Saturday, 13 February 2016

David at the movies: glossy sheen on America's Dark Age

TRUMBO


The period remembered as the "McCarthy era" was a low period in US history when Democracy came to be redefined: American citizens were free to be anything they wanted except Communists (there was also the issue of Black Rights, but that's a story for another day, another movie). Hollywood screen-writer Donald Trumbo was one of many high-profile individuals who were jailed for their beliefs. After he was paroled Trumbo supported his family by writing scripts for schlock movies under a series of aliases; he also produced solid gold scripts for mainstream pictures, one of which (Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck) embarrassingly won an Oscar.

Bryan Cranston delivers a blistering, if slightly pantomime  performance as Trumbo and deserves to win an irony-rich Oscar of his own this month. Many stars and studio heads of the 40s and 50s are engagingly impersonated here: John Wayne, Otto Preminger and Louis B. Meyer are given particular prominence along with Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee and paid a deservedly high price. Dean O'Gorman is uncannily good as Kirk Douglas, who played a key role in restoring Trumbo's reputation. Helen Mirren, in a cavalcade of bizarre hats, is uncannily awful as arch Commie-hater Hedda Hopper, with an accent that swerves erratically between the Fuehrerbunker and (oh dear) Buckingham Palace. John Goodman is larger than lifesize (which means seriously big!) as the penny-pinching studio head who expects scripts in days (even hours) rather than weeks.

Dean O'Gorman recreates Kirk Douglas's role in Spartacus

The pressures on Trumbo's family are well explored but the domestic scenes - and the celebrity roll-call - give the movie a soap-opera sheen that often veers into romcom humour. The true tragedy of the 'witch-hunts' gets only a brief mention: there were suicides as well as prison terms, and not every Hollywood Red was able to carry on working under a pseudonym. The big hole in the story is the ideological one: we don't get to understand why Trumbo and the others feel such a commitment to the cause of Communism; supporting striking carpenters doesn't seem enough. And from the Administration side, we see the Rosenbergs getting death sentences for selling atomic secrets to the Soviets, but was that the only motivation for the great 'purge'?

So: a good movie, witty and entertaining, full of fun caricatures of yesteryear celebrities (even Mirren's duff take on la Hopper is joyful in a 'Carry-On' sort of way), but a little too glossy and shallow to truly shine a light into America's mid-20th-century Dark Age.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Wot I'm watching: The X-Files relaunch: a feast for conspiracy buffs!

I guess a lot of us got pretty excited on hearing that The X-Files were being re-opened after a fourteen-year hiatus. Funny how little Mulder and Scully have aged - is this the wonder of studio make-up or alien intervention? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson slipped quickly back into character, although I detected an element of "tongue-in-cheek" as they recycled the government cover-up mythology on which the series hangs.

There was a new kid on the block (though not for long) who'd suffered multiple alien abductions, and we had a nervous wait for DNA tests on Scully to come back with the result we all expected. I remember reading back in the show's heyday that one in three Americans believed they'd been abducted and "probed" (mostly anally: does this tell us something about US obsessions or anxieties?). Like Mulder, I (sort of) Want to Believe.

Anyway, well done, Chris Carter, for bringing Fox and Dana back into our lives; it was like a jolly Friends Reunited event. These revamps tend not to have a long shelf-life (Upstairs Downstairs and Dallas come immediately to mind) so we must seize the moment and enjoy Scully and Mulder (and Skinner) while they're back on our screens. It almost certainly won't be as good as the original run (nothing ever is), but I felt a real thrill being back in the world of massive government conspiracies, which for some people is the same as the real world of today - and tomorrow.

The Truth is Still Out There - somewhere.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Wot I'm reading: will Robert Redford make the sequel?

James Grady: LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR


It's been a long time coming, but James Grady has produced a sequel to his 1974 CIA thriller Six Days of the Condor (condensed to Three Days of the Condor in the movie version, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway). In 1974 Condor's real name was Malcolm; now it's Vin, but he's still working for a mysterious branch of US Intelligence, having survived some nasty assignments and a spell in a mental hospital. Not unlike the events of forty years ago, a violent murder (this one in his home rather than his office) puts him on the run again. An agent he mentored (her name is Faye: a tribute to Ms Dunaway?) leads the team hunting him.

Fast and furious ("Fast and Furious"!) car chases and brutal killings bring echoes of the Jason Bourne movies which have created new parameters for spy stories. This has clearly been written with an eye on the movie rights. There's a high-octane shoot-out on a DC metro station which would have major box-office appeal.

Robert Redford in the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor
Condor is meant to be around pensionable age, so perhaps Robert Redford would like to stage a comeback - with a new young female co-star, of course. Only a guest cameo for Faye Dunaway as an M-style spy-master (or is that spy-mistress?).

I found the style of this somewhat trying: it's written in a disorienting, almost psychedelic prose that occasionally reminded me of William Burroughs at his weirdest. Not only Condor but also those pursuing him suffer from galloping paranoia, which I guess is a sine-qua-non of Intelligence stories - more than ever in our post 9/11 world.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

David at the movies: All the Pope's men

SPOTLIGHT


Investigating the massive decades-long cover-up of paedophile priests in Boston sounds like a grim and sordid subject for a movie, and yes, Spotlight has some grim and sordid moments, but overall this is just as engrossing as a cops-and-killers detective story. It's impossible not to be shocked/outraged by the sheer scale of the scandal: the blunt statistics before the final credits show that abuse was inflicted globally. The script makes the Boston diocese and its archbishop the chief 'villains' in removing (and re-assigning) the offending priests; I wondered why there wasn't more speculation about just how high in the clerical food-chain the decisions to protect the Church's 'good name' were taken.

Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton get top honours in the credits, but this is very much an 'ensemble' piece and I'm not sure any of the actors deserve to be singled out. Rachel McAdams is particularly good as the one dogged female in the team of Boston Globe journalists, and Billy Crudup is very convincing as a sleazy lawyer who's made a killing from out-of-court settlements between the diocese and some of the victims. Although their appearances are brief I would also applaud the men who play the victims, now adults but all still haunted by the abuse they suffered as children and teenagers (many were driven to alcohol, drugs, some even to suicide). Top marks to the writers and the director who have turned this (yes) grim story into a nail-biting thriller; I hope the awards season doesn't overlook them in favour of movies with big-name star turns.

There's a fine long tradition of films centred around newspaper investigations, going all the way back to The Front Page in 1931 (which started as a stage play in the 1920s). Spotlight is at least as good as 1976's All the President's Men, the film most of us remember. The Boston Globe's revelations were clearly the Catholic Church's 'Watergate moment'. This is definitely my favourite of the pictures nominated for gongs this winter.


THE BIG SHORT


Well, they did it with Apple and with Facebook, and now Hollywood has made a movie out of the events leading up to the collapse of the US housing market (and Lehmans) in 2008, which precipitated the global financial crisis. Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt play four geeky guys working in hedge funds who see the collapse coming and even bet their investors' money on the downturn.

Doesn't sound like a recipe for fun and entertainment, does it? Neither did Zuckerman and Steve Jobs, but once again the secret is in the script and the acting. The writers have created a pacy run of short scenes with humour as well as tension, charting the escalating stupidity of the banks and finance companies who gave mortgages to people with zero credit rating and then wrapped these 'toxic' debts into packages for selling on to investors around the globe (including pension funds, city councils and national banks). One scene shows us a stripper with double mortgages on five properties: how could she not fail?

My usual cavil: the f-words come at you like a hail of bullets. But all the actors - not just the four leads - give finely overwrought performances as the crisis builds to a peak and then unravels. A nice touch is to have cast members occasionally turn to address the camera in the new 'tradition' of House of Cards, making this a kind of satirical docudrama. The story is based on real people and painfully real events. Millions of people lost homes, jobs and even their lives when the mighty boom turned to an almighty bust. And many of today's bankers and brokers, as greedy and venal as ever, have found new ways of repackaging toxic investments, securing huge bonuses for themselves and laying the groundwork for the next big financial tsunami.

THE REVENANT


You don't need me to tell you the story, do you? Leonardo DiCaprio plays 1820s fur-trapper Hugh Glass who survived a savage attack by a bear only to be left for dead by his fellow frontiersmen. The historical story has been spiced up to include a revenge element and battles against both rival French fur-traders and marauding native Americans (Red Indians, as we used to be allowed to call them).

There's a big Oscar buzz about this movie, which may have as much to do with it having been a gruelling location shoot as to do with the performances. Yes, DiCaprio is in terrific form, but so is Tom Hardy as the nastiest of the trappers, all of whom communicate mostly in grunts and mumbles. This film has the least intelligible dialogue since Brokeback Mountain (in case you're wondering, The Revenant isn't a gay love story). 

The real stars are the director and cinematographer. The landscape plays the kind of dominating role that it always did in a David Lean movie. Alejandro Inarritu is perhaps Lean's true heir. And the film is beautifully scored. Soaring music and lingering snowscapes: pure David Lean. Glass's visions of his murdered native American wife (and son) provide poignant moments and provide a welcome contrast to the violent scenes which have the full-on shock of a body-horror flick.

The story is told a little (maybe a lot) too slowly, making this a beautiful, yes, but, oh dear, a very long movie (2 hours 36). There have been quite a few 'Survival' pictures over the years (DeliveranceCast Away, etc. etc.) and now we see Survival documentaries on TV all the time. The movie I found myself comparing this to was The Last of the Mohicans, which had many of the same elements - frontiersmen, 'friendly' as well as hostile Indians, battles against the French - together with an epic love-story, great music and great photography. What The Revenant crucially lacks is pace (and clear diction).

THE DANISH GIRL


Although I found this a touching movie to sit through, upon reflection a day later it was harder to take it quite as seriously as it takes itself. The early scenes have much of the charm of a Mozart opera as real-life 1920s husband-and-wife painters Einar and Gerda allow his cross-dressing as her model to expand into public appearances in the guise of Lili, his pretend cousin. There's a lot of humour in this part of the movie, and it was easy to think of Britain's current favourite 'trannie', Grayson Perry, and his lovably klutzy alter-ego Claire. Eddie Redmayne's androgynous looks lend themselves perfectly to this kind of ambiguity, but as Lili slowly erodes Einar's identity during the many mirror-gazing scenes leading up to his pioneering sex-change surgery, I started thinking of Greta Garbo, to whom the cameramen of her day also gave long moments of soulful introspection.

According to Wikipedia they seem to have stuck fairly closely to the facts of Lili's 'transition', although the characters of Henrik (Ben Whishaw) and Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) have surely been added to the story, to good effect. Ben Whishaw also has an androgynous beauty; was he in the
The real Lili painted by the real Gerda
running for the lead role? Alicia Vikander's Gerda seems a faithful interpretation; her own transition from wife to best friend, well played, is perhaps over-romanticised. There was most likely a fair bit of 'souping-up' in director Tom Hooper's 2010 Oscar/Bafta-winner The King's Speech, but that had the added charm of humanising our lofty Royals. In The Danish Girl he's trying to do the opposite, to 'mystify' a pair of artistic misfits, and he succeeds, but less fluently. The cinematography is superb, creating harbour-scapes of Copenhagen that have the luminosity of Turner paintings.
The film is only a little too long, a little too slow and maybe tries a little to hard to wring our heartstrings. But wring them it does.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Wot I'm reading: The King's disciple

Jonathan Huls: THE N'th DAY


I don't normally write a "solicited" review but Jonathan Huls approached me winningly after he read my review of a Stephen King novel online. He's clearly a "disciple" of the King of Horror. The Nth Day is pretty original in its conception, although Mr King's mighty epic The Stand may have provided some of his inspiration and it's likely that the Omen movies also filtered through the creative process.

There are three main protagonists: Justin, a boy with miraculous powers of both healing and destruction; Cassie, a fostered runaway who suffers many kinds of abuse; and Theodore, an oddball black billionaire who lives like a tramp. In a near-future world where apocalyptic events have begun to occur, this trio are clearly destined to meet, and indeed their stories finally converge in a near-Armageddon scenario in Atlanta.

The Stephen King influence, a beneficial one, is that Mr Huls gives even walk-on characters little chunks of vivid back-story to bring them to life. He uses more profanity than seems strictly necessary, and some of the gross-out scenes may be a bit too gross for squeamish readers. The print version of his book is handicapped by clunky formatting. I'm guessing this is a debut offering; like so many self-published books it would have benefited from some independent editing, but the author gets high marks for effort and originality. As they say on school reports (mine, for sure!): "Could do better" - and very likely will.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Wot I'm reading: Carry On up the colonies

J.G. Farrell: THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR



This novel won the Booker prize in 1973, so I'm a bit late catching up with it. Reading a novel set in colonial India recently made me remember a couple of 'imperial' works I'd missed out on. This is one; the other is The Raj Quartet, a somewhat bigger challenge, four volumes (I've watched the TV series three times, the best television drama of its time).

Mr Farrell sets his novel in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny, in the imaginary outpost of Krishnapur in the baking plains of Hindustan. Mr Hopkins, the 'Collector' (as the governor is called, because of his vast hoard of possessions), gets wind of the uprising and offers the expatriate community refuge in his Residency only hours ahead of the first assault by rebellious 'sepoys'. The expats are mostly the families of British soldiers, a few merchants and the managers of the opium farms. There are more women than men: the so-called 'fishing fleet', spinsters from England hoping to find husbands in the Imperial Army. The early chapters of this book are reminiscent of Jane Austen, a 'comedy of manners' moved to a dusty Indian outpost. Even as the bullets start to fly and putrefaction becomes the odour of the day, these ladies fret about the protocol of sheltering with people of lower class and looser morals.

As well as Miss Austen, I occasionally caught a flavour of Carry On Up the Khyber, so inept are the British soldiers and so hapless the women cowering in the Residency. During the siege the last desperate cannon shot is loaded with cutlery, marbles and even a set of dentures. The characters are well-drawn but their eccentricity gives many of them the sheen of caricatures. The Magistrate - who "had the red hair and ginger whiskers of the born atheist" - is an avid student of phrenology. The Collector has a vast hoard of souvenirs from the Great Exhibition; he also collects grim statistics about death and disease. Hari, the Maharajah's son, comes across like a Peter Sellers impersonation. These people engage the reader's mind more than his heart; I found none of them especially sympathetic and was not deeply involved in their fate, certainly not in the way I was in The Far Pavilions, still and by far my favourite novel from the annals of Empire. Humour, even grim humour, sits uncomfortably with cholera and starvation as The Siege of Krishnapur reaches its climax.

I can't remember what I was reading in 1973 - not J.G. Farrell, obviously! - but this is a strange book to be regarded as the best of its year. Iris Murdoch and Beryl Bainbridge were on the shortlist, so the judges (who included Mary McCarthy and Edna O'Brien) must have seen something in The Seige of Krishnapur which I did not. To me it seemed leaden and repetitious; had it not been a prizewinning novel I would have given up on it and missed the rather splendid conclusion. Not the first time I've found an award-winning book (or play or movie) totally at odds with my reading(/viewing) preferences. I hope this doesn't make me a philistine!

Friday, 11 December 2015

Wot I'm reading: After The Godfather .... the Godmother!

Gerald Seymour: THE COLLABORATOR


It's a while since I read a Gerald Seymour. He's good! 

One of the Camorra families, the Naples Mafia, is ruled by a woman - the Godmother! - since her husband was jailed. Their sons already have roles in the family business: protection, construction deals, toxic waste disposal. Immacolata, their daughter studying in England, turns against the family after a humiliation at a friend's funeral. The Carabinieri whisk her into witness protection and arrest her mother and brothers. 

Ima's English boyfriend Eddie, unaware of her family's gangland connection, ill-advisedly goes to Naples to find her. Then a freelance security guy, Lukas, has to go looking for Eddy. Seymour's 'formula', best seen in his stunning novels set in the Middle East's war zones, is to follow several strands of a story and then slowly and suspensefully pull them together towards an excruciatingly tense confontation. He does this here, brilliantly.

There's a chilling scene towards the end when Immocalata's minders take her to visit her parish priest in Naples. Far from granting her absolution he denounces her betrayal of her family: "the majority of Neapolitans take pleasure and pride from the reputation of their home as the centre of the western world's most successful criminal conspiracy."

This multi-stranded story is told from perhaps too many viewpoints (including not only the Godmother but the clan's Founding grandmother and grandfather), but Seymour brilliantly evokes not just the sights and smells of Naples' slums but also the culture of deference and fear that stalks every one of the city's streets; the Camorra families rule the city totally and ruthlessly. Like John Le Carre, Gerald Seymour elevates the thriller to the level of serious literature. This is up there with The Godfather in the annals of crime fiction.