Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Michael Marshall news - Michael's new novel - titled BLOOD OF ANGELS - has been delivered, and will be edited by Christmas. Publication is due for April 2005 in hardback in the UK, and September 2005 as a paperback original in the US. The third volume in the Straw Men series.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Short Story: Luciferase

Author: Bruce Sterling

Host: SciFi.com

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mix: Sonic Perversion for thee Cantankerous
Format and Duration: MD - 80 minutes
Date: 15th December 2004

Title: Fremder
Author: Russell Hoban
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A man is found. Floating in space. A body that has been frozen solid. He has no life support. No space suit. And there is no sign of the space ship that he was on. Yet, somehow, Fremder is still alive.

Fremder is a novel by Russell Hoban, which has more of a Science Fiction approach than much of his work. He creates a back drop in which space travel is achieved by something called the Flicker drive, where society has become ruled by a matriarchy, and street gangs terrorise the cities at street level. All of which is woven into the background to varying degrees.

At the core we have a man called Fremder, which we are told is from the German for stranger. The establishment would rather like to know how Fremder survived, particularly because if they can work that out it could have a big impact on space travel. But Fremder is more significant than having just survived the Clever Daughter disaster - his mother was one of the key scientists behind what became the Flicker drive. A device which uses the basis of reality and its impermanence to operate.

There are many Hobanique devices at work in Fremder, the usual things which give his work such a charm. Interactions between characters like Fremder and the psychiatrist Dr. Lovecraft, and the beautiful sexual tensions that are created there. Once back on Earth we travel through a city, getting a feel for it as a palpable environment, even as it isn’t the London we all know and so regularly appears in his work. The science fiction element is obvious, as is the degree of romance. But there is also a darkness to Fremder – the disembodied voices reaching into Fremder’s reality, and the tragedy of his past.

I have seen some comparison between Fremder and Hoban’s earlier novel The Medusa Frequency. Even to some point the suggestion that Fremder is a sequel to The Medusa Frequency. An idea that perhaps overstates the case, though there are undoubtedly extensions of themes at play. In The Medusa Frequency the character has mysterious voices, coming from the tentacled Kraken and the like, while in Fremder there are more disembodied voices, and references to Lovecraft and his tentacled elder-gods. The protagonists are both inspired by the muse of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring – with The Medusa Frequency we have a postcard, while Fremder has something more along the lines of a hologram.

Fremder is probably one of the books by Russell Hoban that I have enjoyed the most. Perhaps there is less of the obvious wit, but it is there, and Fremder is a more blatantly dark novel. Informed by a distinct weirdness and suggestions of ambiguity and potential.

Title: Dirt Music
Author: Tim Winton
Publisher: Picador

Georgie Jutland has hit forty and is stuck in a rut. As a nurse she travelled the world, experienced all sorts of things. But when she got fed up being a nurse, and started avoiding the relationship she was in, then she hooked up her fortunes with Jim Buckridge. Three years ago, when they met, Buckridge was a lonely man, his wife not long dead, and struggling to raise his two sons. That held an appeal for Georgie, so before he knew what had hit him, she had moved into the small fishing town of White Point. White Point being the kind of place which is a bit of a drive from the big city, lives by its own rules, even relies on its inhabitants to be volunteers for things like the ambulance or fire brigade. However Georgie’s rut is in full effect – she drinks most nights, surfing random shite on the internet till the wee hours. Which is what she is doing when she first witnesses Luther Fox sneaking out in the dark to steal from the town’s lobster pots.

Dirt Music is a raw music, a combination of folk, country with a heavy dose of the blues. The kind of thing that is a real hybrid form, extremely raw and emotive, and particularly live – especially in a town like White Point. The Fox family and the Buckridges describe the two extremes of the community. Something Georgie is only starting to discover, she has kept herself to herself, but is now starting to spot that there is a lot she doesn’t know about White Point. The Buckridges rule White Point with an iron fist, always coming in with the best catch, meaning the make the most money, and enforcing their rule with violence. On the other hand the Fox family are grubbers, poachers, the bottom rung if it weren’t for their ability with the music. But that is the past.

Dirt Music is about the past, and the way it effects people, lingering in their present. Jutland, Buckridge and Fox all have tragedy and darkness, which they’ve been pretending is behind them. But Winton brings these characters together, and in doing so forces them to confront their pasts, to strive for some kind of happiness, or at least a form of peace. In doing so there are chunks of Dirt Music where the narrative might not tell an epic tale, but Winton’s writing is vividly painting the pictures, composing his own form of dirt music through the interactions between these characters.

Dirt Music was shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize, and created a certain buzz at the time of its release. About that time I had read an extract on the publisher’s website, pretty much the first chapter, which was enough to catch my interest. With which, I have finally gotten round to and enjoyed reading Dirt Music. Though from all that, Dirt Music isn’t entirely what I expected, suspecting that there would have been more of the Jutland/Fox angle and less of the Buckridge. But instead the key struggles are between Jutland and Buckridge as they behave like caged animals, circling each other trying to decide who is going to make the first move. Fox in the meantime does undertake something of an epic journey, Fox in some ways takes a trip into the aboriginal dream time – some of the things that happen to him lending the narrative a hallucinogenic edge at times.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Headliner: The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
Venue: Oran Mor, Great Western Road, Glasgow
Date: 9th December 2004

A Thursday night in December, traditionally late night shopping night anyway, and this close to Christmas, one possible explanation as to why the traffic seems to be so overwhelming on the way to Glasgow’s West End. Doors are scheduled for 7pm, and I arrive at 7.30pm having taken longer than expected, though not too concerned –as it turns out, doors have been put back to 8pm, so what should have been an okay time to arrive becomes too early. Leaving half an hour waiting outside Oran Mor, which is placed firmly on the junction between Byers Road and Great Western Road – an imposing old building, formerly the Kelvinside Parish Church, fairly recently converted into a posh restaurant on the ground level, which includes and Alistair Grey painting on the premises, with the concert venue in the basement.

A Silver Mt. Zion are probably most well known for the connection to the Quebec based band Godspeed You Black Emperor!, with which they share members. For some time I managed to miss Godspeed when they played – finding myself in Edinburgh when they played Glasgow, and in Glasgow when they played Edinburgh. However I then caught A Silver Mt Zion in Glasgow, a couple of years a go now, when they played King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut – at the time, I knew who they were, but wasn’t really as familiar with them as I was with Godspeed. The result was that I was impressed, and that is something that has stayed with me, over the course of 3 albums and an EP, regardless of which variation of the name A Silver Mt. Zion they’ve been using. With the result that I would likely describe A Silver Mt. Zion as one of my favourite bands – more so than Godspeed, who when I eventually did catch live I didn’t enjoy as much as I had hoped.

Doors open at 8, more or less, with people still to buy tickets in busy speculation as to whether they are going to get in, with seemingly less than 30 tickets left on the door. Shuffling into Oran Mor for the first time, past the sign that says “the venue” over the front door, past front desk, to the bottle neck of merchandise table and toilet/cloak room area. From there the hall opens up, the bar at the back, the stage at the front, and a decent length between the two, with padded benches and tables along the walls on both sides.

The hall fills up quickly, and no doubt it isn’t long before those final tickets have been sold, and the support band takes to the stage. Called something like “the little leaves” there are two guys on stage with guitars and wan folk music. They make little impression really, although they do hit some lyrical depths/heights with their finale. To some degree you can see how this is the kind of ball park that A Silver Mt. Zion may becoming from, but in real terms there are completely different levels at play.

Time has passed, and it is now about half nine, when The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band announce their presence on stage. From where we are standing we can’t see the entire band/stage – but by our calculation there are definitely 7 members, possibly 8. Microphones have been set up in the centre of the stage with the band in a rough circle around that – cello, guitar, violin on one side, violin, guitar, double bass on the other, with drums in the back corner and the possible someone else kind of in there as well.

The set starts with two new pieces, which have the harder more climactic building rock out that some of the more recent releases have featured and is more familiar from recent Godspeed. These two lead in to an older piece, one of their more melancholic and droningly melodic pieces. This is followed by another new piece, which seems to be an ode to their native Canada to some degree, this is the most rock out, built up piece of the set, hard and rolling. From there, they flash back again to another classic piece, before hitting another new piece. Then another new piece, more reminiscent of their older material, with a balladic core, which they declare to be their last. Of course they leave the stage briefly to a wild crowd response, and quickly return to offer a choral finale. Teasing instruments as they concentrate on weaving repetitive lines together – a song of hope and thanks and praise, summoning up the bands raw emotions as the conflicting vocals work off each other.

In total The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band have played something like an hour and a half long set. Somewhat shorter than the time we saw Godspeed, who played for over two hours. But it is funny how it goes, while I found myself growing restless through Godspeed’s set – partly down to heat, and the constant elbowing of the constant stream back and forth to the bar – by comparison I would have been quite happy for A Silver Mt. Zion to have kept going. At least with so much new material in the live set one can assume that there must be another Mt.Zion release in the works for the near future, which is something to look forward to.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Title: Anil’s Ghost
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Picador

Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist who was born in Sri Lanka. For most of her adult life though she has been living in the UK and USA. For many years Sri Lanka has had political problems, with government forces fighting rebels and separatists, with the result being like so many countries that the unmarked/mass graves are numerous. When the Centre for Human Rights in Geneva put out a request for a forensic anthropologist to investigate some of these incidents in Sri Lanka Anil surprises herself by putting herself forward for the job. As such she finds herself teamed up with a Sri Lankan archaeologist for 7 weeks. Given the politics of the situation there is always a tension between Anil and the archaeologist Sarath. Can she trust him, especially when they come across a recent body in an old burial ground that could only have been put their with government complicity.

Given the set up of the plot Anil’s Ghost could easily have been a thriller – even with a wealth of books including the excavation of mass graves, like Paul McAuley’s White Devils (my reading of which over lapped with my reading of this), and there is a particular parallel with something like Kathy Reich’s Grave Secrets. While Grave Secrets follows an anthropologist in Guatemala as she gets caught up in this kind of situation. However Michael Ondaatje takes a different route, and one that is more tangential. Anil’s Ghost is filled with snapshots of Sri Lanka – in a sense that perhaps ranges from newspaper clippings through postcards to oil paintings. Reports of disappearances and massacres are woven into Anil’s investigations. While being fleshed out and contrasted by the life’s of those that Anil meets – which is where some of the real colour and texture comes into the narrative. Even if these are the parts where that narrative becomes the most dislocated, veering off from the linear core.

Despite the curious sense that gives to the book, it actually feels like there is more magic in these peripherals. Palipana, Sarath’s mentor, a controversial archaeologist, who is now blind and lives in an old temple. Gamini, Sarath’s brother, a doctor who lives full time in the hospital and keeps going through the use of drugs. Ananda, who is hired by Anil and Sarath, to reconstruct the face of their corpse, and is a man who brings statues of the Buddha to life by giving them eyes. Each of these characters is fleshed out at the same time as we get a feel for who Anil is – lovers, friends, history. Though for me, the most striking part of Anil’s story is how she bought her name from brother as a child.

Despite everything that happens in Anil’s Ghost – the death and threat – it is not a thriller. With that it can be said Anil’s Ghost perhaps lacks a certain degree of tension that could be expected to drive the plot. This gives the novel a curious feel, which is coupled with a writing style which for the most part feels stripped down – even though at times it comes to life and is able to conjure such memorable images within the winds of a non-linear narrative.

Title: The Passion
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Publisher: Vintage Blue

Over the last few years Vintage have been using the strong marketing tool of taking some of its existing books and republishing them under a banner. This usually includes a somewhat limited edition, compact format, which is sold for a reduced price. By my calculation the Vintage Blue banner is the third such campaign, and with that the most strikingly themed – in that the theory is that these novels are some how “blue”, or kind of erotic. Although looking at the titles the concept seems a little arbitrary – undeniably some of the novels do have a definite risqué edge in that regard, but on the whole I detect a more peripheral sense. The idea that the tales inhabit the edges of reality, and at points can be considered a little dangerous.

Reading The Passion, part of me wonders at the decision to include it under the Vintage Blue banner. Winterson has certainly been reported in a certain manner over the years, which might provide the conclusion that her inclusion would be a no-brainer. Although perhaps when someone was given a brief description of The Passion they misinterpreted the ideas somewhat? We are initially introduced to the first character in a capacity that could be described as the choker of Napoleon’s chicken. While the second character cross-dresses and has a lesbian affair before becoming a whore. So there you go – The Passion is a “blue” novel.

Of course, like The Power Book, which is the only other Winterson novel I have read, Winterson plays with ideas of narrative and gender. She gives the impression that she is always just telling a tale, an idea which is expressed a couple of times through The Passion. The title itself coming from the characters observations of what gets people through their lives, what excites and motivates them – the idea that the sensation of passion lies somewhere between fear and sex.

The Passion is a short book, coming to about 160 pages, which to some might be considered a novella length publication rather than a complete novel. Split into the four sections – The Emperor, The Queen Of Spades, The Zero Winter and The Rock. The first two sections run parallel leading the characters from birth to New Year’s day in 1805, with the two remaining pieces entwining their narratives and switching back and forth.

Henri is a Frenchman who joined the army with the rise of Napoleon, and soon found himself in Napoleon’s kitchens, helping to maintain the steady supply of chicken – a meal which his leader could demand at any time. Villanelle is a girl in a Venice that has been conquered by Napoleon, the daughter of a boat man she conforms to their legends, but as a girl must find another way. Henri finds himself looking across the Channel to England waiting on New Year’s day for Napoleon to attack. Villanelle finds herself dressing as a man to avoid harassment while she works in a casino – but by that New Year’s day her heart has been stolen by a rich woman. The narrative then fast forwards a number of years – with Henri and Villanelle becoming acquainted on Napoleon’s reckless march against Moscow. From there the two share their life stories, while trying to find some kind of happiness, particularly one which allows them to survive the madness of the Zero Winter.

The Passion starts slowly, the introduction of Henri and his service to Napoleon is fairly straight forward and a little mundane. But then we switch to the mysterious city of Venice, where we have more of a sense of magic and the fantastic, all embodied in a real city. With that the scenes throughout The Passion which are set in Venice and feature Villanelle are the ones which I really enjoyed and made it all worthwhile. Like The Power Book, and the impressions I have of some of Winterson’s other work, The Passion is about storytelling, providing ideas of fairytales derived from the lives of people living in a real world but still working within the magic of dreams.

Title: White Devils
Author: Paul McAuley
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

White Devils is the latest novel by Paul McAuley, which combines the straighter style with a more thriller inclination of his more recent work (Whole Wide World, Secret Of Life) with the elements of bio-tech/SF that were particularly present in the Invisible Country short stories and the Fairyland novel. The titular white devils being something of a thematic parallel to the gengineered “fairies” of his earlier work, especially in the conception of using them for arena combat. Along with that, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the recurrence of the character Darlajane B – who has appeared as a secondary character in many of McAuley’s novels over the years.

Through an almost arbitrary series of steps, Nicholas Hyde has ended up in Green Congo, working for Witness – an organisation of international volunteers that try to give a voice to the dead that have resulted from war and other atrocities. Despite the fact that Green Congo is owned outright by the “eco-corporation” Obligate, there is still violence – especially from the Democratic Republic of Congo territories and the “Dead Zone”, which resulted from the Black Flu and the chaos that rose in it’s wake. The Black Flu was deemed to be a bio-terrorist agent let loose from one of the genetic labs working under the Congo’s lax laws. So even though it turned out to be natural, America had declared war on bio-terrorism and bombed the Congo.

When Hyde is taken from one of the graves dating from that period to check out a fresh kill site, things quickly get out of control. The team is attacked by a pack of vicious gengineered ape like creatures – who become dubbed “white devils”. Hyde is one of only two survivors of the attack, and is keen to speak out about what happened. But he finds that Obligate seem willing to go to any length to cover up the existence of the white devils – as murders, disappearances, and napalm bombing will testify. Hyde goes underground and it isn’t long before he has a tentative alliance with a pilot called Teddy who also survived an attack and the daughter of a prominent genetic scientist called Elspeth – her father having been murdered, and looking like some of his research might be similar to that used in the white devils.

White Devils is another novel which works against a backdrop of genocide and unidentified bodies, something which seems to crop up repeatedly in contemporary fiction. With that there are the power struggles of those who are left and have now taken charge. Obviously the ideas of bio-terrorism and the reaction to is have a relevance to current events, as does the fact that the flu turned out to be natural and had world wide effects. With that McAuley creates a great adventure story – an adventurer in Africa searching for vicious white apes – mixed in with enough science fiction elements to give it that contemporary sense. Though in some ways it does feel as though it takes a little bit to get going, the first half of the novel establishing characters and the situation. Before the second half sees the trio meet up, and that is where things really start to roll on – with the presence of Darlajane being something of a turning point for me.

Title: Reconstruction
Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Maria Bonnevie, Krister Henriksson
Director: Christoffer Boe

Reconstruction is one of those films that you end up seeing in a somewhat spontaneous and ignorant fashion. Knowing that I had the time and inclination to go and see a film I was standing in the ticket line with some idea of the options – but looking at the board I found there the film Reconstruction, which I knew nothing about. Upon reaching the ticket desk I asked about the film, where I was given a vague and brief plot description and told that it was Danish. Which pretty much decided it for me – 1. there is a certain potential to be had from what I’ve seen of Danish cinema; 2. a Danish film in a mainstream cinema is not likely to be one that will hang around while you try and find out more about it.

Reconstruction is a grainy film that knows that it is a film, the narrator playing around with scenes as he presents the idea that the story is a construct, and that even as a construct it can still, hopefully, have an emotional impact/relevance. Even once the film establishes the base idea and settles into the stream of “linear” narrative the viewer isn’t entirely sure that events are happening in the correct order. But in saying that, the viewer can feel a little reassured as whether or not things are happening, or in any particular manner is of far more concern to the central character Alex. At the film’s core there are four characters – forming two couples, although Alex and Aimee are the key to the plot.

Let us try and assemble a plot summary that works, to some degree. One night Alex is having dinner with his girlfriend and her father – Alex is restless and wants to get rid of the father, so he encourages his girlfriend to make excuses and goes to wait in the train station. Meanwhile the Swedish woman Aimee is in Denmark with husband who is here for work, while he has drinks with a work colleague, she decides to go for a drink. Thus Alex and Aimee have an encounter in the train station, which spins Alex around, so when his girlfriend turns up he makes vague excuses and goes in pursuit of Aimee. What follows is a series of encounters, during the course of which Alex is increasingly distressed by the fact that he seems to have ceased to exist.

Reconstruction is a playful head game, which adds a few tricks and gimmicks to underline the idea that the film makers are messing with your head. Aerial/satellite maps provide a sort of chapter heading, each time we get one we are provided with either Alex or Aimee’s name along with their current location, and at times both names and how close they are together in a spatial sense. The film is heavily grained, with at times the filters being cranked up to emphasize mood – the blues coming through at the start to give impressions of something classic and old, or the reds and oranges coming to the fore in Aimee’s hotel room bringing out the heat of emotions. Through everything Alex is performed perfectly, as the only character who remembers everything and is the target of any game that may or may not be being played against him.

Title: Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]
Cast: Stephen Chow, Vicki Zhao, Man Tat Ng, Yut Fei Wong, Yin Tse
Director: Stephen Chow

Shaolin Soccer is one of those films which has been gaining quite a reputation from word of mouth, which has created a certain anticipation around it’s eventual release. Having done the festival circuit, and being promised by periodic trailers Shaolin Soccer at last has a limited general release in the UK. Although it comes as a surprise and a disappointment that the version of Shaolin Soccer that is in the cinema here is a dubbed version. Although, at least dubbing these days has come on some way from the 70-80’s where some excruciating work was done – nowadays dubbing is something that can be borne, even if we would prefer that it was not true. I wonder whether dubbing will actually get more people through the door to see the film – to a degree I do see people walking out of subtitled films regularly, and have been warned at the ticket desk, but then you have films like Crouching Tiger, Hero, or even Amelie which have gained a certain success regardless of subtitles.

Anyway. Shaolin Soccer is an over the top comedy from Hong Kong, which has taken 4 years to make it’s way here, minus (apparently) half an hour of material. The film combines martial arts in a football setting, with a sense of the absurd. A footballer who once had great potential was betrayed by a team mate – resulting in his grovelling damnation and his friends rise to fame and fortune. Golden Leg Fung has worked over the years beneath his treacherous friend, but at last decides it is his time to coach a team. This leads to a meeting with Sing, an ex-Shaolin monk, who accosts Golden Leg in the hope that he can interest him in Kung Fu lessons. From there the idea is struck to apply the martial arts discipline and skills to football. Sing rounds up his fellows monks, all of whom have fallen on hard times, and with their awkward little team they enter a major tournament – which puts them on a crash course against Golden Leg’s former friend and the super team he has assembled.

Filled with visual jokes, excessive effects and a definite sense of madness, Shaolin Soccer uses exaggeration with striking results. In some ways parodying the success of films like Crouching Tiger or Hero, which depict martial artists as some kind of super humans. Although with that, writer, director and star Stephen Chow apparently learnt kung fu so that he could play the part in his film.

There are some faces that may be familiar, Vicki Zhao who plays a potential love interest to Chow, was in the film So Close, which although it didn’t get a cinema release over here has been readily available on DVD for some time. Also there is a cameo by Karen Mok, who played super-cop to Zhao’s super-crook in So Close, as well as being someone who has released a couple of CDs in Hong Kong.

Shaolin Soccer is a lot of fun and is worth seeing on the big screen, even if I am looking forward to adding it to my DVD collection for repeated viewing.

Title: Saved!

Cast: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Eva Amurri, Patrick Fugit, Martin Donovan

Director: Brian Dannelly

The story of Saved! revolves around the school American Eagle Christian High and some of it’s students. Mary (Jena Malone – Donnie Darko) is part of the “Christian Jewels” – a girl group led by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore ), who perform religious songs at school events. As such, the revelation that Mary’s boyfriend is gay comes as a shock. Despite the idea that sex before marriage is wrong, Mary decides to give up her virginity and have sex, with the expectation that it will save her boyfriend from his perversion. This back fires however when her boyfriend ends up in a religious retreat and she realises she is pregnant. This puts her at odds with her devout friends, driving her towards the more “rebellious” members of the school body – which pretty much consists of the Jewish girl in a Christian school, and Hilary Faye’s wheelchair bound brother (Macauley Caulkin – Home Alone).

Showing in the UK at the same time as the American presidential election, Saved! says something about a certain strata of American society, which played such a big part in the political struggle. Specifically Saved! revolves around the way that some regard Christianity and how that makes them lead their lives and strive towards saving the souls of sinners. The approach the film makes to the topic is certainly tinged with a certain irreverence. Cleverly written, Saved! has a definite charm and wit, that allows the film to hold together in a solid manner, while being resolutely amusing. For me at least, Saved! is something of a gem with the lead cast of Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Eva Amurri, Macauley Caulkin and Martin Donovan being particularly strong.

Title: The Incredibles
Cast: Craig T Nelson, Brad Bird, Holly Hunter, Samuel L Jackson, Jason Lee
Director: Brad Bird

The Incredibles is the latest film from the Pixar animation studio. And from some of the mixed reviews it has already been receiving it is fair to say The Incredibles is something of a departure from films like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo. The main reason is that in may ways the material is more mature, and to a degree with that holds less appeal for the younger audience.

Like a variety of comics in recent years The Incredibles goes for more of a “post-super-hero” scenario than is traditional in cinema; Powers and Love Fights being two particular examples that come to mind. Mr. Incredible is a prominent superhero, and in a scene reminiscent of Spider-Man 2, during an incident he is forced to stop a train to prevent disaster. However the result is litigation rather than adulation, and this is only first of many anti-superhero cases. This forces superhero to retire and enter a scheme similar to witness protection. Years pass and Mr. Incredible is now working in an insurance office, with his wife Elasti Girl at home looking after their 3 kids. But this is no life for a superhero! Then a mysterious woman approaches Mr. Incredible with a proposition that seems to be too good to be true. And of course, it is, events gathering a pace of their own.

With The Incredibles there is a solid chunk of what isn’t particularly action. Domestic squabbles and the grind of office life. Which is the kind of material that seems to be putting people off. However for many of us this is real life kind of stuff, which we can relate to, and with the twist of knowing who the characters are we can find some humour in this material. Apart from that there is plenty of big superhero action, which more than gives any live action, “serious” superhero film a run for it’s money. At times with the gadgets and espionage we have a kind of balance between a Fantastic Four and Bond paradigm; the Bond idea seemingly acknowledged to a degree by the soundtrack.

There is little to The Incredibles which is entirely original – being extensively influenced by years of superhero comics. But with that there is an affectionate knowingness which should provide some sniggers for those particularly familiar with the genre – which certainly earned me some funny looks. Though that shouldn’t put anyone off.

Of course coming from Pixar The Incredibles is state of the art animation. With this being the second film by Brad Bird, who previously gave us The Iron Giant, and was involved with the Simpsons for a number of years.

Title: Take My Eyes
Cast: Laia Marull, Luis Tosar, Candela Pena, Rosa Maria Sarda, Kiti Manver
Director: Iciar Bollain

Take My Eyes is an acclaimed Spanish drama, which won a number of awards in Spain. The film revolves around domestic abuse – opening with the hasty departure of the wife and her son. Moving in with her sister, there is an attempt to persuade her to divorce her husband. She is hesitant, although she does make some attempt to establish her life/identity by taking a job. The husband however wants her back, and even acknowledges that there was a problem and is now seeking help. The film follows the relationship and the question of whether their marriage can really be saved.

One of the big things with Take My Eyes is the way it follows both halves of the couple. We see the wife as she retreats from his intensity, his swearing, and the fear of violence. This is then flipped to some degree as we are given to understand his emotions – jealousy and fear. She starts to open up, the job in a museum expresses her potential. While the group meetings show there is some hope for him – as the other group members certainly come across as much worse.

Take My Eyes is clearly working in heavy territory, and events in it escalate to the point where there is one particular scene that could be described as distressing. However I found it a little detached, one comparison that had been made was to Lilya 4-Ever, and it certainly doesn’t have that level of intensity or emotional involvement. Even sticking with Spanish cinema Take My Eyes isn’t as involving as various pieces by either Medem or Almodovar. However it is a decent enough film, and the insight into the male half of the equation and the emotional levels he experiences is particularly worth seeing.

Title: The Manchurian Candidate
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Jon Voight
Director: Jonathan Demme

The Manchurian Candidate was a novel which was made into a film in 1962 by John Frankenheimer, which included Frank Sinatra in the cast. For 2004 the film has been updated, in a manner that reminds me of the novel Interface, at least to some degree. Interface was originally published under the name Stephen Bury, but has more recently been published under the names of the two writers who collaborated on it – one of whom is Neal Stephenson. Interface followed a senator who decided to stand for president and then had a stroke. Using new technology a chip was put into his head to repair the brain damage. But in the process this left him open to outside influence, with one man suspecting that something is not right and that he has to take action.

The original Manchurian Candidate was set against the background of the Korea and the Cold War and brainwashing. This version has the core of the first Iraq war and globalisation and brainwashing. Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber were both in Iraq together when they were caught in an attack from which Schreiber emerges as a hero. Schreiber is now running for Vice President, but Washington has suspicions that what supposedly happened in Iraq didn’t. Leading to the concept of Schreiber having a chip in his head via which he is controlled by the shadowy hand of big business. Putting Washington in the role of the only man who can stop catastrophe...

As a film The Manchurian Candidate is adequate – a glossy, professional piece of work. Which could certainly have been a lot worse, even if it isn’t especially brilliant. The idea that big business is the bad guy is old hat, and in this context comes across in an understated manner – which is to say it is almost negligible. To a degree the same can be said of the evil scientist who has implemented the technology behind the plot; a man who is more reminiscent of a Charlie Kaufman piece like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Instead Schreiber’s mother comes across as the real villain, Meryl Streep playing her as an over the top, manipulative bitch – who approaches almost cartoon proportions at times.

There is some potential with the whole head games material. Mentioning Kaufman there is enough material in here that it would perhaps have been interesting to see Kaufman’s take on this concept. Instead the nice little visuals they have for these kinds of scenes never really seem to live up to it’s potential. Though one thing that was consistent in living up to it’s potential, and overall striking was the sound track – which I found to be stripped down, atmospheric and memorable; which makes for two Washington films in a row – as Man On Fire also had a memorable soundtrack.

Title: Toolbox Murders

Cast: Angela Bettis, Juliet Landau, Brent Roam, Chris Doyle, Rance Howard

Director: Tobe Hooper

A couple move into an aging apartment block at a chaotic moment. Rent maybe cheap, but the current renovations are making something of a mess. Steven is a young doctor and is at the hospital all the time. leaving Nell, an out of work teacher, sitting around at home a lot. With this Nell becomes suspicious, strange sounds and disappearances lead her to think that people are being murdered. Of course, each time she expresses her concerns she is dismissed and ridiculed. But then, there is the mysterious old man and his cryptic statements, the esoteric symbols and the buildings history.

Toolbox Murders is a remake of a 1978 slasher movie – brought up to date, in a meld that feels like retro-contemporary. This version by Tobe Hooper who did the original version of The Chainsaw Massacre as well as Poltergeist. Toolbox Murders is very much in the Chainsaw Massacre mould, with the inhabitants of the apartments being picked off one-by-one tool-by-tool.

Despite the contemporary nature – there is use of a webcam – the film has a fairly basic, low budget feel, which in some ways makes it really feel like a film from the late 70’s or early 80’s. With many films there are suggestions of who the killer is, and Toolbox Murders is no different, although for me it would have helped if the main suspect had been the same height as the man in the mask! Through the film there is a certain level of humour, although as the film goes on there is a definite amount of absurdity, common to these kinds of horror films.

Title: Long Time Dead

Cast: Joe Absolom, Lara Belmont, Melanie Gutteridge, Lukas Haas, James Hillier, Alec Newman, Mel Raido, Marsha Thomason, Tom Bell, Michael Feast

Director: Marcus Adams

Long Time Dead is a British attempt at hip, contemporary horror; revolving around a group of about a half dozen students. One night at a rave in an abandoned warehouse the group of friends decide to hold a séance using a ouija board. Setting up in a dark corner of the warehouse they improvise a board and are able to connect to some kind of spirit. The result of which is one of their group dies that night. Even worse it seems that what they have contacted plans to kill them off one by one. As the film goes on it becomes clear that this is not the first time this has happened, and one of the group survived a previous event.

In composition terms Long Time Dead is decent enough, with the cast doing their jobs. However, at times it perhaps feels like there isn’t a lot of depth and with that Long Time Dead lacks any real tension. Given the idea of some kind of “demonic” presence, effects are light, which can work, but for it to work there is a real requirement for a sense of tension. Which no doubt explains why Long Time Dead wasn’t particularly much of a success when it was released a few years ago.

Title: Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD

Cast: David Hasselhoff, Lisa Rinna, Sandra Hess, Neil Roberts, Gary Chalk, Tracy Waterhouse

Director: Rod Hardy

This film is one of the host of lesser known characters from Marvel comics to be given the cinematic treatment. In real terms Spiderman, The Hulk, and more recently the X-Men are the properties that are reasonably well known. Which hasn’t stopped there being adaptations of Dr. Strange, Captain America, Daredevil, and two attempts at the Punisher. Somewhere in there I somehow managed to miss the adaptation of Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD, with David Hasselohoff in the title role.

Nick Fury is the top agent of an international espionage and law agency, who has been put into forced retirement with the end of the cold war. However when the top terrorist organisation Hydra regroup, and steal the boy of Fury’s nemesis Baron von Strucker, he is summoned by the president to head up SHIELD once more. Baron von Strucker’s body contains the last samples of a deadly virus, which Hydra can extract and hold the world hostage to it’s demands.

The film has the whole cast of the SHIELD versus Hydra narrative. With which, the film is perhaps too close to someone’s idea of the comic book form – providing a veneer of the absurd, especially with the sense that everyone is taking things that little bit too seriously. Nick Fury is embarrassingly over the top from start to finish, such that it can only really be treated as a comedy – even if that wasn’t the intent.

Title: Superstition

Cast: Sienna Guillory, Mark Strong, David Warner, Charlotte Rampling, Alice Krige, Frances Barber, Derek de Lint

Director: Kenneth Hope

An English girl comes home from school one day to find her home on fire. Four years pass and now a 19-year-old, she leaves England behind her. Moving to Italy, she takes on the job of nanny for a warring couple. However, despite her attempts to distance herself from her past, tragedy strikes when the baby she is looking after dies in a fire. Caught up in the Italian legal system she is accused of murder. Was it arson, the press don’t think so, accusing her of being a witch, and certainly some of the events surrounding the girl might suggest something strange is going on.

Superstition is a funny little British film, marked by some dramatic detail, which verges at times on being over the top. Superstition plays very much as being a straight drama, but it is a thin line it walks between atmosphere and absurd – are the techniques effect or excess? The fact that the film is “set” in Italy doesn’t help – since other than character names there isn’t the slightest sense that there is anything Italian about the piece. A cast of British actors, with very much English accents, in a film that is shot in Belgium and the Netherlands.

If you can suspend belief sufficiently then you can see how Superstition could have worked. However, for me, I just can’t get over the film’s flaws enough to particularly convinced by Superstition.

Title: John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

Cast: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Stratham, Clea Duvall, Pam Grier

Director: John Carpenter

At one point John Carpenter may well have been something. When there weren’t necessarily as many people to compete against. I don’t know. But these days John Carpenter has the decency to put his name before his films title. While it may describe a certain level of egotism, it does allow an audience fair warning as to how bad a film is going to be. And it is fair to say, having caught Ghosts Of Mars on TV, that it is a particularly bad film. But then with a cast like Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Stratham Pam Grier and Clea Duvall – it is hardly surprising.

Henstridge recounts events to a council as a survivor of mysterious attacks. As a member of a Martian police force, she went down to a frontier, mining town, to retrieve Ice Cube for trial for a series of brutal murders. However on arrival, the police force find a ghost town – a series of mutilated bodies, with Ice Cube still locked in his jail cell. As things go on we have the revelations of some mysterious Martian relic which has been disturbed and is now possessing the settlers.

There are some nice touches – the acknowledgement of partial terraforming, and there is a certain something to the core idea. However the way everything comes together could be described as the dumbing down of any potential there may have been. Opting instead for an action spectacle – revolving around an enemy force obsessed with body modification and ritual to a degree that guarantees visual impact. Add to that lots of big guns and big explosions and you have a formula.

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