Wednesday, 25 November 2015

David at the movies: Still the Sundance Kid!


Robert Redford turns in a beguiling performance as travel-writer Bill Bryson, who in middle age (Redford has to play him a lot older) decides to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with his old buddy Katz (Nick Nolte), a reformed alcoholic and unreformed womaniser, They have all the gear they need, but neither of them is in the best shape for a 2,200 mile trek.

Bryson always highlighted the comic moments in his adventures and so does the movie. The two men encounter a few few hairy moments and a few weird people (notably a non-stop talkative hiker played by Kristen Schaal). There's a scene on a ledge above a river that inevitably calls to mind a key moment from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although most of the time we are reminded more of Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau in Grumpy mode. Nolte, looking more like Bryson than Redford does, plays in overdrive, much like Gene Hackman in his later movies. Redford, who looks as if he belongs on Mount Rushmore, is still as charismatic as he was in his Sundance days, and he does laid-back comedy as well here as he did 48 years ago in Barefoot in the Park. Like Paul Newman, he will always be a full-on star.

Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen offer pleasing cameos as Mrs Bryson and a motel owner. This film has a huge feel-good factor.


At the bottom of the poster it says: 'This is a mostly true story.' Nicholas Hytner directs a 'revisionist' take on Miss Shepherd, the tramp-like old biddy who parked her van in Alan Bennett's front drive for a few weeks that turned into 15 years. The movie version fleshes out her story with glimpses of her past (a convent, a piano recital, a family feud, a fatal accident) which the narrator (one of the two Alan Bennetts played by Alex Jennings) tells us he only found out after she died. 

A woman in front of me whispered to her companion, who wondered why Alan Bennett had a twin, that he actually had a split personality. That's not a bad explanation for the device of the householder Alan who puts up with Miss Shepherd (and clears her mess from his drive) and the writer Alan who doesn't think there's a story in this. I'm not sure that the double-act is entirely effective or necessary: a voice-over from the real Alan would have worked just as well, wouldn't it? 

Despite the attempts to give the Lady a life before the Van, the screenplay is more revealing about the playwright, the reluctant Samaritan who is also having to deal with his northern mother's journey down the road to dementia. There are even a few references to the fact that Mr Bennett's sexuality was being questioned for many years before he finally outed himself.

The movie has more pace than the book and the play did. Maggie Smith is of course simply magnificent, fully absorbed into the grimy skin of this unlovable old harridan. Her performance is pitched midway between the Duchess of Downton and Muriel from the Marigold Hotel, although the character preposterously blends Hyacinth Bucket with Victor Meldrew. The 'History Boys', who largely owe their careers to Mr Bennett, pop up in a series of cameos, along with Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell-Moore from the same play. Jim Broadbent's scrounger is the least convincing presence and is perhaps mostly untrue.

This looks like being another highly competitive year for Oscars and BAFTAs, but Dame Maggie is certain to be a contender and could well be a winner. The Lady in the Van is not pitch-perfect in the way that The History Boys was (and the first - best - Marigold Hotel), but it is another master-class exemplar of British writing, acting and film-making.


Well, he was a pretty weird film-maker, so it's fitting that this movie version of his last 24 hours should be packed with weirdness. Willem Dafoe is the only non-Italian in the cast: his scenes are mostly played in English, with just a few Italian phrases (and an interview in French) to remind us we're watching a Continental movie. 

And very Continental it is. The night before his murder we see Pasolini on his knees in front of a series of punk suburban toughs in a scene as close to hardcore as anything in his movies. The following day comprises a series of meals and meetings (with his mother, friends, movie people, his rent-boy nemesis): all slow-paced and stylised with echoes of Theorem, Pasolini's own contribution to the cinema of the New Wave. He's writing a book and visualises it in cinematic terms: it combines a vision of the Second Coming of the Messiah with a return to orgy-rich Sodom (does the pun on 'second coming' work in Italian?). And the day ends with his fateful encounter with the rent-boy and the tougher punks who will write 'Finis' to the Pasolini story. Writer/director Abel Ferrara does not venture into Oliver Stone territory to explore the conspiracy theories which sprang up immediately after Pasolini's death in 1975.

The real Pier Paolo Pasolini
So, this is film-making at its weirdest, turgid and pretentious to a rare degree, as were most of Pasolini's pictures. But this one is beautifully shot, and Dafoe gives an immersive performance (and bears a striking resemblance to the man he is playing). One maverick director's epitaph for another.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: how to start a gay revolution: quietly!


I must begin by admitting an interest. Amiable Warriors is published by Paradise Press, who also published my Bexhill Missile Crisis; Peter Scott-Presland and I meet at Paradise events and at London's Gay Authors Workshops.

This big fat book (500 pages, plus 100 pages of notes and index) is only the first third of a history of CHE, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, a grassroots organisation that started in 1964 and grew to have over 5,000 members and 150 local groups. Unlike the more flamboyant Gay Liberation Front, who organised demonstrations and sit-ins and some provocative spectaculars, CHE concentrated their efforts at the 'parish' level: meetings in towns where few if any gay men and women had come out; writing letters to local and regional papers as well as to the national media and MPs.

We all know about Oscar Wilde. Some of us remember the Lord Montagu case (1953) and indecency charges over the years against John Gielgud and Rupert Croft-Cooke, among many others. Amiable Warriors also is full of 'smaller' scandals and arrests, many of which ended in imprisonment, even suicide. Peter Wildeblood, charged (and jailed) at the same time as Lord Montagu, wrote a landmark book, Against the Law: "I would be the first homosexual to tell what it felt like to be an exile in one's own country."

Attempts to implement the Wolfenden Committee's recommendation (in 1957) that homosexual acts be decriminalised were met by vehement opposition from the majority of MPs and churchmen: "a Buggers' Charter", they called it. The activists from CHE and other groups who faced down this prejudice were bold and brave, coming out at a time when coming out could unleash hate-mail and even excrement through your letterbox. A handful of MPs and a few peers (mostly heterosexuals in both cases) took up the cause, and finally, in 1967, the law was changed. Gay sex was now legal - for men over 21 and only in private homes: not in hotel rooms, public conveniences, houses in multiple occupation or the armed services (or where more than two people were involved).

But a change in the law did not guarantee the end of hostilities. The battle went on. At the national level, to lower the age of consent and blur the edges of the other restrictions. At the local level, there were battles against homophobic local councils and churches to licence venues where gay men could socialize, support each other and (shock, horror) even dance! Especially in the North CHE activists fought long and hard to foster toleration of the gay community. Their opponents, newspaper proprietors as well as politicians and churchmen, continued to see gay lib as opening the door to degeneracy and corruption, but in reality "what homosexuals wanted and needed was lifetime partnerships, and the purpose of law reform was to make these more possible." This, after almost fifty years, we finally now have.

Exhaustively researched, Amiable Warriors offers an encyclopaedic overview of CHE, its roots and its branches. Many branches got bogged down in arguments about rules and procedures - the bane of trade unions and even the Women's Institute! Potted biographies of key players in the history of CHE give Scott-Presland's book an almost Dickensian flavour. Paul O'Grady (who also writes an introduction) and Brian Sewell are part of this history; Mr Sewell was as acerbic a branch chairman as he was an art critic!

Watching celebrity gays like Graham Norton and Alan Carr and a few bold sportsmen in the public arena today, it's easy to forget what a long hard road it has been for homosexuals from being prosecuted and pilloried to acceptance and even admiration. At the age of 19 I left my Sussex hometown (population then over 5,000), still thinking I was "the only gay in the village", clearly a statistical improbability. Now, at the over-ripe age of 73, I am able to look forward to lurching down the aisle next year with the beloved companion of my last five years (after his divorce comes through).

But we must not forget that even in this country there are still men - and especially schoolchildren - who are too insecure to come out and be confronted by ostracism and bullying. And there are many countries where homosexuals face persecution up to and including public execution.

Glad to be gay? Yes and no.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: Harry Bosch warms up a cold case

Michael Connelly: THE BURNING ROOM

The victim of a Los Angeles shooting dies nine years after a seemingly random bullet put him in a wheelchair. The bullet recovered from his body re-opens an unsolved case which is given to LAPD's finest investigator, Detective Harry Bosch, and his rookie new partner, a Latina known as 'Lucky Lucy'. They quickly find a link to two other cold cases, a bank robbery and an arson attack that killed five children and their play-school supervisor. The trail leads Lucy and Harry to some surprising locations, including the office of a former mayor and a convent in Mexico.

With thirty-plus titles to his credit Michael Connelly continues to serve up books that are tightly plotted and perfectly paced. He writes dialogue that reads like real people talking, not like people feeding the reader facts and stats. Harry, who lives with his teenage daughter, is now only a year from enforced retirement; listening to jazz one night, he nurses the hope that "there was still a chance for him, that he could still find whatever it was he was looking for, no matter how short his time was."

I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that his time is far from short, that Mr Connelly can find a way to extend Bosch's service to the city and to his worldwide readership. Both the author and his creation are still at the top of their game.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

David at the movies: James Bond meets a new (or not so new?) nemesis


Well, after the long wait - and all the hype - here it is, the new Bond picture. Does it live up to the hype? Yes - and no.

Bond is on a personal mission against 'Mr White' (Tarantino-esque?), one of the villains from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Mr White puts 007 on the trail of Herr Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the head of SPECTRE, the power behind Quantum who has a new plan for world domination in the age of information technology. Like Quantum, there's also a new power behind MI6: the technocratic C (Andrew Scott) casting a shadow over Cold-War-throwback M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q and Moneypenny. 

Our hero, still carrying a torch for the treacherous Vesper Lynd (Casino), finds a new distraction in Madeleine (Lea Seydoux, whose age has excited more interest than seems either necessary or gentlemanly). Of course, as the 'formula' requires, they team up both in and out of bed.

The stunts - more formula - are what gives the movie its momentum and they seem not to rely too much on CGI. The plot, broadly a sequel to Daniel Craig's three previous outings, provides Bond with a series of brief violent encounters with Oberhauser much as he had in the past with Silva and Le Chiffre and other Bonds with Hugo Drax, Mr Big and everybody else all the way back to Dr No. There's a strong feeling of old motifs being recycled here, with scenes that provide echoes from the Roger Moore era and even George Lazenby's. Herr Oberhauser, whose big (but widely predicted) 'reveal' we must not spoil, has a henchman who seems to have been cloned (scary biology at work!) from Oddjob and Jaws. The desert climax is a bit too reminiscent of Quantum,  and the London 'epilogue', exciting as it may be, is also a re-tread. Where Casino really did seem to breathe new life - and the spirit of Jason Bourne - into the franchise, Spectre and Skyfall have shown Sam Mendes taking on board the 'realpolitik' reach of television's Spooks, with Craig's 007 falling - almost believably - somewhere between the superhero and the street-corner spy.

Spectre is far from fresh, but it's fun and will inevitably to keep the fans (I am one) on tenterhooks to see whether Mister Bond - and Herr let's-call-him Oberhauser - will be back on our screens in about 2018 - and who will be playing them.


Scripted by Abi Morgan, who gave us The Iron Lady four years ago, this is a finely judged snapshot of a key year (1912-13) in the decades-long battle for women to get the vote in England. Meryl Streep has brief but commanding appearances as cranky old Mrs Pankhurst, imperiously redirecting her campaign from the ruling class to the working class. The key character here is the fictitious Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young laundrywoman and mother who is drawn into the new campaign of 'civil disobedience', which will soon include blowing up post boxes and cutting telegraph wires. 

Of the male characters, only Helena Bonham Carter's husband (Finbar Lynch) is sympathetic to the Cause. Brendan Gleeson's police inspector is well-served by the writer: central to the brutally repressive treatment of the Suffragettes, he is allowed a moment of doubt towards the end. Ben Whishaw seems uncomfortable in the challenging role of Maud's husband, totally intolerant her involvement with the Movement.

This is, in the fullest possible sense, a Women's Picture, written and directed (Sarah Gavron) by women, and it is the women who make it work and make it pull at your heartstrings. Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai give telling performances. Carey Mulligan, who somehow didn't seem to get the period right in the remake of Far From the Madding Crowd, is at her absolute best here, utterly convincing as an oppressed working mother reluctantly drawn into the campaign to give women fairer pay and a voice in the governance of the realm. 

The Dickensian factory-sized laundry (a museum piece or a reconstruction?) is magnificently awful, and the teeming crowd scenes outside Parliament and at the fateful Epsom Derby suggest the production must have had a good budget (or some crafty CGI). There are moments of humour in the grim struggle, but this movie brings to life vividly and touchingly the high price paid by some women to obtain the right to vote for all women.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: more tales from the Raj


Umi Sinha lives not far from me on the South coast, although we have never met. Her debut novel is a 320-page saga of three generations of English colonials from the 1850s to the 1920s. I was frequently reminded of The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, those two mighty epics of Empire. 

The story begins with an act of awful violence and then diverges into three interlocking segments, two before and one after the tragedy, showing how it came about and what are the consequences. The author offers (echoes of Bram Stoker!) a mixture of confession, letters and journals, with three narrators: Henry, the lovelorn civil servant at the centre of the tragedy; Cecily, his mother who came to India 60 years earlier to make her own unhappy marriage; and Lila, Henry's daughter, who is sent to England to live with her great-aunt and falls in love with an expatriate Pathan.

The book gets off to a slow start as Cecily and Henry describe their journeys to new lives in India and Lila settles sullenly into Sussex life with her grandmother's ill-tempered sister. This gives the reader time to get to know - and form an affection for - these three diverse characters. The pace quickens when Cecily and her family are caught up in the Mutiny of 1857 and the First World War casts a shadow over Lila and the boy she loves; Henry's life takes a dramatic turn with his first appointment as a magistrate and his fateful courtship of the beautiful but tormented Rebecca (a name that inevitably brings echoes of another woman with mental and marital 'issues').

Umi Sinha is a gifted writer. She evokes vividly India's wild beauty, its savage climate, the many injustices of colonial life, and she's equally sharp at describing the gentleness (and the suffocating genteelness) of Edwardian Sussex. Belonging is a notable addition to the chronicles of the Raj, that era which is simultaneously the zenith and the nadir of Britain's imperial history.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Wot I'm reading: James Bond - from Pussy to Jeopardy!

Anthony Horowitz: TRIGGER MORTIS

As the creator of teenage Bond clone Alex Rider, Anthony Horowitz was an obvious author from whom to commission a 007 adventure. He has delivered the goods! This is a mission Ian Fleming would surely have put his seal of approval on.

In the early chapters Horowitz uses some original material found in Fleming's papers, a story in which Bond - improbably, it must be said - is coached up to Grand Prix standard in just a few days to challenge a Russian driver who's attempting an assassination for Bond's old adversaries SMERSH.

Yes, we're back in the Cold War. Trigger Mortis (daft title) follows directly on from Goldfinger, with Bond falling out of love with Pussy Galore (hard not to picture Honor Blackman, isn't it?). Surprisingly it's only after the racetrack scenes in Germany that the story gathers momentum, as Bond encounters a new squeeze-in-waiting, Jeopardy (very daft name), and a new adversary, a Korean billionaire called Jason Sin (fairly daft!) who's planning a SPECTRE-sized outrage on behalf of SMERSH, an outrage not too different from the one masterminded by Hugo Drax in Moonraker (the book, not the ultra-daft movie).

The new adversary, it must be said, bears signs of recycling: a mixture of Fleming's Dr No and Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun. But he's a villain of suitably mega-nastiness with a creepy pack of playing cards that determines the fate of anyone who crosses him (echoes of Mr Big?): Bond draws a particularly grisly card and has his closest brush with death since Diamonds Are Forever (cinema version). The climax, which is seriously thrilling, borrows elements from the movie Speed and also features an Oddjob moment (from the film of Goldfinger).

So, yes, rather like the last few Bond pictures, this book is a mish-mash of ingredients we have seen before cooked to a new(ish) recipe. But, in its favour, the pace is cracking and this James Bond feels like the real thing. Horowitz comes closer than any of his predecessors to capturing the style of Fleming. Some authors have written a parody; Horowitz's is definitely a 'hommage'. 

Welcome home, James.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Wot I'm reading: Syria's looted billions

Daniel Silva: THE HEIST

My third Daniel Silva this year - can't get enough of him! Gabriel Allon is the best action hero since Modesty Blaise.

Called in to investigate the savage murder of a rogue art dealer in Switzerland, the Israeli super-spy thinks he could be on the trail of a Caravaggio masterpiece that disappeared (it really did) from a Sicilian church in 1969. But his enquiries soon uncover something bigger than the fate of one painting: the acquisition of a stash of stolen treasures by minions of a murderous Syrian dictator who has looted billions from his war-weary people. The Syrian dictator is not named in the text, but he has a back story that most readers will be familiar with.

The adventure starts as almost a "caper" like Topkapi or one of Peter O'Donnell's literary comic-book Modesty tales, but quickly morphs into a high-octane conspiracy thriller. The surprise ending - alas, without the dictator brought to his knees (we can only watch and hope) - is subtle and richly ironic. 

Audacity is Daniel Silva's middle name, and The Heist finds him, once again, at the very top of his game.