Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Wot I'm reading: Drac's back (it's a re-vamp!)

Yes, it's been done before: Dracula spelt backward. The fourth volume of Kim Newman's zany sequels to Bram Stoker's chronicle finds our undead hero finally (excuse the pun) out for the count. A perennially teenage Romanian upstart, Ion Popescu, 'turned' by Dracula in 1944, is brought to New York in the 1970s by vampire journalist Kate Reed and sets about becoming the kind of celebrity bloodsucker we know from the novels of Anne Rice. Moving to Hollywood, he becomes a film producer and adopts the name Alucard in honour of his Master.

This is the best of Newman's sequels to his original Anno Dracula (1992) in which Vlad Tepes became Queen Victoria's second consort in a London where vampires were the highest in high society. Similarly outlandish, Johnny Alucard is full of delicious historical and cinematic anomalies. Vampire Marlon Brando plays the count in Francis Ford Coppola's movie, relocated to the 1970s. In the 1980s Orson Welles is trying to get a version off the ground: Newman's mock screenplay is full of gags at the expense of Citizen Kane. A cult called Immortology pops up from time to time: no prizes for guessing who's being spoofed here.

Characters from Bram Stoker's novel are real people in this adaptation: Harker, Mina, Van Helsing. Fact and fiction are wittily interwoven. John Lennon was murdered (with a silver bullet) by Misery's Annie Wilkes. Newman's women are his best creations. As well as Kate Reed (undead since the Victorian era), 565-year-old 'elder' Genevieve Dieudonne returns from previous episodes. She now lives in a chrome Airstream trailer, whose eclectic furnishings include "a tacky Mexican crucifix with light-up eyes that she kept on show just to prove that she wasn't one of those vampires". Vampires have careers like other girls: Genevieve is a private detective in LA, and later a CSI in Baltimore.

Vlad III of Wallachia, 'the Impaler',
inspiration for the original Dracula
There are misses as well as hits in Newman's scattergun satire on the world of celebrities and movie-makers. A section in the New York of Andy Warhohl and Studio 54 falls slightly flat. The Hollywood scenes are the most inventive and witty: Alucard ventures into porn production with Debbie Does Dracula, featuring Dirk Diggler and other cast members from Boogie Nights (there's even talk of a sequel: Taste the Cum of Dracula!). Later our hero organises a global benefit for Transylvania - not so much Live Aid as Undead Aid - with everyone who was anyone in the pop world and a few whom we might have forgotten if becoming vampires had not kept them alive.

Densely plotted with a Cecil B. De Mille-sized cast of extras, this richly inventive comedy makes the Vampire Lestat look like Thomas the Tank Engine. A fun read, well-written enough to be a good serious read.

Friday, 15 May 2015

David at the movies: another traitor in MI5


SPOOKS: the greater good


MI5 spymaster Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) is in disgrace after Middle East mega-terrorist Qasim (Elyes Gabel) escapes on his watch. But even from the sidelines Sir Harry throws himself into a private campaign, with the help of rookie agent Will Holloway (Kit Harington), to recapture Qasim, prevent a monstrous attack on London and expose a traitor at the heart of the security services.

The mole plot is recycled from John Le Carre and many another spy writer (and I guessed early on who the traitor would be). Game of Thrones rent-a-hunk Harington slightly underplays a Jason Bourne clone in a story cloned from a Bourne screenplay. But if the bare bones of the script lack originality, the feeling of this-is-how-it-must-really-be watching Intelligence people urgently doing their thing gives this movie all the edge and pace that made the TV series so very engrossing. Central to Spooks's success has always been the substantial (in both senses) presence of Peter Firth; his Harry Pearce combines the gravitas of George Smiley with the forcefulness of 007's boss M. Jennifer Ehle, Tim McInnerny and David Harewood vie with each other for creepiness as a trio of Intelligence mandarins. Even if you're not a fan of the BBCtv series, this is a cracking good spy story.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD


Pride and Prejudice gets a makeover every couple of years. We've had to wait longer for Far from the Madding Crowd; there was a TV version in 1998 and back in 1967 the lush John Schlesinger movie with Julie Christie and Terence Stamp, which most people think of as 'definitive'. This latest take has a lot of charm and a strong central performance from Carey Mulligan, but is it better than 1967? No, it isn't.

The story is set in 1870s Dorset. Like Julie Christie, Carey Mulligan seems more Edwardian than Victorian, plus her Bathsheba Everdene is given an extra feistiness to make her resonate with a modern audience. As in 1967 you frequently want to smack her (where's Christian Grey when you need him?): why can't she see that of the three men who love her Gabriel Oak is the one she should marry (of course, if she did, the movie would be shorter than an episode of Coronation Street!). 

Matthias Schoenaerts' take on Gabriel is nearly as solid as Alan Bates's was, and Michael Sheen brings a touching edge of desperation to Farmer Boldwood (the Peter Finch role). Tom Sturridge is in some ways a more believable Sergeant Troy than Terence Stamp, if not quite as charismatic. The new script closely follows the previous one, except that it crudely truncates both the consequences of Troy's accidental jilting by Fanny Robbin and his transition in Bathsheba's eyes from glamourboy to villain. None of the supporting cast is given much screen time, and the harvesting scenes have not ventured into shirtlessness like Poldark's recent scything on television!

One of my friends thought this version was too long. I wished it had been longer - and deeper, subtler. But this is my favourite of the 'Classic Love Stories' and I would give this latest remake at least 7 out of 10.

A LITTLE CHAOS


Belying its title, this is a charmingly well-ordered 'chamber-piece' movie about the creation of Louis XIV's spectacular grounds at Versailles. Landscape architect Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits - a surprise in 17th-century society - a woman to design one of the garden's water features. Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is a widow; Andre is married to a heartless slut (Helen McCrory); so we can expect something more than potting to be happening in the potting shed before the gardens are finished! There's a lovely scene when Sabine finds King Louis (Alan Rickman) alone and unwigged on a bench and mistakes him for the chief gardener. The king has also recently been widowed and decides that the untitled designer must be presented to the duchesses and princesses at court.

I worried that A Little Chaos might be like one of Peter Greenaway's movies, a triumph of style over substance, but it's got almost as much substance as an Oscar Wilde adaptation. There's no attempt to "Frenchify" the language in the style of 'Allo 'Allo: everyone speaks accentless English.
Alan Rickman (who also directed) plays the king in the grand style of Lady Bracknell, and Winslet is perfectly cast as a woman of substance and quiet wisdom. Belgium's Monsieur Schoenaerts is having a busy year and although this is role is similar to the one he had in Suite Francaise he seems more comfortable in it this time. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Ehle play the top dogs/bitches in His Majesty's court and I'd like to have seen more of them both.

I've just googled a Guardian review, which called this "a load of compost". Rhubarb planting to them! Yes, it's a bit overdone and artificial (like the gardens at Versailles), but the cast are believable and lovable, and the story delivers comedy, romance and intrigue. If you liked The Duchess, you will love this. It's the film I've enjoyed most this year since The Theory of Everything.

WOMAN IN GOLD


The title suggests this is going to be a "Woman's Picture" - and it is. But a high-quality woman's picture. And an uplifting true-life story.

Helen Mirren plays 80-year-old Maria Altmann, a widowed Jewish refugee living in California who persuades a penniless young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) to take on a seemingly hopeless case and sue the government of Austria for the restitution of one of their greatest treasures, Gustav Klimt's Woman In Gold, which is a portrait of Maria's aunt, stolen from her family by the Nazis in the 1930s. If you know your art history, you will know the outcome of this story, and if you don't you can probably guess.

Maria is feisty and tetchy and magnificently determined. Mirren plays her in a slight twist on her portrayal of Elizabeth II, with a piled-on Austrian accent (no jokes about the Queen's Teutonic pedigree, if you please); I found myself wondering if Meryl Streep had been approached for the role, accents being very much her thing. Reynolds does a nice turn as the nerdy but equally resolute lawyer, the kind of role Gregory Peck made his name in. 

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
(oil and gold leaf), the Woman in Gold
The movie has a sort of 'sheen' to it, which occasionally makes it seem a tad schmaltzy, and the flashbacks to the gilded glamour of pre-war Vienna are definitely over-polished. As in George Clooney's The Monuments Men, the theft of paintings is almost allowed to eclipse the true horrors of what the Nazis did to Europe's Jews. The intransigence of today's Austrian art custodians - and its legal system - provides a neatly different chill. 

The scenes I liked most were those (three of them) in which past and present are allowed to meld together. This device was briefly and subtly used in the Merchant-Ivory Heat and Dust (1983). It's less subtly employed here, but it helps to make the film memorable. Woman in Gold is a beguiling work of art and artifice, handsomely framed.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Wot I'm reading: Justice seen to be undone

Thriller-writer Robert Harris sets out to remind us of the infamous travesty of justice that was the Dreyfus Case in 1890s France. His central character is not Dreyfus but (real-life) army officer Georges Picquart who helped to make the flimsy case against Alfred Dreyfus on charges of espionage and witnessed the Jewish captain's trial and then his degradation in front of a baying crowd. Picquart reads the heavily censored letters exchanged between Dreyfus, imprisoned in solitary confinement on Devil's Island, and his wife. Dreyfus continues to protest his total innocence. Now working in military intelligence and on the trail of another spy in the army, Picquart comes to realise that Dreyfus was indeed innocent, but his superiors are not keen to see the case re-opened or even to see a further conviction. After an initial rush to misjudgement by one inept general, the army went to outrageous lengths to fabricate a stronger case against the poor captain. After a few years Picquart himself becomes a victim of injustice.

Dreyfus imprisoned on Devil's Island
Real-life espionage is not conducted at the pace of a James Bond or Jason Bourne adventure, but at a snail's pace - something we already know from following the career of MI5 spymaster George Smiley. An Officer and a Spy is short on thrills and long on detail: it requires serious concentration from the reader. The tension begins to build two-thirds of the way through, when the first of the re-trials takes place. There's some anachronistic language: 'lowlife' doesn't sound right for 1890. That apart, Harris generally writes with an elegance that rivals Le Carre, although he has chosen to write this book in the present tense, a device that has put me off reading Hilary Mantel's Cromwell novels and which I found somewhat off-putting here. Still, I must concede that Robert Harris has brilliantly reconstructed a fascinating piece of history. And, as we see in the news every day, justice continues to be applied with a very uneven hand by regimes that we would like to call civilised as well as by those that we know to be barbarous.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Wot I'm reading: mega-creepy psycho killer


The title is obviously meant to remind us of The Bone Collector, the horrific serial killer case that first introduced us (in 1997) to paraplegic criminal investigator Lincoln Rhyme and his foxy partner Amelia Sachs . Linc and Amelia's new case introduces a mega-creepy psychotic who tattoos cryptic messages onto his victims and may be a crazed 'disciple' of the Bone Collector. A gifted artist and a perfectionist, he takes care to leave no traces for the crime unit to find. Or does he?

Rhyme and Sachs and their team, as always, piece together the teeniest clues to track down this monster. There is no mystery here: the author introduces us to the killer, Billy Haven, in Chapter 2. As he often does, Jeffrey Deaver offers readers not so much a Whodunnit as a Can-they-stop-it. We kind of know they will, of course, but Deaver is brilliant at keeping his readers on the edge of their seats. The Skin Collector moves at a faster pace than most police investigations.

Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU
Amelia (I visualize her as another Olivia Benson, beautifully played by Mariska Hargitay on TV in Law &; Order: Special Victims Unit) has a run-in with Billy on Day Two of the case, and there's a fresh kill every day. The plot, a tad preposterous but a total page-turner, develops an 'apocalypse' dimension which, together with the tattooed messages, gives this a Dan Brown element. There's a clever tie-in with a previous adversary of Rhyme's, the 'Watchmaker'. And there are a number of grisly surprises and a few gross-out moments that Hannibal Lecter would be happy to put his signature to.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Theatre at the cinema: Life was always hard for migrants


Arthur Miller's play dates from 1955. the same year as the screen version of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo and a year after Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, the movie that made Marlon Brando a star. All three plays/scripts tackle broadly the same theme - the lives of Italian immigrants in New York.

This new National Theatre production, relayed live to cinemas around the world last night, is faithful to the original text and period, but it is staged in a bleak minimalist set that is little more than a boxing ring. Not unlike a movie, background music is strongly featured: sometimes, pleasingly, a Mass that I didn't recognize; at other times, rather less easy on the ear, a ticking metronome or a rattling air-conditioner. The performances are absolutely ace, particularly Mark Strong as Brooklyn Italian Eddie and Nicola Walker as his wife Beatrice.

Eddie has an unhealthily protective attitude to Beatrice's teenage niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) whom they have raised since her mother died. When two new (illegal) immigrants from Sicily, cousins of Eddie's, come to live with them and one falls for Catherine, Eddie's world falls apart.

Plot-wise, this is a very slight story, although it will resonate with many of today's migrants who are torn between the values of their homeland and the challenges of life in the place they have moved to. Miller's play is a sombre family drama, more like Ibsen or Stringberg, tense rather than intense, with little of the the melodrama of Kazan's movies or the sultriness of Tennessee Williams' plays; there's a hint of homosexuality which Tennessee would have made much more of, even back in the over-censored Fifties.

Nicola Walker, best known for her role
in BBCtv's long-running Spooks
Mark Strong, whom we mainly know as a movie 'heavy', is as good here as he was in TV's Our Friends in the North, the role that launched him. Nicola Walker, well known and loved by fans of Spooks, is quietly convincing in a very different role. The supporting cast, which includes hunky Emun Elliott, are all excellent, although one or two of them struggled to sound authentically Brooklyn or Sicilian.

National Theatre Live usually stage "encore" showings of these filmed productions. This is worth seeing for the masterclass performances, though I must admit that I disliked the production and, especially, the ugly set. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Wot I'm reading: gay un-lib

MARY RENAULT: 

The Charioteer


My dog-eared 1959 paperback of this gay 'classic' has a startling front cover blurb: "Three men plunged into a struggle with their unnatural love." Probably not the pitch they're using in the current re-issue.

It's 1940. Laurie Odell has been repatriated with other wounded servicemen from Dunkirk. In a military hospital in the West Country he develops a crush on Andrew, a naive young conscientious objector consigned to ward orderly duties as an alternative to prison. At a louche party (men dancing with each other: quick, bring smelling salts!) Laurie is reunited with injured sailor Ralph, on whom he  had a crush at boarding school; Ralph was expelled from their school for misbehaviour that is only hinted at.

Rather a lot is only hinted at as, in the midst of war, a gay 'love-triangle' develops.There's a lot of talk and no 'action'. A single chaste kiss; a couple of sex-scenes that take place off the page (like those in Gone With the Wind and most novels of the '40s and '50s). The book's best chapter is the wedding when Laurie's mother's remarries, full of precision-honed awkwardness. Of the three men, Laurie is still firmly closeted; Ralph is 'out', at least to his friends; Andrew doesn't know enough to think of it as a closet.

Words like 'rent' and 'queen' and 'cottage' were already in use in the 1940s, although 'gay' is not used in the sense we have for it now. When Renault describes the room in which the party is taking place, the furnishings include 'various poufs', which clearly would be edited out if it was being written today.

Andre Gide is, of course, the Patron Saint of gay fiction, up there in the 'Pantheon' with Oscar and Aubrey. E.M Forster's Maurice, begun in 1913, would qualify to be the first gay novel of the modern era had Forster not lacked the cojones to publish it (it appeared in 1971, a year after his death). Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (1945) are generally hailed as breaking new ground, although the homosexual element in the two novels is less explicit than it was in the movie of Cabaret (having been left out in the stage play). Gore Vidal pioneered modern gay fiction with The City and the Pillar (1948), a more provocative book than Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (also 1948) which is exquisite but kind of precious.

The Charioteer, which first came out, so to speak, in 1953, is painfully slow, very dated and more than a little 'twee', similar in many respects to Forster's Edwardian-era  Maurice. Nevertheless (again like Maurice) it is an important and deeply felt novel about homosexual love. It was daring in its day and clearly sent out a plea for understanding and tolerance. The men in the story are living with the ever-present threat of what happened to Alan Turing: exposure, shame, arrest and the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. And let's not forget, there are many countries today where gays and lesbians live with the threat of violence and execution.

You can read up on Mary Renault (1905-83) on Wikipedia, as I just have. An English lesbian who relocated to South Africa with her lover, she is most remembered for a series of romanticized novels about the gay/bi warriors of ancient Greece. She declined to associate herself with the Gay Liberation movement, and yet her books made her one of the true 'champions' of our community in Britain and the US, We must continue to honour her memory.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Wot I'm reading: Horror epic; epic horror

Justin Cronin: THE PASSAGE


After the 900-page spy thriller I Am Pilgrim I intended to swear off excessively long books, but a friend whose recommendations I value urged me to read The Passage, which comes in at a daunting 960 pages. From the beginning I found myself thinking that Stephen King's throne was finally in danger of being rocked. After the next 300 pages I wasn't so sure.

Two FBI agents are charged with bringing people to a secret research facility in the Colorado mountains. Some of them are Death Row prisoners who are being used as guinea pigs to test a mysterious virus with (only in the US) military implications. But the latest transportee is a six-year-old girl with a mysterious gift of her own. What happens to Amy and the FBI guys makes for a story as gripping as any of our cinema visits to the underground labyrinth in the Resident Evil series.

Then the story jumps a hundred years to a post-apocalypse world more reminiscent of The Walking Dead or the Living Dead franchise. Some survivors are holed up in a colony in the California hills outside Banning fighting off attacks by the vampire-like 'virals' who have taken over the rest of America and, presumably, the world. This is where The Passage comes unstuck. The new cast of characters are not initially as involving as Amy and her protectors and, despite the regular 'viral' incursions, the pace is leaden. Even the return of Amy, who has aged only a few years in a century, takes a while to crank up the action. But when a small group start to trek back with Any to Colorado, the book becomes a real page-turner again. The end is a bit low-key, paving the way for not one but two sequels. Not sure I've got the strength to carry on! However engrossing, some sagas are simply too long.

What starts out as a worthy rival to Stephen King's early apocalypse epic The Stand doesn't entirely live up to its promise. But on the basis of the first and last 300 pages I still think Justin Cronin might become the next King of Horror - he shares Stephen's god-given gift for bringing all his characters to living-breathing life. What he badly needs to be gifted with a really tough Editor!