Friday, 16 March 2018

David at the movies: Tinker, tailor, soldier - Mole


When a nasty accident cuts short her career as the new star of the Bolshoi Ballet, beauti-ful Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is left in dire straits until her handsome but creepy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to be a ‘sparrow’ – operating what used to be called ‘honey traps’ on foreign business-men and enemies of the State. Dominika goes to a sexual training camp run by a very dour Charlotte Rampling. Then the top guys in the FSB (still remembered by most of us as the KGB) - Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons - insist that her first urgent mission is to seduce CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), who is the controller of a mole deep within the FSB. Will she or won’t she fall for Nate is – predictably - the crux of the movie.

Red Sparrow is a fast-paced mash-up of a Soviet era John Le Carré and one of the earlier Mission Impossible movies. Lawrence is excellent as always. She does nude scenes which will please her more pervy fans – in one of these scenes she is water-boarded by the CIA. To show that the Russians are much more sadistic than our gallant allies, Egerton gets tortured by the FSB in a scene that belongs more in a Saw spin-off. 

There are three obvious candidates for the Mole - and I made the correct guess – but there’s a ‘twist’ that gives the movie an agreeably bleak ending. By setting it mainly in the Russian camp, the story comes over as fresher than its constituent parts. Matthias and Jennifer wisely leave the Nazi-sounding Russian accents to the old guard (Rampling, Irons and Hinds) who try not to overdo them.

Having introduced Jennifer as a kind of female Ethan Hunt/Jason Bourne, there clearly could be a sequel – or even a new franchise. Bring it on!


This is the latest British tragi-comedy from the Four Weddings school of movie-making. Sandra (Imelda Staunton), the middle-aged wife of a newly knighted police chief in leafy Surrey, discovers he's been cheating on her. She goes to live with her Bohemian sister Bif (Celia Imrie) in a council flat in North London. Bif could not be more different from Sandra: a serial demonstrator, she swims year-roun in Highgate Ponds, drinks too much and smokes pot. She also goes to a dance club for senior citizens. Her best friend Charlie (Timothy Spall) lives on a houseboat in Paddington and daily visits his wife who is in care, so far lost to Alzheimer's that she no longer knows him.

Sandra was a dance champion as a child. She reluctantly accompanies her sister to the dance studio and ... You can pretty well guess the rest of the movie. It's extremely predictable and sentimentality is layered on like celebrity tanning oil, but (a big BUT) it's bursting with charm and likeable - lovable - characters. The cast of 'Britpack' stalwarts includes Joanna Lumley and David Hayman. Everybody acts - and dances - effortlessly to win our hearts. And win them they do. There's an episode where the dance group goes to Rome, and - how obvious is this? - Charlie takes Sandra to the Trevi Fountain at night. Totally beguiling!

This is very much a 'companion piece to Song for Marion (2012) with grumpy Terence Stamp, ailing Vanessa Redgrave and a singing rather than dancing club for seniors. The matinee audience at my multiplex in Brighton yesterday applauded at the end of Finding Your Feet. Applause was deserved. The feel-good factor dances off the screen. You will feel good!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Wot I'm reading: Learning French and life lessons

DAVID SEDARIS: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Like me, you may have heard David Sedaris on the radio. He has a voice that's reminiscent of Truman Capote, and his droll observations of our life and times are a joy to listen to. A friend who is also a fan gave me this collection of his journalism for Christ-mas. He looks back frequently to his boy-hood in New York and North Carolina, growing up in a family that sound as if they were created by J.D. Salinger. When a pet dog died he scattered her ashes on the carpet and then hovered her up: ”she’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors”.

He and his boyfriend Hugh spent a year living in Paris. There are several comic pieces about his French lessons, which were not a success. He eschewed attractions such as the Louvre in favour of seeing movies seven days a week. He likes to pretend he’s a philistine and a nerd, virtually unemployable, but his writing has made him a great success. The articles don’t always sound as witty in print as they do on the radio, but there are quite a few bons mots which again sometimes bring Capote to mind: “I hoped the revolution would not take place during my lifetime. I didn’t want the rich to go away until I could at least briefly join their ranks.” He repudiates Americans’ (well-deserved) reputation for Puritanism: “How prudish can we be when almost everyone I know has engaged in a three-way?

David Sedaris
David and Hugh now live not far from me in mid-Sussex. Wikipedia tells us Sedaris describes them as “the sort of couple who wouldn’t get married.”  David spends some of his time picking up litter (echoes of another famous ex-pat Bill Bryson) and has a garbage truck named after him. He sounds like a fun guy as well as a funny guy.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Wot I'm reading: A new cop on the Graveyard Shift

Michael Connelly: THE LATE SHOW

Top US crime-writer Michael Connelly introduces his new heroine: LAPD's Renée Ballard, consigned to the ‘graveyard shift’ (aka ‘the late show’) after a row with her superior. This story starts with two violent crimes on the same night: the savage beating of a trans-gender Latino and a mass shooting in a nightclub. A cop investigating the shooting is also killed, making the case a personal one for Ballard and her colleagues.

For those of us who are fans of LAPD’s finest, Harry Bosch, it may take a while to get used to this ‘new kid on the block’. A feud with a lieutenant is a situation Harry has faced more than once, and this case has a Red Herring most readers will not fall for.

There’s a policewoman-in-peril scene which is seriously tense, but as when he deals with Harry Bosch and ‘the Lincoln lawyer’, Connelly’s forte is showing the nitty-gritty of an investigation and the slow unraveling of another rotten apple in LAPD. A new Bosch on its way, but we can look forward to seeing more of night-owl Ms Ballard.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

David at the movies: Creature Feature - enchanting but daft


Back in the 1950s we used to see sci-fi movies like The Qatermass Experiment and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, shot on desperately low budgets but satisfyingly scary for their time - and more than a little daft. The Shape of Water is a 'throwback' to that era, set in a mysterious US oceanographic facility in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a cleaner who takes pity on the exotic amphibious man brought to the facility from his home in the Amazon. Elisa is mute and knows what it’s like to feel an ‘outsider’. She feeds the Amphibian and teaches him sign language. And, of course, as the poster clearly signals, she falls in love with him.

Guillermo del Toro is not new to ‘creature features’ or, as he would prefer to call them, fairy tales for adults. There are some very adult scenes in this movie – a pity in a way since it excludes the younger audience who would be enchanted by it. The theme is not too far removed from Spielberg’s E.T. or Close Encounters with Elisa replacing the children captivated (captured, even) by aliens. Michael Shannon’s brutal facility chief is the equivalent of the Nazi bounty-hunters in an Indiana Jones adventure. There’s also a good-guy professor, and Elisa has a sassy sidekick in fellow cleaning-lady Olivia Spencer.

For all the wondrous CGI and make-up, the Creature is still visibly an actor (Doug Jones) wrapped in plastic. The budget was clearly awesome. I’m not sure that it really deserves to be getting all these Awards and Nominations. I couldn’t help remembering all those 1950s sci-fi horrors. Yes, it’s a beguiling fantasy romance but it’s also totally – epically – daft.


This musical extrava-ganza on the life of P.T. Barnum is pitched at the X-Factor audience, much as Moulin Rouge was a few years ago. Don’t expect to hear Hugh Jackman singing ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ (which he has sung on-stage). It’s not that kind of show. The songs are loud, with repetitious lyrics, staged like pop videos. P.T. Barnum was a 19th-century showman, but this is a decidedly 21st-century show.

Zac Efron provides eye-candy for teenage viewers, but the movie totally belongs to Jackman, sounding better than he did in Les Mis and dancing like an Olympic gymnast. Political correctness has diluted the ‘freak show’ with which Barnum begins his circus career – there’s a bearded lady (with a fine belting voice), Tom Thumb and dancing Siamese twins, even a 'Wolf Boy', but nothing as grotesque as the Elephant Man, who, with other tragically deformed people, provided the ‘lure’ for punters into Barnum’s circus.

Keala Settle as Barnum's 'bearded lady';
This is not my idea of what a musical should be, but it’s dazzlingly staged and performed with great exuberance and – somewhat against my better judgement – I enjoyed it!


Gary Oldman’s take on Winston Churchill is already winning awards and hotly tipped to take this year’s Oscar. Brian Cox gave a more thoughtful perform-ance in last year’s Churchill, but he didn’t win anything. That’s show-biz, I guess.

This version looks at the Great Man at the pivotal moment in his career when he replaces Chamberlain as prime minister of a coalition government in 1940, with the British Army facing annihilation at Dunkirk. King George is not keen on Winston (he championed Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis), and he has a ‘mortal enemy’ in Lord Halifax who thinks he should be leading the country. Churchill's  decisions during the First War don't give him a good military track record.

There are many scenes in dingy rooms and corridors in the war bunker beneath St James’s Park. Even Bucking-ham Palace looks a bit dour. The movie’s best scene, almost certainly invented, is when Winston takes the Underground from St James’s to Westminster (a 90-second journey that here takes six minutes) and finds the people are keener to fight on than the Tory members of his Cabinet. I found myself thinking of Laurence Olivier’s deliberately hammy Archie Rice in The Enter-tainer.

Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a grander, less motherly Clementine than Miranda Richardson was last year. Lily James is charming as the PM's shy new typist. Everybody plays down against Oldman’s shouty interpretation of Winston. His prosthetics deserve an award of their own and he captures the voice and the mannerisms as well as anybody else has, but other actors have given us subtler reincarnations that, unfairly it must be said, failed to attract the Oscar buzz. 


The weirdest title of the year and heavily tipped for Oscars, having already won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Frances McDormand is Mildred, the small-town mom whose daughter was raped and murdered almost a year ago. She thinks the chief of Police (Woody Harrelson) has not tried hard enough to find her daughter’s killer and pays for three huge billboard posters to remind him (and the townsfolk) of what she sees as a dereliction of duty. Some of the deputies, notably Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are bigoted bullies, but Chief Willoughby is a decent man, dying a slow death from cancer and keenly aware that a crime has gone unsolved.

Rape, murder, cancer (and arson) – this movie pulls no punches. The billboards encourage a violent response and, as we know, violence begets violence. All the performances are gut-wrenchingly good, especially McDormand who wears her grief like an ever-present shroud. The frequent shifts of tone from tragedy to comedy are brilliantly scripted. If I have one negative reaction it’s my usual one to the relentless use of f-words (and even the c-word, although this is amusingly exchanged in one kitchen table scene between Mildred and her rebellious teenage son).

A tough movie to watch, but a good one – even a great one. I’ll be surprised if McDormand doesn’t beat Meryl Streep to the podium at this year’s Academy Awards. Mildred is one of those characters who will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Wot I'm reading: Beauty and the Beast of Bosnia


Edna O’Brien is in her late 80s and, boy, can she still cut the literary mustard. The Little Red Chairs is very close to a masterpiece, up there with the best of this extraordinary author’s oeuvre. And - short of writing about Trump or Brexit - it’s as contemporary as you can get.

A refugee Balkan ‘faith healer’ sets out his stall in a small village on the Irish coast. The locals fall under his spell, none more so than Fidelma McBride, the draper’s wife, childless and unhappy. Fidelma manages to – almost – keep their affair a secret. But then ‘Doctor Vlad’ is exposed as the exact opposite of what he claims to be. He’s a war criminal, the 'Beast of Bosnia', wanted for trial in The Hague.

Fidelma’s life takes an awful turn after this revelation. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but an agonizing event follows Vlad’s arrest and there’s another grim chapter in a London asylum centre where several refugees narrate their stories, of Bosnia and elsewhere in this ruined world in this ruined time.

Edna O'Brien, still cutting the literary mustard
Whether she’s writing of love or of war, O’Brien’s prose fairly dances off the page. This magnificent book possesses a magic of its own, a terrible beauty. The most poignant novel I’ve read in a long time; indeed one of the best ever on the mighty theme of War and Peace.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Wot I'm reading: The patron saints of terror

DANIEL SILVA: The Black Widow

Mossad’s latest confront-ation with the worst the Islamist world has to offer is an annual treat. This year’s villain, as topical as he could be, is an Iraqi known as ‘Saladin’ who is master-minding outrages in European capitals on behalf of ISIS and has the US in his sights.

Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon recruits Natalie, an Arab-speaking French Jewish doctor, and creates a new identity for her that will make her attractive to ISIS: she becomes Leila, a Palestinian ‘black widow’ thirsting for vengeance after the death of her husband at the hands of the Zionists. The infiltration works, although Natalie/Leila’s first meeting with Saladin is under circumstances very different to what she or Allon expected.

This is Silva’s 16th thriller featuring Gabriel Allon. They have inevitably become formulaic. Israel’s military – and moral – superiority over the Islamists is hammered home, although this time round the Jordanian secret service has a part to play, as also (and more regularly) do the British and French services and, of course, the CIA. The climax in Washington is nothing less than apocalyptic. We are once again reminded that no matter how conclusively the West defeats Islamic State (and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban) on the battlefield, 'the patron saints of terror' will continue to bring their war to our cities and our streets.

Another page-turning, nerve-shredding read from Daniel Silva.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Wot I'm reading: a Superstar's busy - and varied - Sex life

Wow. This is a deeper dirt-digging biography than any of those by Kitty Kelley. Darwin Porter charts the long career of Paul Newman – ‘the man with the baby blues,’ it says on the cover, referencing his eyes, not his tears in the crib. The author also charts Newman’s sexual history – and what a history it is!

Mr Porter’s main sources seem to be Eartha Kitt, Shelley Winters and an actress known as Vampiria, all of whom claimed close confidence with the blue-eyed star. Porter reports whole conversations which can only be recon-structions based on ‘information received’. There are some startling revelations here, starting with the main one: Paul Newman’s bisexuality which will come as a shock (unbelievable even) to many of his lifelong fans around the globe.

Grace Kelly: (not) 'the ice princess'
Early in his career Newman was competing for roles with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. According to the author, he had sex with all of the above – even ‘love affairs’ with some of them. Some stellar ladies’ reputations are also trashed here. Gary Cooper is quoted as saying that Grace Kelly ‘looks like a cold bitch before you take her pants down – and then she explodes.’ As well as Grace’s sheets, Newman got to perform on Joan Crawford’s, Lana Turner’s and – OMG! – Sandra Dee’s and Audrey Hepburn’s.

We all (nearly all) like juicy gossip, don't we? But at close to 500 pages this is tittle-tattle 'overkill': an exhaustive – and exhausting – catalogue of all the roles Newman played or failed to get, plus all the men and women he ‘dated’. There are a few gems among all the sleazy details: Judy Garland unzipped his trousers on a nightclub dance floor; ‘I like to check out what I’m getting.’ There’s a memorable ‘cross-over’ moment when Newman is having sex with Kim Stanley (whom he met at the Actors Studio in 1952); after Paul ticks her off for calling out the name of ‘Marlon’ in the heat of passion, she tells him: ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be fucked by Marlon Brando.’ Paul’s answer cannot have been the one she was expecting!

Newman & Woodward: the 'Golden Couple'
Joanne Woodward, the second Mrs Newman, knew she was marrying a serial philanderer, although it's clear that she was the great female love of his life. As to the great male love, we are told that Brandon de Wilde, his cute young co-star in Hud (1963), played a supporting role in Paul’s private life for many years after Hud; but so, if Darwin Porter is to be believed, did Steve McQueen. It really is La La Land out there.

It’s not all sex. Actually, it mostly is. And it’s not all about Paul, although, again, it mostly is – obviously. A jaunty incidental revelation is Anthony Perkins’s claim that he lost his (hetero-sexual) ‘virginity’ at the age of 44 with none other than Dallas’s Victoria Principal. And – a spooky detail I’d not heard before – Tony Perkins’s widow, Berinthia Berenson, was a passenger in one of the jets flown into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The ‘Casting Couch’ is back in the headlines this year. In Newman’s early days it was seen as going with the territory that he would kneel to or be knelt in front of by agents, producers, directors, studio execs – not all of the time, but a lot of the time. More surprises when the author names men who have, however briefly, trod the ‘lavender path’. Tyrone Power is quoted telling Paul that director John Ford ‘used to throw John Wayne on his casting couch back in the Stone Age.’ Pass the smelling salts! Robert Stack, an early lover of Paul’s, claimed to have shared his sheets with, among many others, Howard Hughes and Jack Kennedy. Come on!

After he married Joanne Woodward (1958) Paul Newman had a stock answer when interviewers asked if he was ever tempted to ‘stray’ with any of the gorgeous leading ladies he partnered onscreen; his regular reply was “Why go out for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?’ This revealing biography suggests that Paul got through a lot of hamburgers during his marriage to Ms Woodward. At the risk of sounding crude (this is a fairly crude book) I’m tempted to say that quite a lot of sausages were also consumed. 

Newman and Brandon de Wilde in HUD (1963)