) of forty percent of the property's value.  Hearing of his speciality, Lucas is contacted by a high profile crime boss in prison who wants Lucas to find out who is stealing valuable packages of drugs from his operation.  Despite his qualms about working for the man, the fee is too great for Lucas to resist.  However, Lucas is soon pitted against a group whose ruthlessness and taste for violence leave him shocked and he soon realises that his investigation could have deadly consequences.

This is the first of a proposed new series, but it is very much in the vein of Pelecanos' previous work.  His work benefits enormously from his extensive local knowledge of Washington D.C.,  and is enriched by the frequent references to soul music, food, movies, as well as Greek-American culture (all of which are typical Pelecanos trademarks).  His books are well written and his stories are well plotted, exciting and engaging.  Driven more by dialogue than action, Pelecanos builds a number of interesting character here, most notably the flawed but consistently likeable Spero Lucas, even if the main villain of the novel does not seem to have much depth.  There are certain themes in the novel about the problems faced by returning soldiers, violent crime, drugs, race, family and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a dangerous and complex world, which often aren't really developed, but don't really interfere with the story. 

There is plenty here to appeal to fans of Pelecanos and it's an entertaining, exciting and quick read.  George Pelecanos is a talented and distinctive crime writer and well worth checking out.


Saturday, 10 December 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Year:  1946
Director:  Frank Capra
Screenplay:  Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Farank Capra, based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
Starring:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy

Christmas time again:  The decorations go up, enough food is bought to feed a small army, parents fight with other desperate hollow eyed shoppers for the chance to get their hands on the latest must-have toy, Cliff Richard and Slade dominate the radio for weeks on end, forgotten comedy shows wheel out special extended episodes, office workers jeapordise their careers in drunken rampages after the work parties, and It's a Wonderful Life makes it's annual appearance.

The film revolves around George Bailey (Stewart), who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls, and has dreams of becoming a famous architect and travelling the world.  However, because of his innate drive to help his family and friends he stays to take over the family Buildings and Loan association, eventually giving up on his dreams entirely to stay in town and marry girl next door Mary Hatch (Reed).  As he comes into conflict with the wealthy and evil Henry Potter (Barrymore), George's life begins to unravel.  Eventually, on Christmas Eve he decides to commit suicide and a strange angel, Clarence (Travers), is sent to help him, by showing him what the world would be like if he had never existed.

This film has a reputation for being the very epitome of schmaltzy, feel-good sentiment.  However there is more to it than that.  The film, for the most part at least, is actually very dark.  Don't forget, it is about a man who is driven to the very brink of suicidal despair.  However, in a way the darkness makes the light shine more brightly.  It features some superb performances, especially from James Stewart, who plays the everyman role that he was so famous for, and yet provides layers of self-doubt, despair and rage balanced against the essential decency of George's personality.

Not a great success on it's original release, the film became an acknowledged classic through being a staple of Christmas TV schedules.   The film is occasionally a little too pious, but not too much.  It is essentially a fable.  Ultimately though the title comes across as being somewhat ironic.  How wonderful is George Bailey's life, really?  And, more importantly, how wonderful will it remain?  The film itself has developed a life of it's own and hangs in the movie firmanent somewhere beyond criticism.  It's very easy to be cynical about it, but it still packs a powerful punch and is probably the best Christmas movie of all time and is likely to be still viewed for as long as the holidays are celebrated.

It's a Wonderful Life for Donna Reed and James Stewart



Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Exterminating Angel

Year:  1962
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Screenplay:  Luis Bunuel
Starring:  Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Claudio Brook
Running Time:  93 minutes
Genre:  Drama, comedy, surrealism

Have you ever been at a party where all you want to do is leave, but for whatever reason, you have to stay? If so, then spare a thought for the characters in this classic surrealist satire from Spanish director Luis Bunuel. 

Following a night at the theatre, a group of wealthy friends return to the palatial mansion of Edmundo Nobile (Rambal) for a dinner party.  The servants have all made their excises and left for reasons, even they can't properly explain.  During dinner, sheep and a bear run around the hallways of the mansion.  Eventually all the guests find themselves inexplicably trapped in the mansion's music room.  There is nothing physically stopping them from leaving, and it's not that they don't want to leave, it's just that for some reason they can't.  Days drag on, food and water become increasingly scarce, the group become increasingly hostile amongst themselves and irrational.  Slowly they begin to suffer from hysteria, disease and hallucinations.  Rescue attempts from the outside world fail due to the same strange phenomenon that is preventing the guests from leaving the music room is apparently preventing anyone from getting into the house.  There is nothing physically stopping the rescuers and they want to get in, but for some reason they just can't.

This bizarre movie does not offer any explanations, and is filled with strange and disturbing imagery.  It is however unforgettable.  Here Bunuel attacks his favourite targets of the wealthy middle and upper classes and organised religion.  However he also broadens his satiricial scope to take in the ritualised nature of modern life.  As always with Bunuel the darkness is alleviated somewhat by comedy, albeit very black comedy, and some sympathy with his characters, even if they are not particularly likeable.  Shot in Mexico, on a very low budget this is still a very stylishly made film.  The idea of the film being largely set in one room, might seem dull and uncinematic but Bunuel and his cast and crew milk every drop of tension and humour from the nightmarish scenario.  

There's a direct reference to this film in the 2011 Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris in a scene where the time-travelling writer (played by Owen Wilson) describes the idea of the film to a bemused Luis Bunuel (played by Adrien de Van) who resonds:  "But why can't they leave?  I don't understand."

Still powerful, still troubling and still relevant, this will make the next party you go to seem not quite as bad.  In a weird way, the movie does end up making some kind of weird sense once you've seen it.  Even the sheep and crawling hand.  

      The partying never stops in The Exterminating Angel 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Year:  1998
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Screenplay:  Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies, based on the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson 
Starring:  Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro
Running Time:  119 minutes
Genre:  Drama, comedy,

This film is a screen adaptation of the cult 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson.  In 1971, journalist Raoul Duke (Depp) and his friend and attorney Doctor Gonzo (del Toro) travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas because Duke has an assignment to cover a prestigious motorcycle race, however they have equipped themselves with an astonishing arsenal of alcohol and illegal drugs, and manage to turn a simple sportswriting assignment into a prolonged binge of drug and alcohol fueled madness, as they tear Las Vegas apart and glimpse the dark side of the American Dream.

The film uses a barrage of visual and auditory techniques to recreate the experiences of Duke and Gonzo.  Director Terry Gilliam has a strong visual sense and the frequent use of TV screens showing footage from the Vietnam war and the anti-war protests give a sense of the wider world at the time. 

The development of the film was protracted and troubled.  Both Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone at various times tried and failed to get film versions of the book off the ground, and Ralph Bakshi at one time tried to do it as an animated film.  Eventually British director Alex Cox was hired as a director for the film, until he fell out with Thompson and was dropped, although he is still credited as co-writer on the film.

The film features impressive performances.  Benicio del Toro put on 45 pounds in nine weeks for his role and extensively researched the life of the real life attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (upon whom the character of Doctor Gonzo was based)  and Johnny Depp lived in Hunter Thompson's home for four months and formed a strong friendship with the writer which lasted until Thompson's death in 2005.  Raoul Duke is pretty obviously Hunter Thompson (at one point the name Raoul Duke is referred to as an assumed name, and in another scene he recieves a telegram addressed to "Thompson").  There are also a number of well-known actors in small roles, including Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin and Gary Busey. 

The tone of the film veers from wild comedy to genuinely disturbing sequences and creates a powerful and memorable viewing experience.        

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp take a trip in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Thing (2011)

Year:  2011
Director:  Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Screenplay:  Eric Heisserer, based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Starring:  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, Trond Espen Seim
Running Time:  102 minutes
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, action

Okay, first things first, despite it's title this is not a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing which itself was inspired by the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, which were both adapted from the 1938 story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.  Instead this is a prequel to the 1982 film.

 Antarctica, 1982, a Norwegian research expedition discovers an alien spacecraft frozen for thousands of years in the ice and, a short distance away, the frozen body of it's occupant.  A young American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Winstead), is sent in to help analyse the frozen body, which is sealed in a solid block of ice.  However, when the officious lead scientist (Thomsen) orders a tissue sample taken from the creature, aganst Kate's advice, the Thing begins to reawaken.  Before long it has burst out of the ice and is on the loose around the station, attacking the occupants until it is burned to death.  However, that is only the beginning, because Kate soon realises that the shape-shifting alien has the ability to infect it's victims at the cellular level, and to transform their cells into it's cells, and thusly perfectly imitate any life form, hiding unitl it is ready to attack.  She soon discovers that any one of the expedition may be The Thing.

This is a fun, tense blend of science-fiction and horror, which creates a strong sense of claustrophobia and suspense.  It also deserves points for not being  a remake.  The problem is that we have been here before.  It doesn't offer much that was not there in it's predecessor.  There are plenty of the nightmarish transformations and flesh tearing mutations that were such a hallmark of the 1982 version, but this time round they have kind of lost their shock value.  Certainly there is nothing to compare with the legendary stomach suddenly growing teeth or the severed head scuttling around on spider legs in the earlier film, although both of them are referenced.  It also has several nods to the 1951 film most notably in the alien defrosting from ice and also from the depiction of sinister and/or cowardly scientists who need to be kept in line by tough, pragmatic macho men, the exception being tough, pragmatic scientist Kate, whose character bears a very strong resemblance to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien movies.  The film does well, though in the depiction of the paranoia and claustrophobia of the characters, who if anyhtng are even more distrustful of each other than in the earlier film.  In the 1982 version a kind of blood test was used to check who was human and who wasn't, in this movie the only thing they can do is check people's fillings (which the alien cannot absorb and so spits out).  Which is bad news for anyone with clean teeth or porcelain fillings.

This is a fun suspenseful action film which comes nowhere close to eclipsing it's predecessor, but does at least complement it.   

Mary Elizabeth Winstead warms up in The Thing