Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Title:The Machinist
Cast: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, Michael Ironside
Director: Brad Anderson

Trevor Reznick hasn’t slept in over a year. He is steadily losing weight. Uses bleach to clean obsessively. There is a man at work who is a bit threatening. But no one else knows who he is talking about.

Christian Bale has lost a good deal of weight to play the part of the Trevor Reznick in the psychological thriller The Machinist. The character is quite clearly someone in a deteriorating mental and physical condition. During the day he works as a machinist, visits a prostitute every night, then visits the café in the airport where he flirts with a waitress over coffee and pie. But at the same time he is going through the motions we have a man who is increasingly paranoid, are people out to get him? Or is it all in his head?

In the end the actual details of the plot and the payoff of the story are pretty straight forward, and something we have encountered before in other guises. But it is the performances, the extremes to which Bale takes his character, the leery and sinister performance John Sharian gives as the mysterious Ivan, that really give the film an edge. Coupled with the deliberate atmosphere that is created and maintained throughout the film, odd little occurrences, the constantly overcast and washed out environment all creating a certain colour and mood which so strongly informs the mood of the film.

The Machinist has been compared to Memento, and there is a similar sensibility to some degree. But in terms of the paranoid edge, and the verges into possible delusion one gets more of a sense of something like Pi. Plot wise, The Machinist could be compared to one or two other films, but to do so would probably give away the punch line.

The Machinist is wilfully weird as it verges into one man’s madness. Christian Bale gives the performance of his career, investing his physical image in the process – going from American Psycho or Equilibrium where he was more of a built up action man to this emaciated figure; Bale’s next cinematic appearance is as the new Batman, which should give even more of a contrast to how he looks here. Clever and conscious cinema, which provides all the clues, through the delusions, dragging the character, as much as the viewer, towards the horrible truth.

Title:Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Cast: Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Emma Croft, Bob Peck, Peter Capaldi
Director: Bille August

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow is adapted from the Danish best seller of the same name written by Peter Høeg, starring Julia Ormond in the titular role. Smilla was born in the Danish territory of Greenland, but when her mother died her father moved her back to Denmark and she now lives in Copenhagen. Even as a child Smilla had an affinity for snow, which she has made her life as she has grown up into an ice expert.

Smilla has befriended the son of a neighbour. The neighbour is a hard drinking widow, who has little time for her young son. So, despite her reluctance, Smilla looks out for the boy. However, one day when she comes home from work she finds the boy dead in the snow outside the block of flats they live in. It seems that the boy was on the roof and fell off. As far as the police it was a tragic accident, but Smilla thinks differently – the boy was afraid of heights and would never have played on the roof. Also looking at the boy’s footprints in the snow they head straight for the edge, and being an expert she can tell from the prints what kind of motion was involved in their formation. Regardless of how much she makes of this being a murder though, she finds that no one wants to listen, she is shut down, she starts to become threatened.

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow is a thriller, with Smilla piecing together the clues that point to a corporate conspiracy and cover up. Who can she trust? Who is in on it? All the classic questions for a growing plot. Smilla as depicted in this adaptation by Ormond is an interesting character, she is harsh, brusque, not someone who goes around making friends. Which of course doesn’t help her as these events escalate, but also makes the whole friendship with the boy in the first place a more curious thing. Ormond also puts in the effort to put on an accent, whether it is authentically Danish, I couldn’t say, but it adds to the performance as much as the feel of the city, providing the whole idea of this not being your regular thriller.

Title:Kil’n People
Author: David Brin
Publisher: Orbit

Albert Morris is a private detective. But thanks to the technology provided by Universal Kilns he isn’t exactly the archetypal private detective. The kiln technology allows people to print their personality/memories into a clay blank and create a copy of themselves. The copy can then do a days work, and load that day back into the original. This has totally changed the world, and most folk live as permanent students or get paid a default wage. Morris is different, he is good at the job of private detective, and with the aid of several replicas he goes further than ever before.

His speciality is copyright infringement, his arch-nemesis being a ditto (copy) called Beta. Having just crushed the latest of Beta’s enterprises, Morris is surprised when he is approached by Universal Kilns to help find one of the managing directors who has gone missing. But from there it isn’t long before he is over his head – who is he up against, the master villain, the mad scientist, or the corporate big shot?

Thanks to the technology at the heart of Kil’n People, Brin offers an interesting narrative device, we have the same character is several different forms. As the novel progresses, the story alternates, between three versions of the same character. Following the similarities in the core personality as they all echo the reaction’s of each other, through how they find themselves in different circumstances, and how those fit into the overall plot.

To some degree Kil’n People has a large element of pulp fiction, or the black and white serialisations from Saturday morning cinema of the same period. Each chapter tends towards the cliffhanger set up. With the characters to some degree fitting into the archetypes of the hero and villain, something which Brin does consciously, actually discussing the idea within the text.

Coupled with that there are real science issues involved as well, while the chances of making clay copies of people as depicted here might be far fetched. However there could be a parallel between make copies of oneself in this manner and the ideas of cloning. Through the course of Kil’n People we encounter a range of responses to the technology. Is the copy of a traditionally born person in turn a “real” person? Does a copy have a soul? What social rights does a copy have? If the world is suddenly flooded with copies that are going to enter the work market, what effect does that have on how everything runs?

As the novel moves on through its 500 odd pages Brin becomes increasingly hard-core. Becoming involved in metaphysics, the idea of what the soul is, how that fits into the greater universal scheme of things. Which is all dangerous territory, authors who get so involved in the cosmic/spiritual side of things walk a fine line – is some universal force/god going to make an appearance, and doing so change the whole course of the narrative, and in doing so perhaps undermine the entire novel? In the depths of Kil’n People this poses a real danger, with Brin pushing it as far as he can go. Though in the end he does what he feels he has to do, and manages to maintain an element of balance in order to wrap the novel up.

To a degree Brin could have created a crime serial here. Albert Morris and his copies could have become a recurring character, something that is so common in the field of crime fiction. However when you have taken a character as far as he does through the course of Kil’n People, it becomes a serious challenge to go further than he has already. So I suspect that it is unlikely that Brin will return to Albert Morris and the kil’n people, though if he were to he would need to perform some trick to top this novel.

Part crime noir classic, part science fiction narrative, and part metaphysical discourse Kil’n People is a mixed bag. Filled with drama and big ideas, and enough humour to keep it readable.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Title:Don’t Move
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Sergio Castellitto, Claudia Gerini, Elena Perino
Director: Sergio Castellitto

Angela (Elena Perino) is a spunky 15-year-old Italian teenager, driving around on her moped. However, when she comes off her bike, her helmet hasn’t been strapped on properly. The film Don’t Move opens with her being rushed to hospital with a severe head injury. As she is prepared for emergency surgery a staff member goes through her things trying to find out who she is, when she finds Angela’s details though, she recognises the name. Angela’s father works in this hospital.

Timoteo Rossi (Sergio Castellitto) is in surgery when a colleague comes in with some urgent news. His daughter has been in an accident and requires emergency surgery. Distraught, he rushes to the theatre, and quickly concludes that there is not much chance that she will survive. While his colleagues set about doing what they can to save her life, he paces back and forth, stressed and upset, looking back at his life. Surprisingly from here, the role of Timeo’s daughter is a minor one.

Don’t Move is the story of Timeo and Italia. One day Timeo’s car broke down in a small town. While trying to get help he is persuaded have a couple of drinks. Meets Italia (Penelope Cruz) and uses her phone. Having done this he finally has someone looking at his car. From which he takes the strange step of going back to Italia’s and raping her. Later he goes back to apologise for his actions, and essentially rapes her again, but leaves money this time. From there a relationship starts, one that I personally found quite incomprehensible, given that it essentially evolves from a series of rapes.

Strangely Timeo and Italia fall in love. Italia gets pregnant. Timeo decides that he is going to leave his wife Elsa (Claudia Gerini). But the night that he has decided to tell Elsa everything is the night that she reveals that she is also pregnant. Which of course throws the already unbalanced Timeo off balance.

Don’t Move is a little baffling. At the centre of this is how the character of Timeo behaves. On the one hand we have this greying doctor, stressed about his 15-year old daughter. On the other hand, we follow his unhappiness with his marriage, how that leads him to rape a woman, and then form a relationship with that woman. Along the way, we see him confess his crimes in huge letters on the beach and then to a cleaning woman. We watch his odd behaviour at a medical conference, as he reads through a presentation, or later how he starts shouting and storms off a plane, as it is about to take off. All of which seems to form a picture of an impulsive man, reckless and not especially predictable.

Don’t Move is showing at the same time as the French film 5x2, taken together they don’t paint a pretty picture of the male sex. Timeo seems to be as thoroughly unpleasant as 5x2’s Gilles. In Don’t Move the big question seems to be, why does Penelope Cruz’s character having anything to do with this man? Italia is depicted as a rough woman, one who looks as though she has just recently been beaten with her permanently darkened eyes. Her hair is straggly, shot through with dirty blonde streaks. She is usually dressed in a dishevelled manner, and lives in a crumbling house that she is going to be evicted from shortly. So, essentially, Italia is a hard luck case, but does that explain her interest in Timeo? As the film unfolds, one does get impressions of her loneliness, and how it seems that she has been starved of affection. So perhaps a man paying her repeated attention and declaring his love for her is enough, even after the rapes?

Sergio Castellitto writes, directs, and takes the lead role of Timeo in his film Don’t Move. For me I don’t entirely know what to make of this film. To a degree it feels like the balance isn’t entirely there. The concentration is too heavily on the story between Timeo and Italia. Even in the straightforward terms of an extra-marital affair, Elsa doesn’t seem to have quite enough of a weight. Though given the intensity of the affair that could be understood, in some versions of this story I have no doubt that the wife wouldn’t have featured as a presence at all. However in the context of Don’t Move, it feels like the story of Angela and Elsa is neglected, that there is more there that could have been told and is not. Particularly given that it is Angela’s accident that triggers these recollections.

Despite these kind of issues, Don’t Move has some interesting things going on in there. There are some interesting thoughts on life and death, the suggestions of spirituality that crop up being a curious touch. Though the most obvious attraction of Don’t Move is the performance by Penelope Cruz, and the way in which Castellitto offers us this astounding character that is so outrageous it just has to be seen to be believed.

Title:5x2 [Cinq Fois Deux or Five Times Two]
Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Stephane Freiss
Director: Francois Ozon

5x2 follows five “scenes” in the life of two people. Starting with their divorce, before stepping back by degrees, through the birth of their son, their wedding and back to their first meeting. As we meet Marion (Tedeschi) and Gilles (Freiss) they are obviously at the end of a relationship. Despite the divorce they have agreed to go back to a hotel room and have sex one last time. However, Marion quickly changes her mind, and Gilles is in denial about their problems. Essentially Gilles will not take no for an answer and rapes Marion, before asking her if she wants to give the relationship another go.

As the film steps backwards we get snapshots of the relationship between these two people. On the whole this doesn’t necessarily give a great insight into the scope of who these people are and how they manage to stay together so long; the divorce takes effect at the start of 2003, they had their son in 1999, and obviously met a year or two before that. There has been some discussion about the morality of the film and what it means. Some people have suggested that an event we see as we go back to the earlier stages of the relationship acts to justify Gilles raping Marion. Which strikes me as odd, given the clearest thing that I got from each and every scene was that Gilles is a bastard. In every scene he manages to do something quite thoroughly unpleasant to the people around him. Which for me leaves the impression that Marion is well shot of Gilles, and events entirely justify her desire to see him cut out of her life.

5x2 is released in the UK a week or so after 9 Songs, other than the similarities with numeric titles, there is also the similarity that they both take a not entirely conventional look at two people. 5x2 covers a greater time period than 9 Songs, and has more dialogue, but essentially they both demonstrate the same kind of problems. Which is that a narrative which concentrates too closely on two people, and has a narrow focus creates a void around the people. While the idea might be to create a certain intimacy, which is certainly there to some degree, it also leaves this gap in which they spend the bulk of their lives. A space which would probably give a little bit more flesh to the people involved and who they are.

As for the idea of stepping a film backwards, this is also something which we have seen before. Films like Don’t Move or The Machinist which I saw the same weekend as 5x2 have to a lesser extent devices where the film starts at one point and goes backwards. Though the most obvious example of a film that starts at the end and steps backwards in the same manner as 5x2 is Irreversible. While Irreversible is clearly the more harrowing of the two, 5x2 is still in heavy territory. But, does the gimmick of telling a story in reverse work? To a degree if 5x2 was told from meeting, wedding, birth, dinner party, divorce, then it would be a considerably more conventional narrative. One which would have seen a lot more of in the past. Going the other way round does work as a gimmick, but it also effectively changes the way the film works to some extent.

The performances given by the two leads of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss are strong. The way they and the production team manage to actually get them to change as the film goes backwards is effective. The most obvious way to change someone’s appearance as though it is a different time is their hairstyle, unsurprisingly this is more easily done for the character Gilles, and for Marion’s father – longer hair, greyer hair, stubble or a beard all being used to demonstrate the changes. Marion’s hair is more consistent, long and flowing, but both the leads do go through other transformations with things like weight – getting thinner as the film goes back. Overall this aspect of the film is well done, and it is nice to be able to note the extent of the changes that are made with the flow from each temporal snapshot to the previous.

5x2 is directed by French director Francois Ozon, who again does something different from his previous films with this outing. Ozon first came to my attention with his film Sitcom, a black soap opera styled comedy. Over the years he has done films like the adaptation of Fassbinder’s play Water Drops On Burning Rocks. But he has gained more world wide attention with his more recent films like Agatha Christie-esque murder and musical 8 Women, or the sultry thriller Swimming Pool. This is a rawer film than his recent work, more straight forward in a narrative sense, perhaps having more in common with Water Drops than the bulk of his output. Ozon tends to work with his cast more than once, Swimming Pool being the second film he had done with both the female leads, Rampling and Sagnier. 5x2 is his first outing with Freiss and Tedeschi, though his next film Le Temps Qui Reste sees him working with Tedeschi for a second time.

Going through Francois Ozon’s back catalogue one can see that he has a tendency towards gimmicks and more unusual narrative devices. This has led to some accusations that he is a clumsy director, reliant on tricks that he can’t entirely pull off and aren’t enough to make up for the films failings. However, for me, Ozon is always an interesting director, and his films are reliably worth seeing. Even if 5x2 does lack some of the undercurrents of humour that have been present in the bulk of his work. Even if in general his films are not entirely perfect. He is making an effort to make interesting films that manage to be consistently different from the bulk of French cinema, let alone the more readily available American cinema.

Title:Dreaming In Smoke
Author: Tricia Sullivan
Publisher: Millennium

When probes reached the planet T’Nane it was found to be perfect for humans. So time was taken to assemble a crew – mothers and grunts. The next generation was decided on by sponsorships, embryos generated by those able to pay, transported to a new planet and delivered when the time is right by the mothers. However, by the time the ship travelled through space, years had passed since the probe had studied T’Nane. Such that the planet has entirely transformed in the mean time, offering a hostile new environment to the new arrivals.

Using the ship’s AI, Ganesh, a base was set up and the colony went about doing what it could to scrape out an existence. After a base line was established, the embryos were delivered, and the planet had it’s next generation of humans. The mothers formed a hierarchy, in charge of the colony, with the male “grunts” doing the hard work, while the kids grow up. In that time the society becomes entirely dependent on Ganesh.

Kalypso Deed is the fuck up of the colony. No where nearing reaching the potential of the parents who supplied there genes for a baby of the T’Nane colony. She spends all her time plugged into Ganesh’s Dream systems, and listening to Earth music. Not really keeping up with her cluster mates, who have more pressing interests, like ensuring the colony has enough oxygen or enough food to survive in the long term.

Of course when one of the grunts causes a crash of Ganesh the system comes down around the colony’s ears. With Kalypso caught right in the middle of the crash scenario and held partly responsible as far as the mother’s are concerned. Everything gets chaotic from there, they all have to evacuate, head out to the secondary base, take what they can. Unfortunately for Kalypso her fate is tied to the grunt who is driven crazy by the crash, and she finds herself deep in the wilds. Where it starts to become clear strange things are happening to Ganesh, and that in fact they might not be the only ones out here in the wild.

Tricia Sullivan’s most recent novel was Maul, which was published by Orbit rather than Millennium. Maul and Dreaming In Smoke are quite different as novels, the basic plots and scenarios entirely divergent. But reading them both, one is conscious of the thematic connections that go into Sullivan’s work. Not least that of being a woman writer she has what could probably be described as a more “feminist” approach than many of her male peers. Both Maul and Dreaming In Smoke presenting societies lead by women – in Maul men are an endangered species, while in Dreaming In Smoke the Mothers are in charge because they gave birth to the colony. Though with that, Sullivan doesn’t come across as a raging Feminist – her portrayal of Mothers doesn’t have the same kind of aspect as one might expect after encountering Dave Sims anti-feminist portrayal of Mothers and Daughters. Sullivan has a certain humour, part of which comes through in how she handles the “mothers” or generally “authority figures” – she offers the idea in Dreaming Of Smoke of drunks and druggies, which the T’Nane born kids kind of have to rebel against sooner or later.

Themes of viruses, computer and biological, and the potentials for intelligence coming from these kind of fractioned and microscopic systems are central and both of these novels by Sullivan. There are even parallel scenes of blue painted skins, of the human body as chemical factories. These are the kinds of things which play the part of the real core of Sullivan’s story, past the ideas alien planets or changed societies, it is clear that her big ideas are the ideas of the small.

The pacing in both these novels is surprisingly rapid, perhaps hectic in the flow of words. On the one hand she offers a rollicking science fiction ride, which can compete with some of the more action orientated science fiction novels of recent years. But at the same time she manages to get some classic science fiction ideas and make them as central as any of the whiz bang motions. Something which can’t always be said about those fast novels, which rely more heavily on the action alone.

To some degree one of the distinct themes of Dreaming In Smoke is that of music and the part it plays in the novels development. Unfortunately this is underdeveloped by Sullivan, so that it doesn’t take as big a part as it promises. Meaning that this kind of territory is more fully explored by Kathleen Ann Goonan in her Queen City Jazz and Crescent City Rhapsody novels.

Tricia Sullivan’s Dreaming In Smoke is pretty readable, fast paced with a certain amount of fun in the process. There are some nice experimental touches with the narrative in terms of layout/fonts, which compliment the text. And on the whole this is a decent read, which backs up the idea that Sullivan is doing something interesting.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Author: Don DeLilo
Publisher: Picador

Cosmopolis is the thirteenth novel by American writer Don DeLilo, like his previous novel The Body Artist, this is slim volume at just over 200 pages. The novel follows the life of Eric Packer, an absurdly rich man, as he goes through one day of his life. That day is a day in April of 2000 in New York City, and the novel is split into 2 parts, each of which consists of 2 chapters about 50 pages long, with each chapter split by a handful of pages from the view point of someone who plans to kill Packer.

Packer is the sort of rich that has a 48 room apartment in the centre of New York, which cost him millions, and has features like a swimming pool and shark tank. He starts the day setting out on a quest to get himself a hair cut. Leaving his apartment he spends the day in his specially designed limo, crawling along from event to event. Everything he could need for his office is built in to the car, and the head of each of his departments comes and goes, pick up from one street corner to a drop off on another.

But today isn’t like any other day, it takes on the characteristics of an odyssey. Through his journey from his home to getting a hair cut he is met by a range of curious characters; ranging from his various members of staff, though repeated encounters with the woman he has just married but doesn’t really know, to the random. At the same time, New York has been brought to something of a stand still; the president is in town and security is on full alert, wide scale anti-globalisation protests lock down the streets, and a rap stars funeral procession works it’s own way through the city.

Cosmopolis is introduced by the quote “a rat became the unit of currency”, which Parker jokes about with one of his managers, only to have a number of rat encounters there after; men waving rats above their heads, a giant Styrofoam rat propelled along the streets, protesters releasing rats into fast food stores, and even the quote from the poem being inserted into the stock market streamers. Which is a kind of summation of what kind of novel this is, one that has a particularly contemporary and real time feel, while at the same time some how transferring into a voyage that is abundantly more surreal.

The lead character Eric Parker is a curious one, at 28 he is ahead of the game and absurdly rich. As the novel progresses there is a sub narrative being woven in, one which tends towards the darker side, as Parker deals with a point of business which goes further than he has before. So that this business sets the real tone of the journey, rather than the base line of the trip to get a haircut. Again while the novel goes on there are a series of deaths, prominent figures in the world bank, or Russian billionaires, and the rap star, all of whom it turns out Parker has met and has an opinion on. Or the events which occur alongside the journey, the riot, the rave, the film set, all providing a certain colour, while also providing an insight into how Parker reacts and is driven by the world around him.

To a degree Parker reminds of William Gibson’s Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition, as Parker is the sort of man who has made his fortune by recognising the patterns in money and sales. Then there seems to be an element of Warren Ellis in the way Parker looks at the world, the regard for things like computers or phones as redundant, looking toward the future that is upon us now, where the idea of these objects has already changed past their original definitions. There are perhaps even parallels with Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, the journey at the core of that novel as the lead gets steeped in events has a similar kind of euphoric hysteria.

Don DeLilo is an acclaimed novelist, hailed to some degree as one of those writers who particularly writes “great American novels”. This is the second of his books that I have read, and I remain uncertain about his work. Cosmopolis starts a little hit and miss, at times one is struck more by the idea that DeLilo is awed by his own ability to string together sentences. Such that one has a sense of self-indulgence, where lists are strung together in attempts to create narrative as nonsense poetry. However as the novel progresses and we actual start to get into the flow of events, I found myself more forgiving and more interested in the actual narrative that is Cosmopolis. Cosmopolis in the end is deeply weird fiction, not because of what happens, but rather because it recounts moments taking place in a deeply weird world, which we can all recognise as having parallels to our own.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Extract:Woken Furies
Author: Richard Morgan

A 3 page extract from Richard Morgan's 4th novel Woken Furies, returning to the territory covered by Altered Carbon and Broken Angels. Now available in the UK in hardback.

Author:Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett has come to my attention through his stories which were included in the annual Best New SF collections. Marcher and To Become A Warrior come from his connected sequence of stories regarding the idea of the universe as a world tree, and each branch being a different version that people can travel between. His site includes a couple of his short stories, though unfortunately not either of the two that i was impressed by.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Title:Martian Time Slip
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz

Colonisation of Mars has reached a cusp point – settlers are getting by, just about, while the rate of immigration has fallen off. However conditions on Earth are getting increasingly bad, such that the UN would like Mars to be the solution.

Jack Bohlen is a repairman, an ability that is in demand on a planet where it costs so much to get parts, let alone just buying a new one. As such it is not surprising that he is drawn into the circles surrounding Arnie Kott, who is probably the most powerful man on the planet, and would like to keep it that way.

To a degree Martian Time Slip takes on Shakespearian dimensions. Kott as king, who would maintain his power through machinations, but in doing so causes the pieces of his fate to fall into place. Bohlen is something of an innocent, but becomes a pawn in the game of fates that Kott has set in motion. Kott even using his mistress to bring Bohlen in, though of course that backfires. The third voice in the novel is that of an autistic boy called Manfred, with Kott convinced that the mentally ill can see the future. If Kott had access to someone who could see the future then his destiny would be assured – so Manfred becomes like the three witches round a cauldron issuing dire warnings – gubble, gubble.

Philip K. Dick has a writing style which transforms a base idea into something entirely different. Martian Time Slip is a particularly striking example of this. A story about Mars, Martians, and colonisation is presented as a starting point. From there this becomes a novel about mental illness, altered perceptions of state of mind and how that changes how an individual looks at the world around them. Two out of the three lead roles suffer from mental illness – Jack is a schizophrenic and Manfred is autistic. With Dick’s writing style each character is provided with a distinct voice. Such that Arni Kott is a driven and powerful character, but he is also a racist, sexist, bigot – someone we see treat everyone around him in an appalling fashion. More importantly though, Dick manages to induce the novel as break down; taking the reader into disturbing territories as we enter the paranoia’s and fears of characters as their mental state deteriorates.

Martian Time Slip combines the science fiction ideas of Mars and possible time travel with those of isolation and personal horror. Looping passages in an increasingly distorted fashion until we are into one of those flip outs which make reading Philip K. Dick so unique and memorable.

Title:The Time Traveler’s Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Publisher: Vintage

Clare is 6-years-old when a naked man appears in the meadow by her house where she plays. He convinces her that he is from the future, and provides her with a list of dates over the next 12 years of when he will visit her. From there he appears and disappears, always naked and usually a different age, becoming her secret friend in the process. He helps her with her homework, teaches her French, plays her at chess. Through this period she falls in love with him, and knows that one day she will be the time traveller’s wife.

Henry is 28 when he meets a 20-year-old woman for the first time. Though she seems to have known him for years. But then, Henry isn’t like other people, he has a tendency to travel through time. To a degree this seems to happen at random, however his disappearances tend to be triggered by stress and his destination tends to be to significant points in his life. Given that this is the woman he will marry it is not surprising that she is one of the people he will visit in the past.

This is the set up for Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveller’s Wife. Which on first glance suggests a strong influence from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse 5. There are certainly parallels between the two, both featuring men who travel through time, visiting key events in their lives. The Time Traveller’s Wife is about 2 or 3 times longer than Slaughterhouse 5, and is much more about the people and the human relationship than a historical events like Vonnegut’s experiences of the bombing of Dresden.

The narrative unfolds through the alternating voices of Clare and Henry, progressing along a mostly linear time line from the past to the future. Working from Clare as a child growing up and being visited by Henry from the future, and the events which inform her life. To after they have met in real time and we follow events in their life as Henry travels back to visit Clare in the past.

In some ways this is a jigsaw, constructing lives through a basic science fiction idea. The time travel adding different perspectives on events over the life cycle. With this Niffenegger seems to have made a clear choice regarding how to deal with certain events which could lead to confusion. As Henry travels through time he meets people that have certain relations with him, but not necessarily at the point he is currently meeting them. This could have allowed for a range of curious scenes where the reader was baffled, which I think could have been fun. Instead Niffenegger tends towards scenes where someone says something about something that has happened, and then she delivers the scene where that thing happens.

But for all the aspects of science fiction, which can’t entirely be denied, this is more a novel about a relationship. As such it follows the ups and downs of the life Clare and Henry have together. With Henry being a particularly difficult character to deal with, every time he disappears Clare worries about what could wrong. After years of appearing places with nothing, Henry has gained a reputation over that time, having to do some strange and extreme things to get clothes, money or food to avoid being arrested or encountering other problems. To a degree Niffenegger could have just as easily done something like make Henry and alcoholic, prone to waking up with no clothes, and violent outbursts.

But the idea of time travel makes him a more unpredictable and sympathetic character. It also adds a particular edge to events, with an ability to move back and forth through time comes a knowledge of the joys and tragedies which make up life. Something which Niffenegger doesn’t skimp on as she on the one hand presents this novel as a declaration of love, while at the same time providing them with the stress and difficulty which forces Henry to flee back to that meadow in the past.

Niffenegger fills her work with texture, giving the characters a particular depth. Clare is an artist, who works with paper, like Niffenegger herself. While Henry is a librarian at a big library in Chicago. Together they visit restaurants and bars, record shops and book dealers, gigs by Iggy Pop or the Violent Femmes, and museum exhibits by the likes of Joseph Cornell. These people have families, school friends, work mates, some who know everything that is going on, some who think Henry is a dangerous person best avoided, and some who just fit into the flow of a lifetime. In the end The Time Traveller’s Wife is an emotional roller coaster, following the highs and lows of a relationship informed and emphasised by time travel, the joys and sorrows foretold and inevitable. Resulting in a compelling, quirky, surprising and memorable read.

Title: Somersault
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington
Director: Cate Shortland

Heidi is a flirtatious 16-year-old, who runs away from home after she is caught kissing her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother is appalled and betrayed by Heidi’s actions, and the immediate tension makes Heidi feel like she had better get out of there. So Heidi heads off to a ski resort, where she believes a man she met once will help her out. Instead she finds herself with no friends and little money, driving her into a series of random sexual encounters. Which she manages to naively make the most of, finding herself with somewhere to stay, with a job, and perhaps a boyfriend. But of course the world isn’t as shiny and bright as Heidi would like to think and it isn’t long before this is made clear to her.

Somersault is the debut feature by Australian writer/director Cate Shortland. Like Tony McNamara, who directed the forthcoming Rage In Placid Lake, Shortland started her career working on the TV drama The Secret Life Of Us, which has exported from Australia to the UK. She graduated from the Aurora Programme, a series or workshops where experienced directors help out new directors. In this programme she was mentored by director Rob Festinger (In The Bedroom), though there is an irony to that given that Shortland’s work has more in common with one of the other experienced directors involved in the Aurora Programme. In terms of look and feel Somersault recalls Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar. Both feature female leads who have a curious view of the world and end up in awkward situations. Both feature a soundtrack which is particularly effective, mixing retro with contemporary – the new music in Somersault being provided by a band called Decoder Ring, and recalling the kind of electronic melodies that the Warp bands provided for Morvern Callar.

Somersault is essentially a coming of age film and so much of the success of Shortland’s film comes from the casting of Abbie Cornish as Heidi. Cornish manage to capture the contradictions and uncertainties of the role. Cornish bringing the film to life as much as Shortland’s writing and direction.

Title: 9 Songs
Cast: Kieran O'Brien, Margot Stilley
Director: Michael Winterbottom

With 9 Songs director Michael Winterbottom wants to explore a relationship between a man and a woman via the physical side of their interaction. Matt (Kieran O'Brien) is a glaciologist arriving in Antarctica and looking back on his recent relationship with Lisa (Margot Stilley). He flashes back to when they first met, at a concert by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, where they are both on drugs and end up back at Matt's flat having sex. This establishes the pattern for the film, the couple having sex, interspersed with the titular 9 songs from gigs that they attend.

9 Songs is a sparse film, with a particularly raw approach to both the songs and the sex. With little dialogue coming from the improvised scenes that the film is comprised of. To a degree we see the relationship progress and change, from the raw passion of first encounter, through the more relaxed and experimental phases. This moves on, she no longer wants to go to every gig he does, she gets more pleasure from her vibrator than from sex with him. So from the day trips, the visit to a strip bar, and the occasional conversations we get some sense of who these people are and the relationship that exists between them.

But this relies on the ability of the audience to extrapolate from bare events. The film has so little dialogue that there really isn't anything to go on past the sex. And the 69-minute film is comprised of little other than the sex and the rock and roll. The sex is also particularly explicit, pushing the boundaries of what can be shown in the cinema, in the way films like the Lars von Trier's Idiots or Catherine Breillat's Romance. With that 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit British film ever; the previous film Intimacy doesn't count despite being shot in the UK and adapted from a short story by the British writer Hanif Kureishi, since it was directed by a French man and funded by the French. As with any film that is released in the UK that pushes the bounds, there is a degree of controversy, the fact that 9 Songs is comprised of little other than sex and pretty much shows everything they could show, then it shouldn't be surprising that it has caused a stir.

Is 9 Songs pornography? I don't think so, the approach to the sex and the way the film has shot doesn't tend towards the lascivious and excessive nature of regular pornography. Sure there are sexual acts shown in all their glory, but the approach is more about the natural relation between a man and a woman and what they would do in the course of that relation. Of course that doesn't make it art or necessary to do in the first place. Although one of the most annoying things that happens in most films is the fake-sex, Hollywood fake sex tending to more gratuitous and exploitative for me. So by comparison the approach in 9 Songs has more honesty.

In the end, for me, 9 Songs would have benefited from more dialogue, more human conversation that actually gave you an idea of who these people were and why they were together. The music is a central factor in the film, taking in performances by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Von Bondies, Super Furry Animals, Elbow, The Dandy Warhols, Franz Ferdinand and Michael Nyman. What you make of the music and the bands might well have an impact on what you make of 9 Songs, if these are your favourite bands, then you might love the series of live performances that are included. Personally the music wasn't very interesting, I didn't like any of the bands, and the only performance I enjoyed at all was the anomalous one that was provided by Michael Nyman. Last year's Code 46 by Michael Winterbottom was something I enjoyed a lot, with not enough dialogue and only 1 of 9 songs being of interest, I can't say I was especially convinced by 9 Songs.

Title: Constantine
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Djimon Hounsou, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare
Director: Francis Lawrence

In recent years we have seen a rise in the number of films adapted from comic books, Marvel Comics have particularly been flooding the market, with Dark Horse not so far behind. Traditionally over the years there have always been the big two companies, Marvel and DC - DC gave us Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. In recent years DC haven't really been making much of their properties in the film world, except for the derisible Cat Woman film from last year. With Constantine they are doing something a little different, taking a character from the DC imprint Vertigo Comics and putting it in the cinema.

Vertigo was created something like 10 years ago, consolidating the titles DC had which didn't really fit the parent line, those which were a little more grown up, weird and spooky. One of the classics that fell under this umbrella was Swamp Thing, which has actually been made into two films, but those were a little slap stick and more action movie than the Vertigo heading dictates. While sales were falling on the title, one of the industries top names was brought in to give it a fresh lease of life - Alan Moore. In the recent industry of comic conversions, Moore has had several of his works brought to live - From Hell and The Extraordinary League Of Gentlemen being two obvious examples, while The Watchman and V For Vendetta are in the works. During his run on Swamp Thing this British writer created a character called John Constantine, a hard smoking, hard drinking bastard from England who dabbled in black magic. This character was spun out into his own title, and thus was born Hellblazer. A title which was written by a succession of British comic talent, from Jamie Delano through Garth Ennis to Warren Ellis.

Constantine the film is based on the character John Constantine from Hellblazer, and in particular the period that was written by Garth Ennis. Of course the most obvious problem that anyone will point out is that of casting. The film role of Constantine has been given to Keanu Reeves, which obviously doesn't match the comic book vision of a rugged, mischievous bastard. Even in terms of appearance, Constantine is a sort of dirty blonde, and tends to be depicted with a dirty brown raincoat. Instead Keanu has dark hair and wears a black coat, but hey, those are minor concerns if he can pull off the part. Unfortunately Keanu can't pull off the part at all, even if you take the role from fresh Keanu never seems to convince that he is as much of an anti-hero as those around him would have us believe.

Regardless. God and the Devil are at war for the souls of all those on earth. But with this they have certain rules, they can try and influence the souls, particularly through half-breeds, but they can't put a full-breed angel or demon on earth. Unfortunately there are extra chapters in the devil's copy of the bible, which suggest conditions under which hell would be visited upon earth. Those conditions are starting to be met, and Constantine finds himself dragged in. From childhood he had always seen strange things, and was eventually driven to suicide; he was brought back from death, but the attempt was enough to damn his soul to hell. Being damned to hell he has spent the years since banishing demonic forces in a bid for redemption, making him particularly hated amongst hell's forces.

This sets up the film where Constantine is detecting increasing demonic forces, his friends are being picked off, and he finds himself dealing with a police woman who's twin sister has just been killed by mysterious forces. From there we have a mixed bag of a film, there are times where Keanu gets a grasp of the character and the production team get a hold of the plot - so the whole clicks briefly. But at other times the film just kind of fails to convince as much as I would have liked. The scene where Constantine is visited by one of his friends and shown all sorts of mystical weapons feels a little too much like a scene from a Bond film, something which has already been imitated to death.

On the whole Constantine is pretty average. There are occasional moments that shine. But on the whole Keanu fails to perform, as usual, and Weisz is not at her best, while the teenage side-kick feels too much like someone grooming themselves for stardom than being particularly relevant or important to the film. Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare have brief parts but manage to provide some of the films "moments". So, yeah, ambivalence, tending towards disappointment if I think too much about what could have been.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Title: Anacondas: Hunt For The Blood Orchid
Cast: Johnny Messner, KaDee Strickland, Matthew Marsden, Nicholas Gonzalez, Eugene Byrd
Director: Dwight Little

Anaconda was probably one of those films where people weren’t particularly crying out for a sequel. But in a climate of remakes of classics, remakes of foreign films, and endless sequels, Anacondas: Hunt For The Blood Orchid probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. This film pretty much doesn’t have anything in connection with the original film, except for the fact that it comes into the category of absurdly silly thriller.

An ambitious group of researchers have made a discovery that could offer immortality in a bottle. The corporation providing their funding is keen to give them lots and lots of money if they can deliver. Unfortunately, the key component is derived from a rare orchid, which only blooms on very rare occasions. Of course they don’t have enough samples to work from, and need more of these orchids. Fortunately the next time the orchids bloom is very soon, so the team of experts set out for the Bolivian rain forest to retrieve the fresh flowers. Unfortunately it is rainy season, and only a mad man would go up river in this weather. Fortunately they find a mad man, or at least a man who is prepared to be mad long enough to accept lots of money.

Things of course don’t go according to plan. The water gets out of control and the boat crashes. Fortunately the crew manage to emerge from the wreck relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, one of the crew is attacked and eaten by an anaconda. Fortunately, after eating an anaconda will take a week to digest its food, and anacondas are solitary creatures. Of course, unless it is mating season... Unfortunately, it is mating season! Unfortunately there are dozens of anaconda. Unfortunately the anaconda are bigger than any anaconda anyone has ever seen before. Unfortunately these anaconda can fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Unfortunately the leader of the group is so driven by greed the group are finding themselves in deep anaconda shit.

Anacondas: Hunt For The Blood Orchid is one of those desperate, pitiful sequels. Where the cast are pretty much unknown and have some small hope that the film might just raise their profile by a degree. It is a bad film. I know it is a bad film. You know it is a bad film. But sometimes, bad films can be fun. Sometimes bad films can be so bad that they become funny. Anacondas: Hunt For The Blood Orchid is somewhat on the periphery of that territory and certainly could be worse.

Title: Presque Rien
Cast: Jérémie Elkaïm, Stéphane Rideau, Dominique Reymond, Marie Matheron, Laetitia Legrix
Director: Sébastien Lifshitz

Presque Rien is translated in English as Almost Nothing, which kind of sums up what actually happens in this French drama. The film starts in a sparse manner, following the young man Matthieu as he travels to his parent’s summer home, where he is going to spend the winter. From there the film flashes back to a year before, to a summer where he set out on his first relationship with another man.

The film stumbles back and forth, fleshing out to some degree the character of Matthieu and Cedric who he becomes involved with. The basic plot is that Matthieu has tried to commit suicide as a result of depression, his relationship with Cedric is over, and he recalls how the pair met. How things got to the point where Matthieu was suicidal is never explained, and as such Presque Rien is a film which seems to be full of gaps.

Matthieu is an unsympathetic character. He is reluctant to come out of the closet and declare that he is gay, so he pushes Cedric away when it suits him. He makes all sorts of accusations about the problems he is having with his family; his depressive mother, his annoying sister, and bossy aunt. Instead we see Matthieu behave in a petulant fashion, rejecting all his sister’s attempts at friendship. Cedric isn’t much better, he is pushy and possessive and while Matthieu perhaps doesn’t deserve sympathy, Cedric should be more conscious of the situation. The other characters are kind of secondary, and the film never particularly goes anywhere.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Title:Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in it’s own language of key, scale, and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the 2nd , each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished and by then it'll be too late

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is perhaps best summed up by this quote, which is taken from a letter by the character Robert Frobisher to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, describing the sextet he is writing, entitled "Cloud Atlas Sextet".

Cloud Atlas is the third novel by the writer David Mitchell, following on from his debut Ghostwritten and number9dream. With each of his novels he has experimented with the idea of the short story/novella and how to overlap that with the idea of the novel. In Ghostwritten he presented a series of short stories, travelling across the globe from Japan, via China and Mongolia, then Russia, London, Ireland, and ending up in America; with each of these stories there were overlaps, characters bumping into characters from the previous story and the next, binding the whole together. With number9dream he tried something different with the idea, he presented a core novel; following the journey of Eiji as he travels to Tokyo in search of his father, with each chapter featuring a sub-narrative.

Ghostwritten flowed well, each of the stories worked on their own and as part of the whole and is a strong work. number9dream was more of a mixed bag, some of the sub-narratives became distracting, detracting from the flow of the parent novel. With that Cloud Atlas takes from the experience of both of his previous novels and applies a determination to push his idea of experimentation further than he has before. With that Cloud Atlas can be considered to be that sextet, six separate stories, written in their own language and colour, each being interrupted by the next, until the sixth is reached, and then resuming once more from the cut. As with Ghostwritten, each story touches the next, working it’s way in, with themes and tendrils weaving beyond the immediate bounds.

The six separate stories are: The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing, Letters From Zedelghem, Half-Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery, The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish, An Orison of Sonmi~451 and Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After. The first is set in the 1850's and written as a journal, following the travels of an American notary in the Pacific, returning from New South Wales via Honolulu to San Francisco. The second is a series of letters written in the 1930's by the music student Robert Frobisher, who has fled debts and disgrace in London to the Belgian estate of Zedelghem to take advantage of a reclusive elder composer. From there we have an American pulp novel, a thriller following the adventures of Luisa Rey as she investigates the corruption surrounding a nuclear plant. Timothy Cavendish is a vanity publisher in London, who finds himself in trouble after ripping off a violent gangster, with this being a contemporary memoir of his experience. From the present we move to the future, and follow an interview with a Sonmi clone, a burger bar server who became intelligent and joined those fighting the oppressive Korean government. Further forward and on a post-apocalyptic Hawaii we follow the story of a troubled tribe as delivered in the oral tradition round the cooking fire.

Not content with simply over lapping narratives ala Ghostwritten, each of these stories is written in a different style. Not just moving from journal to letter to novel, but from the convolutions of 1850's language to tech future language filled with simplifications to the post-apocalyptic cut up dialogue. With that each has a certain appropriate influence. Frobisher finds Ewing's diary and compares it to the writing of Herman Melville, while Mitchell himself suggests parallels between the 1930’s letters of Frobisher to the writing of Christopher Isherwood's writing of that time, while the tale of Sloosha's Crossin' is clearly inspired by Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (Mitchell having written about how much he was inspired by Riddley Walker recently to mark Hoban's 80th birthday). As for the story of the clone Sonmi~451, this character recalls the images of the androids on the train in Wong Kar Wai's 2046.

This has led to some accusations of plagiarism, number9dream gaining the ire of some fans of Haruki Murakami - but Mitchell acknowledges his influences. number9dream comes from the name of a John Lennon track in the same way that Murakami's Norwegian Wood is from a Beatles track. Further, the lead character in number9dream is even reading Norwegian Wood at one point. With the similarities between Sloosha's Crossin' and Riddley Walker more questions have been asked about what Mitchell is doing. But he would prefer his work was considered to be his own, with knowing tributes to those who have influenced him over the years. And to dismiss his work so out of hand would be foolish.

Apart from questions of source, one of the most relevant points of discussion regarding Mitchell's work is the very one he puts into the mouth of Robert Frobisher in the above quote. Is Cloud Atlas revolutionary of gimmicky, although this is something which has been relevant as a question for Mitchell's entire body of work. For myself, Mitchell was at his most gimmicky with number9dream, which is a good read, but as I've already said, some of those sub-narratives seem to be about style over substance.

With that, there is no denying that Cloud Atlas is way over the top, six nested novels, which are like a Russian Doll in Mitchell's own words, drilling through the to the centre and out the back; travelling from the past to the future via a series of narrative types and language styles. But he manages to make each of his separate stories work well, though the degree to which each of them keep the readers attention can vary. Beyond that, he also works on the binding, the links that bring it all together. Luisa Rey meets the nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith, who has the letters from Frobisher, in which Frobisher talks about this journal he has found by a man called Adam Ewing. In the future the new empire which arises from Korea will be a jewel in a dwindling planet, where all services will be provided by fabricant clones, who will serve for 12 years before retiring in Hawaii; in the future Hawaii will be one of the last human outposts of a devastated planet, where the tribes worship the goddess Sonmi. And so on; even taking the time to link back to the characters in Ghostwritten to some degree.

When Cloud Atlas came out in hardback last year it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2004, one of the UK's most prestigious book awards. With that Mitchell found himself as being the most favourite-favourite for the award ever, which is of course curious given that in the end he didn't actually win - to the surprise of many. Cloud Atlas is an ambitious and sprawling novel, following the themes of predation, the way in which exploit other people - journeying from the white man exploiting indigenous tribes, through corporate manipulations to the development of clones as second class citizens - using a variety of styles and influences to demonstrate this point. Accomplished and fun, each of the sections has absorbing passages, and as a whole Cloud Atlas is like Ghostwritten in that David Mitchell keeps his reader on their toes, trying to keep up with the stories and the links to the whole which pop in the course of the individual. Where does Mitchell go from here?

Laughter is an anarchic blasphemy. Tyrants are wise to fear it.

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Title:Hotel Rwanda
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Jean Reno
Director: Terry George

Paul Rusesabagina worked in a prestigious hotel in Rwanda, a hotel owned by a Belgian company and filled with rich westerners. With the events of the genocide in 1994, Paul Rusesabagina found himself in difficult circumstances – the film Hotel Rwanda is based on those events and his part in them.

There has been trouble in Rwanda for sometime, stemming back to the days when it was a Belgian colony. At that time the Belgians arbitrarily split the people into two groups – the Tutsi and Hutu – they elevated the Tutsi to second to the Belgians, making the Hutus the lower class. However, when Rwanda became an independent country the Hutus were in power. At the time of the troubles, a civil war was being fought, Tutsi rebels fighting against the Hutu government. But the real problems started with the rise of vigilante street gangs, whipping up hatred against the Tutsi people, regardless of whether they were connected with the rebel forces or not.

In amongst this the UN were negotiating a peace deal, and Paul works all sides, friends with UN representatives, with leading Hutu merchants, and prominent army leaders. Through all of this he is convinced that things will settle down, everything will be okay – peace has been negotiated by the west, things have been agreed upon, end of story. However these street gangs are biding their time - within hours of the peace deal being signed, the country’s president has been murdered and the massacre of Tutsis has started.

As a Hutu himself, Paul is under pressure to join the war against the Tutsi. But he is married to a Tutsi woman, and some of his best friends and work colleagues are Tutsi. How can he possibly get involved in the killing of Tutsi? So he tries to laugh the whole thing off, it’ll never come to anything, it is stupid. But of course it isn’t long before he is forced to take a stand to save his family. And that is the first step in him being branded a race traitor as he desperately tries to save as many lives as he possibly can.

As such, when he is left in charge of the hotel as the western managers abandon the country, he fills it with refugees and orphans. Who mix in with the remaining western tourists and media representatives – all of whom wait desperately for UN forces to arrive and end the troubles. Which is something that informs the character of Paul throughout – the idea of hope – the constant conviction he has that while things are a little out of control at the moment, they will be sorted out soon. However this is not to be, and while European troops arrive, they only stay long enough to evacuate the Europeans, leaving the Africans to die.

The approach to Hotel Rwanda as a narrative recollecting a genocide is curious. In the UK it has been given a 12A certificate, which means that it is open to anyone over the age of 12 or for those accompanied by a parent. To this end the violence of events is considerably toned down, left to the filmmaker’s ability to suggest and imply. For some the idea of depicting genocide without showing brutal violence doesn’t make a lot of sense. But for many, myself included, Hotel Rwanda very much achieves what it sets out to achieve in terms of presenting events in an approachable and comprehensible fashion.

One of the most curious, and central, parts of the film is the hotel at the core of the story. The hotel becomes this odd island, barely defended by a couple of UN peacekeepers, repelling attack through its very status as an edifice of western currency. This creates a certain calm and detachment, where the people that are hiding in the safety of the hotel’s grounds have that conviction that things will be okay. This in some ways is crucial to the films impact, because on a handful of occasions Paul has to make a trip outside his island of calm. It is then that the brutal reality becomes clear, buildings are burning, dead bodies lie everywhere – the impact and extent of the massacre has all the more impact, because it crashes through the walls of denial.

Don Cheadle has played a number of roles in big Hollywood films over the last few years. But Hotel Rwanda thrusts him to the fore, and the films success is his success, especially as pretty much all these events are seen through his eyes and the film stands or falls off the back of his reactions and involvement. The casting of his wife is an interesting one; a relatively unknown actress on the world stage Sophie Okonedo has done some TV work in the UK, and a little film work with the likes of Dirty Pretty Things. Her role provides her with less scope than Cheadle, given that it tends more towards the horrified and hysterical, but she undoubtedly gives a strong performance.

There are a handful of westerners that crop up through the film, which in various ways define the role of the rest of the world while these events unfold. Nick Nolte plays a Canadian soldier, the head of the peacekeeping force - while he has had a hit and miss career he exudes guilt and disappointment as a helpless man who is entirely conscious of how little he can do for the people he is supposed to be protecting. Joaquin Phoenix crops up in a secondary role, as a heavily bearded cameraman, who dares to leave the hotel and capture footage of the massacre. Then there is French actor Jean Reno who is the head of the organisation that owns the hotel, a man reacting from a great distance and not really sure what is going on in his Rwandan property. All representing people who would kind of like to do something, but can’t.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but coming out of the busy Saturday night screening of Hotel Rwanda there seemed to be an unusual hush amongst the people spilling out into the cinema’s corridors. Hotel Rwanda is a film about small hopes against all odds, about the people who will struggle to make the difference regardless of how hopeless things may get. Hotel Rwanda is a sold piece of cinema, with some great performances, that covers difficult material in a strong fashion.

Title: Boogeyman
Cast: Barry Watson, Emily Deschanel, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Lucy Lawless, Tory Mussett, Philip Gordon
Director: Stephen T. Kay

Boogeyman sounds a bit funny; over here it would have been called Bogeyman and made more sense with it. Regardless, both are the name of the nightmare figure used to scare children, particularly applied to make children behave – if you are a bad boy the bogeyman will get you! Unsurprisingly, the film Boogeyman follows the life of a boy who was told that, who grew into a man, still haunted by the idea of the bogeyman.

Of course, with the opening sequence it is perhaps not surprising that he remains haunted. He remembers his father being taken by the bogeyman when he was 8-years-old, even if everyone tells him that is just his imagination compensating for the fact that his father abandoned him and his mother. However 15 years later, and he is still haunted by events, years of psychiatry haven’t made a lot of difference and he maintains his distance from the home of his youth.

However, with the death of his mother he is forced to return home, and in doing so, decides that it is time to face his fears. So he pulls up in front of this big, old house, located in the middle of nowhere. The sort of house that you take a look at and think – aye, that’ll be right! Before climbing back into your car never to return. But of course, that would be a short film, so instead, he enters the house, and everything starts to come back. This night he will face the bogeyman and if he doesn’t defeat his fear he will lose everything that is dear to him.

Thus we have the set up for a spooky thriller set in a clichéd, spooky old house. But with that the filmmakers go the whole hog, cranking the suspenseometer up to a good 11. Filling the film with long, tense, lingering shots; every scene creaking and groaning, playing on the power of suggestion and the ability to influence the audience. Which actually transforms the film by degrees from a horror film by the book, to something which shows that a level of care has been taken to creating and sustaining atmosphere.

Boogeyman takes the idea of what might be called “alien space” – that space which is within the domestic condition, which refuses to adhere to the rules that it should follow. Each dark corner and slit is a hole from alien space to our space, where IT looks through and threatens our security. This to a degree is a fundamental of horror movies, particularly in recent times. In Boogeyman they take this idea a step further, almost encroaching in material reminiscent of House Of Leaves as things stop playing by any of the rules that have been established in the first half of the film.

Going in to Boogeyman I expected something that was run of the mill, instead I got something a little more interesting that. So that I went from expecting some schlock thriller silliness to being surprised by something that was actually reasonably effective. The ending is perhaps a little sudden, leaving me questioning the gaps a little, but you can’t have everything.

Title: Flight Of The Phoenix
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Otto
Director: John Moore

Flight Of The Phoenix is yet another remake of an old film, a current trend that seems to have no end in sight. The original film was made in 1965, and apparently had a more political edge than this version does. However having not seen it, or many of the other films being remade, then I guess there is a certain excuse for updating them for modern audiences. And lets face it, most of us, I am sure, take it for granted that these remakes have little to do with the originals other than a plot outline and title. So we take these new versions on their own merits as much as we can.

With that, Flight Of The Phoenix is an example of state of the art filmmaking. Such that in terms of composition, Flight Of The Phoenix has some great visuals, some great integration of soundtrack, and decent performances. On the other hand, there is little surprising or original about this film. Even thinking about films made in recent years, there is a certain comparison between this film and say Pitch Black – both featuring a crash in a hostile environment, which sees the survivors forced to scramble for survival.

In the context of this film, the parent corporation has closed down an exploratory oil field in Mongolia because it isn’t paying off. The film starts with Hugh Laurie as the corporate man who has done the cost analysis getting an earful from Miranda Otto as the plane arrives to remove the workers from site. Dennis Quaid and Tyrese are the pilots of the plane and as representatives of the closure they aren’t especially popular. This sets up the tensions as the plane takes off and flies straight into a brutal sand storm. The result is that the plane crashes, being torn apart as it comes down.

Most of the crew have survived, but they find themselves in the middle of the Gobi desert, of course and unlikely to be found. What are their options? Wait and see if they can be rescued seems to be about the best they can do, being too far away from anywhere to risk walking. Then Giovanni Ribisi makes his presence known, someone who has somewhat forced himself on the group at the oil field and isn’t especially trusted or known by anyone. But he claims that he can provide a design for a new plane built from the old.

From there we have group tensions, hostile weather, dwindling supplies and heavily armed nomads. The film goes through the motions from there, including a little bit of product placement, and a little dance routine which I am fairly sure was not in the original. Shiny, adequate entertainment.

Title:In Good Company
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger
Director: Paul Weitz

Dan (Dennis Quaid) is a 51-year-old ad-manager for a big company. With two teenage daughters and another child on the way. He is reasonably happy, if a little stressed, and popular at work. Until, the company is taken over by a larger corporation. This pulls the rug out from under Dan, suddenly he is dropped in the deep end of corporate politics, where the incoming corporate representatives are like Vikings, raping and pillaging on the corporate front line – you will increase productivity, lower overheads, and you’ll do it with less staff. To make matters worse, Dan finds that he has been demoted, and is now second fiddle to Carter (Topher Grace) – a 26-year-old fast tracker, who actually has no experience of the job, but then how much experience do you need to fire people?

This establishes the basic plot, the comedic value of generations clashing, with the added twist of Carter meeting and dating Dan’s daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson). From the trailers for In Good Company I thought that there was a certain potential to be had from the material and that it could be intelligently funny. However the slash and burn message that is at the core of the film is something which is perhaps more horrifying and traumatic for many these days, rather than funny. The point of the film is Carter’s realisation that he has no friends, his marriage has broken down, and that he can’t treat people this way. This sets him up for redemption, creating the potential for warm fuzzy feelings and a happy ending.

However, for me, at no point does Topher Grace succeed in making his character likeable. His turn around is wishy-washy, one that is forced upon him like a slap in the face – more A Christmas Carol style intervention than a bright light of love and good feeling. If Grace never manages to make Carter likeable then the film has a very central and very real flaw.

One which Quaid does his best to compensate for, ironically playing the polar opposite role of the part he plays in the Flight Of The Phoenix, which is showing at the same time in the UK as In Good Company. While he is a rugged, mans-man, and intrepid pilot in Phoenix, here he is a family man, a salary man – someone who loves his children and wants the best for them, someone who loves his staff and wants the best for them. As such there is some comedy to be had from Quaid’s journey into this alien work structure that is suddenly thrust upon him. As his daughter Scarlett Johansson also plays a key role, especially as she comes between Quaid and Grace. Selma Blair also makes an appearance as Grace’s departing wife, another bit part bitch role, something which seems to unfortunately crop up as with an unseemly regularity for an actress who actually is more capable than that.

In Good Company has its moments, but on the whole is a disappointing and grating piece of work.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Radio: World Music Awards 2005

Presenter: Radio 3

Each year BBC Radio 3 holds the World Music Awards for the best world music artists, normally they announce the nominees and the winners, then have a big party separate from the idea of giving out awards where a selection of the artists who win or are nominated play. This year that gig/party was last night, tonight Radio 3 are playing the highlights between the hours of 6 and 8pm UK time. Which is in the next half hour, play just not building towards the show. Last year was the first year i was particularly conscious of this event, and hearing promotions on the run up to it revealed for me a certain interest in world music, the eclectic mix of cultures, particularly with those artists who are incorporating state of the art technology/techniques into the process of more traditional sounds.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The girl sort of breathes "Henry!" in this very evocative way that convinces me that at some point in time we have a really amazing thing together. This makes it worse that I don't know anything about her, not even her name. I say "Have we met?" and Isabelle gives me a look that says You asshole. But the girl says, "I'm Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl," and invites me out to dinner. I accept, stunned. She is glowing at me, although I am unshaven and hung over and just not at my best.We are going to meet for dinner this very evening, at the Beau Thai, and Clare, having secured me for later, wafts out of the Reading Room. As I stand in the elevator, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross the lobby, and as I run down the stairs to the street I see Clare running across Washington Square, jumping and whooping, and I am near tears and I don't know why.

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger

Title:The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Wes Anderson

Team Zissou is a rag tag team of under water adventurers, led by their captain Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Once upon a time they made acclaimed little documentaries and had a world wide following. Those days are behind them; the fan base has faded along with the highs of their career. Their latest film includes the death of one of their oldest members, and Zissou's best friend. Despite resistance and lack of support, Zissou is determined to track down the animal that killed his friend and kill it, what he has christened the "jaguar shark". But at the same time his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) looks like she might leave him, in favour of her ex-husband Zissou's arch-nemesis (Jeff Goldblum). Then Ned (Owen Wilson) turns up to see Zissou, the man who may be his father. Regardless Zissou sets out on his mission, accompanied by his eclectic crew and a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) who's intent is not entirely clear.

The Life Aquatic is a pathos heavy comedy with Bill Murray as the deadpan and dejected lead. At the time of his greatest loss (his dead friend), he is presented with a son he never wanted, who also acts as a reminder of old he himself has become. Goldblum's suave and egotistical role presents something of a polar opposite to Murray, they are both adventurer's but while Murray's popular wanes Goldblum's just seems to increase, Goldblum gets all the money that Murray used to get, and Goldblum's crew are a cloned example of exemplary discipline. As the film goes on there is an increasing sense of tragedy, will this be the last voyage of Team Zissou whether they like it or not - team member Klaus (Dafoe) is annoyed that Ned has turned up and is the new flavour of the month, team member Anne-Marie is concerned that Zissou is leading them on an illegal suicide mission, and Zissou is concerned that the reporter is out to shaft them in print.

Wes Anderson directs The Life Aquatic, following on from films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. A number of the cast members here have been involved in his past projects, ensuring them a familiarity that makes for a good working relationship on screen. Anderson's debut was the film Bottle Rocket, which didn't get a very large distribution on it's release, so it fell to his follow up Rushmore, which also starred Bill Murray, to establish a name for the young writer/director. He followed Rushmore with The Royal Tenenbaums, which was pretty well received, though for me it wasn't as good as Rushmore. From that this is a team of writer/director and actors that is very much on form.

The Life Aquatic is filled with a charm and humour, backed up by nice little special effects of fantastic under water creatures, high adventure on the open seas with pirate encounters, and a smart soundtrack which is heavily comprised of David Bowie classics sung in Portuguese. With The Life Aquatic some will find that there is perhaps a large "eh" factor, but if are not bothered by that, or can get past that, The Life Aquatic is great fun.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Title:The Door In The Floor
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster, Elle Fanning, Mimi Rogers, Bijou Philips
Director: Tod Williams

Ted and Marion Cole (Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger) are having marital problems. After the death of their two sons, the couple moved, and had a new child, all attempts to bring them back together, to fill the gaps. However Ruth (Elle Fanning) is now 4 years old, brought up almost solely on the tales of her dead brothers. In the meantime her mother becomes increasingly distant and withdrawn, while her father drinks heavily and is something of a womaniser.

Into this steps Eddie O'Hare, son of a family friend, a young student at the college where the Cole's sons were in attendance. Ted Cole is a successful author, particularly of children's books, and Eddie is keen to learn something from him over the course of the summer. But rather than learning about writing he is really there to drive the banned Ted from conquest to conquest, while distracting Marion. Of course this is a difficult situation for a young man to find himself in, especially when he finds himself attracted to Marion.

Bridges and Basinger are very much on form and play these emotive parts well. Foster like his character is landed between these two, and manages to keep on his toes as he attempts to keep up. This is the first role for Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning (Man On Fire, Hide And Seek, War Of The Worlds), who plays the 4 year old daughter of the Cole's - something which is a curious role, especially in this context. Mimi Rodgers appears as one of Bridges' conquests, and Bijou Philips has a small role as Ruth's babysitter.

The Door In The Floor is the latest film to be adapted from work by the writer John Irving, who was also responsible for The Cider House Rules. The Door In The Floor is adapted from a third of the novel A Widow For One Year. The result is something of a mixed bag, contrasting comedy and tragedy, mid life crisis with coming of age. The young Eddie manages to slide from one excruciatingly embarrassing scenario to another for the first half of the film. This culminates in a certain absurdity and farce as Ted's actions peak. Resolving with a certain bleakness, as the truth that has hovered below the surface comes to the fore along with the realisation of how the future is going to be shaped.

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