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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Babette's Feast. Gabriel Axel (Director. MGM (1987)

A wonderful film about faith, love, art, memory and food. On a desolate coast of Denmark a small village includes the aging congregation of a sect founded by a pastor whose two daughters carry on his mission. A Frenchwoman arrives on their doorstep, fleeing chaos and possible death in Paris and Babette becomes their servant. Babette's sole link to Paris is a lottery ticket and when she wins 10,000 francs on the lottery the daughter's permission to cook a meal for them on the centenary of their father's birth. This meal becomes an opportunity for memory, love, faith and art to be celebrated, confirmed and cherished.
This film radiates a belief in the possibility of joy and love without ever being false or sentimental. The grim life of the villagers is not glossed over, the petty rivalries of the aging congregation are aired without reducing anyone to caricature. The flashbacks to the younger years of the two daughters where they choose to stay with their father instead of leaving with men who loved them are wonderfully done and do not diminish the daughters.
The meal that is at the heart of the film is a wonder, the exquisite food that slowly mellows the congregation into companionship, that gives the chance for one of the daughter's suitors to return and make peace with her and memory is never forced. The simple pleasure of eating, the extraordinary artistry of cooking and creating the feast are allowed to emerge naturally and effectively.The cast are wonderful, Stephane Audran as Babette and Bodil Kjer and Brigitte Federspiel as the sisters Filippa and Martine are flawless. They give quiet roles depth and dignity and allow the rest of the cast to be more forward and overtly expressive. This film is a remarkable achievement, as much a feast for the viewer as it is for the cast.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stone Island. Ian Edginton (Writer), Simon Davis (Artist). Rebellion (2008)

Excellent horror comic with a great cast, sharp writing, stunning art and lots of gore being splattered about. Longbarrow Maximum Security Prison, set in a isolated and desolate moorland is where David Sorrell has been sent for the murder of his wife and her lover. Harry Rivers is his cellmate and somewhat mentor in the prison. When one of the inmates mutates into a hideous creature and starts to murder and devour other inmates and guards, Harry reveals his escape plan and he and David flee. They meet up with a few other survivors and find that they are trapped and under siege. The first part comes to an explosive conclusion, the second part takes the survivors and pitches them headlong into a plan to deal with the creatures at source. The action is fast, the cast determined and the story is willing to take a Ian Edginton has written a straightforward horror story with care and craft, the details are sharp and the threats are explicit and forceful. The central element of an isolated group facing an overwhelming threat is nicely managed in both parts, the different context in each case is superbly developed. There is a seam of black humour running through the story that gives the action an additional force and the cast a twist of life as they face their situations. With Sara McCandless, Ian Edginton has created a star, someone you would want at you back when flesh eating creatures are coming in through the window.
Simon Davis' art is stunning, it captures both the gore and the humour, the terrible transformations that some of the cast undergo with great verve, they are both realistic and impossible, just as they should be. The panel layout is dynamic and varied, it gives the story a great pace and allows the lurid colouring space to breathe and exert its influence.
This is a great fun comic, Ian Edginton refers to it a a "gore soaked guilty pleasure", any comic created with this level of care, craft and talent leaves no one with anything to be guilty about the abundant pleasure it provides.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ghost in the Shell SAC. Revenge Of The Cold Machines. Junichi Fujisaku. Dark Horse Press (2006)

Three short stories set in a future , post World War III Japan where cybernetics are common and prosthetic body enhancements are frequent. The three stories are concerned with the activities of Public Security Section 9, an anti-terrorist group that deals with cybernetic related terrorist threats and activities. The first story is about a plot to kill the leader of Section 9, the second is about and incident that one of Section 9, Artificial Intelligence equipped mobile tanks, a Tachikoma has, the final story is about an assault on a leading cybernetics company. The three stories are all very tightly woven and complete in themselves, they are also ultimately all tied into a bigger plot. The writing is sharp, clear, informative and brings the cast and context to life.
The stories delve further into the context and cast from the Ghost in the Shell continuity created by Shrrow Masamune, specifically the animated series, Ghost in the Shell "Stand Alone Complex". Junichi Fujisaku, who is a writer on the series, develops these stories with enough inherent information that they can be read without any prior knowledge of any of the continuity. The stories are enjoyably laced with political intrigue as the background in which Section 9 operate is made clear. This gives a nice extra dimension to the actions and decisions of the cast and gives weight to the plot.
The stories are well structured, the reveals are nicely paced and the action is fast and enjoyable with a large and lively cast. Anyone interested in science fiction would enjoy these stories, be they fans of the Ghost in the Shell continuity or not, they are excellent.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hip Flask. Unnatural Selection. Richard Starkings (Writer), Joe Casey (Writer), Landronn (Artist). Active Images (2003)

A fantastic concept, luscious art and brilliant execution make this book a superb comic and outstanding science fiction. In 2218 Dr. Nikken is involved in creating human animal hybrids and having failed to do so successfully using an artificial womb uses living women instead. The monstrous hybrids are trained to be violent soldiers, an army in the service of MAPPO. They have a human intelligence and stance with the heads and other features of the animal they were crossed with. The MAPPO base in North Africa is stormed by UN troops and Dr. Nikken is arrested after a fierce resistance by the hybrids. The hybrids are escorted from the site and in a flash forward at the end of the book appear to be integrated into society and referred to as Elephantmen. The book is a set up for a continuing series called Elephantmen.
This book takes the unlimited capacity of comics to describe and explore fantastic ideas and really embraces it, this is top flight science fiction. The opening pages where Dr.Nikken is introduced and his appalling plans are revealed is both wonderfully economical and savagely informative. The art conveys the scale of his ambition in the vast industrial process he in involved in, the words convey the extreme poverty of his spirit and motivations.
The Elephantmen themselves are astonishing, Ladronn has managed to subtly combine the animal and human elements is a unified whole that breathe personality and rage. They are the visible monsters in the book, the real monstrosity of Dr Nikken is nicely underplayed by contrast.
The urban context for the story is a Blade Runner like setting, the art uses the similarity without being drowned by it. The discipline in the art is extraordinary, the details are numerous, they never overwhelm the whole, they give it depth and solidity. This set up does exactly what it should, it provides a vivid and deeply enticing introduction to the on-going series as well as being a very memorable piece of work in its own right. Fantastic.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Play Dead. Richard Montanari. William Heinemann (2008)

A very gripping serial killer thriller. While investigating a cold case, the murder of a young runaway whose body was found posed in a glass display case in an abandoned building, detectives Kevin Byrne and Janet Balzano are given clues that lead to the discovery of a second murder. These two deaths are part of larger "performance" by the killer that taken together are a challenge to the city of Philadelphia to understand and unravel the puzzle he is creating. The story very well constructed and paced, the reveals are carefully set up and effective and the strands of the plot are expertly bound together.
The dreadfully cunning and theatrical scheme pursued by the killer does not provide the energy or momentum of the book. The killer is given scope and background, yet he remains more of a performer than anything else, he lacks a core of humanity. He is strongly contrasted with the rest of the cast who are all given a twist of life. Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are wonderful characters, they are competent professionals trying to combine the terrible demands of their jobs with still having time and care for others. They have to work hard as they are surrounded by a vivid and compelling cast who all provide life and colour to the story and want to be seen and heard.
Richard Montanari never is seduced by the killer, he is clearly on the side of those trying to prevent his actions and to save lives. The urgency in the book comes from the race to save lives rather than the details of how they are lost.This is a tremendously accomplished book, thoughtful and thrilling, a compulsive pleasure.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tokyo Godfathers. DVD (2003)

Gorgeous animation and a story that has the perfect balance of action, drama and warm hearted sentiment combine to create a wonderful, touching film. A makeshift family of homeless people, Gin, Hanna a melodramatic gay man and Miyuyi a runaway teenager, find an abandoned infant on Christmas Eve. The three start on a journey to find the baby's parents and return the child to them. In the course of this they find themselves confronting their own past decisions that lead them to their current situation. The reveals are very nicely paced, the action sequences are superbly staged and the conclusion is hard won and very satisfying.
The trio at the heart of the film are wonderfully developed characters, they argue and fight and look out for each other. The story is full of twists and sharp moments that capture the pressures of poverty and homeless living, Gin is brutally assaulted by some young men who are "cleaning up" for the New Year. The reasons that each of the trio are homeless are sad and ordinary, their humanity burns brightly and they find that bridges have not been burned after all.
The animation is joyous, the cityscape's are full of life and colour, they give a great context to the story. The character work is outstanding, each cast member is given a clear individuality and life, in particular the wonderfully, flamboyantly melodramatic Hanna is given extraordinary mobility and expressiveness. This film is a gem and should not be missed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not Dead Enough. Peter James. Macmillan (2007)

This is a very compelling and well constructed police procedural set in Brighton. A wealthy Brighton socialite, Katie Bishop is murdered in her home. The chief suspect is her husband, Brian Bishop. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace leads the police team investigating the murder. A second murder is discovered that has clear ties to Brian Bishop, who is protesting his innocence and has a reasonable alibi for the night of his wife's murder. More evidence is uncovered that that provides strong motives for Brian Bishop to kill his wife. Brian Bishop may not be quite who he appears to be, the reveals are very nicely paced, the large cast is well orchestrated and lively and the conclusion is thoroughly satisfying.
The best aspects to this book are the cast, they are varied, believable and all are given sufficient space to register with the reader. Roy Grace is a very engaging character, competent, thoughtful and tough minded he is a very credible senior police officer. The villain is enjoyable dedicated to the task at hand and ingenious enough to present a real problem for the investigative team. The major supporting characters are given enough space and development to ensure that they emerge in their own right and engage the reader. The problem with the book is a sub plot regarding Roy Graces vanished wife that really does nothing other than take up space. A sharply told story in an interesting setting with an enjoyable cast, well worth reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ancient Rome. The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Simon Baker. BBC Books (2007)

A superb overview of the span of the Roman Empire from the collapse of the Republic to the last Emperor.The name of the last Roman Emperor, a sixteen year old who held a title without functional meaning was Romulus Augustulus. The last Roman Emperor was named in honour of the Romulus, for whom the city and empire were named and Augustus the first Roman Emperor. Simon Baker tells the extraordinary story of the Roman Empire with great skill, telling detail and a tremendous relish for the scale of the story.
Rome had an empire before it became the Roman Empire, it was the dominant force in the Mediterranean, and a proud Republic. Romans were proud of the fact that they had removed the tyranny of kingship and ruled themselves, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus-the Senate and the Roman People) was the essence of their political system. It mixed control by an elite with involvement by the free, male citizens of Rome. The expansion of the area controlled by the Republic, the creation of an empire unleashed the forces that lead to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Simon Baker examines the span of the empire by looking at the lives and times of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero, Hadrian, Constantine and the final dismantling of the empire in the west. He looks at the slow transition from Republic to Empire, the way the position of Emperor developed and expanded and how finally the long success of the Empire was critical to its destruction. The writing is clear and the details are chosen with care, the political and economic context for each section are presented very well and an absorbing picture of the empire is developed. Given the lethal nature of the politics of the time and the relatively limited technology available the breath and stability of the Roman Empire are staggering. The extraordinary advantages of being part of it created an internal resilience that allowed it survive the multiple very bloody transitions of power from Emperor to Emperor.
Reading this book the continuing fascination that the Romans have exerted over subsequent generations is easy to understand, the mix of utterly alien and familiar is gripping and the sheer scale of their activities are truly epic. This is a great overview of an always relevant period.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best of H.T. Webster. A Memorial Collection. Simon and Schuster (1953)

Harold Tucker Webster (1885–1952) was a widely syndicated cartoonist in the US from the 1920s to the 1950s. He drew single panel cartoons that frequently ran along a theme such as "Life's Darkest Moment" and a series that gave rise to a new word in English, "The Timid Soul". The protagonist of the Timid Soul series is Casper Milquetoast, a man whose severe timidity ensured that milquetoast has entered English as an adjective.
H.T.Webster's topics were the small triumphs and disasters that occur in any life and that linger much longer in our memories that they should do. He captures, with understated skill the pleasure or sting of the moment without ever undermining those involved. There is a strong wash of nostalgia in his work, in particular where it features barefoot boys that echo his own rural boyhood in the wonderfully named town of Tomahawk in Wisconsin. One of the reasons that H.T.Webster's work is still appealing today is that he clearly liked people, his cartoons of the arguments that can erupt between husbands and wives over a game of bridge are done with a lack of spitefulness that makes them a pleasure still.
As someone with a near mystical lack of ability with anything mechanical or electrical I can strongly attest that the look of mingled relief and pride displayed by the man in the picture above has been drawn from life. Superb drawing and incisive writing that nailed the underlying emotion and captured the humour make H.T.Webster a master of his craft, a book to savour.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ghost In The Shell. Shirow Masamune. Dark Horse Manga (2004)

A great collection of stories revolving around an anti-terrorist public security team in a future Japan where the boundaries between human and machine are becoming blurred due to advances in prosthetics. Public Security Section 9 is lead by Major Motoko Kusanagi who has a fully artificial body, her spine and brain are the only biological elements, the rest of the team are more or less equipped with mechanical upgrades. They operate in an information drenched society where a cyberbrain in required to provide access to the net and allow normal functioning. This naturally gives new opportunities to criminals an terrorists to infiltrate individuals and attack the "Ghost in the Shell", the human personality of the individual. The stories are nicely varied, they mix up the political landscape of the future state of Japan with straightforward criminal activities. The final episodes raise interesting questions about what would happen if a machine intelligence became self aware.
This is a really dense comic, the art is crowed with detail and the stories are packed with ideas and explanations as well. Shirow Masamue manages to use this density to enhance the momentum of the stories, to place his cast in a credible context and to bring them to vivid and sharply defined life. The art is wonderfully easy to read and skillfully uses changing styles to move the mood of the story. Major Motoko is a great character, vibrantly human in her artificial body.
Ghost in the Shell is smart, funny and thoughtful science fiction, in a word, brilliant.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Spider. Michael Morley. Penguin Books (2008)

A gripping and very well constructed serial-killer thriller. Jack King was a FBI profiler who broke down while trying to capture the Black River Killer, a very prolific serial killer. Jack and his wife move to Italy and take over a hotel and try to rebuild their lives. The Black River Killer case remains unfinished business for Jack King and on the twentieth anniversary of his first murder it returns to his life. A woman in murdered in Italy and the details are very suggestive of the BRK and Jack is brought into the Italian investigation. At the same time the BRK is active in America and as the story cleverly twists these threads together to a gripping and unexpected climax. The reveals are very well paced, the savagery of the BRK is made clear and the structure of the investigations are dynamically unfolded.
Michael Morley has no sympathy for the BRK while developing him as a credible and compelling character. His motivation and the reasons for his lengthy career in murder are clearly laid out, he is clearly an aberrant and extremely dangerous person who is devoid of any human sympathy and inspires none in the reader. His victims and the rest of the cast however are drawn with underlying compassion and care and they do come to tumultuous life in the book. Michael Morley develops a very large and diverse cast and gives each person enough definition and room to breathe that they emerge as individuals.
This swirling crowd serves to emphasise the hollow nature of the BRK and the damage that he wreaks on the lives of others. The structure of the book is thoughtful and carefully wrought, the investigation feels like it really is being made up as it proceeds, actions and reactions move the momentum of the story and create a very engaging and tension drenched read. Excellent.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Saga of Solomon Kane. Dark Horse Books (2009)

This is a very welcome omnibus reprinting of the Solomon Kane stories that ran in the Savage Sword of Conan and other Marvel comics. They are a wonderful collection of pulp fantasy action stories starring Robert E. Howard's Puritan,adventuring, god fearing, avenger, Solomon Kane. Kane was born in Devon and started his wanderings when England became politically inhospitable for Puritans under the Tudors, he travelled to the Far East, sailed with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville, was captured and tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, escaped and travelled Europe and Africa, returned home briefly before taking to the seas again.
The stories all take a wonderful, deeply serious and suitably extravagant treatment of the material, they bring out the pulp glory in the stories. The action is fast and furious, the settings are gloomy remains of ancient cities in Africa and Satanic castles in the Black Forest. Solomon Kane sees himself as God's instrument of vengeance and retribution and he is presented in exactly the larger than life stature that he requires. His passion is allowed to shine brightly and the desire for action and adventure that underlie it freely acknowledged.
The art is as generous as the writing, the range of styles is very great and the quality is consistently very high. The drama of the black and white art is relished by the artists as is the freedom to draw the swashbuckling action and the beautiful women. Great fun.