Saturday, 28 January 2012

"A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin

Year of Publication:  1996
Number of Pages:  837 pages
Genre:  Epic fantasy

This book is the first in the successful fantasy series "A Song of Fire and Ice" (the others being A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005) and A Dance with Dragons (2011) with two more volumes planned).  The novel is set in a medieval world on the continent of Westeros where seasons can last for decades.  When Lord Eddard Stark, master of the northern stronghold of Winterfell, is offered the post of Hand of the King he is deeply suspicious but reluctantly accepts.  The King is Stark's oldest friend, but the queen is a member of the Lannister clan, Stark's oldest and bitterest enemies.  Arriving at court, Stark and his family discover that treachery is rife.  The previous Hand dies under very suspicious circumstances, and Stark is determined to find out what happened and to avoid a similar fate.  However with enemies and intrigues on all sides, he soon finds himself playing a deadly game.  Meanwhile, far across the sea, the son and daughter of the previous king, and rightful heirs to the throne, are raising a large and fierce army to reclaim their birthright.

The book is a really exciting fantasy novel.  Despite references to dragons and other monsters, magic and fantastic beasts are notable by their absence.  It also takes away much of the romance and glamour from the fantasy genre.  In this world, life is tough, violent and frequently short.  It is very violent and quite sexual, although there is very little of romantic chivalry here.  The book is well written and, despite it's prodigious length it always keeps the attention.  It follows a very large cast of characters and is written  in a series of short chapters (about 10 to 20 pages) each focussing on a particular character's storyline.  It is a fantastically complex and intricate novel mixing action, adventure and intrigue in an impressively well-developed imaginary world, peopled with some memorable characters.

The book has recently been adapted as a TV series for HBO. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Ox-Bow Incident

Year:  1943
Director:  William A. Wellman
Screenplay:  Lamar Trotti, based on the novel The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Starring:  Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn
Running Time:  75 minutes
Genre:  Western, drama

This film takes the traditional Western movie and turns it into a bleak morality tale, which savagely condemns mob rule and vigilante violence.  Set in Nevada, 1885, the film opens with cowboy Gil Carter (Fonda) and his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) returning to the small town of Bridger's Wells.  The town has been suffering due to large numbers of cattle-rustling incidents, and the inhabitants are resentful and angry.  News reaches the town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his herd stolen.  Despite the protestations of Carter, preacher Sparks (Leigh Whipper) and elderly store-keeper Davies (Harry Davenport) a posse is soon formed to go after the killers.  Carter, Sparks and Davies are worried that the posse will turn into a lynch-mob, and execute any suspects themselves without any trial or due process of law.  The three protestors join the posse in the hope of talking them out of any violent action, but it may already be too late.

The studio insisted that this film was shot cheaply on studio sets rather than on location, and this actually benefits the film, because the small studio space makes the film more intimate and claustrophobic than it might have been on an expansive location.  There is also very little of the traditional Western action, the film mostly being driven by character and dialogue.  Even the setting is different from the traditional oat opera, being mostly set at night, with repeated references to the bitter cold.  The characters are well drawn and even minor characters are developed with believable reasons for their actions (or inactions).  A haunted looking Fonda gives a great performance as a character who at first appears to be a mindless saloon-brawler but turns out to be one of the voices of conscience.     

Packing a lot into it's brief run time, this depicts a shockingly bleak and cynical view of human nature, and marks a turning point for the American Western genre, when it began to grow and develop and turn from romanticised adventure stories into a mature and valid genre which was capable of dealing straight on with mature, adult themes.

It's judgement day in The Ox-Bow Incident

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Ward

Year:  2010
Director:  John Carpenter
Screenplay:  Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen
Starring:  Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem, Jared Harris
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  Horror, psychological

This is a fairly average, low to mid budget horror film.  In the year 1966, in North Bend, Oregon, Kristen (Heard) is arrested after setting fire to a remote farmhouse.  She is taken to a psychiatric hospital and placed on a secure ward which she shares with four other young women:  friendly and artistic Iris (Fonseca), vain and arrogant Sarah (Panabaker), tough Emily (Gummer) and timid and childlike Zoey (Laura-Leigh).  On the ward they are treated by the sinister Doctor Stringer (Harris) who is using a range of experimental techniques.  Kristen soon discovers that the ward hides some very dark secrets when she learns that a large number of patients have mysteriously gone missing and never been seen again.  She also finds herself haunted by a hideous female figure.

This was John Carpenter's first feature film since 2001's Ghosts of Mars, and while it fails to rise to the levels of his best work, such as Halloween (1978), it remains watchable enough.  Set almost entirely in the claustrophobic confines of the hospital, with engaging performances from the cast, Carpenter opens his box of tricks and provides plenty of slick shocks and scares.  The problem is that everything feels very much by the numbers, with nothing that fans will not have seen countless times before.  A twist before the end is initially interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. 

It's not really a bad film at all, it's just bland.  Carpenter is a great horror director and has a legacy of some truly spectacular work, but here it just feels like he is merely going through the motions.  It's far from being the worse of his output but then it is nowhere near his best.  Fans will have seen it all before, but there is still enough to make it an entertaining enough diversion.

Amber Heard is about to be sent to The Ward


Saturday, 21 January 2012

J. Edgar

Year:  2011
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Screenplay:  Dustin Lance Black
Starring:  Leonadro DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Damon Herriman, Ed Westwick, Jeffrey Donovan
Running Time:  137 minutes
Genre:  Drama, biography

This film tells the true life story of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  In the 1960s, Hoover (DiCaprio) dictates the story of his rise to power to a succession of young agents.  In 1919, a 24 year old Hoover makes a mark by targeting alleged Communists after a series of letter bombs are delivered to prominent politicians and public figures in Washingotn D.C.  After being appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation, Hoover's scientific methods of criminal investigation are brought to bear in the high-profile Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.  However, in the 1930s, when the FBI declares war on the "public enemies" (famous gangsters and bank robbers such as Al Capone and John Dillinger), Hoover becomes a household name.  However as time passes Hoover becomes increasingly paranoid and obsessed with surveillance, building up bulky covert files on countless American citizens (both guilty and innocent).  At the same time he is troubled by his repressed homosexuality, and desire for his best friend, Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

This is a film which is easier to admire than like.  It boasts a strong central performance from DiCaprio who has the difficult task of portraying a complex man from his mid-twenties to late seventies, it is well shot with immaculate production design and period detail.  Visually the film employs a palette which seems to bleed all the colour from a scene making it look virtually black-and-white.  For a film that mostly takes place in gloomy, cavernous offices, it gives it an appropriately somber look.  However, the film suffers trying to pack in seven decades of American history into about two and a quarter hours, which means that many important and interesting elements are either skipped over or ignored entirely (most notably Hoover's relationship with Melvin Purvis, who was at one time the FBI's number one agent  and became famous for shooting John Dillinger.  However, allegedly jealous at Purvis' fame, Hoover turned on him).  Another problem that the film has is the prosthetic make-up for when the actors play their older characters, DiCaprio's is fine, but Hammer's just looks comical, like a rubber mask.  Also the film is very slow at times.  Hoover promoted an image of the sharp-suited, square-jawed, clean-cut, gun-toting FBI "G-Man", but he himself was a man who spent his career behind a desk, and much of the film is basically people talking in offices.  Action is kept to a minimum, and that which there is strongly hinted to be a product of Hoover's own self-mythologising.

For a man who was preoccupied with the private lives of others, and was always hungry for fame and publicity,  Hoover kept his own private life a closely guarded secret.  The film makes it pretty clear that Hoover was gay but very deep in the closet.  In one chilling scene, Hoover tries to explain to his mother (Judi Dench) that he is not interested in women and his mother harshly responds that "I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son."  One of the most famous rumours about J. Edgar Hoover was that he was a transvestite, although this has since been discredited.  It's not even mentioned in the film. 

A film that is so focussed on it's central character means that the other characters rarely have much of a chance to make an impression.  Armie Hammer is impressive as Hoover's close friend, Clyde Tolson, which the film depicts as having  along term almost-romance with Hoover, Naomi Watts is underused as Helen Gandy, Hoover's long-serving secretary and Judi Dench gives a good perfomance as Hoover's sour, deeply religious mother.  DiCaprio plays Hoover with sympathy and sensitivity, no matter how unpleasant the things he does.  Hoover comes across as a bully and a power-hungry manipulator, who would do everything and anything to get what he wanted.  However, it is a testament to DiCaprio's skill and the film's script that Hoover emerges as a sympathetic, if not likeable, character.

This is an interesting enough movie, and makes a good attempt to explain an extremely complex man.  In fact, it is good enough that it is really frustrating that it is not better.

Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


Year:  1961
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay:  Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Starring:  Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Suuzo Yamda, Seizaburo Kawazu, Isuzu Yamada
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  Action, period, drama

In around 1860, a masterless samurai (or "ronin") (Mifune) arrives by chance in a small village which is being torn apart by a vicious, long-running war between rival criminal gangs. When he learns of the situation, the samurai decides to hire himself out as a bodyguard (or "yojimbo") to one of the gangs.  However, he very quickly realises that the gangs are each as loathsome as each other, and so he decides to play both sides, setting them against each other and in the process increasing his fee.

The film was the second production from Kurosawa's own production company.  The first film, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) in which Kurosawa sought to expose the corruption of the modern world by setting the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet in the context of a modern Japanese corporation, had somehow failed to pull in the popcorn guzzlers of the world en masse, and had lost a lot of money.  For the company's second production, Kurosawa returned to the jidai-geki (period films) with which he had had his greatest successes.  Influenced by the 1928 Dashiell Hammet novel Red Harvest and the American Westerns which Kurosawa loved, Yojimbo proved to be a massive worldwide hit.

The film is a classic action movie mixing tension and dark humour with sudden bursts of kinetic violent action.  The film is visually striking with artfully composed widescreen images (it really has to be seen in widescreen on the biggest screen possible to work at it's best).  The violence is expertly choreographed into almost a ballet of action.  It also features Kurosawa's penchant for memorable action sequences set in the pouring rain (he was one of the few directors who really made effective use of the weather in his films).  One of the main reasons behind the success of this work is the lead actor Toshiro Mifune who creates an iconic presence as the sardonic taciturn samurai who regards the world with a wry smile and  remains nameless throughout (in one scene he is asked his name while gazing out of the window at a field of mulberry bushes and answers to the effect of "mulberry field... thirty... That's good enough.  I am nobody").  Mifune's character is smart, orchestrating the gangs against each other and watching the fun from a lookout tower, like a referee.  He also behaves in his own way with conscience and honour.  While he is not averse to killing for money, he also helps weaker or victimised people for no personal gain.  He also has a sense of humour, such as in the scene where, while spying on his enemies he puts his finger to his lips and sticks his tongue out when he learns how they plan to kill him.  He arrives in the village purely by chance and stays for no particular reason other than to make some money and because he apparently thinks it would be fun to give the gangsters a richly deserved ass kicking.  The character is almost a superhero, Kurosawa himself dubbed him "a samurai of the imagination".

The film has numerous blackly comic scenes, such as the image of the dog wandering around with a severed human hand in it's mouth, and is hugely entertaining for anyone who enjoys action and suspense.

The film was popular enough to warrant a sequel, Sanjuro (1962), which was also directed by Kurosawa.  It was also famously remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and less famously as Last Man Standing (1996).           

Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Artist

Year:  2011
Director:  Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring:  Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell
Genre:  Silent, drama, comedy, romance
Running Time:  100 minutes

The middle of January is obviously way too early to be talking about the greatest film of the year, but if it manages to produce anything to top The Artist than 2012 will go down as one of the greatest years in movie history.  I'm not even joking.  A black and white, French, silent film with no stars, might sound like box-office poison, at least outside of the art-house circuit and Film Festivals.  However this film has been met with rapturous critical reception and large audiences.  It is immediately obvious why when you see it because it is absolutely fantastic.

The film opens in Hollywood in 1927.  The biggest star of the day is matinee idol George Valentin (Dujardin) who has been hugely successful in a string of comic adventure films with his adorable little performing dog, Jack (Uggie the dog).  One night after a premiere he literally bumps into a young aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (Bejo), whom he helps to get her first big break.  However, Valentin's position at the top of the tree is threatened by the latest technological innovation:  sound cinema (aka "the talkies").  Initially dismissing sound as a passing fad, Valentin finds himself unable to adapt to this new style, and soon finds himself on a relentless downward spiral, while Peppy goes from strength to strength fast becoming the biggest star in Hollywood.

This charming and endlessly stylish film perfectly recreates the world of silent film, featuring such out-dated techniques as irises, wipes and intertitles.  The two lead actors give superb performances, with Jean Dujardin expertly playing the charismatic leading man, and also allowing the audience to see his darker side in the later parts of the film.  Berneice Bejo is effortlessly engaging as Peppy, and the two handle the physical sielnt comedy perfectly.  The score is brilliant, although it's inclusion of Bernard Herrmann's love theme from the movie Vertigo (1958) has proven controversial due to the hostile reaction it provoked from the actress Kim Novak, who starred in Vertigo.    

Despite being very much a tribute to the cinema of the past, this is still accessible for modern audiences.  Those who worship at the shrines of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin will doubtless love it but it will also entertain those who seem to think that cinema started with Star Wars (1977).   If nothing else it will introduce the magical world of silent cinema to a whole new audience and that is enough in itself  to make it an unqualified success. 

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are all smiles in The Artist  

Friday, 13 January 2012


Director:  Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay:  Christen Jul and Carl Theodor Dreyer, based on the short story collection In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Starring:  Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schmitz, Henriette Gerard
Genre:  Horror, vampire
Running Time:  75 minutes

This interesting movie is less of a conventional horror movie and more of a surrealistic art film.  The film concerns student and occultist Allan Gray (West) who travels to a remote, rural inn where he encounters an elderly man (Schutz) who, along with his two daughters Gisele (Mandel) and Leone (Schmitz), is being preyed upon by an evil vampire.

For the most part the film doesn't really make much sense, being a succession of dream-like or nightmarish images, such as inexplicable shadows, ghostly figures, and a weird fuzzy looking picture (which was apparently due to a light accidentally "fogging" one of the takes.  Dreyer liked the effect and decided to use it throughout the film).  Interestingly the film focuses almost entirely on the victims of the vampire, with the creature itself being notable mainly by it's absence for most of the film.  This was Dreyer's first sound film and was recorded in three languages.  Due to this Dreyer uses hardly any dialogue, and the version I saw was, in fact, a silent version with a score by Steven Severin  (founder member of Siouxsie and the Banshees).

Many viewers today may find the film frustrating.  It is slow, and a lot of what happens in the film doesn't make much sense and there isn't much in the way of conventional thrills or frights.  However, for those who go along with it and get themselves drawn into the movies hallucinatory world, may find themselves rewarded with a truly unforgettable experience.   

A typically creepy image from Vampyr 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Year:  2011
Director:  Guy Ritchie
Screenplay:  Kieran Mulroney and Michelle Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring:  Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Rachel McAdams
Running Time:  129 minutes
Genre:  Mystery, crime, adventure, period

This film is the sequel to the blockbuster 2009 film Sherlock Holmes.  The film is very loosely based on the legendary detective stories created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most particularly the 1893 story The Final Problem.  However the plot of the film is by and large original.  In 1891, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Downey, Jr.) becomes convinced that a series of bombings in France and Germany are the work of criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Harris).  However, the difficulty is that there is no evidence to connect the respected professor to any wrongdoing.  After enlisting the aid of his recently engaged best friend, Doctor John Watson (Law), Holmes soon realises that he has put Watson, and his bride to be (Reilly), at risk of lethal retaliation from Moriarty's men.  With the help of Holmes' well-connected brother, Mycroft (Fry), and a tough gypsy woman, Simza (Rapace), whose brother is working with Moriarty, Holmes and Watson set off on a journey across Europe, on the trail of one of the world's most powerful and dangerous criminals.

This is a hugely entertaining mix of globe-trotting adventure, explosive action and humour.  Robert Downey, Jr. is perfectly cast as Holmes and Jude Law makes for an engaging Doctor Watson, and there is great banter and chemistry between the two leads, with Watson refreshingly being portrayed as more than a match for Holmes in many places.  It will doubtless infuriate Conan Doyle purists, but for anyone else it is a fun period adventure.  The action scenes are well handled and the film provides more than enough spectacle.  As Moriarty, Jared Harris makes for a great, slippery villain, and he shares a number of great scenes with Robert Downey, Jr..  Stephen Fry is entertainingly arch as Mycroft Holmes (the scene where he turns up in the nude and happily chats away to Kelly Reilly, oblivious to her shock, is a comedy highlight).  Noomi Rapace is also impressive, lending gravitas to a fairly underwritten role.  The movie lacks any real surprises, the suspense in the film coming not so much from discovering who the villain is, because it is made clear right from the outset, but instead from how Holmes and Watson will unravel the criminal plot in time.  It also tends to meander at times, but mostly succeeds in being an entertaining, light-hearted, adventure romp, which will doubtless please fans of the original. 

Robert Downey, Jr., Noomi Rapace and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows                

Thursday, 5 January 2012

"Little Star" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication:  2011
Number of Pages:  533 pages
Genre:  Horror, thriller

This is the fourth novel from Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who is probably best known for his debut novel Let the Right One In (2004) which has already become something of a modern classic of vampire literature.  This book differs from his previous three in that it is not really a supernatural horror novel.  The only vaguely supernatural element in the book is Theres, a girl who is found abandoned in the woods as a baby, and has a unique talent for singing pitch-perfect notes.  Found by a once successful singer-songwriter, who sees in Theres the opportunity for raising the perfect musical machine.  She eventually finds a soulmate however, in unhappy teenage poet Teresa.  What follows is heartbreaking, shocking and deeply disturbing.

At times coming across like an even darker take on the 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures this is also a savagely satirical take on the music industry, reality television, internet forums and the cult of fame.  Lindqvist is a powerful writer and has a gift for creating characters that the reader cannot help but sympathise with no matter how unpleasant their actions might be.  He tends to be at his best when he is concetrating on a small number of central characters, and here the book focusses primarily on the two girls.  The storyline is gripping and full of suspense.  This is probably Lindqvist's best book to date, and is one of the best horror novels that I have come across in a very long time.  Full of memorable characters, and some shockingly violent set-pieces, this is one that will be devoured in great, hungry chunks.

Definitely check this one out, although The X-Factor and Abba will never be the same to you again.