Life, The Universe & Everything

Reviews, Works In Progress & Thoughts

'You Need To Read Something Real...'

So earlier today I got to help surprise my Con Kasterborous boss and “other mom” Bonnie for her birthday along with a large group of friends and fellow Con K staffers. Afterwords I went to the Books A Million next door to the Casablanca on Highway 72 to browse around for a few minutes. While there I overheard a conversation between two parents and their teenage son who were in the science fiction and fantasy book section. The son was looking at books with a pair of disapproving parents.

You need to find something real,” the father said.

Something with some real value to it,” the mother said before turning around to point out all the bargain fiction books behind her. She found a copy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in among those titles and proceeded to make fun of it before the father drug the son off towards the poetry books across the aisle and a couple of rows down.

I wanted to say something. I wanted to point that science fiction has actually helped to inspire real engineers and scientists. I wanted to point out that the father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, was inspired by reading things like The War Of The Worlds or point out the cell phone was inspired by the communicators seen in Star Trek back in the 1960s. I wanted to point to books that fall into the science fiction genre that are also literary works such as the novels of Wells or Margaret Atwood with books like The Handmaiden's Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four that are science fiction works in a way. That science fiction can often be as much about people as it is about spaceships, robots, ray guns and whatever cliches these two parents were thinking of.

Instead though I said nothing. Maybe I should have, I don't know. It does make me wonder how many people out there get their love of reading assassinated by disapproving parents or mentors who look down their noses at what young people “ought to be reading.” The kind of people who forget that ultimately reading fiction is supposed to be about being entertained, hopefully informed along the way as well but to be entertained. There's nothing wrong with poetry, don't get me wrong (I love Dylan Thomas after all) but let the lad read what he wants. You can read different genres and enjoy them. Trust me, I'm reading a witty supernatural steampunk thriller and a book on the early history of the CIA right now!

In short: Let them read and find what speaks to them.

Independence Day: Resurgence

Twenty years ago, the summer blockbuster movie season was changed forever. Independence Day's tale of human perseverance in the face of an overwhelming alien invasion became one of the highest grossing films of the 1990s thanks to a combination of memorable characters and iconic special effect sequences. It was also a film that felt quite standalone with a definite beginning, middle and end to it. Yet Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (who scripted it as well as respectively directing and producing it) came back for more. Moving forward two decades in time, the film promised to build on the first by showing a rebuilt world taking on the threat of renewed invasion. Needless to say, expectations were high. Did it live up to them?

The short answer: not at all.

Independence Day: Resurgence often feels like it's simply re-treading over old ground, only on a much bigger scale. Many of the iconic moments of the first film are done here from shots of the lunar surface, aerial battles, infiltrating an alien space ship, the destruction of landmarks and much more. Even the film's big threat is really just a much larger version of the ships from the first film (this time an even more improbable 3,000 miles in diameter). Or take the ending when combines the ending of the original film with the duo's first project post ID4. Though the film finds the occasions where it subverts those moments (such as with the original film's most iconic scene), Emmerich and Devlin don't seem to have brought much new to the table here.

What they bring instead is the attitude that “bigger is better”. From the rebuilt cities we glimpse in the opening moments to the oversized alien ship, all the film can seem to do is take what came before and give it to us again on a larger scale. Yet despite the two decades that have passed and all the apparent advances in special effects, those featured here are less impressive and less convincing than their 1996 counterparts. Whereas the first film relied on the physical as well as CGI, this film seems to make almost extensive use of CGI throughout including with the aliens themselves. Gone is the sense of reality and physicality that made the first film's effects so effective, replaced by a kind of CGI blandness that could make this film fit in with any other number of would-be disaster epics that came in the wake of the original film. It's as if Emmerich and Devlin forgot what made their earlier work so memorable.

That extends to much of the rest of the film as well. Whereas the original film was populated by memorable characters with witty dialogue, this film lacks that completely. We're given a handful of characters from the original film twenty years on, primarily in the form of Jeff Goldblum's David Levinson as well as Bill Pullman's former President Whitmore and Brent Spiner as Doctor Okun, plus cameos from others who really don't add much of anything to the film (most especially Vivica A. Fox) though none of them feel like their anything but caricatures of their original selves. The new cast of characters are scarcely memorable from the recast roles of Dylan Hill and Patricia Whitmore (played by Jessie Usher and Maika Monroe) to Liam Hemsworth's pilot Jake to Sela Ward's President Lanford and William Fichtner's General Adams, all of whom are written so bland that no actor in the world could have found a way to make them more memorable. Like Emmerich's White House Down three years ago, he managed to put an impressive cast into an otherwise unmemorable film.

Indeed, the word “unmemorable” describes the end result of Independence Day: Resurgence. Despite its pedigree, the return of both the original filmmakers and some members of its original cast, not to mention twenty years of advances in special effects technology the end result is a film that isn't half as good or half as memorable as the original. Instead it's a bland piece of work, filled with what should be eye-catching special effects that instead remind of us of just how much better the original film was.

All of which leads me to ask a question. Rolland, Dean: you had twenty years to prepare. Was this really the best you could come up with?

Independence Day At Twenty

It seems difficult to believe that Independence Day turns twenty years old this year. One of the biggest films of the 1990s, ID4 (as it was known in publicity material) became one of the biggest crossing films of the decade and a template for the current era of disaster films. Yet despite its age, it's a film that continues to stand up remarkably well.

For one thing, it's well cast. While Will Smith has become a well known name as a result of this film and others like it, the ID4 cast is perhaps wisely made up largely of character actors who all give performances that help sell the incredible events of the film. These range from Jeff Goldblum as an MIT educated computer expert, Smith's fighter pilot Steve Hiller, Bill Pullman's President of the United States who comes into his own during the film's events to a supporting cast that includes Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid and Brent Spiner among others. Each has standout moments that helps to make the film work though with the potential exception of Smith no one really steals the show. It's as good an example as any of what an ensemble cast is capable of and especially so in a Hollywood movie.

What the film is perhaps best remembered for is its effects. Two decades later and shown either on large screen televisions or projected on screens, those effects hold up pretty well. From the opening scene on the Moon to the ship's entry over major cities to dogfights above cities and deserts, the film's is a powerful showing of what was being done on the end of the physical effects era and the beginning of heavy CGI effects. Yet the film's iconic moments as the White House, Empire State Building and other landmarks are wiped out (done with impressive physical models) makes a compelling case for a way of doing effects that has largely vanished in recent years. Perhaps the makers of this film, who helped to spur those efforts, might need to take a look at their work from two decades ago?

Beyond that, the film might well be the best thing that director Rolland Emmerich (and his producer/co-writer Dean Devlin) have ever produced. Independence Day is a surprisingly well constructed film, using the classic three act structure in a big budget sci-fi/disaster movie complex as we get set-up, defeat and then one last battle all in the space of around two and a half hours. Despite showing the worldwide nature of the film's events, it only rarely seems to hint at it briefly which makes the film feel at times oddly American centric (something overseas reviewers have noted for years) yet perhaps it notable that the filmmakers at least made the effort to expand the story at all. Combined with dialogue and knowing homages to some of the genre's classics, the result is a film that is tense and utterly enjoyable to watch.

It's also worth mentioning the the film's extended version as well. That version, which has seen the light of day on home video, contains some nine extra minutes of footage which is immensely helpful to the film. Not only does it help to flesh out not only characters but also some of the plot points that have been somewhat criticized over the years including setting up the film's ending. In a way it's a shame that version wasn't the original theatrical version or the one that came to be so well known on home video initially as it is a superior cut of the film to say the least.

Also worthy of mention is David Arnold's score. Though Arnold has already scored Stargate and was a year away from scoring the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, it's this score that likely brought Arnold to greater attention than anything else. Though British, Arnold created one of the definitive American film scores of all time that includes rousing action scores and a memorable main theme. Yet Arnold's score also proves adept at both tension in the film's first hour and most especially in the lead-up to iconic moments as well as mournful sounds in its aftermath. It's a fine piece of work and a calling card for Arnold even today.

Keeping all that in mind, it isn't to see why Independence Day was a success both then and now. It's a well-cast, visual spectacle that uses classical story structuring, witty dialogue and a rousing score to produce a story that is as much a joy to watch now as it was twenty years ago. However one feels about its belated sequel, there is no doubting the power and success of this film.

And long may it continue to entertain generations to come.

A Face In The Crowd (1957)

There are films that are both a product of the time they are created in and yet timeless. They are films that remain prescient in the years and decades after their initial release. They may linger in the background but they are films that stand the test of time. A Face In The Crowd, released in 1957 and marking the breakthrough role for an up and coming Andy Griffith, is exactly that kind of movie. As a sit here writing this review in 2016, the film seems like a warning from decades ago and a warning prescient for the time we live in now.

The heart of the film is Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter who through his talents and folksy charm manages to rise not just to celebrity status but to the cusp of potential political power. For those who only know Griffith from his roles as Sheriff Andy Taylor and the lawyer Matlock, this role is a revelation. All of that charm is there but it's just the tip of the iceberg that is the Rhodes character. Griffith's as Rhodes is a volcano, a man of extreme energy and talent who can be loving and charming one minute but hateful, spiteful, and downright unlikable the next. The depth and range that Griffith shows is simply startling and whenever he's on-screen (which is much of the film) you can not take your eyes off of him as he goes through the great American story of a man's rise and fall. That Griffith wasn't nominated for any kind of award for his performance is as startling as his performance as it is a performance of a lifetime and one that stays with the viewer long after the film is over.

Right beside Griffith is Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries, the Arkansas radio producer who first discover Rhodes and gives him his new name and who goes with him on his journey through the film. Neal's performance is just as stunning as Griffith, a woman who goes on the incredible journey with the man she falls in love with despite the man's faults and eventually finds herself sacrificing herself almost heart and soul in the process. Neal throws herself into the role, being utterly believable throughout as she becomes increasingly conflicted about her role in Rhodes life. Her performance is a fascinating study of what it's like to be the power behind the throne and the price one pays for being so.

The film's supporting cast is strong as well. Walter Matthau is particularly memorable as Mel Miller, a writer who finds himself brought in Rhodes orbit from Memphis to New York and ultimately gets to deliver a particularly effective dramatic punch line in the film's closing minutes while also acting as something of a voice of conscience for Neal's Jeffries as well. Anthony Franciosa plays Joey DePalma, an opportunist who becomes Rhodes' agent on his incredible rise to power. Bringing Rhodes into a political orbit is Percy Waram as the multi-millionaire General Haynesworth who puts into Rhodes the idea of gaining political power, drawing in presidential candidate Senator Fuller (played by Marshall Neilan) who are both well suited to their roles. With appearances from Howard Smith and a young Lee Remick plus cameos from Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell, the film's cast is superb.

Beyond the cast, the film is a superb piece of work in its own right. The film makes excellent use of locations as well as sets, giving it a strong sense of verisimilitude that's especially evident today. The stark black and white cinematography brings the film's various locations to life from the back roads of Arkansas to New York City and the television studios around the country. All brought together under the direction of Elia Kazan, who brings the film to life with a great sense of both drama and irony that's especially present in the film's closing minutes. The overall result is a film that feels like a portrait of a time and place in American history never to be glimpsed again but that stands as a document for future generations.

That being said, A Face In The Crowd isn't that dated at all. If Griffity is the film's heart, then the screenplay by Budd Schulberg is its soul. The film is a classic American story, played out again and again in our history. It's the tale of a man who comes from nothing yet, through his talents and lucky encounters, rises to become not just a celebrity but wield immense power before his ego and inability to keep himself in check leads him to self-destruction. It's a story that we've seen played out again and again in our history and it's something that gives the film even more power. Not only does the film tell that classic story, it also explores issues that we're still dealing with today: celebrity culture, the role of popular media in politics, the question of where entertainment and politics intersect and its effect on American society. Watching Griffith's Rhodes also feels like a nearly six decade old pre-echo of personalities currently dominating in politics and popular discussions of it, something that gives the film a power and message that few films of its age can claim to have.

A Face In The Crowd, for all of these reasons, is something of an overlooked classic. Made in the 1950s about the rise of television, its script and the questions it raises are ones we're still coping with today. More than that, it's a finely crafted film featuring an incredible performance from Andy Griffith who is backed by strong performances and a finely crafted film. It's remains watchable and prescient, a film that begs to be seen even now. So see it and see it soon. You may be wondering why you haven't before.

Fantastic Four (2015)

So I finally sat down to watch the Fantastic Four film from last year on DVD thanks to my local public library. Yeah THAT one that became one of 2015's biggest disappointments and has been effectively been given a total write off from fans and critics alike. With a reputation that large hanging over it, coming to the film was difficult without wondering if it would be as bad as both its reputation and critics suggested. So was it?

The answer is...sadly yes.

Rarely have I see a film with such potential (if one can say that) go to such waste. The film, based more off the Ultimate Fantastic Four run than anything else, manages to utterly mangle the origin story of one of the strongest superhero teams out there. It does so thanks to hackneyed dialogue both between characters and every time someone decided they're going to give a speech (especially Franklin Storm) as well as some major plot holes and failures in logic. Indeed the entire film after its opening five or ten minutes becomes a series of ever compounding issues. Those issues are compounded by disjointed editing that jumps around all over the place with leaps in time that lead to “telling” not “showing” which leaves actions and events largely unexplained. All that before the film decides that it's going to introduce its villain and big threat with all of maybe a half hour of its running time left. The result is a film where the plot is even more nonsensical that one expects even out of the poorer quality superhero movies of old.

It's perhaps possible that if other elements in the film had been strong enough they could have at least partially salvaged the film. Sadly though, the problems only compound from there. The quality of the performances is incredibly variable ranging from decent in the case of Kate Mara's Sue Storm to adequate in the case of Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm to incredibly wooden in the cases of Miles Teller as Reed Richards. Some of the performances can't rise above the writing and dialogue, such as is the case with Reg E. Cathey and Tim Blake Nelson. Then there's performances which are hard to judge such as Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm who starts off being slightly miscast but whom seems to excel once he becomes his mutated member of the Fantastic Four. Perhaps because of the script and obvious re-shoots (obvious from Mara's changing hair and Teller's facial hair), performances were lost or potential lost but whatever the case the result is incredibly mixed.

The same can be said for the film's production values. The film tires so hard from the direction of Josh Trank to the cinematography of Matthew Jensen to be a darker, grittier take on the Fantastic Four as compared with the two films from a decade or so ago. Indeed the visuals remind one of Bryan Singer's earlier X-Men films with a similar color palate but the rest of the film leaves one feeling cold and removed from the action. The special effects are a mixed bag as well ranging from excellent (in the case of The Thing) to iffy (The Human Torch who looks weak compared even to the effects from a decade ago) to laughable (Victor Von Doom and Planet Zero). Backing everything up, or perhaps trying to hold it up, is a strong score from Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass which might well be the best thing to come out of the whole film.

Buried in the midst of its 99 minute time are the occasional nuggets in a wasteland such as the score and some of the effects. For all of the good or even decent elements in the film, it seems a shame the rest of the film was a mess of bad scripting, wooden performances and a generally disjointed feel to the whole enterprise. The result isn't so much “fantastic” but an utterly mixed bag that's only for die hard fans of the superhero genre...and this would be a hard way to die.

An Adventure In Space And Time
Doctor Who Logo
Long time readers of my occassional and infrequent entries here will possibly know that since 2009 I have made a point of posting a review of a documentary or docudrama as a way of marking the occassion of my birthday each year. Last year I covered the IMAX space documentary The Dream Is Alive (which turned out to be a bit ironic as that same evening I saw the excellent Christopher Nolan film Interstellar which used some of the same IMAX cameras used to film that documentary). This year I choose something that in fact aired a little under two years ago and which, for reasons obvious to those who know me, seemed like a very good: the 2013 BBC docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time.

Today, more than fifty years after it started, Doctor Who is a worldwide phenomenon. When it started though in 1963, no one was certain that the show would make it to the end of the year let alone run for decades. Indeed, the show faced troubles before it ever got to the screen. An Adventure In Space And Time presented viewers with a dramatization of those early years of the series ahead of the show's fiftieth anniversary in 2013. Even two years later, it remains a watchable and informative account of those early years of the show.

The script by Mark Gatiss, who has written episodes of the revived Doctor Who as well as numerous novels and audio dramas based on the series, does a superb job of condensing the events of over three years into a ninety minute production. For anyone who knows at least some of the early behind the scenes history of the series. While the running time means that the film can't give everyone their due but many of the people get their moment with references to theme tune arranger Delia Derbyshire and the series original associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. Gatiss wisely chooses to focus on a handful of people involved with the series including its original producer Verity Lambert and First Doctor actor William Hartnell. By choosing to focus the film's attention, it allows for a tight narrative that also gets to feature events such as the show's aborted first pilot, its near cancellation as well as presenting off told anecdotes about the early production of the series. While it does make sweeping generalizations at time, it remains true to events by and large to great success.

Along with Gatiss' script, a large part of the success of this production comes from the casting. David Bradley as Hartnell was a masterstroke of casting and while Bradley doesn't have his voice and might be just a tad bit taller than the real Hartnell, he captures the spirit of the man well such as in moments such as his first lunch meeting with Lambert and director Waris Hussein. Speaking of Lambert and Hussein, both are well cast with Jessica Raine (who was soon to guest star on Doctor Who itself in the episode Hide) in particular shining as Lambet who finds herself fighting tooth and claw to get her first series as a producer off the ground. Lambert finds an ally in Hussein, played by Sacha Dhawan who bares a strong resemblance to the real life director. A surprising addition to the cast is the noted actor Brian Cox who appears as Sydney Newman, the Canadian born head of BBC Drama who essentially created Doctor Who as part of a major shakeup that followed his coming to the BBC. Cox's Newman bares some resemblance to the real man though Cox doesn't seem to act much like the Newman who can glimpsed in a couple of the DVD documentaries but he certainly has a presence which benefits the production.

There's also a solid supporting cast as well. There's Lesley Manville as Hartnell's wife Heather who urges him to take the part and watches his rise to recognition before his health begins to suffer in a major supporting role which helps as well. Rounding off the original cast of the series are Jamie Glover as William Russell, Jemma Powell as Jacqueline Hill and Claudia Grant as Carole Ann Ford with a number of non-speaking actors and actresses playing the various companions from the remainder of the era. Doctor Who fans will spot a number of actors from the show's history in smaller roles such as the real life William Russell as a BBC security guard, companions actresses Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh as party guests, comedian and Doctor Who fan Toby Hadoke as a BBC bartender and modern day Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs playing his 1960s predecessor Peter Hawkins. While some of the casting is less than successful (such as Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton who pales in comparison with Bradley's Hartnell), on the whole the cast is strong and does an admirable job of bringing their real life counterparts to life.

The other admirable aspect of the film is its production values, especially its sets and costumes. For Doctor Who fans, part of the thrill of watching the film is its recreation of the long lost but familiar sets of the show's early years including the original TARDIS console room set which is recreated in splendid detail. There's also recreations of sets, props and costumes from a number of stories from the show's early years including the first Dalek story, the lost historical adventure Marco Polo, The Web Planet with its Menoptra and the Cybermen from their debut story The Tenth Planet. Outside of the elements and sets from the series, the film does a good job recreating its 1960 settings from the Hartnell home to the offices at BBC TV Centre. The latter of which is helped in its verisimilitude by actually filming at and inside the real TV Centre, being the last in a long line of productions filmed and recorded there. The latter fact, while sad, also seems fitting given how much of a tribute it plays to the designers and people who worked there on Who and other programs.

Indeed, An Adventure In Space And Time is very much a tribute. It's a tribute to the people like Verity Lambert, William Hartnell and Sydney Newman who are amongst many of the people who helped to launch what would become a worldwide phenomenon. It does so with much love and attention for detail that's clear throughout. It's also an impressive piece of docudrama that serves as an example of how to bring a sometimes complex story of real events and bring them to life on screen. What more can you ask of it?

The Taste Of Betrayal: A James Bond Short Story


What you are about to read was written earlier this year as a submission to a Canadian anthology called Licence Expired. The anthology exists entirely because of Canadian copyright law lasting for only fifty years past an author's death. Because Ian Fleming passed away in 1964, Canadian copyright only covered his works through last year. I first discovered the anthology's existence through the Fund For Writers newsletter and was immediately excited. After thinking through some ideas, I settled on writing this one that was set between Fleming's novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Sadly it wasn't selected for the anthology and has, until now, been residing on my laptop unread. So here's a chance to read one of my fiction pieces...

The late January weather in Beirut wasn't too oppressive thankfully. Despite that fact, James Bond felt like shedding the jacket he was wearing and wondered why he hadn't packed something lighter to wear. He considered dropping it off somewhere, maybe hand it off to one of the street urchins that were swarming around him in search of pocket money. The group of eight or ten children danced around him like bees sensing sugar on a summer's afternoon. The chorus of their "Please Mister!" sounded less like the buzzing of bees and more like a pack of hyaenas laughing.

Bond finally decided to oblige them. Reaching into the left pocket of his light gray trousers, he extracted the change he had received from the hotel bartender in exchange for the whiskey he had drunk before he left the hotel. Instead of picking one child or maybe two, he tossed the money up into the air. For a moment, the children fell silent as their eyes caught the money as it reached apogee of its short flight. Then, as it must, the money fell to the ground.

With its impact, the chorus of voices changed their song. Bond didn't understand the language they spoke but assumed that they were fighting amongst themselves over who would get the money. He didn't care much about either the few coins sitting on the ground or which child from the group would get what portion of it. As he walked along unobstructed, he had other thoughts on his mind.

"Are you certain you're up to it?" M had asked him in London two days earlier. Even now, walking down the street in the late afternoon sun, Bond wasn't sure that he knew the answer to that question himself. At the time though, his answer had been more definite.

"Yes sir, I am." Bond knew it was what M had wanted to hear. More than that, it was what Bond himself wanted to believe.

M sighed. That was never a good sign. The Admiral put his elbows on the desk and leaned forward, speaking with as much understanding and compassion as Bond had ever heard him speak with.

"I'm serious James." Now there was a rare occurrence in itself. M was never known to be fond of using Christian names. Surnames yes from time to time, "007" in the majority of their conversations. Rarely did M speak with such familiarity towards an agent that he used their Christian name.

"I'm eager to get back to work sir."

Bond meant it. He had spent quite awhile on compassionate leave following Tracy's funeral and then had been given alternating desk and night duties for months after that. He was bored of that, bored of the sitting around waiting for a phone to ring or for a cable to come in from distant corner of a rapidly shrinking empire. Rarely did such things occur, leaving Bond sitting there night after night behind a desk with little to do but read report after report. So yes he was eager to get out of the office. He was an eager for an assignment.

This particular assignment though might have been a different matter entirely. Bond was certainly reconsidering his decision as he made his way up what seemed a long flight of steps towards the flat. Despite the urge he still felt, Bond had kept the jacket. Dispensing of the light gray jacket would have been a waste of the good money he'd spent on it for one thing. For another, it would have exposed for all to see that he was carrying his Walther PPK in its shoulder holster. For obvious reasons, that was something he simply couldn't afford to do.

Instead he climbed the steps and made his way across the landing to the door he'd been looking for. He gave the door a couple of quick knocks and then waited for a reply. He would give it maybe ten, twelve seconds. Then he would have to weigh his options about what to do next.

As he reached the ninth second of his count, the door opened. A tall woman appeared in the doorway.

"Yes?" Her voice was American, but an educated one. Bond quickly looked her over, making sure he was in the right place. She was in early middle-aged with dark hair and the kind of looks that, once upon a time, might have enticed Bond to make an advance. She wasn't why he was here though nor was he was interested in trying to bed her.

"I'm looking for Kim," Bond said. "I'm an old friend of his."

"What's the name?"

"Sommerset. David Sommerset." Bond picked a work name from an old mission, a cover decided upon in case he was forced to take action. It was easier if he couldn't be identified.

The woman paused for a moment. Bond knew he wasn't the only 'old friend' that had visited in recent days. That was why M had sent him here after all.

"He's out on the balcony," she said stepping to one side to allow Bond to enter. "I was about to go out with the children."

Hearing footseps, Bond saw a boy and a girl walking towards him from the end of a long hallway. The boy wasn't quite in his teens yet from the look of him while the girl certainly was. He could overhear them talking, making out the odd word or two as well as their accents. English accents, which Bond realized meant they weren't the woman's children from a previous marriage.

"That's fine," Bond said in reply. It would be easier with them gone. Especially if things went the way that both Bond and M figured they would.

"He's been spending quite a bit of time out there lately. I can't quite see why myself but then there's some things about Kim I don't think I'll ever understand."

Bond smiled and nodded. The woman urged the children to hurry up and they passed Bond in the hallway, seemingly taking little notice of his presence. There was a quick exchange of goodbyes between Bond and the woman before they stepped out the door, leaving a silent flat in their wake.

Bond waited a couple of moments, making sure they hadn't forgotten something or would be coming back in a hurry. With time elapsed, Bond walked over to the door, taking the steps as quickly and quietly as he could. He slipped the lock into place on the door and put the chain in its place. At the very least, it might slow someone down.

Bond turned and made his way down the hallway. It seemed rather ill-lit, giving the feeling of one of those cheap film noirs he'd been forced to sit through during his infrequent visits to the cinema. Walking at a normal pace, he was aware of danger potentially being ready to come out of any doorway, a surprise that could mean life or death.

None came though. Bond ended up in the sitting room, comfortably decorated with an open doorway leading out onto the balcony the woman had mentioned. Bond, with the skill born of after years of practice and experience, drew the PPK from its holster. He felt the weight of it in his right hand while he reached into his left jack pocket, removing a hollow metal tube. His silencer, one he had used so many times. Once again he screwed it into the barrel, feeling as it twisted and turned, gradually sliding deeper and deeper into the Walther. Satisfied, he slipped it back into the holster and walked out onto the balcony.

The man didn't notice him at first. He seemed to be preoccupied with something out in the distance, somewhere within the city itself. Between that and the half-empty glass in his hand, Bond could see how that might be possible.

"Hello, Kim."

Kim Philby blinked and turned towards Bond, affording each man a better view of the other. Bond had last seen Philby before he'd left London eight years earlier when himself and Bill Tanner, acting as envoys from M, had seem him off. Philby had been deemed innocent then, though somehow the air of suspicion and distrust around him still lingered at some over at MI5 still had their doubts.

After the business with Burgess and Maclean, it was hard not to wonder about anyone being a Soviet agent. Bond understood that. He too had experience his own share of personal betrayal, though as he stood on the balcony of Philby's Beirut flat he tried to put those memories to one side.

"You look well, James. " Philby replied, raising his glass and smiling. Philby was a few years older than Bond remembered him being, looking worse for wear to be sure. He knew that Philby had taken to drinking more than he should, something which Bond could sympathize with. Beneath Philby's baggy short sleeved shirt, Bond could see that he'd put on quite a bit of weight around the waistline and was looking a bit puffy in the face. Yet Philby's well defined jaw was still evident as was the one feature that hadn't changed : those intelligent eyes.

"You look like you're enjoying semi-retirement, Kim." Bond said as Philby gestured for him to take the seat on his left, a table with a bottle of dark liquid sitting between them. The bottle was unmarked though from the color Bond guessed it was a bourbon of some kind.

Bond noticed that there were two more glasses on the table. One had been drunk out of, little drops of liquid lined the glass from top to bottom. The other glass, the one sitting closer to Bond, was clean and empty.

"Expecting someone?" Bond asked. Philby smiled and proceeded to top off his glass before filling up the glass closest to Bond.

"Eleanor might have told you I've had a couple of old friends visit me in the last few days." Philby spoke as he filled the glasses. "So, no, not you specifically but I expected someone was coming."

Bond looked at the glass for a moment before deciding to partake. He lifted the glass up and quickly swallowed the liquid inside. Definitely a bourbon of some kind he decided from the taste of it. Not a great one by any means though as it left a rather bitter and unpleasant aftertaste, causing Bond's face to contort as a result. Philby saw the reaction and laughed.

"You get used to it after awhile out here," he explained before taking a large swig himself. "Life out here has taught me to be less picky about some things."

"I thought that was a lesson you'd never learn," Bond said. He had chosen his words carefully but deployed them with a flippancy that hid that fact. He watched Philby's response over the rim of his glass as he took another daring swig of the foul bourbon.

"You mean that bloody man?" Philby shot back in disgust with rage in his eyes. Bond knew who he meant: Burgess. Guy Burgess, the old Cambridge friend who had once lived in Philby's basement when both had been serving in Washington. He'd been briefed that he wouldn't call Burgess by name and Bond couldn't blame him, especially knowing what he knew.

"He ruined you career, Kim. Shame for a friend to do that to you."

Philby said nothing. He stared out into the distance, sipping on his cheap bourbon He was the portrait of a bitter ex-spy, retired before his time with his best days never to come. Bond looked at a man who could have been his older brother and wondered if he too would soon be sitting on some balcony, sipping cheap alcohol and waiting for an early grave.

Stop thinking that way James, Bond's mind snapped. You know why you're here. Stop pitying him.

"You know why I'm here, don't you?" Bond finally asked. This question elicited a response from of Philby. His glass near empty, he turned towards Bond. His eyes softened a bit, showing emotion but not a lack of intelligence. He sighed and sat the glass down before answering.

"I know why you're here."

"I'm sorry Kim," Bond said. He tried to sound sincere. In a way he was sorry. He'd known Philby, though the two had never been close friends. He knew and liked the man though, having met him during the business in New York that helped him to earn his 00 number right through to the time he and Bill had seen Philby off. Yet, despite that, something lingered in the lack of Bond's mind that made him question all of that.

"I'm afraid it's been confirmed James," M had said as a way of breaking the news to him in London. "A defector named Goltisyn went over to the Americans some time ago. While you were off following up Operation Bedlam, their man Angleton allowed us to question him. We've been following up the information since and know we known for certain. You can imagine how thrilled they were over at Five when we told them..."

Sitting on the balcony, Bond still couldn't quite believe it. Even after Philby's old friend and colleague Nicholas Elliot had come out here to get his confession and even after talking with Shaffer, the head of station here, Bond tried not to believe it. He wanted to think there was another explanation for things. Looking in Philby's eyes as the sun began to dip below the horizon, his doubts were silenced.

"Somehow I knew M would send you out here, James."

"Elliot offered you a deal, Kim. I'm just here to find out your answer."

"You mean confession in return for immunity from prosecution?" Philby shot back. He gave a dismissive chuckle and filled up his glass. Taking a large swig of bourbon, he gave a sound of satisfaction that stuck Bond has obnoxious. He slammed the glass down on the table with enough force that Bond was surprised that it hadn't shattered on impact.

"That would be one way of putting it," Bond replied. He watched Philby pick the glass back up and take a loud gulp. Bond took a swig from his own glass but still couldn't understand what Philby found so enjoyable in it. Then again, when one reaches the point of taking alcohol for comfort, anything would likely taste good.

"I suppose," Philby said after finishing off his glass, "that if I say 'no' to M's offer than you're hear to make sure I don't go over?"

Bond didn't answer. From the tone of Philby's voice he knew it wasn't so much a question as a statement. Perhaps fittingly, Philby had chosen to obstruct the fact by trying to make it sound like a question anyways. Those intelligent eyes stared across the table at Bond, despite the amounts of alcohol Philby had consumed.

"I should have expected no less," he said with a smile. "You know, I'm honored he sent you James."

Bond gave a dismissive shrug and finished off his own glass. Philby looked hurt by Bond's attitude, his facial expressions sinking a bit and a fire suddenly igniting in his eyes. Whatever else he might be, he clearly still had an ego that could be bruised.

"I'm serious," Philby explained. "I'm flattered M should send his favorite double-o to put me to bed. I assume you're still his favorite. Or is he just making sure you've still got a working trigger finger after the business with that woman?"

Whose turn is it to have a bruised ego? Bond asked himself. He could feel a tide of anger rising inside of him. He lent forward, setting the glass down on the small wooden table with a soft thud.

"You're one to talk. How many people have you killed?" Bond's words shot out angrily. He hoped the words would hit Philby with the emotional equivalent of the bullets in his PPK.

Philby was unmoved though. There was no anger in his eyes and his face remained still. Then his expression suddenly changed and a mischievous grin appeared across his face. There was something to Philby's look that made Bond think he was acting like a school bully who was goading his pray into fighting him.

"Says the man whose killed how many people in the name of Queen and Country?" Philby said dismissively. "Tell me James: What's it like being Her Majesty's thug?"

"How many people died in Albania because of you?" Bond said. "Was it you who tipped off SMERSH about Le Chiffre and the game at Royale? At least I'm actually willing to pill the trigger myself." Bond was angry. If Philby wanted to goad him, he was willing to rise to the bait.

"I was in Spain before the war, nearly got myself killed as you well know. Don't preach to me about death. I know about it as well as you do. The only difference between us being that I don't kill in cold blood."

With a swift movement, Bond's right hand slipped up to his jacket. Bond unbuttoned it, hoping Philby would see nothing more sinister than that. Bond sighed and leaned back in his chair, lifting the front two legs a short distance off the ground. It was then, with Philby's eyes watching this slight change in Bond's position, that Bond's right hand quickly made its way beneath the jacket and gripped the butt of the PPK.

Philby's eyes caught the movement of Bond's hand as the PPK became visible. Philby made no movement except with his eyes, watching as the pistol turned and was pointed towards his head. His eyes moved from the weapon to Bond's eyes.

Bond sat the front legs of the chair of the chair firmly back down and stood up. Keeping the PPK at the level of Philby's head, he took two steps. The first moved him closer to the railing on the balcony while the second positioned him marginally closer to Philby with his left foot being just in front of the table.

"It's going to look like a suicide I suppose?"

Bond nodded and took a quiet breath. He tightened his grip on the trigger. A bit more pressure and the PPK would do the rest.

"I'm sorry, Kim." It was all Bond could think to say. Killing, Bond knew, was never easy no matter how many lives one takes. Usually , it's a case of kill or be killed. This time was different not only because Philby was unarmed but because he had been a colleague, a friend even.

He's a traitor, Bond reminded himself. Just kill the bastard and get it over with. It's what he deserves.

Philby said nothing. He looked coldly at Bond, his eyes suddenly becoming unreadable. Maybe it was better that way, Bond decided. After all, he hadn't really known him in life and wouldn't know him in death.

There was a sudden movement in the corner of Bond's right eye. He turned and saw a bear of a man in a dark suit coming at him. The third glass should have alerted him sooner than someone else might be here. He didn't have time to consider that now as his right hand swung around to bring the PPK to bear.

Bond hadn't detected the movement soon enough. Despite the alcohol in his system, he felt the air exit his lungs and a pain in his stomach as the man's fist made contact. One can mentally prepare somewhat for such a blow if one knows its coming but Bond had no such moment. He could only gasp in pain before looking for an advantage.

Finding it, his left hand became a fist and flung into action. It made contact with some soft skin on the outside of the man's right thigh. The man cried out and was given a momentary pause as he cried out in pain.

Bond lifted his right hand, gripping the PPK firmly. Too close to aim it, he instead turned the pistol into a blunt object. He felt the impact as it the man on the left side somewhere around his rib cage. The man cried out again but it wasn't enough to stop him.

Bond felt a blow on his right shoulder. It was his turn to cry out, feeling the Walther slip from his hand. Bond tried to recover but his movements felt sluggish, his senses dulled by drink and injury. Then he felt another blow strike the back of his neck. His strength seemed to flood out of his body in an instant as his knees buckled.

He laid on his stomach there upon hard wooden floor of the balcony. He tried to look up but pain kept his eyes closed and he lacked the energy to try much movement. He cursed himself as he lay there groaning, half-hearing footsteps and voices around him.

Finally, Bond summoned up enough energy to open his eyes. Looking beyond the floor with its rough, well worn wood stinging his hands, he titled his head to afford a view of the doorway. Philby stood there in his blue shirt and khaki trousers in contrast with the ill-fitting dark suit of the man who had attacked him. The man spoke in Russian, confirming what Bond had suspected. Bond tried to form words as he watched Philby. In spite of being shorter and less well built, Philby had a commanding presence over the Russian thug.

"You bastard..." Bond coughed, still gasping for air. Philby and the Russian turned, looking down at him. The Russian wore a smirk on his face and his eyes burned with contempt for Bond.

Philby was different. The look on the man's face was a pained one. His features sagged, the eyes pitying and the shoulders drooped with the arms seeming to go limp. Philby looked as though he would say something but instead he looked away from Bond, towards the table with the bottle and glasses still upon it.

"I'm sorry James."

Philby's words were almost drowned out by Bond's breathing. Philby turned around, never looking at Bond. He looked at the Russian and gave a wordless nod. He walked through the doorway into the sitting room.

Bond closed his eyes and put his face to the floor. His right hand, now a fist, pounded into it nearby. Bond opened his eyes again and looked up, considering his options. Before he could make a decision though, he felt a hard impact of leather against his face. Then the darkness claimed him.


"You know you're damn lucky to be alive! If Cartmel and I hadn't gotten there when we did, I wonder if you'd still be here."

Bond took Shaffer's words into account as he laid in a hospital bed two days later. Shaffer had spent much of his youth in Canada before coming to Britain and then being stationed out here, Bond knew. Yet Shaffer's voice still carried the hint of his birthplace.

"I'll be honest, Shaffer. I didn't think the Russian got me that bad." Bond's head ached with his abdomen sore and bruised, though he didn't think that either had been life threatening.

"Well the doctors here are still amazed he didn't do more damage then he did. Anyone else and you would have had a cracked skull and a ruptured spleen."

"What about him?" Bond asked trying to change the subject. He suspected that he already knew the answer but he didn't want to think about much worse his injuries might have been.

"Well, at least he called me to tell me to come," Shaffer said. "He said you'd be there to greet me. Didn't quite realize that was what he meant though."

"And then?"

"It looks like the competition got the package out," Shaffer said quietly. There was a sense of defeat in his voice. Bond understood why. In fact he understood all too well.

"I wonder how long the Russian had been there?" Shaffer asked. "I mean when we got there the door was closed and there wasn't anything out of place. Well, except you of course lying out on the balcony."

"He must have been there when I arrived. There was the third glass on the table. I saw it but didn't make the connection. I thought it was Eleanor's. Stupid really."

"It could have been for all you knew," Shaffer started to say. Bond cut him with a look that made the other man take a step back. Bond's voice boomed out and echoed off the walls.

"It was a bloody amateur mistake, Shaffer. A stupid mistake that could have killed me."

Shaffer said nothing. Bond sighed, feeling angry with himself. Angry not just for his mistake, but for taking his anger out on Shaffer.

"Has anyone questioned the wife?" Bond asked, once again changing the subject. Shaffer gave an understanding smile and took a step forward.

"I haven't but Tanner did."

"Bill Tanner?"

Shaffer nodded.

"He came down from London after I sent the cable about you. He says he'll be here to see you before long."

Probably coming to give me a right bollocking from M, Bond thought to himself.

"We think the package left on a freighter a few hours after he called me. Freighter left in such a hurry most of its cargo was still sitting on the dock. If they didn't get him out that way, then it was a most convincing cover."

"Even if he went over land," Bond said looking out a nearby window, "he's already into Redland by now."

"And well out of our reach," Shaffer agreed. He sighed and looked out the window at the city in the mid-day sun. He took a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on.

"Will you tell Tanner I'm ready to see him?" Bond asked. Shaffer turned back to Bond and nodded.

"Is there anything you want Cartmel to send to London for you? Tell the boss what happened?"

Bond shook his end in the negative. Shaffer turned and left without a word. Bond was left alone with his thoughts and the the distant chatter down the hospital corridors.

Damned Philby, Bond thought. He tried to put the defector from his mind as he adjusted his position on the uncomfortable hospital bed. He tried to go back to sleep, to shut the world out.

Yet what Bond wanted most was the one thing he couldn't get. Lying there, his eyes shut as he tried to turn his mind off, he wanted a decent drink. He wondered when he might be able to get one.

The Serpent And The Rainbow: The Real Walking Dead?
It seems safe to say that we are experiencing something of a wave of interests in zombies at the moment. Yet I'm sure many of those who are interested in the various movies, shows and books based on the undead might well be unaware of their real world roots in Haiti and voodoo. Offering something of a contrast with George Romero, 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead is this film from 1988. Directed by Wes Craven and inspired by the real events detailed in Wade Davis' book of the same title, The Serpent And The Rainbow presents a look at the real-life “zombie” phenomenon with dashes of horror added to it.

Note that I used the word “inspired” above. The film itself claims to be inspired by true events and cites that it is inspired by the book rather than based on it. I must confess that I've (yet) to read the book but watching the film and doing a bit of online research makes it clear that a liberal amount of adaptation must have taken place. The real life ethnobotanist (a scientific field that mixes elements of anthropology and botany) Wade Davis becomes the fictionalized Doctor Dennis Alan in the first of many changes the film makes. Amongst the changes are a shifting of the time frame in which events take place from across several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s to a short period of time in 1985-86 (which was in fact after the book had been published). Nor does it appear that Davis went through many, if any, of the hellish experiences presented in the film. In other words, it is VERY important to take what the film presents in terms of events with a grain of salt though there are, to mix metaphors, nuggets of truth in an otherwise barren landscape of fiction.

Judging the film on its own merits, it's actually pretty good for what it is. For much of its running time, we're presented with a film that's part Indiana Jones, part The Omen as the cynical American Doctor Alan goes to Haiti in search of a presumed drug responsible for the zombie phenomenon and begins to encounter a series of strange people and events that leads the film into psychological horror territory. Not that the film has the budget or story for Indiana Jones large scale action sequences but it's hard not to see Doctor Alan as something of a Jones type though his brashness and cynicism quickly lead him into trouble. With the horror being played out in largely dreams and hallucinations, combined with threats and a moment of slightly overplayed but unsettling torture, the film has an air of menace to it that lends tension to proceedings. For its first seventy minutes or so, while the film is firmly in this territory, it works.

It's in the last twenty-five minutes or so that the film goes off the rails a bit. Having presented a solid tale of intrigue and psychological horror, the film shifts into full-on horror film mode for its last act. In a full departure from real events, we see Alan go through the zombie process and have a showdown with the sinister head of secret police who it turns out is at the heart of the phenomenon. Neither the writing, nor the special effects for that matter, are up for much here (nor are they in another major departure from real events earlier on in the film) as cliches including the villainous cult leader combine with low budget effects to give the film a rather unsatisfying ending.

More satisfying perhaps is the film's cast. A young Bill Pullman does quite well as Doctor Alan, bring the right amount of both American naivete and scientific cynicism to the role as someone who has to deal with increasingly strange happenings while also just trying to get out of the country in one piece. Indeed the film's American characters, including Paul Guilfoyle and the always delightful Michael Gough, probably come across best of all the performances. The film's Haitian characters are, largely due to the script, little more than walking and talking cliches. The standouts from those include Zakes Mokae as the villainous head of Haiti's secret police who, despite the cliches attached to his character, gives quite a good performance under the circumstances and Conrad Roberts as Christophe Durand (a character inspired by the real-life zombie case of Clairvius Narcisse). Despite some of the script issues that hamper them, the performances by and large work and serve the film well.

Looking past the script and sometimes iffy special effects, the production values are quite good as well. The film benefits immensely from being shot in location in both Haiti and the nearby Dominican Republic, both of which lend the film a strong sense of both place and (perhaps more importantly) verisimilitude that it might otherwise lack given its subject matter. The sets, costumes and especially the make up all look good when they're trying to be done subtly and not (as mentioned earlier) when they're put to full on “horror” effect. All of which leaves the film feeling solidly made at the very least.

Despite its far removal from reality and its ill-done shift to “horror” movie in its last act, The Serpent And The Rainbow stands up decently. As a tale of intrigue and psychological horror, as well as presenting an interesting look at the real-world inspiration behind zombies, it works quite well thanks to its cast and production values. Those expecting a horror film might be disappointed while those hoping for something that plays more to the film's strengths will likely be left feeling likewise with its last act. The film seems to fall between the two and, due to being unable to pick a side and stay there, ends up being intriguing though perhaps a tad unsatisfying in the end.

Surrounded By Enemies By Bryce Zabel
Ever since the events of November 22, 1963 there has been much speculation regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There's been debate over whether accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was even involved, what forces may or may not have been behind the assassination and so forth. There's also been the question of what might have happened if he had survived the assassination attempt. Many have tried answering that question with movies and books, some more fantastical than others. Few though have perhaps been as authentic in their portrayal of a post-Dallas Kennedy presidency than Surrounded By Enemies, Bryce Zabel's Sidewise In Time award winning novel.

Zabel is no stranger to the JFK assassination, having been co-creator of the “brilliant but canceled” 1990s sci-fi/thriller television series Dark Skies which had the assassination at its center. Zabel also puts his knowledge and research about the period to use here as well. Surrounded By Enemies presents a compelling portrait of a 1960s where not only did a conspiracy attempt to kill the President of the United States in broad daylight but also led to the Kennedy brothers having to figure out who to trust as they struggle to deal with not only the aftermath of Dallas but the 1964 election and beyond.

It's that which is what separates this novel from so many other alternate history works. Many of them, such as the film Timequest, take a “rose-tinted” look at the world post-Dallas where it seems that the forces that nearly killed JFK simply give up or are easily dealt with. Zabel's take is far more plausible. To paraphrase a line from the novel itself, it turns out that there is more than one way to assassinate a nation's leader besides killing him. Those familiar with recent American History and the scandals surrounding two of Kennedy's successors will find plausible echoes as the novel progresses and eventually ties into Kennedy's private life and its effect on his presidency. The results seem all too plausible.

To tell this story, Zabel chooses not to employ the usual novel techniques. If one goes into this book expecting to be given unfettered access to the thoughts and world of Surrounded By Enemies, you might be in for a disappointment. What Zabel does instead is something that makes the events far more plausible. Via a fictional weekly news magazine called Top Story and its commemorative issue looking back on the events in Dallas, we're given a look at twenty-odd months between November 1963 and February 1966 with an epilogue. Zabel's choice gives the proceedings an air of authenticity that some works of alternate history lack and also saves both historical figures from having too many words shoved in their mouths and the reader from having to question the plausibility of those words. Yet, often like history itself, the results can also be frustrating as we're presented with a sometimes incomplete picture of events and details. Even that potential flaw though lends the work credibility as anyone familiar with the Kennedy presidency, let alone the assassination, will be aware of how lacking of a full picture history can sometimes leave us with.

Overall then, it's hard not to rate Surrounded By Enemies highly. Bryce Zabel's novel, told in the style on a non-fiction work, presents perhaps the most plausible picture we've yet had of what JFK's post-1963 presidency might have been like. For those interested in Kennedy, or fans of alternate history as a genre, this book comes recommended.

A Most Violent Year
I'm going to start this review by saying that this film is not my usual cup of tea. I don't go in for the crime/gangster film genre very often, partly because it doesn't particularly interest me and partly because the genre (like most genres to be fair) has become littered with one cliched film after another. Yet my curiosity was peaked by an NPR interview with Jessica Chastain about her role and the clips played from the film there. I'd have to wait until the DVD release to see it though and it turned out to be well worth the wait as A Most Violent Year, set in 1981 New York City, is one of the best films of last year and one that seems to have passed largely under the radar of everyone who wasn't a critic.
Anchoring the film are two extraordinary performances. The first is Oscar Isaacs as Able Morales, a man who has worked to build his heating oil company over the previous few years who finds himself on the cusp of new success only to have an ever increasing amount of obstacles in his way from accusations of crimes to his fuel trucks being hijacked. Isaacs performance, drawing of course from the script, presents a compelling portrait of a man who seems to have everything as it is who keeps on trying to do more. As he does, he tries to stay on the right side of the law, to be an honest man in an increasingly dishonest world and at times struggling to remain so. It's a compelling performance to say the least.

The other extraordinary performance, and one that steals every scene in its in, comes from Jessica Chastain as Anna, Able's mob daughter wife. There's almost a Lady Macbeth quality to Anna that Chastain brings to the fore: he may the one who owns the business and makes the decisions but she is the proverbial power behind the throne who pushes her husband forwards. She is forceful, making her presence known when she has to such as in a scene alongside the young Assistant District Attorney trying to bring them down where she warns him not to underestimate them (by which she really means her). If Able is the one struggling with his morals in an increasingly amoral world, Anna is the one who has no qualms and is willingly to openly confront her husband about it. As a result, Chastain's performance is a powerful presence in the film and it forces you to watch her in every scene she appears in.

Beyond Issacs and Chastain, there's strong performances throughout the film. There's Albert Brooks as the Morales' lawyer Andrew Walsh, David Oyelowo as Assistant District Attorney Lawrence and Jerry Adler as Josef. The standout performance from the supporting cast though might be Elyes Gabel as Julian, one of the Morales' young drivers who makes for an interesting contrast with Able with whom he bares quite a bit of common. Gabel's performance is a compelling one and makes for an intriguing addition and contrast with the performances of Isaacs and Chastain. Overall, the cast is a strong one full of compelling and believable performances.

Moving beyond the cast, the film itself comes across well. The sets and costumes, along with some excellent location filming, gives the film an incredible sense of atmosphere as well as a sense of time and place. Rarely has a film successfully recreated the recent past as well as A Most Violent Year does 1981 New York City from the suburban home of the Morales to the offices and public places that they find themselves wandering through as events unfold. The cinematography of Bradford Young gives the entire film an impressionistic feel that wonderfully contemplates unfolding events, sometimes in a wonderfully surreal fashion. Last, but certainly not least, is the score from Alex Ebert is sparse and wonderfully underpins the events unfolding when it is used, acting in concert with the aforementioned elements to give a sense of the time and place as it infuses musical elements from the era with its mix of synthesizer tracks with the occasional piece of orchestra.

What makes all of that work though is J. C. Chandor's direction and script. Both are methodical, unfolding over two hours as it plays out the events of a month in the titular most violent year (1981) in one of the largest cities in the world. As well as being a fascinating portrait of New York City in that year, it's also a study of those trying to make a living in that world from the top down. There's multiple stories going on around Able and Anna from their business to criminal investigations and how the lives of those around them intersect (and often conflict) with theirs. Chandor never gives in to the clichés of the crime genre, which not only makes the film standout from the pack but gives it a strong sense of intelligence as it presents adults in adult situations sometimes struggling with those events and the decisions they have to make. The results are fascinating and compelling despite the film's methodical pacing.

Saying that, I strongly suspect that A Most Violent Year isn't a film for everyone. It's a methodical piece of work, unfolding over the two hours in a piece by piece fashion that will likely drive those with short attention spans or craving action stir crazy. But, like a bottle of a good wine, it has plenty to offer for those willing to savor and enjoy it, taking in all that it offers. From its performances to its production values and intelligent script, it proves to be one of the best films of 2014 and a film that will hopefully find the audience it missed the first time around.


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