The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Review.


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Take The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet out of David Mitchell’s six strong canon of work and you are left with sublime mastery.

The Bone Clocks may well be his masterpiece.  It’s a sort of reworked Cloud Atlas but with even greater ambition, wider scope and a novella within (six actually) that combines fantasy and science fiction in a way that few others, not even the late Iain (M) Banks, with his ability to switch genres, could achieve.

These six inter-connected novellas tell the life story of Holly Sykes from our introduction to her a sixteen year old in the badlands of 1984 Kent, to her old age (set in 2043 in a dystopian climate change driven western coast of Ireland in a walled off community that is about to implode).  The final ‘book’ shares a strong sense of mood with McCarthy’s masterpiece, The Road.

The journey takes in a cast of characters’ tales that range from hilarious to minds boggling; we meet a bunch of London city type toffs lording it up in a Swiss ski resort, one of whom becomes a vicious and callous critic in the next book and suffers the consequences by becoming an author and facing a lifetime of failed follow ups to his seminal debut.

Another brilliantly captures the horrors of war following the life of Sykes’, devoted to his work- not his wife, husband as a war correspondent during the Iraq war.

But the central ‘book’ in all this and the one that glues the other five together is the sprawling sci-fi/fantasy book #5 that follows the war between two tribes; The Horologists and the Anchorites in which they live parallel existences across time (one is over 2,500 years old) and use different methodologies to reproduce; one essentially ‘good’, one ‘bad’.

It’s a breathtaking story that rewards the graft of understanding their jargon, but that’s sci-fi for you.

The finale is wonderful as the loose ends tie up we get a real insight to Mitchell’s big themes around sustainability, good versus evil, religion and the  driving secular forces of humanity.  You might not buy this but you’ve got to admire its exposition.

It all adds up to a reading experience that few, if any, could replicate.  One can see why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist but that doesn’t mean a jot.

This is writing of the very highest order with not a hint of literary pretension, in keeping, I feel, with the man himself.

Bravo, David Mitchell.  And thank you for this.

The counsellor


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The Counsellor opens with Michael Fassbender underneath the sheets with Penelope Cruz having a little, erm shall we say, protein supplement?  Anyway, she’s lapping it up (strictly speaking though, he is.).

So far, what’s there not to like?  Cruz looks ravishing as she approaches 40.  My wife tells me Fassbender always looks ravishing.

It’s a gentle opening to a movie that at times is anything but.

It’s been deeply criticised in many reviews I’ve read for the quality of the stellar cast’s acting and commitment (Cruz, Bardem, Pitt, Fassbender and Diaz) but I enjoyed each and every performance.

It’s also been deeply criticised for the script.  Now that, to a point, I can hold sway with.

As the world’s greatest living fiction writer, frustrated by his screen adaptations (No Country for Old Men and The Road),  Cormac McCarthy felt it was time to put pen to screenplay paper for the first time.

In many ways he shouldn’t have because whole scenes are impenetrable guff.  And the plot is nothing short of labyrinthine.

And yet.  It works.

It’s a languid, stunningly shot (Dariusz Wolski Prometheus/Sweeney Todd) modern day mafia movie/Western set in El Paso,Texas and at times in Mexico.

The film’s plot centres on Fassbender (The Counsellor) who gets himself embroiled in a drug deal that essentially goes wrong.  It gets messy but that’s not really, for me, the soul of the film.

The soul of it is about female power; their power over men, both sexually and emotionally, and that’s what actually makes it both a superior movie but also leads to some of McCarthy’s excesses.  They might have worked in a novel but appear clunky on screen in places.

Diaz and Cruz present opposite ends of the female control spectrum (Cruz womanly and traditional, Diaz a ball breaker).  It’s interesting casting because Cruz smoulders in her advancing years and plays the “girl next door”; Diaz, by contrasts, often looks a bit blokey (yes – come on, she’s always been one of the boys – There’s Something about Mary)

She’s ageing (sorry to be so frank but she looks more than her two score years and one in this) but that kinds of adds to her menace.  For pets she keeps cheetahs.  Cheetahs that hunt Jack Rabbits on the Texan plains.  She likes the kills.

The scene by the pool in which Diaz grills Cruz oh her taste in men clearly positions Diaz as the Alpha female and so the movie goes on to prove.

There’s lots of aA list men in this movie but Diaz is the power broker.

In conclusion. Don’t believe all the negative reviews.  This is a flawed gem that has much to recommend it.

7.5/10

Monsters


My movie-going year is suitably bookended by two Road movie love stories, each with a flavour of the apocalypse about them.  In January, The Road took Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel and told a love story about father and son that has seldom been rivalled.  Now, in December a young British director has created a love story that is the year’s best, as a sci fantasy and for half a million dollars.  How is this possible?

Written, directed, filmed and CGI’d by the quite remarkable Gareth Edwards, this film is an absolute joy from the first slate to the last.

At every single turn he avoids excess.  The film is so lean it ‘s positively fat free.

The CGI could be Oscar winning if the Academy decide that a Sci Fi movie with CGI you barely notice at times deserves such an accolade. The cinematography is sublime and yet is filmed on a $8,400 camera (My guess is it may have been a Canon because Canon is strongly product placed throughout).

The acting, although not award winning is perfectly good.

It’s a two man show featuring the very able Whitney Able (great too in “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) looking like a young Charlize Theron, sans scars, and Scoot McNairy.

There’s no doubt which of the pair is more likely to feature in Edwards’ next movie.  The camera absolutely drools over Able for long periods of time, but hey, who’s complaining.  Reminded me a little of Bertolucci and his penchant for ravishing his young female talent on screen.

He uses a lot of very tight depth of field which, if you like it, creates a lovely soft feel with the action often moving in and ourt of focus.  This adds quality and emphasises the beauty of the surroundings that are being destroyed in a war between the US Army/Airforce and aliens who landed in New Mexico six years prior.

Of course it’s like District Nine (everyone says so) but I prefer to compare it to Apocalypse Now (and The Road).  I think Edwards might thank me for that because the movie is essentially a trip up river (as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and he has a couple of homage moments, most particularly in the Army’s motivational music;  The Ryde of the Valkyries.

The day we saw this the cinema was full of young delinquents who were clearly unimpressed.

Barely a monster in sight.

Next to no blood.

Boring.

Alien vs Predator this is not!

My daughter and I  on the other hand were enthralled.

A fine, fine debut and most certainly one of the films of the year.

The Road


The (London) Times’ critics voted this the greatest novel of the 21st century, so far.

I, personally, would go back considerably further because in my opinion there is not a word out of place in Cormac McCarthy’s paean to fatherly love.  As you may recall from my review of the book last year.

The book is defined by the relationship between the unnamed father and son who take to the road upon losing their wife and mother in the wake of an unnamed global catastrophe. (war or environmental catastrophe? You decide, although director, John Hillcoat, strongly leans us in the direction of the latter in his movie.

In fact the movie is also a paean. This time to the novel itself with great tracts of dialogue lifted straight off the page and into the screenplay. This is not laziness. It is common sense.

In most respects I loved this movie; partly because of its stance and conviction in retaining the integrity of a bleak and harrowing novel; so it’s no surprise that the Weinstein’s are behind it.

I won’t remind you of the story, if you don’t know it you’re probably not in the market to see it. If you are and you’ve read the book you have a very difficult decision to make. To fore go it on that basis that perfection in prose cannot be matched on screen or to approach with an open mind assuming that it will fall short of the novel’s greatness but tell a wonderfully simple tale affectingly.

Well, if, like me, you take the latter view you will be in for a treat but one that does indeed fail to reach the novel’s great heights? Why is that? I think it can be explained in one respect. The relationship between father (Viggo Mortenson) and son (Kodi-Smitt McPhee) falls some way short of what was needed to make the film sparkle. and interestingly it’s Mortenson’s fault, not the boy’s. Actually it’s Hillcoat’s. He makes an inexplicable decisions to omit a scene from the book that defined the relationship. When the son runs off to find a little boy he spots in a disused building the father is frantic with fear. Not so in the movie. And actually, although structurally this is a missing link it’s actually in the performance of Mortensson that I felt the whole film fell short.

In the book he is a much more caring and vulnerable soul. On screen Mortenson makes him cold, calculated, hard and emotionally elusive.

It creates a barrier that means the whole movie goes the same way, so much so that I was unmoved at the climax.

There is an astonishing performance in this movie; it’s by Robert Duvall as an aged wanderer that the father and son chance upon. and McPhee is remarkable too. It’s not that Mortenson is not a great actor and fails§ to deliver, it’s just that the direction he receives moves him away from the level of sympathy that I expected and consequently it leaves an emotional hole at the heart of the movie.

I suspect that is why it has failed to garner the critical awards one might expect for such an excellent piece of work overall.

The cinematography is quite beautiful, albeit bleak and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score never intrudes. Hats off to them for reigning it in.

I just wish Mortenson had not followed suit.

the feel bad movie of the year? I simply cannot wait.


Cheer up son. It's not the bloody end of the world. Is it?

I am a massive fan of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and while you’re at it “No Country for Old Men” is a beast too).

Anyway the movie of the book opens on Jan 8 here in the UK.

Here’s an early (fairly mean)review from NYC. It currently 8.4’s on IMDB.

Doomsday sagas have never been far from our collective American imagination, but they’ve rarely been closer. The end-of-the-world cult of 2012 (Mayan calendar, solar neutrinos, bad vibes from the planet “Nibiru,” etc.) will only fatten its membership in the wake of the idiotic movie of the same name. Throw in (likely) environmental catastrophe, worldwide economic collapse, peak oil, Al Qaeda with Pakistani nukes, Obama the Antichrist, a zombie-cannibal plague, and apocalypse is in the air, la-la. Now comes the starkest doomsday movie yet, The Road, from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, our priest of high-toned despair. McCarthy will never get over the end of the Age of Good Men (which never existed, but don’t tell him that). He has staked his career on the idea that we’re entering a time of humanity in extremis, one in which chaos is ascendant and cannibalism, literal and metaphorical, is the rule, not the exception. The road of The Road is paved with literal cannibals. But it’s also a metaphor for the blind imperative of a father, “The Man” (Viggo Mortensen), to keep his son, “The Boy” (Kodi Smit-McPhee), both eating and uneaten.

What brought about the blinding flash that ends civilization? McCarthy isn’t telling, and neither are director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall. Project on this disaster what you will. (See the list above.) The dying world through which father and son trudge is monochromatic—faded browns, grays from sooty to milky, an occasional splash of dark blood. Green is history. Bare trees tumble. Fires spring up. Human bones dot the landscape. There was once a mother, “The Woman” (Charlize Theron), whom we see in The Man’s dreams, but her maternal instincts fell (strangely) by the wayside. Only The Man persists. “The child is my warrant,” he narrates. “If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” It might have been Darwin who spoke—but let’s not go there.

On its own grueling terms, The Road works. It brings you down, down, down, and its characters’ famishment is contagious: Your heart leaps at the sight of a can of peaches. Mortensen, bearded, smudged, greasy-haired, has a primal, haggard beauty. He lectures his son on the need for “the fire inside,” and that’s what we see in his unblinking eyes as his body wastes away. He clutches a gun with two bullets and teaches The Boy to put the barrel in one’s mouth and pull the trigger—the thinking being that a quick death is better than slow starvation or being eaten. But that’s a last resort. Mostly he uses that gun to threaten and/or blow away anything that imperils his son. What’s odd is that although The Boy never knew the brotherhood-of-man era, he pleads—in a voice that hasn’t broken—to share their food and trembles with grief when his single-minded father remains unswayed by his humanism. Yet the father doesn’t mock his son: Part of him must want to keep The Boy a boy. “Are we the good guys?” his son asks again and again, as if chanting in prayer. “Yes,” says The Man.

The movie has a dogged integrity. An inept thief (Michael Kenneth Williams, the magnetic Omar from The Wire) seems too pathetic for The Man to punish but is cruelly punished anyway. When Robert Duvall totters on as “The Old Man” (a guest-star survivor, akin to the guest-star hillbillies in Cold Mountain), we think they might adopt him as a surrogate Gramps. But The Man sees him only as a drain on their food, and The Old Man gets the drift without being told. What a tough, smart actor Duvall is. The Old Man seems enfeebled, perhaps senile—until Duvall gives you glimmers of his caginess. Affecting frailty is a survival mechanism, too.

Evocative as it is, The Road comes up short, not because it’s bleak but because it’s monotonous, and because McCarthy’s vision is finally as inflexible as his patriarchal hero’s. (Having Mom lurch off is quite an evolutionary statement.) That said, the author-hero of 2012 (John Cusack), who wrote a book in which humans cling to their goodness on the brink of extinction, seems boobishly naïve. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But unlike these overeager doomsday fanatics, I hope never to find out.

The Road by Cormac Mccarthy


Where does one begin in reviewing a novel of this importance?

Well, first let’s reflect on its critical merit.  It won the Pulitzer Prize last year.  I have a great affection for both this and the Booker Prize as I believe they award great, and readable, books.  I had a trawl through the Pulitzer archives to see what it came up with.  Have a look yourself.  You might be surprised as to what has and hasn’t won.

For me I’d read the following winners;

The Road 2007

Middlesex 2003

The Shipping News 1994

A thousand Acres of Sky 1992

To Kill a Mockingbird 1961

The Grapes of Wrath 1940

(Jeana had also read The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields that won in 1995.)

With the exception of A Thousand Acres of Sky I would put every one down as a stonewall classic.  (For the record I think Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven is a far more interesting read than 1,000 Acres.)

Anyway, returning to The Road in particular, Tom Gatti of The Times says on the jacket “It will knock the breath from your lungs.” and I cannot disagree.

This post-apocalyptic novel is fearsome, chilling and very scary indeed.  Honestly, it’s like watching a superior horror film, so visceral, taught and fast flowing is his writing.  My other favourite post-apocalyptic book is Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood which is also very frightening, but has a less foreboding sense of inevitability about it.

As is his wont McCarthy brings God in a fair amount.  Fair enough when you’re one of the few remaining souls on earth.  But he does so with a lightness of touch that is utterly in keeping with the narrative.

In the hands of the right director and cinematographer – ah, Mr and Mr Coen, do step forward please – this would make a multi-Oscar winning movie because his plotting and imagery is so breathtaking.  Like No Country for Old Men he paints a visual tableaux throughout the book that is screenplay-like.  But the depth and quality of his language is what raises him above most living writers.

Compare him to one of my favourite oft-filmed writers, Ian McEwan, and you can see why McEwan is accused of writing for show (many accused him of this in On Chesil Beach).  McCarthy never does this.  Everything is stripped down and considered.  Every last word.

He has a habit of concluding conversations between the son and father when big decisions are being mnade between them with two words.

Okay?  Okay!

Of course, without the punctuation.

I thought this simple device said much more than you could ever imagine the repetition of two duplicated unpunctuated words ever could.

The device demonstrates trust – deep, deep trust – love, commitment, understanding, conviction, resolve  and determination.

How does he do that by simply writing…

Okay.

Okay.

Because he is a genius.  That is how.

The relationship between the main protagonists, the father and son, is heartbreakingly close, loving, tender and harrowing.  On more than one occassion I was close to tears.  Their fear is palpable as the events unfold.

No preaching.  No heavy handed political metaphor. Although many believe that this is one of the most important environmental statements ever made and I am inclined to agree with that because it so clearly demonstrates what life without a functioning planetary ecosystem might be like.  I tell you what, you wouldn’t like it.

It’s just a wonderful story about the human condition.  Draw from it your own conclusions.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Far and away my book of this or almost any year.

There is no question that this is required reading for the human race.

PS.  Just in case you think I’m being overly enthusiastic I’ll put in a word of warning.  A friend of mine said it was “a bit boring.”  I quite honestly can’t comprehend why he thought that, but he did so hey, I’ve warned you.

But, if you buy this book on the back of my review and you find it a bit boring, I’ll pay for it for you.

PPS Since writing the above I note that a film adaptation of the novel is currently in production. It is directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall. The film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Man and the Boy, respectively. Production has taken place in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Oregon.

No country for old men


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Although Josh Brolin, playing Llewelyn Moss, is ostensibly the star of the Cormac McCarthy story, his faultless performance is overshadowed by that of Javier Bardem – the “hood” Anton Chigurh. Bardem’s performance is unquestionably the stuff of Oscars and every time he hits the screen the effect is electrifing. Seemingly inhuman (other than the time he spares the life of an old petrol station owner on the toss of a coin) he radiates evilness.

Set in Texas and on the Mexican border in 1980 the tale verges at times on the preposterous as a tangled web involving trailer trash opportunist, Moss, stumbles upon$2 million dollars as the result of a shoot out between rival Mexican gangs at the handover of a truck load of drugs. Instead of handing it into the police like any good boy would do he decides to keep it and there then follows an elaborate chase to get the money back, led by Bardem , The Mexican’s hired hand. It is much complicated by the simultaneous tracking of Moss by, but the other Mexican gang, a Private detective/hitman, Woody Harrelson, and a “whatever” Police Sherrif, the world and police force-weary Tommy Lee Jones who is nearing his retirement.

In the middle of it all sits the vulnerable and utterly convincing wife of Moss played beautifully by Kelly MacDonald. What a repertoire she has – her range is astonishing and she is quickly becoming one of Scotland’s greatest actresses ever.

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The title is in some aways a parody. It’s difficult to reach old age in this racket and the deaths clock up on a regular basis. but also it represents the central theme of the movie which rotates around Thornton’s imminent retirement and the memory of his father, also a copper, who died young (in his 40’s).

It is a movie about death and has strong ethical and moral undertones. Although he has little screen time it is Thornton who is, in reality, the central protagonist as it is he who bookends the action with his reflections on life and its meaning.

The action is pretty grizzly but rarely gratuitous, as the Coen’s have chosen to direct it lightly – no great, epic cinematography – but great cinematography nonetheless, no music AT ALL – it’s almost a Hollywood Dogme film and that adds greatly to its impact.

Heavy-handed direction, big scores, florid cinematography; all would have turned the prepostrousness of the tale into a prepostrous movie. As it is, it succeeds effortlessly in being the movie the great mafia directors (Coppola, Mann, Scorsese) would die for. In the hands of Tarantino the film might have become a parody of the book.

The Coen Brothers are very, very good filmmakers. This is a very, very good Coen Brothers film.

9 out of 10.

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