Thursday, 2 July 2015

David at the movies: Back to the future past


This cinematic funfair ride comes with a 12A certificate, though under-twelves will probably enjoy it more than older kids. Lots of jumpy moments but we are spared the more grisly stuff: people are snatched and killed but 'chew and splatter' is mostly kept off-screen. 

Jurassic World is a mixture of 'same-old' and 'same-new' as the island theme-park re-opens its doors with a hot fresh attraction: a genetically-modified new breed of dinosaur which very soon (you guessed it!) escapes from its cage and goes on the rampage.

Two young brothers are the focus of the storyline, plus their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a hunky park ranger (Chris Pratt). They just happen to be trapped out in the park with the killing-machine monster; and Aunt Claire just happens to be the park's CEO. Although the rest of the plot (actually all of the plot) is very predictable - Claire and Owen rescuing the kids from a series of perils - the sheer pace of it largely obliterates any sense of over-familiarity. And the CGI is - no other way to say it - simply "awesome": the interaction between actors and creatures is seamless. This 'reboot' of the Jurassic theme really is a thrill-a-minute - visually it's a thrill-a-second!


The last time Ian McKellen starred in a movie directed by Bill Condon was 1998's Gods and Monsters, a little 'gem' of a story about James Whale, the director of the early Frankenstein filmswho in retirement develops a crush on his hunky new gardener (Brendan Fraser). Condon and Sir Ian's new collaboration looks at the retirement of Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex coast to a quiet life centred on bee-keeping. The great detective has a widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, with an accent that veers from Kent to Devon and back again) whose studious young son Roger (Milo Parker) finds a father-figure in Sherlock.

His health declining and sliding into forgetfulness if not dementia, Holmes struggles to remember the details of a case he misjudged at the end of his career involving a beautiful young woman and a poisoning. This, together with the boy and the bees, is all the story there is. Gods and Monsters didn't have a huge plot either, but Mr. Holmes is a little too slow and insubstantial. It's good to be reminded what a fine actor McKellen is: the Tolkien and X-Men movies rely too much on CGI, and the bitchy-old-queen ITV sitcom Vicious is tired and dated and does neither Sir Ian nor Sir Derek Jakobi any favours.

This is meant to be Sherlock's swansong. Hopefully it won't be McKellen's or Condon's. Next time they will need a stronger script.


Let's be honest, people. What we want from a disaster movie is to see lots of buildings collapsing, dams bursting, a tsunami pouring through city streets and (let's not deny it) casualties in the high thousands. Well, if that's what we want, that's what San Andreas delivers. And how!

After a nerve-shredding helicopter rescue of a woman whose car is halfway down a sheer canyon wall, we are rushed to the Hoover Dam just before it breaks up (though, oddly, we don't get to see where all that water goes). For the rest of the movie we follow Ray, the copter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) from Los Angeles to San Francisco, as he rescues first his wife and then his daughter from crumbling skyscrapers as the entire San Andreas fault-line tears apart and reduces both cities to rubble. And, yes, there's a tsunami too!

Okay, the family-in-peril is the grandmother of all disaster-movie storylines, and Dwayne Johnson is not the most charismatic actor onscreen (and just how charismatic was Charlton Heston in Earthquake or Sylvester Stallone in Daylight?), but San Andreas wisely centres on this one family and a likeable pair of brothers the daughter teams up with and one don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you earthquake expert (Paul Giamatti). Earthquake had far too many back stories and, wonderful as Sensurround was in its day, we became very impatient for the next tremor. San Andreas does not test our patience: the 'quake goes on and on and on. The CGI must have cost zillions: building after building crumbling onto street after street; and 3D goes a long way to making up for the lack of Sensurround.

A good horror movie makes you jump out of your seat. A good disaster movie makes you fear for the safety of the cinema (and, of course) the survival of the main characters. San Andreas shamelessly borrows from a whole bunch of previous disaster movies, but the sheer pace and the stunning CGI make this as thrilling a movie as we are likely to see until ... well, here it is: Jurassic World!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Wot I'm reading: Sex, snobbery and sadism

'Sex, snobbery and sadism' were the key ingredients in a James Bond novel, according to a review of Dr. No in the New Statesman in 1958. Yes, he was probably right, but the reviewer seems to have missed out the outlandish thrills that Ian Fleming always delivered (well, almost always: The Spy Who Loved Me was unforgivably awful, as perhaps was the mercifully short story Quantum of Solace, which is more like something Fleming's friend and neighbour Noel Coward might have written). Plus, he gave us some of the most colourful villains in the history of pulp fiction: Mr Big, Rosa Klebb, Dr. No, Goldfinger and, that toothsome twosome, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt!

Matthew Parker's lively new contribution to the 007 'canon' is a history of Fleming's long love-affair with pre- and post-Independence Jamaica, where he spent two months of every year from 1946 until his death in 1964 and where he wrote all the Bond books. Before Barbara Broccoli recycled it as a movie title, Goldeneye was the name of the boxy little bungalow Fleming built overlooking a beautiful and almost private lagoon on the north coast of the Caribbean island. Here he entertained the great and the good (including Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Eden and - of course - Sean Connery) together with a far from modest selection of married ladyfriends, one of whom, Viscount Rothermere's wife Ann, divorced her husband to marry Fleming. Ann had to put up with a "three-people marriage" when Fleming took another Jamaican expat as his long-term mistress. Tit for tat, Ann Fleming became Hugh Gaitskell's lover for the last years of his life.

Goldeneye today, available for you to rent!
Fascinating as this book is, it's filled with dislikeable characters. Fleming himself is a curmudgeon, sometimes genial, more often sulky. Ann is a snobbish pill-popping neurotic who dismisses her husband's novels (largely without reading them) as 'pornography'. Even Noel Coward comes across as little more than another of the old colonial bores. Fleming largely detested the idle rich and retired who made up most of his wife's social circle both on the island and in London, and yet, as the New Statesman observed, James Bond was very much a product of the supercilious 'imperialist' mindset.

Parker confirms what we have heard before, that there was a lot of Fleming in 007: the naval background, a love of fishing and snorkelling as well as lethal levels of smoking and drinking. Fleming hated Germans (Hugo Drax and Goldfinger were both Germans), despised Americans (Felix Leiter was practically the only American friend Bond had and his relationship with Tiffany Case - erroneously called Chase in Parker's book - was one of his least passionate) and had a patronizing attitude towards blacks (think of Quarrel in Live and Let Die and Dr No).

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, filming Dr No in Jamaica, 1961
From this account Fleming does not seem to have been a very happy man, but his books, however sniffy some of the critics, have brought pleasure to millions. I've read all of them (some several times) - and most of the 'sequels' in the hands of a very mixed bunch of copycat authors. From Russia With Love and Dr No are clearly the greatest of the 'founder's' output; of his heirs I would rate the first one, Kingsley Amis (Colonel Sun, 1968), the closest to the calibre of the originals.

Fleming was toying with killing off 007 at the end of From Russia With Love when (unlike in the movie) Rosa Klebb strikes home with the poisoned blade in her toecap. Luckily for us, this was Fleming's break-through book and he contrived a way to 'resurrect' Bond at the beginning of Dr No. Today, in real time, Bond would either be long since despatched to the rest home for old spies or, more likely given his alcohol and tobacco intake, would have made the trip to the crematorium which he narrowly escaped in the movie of Diamonds Are Forever. Despite the up-and-down quality of both the book and the movie franchise, long may he go on living!

Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and those shoes in From Russia With Love

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Opera at the cinema: It's not over till the fat lady sings!


Sorry about the un-gallant headline. We saw La Boheme live from Covent Garden in our local (Brighton) multiplex last night. Ultra-lush music, tender love-songs, star-crossed lovers, a dying Parisian seamstress and a struggling playwright - Puccini serves up the hoariest of ingredients, but this is his masterpiece and about as romantic as opera can get.

The curtain is finally coming down (after forty-one years) on this very traditional production, which is sublimely faithful to the theme and spirit of the original work. Anna Netrebko's Mimi is - I'm trying hard to be tactful now - a little 'robust' to be plausibly dying of TB (there just aren't many sopranos of believably tubercular build). And Malta's Joseph Calleja is a terrific tenor but a bit wooden in the acting department. The rest of the cast were vocally splendid and this old 'warhorse' of a set is richly atmospheric.

Madame Netrebko may not be the scrawniest girl on the block, but her singing really tears at your heartstrings. At this level - where it counts - this production is up there with the best of them. There are some 'Encore' showings at cinemas around the world. Grab the chance to find one near you by clicking on this link to the Covent Garden website: LA BOHEME LIVE

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Wot I'm reading: Murder at the Vatican

Gabriel Allon is back in the Vatican, restoring a priceless painting by Caravaggio. A female archaeologist is found dead beneath the gallery in the dome of St Peter's Basilica. The pope's private secretary asks Gabriel to investigate whether she jumped or was thrown to her death.

Since Gabriel is not just an art restorer but also a retired superspy-cum-hitman for the Israeli secret service, we can guess that the signorina did not commit suicide. And, as we always anticipate from Daniel Silva, solving her  murder will uncover a planned terrorist outrage (another one!) against the Vatican and the State of Israel. The trail leads from Rome to Vienna and Jerusalem - the Pope is about to make a visit to the Holy Land.

OK, these are locations Mr Silva has guided us through before and the conspiracy is also something of a 'revamp' (with a bit of Dan Brown-style archaeology thrown into the stew), but Silva's writing is superior to most other thriller-writers and he always gives Zion's enemies (it's Hezbollah and the Iranians this time) a scarily plausible fanaticism. Pope Paul VII, Silva's imagined successor to the Polish prelate, appealingly combines characteristics of Benedict, Francis and John Paul.

The Fallen Angel builds its suspense up to a cinematic finale beneath the Temple Mount. A story that seems to be torn from tomorrow's headlines, this is another total 'humdinger' from one of today's best thriller-writers.

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.

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.