As ever with me, much of my reading matter so far has been of a fantastical nature. Before I come to that though, a quick word for Mark Kermode, of whose books I have read two in the last few months. It’s Only a Movie, Kermode’s mostly autobiographical book about his time in the film critic business, is a brilliantly entertaining read, as anyone more than passingly familiar with Kermode’s writing might expect. A particular highlight is the tale of his hellish journey across Russia to interview the director of a film that is looking increasingly likely to never see the light of day, in the world’s most uncomfortable car, being a perfect showcase of Kermode’s ability to be creatively rude about almost anything, although the details about the actual working life of a film critic are intriguing too. This is a theme made much more central in Hatchet Job, a more straight-forward critical work about the role and future of the professional film critic in today’s more open world. In fact, a major concern of the book is the sort of blog I’m writing this for, albeit ones with a far, far wider reach. In a world where twitter posts are deemed usable reviews for promotional posters, what’s the point in paying someone to write about the films they’ve just watched? It’s an interesting and valid question, with one mild drawback; if you don’t think there’s a point to film critics, then you’re not going to have any interest in the book. If you do think there’s a point, then chances are you’re going to more or less automatically agree with the vast majority if not all of Kermode’s points, which arguably makes it a fairly redundant work. Still, Kermode has a well-deserved reputation for writing that is both intelligent and entertaining, so it still comes recommended.
Moving onto the fiction, and I’ll begin with Scott Lynch’s long-awaited Republic of Thieves, the third instalment of the Gentleman Bastards series. The previous book, Red Seas under Red Skies, was published in 2007, leaving nearly a seven year gap between books (which must be said, is the sort of gap George R.R. Martin would kill to have). Expectation was therefore high even before details of the book came out. For those unfamiliar with the series, the books are set in a fantasy world broadly resembling Renaissance Europe, especially Venice, and the titular Bastards are a group of highly skilled and sarcastic thieves. Essentially, it’s Ocean’s Eleven filtered through a low fantasy filter, and the first two books were enormous fun. Republic of Thieves teased a reunion and professional clash between the central character, Locke Lamora, and his long lost love Sabetha, as they try to fix opposing sides in an election. And not just any election. The parties involved are wizards, and they’re not the kindly old men familiar from Tolkien; they’re given to murder, maiming, and wiping out entire cities if not given what they feel is appropriate respect. Two criminal masterminds with enough witty dialogue between them to put Joss Whedon out of work trying to rig the election of a bunch of psychotic wizards? It couldn’t fail! In practice, half the book takes place in flashback as the thieves in training spend a summer posing as actors for some reason, while the main plot is squandered in favour of childish if amusing pranks rather than elaborate plots. Perhaps if there hadn’t been a seven year wait for it, it might not have been as disappointing. As it is though, the underwhelming plot and some rather bizarre revelations about Locke’s heritage, which are either going to prove to be sheer genius or a complete derailing of the character, leave it an unsatisfying read. There’s fun to be had, but not enough.
More enjoyable, or at least less disappointing, was David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first book in his Honor Harrington series. They’re books I’ve been aware of for a while and never quite got round to reading, but on learning that the first two can be downloaded completely free of charge for Kindle, I decided to give them a go. The writing is solid rather than spectacular, particularly when Weber decides to drop an infodump of facts and figures about the setting into the middle of a chase sequence, but overall it’s rather fun. Honor Harrington herself is a winning character, roughly 90% cunning hero with just enough depth and vulnerability to make her relatable, while the plot is a shamelessly cheesy romp that would once have been a classic matinee storyline, but here gets put into space. If hardcore science-fiction puts you off, then you’ll hate the whole thing, but otherwise it’s worth picking up.
Of a similar standard was Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. You can find more detail here, but essentially it was a fun summer blockbuster in literary rather than cinematic form, with many of the pros and cons you might expect from that label. There’s room for something more special in sequels though, so it’s worth a read now.
Back on the fantasy side of things was Return of the Crimson Guard, by Ian C. Esslemont, the second in his companion series to Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. The main series is one of my favourite reads of the last few years, and in fact much of my reading time so far this year has been devoted to a re-read, but Esslemont’s books haven’t quite hit the same spark. I can’t quite put my finger on why, as all the obvious potential problems with the books (sprawling plots, and I do mean sprawling, a wide range of characters, the links with books in another series entirely that you may not have read at all, and in my case read a year or so ago) were all present in the main Malazan books too; I suspect it’s simply a matter of Erikson being a better writer, better able to keep all the plates spinning and memorable. Still, it was a significant improvement over the previous book in the series, and once I settled into it rattled along thrillingly enough. Hopefully the next book will be more satisfying.
I started the year off by catching up with a few of the Oscar big-hitters, naturally released later in the UK. 12 Years A Slave was every bit as good as you’ve heard. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivered a majestic and powerful performance as the illegally enslaved Solomon Northrup, surrounded by equally strong performances from Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o (particularly impressive as a first time actress, albeit one with fairly extensive behind the scenes experience), while the film itself was a veritable work of art; not simply a brutal indictment of slavery, although there was plenty of that, but a marvellous character study of an incredible individual. Perhaps most impressively, there was a quiet beauty to the film which made the harrowing events stand out even more starkly.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was a hypnotically chaotic and revolting experience, which in any other year would have guaranteed Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar (although to my mind, the award ought to have gone to Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, not Matthew Mcconaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, as good as he was). More detail here.
On the subject of Mcconaughey, Dallas Buyers Club was another outstanding film. A testament to human determination and outrage in the face of (apparent) callousness, it tells the true (or at least heavily based on truth) story of Ron Woodroof, an all-round scoundrel living a contented life of drinks, drugs, sex and gambling hustles until he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Determined to outlast his deadline of a month to live, he travels the globe in search of better drugs to stave off the effects of the disease, and in the process, becomes a better person and changes the attitude of if not a country, then at the very least a big part of an organisation. On paper, it’s the sort of thing that gets classed as award bait – serious real world issues, an inspiring story of courage in the face of tragedy and human growth. It’s even got the old classics of severely changed appearance; Mcconaughey left himself practically emaciated to properly capture the appearance of someone dying from AIDS, while Jared Leto is blindingly convincing as the similarly afflicted trans woman Rayon. It’s also a textbook example that an apparently classic story (even if you’re not familiar with the details of Woodroof’s life, there’s little that will shock you in the film) can be devastatingly good if executed well, and Dallas Buyers Club was very, very good indeed.
It was certainly a hell of a lot better than the similarly based on history American Hustle, a film largely notable for its impressive cast list and seventies dress sense and hair styles. It’s perhaps unfair to criticise the story, given that any flaws in that are presumably a result of a messy series of events in reality; pretty much every other aspect of it can legitimately be criticised though, and if I hadn’t already gone into detail over it here, I would do so now.
Glossing over Captain America: the Winter Soldier (good but slightly disappointing, with more detail here), more recently there has been Darren Aronofsky’s take on the story of Noah. Controversial for a whole host of reasons – for not being a simple recreation of the flood story we’re familiar with from Sunday school, for not mentioning God in a Christian story (a criticism which ignores the existence of dozens, perhaps hundreds of non-Christian stories that are pretty much the same, not to mention the fact that God explicitly exists in the film, he’s just called the Creator), and for not addressing the clear issue of incest – it was pretty much what you might expect from Aronofsky; baffling, unsettling and disturbing, but with moments of great power and beauty. In particular, the creation story was awesome in the truest sense of the word, as was the reappearance of water on the scorched, almost post-apocalyptic Earth the film features. Russell Crowe was excellent in the title role, but whether through the strength of his performance or lacklustre writing/direction/editing, other characters felt thin, although all involved acted their hearts out.
Similarly weird was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a film that will probably forever be known as the one in which Scarlett Johansson seduces Glaswegians before killing them. On the one hand, such a description is a major dis-service; there’s a lot going on in the film, and I can see it being a staple of literary and film theory classes for years to come. Is it a critique of modern rape culture? A warped parody of a nature documentary (Johansson has described her character as a lioness out hunting)? Or simply a horror film without many of the more obvious trappings of the genre? It’s certainly unsettling. The first few minutes of the film play out rather like you imagine Stanley Kubrick’s version of the cursed videotape from Ringu might appear, while Johansson, in a simply outstanding performance, manages to convey a whole host of subtle characteristics and thought processes in a person who barely speaks, never mind emotes. The stubborn refusal to explain anything about what may or may not be going on will doubtless frustrate some viewers, and could be just as easily seen as a lack of thought rather than encouragement to speculate, but for me the ambiguity helped the film; in the end, the unknown is always scarier.
Away from the current crop of releases, I’ve been enjoying the selection of films shown by my local Film Theatre, which brings to a small town the kind of film that would traditionally never have come within view of our tiny fleapit. Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, was an unexpected treat; both actors were terrific, and the story was more interesting than I had imagined it would be. A point was lost for Damon though, who although perfectly good on screen was horribly miscast as a seventeen year old youth. Casting someone more age appropriate might have been more preferable, although I’ll concede that there would have been little the film could do from there to make Douglas’ Liberace even remotely sympathetic, something it actually managed surprisingly well. The Danish thriller A Hijacking/Kapringen was a tense affair, split between the hostages on a tanker hijacked by pirates and one of the chief executives of the company they were employed by. Watching said executive (Soren Malling, apparently a comedian for the most part, which makes his brooding performance here even more impressive) try to negotiate the hostages release without paying out too much of the companies money had me on the edge of my seat, and there were some interesting debates to be had; was Malling’s character callous and arrogant in his actions, or simply following recommended hostage negotiation protocol as guardedly as he could? Could you sympathise with the pirates – none of whom really seemed to want to be there either – or were they a motley collection of violent psychopaths?
From the same writer (Tobias Lindholm) came Jagten/The Hunt, the tale of a nursery assistant (Mads Mikkelson) falsely accused of sexually assaulting one of the children. Mikkelson is clever casting. Although he portrayed Lucas’ essential goodness excellently, he is of course mostly familiar from distinctly villainous roles, having been a Bond villain and even the most recent incarnation of Hannibal Lector. With that in mind, and especially reflected against current events, it became surprisingly easy to see the viewpoint of those who believed the accusations against him, even though the audience know that it’s complete nonsense. A powerful examination of loyalty, doubt and the power of word of mouth.
Moving to Spain, Blancanieves was a wonderful new spin on a classic: a silent, black and white take on the story of Snow White, taking place largely within the bull-fighting community. Aside from a rather bleak twist at the end, the fact that it is based on one of the more famous fairytales meant that it was rarely surprising, but it was cleverly done and extremely sweet.
Wadjda will probably be best remembered for being the first Saudi Arabian film to be directed by a woman (Haifaa Al Mansour), but the best thing for me was the wonderful performance from Reem Abdullah as the title character. A fairly classic feisty young girl, it was a role which could easily have grated, but Abdullah made her thoroughly sympathetic, bordering on adorable; I would not have expected the story of a girl trying to obtain a bicycle to be so affecting.
The other two standouts of their current season both revolved around France. Le Week-End, the story of a retired couple on a weekend break to Paris in a bid to recapture the spark of their marriage, was hysterically funny and tragic in equal measure, while Blue is the Warmest Colour proved to be much more than its reputation might lead you to believe – although yes, there is an astonishing amount of graphic sex for a mainstream release. Overall, I’d say it was artistically justified, as a passionate counterpoint to the bleaker second half, but more specifically, the seven minute long sex scene in which Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos contort themselves to positively Olympic standards could probably have been trimmed a little. Make no mistake though, this is a film worth seeing. Both actresses perfectly depict the blossoming and withering of passionate love, and if you’re not near to tears by the end then you might want to check the existence of your soul.
Let’s get it out of the way right now; the televisual highlight of the first few months of 2014 was without question the third series of Sherlock. You can find more detail on that here.
So what else was there? The BBC also brought us a new take on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, here simply titled Musketeers. After some initial confusion – I hadn’t quite picked up that it wasn’t supposed to be a straight adaptation, so I was baffled when the plots started to diverge from the original plot – I found myself rather enjoying it. In no way was it especially sophisticated or revolutionary material, but it served its purpose as Sunday night comfort television admirably. Peter Capaldi was the stand-out performance, as a surprisingly multi-layered Cardinal, and the show is going to miss him when it returns for the second series, due to his new medically inclined commitments. This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast are in any way bad, although I felt that Luke Pasqualino took a little while to develop D’Artagnan much beyond impetuous youth. The show as a whole was often nonsense, but it was entertaining nonsense, solidly executed.
Which brings me to the returning/continuing MARVEL: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I criticised the first ten episodes, broadcast in 2013, for…well, more or less for what I’ve just praised Musketeers for, actually. Perhaps the weight of expectation attached to it unfairly detracted from what was basically a competent bit of television, or perhaps Musketeers managed a better overall standard. Whether unfairly criticised due to hype or not, since its return the show has been operating on a much higher standard, although nowhere near the quality of the cinematic entries in the Marvel franchise. An increase in urgency of the arc plot, as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) strives ever harder to find out how and why he returned from the dead, and hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett) tries to uncover the truth of her childhood, has helped immeasurably, with a few intriguing revelations that bode well not just for the show but for the whole of the wider franchise. In addition, there have been a few bold attempts at actual character work, which combined with some more interesting plots have resulted in a show which has finally achieved a standard higher than entertaining background noise. However, there is still work to be done; if they can keep up the improvements and build on the twists both within the show and implicitly to come in the aftermath of Captain America: The Winter Solder, then there might finally be a great show to be broadcast (since writing this section, an episode has been broadcast which absolutely lives up to all the promise, by turns thrilling, shocking, funny and moving. Fingers crossed for more of the same!)
More favourably, we have also been treated to another exemplary run of ITV’s Endeavour, a prequel show to the classic Inspector Morse. Although essentially a standard British detective show, with little to mark it out on paper beyond its sixties setting and esteemed heritage, this series – and indeed the previous series, broadcast in 2012 – has been masterful from start to finish. There are three elements to this: the writing, which brilliantly combines an evocative, sensitive portrayal of the time period with intriguing and thrilling mysteries; a warm, thumpingly decent and solid father figure in Roger Allam’s DI Fred Thursday; and, most importantly, a sensational performance from Shaun Evans as the young Endeavour Morse. It was always going to take something special to live up to John Thaw’s iconic performance, but Evans has without question managed this, pitch-perfect as the slightly awkward, too smart for his own good and achingly vulnerable young copper. Even if the stories he features in were lacklustre, the Morse/Thursday partnership is worth tuning in for all on its own. The final episode was almost too thrilling to describe, and leaves the series on a simply cruel cliffhanger. In fact, while it’s perhaps not quite the event that Sherlock was, it runs it pretty damn close in terms of quality, and may just take the top spot. It’s certainly a contender.
Finally, at least of this year’s broadcasts, there was W1A, the follow-up to 2012’s…2012, a show which spoofed the bureaucracy of the London Olympics. I didn’t see that show, to my regret, but heard such good things about it that I immediately marked the sequel as one to watch. Following Hugh Bonneville’s fish-out-of-water Ian Fletcher as he moves to the BBC as ‘Head of Values’, a job title almost as meaningless as it sounds, and tries to deal with the mind-numbing managerial mindset. The first episode was gently amusing, but by the end of the all too brief run had turned into a sparkling gem. From the staggeringly stupid intern Will (Hugh Skinner, with a typical line of dialogue: “Ah, yeah, no, like cool”) to the almost offensively agreeable Simon (Jason Watkins) via Jessica Hynes as a PR consultant with little connection to reality, characters which seemed clichéd at first soon had me howling with laughter. It wasn’t quite the biting satire I’d expected, but it was glorious nonetheless.