Hard Candy

It is difficult to know what to think about this film, or how to feel — except that it consists of 103 thoroughly absorbing minutes, largely of two people talking to each other. It begins with an internet chat room, where a 14-year-old girl arranges to meet a man in person. We then join them as they meet: he is Jeff, a photographer in his early thirties who lives alone; she is Hayley, a precociously intelligent teen who would not look out of place playing Peter Pan on stage. Hayley soon finds an excuse to suggest that they go back to Jeff’s apartment — where she spikes his drink…

…And when Jeff wakes up, Hayley has tied him to a chair. Her intention is to take revenge, for she believes him to be a predator — which he is, for she soon finds the photographic evidence, including a picture of a local girl who has gone missing. Did Jeff kill her? He says not, but Hayley doesn’t believe him.

Later, when Jeff tries to escape, she stops him by wrapping his head in clingfilm; when he next wakes, Jeff is tied to a table — to find Hayley dressed in surgical scrubs, with her father’s medical textbook, and about to perform an operation that Jeff would prefer not to contemplate. So the movie continues, a game of cat and mouse, with Jeff occasionally gaining the upper hand, though not for very long — until Hayley demands he make the ultimate choice.

This is the kind of film that stands or falls by its central performances, and both are excellent. Hayley is portrayed brilliantly by Ellen Page (who played another precoious teen a couple of years after this in Juno, but the two characters are nothing alike). It should be absurd, the idea that a small, skinny, waif like Hayley should be able to overpower a grown man who’s a foot taller than her — it is absurd, and both characters know it (what’s the point in Jeff calling the cops, who’d believe him). And it’s not that Hayley is invincible: yes, she came prepared, she has her weapons and her defences — but at the moments they fail, we see the scared girl inside, who knows that Jeff could overpower her easily if he had the chance.

But perhaps Hayley’s greatest defence is one that can’t be taken away — her inscruatble nature. There’s nothing of the femme fatale about Hayley, nor does she have brute strength; she’s menacing because we (and Jeff) don’t really know who she is or where she came from — but we do know that she’s implacable. With Page’s performance, there is never any doubt that this situation is reality, however absurd it may be in theory.

Jeff is played by Patrick Wilson and, whilst his performance may not have quite the same impact as Page’s, that’s really only a matter of degree. We don’t learn much at all about the two protagonists, so it’s hard to judge what to feel towards Jeff, especially at first — ostensibly he’s the victim of the piece, but Hayley says he’s a monster, but then again,  we only have her word for that for a good while. Only gradually does Wilson reveal glimpses of Jeff’s true nature underneath. Layered, subtle performances from both leads.

As all this may suggest, the morality of the film is complicated. You can’t root for Jeff, because of what he’s done and may do again. But can you really root for Hayley, after what she does? The movie, it seems to me, does not come to any firm conclusions, leaving everyone to make up their own minds individually.

What’s not in doubt is that Hard Candy is a very striking piece of film-making. Despite its theme, there is hardly anything gratuitous or graphic in it (there’s some blood on a scalpel, and that’s about it); so much of the film’s effect is achieved by suggestion and implication. The visual style is also distinctive, with claustrophobic close-up shots and an often washed-out palette.

In short, Hard Candy is not a comfortable film to watch — but it keeps you watching nevertheless.

The return of Red Dwarf

I didn’t see this coming [*], but apparently there is going to be a brand new two-part special of Red Dwarf this Easter, in which Lister and co. finally return to Earth. I’m cautiously optimistic about the news: of course it’s great to have the show back after all this time — it never really ‘finished’ — but I can’t help wondering, ‘is it going to be any good?’ It’s a shame that Rob Grant is apparently not involved, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Doug Naylor and everyone else have come up with… cautiously, anyway.

[*] Perhaps I should have seen it coming, because the news that the specials were being made was orginally announced in September last year. But it passed me by.

BOOK REVIEW: Ideomancer, December 2008 (Vol. 7, Issue 4)

Now up at The Fix: my review of the December 2008 issue of Ideomancer. Includes escaping chickens, gods at war in the playground, a factory with a gruesome purpose, a princess with a secret life, the android equivalent of an urban legend, and more besides. And I enjoyed all of it.

Links:
Review
Ideomancer

BOOK REVIEW: Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney / How to Make Friends With Demons by Graham Joyce (2008)

Over at The Zone is my review of Graham Joyce’s latest novel, which is being published in the UK as Memoirs of a Master Forger (under the name ‘William Heaney’) and in the US as How to Make Friends With Demons (under Joyce’s own name). William Heaney the character deals in forged antiquarian books, and also sees ‘demons’ — but are they real or all in his mind?

Written with Joyce’s trademark elegance (and a generous helping of sly humour), the novel weaves a web of deception and misdirection, as almost no one is what they seem… But now I’m quoting from my own review. Do check this book out; it’s a solid 4-star read.

Read the review at http://www.zone-sf.com/wordworks/memforge.html
[Copy and paste the link.]

So long, Serendipity

The January issue of Serendipity (the webzine of “magical realism and contemporary light fantasy”) is now online, and sadly it is going to be the final one (apart from a “best of” next month). Serendipity ploughed its own distinctive furrow while publishing some great fiction, so its demise is a great loss to the field — and to me personally, because I was an occasional contributor (they published five of my reviews).

I’d like to thank everyone involved in Serendipity, especially its editor, Neil Ayres, and publisher, Ben Coppin, for giving us 18 months of an excellent e-zine. It’ll be missed.

BOOK REVIEW: Couch by Benjamin Parzybok (2008)

Now online at The Zone is my review of Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, a novel from Small Beer Press. It’s the odd little tale of three guys carrying their couch to somewhere new — but they don’t know where, because the couch itself seems to be guiding them. It gets 3 stars from me, because I liked it, but it never really caught fire in the way I hoped it would.

Here’s the review.

Slumdog Millionaire

The latest film by Danny Boyle has already been showered with plaudits and, whilst I found it very enjoyable rather than outstanding, I can kind of see where the awards are coming from. The essence of the story (based on a novel by Vikas Swarup)  is right there in the title of Slumdog Millionaire — Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Mumbai, grows up to become chai-wallah at a call centre, and wins the jackpot of 10 million rupees on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But the question (as posed by the movie’s initial caption) is, how did he manage it?

Which is a question the police are also very interested in, as we discover in the brilliant opening sequence, which intercuts stark footage of Jamal being interrogated (including having his head thrust in a bucket of water, and later having live electrodes attached to his toes) with clips of him on the game show. The contrast between the two is shown vividly, with the WWTBAM? segments seeming an impossibly distant dream, and the interrogation a grotesque nightmare from which waking up is not an option. It’s a great start to the film.

The reason the police are questioning Jamal is that they’re convinced he must have cheated at the quiz, because how could a ‘slumdog’ know all those answers? Well, luckily for Jamal, the questions asked things that he’s picked up during his eventful life — or perhaps not so luckily to an extent, because some of those memories are very painful. Jamal goes through each question in turn, recounting the relevant parts of his life to the police, and we see the events in flashback.

Orphaned as children when their mother is beaten to death in a riot, Jamal and his brother Salim are taken under the wing of Maman, who first appears to be a benevolent man running an orphanage, but proves to be a gangster who uses children as beggars, and blinds for real those who sing well, so they’ll bring in more money. Maman plans to do just that to Jamal, but the boy escapes, along with Salim and a girl named Latika; the brothers make it on to a train, but Latika is recaptured by Maman’s goons.

As they grow, the two brothers have to live off their wits, but Salim grows violent, and their ways eventually part, with Jamal becoming the chai-wallah, and his brother a gangster’s hitman. And Latika moves in and out of Jamal’s life, but remains always in the back of his mind, ultimately leading him to go on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The teenage Jamal is played by Dev Patel, a British actor who has trouble disguising his accent (or chooses not to do so) and seems to spend most of his screen-time looking nonplussed, but does a good job with his part all the same. However, much of the film is carried by the young actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika as children, and they carry it very well. Amongst the remaining cast, I would also single out Anil Kapoor, who gives a great performance as the game show’s vile host.

But Slumdog Millionaire‘s greatest strength — and, perhaps, its greatest weakness — is the way it’s put together. This is an expertly constructed movie: there’s further superb use of intercutting to move between the TV show/interrogation and the flashbacks; to mark other transitions (in one particularly memorable moment, Jamal and Salim are thrown off the train on which they fled Maman, they tumble down a banking, and when the resulting dust cloud clears, the brothers are a few years older and standing before a building they assume must be some sort of hotel — it’s the Taj Mahal); and to counterpoint the harshness of Jamal’s life and the pristine world of the game show. Unusual shots and oblique camera angles also help to give the film a dynamic, edgy feel.

The trouble is, though, that these techniques also draw attention to the artifice involved, which the movie can’t necessarily afford when its plot is already based so transparently on contrivance. I found that it conflicted with the very real emotional elements of the film, and made it that bit harder for me to care about everything.

The adverts for Slumdog Millionaire are quoting a review that describes it as ‘the feel-good film of the decade’, which not only overstates the case but also, I think, does Boyle a disservice. This is actually quite a dark, sombre film: violence and death are never far away at any stage. But there is also a good deal of humour peppered throughout; and Boyle plays fair with his story: ‘Why do people watch this?’ asks Jamal at one point, as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? plays on a television screen. Latika replies that it’s because the programme offers a dream of escape. And when escape finally comes, so does the big dance number, in the end credits.

Hustle: first impressions of series 5

WARNING: This post spoils the plot of the first episode.

The makers of Hustle, the BBC’s super-slick drama about a gang of loveable con artists fleecing the unscrupulous, faced a quandary a couple of years ago, when Adrian Lester declined to appear in a fourth series. His character, Mickey Stone, was the leader of the gang of rogues; how could they replace him? Well, they decided that Mickey had gone off to Australia to sell the Sydney Opera House, promoted Danny Blue (played by Marc Warren) to leader, and brought in a new character named Billy Bond (Ashley Walters) to fill the rookie slot. And the show wasn’t quite the same, because Danny was the eternal rookie — the point of the character was that he wasn’t ready to be leader, and never would be (not during the time-frame of the programme, anyway). He didn’t have Mickey’s smoothness and charm, and Hustle lost some of its sparkle as a result.

The programme returned for its fifth series last night, with yet more changes: Mickey Stone has returned to London (having fled Australia in a typically unlikely and audacious fashion), to find that the old gang has fallen apart: Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister) is conning City boys with proposition bets; Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) is in prison; Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) and Danny are in America; even hapless barman Eddie (Rob Jarvis) no longer has his bar. (Billy Bond has been quietly forgotten.) Mickey wants a new crew, and Albert has a mark for him  and Ash: nasty property developer Sara Naismith, who wants to dabble in the stock market, but needs a recommendation. What follows is as joyously convoluted as ever.

With their  characters overseas, Murray and Warren do not appear in this series (whether this was the actors’ or writers’ decision, I don’t know), which is a shame, but perhaps inevitable with Mickey returning — Danny couldn’t really go back to being the rookie, and I suppose it makes the relationships neater if Stacie goes as well. But who’ll take their place? At the time the new series was announced, I speculated that Danny and Satcie could only really be replaced by other versions of themselves — or perhaps a female rookie. And it seems that what’s happened is something similar.

(SPOILERS BEGIN HERE)

Sara Naismith and her ever-present PA Aaron are in fact grifters themselves, siblings Emma (Kelly Adams) and Sean Kennedy (Matt Di Angelo) — Albert set up a mutual ‘con’ to introduce them to Mickey and Ash. So we end the episode with a new group of five. It’s too soon to tell how things will go, but the signs are good, because the characters are all in the right niches this time. Emma in particular should be a good addition to the crew;  she comes across as being like Stacie without the polish, which I think will give the series an interesting new dynamic. Sean may be the weak link, though, as I’m not yet sure what role he’s going to fill: from the first episode, Emma looks to be the brains of the pair (when Ash and Mickey discuss letting the Kennedys join, they say, ‘she’s good’, but never mention Sean), so I hope they find enough for her brother to do.

As for the episode itself, much of the plot is concerned with restoring the status quo ante as far as possible (even Eddie’s Bar returns by the end, and Albert’s exit from jail will hopefully not be far behind), and the first episode of series 5 shows that the show’s signature elements — the complicated plots, the to-camera looks, freezing the action — are still there. In  interviews, the actors have hinted that this series will be a little darker, which does concern me, because Hustle has never managed to integrate real-life ‘darkness’ very well (including in this episode). But it’s true that this episode isn’t quite as… Technicolor as some have been (though please understand that’s all relative!), and if that’s all they mean, I don’t think it’s a problem.

Hustle has never struck me as a format that could handle much in the way of change, but it seems to have weathered its latest storm well so far. The con is (back) on!

Once

On a street in Dublin, a young(ish) man (played by Glen Hansard) is busking. The camera zooms in on his face as he raises his voice towards the end of the song, clearly putting his heart and soul into it, even if the world at large isn’t listening. Well, one person is: as the camera retreats, it reveals a pretty Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) standing there. She congratulates him on a great song and performance; he confirms that, yes, it’s one of his own songs. They talk in the halting way that people tend to when they’ve only just met. He works at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. How fortunate: her vacuum cleaner is broken; she’ll bring it over tomorrow.

She does. The two talk some more. He discovers that she plays piano (her father was in an orchestra, and taught her). They go to a music shop, where he teaches her one of his songs, he playing his guitar and singing, she joining in on the piano. They complement each other naturally.

As time progresses, they grow closer. He wants to go to London, to try to make it in the music industry. But first he needs to record a demo, and for that he needs to put together a band. Would she be willing to join in and play piano on the recording? Yes, she would. Life moves on.

I’ve wanted to see this film for quite some time, and I’m so glad to have finally done so, as it’s a delight from beginning to end. Everything about Once flows so naturally: the dialogue feels like real conversation; the plot runs like life (with an added dash of the magic it sometimes brings); the protagonists’ relationship develops in a way that it might do in reality (Hansard and Irglova work so well together that it’s no surprise to discover that they fell in love for real while making the film). The fly-on-the-wall style of camerawork only adds to the sense of authenticity.

But the centrepiece of Once is its music. Hansard and Irglova are both professional musicians, and great musicians they are too: he has a powerful voice, raw and gentle by turns; she is an excellent pianist, and has a lighter vocal style that meshes well with Hansard’s. In keeping with the naturalistic feel of the film, the songs appear only when it would be plausible for them to; but, with just the right amount of artfulness, they have greater clarity than the spoken soundtrack. In fact, the songs often play over the visuals with no other sound, as though the music is more important than anything else. And perhaps it is for these two characters, who come together through a shared love of music, and seem more comfortable playing songs together than talking. Certainly Once is one of the clearest statements of the potential of music to affect lives that I have encountered in a long time.

I was pleased to learn that, not only did Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova write the soundtrack, they have also recorded an album together previously, and that Hansard has a band, called The Frames. I have a lot of music to investigate, then. Here is a clip of Hansard and Irglova performing the Oscar-winning song ‘Falling Slowly‘ from the movie.