Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler

I was working in my kitchen the other day, and thinking about politics. As I do. The radio was playing in the background. I was reflecting on a certain politician and thinking that he was right wing. And, at that exact moment, on the radio, they were talking about cavalry maneouvres at Waterloo and uttered the words "on the right wing."

What do we make of this? Well, nothing. It's just a coincidence, nothing more. But one doesn't have to experience too much of this kind of stuff to begin to be intrigued by synchronicity, strange happenings and parapsychology.

I will admit I'm mildly fascinated by this whole subject (telepathy, ESP, precognition, etc. etc), or at least I would be if it wasn't such an ocean of hokum. I'd love to read more about it, but most of the books available are by cynical crystal-selling charlatans or gullible crystal-buying chumps.

What I want is a proper, scientific, sceptical, hard-headed account of the subject. The trouble is, most scientists would run a mile (sorry, 1.609344 kilometres) from anything that smacks of parapsychology or the paranormal. There is a terrible danger of ruining their careers by even being associated with such stuff.

Fortunately, the great writer and scholar of science Arthur Koestler was fascinated by the subject and wasn't afraid to delve into it. His slim volume The Roots of Coincidence makes for engrossing reading. It's witty, intelligent, compelling and generally very accessible.

But there remains a problem even with a book as good as Koestler's. Material about the paranormal falls into two categories, subjective personal anecdotes and carefully controlled scientific experiments.

The personal anecdotes are often absolutely rivetting... but ultimately completely unverifiable. Even if a whole bunch of people swear something happened, it still really only amounts to hearsay. 

Whereas on the other hand the carefully controlled experiments are utterly reliable... and as dull as ditchwater. They consist of, for example, thousands of repeated attempts to guess which randomly generated number or symbol will pop up next. With the results then subjected to careful statistical analysis. Professor J.B Rhine at Duke University was the poster boy for this kind of research.

And what does the careful statistical analysis tell us? Well, according to the statistics, ESP exists. Beyond question. There is no way the results of innumerable experiments could have been achieved by chance. But although the facts may be irrefutable, no respectable scientist can stomach this sort of thing... Warren Weaver said "I end by concluding that I cannot explain away Rhine's evidence, and that I also cannot accept his interpretation." 

Another study was conducted by Professor William McBain at the University of Hawaii. Reporting about it in New Scientist in 1970, the rigorous and sceptical magazine concluded "chance guessing alone is not enough to explain the results."

And what has happened in the ensuing 45 years? Well, when Koestler died in 1983 he left his personal fortune to endow a unit dedicated to parapsychology research. They started operating in 1985. One of the founding members was Caroline Watt, who was interviewed by New Scientist in their 25 April 2015 issue, in an article asking, "What has 30 years of research uncovered?"

The answer is, not a lot. Watt herself seems quite dismissive of the whole question of the paranormal. The only glimmer of interest in her interview concerns some ESP experiments using the Ganzfeld method. Again, the results are statistically significant. But Caroline Watt says, "I'm not persuaded that this provides conclusive evidence for ESP. I am in the camp that thinks there is an anomaly, but I am not sure how to interpret it."

That sound you hear is the planchette rattling around in the box containing your ouija board, as the shade of Arthur Koestler tries to spell out some choice four letter words...

(Image credits: Thank you, Good Reads for the book covers. The New Scientist magazine cover is from Mag Stack. The Ganzfeld image is from Before It's News.)

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Survivor by Philip Shelby

Last week I wrote about Spooks: the Greater Good, an espionage thriller set in London. It's by no means a bad film, and at times highly effective. However, it so happened that as I continued my multiplex movie-going binge that day the next film in my sights was Survivor. 

I really didn't know anything about it (I told you it was a binge) except that it had a poster featuring Pierce Brosnan holding a gun with a silencer on it (suppressor, actually, but let's not get technical here). 

And that was good enough for me.

Well, it turned out that Survivor was also an espionage thriller set in London. And in retrospect Spooks began to look a lot less effective. In fact, Survivor blew it out of the water. In just about every possible way.

Perhaps most importantly, Survivor featured a protagonist I cared about deeply, whereas Spooks merely had a cannily cast star in the form of Kit Harrington, bringing with him residual audience sympathy from Game of Thrones. 

But Survivor is built around Mila Jovovich, a beautiful and affecting actress who has been wasted in the last decade or so in a fairly low-rent zombie franchise (Resident Evil... the sixth instalment, promisingly subtitled The Final Chapter, is in preproduction). Before that she was best known for her unforgettably skimpily costumed debut in The Fifth Element.

Jovovich is wonderful in Survivor as Kate Abbott, an ordinary woman caught up in murderous intrigue — a classic Hitchcock situation. She is soon plunged into a double chase — with both the bad guys and the cops after her — another classic Hitchcock situation. In fact, in Kate's case it is a triple chase, with the bad guys, the London cops and her own security service after her.

Kate works in the visa section at the US Embassy in London and the research which writer Philip Shelby has obviously conducted about embassy procedure is one of the great strengths of this movie. Shelby has done a terrific job, crafting an absolutely engrossing nail-biter of a thriller. As far as I can tell, this is his first script. It sure as hell won't be his last.

The film is directed by James McTeigue, who does a fine job of using the splendid London locations, beautifully shot by cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann (who previously worked with McTeigue on the Edgar Allan Poe movie The Raven). 

It is also features a very impressive Pierce Brosnan — almost unrecognisable with a distinguished head of grey hair — as an implacable and meticulous hitman.

Survivor begins strongly, never lets the viewer go, and develops into the most audacious tale of a planned atrocity since Thomas Harris's Black Sunday. Along the way it gets a little far fetched, though never remotely as far fetched as Spooks. It's a terrific movie which has made little impact at the box office and seems undeservedly destined for obscurity. Let's not let that happen.

(Images: all posters are from the reliable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Spooks by Brackley and Vincent

Spooks was a British TV series created by David Wolstencroft, a spy thriller about the UK's internal intelligence service MI5. It ran for a record breaking ten seasons and was widely popular, though it never did much for me. I watched some of the early episodes, but gave up on it when Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen suddenly and arbitrarily walked into the sea. I kept expecting him to walk back out again. When he didn't, I stopped watching Spooks.

Tom's watery disappearance wasn't the show's only problem. It really pissed me off that Spooks didn't have any on-screen titles. That meant that none of the cast or crew or — most importantly for me, none of the writers — ever received any credit. There was some bullshit notion that this lack of titles made the super-secret spy drama more convincingly super-secret. Or something. And there was the even more bullshit notion that anyone interested could look up the credits online. Freelancers working in television have a tough enough time without some creative geniuses dreaming up ways of stealing their credits from them.

The series was also, if memory serves, addicted to really dumb right-wing conspiracy theory plots. Which has a bearing on the new movie, spun off from the series, with the cumbersome title Spooks: The Greater Good.

First the good news. Spooks the movie is a very proficient spy thriller making wonderful use of its London locations. Director Bharat Nalluri (who also made The Crow: Salvation) and his editor Jamie Pearson do a great job on all the highly effective action and suspense sequences. And cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski (last seen working on The Face of an Angel — a film I disliked intensely, but certainly not for its cinematography) deserves special mention for his magnificent work here.

The cast is excellent, too, including faces from the original TV series (such as Peter Firth) with the canny addition of Kit Harington, one of the BSDBs (brooding stubbled dream-boats) from Game of Thrones as the lead.

The script by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, both of whom worked on the original series, is also well crafted, efficiently deploying plot elements, and even coming up with a twist ending which I didn't see coming. 

But there is a gaping hole in the movie. The whole story is driven by the notion that some Shadowy Conspiracy is afoot. Our hero Harry Pearce (Firth) can't come in from the cold because the Shadowy Conspirators will murder him and triumph in their Shadowy Conspiracy. And what is the conspiracy? The "Americans" want to discredit MI5 so they can "absorb it". What does this mean? It doesn't mean anything. The USA couldn't take over the British intelligence service without first taking over Britain.

So it's a non-threat. Worse than that, it's a purely abstract non-threat. It only exists in the movie in about three lines of dialogue. We never see it made real in the form of characters or story situations. You can't hang an entire movie on such a slender, indeed non-existent thread. This is a big problem for Spooks: the Greater Good. If you're going to have such a grim, serious, pretentious attitude you need to justify it. (I also don't think the physics of the suicide vest detonating against the bullet proof glass would have anything resembling the desired effect in the real world.)

But the bigger problem is that within an hour or so of seeing Spooks: the Greater Good I was sitting in another screen at the multiplex seeing another, vastly superior spy thriller making even more wonderful use of its London locations. It was called Survivor, it made Spooks pale by comparison, and I will tell you about it next week.

(Image credits: the movie posters are from Imp Awards. The TV show DVD cover is from Amazon.)

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham

A splendid recent radio documentary about Somerset Maugham has reawakened my interest in the old sod's work. He was one of the 20th Century's most successful — and best — writers. So when I was in Maryland a while ago I combed through a secondhand book store for titles by him and I picked up several, including The Moon and Sixpence.

After a promising start to his career as a novelist, Maugham switched to writing for the stage and spent a long spell as a successful dramatist — he set a record for the number of plays one writer had running simultaneously in London's West End. 

When he eventually returned to novels in 1915 he discovered that the craft of writing stage plays had taught him a great deal, and he approached fiction with a new philosophy of unadorned clarity and direct language. ("I no longer sought a jewelled prose... on the contrary plainness and simplicity.") This is immediately evident in Of Human Bondage.

Unfortunately, a few years later when he wrote The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham seems to have have largely forgotten this lesson. 

The book begins with some pompous, dull and abstract ramblings by the narrator. Having courageously waded through this, my advice to you is to skip to section 8 and start with the sentence "When I reflect on all that happened later..." You won't miss a thing. 

But from that point on The Moon and Sixpence tells a gripping story, about a boring and ordinary London stock broker called Charles Strickland (great name) who suddenly has what we would now call a mid life crisis and abandons his business and family to become a penniless painter, eventually dying under horrible circumstances in the South Seas.  (Maugham was inspired by the life and art of Gaugin.)

The Moon and Sixpence was published in 1919 and this subject matter — abandoning a conventional existence for creative fulfilment — is way ahead of its time. In fact, it's a classic 1960s counter-culture trope, which speaks strongly for Maugham's prescience. (His 1944 novel The Razor's Edge shows an even keener gift for prophecy, pretty much anticipating the whole hippie movement.)

Strickland's lack of remorse for abandoning his family, and his ruthlessness in single-mindedly pursuing his art, are quite breathtaking: "here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he was like a wrestler whose body is oiled." In fact it's  shocking how callous he is about his wife and how much she in turn hates him for running out on her. (She changes her tune decades later when he's a dead, world famous artist, and his paintings worth a pretty penny.) "Nor with such a man could you expect the appeal to conscience to be effective. You might as well ask for a reflection without a mirror."

Strickland is constantly described as a satyr, primordial, pre-civilization, a force of nature. He betrays a friend and patron with great casualness. This is a man who has saved Strickland's life, taking the painter into his home when he was starving and deathly ill. Strickland rewards him by running off with the chap's wife. As the wife announces her intentions to her poor sap of a husband, Strickland "went on whistling as though it had nothing to do with him."

The book is at its most powerful in posing the mystery of how this extraordinary butterfly suddenly developed from the mundane caterpillar of the dreary stockbroker, after decades spent timidly nibbling on the leaf of his middle class existence. Maugham loved and understood painting, so his fascination and knowledge really help power this novel. He writes of art with great authority (he actually travelled the South Seas and snapped up some forgotten Gaugins). 

What is particularly clever about the book is the way it holds Strickland's paintings back from us. It's well over halfway through the novel before the narrator sees some of them — and then, in a brilliantly unexpected twist, "I was bitterly disappointed... my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cab driver."

In fact, we don't get a proper description of Strickland's work until the very end of the story, after his death, when the narrator and the rest of the world have belatedly caught up with the painter's genius (as was indeed the case with Gaugin, and others, like Van Gogh). And it carries all the more impact for having made us wait.

Apart from the occasional tedious patch, like I've already moaned about, Maugham's prose is superb. It's a model of economical story telling. He shifts locations and points of view and relates the tale through the viewpoint of a number of characters encountered by the narrator, each with their own account of Strickland. Yet it never seems second hand or remote. Maugham also has a nice line in irony, as when he describes an old booze soaked beachcomber, saying he "would not have hesitated to face a dozen unarmed men with nothing but a revolver to help him."

One thing bothered me about this novel... the title. It's a great title, but what does it mean? I'd begun to work out some complex poetic symbolism in which a tiny silver coin, the sixpence, could be held up to the night sky to obscure the silver disc of the moon...

In fact, it's a lot simpler than that. According to the Guardian, there was a review of Maugham's earlier novel Of Human Bondage, in The Times Literary Supplement which described its hero as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Maugham evidently liked the phrase and used it to christen his next book. He was going to include an explanation in the preface of the book, but neglected to do so. A pity, since there was so much dull stuff he did include at the beginning.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads including the stylish Harri Peccinotti still life, which I've given most prominence. The Pan cover, another nice photographic still life, is from an ABE seller. The 1950 Bantam is from another ABE seller. The 1955 Bantam with the white cover, which is the edition I read, is from Cover Browser.)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Age of Ultron by Joss Whedon

I'm a considerable fan of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my favourite TV series, and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, an unforgettablly transgressive genre classic. 

A few years ago Whedon wrote and directed the first Avengers film (entitled Avengers Assemble in the UK to avoid confusion with TV's wonderful The Avengers). That film was a personal favourite of mine, and possibly the greatest comic book movie of all time.

Now Whedon has written and directed the sequel, with the unwieldy and uninviting title The Avengers: Age of Ultron (I've seen the movie and I still couldn't tell you who or what 'Ultron' is... at a guess, the bad guy). Whereas the first Avengers was a magnificent movie, this one is — at best — sort of okay.

Whedon's gift for witty and pointed dialogue is still in evidence, but his ability to assemble (no pun intended) a drama seems to have abandoned him. Age of Ultron has acres of plot but no story. In other words, there's lots of incidents but none of them amount to anything emotionally or intellectually. 

There's also some careless construction. The Scarlet Witch (no relation to Johansson) is set up as possessing the ability to psychically influence people's thoughts — to get inside their head and monkey with their minds. But late in the movie she is suddenly revealed to also have major telekinetic powers (as in Carrie — or more especially The Fury) where she picks up buses and stuff like that. Yup, with her thoughts. 

This isn't established or even hinted at earlier, so  it comes across as abrupt, baffling and unconvincing. Perhaps people familiar with the comic character can take it in their stride, but for anyone else it's likely to be a disruptive surprise and an annoying distraction. Always avoid sloppy writing, folks. It jolts the audience out of that dream state we aspire to create.

But Joss Whedon also has a substantial talent for characterisation and this is still somewhat in evidence here, most notably in the relationship between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). 

There is genuine chemistry between these two and the possibilty they might kiss provides what little suspense there is in the film. Best of all are the tender moments where the Widow calms the Hulk and gets him to revert to human form. In the dialogue this is described as singing him a lullabye. But actually all she does is wordlessly and gently caress his giant green hand. It's a touching and effective moment.

The film also wakes up towards the end with the uprooting of a city and an unexpected rescue mission. But by then it's too little (or perhaps too much) too late. There are some other incidental pleasures to be had. The ever-excellent Elizabeth Olsen is on board now, though saddled with a silly Eastern European accent as the aforementioned Scarlet Witch. And Paul Bettany, who has always been under-utilised in the Iron Man movies as a bodiless voice has now been cleverly upgraded to a proper onscreen presence as The Vision — one of Marvel's most visually interesting superheros with his red face and green costume.

Also, there is the splendid casting of James Spader as the voice of Ultron, the bad guy (I checked).

No pipsqueak post by me in my little blog is going to stop Age of Ultron steam-rollering (is that a verb?) through the multiplexes as a monster summer hit, but I do want to go on record as saying that this is the most disappointing sequel since the second Matrix movie.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 24 May 2015

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

I read my first  Sue Grafton novel, Q is for Quarry, a few months ago. I was pleased to have discovered an excellent series of detective stories, with a whole alphabet full of books to enjoy. T is for Trespass is another Kinsey Millhone adventure, and I suspect a particularly outstanding one because it features a memorably malevolent villain, and because Kinsey Millhone is personally involved in the mayhem — it's not just a case for her.

Kinsey is a very appealing character. She's no glamour puss or superhero; she struggles to maintain her appearance, she's addicted to junk food, constantly tries to force herself to go for her morning run and doesn't always succeed. 

But she is absolutely meticulous where her work is concerned, scrupulously typing up her notes while they're fresh in her mind. The books are set in the 1980s, so Kinsey uses a manual typewriter — indeed, in some senses, a typewriter is her chosen weapon (though she owns several guns, and can use them if compelled to).

Sue Grafton is great — and unusual in my experience — in her coverage of the very mundane activities of private investigators. Kinsey spends a large portion of the novel working on an insurance investigation and serving an eviction notice. And Grafton makes this stuff interesting. Fascinating, in fact. 

But T is for Trespass is mostly concerned with a woman calling herself Solana Rojas. She practises identity theft and is currently passing herself off as a qualified nurse. Her scam is to get a job looking after vulnerable, elderly people, asset-strip them and, once they've been picked clean, bump them off. Solana is a really nasty piece of work. 

And when Kinsey's frail elderly neighbour takes a fall — requiring hospitalisation and then home care — Solana and our hero are on a collision course. But the reader only gradually realises this. The injured neighbour doesn't seem to be a major plot point at first; lots of domestic background is normal in a Kinsey Millhone novel. So we see Solana in action, and we follow the story of the elderly neighbour, without at first seeing how they will link up.  And it's a wonderful feeling when the two plotlines begin to converge.

T is for Trespass is very different to Q is for Quarry. That earlier novel was told entirely from Kinsey's point of view and was a straightforward police procedural, very low-key. This one is a diabolically gripping suspense thriller (we know what Solana is up to long before Kinsey does), it intercuts between Solana and Kinsey, and it builds to a major action climax. In fact, it builds to two major action climaxes. Which is one of the flaws of the book. I bought the first big setpiece violent confrontation. But when the second one came along, despite being logical in terms of the plot, it just seemed too much. Too overblown. Too Hollywood. Part of the strength of the Kinsey Millhone novels is their sense of everyday reality, and that got lost here.

A worse flaw was the way, late in the story, that Kinsey and her helper suddenly knew every detail of a conversation that Solana had at a bank. They weren't present for the conversation or otherwise privy to it. This is a major hole in the plot. There is a way they could have found out — a phonecall from another character. But such a phonecall never takes place. I suspect Sue Grafton planned to write that scene, but just forgot. Which is where an editor comes in — or should come in. A good editor would spot this sort of thing. The fact that such a major error slipped through into print is rather disgraceful. The poor readers end up combing back through the book to see if they missed something. It somewhat muffles the impact of the climax.

These concerns aside, T is for Trespass is terrific. Grafton's writing is as vivid as ever. "I felt a hot rush of pain as though the injury were mine," says Kinsey when she sees the injuries her neighbour has received. And the landscape is once again strikingly evoked. "Some miles out, the channel islands were laid against the horizon in a dark, ragged line." And her gift for sardonic observation is keen as ever: "Offshore the oil rigs twinkled like a regatta with the capacity for spills." Or this description of a slob in front of the TV: "he had a beer balanced on the arm of the chair and an open bag of potato chips resting against his thigh like a faithful hound."

Three cheers for Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone.
(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Child 44 by Espinosa and Price

Buried somewhere in this glum mess of a movie is the wreckage of a potentially gripping homicide procedural. 

Child 44 was a bestselling novel by Tom Rob Smith. It's described in a quote on the cover as one of the hundred best thrillers of all time, and I'm willing to believe it might be. Sadly its screen incarnation isn't going to be among the best of anything.

Child 44 it is a crime story set in Stalinist Russia — sort of a 1950s Gorky Park — and the movie adaptation has a theoretically distinguished pedigree. It stars the great Tom Hardy among other excellent actors, it's produced by Ridley Scott... 

Most importantly it has a script by Richard Price, a distinguished American novelist (The Wanderers) turned screenwriter (Sea of Love). I actually used Price's book (Four Screenplays) as a text when I was teaching screenwriting. He's deft, accomplished and knowledgeable.

And the premise of Child 44 is rather brilliant. In the putative paradise of Stalin's Soviet Union, murder cannot exist — it's a disease of the decadent West. So when an honest cop has to try and stop an evil child killer, the odds are really stacked against him.

So... great set up, great cast, great screenwriter. What could go wrong? At first, nothing. The film begins strongly, setting up our hero Leo Demidov (Hardy) and his experiences in World War 2, and neatly delineating his fellow soldiers, his loyal buddy Alexei (Fares Fares) and his cowardly, evil nemesis Vasili (Joel Kinnaman — excellent in the recent Robocop remake). 

We then cut to the the 1950s. Leo is now a war hero and Alexei and Vasili are fellow officers in the MGB, the state police.

And Leo is married to Raisa, played by the delightful Noomi Rapace, in a blonde wig. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace were also a couple in the terrific recent New York crime movie The Drop

Unfortunately, reuniting them here proves to be a mistake — because The Drop was an impressively effective film which knew exactly what it was doing. And Child 44 suffers terribly by comparison.

Because Child 44 never has a clue where it is going. It should be straightforward enough. It should tell the story of Leo's attempt to track down and stop a monstrous child murderer, struggling against the brutal and suffocating Stalinist system which hobbles him. It should be a police procedural, a mystery thriller. And occasionally — very occasionally — it is.

But for most of its running time, Child 44 can't make up its mind about what story to tell. Is it about Leo's troubled marriage (we know it's troubled because when they're banging in bed, Raisa stares unhappily off into space)? Is it about Leo's career problems? Is it a diatribe about the enormous evil of Stalin's USSR?

Sadly, yes, it is about all of those things, and the investigation of the murder is sidelined and minimised, then suddenly remembered towards the end of the film and hastily crammed into a really rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. Did you glean how the killer, who works in a factory, acquired the surgical skills which were supposed to be so critical in identifying his victims, and tracking him down? I must have missed that.

The movie reaches its climax with Leo and Vasili — and even Raisa — rolling around wrestling in the mud. Which is appropriate, because the whole movie has sort of rolled around in the mud. It's a confused mess.

I could go on about the Russian accents adopted by the British and American cast — distracting, silly and above all unnecessary (they are after all, speaking dialogue in English, not Russian, so in that sense authenticity is a horse that's already bolted).

However Child 44 has much bigger problems, all of them fatal. I'll have to read the novel to find out if some of them originated there. But if the book is as strong as it is reputed to be, then its hard to understand why a screenwriter as talented as Richard Price could have made a shambles of solid source material. Maybe the director, Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) interfered with the script. Maybe Ridley Scott interfered with the script (it's certainly been known to happen).

But for now, the only real mystery here is why Child 44 is such a misfire.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)