The Long Goodbye

Posted: July 7, 2020 in Book reviews
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417bgOVMF3L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_By Raymond Chandler

After a chance meeting detective Philip Marlowe becomes friends with Terry Lennox, a drunk married to a wealthy socialite. Months later Terry comes to Marlow for help in getting out of the country, and it transpires that Terry’s wife has been murdered and the police suspect him. When Terry commits suicide in Mexico it seems an open and shut case, but despite his best efforts not to get involved, Marlowe finds himself drawn into a world of drunks and adulterers in LA’s exclusive Idle Valley. With everyone out for Marlowe’s blood, and everyone more than happy to let sleeping dogs lie, can Marlowe discover the truth behind the murder of Lennox’s wife?

I knew who Raymond Chandler was of course, writer of pulp detective novels, creator of Philip Marlowe, a character played by actors such as Bogart, Gould, Mitchum…yet I’d never read a Chandler novel before.

Suffice to say that almost immediately upon finishing The Long Goodbye, I ordered another of Chandler’s Marlowe novels online which probably tells you all you need to know.

Its odd because the novel isn’t a great mystery, the limited pool of characters means I’d worked a lot out, but it isn’t just about twists and turns, it’s about the characters Chandler creates, from Lennox, at once a lowlife drunk, yet a man with a curious sense of honour, to Candy, the Chilean servant of novelist Roger Wade. In other hands a Latino character in 1950s’ America could have been incredibly cliched, yet Chandler writes him with nuance. The aforementioned Wade is an obvious Chandler stand in, the writer of popular fiction who wants to be appreciated for his art, and another character with a drinking problem. Female characters like Roger’s wife, Eileen and Linda, the sister of Lennox’s murdered wife, are also treated as more than just femme fatales.

And then there’s Marlowe, on the face of it a tough, hard drinking PI, yet he’s incredibly thoughtful, and likes nothing more than replaying famous chess puzzles alone. And I love the fact that while Marlowe thinks there’s something fishy about Lennox’s suicide, he isn’t that invested in investigating until circumstances keep pushing him towards it.

Beyond all of this is Chandler’s prose however, which is just wonderful. Yes, it’s a trifle purple at times, but it’s wonderful, languid and heavy with atmosphere, and yes at times I did have Bogart’s voice in my head as I read. Chandler’s use of language is addictive, aso much so that even when nothing was really happening I just wanted to keep reading. It’s a long novel, yet in many ways not long enough. On the plus side, at least I have more Marlowe novels to read!

IMG_20200619_125120By James Herbert

The unthinkable has happened. World War Three has broken out and nuclear missiles have exploded over London. Millions are killed, and pilot Steve Culver might have been one of them, except he fortuitously crosses paths with man from the ministry Alex Dealey, who’s on his way to a government shelter and, along with fellow survivor Kate, they battle through the underground to some semblance of safety, but for the survivors there’s more to worry about than radioactive fallout. Humanity thought they’d vanquished the mutant black rats, but they were merely hiding. Now they sense humanity is vulnerable, and claw their way out of the dark to claim London as their domain!

Given I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and given my predilection as a teenager for both James Herbert novels and apocalyptic fiction, it’s perhaps no great surprise that this 1984 novel was a firm favourite from my very first read, and I’ve read it many times since (as you can no doubt tell from the photo) though not for years.

The final, and in my opinion best, Rats novel (though there is a 1993 graphic novel) this sees Herbert go all out by killing millions in the opening chapters, and his evocation of nuclear annihilation and a ruined London is superbly done, playing on his usual trick of providing potted biographies for characters, just enough for us to empathise with them before killing them off. There’ll be rat related deaths aplenty later, but early doors the main causes of death aren’t teeth, it’s heat and the shockwaves burning up bodies and demolishing buildings.

He shifts to a second act focusing on the emotional impact of survival. Those in the shelter may be safe, but they’re still traumatised. Suicide is prevalent, and so is the risk of mutiny. Some don’t see why Dealey should be in charge just because he held a position of minor authority before the world ended.

There’s a grim recon mission to the surface featuring a wince inducing encounter with a rabid dog, but soon the survivors are faced with a triple whammy of threats; insurrection, flooding and rats!

This is a high concept novel. Bringing back the rats after a dull second outing and partnering them up with nuclear war, a subject on everyone’s minds in the 1980s. Herbert is disparaging towards authority in this, and the fate that befalls the main government shelter suitably ironic, yet much like his hero, he can’t quite bring himself to choose a side. Culver’s a standard Herbert stand-in; a loner in jeans and a leather jacket, a reluctant hero. A nonconformist who has little time for Dealey, yet seems equally sniffy about the potential mutineers. Dealey is a two-dimensional civil servant, a man who’s fallen back on bureaucracy because that’s all he has left. Herbert suggests Kate’s a strong female character, but really she’s just a damsel in distress for Culver to rescue and fall in love with. It’s a shame Herbert dispenses with a far more interesting female character early on.

A product of its time, women don’t far well, and whilst nowhere near as bad as I’d expected, persons of colour aren’t portrayed too glowingly either, aside from Jackson, who Herbert feels the need to constantly remind us is black which seems to be his only defining character trait, but he isn’t alone here and many people in the vignettes are more fleshed out that some of the recurring characters!

From a great concept the book goes downhill in the final third There’s the fairly predictable apocalyptic trope of the outlaw gang, and by the time we get to the finale there are just too few characters left to make for a final bloodbath, and it has to be said, there’s only so many rat attacks you can read before they all blur into one, and several of the grim interludes Herbert peppers the book with are a trifle samey. That said some other (non-rat related) interludes are nicely done.

He also annoys me by having characters use automatic weapons that appear to carry a ludicrous number of bullets!

A product of it’s time, this is still a very enjoyable read and definitely one of Hebert’s better books. It’s a trifle long and some of the underground scenes, especially late on, drag, but still a damn fine example of 80s’ post-apocalyptic fiction, and still a heck of a concept.

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The Living Daylights (1987)

Posted: June 16, 2020 in James Bond
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And so for the first time since 1971 we get a canon Bond film that doesn’t star Roger Moore, and by all rights it shouldn’t be Timothy Dalton parachuting into Gibraltar, it should have been Pierce Brosnan, but he couldn’t get out of his contract for Remington Steele and so Eon signed up Dalton. Was he their only option? Probably not, after all you can watch Sam Neil’s screentest! Was he always on their radar, possibly. Supposedly he was approached in 1968 and 1971, though given he’d have been in his early twenties it seems unlikely he was a serious contender.

In the end it doesn’t matter how Dalton ended up as James Bond, it only matters that he was Bond, and he was bloody fantastic.

Yeah, my feelings about Dalton are no secret, and The Living Daylights is one of my favourite Bond films (some Starkey trivia here, this was the first Bond film I saw on the big screen).

It had been a while since I’d seen it though and, much as I loved it, there were some weak elements…

Would I still feel the same?

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Of course I would!

From the get-go this is a very different kind of Bond film. The pre-title sequence is gritty and devoid of humour (comedy paintball moments aside). There’s no Beach Boys soundtrack here, no horse’s arse lifting to reveal a plane (though ironically there will be a horse’s arse later). Three 00 agents parachute into Gibraltar as part of an exercise, the SAS, armed with paint guns, are waiting for them. After one 00 is murdered it’s time for Dalton to enter the fray. It’s a nice intro and what follows is a thrilling set piece featuring Bond atop a moving vehicle. Hard to see Roger pulling this off, but it’s clear Dalton did a decent amount of his own stunts, and if proof were needed that this isn’t Roger’s 007, Bond headbutts the assassin. I mean, technically I think Roger tried to headbutt Jaws but realistically Tim’s the first Bond to successfully deploy this. Thankfully he repacked his parachute (and finally a pre-title sequence where it makes sense for him to have a parachute!)

Check out his acrobatic roll onto the boat as well, but he’s still Bond and still has an eye for the ladies.

Cue A-ha with a tune that isn’t as good as Duran Duran’s, but is still catchy.

Next stop Bratislava where Bond’s tasked with taking out a KGB sniper, thus allowing Soviet general Georgi Koskov to defect. The op’s being run by prissy MI6 agent Saunders, who has no time for Bond turning up in a dinner jacket and even less when Bond only wounds the KGB sniper. He’s even more pissed off when Bond takes over and gets Koskov out of Czechoslovakia his own way, which involves Julie T Wallace’s bosom. This scene was way more fun than I remembered it, and I do wonder if this was supposed to be the pre title sequence, given Bond’s “I must have scared the living daylights out of her” line.

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Koskov tells MI6 he defected because of a new directive by General Pushkin to start killing western agents, and that poor unfortunate 00 was just the first. Before the Brits can get much more out of Koskov, he’s kidnapped by the milkman! Seriously though, Necros’ attack on the safe house is wonderful, and his fight in the kitchen arguably one of the best in the franchise, and 007 isn’t even there!

M orders Bond to kill Pushkin, but Bond’s not so sure and takes a detour back to Czechoslovakia where he discovers the so called sniper is a cellist named Kara, Koskov’s girlfriend, whose gun was loaded with blanks to make the defection look real. Bond persuades her he’s Koskov’s friend and plans to get her to Austria, easier said than done with the police and army after them. Luckily Bond’s Aston Martin has a few optional extras installed. 007 may no longer be Moore but he still has a reckless disregard for Q Branch’s toys, so the Aston’s soon a smoking wreck and Bond and Kara slide into Austria via a very unorthodox form of transport.

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After a romantic interlude in Vienna, Bond’s pushed back into going after Pushkin by Saunders’ murder, but Bond’s no fool and quickly he and Pushkin team up to reveal what’s really going on. Koskov is in league with arms dealer Brad Whitaker. The pair plan to make millions using Russian money to buy drugs in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Koskov convinces Kara that Bond’s a wrong’un and the two wind up prisoners in a Russian airbase in Afghanistan. Bond being Bond they don’t stay there long.

After a fortuitous meeting with the mujahedeen Bond plots to blow up the plane carrying the drugs, but has to change his plans when Koskov spots him. Cue a mujahedeen attack on the airbase and Bond and Kara are forced take off in a plane carrying a bomb, and to make matters worse, a Necros as well!

After one final mission to take out Whitaker Bond can finally relax with some classical music, well with a classical cellist at least.

I know I’m biased but even so, this is a great film.

Let’s talk Dalton. He has the piecing eyes of a killer (the whole scene in Pushkin’s hotel room is just fantastic; “If I believed Koskov we wouldn’t be talking” “You should have bought lilies”) the cold rage of a man you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of (check out his expression upon finding Saunders’ body!) and yet he has the looks of a matinee idol, and is perhaps the most convincing romantic lead of any Bond. His seduction of Kara isn’t remotely creepy, it feels genuine, feels like they could fall in love.

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People will say he can’t do humour, but people are wrong. Just watch Hot Fuzz for further details. He isn’t Moore or Brosnan, but much like Craig he’s dryly humours given the right material. “Are you calling me a hose’s arse?”

Finally, there’s the physicality. I love Rog, always will, but Tim convinces in a fight in a way Roger rarely did, not even in the early days. Maybe at the time it was too radical a shift for some people, but for me Tim will always epitomise the character, closer to Fleming’s creation than anyone else, even Craig or Connery, and unlike Craig’s Bond, who hates what he does and gets depressed about it, Dalton hates what he does and covers this up by embracing the hedonism.

I fell a little in love with Maryam d’Abo back in 1987, and she’ll always be one of my favourite Bond girls. She isn’t a super spy or a scientist, isn’t that horrible phrase ‘Bond’s equal’ and yet I still think she’s a good Bond girl. Yes she’s manipulated by Koskov, and let’s be honest here, by James as well, but she still has agency, and I love the scene where she guilt trips the Mujahedeen into attacking the airbase by leading the charge. She isn’t superhuman, but she is believable. People are snarky about her flying ability, but for goodness sake she’s a cellist, and given she’s grown up behind the iron curtain she probably hasn’t seem a million Hollywood action films either! Give her a break.

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The bad guys are a trifle weak, though not as weak as some would argue. I actually like Jeroen Krabbé as Koskov, he’s wonderfully slimy and the fact that Bond doesn’t kill him in the end is perfect. I hope he isn’t executed and instead winds up in the same Siberian gulag he taunted Kara with.  He and Bond share some lovely snarky dialogue.

Joe Don Baker’s Whitaker isn’t exactly memorable, although oddly he’s probably got more relevant as time has passed. Let’s be honest here, there’s something Trumpian about him isn’t there?  Baker must have done something right however, as he’ll be back in two film’s time!

The best villain of the bunch is probably Andreas Wisniewski’s Necros. For saying he’s a monosyllabic henchman who doesn’t even have a prosthetic arm, or metal teeth, he’s incredibly effective, thanks to a script that showcases how dangerous he is before he ever meets 007. His one-man attack on the safehouse marks him out as a deadly foe, so when he and Bond finally come to blows, we know he’s a threat. It’d be wrong to put him in the same category as Red Grant, but compare him to the similar, but nowhere near as effective, Stamper in Tomorrow Never Dies, or even the woefully underused Dave Bautista as Hinx. And a side note about Wisniewski, he’s the first Dalton/Die Hard connection, stay tuned for two more in Licence to Kill!

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Robert Brown is back as M, and while he is the weakest M, he’s effective. Desmond Llewelyn doesn’t get a lot to do as Q but Rhys-Davies is wonderful as Pushkin, though if Walter Gotell had been in better health presumably it would have been Gogol in this role. I like Thomas Wheatley’s Saunders, who goes from dick to useful ally just in time to be horribly murdered.

There are some missteps though. Caroline Bliss gets the thankless task of replacing Lois Maxwell, and given terrible dialogue into the bargain (“Any time you fancy listening to my Barry Manilow collection”). Not her fault but she’s the worst Moneypenny by far, and John Terry makes for a weak Felix, shame given he was Hawk the bloody Slayer (which isn’t rubbish).

The plot is tight, and not at all fantastical which works well in a more grounded Bond film, and the scenes in Czechoslovakia (really Austria) lend a nice touch to this, the last Cold War themed Bond film (setting aside Goldeneye’s pre-title sequence), and Bond gets to act the detective which is always nice to see and there are some great set pieces. The pre-title sequence and Necros’ attack of course, but also the chase into Austria, starting off with a fully tricked out Aston Martin (the first Aston since 1969!) and ending up with our hero and the girl sliding down the mountain in a cello case which is the kind of thing only Bond can really get away with. The attack on the Russian airbase is full on and Bond’s fight with Necros on the cargo net is superb, with a nice ticking time bomb thrown in for good measure, which means even after Necros gets the boot, Bond can’t relax. Yeah the final showdown with Whitaker is lame (stop shooting at the bulletproof screen, 007!) but it doesn’t go on too long and the wolf whistle denouncement is very JB.

Talking of JB this was to be John Barry’s swansong and he gives Dalton a great debut soundtrack, much as he did for Lazenby. He’ll be missed.

All in all a top drawer Bond film, jettisoning the silliness for a down to earth adventure that gives us a Bond we can believe in as an ice cold assassin yet keeps more than enough Bond tropes to keep all but the grumpiest Bond fan happy. I love it, Dalton and d’Abo and likely always will.

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51qQMNkR-wL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Adrian Tchaikovsky

A little spoiler warning. Because this is a sequel, I will refer to events of Children of Time, so be warned! (And If you haven’t read Children of Time I heartily suggest you do!)

An earth terraforming project travelled many lightyears to a distant star, and a world they named Nod. They expected to find a blank slate upon which they could imprint a copy of Earth, but instead found a world teeming with alien life. While part of the terraforming team studied this world, others travelled to an ocean planet they named Damascus. Here they began to terraform, and began breeding octopuses using an experimental drug to uplift their intelligence. Soon Earth collapsed as the conflict there reached a terrible conclusion, and the terraformers were left all alone in the universe, or so they thought…

Thousands of years later the remains of humanity, along with their spider allies, travel to the worlds of Nod and Damascus, following fragmentary radio signals. They find an advanced race that can trace its roots back to old Earth, and, more terrifying, something truly alien that threatens them all.

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Children of Time is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read in the last ten years, so I was eagerly anticipating this sequel, and its fair to said Tchaikovsky didn’t disappoint. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t quite as good as Children of Time, but that novel was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the author deserves all the kudos imaginable for writing a follow up this enjoyable and it kept me gripped from the first page to the last.

The main issue is that the element of surprise is missing, but having said that, in doing for octopuses (octopi? Even Tchaikovsky doesn’t seem sure of the correct nomenclature) what he previously did for spiders, he once again showcases not only an incredible imagination, but also an in-depth knowledge of biology. More importantly he’s able to get that across in a way that the average reader can understand.

As with Children of Time, his world building is truly stupendous, but any indication that this is merely a carbon copy is quickly dispelled. What starts as sci-fi soon morphs into something far darker as he creates a species whose existence threatens the very nature of what it means to be an individual human (or spider, or octopus), and the repeated “We’re going on an adventure” line is incredibly unsettling (and would work equally well on screen if you ask me).

His prose is excellent, and as said his worldbuilding top drawer. If there’s a flaw I’d say that the some of the characters didn’t quite come alive for me, though I did really engage with the terraformers Senkovi and Baltiel, and also with Fabian, the male spider struggling in a female spider’s world.

As for Children of Time the ending wraps things up perhaps a little too neatly, but I am being really picky here because this is a superb book. Truly epic in scale, hopeful and with a wonderful evocation of deep time and evolutionary biology akin to the first book, with an added dose of body horror and a truly unusual alien species that only adds to the universe he’s created.

Highly recommended!

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

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Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

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It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

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The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

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As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

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A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

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The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

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The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

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The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

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There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

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In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!

Writing in a time of Covid 19

Posted: April 23, 2020 in Regarding writing
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Been a while since I wrote something new about writing, I think I’ve been waiting for some inspiration, or maybe felt I didn’t have anything useful to talk about that I hadn’t gone over several times before, but the Coronavirus pandemic has made me think about the craft of writing in a somewhat different way, and I wondered if my thoughts might be of use to others.

This blog will fall into two parts, the first covers ground I’ve touched on before and is concerned with HOW WE WRITE. The second is concerned with WHAT WE WRITE.

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Part 1 How we write during the pandemic.

More than one person has suggested the pandemic will see a rash of creativity, as people in lockdown turn to writing, and this extends not only to those of us who’ve been writing for a while, but also those who’ve always wanted to give it a go who suddenly find they have more time on their hands and might finally give it a try.

In theory it sounds great. The reality is somewhat different. For starters many in lockdown are still working, albeit from home. Then there’s the home environment. If we’re lucky we’re not in lockdown alone, which means children, partners and other family members are sharing our space. We’re probably all living in closer proximity than we’ve done before, and it can prove harder to get alone time to create.

And of course, the above only relates to physical obstacles, but there’s also the psychological aspect. This is a stressful time for everyone, some more than others obviously, but even if you’re not a healthcare worker, even if you haven’t got friends or family members in hospital, just the emotional impact of spending so much time at home, of watching daily news reports of sickness and death, is going to have an impact. I’ve seen quite a few artistic types on Twitter saying that they’re struggling to feel creative right now.

I wouldn’t dream of offering psychological advice to people, and if you don’t feel like writing now then that’s a perfectly acceptable response to the current situation, there are, let’s be honest, more important things going on right now. But having said that, creativity is something that gives people pleasure, both in creating it, and in others enjoying it, so if you do want to keep writing, or heck even start writing, here’s one tip. Routine. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Set aside some writing time on a regular basis. Maybe it’s half an hour a day, maybe it’s ten minutes a day, maybe it’s one hour every Saturday afternoon, but try and stick to it. Lots of working from home advice extols the virtues of routines, of getting up and dressed at regular times rather than slumping around in your PJs, and it’s good advice.

And don’t be beholden to what anyone else thinks either (including me, I’m notoriously full of shit). I’ve seen crappy Tweets from people saying if you don’t come out of lockdown having learned a new skill or language, or having written a novel or a screenplay, then you never lacked the time you just lacked the dedication. This is utter bollocks of course, for the reasons I’ve already highlighted. Coming out of lockdown alive and in relatively ok mental health is a success, you don’t need to have written an epic fantasy trilogy to prove anything to anyone, so don’t feel bad if you don’t feel like writing, don’t feel bad if you only write 100 words a day. Remember, writing is like anything else, the more you do it the better you become, so every hundred words you write makes you a hundred words a better writer. Write as much or as little as you can, as much or as little as you feel inclined to. No one of any consequence will judge you, apart from yourself of course, but right now I think we should all give ourselves a break, don’t you?

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Part 2 What should we be writing?

At first glance this seems a ridiculous question. We write what we want to write, right? (sorry about that). In truth I think it’s a little more difficult, and can be broken down into two distinct strands.

The first is saleability. For the most part we want people to read what we write, and as such we’re usually reliant on some editor choosing to accept our work and publish it to the masses, which means them buying it from us, whether the purchase price is a pro rate of 8 cents a word, or a more nebulous reward of ‘exposure’.  (as a side bar I’ll always argue that so long as you go in with your eyes open there’s nothing wrong with ‘for the love’ projects, but you should never EVER be paying someone to publish your work.)

Now what sells isn’t usually something we pay a huge amount of attention to (though I know screenwriters and novelists will consider what’s hot right now. No point writing westerns when everyone wants superhero movies after all) but it’s probably at the back of our minds at least. Right now we may want to bring it to the forefront.

Because what will sell now, and perhaps more importantly, what will sell in the future? I was remembering Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen comics, set in an alternative 1980s still on the verge of self-destruction. On the cusp of annihilation, nostalgia is the big thing. “How the ghost of you clings” goes the tag line to Adrian Veidt’s perfume which is even called Nostalgia. The world’s a mess and people don’t want to think about now, and they don’t want to think about the future either, they want to lose themselves in the past, or rather a dreamy evocation of the past.

In contrast once Veidt’s masterplan comes to fruition his new perfume goes on sale. This one is called Millennium, suddenly a bright, hopeful future stretches ahead of humanity. Now Veidt tells his minions to invest in baby paraphernalia, expecting a boom in births. People aren’t afraid anymore, they’re excited; it’s now about looking forward, not back.

So what should we write? I’d be surprised if there isn’t a whole heap of pandemic/post-apocalyptic/dystopian future style stories, scripts, and novels in the pipeline. This isn’t a radical notion; mortality is at the front of our thinking right now after all. The question is, is that what the public wants? Well maybe. Look at the fifties. The atomic threat was in its infancy, but it preyed on people’s minds and prompted a slew of irradiated monster movies, from Them! In the US to Godzilla in Japan (the only country to ever be on the receiving end of atom bombs lest we forget) and the possibility of destruction was dealt with in other ways. Look at the Day the Earth Stood Still, When World’s Collide, etc. And then there’s the fear of communism which saw the rise of McCarthyism. Alien invasion films were de rigueur in the 50s. The Thing from Another World, This Island Earth and of course Invasion of the Body Snatchers which talked about the stealthy replacing of people with aliens, clearly a reference to communism (though some readings of the film suggest it was a rejection of McCarthyism.)

man-typing-laptop-while-is-wearing-mask_176453-71Similarly look at the late 1970s and the 1980s. The Cold War was at its height and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a term everyone was aware of. Cue a slew of post-apocalyptic books (The Survivalist series, James Herbert’s Domain) and films and TV (The Mad Max trilogy, Day of the Dead, Night of the Comet, Threads) not to mention related things like Red Dawn.

So we should all be writing pandemic tales then? Well, maybe not. Yes sci-fi monster/invasion movies were big in the fifties, but so were Biblical epics and Westerns (nostalgia again) and technicolour saw a resurgence in musicals; and on the subject of musicals, remember their height was arguably the Depression era—in 1930 alone Hollywood put out 100 musicals!

And the 1980s? Sure there was a lot of impending World War III fiction, but it was also an era of bright colours, garish outfits and high octane excitement. The decade that gave us Tom Cruise, Arnie, Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Arc (hmm, nostalgia again in those last two), Ghostbusters, ET, The Breakfast Club etc, etc.

Worth making the point as well that the fear of nuclear annihilation was a hypothetical one, Covid 19, like the Great Depression, is unfortunately very much not hypothetical.

Sometimes people want something that reflects their current fears, and sometimes they want something completely different to escape from reality, but having said that I do think if you’re going to work on something pandemic/post-apocalyptic related you do need to consider that there’ll probably be a lot more in the slush piles going forward so yours better be damn good, and maybe don’t make the pandemic the focus, again something with a unique selling point it likely to pique someone’s interest more than just another Covid 19 tale.

A second—and final, I know this has gone on a bit—point is what to do when writing something contemporary? I mean we’re in the middle of the pandemic, we can hazard a guess how and when it might end, but the actuality may be very different. When will the lockdown finish? Will there be a second wave, or a third, a fourth! What will life be like after the pandemic is over, when (if) a vaccine is available? If you’re writing a story set in the present, or even the very near future, you have to consider whether you reference Coronavirus or not?

The difficulty is if you don’t reference it then you automatically date your work, and the opposite might also be worse, making wild predictions may make your story defunct before it has a chance to go anywhere.

If you’re writing a globetrotting spy thriller then trying to work a lockdown into that isn’t going to work, so you either very clearly set it pre virus, or you set it after the pandemic and hedge every bet you can by referencing the lockdown without going too far off beam. Obviously the further your story is in the future the easier this may be. In three or four years’ time life may well have returned pretty much to normal, so just a vague reference to how your characters spent lockdown might be enough (think of the possibilities. ‘This is my husband, we met when our Zoom passwords got mixed up’. Or how about; “I had time on my hands, so I learned Russian and that’s how I ended up working for MI6”)

The safest bet of all of course might be for something set in the past or else some distance into the future. Or maybe not, perhaps people will lap up pandemic romances/detective stories/horror novels.

I went into this article with a more concrete conclusion than I’ve ended up with. In many ways so much is up in the air, and who knows where the chips will fall, which way the market will go.

Could anyone have predicted YA dystopias would be a huge thing before The Hunger Games after all? And I always imagine some bemused writers with drawers full of rejections for their erotic novels suddenly becoming very popular with publishers after Fifty Shades of Grey started selling by the trunkful.

My VERY unscientific advice would be this; there’ll be a big market for rose tinted histories and hopeful science fiction so if you’re writing something new perhaps bear that in mind.

But what do I know, I’m in the middle of a writing contemporary horror story after all!

Good luck. Stay safe. Keep writing if you can but don’t worry if you can’t and I’ll see you on the other side (Ray).

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A Nice Review

Posted: April 19, 2020 in Book reviews, Published fiction
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Just thought I’d link to this as I’ve recently had a lovely review of Do the Trains Run on Time.

The review can be found here and I heartily recommend checking out Matt’s other reviews 🙂

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81UzB7eGNYLBy David Mitchell

Mitchell’s previous book was titled Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse and since then everything has got worse (Brexit, Trump etc) I’m not sure this can entirely be laid at Mitchell’s feet, but in this collection of previously published Observer articles David tries to make light of, and in many cases attempt to come to terms with, many of the things that’ve happened in recent years; Scampi, politics, the Olympics, terrorism, exercise, rude street names, inheritance tax, salad cream, proportional representation and farts are all touched upon.

I’ve been a big fan of Mitchell and Webb for years, and it’s fair to say a slightly bigger fan of Mitchell (sorry Robert) who I find much common ground with, we’re both historians who’ve probably read more history than we di at university, we’re both centrists and both pedantic buggers. There are many differences obviously. I can drive, he can’t (in your face Mitchell) while he’s married to a woman who’s won millions playing poker (that driving doesn’t look so good now).

By it’s very nature this is an eclectic collection of thoughts and ideas, and as with any such collection, some stick and some don’t, but on the whole most are mildly amusing at least, and many are very funny—and it does help to have Mitchell’s voice in your head as you read them because his dry, pedantic delivery just makes it even better.

Thankfully I hadn’t read too many of the Observer columns used here, but I’ve hears some people who have were disappointed that  this wasn’t new stuff, but given this is made clear from the blurb I’m not sure why people still went ahead and bought it? There is some new stuff, but it’s limited. An introduction and some follow up comments on some of the things he wrote about years ago.

An interesting collection and well worth a punt if you’re a fan of David Mitchell.

9781781085967It’s 2081 and Judge Joseph Dredd is about to begin his second year as a street judge in this omnibus that brings together three very different novellas about Joe’s second year on the sked.

THE RIGHTEOUS MAN, by Michael Carroll

Even though Joe was the man to arrest his corrupt clone brother Rico, Dredd is viewed with suspicion by his fellow judges. In an attempt to get him out of the firing line Judge Goodman transfers him to a remote sector, and from here Dredd goes even further afield as he and two other judges are sent to a mining town in the Cursed Earth. Meanwhile the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad, who investigate crooked judges, have Joe in their sights and won’t stop until he joins Rico on Titan.

I liked this story. It’s nice to see some aftermath of the whole Rico affair, and good that people still distrust Joe, even though he brought Rico in, figuring if they’re identical clones then why wouldn’t they be identically guilty? The storyline out in the Cursed Earth isn’t that original—think the Magnificent Seven—but a town under siege tale is always fun and Carroll writes the action well. If there’s a criticism then it’s that sometimes Dredd gets side-tracked in favour of some of the secondary characters. Still very enjoyable and the Cursed Earth is always interesting.

 

DOWN AND OUT, by Matthew Smith

A routine stop and search leaves Dredd badly wounded, out of contact with Justice Dept and all alone in a very scuzzy sector. With only his wits and training to rely on Joe struggles to stay alive, even as a wider conspiracy unfolds.

The weakest story in the collection unfortunately, and one I struggled to get into, although it does have its moments. Part of the problem stems from Smith’s prose; his paragraphs are very long, and when I say that I mean VERY long, which made it a slog at times, but the story also feels just a tad too similar to the movie Dredd, with Joe struggling to survive being hunted by gang members. Also, there’s a fine line between portraying Dredd as a tough SOB and having him survive injuries that would kill, or at the very least completely incapacitate another man, and Dredd seems to spend most of the novella on his last legs, which leaves the action nowhere to go because he’s so badly injured in the first place. Still some nice bits, and while I guessed there was a Wall Squad judge involved I guessed wrong as to who it was and I always like being caught off guard.

 

ALTERNATIVE FACTS, by Cavan Scott

While the city prepares for an upcoming mayoral election Dredd investigates the murder of several journalists, teaming up with a psi judge and his former mentor when the case takes some unusual turns.

The third and final story is the pick of the bunch, and features a nice cameo from Judge Morphy (the senior judge who supervised Dredd’s final assessment as a rookie) as well as references to fatties, skysurfers, sleep machines, riot foam, and a whole heap of Mega City 1 lore. Is it a little too on the nose and referential at times, maybe, but I think for the most part it walks the line perfectly and, of the three, is the one that felt most like a story you’d see in 2000AD. The story twists and turns, and the resolution is satisfying, though it maybe suffers from one dramatic reveal too many, but best of all it’s just really well written.

 

So, to sum up; one great story, one good story and one decent story, not a bad package as omnibuses go so well recommended to Dredd/2000AD fans.

Parasite

Posted: March 13, 2020 in Film reviews
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Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Jang Hye-jin.

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The impoverished Kim family live hand to mouth in Seoul in a small semi-basement and earn a pittance folding pizza boxes. One day the son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is visited by an old friend who tells him he’s been tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family, but since he has to go and study abroad he suggests Ki-woo take his place. Ki-woo isn’t sure but with the help of some forged documents courtesy of his artistic sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) he visits the luxurious hillside house owned by the Park family, where he impresses Mrs Park into giving him a job.

Soon he begins inveigling the rest of his family into menial jobs working for the Park family, but how long can they keep the charade up for? Especially when a curious secret is revealed?

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Sometimes you watch an Oscar winning film and wonder what all the fuss was about. Sometimes you watch an Oscar winning film and understand implicitly. I recall watching The Artist and loving it from the first moment, and if I didn’t love Parasite quite so quickly, it wasn’t very long at all before I was enraptured by the shenanigans of the sly Kim family.

It’s best not to know too much about Parasite, and in many respects it’s hard to pin down as a film. For example I’d been led to believe it was in part a horror film, but while I can see why people think this, to me it works far better as a black comedy, albeit one that gets darker and darker and darker…

If you’re concerned that subtitles will form a barrier to understanding this film, then please don’t worry. I had no trouble following the plot, and the subtitles proved no barrier to enjoying the film’s humour (and it is very funny) or understanding its biting social satire, though here the film is more nuanced than it first appears. Are the Kim family the parasites for living off the Park’s money, or are the Parks actually the parasites for living off the labour of the Kim family? The upcoming black and white version might blur the lines even more.

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I’ve seen someone suggest this felt like a (very dark and at times violent) Ealing comedy, and I think they hit the nail right on the head. They may be duplicitous but you can’t help rooting for the Kim family. My feelings towards certain characters did shift as the film continued, and relationships that at first seem friendly soon become something else entirely, and while it might be fair to say there are no real bad guys in this film, it would equally be fair to say there are no real good guys either.

The contrast between the luxury home of the Parks (all steel and glass with an actual lawn) and the almost subterranean existence of the Kims (and the semi basements are a genuine feature of South Korea) isn’t subtle, but then this is a film that early on has a character keep referring to things as “That’s so metaphorical”. The respective homes do make for some amusing scenes (find the wi-fi is a particular joy) but also some heart-breaking ones.

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I do need to stress, this may be a film with a message, but it works on multiple levels—Director Bong’s direction is very good without being flashy, but there’s some wonderful imagery, especially during a monstrous rainstorm late on in the film, and his cast are excellent, with special mention having to go to Song Kang-ho as the father of the Kim family, an earthy, slovenly man who nonetheless earns our sympathy. Really everyone is great in this however.

It isn’t perfect, while it never drags it does feel just a tad too long, and the ending seems a little unsatisfying, but any flaws are incredibly minor and in no way marred my enjoyment, and I think this is a film that will only get better with repeat viewings. Don’t be put off by the subtitles, because if you are, you’ll miss a real treat because this is very, VERY good film that richly deserved a gold statuette (and maybe should have picked up a few more.)

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