The first film we're going to take a look at is the vampire yarn Thirty Days of Night. The premise is simple: in a small Alaskan town, way up on the Arctic Circle, the sun disappears completely for thirty days out of each year. This makes it a pretty attractive proposition for light-fearing vampires and so, one year, they invade. The ensuing struggle to survive by the townsfolk makes up the basis of the film. There's a lot of mould-breaking stuff about this film to enjoy. In contrast to the recent Hollywood fashion for sexy, genteel vampires, the bloodsuckers on offer here are far more strange and alien and are really quite unsettling. Again in contrast to usual horror film conventions the protagonists actually act in a believable fashion. No-one goes wandering off alone into dark places without a damn good reason, and the reaction of the townspeople to the horror and psychological pressure they suddenly find themselves under seems entirely realistic, even when their behaviour crosses the line into some very dark and forbidden places. It is therefore rather a shame that the film is spoiled by an entirely predictable, charmless and very hackneyed ending which is pretty much the carbon copy of the end of another recent vampire film. This one is based on a comic book, so I don't know who stole the ending from whom (or if the comic ends differently) but whichever way round it is it was a crap ending in the first place, and very much not worth the effort of thievery. I was also faintly annoyed that the motivation behind the vampires' behaviour was never explored: they turn up, butcher most of the town in one night and then spend the next 29 days ferreting out tiny bands of survivors. Why? Is that really the best they can do, presenting with 720 consecutive hours of glorious darkness? It's a shame, because the film could have been excellent, but it's still entirely watchable in spite of these flaws, and is well worth your time if you happen to catch it on the goggle box.
Next up is the marital arts flick Kung-Fu Hustle. I must confess that I'd only ever heard of this film because I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing the pre-release publicity flash game but when it came on TV I thought I ought to check it out. And from the very few opening frames, I was completely hooked. The film is utterly ridiculous on a number of levels: the plot is silly, the characters paper thin and the dialogue filled with cliches but none of it matters. This is the perfect popcorn film: it's full of hilarious slapstick, the action sequences are thrilling, the special events well done and highly imaginative, the score and the choreography flawless. It has clearly been lovingly made; the director and actors delight in the genre is obvious and shines through from beginning to end. If that were not enough the film even manages to slip in a little Eastern philosophy to chew over between the fight scenes, and lots of subtle nods to other classic Kung-Fu films for you to look for if you want to, but this posturing is never allowed to interfere with the breakneck pace of the plot. As an exercise in pure entertainment - and living proof that you don't need a huge budget and endless CGI to make a brilliant action film - I can't recommend it highly enough. Apparently work is under way on a sequel, which I'm now hotly anticipating.
My last film pick is something that sounded easily good enough to be worth the price of a cinema ticket, had I had the time at the time, if that makes sense. It's the adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story A Scanner Darkly which was rumoured to be a career-resurrecting return to form for Keanu Reaves and Winona Ryder. The film follows the lives of a group of drug addicts in a near future police state one of whom is, unbeknown to the others, a secret police informer. The plot chronicles his slide into addiction himself, and is ongoing efforts to please three sets of masters: the police, his friends and the demands of the drug itself. If that sounds like a film which lacks an emotional center, you'd be right. None of the characters seem particularly engaging or sympathetic and I found myself markedly disinterested in their fate. Now, some arthouse films can get away with this if they're pushing something intellectually or creatively interesting. And to be sure, there seems some promise here in that regard. The entire film has the visual hallmark of being rotoscoped in colour, and it starts to explore some well-trodden themes of surrealism, consciousness and of the demands of the rule of law versus the abuse of law. The trouble is that none of this is new, and none of it hasn't been done before, elsewhere, and rather better. The rotoscope motif ceases to be interesting after about ten minutes and then becomes annoying. The parts of the plot dealing with identity and consciousness, blended with the double agent, no-one-knows-who-anyone-else-is motifs means the film is often very convoluted, confusing and hard to follow. This is a bad film: avoid, and go watch anything by David Cronenberg instead for a much better going over of the same ground.
Books now. Time to draw breath, make a cup of tea and pick up a copy of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Mr. Gaiman is best known for his work on the Sandman series of comic books. I've found his other literary offerings to be rather variable in quality: often highly imaginative when it comes to character and setting and yet eventually, inevitably, falling into cliche in terms of plot. Anansi Boys follows a similar path, but manages to struggle free of the stereotypes and do some rather interesting things with itself. For starters, it's quite a page turner. It also does a very fine job of starting off an initially confusing and seemingly unrelated number of plot threads and then tying them all up in a satisfying manner by the end of the book. But the most impressive achievement is the way Gaiman freely blends and borrows motifs from modern fantasy fiction and traditional myth to explore what it is that unites people from the contemporary world with those from the ancient one. You're never quite sure who you ought to be rooting for, since most of the characters are an entirely believable blend of good and bad with the exception of the central villain, who is one of the nastiest I've come across in literature for some time. Recommended as a feel-good book, and quality enough to convince me to maybe try out some more Gaiman some other time.
Having spent an entire article singing the praises of The Road, it was inevitable that I'd get round to reading something else by Cormac McCarthy sooner or later. That something else formed into what is widely accepted as his masterwork, Blood Meridian. Much like The Road it is the theme of this heavyweight novel that brings it into Ameritrash territory: this is a book set in the Wild West, detailing the exploits of an outlaw known only as "the Kid" with a band of ne'er-do-wells in Mexico, hunting Indian scalps for a government paid bounty. Like The Road it's a nasty, brutal, blood-soaked book but it differs in one vital respect: Blood Meridian has no moral center, no sense of redemption at all, preferring instead to take a quite horribly bleak and disturbing view of humanity. It features page after startling page of McCarthy's trademark minimalist prose-poetry style which effortlessly paints stunning pictures in your head of places you've never been and people you've never met. I was also startled to realise two thirds of the way through the book that it was not about the character, or indeed the themes, that it initially offers up to the reader: it's a clever and thought-provoking bait-and-switch. I thought it was an amazing novel, dense, rich and full of thoughtful narrative and symbolism. But it differs from The Road in one other, crucial respect which leads me to think of Blood Meridian as the lesser book: it has a penchant for needlessly obscure intellectualism which I find elitist and distasteful. Whilst it is obvious, for example, that the story has a lot of indirect overtones connencted with Christian belief, I was stunned to learn that it's actually read as a commentary on a number of very obscure early Christian philosophies such as Antinomianism and Christian Gnosticism. Did you know what those were? Me neither. So what the hell relevance is that for a reader of the novel who isn't well versed with the history of ancient religions which is, I would hazard a guess, most readers? Why connect the book so strongly to something so obscure if not at least partly for reasons of elitism? The epilogue is another example, offering a brief snapshot of something apparently unconnected to the story you've just read. So, a good book, but definitely not for everyone: avoid if you're disturbed the the prospect by endless, pointless, uncaring violence or indeed if you're put off by scholarly masturbation.
Well, that's your lot for this time. Hope I've given you some ideas for your summer entertainment, when the weight of having all those board games to play gets too much! We'll have another run down on older trash in another few months when I've had another batch to get through.