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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jar City. Baltasar Kormakur. Blue Eyes Production (2007)

A gripping and grim murder story set in Iceland. A man is found dead in a basement flat. The investigation lead by Inspector Erlendur(Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) follows a trail that leads to a decades old rape and police corruption as well as the Icelandic gene mapping project. The resolution of the story is as bleak as the extraordinary landscape of Iceland, the sins of the fathers are truly visited upon their children.
Among the numerous virtues of this film is the tightly wound script, the plot has been carefully structured so that the various elements reveal themselves in very effective fashion and the threads tie up tightly. The action is not plot bound however, the cast are tremendous and the action flows very naturally around them. Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson is the central figure in the film, a dourly effective police inspector with a troubled relationship with his drug addict daughter. He avoids being a walking cliche by the depth and force of his performance, the rest of the cast are excellent also.
The Icelandic setting is used to tremendous effect within the film, the soaring shots of the landscape are stark and beautiful, they capture the lack of sentimentality in the film. There are difficult family relationships at the heart of the action and they are depicted with care and feeling so that they ring true, shot through with an awkward restraint that that underscore the tension much more than shouting would do. An intelligent film that takes the viewer seriously, a treat.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro. Alex Toth. Image Comics (2001)

This is a collection of Zorro stories created by Alex Toth as a spin off from Disney's 1950s television series. They follow the classic story of Zorro, who by day is the foppish Senor Diego De La Vega, son of one of the richest men in Spanish California, by night he is El Zorro, the Fox, who fights injustice and corruption. His main opponents are Captain Monastario and the bumbling Sergeant Garcia. Zorro is a master sword fighter, rides a beautiful and spirited black stallion, Tornado and has the assistance of his mute manservant Bernardo. Zorro is a mixture of Batman and Robin Hood, the man of action hiding under the disguise of a rich layabout coward, fighting for justice for the poor and oppressed. The stories are good fun, lots of action and close shaves. One story does deal directly with the nature of Zorro's secret identity and resolves it very neatly. The rest of the stories are undermined by the sheer stupidity of Zorro's opponents.
The real draw of the book is the art by Alex Toth which is full of energy and motion. The details are suggested rather than provided, the faces are frequently reduced to the minimal required to identify the character, except for the close-ups. Any greater level of detail would not improve the art, the dynamic action in the panels and the expressive lines deliver the story at the speed it requires. The art hurries you through the stories as it should, there are action stories, their heart is forward momentum not reflection. The art captures this and expresses it with force. The art is much better than the stories deserve, it is the weakness of the stories that ultimately makes this collection unsatisfying. Conics are a balance between writing and art, that balance is off in these stories. This collection is well worth reading, good fun, great art, so-so comics.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Smiley's People. John Le Carre. Sceptre. (1979)

Enthralling and melancholy book about a final reckoning between two long term opposing spymasters. George Smiley, retired head of British secret service, is recalled to action by the death of an old acquaintance. There is a concern that this death may cause problems for the service and Smiley is drafted in to tidy up the details and bury the case. As Smiley investigates he finds that the trail leads back to an old enemy and the possibility of revenge. The story unfolds at a steady pace as the complex web is revealed and the stage is set for the grim and bitter climax.
This is a wonderful book, written with supreme confidence and astonishing skill, willing to take the time to assemble the details of the story and increase the pressure slowly and inevitably. Smiley is a devastating well developed character, he is supremely skilled as a spymaster, at home with the pitiless bureaucracy of espionage and the culture of deceit and betrayal that underpin it. Away from that world he is adrift and unsure, unable to be simply human. The rest of the cast share this to greater or lesser degrees, they are all most alive when involved in intrigue. At the heart of the book is a very intimate betrayal, the choice that Smiley must make if he wishes to ensnare his enemy.
This is a book that loves words and uses them with care and abundance, the descriptions are long and detailed and never tiresome. The length and breath add to the depth of the book, they reveal but never quite explain. There is a vital ambiguity at the heart of the book that centres on the figure of George Smiley, in the end he retains an element of mystery which is deeply satisfying. Extraordinary fiction that is sharply truthful and gloriously readable and enjoyable.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Justice League. Season Two. Warner Home Video (2006)

Creating credible superhero stories is a very difficult task to manage which this box set accomplishes with wit, flair and energy. A group of superheros combine to form the Justice League, they monitor activity from an orbiting space station and battle with galactic and earth bound threats. The action is fast, thoughtful and the team are pressed hard, there is a great deal of work involved in winning. The stories are enjoyably varied and the final trilogy is outstanding.
The animation is first rate, the cast are beautifully designed and the move in a fluid and interesting ways. The female heros are much more slimline than might have been expected and that is very welcome. The male cast are athletic without looking as if they live on steroids. the art overall is excellent, the different locations are nicely detailed and this add greatly to the diversity and range of the stories.
The cast are very developed as characters, they are not simply bundles of superpowers attached to a costumed puppet, they are strong individuals whose actions come from and clearly express diverse personalities. This is used over the course of the season to create and manage conflict and very strong action with the team as they respond to difficult situations and each others reactions. This diversity gives the stories a considerable depth,bite and strong dramatic tension. The writers take full advantage of the possible dynamics of a team to showcase the different members of the team. Great superhero adventues, great animation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Notes from a Small Island. Bill Bryson. Black Swan (1996)

After living in Britain for nearly twenty years, Bill Bryson decided to return home to the US. Before he did so he set about travelling in a rather random fashion all over Britain to see what it was like and to understand the country he loved so much. The result is a very funny and heartfelt book that manages to capture a great deal about Bill Bryson and a great deal about Britain at the same time.
Any travel book is about the traveller as much, if not more, than the location and Bill Bryson is suitably opinionated and curious as well as sharply funny to make a very enjoyable travelling companion. His wanderings do not follow any particularly logical route, the vagaries of the public transport systems are significant factors in where he goes, happily so is whim and the lure of a interesting sounding town name. One of the significant pleasures of the book is the great joy that Bill Bryson gets from the litanies of place names that litter the book. They are lists of extraordinary possibilities and are tailor made for travellers tales. There is a very nice mix of history in the book, including to my huge delight the origin of the name John O'Groats.
A test for the credibility of any travel book is if a reader can recognise a place they have been from the description provided by the writer. Bill Bryson describes a visit to Milton Keynes that so accurately captured my own experiences of visiting the city that I felt as if I was walking alongside him. The balance between the writer and the geography is very well struck in the book, this is very specifically Bill Bryson's vision of Britain and both come through with a wonderful,occasionally cranky,charm. It is clear that Bill Bryson has enormous affection for Britain, what is really nice is that his able to describe why and allow the reader share it. Funny, snarky, sometimes outraged, this is brilliant travel writing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere No. 2. The War of the Worlds. Alfredo Castelli (Writer), Lucio Filipucci (Art). SAF Comics (2005)

A very funny science fiction romp that nicely mixes Jules Verne with Star Wars and Star Trek. Docteur Mystere along with his companion, Cigale, set off for the moon and find they have a stowaway. The Lady Rowena Saint-Just Fitzpatrick, who hid aboard the rocket to travel to the moon to locate her fiancee who had absconded there. On arriving on the Moon Doctuer Mystere not only find a fully fledged civilization in place,they also find that they are not the first humans to arrive. It becomes clear that there is a plan afoot to invade Earth from the Moon and the Docreur and his companions have to act to stop it. The action is fast and funny, the jokes are well set up and the whole story has a very appealing straight faced ridiculousness.
Alfredo Castelli manages to decorate the story with clever jabs at a wide variety of science fiction icons and well known images without resting on them. The story is more than a simple parody, the adventure is well enough developed to stand in its own right as an enjoyable, clever story. The history of the visits from the Moon of various spies planning for the invasion is very sharply and neatly done. The human and non-human cast are given clear voices and jostle each other nicely.
The art by Lucio Filippucci is beautiful, his range is very impressive, from the variety of human and non-humans, each of whom is given an individual stamp to the detailed space battles at the climax, all are completed with detail and balance. The art gives space and life to a lot of the jokes and references in the story, in particular the Star Wars/Star Trek mash up. Clever, funny, with great art, a winner.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. John Irvin. BBC Worldwide (1979)

Superb spy drama with a top notch cast. George Smiley was retired from British Intelligence on the foot of a failed operation to identify a traitor and has been asked to conduct an investigation when it becomes clear that there probably is one. Smiley starts to trace back through the recent history of the service and the details of the failed operation and he slowly uncovers an a deeply rooted conspiracy. The series unfolds at a steady pace, it grips like a python and builds to a bitterly satisfying conclusion.
Alec Guinness as George Smiley leads the superb cast as the brilliant spymaster whose investigation brings him face to face with the greatest failures of his own life. His mild and modest demeanour hides a steely intention to locate his enemy and rescues his beloved service from a traitor. Alec Guinness is masterly as a man who is supremely competent as a spy and so uncertain outside of that role. He does not dominate the series as the rest of the cast are also superb, from Hywel Bennett as the man who starts the process, Anthony Bate as the senior Civil Servant who is trying to control the mess before it becomes too widespread, among others.
The shabby exhaustion of the 1970s is captured beautifully, the Cold War was in full force and there was a sense of decline and wasting at large. This is a gripping portrait of a world where deceit and treachery are the tools of the trade and brutal bureaucracy of professional spying. Televion drama of the highest order.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Frank Bellamy's Robin Hood. The Complete Adventures. Clifford Makins (Writer), Frank Bellamy (Art). Book Palace Books (2008)

This is a collection of the Robin Hood strips from the comic Swift and it has an unusual format, in addition to the speech balloons, there is narrative text below each panel. This was designed to make it easier for the intended audience of young readers. The story is a nice variant on the classic Robin Hood story, Robin is a the son of a Saxon lord, driven from his home by the Norman Robert the Wolf to live in Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood organises his men to live in the forest and to fight the Normans and protect the poor. He assembles his band of Merry Men and fights the Sheriff of Nottingham, is the enemy of the evil Prince John and a loyal subject of good King Richard the Lionheart. Maid Marion joins his band and after the death of King Richard they continue to rob the rich, protect the poor and make merry in Sherwood Forest. These are wonderful adventure comics, a strong story with beautiful art.
Frank Bellamy is the marquee name for the collection and it is easy to see why. The art is simply beautiful, strong and vibrant. It is filled with detail that never crowds the panels, they are balanced with precision, the background detail giving depth and strength to the foreground action. The figure work is breathtaking, Robin Hood has the dash of Errol Flynn without being a copy, the action is swift and powerful without ever being brutal or savage. The faces of the cast are a joy, they portray the emotions of the moment with clarity and force, there is real feeling in the cast.
The art stands on an excellent script by Clifford Makins, the writing is concise and swift, The episodes move quickly and effectively, the story is told in a very clear and uncluttered way. It is an unencumbered adventure story, driven by the joy of action and the thrill of danger, the knowledge that your friends can be relied upon to come to your rescue. It never reads as childish, its honest dedication make it a pleasure to read as an adult. Deeply old fashioned and still thrilling.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Servive. Volume 1. Eiji Otsuka (Writer), Housui Yamazaki (Art). Dark Horse Manga (2006)

A collection of superb and gruesome ghost stories. Five students from a Buddhist university in Japan who are facing unemployment combine to provide a service to corpses that they locate whose spirits have unfinished business tying them to their bodies. Their skills include dowsing for corpses, embalming, channeling an alien intelligence via a glove puppet, advanced Internet skills and speaking with the dead. Speaking rather than reanimating the dead, the book is not a zombie story, the intent is to establish what the trapped spirit requires. The cast are engaging and individual, the stories are sharply, blackly humorous, suitably gruesome and the art is a delight.
The stories are excellent, compact, contemporary ghost stories with a effective gruesome aspect. Lurking beneath the surface of these stories is a sly commentary about Japan, it is not an awkward addition to the entertainment, it flows naturally from the context of the stories. The stories are concerned with the abandoned dead and how they arrived in that state. This context for the stories naturally follows some of the less obvious nooks and crannies of Japanese society and casting a light cannot avoid raising a question.
The wonderful line art captures both aspects of the stories, the mundane and the supernatural, and merges them seamlessly. The supernatural is placed so neatly in the settings that it does not atrach undue attention nor overbalance the art. The cast are very individual, the body language is clear and action fluid and strong. Excellent comics

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Bleed a River Deep. Brian McGilloway. Mcmillian (2009)

Very enjoyable crime story sent in Donegal. A botched bank robbery by an illegal immigrant and a very public assault on a visiting US diplomat are the start of a great deal of trouble for Garda Inspector Ben Devlin. The threads of the plot include the activities of a gold mining operation set up by a second generation Irish-American businessman and a human trafficking ring operating in the North of Ireland. The story is nicely paced, the reveals are well done and the conclusion is sourly satisfying.
The cast are well developed and interesting, Ben Devlin is a hard working police officer, who has a stable family and a desire to do his duty. The problems he has with his superior officer, Superintendent Patterson veer closer to crime story cliche than is comfortable. The conflict has the appearance of being required by the plot rather than arising directly from the context of their situation. The rest of the story is very well handled, the easy and natural relations between Ben Devlin and his counterparts in the PSNI is nicely done.
The plot is developed in a low key fashion that works very well, the investigation is driven by thinking and steady work that does not minimise the depth of the corruption and the damage it creates. This is thoughtful and smart crime fiction, well worth reading.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Star Risk. Chris Bunch. Orbit (2002)

Excellent space opera. M'chel Riss, ex Alliance Marine, Friedrich von Baldur, a man with a varied background, Jasmine King, who may be a robot and Amsnandrah Grookonomonslf , a non-human known as Grok, form Star Risk, a mercenary company with a view to profiting from trouble. They hatch a plan to spring a prisoner from Death Row as part of a business pitch to a mining company suffering a lot of trouble. The escape and the pitch go well and they are hired, they also find that the trouble is being created by a very well organised and funded opponent. The action is fast, smart and very well paced, the cast are tremendous fun and thoroughly engaging and memorable, there is a solid plot and very nicely judged deadpan humour.
Chris Bunch has created a credible and expansive universe with tremendous economy and skill, there is no time wasted setting up the situation, the details are revealed through the actions of the cast. The cheerfully pragmatic approach the Star Risk team take to the risks and practicalities of providing a armed security service is handled with great humour. It gives a very nice flavour to the book, everyone is competent and thoughtfully so, it gives a lot of weight to the plot and the action.
This is a fun story, that takes a grubby view of the future, seeing that it will be humans being human in a different context, industrial processes will still be dirty, money will still be a very powerful motive and loyalty will remain a potent force. Sharp, clever and great fun.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wondermark. Volume 1. Beards of our Forefathers. David Malki. Dark Horse Books (2008)

This is a collection of strips, with many extras, of the great webcomic. Any comic is a balance between the writing and the art, usually one is more obvious than the other without unbalancing the comic. With Wondermark, the burden rest very heavily on the writing as the art is composed of photoshoped collages of Victorian and Edwardian illustrations. The images are cunningly selected and the way they are arranged is a significant part of the strength of the strip, it is the words that allow it to take flight. David Malki consistently creates absurd and weirdly logical situations in a brief space that are more than simple set up and pay off jokes. The use of language is sinuous and careful, it adds as much to the texture of the strip as the dislocated images do. The consistent variety is remarkable, there is a astonishing range of invention, from the really simple to to truly joyously surreal.
The book itself is superbly designed by David Malki and Keith Wood to really take unexpected advantage of being a printed item. The colours of the pages, the odd stains on them as well as the lovely framing of the strips are a pleasure. At the website if a reader mouses over the strip there is an additional joke revealed, these are printed as footers to the strip in the book and along with the individual strip titles give a full sense of the density of the work that is being done by the author. The book has a considerable amount of additional matter which are very welcome and enjoyable.
This volume provides a strong answer to the question , why buy a collection of a strip you can read for free? David Malki has proved that the different ways of presenting the strip offer very different opportunities to a creator and that publishing a hard copy is more than simply producing a static collection of existing material. This book is very, very funny, creative and just brilliantly produced, a treasure.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

IL DIVO. Paolo Sorrentino. Artificial Eye. (2008)

Paolo Sorrentino has directed a sophisticated, complex, gripping film from a very unlikely material, a study of the Giulio Andreotti, seven time Italian Premier, in the early 1990's when Italy was rocked by Mafia trials and the exposure of extensive political and civil corruption. The film focuses on the final period of Andreotti's political life as allegations of corruption and alliances with the Mafia were laid against him. The kidnap and murder by the Red Brigade of former premier Aldo Moro is a significant thread in the film. The focus of the film is Giulio Andreotti himself, while the context of political violence is shown, the weight of the film is a extensive character study of a bureaucrat who actions were secretive and intentionally low key.
The film is anchored by a subtle, perfectly timed performance by Toni Servillo as Andreotti, his hunch backed gait, slightly reptilian looks and closed demeanour are invested with a burning, secretive life. It is never entirely clear what Andreotti is thinking, he used his lack of responsiveness and closed attitude as a weapon to manage others, they rushed to fill the void he left open and then they were within his power. The supporting cast are all excellent, in particular the two most significant women in Andreotti's life, Anna Bonaiuto as Livia his wife and Piera Degli Esposti as Mrs. Enea his secretary. These women reveal more about Andreotti than he ever does himself.
The film is marvelously constructed, the mobile camerawork and the subtle lighting are as much characters as the human cast. The cinematic techniques are delivered with a flourish, they are not held back, they create the style of the film clearly and flamboyantly. This adds hugely to the pleasure of the film, it has been constructed with such a forceful intelligence that the the whole is deeply satisfying cinematic experience. It is impossible to imagine this as anything other than a film, simply glorious.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Best of Gahan Wilson. Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner (Editors). Underwood Books (2004)

Gahan Wilson is a cartoonist with a enjoyably morbid sense of humour and a distinctive artistic style. This book collects cartons from the span of his career as well as commentary from the artist. The cartoons are mostly single panels, there are a few examples of some strips Gahan Wilson did too. The humour is biting and sometimes is very savage. One full colour panel shows discarded and broken toys in an attic anticipating a nostalgic visit from their owner when he is old and feeble and finally within their power. The caption is tightly composed, it draws all the latent menace from the toys and their situation. The drawing does not emphasise the menace of the toys, the tension arises from the expert combination of the text and the drawing.
Gahan Wilson has a very distinctive style, his cast look as though they are slightly melting, they gather in folds of skin and lines that gives tremendous expressiveness to their actions. His monsters have a plastic, slightly liquid quality that both makes them more horrible and clinging and more comic. The art nicely captures the essential absurdity of a horrifying situation just before it becomes truly horrible. It is a fantastically difficult moment to capture, Gahan Wilson has the enviable talent to locate it and capture it precisely.
The precision of the writing that is evident in the captions is a joy to read. The captions do not repeat the idea in the drawing, they cunningly comment on it or act to provide a sharp context, as where a blood splatter hunter is congratulated by a companion for eliminating an entire species. The smiles of achievement on their faces are sincere and untroubled. This brilliant book provides a great showcase for a tremendous talent, a dark, shiver inducing pleasure.