Archive for September, 2014

Directed by Scott Frank. Starring Liam Neeson.

It’s New York in 1999. When his wife is kidnapped and horribly murdered drug dealer (sorry drug trafficker) Kenny Kristo (Downton’s Dan Stevens) hires Matt Scudder (Neeson) to track down the perpetrators of the crime so he can exact his revenge.

Scudder was a cop until a shootout went wrong eight years ago, now he’s a recovering alcoholic who works as an unlicensed private investigator, doing ‘favours’ for people. Initially he refuses the job, but is persuaded to change his mind by the horrific nature of the crime.

As his investigations progress it quickly becomes apparent that the two killers have struck before and that they will strike again. When another victim is kidnapped Scudder knows he doesn’t have long to prevent her suffering the same horrific fate as the previous victims.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I am a long-time fan of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, so from the moment I first heard about this adaptation I was looking forward to it, figuring at the very least it had to be better and more faithful than the only previous attempt to translate Scudder to the big screen, the not terribly good 1986 effort Eight Million Ways to Die which featured Jeff Bridges as Scudder and transferred the action from New York to California.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is several orders of magnitude better than Eight Million Ways to Die, and Neeson is a far better Scudder (though his accent takes a little getting used to). The adaptation is faithful, although it does play a little fast and loose with Block’s books, though not in any blasphemous manner, so Scudder’s girlfriend, Elaine is missing, though she’s in the book, and we meet Scudder’s protégé TJ, a young black man living on the streets, even though he doesn’t actually turn up until a later book. Everything else is present and correct; the tragedy that haunts Scudder, his low rent hotel room home, his propensity to visit AA meetings and the fact he carries a lot of quarters around with him and makes use of a lot of payphones.

It’s difficult to call it a true period piece, New York of 1999 is faithfully recreated, but it isn’t that different to now, the mobile phones are a little funny looking, and the computers very funny looking, and Scott Frank does overdo the mentions of Y2K, it’s funny at first but becomes tiresome. Other than this it could be 2014.

The film is brutal, with several scenes of rape and torture, albeit much of the violence is implied—which kinda makes it all the more horrible—and it could be argued the film has a slight misogynistic feel, there are no major female characters, pretty much the only female characters of note are victims. It’s a shame as Block’s written some decent female characters over the years, and this is where, perhaps, the inclusion of Elaine might have helped, although from a plot perspective TJ is probably more useful.

However grim the film is, however, it’s also hopeful. People might see just another Liam Neeson gritty thriller, but as Scudder he’s called upon to express a greater range of emotion than, for example, when he plays the man with a certain set of skills in the Taken films. Scudder is a broken man, yet also a noble one, worthy of our empathy. Is he a tough guy, yes. Is he handy with his fists and a gun, again yes, but given the hardboiled nature of the film that’s hardly unexpected.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is probably not the most original of hardboiled detective tales, but for me what it does it does very well, the bad guys are sickeningly nasty, but on the whole the denizens of Scudder’s world are treated fairly, and the film is rarely judgemental about drug dealers, addicts and the other broken people that Scudder encounters.

It will be too dark for some, and the languid nature of Scudder’s investigation may frustrate those expecting high octane car chases and multiple gun battles, but for me this is a solid and very faithful adaptation of a great book, a call back to the classic era of detective films—albeit with a more modern exploration of violence—and I’d be quite happy to see Neeson return in the role of Scudder.

Like I say, I’m biased but I really liked it.

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Solo

Posted: September 14, 2014 in Book reviews

By William Boyd.

It is 1969. James Bond has just celebrated his 45th birthday and is in reflective mood, thinking about his life and the past, in particular remembering his time in World War 2. A chance meeting with actress Bryce Fitzjohn suggests the possibility of romance, but before he can pursue this M assigns him a new mission.

007 is sent to Africa, to the country of Zanzarim where recent discovery of oil has encouraged a civil war, with part of the country splitting off to create the Democratic Republic of Dahum. Dahum is a small nation, surrounded on all sides, and yet they consistently hold their own against the superior Zanzarim forces. This appears to be down to General Solomon Adeka, a military genius. M orders Bond to make the General a less efficient soldier.

Once in Africa Bond meets up with Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, a beautiful MI6 agent, and together the two of them set off to infiltrate Dahum, with Bond undercover as a journalist. En route they are captured by Jackobus Breed, a disfigured Rhodesian mercenary working for the Dahum forces. During a firefight Bond and Blessing escape, but in the confusion Blessing goes missing.

Eventually Bond makes his way to Dahum where he completes his mission to degrade the ability of the Dahum army, though not in the way he expected to. On his way out of Dahum he’s betrayed and left for dead.

Bond survives though, and after recuperating he decides to go solo to Washington DC on the trail of those who betrayed and tried to murder him, his mission; revenge!

The first thing to say about this is that Solo is a lousy title for a Bond story, it has none of the verve or panache you’d expect from one of 007’s adventures, and it also brings to mind The Man From U.N.C.L.E’s Napoleon Solo, a character created by Ian Fleming. Perhaps the similarity is intentional, it just seems that there are better titles for a story where Bond goes rogue (though obviously Licence Revoked is taken).

The second thing to say about it is that the title is probably the weakest thing about it. Coming on the heels of Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche and Sebastian Faulkes’ Devil May Care, I’d argue that Solo is a better Bond novel than either of them.

Faulkes’ book was set in the right era, and steeped in Fleming tropes, but it felt too much like a pastiche, as if everything in it was supposed to reference an existing character or situation from a Bond novel, and it ended up nothing more than a reproduction, a beautiful reproduction but one without an original bone in its body.

By contrast Deaver’s 21st Century Bond was bang up to date and a pacey modern thriller, unfortunately it never really felt like Bond. Maybe it was the present day setting, but more likely the fact that all of Bond’s problems could be solved, it seemed, using an app on his phone! It was fun but utterly forgettable.

By contrast Boyd sets his story at the end of the sixties, with Bond’s age and the breakup of Zanzarim both reflecting a post Imperial melancholia. Bond feels like Bond, and the prose feels like Fleming, but in neither case is Boyd as beholden to the past as Faulkes had been. Bond is nowhere near as sadistic (one brutal scene aside) sexist or racist as Fleming wrote him. Perhaps in part this is down to modern sensibilities, but having a slightly older Bond does allow Boyd to create a more reflective 007, and Bond does seem less brutal (this might be down to the Fleming estate who, apparently, had issues with Bond being portrayed as an assassin, which is perhaps one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. This perhaps explains M’s vague order to make Adeka “a less effective soldier”. Clearly Bond is being sent to kill him.)

The book is replete with detailed descriptions of Bond’s lifestyle, from flash cars to gourmet cooking (much as Fleming wrote him) and the prose has the requisite hardboiled feel to it, in particular when Bond goes out to get revenge, and in some ways the Washington chapters play better than those set in Zanzarim.

The novel does flag a little in the middle, and Breed is a curious villain who feels more like a henchman really. But Blessing and Bryce are intriguing Bond girls, and M and Felix Leiter both play their part as well, and it’s refreshing to note that Boyd doesn’t hammer the reader over the head in terms of the rights or wrongs of the situation in Zanzarim, or the nature of the Western powers eager lust for oil. That’s not to say he doesn’t make a point or two, but he’s smart enough to let the reader make his or her own mind up.

A tough and uncompromising novel, much like Bond himself.

Lucy

Posted: September 3, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman.

A young American student named Lucy is in Taiwan, ostensibly studying but mainly partying. She’s been dating a man named Richard for a week and doesn’t trust him when he asks her to deliver a briefcase to a businessman. After he tricks her into delivering the case her fears are proven correct as Richard is gunned down in front of her and it turns out the businessman is a gangster named Mr Jang.

The suitcase contained four packets of blue powder, a new drug that Mr Jang is exporting to Europe. Now his prisoner, Lucy, along with three others, has a bag of the drug sewn into her stomach and the plan is to use her as a mule to smuggle the drugs into Europe.

Before she can be put on a plane however one of Jang’s henchmen kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the bag. A massive overdose of the drug doesn’t kill Lucy though, instead it works on her brain, forging new connections and allowing her to access more than the 10% we (apparently) use.

Overpowering her guards she heads for Europe on the trail of the remaining three bags of drugs, but as her powers grow exponentially, and she begins to use an increasing percentage of her brain, the question becomes; what happens when she hits 100%?

Luc Besson + Scarlett Johansson, a film that marries high octane action with existential thought, Lucy should be absolutely great. Unfortunately it isn’t.

The film starts well, with Johansson doing a bang up job as the terrified girl completely out of her depth surrounded by men who really don’t care if she lives or dies. Unfortunately as her brain power increases, my interest decreased in direct correlation.

Part of the problem is that Lucy becomes too powerful too quickly, and whilst her initial scenes kicking arse are fun, as she becomes more and more adept at using her powers the drama ekes out of the story. Suddenly she can change her hair colour just by thinking about it, and control TVs, computers and mobile phones, and she can render people unconscious with the flick of her wrist, so any time someone pulls a gun you don’t worry because there’s no way to harm her.

It’s hard to decide what kind of film Besson thinks he’s making but I think it boils down to “a film that isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.” Using stock footage of animals being stalked, or mating to highlight what’s going on the film isn’t a terrible idea, but given the film has a sparse runtime anyway you do have to consider how much of the film is either lifted from National Geographic documentaries, or just involves Morgan Freeman spouting reams of exposition whilst some pretty pictures go by.

Some of the action set pieces are good, and the car chase through Paris is well put together, even if it’s essentially pointless, and this does at least show that Besson still has an eye for action. Johansson has proven herself a more than capable screen presence this year alone with both Captain America 2 and Under the Skin providing excellent showcases of her abilities, and she undeniably looks good in high heels wielding two guns, and she plays both the terror stricken young woman, and the superior, almost alien, woman equally well, the trouble is she doesn’t have enough to get her teeth into. She had more action in Captain America 2, and as the lead in Under the Skin she portrayed an emotionless superior being, yes, but one that showed glimpses of something else beneath, whereas with Lucy all she’s required to do is surface.

By the time the film enters its final third Besson proves he’s watched 2001 and Altered States as he takes Lucy on a metaphysical journey through time and space before he cribs from the Lawnmower Man and leaves Morgan Freeman holding the world’s least convincing looking USB stick…

A good director and a great star can’t rescue a film that’s short on ideas, and short on minutes to expound on them. As a more straightforward action film, or a more cerebral thriller it might have worked. Instead it falls between two stools and cracks its head open on the floor. And don’t even get me started on the “we only use 10% of our brain” malarkey.

It’s not terrible but if you want to watch a popcorn film about what happens when the human mind is expanded then I’d suggest you watch Bradley Cooper in Limitless. It’s not a great film, but it’s better than Lucy.

The Secret Speech

Posted: September 2, 2014 in Book reviews
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By Tom Rob Smith.

This is the sequel to Soviet era thriller Child 44, which I’ve reviewed previously. As is always the case whilst I’ll try to avoid spoilers it is hard to talk about this book without potentially spoiling Child 44. You’ve been warned.

It’s three years after the death of Stalin, and Leo Demidov, the hero of Child 44, is running the only homicide division within the Soviet Union—his reward for stopping the child murderer in the first book. In the three years many things have changed. The MGB has gone, replaced by the KGB, and Khrushchev now rules in place of Stalin. The country is perhaps less totalitarian than it was, although it’s still a place ruled by fear, and if things aren’t quite as horrible as in Stalin’s time, Smith still evokes a place you wouldn’t want to live in.

Leo and his wife, Raisa are raising two young sisters, Zoya and Elena, as their own children having rescued them from an orphanage at the end of Child 44. Unfortunately whilst Elena, the younger child, has grown to love her adoptive parents, Zoya still hates Leo for the role he played in the murder of her parents.

When Khrushchev’s “secret” speech is released, denouncing many of the crimes committed under Stalin, it acts as a trigger for the violent murder of many former MGB agents. Though the crimes seem random, Leo quickly discovers that he is the ultimate target of an unexpected enemy from his past. Soon Zoya has been kidnapped and Leo will find himself undertaking a perilous journey that will take him from the harsh gulags at the ends of the earth, to the Hungarian uprising in Budapest.

Firstly it must be said that this is an enjoyable book. Smith’s prose remains exceptionally readable and however contrived his narrative becomes, it always remains a heck of a page turner. Unfortunately, it has to be said, there are an awful lot of contrivances within the book.

Whilst the first majority of Child 44 was a masterpiece that sadly went off the rails somewhat as realism was jettisoned for a series of daring escapes and ridiculous coincidences, The Secret Speech puts realism to one side far earlier in the narrative, with Smith content instead to indulge his inner screenwriter in what reads suspiciously like the first draft script of a high octane thriller. Leo is hurled from one ridiculously dangerous encounter to another, and whilst the pace is breath-taking it quickly becomes a trifle dull; from a chase through to sewers of Moscow to slave revolts on a rusty freighter and a harsh gulag to the Hungarian revolution it’s easy to see that this book might make for a good film.

Unfortunately things that are forgivable in the breakneck pace of a film become glaring within the novel. At times it seems Leo can’t do anything without it backfiring on him, as if Smith feels the need for every scene to be one of life and death. Unfortunately this just makes it harder and harder to suspend disbelief. The book rarely pauses to let the story breathe, and so what you’re left with is a series of set pieces linked tenuously together.

Still well written and I’ll definitely be getting the final part of the trilogy, but not a patch on Child 44 unfortunately.