Friday, July 23, 2010

The Round-Up#33 (Bumper Edition)

Film Review: Inception: Christopher Nolan's first attempt at a heady summer blockbuster (The Dark Knight not withstanding, since it was based on one of the most popular comic-book characters in the world) is a fascinating filmmaking experiment, which, for the most part, and considering the film's worldwide box-office receipts, has proven successful.

The story, about a group of dream-invaders/thieves who specialize in breaking into a person's dreams and stealing treasured secrets, is trippy Sci-Fi at its best. You've got the wild (and highly improbable) idea of invading dreams and stealing thoughts, the tortured protagonist with a dark secret in his past, and the almost impossible mission (invading the mind of the son of a corporate titan to implant a thought which will determine the future of the energy industry). Nolan's screenplay piles concept on top of concept (much like the three dream levels depicted in the film), giving vague explanations as to how these people actually achieve the process of invading dreams and planting thoughts (a process referred to throughout the film as "inception"), which makes the film's central premise highly implausible and bordering on ludicrous. But this is Christopher Nolan we're talking about, the man who pulled Batman out of the gutter and turned him into a noirish anti-hero living in a nihilistic universe, and made it work (The Dark Knight has become one of the most profitable feature films in history). So, under Nolan's meticulous direction, and despite the aforementioned faults, the film works, on many levels.

This is a film that is so exciting, so breathtaking, both visually and aurally (Hans Zimmer's moody score is magnificent), that one can't help but be swept along by its sheer audacity. To my mind, this is the first film to combine elements of Sci-Fi, mystery, psychological drama, heist movies, and film-noir, and pulls it off! Also, for the most part, Nolan grounds the film in reality, keeping CGI to a minimum; instead, relying on his by now trademark visual style and clever editing techniques to sell the concept and realize his imagery. And for a film whose concept boggles the mind and whose plot is anything but easy to follow, it never lets up and never gives the viewer a chance to lose interest, thanks to the endearing performances by all of the cast and to Nolan's dynamic direction.

What prevents the film from becoming a masterpiece, though, aside from the improbability of its central premise, are two things: Firstly, the film is overly and needlessly complex. While watching the film, you get the feeling that Nolan was so in love with the cleverness of his screenplay that he kept adding more and more layers to its already serpentine structure, to the point that the film begins to wobble under the weight of its own complexity. The film, which is indeed clever (but, arguably, not as clever as Nolan thinks it is), could have been less complex in terms of structure and nothing would have been lost in terms of drama and plot.

Secondly, the film is not very effective dramatically. Although all of the film's characters are endearing and brought to life wonderfully by a game cast (especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a scene-stealing Ken Watanabe), none of them, with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Cobb, are fully fleshed out. As we get deeper and deeper into the story, we realize that these characters are mostly fodder for Cobb's journey, which is somewhat understandable, considering that he's the film's protagonist and the team leader. But since all of the film's characters, including DiCaprio's, are more or less criminals, it would have been more effective for us to get to know them better in order to get more attached to them.

But, in the end, this is a fantastic film, daring in its complexity, and a formalist triumph. Do yourself a favour, avoid most of the dreck (both foreign and local) being released in cinemas this summer, and go watch this clever feat of the imagination.

Book Review: Thriller. Edited by James Patterson: The phrase "Something for everybody" truly applies to this wonderful collection of thrilling short stories, chosen by James Patterson. Although Patterson has his fans, he also has his detractors (people who don't like his simplistic style and super-short chapters); but even those grumpy folks don't need to worry, as this is a fantastic collection of tales that is sure to please fans of the genre. Although highlights are plenty, stand-outs especially worth mentioning are: Greg Hurwitz's Dirty Weather, a dark and gripping crime story with a bleak ending; J.A. Konrath's Epitaph, a superb revenge tale that's violent, nasty and strangely moving; Chris Mooney's Falling, a clever tale about a hunt for a rogue FBI agent; James Rollins's Kowalski's in love, a humorous, fast-paced adventure tale with a likeable, if not too bright, protagonist; M.J. Rose and John Lescroart's The Portal, a compelling and dark psychological thriller about child abuse; F. Paul Wilson's action-packed and suspenseful Incident At Duane's, featuring his immensely popular Repairman Jack character; and the haunting closer, Gone Fishing, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, a terrifying tale about a ruthless killer and an ancient dagger stolen from a museum.

So, if you're looking for a collection of astounding short stories that span a range of genres with the only thing in common between them is that they are all thrilling, look no further than this anthology, one of the best I've ever come across. Unmissable.

Double Extra! Kingdom Hospital/The Journals Of Eleanor Druse: This edition's Extra! selections are the TV series Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital and its companion "non-fiction" book, The Journals Of Eleanor Druse (which, in actuality, was penned by Richard Dooling). Kingdom Hospital, which only ran for a single, 13-episode season, was mostly written by King himself, and so features the best and worst of later King: Terrifying set-pieces, appealing characters, a dragging pace, and cringe-worthy moments of exposition. But the series is a remake of Lars Von Trier's superior TV series Riget, and so retains and embellishes upon some of best of that show, which makes for some entertaining, if not stellar, TV viewing. On the plus side, the series is very well-produced, the effects are good, and the finale exciting. More effective is the companion book, The Journals Of Eleanor Druse, which is presented as the journals of one of the TV series' main characters, the elderly psychic Eleanor Druse, and which adds some interesting aspects to the show's mythology. Taken together, the TV series and book provide plenty of scary entertainment.

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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Round-Up#32

Book Review: Origin by J.A. Konrath: Mostly known for his Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series of novels, J.A. Konrath has written a number of novels and short-stories spanning various genres (including horror, Sci-Fi and Crime). Origin is one of them, and a fine introduction to one of the most underrated and versatile American authors working today.

Origin tells the story of Samhain (a top-secret government facility in New Mexico) and the people who work there. You see, Samhain is not just any ordinary top-secret government facility, no, it is a facility dedicated to studying a most unique prisoner. Satan. At least President Roosevelt thought so when he created the facility after the discovery of the demonic-looking creature (nicknamed "Bub" ) in Panama in 1906. Jump to the present day, when the creature wakes up after being in a century long coma. And speaks. English. After that, all hell breaks loose.

To tell you anymore of the plot of this strange and strangely compelling novel, would be unfair. Suffice it to say, this is an original, entertaining and nasty piece of work.

What makes this novel original is Konrath's ability to mix a number of genres to produce something truly unique. This is a scary and darkly humorous novel, often at the same time!

What makes it entertaining are the sharp, witty dialogue, its endearing characters - which Konrath manages to make memorable with just a few strokes of characterization - and his effectively minimalist style; as the story never gets bogged down with too much descriptive detail, although everything is always clear and the reader never gets lost or confused; a neat narrative trick, and one which many writers working today don't know how to pull off or just don't care to, thinking that long stretches of self-consciously florid descriptive passages make your writing richer. Konrath proves otherwise.

What makes this novel nasty is its undeniably dark and violent streak. As the last third of the novel is no-holds-barred carnage. If you have a weak stomach, don't even attempt to read this novel. Yes, it's that nasty.

But there's also something else that makes this novel work: It's cleverness. Just when you think you got it all figured it out, Konrath pulls a fast one and pushes the story into another direction. That's not to say there are mind-blowing plot-twists, not really, but Konrath is clever enough to utilize cliches to make the reader comfortable, and then wham! Something goes wrong. Konrath also makes some interesting points about the nature of faith and organized religion. And he doesn't takes the easy way out. Instead, he uses science to try to explain the nature of " Bub" and what he really might be. Although some readers might find the techno-jargon a bit much, I found it fascinating, and thought it enriched the novel.

In his author's note, Konrath admits that he wrote this novel as a blockbuster, and it shows. This isn't literary fiction. This is an entertaining, stylish piece of work for people who like good books that are also fun. Period. So, if you are looking for an intelligent techno-thriller that's also a horror novel that's also a darkly humorous tale, look no further than Origin. You won't regret it.

* The novel is available to buy or download from the author's website.

Extra! The Ghost/Lo Spettro (1963): This edition's Extra! selection is the horror film The Ghost/Lo Spettro, directed by Riccardo Freda. Freda (one of Mario Bava's mentors) injects this psychological ghost story with plenty of style and atmosphere, while Barbara Steele gives one of her best performances as the traitorous wife tormented by the ghost of her invalid husband, the malevolent Dr. Hichcock. This obscure oddity is a fine ghost story worth rediscovering.

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

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Capsule Review: Eye of The Beholder by David Ellis

Capsule Review: The Eye Of The Beholder by David Ellis: This edition's Extra! selection is the suspense novel, The Eye Of The Beholder by David Ellis, a compelling, fascinating murder-mystery with a deliciously serpentine plot and a heck of a twist-ending. A delight, especially for fans of Scott Turow and Presumed Innocent.

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

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Round-Up#30

Book Review: The Vampire Diaries (The Original Trilogy: The Awakening, The Struggle, The Fury) by L. J. Smith: Let's get this out of the way, first: The Vampire Diaries beats the hell out of the Twilight books. If this past statement offends you, tough luck, dear reader. OK. Now let's get another thing out of the way: Although The Vampire Diaries Trilogy is much better than Twilight, that doesn't mean it is great, either. If that statement offends you, then tough luck, again, dear reader.

Although L.J. Smith originally envisioned this story as a trilogy, its success forced Smith to write several more books featuring some of the original characters. Almost two decades later, the success of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer encouraged publishers to re-print Smith's books, which share some similarities, story-wise, with Twilight. The Vampire Diaries series of novels then became New York Times bestsellers, leading Smith's books to be adapted into a hugely successful TV series. This review is concerned with The Vampire Diaries: The Original Trilogy by L.J. Smith, which started the whole thing.

So let's begin: These books are fun reads. Nothing more, nothing less. They are written in easy-to-read, serviceable prose, and the atmosphere is appealing enough for Gothic/Horror fans, like myself. The characters are interesting, especially Elena, the protagonist, who is a strong female heroine, Stefan, the "good" vampire who loves Elena but tries to fight it because she reminds him of his dead lover, Katherine, and Damon, Stefan's brother, and the "bad" vampire of the story, who is also, seemingly, a brutal killer who can shape-shift into a crow.

Despite the sometimes clunky pace and Smith's occasionally flavorless prose, this is an undeniably entertaining story, with enough twists and turns (especially in the third book, The Fury) to make the messy ending effective. But what sets it apart from the Twilight books, to which it is continuously compared (despite the fact that The Vampire Diaries: The Original Trilogy was published 14 years before Twilight) is its tone. These books are much darker than the Twilight saga, much less saccharine, and much less manipulative. While The Twilight Saga is poorly written and exploitative, The Vampire Diaries Trilogy is entertaining, dark, suspenseful, and, most importantly, doesn't pretend to be anything than what it really is: A trilogy of Young Adult Horror novels that is perfect reading material for Halloween.

Extra! Dry Water by Eric S. Nylund: This edition's Extra! selection is the novel Dry Water by Eric S. Nylund, a tremendously entertaining piece of dark urban-fantasy, that combines Zelaznian weirdness with boundless imagination to produce a tale that is filled to the brim with ideas and memorable set-pieces. A must for fans of Roger Zelazny (especially Lord of Light) and Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show.

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