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The Hunger Games (2012)

March 31, 2013 Comments off

HungerGamesPoster

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.

 

This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

 

Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?

 

Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?

 

If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

 

When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.

 

When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?

 

So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.

 

As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.

 

This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.

 

A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer

March 30, 2013 4 comments

Capacity for Murder

The Classic or Golden Age detective fiction convention is that you have a small group of people in a secluded place to limit the number of suspects. There should be an initial death. The series detective confirms it as a murder and we then follow the investigation through to its usually successful conclusion. If we look back to the time when this style of mystery really took off, the British were recovering from the disaster better known as World War I. In everyday life, a balance had to be struck between the sense of rapid social change and the need for stability. Britain was watching its Empire crumble as a new Communist regime emerged in the East, so it preferred a very predictable form of fiction in which stereotypical characters were drawn together in a puzzle situation and the one with murderous tendencies would be revealed (and executed). The author and the readers had an understanding. The puzzle would be presented in a fair way and the whole book would be entertaining. If the reader should understand the significance of the clues, he or she would beat the detective to the answer and would be delighted. If the reader failed to grasp what was happening but was pleased by the detective’s revelations at the end, the reader was happy. Either way the author emerged the winner in this “contest”.

In a sense, the keys to the Classic or Golden Age Mystery are the quality of the puzzle, the authorial sleight of hand to mislead the reader, and a reasonably fair chance for the reader to be able to crack the case before the detective. This means, of course, that the majority of crime stories written today are following in this tradition. The only differences are that, in most cases, the characters have more psychological depth and there’s a better sense of place for the action. All of which brings us to Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) which is the third mystery featuring Professor Bradshaw. I was particularly pleased with the last book because it represents a collision between history, science and classic detective fiction. This time, the history is less significant an element, but the science and detective elements have stepped up to the mark. Under normal circumstances, the introduction of hard science leaves me wallowing in heavy seas. Sadly my understanding of physics ground to a halt during the 1950s through my complete inability to do the maths. But these books are immediately accessible because I saw some of this technology in action as I was growing up. Both the mechanical and electrical engineering relies on turn-of-the-century technology and, for once, I’m wholly comfortable with it. Indeed, it actually inspires a kind of nostalgia. My grandmother had a copper boiler and still used a posser — a wooden device for agitating the washing while the soapy water heated. She would have benefitted from a scaled-down version of this belt-driven system for washing clothes.

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Our hero is called to a distant part of the coast, northwest of Hoquiam, Washington, where death has occurred at the isolated Healing Sands Sanitarium. As part of the “payment” for his services, he’s encouraged to bring family, the man with whom he works as an investigator, and some students whom he’s supposed to be teaching. When they arrive, he discovers that the cause of the death is a machine he had built some years earlier. Electricity has always been thought to have healing properties and this is an early version of what we now call a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machine. He’s fairly quickly able to see how “his” machine was persuaded to become lethal and then it’s down to the process of deciding whodunnit and why. On the way, there’s some particularly fascinating insights into bioluminescence and its relationship to phosphorescence, the significance of sand, and the curious case of the cheese that went missing during the night.

At this point, I have to make a small apology. So far, I’ve been allowing you to assume the mystery does play strictly fair with the reader and, up to a point, that’s true. However, the ultimate solution depends on information Professor Bradshaw ferrets out later in the book. This suggests the motive for the death by electricity and leads to the final stage of the book which moves into straight thriller mode. I’m tempted to make a comparison between the Detective Murdoch novels and both television series based on Maureen Jennings’ characters. Ignoring the straight adaptations of three novels in 2004, Season 1, Episode 1 and Season 3, Episode 13 of the long-running second series involve death by electrocution and feature Nikola Tesla. Although set a few years earlier than the Bradshaw mysteries, both series rely on the appliance of science to arrive at their conclusions. The main difference being that Murdoch and Dr Ogden are principally concerned with forensic science and only incidentally refer to different technologies, whereas the Bradshaw mysteries are more narrowly focussed on electrical and mechanical engineering with only passing reliance of the new investigative techniques of fingerprinting and so on. Indeed, Bradshaw is slightly more cerebral than Murdoch in the way he works out what is most likely to have happened. On balance, I prefer the quality of the puzzles produced by Bernadette Pajer but I think Maureen Jennings is the slightly better writer. There’s a tendency for Ms Pajer to be a little Spartan in delivering the plot. I prefer a little more substance to the prose. That said, Capacity for Murder is a distinctly intriguing murder mystery and well worth picking up.

For reviews of two other books in the series, see:
The Edison Effect
Fatal Induction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

The Willful Princess

For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.

I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb aka Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden

The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.

The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.

Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.

For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol (translated by Ruth Whitehouse) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is a story about the life of Kati Hirschel. She’s forty-four years old and lives in Istanbul where she runs a shop specialising in mystery and detective fiction. We find her in a moment of crisis. She’s had a major argument with her lover, a lawyer, and her landlady is preparing to impose a big surcharge on her current rent. Her reaction is simple and direct. She will find a new place to live, even if this means entering the treacherous waters of the baksheesh market. For those of you not familiar with the ways of the world outside Europe and America, the majority of civil servants and other people in positions of authority are chronically underpaid. But since they often control access to essential bureaucracy, they can achieve a living wage by taking a little extra money on the side to move people through the system more quickly or, if appropriate, to keep people out of the relevant system altogether. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether you call these payments a tip or a small gift, the majority in the West will condemn this approach to life as corrupt and reject the actual or implied requests for payment. This is to misunderstand the culture.

In fact, the payments also reflect respect for the individual and the work he or she does, and a real sense of gratitude when the work is done well. But to navigate the social conventions and taboos, all the parties have to be in tune with each other. Although our heroine has real experience through living in Turkey for many years and speaks the language well, this is her first interaction with this method of acquiring a new home. Perhaps if her relationship had not just broken down or she did not feel so under pressure, she would have approached this transaction in a better frame of mind. But she lacks the patience and subtlety. Sadly this persuades her to try visiting the places she may be allowed to buy. The fact there may still be people living there who are not be aware of any threat to their continuing occupation does not occur to our heroine. She just wants to make quick unannounced viewings of her potential home. Sadly, in one block, this leads to a major argument. Threats are made. The following day, the man she fought with is dead and she’s a suspect. Well, again, in Turkey this is not a certainty. The police insist people come down to the station to make statements for even the most trivial of incidents. But she feels under threat and so, drawing on her love of detective fiction, she sets off the solve the crime.

Esmahan Aykol

Esmahan Aykol

This is a wonderful book. As a first person narrative, it plays at metafiction with regular asides to those of us reading the book, references to the fact this is her second book, and gentle explanations of who everyone is, how Turkey works as a society, and how she thinks about her own life. As you will realise from the first reference to the book, this is translated from the Turkish. It may therefore surprise you it should take its time to explain and comment on local culture. In fact the author is using the perspective of an outsider to hold up a mirror to life in Istanbul. Our heroine is of German stock but was born in Turkey and has returned to live there. She’s been there long enough to speak the language well and cope with everyday situations. But she discuses her own problems with idiomatic usages and frets she’s not always creating the right impression. She’s also quick to point out when prejudices impact her life. Sometimes, she’s aggressive in her own defence. Other times, she’s able to exploit local conventions of hospitality to be able to sit and talk with people (pumping them for information).

In fact, she remains a suspect to the end of this book. She certainly has motive and opportunity. The fact she’s able to offer an alternative candidate for the two deaths does not get her off the hook. The lead detective has doubts about the first death but, when the alternative suspect makes a significant confession, he’s not going to go anywhere outside this convenient package. This just leaves our heroine to put the final pieces of the jigsaw into place. As a perfectionist, she always wants the satisfaction of a complete picture. And it proves a very satisfying set of solutions because we’ve been able to watch our heroine ferreting out the relevant information and following through on all the details. Although she’s briefly distracted by one or two possible suspects, none of the early candidates fit into the emerging picture of what happened. It’s only when information emerges about a key relationship that she can finally be certain what probably happened. It’s a wonderfully tragic backstory.

For me this is an almost perfect book. It has a beautifully described first-person narrator who navigates the treacherous currents of Turkish society with considerable skill despite her uncertainties over the subtleties of language and the dangers arising from the tensions between different ethnic and religious groups. That she could still be arrested as the last page of the book turns is a testament to the very clever way the mystery is put together. All it would take is for the police or prosecutors to take a different view of the evidence and she would be toast. In the majority of other detective or mystery fiction outings, there’s never any doubt the primary protagonist will be accepted as completely innocent. This book reflects the realities of life in the world of policing where little is ever black and white. As a final thought, Esmahan Aykol is the mirror image of her heroine. She was born in Turkey but has spent many years in Germany. Such a lifestyle enables her to make telling observations about the culture of both countries. On all levels this is a book worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012)

March 26, 2013 4 comments

Rurouni Kenshin

Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012) is the first in what’s intended to be a live action series of films based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki and anime series which has been sold in the West as Samurai X. I watched the anime and it’s great fun, blending the usual besotted young male reaction to the feisty girl trope with some rather pleasingly represented swordplay. The plot is straightforward. About 140 years ago, there was an assassin called Battousai the Manslayer. This is the period when modern technology is directly impacting the means of war. Many still cling to the honour of the Samurai traditions, but rifles and canon are doing away with the need for “real” fighting. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi at the end of this era, Battousai is one of the survivors on the winning side of the Bakumatsu War. As the Meiji Era begins, he becomes a wanderer, protecting the weak in atonement for all the deaths he’s caused. The question asked and answered is how many people one man with one sword can protect. As the revolution has brought new government, the samurai tradition has passed its peak. Fighting must either be ritualised in the pretence of combat using wooden replica weapons, or legalised when applied for government purposes, i.e. for policing or military purposes. As an anti-samurai measure, the Haitōrei or Sword Abolishment Act 1876, prohibited the carrying of swords in a public place.

 

In spirit, the film is fairly faithful to the anime, enlarging on the opening battle scene until it matches the single image of Battousai’s sword implanted in the ground which we see in the anime. With the passive acquiescence of Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Battousai walks away from the battlefield, leaving his sword behind. But he later returns to take up the name of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato). As the Meiji Era gets underway, Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is smuggling heroin and bribing the other powerbrokers. They have also recruited a group of ex-samurai to guard them including a fake Battosai named Udo Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa). This is, of course, bending the original story to fit the needs of a dramatic structure suitable for a film. When Kenshin first appears, he saves Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) when she’s about to fight Jin-e.

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) with the iconic scar

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) with the iconic scar

 

This is convenient. What we now have is an excuse to fight over the dojo with a fearsome adversary in place. Obviously the production of heroin depends on a place for the processing and a chemist. Kanryuu decides to appropriate the dojo of a famous school of sword fighting. The man who ran it has been killed and his daughter Kaoru Kamiya struggles to maintain it with the young Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka) in attendance. The chemist Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) escapes from Kanryuu and needs a place to hide. Needless to say, Megumi turns up at the dojo and meets Kaoru and Kenshin.

 

We also meet Aritomo Yamagata (Eiji Okuda) as the Military Commander who offers Kenshin Himura a senior position in government, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) turns up in jail and later does the big challenge with his oversized sword. The real question the film is asking is whether death can ever be justified in serving a larger purpose. As an assassin during the war, our hero killed because he was told the removal of these men was the route to lasting peace. Yet now the war is over and there’s something approximating peace, the killings go on. It’s just killing for a different purpose. In the current struggle for power, the identity of the individuals who die is irrelevant to the killer. It’s simply a means to the ends of Kanryuu Takeda. In a way, every death is futile because even if someone produces justifications for each death, there’s never an end to the killing. So long as there are still people alive, it’s possible to invent new reasons to kill them. All this leaves is widows to mourn and to watch while the tragedy repeats itself.

Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) in her dojo

Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) in her dojo

 

The film becomes a form of discussion about redemption and recidivism. As Kenshin Himura, the assassin has given up killing and now seeks to use his sword only in the defence of others. Udo Jin-e has remained a killer for its own sake and he seeks to provoke Kenshin into rekindling his lust for death. The irony is that ostensibly they are fighting about whether Kanryuu Takeda should be allowed to flood Japan with heroin, but the reality is that neither of them really cares about that. Jin-e simply wants more deaths, regardless of who kills or is killed. Kenshin wishes only to avoid deaths wherever possible.

 

Some of the fight choreography is literally entrancing. In saying this, it’s necessary to consider the purpose of the film. This is not a “martial arts” film. This is a film transposing the first ten or so episodes of an anime to the big screen in a live action format. The fight sequences therefore strike a balance between fantasy and reality. Ignoring the wirework which is now mandatory in most martial arts films, the sword fighting here is intentionally spectacular. There are two set-piece fights in the final reels which are among the best I’ve seen in years. The first features Kenshin’s katana of standard length against a shorter wakizashi. The second is a more traditional fight between blades of equal length.

 

Since I know the original story and, more importantly, who everyone is, I’m in two minds as to whether this film stands up on its own. I think the introduction of Megumi Takani is a bit rushed and there’s no clear motivation given for Sanosuke Sagara to help our hero. I was also slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see Kaoru Kamiya fight properly. Indeed, the exclusion of Kaoru Kamiya and Yahiko Myojin from the rescue squad is frustrating although it would delay the set-up for the final fight in the film version of the plot. So, as someone who’s seen the anime version, I think this is an excellent way of distilling a moderately long story arc down to a manageable film length. I’m not quite so sure a newcomer would understand it all. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese samurai films. The politics of the time is quite well done, the fighting is only slightly gory and, overall, Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 is very entertaining.

 

Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012)

March 26, 2013 2 comments

Shinobido

This is about a village of secretive Ninja spies who call themselves the Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012) and their feud with Kurobaneshu, a secret band of samurai dedicated to wiping out the ninja. The first thing you should notice about this set-up is that neither feuding group really knows anything about the other. They both keep their secrets well. To some extent that saves this film from being a direct rerun of Romeo and Juliet, but the basic plot dynamic is the star-crossed lovers theme. On the Shinobidô side, we have Sumino aka Oko (Aimi Satsukawa), a young female ninja ordered by her village chief (Hatsunori Hasegawa) to gather intelligence about the Kurobaneshu. To do this, she has to go undercover as a serving wench in a nearby town. On her first day in this thriving village metropolis, she rescues a young girl from certain injury if not death. This forces her father, apparently the town drunk called Togoro (Ryoichi Yuki), to wake up and take notice of her. During the day, when he’s dried out, he’s one of these helpful types who helps geriatrics cross the road and repairs whatever’s broken. Needless to say, within just a few frames they are looking at each other with delightfully suspicious eyes. As trained spies, they both know there’s something not quite right about the other but there’s also physical attraction.

Aimi Satsukawa as our lethal heroine

Aimi Satsukawa as our lethal heroine

 

At least that’s what we’re supposed to infer from their behaviour. However, it’s at this point that I’m forced to raise flags signally the imminent arrival of a storm. There are times when, within a few minutes of a film starting, you become aware this is not going to be a pleasant experience. This is one of those times. No matter how you judge quality, one thing is certain. In the West, films of this quality go straight to video and expire on the shelves of distant warehouses and obscure shops. It’s not just the production values which are of the economical variety. It’s also the cast who must rank as one of the most wooden I have had the misfortune to see in the last year. That this was released into the cinemas speaks volumes as to the patience of Japanese cinema goers. The star of the show is Aimi Satsukawa. Over the last seven years, she’s contrived to appear in multiple films and television shows. But she’s woefully miscast in this. Here’s a trained killer and superspy. She’s supposed to be able to blend into obscurity when undercover yet not only does she immediately draw attention to herself with a very public rescue, but she walks around the inn as if officiating at a funeral service. There’s absolutely no animation, no spark of life about her at all (except when, Bollywood style, we break off and have a musical number when she and a group do a ninja dance for the villagers). Now it’s always possible that, in these distant times and in hick townships, serving girls did not flirt with the customers to pick up tips. But this performance wins a booby prize for failing the course on Bar (Waiting on Table) 101.

Ryoichi Yuki as the terminally depressed hero

Ryoichi Yuki as the terminally depressed hero

 

Ryoichi Yuki is no better. We’re to think him lost in grief from the death of his wife (she was supposedly killed by the Shinobidô) but the enemy superspy is his chance of resuming life as a red-blooded Japanese man when he gets a load of our her. Except he’s so undemonstrative, it takes a superimposition of his dead wife’s face over the spy’s so we understand what he’s thinking. Allowing for cultural differences, this is tedious as a romance. And, to prove the point, it rains when she stands him up on their first date and goes back to the ninja village. Now it all comes down to an internal emotional conflict between her loyalty to the village and her possible love for the man. In due course, this conflict has to be resolved in a big fight at the ninja village. The fight has its moments but it’s essentially amateurish as a film spectacle. I suppose I could dignify it by saying the general lack of style is probably realistic. In a real fight, warriors don’t care what it looks like so long as it’s effective. Unfortunately, the way it’s shot and put together rather belies that interpretation. We get staged death after staged death with blood spurting out everywhere in an SFX nightmare. Just in case you come across Shinobidô or 忍道 somewhere on a shelf and feel like surrendering a few minutes of your life in watching it, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say it’s not the rousing climax you would hope for. It simply continues the death spiral from the first few minutes until we crash into the ground with the rest of the dead.

 

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong

March 25, 2013 2 comments

Forbidden by Kelly Armstrong

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press, 2012) is another story featuring Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers in the continuing saga of the Women of the Otherworld. In the moment I write these sentences so full of certainty, it’s easy to forget this is my first look at this author and the only reason I’m able to appear so knowledgeable is because I’ve browsed her website and read the Wikipedia entry. I wish I’d done so before agreeing to review this book. I get lazy, assuming Subterranean Press does not publish Young Adult content. Most of the time, I filter out the fiction aimed at those barely able to read and whose sensibilities are so far removed from my senior years. But, yet again, another teen bestselling author has penetrated my defences so I must grit my teeth and offer my opinion (as if it’s not immediately obvious from these opening words).

The problems for me are many and manifold. I suppose they begin with my general lack of respect for the young. It’s not simply that they are inexperienced. That goes without saying and no generation springs from a god’s head fully formed and able to act like adults from drawing their first breaths. But the present young are so alien to me, they might just as well have been born on a different planet. Sadly, this is reflected in the books intended for them to read. When I was growing up, there were books for children, books written for adults but considered suitable for children to read, and then the books we waited to read. Frankly, what’s now marketed as YA fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. Just as the tests and examinations young students take today are significantly easier than those I had to take, so their fiction is emasculated fiction that patronising adult editors consider it appropriate to give the tender young minds to read. If these books represent what teens are genuinely interested in, I have little faith in the future of the human race. Indeed, I note a great irony. In many serious commentaries and newspapers, I see handwringing pieces bewailing the loss of childhood. It seems our young tots are turning into adults before their time. Well these books tell a very different story. They are beyond innocent, inhabiting some weird world of fantasy make-believe in which life can always become beautiful and fulfilling. Although some authors do use darker thematic material, it’s usually in an educational spirit, to suggest ways in which horrors can be mitigated and life made more bearable again.

Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong

So here we have our young adult protagonists. Elena is getting a little long in the tooth for this role but the loyal fans have been following her for many years. She’s now the proud mother of two children but, on this winter’s night, she gets a telephone call which brings her to a small town called Westwood where a young man called Morgan Walsh has been locked up in jail and could do with a little help. She therefore puts down the mantle of motherdom and takes up her role of Alpha of the Pack. She and Clayton, her bodyguard, set off on an adventure with a limited number of characters and no more than 250 pages in which to reach a positive resolution. Well, this is a YA adventure with werewolves as the central characters. This could be scary, if not gory, but we start off with scenes of domestic tranquility. Having seen our central character being all maternal, this is not going to suddenly morph into a book in which she goes to Westwood and, at the first opportunity, takes hold of the throat of a human. “With her teeth sliding into the yielding flesh of her victim’s neck, she rips out a chunk of flesh. Arterial blood from his torn carotid pumps over her muzzle, whetting her appetite. With a casual surge of strength, she hoists him into the air and leans forward to breakfast on the low-hanging nuts.” No, we’re never going to get anything along those lines in a book like this.

Instead, no-one plays nice. Person or persons unknown rip the tyres of their vehicle stranding them in this hick backwater and then exciting stuff happens. At least this is what’s supposed to be exciting to one of today’s teens. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but dutifully read it to the end to see precisely what was forbidden. Was it a major Satanic ritual calling up demons that would fight our werewolves tooth and claw? Or perhaps it was handbags at dawn with the zombie cheerleaders from the local high school? Well, if you’re a fan, you’ve no doubt already added this book to your collection and know the answer. If you’re not a fan but are a young adult as defined by modern marketers, you may find Forbidden exciting. If you’re a curmudgeonly senior like me, death would be preferable to having to read another book by this author.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Phantom From Space (1953)

Phantom from space

 

Normally I would warn people of spoilers but it’s impossible to spoil his film.

 

Having just watched a film about nostalgia, I thought it appropriate to metaphorically travel back in time, to excavate a little truth from the past. I therefore searched out a film I missed at the cinema and which, for some reason, never seems to have been shown on terrestrial television. I suppose I should not be surprised it was so easy to find. There were hundreds of B movies made and, no matter how arrogant I feel at times, I can’t claim to have seen them all. The question that immediately comes to mind is why I should bother to watch Phantom From Space (1953) when I know it will be awful. In part, I’m acknowledging it’s therapeutic to cross back through time to remind myself of the state of cultural play sixty years ago. It’s far too easy to delude ourselves that most films of the day were actually movie classics that should be preserved for posterity. In reality, most were considered terrible at the time and deserve their fate in the rubbish tip of history. The second reason for watching it is to understand why it’s so awful. It’s not just the acting. We’ve grown used to seeing the wooden, rather mannered style that many actors affected. It’s the complete failure to develop the narrative in any convincing way. This is always surprising. There were some terrific novelists whose work has passed down the years. . . and then we remember all the thousands of titles that have mercifully passed into obscurity. At this point we look with clearer eyes at modern films and novels. In many ways, they are better, but we should also understand that most of today’s output will also end up discarded. We may live in a time when the marketers hype every last piece of content as being wonderful. Sadly, sugared words can never cover up the woeful deficiencies in much of today’s output. Very few of today’s films and novels will still be considered worthy in fifty years time.

The alien naked apart from the helmet

The alien naked apart from the helmet

 

Anyway, this science fiction epic on the theme of alien invasion starts off with the mandatory voiceover to reassure the increasingly paranoid US citizenry that its government is ever vigilant — its ships patrol the seas, its planes guard the skies and its technology is constantly on the alert for anything trying to sneak into Earth’s atmosphere — there’s no Commie threat that can’t be identified and neutralised before it can do any harm. On this day, at this time, an unidentified craft is detected. It’s whizzing along at 5,000 mph — no slouch, then — even if it can’t evade our primitive radar (shown on oscilloscopes as an example of high technology in action). Stock footage of ships and planes emphasises preparedness and the mysterious blob of light is shown in the sky. This is frightening stuff even for 1953. Where did they find all this stock footage? Then over Santa Monica it disappears. The Red Alert is called off which is strange. If you lose track of an alien craft over Santa Monica, you shouldn’t just give up and walk away. Even in 1953, Santa Monica was worth protecting. Fortunately the local people are outraged that something is interfering with their television reception. They are not getting their fix of I Love Lucy. So cars with big dishes clamped on top are sent out to triangulate the source of the interference. Thank God you can rely on the television companies even though the military gives up.

 

When the first body turns up, the police dismiss the story of a threatening figure wearing a frightening helmet and prefer the scenario of a love triangle gone wrong. Then there’s another murder nearby with the same television interference. The mobile receivers track the source to an oil field. There’s still no call for the army even though there’s a fire. An artist’s impression from witnesses shows a deep-sea diver. Ah ha. It’s a saboteur, parachuted into the area — sorry who swam across the Pacific to infiltrate America and blow it up. Send word to Washington. US leaders refer the police on to local scientists. Miraculously they link the unidentified object to the saboteur and start thinking a “space alien” is invading America. As the television company’s trackers begin to close in, the alien knows it will soon be caught so it plays its ace. After running around aimlessly for a few minutes to drag out the suspense, it takes off its helmet and suit, and shows itself to be invisible.

 

The female scientist asked to look at the suit sends off her husband to do the shopping at around 1 a.m. — great late-night shopping in Santa Monica and a real sign of gender equality in action — while the dog that can track the alien is locked up for barking. Her analysis is spectacular. “This stuff is tougher than nylon.” It doesn’t burn, it’s magnetic and it repels acid. We should have skirts in this fabric in the shops by next Tuesday. But then it disintegrates, suggesting teething problems with proposed mass release of skirts. Naturally the female scientist ends up held as a hostage by the invisible alien. Everyone else runs around like headless chickens. The alien dies because it can’t breathe our atmosphere without its helmet and suit. They all shrug. Such is life and death on planet Earth. After checking the schedules, they go home to watch a rerun of the I Love Lucy episode so thoughtlessly interrupted by the alien invader. In my more rational moments, I know I paid to see an amazing number of films as bad as this (or worse, if that’s possible). It’s a remarkable reflection on the rate at which our culture has evolved. Tastes and fashions are remarkably ephemeral. We were all amazingly naive. I wonder if that space ship is still parked off the coast at Santa Monica.

 

If I have tempted you to dip into this lost gem, you can find it through the Internet Archive at this address: http://archive.org/details/Phantom_From_Space. The Archive is an interesting place to browse and the masochists among you will find many other out-of-copyright films like Killers From Space (1954), an early classic featuring Peter Graves.

 

Extra Credit by Maggie Barbieri

extra-credit

Long ago when television began offering minute-by-minute coverage of national elections, the clever production people came up with a visual representation of the swing in votes needed to deliver a winner from a different party both in individual constituencies and nationally. With literal minds at work, it was called the swingometer and was in steady use from 1955 onward. Now we’ve invented a whole new science and, with a typical disregard for comprehensibility, called it psephology, crude manual devices have been replaced with a range of different coloured charts, but the notion of the swingometer survives. It’s a very easily understandable way of showing how many people need to change their votes to get a different result in a first-past-the-post electoral system. More often than not, my own readingometer takers up an early position and rarely changes to any significant degree as I go through the current book. But with Extra Credit by Maggie Barbieri (Minotaur Books, 2013) I found the pendulum swinging from one end of the range to the other. This is distinctly unusual.

So what’s the problem? Extra Credit is volume seven in the A Murder 101 Mystery series and my first look at this author. We’re into the life of Alison Bergeron who’s married to NYPD Detective Bobby Crawford. She’s an English Professor at St Thomas in the Bronx and seems to have a tendency to find herself on the wrong end of criminal behaviour. All this is relatively uncontroversial and, given their relationship, an obviously fertile field to plough for opportunities for them to collaborate in solving crimes. It can be a variation on the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin idea. She stays quietly in her role as homemaker and academic stalwart while he rabbits on about his latest case. As his frustration mounts, she gently suggests what he might look for or questions to ask. So, without ever dirtying her hands, she solves his cases and can devote herself to nurturing the students gently flowering in her college. Except that’s not at all what’s written. I confess to finding her a relatively unsympathetic character from the outset. Although I sympathise she has to meet the family of his ex-wife, this is not the most inspiring of starts. The hook is set when an eccentric guy who disappeared for years, gives her step twins $5,000 each as a present. No-one seems clear on where this money might have come from. It may be dishonestly obtained. Our couple are therefore adamant the twins cannot accept this money. Unfortunately, the generous cash donor is almost immediately found dead in his run-down apartment. When the police conduct a search, they find a quarter-million stuffed in the mattress. Except it looks like suicide. Why he should have wanted to kill himself is unknown. Perhaps he was just an eccentric nutter with a hidden past who just couldn’t stand himself any longer.

Maggie Barbieri wrapped up warm

Maggie Barbieri wrapped up warm

So instead of this playing the detective game, Extra Credit turns out to be a story about this couple’s marriage which devolves into a weak-kneed thriller. So why didn’t I simply confirm my dislike and leave the swinging arm firmly at one end of the range? Well, after a while, there were passages I found mildly amusing. What had seemed rather ham-fisted commentary from our English professor became lighter in tone and more entertaining. During these passages, I was prepared to forgive the angst when someone poisoned our couple’s dog and there were other less than riveting alarums and excursion. I sat waiting for this to become more generally amusing. Except it doesn’t. So, as my disappointment with the developments in the plot became dominant, the swingometer swung back to unfavorable and then firmly descended into the deepest negative territory available. The reason? There really was no detective work going on. It’s all threats to our heroine and, later, a kidnapping. But she has no real idea what’s going on nor who’s responsible. It’s all just a more exciting than usual life for our English professor. Even the descriptions of the academic world have no credibility in my eyes, being as far from my own experience in university life as it’s possible to get. If this is what it’s actually like in American higher education, it’s not surprising standards are dropping like the proverbial stone in the international rankings.

The result is bafflement this should have been published by a usually reliable publishing house. I suppose the author might have built up a fan base for a romance with thrillerish pretentions and the odd crime to experience. More of the same might sell to those fans. But as a newcomer to the series, I found this vapid rubbish, apart from mildly amusing passages in the middle third. So if you are already a fan based on the earlier books, presumably this is more of the same and you will enjoy this. If you are trying to decide whether to sample this author, do not under any circumstances start with Extra Credit.

For a review of another book by Maggie Barbieri, see Once Upon a Lie.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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