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 – eye-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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Book review: Eyvind Johnson – Return to Ithaca (Strändernas svall)

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2014 by Mistlake

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While Odysseus is a more or less willing prisoner on Calypso’s peninsula, the messenger god Hermes appears to demand that he go home to his kingdom of Ithaca to deal with the numerous suitors coveting his wife Penelope and her fortune. Odysseus, having been away in the Trojan War and on numerous involuntary travels for twenty years, suffers much anxiety at the prospect of returning home to cause more bloodshed.

On the surface, turning the wild, mythic adventures of The Odyssey into a naturalist novel seems neither terribly creative nor particularly exciting. It’s all cleverer than it appears, though, and somehow Johnson manages to have his cake and eat it: he explains away the Cyclops and the Sirens and all the other fantastic events as quite natural phenomena and occurrences, but has Odysseus singing for his supper – as per his famous telling of his tale in The Odyssey – and embroidering his experiences à la Greek mythology to impress his audience so they will help him get home.

The book starts with a long description of Odysseus’ ageing, battered appearance, which is a good way to make the reader understand that this is not the shiny legend of classical literature, and this realist approach permeates the entire novel, but is not entirely consistent. At certain points, mostly early on, actual gods show up (Hermes and Athena being the “confirmed” ones), and at others the no-nonsense prose gives way to a lyrical style much reminiscent of the old Greek epics, even if it isn’t in verse.

After a while, Return to Ithaca becomes a true page-turner, riveting in its incident, characterisation and description, and it keeps up that level of storytelling all the way to the end. It’s not, however, a book that it’s necessarily easy to find your way into, because the first third is, for all its beautiful writing, stagnant and as uneventful as a still life, alternating listlessly between two situations (the plight of Odysseus and that of Penelope) with little or no forward momentum. Thus, the initial chapters get a tad boring after a while, but it’s well worth it for the embarrassment of riches that follows.

I spoke of the characterisation, and the clearly delineated but often complex characters are a treat, and not always what you expect them to be if you’re familiar with the source material. There are, for instance, some aspects of Odysseus himself which I find appealing because they’re so unexpected in a classical hero, yet seem to fit so well with what one would expect of a real human being: he’s not especially keen to leave Calypso and return to his wife and son (who are certain to be strangers to him after twenty years), and he is bone-weary of strife and battle to the extent that he ponders not going through with his revenge after all. Similarly, Penelope is tempted to choose one of the young suitors rather than wait for her tired old husband to finally return home. The depictions of Nestor, Menelaus, Helen and other legendary characters also share this mixture of recognition, startlingly untraditional traits and on-the-money psychological realism. It adds such a buoyancy to the novel that it’s worth reading it just for the people in it.

Published as it was in 1946, just after the end of World War II, Return to Ithaca of course contains some meditations on war and the future of mankind, thoughts which are – for all their ancient Greek trappings – translucently veiled comments upon the state of the modern world. It’s a little preachy, perhaps, but doesn’t do any harm to the story, and most of the political ideas are sound anyway, so why complain?

Return to Ithaca is commonly regarded as one of the great Swedish novels, and it has been translated into twenty languages, and I’d say that yeah, OK, it’s one of the few that makes it intact through my barbed opinion of Swedish literature.

Rating: 8 of 10.

That's guy is not a Cyclops, he's a volcano.

That’s guy is not a Cyclops, he’s a volcano.

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Film review: The Hunger Games (2012)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2014 by Mistlake

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Jennifer Lawrence, Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 2011

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Director: Gary Ross. Writers: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Alexander Ludwig, Toby Jones.

In the future, twelve previously rebellious and now impoverished Districts have to each select two teenagers for participation in the government mandated Hunger Games, where they are set loose in a controlled environment with the goal of killing each other until only a lone victor remains.

I thought The Hunger Games might be pretty good, but probably rather wimpy and kid-friendly in its treatment of its violent subject matter. True, there is very little graphic violence, but for a film aimed at a somewhat younger audience, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of maturity it shows.

If you want to, you can take it at face value: it’s a suspenseful sci fi adventure romp in the wilds. The story is a good one, main character Katniss (Lawrence) is both interesting and tough, and the production looks superb, particularly when you find that it was realised on a budget about one third of what usually goes into a blockbuster these days. There’s no shortage of sweaty tension (my favourite scene is one with a wasp’s nest) and action, and there’s not enough teen-problem-lovey-dovey to annoy an adult viewer.

There is also more to The Hunger Games than just people sneaking around in the woods trying to put each other six feet under. A strong streak of satire runs through the movie, and while it’s not unique (similar ideas have been used in everything from The Truman Show to Doctor Who), the concept of reality shows run amuck, using real violence as mass entertainment, is an interesting one in light of actual reality shows getting ever more extreme in the hope of exciting jaded and undiscerning viewers.

Society in this film is divided into the poor, huddled masses and the massively spoiled upper classes. The latter have been brought vibrantly to life, their bizarre clothes, hair and makeup resembling a kind of faux Terry Gilliam esthetic (and I mean that as a compliment), whereas their mindless lives far removed from reality are emphasized by nods towards the decadent habits and apparel of the 18th Century French royal court, as well as the similar excesses of degeneracy during the decline of the Roman Empire – in fact, most of the elite have classical Roman first names. All of this intentional gaudiness and tackiness brightens a movie that for the most part takes place in a grotty wilderness and even grottier working class communities, and also gives us something to smirk and laugh at in an otherwise rather serious movie.

Performances are uniformly fine, Lawrence doing a job that instantly justifies her subsequent stardom. Katniss is unexpectedly complex, and while she is a hardcase and her friend Peeta (Hutcherson) is a lot softer, it’s more than just a reversal of traditionally male and female stereotypes. Katniss has a lot going on in her personality, and this genuine depth is something I’m very happy to see in a story that could have foregone most characterisation in order to just go for the thrills.

Harrelson, Tucci and Banks are great fun in caricatured parts, and when wonderful Donald Sutherland shows up as the evil, Machiavellian President, we just know we’ll see more of him and his dastardly ways in the sequel.

The film’s flaws could, I think, have been easily avoided. The “shaky-cam” cinematography would have benefitted from being used only in certain scenes; as it is, I found myself seasick on several occasions when the hand held camera wobbled around for too long. The script could have used another pass to check the story structure – a few scenes should have been shifted around, because with about twenty minutes to go, when most films in one way or another ramp up the stakes for the big finale, The Hunger Games suddenly decides to take a break, spending an inordinate amount of time on quiet, emotional contemplation, material that would have worked far better earlier on.

A youth-geared movie of substance as well as action, a great deal better and more satisfying than I could have guessed. Twilight it ain’t.

Followed by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Film review: Godzilla vs. Mothra (Mosura tai Gojira; 1964)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Ishiro Honda. Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa. Starring: Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Haruo Nakajima.

Fourth film in the series beginning with Godzilla (Gojira) 1954, and the first sequel to Mothra (Mosura) 1961. This review contains mild spoilers.

A giant egg floats ashore after a typhoon, and a couple of business men get busy making money off the find. A spanner is thrown in their works when a couple of miniscule native girls show up, pleading for the return of the egg to their island, since it contains the offspring of their god, the somewhat oversized moth Mothra. In the midst of all this, Godzilla comes ambling out of the sea to cause more destruction, forcing the humans to beg for Mothra’s assistance.

This is the Godzilla film that set the tone and style for what was to follow for many years. The previous one, King Kong vs. Godzilla may be stupid and silly, but at least it was fun. Godzilla vs. Mothra is just as stupid and just as silly, but the fun is thin on the ground as a gaggle of unengaging human protagonists run around talking and bickering and joking with no monsters in sight.

As a consequence, most of the movie is headnumbingly boring. When the action finally kicks in, the big fight between Godzilla and Mothra is entertaining, no two ways about it, but unfortunately that is not the climax of the film – that comes with Godzilla’s battle with Mothra’s offspring, and that tiff is about as inert and monotonous as one of those waving Japanese Fortune Cats. It consists of the monsters doing the exact same, stationary thing over and over again until combat ends with a harmless looking dip in the ocean. The lack of imagination and – surprising in view of Honda’s expertise with these things – dynamic motion here is staggering.

Like other 60s and 70s Godzilla pictures, this one looks like glossy candy with its bright, happy colours, and it’s a look I find rather enjoyable, not to mention befitting the ludicrous events unfolding on screen. Another plus is the fact that Godzilla is portrayed – for the last time in the original series – as a rampant and decidedly unfriendly monster, not as a cuddly, reptilian teddy bear.

As for Mothra, she has an interesting back story, however much of it has been ripped off from King Kong, but here it’s treated merely in bits and pieces, and it’s much better handled in the original Mothra.

The special effects are a joke, of course, if not without charm, but the big issue overshadowing everything else is that Godzilla vs. Mothra commits the one crime that’s unforgivable in a movie of this type: it’s no fun.

Followed by Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, also 1964.

Rating: 3 of 10.

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