Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Round-Up#15 (Best of 2009 Edition)

2009 was a good year for readers and movie-goers. So here they are, the best books and films of 2009 (Note: Not all of these titles were released in 2009, but I read or watched them this year).

Best Books I read in 2009:

The Cabinet of Curiosities: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child burst onto the scene with the rousing adventure/thriller Relic, a genre-hopping novel that was scary, compelling and , above all, a great story. But it also served to introduce one very special FBI agent. Special Agent Pendergast, one of the most intriguing characters to come out of the mystery genre and maybe the most intriguing character to come out of the genre in the past twenty years. And of all the adventures written by Preston/Child, The Cabinet of Curiosities is probably the best place to get introduced to their work and to Special Agent Pendergast.

The novel, which revolves around a seemingly immortal serial killer who stalks the streets of New York city, is a delicious labyrinth of atmosphere, suspense, scares and clues. It is one of those books that is so good, so original, you just don't want it to end.

So if you are a fan of classic mysteries, the works of Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins, or just plain good storytelling, curl up with this book and let Special Agent Pendergast guide you through this wonderful mystery.

P.S. For more info about the works of Preston/Child and the Pendergast novels, visit the authors' official website.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: Before reading it, I had heard a lot about this book. I had heard that it was original, atmospheric, clever, and scary. Well, the book is all that and so much more! This is a masterpiece of psychological thrills, characterization, plotting, and sheer imagination. The story, revolving around two US Marshalls who are assigned the job of investigating a mental facility named Ashcliffe (a.k.a Shutter Island) where a patient has supposedly escaped and can't be found, is deceptively simple. Said detectives delve into the mystery, gather facts, and begin to sense that something isn't right with the place. The medical staff is reluctant to give any more information than what they absolutely have to, and everyone seems to be hiding something.

Saying anymore would be wrong. Just grab a copy, relax, and give in to Dennis Lehane's storytelling. If you do that, you'll be taken on a ride that is entertaining, engrossing, endlessly addictive, and disturbing. As for the ending, the only way to describe it is as devastatingly pitch-perfect. This is the stuff of literary dreams.

The book has already been adapted into a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese.

The Tangled Skein by David Stuart Davies: Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of sleuth
extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes revolutionized detective fiction and continues to do so to this day. I doubt there is a single writer of crime or detective fiction who hasn't read some or all of Doyle's work and has been influenced by it, by the clinical attention to detail, the strong sense of atmosphere, the sharp dialogue, and, above all, the sense of fun.
Although Doyle had retired Holmes a long while before the author's own death, writers continue to churn out patsiches; some are good, some are bad, and some are brilliant. The Tangled Skein falls somewhere between good and brilliant.

The Tangled Skein focuses on Sherlock Holmes facing the lord of the undead himself, Dracula. And although the premise sounds ludicrous and could even be considered an insult to Doyle's work, the resulting book is neither. Author and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies captures Doyle's tone and style almost perfectly and weaves a tale full of action and mood. It is a well-told tale that stays true to the mythos and features dialogue that could have been written by the master himself. Where the book falters a bit is in the mystery aspect. In trying to combine the mythologies of both Doyle and Bram Stoker's work, Davies veers more towards the plotting style of Stoker, with more action than intrigue. Although that makes it a rousing thriller , full of atmosphere and foreboding, it also makes it a not very good mystery. But there is an added bonus here. Davies ingeniously adds the very neat twist of making this story a direct sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Something that avid Holmes readers will find delightful. I did.

The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli: Every once in a while you come across a book that reminds you why you fell in love with Livre-Noir in the first place. The atmosphere, the tension, the shadowy anti-heroes, the femme fatales, and the whopping good story. The Cold Spot is one such book. Author Tom Piccirilli writes a book that is gritty, modern and reminiscent of vintage 40's noir at the same time. The story revolving around a young getaway driver - who was forced into crime by his sociopathic grandfather - who plans to avenge his wife's killers, is compelling, emotional, thrilling, and, ultimately, haunting. Piccirilli's prose is smooth and lean; you won't find an ounce of fat on his plotting, descriptive passages or dialogue. This is minimalism at its most effective. He hits you with one storytelling magic trick after another and before you know it, the book is over and you're hungry for more time with these characters (the ones who are still alive, anyway). But not to worry, the sequel, The Coldest Mile, is already out. Thank you, Tom.


The Veil Trilogy (The Myth-Hunters/The Borderkind/The Lost Ones) by Christopher Golden: The prolific and immensely talented Christopher Golden (author of numerous engrossing Buffy media tie-ins and such favorites as Straight on 'til morning and the highly-acclaimed ghost story Wildwood Road) reaches new heights with The Veil Trilogy; three books that are brimming with imagination, powerful imagery, memorable characters, and, above all, storytelling prowess. Although it is marketed as a fantasy, this is a trilogy that defies categorization. The story about an ordinary young man who unwittingly becomes a major player in an inter-dimensional battle between creatures of myth (who are separated from our world by an invisible veil weaved with magic), is, at least on the surface, simple and cliched. But Golden has much in store for readers who are willing to continue with the journey. Suspense, horror, breath-taking set-pieces, and a climax that is nothing short of a whopper, make up this compelling and endlessly entertaining genre-hopping trilogy. If there's any justice in the world, this should become a classic in years to come.


As for the best book I read in 2009, without a doubt, it is . . .

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean: J.M Barrie's Peter Pan has delighted children and grown-ups alike for decades. And for good reason. It is a book that makes one feel like a child again, makes your imagination go wild and your heart warm.
Now, almost a century later, comes the official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. The only way I can describe how good this book is, is by saying that it was worth the wait!
This is a book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading in the first place. This is a wondrous piece of work that does the impossible. Surpass the original. Author Geraldine McCaughrean manages to write a book that is pure magic. Taking place roughly two decades after the events of the original, the story revolves around Wendy and the lost boys - all grown up now - who have to go back to Neverland to try to stop their dreams about it, which are starting to invade their everyday lives. So back they go, and what they find is a completely changed Neverland and a transformed Peter Pan, a Peter Pan in Scarlet. Saying anymore would be a crime. Suffice to say, this is a book that will warm your heart, set your imagination on fire, and enchant you no matter how young or old you are. A masterpiece and an instant classic.

The Best Films I watched in 2009:

Taken: Action-packed, with great performances, Taken takes the man out for revenge cliche and injects it with new life. Who would have thought that a film about a man out to save his teenage daughter from the clutches of human traffickers could be so good! With Liam Neeson (a hugely underrated actor, known more for his on-screen presence and his perennial one-note roles as a sage or mentor than for his acting chops) in top form, a script that gives time for us to get to know and care about the characters, and kinetic direction by Pierre morel, this shows that good, effective action-pictures still have some life left in them.

Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood. What can one say about the man? Starting off in the 50's as an extra in B-pictures for Universal Studios, Eastwood's star kept rising till he became one of the most popular movie stars in t
he world. Then, when people least expected it, he released his first film as director, Play Misty for me. The film became a hit and his career as a successful filmmaker was launched.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare any of his fans for the kind of filmmaker he grew into as the years went by. After a brief slump in the late 80's and early 90's, Eastwood bounced back with the award-winning Unforgiven, a masterful western with an elegiac feel that proved that Eastwood had become one of the Masters.
Gran Torino is another film that cements his reputation as a masterful actor/director/producer. With his laid-back, confident, so-good-it-looks-easy-to-do style, Eastwood tells the tale of a retired old army veteran who, after losing his wife, becomes a bitter, emotionally repressed man with nothing to do and nothing to live for. That all changes when a family of Korean-Americans move next door to him. To tell you anymore of the story would be unfair to you and the film. Suffice to say, this is the kind of film they just don't make anymore. This is a film that relies solely on story and character. And as told with Eastwood's deceptively simple directing style, this is a touching, compelling and ultimately haunting story about having no place in the world and about standing up for what's right. Like many of his films, Eastwood imbues the film with an elegiac tone that is emotionally effective, yet not manipulative like many other films if its type. And the performances by all the cast (including an appealing, touching performance by Eastwood) help make this a near-masterpiece of storytelling.
Eastwood released this film along with his other directorial effort Changeling in the same year. And considering the quality of both films, it is a testament to the kind of artist he is. Unmissable.



Knowing: What do you get when you combine an idiosyncratic actor (Nicolas Cage) and an idiosyncratic filmmaker (Alex Proyas) with an idiosyncratic script posing as a summer blockbuster? You get Knowing, an apocalyptic/Sci-fi/religious thriller that is undoubtedly bonkers, yet strangely compelling.

The film revolves around Cage's Physicist, whose son unearths a document that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years, which contains the dates of all the major disasters in history as well ones still to come. Cage's character then tries to use the information he has to stop the coming disasters, fails and begins to realize that maybe the end is truly coming. And did I mention that the film also has pale, otherworldly men who appear to his son with visions of burning animals? Or what about Rose Byrne who plays two characters, both of which are destined to die? As I already mentioned, this film is bonkers. But it is also entertaining, gripping and stylish, thanks to Alex Proyas's assured direction and a script that, despite having an identity crisis, remains intriguing up until the truly "out there" ending.

Is it recommended? Yes. It is too strange and compelling a film to miss. They simply don't make them like this anymore, and that has to be worth something in this age of hyper-marketing and mindless, noisy blockbusters.

Lions for lambs: A commercial and critical flop, Lions for lambs is the kind of film that makes you wonder. After watching it I had to ask myself if I had ever watched anything remotely similar to it in the last few years (a studio-produced, star-studded drama that is politically daring and, for the most part, subtle). The answer was no.

With Lions for lambs, director/star Robert Redford attempts to make a film that doesn't preach - although it comes close to doing just that - but, instead, makes you think about what's wrong with the world nowadays. In short, according to the filmmakers (and for the most part I have to say I agree with them), what's wrong with the world today is apathy on a disastrously grand scale. The majority of the world's population today knows that a lot is wrong with the world, how it is being run, and who is running it. Through three separate but interrelated story lines, the film reveals, slowly, that the world is being destroyed and corrupted one day at a time by a group of ultra-conservative, materialistic, power-hungry con-artists, and that we, the citizens of the world, are allowing these people do it by looking the other way.

Through assured - if conventional - direction, solid performances (by a charming Meryl Streep, a showy, but effective Tom Cruise, and an earnest Robert Redford), and a mostly solid script Lions for lambs succeeds in making the gears of your brain turn, and your heart move; not a small feat considering that audiences today are so desensitized by the noisy and vacuous junk-filmmaking they get exposed to throughout the year (especially during the summer season), that it would take a piece of very potent cinema to get through. Lions for lambs, in my very humble opinion, achieves just that.

And, oh, I forgot to mention that the plot centers around the War On Terror.

As for the best film I had the pleasure of watching in 2009 . . .

Changeling: Clint Eastwood's 28th film as director is a masterclass in filmmaking. It's a story so well-told, so compelling, you just can't help but admire the sure-handedness of Eastwood in handling this complex story based on true events.

Part mystery, part court room thriller, it is a film that effortlessly combines several genres, plot lines and emotional turmoil into a startlingly touching and fascinating piece of cinema.

Based on the true story of Christine Collins (wonderfully brought to life by Angelina Jolie) and her lifelong struggle to find her missing son, this is a film that tells a heart-wrenching story and ultimately a strangely uplifting one, with the sort of minimalistic filmmaking that Eastwood has all but made his own.

Best of Extra! 2009: Every month, throughout the year, I post a capsule review of a title (a book, film, or album), which I think is a truly original piece of work. Below are some of the best Extras! of the year:


The Drive-In 2 by Joe R. Lansdale is a shockingly original piece of surreal fiction that is equal parts funny, grotesque, and sadistic. Unmissable.



U Can Dance:
This track, by DJ Hell and featuring vocals by the incomparable Bryan Ferry, is something else. A dark dance track with some of Ferry's finest vocals in years. A stunner. Listen to it here.

Boston Legal: The Complete Series: Created by David E. Kelly and starring James Spader and William Shatner, this series, which lasted for five seasons, is TV at its finest. Funny, relevant, off-kilter, superbly written, and endlessly compelling, this is a series that manages to do something that 99% of what's on TV nowadays can't seem to pull off. Be intelligent and entertaining at the same time. If you haven't seen it, start doing so immediately. Your brain will thank you for it.

Let's scare Jessica to death: This 1971 psychological chiller is a haunting, unforgettable independent film that manages to do wonders with a low-budget, mediocre performances and atmosphere. It is undoubtedly dated, but thanks to director John Hancock's mesmerizing visual style and an intriguing story focusing on mental instability and lurking evil, this little chiller delivers the goods. It also has something to say about the underlying tension that simmered just beneath the surface of the free love movement in the late sixties and early seventies. Stylish and memorable, this is a must for fans of obscure, weird cinema.


That's it for me this year. Till 2010, keep browsing those shelves!

P.S. For The Best of 2008, click here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Best Stumble-Upons of 2009!

Hi there. 2009 is coming to an end, and so is another year of discovery and exploration of what is out there in terms of interesting online content. So, since this is the season of giving, I am going to share with you some of the best links I have stumbled upon in 2009.

Here goes . . .

David Lynch on watching films on your phone!

My sentiments exactly.



Black Dog by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: This month's Extra! selection is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's magnificent rendition of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog. Plant and Krauss (who teamed up for 2008's amazing Raising Sand album) take on this rock classic and turn it into a haunting, moving, slow-burn bluesy rocker. Fantastic!



Dean Koontz Interview: A short but insightful interview with Dean Koontz, one of my favorite authors, about the importance of books and their ability to change your life.



Fascinating interview with singer/songwriter Robert Palmer: A short segment from the British TV show THE TUBE, showing singer/songwriter Robert Palmer using his synth gear to construct a song (Want you more, from the 1983 album Pride). Fascinating, and a must for fans (like myself) of this massively under-appreciated and hugely versatile artist.


The Tube - The Tube Interview 1984 on MUZU.

There is also another very insightful interview with him here, in which he comes off as the true artist and musicologist that he was.

Great article about "The Egyptian Knight of Romance", author Youssef El Seba'ey (In Arabic):

http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=96352

Insightful and sadly funny article about this year's edition of The Cairo International Film Festival:

http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=26024

David Lynch on getting asked to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI!



That's it for me. Next time, I'll share with you the best books and films of 2009!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Round-Up#14 (Bumper Edition)

Film Review: Case 39: I had a little argument with myself before writing this review. I was considering whether this film was worth your time or not. In fact, I was mulling over the fact that this film is not good by any stretch of the imagination. But, still, there is something about it, about its craziness, its frantic energy, its sheer silliness that made me like it. Yes. I admit it. I like it. This film is the very definition of guilty pleasure. It is loud, silly, and with enough polish to make it think of itself as something better than it really is.

So why am I wasting my time and yours reviewing it? Well, because it is loads of fun! Come on, who can resist seeing Academy-Award Winner Renee Zelwegger giving a delightfully hysterical performance, which includes her being deathly afraid of an 11 year-old girl who might be a demon wanting to eat her! The film also includes gruesome deaths by cutlery, fire, wasps, and a finale that throws everything but the kitchen sink.

They just don't make them like this anymore.

No wonder the film has been lying on the shelf at Paramount Studios for the last two years. This is a film out of time; this is a film that would have been perfect drive-in fodder back in the mid to late Eighties (minus the A-Class stars and big budget, of course).

So, what's the final verdict? Guilty of being a guilty pleasure. Grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready to see an Oscar winner run for her life from an annoying child actress pretending to be evil incarnate. I guarantee that, if in the right mood, you and yours will enjoy it.

Book Review: The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli: Every once in a while you come across a book that reminds you why you fell in love with Livre-Noir in the first place. The atmosphere, the tension, the shadowy anti-heroes, the femme fatales, and the whopping good story. The Cold Spot is one such book. Author Tom Piccirilli writes a book that is gritty, modern and reminiscent of vintage 40's noir at the same time. The story revolving around a young getaway driver - who was forced into crime by his sociopathic grandfather - who plans to avenge his wife's killers, is compelling, emotional, thrilling, and, ultimately, haunting. Piccirilli's prose is smooth and lean; you won't find an ounce of fat on his plotting, descriptive passages or dialogue. This is minimalism at its most effective. He hits you with one storytelling magic trick after another and before you know it, the book is over and you're hungry for more time with these characters (the ones who are still alive, anyway). But not to worry, the sequel, The Coldest Mile, is already out. Thank you, Tom.

Book Review: Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean: J.M Barrie's Peter Pan has delighted children and grown-ups alike for decades. And for good reason. It is a book that makes one feel like a child again, makes your imagination go wild and your heart warm.

Now, almost a century later, comes the official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. The only way I can describe how good this book is, is by saying that it was worth the wait!

This is a book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading in the first place. This is a wondrous piece of work that does the impossible. Surpass the original. Author Geraldine McCaughrean manages to write a book that is pure magic. Taking place roughly two decades after the events of the original, the story revolves around Wendy and the lost boys - all grown up now - who have to go back to Neverland to try to stop their dreams about it, which are starting to invade their everyday lives. So back they go, and what they find is a completely changed Neverland and a transformed Peter Pan, a Peter Pan in Scarlet. Saying anymore would be a crime. Suffice to say, this is a book that will warm your heart, set your imagination on fire, and enchant you no matter how young or old you are. A literary dream come true.

Extra! Boston Legal: The Complete Series: This edition's Extra! is Boston Legal: The Complete Series. Created by David E. Kelly and starring James Spader and William Shatner, this series, which lasted for five seasons, is TV at its finest. Funny, relevant, off-kilter, superbly written, and endlessly compelling, this is a series that manages to do something that 99% of what's on TV nowadays can't seem to pull off. Be intelligent and entertaining at the same time. If you haven't seen it, start doing so immediately. Your brain will thank you for it.

Next time, I'll be sharing with you the Best Films and Books of 2009.

Till then, keep browsing those shelves!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fascinating interview with Robert Palmer

A short segment from the British TV show THE TUBE, showing singer/songwriter Robert Palmer using his synth gear to construct a song (Want you more, from the 1983 album Pride). Fascinating, and a must for fans (like myself) of this massively under-appreciated and hugely versatile artist.


The Tube - The Tube Interview 1984 on MUZU.

There is also another very insightful interview with him here, in which he comes off as the true artist and musicologist that he was.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A new interview with Dean Koontz!

A short but insightful interview with Dean Koontz, one of my favorite authors, about the importance of books and their ability to change your life.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Round-Up#13

Film Review: Gran Torino: Ah, Clint Eastwood. What can one say about the man? Starting off in the 50's as an extra in B-pictures for Universal Studios, Eastwood's star kept rising till he became one of the most popular movie stars in the world. Then, when people least expected it, he released his first film as director, Play Misty for me. The film became a hit and his career as a successful filmmaker was launched.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare any of his fans for the kind of filmmaker he grew into as the years went by. After a brief slump in the late 80's and early 90's, Eastwood bounced back with the award-winning Unforgiven, a masterful western with an elegiac feel that proved that Eastwood had become one of the Masters.

Gran Torino is another film that cements his reputation as a masterful actor/director/producer. With his laid-back, confident, so-good-it-looks-easy-to-do style, Eastwood tells the tale of a retired old army veteran who, after losing his wife, becomes a bitter, emotionally repressed man with nothing to do and nothing to live for. That all changes when a family of Korean-Americans move next door to him. To tell you anymore of the story would be unfair to you and the film. Suffice to say, this is the kind of film they just don't make anymore. This is a film that relies solely on story and character. And as told with Eastwood's deceptively simple directing style, this is a touching, compelling and ultimately haunting story about having no place in the world and about standing up for what's right. Like many of his films, Eastwood imbues the film with an elegiac tone that is emotionally effective, yet not manipulative like many other films if its type. And the performances by all the cast (including an appealing, touching performance by Eastwood) help make this a near-masterpiece of storytelling.
Eastwood released this film along with his other directorial effort Changeling in the same year. And considering the quality of both films, it is a testament to the kind of artist he is. Unmissable.

Film Review: This is it: It doesn't matter if you're a fan of Michael Jackson or not, This is it is a must see. Although marketed as a documentary chronicling the rehearsals for Jackson's last ever world tour which was supposed to start only days before his tragic and untimely death, this is not really a documentary at all. This is a performance film. Pure and simple. And what a performance film it is. It shows Jackson perfecting the choreography of the shows, fine-tuning musical arrangements, overseeing the making of short films that were supposed to be rear-projected during the concerts, and more or less lost in the joy of creating art. This is Michael Jackson like you've never seen him before. Up close and full of passion about his music. He comes across as a passionate, obsessed, gentle, courteous, world-weary artist who is truly a genius. As for the performances themselves, they are a wonder to see and hear, showing Jackson improvising dance moves, interacting with younger dancers with charismatic ease, and they all leave you mourning his death and the tour's along with it.

As a testament to how unique an artist Jackson was, this is a perfect film experience that honors him and his art. He truly will be missed.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Round-Up #12


Film review: Lions for lambs:
A commercial and critical flop, Lions for lambs is the kind of film that makes you wonder. After watching it I had to ask myself if I had ever watched anything remotely similar to it in the last few years (a studio-produced, star-studded drama that is politically daring and, for the most part, subtle). The answer was no.

With Lions for lambs, director/star Robert Redford attempts to make a film that doesn't preach - although it comes close to doing just that - but, instead, makes you think about what's wrong with the world nowadays. In short, according to the filmmakers (and for the most part I have to say I agree with them), what's wrong with the world today is apathy on a disastrously grand scale. The majority of the world's population today knows that a lot is wrong with the world, how it is being run, and who is running it. Through three separate but interrelated story lines, the film reveals, slowly, that the world is being destroyed and corrupted one day at a time by a group of ultra-conservative, materialistic, power-hungry con-artists, and that we, the citizens of the world, are allowing these people do it by looking the other way.

Through assured - if conventional - direction, solid performances (by a charming Meryl Streep, a showy, but effective Tom Cruise, and an earnest Robert Redford), and a mostly solid script Lions for lambs succeeds in making the gears of your brain turn, and your heart move; not a small feat considering that audiences today are so desensitized by the noisy and vacuous junk filmmaking they get exposed to throughout the year (especially during the summer season), that it would take a piece of very potent cinema to get through. Lions for lambs, in my very humble opinion, achieves just that.

And, oh, I forgot to mention that the plot centers around the War On Terror.

Book Review: Midnight in the garden of good and evil By John Berendt: You've probably heard of this non-fiction book or its star-studded film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood. Although the film is a modestly effective piece of cinema, the book is another experience altogether. The story contained within these pages is colorful, mind-boggling, suspenseful, frightening, and, most importantly, true!

John Berendt, a journalist from New York, spent several years in Savannah gathering facts, conducting interviews and investigating the death of a disturbed young hustler who was allegedly murdered by a gay, rich antique dealer. Throw in vignettes focusing on a charming transvestite, a witch, a honey-tongued con-artist, among others, and you have an irresistible, endlessly compelling tale that is stranger than fiction.

Although Berendt occasionally plays around with facts and tampers with the time line of events, it is still a brilliantly written piece of non-fiction that drips with atmosphere and unforgettable dialogue.

Extra! Let's scare Jessica to death: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1971 psychological chiller Let's scare Jessica to death, a haunting, unforgettable independent film that manages to do wonders with a low-budget, mediocre performances and atmosphere. It is undoubtedly dated, but thanks to director John Hancock's mesmerizing visual style and an intriguing story focusing on mental instability and lurking evil, this little chiller delivers the goods. It also has something to say about the underlying tension that simmered just beneath the surface of the free love movement in the late sixties and early seventies. Stylish and memorable, this is a must for fans of obscure, weird cinema.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Round-Up #11

Book Review: Midaq Alley (زقاق المدق) by Naguib Mahfouz: What can one say about the works of Naguib Mahfouz that hasn't already been said? His work has been over-analyzed, over-criticized, overly lauded and, most importantly, occasionally misunderstood.

I am going to take a different route. I am just going to review this one book, which, for me, is the ultimate Naguib Mahfouz novel. It summarizes his ambitions as a novelist, his obsessions, his genius, his style, and his strangely progressive sensibilities.

Midaq Alley, focuses on just that; a small alley where several Egyptian families, widows, singles and orphans live. As is his specialty, Mahfouz takes us on a tour of the lives of these individuals; a tour through their innermost thoughts and dreams. And what a tour it is. Mahfouz creates fascinating characters that leap off the page. From the young woman with dreams of grandeur, who would do anything to achieve money and fame (including becoming a high-class prostitute), to the owner of a small coffee house, a Haj who is also a pederast, to the young man who sees joining the colonial British Army as his only means of becoming a somebody, to the wealthy merchant who, after suffering from a stroke, becomes a reclusive hypochondriac with an obsession with death. The list of character goes on and on.

But Mahfouz's ability to draw fascinating characters is not the only thing that makes this novel a masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece is Mahfouz's mastery of two things which have been absent from most Arabic novels in recent years. Realistic dialogue and tight plotting.

Here, Mahfouz weaves numerous plot strands, brings them together seemingly effortlessly, creating a compelling narrative that ends with a satisfying conclusion. And let's not forget that this book deals with things like prostitution, colonialism, psycho-sexual problems, youth angst, among many other things in an analytical and progressive-thinking manner; that in itself is a marvel considering that this book was published in Egypt in 1947!

If you want to get introduced to Naguib Mahfouz's work, there's no better introduction than Midaq Alley. A timeless masterpiece by an author who truly understood Egypt, warts and all.

Book review: The Infinite by Douglas Clegg: Haunted House tales are a dime a dozen. Ever since Shirley Jackson created the modern Haunted House tale with The Haunting of Hill House, authors have been milking the formula for all its worth to mostly repetitive results (with a few exceptions, of course, like Stephen King's The Shining and Richard Matheson's The Legend of Hell House).

Then there is The Infinite by Douglas Clegg, which attempts to do something different with the whole concept. While Clegg is obviously influenced by Jackson's work (along with the works of Matheson and Thomas Tryon), he also manages to achieve the near-impossible. Create a Haunted House story that feels fresh. He manages to do that with interesting characters, an effectively unnerving atmosphere that never wavers even for a single page, and with loads of imagination.

The novel, admirably, also takes its time, slowly developing the characters and the story, building the tension, turning the screws till the truly frightening climax, which has some really vivid nightmarish imagery.

So, if you are in the mood for a Haunted House tale with a modern twist and which leans more toward psychological horror than Splatterpunk, dim the lights, make a cup of tea and grab a copy of The Infinite. Chills of the spine are guaranteed.

Extra! Black Dog by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: This month's Extra! selection is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's magnificent rendition of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog. Plant and Krauss (who teamed up for 2008's amazing Raising Sand album) take on this rock classic and turn it into a haunting, moving, slow-burn bluesy rocker. Fantastic!




So, until next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Friday, August 14, 2009

New Cure videos and interviews!

Visit this YouTube channel for some of The Cure's best performances and interviews of the year so far. There is an especially sublime version of The Hungry Ghost. Check it out here.

Douglas Clegg . . . awesome new book trailer!

From one of my favorite dark fantasy authors, comes this new novella ISIS, and this new trailer for it. Check it out, it's very enticing, and surprisingly scary! Don't give away the ending!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Round-Up #9

Film review: Inland Empire: David Lynch's latest follows the same style and tone of his last film Mulholland Drive. So if you liked that film, you'll probably like this one. I did, but not without reservations.
The film follows Lynch's new style of filmmaking, which is all atmosphere, all the time. And no plot.
Although Lynch's films have always been surreal and loose when it came to plotting, in Lynch's last two films the plot is almost non-existent. Lynch (who started this film as a freestyle project shot on video, then decided to turn it into a feature) takes us on an audio-visual trip that fascinates, mesmerizes, confuses, and ultimately entertains. The story focuses on an actress making a film that is a remake of another film that was based on a gypsy tale that is supposed to be cursed. Soon after starting work on the film the actress (wonderfully played by Laura Dern) starts to confuse herself with her character, and the line between reality and fiction starts to blur. And oh, there are also human sized talking rabbits that seem to be tied to the whole mystery behind the film and the curse! What did you expect? It's a David Lynch film!
The film, which like any Lynch film is effortlessly atmospheric and heavy on style and foreboding, is so incoherent it feels like a series of vignettes that were stitched together to make a movie, never gelling together just right, which can be a bit irritating at times. But since this is a Lynch film, one of cinema's finest surrealists, it is not a surprise. And Lynch's choice to shoot this on standard definition DV also has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, which all add up to makes this a Lynch film for the new generation, which is a daring decision for a filmmaker in his sixties, especially since he pulls it off for the most part.
Still, one longs for the richly textured, tightly constructed, terrifying films Lynch used to make (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks). But any Lynch is good Lynch, so I am not complaining.

Extra! U Can Dance: This week's Extra! selection is the track U can dance by DJ Hell and featuring vocals by the incomparable Bryan Ferry. This is something else. A dark dance track with some of Ferry's finest vocals in years. A stunner. Listen to it here.

Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Round-Up #8 (Bumper edition)

Hi there. As always, there are lots of books to read, films to see, things to experience and so little time. So let me humbly share with you some of the things I have come across recently that I think are worth your while . . . or not.

Book review: A Sherlock Holmes Double-Bill: The Tangled Skein Vs. The Italian Secretary

Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of sleuth extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes revolutionized detective fiction and continues to do so to this day. I doubt there is a single writer of crime or detective fiction who hasn't read some or all of the work of Doyle and has been influenced by it, by the clinical attention to detail, the strong sense of atmosphere, the sharp dialogue, and above all, the sense of fun.
Although Doyle had retired Holmes a long while before the author's own death, writers continue to churn out patsiches; some are good, some are bad and some are brilliant. The Tangled Skein and The Italian Secretary fall somewhere between good and brilliant.

The Tangled Skein focuses on Sherlock Holmes facing the lord of the undead himself, Dracula. And although the premise sounds ludicrous and could even be considered an insult to Doyle's work, the resulting book is neither. Author and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies captures Doyle's tone and style almost perfectly and weaves a tale full of action and mood. It is a well-told tale that stays true to the mythos and features dialogue that could have been written by the master himself. Where the book falters a bit is in the mystery aspect. In trying to combine the mythologies of both Doyle and Bram Stoker's work, Davies veers more towards the plotting style of Stoker, with more action than intrigue. Although that makes it a rousing thriller , full of atmosphere and foreboding, it also makes it a not very good mystery. But there is an added bonus here. Davies ingeniously adds the very neat twist of making this story a direct sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Something that avid Holmes readers will find delightful. I did.

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is another attempt to write a story that makes Holmes face supernatural foes. Although this story leans closer to Doyle's style of plotting, Carr's writing style doesn't wholly succeed in capturing Doyle's own. Nonetheless, this is a splendid mystery, very well told and which features a couple of nice tricks up its sleeves that will please Holmes aficionados. And any Holmes story that features the elusive Mycroft in a starring role is bound to be interesting!

So which novel is the winner? Both. Both are entertaining, well-written tales that pay respect to Doyle's work. Don't miss them.


Book review: Stealing Shadows


With this novel Kay Hooper has managed to do something near impossible to do these days. Take a tired, almost dead concept and turn it into something that is, well, wholly absorbing. Although I had read some of her previous work and found it entertaining if unmemorable, Stealing Shadows transformed me into a fan. The story, which focuses on a psychic's struggle against a brutal serial killer targeting women in a small town, and the psychic's attempt to catch him before he destroys her sanity, is nothing new. It has been done hundreds of times before in literature and film with varying degrees of success. But Hooper manages to turn the cliched concept into a novel that is intriguing, atmospheric and , above all, compelling. With her fluid style, sense of place and mastery of atmosphere and plotting, Hooper writes a book that is sure to please fans of good, fast-paced mysteries with a touch of the paranormal. The only caveat: the utterly unnecessary epilogue.

Although this is the start of a loosely connected series of books, this works marvelously well as a stand-alone story. Highly recommended.

Film review: Terminator Salvation

With Terminator 3: Rise of the machines, I thought the franchise was driven to the ground, killed and its corpse left rotting. I was wrong, but not entirely.

Terminator Salvation
is not an easy film to review for two reasons. Firstly, it features one of my favorite actors, Christian Bale, whose performance in the film ranges from being on Auto-Pilot to heartfelt. Go figure. Secondly, for two thirds of the film I felt it was a lifeless, dramatically limp movie that favors noisy effects and quick hyper-kinetic cutting over good, old filmmaking. Then it went and changed on me with an explosive climax, that throws everything but the kitchen sink, but which forced me to admit that it mostly redeems the mediocrity that preceded it. Why? Because the climax stays true to the original Terminator and features a couple of scenes that, I must say, are riveting. So is it worth seeing? If you are a fan of the Terminator franchise, and if you can overlook mostly mediocre performances (and the abysmal previous movie), then yes, see it.

Extra! This week's Extra! selection is the The Star Group by Christopher Pike. It is an entertaining, sleek sci-fi mystery that was ahead of its time when it was released more than a decade ago, and still feels relatively fresh today. And despite the workman-like writing and it being a YA novel, it still packs a number of clever, original ideas in under two hundred pages and leaves you wanting a sequel. Enough said.

So until next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Round-Up#7 (Bumper Edition)

Hi there. It's been a while since I last updated this blog. But don't worry, I am back with a healthy dose of reviews of films, books and festivals! So let's begin.

Book Review: Running with the Demon: Terry Brooks is mostly known for his superior fantasy series Shannara, a mega bestseller that invigorated the publishing industry in the late 70's and continues to sell strongly to this day. But IMHO I think that Brooks's best work to date is the novel Running with the Demon, a truly original, gripping and ultimately touching piece of urban fantasy and one of the genre's finest.

Brooks weaves a spellbinding tale about a Knight of the Word, a servant of God and his vessel The Lady, and his battle against a cunning demon in human form who is after a teenager called Nest Freemark who might hold the future of mankind in her hands. The concept, while not wholly original, is elevated by Brooks's plotting and the amount of emotion he imbues the story with. This is a fantasy that feels real, reads real, and because of it is one of those books that you just don't want to end. It is a masterful thriller, a thrilling urban fantasy and, above all, a damn fine story. This is Terry Brooks's masterpiece.

P.S. Terry Brooks wrote two direct sequels (A Knight of the Word and Angel Fire East) as well as another trilogy called The Genesis of Shannara that links the Word and Void universe with the Shannara universe. All of these books are recommended.



Film review: Knowing: What do you get when you combine an idiosyncratic actor (Nicolas Cage) and an idiosyncratic filmmaker (Alex Proyas) with an idiosyncratic script posing as a summer blockbuster? You get Knowing, an apocalyptic/Sci-fi/religious thriller that is undoubtedly bonkers yet strangely compelling.

The film revolves around Cage's Physicist whose son unearths a document that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years, which contains the dates of all the major disasters in history as well ones still to come. Cage's character then tries to use the information he has to stop the coming disasters, fails and begins to realize that maybe the end is truly coming. And did I mention that the film also has pale, otherworldly men who appear to his son with visions of burning animals? Or what about Rose Byrne who plays two characters, both of which are destined to die? As I already mentioned, this film is bonkers. But it is also entertaining, gripping and stylish, thanks to Alex Proyas's assured direction and a script, that despite having an identity crisis, remains intriguing up until the truly "out there" ending.

Is it recommended? Yes. It is too strange and compelling a film to miss. They simply don't make them like this anymore and that has to be worth something in this age of hyper-marketing and mindless, noisy blockbusters.

Extra! Every month I am going to post a title (a book, film or album), which I think is a truly original (and sometime demented!) piece of work.

This month's Extra! selection is The Drive-In 2 by Joe R. Lansdale, a shockingly original piece of surreal fiction that is equal parts funny, grotesque, and sadistic. Unmissable.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Round-Up#6

Hi there. I think it's about time I shared with you some of the fine books and films I recently had the pleasure of experiencing. So here goes . . .

Book Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child burst onto the scene with the rousing adventure/thriller Relic, a genre-hopping novel that was scary, compelling and above all a great story. But it also served to introduce one very special FBI agent. Special Agent Pendergast, one of the most intriguing characters to come out of the mystery genre and maybe the most intriguing character to come out of the genre in the past twenty years. And of all the adventures written by Preston/Child, The Cabinet of Curiosities is probably the best place to get introduced to their work and to Special Agent Pendergast.

The novel, which revolves around a seemingly immortal serial killer who stalks the streets of New York city, is a delicious labyrinth of atmosphere, suspense, scares and clues. It is one of those books that is so good, so original, you just don't want it to end.

So if you are a fan of classic mysteries, the works of Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins, or just plain good storytelling, curl up with this book and let Special Agent Pendergast guide you through this wonderful mystery.

P.S. For more info about the works of Preston/Child and the Pendergast novels, visit the authors' official website.

Film review: Changeling: Clint Eastwood's 28th film as director is a masterclass in filmmaking. It's a story so well-told, so compelling, you just can't help but admire the sure-handedness of Eastwood in handling this complex story based on true events.

Part mystery, part court room thriller, it is a film that effortlessly combines several genres, plot lines and emotional turmoil, to a startlingly touching and fascinating piece of cinema.

Based on the true story of Christine Collins (wonderfully brought to life by Angelina Jolie) and her lifelong struggle to find her missing son, this is a film that tells a heart-wrenching story and ultimately a strangely uplifting one, with a sort of minimalistic filmmaking that Eastwood has all but made his own. Unmissable.

The film comes out on Region 2 DVD on 30 March and is already out on Region 1 DVD.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Zelazny: Lord of Light




I don't read much science-fiction. Not because I don't like it, because I like it less than say mysteries, dark fantasy and psychological fiction. But there is science-fiction and then there is Roger Zelazny.

I had heard of him before (after all he won the Nebula and the Hugo more than once and is considered a master) but never got the chance to read any of his work. Then a copy of LORD OF LIGHT fell into my hands.

All I can say is: Zelazny is one hell of a storyteller. Combining Sci-Fi, fantasy, the occult, military and about a dozen other genres (as well as inventing a few along the way!), LORD OF LIGHT is like nothing I have read before. It's like reading ten books at the same time and it is a novel that is under 300 pages in length. Now that's a writer.

No wonder he is considered a master. You can feel his influence on everyone from Eric S. Nylund, to Clive Barker, to Terry Brooks as well as on numerous TV writers.

One thing left to say: If you haven't read Zelazny, you haven't read Sci-fi.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Interview with a legend!



Hi there. I wanted to start off this blog with something interesting, with a sort of a bang, so I chose my interview with legendary filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, the man who in the 70's single-handedly changed the way films are made. With such innovative and surreal masterpieces as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, WALKABOUT and - my personal favorite - DON'T LOOK NOW, he is one of the most renowned British filmmakers and one of the most influential.

I had a chance to interview him in 2008 and speak with him about his latest film PUFFBALL.

You can find the interview here. Enjoy!

Monday, February 2, 2009

My new Blog!

Hi there and welcome to my new blog.

As a self-confessed graphomaniac (look it up will ya!) I decided that having one blog (at my official website WINGRAVE-FILM.COM) wasn't enough. So here I am scribbling away at this fine, new blog.

Here you will find reviews, columns and lots of other interesting things. So let the suspense end and start browsing my archive. Enjoy.