"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Film: Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino

With the exception of Death Proof, crime action-thriller Jackie Brown is probably the most overlooked of Quentin Tarantino’s films, with both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction being perpetually drooled over by film fans instead. The story of Jackie Brown is based on a 1995 crime novel entitled Rum Punch’by Elmore Leonard, and the setting feels similar to a couple of Tarantino’s other films; there are hard-ass gangsters, high as the sky party girls, guns, and some shootings. Despite these familiar ingredients of a Tarantino film it is very different from the director’s superior productions: Jackie Brown lacks the sharp, witty dialogue of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the dynamic characters of not only these but also the more recent Inglourious Basterds. These shortcomings lead Jackie Brown to ultimately be a decent film, but comparatively little more than a shadow of the majority of Tarantino’s brilliant work.

The story concerns the titular Jackie (Pam Grier), an air stewardess, who is busted at LA X airport with a huge bundle of cash which she has smuggled from Mexico for ruthless gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). The cop (Michael Keaton) who arrests Jackie wants her to help him to put the dangerous Ordell behind bars by agreeing to arrange another heist with the gun-salesman and to this time keep the police informed about the details so they can catch him. Meanwhile, Ordell merely wants his money and involves his constantly stoned, carefree beach bunny room-mate (Bridget Fonda) and fresh out of jail meathead Louis (Robert de Niro) in the plan to take it from under the nose of the police. Jackie, however, intends to fool both parties and take off with Ordell’s money herself, with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) who becomes attracted to the stewardess after he retrieves her from jail.

From the moment Jackie Brown begins, you can tell immediately that it was crafted by Tarantino - the funky music and the way it’s shot scream his unique style. However two major traits which seem to characterise his films are largely missing from Jackie Brown - ‘Royale with Cheese’ level dialogue, and dynamic, truly memorable characters.  None of the characters have as much charisma as Bill from Kill Bill: Volume 2, and Jackson’s Ordell Robbie is a pale imitation of Pulp’s Jules. The characters were very much lacklustre and largely forgettable in comparison with characters from the other films I have mentioned; Pulp’s Vincent and Jules comprise the best film duo I have ever seen, and I was completely blown away by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine and Christoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Lander in Inglourious Basterds.

Another downside to this film is that it is much too long - 2 hours and 35 minutes is really pushing it as the plot did not necessitate such length. I was surprised to discover after watching it that Pulp Fiction exceeds Jackie Brown in length by 5 minutes - the difference is that the latter feels long, whereas the former doesn’t at all, and I think this is the main difference between a good film and a spectacular film - if it feels like it’s dragging then it’s not doing its job properly, and that job is to entertain the audience.  

My verdict is that Jackie Brown is an enjoyable, interesting and stylish film, with a high level of acting skill, although it is too long and does not reflect Tarantino’s full talent as a director. Ordell is quite a scary, unpredictable character, so I was eager to see if Jackie would get away with double-crossing him, and if she would simultaneously succeed in fooling the police. It is worth a watch if you enjoy crime or action-thriller films, or if, like me, you enjoy Tarantino’s work, as it exudes his characteristic edgy style in spades.

Rating: 7/10

For a frame of reference, I have included my ratings for the rest of QT’s films:
Reservoir Dogs: 10/10
Pulp Fiction: 10/10
Kill Bill Volume 1: 9/10
Kill Bill Volume 2: 9/10
Death Proof: 8/10
Inglourious Basterds: 9/10

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The Hellbound Heart is one of Clive Barker’s most well known tales and is generally considered a horror classic. The novella sparked the inspiration for the Hellraiser movie series, the first film of which was directed by Barker himself.

After growing bored with the simple pleasures mortal life has to offer him, hedonistic sensualist Frank Cotton decides to seek otherworldly extremes of carnal indulgence from the mysterious Lemarchand puzzle box. The trinket is rumoured to open a gateway to unimaginable and unbridled delights which surpass all human ecstasies. Once Frank discovers the secret to unlocking the puzzle box though, he is dragged into the realm of the vicious, sadomasochistic demon-like creatures called the Cenobites. Unfortunately the Cenobites’ idea of pleasure doesn’t correlate with Frank’s own, and instead of the scores of ethereally beautiful women Frank expects to be confronted with, he endures excruciating torture and is left horribly disfigured and trapped in the Cenobites’ world.

That is the premise, but the story really begins when Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julia - who had an affair with Frank previously - move into the house in which Frank opened the box. A few drops of blood from a DIY accident on the floor of the room in which Frank disappeared summons him before Julia, flayed and disfigured, and she decides to help him to regain his full form and escape the Cenobites’ world. To do this, all she needs is to simply spill more blood...

This novella was very unusual. It was pushing very close to my limit for weirdness in stories - had it been any stranger I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it very much. I did enjoy it though, a lot; the pace is kept throughout, and I wanted to know how it would turn out - there were many questions flying around in my brain as I was reading: would Frank manage to escape the Cenobites? How far would Julia go to help him? Would Rory and Kirsty - the couples’ neighbour who becomes entangled in the situation - discover what was going on, and would they live through it? Overall it was an exciting, fast paced, gory little read and I would recommend this as key reading to any horror fan.

The characters are fine but are not very fleshed out, however this is to be expected with a novella of only 164 pages. Frank and Julia are truly vile, and I came to despise them, and Rory comes across as a bit stupid. The Cenobites were creepy and completely repulsive - I felt a little queasy reading about them; there’s just something about in depth descriptions of maimed and disfigured bodies that really grosses me out - I suppose I should commend Barker for making me feel this way, as it’s rare that I feel much distress or abhorrence when reading books or watching films; I even read American Psycho and lived to tell the tale! So if you’re squeamish I would probably steer clear of this, but here’s a taste of the gruesome descriptions in the book to test your nerve:
“Frank had difficulty guessing the speaker’s gender with any certainty. Its clothes, some of which were sewn both to and through its skin, hid its private parts, and there was nothing in the dregs of its voice, or in its wilfully disfigured features, that offered the least clue. When it spoke the hooks that transfixed the flaps on its eyes, and were wed, by an intricate system of chains passed through flesh and bone alike, to similar hooks through the lower lips, were teased by the motion, exposing the glistening meat beneath.”
And just for fun, here is the only brief appearance of the infamous Pinhead:
“Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy - the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.”
Although he certainly didn’t have a breathy, girlish voice in Hellraiser!

The gruesome descriptions of the Cenobites are not the worst of it though. There is plenty of gore and mutilation to feed the hungry horror fan, particularly towards the end, and it was all brilliantly executed and didn’t feel gratuitous as it fit with the events that unfolded.

All horror fans should definitely read this, but be warned that it is very strange and pretty gross to read, so those with weak stomachs should probably stay away. I can’t believe how long I put off reading this, but I’m very glad that I finally did. The Hellbound Heart was my first Clive Barker, but I will definitely read more of him now. It’s well written, interesting, exciting, gory and original, moreover it’s so short that you don’t really have anything to lose from giving this a try!

Rating 8/10

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Little Women and Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

Just a quick note before I begin - if your copy of Little Women contains two volumes, the second volume is simply Good Wives so don’t buy a separate copy of Good Wives if this is the case - the books are normally published together under the one title of Little Women with two volumes contained between the covers. I only mention this here because I was really confused after I read my two volume copy and it took me a while after trawling websites to find out that I had in fact already read Good Wives. Furthermore I should mention that this review contains one major spoiler, but it’s part of the plot that is generally well known about, particularly if you have seen a certain Friends episode featuring both The Shining and Little Women, but I will forewarn you when I am about to reveal it.

Little Women and Good Wives, published in 1868 and 1869 respectively, is a story following the four March sisters and their friend Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence in Massachusetts in the 1800’s. The four girls each exhibit individual flaws and much of the plot is concerned with their journey to correct themselves, always supporting each other in the end despite their numerous squabbles. Margaret “Meg” March is the eldest sister and at the beginning of the tale is very preoccupied with materialistic possessions, Josephine “Jo” March is a tomboy with a fiery temper, Elizabeth “Beth” March is shy and gentle and Amy, being the youngest March sister, is spoilt and therefore prone to temper tantrums. Little Women follows the sisters for about a year, but Good Wives skips forward in time regularly so that by the end they are all of adult age.

I found these two books to be so delightful and charming that I felt genuinely sad when they came to an end. Each chapter tends to be about an event a particular sister goes through, and what she learns at the end of it. Considering the books were originally aimed at a younger audience, I think this works well, although I know many people have complained that the books are too preachy - which is possibly true for a modern audience. However I didn’t find it bothersome and I didn’t think that the moral lessons were so overt as to ruin my enjoyment of the book. In fact if anything this aspect of the novel did me some good; I can be very impatient and reading these books made me feel bad for getting annoyed at little things and to generally be nicer and calmer.  

The sisters are well drawn and believable as real people - except for Beth, but I will discuss her in more detail a little later. The four girls are so different from one another, with their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and this is one of the aspects of the story that keeps it interesting and it means that almost any reader will be able to relate to at least one of them. It would have been very easy for Alcott to have fallen into the trap of painting them as a single homologous entity, but she avoided this entirely by making their characters so diverse.

Jo was by far my favourite sister. I loved everything about her character - her energy and drive, her boyishness, her love of books and writing. I really did not like how these characteristics were generally seen as faults by her family, and she was constantly being urged to act more like a lady. The reason this bothered me so much because she was such a refreshing female character compared not only to her prim and proper sisters but most female characters written in the Victorian era. Jo was portrayed as the sister with the most flaws, when I thought she was the most honest and wholesome, but I suppose this reflects the notions of how a young girl should conduct herself in the nineteenth century.  

From the feisty and energetic Jo, I come to her complete antithesis: the quiet and painfully timid Beth. I am about to reveal that spoiler I warned you about at the beginning of the review, so if you don’t want to know, skip this part.

In the latter part of Good Wives Beth dies. I only bring this spoiler into the review because it is supposed to upset the reader, but I was not moved by her death at all, in fact I was relieved when it finally happened after all the plentiful foreshadowing:

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

The reason I didn’t care was because in comparison with her sisters Beth’s character was plain and she had absolutely no personality. She was the only one of the quartet who failed to grow or develop in any way throughout the entire plot; she was just as perfect when she died as she was at the beginning:

‘“You’re a dear, and nothing else,’ answered Meg warmly, and no one contradicted her, for the ‘Mouse’ was the pet of the family.”

Beth was therefore not very believable as a person. No-one is perfect, and in a novel a realistic character should develop in some way to reflect how real people learn from their lives. I would have been upset if any of the other girls had died, and I can’t help but feel that her existence in the book was merely to act as a model for her sisters - nothing more. She is very sickly sweet as well, and is often surrounded by little fluffy kittens; her image is very much one of girlish perfection.

Out of the two books, Little Women is superior to Good Wives. In the former work, the events are constant and it is thoroughly enchanting and a delight to read. Good Wives drags a little towards the end and in some ways feels more rushed since so many years pass. If you’re looking for a really exciting thriller then you won’t find it here; this is a novel about growing up, learning, and the importance of relationships in both family and love. Having said this, I enjoy horror novels more than any other genre yet I adore these books. I think it is important to bear in mind that they were originally intended for younger girls when reading them in order to fully appreciate their messages and their overall charm.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Film: The Cat Returns by Hiroyuki Morita

The Cat Returns is a Japanese anime created by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese film company which is often dubbed the ‘Japanese Disney’, although in my opinion they surpass their western counterpart. Having said this, the Studio Ghibli films I have seen so far seem much weirder and much less suitable for children than the average Disney. For example there are violent decapitations, swear words  and giant raging wolves who threaten to crunch peoples’ faces off in the highly acclaimed (for some reason I personally don't understand) Princess Mononoke, which in spite of this received a PG classification - the same rating as Toy Story.

The Cat Returns, however, is definitely a safe family film. The plot follows a scatter-brained, insecure teenager named Haru who saves a handsome blue-grey cat from being run over by a truck. It turns out that the cat she saved was the Prince of the Cat Kingdom, and now the strange old King is eager to thank Haru by showering her with presents only a cat would appreciate such as gift-wrapped mice and catnip. Failing to please her, the King decides that she must come to the cat kingdom to marry the cat Prince! Haru seeks an escape from her dilemma from the Cat Bureau, but is kidnapped by the royals anyway and it is up to her new friends to save her from her feline fate before she transforms into a cat herself!

The positives of this film are numerous. As is to be expected with Studio Ghibli, the animation is beautiful, although not quite as breathtaking as that of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle - both of which I highly recommend - but I think the reason for this is likely that the landscape didn’t need to be as fantastical as most other animes demand. The cats are drawn wonderfully; and they are seriously adorable - especially a little white kitten near the beginning, and I suspect that this film may have the power to change even the strictest of dog lovers into cat admirers.

The main highlight of the film is the vast array of wonderful and very entertaining characters. I particularly liked the folk from the Cat Bureau: there’s grumpy, fat Muta and the sophisticated and typically British Baron Humbert von Gikkengen - or simply ‘the Baron’ for convenience! The King is also an interesting character; a large shaggy purple cat who seems a little insane, with eyes that constantly roll around in his head. The English dub voice acting for these characters is spot on, featuring the talents of Anne Hathaway - who ironically will play Catwoman in the latest Batman film The Dark Knight Rises - as Haru and Tim Curry - otherwise known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King’s IT - as the mad King of the Cat Kingdom. It was Cary Elwes, however, the doctor from the first ‘Saw’ film, who really stole the show as the Baron, with a posh accent to match his dapper attire, both of which befit his slick, cool character.

If you love both cats and anime then this is the perfect film for you.The Cat Returns is highly enjoyable, utterly charming and delightful to watch, and I would definitely recommend it. The plot is simple enough for children to follow, but is also full of slapstick humour and comedy that succeeds in entertaining all age groups. This is a film I will watch when I need cheering up, as it is very uplifting as well as funny. It isn’t as strong on story or in the visual and sound departments as either Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away’ or Howl’s Moving Castle’, but it was still a very good film with captivating characters. My fiancé actually said that he preferred The Cat Returns, mostly because it was less weird - which, I think, demonstrates how strange the other two are, considering The Cat Returns’ is about a kingdom of talking bipedal cats!

Rating: 8/10

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Rats by James Herbert

What would the world be like if humans were no longer the superior species? What if rats were dominant, cleverly stalking and hunting mankind in packs, becoming larger, stronger and more ferocious each day? These questions set the premise for James Herbert’s The Rats. The concept sounded interesting to me, albeit a little far-fetched: a swarm of abnormally sized rats appear seemingly out of nowhere and start attacking and eating humans, and the plot follows the plans to stop them. The story itself is very thin and unexciting however, and I really don’t have a clue how the protagonist, a school teacher, gets roped into helping the government and top scientists to eradicate the swarm. Set in the area of London in which the author spent his childhood, The Rats is something of a commentary on the government's lack of interest in less privileged areas of society, as well as the consequences of not dealing with tragedy until it is too late.

The Rats is largely considered as a horror classic, and James Herbert has sometimes been dubbed ‘the British Stephen King’, so due to these two claims, I thought I had better check one of his books out; Herbert is certainly no Stephen King however. First of all, King is a better writer: a major issue I had with this novel was how poorly the sentences were put together. The problems consisted mostly of repetition of words in close succession, such as:
“Just then, he heard a scream from upstairs. He picked up the discarded poker and raced upstairs.”
I can’t stand the repetition of ‘upstairs’ here; I can think of a hundred ways to change these sentences so that it flows more smoothly, so why couldn’t Herbert have done so? There are numerous incidents such as this, but furthermore the writing feels very disjointed and clunky, with very short sentences where there could have been a conjunction to ease the flow of the writing. I suppose bad writing in published work is just a massive pet peeve of mine, so it may not bother you, but for me it made the book quite annoying to read.

As for the idea that The Rats’ is horror classic: I didn’t find it scary so much as funny. No, not because I’m a psycho and find people being eaten alive by rats to be particularly hilarious, it was because it was so awfully cheesy. It would make a great B-movie cheese fest, along the lines of films such as ‘Sleepwalkers’ - if you haven’t seen this please do, it’s about murderous cat people and is great fun. In fact there is a 1982 film adaptation of the novel entitled ‘Deadly Eyes’, but I haven’t seen it yet. I thought the concept of the story itself was a little silly and farcical to begin with, but this is exacerbated by scenarios in the book such as someone dying on the floor of a cinema whilst being eaten alive by the gargantuan rodents:
“Raising one arm from his eyes, he stared up uncomprehendingly at the huge coloured screen above him. His eyes read the words, and his voice spoke them faintly, but his brain did not understand. He whispered ‘The End’.”
I cringed at that. There are also some very over used phrases - not quite clichés but not far off - which just make me sigh and shake my head whenever I read them:
“He didn’t know how long he’d lain there. It could have been five minutes, it could have been five hours.”
As I mentioned earlier, the story is almost non-existent. The novel consists more-or-less of a series of accounts of the rat attacks rather than there being a focus on any sort of structured plot. A chapter begins by introducing a new character, and often gives pages and pages of back story as though they are going to be central to the story, but then they are simply attacked by the rats and savagely killed. I wouldn’t have minded hearing several instances of the attacks if I didn’t have to endure the rambling back story of the victims first.

So moving on from my general grumblings, let’s talk about some the characters. The protagonist, Harris, has absolutely no personality. For some reason Herbert refers to him as ‘the teacher’ an awful lot, as though this has significance, when all it does is reinforce the concept of him as a non-entity. The rats themselves are a little ridiculous; they rapidly become bigger and bigger as the novel progresses, starting out as ‘large rats’, then advancing to the size of cats, then of dogs! Here’s a taste of just how large they grow:
“Its body must have been at least two feet long, its tail another nine or ten inches.”
Harris’ girlfriend, Judy, is as equally bland as ‘the teacher’ and is simply an old fashioned female stereotype. She merely exists to act as an object Harris can have sex with whenever he chooses, and to cook him meals on demand. In fact the entire book seemed a little misogynist. For example when the rats attack the school Harris teaches at, the girls are terrified and crying, while the boys just think the whole situation is cool and are strangely excited; when the rats attack a train the women transform into dithering idiots and it is up to a man to try to lead them to safety.

In conclusion, despite the novel’s esteemed status in the horror world, I was unimpressed. It was severely lacking in plot, and I found that the compilation of the rat attacks was rendered boring due to the gratuitous descriptions of a victim’s life before they were attacked; especially considering the central characters were so underdeveloped, and as a result I found I didn’t care whether anyone survived or not. I probably won’t read the next two books in the trilogy (Lair and Domain), at least not anytime soon. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, because if you’re after a good old fashioned gory blood-soaked horror then you’ve certainly found it in The Rats which contains plenty of gritty scenes of mutilation and murder-by-rat; if you are at all squeamish then steer clear!

It is probable that The Rats would have been more powerful and effective back when it was published in 1974, as rats were viewed as more dangerous and more of a threat than they generally are nowadays. As for me, I love rats; I used to have two pet rats a few years ago, so I didn’t find the concept particularly scary or threatening - giant spiders or giant wasps would have been a different story though!

Rating: 5/10