Saturday, August 27, 2016

LA Dreamscape: Inherent Vice, The Big Fix, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye

When did the 1960's end in California? Or more accurately when did the optimistic spirit of the 60's end? With the election of Richard Nixon? With the assassination of Robert Kennedy & Martin Luther King? With the deaths at the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont? With the murder of Sharon Tate? Whenever it happened the mood in the 1970's was quite different from that of the 60's. The naive hedonism of the baby boomers was cured by Watergate, the oil crisis, recession and defeat in Vietnam. The 70s was a disillusioned cynical age. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of the baby boomers. The Greatest Generation won World War 2 and put a man on the moon but the boomers don't seem to have done much of anything have they? No cure for cancer, no mission to Mars... Still they did give us good movies and the 1970's might well be the greatest decade that there's ever been in American cinema. The other day for a bit of fun I curated a little film festival for myself watching 4 movies set in Los Angeles in the post 60's hangover. 
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Inherent Vice (2014) dir by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Its about the misadventures of a stoner private eye who gets mixed up in a complicated missing persons case after doing a favour for his old lady in and around Manhattan Beach circa 1971. A funny diverting novel has been turned into a dull movie by LA native Anderson. Without a budget to film exteriors this is basically a chamber piece. Joaquin Phoenix does his usual terrific job as the lead and the supporting cast is good but the story bogs down badly in the second act. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of IV. The film like the book is a shaggy dog story and loses even more momentum in the final act... Still I think its pros weigh just a little more than its cons and its probably the only Pynchon film we are ever going to get...
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I followed Inherent Vice With The Big Lebowski (1998) which I've watched and written about many times before. Although it is set in 1990 Lebowski is about the 60's generation's attempts to cope with a world that has moved on. I know it divides people but I love this movie and Jeff Bridges's boomer Lebowski is a lot more sympathetic than than the 'goldbricking' blowhard millionaire greatest generation Lebowski. Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on Lebowski was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and you can certainly see what they are talking about: both works are classic visions of Los Angeles and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man's daughter, and a runaway from his family who gets mixed up in pornography. Paranoia, police corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBL. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman's 1970's remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye which I saved for last in my little film festival. Next up however was a film I hadn't seen before: 
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The Big Fix (1978) was directed by Jeremy Kagan and based on the novel by Roger L. Simon. Richard Dreyfuss plays private detective Moses Wine who gets mixed up in a political corruption scandal connected to the California governor's race. Divorced Dreyfuss's troubles begin with his old lady (very much a move of Vice and Long Goodbye) and get worse as he uncovers the layers of a conspiracy. Moses Wine is a good if unconventional PI who - adorably - brings his kids on various stakeouts because he cant get a baby sitter. This movie doesn't have much of a following on Rotten Tomatoes but I thought it was really good with a kind of low rent Rockford Files vibe. Paranoia, corruption, betrayal, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TBF. 
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Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) was the last on my list of films. A slightly baked version of Marlowe played by the excellent Elliot Gould drives around a duplicitous (can a landscape be duplicitous?) sun-baked decadent Hollywood encountering the kind of people we meet at Paul Simon's party in Annie Hall (1977) or the rich folk who realise they've been out-generalled by Columbo (which began filming around the same time).  Although largely panned on release The Long Goodbye has aged well. Beautifully filmed, chock full of crazy characters (wearing fantastic early 70's clothes) and reasonably faithful to the book The Long Goodbye is a gem of a movie that captures a time and place to perfection. Chandler purists hate the ending and Gould in the role but I loved this film. Paranoia, betrayal, police corruption, the little man fighting the Man are the themes of TLG.
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Chinatown (1974) which came out a year after The Long Goodbye wasn't on my little self curated film festival list but you might consider it for yourself. Although it's set in a dreamily shot 1930's it was filmed in the 1970's and shares many of the themes, actors and ideas of the films above. And finally you might also want to check out Cutter's Way (1981) a noir classic filmed in the same milieu. 
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Hope this little list has given you some ideas for your own 1970s LA movie party as an escape from these troubled times. As always additional suggestions appreciated in the comments below: 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BBC Culture's Top 100 films of the twenty first century so far...

The BBC polled prominent critics, film historians, writers and directors to come up with a list of the top films of the century so far. I've reproduced the list below. The top of the list is eerily similar to a list of films I came up with in 2009 as my favourites of the decade which you can find here. I've done three things to the raw data of the BBC list to personalise it slightly. If the film is in bold that means I've seen it and thought that it was ok. If there's an * next to the film it means I really liked it. Two ** indicates that I think the film is a masterpiece. If I've put the letter next to the film I'm saying that I think the film may be a bit overrated by the critics at the moment. If its not in bold I'm afraid I havent caught that one yet. Its a bit of a strange list: no Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Roy Andersson, Denys Arcand, Joanna Hogg or Ben Wheatley? What's up with that?

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) O
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) **
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) O
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) *
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) O
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) O
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) O
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) O
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000) O
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) O
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) *
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) O
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) **
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) O
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) O
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) O
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) *
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) O
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) O
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) **
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) O
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) O
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) **
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) O
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. ​Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) *
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) O
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) O
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) **
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) **
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) *
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) *
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) **
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) O
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) O
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) O
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) O
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) *
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) **
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) **

Sunday, August 21, 2016

An In Flight Michael Shannon Film Fest

So a couple of weeks ago I had to fly from London to Melbourne which is a lovely 20 hour flight. Last year when I did that flight I discovered Fargo S1 and that made the ride quite enjoyable. This year I discovered the films of Michael Shannon. Michael Shannon you'll recall was the best thing about Boardwalk Empire playing a disgraced Revenue Agent. When he and Richard Harrow (the one eyed marksman with half a face) got popped off the spark went out of the show I felt... 
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The first of Michael Shannon's films I watched was Midnight Special which is a kind of recapitulation of Close Encounters with a bit of ET thrown in for good measure. It's a medium budget movie with big ideas and an ending you're either going to go with completely or be pissed off by. I was in the former category. I liked this movie a lot and Michael Shannon was superb in it playing a father looking out for his troubled son who may or may be not some kind of alien or prophet or kid with superpowers. (Adam Driver is wonderful in the Jeff Goldblum-esque supporting role.) The next Michael Shannon movie I watched was 99 Homes about the mortgage crisis in the US. Again great, moving, intense work from MS and a pretty good story. Next came Elvis Meets Nixon - MS playing Elvis and Kevin Spacey playing Nixon. MS looks nothing like Elvis but he somehow channels the king to deep and moving comic effect. There's a great 70s soundtrack to this film which, oddly, is mostly Motown. This felt like a short film expanded into a feature but somehow that didn't matter so much. It never outstayed its welcome. Batman v Superman came next. When I tell you that Michael Shannon plays a corpse in the movie and its the most convincing performance in the film you'll know that it wasn't a very good movie, but again, Shannon excellent. No more Shannon films on my flight TV alas. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride And Prejudice (1940). Journeyman director Robert Z Leonard turns in a creditable movie version of the book in this big budget 1940 studio production. The screenplay was partly written by Aldous Huxley (one of an amazing six writers they needed to translate this material to the screen) and is notable for the interesting spin on the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards the end. The parts in the film are well played: Edward Ashley is a suitably villainous Mr Wickham, Greer Garson is a lively Elizabeth Bennet and Maureen O'Sullivan is a radiant Jane Bennet. Greer Garson's look of hatred towards Miss Bingley after she has dissed her family is some of the finest screen acting you'll ever see, but everyone in the cast is playing second fiddle to Laurence Olivier who is an extraordinary Mr Darcy. This is one of Olivier's best early screen roles: he radiates perfect quantities of menace, intelligence and diffidence. I should also mention Edmund Gwenn as a drole Mr Bennet. The movie is let down a little by the costumes by the famous Adrian Greenburg (who et al. in a brilliant career designed Dorothy's shoes for the Wizard of Oz) which are beyond ridiculous and not remotely Regency.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). For an entire generation of people in the UK this BBC mini series is the definitive version of P&P. With a lot more room to breathe (six hours) the characters are fully fleshed and many of the more diverting but easily cuttable bits of the book are left in. Colin Firth is a stolid Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle is a charming Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC lavished a lot of money on carriages, country houses and authentic Regency outfits. And nobody puts a foot wrong. And yet. . .Well call it heresy if you want but I don't find Firth all that interesting as Mr D, Adrian Lukis is a timid and unthreatening Mr Wickham and Jennifer's Ehle's Lizzy lacks bite. You cannot complain about Alison Steadman's Mrs B or Andrew Davis's faithful screenplay. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightley is a spirited, beautiful Elizabeth Bennet with lank hair and dirty boots. Rosamund Pike is a lovely Jane Bennet. Carey Mulligan shines as Kitty Bennet and Jenna Malone and Talulah Riley are great as Lydia and Mary. Simon Woods is an outstanding Mr Bingley playing him as a bit of a nineteenth century Bertie Wooster. Matthew Macfayden is an appropriately dour, broody Mr Darcy almost as good as Olivier's version. Rupert Friend is sinister and scary as Mr Wickham. This is by far the best directed of the three versions I'm reviewing here. There's a tracking shot at the Bingley ball (the second ball in the book if you'll recall) where the camera swings through the action taking in a sad Mr Collins, a humiliated Lizzy, Mary being consoled by her kind father (Donald Sutherland), an ethereal Jane and a happily toasted Mrs Bennet (the superb Brenda Blethyn). The screenplay was written by Debborah Moggach with script doctoring by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her script for Sense and Sensibility). At two hours this is the right length for the story and the humour of the book is excised & reattached with ease. The scene where Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) proposes to Lizzy is one of the funniest you'll ever see. There's also a little more room given to the servants than any of the other versions, which when you read Jo Baker's Longbourn and watch the upcoming BBC version of that superb book you will appreciate. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015). An ok attempt to mix zombification and class into a post apocalyptic romance. Lily James is all right as Lizzy, Sam Riley makes an OK Darcy. Charles Dance is sadly off form as Mr Bennett. Lena Headey steals the show a bit as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Ok, as Simon Pegg is wont to say, skip to the end: Wickham, a kind of semi-zombie, (Jack Huston) leads a horde of zombies out of London to conquer England but after Lizzy, of course, realises he's a baddie he is stopped by she and Darcy at the Last Bridge. Good cast and a few good ideas but cd have been much better....

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Cartel


a post from last year...
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Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the great American crime novels of the last twenty years. Indeed Winslow and James Ellroy so raised the bar of American crime fiction in the early 2000's that every other writer in the genre has been struggling to keep up. You can't get away with weak prose and poor characterisation in US crime writing any more. (If you're a shitty prose writer and you don't care about your characters you should probably write literary fiction - they still tolerate that kind of thing over there.) 

The Power of the Dog told the story of Art Keller a DEA agent fighting the drug wars in the 1970s and 80s particularly in Mexico where he ran afoul of Adan Barrera, the dauphin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloody, violent, scary and brilliant The Power of the Dog was not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But Winslow was not being deliberately sensationalist he was just telling it like it was. 

The Cartel is the sequel to The Power of the Dog which again takes up Art Keller's story. Dog ended with Keller divorced and trying to live in anonymous motels as his various Mexican enemies tracked him down. After Barrera escapes from his prison and resumes his quest to be the patron of patrons of all the cartels in Mexico, Keller is recalled to the life by the DEA. 

The Cartel is a fictionalised account of what's really been happening in Mexico for the last decade and as such it is terrifying. We get to see the Narco wars between the cartels, the corruption of all branches of the Mexican army and police and finally the appearance of the good guys - the Mexican Marines and in particular their special forces unit the untouchable FES. The Cartel isn't so much a crime novel as a war novel and Keller and his comrades are soldiers in that war. If you don't like war novels this probably is not the book for you as there are some pretty strong scenes of combat and violence. My favourite part of the book comes near the end when an old Mexican gentleman named Don Pedro defends his house against the Zeta Cartel, Straw Dogs style...

Keller's character - Catholic, half Mexican, smart, honourable, is brilliantly drawn as is the character of his nemesis the chilly, intelligent, cunning Adan Barrera. Winslow's women are written as well as his men and there are many extraordinarily brave women in the book who are based on real people; indeed The Cartel is a tribute of sorts to the incredibly courageous Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta (right) who appears, thinly veiled, as Keller's love interest (and who was - in real life - tortured to death by the narcos). 

No novel is without its flaws and I'll admit that I became disheartened by all the murder, mayhem and mutilation in the final third of the novel. But that's part of the point of the book too. The war was relentless. And lest that put you off let me emphasise again, that The Cartel, like The Power of the Dog, is a crime masterpiece. It is being taken very seriously by serious reviewers (that cool image (top above right) is from the New Yorker review.) If there were any justice they'd be giving it the National Book Award or the Pulitzer and at the very least it should get the Edgar next year. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Soji Shimada & Locked Room Mysteries

Two years ago the Guardian asked me to write me an article about locked room mysteries as I'd talked about my favourite classic locked roomers on the radio and a few other places here and there. So I compiled a list of my absolute 10 favourite locked room mysteries and sent it in. Once the original article was published I asked for permission to publish a slightly longer version of the piece on my blog and they said that was ok. So out there in the ether was my original article and the longer blog piece...I kind of forgot all about both until earlier this year when I got an email out of the blue from the Japanese author Soji Shimada who told me something interesting. In my top 10 locked room mysteries piece I had picked as my second favourite locked roomer of all time Mr Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a book which I absolutely loved. Mr Shimada informed me that unfortunately The Tokyo Zodiac Murders had gone out of print in English but because of the interest generated by my article a new English version of the book was being printed by Pushkin Vertigo. Mr Shimada sent me a lovely signed copy and apparently this new version has done very well indeed. So well in fact that the publishers are going to bring out all of his books. I couldn't be more delighted. I loved this novel and I am so thrilled that many more people will get a chance to read it!. Sometimes you try and nudge the general public in a certain direction and nobody takes a blind bit of notice but sometimes it works out the other way too...My original article (the slightly longer version) below (since I wrote this piece I've gone and written another (!) locked room mystery called Rain Dogs):
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My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels

When I was ten years old I remember the first proper mystery novel that I read. It was a battered paperback of Agatha's Christie early classic Murder on the Orient Express. Orient Express, you’ll recall, is the one where everyone did it, which delighted me no end and I was immediately hooked. I began to work my way through the other Agatha Christies at Belfast Central library and it was probably the sympathetic librarian there who put into my hands The Murders In The Rue Morgue, the first real locked-room mystery that I came across.
     Since Rue Morgue I’ve read dozens of locked-roomers (or ‘impossible murders’ as some prefer to call them) and I have developed firm opinions about the genre. I have no truck whatsoever with the ones that have a supernatural solution or where the author doesn’t give you enough information to solve the case for yourself. Some purists don’t like locked-room problems that involve magician’s tricks (a staple of Jonathan Creek for example) but I’m of the opinion that as long as the mechanics of the trick are explained to the reader (or viewer) well before the solution, these can be permissible.
     A locked-room problem lies at the heart of my new novel, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone in which an RUC detective has to find out whether a publican’s daughter who fell off a table in a bar that was locked from the inside was in fact murdered and if so how. The first thing I had to do was to assure the reader I was not cheating about the facts: the pub was indeed locked and bolted from the inside, there were no secret passages, no concealed rooms and certainly no supernatural element. Then, of course, I had to give the reader all the necessary information so that she or he could solve the case at the same time or before the detective. And by all the information I mean: facts, psychology and motive. When it works you should be able to read a locked-room mystery twice, the second time spotting the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together and, hopefully, enjoying the iron logic of the solution.
     When a locked-room mystery doesn’t work the solution makes you groan and the book gets hurled across the room. In The Murders In The Rue Morgue an elderly Frenchwoman is killed in a locked room on the fourth floor. The solution – spoiler alert – is that the murder was done by a tame orang-utan who climbed in through the open window with a straight razor. Even at the age of ten I wasn’t happy with that. (I think it was George Orwell who said that the even more ridiculous plot point in Rue Morgue was the idea that an edlerly Parisian lady would go to bed with the window open). More recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo found itself flying across my kitchen when I realised that the locked-room problem at its heart (actually a locked island) was a cheat because the reader had been clumsily misinformed about the essential facts.
     The golden age of the locked-room mystery in Anglo-American detective fiction has largely passed but in France Paul Halter has been churning out original impossible murder novels since the mid 1980’s and In Japan the great Soji Shimada virtually invented the Shinhonkaku “logic problem” sub-genre which is still extremely popular today.
     I think there are four elements that make a really good locked-room mystery novel: 1. An original puzzle. 2. An interesting detective and supporting characters. 3. Lively prose. 4. An elegant solution to the puzzle. Mixing classic and contemporary with no supernatural activity allowed these are my ten favourite locked-room/impossible murder novels:

10. The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s cursed Indian diamond ‘The Moonstone’ disappears from her room after her birthday party. This is only a rudimentary locked-roomer, but as the first and still one of the best detective novels it had to be on my list.

9. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – John Dickson Carr. Dr. Gideon Fell investigates an alarming number of ‘suicides’ at a remote Scottish castle. The deaths have taken place in locked or completely inaccessible rooms. Dickson Carr was rightly known as the “master of the locked-room mystery” and this entire list could, with some justification, have been made solely from JDC books.

8. And Then There Were None (1939) – Agatha Christie. (Originally published under two equally unfortunate titles.) Eight people with guilty secrets are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon where they begin to be murdered one by one. When there are only two of them left the fun really begins.

7. Suddenly At His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand. In another part of Devon Sir Richard March has been found poisoned in his lodge. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is rolled daily by the gardener. Only one set of footprints is found leading to the lodge and they belong to Claire, who discovered the body. A witty and engaging mystery from a writer who was another locked room specialist.

6. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) – Israel Zangwill. Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out. Arguably the first proper locked-roomer and still a classic of the form.

5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Gaston Leroux. Miss Stangerson is found severely injured, attacked in a locked room at the Chateau du Glandier. Leroux provides maps and floor plans showing that a presumptive murderer could not possibly have entered or escaped. Amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille has to figure out how the attack was done. Another early classic.

4. The King Is Dead (1951) – Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee). King Bendigo, a wealthy munitions magnate, has been threatened by his brother Judah, who announces that he will shoot King at exactly midnight on June 21st at his private island residence. King locks himself in a hermetically sealed office accompanied only by his wife, Karla. Judah is under Ellery Queen's constant observation. At midnight, Judah lifts an empty gun and pulls the trigger and at the same moment, in the sealed room, King falls back, wounded with a bullet. No gun is found on Karla or anywhere in the sealed room. Furthermore the bullet that wounds King came from Judah’s gun which didn’t actually fire. Good, huh?

3. La Septième hypothèse (1991) – Paul Halter. In pre War London Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archie Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a mystery author. According to Moore, Sir Gordon had a strange visitor who gave him a murder challenge. The two men tossed a coin and whoever lost had to commit a murder and try to pin the blame on the other. Peter Moore is subsequently found dead. There are only two possible suspects and both have ironclad alibis. Seven solutions present themselves in this ultra twisty novel.

2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) – Soji Shimada. The book begins on a snowy evening in the Shōwa period of pre war Japan. A wealthy artist, Heikichi Umezawa, is finishing up his great cycle of paintings: 12 large canvases on Zodiacal subjects. As he works on the last one his head is smashed in with a blunt object. The studio is locked from the inside and the suspects have alibis. Over the next four decades many of Umezawa’s family members are also gruesomely killed, most in ‘impossible’ ways. Atmospheric and clever with a series of very funny, postmodern asides in which the author repeatedly taunts the reader explaining that all the clues are there for an astute observer.

1. The Hollow Man (1935) – John Dickson Carr. Someone breaks into Professor Grimaud's study, kills him and leaves, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, and with people present in the hall outside the room. The ground below the window is covered with unbroken snow. All the elements are balanced just right in this, the best of Dickson Carr’s many locked-room problems.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

4 More Swimming Pools

st pancras pool is never this empty
I swim wherever I go as its the only real exercise I can do nowadays because of rugby and motorbike knee injuries. (Do yourself a favour and tell your kids not to ride motorbikes or play rugby past their twenties.) So I've become a bit of a swimming pool, lake and swimming pond expert. This is my third post on this subject. Apologies if this is the most boring thing in the world to read...

4 more swimming pools reviewed from my recent trip to the UK, Ireland and back...

1. Singapore Airport Pool. This used to be a great little pool on the roof of a short stay hotel at Singapore Airport. Located right overlooking the runways there was a swim up bar and deck chairs and the best part was that it was always completely empty. So empty in fact that you cd always sneak in without paying and have a quick swim between long haul flights (I did this many times.) But then Anthony Bourdain opened his big mouth and now its always packed with the kind of people who love Anthony Bourdain who (with the exception of course of Dan Woodrell & Ian Rankin) can be a bit hard to take sometimes.

2. St Pancras Leisure Centre Pool. Right behind St Pancras station another hidden gem in the heart of London. A couple of quid and you are in clear blue water swimming laps either clockwise or anti-clockwise with local elderly eccentrics, the occasional beardy hipster swimming butterfly, earnest young women doing the crawl and the odd disgraced geography teacher with a moustache and combover just hanging out creepily in the shallow end.

3. Harrogate Hydro Pool. Walkable from just about everywhere in Harrogate. Its the place to be when the temperature shoots up into the 20's. (Yes, I'm being sarcastic here, I do live in Melbourne you know.) Three pools: an eight-lane 25m short-course competition standard swimming pool; multi-purpose activity pool with moving floor and a training pool for our learners. Usually all very empty in the mornings which is perfect. Men and women get changed in the same place which can be awkward but a scone and a cup of tea at the cafe costs less than 3 quid which cant be beat.

4. Carrickfergus Leisure Centre Pool. Back here again. Lovely pool overlooking a lake and bird sanctuary. Full of crazy people swimming "widths" and if you swim too slowly people think you want to chat. Love this place. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Stranger Things

Stranger Things is an 8 part series from Netflix which is part homage part rip-off of Stand By Me, ET and Stephen King's It. Like ET its set in the early 80s and begins with a bunch of geeky boys playing Dungeons and Dragons. (We don't get to see much of the campaign or even what alignments and races the player characters are. I suspect that the writers of the show weren't real D&D players and the whole D&D stuff is merely a metaphor.) Anyway a girl breaks out of a high security nearby nuclear lab and at the same time one of the group of boys goes missing. Spoiler alert the girl's a government kidnap victim who has mind control powers and has used her remote viewing ability to tear a rift into another version of Earth where monsters live. The monsters can come through the rift and they do that to kidnap one of the male leads and kill the plain girl who is best friends with the pretty female lead. What the critics have loved is the period feel and the mood of the show and that stuff is great. Teen boys in rural America in the 80s having adventures a la Stand By Me, Goonies, Gremlins, etc. is a beloved premise and throw in dark high school stuff and you've got cult classic Heathers as well. Speaking of Heathers Winona Ryder is in it as is another 80s icon, Private Joker, Matthew Modine. These two stars of the period help complete the nostalgia trip as does a great synth score. The show is very good if you like build up and atmosphere and the kids are great. Little kids are almost always terrible in TV shows or movies but they're not in Stranger Things (they weren't in ET or Stand By Me either). The show is not without flaws and these are manifested, like Twin Peaks, in a weak third act arc to the season. Episodes 7 and 8 seem rushed and to be honest not very well thought through in terms of logic or character development. I recently read a book with a similar rip-in-spacetime-that-allows-monsters-through idea called The Fold by Peter Clines which had a much better way of resolving everything in the third act. 
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Still nice visuals, good soundtrack, good enough story, the return of every single 80's boy's crush, Winona Ryder, so in general this was a pleasing enough little sci-fi horror series. Throw in some car bombs and the odd riot and the first 15 minutes of the pilot is basically my life in the 80s half on the edge of Belfast half on the edge of the Irish countryside playing D&D, listening to the Clash, riding my chopper bicycle through the woods...

Monday, August 1, 2016

3 Shortlists for Rain Dogs....

Rain Dogs has just been shortlisted for the 2016 Ned Kelly Award and the 2016 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. This is the first time in 10 years I've made the Ian Fleming Award shortlist and I'm really honoured to be on the Ned Kelly shortlist again. Rain Dogs was also shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award but I didn't win that one...Anyway the point is I'm up for several big time awards for what it is clearly one of my better efforts, so for God's sake people, look for this book! It's the only book to be on the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year shortlist, the Dagger shortlist and the Ned Kelly shortlist. Seriously, give it a chance. It's got a nice, punchy short title and there's a doggy on the cover...
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the dagger shortlist: 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Writers Cop Out

So I'm on the plane back from London to Melbourne and I'm watching Deutschland '83 which is about an East German agent infiltrating NATO command in yup, 1983...I'm watching episode 4 and our young, handsome Soviet agent has compromised a NATO General's secretary by leaving a bug under her desk which has been discovered by a cleaner. The agent's handler tells him to recruit the secretary or kill her. He takes her swimming and thinks about letting her drown in the river when she gets cramp but instead he saves her tells her he loves her and then explains that he's a Stasi agent. She thinks things over and decides to run away. He catches up with her in the woods. This is where the writers copped out and I stopped watching the show. Instead of having him kill her, she gets killed sort of accidentally by running in front of a car. Our hero is robbed of his moral choice by a Deus Ex Machina BMW. The writers did this because they thought we would lose sympathy for our hero if he kills the plain, decent, nice secretary.* In other words the writers don't respect you or me the viewer. They don't think we're intelligent enough to have two conflicting emotions in our head at the same time: revulsion at our hero's actions, but interest in seeing what happens to him next. Funnily enough almost exactly the same thing happened in The Crying Game 23 years ago. The writer, Neil Jordan, didn't actually have the IRA man kill the captured British soldier...instead after a run through the woods he is knocked down and killed by a big Deus Ex Machina Land Rover. Neil Jordan was afraid we wouldn't be able to watch the rest of the movie if Forrest Whittaker was actually shot in the head execution style the way the IRA actually killed all their captured British soldiers and policeman. 
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Bizarrely almost exactly the same death happened in another German production The Lives of Others - woman tormented by Stasi runs out of apartment and is killed by a tram. This, folks, is utter bullshit. Alfred Hitchcock knew this was bullshit 50 years ago when he had that scene in Psycho where Marion's car momentarily doesn't sink in the swamp as Norman Bates tries to get rid of the evidence. We are deliciously on Norman's side with our heart in our mouths as the car sits there in the quicksand not sinking...this despite the fact that we hate Norman Bates for what he's done to the lovely Janet Leigh. Hitchcock knew that audiences are capable of holding several different emotions in our heads at the same time loving and hating the hero protagonist. We're not dumb we'll still watch the movie if the hero makes some terrible moral choices. Indeed our hero wrestling with his or her morality is what makes books and movies interesting in the first place. Just read a Graham Greene novel some time - that's what they're all about and they're bloody fascinating. An unconflicted hero is boring. Unlike the rest of the world I never dug The Shawshank Redemption precisely because there was no actual redemption - Andy was innocent and virtuous all the way through...Ugh. 
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So yeah don't let writers pull that crap on you and call that shit whenever you see it. You need to be treated with more respect than that. Deutschland '83 you lost me as a viewer when you treated me like an idiot...

*I knew she was doomed, by the way, because she wasn't as pretty as the other female lead on the show. I've been watching Stranger Things and it does the same thing: killing the plainer female characters but letting the prettier ones live...this is some more bullshit right here but that's a discussion for another day...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Are Long Titles A Good Idea?


...not the actual cover, the actual cover is much cooler but I'm not allowed to use
it yet cos they havent quite got the colours and the car sorted...
No. They're not. My new Duffy novel has a nine word title. This is most unfortunate. Everybody hates long titles: book buyers, publishers, editors, marketers, amazon, audible, book reviewers. . .you name it. If your book has a long title, especially in genre fiction it is a sign of amateurism. I was at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last week and when I told a prominent English reviewer the title of my next Duffy book she visibly winced. My editor was with me and she gave me a knowing look after the wince. My editor and pretty much everyone at my publishers have been trying to talk me out of the new Duffy title for months now in the nicest possible way. They are all wonderful smart, intelligent people and they all, of course, are quite right about the title. Crime fiction is not literary fiction where you can get away with long titles. (Unless that is you're doing a long title as a mode of Spencerian signalling telling customers that your book is so bloody good that you can even throw away the title.) Some of my favourite books with long titles are Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept; I’ve Been To Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All The Pots; Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, but all these books are literary fiction. Crime fiction mostly has two or three word titles often with the words “blood” “death” or “girl” in the title. Long titles are off putting. But  then everything about my fiction is off putting. I set my books in Northern Ireland rather than in reader friendly Scandanavia, England or Scotland. I usually have long titles. I almost always begin my books slowly with description and with weather rather than action (in strict contradiction of the rules for writers laid down by Elmore Leonard and Stephen King). What all this self sabotaging does is winnow my audience to a core fanbase. No one casually grabs an Adrian McKinty novel at the airport. And you know what? that’s fine with me. If you get me you get me and if you don’t you don’t. If you're a crime author from Scandinavia you can write any old shite and the punters will buy it. Where's the challenge there, Sven? I’m sorry about the long title, I really am, but that’s the book that was inside me and that’s the book that wanted to come out. And to potential readers out there....if the long title or the Troubles setting or the boring beginning prevents you from becoming one of my readers that’s entirely ok with me – we weren’t destined to become simpatico and there are plenty of other books on the shelf at WH Smith called The Girl From....that you'll prefer. Please read one of those instead. We'll both be much happier. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Top 10 Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. You can pretty much stop reading any of those other lists at the point where they claim that Clueless is better than Pride and Prejudice. Ahem. Ok my top 10 or 11 if you want to be technical about it. 

10. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. Pretty feeble source material and a time travelling ending that ruins the logic of the series is turned into a good little film by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron. 
9. The Shawshank Redemption. Even though, technically, there is no actual "redemption" (because Andy was innocent (wd have been a much better film if he'd been guilty)) and despite the fact that Morgan Freeman's VO gets very annoying by the end, this is still much better than the thin on the ground source material by Stephen King. 
8. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl, Mr Memory, a police helicopter (in 1935!)* none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. Hitchcock didn't get this breezy again until North By Northwest (a kind of remake) 24 years later.
7. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Stephen King was never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s which is, predictably, a crashing bore. 
6. The Silence of The Lambs. I know not everyone will agree with me on this but I found the book to be gruesome, campy and overbearing, whereas the film is...oh wait a minute...
5. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book which isn't actually that great. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed 'supertram' yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange, clunky, slightly cheesy book with bizarre mafia subplot, 70s style affairs and then some old sea dog prose, but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
4. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick. Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and 2001 could have been on this list too. The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
3. The Graduate. This is a short book that you will still struggle to finish. How anyone thought there was a movie in this material is beyond me. I guess Mike Nichols is a genius or something. 
=2. The Godfather. Have you read the novel? Wow: schlocky, tacky and very much of its time. Written rapidly in the style of Harold Robbins the words kind of assault you with their clumsiness...Puzo, however, carefully rewrote the screenplay with Coppolla, they cast it well, they filmed it well and produced a masterpiece. 
=2 Goodfellas: Henry Hill's memoir has its moments but the film is probably Scorsese's best (and that's saying something). The Copacabana steadicam scene and the editing in the final 10 minutes are among the cinematic high points of the twentieth century. 
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so bad that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 150 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however, is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence.
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*ok technically its an autogyro

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Crime Fiction Predicted Brexit Literary Fiction Did Not

Literary fiction in the British Isles is a product mostly made and consumed by upper middle class people. In England it is disproportionately a product of a Metropolitan elite who live - largely - in North London. The majority of these people went to private school but, of course, 93% of the population of the UK went to state school. Private school and Oxbridge followed by a house in Islington do not give you a particularly good grasp on what your fellow Britons are thinking outside of London unless you really try to make the effort. Apart from its outsider voices like Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Monica Ali, David Peace etc. British literary fiction has generally been pretty moribund and dull for the last 30 years IMHO but crime fiction in the UK has never been better with regional voices, women, ethnic and religious minorities at the cutting edge of an exciting ever-changing genre. Crime fiction too is pretty much the only place in British letters where you get authentic working class voices represented, not just (as in the old days) as criminals and victims but increasingly as detectives. CFL just published a great list of 12 regional crime fiction novels which shows you the diversity of the genre. I've only read half of this list so I really have some catching up to do. But what I have read has been illuminating. It's in British regional crime fiction that you see reflected the seeds of discontent that led to Brexit, not in the dull lives of wealthy Hampstead sophisticates. When I saw Will Self and Eddie Izzard on Question Time lambast the Brexiteers as racist, Little Englanders, I winced at how out of touch they were. Literary fiction has singularly failed to capture the Zeitgeist of a discontented England but crime fiction with its finger on the pulse of working class culture has been talking about the seething anger of a lost generation for a decade now. If you want to know whats really happening in UK society read some regional British crime fiction not the poncy whitterings of some posh people in Belsize Park. 
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And then, of course, there's science fiction. Dave Hutchinson's Europe In Autumn predicted Brexit and the fences between Hungary and Serbia etc. five years ago when no one else was even thinking about such things. And one of my favourite crime novels of the last decade China Mieville's The City and the City was all about the borders of the mind and the geography of difference both real and imaginary. A sophisticated exploration of frontiers, boundaries, immigration and sovereignty.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ben Wheatley Rated

My favourite new British film director rated in the standard A,B,C,D, F format. The occasional F grade, by the way, is a very good thing for a film maker because it shows you that they're willing to make non conformist non mainstream stuff that appeals to them but probably to nobody else. I'd rather watch a director who gets a lot of F and A grades and avoids B, C, D. (If I may be permitted to go a little off piste here, Spielberg and Scorsese for example have been B, C, D directors for the last 25 years or so. Nothing spectacularly good, nothing spectacularly bad.) Anyway back to Mr Wheatley. I've reviewed only his films not his TV work. 

Free Fire (2016) TBD

High Rise (2015) B

A Field in England (2013) F

Sightseers (2012) A

Kill List (2011) A

Down Terrace (2009) A

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom's suicide attempt needn't become a murder-suicide if people act now. I'm talking about Northern Ireland and the possibility that it might disintegrate into chaos. Yeah, I know, I write detective novels for a living, I'm not a politician; but I am of a certain age and I remember The Troubles all too vividly. The Troubles, many people have forgotten, were a complicated struggle between Irish nationalists and the British establishment that more or less devolved into a bitter sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In a thirty year period more than 3500 people were murdered and Belfast became an apocalyptic landscape of bomb sites, checkpoints and derelict buildings. But in 1998 a fragile peace came to Ulster with The Good Friday Agreement and that peace has held ever since. 

Until last Friday, that is. Brexit day. Before Friday Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were separate political entities but they were united together in the European Union. Anyone from any part of the island could work in or travel to any other part of the island with complete freedom. Brexit has changed all that. Although the overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union, Northern Ireland will now go the way of the rest of the UK and leave in two years. Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have called for reunification with Southern Ireland, Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, have angrily rejected this. And thus the whole of the hard won Northern Irish peace process teeters above the abyss. 

In my Sean Duffy detective novels I attempt to conjure up the mundane horror of daily life in Belfast in the 1980s: the random bombings and sectarian attacks; the police, army and paramilitary roadblocks; the misery of life in a province at war with itself. As one character says “If you haven’t read Thucydides, I’ll boil him down for you into a simple moral: intergenerational civil war is a very bad thing.” 

For Irish millennials this all seems like a long ago dream or nightmare. When driving along the border today it’s impossible to say where the Republic of Ireland ends and Northern Ireland begins. The fields look the same, the cows look the same, eventually you notice that the road signs are in Miles Per Hour instead of Kilometres Per Hour but that’s the only clue. Everyone who remembers how difficult it used to be to travel from Belfast to Dublin in the 1970’s is happy that the border guards and customs posts are long gone. A three and a half hour journey from city to city can now be done in a nippy hour and a half with no fuss at all. 

Brexit, however, has thrust the nightmare back into the forefront of our imaginations. Britain’s new Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be, must attend to Northern Ireland as a priority. Assurances must be given that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue to be a “common travel area.” There must be no customs posts, no army watchtowers, no border guards along the 300 mile long, meandering dividing line between northern and southern Ireland. If trucks need to be monitored travelling across the border this monitoring must be done electronically. Furthermore Northern Ireland must be generously treated by the London government to make up for the shortfall in European bursaries and subsidies. Money won’t solve all the problems Brexit has thrust at Northern Ireland but there must be no more austerity budgets and penny pinching from London. 

Brexit has made the reunification of Northern and Southern Ireland much more likely and if this happens it must come peacefully. Ulster does not need another thirty years of blood feud and sectarian conflict. Politicians on all sides of the Irish Sea must now must work over-time to prevent Brexit  turning Belfast back into a war zone. The grim days of the 1970s and 1980s must never come again. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

When To Give Up On A Book



no hard and fast rule here, but here are some guidelines:

1. If it's a classic that has stood the test of time I say hang in there until about page 50 to see if you can handle it. That's about the 1 1/2 hour mark on an audiobook. If you just can't bear it by page 50 then give up, life's too short, man, and maybe you'll pick it up again in a couple of years. It took me 3 bites of the cherry to read Middlemarch and in the end I was glad that I did. 

2. If the author's persistent racism or antisemitism or homophobia etc. is just really annoying you then you should feel free to give up immediately. Celine got on my nerves so badly by page 10 of Death on the Instalment Plan that I gave the book up in French and then again years later I gave it up in English at about page 20. The guy's just a dickhead and I didn't want to spend time in his company.

3. If the author's politics beats you over the head also feel free to give up the book. John Le Carre has always been a Manichean left wing ideologue of the Chomsky school but lately his formula (America + Britain = evil) has become tedious and thus his books are predictable and dull. Shame because Smiley is one of the all time great creations. Similarly with other authors who inject their dimwitted political opinions into their novels from the left and right and you can barely read the text for the noise made by the grinding of axes. Feel free to jump ship early. 

4. A beach book that "everybody" loves but you can't stand. Zeitgeist and luck usually explain the success of these books. And usually they're bloody terrible. Chapter 3 will suffice. Abandon ship with no guilt after that.

5. A Brief History of Time. I've heard so many people humble bragging about how they never finished A Brief History of Time (Charlie Rose for one) because it's so difficult. It isn't difficult at all. Just read it. Try some David Deutsch if you want difficult. 5 pages a day and you'll be done in two months. 

6. The Booker Prize longlist. 5 pages in and you'll have the gist of most of these. I read the first five pages of every book on the longlist and the only two I liked were Marlon James's Seven Killings and A Little Life. At the Sydney Writers Festival I met Marlon James at breakfast and wanted to tell him how impressed I was by the boldness of his temporal shifts and the polyphony of his book but I was too shy and instead I asked him how he was getting his eggs done and he said scrambled. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Freedom, Horrible, Horrible Freedom! Terrence Malick Rated

I once had to debate freedom of speech in law school and I was on the unfortunate side of the argument having to argue for censorship. I decided not to take any of the traditional approaches about protecting the public from affront or stuff like that but instead I argued that human culture has flourished best when writers had to chaff against censorship. Look at the most productive eras of world culture: fifth century BC Athens, Julio-Augustan Rome, Elizabethan England, Victorian England, Tsarist Russia - all eras of heavy censorship and yet they produced pretty much all the great literature of our culture. Since the 60's there's been effectively no censorship anywhere in the west and we've produced what exactly? Any novel as good as Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov? No, I don't think so either...
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Anyway that was my argument. We lost the debate of course which is as it should be. Still, it's interesting to think that sometimes too much freedom can be bad for artists and giving them a box to play sometimes enhances creativity. Terrence Malick is a case in point. Success does funny things to film directors. Sometimes it gives them the confidence to be more daring & more interesting sometimes it makes them conservative and eager to churn out formula and sometimes it sends them off the deep end completely. Terrence Malick, it turns out, has fallen into that latter category. I am not thank God a Francis Ford Coppola completist so I haven't seen his latest films but I have seen every Terrence Malick. You know the Malick story: two early films in fairly quick succession were followed by a twenty year hiatus when he was rumoured to be teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne, living in an Ashram or selling surf boards in Malibu. In fact he was working on the screenplay for The Thin Red Line driving James Jones's widow batty with his queries and questions. The Thin Red Line should have been a total disaster (Malick's original cut was nearly 5 hours long) but it wasn't thanks to judicious editing and a strong central story that nearly hews close to the book. Malick's return was critically praised and every actor in Hollywood wanted to work with him. Malick's fourth film, however, was The New World which lost the plot in the second and third acts but was almost saved by Malick's use of the Vorspiel from Wagner's Rhinegold, a trick I'm pretty sure he stole from Werner Herzog. His next film The Tree of Life again had a piece of music that almost saved the film: Vltava by Bedrick Smetana. But nothing could save Malick's last 2 films which I'm sorry to say are unfocused, indulgent, horrible messes. Knight of Cups seems to have gone straight to video here in Australia and it's not surprising. Its like a bad student film with A list Hollywood talent. Dear oh dear. Freedom, Horrible Freedom! indeed.

Here's my ratings of his filmography in the standard the A,B,C,D,F format....

Badlands A

Days of Heaven A

The Thin Red Line A

The New World C

Tree of Life D

To The Wonder F

Knight of Cups F