Wednesday, 11 October 2017

David at the movies: did I lose the plot?

BLADE RUNNER 2049


I’m not often lost for words, but I really don’t know what to say about this belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. The original was visually stunning and densely plotted. This new version is even more dazzling to look at, but if there’s a plot to be found, I’m afraid I lost it. Ryan Gosling plays ‘K’, a new generation hunter of rogue androids for the LAPD. In other words he’s the new Deckard (Harrison Ford) who was hunting rogue androids in 2019 Los Angeles (the 1982 movie was set in 2019: try to keep up). But he ends up tracking Deckard who has himself (I think) gone rogue. There are humans who may be androids and androids who may be humans, but this confusion was a major element in the first movie and there’s a lot more of it now.

At two and three-quarter hours the film is way too long. There’s a protracted sequence towards the end in (I think) Las Vegas, in an arena peopled by flickering holograms of bygone stars (Sinatra, Monroe, Elvis, Liberace), which for me encapsulated the whole movie: a feast for the eyes but overkill for the brain. High concept - low impact. Don Siegel's 1955 Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is still my favourite sci-fi.


Doubtless the fault is with me but I came away from Blade Runner 2049, as I did from Inception and Shutter Island, with the feeling that I’d been looking at the Emperor’s New Clothes. I wouldn’t say Don’t go to see this picture, but be prepared to be very (very) bewildered.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Going, going, gone girl

EMILY ELGAR: If you knew her


Emily is a member of my Sussex Authors group and this is her first novel. 

Newly-wed and newly pregnant Cassie is in Intensive Care in a Brighton hospital after a hit-and-run accident on a country lane. Watching her are Alice, the senior nurse in ICU, pregnant herself after many miscarriages, and Frank, an alcoholic stroke patient with Locked-In Syndrome – he can see and hear but is as powerless as the comatose Cassie. Somebody is arrested for the hit-and-run but Alice and Frank think the police have got the wrong man and Cassie’s accident was not an accident. She and her baby may still be in danger …

This ‘woman-in-peril’ story inevitably calls to mind 2012's Gone Girl, which, with its unlikable protagonists, made for an unsettling movie. I was also reminded of Robin Cook’s Coma (1977), the ‘granddaddy’ of the medical thriller. If you knew her is written from three viewpoints (Alice and Frank in the present, Cassie in the recent past) but all three are written in the present tense, which I’m never comfortable with. There’s a lot of grief and perhaps too many miscarriages, but the pace and the tension are neatly tightened. This is a promising debut which would make a nail-biting movie (I hope, for Emily’s bank manager’s sake, that it does!). 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

David at the movies: Royal carry-on

VICTORIA & ABDUL


Very much a ‘companion piece’ to Mrs Brown (1997), this cosy piece of royal hagiography finds the Old Girl nearing the end of her reign, her health and her hearing in decline, curmudgeonly and sorry for herself.  The arrival of a humble but handsome Indian clerk at Bucking-ham Palace brings a sparkle to her fading eyes. The rest of the court are aghast as Abdul slips swiftly into the role of latest (and last) Best Friend, the role previously – and a lot more cavalierly - occupied by John Brown.

Re-casting Judi Dench as Her Majesty gives the story continuity as well as a degree of credibility, though this is rather obviously a small moment of monarchy stretched into a full-length comedy-drama. Even playing a frail old biddy, Dame Judi is at full throttle, calling to mind Edith Evans’s unforgettable Lady Bracknell and Bette Davis’s Elizabeth the First as much as other portrayals of Queen Victoria. Ali Fazal is as beguiling as he needs to be, although his grumpy companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) steals many of their scenes, playing Sancho Panza to Abdul’s Quixote. Tim Pigott-Smith’s swansong as the head of the royal household has a pantomime grandeur to it; and Michael Gambon’s Lord Salisbury and Eddie Izzard’s Prince of Wales bring gloriously camp echoes of the Carry-On franchise, as - especially - do Olivia Williams’s Lady Churchill and Simon Callow's cameo as Puccini.

Directed with great verve, wittily scripted and sumptuously produced, this is a charming - and touching - slice of ho-hum history.


GOD'S OWN COUNTRY



After two months without a movie (a bout of summer bronchitis, thanks for asking) - two in two days. Two very different movies. God’s Own Country is a ‘pastorale’, a gay romance set in the Yorkshire dales. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is having a hard time running the family sheep and cattle farm with his dad incapacitated by a stroke. His dad’s old mum (Gemma Jones) keeps house for them. Johnny’s only joy in life is a night on the piss in the local pub and the occasional quick shag with one of the local gay-boys.

Then Alec (Gheorghe Ionescu) arrives to help with the lambing season, a quiet handsome Romanian with a good command of English. Initially distrustful of each other, they abruptly fall into an intense sexual relationship which plays out against the birth and death of lambs and the repairing of fences and drystone walls on the bleakly beautiful hills of northern England.

It’s impossible not to compare this with Brokeback Mountain. The two men do not have smokescreen wives, but they live in a community which appears to make it hard (though perhaps not impossible) for them to ‘out’ themselves. Their relationship is supercharged (a tad more explicit than Brokeback) but they never articulate their feelings. Ironically it is the Romanian who finds it easier to talk but he too keeps his emotions contained. The movie reverberates with sensuality but what is not said is all the more intense for being unsaid.

The film will presumably be mostly seen by gay men and the friends of Dorothy’s friends. But its theme – about finding an escape from loneliness and drudgery – is not just a gay one. It’s a love story in which the L word isn’t mentioned, doesn’t need to be. The final scenes combine flawless acting with sensitive direction and a beautifully understated script.


IT


The 1990 version of this, with Tim Curry as Pennywise the killer clown, was a 3-hour miniseries. This new edition calls itself IT Chapter One, so at least one sequel can be franchised (hopefully just the one). There are echoes of other Stephen King adaptations in this nerve-shredding visit to Derry, Maine (regular King territory), where there’s a summer of child abductions and murders every 27 years.

The whole movie is screened from the viewpoint of the kids, mostly the half-dozen plucky young teens who do battle with the monster in the late 1980s. They’re a geeky bunch: one with glasses, one with a weight problem, one with a stammer, one with an over-protective mom. There’s also a bunch of older bullies whom we remember from Carrie (and Grease and every other teen movie). And there is one girl, Beverley (Sophia Lillis, who has all the tomboy appeal that Jamie Lee Curtis brought to her early ‘Scream Queen’ roles); Beverley has a very creepy possessive single-parent dad. It seems weird that apart from glimpses of dysfunctional parents and teachers, there are no adults called in as the kids – on their own – tackle the new killer on the block.

As horrors go, this one is pretty scary without too much resort to evisceration. The clown monster Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, not as camp as Tim Curry but pretty evil) has bunny teeth which early on we see opening into a CGI shark array worse than Alien.

This workmanlike version of IT (Chapter One) is faithful to the spirit of King’s novel and is definitely up there with the better movies sourced from a book of his  - with Shawshank, Misery, the original Carrie and Stand By Me still the front-runners (for me). Let’s hope they make an outstanding job of Chapter Two.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Wot I'm reading: War and Peace - and Love

WILLIAM BOYD: Sweet Caress


This is a so much better novel than its soppy title suggests. It’s taken me more than a month to finish, not because it’s a hard read (au contraire) but because it’s so well written that I wanted to savour it rather than gulp it down.

Very convincingly penned in the first person female, it’s the 'autobiography' of Amory Clay, a middle-class girl from south-east England who becomes a world-class photographer. She will become famous for her war pictures – post-D-Day France and Vietnam – but she often has to support herself with routine fashion shoots and wedding assignments. In her mind she will be famous for her lovers – not too many, but all of them memorable. The man she marries turns out to be, like her father, psychologically scarred by the horrors of war.

War and peace and love: perennial themes to which William Boyd, as he has before, does eloquent justice. Sweet Caress is illustrated throughout with photos by (and of) Amory, not many of them creatively outstanding but all extraordinarily relevant to the narrative. How did this happen? Were they ‘found’ (and presumably doctored) or are they brilliant concoctions? They make a valuable contribution to the book, although  the writing is what really holds the reader in place.

Of one of her lovers Amory writes: ‘Even two minutes in his company provided some comment or observation that would make me laugh or make me violently disagree with him and so those two minutes of my day were well spent as a consequence.’ That level of perception about ‘Any Human Heart’ (one of his best titles) is what makes William Boyd, consistently, a joy to read. Sweet Caress (I so dislike the title) is a richly observed story about a life richly lived.   

Sunday, 30 July 2017

David at the movies: Retreat for Victory

DUNKIRK


Remember the opening scenes in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan? The Normandy beach landings in June 1944. Explosions on the beach, bullets zipping through the guys in the sea. Dunkirk offers the same visceral experience of combat, only it lasts for an hour and three quarters. There are a few moments of calm between battles and bombardments, but these are always the preamble to the next grim phase of the conflict.

Christopher Nolan has directed some weird movies (Memento, Inception, the Dark Knight Batman trilogy). His only ‘weirdness’ here is to take three separate time frames – a week for the men on the beach, one day for the flotilla of small craft setting out to rescue them and one hour for the Spitfire pilots fighting the German bombers – and meld them into a fairly seamless narrative that condenses the drama into a solid 90 minutes of nerve-shredding tension. The scenes onboard a sinking mine-sweeper are among the most harrowing depictions of the total horror of war I've seen.

There are panoramic CGI shots to show the sheer size of the retreating army (400,000) but the script focuses on one soldier fighting to survive the day (Fionn Whitehead), one fishing boat captain (Mark Rylance) and one RAF pilot (Tom Hardy): these three are used to bring home to us that each of the soldiers and their rescuers had a backstory – a home, a family, a life – that they were laying on the line for their country, their king and their fellow men. A spot-the-celebrity element includes cameo appearances from Harry Styles, Michael Biehl and others whom I failed to identify. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play naval officers who occasionally veer close to the officers parodied in Oh What a Lovely War! – I hope this was intended.

Dunkirk joins the ‘pantheon’ of all-time great war movies and will surely win awards next winter. I was misty-eyed through much of it – and not just because my dad was one of the soldiers who went to Belgium and didn’t come back (I was two years old). There’s a temptation to see the ‘strategic retreat’ from the French coast in 1940 as an awful defeat, when in fact – as this version makes clear – many of the 300,000-plus men who were brought safely home to England returned to Normandy in 1944 to begin the destruction of Hitler’s military machine.


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES


Not a lot to say about this. There’s a limit to how much magic today’s over-done CGI can inject into to a franchise that’s run out of steam. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the thinking man’s King Kong, takes the last band of apes to a mining colony run by the vicious Colonel Woody Harrelson, where Caesar’s son is among the prisoners. The war is not just between the slave-apes and their masters (humans and ‘collaborator’ gorillas) but also between the colony and another army of humans who’ve survived the apocalyptic virus.

There are pleasing nods to other movies outside the genre. Some early snowscape panoramas reminded me of David Lean's awesome cinematography in Doctor Zhivago, and the prison colony is a cross between Mad Max’s Thunderdome and Kurtz’s jungle hideout in Apocalypse Now. Woody Harrelson’s ‘transition’ from monster to misfit makes no sense, and the humanity of the 'good' apes contrasted to the inhumanity of the humans is ladled on much too thickly. The sequels to the 1968 Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes became progressively dafter, so we must hope they shelve the franchise back in the studio archive for a decade or two now that this remake trilogy is complete. 


ALONE IN BERLIN


Germany 1940. Anna and Otto Quangel receive the telegram that every parent dreads. Their only son has been killed during the Nazi invasion of France. Otto's reaction is to place handwritten postcards around the city denouncing the Hitler regime. The inspector (Daniel Bruhl) in charge of finding the ‘traitor’ gets harsh treatment from his superiors as the cards keep turning up. But it only takes a small mishap for the case to be solved and justice, swiftly and harshly, administered.

This is a true story, recreated in a city very much like 1940s Berlin with ageing trams and the ever-present swastika banners. Emma Thompson's Anna has one moment of rage against her son’s death, and then for the rest of the movie her grief is internalised but always vivid in her face. Brendan Gleeson's Otto keeps his emotions even more in check, but you sense his concentrated fury as he slowly pens the seditious cards, careful to disguise his handwriting.

I didn’t know that the Nazis used the guillotine – that most grisly of capital punishments, always associated in my mind with France's revolutionary Reign of Terror. The fate of a Jewish widow in the Quangels' building is handled with a delicate touch that barely hints at the vaster horrors which lie in the years ahead.

The film has some of the flavour of repertory theatre. Its slight story gains magnitude from the subtle intensity of the two central performances. It perhaps does well to remind us that not all Germans rolled over in the face of the Nazi ‘machine’ – and that the loss of a son is just as momentous to an enemy as to ourselves and our allies.



CHURCHILL


The critics have not taken very kindly to this 4-day biopic, but I found much to admire. It’s June 1944, in the week before D-Day, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is having grave doubts about the Normandy landings. World War One saw a similar beachhead go catastrophically wrong at Gallipoli, and Churchill took much of the blame for the disaster. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) are gung-ho for a great victory, and even King George (James Purefoy) is quietly optimistic. Clementine, Mrs Churchill (Miranda Richardson), worries about her husband’s stress – and his drinking. She doesn’t seem to worry about his smoking: we hardly ever see him without a cigar.

This is something of a ‘chamber piece’, more like a play than a movie, all talk and little action. There are no battle scenes; the Blitz is in the past; London is more or less a safe place in which to be planning a mighty campaign to defeat Hitler and Nazism. Brian Cox is made up to be a very believable Winston and he does a splendid job with the great man’s voice without lapsing into caricature. Only the cigars are overdone.

The rest of the cast are convincing, although Ms Richardson could have done with some sharper lines: her Clemmie is a bit like a Jane Austen mumsical matriarch. Cox is well-served by the script, although critics and historians are claiming that Churchill never actually had the four dark days of doubt and despair pictured here. There’s a scene of him at prayer which becomes very Shakespearean – the PM as King Lear!

So: a talky drama, not slight but a bit slender (in spite of Churchill’s Hitchcockian girth). The eve of a great moment in history. Authentic or not, this is stirring stuff.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre at the cinema: New York in the 'Plague' years


Part Two: Perestroika

This was more than Part One in every sense of the word. Longer (4 hours 20 minutes) and considerably louder but covering very much the same ground. As the gay Mormon torn between his neurotic wife and (equally neurotic) boyfriend, Russell Tovey holds his own against the competition from Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in considerably showier roles, as do Susan Brown in the role (one of several she plays) of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and Amanda Lawrence as the Mormon mom who 'adopts' Garfield in the hospital Aids ward (she also has multiple roles). 

Nathan Lane has a protracted death scene which is both comic and tragic. Garfield looks like a latter-day Greta Garbo much of the time. He has several more scenes with the Angel who has told him he is to be a 'Prophet': the theme is central to the play but this kind of New Age mysticism (whoops, I nearly said 'claptrap') tends to get on my nerves. Good as the play is, brilliantly acted and thrillingly presented in this production from the National Theatre, I felt that Less might be More (the TV version 'condensed' the two plays into five-and-a-bit hours), but there's no denying what a powerful picture it presents of America during the Reagan years, the 'Plague' years. 

This is a one-of-a-kind play: long, shouty, vehemently anti-Establishment - but dazzling.  

There will be be ‘encore’ showings of both Parts in cinemas next month. Challenging theatre but highly recommended.


Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in ANGELS IN AMERICA

ANGELS IN AMERICA Part One: Millennium Approaches
(Review from last week)

I didn’t see this award-winning play when it was first performed in the 1990s. This new production from London’s National Theatre was screened live in cinemas this week, with Part Two showing next Thursday. The play revisits the 1980s, when New York gay men were dying in frightening numbers from Aids and the Reagan administration was trying hard to look the other way.


The play is weirdly structured, a mixture of domestic drama, anti-Republican satire and New Age pseudo-spiritualism. The central drama is the relationship between Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a gay man with Aids, and his lover Louis (James McArdle). Then there’s the collapsing marriage between Joseph (Russell Tovey), a repressed gay Mormon from Utah, and his neurotic wife Harper (Denise Gough). Joseph is a protégé of real-life New York attorney Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), who didn’t consider himself to be gay – he was a heterosexual who had sex with men! – and claimed to be suffering from liver cancer rather than Aids.

Andrew Garfield shows he is as good onstage as he is onscreen in a blistering performance, including a memorable drag-scene in the style of Norma Desmond. Nathan Lane converts his gloriously OTT character from The Producers into an odious but somehow pitiable loudmouthed Roy Cohn. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is much less showy but very persuasive. Nearly all the cast play multiple roles, including gender-crossing parts by Denise Gough and Amanda Lawrence.

This is a tough play about a tough time for New Yorkers. There’s a lot of shouting, a barrage of f-words and even some simulated gay sex. At three-and-a-half hours (with four-and-a-quarter more to come in Part Two) this is a long play, funny, sad, crude, occasionally tiresome (too many hallucinations for my taste), but viscerally enthralling.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Wot I'm reading: Bosch is back

Michael Connelly: 

THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE


It’s a long time since I read a book in just three days, but this one was hard to put down – like pretty well all the previous Harry Bosch tales (this is number 21). Harry has had a sour parting from the LAPD and is now attached part-time to the San Fernando Police Depart-ment, investigating a serial rapist who the profilers expect to morph into a serial killer. Harry also does some private work and is hired by a dying billionaire to find the child he thinks he fathered decades ago, who if he/she exists will inherit his vast fortune.

Neither of these cases is unduly complex but Michael Connelly’s great gift is to make the painstaking follow-up of clues and leads intensely fascinating. He always describes the routes Bosch takes criss-crossing the freeways of Greater Los Angeles: after 21 books I feel I could easily find my way around the city! Like Stephen King (and Charles Dickens – we’re in a great tradition here), Connelly fleshes out even minor players into fully rounded characters, and he also manages, in every book, to spring a last-minute surprise to Bosch’s investigations – two surprises here. 

Mickey Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’ and Harry’s half-brother, makes a guest appearance, and the paperback ends with the first 40 pages of Connelly’s next book which will introduce an ambitious new female detective to the LAPD. Can we wait? We have to!