Monday, August 30, 2010

The Round-Up#36

Book Review: Angel by Nicholas Guild: Part romantic thriller, part Gothic mystery, part livre noir, and part crime drama, Nicholas Guild's Angel is a wonderful read. The story - which revolves around Angela Wyman a.k.a Angel, an evil sociopath who is out to slaughter a group of men involved in a tragedy that occurred in her teens, and Jim Kinkaid, the only man who truly loved her and who plans to stop her - is complex and sprawling, filled with layers upon layers of mystery and intrigue, and involves numerous interesting and interestingly bizarre characters.

But what makes it stand out are Guild's impressive storytelling appetite and his creation of Angel, the ultimate femme fatale. Guild, who previously was known for his historical and spy thrillers, goes for broke here, layering his novel with elements from numerous genres, including Gothic thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster dramas, and vintage noir, which results in a novel that is rich with thrills and suspense. Also, Guild paces the novel almost flawlessly, never letting the story lag. He also manages to create a memorable villain and a classic femme fatale in Angel, a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who loathes men.

But Guild's ambitiousness gets the better of him near the end, when he somewhat loses control of the narrative during a climax that, though exciting, is hectic and rife with implausibilities. But he redeems himself with the novel's final sentence, which introduces one final twist that's sure to leave you smiling.

In the end, this is the kind of long, rich novel that you can lose yourself in, and which, despite its flaws, is rewarding and a hell of an entertaining ride. A modern classic.

*This novel is out-of-print, but copies are still available from numerous online booksellers.

Film Review: Predators: You've got to give producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal credit where credit is due: This is indeed the ultimate Predator movie, for better or for worse. This is a film that is so full of action, twists, explosions, suspense and sequences that fans of the franchise have been fantasizing about for years, that you can't help but give in to its ebullience.

The story: A group of soldiers and thugs wake up to find themselves in a mysterious jungle, location unknown, and, slowly, discover that they are being hunted by . . . wait for it . . . predators. So they have to band together to defeat creatures that are faster, possess more advanced weapons and knowledge of the terrain. Mayhem ensues.

The plot isn't very original. The action sequences, although effective, don't come off as very fresh. But the combination of tough characters, an exotic location, and the predator creatures we all know and love, somehow works. This is obviously a labor of love for Rodriguez (who co-wrote and produced the film) and it shows. Rodriguez - along with director Antal - charges the film with many ideas and sequences that are sure to please fans of the franchise (including a ludicrous, yet exciting, sequence involving a face-off between a sword-wielding Yakuza and a predator), a cameo by a demented Laurence Fishburne, and predator on predator action! What more could you ask for, really? The film's downfall lies with two things: The last third of the film, which buckles under the weight of its ideas, with one climax too many, and the film's admirably retro feel. The whole enterprise comes off as something made in the 80's: an action film starring Stallone or Schwarzeneger, which is exactly the point. Rodriguez and Antal have made a film out of time, which boldly sticks to the aesthetics of the era its pays tribute to. If you like 80's action films, you'll love Predators. Otherwise, beware!

Extra! Prince's Sign 'o' The Times: This edition's Extra! selection is the Prince concert film Sign 'o' The Times, directed by Prince. Full of energy and featuring brilliant musicianship by Prince and his cohorts, this is an 80's masterpiece, and proof that the 80's was the last decade of good music. Unmissable.

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Round-Up#35 (Bumper Edition)

Book Review: The Straw Men by Michael Marshall: I rarely read a book now that I find to be truly original; mainly because most books nowadays, whether they are good or bad, are just retreads of templates that have been recycled to death, and beyond. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some writers make a good living out of doing just that (think Stephen King, whose work I greatly admire, but who, in fact, has never come up with a plot that is halfway original and who never deviates from the trappings of the genres he tackles). But there are some writers who manage to take a tired formula or genre and transform it into something new, while retaining what made it work in the first place. A nifty trick. Michael Marshall does just that with his thriller The Straw Men.

This is a thriller so compelling, so relentless in its pursuit of its ideas, that one can't help but surrender to its power and its ability to disturb and entertain at the same time. The plot revolves around a serial killer called The Upright Man, who kidnaps children. The children he abducts are sometimes found dead, thrown away in some park or forest, or they are never seen again, their fates a mystery. For different reasons, and due to circumstance beyond their control, two men are after The Upright Man: A former police officer whose daughter was one of the killer's victims, and a former CIA agent who discovers that his parents' deaths are somehow linked to a cult of sociopaths that The Upright Man might be involved with.

I won't say anymore about the plot, because most of the pleasure that comes from reading this novel comes from the unraveling of the mystery, layer by layer. And believe me, there are layers aplenty. Just when you think the author is done playing with you, you discover you're wrong. That's not to say that this is a gimmicky thriller reliant on shock-revelations. Not really. This is a thought-provoking, disturbing, original thriller about the nature of human evil and the monsters that prey on the weak. A stunner.

P.S. The book is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Upright Man and The Blood Of Angels.

Film Review: The Last Airbender: M. Night Shyamalan's feature film adaptation of the Nickeledeon animated show about sorcerers who can control the four elements of life (air, water, earth and fire), has been much maligned by critics and viewers alike, and for good reason. This is a dramatically limp film, with stiff performances and a story that leaves a lot to be desired, especially since the film is designed as the first part of a trilogy, leaving the viewer with a cheat of an ending that leaves almost all of the plot-lines unresolved.

But, also, the film isn't the absolute turkey that many are making it out to be. It is flawed, yes, but, despite its faults, it is entertaining, fast paced and visually spectacular. Shyamalan has always been an able visual stylist, and it shows here, with nary a moment in the film that's not eye-candy. The production design is superb, the visual effects thrilling, and there are a couple of action sequences that are brilliantly handled by Shyamalan, who shoots them in long takes, something which gives them an extra oomph and which is rarely done in this age of MTV-style editing.

So is it flawed? Highly. Is the story a mess? Sure. Is it awful? No. It's a highly entertaining piece of summer cinematic fluff that has its moments, and is sure to please all members of the family. Put on your 3D glasses and enjoy the ride for what it is.

Extra! The Amazing Mr. X: This edition's Extra! selection is the noir classic, The Amazing Mr. X, a nifty little thriller about a con-artist posing as a spiritualist who stumbles upon a case that might be a real case of the paranormal. Suffice it to say, nothing is what it seems in this clever, highly atmospheric and gorgeously shot film. You can watch it below, for free, courtesy of the Internet Movie Archive.

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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Round-Up#34 (Bumper/Comic-Book Edition)

Film Review: Dick Tracy, Detective (1945)/Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947): No. Neither of these films are Warren Beatty's stylish if extravagant 1990 film adaptation of Chester Gould's classic comic-strips. These two films are one half of what has become known as the "Four Classic Dick Tracy Films", two of which starred Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, while the other two starred Ralph Byrd as the square-jawed detective. In my humble opinion, these two films, Dick Tracy, Detective and Dick Tracy's Dilemma, are the best of the bunch and are worth re-discovering.

Dick Tracy, Detective (1945), starring Morgan Conway and directed by William Berke, is a gritty take on the comic-book hero, with Berke's stylish direction giving the film an effectively noirish bent that works really well. And the story, which features grisly murders, stage magicians and fortune-telling, is dark and intriguing. Also, Conway's take on Tracy is interestingly down-to-earth, which, despite making the detective lose his mythic grandeur, works within the universe Berke creates. Also, the film is the only one of the four classic Dick Tracy films to feature a score by famous composer (and occasional Hitchcock collaborator) Roy Webb.

Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947), on the other hand, is something else entirely. With Tracy now being played by Ralph Byrd, who bears a striking resemblance to Gould's drawings of the character, the films moved more into Comic-Book territory, with the monstrous "The Claw", who has a hook for a hand and leonine features, serving as the villain of the film. John Rawlins's direction gives the film a shadowy, ethereal atmosphere that complements Byrd's take on the character, who, with his radio-watch and yellow overcoat, looks and feels like he just stepped out of a Chester Gould Comic-Strip.

Both films are fast-paced, entertaining blasts from the past, and both are a must for comic-book aficionados and Dick Tracy fans.

You can watch both films, for free, below, courtesy of the Internet Movie Archive.

Film Review: Batman: Gotham Knight: Co-produced by David Goyer and Emma Thomas, both of whom worked on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight is a thrilling piece of entertainment. The film consists of six loosely connected stories featuring The Batman. Each story is told in a different animation style. All the stories are a joy to watch, but highlights include the opener, Have I Got A Story For You, about a group of city teens who regale each other with stories of how each came across Batman in action; Crossfire, written by Batman expert Greg Rucka, which revolves around a war between two rivals gangs in Gotham City and Commissioner Gordon's growing trust in Batman; In Darkness Dwells, which features The Scarecrow, and boasts messy, grainy visuals that befit this dark, violent tale; and the closer, Deadshot, about the titular assassin who's hired to take out Commissioner Gordon.

All the segments have their strengths, which is to be expected considering the talent involved, which includes Greg Rucka (No Man's Land), David Goyer (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and Alan Burnett (Batman: The Animated Series).

With its tight scripts, breath-taking visuals, and impressive voice-work (including fan-favorite Kevin Conroy as Batman), this is a must-see for Batman and Animation fans.

Book Review: Batman: As The Crow Flies by Judd Winick, David Nguyen and Richard Friend: Although not considered essential reading for Batman fans, this book tells an entertaining and fast-paced story about The Penguin and The Scarecrow joining forces to take over Gotham City's criminal underworld. Suffice it to say, all hell breaks loose, including a giant Scarecrow monster that hunts down The Penguin's enemies and tears them to pieces. The story itself isn't groundbreaking and doesn't add much to the Batman mythos. But it's Winick's writing and Nguyen's unique art that make it a worthwhile, stylish and action-packed read. The jaw-droppingly gorgeous covers by Mat Wagner are also a bonus.

Extra! You Can Dance by Bryan Ferry: This edition's Extra! selection is the new single by Bryan Ferry (one of my all time favorite artists) off his upcoming album Olympia. This smooth, art-rock number features a killer synth riff lifted from the track "True To Life", from the seminal 1982 Roxy Music album Avalon. Check it out here.

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