Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Short Story: A Dog and Duck Story

Recently I've been exprimenting with short crime fiction, initially for a competition but I've been enjoying it and have written a few more than anticipated. The competition wanted a maximum of 1000 words so this is the only criteria I have set myself and naturally it's allowed me to create a diverse range of stories and styles. The following story is my most recent and won't be entered in to any competition so I thought I'd see how posting it here goes. 
EDIT: Since initially writing this post I have adapted the story in to a screenplay, with a few changes, and it is currently with my producer in England. I admit that this upturn in enthusiasm for my previously stalling film career has a lot to do with the great work Alex Withrow has done with Earrings. If you are yet to see it, you simply must, it can be found here.
Feel free to critique, criticise and give feedback in the comments.

A Dog and Duck Story (2012)

The Dog and Duck, a traditional English pub; brass pans hanging from mock Tudor beams, old wooden tables surrounded by mismatched chairs, fruit machines lined up flashing their jackpots at naïve punters, jukebox playing the greatest hits of Robbie Williams, Karl the barman wiping down the bar and eyeing the couple in the corner.
Under her beret she displays her poor eyesight with pride, spectacles from the seventies that Michael Caine would be proud of, lips painted red and smiling constantly. You’d be forgiven for thinking the navy was in the way she flaunts her nautical stripes, not quite horizontal thanks to the fascinating way it clings to her chest.
She clings to him and his matching glasses, his flatcap and hunting blazer worn with irony, unable to disguise the pasty face and weak chin of a man who’s never done a days hard work in all his life. The delicate fingers of one hand play with his pint glass whilst the other rests in her lap.
Now Karl has work to do, the arrival of Mikey always signifies the start of the lunch rush. His footsteps on the original wooden floor can be heard over the whine of the jukebox. The lager top is ready and waiting as Mikey arrives with a grunt of thanks.

-Look at this guy
He nods his head towards Mikey
-What an idiot
She giggles
-This is not the nineties anymore guy
-I know right, where did he find somebody to give him that mushroom cut?
- And somebody should tell him that cargo pants are fugly
-Look at him acting tough
-What’s that scowl for? Is he trying to intimidate people? It’s not working
-No, he forgot his walkman, the soothing taped voice reminding him “breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out,” is still in his white van
This is too much for the couple, their jokes causing hysterical laughter between them. A few minutes pass and Sharon trips her way over to the bar calling for a Bacardi and a bag of nuts.
-Woah, looks like he’s in there
He starts again
-Look at her face, so gaudy
-Bit too much fake tan yeah
-Yeah but no she don’t score high
-And those earrings!
-Prison guard keyrings more like
-Stripper heels for a lunchtime drink?
-No wonder she stumbled in to him
-There’s no other excuse, he looks like the missing link
-But with hair
It’s enough. They love the sound of their own opinions and can’t stop laughing.

Karl is worried. He can hear them. He can see the veins in Mikeys neck bulging, his face going red. Any minute beer will be spilt.
-Calm it Mikey, they’re just kids
-Nobody talks about Sharon that way
-Fair play, I can’t dispute that, but not in here yeah?
Now Mikey is off, pushing Sharon to one side and stomping over to the corner table.
-I believe you owe my wife an apology sir
This is greeted by the suppressed laughter of the hipster couple
-I said I believe you owe my wife an apology. Sir
The laughter only gets louder. Mikey is forced to smash an empty glass on the table but before he can do any more damage Karl is there at his side like a good barman.
-That’s enough Mikey, outside and don’t come back til tomorrow
Turning his attention back towards the couple
-And you two aren’t welcome here, sling your hook
Settling the situation is what a good barman does. Back behind his bar he watches Mikey drag Sharon out. He watches the hipster couple wrap themselves up in duffle coats and slowly leave, giggling the whole time.

Outside in the beer garden Mikey is resting his weight on an ancient looking picnic table. Scowling at the couple as they leave the pub. He stands and flexes his muscles at them. The hipster boy pulls a straight edge razor from his pocket.
-Didn’t you see John Hammond in Brighton Rock you damned dirty ape?
The hipster boy doesn’t give Mikey a chance to react, the blade cuts through the soft flesh of his face as a boot crushes his testicles.
The hipster girl watches Mikey fall to the floor in pain and laughs. She pulls a meat cleaver from the pocket of her coat and in one movement buries the blade in the fallen mans skull.
-That was fun, which pub shall we go to tomorrow?

Creative Commons License
A Dog and Duck Story by Toby Halsey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Review: High Hopes (1988) Dir. Mike Leigh

High Hopes by Mike Leigh

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

I must have seen this movie at least six times before putting it on for Leah the other night but I didn't remember it being quite so funny. There's something about Mike Leigh and his movies that I always seem to remember them being bleak. I assure you this is a sweet and extremely funny film from him and featuring at least five superb performances.

Blurb: Another dose of Mike Leigh's slice of life film making, this time featuring the working class, strongly opinionated, socialist Cyril (Philip Davis,) his happy go lucky girlfriend Shirley (Ruth Sheen), his elderly conservative mother (Edna Dore,) social climbing sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her husband, the self-made businessman Martin (Philip Jackson.)

Thoughts: I admit, I spent weeks reading about Mike Leigh and his method of direction back in university for a small essay yet I enjoyed my research so much that the essay suffered from over preparation. So I excuse myself if this review suffers from over enthusiasm for my subject.

We meet Cyril and Shirley via Wayne, an extremely naive young man in London alone for the first time. From the opening credits Mike Leigh wastes no time in locating this film firmly within the working class mileau as a lost Wayne wanders the dirty rundown streets surrounding Kings Cross station.

This allows for a chance meeting with our main characters, a nice way for Leigh to introduce them whilst demonstrating several of the key character traits that will lead the movie, namely their working class nature, their affection towards each other and their willingness to help a complete stranger.

Mike Leigh is an intelligent film maker, he might be heavy on the social commentary at times but he very rarely suffers from Downton Abbey syndrome, preferring to simply show you the facts as he sees them rather than beat you over the head repeatedly with forced dialogue, "things are changing!" and the like.

As almost always with Leigh, this is a movie that looks at the class structure within Britain but unfortunately he is a little heavy handed in his comparisons this time around. He offers a glimpse in to the world of his working class heroes Cyril and Shirley and then compares this with the lifestyle of his social climbing sister and her husband whilst offering a third couple, the Boothe-Braines, upper class, and the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Cyril. Sounds good on paper but what Leigh does is make everyone but Cyril and Shirley vulgar or a caricature.

This exterior shot might go unnoticed by the casual viewer and is one of the few subtle examples used by Leigh. Mostly he relies on the stereotypical behaviour of an uncaring and selfish husband and wife team, only interested in appearances and money. Their behaviour is abhorrent, every kind thing they do is done grudgingly and every action seems like an extreme. The performances from Leslie Manning and David Bamber are still strong, they are like a train wreck that you just can't turn your eyes away from, but it's with instances like this that it seems Mike Leigh's style of creating a film displays its flaws. A firmer script or tighter direction might have toned this down a little.

In contrast, Cyril may well be a scruffy, idealistic, socialist who spouts Marxist catchphrases but these are imporatant aspects of his character that are developed throughout the movie.

The upper classes escape with only flesh wounds, it is the upwardly mobile former working classes that get the full mauling here thanks to stellar performances from Philip Jackson and most notably Heather Tobias. Martin and Val, morons with too much money and no taste (check out the clothes and the interior design!), high expectations for life and each other yet seemingly do nothing towards making them a reality, especially when it comes to communicating with each other.

They are weak and empty people who have turned their backs on their working class roots believing money is the source of all happiness. Multiple times the phrase "best that money can buy" is heard to be uttered from one or both of their mouths yet neither of them display even one percent of the happiness displayed by Cyril and Shirley.

Heather Tobias as Val is to the 80s what Alison Steadman as Bev was to the 70s, in Abigail's Party ten years earlier. She's loud and insensitive to others at all times whilst trying to appear glamourous and important, yet inside she's treading a very thin line, trying not to fall in to the oblivion of a nervous breakdown.

Val is really put through the emotional wringer in this film and Leigh chooses to show a large portion of this in closeup, I would imagine because Tobias has an extremely expressive face.

The extrovert performance of Tobias might be considered a little too much by the standards of other movies but in High Hopes it just plain works. It's almost a typical performance from a lead female in a Mike Leigh movie, he seems to have a habit of drawing very strong unreserved performances from them. After Alison Steadman, Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies is another prime example.

You might say that Edna Dore as Cyril's mother offers the complete opposite in terms of performance but the effect is no less powerful as we witness the everyday life of a woman who's been broken by life and still haunted by her own demons.

At this point you might be wondering where the humour and charm I mentioned at the start comes in to this bleak sounding picture. The interaction between the above two couples is filled with laugh out loud moments, some of the dialogue is one hundred percent perfect and the humour is naturally found in the situation. Of the many sight gags my favourite comes from a moment of marital strife and the petulance of Val in its aftermath, blindly storming out of her husbands used car dealership she attempts to walk between two cars obviously parked too close together before getting wedged in. On its own it is silly but the reaction of the character and the placement within the scene makes it work really well.

Most of the joy of the film comes from Cyril and his relationship with the always smiling Shirley.

From the moment Wayne arrives at their home it is obvious that these two people are perfectly happy and in love with each other. Cyril wants Shirley near at all times, he doesn't like to face anything without her; when he is told that this mum has had an accident he doesn't immediately race over to see her he first rides his motorbike home to collect a spare helmet for Shirley, drives to her workplace and then visits his mum. This behaviour runs throughout the movie and will go unnoticed if you don't look out for it. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster and they were two of the beautiful people this is the kind of relationship Jennifer Aniston would cry over not having.

Ruth Sheen as Shirley sets the template that Sally Hawkins would later draw on as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky but is much more down to earth and subtle than the latter version. She is Cyril's rock and she's happy to be that for him but she certainly takes no shit and doesn't hesitate to give him a good kick up the backside when needed. This give and take, and back and forth between them is the heart and soul of the film.

In a key sequence the couple visit Highgate cemetary to pay their respects to Karl Marx, a scene that has unexpected humour to sit alongside the serious nature of the moment and is perfectly shot in Leigh's customary style.

As with Secrets & Lies the action comes to a head at a family dinner party, with some domestic violence, a nervous breakdown, some unsubtle sexual suggestions, forced feeding and the obligitory foot in mouth moment from one of the characters. The movie builds towards this moment and you sort of expect some of it but when it comes you will be amazed at what you are witnessing. The outcome is actually much more realistic than the calm at the end of Secrets & Lies and is much more in keeping with the slice of life aspect of Leigh's storytelling. It also allows for one last beautifully constructed shot as the credits roll.

I really would love to know what you think of this movie and Mike Leigh in general and look forward to reading your responses in the blah below.

Additional Viewing:
            Life Is Sweet                    Billy Liar                      Trust                        The L-Shaped Room

Suggested Reading:
Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
A Kind Of Loving by Stan Barstow

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Currently Listening: Mo Beauty by Alec Ounsworth (2009)

The first in what will hopefully be a series of posts about the music getting heavy rotation on my blahblahblahpod, starts with the belated discovery of an album from 2009.

Once upon a time I was a student in London and found myself at edgy hipster indie clubs playing jerky pop/artrock drinking vodka until 3am, my penchant for emo dwindled in the face of something much cooler and those years of musical exploration have remained with me as an integral part of my musical landscape.

One song that seemed to sum up the time and place for me was Over and Over Again (Lost and Found) by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

For me it was the perfect combination of upbeat and angular and was completed by one of the most distinctive lead vocalists I'd ever heard and is still an absolute pleasure to listen to six years later.

When the self titled album was released on cool indie label Wichita back in 2006 I rushed out and bought it along with several other albums, it didn't impress me anywhere near as much as I was hoping and it sort of got lost in the mix somewhere.

Fast forward to 2012, I'm sitting in one of Perth's trendy hipster coffee shops, Cabin Fever, and ahis familiar voice comes over the speakers. It's not often that I hear anything I remotely like on any stereo that isn't mine so I fumbled around trying to figure out how Shazaam works whilst trying to remain hip and not be so uncool as to ask the staff what they were listening to.

And so you have it, the story of how I came to listen to Mo Beauty by Alec Ounsworth.

His voice more than anything else is what appeals on these stripped back (at times comparitively almost acoustic) tracks, it's such an important part of the CYHSY sound that I initially couldn't understand why he felt the need to release the tracks under his own name. But repeat listening introduced me to what amounts to a more experimental edge to his sound, complete with brass and strings and not a single angular beat to be found.

The album was recorded in New Orleans, a city which clearly influenced the direction of the album and one of the obvious standout tracks from the album is "Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song For New Orleans)," not least because of the simple repetition of the lyric that you'll find yourself humming in the shower, in bed and on hold to Indian call centres. It's a lovely album, a joy to listen to, providing individual moments of beauty amongst the almost ethereal sound of the whole.

I've only had the pleasure of listening to it for the past week or so but it's barely off of the iPod, if only I had heard of it sooner.

Got an opinion? Feel free to share it in the blahs below. Anyone a fan already? I'd love to hear from you.

Listen to Alec Ounsworth on Spotify
Alec Ounsworth at Last.fm
Official Website

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1951)

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind." In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee cited three of his novels, Snow Country, The Old Capital and this novel, Thousand Cranes. In 1972 he joined the list of celebrated Japanese authors (including Akutagawa, Dazai and Mishima) to have comitted suicide when he apparently gassed himself.

A beautiful and deceptively simple piece of Japanese Literature

Blurb: Set in a post World War II Japan, the protagonist, Kikuji, has been orphaned by the death of his mother and father. The novel is divided into five episodes: "Thousand Cranes", "A Grove in the Evening Sun", "Figured Shino", "Her Mother's Lipstick" and "Double Star" and follows several relationships via the interactions of the traditional tea ceremony.

Thoughts: The weight of tradition and the powerful influence of family life lie at the heart of this tale of ill-fated love. Kikuji reconnects with his dead father's mistress at a tea ceremony only to find his life becoming intwined with all four of the women present, in a series of meetings with these women Kawabata uses the intricacies of the tea ceremony to weave "a tale of desire, regret, and sensual nostalgia, every gesture has a meaning, and even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives, sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them."

I particularly enjoyed the comparison between the ghosts of Kikuji's nameless parents and the 300 year old tea bowls; the fact that these items can survive that long despite life being so fleeting serves as a fine metaphor whilst at the same time confirming the weight of tradition on the protagonist. Kawabata was indeed a talented poet.
"Now, even more than the evening before, he could think of no one with whom to compare her. She had become absolute, beyond comparison. She had become decision and fate."

Thousand Cranes is filled with individual passages of beautiful imagery yet taken in its entirety achieving a real sense of melancholy, with his calm style and his short sentences Kawabata has the ability get into your mind and, I feel certain, will leave you thinking about his work for days after.

It wasn't until the conclusion that I realised the potentially heavy influence on the work of Haruki Murakami but then this approach towards lost love may just be typical of Japanese culture, perhaps I should read more Edward G. Seidensticker as an education?

There's no need to write more on the subject, it's a tiny yet powerful novel and to go in to too much detail will spoil it for you. Go now, enjoy Kawabata.

Further viewing suggestions

                                      Tony Takitani       Sound of the Mountain      Tokyo Twilight

Additional reading

                            Snow Country   &   Tokyo From Edo to Showa 1867 - 1989

View all my book reviews

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Movie Diary 23 July 2012

Have you been to Letterboxd.com yet? You should, it's ace. Aside from the social networking for film geeks aspect of it all it has the extremely helpful feature of creating a film diary, enabling you to document your thoughts quickly (essential blogging tool) before fleshing them out for a bigger review later. It also makes this much easier.

Tyler at the award winning Southern Vision hooked me up with an account last Sunday and since the 15th July I have logged 15 movies as watched. In a week that saw me go to the cinema for the first time since my Prometheus debacle for Dark Knight Rises it would be safe to say that some of these were superb whilst others were absolute garbage.

Let's get the garbage out of the way shall we?

Why Did They Even Bother?

Treasure Guards (2011) is a pan-European production starring Anna Friel that sounds a lot like The Librarian or National Treasure. At this point you may ask what exactly I expected and you'd be right. Poor Anna Friel has been in a series of awful films since Pushing Daisies got cancelled and this is right down there with Land of the Lost for worst movie of her career. My review on Letterboxd covers it quite well I feel:
"Just awful. Completely and utterly shocking in every aspect. It's not even one of those bad movies you can laugh along with."
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)  the end of the trilogy. I really disliked the film and struggle to find any redeeming qualities. There's a story surrounding Rob Zombie and the making of Halloween 2 that says he deliberately made it in to a giant pile of shit so that nobody could ruin his brilliant reimagining of the horror franchise after he was done. The combination of the studio forcing a sequel and Zombie not wanting to do it led to a poor movie and as far as I know they haven't gone back for a third film, Zombie got his wish. This story stayed with me and is the first thing I thought of upon walking in to the bright sunshine after watching TDKR, surely this would be the only way such a revered film maker as Christopher Nolan would create something so exposition heavy, something that was all effect and no cause? I wasn't surprised to later read that he didn't really want to make a third Batman movie.
"There was so much wrong with this movie I don't know where to start. Just a horrible waste of 3 hours and the good will built by the previous two movies. "
Blade: Trinity (2004) the end of another trilogy. I can't claim that this was any surprise. I'd previously turned it off after 5 minutes for crimes against the original film and excruciatingly bad performances but it was on Fox movies and Leah hadn't seen it so in one of our moods for mindless action we pressed play. Oh how we wish we didn't. Written and directed by David S. Goyer, the man responsible for the majority of TDKR script failed to entertain us in any way.
"Honestly worse than i remember. I can see why Dark Knight Rises was so poor with the majority of the script written by the exposition happy writer/director of this piece of junk."

There was a whole bunch of non events in the fifteen films, mostly old Bogart movies played on TCM but from the middling bunch I should highlight a few pieces of not so bad cinema.

 It Passes The Time

Treasure Island (2012) looks and feels like a TV movie, or a mini-series or something. It is a nice looking one that obviously had a very high budget. The adaptation is faithful and at three hours long probably too faithful.
"Izzard is good as Silver but I can't get his standup routines out of my head whenever he speaks."
Teenage Paparazzo (2010) is a documentary by Entourage star Adrien Grenier about a teenage boy in LA who became a Paparazzo (it's not just a clever name you see.) At 90 minutes it shouldn't have felt as long as it did, there were some real pacing issues that the 30 minutes of deleted scenes shows the film makers were aware of. The narrative drifted away from the subjest and in to a study of the relationship between the media and society which brought up a few interesting points but at other times felt contrived and obvious. I feel like it was worth watching though, not least for the way the relationshio between director and subject develops over time.

The Andromeda Strain (1971) was based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name. A small town is killed by a space borne virus, scientists investigate. I enjoyed it for its content but not for its cinematic qualities. There was definite potential for this to be great.
"Great story. The whole time watching it I was thinking with better direction/creative vision this would be fantastic. I'm thinking oscar potential.
But sadly this was 8 years before Alien revolutionised the thriller and it suffers dramatically in comparison thanks the slightly campy attitudes of the early 70s. In the years after this we would see dramatic improvement thanks to Logans Run and Soylent Green and next to those this stands up well as an historical artefact."
Blade (1998) is cool.
"Stephen Dorff is great at swearing even when it's not really necessary and so he swears in every sentence of dialogue he has. Wesley Snipes as Blade is a total badass and so he acts like a total badass at all times. Tom Cruise is going to try delivering lines like Blade has in that movie Reacher and is going to fail, simply because he is a whiny little bitch and Wesley Snipes could kick his ass with one hand behind his back and the rest of him in jail for tax evasion."
Paper Heart (2009) has some fun with the documentary format. It's a documentary style movie about a girl making a documentary about what it is to be in love and who falls in love whilst making it whilst at the same time being a documentary about love. The seemless blending of interviews with real people and performances by Michael Cera and Charlene Yi playing versions of themselves provides an enjoyable experience that I'm very glad to have found hidden in the documentary section of the local video store.
"A really fun and cute mockumentary for fans of Michael Cera. Cera plays on his screen persona but It's Charlene Yi's movie."
Beyond that there were only a handful of fims that were truly worth my time.

Sometimes They Make Something Great

Cabaret (1972) based on the semi-biographical writings of Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye To Berlin. Starring Liza Minelli as the simply fabulous cabaret star Sally Bowles opposite Basil Exposition in the Isherwood role. I know you;ve heard of this movie and if you haven't seen it you simply must. Even just for the show stealing performance of Joel Grey.
"I don't go in for musicals in general but this is done so well and the songs don't interrupt the flow of the story in the way I usually find them to.
A fabulously entertaining film with tragic undertones and a sad ending."

Fat City (1972) is a late John Huston film starring a very young Jeffrey Lebowski opposite a superb Stacey Keach. Recommended to me via By Kubrick's Beard I shall point you to his fantastic review as there's nothing that I can say that will come close to the brilliant job done over there.
"Whenever you hear someone telling people about the great run of films America made in the early 1970's, and they get to the list, and they begin to feel fatigue, just wait for a pause and say "And Fat City. John Huston's Fat City." At that point the kids frown, and they admit they've not even seen Fat City. "Right," you say, "and you never even heard of "Fat City"
David Thompson - Have You Seen?

Hombre (1967) a revisionist western starring Paul Newman and based on a book by Elmore Leonard is nothing like the Tv serials I have in my mind when I think of western movies. It comes close to being noir with the existential nature of the lead character. Highly recommended indeed.
"I'm a western novice but I reckon I could watch a hundred more and not find a better or more enjoyable one.
Newman is subtle yet powerful but the impressive Diane Cilento steals the show as Jessie the innkeeper. Its rare enough to find a strong, independant woman with brains and class in a film let alone in a genre typified by misogyny. I am surprised that this performance didn't shoot her to stardom, instead she returned to the relative anonymity she came from."

Letterboxd.com is great by the way. Go get yourself some of it and don't forget to follow me.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond (1984)

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm starting on the second instalment of this brilliant series of crime novels today and thought it only fair that I educate you on something British that leaves all this Scandinavian crime writing in its dust. Compared to Derek Raymond Steig, Jo et al read like a cozy mystery.

Blurb: When a middle-aged alcoholic is found brutally battered to death on a roadside in West London, the case is assigned to a tough-talking cynic from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Our narrator must piece together the history of his blighted existence and discover the agents of its cruel end. What he doesn’t expect is that digging for the truth will demand plenty of lying. 

Thoughts: I had a feeling about this one, I desperately wanted (needed?) to read the book from the second I heard about it, yet when I finally bought a copy I allowed it to sit on my shelf for at least two months. I'm glad I did, it's an incredible piece of noir writing and to have devoured it instantly would've have been a massive disservice to Derek Raymond.

Part way through I was reminded of Ross Macdonald's famous quote about Raymond Chandler, how "he was a slumming angel" and that term really feels like an apt description for the victim in this novel, the protagonist of this novel and the writer of this novel.

Raymond dropped out of the famous Eton public school and followed a career path that resembled Charles Bukowski more than any number of sub-royal upper class Brits that he might have considered his peers. He moved to France and lived on the margins of society in both England and France and it is this dual experience and knowledge that imbues the two main characters with such insight and purpose.

Our nameless hero taking a journey in to the downward spiralling life of Charlie Staniland via his words - written and spoken on to casettes - and then literally in to the life he had chosen to lead as he comes face to face with the filth, cretins, lowlifes (and also the decent hardworking people who had fallen through the cracks of Thatchers Britain.) It's a journey that almost goes beyond noir, it's black, it's bleak and it's truly powerful stuff. As the Evening Standard is quoted on the cover of this version, Raymond is "unafraid to face the reality of man's evil" and it is this fearlessness that puts the novel in to the literary category of crime writing, takes it that step further in to greatness.

The lead character is from the old school pulp noir territory, down these dark oppressive roads a man must walk, not because he chooses to but because he must type stuff. A loner because he chooses to be, taking chances with his life to ensure justice for those who otherwise wouldn't receive it yet with a worldview that never quite reaches the depths of despair no matter what the situation.

Having grown up in England I may have a greater appreciation for some of this stuff than those who didn't, there are aspects that are very much part of "Little England" that may not be so easily understood by others but that aside this is still a fabulous piece of work that should be appreciated by all of us with a penchant for the darkest of noirs and who enjoy taking a journey in to the depths of human depravity with a hardboiled hero at our side.

For me this is David Goodis (at his very best) territory but with a British slant on it, take this wonderful piece of description for example: "both armies were attended by secretaries who wittered blondely away at each other across tepid gin and tonics," the cynical worldview we expect from a Marlowe or a Spade delivered with an accurate dig at the very British way of serving alcohol.

A remarkable work from a very talented man, it makes you care for somebody whose name you never hear mentioned, his clear affection towards the drunken mess of a man at the centre of the mystery is evident and if you don't care for Charlie Staniland or his life you will at least care that there is somebody out there desperate to bring his killers to justice.

“I have taken a terrible beating from the truth and feel tamed, wise and desperate, as if I had taken a short route to wisdom through a mirror, and cut myself badly on it as I passed through.” 

For those of you who look forward to movie adaptations there was a French movie in 1985 called On ne meurt que deux fois starring Charlotte Rampling which I am yet to see and a quick look on imdb suggests that a new TV series is in the works based on the five book sequence, so something to look forward to.


Further viewing suggestions:

               This Is England                                       I.D.                                       Meantime

Further reading suggestions:

The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace

View all my book reviews

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bottom Fives: Dustin Hoffman Movies

Dustin Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar seven times, made his film debut in 1967 and has hardly taken a break since. His quietest period in terms of cinematic output was the 1980's making only four movies (and one TV movie) yet still he was nominated for two Oscars (Tootsie and Rain Man.) In the past week we have seen powerful performances from him in Marathon Man and Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate is on it's way thanks to Quickflix.

I've often said he hasn't made a bad movie but then I remember struggling with Ishtar, clearly everyone makes mistakes, and so now I bring you the five Dustin Hoffman movies you should probably avoid.

1. Ishtar (1987) Dir. Elaine May

I've already mentioned it and so I  won't save it for last. Before I'd heard of this movie I found it in a legitimate DVD store on sale by the dozen for 99p, I took one look and thought hell yeah (voice in the back of my head saying "there must be something wrong with it if it's only 99p") Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in something sounding somewhat like a Moroccan Some Like It Hot.

Ishtar is a famous cinematic bomb costing $50m and taking only $14m. So what happened? The film is nearly two hours long and is largely dull with a few good comic moments. Roger Ebert hated it, calling the film "truly dreadful" and he has a point considering how much money it cost for 1987 and the calibre of the stars Beatty and Hoffman.

I recently bought the Peter Biskind biography of Warren Beatty - Star - and it contains a section on the disaster that was the production of Ishtar. Highly entertaining reading which was also published here.

2. Agatha (1979) Dir. Michael Apted

Maybe I'm alone in thinking that novels about the fictional secret lives of famous writers are a waste of paper, but the adapting them in to a movie as well, well that's just cynical. I'm not even thinking about such high concept thrillers as the recent John Cusack Edagar Allen Poe pseudo-biopic The Raven here because it's not aiming for realism. In Agatha the film makers recreate a period of time in the authors life where she was actually missing for eleven days, Christie refused to discuss it whilst alive and had only died two years prior to this film being made.

The scenario itself is ripe for imaginations to run wild but what they came up with was a hotel room, a pseudonym and a romance with a journalist. I say don't bother.

3. Sphere (1998) Dir. Barry Levinson

I'm in the process of tracking down some more obscure Michael Crichton movies for a post on the popular author/scientist/director after watching the mostly entertaining if a bit slow Westworld recently. What I don't need is to see this movie ever again.

I admit to having read and thoroughly enjoyed the novel several times in my younger days and was actually quite excited at seeing the movie, especially with a cast supporting Hoffman that included Smauel L. Jackson and Liev Shrieber. There's so much that let this movie down but the real problem is that the tension is non existent in a movie that's supposed to be an underwater psychological sci-fi thriller. Everyone overacts. Everyone.

4. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) Dir. Tom Tykwer

Possibly the most controversial of my selections; it being a much loved novel, a box office success and retaining a realy high rating on imdb six years after release. But I have this to say on the subject, Perfume is two and a half hour long movie that looks nice and has confused everyone I have ever discussed it with.

5. Meet The Fockers (2004) Dir. Jay Roach

I tried and tried and tried to find Meet The Parents funny because people kept telling me it was and I didn't but the first sequel reached new depths of stupidity most notably because it reunited the stars of the largely unwatched Wag The Dog, two of the finest actors of all time, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, in a movie that specialises in toilet humour.

And that is why Meet The Fockers takes place five and not well meaning failures Family Business or Billy Bathgate.

Any suggestions for something I've overlooked? Do you have a different least favourite Dustin Hoffman movie? Who's going to be the first to disagree about Perfume?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Top Tens: Movie Bookshops

I was laying bed last night and the idea for this post just jumped in to my head. Sadly this meant I had to get up and make some notes. For a (former) book dealer this should have been an obvious post a long time ago but I was trying to avoid my other love - movies and books shouldn't mix, I wish somebody would tell Hollywood!

A little google will bring up several other similar lists it seems and incredibly the initial four scenes I thought of were on these lists. Fresh ideas were needed otherwise what's the point? This required my superb memory (and asking Leah for help.)

10. When Harry Met Sally... (1989) Dir. Rob Reiner

One of my favourite movies from when I first started watching film, the mid 90's provided me with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan on one of only three VHS tapes in the house, lucky it was so funny and sweet and actually interesting to a teenaged boy.

The bookshop scene is the moment when Harry and Sally meet for the first time in years and actually start to become friends, so in the scheme of things it's a pretty important moment and has a few laughs, including visual humour such as being in PERSONAL GROWTH, I don't think I'll have what he's having.

9. Annie Hall (1977) Dir. Woody Allen

The Oscar winning film from master film maker Woody Allen, showcased the darker and the softer sides of the (at the time) renowned comedian features a memorable scene in which he introduces Diane Keaton to the pessimistic side of his personality. I'll let the clip speak for itself:

8. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (2002) Dir. Chris Columbus

I believe the shop is called Flourish and Blotts, which is a terrible name for a bookshop in my opinion. But it does have a lot of books, look at them all piled up everywhere, the sign of a book lovers dream come true. The great thing about the scene from this movie rather than when we return in later instalments is that it's the first appearance of my favourite character/performance of all 8 movies, Kenneth Brannagh as Gilderoy Lockhart.

7. Notting Hill (1999) Dir. Roger Michell

I can't help but enjoy Hugh Grant, the fact that he almost always plays the same character doesn't bother me because ever since I saw Four Weddings I've felt like I identified with his bumbling Englishness. Notting Hill is a nice movie, despite Julia Roberts and her giant face, it has a fair few laughs and a famous travel book shop that no longer exists apparently. I will not hold the fact that it is merely a travel specialist shop against it as the following scene contains several things that have happened in Elizabeth's bookshop in the past year or so; an unexpected celebrity arrival (see blahblahblahloves Emma Thompson for full anecdote,) the bookseller (me) making a fool of himself/the customer choosing to ignore the bookseller's intelligent recommendation, the removal of a book from a thiefs underwear (see review of Jen Campbell's book Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops for full anecdote,) and Dylan Moran. My friend Chloe returned from the little girls room to find a shop empty except for Bernard Black himself sitting behind the counter and she promptly freaked him out by hugging him. Go Chloe! Yes, we were all very jealous of her fortuitous bathroom break.

6. Before Sunset (2004) Dir. Richard Linklater
The beautiful sequel to Richard Linklater's brilliant Before Sunrise, this time in Paris, who could resist? The bookshop in question is none other than world famous, in real life, Shakespeare & Co. of Paris. The same bookshop seen in Woody Allen's recent charmer Midnight In Paris infact. The scene in question is the moment the pair of lovers from the Before Sunrise are reunited after nine years as Ethan Hawke is giving a reading from his autobiographical novel based on his experience of the first movie. The bookshop is important to the scene which in turn is important to the movie and Shakespeare & Co. should get at least one mention don't you think?

For lovers of Paris on film I also highly recommend Julie Delpy's directorial debut Two Days In Paris which co-stars the excellent Adam Goldberg.

5. Funny Face (1957) Dir. Stanley Donen

Things to know about Funny Face: Audrey Hepburn is the most beautiful bookseller I've ever seen. Fred Astaire is creepy looking and the relationship between the two of them is massively off-putting. The film itself is bizarre and features an even stranger 'bohemian dance sequence' in a Paris nightclub. The bookshop has a wonderfully ancient feel to it, despite the exceedingly cinematic spiral staircase, who wouldn't want to climb up those rickety old wodden steps to find the rare first edition of Graham Greene's first novel that was never reprinted with an incorrect price tag?

4. Ministry of Fear (1944) Dir. Fritz Lang

It was an OK adaptation, filled with some brilliant cinematography and featuring a crazed Nazi bookseller. There's always a place for Fritz Lang and noir here on blahblahblahgay. Check out the full review from our noir-a-thon.

3. Easy A (2010) Dir. Will Gluck

Emma Stone didn't win the Oscar, you may call me crazy but I would suggest that she should have. The bookshop in question is in real life the world's largest outdoor(!) bookshop Bart's Books and was privileged to find itself playing host to the following Q&A with the girl with the pocketful of sunshine:

  • Olive Penderghast: Do you have a religion section?
  • Bookstore guy: It's right over there. Can I help you with something?
  • Olive Penderghast: The Bible.
  • Bookstore guy: That's in bestsellers, right next to Twilight.
2. Beauty and the Beast (1991) Dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

It was Leah's major contribution to the post, personally I don't remember the scene but she assures me it is a major contributor to what people of our generation think of when they consider the typical antiquarian bookshop, especially those ladders on wheels.

1. The Big Sleep (1946) Dir. Howard Hawks

Phillip Marlowe at his best as played by Humphrey Bogart in this classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler's noverl. It actually features two bookshops across from each other. One the hideout for an illicit operation, the other an excuse for Marlowe to pass time with the bookish girl, ridding her of the unattractive glasses and ponytail and proving that She's All That had some noir class at it's core.

EDIT: The first comment caught me short, I realised the post wasn't actually finished. The pleasure of having put the list together seems to have caused a brainfart.

I should mention that I discounted Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind despite the creepiness of Elijah Wood in Barnes & Noble and Serendipity because it was just plain dull as far as movies go. And as for the following question just what the hell did I forget? Alan has got a head start, feel free to leave your complaints in the blahs.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (1999)

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blurb: Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and The Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves.

K falls in love with Sumire but a devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments - until she meets Miu, an older sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece K is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into a world beset by ominous, haunting visions.

Thoughts: Initially this seemed like the easiest of all Murakami's work to read, a simple love/friendship develops between two people and a third person becomes involved. This brief synopsis sounds like a terrible sitcom premise but in the hands of Murakami it is something beautiful. If you've experienced the powerful and complex narratives of Wind-up Bird or Kafka on the Shore you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?” 

The regular Murakami themes of loneliness, isolation, effects of homogonisation of Japanese society are prevalent throughout but less reliant on mysticism and other worldliness. There's something quite wonderful about his style of writing that I just don't tire of, his metaphors are especially potent and the reference to Sputnik orbitting the Earth is one of the most enjoyable that I remember ever reading.

“In the world we live in, what we know and what we don't know are like Siamese twins, inseparable, existing in a state of confusion.”

Murakami's ability to create powerful visuals with his words is another aspect that keeps him head and shoulders above most other novellists writing today but the sense of loss he creates towards the end of this fabulous, slim novel is second to none and will linger in the mind for some time to come.

“Her voice was like a line from an old black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard movie, filtering in just beyond the frame of my consciousness.”

As a man who considers himself relatively closed off to emotion I'm unsure as to whether a novel should bring tears to your eyes and a pain in your heart but laying here alone in my empty house today that is what happened.

“We're both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We're connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me.”

View all my book reviews

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: What Just Happened by Art Linson (2002)

What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front LineWhat Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line by Art Linson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best Hollywood biography since Julia Phillips gave us You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again

Art Linson has written a smart, funny, honest and brutal portrait of his life within the Hollywood production line. As he admits in the foreword this didn't make him Mr Popular amongst his peers.

If you've read the Julia Phillips book or any other 'tell all' tale from Hollywood you won't be surprised at the behaviour contained within this volume BUT Linson still has the ability to shock with his casual approach to telling the story reflecting the casual approach to mean spirited behaviour and no-nothingness of the powers that be.

I admit I was primarily interested for the tales surrounding Fincher's production of Fight Club as I'd heard snippets previously and the Entertainment Weekly review promised that he would put the reader "in the Fox screening room during the studio brass's horrified first look..." and he didn't disappoint, sparing no blushes and pulling so punches as one of the finest, most powerful movies to come out of Hollywood in a generation was dismissed so easily.

There's more to it than that, the breazy chatter throughout is filled with irresistible anecdotes and almost reads as "How Not To Make Movies: Or How I Learned To Roll With The Punches and Keep On Making Them Anyway." Even when everything went perfectly on the production of a film, there could be no happy ending in Hollywood. This tale should be compulsory reading for everyone attending film school with the intention to pursue a career in movie making and I intend to send this to my producer if he hasn't read it already.

A highly enjoyable read.

This version also came complete with the screenplay for the movie adaptation starring Robert De Niro. I haven't seen it yet but if it's even remotely close to the book it HAS to be a highly entertaining film, although the fact that it didn't get more attention since its release probably tells you all you need to know.

Here's a list of 10 Better Hollywood Insider Films from the film babble blog to confirm this idea.

View all my book reviews

What You Been Watching? 1 July 2012 - 6 July 2012

I lied. I said the next post was going to be the incredibly titled "So Toby, Now That You're Back On BBBG What's Happening?" one but I'm sitting on the sofa contemplating how much I've enjoyed the Josh Radnor film Happythankyoumoreplease and thought I'd write about it a little instead. It turned in to this. Darwin would be proud.

It's almost a week in movies post but not quite.

I saw the Woody Allen Documentary this week. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was two hours of "then Woody made this film, people liked it but they didn't like the next one." There was a bit of new interview footage of the great man himself, it's sad to watch, he's old now but still a genius.

The fact that he's old made this an important step in preserving him, making him immortal; his opinion on life and his career are now saved for all time. But there's no way that the film maker could have been unbiased as part of getting this exclusive, highly sought after, rights to this footage. Skimming over the low points, of which anyone aware of Allen's career will know there have been many. We all have our own particular choice of worst Allen film and some of us refuse to acknowledge his faults, gushing endlessly about why Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a masterpiece or that Jason Biggs is the perfect Allen surrogate in Anything Else (that's my one) and not acknowledging this aspect of Allen means we might have to wait another twenty years for a full and accurate portrait.

And that's ignoring the whole Mia Farrow's adopted daughter thing.

So two hours wasted I would say. Sorry folks.

Have you ever heard of this talented young actor by the name of Val Kilmer? 1989 saw him appear alongside then wife Joanne Whalley in the debut film from director John Dahl, Kill Me Again. A key film in the film soleil ouevre it features Kilmer as a seriously down on his luck PI, Whalley as the dame with a heart of stone using Kilmer to secure her escape with the takings of a bloody heist from psychotic boyfriend Michael Madsen.

It's all pretty standard stuff plot wise, crosses and double crosses keep you wondering who's going to come out of it alive and whose side will they be on when they do? But it's an enjoyable ride through the sleaze of Nevada, film soleil's version of New York, with some good performances all round, most notably from Mr Blonde. I mention QT's debut here as there's no doubt in my mind that he was influenced by this film. Michael Madsen towering over a guy strapped to a chair as he tortures him for information. You all know the scene, only it was done here first folks, with more blood.

John Dahl demonstrates he has some talent to lend to the genre (going on to make the superb thriller The Last Seduction with Linda Fiorentino) with some beautiful dark noir interiors contrasting with the fabulous washed out exteriors. He literally reverses film noir cinematography staples with this film.

On to the pseudo mumblecore behaviour of Josh Radnor with the entertaining to say title of Happythankyoumoreplease. It's about growing up and shedding the cycincal approach to life in your twenties as you rapidly approach death (otherwise known as your thirties.)

Radnor shines in the role he wrote and directed himself in. He's aloof yet lovable and has a really wierd situation with a young boy who he meets on a train. And he surrounded himself with talented actors who all put in strong performances in what oculd have become cookie cutter roles in the wrong hands. It helped that there was a trio of beautiful women to look.

The shaky camera technique is occasionally adopted but for once doesn't become annoying or distracting, instead simply enhancing the mood, the way cinematography is supposed to work.

Enough talking about films. I've got a book to finish reading (so I can finally read Snuff by Terry Pratchett), three short stories to redraft and a new sofa to pick up. Stop distracting me!