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Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein

June 30, 2014 2 comments

Reckless Disregard Cover

This book sets me thinking about what ingredients must be mixed together to make a good legal thriller. Let’s start off with the obvious. At some point before, during or after the book starts, X must break the law and require the services of a lawyer. We are then allowed the privilege of watching said lawyer from the moment of initial advice through to the trial at the end. Although the court room scenes are not mandatory, there must be a good reason for the case failing to come before a judge so said lawyer can demonstrate just why he or she is in such high demand as a trial lawyer. On the way to the legal and thrillerish denouement, our heroic legal manipulator must face dangers. Others in the entourage or potential witnesses are expendable but, of necessity, the legal eagle must fly unscathed in the physical sense (although it’s appropriate from there to be some running, hiding and the occasional blow struck — some lawyers even pick up the occasional bullet wound as a trophy).

Those of you with some legal knowledge will understand the theme of this book from the title. Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein (Seventh Street Books, 2014) is about defamation. In this instance, it’s alleged the latest video game from an anonymous underground designer libels a famous Hollywood movie producer. Under American law, it’s necessary to prove the publication of the images and words was malicious. That means the publisher must have shown reckless disregard for the truth, i.e. at least willful blindness. In theory this should be relatively straightforward given this game designer has alleged the movie producer kidnapped and killed an actress. Anyone looking in the historical record would find no mention of said producer ever having anything to do with the actress so here comes a man with one of these apparently unimpeachable reputations to sue an underground revolutionary who dares attack one of the titans of the movie industry. Needless to say, the only person standing between David and Goliath is our series hero, Parker Stern. To put it mildly, he’s not the strongest of performers having lost much of his trial mojo through increasingly severe anxiety attacks. However, this time he’s motivated to take the case because Lovely Diamond is the attorney of record on the other side.

Robert Rotstein

Robert Rotstein

Those of you who have read the first book will know our hero and Lovely ended up an item. In the intervening period, she has broken off the relationship leaving our man somewhat puzzled and deflated. This is not so much a chance for revenge but an opportunity for them to interact again, even if only from opposite sides of the courtroom. He’s not sure what, if anything, will follow on from this, but he feels he has to try. So this part of the book is a great success. Having adopted the cliché of pairing them off, our author now has them as wounded warriors. Since both have their secrets, it’s interesting to watch how they slowly grow more comfortable with each other again. The plot is also very cleverly put together with some nice twists and turns when we get into court. The unravelling of the core mystery about what might or might not have happened to the missing actress is engrossing.

The only problem I have is with the game itself. A not inconsiderable amount of time is devoted to describing the different levels and showing how the game apparently tracks the real world events. I’m not a game-player so I can’t speak for the credibility of this as a real-world game. So I accept such a game might have a cult following and confirm it as an ingenious way to set the hare running to see which dogs try to chase it down. But I have a problem with the later explanation for the game showing one of the murder scenarios, apparently before the murder(s) occur(s) or is/are discovered. The game designer or other(s) helping him/her must have had a good idea how this element was introduced into the game. Yet the designer’s failure to resolve this issue becomes the second reckless disregard. The first is publishing the game knowing there’s no positive evidence to prove the kidnapping/murder ever took place. The best state of the evidence is as a basis for undermining the reputation of the movie mogul. The second is either the designer becoming a murderer or concealing the identity of the murderer.

So we’re left in a very interesting state. Through one of the quirks of examination and cross-examination in trial, Parker Stern’s secret is revealed. Perhaps this will help restore his trial mojo. The relationship with Lovely may be repairable despite the presence of the game-playing son. And a version of justice is achieved so far as all the public and the police are concerned. Putting this together, Reckless Disregard is a very good legal thriller, doing clever things to mix all the ingredients in a relatively new way. But it’s not as good as the first in the series. This is slightly more contrived.

For a review of the first in the series, see Corrupt Practices.

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

Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon

May 12, 2014 1 comment

alien out of the shadows

Back in 1979, I remember going to see Alien. It’s a memory I treasure although the edge was slightly taken off the enjoyment by my wife’s hostility to it. There are always some things a couple can’t share. Anyway, this original novel by Tim Lebbon called Alien: Out of the Shadows (Titan Books, 2014) fits into the time gap of fifty-seven years between the first film and Aliens (1986) where Ellen Ripley and Jones find themselves somewhat off course after escaping the Nostromo. The question for any reader coming to a book intended to add to a franchise is, “Why bother?” Both films are terrific entertainment and the novelisations by Alan Dean Foster were good of their type. The question is whether the world is a better place for converting the Alien franchise into a shared universe. I’m a sucker for all things Lovecraftian so the idea of people being free to explore strange new worlds with monsters in them is acceptable to me. I concede some of the Star Wars original books and the most recent animated series are good. The three books by K W Jeter building on Blade Runner were interesting. But I’ve found other expansions like the Man-Kzin Wars less successful. This is not to run down the quality of the source material — the gaming universes, Trek and other science fiction series are good in their original state — but I feel there’s an air of exploitative redundancy about adding novels.

Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon

So Tim Lebbon has picked up the challenge of writing a novel featuring Ellen Ripley. Given the performance by Sigourney Weaver, you can’t get a more iconic character than this. This plot exploits the delay in her reaching Earth after the loss of the Nostromo and has her pitched into a new fight to prevent the Aliens from getting off a planet and on their way to Earth. Ah so here’s the rub. We’ve got a big ship in orbit around the planet. It’s full of places for monsters to hide in. On the planet, there are miners who have found more than they were bargaining for underground. Some of those escaping the surface come with aliens already inside, and they burst out of chests as the shuttle approaches the mother ship. Now is this a scenario likely to produce anything new? The answer is the predictable negative. No matter how ingenious, the surviving humans have to fight the Aliens on the spaceship and, for reasons the plot will provide, later go down to the surface where they will fight more Aliens. I’m not saying this is anything but a highly professional job. In fact, it’s a beautifully written, claustrophobic novel of spaceship corridors and mine shafts full of predictable dangers lurking in the shadows. But it’s recycling exactly the same plot elements we know from the films without doing anything new. The fact our author du jour been allowed to use Ellen Ripley doesn’t save the venture. In fact, if anything, it weakens the credibility of the plot’s development because although she understands why she’s arrives on this mother ship and so can alert the crew to that danger, she says very little about the exact nature of the threat they face from the Aliens. She should be brimming with details about finding alien spacecraft on atmospherically-challenged planet surfaces, the eggs and face-huggers, and the little chest-bursters that come a few days later, but she’s remarkably unforthcoming. Admittedly there’s a big time constraint in operation which might be a distraction and her memory may have been slightly affected by the years of cold sleep. But I was not wholly convinced.

This leaves me with something of a dilemma. By any objective criteria, Lebbon has done a remarkable job in shoehorning a novel into the timeline. It’s very inventive. But for all the jacket proclaims this as an “original”, that’s the one thing it’s not. Everything that happens in this book has been seen before. No matter what you might think of Prometheus, it did at least try to take us somewhere new. So if you want to read a book that places Ripley in a slightly different setting and then has her play the same game of survival, this is the book for you. But remember one thing. It’s not a spoiler to tell you Ripley survives to fight another day in two more films. That means there’s a certain lack of dramatic tension particularly because we also know none of the Aliens make it off this planet and spread across the human universe. The only uncertainty lies in the order in which the crew members will die. If that’s enough for you, this is a terrific book. But if you prefer a better use of writing talent than recycling franchise tropes, read Lebbon’s “original” work. That’s where you see the quality of the man’s talent shining through.

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

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

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

Top five posts — July 2012

Well, for better or worse, here comes another six-month snapshot of this site’s performance. I seem to have managed to get on to a more regular posting schedule. To be honest, I still don’t understand how the ranking system correlates with the number of hits, nor whether the improvement in the regularity of my postings is the reason for the improvement in traffic numbers. All I can say is that, in the first six months of 2012, I’m averaging 976 hits per day with the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site now standing at around 285,050. I still have no real sense of whether this is good or bad for a review site. The only consolation is that traffic numbers do seem to have been relatively stable over the last four months.

As predicted in the last report, the Dong Yi pages have taken over nine of the top ten pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines although that’s dropping off as the final episodes are being broadcast. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 7,573 hits per page. In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:

Hellsing or Herushingu
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (1)
Conan (2011) (3)
Sex, manga and anime (2)
Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi

These five pages have an average of 2,911 hits per page — less than half the number of hits for the top five Dong Yi pages. Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only two of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. This increases to seven of the top thirty, ten of the top forty, and fourteen of the top fifty. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, here’s the current top five:

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (2)
Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (3)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Enormity by W G Marshall

In the last snapshot, the average for the top five books was 421 hits per page. This time, we’ve improved to 753 hits per page. I still find this rather depressing and I can only conclude that the number of sites offering ebook and other digital versions are swamping out the reviews. Why the same things doesn’t happen to the film and television content is one of life’s great unknowns. So there we have it. Another six months under my belt and a big thanks to all those who now follow the site. You’re part of the reason for the stabilisation of the daily number of hits.

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Six months ago, I offered a second snapshot of this site’s performance by publishing the top five pages for both the visual and printed media. On this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to look back again since there does seem to have been yet another change.

For the record, the site had just over 1,500 hits in January, 9,000 hits in June, but this December is comfortably over 17,550 hits. It seems I’ve become rather more visible on the all-powerful Google rankings. What makes this somewhat fascinating is the interest in “foreign” material. I don’t consciously pick subject matter thinking this will get a lot of hits. I write about what I happen to have seen or read. My decision to write about Dong Yi, a very good Korean serial, has proved a major success with all the pages dominating the top quarter of the page counts. Indeed, there’s a chance the next top five in six months time may be all Dong Yi pages. The current top page is over 4,750 hits with the top five having 12,590 hits between them. This ignores the 36,500 hits on the Home Page which are anonymised on WordPress. The figures in brackets are the positions in the last listing.

Dong Yi — a review of the first 22 episodes (1)
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato
Sex, manga and anime (2)
Conan (2011)
Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23-29

The average page hits for the top five books has gone up from just under 200 to 421 but this remains a pale shadow of the average for the top five visual media at 2,518 hits. It says something about the way the rankings work that a review of Conan, a film based on a written work, can get three times the number of hits for Troika.

Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (5)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
Feed by Mira Grant (4)
Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

The average hits per page across the entire site is 278 which is a fairly dramatic increase from 112 hits six months ago.

So there we have it. I’m finishing the year on a high note. It will be interesting to see whether I maintain the momentum or drop back down into the doldrums. Frankly, this internet phenomenon all seems rather arbitrary and disconnected from what I do. Perhaps I should invite a publisher to send me a book for review that explains how the ranking system works and maximising performance. Not that it matters that much since I’ve not commercialised the site. I suppose setting up my own domain and trying to sell advertising would make a difference. Until then, I’ll bumble along and see what happens.

A happy and successful New Year to all who read this.

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Some six months ago, I published a short piece celebrating Two Milestones. I did my best to be modest about achievements. After all, I hadn’t been trying very hard to promote the site and my postings to it had not been very consistent. But I put up the top five pages for both books and films, remarking in a neutral tone that each of the ten pages had secured more than one-hundred hits.

Six months is not a long time, but there has been a minor transformation. Having decided to share the space more equally between books and the visual arts, I have found significantly more hits for the latter. Indeed, my top page is approaching 1,500 hits with 5,458 hits spread between the top five pages.

Dong Yi — a review of the first 22 episodes
Sex, manga and anime
True Grit
The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (4)

In both lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists. For the record, Dong Yi is a marvelous historical Korean drama, the main focus of Sex Manga and Anime is the anime serial Zero no Tsukaima, and True Grit is one of only two Western entries in the top ten.

As to books, the top five is:
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow (2)
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine (1)
Feed by Mira Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

We are only averaging just under 200 hits for these five pages, but the overall average for the book pages is slowly catching up to the films, television and anime pages. There’s hope for the printed media yet. The average per page across the site is 112 hits and, before you ask, there is one page that has stubbornly refused to collect more than 1 hit in some two years.

As a postscript, the stubborn page that had only collected one hit since being published in June, 2009 collected its second hit on August 7th 2011. Perhaps it will now develop escape velocity and rise rapidly to four, or even five, hits.

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

When I started this site, it was really just a way of letting off steam. I spend so much of my time writing what others pay me to write, this was my busman’s holiday. But as weeks have become months, I’ve found myself spending slightly more time on this. Traffic has been increasing to the point I may actually have to take a more professional approach. Not that I’ve any plans to monetise it, but the whole enterprise might have a better feel if I begin to be a little more disciplined. Ah well, we’ll see what happens. If anyone out there would be interested in contributing reviews or opinion pieces, let me know. There’s an e-mail address on the “About” page. The site might benefit from a diversity of views or spreading the coverage to include music, games or more general topics of interest.

So we’ve a New Year approaching and I’ve just posted the 150th review. To celebrate both landmarks, I decided to post the top five posts for books and the visual media. Thanks to your support, all the pages in these lists have one-hundred or more hits. I say this without any real sense of achievement. The top review sites have pages with thousands of hits. But it’s nevertheless satisfying that, without any real effort on my part except writing and publishing the pages, I am attracting hits.

I place no particular significance on the success of these winning posts. I had originally speculated I might do better with reviews of anthologies because each page would mention multiple authors — all the better to hit me with. That there are two anthologies in my top five books is therefore a pleasing result. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next twelve months. As to the films (none of the television reviews made it into the top five), with one exception, the most popular are “foreign” language where there are not so many mainstream reviews. I’m popular by default but not proud. I take my popularity no matter why it comes. So, without more ado, here we go:

Top five books
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow
Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox
Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham

Top five films
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes in the original Swedish
Bruce Lee, My Brother
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec or Adele: Rise of the Mummy

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

The Last Airbender (2010)

I finally raised myself from the torpor of negativity, putting aside the mantras, “How can anything by M Night Shyamalan be any good?” and, “All the critics I routinely read and whose sensibilities are close to mine are unanimous in their condemnation of this film.” Why, you mutter darkly into your metaphorical beards, should you do something so obviously daft? Well, I’m a fan of the original Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender. And the film version has grossed about $225 million worldwide. So, could it be that the quality of the original story has saved Shyamalan from himself? Eventually, I decide I have to see for myself. I collect two experts — nine-year olds with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the original — and we enter the depths of the 3D realms with hearts beating apprehensively.

First, the good news. Confronted by the task of distilling the 20 episodes of Book 1: Water into a film of sensible length, Shyamalan has actually made some intelligent decisions. The narrative is clearly focussed so that it builds to the self-sacrifice of Princess Yue. This should produce a climax of great emotional power as a counterpoint to the Avatar’s destruction of the invading Fire Nation’s fleet. Even more importantly, the change of emphasis in Iroh’s role lays down more clear makers for future developments.

We all liked the “look” of the film and felt the realisation of the bending was well done except the general limitation on the fire benders seemed unnecessary. There’s no reason to force the majority of benders to use existing fire rather generate it internally. The elite fire benders like Iroh can make their own and so much of the rest of the series revolves around the power of the comet to enhance this internal power, that it looks a strange plotting choice. Ah well, if the other two films are made, we can make a better judgement. About halfway through, both boys took off their 3D glasses. Even though I felt the depth of field was poor, I kept mine on to the end. You can always hope for an intelligent use of technology. Shame really. . .

On the acting front, the standouts are Shaun Toub (an Iranian actor) as Iroh and Dev Patel (an Indian) as Prince Zuko. They actually feel real and have a genuine relationship that casts a giant shadow over the entirely wooden performances turned in by everyone else. I can only assume this was a directorial decision, simplifying Zuko’s coming-of-age journey by providing a more emotionally supportive Iroh from the outset. Only if you have the leisure of three seasons of half-hour episodes can you fully realise Zuko’s wrestling match with his conscience.

Well, that’s the end of the good news. First a thought about the casting. Noah Ringer as the Avatar, Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka are Americans rescuing the world from the threatening foreigners led by Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao and the Maori Cliff Curtis as Fire Lord Ozai. Hollywood has this tedious insistence on white supremacy over the foreign devils. I have noticed some defensiveness from Shyamalan on this issue. If the second in the series is to be made, he has a chance to recover the situation with the casting of the pivotal Toph. If we avoid the mandatory American, we may feel Shyamalan has slightly redeemed himself.

But there remain two major problems that wreck the entire experience. The first is the essentially declamatory acting style of the American trio. There’s absolutely no investment of emotion in their performances. They are sincere and honest, but all attempts at acting are avoided. I cannot understand this decision. Not to inhabit the characters, but merely to state their lines credibly, is extraordinary to watch. It immediately places an insurmountable barrier between the actors and the audience. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the complete lack of emotion in the relationship between Sokka and Princess Yue. Which brings me to the second problem.

There’s absolutely no set-up for the key events in the film. It starts and, before you can draw breath, Katara and Sokka have dug up the Avatar and lost him to Prince Zuko. It must rank as being one of the most perfunctory of opening five minutes in any major action film made during the last twenty years. But the worst of this comes when we finally get to the North Pole. I cannot recall seeing the opportunity for a magnificent ending so butchered by the script and acting performances. What should be a touching relationship between Sokka and Yue, complicated as a love triangle in the animated version, is completely thrown away. Worse, because we are not given any chance to see Yue as a rounded character, her decision to replace the Spirit of the Moon is merely sad instead of an example of heroic self-sacrifice to save her people. Finally, there’s the extraordinary decision to have the Fire Nation navy frightened away by the Avatar’s demonstration of water power. In the original, the Avatar kills everyone in the fleet. This emasculation of the Avatar is beyond redemption. The Avatar is the power to bring balance to the world and, in each incarnation, does whatever is expedient to arrive at a just outcome. This unfortunate end to the invasion of the North Pole is one of the psychological factors making the Avatar’s journey to find peace within himself so powerful. In this, the Avatar matches Prince Zuko as they both seek redemption for the “sins” of their earlier incarnations/fathers. This was not too dark for an essentially children’s and YA audience in the animated version. It should not be too dark in this film. No self-respecting Fire Nation fleet would simply have retreated in this cowardly way. Their fear of the Fire Lord would have kept them fighting to the bitter end. More importantly for the future plot, it’s because the fleet is destroyed that the Fire Nation invests in air power when rebuilding its military capabilities.

So, as a curiosity piece, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how not to make a motion picture of a fine animated series, this is unbeatable. As a final thought, my nine-year olds emerged full of ire, quoting chapter and verse of all the “good stuff” missing from this version. Even they could see this was but a pale imitation of a brilliant original.

And for those who missed the news, this epic has gone on to win five Razzies as the worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay, worst supporting actor and worst use of 3D. It seems we are unanimous.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

August 18, 2010 4 comments

Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.

One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.

In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.

Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.

I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Inception (2010)

The world continues to throw up the occasional marketing campaign to stimulate curiosity. I enjoyed the recent Batman films so going to see Christopher Nolan’s stand-alone science-fictional effort, Inception (2010), seemed a good idea. Every now and again, it does me good to run with the herd, to remember what it’s like to jump off a cliff with all the other lemmings.

So there I am, comfortably installed in the cinema — amazingly only the one trailer for Harry Potter, no ads. Thank God for longer films! Shame about the Potter. And so, in the best of the racetrack jargon, we’re off and running.

About fifteen minutes into the film, I register a discussion about perceptions in a dream. Cobb, our hero, asks his architect how they arrived at this particular place in Paris. She cannot remember. There’s a discontinuity. I am immediately triggered into comparing the medium of film with dreaming. Because of the time limitations, directors cut between one scene and the next, leaving it to the viewers to fill in the blanks. We are well trained, always being prepared to infer the missing events. So dreams are also discontinuous as the subconscious flits from one set of narrative elements to another. I begin to wonder whether any of what we are watching is intended to be “real” or is it all to be a dream. I am further reinforced in this speculation as the idea of multiple levels in dreaming is introduced and discussed. Then the game is completely exposed when Cobb is trying to escape in Mombassa and runs down an ever-narrowing passageway.

Perhaps I am too old to be watching young film-makers try to say something new.

In this instance, I can identify two good things about the end-product. Even though it’s not terribly original, I like the logic of the plot. Having decided which of the possible stories he’s going to tell, Nolan is very disciplined, carefully setting out his ground rules, and then watching them play out to the end. Overall, I think it goes on for about twenty minutes too long. There’s just too much repetitive shooting and explosions, particularly in the third level where the snow looks pretty even though the action is tedious.

The second good thing is the quality of the cinematography and design. Some of the dreamscapes are impressive although, again, the zero gravity sequence goes on too long.

But there’s a real problem. I think the best way to explain it is to remind myself of the number of exciting games I have watched. When you spectate, particularly as a player yourself, you are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow of the action. Although there’s always satisfaction in watching any game played really well, nothing beats the raw emotion of empathising with the winner and commiserating with the loser. Any good work of fiction, whether on the page, on stage or the screen must encourage us to suspend disbelief. It may not be real, but the director hopes we will empathise with the key players.

The mark of a great film is the way in which it captures and holds our interest. We must want the key protagonist to win, or not to lose too badly. The difficulty with Inception is that it’s like watching over someone’s shoulder while he or she plays a video game. I can stand this for a few minutes but, with little turning on the outcome, I’m rarely involved. It’s different if I’m the one playing. Then, regardless whether my level of performance is good or bad, it’s my effort and, as a competitive soul, I dislike losing to some stupid machine. But all I was doing this afternoon was watching Nolan play a first-person shooter game. It had great visuals and Zimmer’s music was the usual atmospheric pomp, but I was not involved. These were not real people. At best, they were projections of the subconscious mind. In a sense, it did not matter which actors happened to be on the screen at any one time. They were merely going through the motions necessitated by the plot. On three occasions, individuals were asked to make a leap of faith. I could not do it. I wish it were otherwise, but Inception (2010) is a film you admire for its technical virtuosity but forget because it had no heart.

As always, I can pick winners for this won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.

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