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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Affairs of the Heart. Patrick Wade. William Heinemann Ltd (1985)

Beautiful art and a savage humour create a glorious collection of cartons about love, sex and relationships. The cartons nicely sidestep the frequent cliches of domineering or overly enhanced women and submissive or sorry looking men. The cast look like humans and there is a strong sense of personality about them that adds force and depth to the punchlines. The writing is very vivid and matches with the art to create a pitch perfect balance. A rather faded looking man on the phone to a retailer complaining that he had ordered a Victoria Principal blow-up doll, on the bed behind rests a Margret Thatcher doll. What gives the multiple punchlines in the cartoon a real lift is that it has been done without malice, the man is not treated as a social inadequate, he is allowed be an annoyed customer first.
While the cartoons that have straightforward punchlines are excellent, the best cartoons in this collection are the ones which hint at a greater context outside of the moment in time spotlighted by the cartoon. A man caught is an absurdly compromising position calling out to his wife that he "can explain almost everything." That almost is the stamp of greatness, it allows the reader into the situation in the most vivid and direct way and gives the situation a life beyond the page.
A cartoon called "The Conversation Piece" is bitingly funny, the body language of the cast is eloquent. It also highlights one of Patrick Wright's astonishing skills, he can draw clothes than drape and fold naturally, suggesting the body underneath in fluid and subtle way. This masterful collection is a joy, funny and observant, biting without cruelty, astonishing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Solomon Kane . Michael J. Bassett (Director) Epic Tales Ltd (2009)

Superb and enthralling adventure film, anchored by a brilliant central performance, great action and superb storytelling. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) a reformed pirate is trying to avoid violence in order to keep clear of the devil. He encounters a Puritan family planning on emigrating to America and they find themselves travelling though a devastated landscape. The family are attacked and Kane finds that he has to resume his violent ways to rescue the daughter. The action on the way to the thrilling conclusion is superbly staged, the cast are full of life and the supernatural elements are handled with flair.
The film tells the story of how Solomon Kane became the extraordinary character he is in the stories by Robert E. Howard. There is noting very original in the story of a man forced back to violence to do good, it all lies in the the telling. The film has the strength of mind to take itself and the story seriously, there is no winking at the audience. This gives the film a terrific force and allows the cast to bring their characters to vivid life. The budget has been well spent on the glorious locations and the great sets, the context for the story felt solid and severe.
James Purefoy is simply outstanding as Solomon Kane, convincing in every aspect of the story, the moment when he becomes the terrible Puritan avenger of the Howard stories is signalled with beautiful grace. Pete Postlethwaite as the father of the family Kane encounters on the road is a warm and credible. The villains are exactly as melodramatic as they should be, lead by the masked Overlord (Samuel Roukin), they still have a genuine menace and relish for mayhem.
This is a model of how to make a fantasy film adventure, it mixes the elements with care and attention to detail, catching the spirit of the stories with breathtaking skill. This film is an undiluted pleasure.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Necropolis Railway. Andrew Martin. Faber and Faber Ltd. (2002)

This is an enjoyably, slow burning period thriller which serves up lashings of atmosphere and a cleverly crafted plot. Jim Stringer has always wanted to work on the railways and in 1903 he is given the chance to move to London to do so. He is assigned to work on the service to Brookwod Cemetery run on behalf on the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. The rest of the crew on the service are hostile and Jim finds that he is replacing someone who mysteriously disappeared. The story is unhurried, Jim Stringer is no fool, he is new to London and Waterloo railway station. The story unfurls carefully with a great cunningly staged reveals that hide more than they expose. The conclusion is clever and unexpected.
The momentum is slow in this story, the story takes it time to develop into something tangible. The atmospheric period details are allow to take centre stage and Jim Stringer is a credible lead player. The story takes it pace from his narrative as he finds his way through the overwhelming confusion of his new job, London and the unexpected reactions of those he meets. The arcane details of working on a steam railway are provided with a light hand and the cast are very much at home in their context.
The large cast are very well drawn, the hierarchies in the working life of the railways is cleverly used. There is a nicely subdued romance that arises naturally and easily. The central mystery emerges slowly, like a train emerging from a steam cloud, it neatly ties up the strands in the story and is strongly rooted in the cast and their activities. Low key and beguiling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Drinking at the Movies. Julia Wertz. Three Rivers Press (2010)

Covering the period from Spring 2007 to Winter 2008 this book chronicles, in an highly entertaining and engagingly unreliable way, Julia Wertz's move from San Francisco to New York and what befell her there. Julia has a series of jobs, none of which end well, lives in a series of unsatisfactory apartments, drinks a significant amount, is involved in some family crises and gains some small purchase on a creative living. There is no large event or turning point in the story, it is concerned with small and ordinary details. In Julia Werttz's hands this unpromising material is transformed into a wonderful one person performance, from the brilliantly staged opening to the clever ending this story has been shaped and managed with care, attention and huge talent.
Julia Wertz has a deeply enviable ability to turn an incident into an entertaining and engaging story. This book is not a memoir nor a diary, it is a cunningly shaped work of art, designed for an audience. Julia Wertz has grasped the essential fact that it is the story that counts, not the storyteller. She hides herself behind her graphic avatar, who is given enough depth and colour to be a good companion and sets about converting experience into performance.
The story deliberately casts her graphic persona in a disreputable light, prone to poor decision making, drinking too much, swearing like an Irishman and more than a bit feckless. This neatly removes the obvious signs of ego from the story and the self-depreciating humour gives the book a nice flavour. What it also does is to hide the sheer determination, hard work and discipline actually needed to create a book like this.
The art is the equal of the storytelling, simple and clear, it hides its skill and depth in plain sight. The details in the book are all relevant and carefully chosen, the emotional states of the cast are easy to read and provide real depth to the stories. Julia Wertz has a distinctive creative voice and it is a great pleasure to spend time in her company.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trophy Hunt. C.J.Box. Berkley Prime Crime. (2004)

Superb crime story with a vivid cast and a beautiful setting in rural Wyoming. The Town of Saddlestring in Wyoming is having a minor boom thanes to the development of Coal Bed Methane drilling. It is also undergoing a rash of animal mutilations that are being attributed to a wandering grizzly bear. Joe Pickett, the local game warden is not convinced and when two men are found mutilated in a similar fashion finds himself plunged into a gripping and very tightly wound plot. The reveals are brilliantly staged, the action is thoughtful as well as sharp and brutal, the conclusion is superbly set up and utterly satisfying.
This story is a masterful example of plot mechanics, the action is cunningly set up, the plot developments are neatly dovetailed. The plot never feels like it is driving the cast, the action arises from the cast in a very natural and unforced way. The motives are credible and the swirls of animosity and friendship that tie the cast together are strongly drawn. One of the major strengths of the book is the large cast, this gives C.J.Box a chance to expand the action and strong context for the cast. Joe Pickett and his wife Maybeth are at the heart of the book, their relationship is full of hard work and movement that makes it real. The beautiful Wyoming countryside is a star cast member, the descriptions are vivid and memorable, the attractions of the area are strongly felt. There is a very nice and very well handled supernatural element in the book, it hovers at the fringes and adds a slight and welcome aspect of the unexplained to the story. The knot at the heart of the action is brutal, bitter and intense, the villains are credibly baleful. As part of a series, continuity is cleverly referenced without ever being required. A page turning, gripping pleasure.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

B.P.R.D. War on Frogs. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers). Dark Horse Books (2010)

This is a very enjoyable collection of stories that call back to various parts of the B.P.R.D. continuity. Roger the Homunculus makes a welcome return, in a story that returns the B.P.R.D. to the Ground Zero of the series, Cavendish Hall. The story follows up a loose end and ties it up with care. The art by Herb Trimpe and Guy Davis is suitably subdued until the action drives it forward. The second story also with art by Guy Davis features another lost cast member, Captain Benjamin Daimio. It is a sharp story about the layers of meaning the desire for a new world can contain. Given the path that Captain Daimio was to follow, it is a very nice use of continuity. The art by John Severin on an Alien-like story of a hunt on a deserted submarine is beautiful, it captures the tension, fear, stress and finally the stone cold courage of the B.R.R.D. team.
The story of Johann Kraus's tangle with ghostly frogs is wonderfully served by the art of Peter Snejbjerg with colours by Bjarne Hansen. The out of body sequence is a tour de force superbly capturing the story ideas. The final story with art by Karl Moline is brilliantly structured, it reveals itself neatly and with real feeling.
The final story is my favourite in the collection, it uses an oblique angle on the haunting of Liz Sherman to great effect. Using another strong and capable female as the central character gives it a welcome lift.
The quality of the stories overall is very high and none feel like fillers nor are they irrelevant to the overall B.R.R.D. narrative. They add depth and force to the massive struggle talking place in the main story. They show the individual cost of the war with the frogs at one end and the scale of the war by focusing on the sheer ferocity of small encounters. The stories use continuity without being trapped by it, they are straightforward enough to be comprehensible to a new reader, for anyone who has been following the series they are a clever, thoughtful pleasure.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo. Kevin Reynolds (Director). Touchstone Pictures (2002)

A superb swashbuckler,great performances drive a classic story with vigour, wit and passion. Edmond Dantes(Jim Caviezel) is falsely accused and imprisoned in the fearsome Chateau d'If, an island fortress. Here he is brutally treated by the wonderfully sardonic warden, Armand Dorleac(Michael Wincott)and encounters another prisoner, Abbé Faria(Richard Harris). The Abbe agrees to teach Edmond in return for his help in digging an escape tunnel. Dantes does finally escape with the secret to a fabulous treasure and returns to France as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo. He follows his plan to revenge himself upon his accusers and his ex-fiancee. The action is superbly staged, the plot drives at a great pace and the conclusion deeply satisfying.
While Jim Caviezel is better at being the innocent Edmond rather than the driven count he is still worth watching, the real star of the film is Guy Pearce as Fernand Mondego,a man consumed by bitter envy at the way Dantes can enjoy his humble life. Guy Pearce glows with a resentment that creates the emotional context for the film, he is simply astonishing. His final confrontation with the returned Dantes is brilliant, it has a depth of passion and rage that are electrifying.
Richard Harris as the Abbe is clearly enjoying himself and his humour is grimly enjoyable. Michael Wincott is a joy as the mordantly sarcastic warden, he has a relish for his activities that is amusing and horrifying. Dagmara Dominczyk as Mercedès Iguanada, Dantes fiancee who marries Fernand Mondego believing Dantes is dead, is more than a romantic toy. She reveals a very welcome strength and depth of character.
This is a hugely enjoyable film, it takes the classic adventure story and cleverly distills it into crisp romantic tale, a pleasure.