Friday, 25 July 2014

David at the movies: Monkeying with history

DAWN of the PLANET of the APES

This is a sequel to a prequel: Rise of the Planet of the Apes three years ago. A decade or two on, the human population has been decimated by the horror virus, whereas the super-apes have bred like rabbits and are now the dominant species. Not all of them can speak yet, but their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, digitized) has a rival, Koba, who also talks. Caesar wants to live amicably with the surviving humans, but Koba has a Dalek attitude towards humankind.

As well as good-guy/bad-guy apes, we also have good-guy/bad-guy humans with alternate attitudes to dealing with the monkey hordes. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wants peace, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants extermination.

Assuming that this latest incarnation of the Apes epic is going to be a trilogy, like Spiderman's, Dawn is the holding one till we get to the grand (temporary) finale. The war/peace initiatives make up almost the entire plot. Caesar and Koba fight for supremacy over the simians, Malcolm and Dreyfus try to drive the humans down different paths.

What makes this movie a fairly outstanding episode in the saga is the quality of the cinematography and, of course, the CGI. The blend of actors into apes is stunningly well done, giving the creatures pretty well the same individuality as the human characters. The fight scenes are thrilling (I watched the 2D version), and the sets and locations give a wonderful sense of a city (we're still in San Francisco) sliding into decay and ruin. 

There's little likelihood that another movie can replicate the amazing 'reveals' at the end of the two Charlton Heston blockbusters that first introduced us to this topsy-turvy version of our future history, but Dawn, like Rise (actually, the titles would have been better in reverse order), is a worthy addition to the currently popular genre of 'Origins' movies.


If you enjoy re-watching The Talented Mr Ripley when it turns up on TV, you'll love this. Sourced from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, author of the Ripley books, the screenwriter/director Hossein Amini has adapted it very much in the style of Anthony Minghella. The locations - Athens, Crete, Istanbul - are full of glorious light and shade, making the film, again like Mr Ripley, a visual feast as well as a dark character study. 

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) run into fellow American Rydal (Oscar Isaac) in the Parthenon where he's working as a guide, romancing (and fleecing) female tourists. Attracted both by Colette's beauty and her husband's bulging wallet, Rydal attaches himself to the MacFarlands. The attachment becomes mutually more important when he learns that the pair are on the run from a massive share swindle back home. A dramatic confrontation in the Grand Hotel sets them on the run together, Another startling confrontation in Crete lays the groundwork for a climax - in Istanbul - that owes as much to Hitchcock as to Highsmith.

There are strong echoes of both the fictional and screen Ripleys. Chester and Rydal are a pair of 'chancers', Chester at the top of his game, Rydal still learning how to play the system. The storyline and the lush cinematography also bring pleasing echoes of Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, although Kirsten Dunst's 'odyssey' has a very different outcome than Debra Winger's. Viggo Mortensen gives a performance with much of the style of John Malkovich; and Oscar Isaac has the glamorous intensity of Keanu Reeves in some of his earlier roles.

Not so much a morality play as a tale of amorality, this psychological drama makes for a movie that is moody and deeply satisfying.


Would you expect to get paid $1,000 to bonk Sharon Stone?

No, I didn't think so! She looks sensational, still just as foxy as when she played Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. In Fading Gigolo she plays a New York dermatologist who tells one of her patients, Herman(Woody Allen), that she'd like to be fixed up with an escort. As if. Anyway, suspend your disbelief for a minute.

Herman's a bit strapped for cash, with a shrink and a dermatologist to pay for and his bookstore having just gone bust. He persuades his Italian friend Fioravante (John Turturro), a local florist, to take on the assignment (it's a tough job but someone's got to do it), with Herman getting a percentage of the take, of course. Dr Parker gives Fioravante a big tip and a five-star recommendation. Pretty soon this quiet unassuming florist (and part-time plumber) is the hottest stud on the circuit. But then he goes and falls for a rabbi's beautiful young widow (Vanessa Paradis) and attracts the notice of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community police (Liev Schreiber as we've never seen him before).

Fading Gigolo has all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen metropolitan comedy - and it has Woody Allen in a lead role - but in fact John Turturro wrote and directed it, very much in the style of Annie Hall. It's a character-driven morality play about love and sex in the city, with the feel of an upscale repertory company. And it's got Sharon Stone: what more could a man want?

After two CGI-heavy 3D blockbusters, this was, for me, a  welcome return to They-don't-make-movies-like-that-any-more. Luckily, they still do. Great acting, a crisp sophisticated script, smooth direction, a terrific score and a bevy of gorgeous women: 90 minutes of  unalloyed joy. Cinema at its best.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Wot I'm reading: inside the mind of a paedophile

Colin Spencer: PANIC

US publishers Valancourt Books have set out to revive neglected novels from both sides of the Atlantic. After seeing my review of Colin Spencer's recent volume of memoirs they invited me to review Panic, his highly acclaimed and deeply weird novel set in 1960s Brighton. This short book (160 pages) is centred on a grief-stricken father whose young daughter was murdered a year ago. Rod Johnson now haunts Brighton's seedier streets and pubs, hoping to find a clue that will lead him to Lucy's killer.

The story is narrated in successive chapters by Rod, by his 'damaged' girlfriend Emma and by her creepy uncle Woody. With the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seven years ago still in the news, together with revelations about predatory priests and celebrities, it's a bold gesture by the publishers to reprint a book that attempts to get inside the head of a child-molester, which is what Spencer does in two very disturbing chapters. But I guess Lolita would not be an easy read today, if it ever was.

I'm a big admirer of Mr Spencer. I rate The Tyranny of Love, the second in his quartet A Generation, one of the greatest modern 'relationship' novels, up there with James Baldwin's Another Country and John Updike's Couples. I'm not sure how I missed Panic when it came out in 1971. In the early chapters his characters all seem to be speak with a rather similar 'voice'. In the Introduction he admits to an influence by Faulkner, but what I picked up were echoes of Forster,  which makes the back-story seem more Edwardian than post-war. The shorter chapters in the second half are more dynamic, and the climactic confession scene is another gruelling read. The subject matter makes this book as 'challenging' for the reader as it must have been for the author.

I consider myself to be very much a liberal (small L) but I can understand why many people (especially parents) would want the death penalty applied - harshly, even summarily - to killers of children. Discussion topic: Which is more crucial, justice for the victim or compassion for the perpetrator?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Wot I'm reading: Shine on, Danny

I broke off the book I was reading (and the one I was writing!) to read this, the keenly anticipated sequel to The Shining. Sorry to report that it was a bit (not too much) of a disappointment.

Mr King begins by telling us what happened to Danny Torrance and his mom immediately after they fled the Overlook Hotel. Then we jump forward a couple of decades to find that Dan is now a dropout and an alcoholic like his dad. He drifts into a small town in New England and into Rivington House, a home for the old and the demented. Dan still has the 'shining' - 'his terrible privilege", the author calls it - which means he sees flashbacks of the lives of the patients he is looking after. And he is able to help them make a calm and fearless crossing from this world to the next.

Dan's life is about to intersect - psychically rather than physically at first - with that of ten-year-old Abra, a girl with even greater powers than his. Dan is still haunted by the ghosts from The Overlook, and both he and Abra see visions that no ordinary mortal expects to see. Over the next three years their lives will intersect - psychically and physically - with the True Knot, a group of ancient marauders who scour the country in a convoy of RVs looking for kids like Abra; they rejuvenate themselves by feeding off the Shining which they call 'steam'. The process by which they extract 'steam' from children makes this a more than usually gruesome read.

Doctor Sleep revisits themes from previous novels, not just The Shining: ghosts, vampires, telekinesis. The yuck factor occasionally overtakes the scare factor; I began to find the 'mind-games' a bit tiresome, and the ending is more House of Hammer than vintage King. But, as always in a Stephen King, every single character is vividly brought to life. He truly is another Dickens or Victor Hugo. And he can turn a wonderful phrase: watching a sunset through a gap in the mountains, "it was as if God was holding His breath."

In the Afterword he outlines his mission statement: "telling a kick-ass story." Which he what he has done in over 50 books. Almost all of them have been good; some not just great horror stories but great books. The Shining, of course, was one of the greatest. Doctor Sleep is not such a ground-breaking contribution to the horror genre, but it's vivid, intense and fairly disturbing.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Theatre at the cinema: Autism makes great entertainment

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

A book about a severely autistic teenager and his over-wrought parents sounded like the formula for another 'misery memoir', but Mark Haddon's best-seller was a great deal more than that, and so is this stage adptation by Simon Stephens. Fifteen-year-old Christopher, who cannot bear to be touched and is incapable of telling a lie, finds a cache of letters from his mother who his dad told him was dead. Deeply hurt that his father has lied to him, Christopher sets off, with his pet rat, to find his mum. The short journey from Swindon to north-west London is a major ordeal for the boy who has never been anywhere on his own.

NT LIVE's 'Encore' screenings brings the National Theatre's brilliant staging of this ground-breaking play to cinemas around the world. It is staged 'in the round' on a bare set with brilliant underfloor lighting effects which really come into their own in Act Two when Christopher sets out for London. Luke Treadaway, although almost twice the age of the boy he's playing, gives a disturbingly believable performance as the deeply disturbed teenager whose anarchistic rules impose a weird sort of order in the chaotic world he lives in. Nicola Walker (familiar to TV viewers from Last Tango in Halifax) and Paul Ritter (a supporting actor in the Bond-flick Quantum of Solace) are also touchingly convincing as his hard-pressed parents.

Beautifully written, thrillingly staged and brilliantly acted, this is a play with catching up with if it comes to a cinema near you. The stage version re-opens in London this month and on Broadway in September. And a UK tour starts in December. I'm moving Mark Haddon's book from my Should-Have-Read list to my Must-Read shelf.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Wot I'm reading: the only gay in the village

A Boy's Own Story

First published in 1983, the opening volume of Edmund White's three-part autobiographical novel sequence made its way onto my re-reading list after an article in Polari, the gay online magazine.  This novel in the form of a memoir deals with the 1950s boyhood of his unnamed protagonist, watching his parent' marriage dissolve, moving from the country to the city with his mother and sister, beginning to discover a love of books and realizing that he is gay. The narrator is a hopeless romantic: after some experimental sex with a fellow teenager "I'd already imagined him as a sort of husband." And yet whilst still in his teens he buys his first hustler.

Flashbacks to his childhood give his early years some of the magic of (oh dear) a fairy-tale. A beautifully written chapter about summer camp morphs delectably from the pastoral to the erotic. There's a pleasing humour in his effort to impress a glamorous jock at high school: Tommy wants help in a debate on Sartre's philosophy but our hero is privately contemplating more mundane issues - 'How low should I let my jeans ride?' The book's long final chapter, in a boarding school, introduces a few more interesting characters, including a priggish priest and a disturbed, disturbing boy who thinks and dresses like a Nazi. In the last few pages this rambling character study springs some surprises of the kind associated with a more conventionally plotted novel; I would have preferred the whole book to have this degree of structure.

White's theme is, essentially, the experience of growing up 'different' in a world where everyone else is fitting in, but he clearly set out to craft a literary masterpiece, a book about tormented youth that would out-Salinger Salinger. Noticeably under the influence of several French writers (Gide, Cocteau, Genet - even Proust), White writes a rich florid prose that is often glorious to read but occasionally hard to digest. 'I was living in shadow between two radiances, the mythic past and the mythic future'; is a sentence like that meant to be satirical, or is it merely pretentious? Tough call. There are scenes that go on too long, and scenes, like the one in a brothel, that aren't long enough. The best scenes are those with touches of humour and the moments when his hero has an Everyman obstacle to surmount that echoes the times when the average 'middle-brow' gay reader may have felt that he was the only gay in the village.

After the 'break-through' gay novels of the 1960s - The City and the Pillar, City of Night, Last Exit to Brooklyn - A Boy's Own Story belongs to a different canon. Despite a handful of not-too-coy, not-too-lurid sex-scenes White's book has a lot more style than substance. Can a book be too literary? If the author was trying to be America's answer to Genet and Gide, he certainly landed on target with A Boy's Own Story. A book to admire rather than one to savour and enjoy.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Wot I'm reading: Lincoln Rhyme on the move

Our favourite paraplegic investigator gets around quite a bit in his latest case. Always in his wheelchair, of course, he jets off to the Bahamas looking for clues to a sniper shot that seems to have come from an impossible distance.

'Seems to' is the clue here, since in Deaverland as in Conan Doyle-land, what's left after you've eliminated the impossible is what actually, however improbably, happened. This investigation at one point seems to be veering into Tom Clancy's hi-tech territory, but then the first of several twists brings us back into the mundane and murky world of contract killers. Lincoln and his trusty partner Amelia Sachs (increasingly arthritic, poor lass) both have narrow squeaks during this pursuit.

The sniper has a 'back-up man' whose hobby is haute cuisine but whose passion is for slicing people up. This reads like a 'trailer' for the next Rhyme case, The Skin Collector, a long-awaited sequel to the heart-stopping case that first introduced us to the wheelchair-bound 'criminalist', The Bone Collector.

Bring it on, Jeffrey! The crippled ex-cop and his creator are very much at the top of their game. CSI-type thrillers don't get any better than this.