Book review: Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , on September 12, 2014 by Mistlake

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Richard Mayhew lives a well organised, boring life in London and doesn’t reflect much on his situation. All this changes when he decides to help a girl he finds bleeding in the street one night. She introduces him to the unseen world of London Below, a place of magic both light and dark.

Stories are told and retold, and there’s nothing new under the sun, and genre fiction tends to be rather samey regardless of which genre you look at. Perhaps nowhere in recent years is this more obvious than in the genre of quest fantasy, which has been inundated with thousands of series and franchises ever since fantasy hit big a couple of decades ago. At its heart, Neverwhere has the same basic outline as most such books: you’ve got your basic nobody who goes on a journey to discover the world and himself, you’ve got your magical realm to explore, you’ve got your colourful main and secondary villains, and you’ve got your Dungeons & Dragons style plotline where you need to gather magical items, followers and information in order to combat Evil with a capital E and a capital vil. It’s lucky, then, that story is the least important of Neverwhere’s attributes.

It constitutes, in fact, a rather odd and tasty collection of both influences and fresh ideas. Richard Mayhew is very much like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a clueless and not too bright little man who at first just gets dragged along for the ride, and much humour arises from his ordinariness and reactions to what he’s subjected too. This is a dark novel, but Richard’s point of view – and the way others regard him – brings an unexpected note of levity which makes the whole book all the more fun.

So what is it he gets himself into? Well, that’s the big joy here. The relatively clever plot is set primarily in London Below, an incredibly richly imagined world in which Gaiman manages to both have his cake and eat it: he weaves an ornate, detailed tapestry of hierarchies, characters, traditions and history of a twilight land situated in the London sewers, subways and catacombs, where squalor and craziness abounds and even aristocratic splendor has a touch of silliness about it, but at the same time he refrains from explaining too much away, which is a stroke of brilliance. Magic remains magic only for as long as it remains mysterious, and we’re never given full explanations of many of the phenomena Richard encounters.

The horrifically droll assassins Croup and Vandemar, for example – just what are they and where did they come from? How and when did the pseudo-feudal society underground evolve? Why is it that certain people have “Knacks” (supernatural abilities) of varying types? These questions and many others are never answered, and we learn only what is needed for the narrative and for bringing London Below to pulsating life. The rest stays shrouded in darkness, so that we never have to be disabused of the notion we’re given that it is a place of endless possibility and enchantment.

It should also be mentioned that Gaiman uses one of his great trademark techniques here, which is to take something familiar and subverting it into something previously unimagined. In American Gods it was everything from divine pantheons to American roadside attractions. In Neverwhere it’s the London Tube, homeless people and the very names of London’s various townships.

Neverwhere is dark, funny, gleefully preposterous and sometimes very nasty indeed, but above all its fantasy isn’t just a genre denominator or a brand indicator: it really is created by a mind whose imagination flies high, free and virtually unfettered, one of those rare minds which can give you that “ooh” feeling instead of that “oh this again” feeling. In light of that, it’s all right that the story itself remains the same.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Film review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Francis Lawrence. Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael DeBruyn (Michael Arndt), based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Amanda Plummer, Toby Jones.

First sequel to The Hunger Games 2012.

Evil president Snow (Sutherland) doesn’t like how Katniss (Lawrence) has become a symbol for the resistance, so he pulls a fast one on her and the other previous Hunger Games victors, invoking a real or invented tradition saying that every 25 years the contestants in the Games are to be chosen from among the earlier winners. As it is the 75th anniversary, Katniss and her hunting bow suddenly find themselves in a jungle fighting for her life, but this time there is much intrigue brewing behind the scenes.

I liked Katniss as a grassroots heroine struggling only for herself and her loved ones. This time around there’s a distinct whiff of the Matrix sequels to the whole affair, as rebels attempt to combat a virtually omnipotent sci-fi evil, and although Catching Fire is certainly better than that ill-conceived pair of follow-ups, it loses much of the personal intimacy that made the first Hunger Games so engaging.

Lack of tension is a problem running through the film. The Hunger Games as such are reduced to a number of clever gags, leaving the participants fighting the government controlled environment much more than one another, which causes the act of survival to become curiously impersonal.

Likewise, the twists and turns of the story are easily spotted from half a continent away and mostly serve only to set up the next movie. Plot threads are left dangling, characters act inconsistently, and the solutions to many a problem are half-arsed spur of the moment ideas by someone (Collins and/or the screenwriters) who couldn’t be bothered to think things through. In fact, more cerebral effort has been spent on coming up with the acid, gas and spinning clock perils than on the actual narrative.

Catching Fire isn’t all bad, though. It has a lot of forward moving energy that drags viewers along against better judgement, and there is definitely no shortage of over the top action set pieces. Most of the enjoyment derives from the acting side, with Lawrence turning in another fine performance, and Harrelson and Sutherland (of whom we get to see more this time) reveling in their colourful characters. Unexpectedly, the moments of deepest pathos come from the intensely superficial Effie Trinket (Banks), who shows her human side underneath all that over-stylised glitz. Then there’s the late, lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman beautifully playing the new Game Master’s nasty cunning against a deep vein of – most often carefully hidden – warmth.

I haven’t read the novel, but judging by the film, Catching Fire is what happens when you find yourself with a success on your hands and rush to get a sequel out as quickly as possible. It’s disjointed and lacks most of what made the original story special. Disappointing but watchable.

Rating: 5 of 10.

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Book review: Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by Mistlake

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Antoine Roquentin is not having a good time. At first isolated objects, then most everything, and finally also people nauseate him beyond endurance, which makes him gradually lose control over his life.

Life is meaningless as such, and in order to survive mentally and perhaps even physically you need to invent purpose, whether it be work, friends, love, a hobby or whatever else you can think of.  And you’d better stick to what you’ve come up with or, who knows, you might end up like Antoine, drifting aimlessly, trying to control your horror of the “superfluity” of existence and of “things which exist”.

Sartre was of course a philosopher, and Nausea can be seen as a philosophical treatise in the form of a novel. Among other things, this means that what most people would regard as Antoine’s mental breakdown is eventually presented as a revelatory epiphany. It is a rather glum one, it must be said, one which causes him to withdraw from everyone and everything  – including the historical monograph he was writing – that used to give his life structure and focus. Everything is pointless to him, and the meaninglessness of existence makes effort and ambition impossible.

You wouldn’t think that much entertainment value could be mined from ideas like these, but Nausea generates a relentless fascination that pulls you into Antoine’s disintegrating world, where he observes both his own personality changes and the superfluous activities and traditions of other people with the same keen if perhaps dementedly skewed perceptivity. He grows emotional concerning what is happening to him personally, while the almost disinterested descriptions of human behaviour in Bouville (evidently a fictional version of Le Havre) create a nice balance between personal heat and impersonal coolness in the text, although everything in the novel is veneered with the greenish tint of Antoine’s nausea.

There’s also plenty of deadpan humour in his thoughts and in the meticulous depictions of strangers very seriously going about their meaningless, small minded daily rituals. Providing further interest is the fact that not the entire focus is on Antoine’s story; there are two other characters, Anny and the Autodidact, whose very personalities doom them to their own individual brands of tragedy, and whom it is painfully captivating to learn more about.

Now, I won’t act as if I fully understand Nausea, and there are several long passages of dense philosophical discourse which would fit right into a textbook on existentialism – difficult, sometimes dry stuff that needs more intellectual prodding to yield its potential wisdom than lazy old me had the patience to give it. Even so, I found myself agreeing with most of what I did comprehend, but then again I don’t have the most cheerful outlook on life; someone who’s more upbeat might well disagree with every thought in the novel.

The language is beautiful (as far as I can tell, having read the book in translation), which might seem strange for a work written as if it were Antoine’s private diary, but he is a writer after all, and there’s sort of twist at the end which goes further to explain the polished prose.

Nausea is haunting, alternately sublime and disgusting, and despite a small glimmer of light at the end, it’s not a book that’s likely to put a perky spring in your step. It is, however, great literature.

 ating: 9 of 10.

PARIS LA NUIT

Book review: Neil Gaiman – The Monarch of the Glen

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2014 by Mistlake

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Shadow (the hero of Gaiman’s preceding novel American Gods) winds his way to Scotland, where he is promptly and improbably hired for the security detail at a posh party at a manor house in a desolate spot. It doesn’t take long for Shadow to realise that he’s been tricked, and that his presence is somehow required for a sinister ritual that is to take place on the grounds.

The Monarch of the Glen stands on its own, so you don’t really have to have read American Gods to get it (even though a certain Mr. Wednesday makes a semi-return appearance), but it is in itself frustratingly vague and at times almost sloppy.

Some of the vagueness, I’m sure, is on purpose, since I get the feeling that this novella acts as glue between American Gods and whatever adventures Shadow gets up to next. Characters are introduced whose story arcs are not resolved, there’s a fuzzy subplot about the mythological ship Nagelfar that’s never fully explained, and the climax of the ritual and its aftermath are somewhat confusing in that you don’t get a sense of how this long-running tradition actually works (now it’s me being vague, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). All of these factors may be stuff Gaiman keeps back for future exploration, but it’s still a bit annoying.

Other things are clearly unintentionally dubious, like the use of deus ex machina to resolve a situation near the ending, and the fact that the build-up to the finale is full of beautiful detailed description and fine tension, while the finale itself comes rather abruptly and is lacking in detail, making it something of a letdown despite its superficial flamboyance.

Unlike American Gods, this story also suffers from Shadow’s complacency. The novel was about events witnessed by Shadow, so that he was a passageway for the reader into that strange world. In The Monarch of the Glen, on the other hand, Shadow is – at first unbeknownst to himself – the very centre of attention and the one character under threat. Since he just stoically accepts that this is so, and in fact makes the decision to stay put in his dangerous situation, it’s hard to feel much suspense; if he doesn’t worry, then why should the reader?

The Monarch of the Glen is saved by Gaiman’s graceful prose and transcendant imagination, and by the clean and simple but highly beguiling set-up in the early parts. Also enticing are a number of vividly realised characters and the fascinating historical and/or mythical stories they tell. It stays interesting from start to finish, but ultimately it lacks the panache needed to make it truly thrilling.

Rating: 5 of 10.

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Film review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: James Gunn. Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsu, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Peter Serafinowicz, Stan Lee.

Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Pace) wants to avenge himself on the Xandarian people for the deaths of his father and grandfather, and is looking for the means to achieve his goal: an orb containing an immense source of power. In his way stumbles a bunch of maladjusted but tough creatures who, rather against their will, have to take on the roles of heroes, unaccustomed as they are.

I had seen Rocket Raccoon in an old Hulk comic, and I think Groot the tree monster turned up in one of those too at one point, and I was vaguely aware of Gamora. Guardians of the Galaxy? Never heard of them until the Disney marketing machine started rumbling. Somehow, though, my very unfamiliarity with this group of heroes made the prospect all the more enticing, as did the promise of a very different flavour to this particular Marvel property.

On the most basic level, it’s business as usual: we have a group of super heroes versus a bunch of super villains fighting it out in an expensive sci fi/fantasy setting, and the prize at the centre of it all is yet another Infinity Stone type thingamajig, and as usual the threat is enormous – in this case pan-galactic – in scale.

But there are other parts that are simply different, and delightfully so. Guardians of the Galaxy is a proper space opera, insistently reminiscent of Star Wars at its best, the space battles and Star-Lord’s (Pratt) Han Soloesque personality driving the similarities home. Space opera was to some extent done in Thor: The Dark World, and the whole Star Wars thing is of course quite derivative, but in light of the less than stellar (and far less than interstellar) quality of the Star Wars prequels, it’s a joy to once more see this kind of thing done right, with flair, inspiration and excitement.

The next obvious difference from other super hero team movies is that the team assembled here consists of an assortment of misfit criminals. Naturally, all of them show themselves to have some good in their hearts (or sap canals), but they remain an engagingly grungy lot, and are all the more loveable for it. Several of them are splendidly written and acted, but I was surprised to find that the breakout character for me was Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), who steals every scene he’s in with his literal-mindedness, pride and strange assertions. Nor should we forget Michael Rooker as space pirate Yondu, a character as shouty as Rooker is expected to be, but with much humour and perfect comedy timing laced in.

And the sense of humour is Guardians of the Galaxy’s greatest asset. It’s not as if other Marvel super hero opuses have been dry dissertations on tax law, but this a film that truly thrives on its jokes, being a pure comedy – and an extremely funny one – for much of its duration. Great lines, big set pieces, background gags and even parts of the grand finale are uproarious, and the whole film has an invigorating, inspired lunacy to it, underscored in a fine way by the bouncy 1970s song collection. It’s all capped off by the most unexpected cameo to be found in any of the now-mandatory post credits scenes.

The only big drawback is Marvel Studio’s tendency to shortchange their villains. I remember Ronan the Accuser as a more interesting character, and evil overlord Thanos is voiced by someone who does not act very well. Del Toro’s pseudo-villain The Collector (one of my favourite comic book characters) is excellent, but it’s a shame he gets so little screen time. Another complaint would be my usual one about the 3D contributing far less than it annoys, but that problem will go away with the home media release.

All in all, this is a vastly entertaining film which I predict will stand up to many a viewing thanks to its joyfulness and the fun of spotting all the Marvel Comics references (quick, tell me who Bereet is!). Guardians of the Galaxy is possibly the very best Marvel movie yet.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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Book review: Neil Gaiman – American Gods

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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This review contains some mild spoilers.

Shadow’s life changes drastically and bizarrely when his wife dies, he is released from prison and he is employed by a strange old man going by the name of Mr. Wednesday. This old grafter shows himself to be an ancient god somewhat down on his luck, and as Shadow is soon to find out, he is far from the only one. Now Shadow and Wednesday have to travel across the United States to find more of them, hopefully some who are willing to face the upcoming armed conflict against newer gods who wish to do away with the past.

As a rule, I avoid books and movies whose titles begin with the word “American”, since I find it lacking in imagination and more than a little narcissistic. I had, however, heard many good things about Neil Gaiman, including the claim that American Gods is his best novel, and either way he’s an Englishman, so that’s all right then.

American Gods is a big old novel in the genre I’m given to understand is nowadays called “contemporary fantasy”, and while influences from Stephen King and Clive Barker are quite obvious, Gaiman certainly has a vast imagination of his own and the language to deliciously present its fruits to his readers. Add to that the crowd pleasing gimmick of name-dropping (and including in the cast) gods, beings and cultural icons from most of the religions, folklore traditions and cultures you could think of, and you’ve got a feast of a book that you’re bound to devour far too quickly, only to regret that it’s over.

In terms of language, Gaiman writes in the kind of fluid, colloquial prose that makes you forget that you’re reading at all as the pages swish by, but at the correct junctions, he soars into a highly charged dramatic style that effectively emphasizes tense, epic or simply emotional scenes.

Shadow, our guide on the ground to the fairground, topsy-turvy world of the gods, is a strangely unemotional character, but there is ample reason for him to be that way, and personally I find it rather liberating – it’s the conflict between the old and new gods that’s the main attraction, and it’s nice that Shadow’s own problems (of which there are many) don’t get in the way of the narrative flow. His concerns do come to the fore eventually, but not until they have grown more relevant to the plot. This is excellent, further adding to the novel’s speed.

Apart from Shadow, American Gods is brimming with supporting characters, many of whom are truly memorable creations. Gods and monsters, yes, but also a number of normal or semi-normal people who make sure that the book is set, after all, in a recognizable version of America, albeit a place where eldritch beings aren’t what they once were, but still scheming behind the scenes.

The story as such is based on an ingenious concept, and it’s fairly intricate and comes with a few surprises, but when all is said and done, the whole thing is still rather puzzling, which is quite all right in a story about beings who routinely defy the laws of reality. That Gaiman feels that some things can go unexplained is one thing, but this approach does enable him to cheat the reader by pulling a couple of lazy “It’s Magic!” solutions, but on the other hand we’re not subjected to anything as wimpy or cop-out as Stephen King’s deus ex machina endings. Other than that, the many plot strands are resolved in a timely fashion, leaving us with a slightly changed world which Gaiman has already continued to explore in the novella “The Monarch of the Glen” and the novel Anansi Boys.

There’s really nothing much wrong with American Gods. It may not be the deepest of novels, and I would have liked more of the flavourful but largely plot-unrelated “Somewhere in America” interludes, but it sings with the joy of storytelling and brings big guns and broad canvasses, all of which are employed with much bravado and spirit.

My only previous exposure to Gaiman was the Doctor Who episodes he has written, but following this superb fantasy novel, I’m going to dip deeper into his work.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Film review: The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Jacques Tourneur. Writer: Richard Matheson. Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Joe E. Brown, Beverly Hills (Beverly Powers).

Perpetually drunken and more than a tad psychopathic undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Price) forces his unhappy housebreaker assistant Felix Gillie (Lorre) to assist him in drumming up much needed business for his funeral parlour. They do this by murdering wealthy old men and then offering their services. Mr. Gillie is infatuated with Trumbull’s much-abused wife Amaryllis (Jameson), while their landlord Mr. Black (Rathbone) is intent on receiving a year’s rent in arrears, so conflict is brewing, however oblivious Amaryllis’ senile father Mr. Hinchley (Karloff) may be of anything out of the ordinary going on.

Could this be the most underrated comedy of all time? Having just finished watching this for the thirteenth time (how apt), I find it still has me laughing my head off, so I can’t really understand why it’s so often dismissed as a failed divergence in the middle of AIP’s 1960s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. There are a few nods to Poe in this one too, but it’s an original story, in fact very original, I would dare say.

There are two main components which make The Comedy of Terrors so funny. First and foremost there is Matheson’s script, so charged with the most crisply formulated sarcasms and insults imaginable, and filled with a vibrantly macabre version of the simple joy of storytelling. Jokes and gags aside, it’s a solid story (which, with a few tweaks would have made for an excellent serious movie as well) with beautiful turns. The script is, I’ll admit, somewhat uneven of structure, most noticeably towards the end, where Matheson tries, not entirely successfully, to mix some proper horror and suspense into the comedic lunacy. Regardless, this is one of those rare movies where the laughs just keep on coming.

The other component is that cast. Bursting with cult movie stars almost entirely known for their serious roles, it is pure delight watching them cut loose in manic comedy. Price and Rathbone are the funniest ones, Price delivering his amoral, inventively abrasive slimebag with much gusto, and Rathbone essaying his authoritarian and more than a little bonkers (he has a, shall we say, rather immense fixation on Macbeth) Mr. Black with an explosive energy one would certainly not expect from a man of his age. Lorre is fun too as the doe-eyed, impotently resentful Mr. Gillie, while Karloff is a little more hit and miss (but often a riot) as don’t-know-if-he’s-coming-or going Hinchley. Another standout is a lesser known name, Joyce Jameson, whose shocked responses to Price’s diatribes and – most memorably – ear-piercingly and side-splittingly horrible singing of opera are among the treasures of the film.

Like other movies in the Poe series proper, The Comedy of Terrors looks good on a low budget. Colour and shadow are used to infuse the 19th Century fairy-tale world with much ambience, and sets and props (many, I’m sure, recycled from other movies) work well to strengthen the demented qualities of the story.

There are a couple of problems, both of them visual in nature. One is the outdated habit of speeding up the film for comedic effect, but this fortunately only happens two or three times. The other is the fact that Peter Lorre was by this time in no shape to take part in demanding physical exertions, resulting in several action scenes all too clearly showing a stand-in or stunt man who is quite obviously not Lorre.

Apart from Shakespeare (who is also prominent here, from the title to Mr. Black’s obsessions), I don’t believe there is any other work of fiction that has provided me with such a huge store of quotes as The Comedy of Terrors, the dialogue is that well-written and funny, and the acting is so good as to elevate it even further. Just Price’s insufferable ways of intoning “Mr. Gillie” are hysterical, and who can resist a line like “That vast-resounding chasm of a mouth, madam … shut it!”? And there are a million more, from Karloff’s deranged ramblings about historical funerals to Price’s smug “I’m going to go out and drink myself into a state of stupefaction”, but I won’t go on, for we’d be here all day.

Rating: 9 of 10. I just barely contained my impulse to give it a 10.

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