Rollerball & decoding cinematic dystopias

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The Independent newspaper recently reported that the British Broadcasting Corporation is designing a television program in which unemployed and low paid workers will compete against each other, The Hunger Games-style, for cash prizes. The idea follows the success of Benefits Street, a UK reality TV show similar to the much-criticised SBS series, Struggle Street, about an area in Birmingham where ninety per cent of the residents are on social welfare benefits.

The newspaper report is one of several recent things that have got me thinking about how aspects of dystopian cinema are bleeding into real life. Another is the fortieth anniversary in late June of the science fiction film, Rollerball. Although derided by critics upon release for its violence, the film is now viewed as one of the high points of seventies dystopian cinema. It has also proven remarkably prescient regarding aspects of the future it depicted.

Rollerball is set in 2018. Nation-states no longer exist but are replaced by huge corporations, each focusing on an aspect of human need: transport, food, communication, housing, luxury, energy, etc. The most popular form of entertainment is a violent sport called Rollerball, and the most successful competitor is Jonathan E, who plays for Houston, the city controlled by the Energy Corporation.

You can read the rest of this piece here on the Overland Journal site.

Ghost Money just 99 cents for 24 hours on June 30

GhostMoneyfinalcoverI am a little brain dead tonight as a result of having spent a wonderful weekend in Adelaide as a guest of the South Australian Writers Centre inaugural Crimefest. I’ll be writing about this event more a little later in the week, when I’ve had some sleep.

For now, I just wanted to give readers a heads up that Crime Wave Press, the publisher of my crime novel set in 1990s Cambodia, Ghost Money, will be discounting the Kindle version of the book to 99 cents for 24 hours on June 30.

So, if you have not picked up a copy of the book yet, here is a chance to do so at very little cost.

Australian readers will be able to get the book here.

Those in the US and elsewhere, can do so here.

Ghost Money was first published in the US in 2012 and has recently been republished by the Hong Kong based Crime Wave Press.

Second time around the book is continuing to get good feedback from those who read it. The respected site, My Bookish Ways recently said of the Ghost Money that it ‘is highly recommended for old school and new school noir fans alike, especially for anyone looking for a change of locale. There’s something refreshing about reading a story like this without it being set in an American or European city. Add in a genuinely interesting (and mixed race!) protagonist with some scary, scary villains and you’re in for a real treat (you can read the full review here).’

Paul Coggan, also gave it a good wrap on his site: ‘I love Max, a man born right in the middle of a modern multicultural identity crisis, his father a dysfunctional Australian cop, his mother Vietnamese but Max never knew her, and though Max looks Asian he doesn’t speak Vietnamese, nor Khmer, but he does speak Thai. The supporting actors are pretty compelling too, especially Sarin the Cambodian interpreter, psychically scarred by the Pol Pot years, trying to find a way to survive in the new Cambodia. We all know a couple of Sarins. Add a varied gallery of expat chancers (“When you’ve used up your last chance there’s always Cambodia” – I can hear Bogie muttering that out the corner of his mouth) and you have Phnom Penh then and now.’

And if you do end up buying a copy of Ghost Money and read it, please let me know what you think of it.

Pulp Friday: Christopher Lee’s “X” Certificate

LeeI’ve been holding onto this gem of a horror anthology for a while now with the intention of eventually posting it as one of my Pulp Friday offerings. The death last week of the great Christopher Lee makes this an opportune time to share it.

Christopher Lee’s “X” Certificate was published by Star Books in 1975. The book includes an introduction by the late actor, although it’s doubtful Lee had anything to do with the anthology, which includes stories by Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Robert E Howard and Bram Stoker. I’d be surprised if he even knew it existed.

As pulp fiction aficionados will be aware, numerous anthologies like this appeared in the late sixties and seventies, under the imprimatur of well known personalities involved in suspense and horror film, such as Alfred Hitchcock and French director, Roger Vadim.

The cover image may be familiar to fans of Jame Bond movies. It’s from the 1974 film, The Man With the Golden Gun, in which Lee played the hitman, Francisco Scaramanga.

Strangerland

strangerland-poster-cinema-australiaInitial impressions can be deceiving in Kim Farrant’s debut feature movie, Strangerland.

On the surface it appears to be another version of the women-and-children-in-danger-plot-line so popular at the moment (think Gone Girl, Top of the Lake and half the crime novels that have been published in the last few years). But the film boasts some interesting twists and bravely examines themes you won’t see in many of the similar films.

The Parker’s have just moved to Nathgari, a spec of a town (‘population 1048’), surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of beautiful but inhospitably sun blasted outback. The family unit – Catherine (Nicole Kidman), her highly-strung husband, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and young son, Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) – is clearly under pressure. Tommy, in particular, is intensely resentful about the move.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that whatever it is that they’ve had to flee is connected to Lily and her burgeoning sexuality. Despite being a minor, she is sexually active and this has caused problems in the past, clearly sign posted when Matthew tells his son: ‘Don’t let her out of your sight, ok?’

It is no surprise then when both kids go missing. Indeed, Matthew watches from one of the windows of their home, as they leave in the middle of the night. Why doesn’t he stop them? The answer lies partly in the already established fact that his son likes to go wandering at night and always comes back. But there’s another, unarticulated reason for his failure to take action.

Catherine alerts the local police in the guise of Rae (Hugo Weaving – playing an inversion of his character in another recent Australian rural crime film, Mystery Road), and soon the entire town is swept up in the search for the missing children. Lily’s past, including the reasons the Parker’s had to move towns, is revealed. Rumours start circulating the children may have being fleeing something happening at home, maybe they’ve been abused? Catherine and Matthew’s relationship reaches breaking point.

This is all pretty standard fare. There’s also plot line involving what, if any, bearing a local Aboriginal dream time story about the Rainbow Serpent may have to do with the children’s disappearance. This is not particularly well executed but, that said, there are some great Aboriginal performances, particularly Meyne Wyatt as Burtie, a well meaning but not particularly smart local boy who may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Lily.

What makes Strangerland innovative is its portrayal of female sexuality, both Lily’s and her mother, Catherine’s, which is unflinchingly rendered and is something you won’t see very often because of the hot button issues it touches on. As part of this, Farrant puts a new spin on the how the parents deal with their grief over the missing children. This involves her examining a shadow side of female emotion that is seldom talked about, let alone put on the screen.

Strangerland also excels in depicting the sense of frustration and desperation faced by the parents and the police at the prospect of having to search for two missing children amid the huge expanse of inhospitable countryside. The way the camera pans and sweeps over the desert and gorges is both beautiful and terrifying. Farrant is also to be congratulated for eschewing an easy plot resolution in favour of something much darker.

Strangerland is on limited release nationally at Palace Cinemas

Saturday nights in the den with Christopher Lee

280I know it’s become common to note the passing of every sixties and seventies actor & actress. Social media lights up like a Christmas tree at the death of the smallest character actor from the rarest cult cult film. Such is the power of nostalgia.

But I’m genuinely saddened by the death of Christopher Lee. Given he was 93 years of age, it is no surprise, but somehow it felt like he would be around forever.

Lee has been a dominant film figure for me since my early teens. I remember many Saturday nights when my parents dragged me to some long, boozy dinner party they were attending. I would always be placed in the den or rumpus room and left to my own devices in front of the television until late at night. There was usually a horror movie on. More often than not it had Christopher Lee in it. I wasn’t much of a film connoisseur. Who is when they are 13 years old? But there was something about this tall, imposing, deep voiced man that commanded my attention. Like one of the young maidens he frequently sunk his teeth into, I was totally in his sway. Those early Christopher Lee horror films had a profound impact on me, on a cinematic par to the first time I watched Bogart in The Big Sleep or my first viewing of John Boorman’s 1967 classic, Point Blank.

Lee was in some of my favourite films. He was easily one of the best Bond villains as Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, despite the film itself not being great. And let’s be honest Bond should have been no match for him. Roger Moore Bond even less so. I also loved him as the unhinged pagan overlord in The Wicker Man and the whip cracking hooded man in the wonderfully campy 1961 British noir, Circus of Fear. And, of course, as the evil Count Dracula in numerous Hammer films.

Lee apparently hated his role as Dracula. The son of an Italian mother and a English father, he led an upper class life until he was 13 when his stepfather went bankrupt. After a stint in the air force he decided he wanted to be an actor but was told by casting directors he was “too tall and foreign-looking” to play an Englishman. Hence the start of a lengthy career playing Asian criminal masterminds, vampires, mummies, warlocks and other exotic, usually ill intentioned, characters. Most of his career took place in low budget films until towards the end of his life when he was cast as Count Dooku in the Star Wars:Attack of the Clones and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Whatever the case, for myself and countless it was his horror films that defined Lee’s screen presence. Everyone has their own favourite Dracula film. Mine is probably, Dracula 72AD, when Dracula is resurrected by a group of hippies in (then) present day England. The fusion of gothic horror and post-swinging sixties London is like a New English Library novel come to life.

The other movie I have a special fondness for is the first of the Dracula series, the 1958 film, The Horror of Dracula. When my daughter graduated from cartoons and started watching real films, this was one of the first ones I showed her. She loved it and through her, I got to appreciate many of his performances all over again.

I could talk forever about how much I loved Lee as an actor.

The world is less interesting with his passing. A terrific screen presence and by all accounts, a true gentlemen. This IS the end of an era. Travel well, sir, and thanks for all the memories.

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Devil

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Scaramanga