Monday, February 28, 2005

Title:The Clay Machine-Gun
Author: Victor Pelevin
Publisher: Faber and Faber

Pyotr Voyd has arrived in Moscow on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. When the authorities turned up for him in Petersburg things got messy and he fled. But arriving in Moscow he meets an old friend who is in with the new regime. However with the current turmoil even associates can’t be trusted, and Pyotr finds that he has killed his friend and is forced to take his role in the new red army. The next day Pyotr wakes up in a mental hospital, he is in a ward with 3 other patients, all of whom suffer from personality disorders. But if Pyotr is delusional how come this seems like a nightmare and his memories of revolutionary Russia seem like reality?

The Clay Machine-Gun alternates the two narrative threads, exploring all sorts of ideas about reality and dreams and sanity in the process, but to some degree at the core lies the discussion of how Russia fits into the world. At the time of the revolution there are reds and whites, and Pyotr is left confused as to who is loyal to what, and what these factions actually mean. Contrasting that is the period in the mental hospital, where we hear the stories of the other patients, through which we get an idea of a present reality, and whether Russia’s fate lies with the West as represented by America or from the East as represented by Japan. Thus we get layered narratives, shifting from a Russia that reads like Bulgakov, through an American vision represented by hard metallic technology and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Japan and discussions of haiku and seppuku.

The Clay Machine-Gun is a talky novel rather than an action novel, and the way it moves about creates a certain “eh” sensation. What mood you are in when you read a book affects how you read it, so that in my case initially I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Which extended the “eh” period for sometime, but then I hit the “ah” period, the point where you have read enough to start to join the dots. The point where all the conversations and events start to cohere thematically, where the ideas of identity – personal and national weave there way through each step of the work. Also as The Clay Machine-Gun progresses you are increasingly aware of the bleed between narratives, how a detail from one thread will pop up in the other – which fleshes out ideas of delusion, but also lends the question of which of these is the true story, which is exactly the question that our hero is trying to answer.

Having belatedly hit the “ah” phase, it wasn’t long before I hit the “yes” phase. The point where all these little touches and details are things that you are picking up on, where everything is starting to make a degree of sense in the bigger picture. The point where as you see this there comes a certain delight in the reading, a certain joy which starts to propel you further into the reading of the novel. So that I went from the initial “yes this is interesting, but I’m not quite sure what it is about,” to the “oh yes, now I get it, this is good,” and found myself rather enjoying this book.

Prior to reading The Clay Machine-Gun I had read comparisons of the Russian novelist Victor Pelevin to the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. With the alternating threads, a certain comparison can be made to Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World. Though on reading this novel I was slightly more conscious of parallels with the likes of Michael Moorcock and his ideas of a multiverse and eternal cities, or Mick Farren and the kind of world depicted in his DNA Cowboy novels. Thematically they probably all have the same influences, religion and mysticism, and in this case particularly a Buddhist view of reality.

Title: Casshern
Cast: Yusuke Iseya, Toshiaki Karasawa, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Knanko Higuchi, Fumiyo Kohinata, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Jun Kaname, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Mitsuhiro Oikawa, Susumu Terajima, Hideji Otaki, Tatsuya Mihashi, Mayumi Sada, Ryo
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya

Japan has conquered Eurasia after an extended war. However pockets of resistance remain and victory didn’t come without a price. The area has become heavily industrialised, resulting in wide scale pollution coupled with radiation. Dr. Azuma is desperate to find a cure for the kinds of genetic mutations and viruses that are affecting so many people, especially his wife Midori. He hopes his son, Tetsuya, will follow in his footsteps and that perhaps together they can find a cure for Midori. However his son feels that it is duty to his country to join the army and fight terrorists.

Things are not going well, Azuma is struggling with his research and has come to the conclusion that he will never find a cure in time for Midori. Which is when the news that Tetsuya has been killed in combat comes through, and the body has been delivered to his work for him to prepare the funeral. This is when a great lightening bolt comes from the sky, striking the pool of genetic material in Azuma’s lab and turning to stone. This sets off a chain reaction, and the body parts floating in the pool start to cohere and come to life. Mutants emerge and fight their way free, fleeing from the city with the help of Midori.

Bemused and astounded by these events Azuma decides to dip his dead son’s body in the pool and see what happens. Tetsuya is brought back from death by this action, but in doing so is mutated. Luckily Tetsuya’s girlfriend, Luna, is the daughter of a prominent expert in battle armour, and soon Tetsuya has been dressed in a mech armour suit to prevent his super strength from tearing him apart. While this is going on however the mutants – or neo-sapiens have come across a robot building factory in the wastelands and have set about fighting a war against the evil government forces who are keeping the war going for their own gain.

Casshern is a new Japanese film, brought update by music video director Kazuaki Kiriya, who is married to the Japanese pop star Hikaru Utada, who provides one of the songs for the soundtrack. The whole film has a non-stop music video feel, the soundtrack is an almost constant and striking presence. The film is derived from a television series from the 1970’s called Casshan, which was revived for a handful of animated adventures in the 1990’s under the name Casshan: Robot Hunter. This version plays on this long tradition of manga and anime from Japan, so that technically we have a live action manga film here, but with that one which bears very little resemblance to any of the previous attempts to make that kind of the film in the past.

I’m not sure which came first, this version of Casshern or the film Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow – but undoubtedly the two are comparable. There are huge chunks of Casshern which use the same filtration techniques on the visuals, and the same kind of CGI to create armies of marching robots. From start to finish almost every frame of Casshern has had some treatment applied to it; only the final couple of scenes show real, untouched film. Unlike Sky Captain, Casshern pushes the effects, moving from that kind of pulp filtration, to black and white and gritty for brutal trench scenes, to ultra-hyper-colouration for the scenes of the wealthy and their decadent lifestyles.

In narrative terms Casshern is all over the place. Shifting tracks throughout the film, so that there seems to be a touch of madness to this work. But with that we run the whole gamut of influences and emotions. The pain of a man losing the woman he loves, the decadence of those in power, the avarice of the generation following that wants that power, the desire to serve one’s country, the dismay and distress of war. The whole bringing back to life of Tetsuya clearly comes from the Frankenstein mythos, with a dose of Japan’s own twist to that in the form of the influence of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The aspects of the war being fought suggest parallel’s with the recent French film A Very Long Engagement, with other aspects of Jean-Pierre Jeunet earlier work being suggested. The confrontation between the leader of the neo-sapiens and Tetsuya has elements of some of Zhang Yimou’s recent work, the rapid flight motions of the characters, and the intense usage of colour. Add to that the manga staples of giant robots, robot fighters in body armour, post-humans in sword fights, and some truly sumptuous visuals and Casshern is quite mind-blowing.

Casshern doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, or at least it isn’t always quite predictable as to where it is going. But within the context it doesn’t really matter, the whole is just this fun journey with lots of big action and brilliant effects. Even so, Casshern does manage to provide a certain commentary on current events – a super power fighting a constant war against perceived terrorists, and with that comes a clear anti-war message as events escalate to the point they could only do so in a film like Casshern. If you were disappointed by Sky Captain or are generally a fan of this kind of material then you should thoroughly enjoy Casshern.

Casshern Posted by Hello

Title: The Yes Men
Cast: Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno
Director: Dan Ollman, Sarah Price

The Yes Men are a group of anti-corporate activists, at the core of which is two men. This film is a documentary about these men and their activities; particularly regarding their culture hacks against the World Trade Organisation.

The film starts with a trip to Finland where they are to make a presentation, before flashing back to flesh out the history of the group. After a couple of individual attacks against culture, mutual friends suggested that perhaps these two men should meet and work together. This saw the rise of the Barbie Liberation Front, the swapping of voice chips between Action Men and Barbie dolls. Then they moved on to doing a George W Bush website, which mirrored the real site of the man running for president in 1999, but translated the political double speak into truth. A stunt which brought together the ideas behind this film.

As they explain to the camera, The Yes Men are interested in the idea of ID reset. Something they equate to being like ID theft, except they take a public figure or organisation who they regard as putting forward lies and propaganda to cover up “criminal” activities. So that in the case of George W. Bush they countered his environmental proposals with his actual track record on the environment while governor of Texas. This stunt gained attention, including Bush himself being quizzed about the site. With this they were asked to do something similar for the WTO. Which they did, and on doing so they were surprised to find that they started to receive email from people who though they really were the WTO.

Thus started the Yes Men’s stint as WTO impersonators. Graduating to speaking at business events or doing TV interviews posing as representatives of the WTO. The idea to start documenting this process must have come after the success of their first appearance in Austria. Surprised to find that they weren’t caught, we follow them from Paris to Helsinki to London to Australia. With each step seeing The Yes Men pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with in the hope that they can make people take a closer look at the WTO and what it stands for.

The film is quite a nice little documentary, at just under an hour and a half it doesn’t over state the case. As it follows the core pair, we are all introduced to the other Yes Men, a support team of skilled friends who are always on hand for costume design or hi-tech animated presentations – something which is crucial to the success that the group have enjoyed. There are a couple of cameos by Michael Moore, who provides some background to the WTO and their activities. To a degree this inclusion can perhaps be seen as lending a certain credibility, though with the shambling mess that was Fahrenheit 9/11 and the way that Moore seems to over state himself in the media, then perhaps his inclusion has become more of a liability.

The core of the groups activity is satire and with that this is quite an amusing film, there is definite humour to be found from some of the absurd statements that they make, but at the same time it manages to put across some of the pertinent issues that relate to the WTO and the increasing world poverty gap, that will effect us all sooner or later.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Picking up speed, I tore into LAYOUTT, squirmed into WORDOUT, slid into COPYCAT, tumbled into SYSTEM, and crashed into HKGRAPH. I moved the cursor right and down, prodded ENTER, and dived into the thickets of the WORDART administrative directory.

Wrinkling up my forehead, I created the file prayer.txt.

Oh God! They've really fucking got to me!

All these shitty fellow-employees, all these jumped-up bosses. If I had my way, they'd be taking turns reading their own positive test results for cancer of everything! All these WANKERS, QUEERS, COCKSUCKERS! They've really fucking got to me. Lord, please take them away. Take them Yourself or let Your colleagues have them - I don't give a toss. And if You don't take them Yourself, then I'll take care of it. Just one more day of this life, two at the most and that's it. What won't I do to them. Charlie Manson will die of envy.

Do You get the drift, oh Lord?

They say that hope dies last. That's bollocks. Let me tell you, there was a time when people entertained great hopes of me. Those hopes died a long time ago, and it wasn't exactly painless. But I'm still alive and kicking.

by Garros-Evdokimov
Chatto & Windus

News: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: BBC Radio Five Live

BBC Radio Five Live’s Simon Mayo show reviews two new books every week, this week’s show will be reviewing David Mitchell’s third novel, the acclaimed Cloud Atlas. These review shows usually include a panel in the studio talking about the book, as well as some input from the author. So hopefully Mitchell will be on live talking about Cloud Atlas between 3 and 4pm UK time Thursday 23rd of February, with the recording available to stream online for a week thereafter.

Additionally, Cloud Atlas has been selected as one of Richard & Judy’s book club books for this season. If my thinking is correct then Cloud Atlas should be covered on next wednesday's show, similarly this should include some input from the author and a panel review/discussion. That is 2nd March between 5 and 6pm on the UK TV Channel 4.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

New: re:mote literature

-this is the second of the archival sets that i have been planning to do for ages. the film archive currently contains links to coming up for 200 films, while this book archive has about a 100 book links. this is the first stage of both these lists; i'll start working on the stage two of my plan once i can see again.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

New: re:mote cinema

-this is something i have been working away at for a while now, you can now search through a cinema specific archive of film reviews posted on re:mote voices. this section will be updated consistently from now on, and is the first of these specific sections to go live.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Title: The Sea Inside
Cast: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo, Clara Segura, Joan Dalmau, Alberto Jiménez, Tamar Novas, Francesc Garrido
Director: Alejandro Amenabar

The Sea Inside is emotive and charged. How could it not be? Based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, who had lived something like 26 years as a quadriplegic after a diving accident and wanted to be allowed to die. Awash on a sea of conflicting feelings the characters are torn, even those who love Ramon and support his decision can’t bring themselves to be 100% behind him.

To some degree the film is about the legal battle surrounding Ramon, unable to take his own life, he wants to ensure that if he goes for euthanasia that no one will be prosecuted for his desires. With that, this aspect is in the background, following instead his relationships with the people around him. How he interacts with his family, his sister-in-law who looks after him, his nephew who lends his hand, his brother who is dead set against his death, his father who despite encroaching senility still knows what is going on. Then there is the woman from the charity that supports people in Ramon’s position, the lawyer who has agreed to fight his case, and the local woman who increasingly comes by to use him as a sounding board for her problems. This way we focus on the people, and the range of emotions that they all experience as they go through these events.

Alejandro Amenabar no doubt gained the most attention with his only Hollywood outing to date – the film The Others, which starred Nicole Kidman. However before that there was his debut film, a thriller called Thesis. That was followed by the science fiction tinged Open Your Eyes, which was remade for American audiences as Vanilla Sky. From The Others, he returns to Spain with The Sea Inside and delivers a film which is something of a departure for him. There are less of the genre undertones that have been present in his previous work, though his cinematic eye and visual approach shine through.

The film is based on a true story, Ramon Sampedro a Galician Spaniard who made a name for himself fighting the system and publishing a book of his writing shortly before his death. The role of Ramon is taken by Javier Bardem, who I last saw alongside Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Collateral (Cruise having been instrumental in the conversion of Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes to Vanilla Sky). As one of Spain’s most prominent actors, Bardem has created a strong reputation for himself – working with other prominent Spanish directors like Pedro Almodovar (High Heels, Live Flesh), J.J. Bigas Luna (Golden Balls, Jamon Jamon) and Alex De La Iglesia (Perdita Durango). Bardem is truly on form with his performance in The Sea Inside, playing the part of an aging bed bound man for the majority of the film. The flashbacks to when Ramon was younger, to when he had his accident serve to underline the degree to which Bardem has been made up – the flashbacks showing him as he actually is, before returning to this grey, balding crippled man. The rest of the cast are strong and compliment Bardem’s performance well; despite the fact that several of them look familiar, only Lola Dueñas has been in anything I have seen, having a part in Almodovar’s Talk To Her.

The Sea Inside is filled with nice little scenes that will stay with the viewer afterwards, making it a memorable piece. Apart from which Amenabar is always one to watch.

Event: Aye Write
Featuring: Ian McEwan, Peter Lord (Aardman Animation), Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Louise Welsh, Alan Grant, Alasdair Gray, A.L. Kennedy
Date: 19th February - "8th February

The first of what is intended to be a new annual book festival based in Glasgow. The most interesting guests for me look to Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Alan Grant, Alasdair Gray, and A.L. Kennedy. Though MacLeod and Gray are the only two i haven't seen doing events before.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Title: HelloLand
Author: Nick Walker
Publisher: Review

HelloLand is the second novel by Nick Walker, an author who so impressed with his debut novel BlackBox. There are similarities between the two novels, both have something of an ensemble feel, are layered, complex and have something of the black comedy about them. They are also best approached without too much forewarning as to what happens.

With the opening of HelloLand we are introduced to Chip, who is a space fan, and dreamt of being an astronaut as a child. However as a one armed man the best he can do is to move to a town close to the launch site. There he ends up with a job working a hotel switchboard, and his shift means he can’t even be there to watch this morning’s shuttle launch. So he has to make do with the second hand report delivered via the phone by a friend. To mark the shuttle launch, Chip has arranged to have a party, but as the guests arrive and the arrangements come together he becomes increasingly anxious.

Walker likes his narrative gimmicks. In BlackBox he told his story through a series of numbers representing flights. In HelloLand the narrative is for the most part constructed from phone calls. Most of the story being in the form of conversations though Chip’s switchboard or events which he can see from the hotel’s reception desk. Set over the course of something like 4 hours, we follow the progress of Chip’s party plans, while he deals with his cantankerous and perverse boss and a selection of demanding hotel guests.

Walker’s characters come to life in his writing, as each of the people we meet as their own little quirks and he maintains an ongoing dialogue between them. In the course of HelloLand there are parts where you could weep with how badly wrong things can go, while at the same time you find yourself wiping away tears of laughter. Plot wise, HelloLand is less convoluted than BlackBox, but it is just as vivid and as brilliant a piece of writing.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Title: My Invented Country
Author: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Flamingo

My Invented Country is a book which leaves me frustrated and a little bemused. Described as being something of a memoir, Isabel Allende explores her history with her original home nation – Chile. She admits herself that to a degree this is an exercise in the exploration of nostalgia, and unfortunately that is what comes through more than anything – there is a lot of potential to the material presented here, but too often it lacks depth through the 198 pages. With that, My Invented Country is perhaps not the best introduction to the work of Isabel Allende – I have only read one of her novels, so technically this counts as an introduction to me. Throughout there are references to stories which have influenced her writing over the years, but rather than repeat herself she suggests reading those books – providing numerous opportunities to miss the chance to provide some of that desired for depth.

Under a variety of headings, Allende explores the invented nation of Chile that resides in her head. A nation which for so long she felt she belonged to, even while she travelled the world with diplomat parents, and then as an exile herself. With that there are odd little nuggets that reward the reader, but for the most part this is a book that just flies past without necessarily making too much of an impression. Although for me, one of the most interesting ideas that one encounters here is that of shifting cultural identity; in turn generating the contradictions which I found to be so frustrating.

For Isabel Allende her sense of “home”, of cultural identity is summed up by the one day in two different years – September 11th. In 1973, Chile experienced a military coup, the result of which saw Allende becoming an exile. While she had been working as a journalist in Chile, she had never been a novelist until she left the country. In the years between she travelled about, from the Chilean enclaves of Venezuela to marrying and moving to America. Which put her in San Francisco in 2001. Between 1973 and 2001, she suggests that she would have claimed no national identity, and only when pushed would have said that she was a Chilean. However having been living in America for some years, married to an American, and with an American passport, it took the attack on the twin towers to make her realise that today she is an American.

This concept is something that she sums up in her introduction to My Invented Country, even as she then goes on to include herself as a Chilean for the entire text that follows. Through the course of the text she tends to dwell in a pre-1973 Chile, which she admits is the time period which informs the nation in her head. Periodically she will make comments about how Chile is now, comparing her Chile to the country she has encountered on visits over recent years. In this process, she eventually gets to the start of Chile’s troubles.

The president at the time was a man called Salvador Allende, something which I had taken to be a coincidental occurrence of names. Actually Salvador and Isabel were cousins, not necessarily close family, but certainly related, and she had met him. As she describes this period she explains how as far as she is concerned America was alarmed at the rise of the left in Latin America, and with the imminent election of Allende they were determined to sabotage the process. When this failed, America triggered a military coup, in which the democratically elected president was murdered and replaced by a dictatorship.

From this Isabel Allende makes it clear that this was a horrible and difficult period, where regardless of how hard they tried they couldn’t deny the awful things going on. Particularly as Allende was a journalist, and despite the censorship, she very much knew what was going on, which is what led to her own decision to leave the country. Yet somehow from blaming America for these events, she now considers herself to be an American. At a time where Latin America is still experiencing difficulties, where the dictator Pinochet is perhaps going to stand trial for his trials, and where America could be said to have shifted the focus of its regime changing tendencies towards the Middle East, she decides that she is now an American. For me that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, something which grates, hovering at the back of my mind throughout the book. In the end it is a paradox she attempts to address – she fell in love with an American, and that was that.

This kind of material, sadly, isn’t really the focus of the book. Rather there are wandering discussions on religion, about the role of women in society, about the sober and serious character of the people, about the class system, and to what degree racism exists within that system, and a variety of other topics related to cultural identity. And yet, if it weren’t for that period of trouble Allende repeatedly admits that she would never have become the novelist she is today.

I suspect that My Invented Country probably holds more for someone more familiar with the works of Isabel Allende. Perhaps gaining some grain of happiness from the extra fleshing out of where her ideas have come from over the years. But for me, My Invented Country is too short a work to provide any depth, and while it admits to being a work of and inspired by nostalgia, nostalgia didn’t inspire me here.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Title: Kafka On The Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Press

A 15 year old boy runs away from home. To anyone he asks he tells them his name is Kafka. Leaving the father who raised him from the age of 4 behind, going in search of the mother who abandoned him. His initial journey leads him to a curious little library in a town far from his home in Tokyo. Once there he befriends the library staff, and finds himself with plenty of time to think about, which is just as well given what he is faced with.

Nakata was 9 in 1944, an evacuee from Tokyo who was involved in a strange incident. While the rest of the class quickly recovered, Nakata was in a coma for 3 weeks, after which he had lost all memory, and never quite recovered. Now an old man living in Tokyo he survives thanks to a subsidy from the city for the mentally disabled, and makes a little cash on the side as a cat finder thanks to his ability to talk to cats. However, when he finds himself confronted by Johnnie Walker cat killer, he decides it is time to leave Tokyo quickly.

Kafka On The Shore follows these two characters, in a fashion that pretty much alternates back and forward from chapter to chapter. Leading the two characters forward, in a manner that weaves their stories together to some degree. With that the narrative switches, for Kafka we are in first person narrative, though there are odd little sequences, detached and dreamlike, where we switch to second person and bold print. By contrast Nakata’s material is third person, which allows for an interesting little switch to occur. As we follow Nakata’s wandering journey across Japan he is helped by a variety of lorry drivers, one who decides to join him and help him as much as he can. In this process, the lorry driver becomes the lead character, allowing us to experience his awakening as a result of events, and to see how he views Nakata.

The flow of the book is initially a little off, the chapters with Kafka are followed by flashbacks to 1944 and interviews with various people about a mysterious event. These parts have such a different feel to the core narrative that they can be a little off-putting, but as we see they really serve as an introduction to Nakata. Once those have been taken in the narrative is pretty straight forward, and even builds a certain tension as it gets on – switching back and forth between the two streams as events come to ahead, in a manner that mirrors a thriller.

Haruki Murakami is of course Japan’s most popular contemporary writer, and Kafka On The Shore is the latest of his novels to be published in English. His novels over the years have tended to fall into two categories, the ones which could be described to some degree as romantic drama, and those which are a form of quest, tending to have something a little unreal to their narrative. Kafka tends into the second category, as is probably obvious from Nakata’s ability to talk to cats alone. Additionally the characters encounter a range of manifestations and atmospheric anomalies.

While this is not the first time that Murakami has explored the life of a teenager, it perhaps is the first time that the character has been contemporary. Often his books are told from an adult looking back, even something like Norwegian Wood where the adult is only really at the start. This might seem a minor thing, but one actually does seem to be more conscious of the fact with Kafka. Particularly because with that Kafka has the most contemporary feel of Murakami’s novels, with more references to technology like mobile phones and PCs, or Radiohead and Prince.

With the presence of a library in Kafka On The Shore and in the novel Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World some have suggested that there is a direct connection. As Kafka progresses there are certain events which the determined might wish to read connections into, but there certainly isn’t an overwhelming and compelling connection. Though there is perhaps an interesting resonance between characters within Kafka On The Shore and the short story On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.

As a fan of Murakami I have read all of his novels, which are readily available in English. With that, for me Kafka On The Shore is an enjoyable read, even if one is conscious of the contemporary feel and to some degree of the different translator. Though perhaps curiously, with the distinct threads in the book I probably enjoyed the story of Nakata more than that of Kafka. Part of that could be that there were aspects of Kafka’s story that I would like to have seen more done with – for example the character Sakura could have had more of a presence, similarly with the boy named Crow, though there is of course a thin line given the role of characters within the whole.

Title: Sideways
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director: Alexander Payne

Sideways is currently showing in UK cinemas alongside the film Closer, with which it has some parallels. Given that both revolve around the relationships between two men and two women, with little interaction from anyone else through the core of the film. With that they both follow some of the same emotions, ranging from the potential from fresh romance to the more bitter and darker emotions. Though the approach of the two films is quite different, Sideways has a more understated and languorous feel than Closer. It also takes place over the course of a week rather than several years, though the lives of the characters over years does inform who they are at that point.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling writer, the closest he has been to being published for years, even if that just means someone has agreed to read his book. With that and the fact that he still hasn’t gotten over his divorce it can safely be said that Miles is not a happy chappy. By contrast his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is considerably more chipper, though to some degree it has to be suspected that is bravado. Jack is a fading actor, who’s best days are behind him, and is now reduced to commercial voice over work. The two met when they were room-mates in college, and have maintained a tenuous relationship over the years.

Now Jack is going to get married, and the pair have decided to refresh their friendship and celebrate the imminent wedding by going on a tour of the vineyards of California. Though with that the pair have different agendas. Miles is a lover of wines and is looking forward to playing some golf, eating good food, and drinking wine. Jack is determined to get laid before he gets married, and even then he isn’t too sure about getting married.

In the course of their journey they meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles has had a thing for Maya for some years, and through Jack’s machinations finds himself forced into doing something about it. While at the same time Jack is after Stephanie, who is young and wild an only to happy to have a good time. But that is just the set up for the fireworks that result.

Paul Giamatti is of course brilliant as Miles, just like American Splendor, he plays the part of depressive car crash with some vigour. Thomas Haden Church comes across well as being something of a shit, shifty and selfish, redefining the reality around him to promote his own benefit. Virginia Madsen has appeared in a variety of roles over the years, Candyman and Highlander 3 being two that pop into my head, plays a more mature role as a woman who is still living behind the walls she has built up after her divorce. Sandra Oh is mercurial and emotional, contrasting Maya as much as Jack does Miles.

The film is the latest to be directed by Alexander Payne, who previously did Election and About Schmidt. Sideways is based on a novel, and partly reflects Payne’s interest in wine, which serves as such a central role in the film. Though one doesn’t necessarily need to know a lot about wine, though apparently it does lend a certain extra appreciation. The role of wine in the book is actually something of a device, bringing the characters together. In the process it also identifies Jack as being the outsider, which is perhaps a metaphor, given that the other characters talk about wine with an enthusiastic buzz, while Jack plots.

Sideways is a melancholic comedy. There is some humour to be had, and at times one finds oneself laughing out loud. Even so, there is more of the darkness, for all the energy and spark that is there we follow Miles as he is faced with his isolation and reflection on his life. Sideways has received several under-dog nominations for Oscars, though disappointingly Giamatti didn’t get one for best actor, which is definitely an oversight.

Title: Assault On Precinct 13
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, Gabriel Byrne
Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Assault On Precinct 13 was John Carpenter’s remake and update of Rio Bravo, converting a western to a more contemporary setting. In turn this version is an updating of the version from the 1970’s, while also keeping an eye on Rio Bravo. In the same way that the original Assault On Precinct 13 perhaps looks dated now, this new version will probably also look dated in 30 years time – but for the moment it is representative of the moment.

It is New Year’s Eve and the last night of Precinct 13, which has been run down – everything packed up and the staff re-assigned. This should be a quiet night with the last shift toasting the end of an era. However things don’t go to plan, a police bus is transporting a group of prisoners to a detention centre, when the weather impedes their journey and they are forced to take shelter. With Precinct 13 being the only available destination, it finds itself with a basement full. Unfortunately one of those is Bishop, a cop killer and notorious gangster, who if he lives till his trial he will bring down a large group of corrupt police in the process.

This sees Jake forced to face his past, the head officer of this shift, he was taken off the streets due to an injury sustained in a bust gone wrong – which has seen him gain a drug dependency. He has to shore up the station’s defences against the assault led by Gabriel Byrne. The rest of the station staff is made up by the receptionist, a cop who retires tonight, and Jake’s police psychiatrist who is talking him through his problems. Which quickly brings about the conclusion that the only way any of them is going to survive is by allowing the detainees out of the cells and arming them.

The film is reasonably tense. Creating an atmosphere with the combination of the run down police station on the outskirts of the city and the use of the snow, which cuts them off from anyone else. The base line plot is what it is, with little need to built much more on top of that. Though time has been taken to give each of the characters within Precinct 13 some depth – even if it times it perhaps tends towards a clichéd pretence. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, the film has some problems – the fact that no one on the police bus spots the mysterious SUV that trails it to Precinct 13 being the most problematic.

Cast wise Gabriel Byrne takes the role of “and”, which is to say he makes a token gesture appearance. Ethan Hawke takes the real lead of Jake, the troubled and tortured cop from Precinct 13. Maria Bello has converted in recent years from TV to film, with roles in films like Secret Window and The Cooler – playing Hawke’s obsessive compulsive psychiatrist. Laurence Fishburne plays Bishop or Morpheus from the Matrix films, ultra cool, impossible to kill icon, muttering gnomic phrases with his own theme tune. Drea de Matteo plays the sluttish receptionist, someone who I suspect isn’t particularly well known outside the US – though I suspect that is going to change some, with the upcoming friends spin-off, in which I understand she appears.

A decent enough action film, even with the ham-fisted approach to the set up, and the strange cult of Morpheus that the film hangs on.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Title: Slaughterhouse 5
Composer: Kurt Vonnegut
Presented by: BBC 2:Culture Show

This week's Culture Show on BBC2 has an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, talking about his novel Slaughterhouse 5 and the bombing of Dresden, his experiences of which inspired his popular science fiction novel. TV listings have this as 10th of February, 8pm and 11.20 in Scotland, check listings for variations.

Friday, February 04, 2005

He's looking for page one.
This is a bit like trying to retrieve a coin that's fallen down a grating.
Is that it, that faint gleam in the darkness?
Not sure.
He lowers weighted strings and chewing gum and brings up bottle caps.
'Blighter's rock?' says Max's mind.
'I am not rocked,' says Max.
He avoids the proper name of that condition in which writers are unable to write.
-Her Name Was Lola
-Russell Hoban
-Happy 80th Birthday!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Title: Her Name Was Lola
Author: Russell Hoban
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Max Lesser is a novelist. Even if his children's book are what allows him the financial security to continue trying to write novels. But it has been 7 years since his last novel, and he is struggling with page one of both his novel and his next children's book. So he takes a break, and heads out to meet a friend for lunch. But on the way he has an encounter with a pungent and clinging demon dwarf. In the process of trying to understand what the dwarf is, and why it is pestering him, he makes a discovery. The dwarf is a demon of forgetfulness, and it has been set upon Max - what has he forgotten and what did he do to earn this punishment? Her name was Lola.

November 2001 and Max is faced with the question of who Lola was, what he did to her, and how could he possibly have forgotten his destiny woman? The novel then flashes back, going through a number of phases. We have a mix of 2001 and 1996/97, the first recollections creeping back into Max's mind of the first meetings with Lola. This leads up to how Max allowed himself to be led astray, and in doing so betrayed Lola. From which the book resides in the past, leading the reader back to the start of the story and 2001 - following both Max and Lola, chapter by chapter, exploring their aftermath.

My discovery of Russell Hoban came in October 2003. At a point where I was reading at least 3 novels a week, and always had my eyes open for what to read next. This lead me to Bloomsbury's site, Hoban's publisher in his adopted home of the UK. There I read an extract from Her Name Was Lola, and from that extract I was hooked, and I knew that I would need to read more. However, at that point the extract was a preview from Her Name Was Lola, the hardback of which was to be published in November 2003. Not quite ready to buy a hardback of someone I hadn't read before, or willing to wait that month to read some at all, I instead have been working through Russell Hoban's back catalogue since.

February 2005, Russell Hoban's new novel Come Dance With Me has just been released in hardback, with the paperback of Her Name Was Lola being released at the end of 2004. For the last several years, fans of Russell Hoban have celebrated his birthday by leaving quotes from his books in various places. With this February being particularly special for Hoban fans - February the 4th 2005 marks Russell Hoban's 80th birthday. A fact that is being marked by a gathering in London, a city that features so prominently in Hoban's novels, which includes visiting key scenes from his work as well as a launch party for Come Dance With Me.

Which is part of why, having picked Her Name Was Lola up in December, I have saved the reading of this novel till the start of February. Celebrating Russell's 80th birthday by reading the book that brought him to my belated attention in the first place. From that discovery, Russell has quickly become one of my favourite novelists. I like the little worlds that he creates, and the way that he manages to get them into books that are usually about 200 pages - making them quick reads, for all that he puts in there.

The Hobanic worlds are usually some form of London, invariably featuring journey's on London's underground or bus system, visits to it's museums and theatres which inform the texture of the narrative, or conversations in London's cafes, bars and restaurants. A London populated by normal people, people who hang out with their friends and talk about music or film, people who meet people and start relationships. But mixed in with that, the characters experience internal dialogues - arguing with themselves, or sometimes when the characters are writers, arguing with their own characters. In the process there are little things which crop up, normally nothing overwhelming, just little encounters that knock the idea of a normal world a little askew. Such that Hoban's characters are stalked by mythical lions, have death whispering through their letter box, or in this case demons of forgetfulness following them down the street. Things which are perhaps tinged by the absurd, but not in a hey look at me isn't this crazy and mad kind of way, rather Hoban's work has a wit and charm, such that these little things are devices and metaphors for who the characters are and what in each case is driving them.

Since that first extract of Her Name Was Lola I have read a number of Hoban's novels, this now being my eighth. With that, acknowledging the fact that I have just finished reading it, and that it is something I've been planning to read for sometime, I would say that Her Name Is Lola is currently the novel by Russell Hoban that I enjoyed the most.
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She hugged herself and looked at her feet and sighed. Billie had a way of sighing with her entire body, in one dramatic motion. Nobody could seem as happy as she, or as sad. She asked, 'Aren't you angry?'


'At anything?'

'I'm not.'

'Then what is it?'

'I'm very tired.' True enough. 'Don't you ever get tired?'

She bit her lower lip, saying nothing.

'We aren't exactly the same species, Billie -'

'I know.'

'I did warn you.' He kept his voice flat and cool. 'Didn't I? You can't read me like you read your friends, and everyone. I'm a different sort of person -'

'"A human of a different line,"' she quoted. 'I know.'

'That's the way it is.'

'I do understand,' she insisted. Again she sighed, and she gave herself a long hug.

by Robert Reed
Orbit Books

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd. Some of them had half melted in the heat of re-entry; others pinged and ticked, cooling rapidly in the postdawn chill. An inquisitive pigeon hopped close, head cocked to one side; it pecked at the shiny case of one such device, then fluttered away in alarm when it beeped. A tinny voice spoke: 'Hello? Will you entertain us?'
The Festival had come to Rochard's World.

A skinny street urchin was one of the first victims of the assault on the economic integrity of the New Republic's youngest colony world. Rudi - nobody knew his patronymic, or indeed his father - spotted one of the phones lying in the gutter of a filthy alleyway as he went about his daily work, a malodorous sack wrapped around his skinny shoulders like a soldier's bedroll. The telephone lay on the chipped stones, gleaming like polished gunmetal: he glanced around furtively before picking it up, in case the gentleman who must have dropped it was still nearby. When it chirped he nearly dropped it out of fear: a machine! Machines were upper-class and forbidden, guarded by the grim faces and gray uniforms of authority. Nevertheless, if he brought it home to Uncle Schmuel, there might be good eating: better than he could buy with the proceeds of the day's sackful of dog turds for the tannery. He turned it over in his hands, wondering how to shut it up, and a tinny voice spoke: 'Hello? Will you entertain us?'

Rudi nearly dropped the phone and ran, but curiosity held him back for a moment: 'Why?'

'Entertain us and we will give you anything you want.'

by Charles Stross
Orbit Books

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