Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Fiction

The Netflix Irishman of Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino

Thursday, 23 February, 2017 0 Comments

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel… That’s what a $100 million budget can get you today. The big story, though, is that this star cast will be working on The Irishman for Netflix rather than one of the big studios and this indicates that something seismic is happening in the movie industry.

Anne Thompson of Indiewire, who broke the news of the deal, noted that The Irishman had long been planned as a Paramount Pictures production, but “Scorsese’s movie is a risky deal, and Paramount is not in the position to take risks. This way, he can make the project he wants.” And these projects involve serious money. STX Entertainment reportedly spent some $50 million for the international rights to The Irishman at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which was very good news for Charles Brandt.

The Irishman The Irishman is based on Brandt’s best-selling book, I Heard You Paint Houses, about Frankie Sheeran, a killer who claimed he played a part in the legendary vanishing of the corrupt union boss Jimmy Hoffa. The book’s title, by the way, comes from the criminal slang for contract killings and the resulting blood splatter on walls.

Charles Brandt befriended Frankie Sheeran, who confessed to him that he’d been involved with the killing of Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975 and has never been seen since. Sheeran was an odious piece of work. He served with the US Army in Europe during World War II and experienced combat during the Italian Campaign, including the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Cassino. He then took part in the landings in southern France and the Battle of the Bulge and admitted that he had been involved in several massacres of German POWs. He also claimed to have had inside information about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. According to Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa wanted Kennedy dead, as Bobby Kennedy, the US Attorney General, was “persecuting” him. The killing of Kennedy was a Mafia hit, said Sheeran, who maintained he’d transported three rifles to the alleged assassins. Fact or fiction? Netflix is betting $100 million that people will want to watch, thanks to CGI, a youthful De Niro play Sheeran and Pacino star as Hoffa.


Storytelling the year 2035

Wednesday, 25 January, 2017 0 Comments

Did anyone ask the “experts” 10 or 20 years ago to predict who’d be inaugurated as US President in 2017? We know what the pollsters said on 8 November and we know how that turned out. Still, there’s an insatiable demand for a glimpse of the future, no matter how far-fetched, and there’s a tidy industry devoted to churning out the visions. Consider two new studies: the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” and the Atlantic Council’s “Global Risks 2035: The Search for the New Normal.” Both look at the year 2035.

Each of them offers a somewhat similar views of a world in which the United States is more insular, while China, Russia and Iran have become more aggressive regional powers. Technology continues to innovate but economic growth is uneven. In 2035, people are flooding from the land into megacities of 10 million or more, growing the number of such metropolises from 30 now to 41 in 2030.

For its scenarios, the Atlantic Council presents a variety of fictional situations written in part by August Cole, author of Ghost Fleet, a near-future military thriller published last year about an America-China conflict in the Pacific. Cole drew upon the Atlantic Council’s The Art of the Future Project, which uses fictional depictions of the future “to inform official perspectives on emerging international security issues.” Example: “Fingers on the Scale,” a short story by Mike Matson about an app that allows parents to boost their children’s academic achievements, and which is on the homescreen of all rulers of despotic nations. To prevent nasty countries from developing the intellectual calibre of their elites, however, the CIA steps in to limit the abilities of the despots’ offspring. Langley saves the West again!

The future is always just around the corner, which means lots of people in Washington and Brussels can now make a nice living creating infographics about what might come after the present. August Cole is saying, though, that storytelling can be just as useful as trend-line graphs for forecasting. And, if those don’t satisfy, there are the stars. In the 1980s, the Reagan White House turned to Joan Quigley for astrological advice.

Ghost Fleet


Kim Cattrall reads Rosemary’s Baby

Sunday, 30 October, 2016 0 Comments

Satanism on Manhattan’s Upper West Side? Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby sold more than four million copies and launched the modern horror genre. The following year, it was made into a controversial film starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes and directed by Roman Polanski. This weekend, especially for Halloween, it’s being read terrifically, terrifyingly, as part of BBC Radio 4’s Fright Night series by Kim Cattrall, the English-Canadian actress who became famous as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City.

Rosemary's Baby

“Are you aware that the Bramford had a rather unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century? It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. And Keith Kennedy held his parties. Adrian Marcato lived there too… The Trench sisters were two proper Victorian ladies — they cooked and ate several young children including a niece…Adrian Marcato practiced witchcraft. He made quite a splash in the ’90s by announcing that he’d conjured up the living devil. Apparently, people believed him so they attacked and nearly killed him in the lobby of the Bramford… Later, the Keith Kennedy business began and by the ’20s, the house was half empty… World War II filled the house up again… They called it Black Bramford… This house has a high incidence of unpleasant happenings. In 1959, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement…”


The Bourne Formula

Wednesday, 24 August, 2016 0 Comments

The story at the heart of the latest Jason Bourne adventure is sandwiched between two major action scenes. First up is a mesmerizing segment in Athens, where the hunters and the hunted weave their ways between police and protesters. The ultra-violence is balletic and superbly choreographed by director Paul Greengrass. The other big action scene is a car chase in Last Vegas that instantly veers into destruction porn. Compared to the opening, this is jaded stuff. There’s a similar déjà vu feeling about a pursuer-pursued scene set in London. Wasn’t that done in Bourne 2? Or was it Bourne 3?

Yes, there are some nods to surveillance and Facebook and Snowden, but substance and subtlety have to make way for fisticuffs and formula. Matt Damon is more muscled and taciturn than ever and utters a total of 42 sentences. Tommy Lee Jones looks poorly, Alicia Vikander is less robotic than in Ex Machina and Vincent Cassel is the “asset”. Overall, then, an excellent way of whiling away 2 hours and 28 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Jason Bourne is huge at the box office.


Westworld redux

Wednesday, 29 June, 2016 0 Comments

In 1973, the late, great Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park androids that malfunction and begin killing visitors. With stories about job-stealing robots and fears of rogue artificial intelligence reaching fever pitch, HBO has decided that what the world needs right now is an upgrade of Westworld. The story has been reengineered for our new century and this time round we’re expected to sympathize with the sentient bots enslaved by their scary creator, Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The first trailer contains hints of Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park and Crichton’s original.

HBO blurb: “The one-hour drama series Westworld is a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin. Set at the intersection of the near future and the reimagined past, it explores a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.”


Putin, perfidy and pastry

Saturday, 23 April, 2016 2 Comments

There are many compelling reasons to read Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. Perfidy is one. The villainy of Russia under Putin is well documented by non-Russian media, but it acquires a new pungency in a fiction that mirrors fact. Snippet:

“What fuelled the Kremlin kleptocracy, what motivated it, was not to bring back the Soviet Union, nor to reinstall the worldwide dread generated by the Red Army, nor to formulate a foreign policy based on national security requirements. In Russia today, everything happened to maintain the nadzirateli, the overseers, to protect their power, to continue looting the country’s patrimony.”

The characters in Palace of Treason ping-pong around the world — from Paris to Moscow to Athens to Vienna to Washington — as they attempt to steal secrets and outdo each other in a deadly game of influence zones, encompassing Europe and the Middle East. All of this activity demands feeding and Jason Matthews has come up with a novel touch: each chapter ends with a short recipe for one of the delicacies consumed by the protagonists. When an Iranian nuclear scientist is caught in a honey trip, he’s served shirini keshmeshi: Persian pastries dotted with raisins. “Jamshedi goggled at the cakes. Here he was, sitting with a blackmailing Russian intelligence officer, spilling his country’s secrets, and this prostitute was serving him the confection of this childhood.”

Palace of Treason recipe for shirini keshmeshi: “Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, melted butter, vegetable oil and eggs. Add saffron diluted in warm water, small raisins, and vanilla extract. Blend well. Put dollops of dough on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and bake in a medium oven until golden brown.”

Palace of Treason


Kindle pre-highlighters suit Microsoft science fiction

Thursday, 10 December, 2015 0 Comments

Here’s what Andrei Codrescu said when he found that passages in a book he’d downloaded onto his Kindle arrived pre-highlighted: “It is surely a mistake, I think. This is a new book. I don’t know about you, but I always hated underlined passages in used books… And then I discovered that the horror doesn’t stop with the unwelcomed presence of another reader who’s defaced my new book. But it deepens with something called view popular highlights, which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station…”

These “pre-highlighters” are a love-hate (mostly hate) thing and the Amazon Kindle Forum thread on the subject is filled with all kinds of erudite comments: “But if you turn off Annotations Backup you won’t get any synching between multiple devices, and if you archive a book, and then bring it back to your Kindle all your notes, highlights, bookmarks, and last place read will all be gone,” Fool for Books says.

Anyway, all of this was brought on by reading the Kindle Edition of “Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.” The opening story in the collection is “Hello, Hello” by Seanan McGuire and in it she explores the world of machine learning. The pre-highlighters that prompt the New Oxford American Dictionary are uncannily appropriate in this context. Just like the “precogs” of Minority Report with their abilities to see into the future, digital format sci-fi about computers that communicate is an ideal place for predictive popups. The Singularity is getting nearer by the day.

Kindle reading


Occupied: Cold horror

Sunday, 22 November, 2015 0 Comments

Present: Norway supplies 30 percent of the European Union’s natural gas imports and 10 percent of its crude oil imports. Future: The US is no longer a member of NATO, fossil fuel reserves are running low and a new Norwegian Prime Minister has decided that his country will switch from oil and gas to alternative energy options. Faced with this crisis, Brussels turns to Moscow for muscle and thus Okkupert (Occupied) begins.

Conceived by Jo Nesbø, the best-selling Oslo-based writer, Occupied is the most expensive TV series ever produced in Norwegian and it is excellent. The scenery is cold, the colours are cold, the occupiers are cold and the horror is cold. With winter at hand, Occupied forces us to ask ourselves what we would tolerate to stay warm. The dismemberment of Ukraine? By the way, Nesbø had the idea long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, but the story reveals the unease that many of Russia’s neighbors feel. It’s cold up north. Occupied is now showing on Arte, the Franco-German TV network.


From left to right: Houellebecq reviewed

Thursday, 19 November, 2015 0 Comments

As we approach the penultimate day of our Submission series, it’s time to take a look at how the book has been received on the left and on the right. First up, Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. With a nod to the Bethlehem of Yeats in The Second Coming, his review is titled Slouching Toward Mecca. Lilla is at pains to emphasizes that none of the characters in Houellebecq’s novel expresses “hatred or even contempt of Muslims.” Instead, “It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here — no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.”

Submission Douglas Murray takes a more robust approach in Quadrant with A Society Ripe for Submission. Like Lilla, however, he stresses that the novel is not the cartoon that its detractors have claimed it to be: “Of course it is worth stating from the outset — since in these times we seem to have to do such things — that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, ‘blasphemous’ and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction.”

In his conclusion, Mark Lilla interprets Submission as Houellebecq’s reckoning with a country and a continent that have run out of road in the modern world:

“He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The “Who” there is echoed in the “whose” at the close of Douglas Murray’s assessment of the novel:

“Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?”

Tomorrow, here, we conclude our week of Submission.


Knausgaard reads Houellebecq

Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 0 Comments

It was a brave decision on the part of the New York Times to ask Karl Ove Knausgård to review Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Brave because the Norwegian author is not known for his brevity. Knausgård is the author of Min Kamp (My Struggle), six controversial autobiographical novels that stretch across 3,600 pages.

“Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books,” writes Knausgård, warming up to his task. Eventually, he picks up the novel and opens it: “I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.”

Submission Submission is controversial, he finds, because “anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities.”

Houellebecq’s savaging of political correctness prepares the ground for “a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible,” notes Knausgård. In this scenario, the French general election of 2022 is won by the Muslim Brotherhood with which the left collaborates to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. Snippet:

“What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs… This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”

What does it mean to be a human being without faith? For Knausgård, that’s the key question posed by a novel that closes with the faithless protagonist looking forward in time to his own submission, “to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning.”

In the end, Knausgård is full of praise for what Houellebecq has written and declares Submission to be a great book: “The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?”


The fish story at 40

Tuesday, 23 June, 2015 0 Comments

The film didn’t have a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page or trailers on YouTube. What it did have was a budget of $7 million and Steven Spielberg as its director. Since its premiere in June 1975, Jaws has earned $470 million and, for better or worse, it established the summer blockbuster trend. This was Spielberg’s second feature film and it could have ended the 27-year-old’s career, but his clever use of fear (we’re vulnerable when we leave dry land) and terror (we’re more scared of what we can’t see than what we can) thrilled people into queuing around the block all summer long 40 years ago.

Spielberg was aided by Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel, John Williams, who scored the anxiety-inducing music, and, especially, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus, who played their roles to perfection.

Jaws