Friday, 30 January 2015

David at the movies: actors who can't sing


I'm a big fan of Steven Sondheim but not, I must confess, of Into the Woods, so I wasn't expecting to like this. However, I enjoyed it more than the stage show. CGI - vanishing witches, the Beanstalk, the giant (giantess) - works much better than clumsy stage effects and helps to link this subversive musical to the Disneyfied Grimm Brothers' stories that it incorporates.

Meryl Streep, who as we know from Mama Mia really can sing, steals the show dramatically and musically as the wicked Witch who bargains the Baker and his Wife into stealing Jack's cow and Cinderella's slipper and other memorabilia to break the curse on her. Chris Pine is the best of the supporting cast, totally ditching his action boy image to play a Prince with a (very) roving eye. 

In the good old days, musical-wise, it was common to cast actors who couldn't sing and dub them with singers who presumably couldn't act (West Side StoryCarmen Jones, etc, etc). Now actors who can't - or shouldn't  - sing do their own singing, often with painful results. Think Piers Brosnan, think Russell Crowe. In Into the Woods James Corden is the one whose singing voice is - how can I put this? - less than a joy for the listener.

Sondheim's lyrics have never been less than brilliant (all the way back to West Side Story) and they are very clever here (occasionally a bit "clever-clogs" clever). The tunes are not the kind of thing you walk out humming (rarely the case with today's musicals - excuse me while I have a whinge). But the structure of this revisionist fairy-tale is amusingly intricate and la Streep is (when isn't she?) on fine form. A show worth popping into on a grim - Grimm! - winter's day.


Another biopic. They're coming in bunches this winter. 

Not a lot to say about Wild. It's a crowd-pleasing small-budget movie about a woman who trekked 1,000 miles across California in an effort to clear her messed-up head. Not a lot happens. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) walks over rivers and mountains and deserts. She sees some nice scenery, a wolf and some cows. She meets some nice folk (only a couple of near-nasties).

Reese Witherspoon's performance - convincing and appealing - is reminiscent of her role as Mrs Johnny Cash. For me there was a problem with Nick Hornby's script, which drip-feeds the back-story through the movie - her mother's death, her decline into drink and drugs and reckless sex. I would have preferred a more 'linear' treatment: her bad times in a single chunk, leading up to her decision to break free and try to sort herself out. 

Also, there's no transitional moment. You don't feel that she has achieved Redemption or even Catharsis, although I guess she's a bit less messed-up by the end of her "pilgrimage". The final-reel Cheryl could easily have slipped back into her bad old ways (I hope she didn't). Overall, this is no more spectacular than one of those TV travelogues about 21st-century Man (woman) out in the primeval Wilderness - and not too primeval, with trekking signs and lodges and post-offices along the way.


Bradley Cooper, bearded and beefed-up, sheds his glamour-boy image and delivers his best performance to date as real-life US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, his country's keenest sniper, who in four tours of duty in Iraq took out over 150 enemy combatants. Two of Kyle's first targets in the movie are a young boy and his mother, preparing to throw a grenade. In the moral quagmire that is modern warfare (perhaps in all wars) your enemy is not always a uniformed soldier. Both in Iraq, where his team-mates fall beside him, and at home, visiting hideously wounded and mentally scarred veterans, Kyle sees the full horror - and the true cost - of war. The movie's final moments, subtly mixing diminuendo with crescendo, powerfully underline the theme that the end of fighting is no longer the end of a war.

Men at war: this is territory that movie-makers have been visiting for decades, most recently and viscerally in Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker. At 84 Clint Eastwood has lost none of his edge; his direction here is just as tight as Kathryn Bigelow's or Ridley Scott's.

Britain's Sienna Miller is very convincing as the party girl turned home-maker who frets that Chris's devotion to his country is making him neglect his duties as a husband and father. The tension in their marriage is finely balanced against the tension on the rooftops of Baghdad and Fallujah. There's not a lot that's new in American Sniper, but it's two-and-a-half hours that remind us that in all wars there are ultimately no winners.


Once in a long while a film comes along in which every element is just perfect; you wouldn't want to change a single frame. Some Like It Hot is an obvious example. Or Fried Green Tomatoes or L.A. Confidential. There are others, but not too many. Here's a new one. The Theory of Everything is a finely tuned study not only of the physical disintegration of one of the modern era's greatest scientists but also of the gentle disintegration of his perfect marriage.

Eddie Redmayne is already winning awards. He ought to scoop the lot. The gawky kid who charmed us in My Week With Marilyn is now the geeky cosmologist who wins the heart of a girl at college, enjoys a happy life with her and their children and conquers the scientific world with his theories about the birth of the universe even as Motor Neurone Disease takes away his mobility and his speech, but not - against all the odds - his dignity or his humour.

Stephen Hawking is a scene-hogging role like Dustin Hoffman's in Rain Man, but Felicity Jones manages to steal some of his limelight much as Tom Cruise managed to steal from Dustin. Her Jane Hawking is believably impossibly perfect - the wife who lovingly supports her increasingly frail partner and then with exquisite discomfort falls in love with somebody else. There are no scenes of violence or vitriol: Stephen and Jane's love survives the collapse of their marriage. The supporting actors in this quiet drama are not big names, which lends their performances added conviction. 

A more poignant story would be hard to imagine: triumph and tragedy delicately brought to life. There is no air of contrivance in this movie. Poignant and flawless.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Wot I'm reading: The prime minister's squeeze

Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon is on loan to the British Prime Minister to discreetly hndle negotiations with the mystery man who has kidnapped a parliamentary assistant on holiday in Corsica. The kidnapper knows - and has a video to prove it - that Madeline Hart is the PM's mistress. A career, as well as a life, is being ransomed for ten million euros.

Daniel Silva's spy stories always have a cracking pace. This one moves from Tel Aviv to Corsica and Provence, with several visits to Downing Street. The  fictitious prime minister doesn't particularly resemble any recent resident of Number Ten, although his Machiavellian chief-of-staff, fond of junketing on Russian oligarchs' yachts, has a faintly familiar ring.

After the dramatic resolution of the ransom handover, Gabriel sets out to hunt down the mysterious kidnapper, helped only by an ex-SAS soldier whose retirement consists of doing dirty work for an ancient Corsican Mafia Don. The second half of the book moves more slowly and reads like a John Le Carre, with diplomatic manoeuvres and covert intelligence operations being employed to locate the man behind the kidnapping. Allon meets an old ally from the East and also an old enemy. The final game-play involves a pleasing if somewhat implausible "sting". And the ending produces a nice surprise.

Gabriel's previous missions have involved tracking down Bin Laden-league Arabic terrorists. The English Girl has a slightly low-key feel to it, and I'm probably not the only reader to wonder why Facial Recognition software was not used to identify the kidnapper much earlier. Stylistically speaking Daniel Silva is arguably the best thriller writer since Peter O'Donnell (creator of Modesty Blaise), who I always thought was at least one notch above Ian Fleming. With vividly evoked locations and colourful characters - a Gabriel Allon thriller always delivers the goods.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


My Sussex writer group - Southeast Authors - voted THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS the best title of the year. Wow. Now if only people would buy the f##‪#‎ing‬ book!

David Gee and Paradise Press poet Jeffrey Doorn reading at the ODL (Opening Doors London) Christmas Party in Tavistock Square. ODL provides support and social activities for the older members of  the LGBT community.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Wot I'm reading: When Irish eyes are smiling

Colm Toibin: BROOKLYN

This award-winning novel from an acclaimed Irish author comes with an array of  plaudits from the critics. Several made it their Book of the Year in 2009 (yes, I'm a bit behind the times - again!). Set in the 1950s, it's the story of an Irish girl who emigrates to New York in search of work. Eilis is not especially gifted or beautiful or naughty. A Brooklyn priest finds her a job in a department store and a room in a lodging house run by a tyrannical landlady. Eilis goes to church, to night school and to dances. She meets a nice handsome Italian boy who courts her very properly; he introduces her to his family and to the mysteries of baseball. When a death in the family calls her back to Ireland, Eilis is torn between the attractions of her new life and the insistent loyalties of her homeland.

This is not a book packed with action and incident. As a tale of a working-class girl trying to make a life for herself, it's close to Catharine Cookson territory, although coming from the eminent Mr Toibin it has attached literary aspirations. It's not too literary, not as dense as James Joyce or as lyrical as Edna O'Brien. It's probably in the same general area as, say, Ian McEwan: lucid unpretentious prose featuring characters to whom no more than one or two out-of-the-ordinary things happen. A complication enters Eilis's life in the final chapters which lead to the kind of ending which leaves you wishing there was more to her story (too many novels leave me wishing there was less!). I finally understood why Brooklyn was so highly praised. Eilis Lacey really gets under your skin; I shall be writing the continuation of her life in my head for quite some time.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wot I'm reading: Big thriller, medium-sized thrills

Terry Hayes: I AM PILGRIM

At almost 900 pages this book redefines the blockbuster thriller. 'Pilgrim' is the codename for a mysterious agent, formerly employed by an ultra-secret government hit squad, now working as a freelance. The grisly murder of a young woman in New York sets him down a trail of hideous crimes across the world linked to a new Saudi terrorist known as the Saracen.

The back-story to the Saracen takes up much of the book's first 300 pages. His father was publicly executed by the Saudi regime, although it is on America that the son's thirst for vengeance soon focuses. He witnesses - and causes - atrocities in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. His travels also take him to Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and, eventually, Europe. He plans an outrage that - more even than 9/11 - will show America the full extent of Islamic terror.

Luckily for us, one tiny piece of evidence sets US Intelligence - and Pilgrim - in pursuit.

This kind of thriller - lone-wolf operative versus fiendish terrorist or terror group - is the stuff of thrillers good and not-so-good.  Dan Brown is clearly the Main Man of recent times although, for my money, Frederick Forsyth is the greatest exponent of this type of story with The Fourth Protocol probably his most audacious plot. I Am Pilgrim is good, even very good, but the sheer length of the book makes this an ultimately exhausting read. Shorten it and it might have been one of the all-time greats. The Saracen is up there with the great villains of fiction (Hannibal Lector, the Jackal, Blofeld) - charismaticplausible, almost pleasingly evil. The Arabian and Afghan scenes are total page-turners, but the first segment set in Bodrum, although not actually boring, does see the pace slowing. Bodrum is a down-market location, Turkey's answer to Margate or Benidorm, but Hayes takes some liberties with the topography to make it appear spooky rather than tacky.. There's a daft boat-dock scene that belongs in a Bond movie from the Roger Moore era and the climax, in Bodrum's Roman ruins, is also disappointingly ludicrous.

The writing is unpretentious and fluid with some choice phrasing here and there. UN HQ beside Lake Geneva is "brilliantly floodlit, totally useless." Terry Hayes could prove to be the heir to Robert Ludlum's throne (Freddie Forsyth's is safe, and Dan Brown has gone off the boil). Ludlum had some great plots but many of his books also suffered from over-writing and loss of pace.

Hayes may well be happy to be seen as the next Ludlum, but I think he could set his sights even higher.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: (slightly) Gay Paree in the 1950s

JAMES BALDWIN: Giovanni's Room

In the beginning was the word, and the word came from Gore Vidal: The City and the Pillar (1948). In 1953 the word came from Mary Renault: The Charioteer. Then in 1956 came Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, recently given a new edition in the UK and the USA. These three are the 'pivotal' gay novels of the mid-20th-century, and I've now re-read two of them, with Mary Renault still to be revisited.

David, a blond all-American WASP with a mainly heterosexual past, falls in love with a gorgeous Italian barman. Their affair is brief and intense, doomed by David's inability to commit to a homosexual relationship. We know from the beginning that Giovanni is facing the guillotine but we don't know until nearer the end what crime he has been driven to and how much responsibility David bears for driving him to it.

This, because of its time, is a very 'respectable' read with no explicit sex scenes, but it resonates with a powerful emotional intensity. Visibly influenced by the great French writers - Proust, Gide, Genet - the writing is always elegant and occasionally a bit precious: "I felt myself flow towards him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up." In the last chapter, as the story moves from gay romance into melodrama, there are even a few faint echoes of Hemingway.

1950s Paris - "this old whore", Giovanni calls the city - is vividly evoked: her riverside promenades, her louche bars, her Bohemian artists, her sensation-seeking visitors. Beyond his major works which played a key role in the civil rights movement, Baldwin made a significant contribution to the 'canon' of expatriate life and gay fiction. Giovanni's Room may seem dated to the modern reader, but it remains a major milestone in the history of gay liberation.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: The Lincoln Lawyer drives on

Michael Connelly: The Gods of Guilt

This is the Lincoln Lawyer's fifth outing. A callgirl is brutally murdered in LA. In today's digital world Gloria had an online pimp who is charged with killing her and asks Mickey Haller to defend him. Eight years ago Haller represented Gloria on a drugs bust that led to a key cartel figure being put away for life. Now it seems the ramifications of that case are connected with Gloria's killing.

Haller's investigations are more legal than procedural, so these books have more talk and a bit less pace than the ones featuring Detective Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's first and foremost creation. The Gods of Guilt has almost as many lawyer meetings and courtroom scenes as a John Grisham, but Connelly's trademark is the sudden moment of violence and the surprise piece of testimony that cracks a case. The trial scenes in The Gods of Guilt are as tense as those in TV's LA Law (fondly remembered!); perhaps it's time the Lincoln Lawyer took to the small screen?