Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Stranger


(contains spoilers)

Orson Welles made a habit out of playing unpleasant characters. No matter if you recall Kane, or Harry Lime, or the police chief in Touch of Evil, there is a degree of vulgarity and viciousness to the roles. Welles specialty is rogues that can make you smile before you realise the scope of their degraded villainy. The devil, as he mentioned in one of his lengthy to camera pieces later, should be able to come to your house and be charming and make you forget he is the devil. You can see this in his on screen roles. 

The Manchurian Candidate


(contains a mega spoiler for a 56 year old film)

An accident of date of birth will forever shape how you approach some media. I'll never get the 80s woes about the McCoy era of Dr Who, for example, as by the time I got into Who it had been put on hiatus (no new Who at prime audience age for me!) and so I eventually saw it in the mid-90s shorn of all that contemporary angst. Meanwhile, none of the 40+ year olds got to see Jurassic Park as a 7 year old, which is sad. (Given DVDs mean anyone can watch Star Wars as a 7 year old now, providing that is their actual age, this doesn't really work in reverse!) 

Other Side Books - Knight's Daughter

The Knight's Daughter

by Jo M. Thomas

Available on Amazon and the Other Side Books website.

"Dragons! A portent! But of what?" 

Experience the tales of the Greenwood Forest, as told by the figures within. This well researched story retells old legends from the point of view of the people involved. Discover the truth about the sleeping beauty, the tale of fair Rosamund, and why you should be wary of the sly Sir Morris. 

When not being an acclaimed fantasy writer, Jo M. Thomas is a fencer with the Academie Glorianna. Her previous novels include 25 Ways to Kill A Werewolf, A Pack of Lies and Fool If You Think It’s Over.

You can follow Other Side Books on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A Dark Neon Dying - Jon Kaneko-James

A Dark Neon Dying by Jon Kaneko James.

Available from Other Side Books and Amazon!

A far future where science and the occult have grown together. 

A rainsoaked, lightless planet at the edge of the solar system. 

An ancient inhuman evil. 

New Paris is the jewel in the crown of the Galacta Corporation: recreating historic cities on the terraformed moon of Europa. 

Their chief attraction is the Performance Artists: glamorous adventurers who exploit the constitution to make the illegal legal. 

Renard and Ducoult were the stars of the scene. Now Renard has returned from retirement, financially desperate and fatigued with his former life. 

Ducoult is a broken woman. Disfigured at the finale of her and Renard's greatest caper, and paralyzed by trauma, she hides in the City's poorest district with her clockwork family. 

But the world hasn't finished with them yet. A final job. A good deed for the wrong reasons. 

Something terrible flitting at the edge of human consciousness. Renard and Ducoult will be drawn together in a fight that will either save New Paris, or unleash a horror on uncountable worlds. 

Jon Kaneko-James is an Early Modern Historian who studies the social history of the Supernatural. He has read Tarot cards for a living, worked in Soho nightclubs and met his wife on his last night as a (terrible) DJ. When not writing, he currently works at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Rosemary Timperley

Spooky Isles have a new article by me.

Rosemary Timperley: The Greatest Horror Writer You've Never Heard Of.

You can read it here.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Endless Night, a thought

(With spoilers)

The most interesting thing to note first thing about Endless Night is Agatha Christie's own internal comfort with her own views. If we go back to And Then There Were None, and ignore the time marching on unfortunate implications of all the previous edits (poem dictated), then within the story itself, the racism of Vera Claythorne is immediately picked up as a thing not to be countenanced by Emily Brent. Brent is of course one of the more terrifying figures in all of Christie, but that doesn't detract from the point, and it is backed up by the murderer's view that the man who left locals to die for his own greed and safety in Africa was as equal bad as the child murderer. There are little moments all through her earlier works, as if the writer herself has to add in "yes, society and these characters have horrid views, but I am aware that these views are bad".

Stranger Than Fiction


(contains spoilers)

This is the film about a sociopath, who counts brushstrokes brushing teeth, who keeps people to the same regimented schedule. The film is about their awakening, about their finding out they can be a better person than the one who is a slave to their own internal conditioning, even if it takes slightly supernatural circumstances to make it happen. And you have to say, Emma Thompson plays the role very well!

For this is her authors story as much as it is Will Ferrell’s story. Ostensibly a comedy, Stranger Than Fiction takes the old character in search of an author idea and turns it into a fresh film. Of course, horror writers like LP Hartley and Basil Copper (and err, me) used it as prelude to a fatal meeting. There is one death in the film, but here Zach Helm plays to the absurdity of the situation.

Will Ferrell’s main character is a safely boring IRS man, who finds out when he starts hearing Emma Thompson’s voice narrate his life story, that he might be the main character in a book currently being written. And when she announces his impending death, he naturally gets a bit freaked! With the help of English Lit professor Dustin Hoffman (who has both the most cringe inducing pieces of exposition and some of the best naturalist responses in the film, often in the same scene), Ferrell sets about tracking down his author, to try and live. Only her award winning formula is “kill ‘em all”.

In a well cast film (Will Ferrell is surprisingly good), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as a woman Ferrell is sent to audit but starts dating instead) and Queen Latifah (in a restrained but commanding smaller role as a publishers fixxer – I’d like one of those!) get to stand out too with fine performances. An underrated subplot to the film is Latifah’s character making Emma Thompson a better person – a better character, in fact – instead of the neurotic who visits A&E wards looking for dead people to inspire her writing. Admittedly, Gyllenhaal’s anarchist turn love interest flies a thin line between person and manic pixie dream girl, but there is enough of her own needs (non-Will Ferrrell needs) to steer slightly clear, and this seems part of the meta-text.

Does Harold Crick meet Ana Pascal and this causes the narration, or does he meet her because this is in the plot of the story? Characters may be aware of the fact but remain characters. Free will vs predestination is at the core of this film, with a strong Paradise Lost subtext: Emma Thompson’s author lives high up in a clean white house and offers second chances, Dustin Hoffman’s professor lives below, adores Thompson but is ignored, and tries to get Ferrell to accept his fate.

The film was a flop in 2006, despite a 3.5/4 review from the late Roger Ebert who called it an “uncommonly intelligent film about sweet worthy people”, as it released the same week as Happy Feet, the Santa Clause III and Casino Royale – as well as some other forgotten hits – and got lost in the shuffle. However, time has a habit of righting contemporary wrongs. It’s a Wonderful Life and Bringing Up Baby, despite being two of the greatest films of all time, were box office flops in their day, and it took time for their true worth to be discovered. With a fine cast, a witty script and interesting sympathetic characters, Stranger than Fiction is far better than the audiences of 2006 thought. It’s about fighting fate and accepting it, and love and life and the incremental moments in life being the most pivotal. Also, for a main character, Harold Crick ends up as a highly respected (though pained) hero, and gets to sleep with Maggie Gyllenhaal. As the wife wryly pointed out last night, there are worse fates in life…

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective


(Contains spoilers and a trigger warning given the plot twist of the film)

We’ve all aged considerably in 24 years. Some of us weren’t alive back then. Some of us were but aren’t now. A lot can happen in 24 years. Germany went from Stresemann, through the fall of Weimar, the rise of Hitler, Nazism, WW2, the fall of Nazism, entry into the ECSC, winning the World Cup, and the economic miracle of the 50s inside 24 years. Ace Ventura: Weimar Politician would have been incredibly dated by 1954, so why is it surprise that our Ace Ventura is horribly dated now?

At the time, I thought this was hilarious. At the time, I was 8, and Jim Carrey’s gurn was comedic gold. In the cold light of day it isn’t hard to see an actor faffing around for nearly an entire film and getting paid for it. Courtney Cox, as in the similarly dated Friends the best thing in this, tries her best but seems similarly bored with the material. Carrey allegedly wasn’t bored, he just had no restraint on his behaviour and this is Prime Unrestrained Carrey, proving why he needed a strong hand on his shoulder to entice far better performances. Jim Carrey IS a good actor, but you wouldn’t know it from this or 90% of Batman Forever, to pick two examples.

There are good bits. “Assholes are closer than they appear” is sound life advice, and the moment when Ace explains why a suspected suicide had to be murder is straight out of Columbo. Courtney Cox does her best to lift a lot of show don’t tell material given her way, and Dan Marino is a hoot sending himself up (now there is a man clearly enjoying himself). Also, the scenes of Ace trying to discover which Superbowl ring is missing a ruby raises a few chuckles.

What doesn’t raise those chuckles is twofold. For one thing, Ventura’s attempts to fake mental illness (by being Jim Carrey) and the doctors being conned by it is… rather icky, to say the least. But then we have the reveal that the villain is a transgendered sex abuser and murderer. It’s a spoof of The Crying Game, apparently, that well known “comedy”.

Even by 1994 this reveal seemed dated: after outrage from the LGBT community over Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme went onto make Philadelphia as an attempted mea culpa. [I am unable to say if that works, in the same way that, not being Jewish, I cannot say if Our Mutual Friend is an acceptable apology for Oliver Twist.) Yet here we have “that woman’s a man” as punchline, the idea everyone is sickened by it, that the killer deliberately uses that to blackmail, manipulate and harass others (who wrote this? The Daily Mail?) and that naturally the killer is implied bisexual too, because they’re all depraved, or something. If it was aging badly by 1994, it’s the equivalent of Ace Ventura: Weimar Politician making jokes about Nazi comb-overs and insistence on paperwork in 2018. (And "Nazi references are overkill" went out the moment countries started electing Mussolini fanboys.)

This film appears to have killed off Jim Carrey’s abilities at winning awards. Even brilliant performances like Man on the Moon weren’t even nominated for the Oscar after this film. That, in itself, is a personal tragedy. But a far greater tragedy is the fact that films like this helped to perpetuate persecution of the minority. And none of us eight year olds noticed it at the time, because when society was supposed to be educating, it was mocking.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

What sticks in the mind from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the dismissal of Hilary. Throughout the film, Kat Hepburn is presented as a virtuous liberal, much like her husband (Spencer Tracy in his last film), who is then presented with Sidney Poitier joining her family, and struggling to come to terms. It’s the fight between passive and active anti-racism, as prevalent now as it was in the 1960s. “Racism is bad but don’t protest too loudly, or in my neighbourhood, etc etc”… When the odious Hilary shows up, a living cancer of racism in a film where nearly every other character is live and let live… then you’d expect Christina Drayton to hum and haw and handwring, but do little of consequence. Instead we get Hepburn’s best moment in the film, as she fires her assistant and makes it clear why. “Get permanently lost! Don’t speak, just go…” The clincher? When she returns to the living room, her daughter complains about Hilary and Christina doesn’t go “Yes, I fired her! Me me me!” She’s stopped thinking about herself, and it’s the only implication – bar the obligatory happy ending – that the Draytons are moving from passive to active anti-racism. And lord knows the world needs more of that than “down with this sort of thing, careful now!”

In that way, the Draytons strike me as being more realistic than Rod Steiger’s police chief in In the Heat of the Night. (Even if ItHotN has the best moment – who, other than a racist, can watch Mr Tibbs slap that racist back and not cheer?) By the end of that film, you are led to believe that Steiger has become a better person through working with Poitier, and indeed, he won the bloody Oscar for it. But… that’s not how racists work. It seems more to me that that police chief would be like the taxi driver Sir Lenny Henry once mentioned gave him a lift: “Britain will be better when we get rid of all the [black people]. Not you, of course, you’re funny, I like you.” Steiger’s police man ain’t changing permanently six months down the line. Whereas the Draytons could be anyone of us. Those who preach tolerance, but can we practice it when it arises? Or are we just passive? Stanley Kramer isn’t just making a film about an interracial marriage proposal, he’s holding up a mirror to the liberal audience. 

Of course, Kramer spent his career challenging people, making films like Inherit the Wind (in which he criticises the whole church and state connection in the US), or challenging anti-semitism, racism and so on. Probably has a CV never seen by any Trump supporter, to be honest. The studios didn’t want to make a film which might not sell to the South, and used Spencer’s frailty (he was dying) as an excuse, only for Kramer to forgo his own salary in lieu of the held back insurance. 

But really, the star here is and has to be Sidney Poitier. He has a dignity and presence on screen, the equal to the greats in his midst. As an intelligent doctor who abstains from pleasure and vice, he is “too perfect”, bemoaned contemporary critics. Contemporary white critics, it goes without saying. It implies choice in the matter. This century, Denzel Washington could (justly) take the Best Actor Oscar for playing a corrupt cop. In the 1960s, Sidney Poitier got death threats purely for playing a character who spoke politely. When the aging Kramer was at a presentation of the film in the late 90s, the AARP note that students thought the film dated as “old fashioned as we’re fine with interracial marriage” – the age of privilege. Oh no, perhaps it might look idealised, but it presents people who had little to no voice previously in the US (and I don’t mean Katharine fucking Hepburn here), and was an important film at a fractious time. If you wonder if it still seems old-fashioned to you, just turn on the evening news on any given day...

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Full Metal Jacket


(contains spoilers)

There are issues with Full Metal Jacket, but let's focus on the positives.

The film is barely 2 minutes old when Lee Ermey explodes into it. I say explodes, because this swearing, sweating, quote a maniac incompetent drill sergeant doesn't so much steal the show. He is the show, the camera and the viewer's eye are drawn to him and (almost) him alone from that moment on. Most of his lines aren't quotable here as not very PC out of context (or indeed, in context!) but some of the best in his introduction alone include not knowing "shit was stacked that high", a fine character reveal about his views on racism, and the legendary line about what Pvt Cowboy is the type of man for - the punchline of which was an adlib by Ermey which so shocked Kubrick he insisted it got kept in the second take. A lot is made about Lee Ermey's adlibbing (only one of two men allowed to do so by Kubrick, other being Peter Sellers) but it gives the wrong impression: the man was actually word perfect on his script, and a lot of the adlibs were from his audition tape which they then added to his actual script. A perfectionist, Ermey learnt all that dialogue inside and out within a week, so that Kubrick became so impressed with someone as crazy prepared as the director liked to be, that any inspiration was accepted. See the hinted at line to Cowboy above, hinted at only because this might get read by teens!

The Drill Sergeant is easily the axis around which the rest of the film orbits, and the only person to exhibit similar interest in the film is Pvt Pyle/Lawrence, played wonderfully by Victor D'Onofrio, one of my mum's favourite actors. While Ermey's role is relatively straight (he doesn't believe he's in danger right up to the final moment), D'Onofrio has to "go on a journey" (as actors like to put it) from goofy to victim to sociopath. He pulls off all three with aplomb, going from likeable to sympathetic to scary in the flash of a moment. Critics like to point out Pyle would have been out of the marines within a week, but then, R Lee Ermey would always point out (as a man who had been a drill seargant before turning to acting, and apparently had a reputation as being a very good one), his Hartman is not meant to be a competent man. Hence he doesn't spot the signs of cracking (note cracking starts fully after hazing incident and when Laurence becomes a model soldier - you'd expect a decent teacher to spot those worrying signs immediately, or indeed, that some of the ammo on the base has gone MIA), hence he talks lovingly of the marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald. That no one notices Pyle has the Thousand Year Stare at the centre of the film (the look a soldier gets after their first kill) BEFORE he's even left training.

This all ends in the pivotal moment where Pyle shoots Ermey dead, before turning the gun on himself. The film has been electric up to this point, and this feels like the sad but inevitable climax to the underlying tension.

Now, the problem with Full Metal Jacket is that there is a third man in this scene. Our main character - de facto so far, but from now, actually. Pvt Joker is nowhere near as interesting as these two men, and when the film goes to Vietnam, it turns into just another war film.

And the big problem is this: we've just killed off the only 2 interesting characters 50 mins into a 2 hour film.

After this, the film becomes a series of set pieces, some of them interesting, some not, but none have the electricity or tension that Ermey and D'onofrio bring to the proceedings.

It's also notable that a film which goes out to say that war is hell, civilians tend to be the ones that get fucked over and that sociopaths (the helicopter gunner) have no place in the army... has a reputation for being a cool war film. That Hartman is designed to be a bad instructor yet the hawks (and the phony veterans who are everywhere on social media, Mary Sueing themselves into the heart of Vietnam when they were doing office jobs or weren't even born) applaud him as a hero. He ain't a hero, Alec Baldwin isn't a hero in Glengarry Glen Ross, society is missing the goddamn point. But perhaps that is the point, you can't make an anti-war film, as soon as the explosions and body count starts, it will always appeal to those you are trying to oppose.

Perhaps Full Metal Jacket would have been better if it had never gone to Vietnam, and focused on the training. Certainly, it wouldn't have done worse to keep the only 2 characters of note in the story. Sadly, the film dies with a whimper (a snipers bullet, even?) the moment Hartman and Pyle die, leaving the film far less than the sum of its parts.