Hugh Reviews Snuff by Terry Pratchett

In 1994 I discovered Terry Pratchett’s debut Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The story of an inept wizard living on a flat world supported on the backs of four elephants, themselves traversing the void on the back of a giant space turtle, held a carny-house mirror up to the world of fantasy (of which I was fairly enamoured at the time), and sometimes reality itself, leaving me breathless (and occasionally a tad damp) with laughter. I quickly caught up to Pratchett’s publishing schedule and over the intervening years I have read around 90% of his output, which is no mean feat; the man is prolific like a fox. I’ve had a few favourites in that time and I’ve read most of his books multiple times including one that I’ve read eight times (Reaper Man, if you’re curious), but eventually a certain subset started to stand out. Pratchett has a handful of main characters that he has followed through multiple books (and a wealth of supporting characters that pop up here, there, and everywhere) and Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch soon became, if not my favourite character, the lead character in my favourite books. I’ve eagerly awaited new Vimes books over the years, so I was quite excited recently when I saw Snuff on the shelves.

For the uninitiated, Sam Vimes is an anti-authoritarian copper so street-wise he could easily be a criminal, were it not for his utterly unshakeable moral compass. Think Dirty Harry meets Nixon’s good twin (Nixon was so comprehensively evil he could only have been someone’s evil twin, and that twin would have been a shining light of purity). Over a number of books, Vimes chases thieves and murderers around the city and eventually beyond it. His policing frequently strays into the realms of international diplomacy, despite his best efforts. Snuff finds him on holiday in the country, completely out of his comfort zone, what with the general lack of night-time city noise and people stabbing each other and throwing each other’s corpses in the river. Or onto the river, anyway. Happily, this state of affairs rapidly and predictably degenerates into a murder investigation with a side helping of righteous rage over some extreme racial vilification.

“[Harry King] was a scallywag, a chancer, a ruthless fighter and a dangerous driver of bargains over the speed limit. Since all of this was a bit of a mouthful, he was referred to as a successful business man”

Pratchett has traditionally done a few things really well. His meat and potatoes, as it were, are wit and satire; he has a way with words and particularly a way of presenting everyday events and institutions so as to make them seem completely absurd. Early on, a lot of the satire was focused on the tropes of fantasy stories but increasingly Pratchett turned his warped perspective on physics, philosophy, mythology, and the everyday. One of the best examples of this treatment are Pratchett’s characters, most of whom are walking archetypes. This might bother some people but personally, I love it; they are by no means cardboard cutouts, just a little more tightly themed than, perhaps, the next character. Over the decades that he’s been writing, Pratchett has also become a pretty dab hand at weaving a gripping and, perhaps more importantly, entertaining, story. And Snuff is certainly an entertaining story but it doesn’t go above and beyond in the way that I have come to expect.

The sad truth is that Terry Pratchett is a writer in decline. Personally, I suspect he peaked sometime around Thud (also a Vimes book), a good few book back. Snuff progresses a bit too linearly and fails to really put much challenge in Vimes’ way, the supporting characters (normally so strong in these stories) are a bit lack-lustre, and there are definitely points where the writing is not quite as coherent as one might hope. For all that, it is a thoroughly entertaining read, but you probably have to be a Vimes fan already. And by fan, I possibly mean addict. That said, damn, Vimes is the man! I certainly enjoyed this book and it picked up at the end but there is a pile of Pratchett books as long as my arm that I will reread, possibly multiple times, before I ever come back to it.

The Verdict: Not so much Vimes, as the slightly sinister shadow Vimes makes on the wall of the cave. 3 murderous holidays in the country out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Better Than Sex by Hunter S Thompson

In 1972, two years after his ‘Freak Power’ campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County was derailed by a rare moment of non-partisan hand-holding by the Democrats and the GOP, Hunter S Thompson penned what is probably his best work, Fear & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. The work was originally serialised in Rolling Stone, a magazine whose relationship with Thompson had been launched by his aforementioned run at the sheriff’s office. The primary mobilising impetus for the epic undertaking that was a year on the campaign trail with Senator George McGovern was Thompson’s burning rancour for Richard Nixon, whom he considered to be evil in a fashion so fundamental as to be best understood in religious terms. Twenty years later, a slightly lesser malignance toward George Bush Senior and his Predecessor Ronald Reagan spurred Thompson into action again. This mini-Nixon, however, was not hateful enough to actually get the good Doctor out of his home and onto the trail; he covered the campaign via mojo-wire from his Woody Creek HQ based upon observation of cable TV and the feverish delirium that was the inside of his own head.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr Bill’s Neighbourhood is a fragmented collage of press-clippings and deranged personal correspondence penned by the gonzo journalist and sequenced by a pack of rabid starfish. (Each starfish had an item pinned to it; the pages appear in the order in which the starfish died). Thompson is perhaps most famous as the father of gonzo journalism, where the writer becomes so involved in the subject matter as to become the central figure in the story, and this book is a shining example of that process. Better Than Sex probably ends up this way because Bill Clinton was such a wet blanket. Hunter thoroughly disliked Clinton, as he had no sense of humour and was an overly political animal. The only reason Thompson got on board and lent his support to the Clinton campaign was that he couldn’t stomach another four years of Bush. Thompson had to become the central figure in this work or it would have been eye-achingly boring.

            Now, I am a huge fan of the Doctor’s work, largely as a result of his inimitable style. I would probably read his shopping lists were they made available to me. He is one of a small number of writers whose word-sequencing wizardry makes any topic enjoyable. That said, his coverage of the ’72 campaign was also full of information and wove a fascinating story. When I finished it I felt genuinely edified to have read it. Better Than Sex, not so much. It’s fun, but it’s also the first of Thompson’s works that I’ve found easy to put down, even in the middle of a chapter. It gets so lost in the Hunter S Thompson-ness of itself that it forgets to take you on a journey and point out the sights along the way. This is quite possibly due to the fact that unlike the ’72 effort it was never a cohesive series of articles, just a selection of loosely themed ravings.  I’d definitely recommend it to a Thompson fan if running low on other material, but if you’re not as addicted to his work as I am, stick to the classics.

The verdict: It’s still Hunter S Thompson, but it lacks the meat of some of his other work. 3 ludicrously obscene faxes to Ed Turner out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Sherlock

Many people entertain the notion that popular opinion is somehow a reasonable indication of merit, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (cough, GWB, cough). If you are one of these people, allow me to direct your attention to IMDb, specifically the ratings shows receive. The only thing revealed in the light of these star counts in that the majority of users of this service are deaf, blind halfwits in the direct employ of film and TV studios. Case in point: Sherlock, voted 9.1/10 by just shy of 73,000 sycophantic doorstops who’ve obviously never seen a genuinely good TV show in their lives. (Apology to actual doorstops, which provide a noble, selfless service every day of our lives, for this unflattering comparison.)

Sherlock is yet another entry in the ledger of fan-boy resurrections of classic literature. The book-keepers of this ledger are being forced to write in increasingly small print in order to fit the swelling number of entries on the pages and it seems to be causing some legibility issues, to stress the metaphor to the point of tears and then beat it over the head with a frying-pan while it’s blowing its nose in grief. Some of these adaptations have been nothing short of brilliant (e.g League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, obviously)) and some have been poison-yourself-in-rage terrible (e.g League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the movie)). The trend goes back decades (I dimly remember a futuristic Sherlock Holmes cartoon from my childhood where Holmes is somehow transported into the future during his dive from the Reichenbach Falls) but has recently come close to representing a genre in itself. Sherlock is neither a particularly good, nor a particularly bad member of this family but, really, do not let its IMDb rating fool, it is not particularly good.

There have thus far been two seasons, each comprising three feature-length episodes. As a format, I actually quite like it, it allows a detailed story to be told in one sitting, relying on an emotional investment in the characters to bring repeat viewership rather than stringing you along with cheap cliff-hangers like a stripper wearing five sets of underwear. Okay, someone take the metaphor pot away from me, now, this is becoming gratuitous. I’ve recently heard some of Steven Moffat’s other projects coming under fire for trying to be a bit too clever all the time, which surprises me not one bit because it’s a significant problem in Sherlock. I suspect it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if he were a little better at it. In a sense a good Holmes story relies on being smugly clever but it really needs to be done well and Moffat tends to lose the thread to some degree or another leaving the whole thing to come off as about as clever as an insufferable teenager correcting your plurals by adding apostrophes.

Probably the worst thing about the series is the way the mysteries, and subsequent parlour scenes, are put together. There just aren’t enough breadcrumbs scattered through the plots, resulting in unsatisfyingly arbitrary endings. Not the stuff good mystery stories are made of. The series owes more to modern forensic investigation series (all of which should be gathered up in an pile in downtown Los Angeles and used as execution pyre for their creators) than to the classic mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the like. Also, some of the plots (particularly in the 2nd season) are just dumb. D.U.M.B. (That’s an in-joke for those who’ve seen it. If you haven’t, don’t bother, the joke is not worth the 90 minutes you’ll never get back). Aside from the downhill slope that was the storytelling throughout the series, the greatest disappointment was Moriarty who was reduced to a melodramatic crime-addict with a serious speech impediment. He completely failed as a foil to Holmes, who desperately needs one given the bullish presence of his character.

Holmes himself was very well played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (of whom I am a great fan) was an equally enjoyable Watson. In fact, most of the major supporting characters were really good. With the exception of Moriarty, the ensemble was easily the best thing about Sherlock. The other strong point was the camera work and editing, particularly the panning, freeze-frames, and animations used to illustrate Holmes’ process. There was nothing at all new in the method but it was well executed. If everything else had been as good it would probably deserve its 9.1. Or at least a solid 8.

In the end Sherlock failed the most disappointing of all fails: the great idea, poorly executed. The first season was totally watchable and it did leave me wanting more, but the second season was rubbish and the final episode, which showed enormous promise with its basic premise, was the biggest disappointment of all. 2 deerstalker hats out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Prometheus

Although it was impossible to completely avoid the dialogue surrounding the release of Prometheus, I attempted to seclude myself in a fortress of non-spoilery solitude as much as I was able. (If you’re trying to do the same thing, you don’t want to read this) Nothing, however, could prevent me from going into the cinema knowing that the film had thus far garnered a pretty mixed reaction, which seems to be a polite way of saying people didn’t like it. And, having now seen it, I can completely understand why. Which is not to say that I didn’t like it; simply that I can see why others didn’t.

The resurrection of ‘80s franchises in modern cinema has, over the last ten years, reached a point where it has transitioned from stupid fad into zeitgeist-defining trend into the kind of joke that wasn’t funny the first time and you can’t figure out if subsequent tellings are improving the matter or not. The only trend to match it in modern cinema is the rise in popularity of zombies. And it’s amusing that the entertainment industry has become obsessed with zombies at roughly the same time that its directors and producers are necromancing the corpses of old films into shambling semblances of life en masse. I have dealt with this apocalypse a lot better than many people, perhaps because my expectations have remained modest and perhaps because I’m a tragic fan boy and perhaps for some combination of these, and other, reasons. Regardless, I’ve generally been able to enjoy these films on their own terms. It was with this background that I went into Prometheus. Also, I’d recently seen some interview footage of Ridley Scott talking about ‘the big questions’ and thought he could probably do something interesting with it.

And it is an interesting film, if you dig into it. The rapidly evolving biological weapons lab idea had a lot of merit and developed a number of interesting offshoots, though in the process certain things were made a little too clear at the expense of others remaining completely murky. (It should be noticed that some things were demonstrated with the exact right amount of clarity). The film is also desperately corny and perhaps a little too derivate and self-referential for its own good. This is always going to be the case in one of these re-enfranchised works but it has to be handled well and I think the ball was fumbled a little.

The sequencing of the first third of the film is strong and lacks any pointless padding; every shot is either advancing the story in some way or a beautiful piece of landscape/space-porn. From the point of the first foray out of the ship onward the film progressively loses its way as it tries to make up its mind exactly what it’s going to be about. The idea of tackling the question of the origin of humanity in what is –regardless, really, of any amount of dancing around the fact- an Alien film, is certainly not ludicrous but the film really needed to commit to this idea in a way that it totally failed to do. Instead it wandered aimlessly through a bunch of stock entropic plot devices, forced character conflict, ‘in’ references, absolutely gorgeous sets, and seamless CGI. This lack of cohesions is what hurt the film the most.

The other big issue was the character interactions, which were completely hollow and unbelievable; most of the characters were cardboard cutouts and with one or two exceptions no time was invested in developing their motivations. Charlie’s discord with David never seemed at all real or in anyway justified; it appeared to exist simply because in an Alien film someone has to hate the android. The surly geologist similarly seemed, to me, to be utterly contrived and unbelievable. And Charlize Theron was suitably robotic though, frankly, awful as the pole-up-the-arse corporate bigwig. Which brings me, neatly, to one of the few things that was unshakably right about Prometheus: Michael Fassbender as David was stunning! He gets to be the most developed character in the film, and seeing him evolve the fledgling stubs of emotion and personal motivation was a joy. To be honest this film is probably worth the outing simply for his performance of this character.

Other things that really did it for me were the beautiful cinematography and the alien technology. The various control elements -particularly the incorporation of sound in the interface- really enhanced the non-humanness of The Engineers. Who were, sadly, perhaps the worst done thing about the film. We spend 2 hours wondering what they are, why they acted the way they did, and what they were doing developing bizarre biological weapons on a dustball in the middle of nowhere and then the one survivor turns out to be just, well, a thug. I said the film lost its way after the first third, but the last third really accelerated the process; all of its previous sins could certainly have been forgiven if it had ended in a better way.

But it didn’t, so, oh well…

It likely sounds, at this point, like I didn’t actually like the film after all, and perhaps that is true; I haven’t really made up my mind yet. I certainly don’t regret going, I had a good time, but I left disappointed. Certain ideas in the film have kept me thinking about it, and will probably do so for the next few days. And with any luck I’ll get a couple of interesting, intelligent conversations out of it. It was an experience but not, I think, the experience I was looking for. That’s alright, but if The Dark Knight Rises lets me down like Prometheus did I’m probably going to break something.

The Verdict: Worth the trip, but don’t expect too much. 3 emergency c-sections out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

There are things we know without really having experienced; they are part of the background on which our lives are painted. There are words we know, and perhaps use, but cannot strictly define. There are names we’ve heard without really having an appreciation for why they exist in the popular vocabulary. For a long time the name Ray Bradbury was one of these things in my life; I knew he was an author of science fiction (my poison of choice for many years) and that he was highly regarded. Last year I felt a desire to correct this situation at a time that happened to coincide with a heavy erosion of my ‘to read’ pile.

The thing that struck me most immediately about Fahrenheit 451 was the way in which the whole idea of the story seemed to spring from the simple word play of a fireman lighting fires instead of putting them out; every other aspect of the setting could very well have been simply an exploration of the question, “In what world does such a person exist?” This is a deliciously strong vector for a story to evolve along and it keeps good company; The Hobbit was similarly a story that evolved from a simple word play.

Next, I was struck, as I often am when reading older science fiction, by the colour of the technology; at once wonderously surreal and curiously outmoded. Like many works of its era the world of Fahrenheit 451 seems a world of the middle of last century and it reads, now, more like an alternate past than an alternate future.

And then the telling social commentary began to hit home. The insights of Clarisse into the inanities that occupy peoples’ thoughts and their conversation, the extreme emotional investment in passive media, and Montag’s raw frustration at a world that has lied to him until the lies become the only truth that is available all left me feeling exposed and vulnerable; so much of the society presented in this book is uncomfortably familiar. All the elements of modern society that are broken and malicious and soul-destroying are reflected straight back off the page. And the fact that the book is fifty years old and these same issues clearly existed then in more-or-less the same form adds a layer of squirm to the mix. This book affected me emotionally in ways that a lot of science fiction doesn’t.

Fahrenheit 451 is a cutting analysis of a society that has wilfully buggered itself inside out and become the antithesis of everything good that humanity is capable of. And what is most scathing is the focus on the role of the individual in the perpetration of this evil on a large scale. There are no faceless governments and corporations that can hide behind their façade of weasel-words and claim to be free of the responsibilities of morality; there are only the people that make up these organisations, all of whom make a conscious choice at some point in their lives to abandon their ethics and give themselves over wholesale to the collective impoverishment of humanity.

And shining like a lighthouse in the middle of this godawful misery is the story of the belated coming of age of a middle-aged man.  Guy Montag’s perspective is blown open by the simple act of human interaction and he is left gaping, confused, and scared in a world he suddenly doesn’t recognise. And just possibly, amidst the murder and rape of history and smuggling away in the night of the only good people left in the world, against all the odds and despite his most desperate fuck-ups, he may just emerge from this situation a better person.

RIP Ray Bradbury.

Hugh Reviews The Avengers

“Shall we fight bad-guys now?”

 I was never much of an Avengers fan in my younger, comic-reading days; I preferred the darker and more serious books. I’ve enjoyed the occasional story recently though; for me they’re like brainless popcorn films put into comic form. So this franchise really does make the logical big-budget blockbuster choice in terms of bringing comics to the big screen. Mind you, so have a few other movies that have not been any good at all (despite their box-office success). This movie could have gone so wrong but it didn’t; it went so right, for so many reasons. Ultimately I think the lion’s share of the success of this film belongs to Joss Whedon. In fact, it might all belong to him.

Every line is this film is honed to a razor-edge, which is something Whedon excels at. Unlike some writing of this style, however, he generally manages to keep the flow of the dialogue natural and there is lashings of absurd nonsense-humour that only accentuates the effect. Robert Downey Jr stars as the main Joss-Whedon-quip-delivery vehicle in this particular instance, which fits well with the character of Tony Stark. There are a number of shiningly irreverent cut-away gags, largely driven by Stark, though others get a bit of a look in. “That man is playing Galaga!”

The secondary tool for comedic effect is Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who was the most pleasant surprise in the film. Firstly Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is utterly perfect, I haven’t seen either of the other two films, but I find it hard to picture either of the actors who played him as right for the part (and I’m a big fan of both). The Hulk is a character who always seemed really boring next to other characters in the Marvel universe and this is another Joss Whedon signature: taking the supporting character who never gets enough play and making them into something really interesting and stage-grabbing. Needless to say comedic moments involving The Hulk are pretty slapstick. One of them is probably the best 1-second of the film in my opinion, but I won’t give away what it is.

The lesser Avengers (the ones who haven’t had their own films (yet)) get good play too; Black Widow in particular gets a lot of time. Unsurprisingly this character gets more actually development, and probably a longer arc, than any of the others; Joss Whedon loves his femme fatales. Her fight choreography is stunning and the manipulation scenes are incredibly well played. Hawkeye gets to be quite central to the plot development too, but doesn’t get quite as much screen time or back-story.

Captain America is about the only thing about this film that disappointed me; he’s just not old-fashioned enough. He drives a couple of humorous moments with his inability to recognise modern references but a really stark contrast between the culture of the ‘40s and the modern day would have given this character a lot more depth, and it’s about the only thing that was lacking from the film.

Thor is… Thor. Well played, surprisingly little screen-time given his (adopted) brother is the central villain. I guess with all the Black Widow/Tony Stark/Hulk gold to deliver there was only so much time for the others, even in a movie that’s nearly 2.5 hours long.

The length is fully justified though, and it doesn’t seem long. The movie is perfectly paced; round-table quip-fests interspersed with scenery-busting action. It knows it’s an action film and it plays it right: the film opens with action and the action is never far away. Any scene is either things getting broken by people being thrown into them or a chance for Joss Whedon to off-load a metric shit-tonne of absurd wit; any character establishment is woven into the blood-stained tapestry of the biggest egos in the Marvel universe beating the crap out of each other and, occasionally, the bad-guys. The long string of glory-duels between the ‘team’ highlight one of the main successes of this film: being true to the comic book method. When people read crossover comics they do so to see the two heroes wail on each other and to close the ledger on a string of bets they have with all their equally-geeky friends about “who would win in a fight between x and y”. As it turns out the true winner is super-hero cinema.

“That’s my secret: I’m always angry.”

Hugh Reviews Bronson

If there was any doubt in my mind, up to this point, that Nicolas Winding Refn was abducted as a baby by Redcap pixies and replaced with a changeling that was subsequently raised on a diet of Gorgon’s milk and LSD, that doubt has now been banished by the crushing weight of empirical evidence. Anyone unfortunate enough to have been exposed to my twitter-feed a few months back when I watched Valhalla Rising can probably attest to the unique blend of horror, confusion, and curiously detached boredom that Refn’s films elicit. I suppose one should be wary from the outset of people who go by three names, a warning that could well have been heeded by a number of former US presidents.

Like Valhalla Rising before it, Bronson opens with, and frequently features, brutal violence, in this case meted out by a gleeful, moustachioed Tom Hardy, who does not so much own the role, as grab the role by its neck, throttle it to within an inch of its life and otherwise make it his bitch. In a delightful departure from Valhalla Rising, the main character in Bronson actually gets some dialogue, as well as some monologue and some rather fetching face-paint. As narrator he shares the story of his rise to fame within Her Majesty’s criminal justice system and the birth of his alter ego. There’s some confusion on the exact sequence of the latter, but it wouldn’t really be a Nicolas Winding Refn film if there weren’t some confusion about something. In the end, though, the thing that confused me the most was how anyone could make a movie with so much violence in it so boring.

As far as plot goes everything that happens in the movie that isn’t Hardy taking his clothes off and beating up prison guards is a vehicle to transition between scenes of Hardy taking his clothes off and beating up prison guards. There are a couple of touching hostage-taking scenes, and a handful of lines of wryly humorous and thoroughly enjoyable dialogue, but they’re spread pretty thin on the stale toast of violence. Hardy is the highlight; his portrayal of the world’s most dapperly moustached acid-nightmare is stunning. His moustache is also quite awesome, but I’d better leave that point alone or people might start to think I’m some kind of weird moustache fetishist… But really, I’m looking for nice things to say about this film because I feel bad for it. The only other nice thing I can say is that it had some pretty good cinematography and editing, another thing it has in common with Valhalla Rising. And, like Valhalla Rising, cool shooting, a well-played crazy violent dude, and the occasional moments of dark humour were not enough to save it from being a little too much like a trip you wish you weren’t on. My main concern now is what happened to the poor baby that was kidnapped so this Redcap fiend could take its place.

The Verdict: 1.5 Moustachioed psychopaths out of 5.