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.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Theatre at the cinema: Life was always hard for migrants


Arthur Miller's play dates from 1955. the same year as the screen version of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo and a year after Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, the movie that made Marlon Brando a star. All three plays/scripts tackle broadly the same theme - the lives of Italian immigrants in New York.

This new National Theatre production, relayed live to cinemas around the world last night, is faithful to the original text and period, but it is staged in a bleak minimalist set that is little more than a boxing ring. Not unlike a movie, background music is strongly featured: sometimes, pleasingly, a Mass that I didn't recognize; at other times, rather less easy on the ear, a ticking metronome or a rattling air-conditioner. The performances are absolutely ace, particularly Mark Strong as Brooklyn Italian Eddie and Nicola Walker as his wife Beatrice.

Eddie has an unhealthily protective attitude to Beatrice's teenage niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) whom they have raised since her mother died. When two new (illegal) immigrants from Sicily, cousins of Eddie's, come to live with them and one falls for Catherine, Eddie's world falls apart.

Plot-wise, this is a very slight story, although it will resonate with many of today's migrants who are torn between the values of their homeland and the challenges of life in the place they have moved to. Miller's play is a sombre family drama, more like Ibsen or Stringberg, tense rather than intense, with little of the the melodrama of Kazan's movies or the sultriness of Tennessee Williams' plays; there's a hint of homosexuality which Tennessee would have made much more of, even back in the over-censored Fifties.

Nicola Walker, best known for her role
in BBCtv's long-running Spooks
Mark Strong, whom we mainly know as a movie 'heavy', is as good here as he was in TV's Our Friends in the North, the role that launched him. Nicola Walker, well known and loved by fans of Spooks, is quietly convincing in a very different role. The supporting cast, which includes hunky Emun Elliott, are all excellent, although one or two of them struggled to sound authentically Brooklyn or Sicilian.

National Theatre Live usually stage "encore" showings of these filmed productions. This is worth seeing for the masterclass performances, though I must admit that I disliked the production and, especially, the ugly set. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

David at the movies: Lose your memory, lose your identity

STILL ALICE


This is the movie for which Julianne Moore has hoovered up all of this year's acting awards. It's a tough watch, especially if you have seen - or are seeing - someone you love slide into the abyss that is Alzheimer's or dementia. My blessed mum walked this terrible road, and a friend who is as dear to me as a sister is halfway down it today.

Alice Howland is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at the age when most women start to worry about the menopause. The movie necessarily telescopes her decline from articulate college professor through absent-minded mom to zombie. Her loving husband (Alec Baldwin) has a hard time balancing her care with his own dynamic career. One of her daughters is busy with new-born twins, but her favourite daughter (Kristen Stewart), struggling to get noticed by theatre directors, is the one who grieves the most as her mother loses her memory, loses her identity.

Still Alice is clearly of a piece with Iris (Judi Dench, 2001) and Away From Her (Julie Christie, 2006) - an accidental trilogy of movies dealing with dementia. Iris was the most full-on and harrowing; Away From Her was subtle and poignant. Still Alice is short on subtlety and clumsily paced. And this is not Julianne Moore's finest performance: she should have won awards for The Hours or Far From Heaven. It's tempting to think that her Oscar this year was an award for Alzheimer's, which needs all the publicity  - and all the funding - it can get.

SUITE FRANCAISE


France 1940. German troops have occupied Paris and northern France . East of Paris, in the small farming town of Bussy, handsome young lieutenant Bruno von Falk is billeted in the grand house of snooty Madame Angellier and her unloved daughter-in-law Lucile. Bruno has a wife back in Deutschland; Lucile's husband is a POW in North Africa.

Bruno is a very proper and correct German, but he hates having to carry out some of his harsher duties, such as executing the local mayor "pour encourager les autres". Madame and Lucile deeply resent his presence, although soon enough, inevitably, Lucile's dislike turns to love. An affair in a gossipy small town is hard to conceal. Can there be a happy ending for these two?

Suite Francaise comes with a 'genesis' story, of which we are reminded in the end credits. The Jewish author died in Auschwitz, having written the first two novels of a planned quintet in notebooks which were only rediscovered in 1998 and republished in 2004. This Anne Frank back story is more poignant than the romance in the book and the movie.

Matthias Schoenaerts is very believable as the Nazi with a soft centre, and Kristin Scott Thomas is splendid as the flinty mother-in-law, although her role somewhat runs out of steam. Michelle Williams' lead performance is a bit under-powered: maybe it needed an actress of Cate Blanchett's intensity to bring the character to life. Director Saul Dibb appears to be aiming for a Thomas Hardy tragic pastorale, but the end result has more the tone of a Mills & Boon novelette. And, at my local Odeon, it was a very grainy print (unless my cataracts are worse than I thought).

I ended up feeling that I'd seen a heterosexual version of E.M. Forster's Maurice: a bitter-sweet love-story with lots of period charm but not enough guts.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY


Dear Reader, I feel the need to explain why I went to see this. I arrived ten minutes too late for a re-run of Michael Keaton's Oscar-nominated Birdman, so I quickly popped into the Gents and donned a burka before tiptoeing in to see Fifty Shades instead. Now, what was your excuse?

One must try - and inevitably fail - not to adopt a patronizing tone when reviewing Fifty Shades. The novel, whose literary merit is neither here nor there (and certainly not there) - launched a new genre of its own - Porno Lite - and so, I fear, will the movie. My personal experience of S&M is sadly minimal (no boarding-school background), but I'm pretty sure bondage involves more than a few smacks on the bum and lots of kissing, which seems to be about as far as an 18 certificate allowed the director of this (Ms Sam Taylor-Johnson) ) to go.

There's no need - is there? - to go into the plot.  It's a mildly naughty twist on Boy-Meet-Girl. Literature student Anastasia (Dakota Johnson, no relation to the director; in fact, daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) falls for dashing entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who v-e-r-y slowly introduces her to his fantasy world of domination/submission, which the virtuous - indeed, virginal (surprise)  - Anastasia is not really ready for or keen on. It's a mismatch: she wants lollipops and roses: he wants whips and handcuffs. Long before the end of the movie I wanted to give Christian a thrashing. Should I be worried by this urge?

The movie's fatal flaw is the lack of chemistry between the two leads. They are acting out an attraction they clearly do not feel. Johnson tries to play it feisty and vulnerable but comes over as a bit bland. Dornan, who was glamorous and creepy as the serial killer tracked down by Gillian Anderson in The Fall on BBCtv, is not glamorous enough here - and rather deficient in creepiness. Apart from his under-used dungeon playroom, even the furnishings in his billionaire bachelor pad (and his suits) look as if they came from the high street rather than high-end designers. The whole movie is - sorry about this - more M&S than S&M.

If there is to be a screen sequel - Fifty Shades Darker - I wonder, without much enthusiasm, if some of the contraptions briefly glimpsed in Christian's chamber of horrors will be brought into play. How far can the line between porno and mainstream be blurred? It was much more stylishly crossed in 9 1/2 Weeks.

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL



We check back into Jaipur's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel eight months, chronologically speaking, after we checked out. Not a lot has changed. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith, extending her Van Lady rather than her Downton dowager) is the glue holding the hotel - and the movie - together. Judi Dench and Bill Nighy are still not quite an item. Celia Imrie is still spreading herself - and her role - a little thin. Sonny (Dev Patel), trying to finance a second hotel, is as exuberant - too much so - as ever.

Richard Gere, who is turning into the kind of Old Charmer that Cary Grant was, provides some new glamour and finds romance in an unexpected - not to say unlikely - quarter. Everyone - even Sonny's cross-patch 'Mummy-ji' and marathon moaner Penelope Wilton, making a surprise return - is nicer than before. Niceness is somewhat overdone in this overproduced - over-egged - sequel. The first film had a pleasing undertone: the idea that these dear old duffers were finding a place to live rather than die (that said, the Tom Wilkinson character is much missed). These are, still, a lovable bunch of characters to spend  two hours with, but - like the cast of many a flagging sitcom - they are not well served by a flimsy script full of contrivances.

Second Best feels a bit second hand. Some of the performances - particularly Nighy and Ronald Pickup - are undercooked as well as underwritten. Even Dame Judi seems to be floundering: it must be hard to take such an awfully nice character to new heights or depths. Dame Maggie's valiant attempt to give the final reel a bit of gravitas is swamped by Sunny and Sunaina's fully OTT Bollywood wedding.

Less can sometimes be More, as we know. More, in the case of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is - sad to say - definitely Less.

LOVE IS STRANGE


The last time Alfred Molina was in a gay partnership on-screen, he bludgeoned his other half to death. That was in Prick Up Your Ears, the Joe Orton biopic brilliantly scripted by Alan Bennett. Love Is Strange has George (Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow) as gay New Yorkers who find themselves homeless when the Catholic school where George teaches music fires him after he and Ben get married. The diocese was okay with them being cohabiting homos, but as married homos they put themselves beyond the pale. I'd like to think that the Big Apple is less bigoted than this; apparently not. 

Anyway, the mortgage on their apartment is now unaffordable, so they have to move out. George crashes on the sofa of a pair of gay cops, Ben moves in with his nephew and his famous writer wife (Marisa Tomei), sharing bunk beds with their son Joey (Charlie Tahan), a troubled teen. Ben's presence drives Joey and his mom crazy; George doesn't fit in with the cops' booze-and-card-games lifestyle. Ben and George have been together for almost 40 years: they don't function when they're apart.

This is a very slender story about ordinary people - unless you still think gays are extraordinary.. Not much happens. There are some slow scenes, since these people live undramatic lives. But the core of the movie is the relationship between George and Ben. They are not screaming queens, just two dear old poufs who can't live without each other. Molina and Lithgow give understated performances that make the viewer really care about them. At the movie's bitter-sweet climax there is a sudden shift of viewpoint which initially seems wrong but is actually exactly right. 

Slender and slight, yes, but deeply touching.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Wot I'm reading: gay un-lib

MARY RENAULT: 

The Charioteer


My dog-eared 1959 paperback of this gay 'classic' has a startling front cover blurb: "Three men plunged into a struggle with their unnatural love." Probably not the pitch they're using in the current re-issue.

It's 1940. Laurie Odell has been repatriated with other wounded servicemen from Dunkirk. In a military hospital in the West Country he develops a crush on Andrew, a naive young conscientious objector consigned to ward orderly duties as an alternative to prison. At a louche party (men dancing with each other: quick, bring smelling salts!) Laurie is reunited with injured sailor Ralph, on whom he  had a crush at boarding school; Ralph was expelled from their school for misbehaviour that is only hinted at.

Rather a lot is only hinted at as, in the midst of war, a gay 'love-triangle' develops.There's a lot of talk and no 'action'. A single chaste kiss; a couple of sex-scenes that take place off the page (like those in Gone With the Wind and most novels of the '40s and '50s). The book's best chapter is the wedding when Laurie's mother's remarries, full of precision-honed awkwardness. Of the three men, Laurie is still firmly closeted; Ralph is 'out', at least to his friends; Andrew doesn't know enough to think of it as a closet.

Words like 'rent' and 'queen' and 'cottage' were already in use in the 1940s, although 'gay' is not used in the sense we have for it now. When Renault describes the room in which the party is taking place, the furnishings include 'various poufs', which clearly would be edited out if it was being written today.

Andre Gide is, of course, the Patron Saint of gay fiction, up there in the 'Pantheon' with Oscar and Aubrey. E.M Forster's Maurice, begun in 1913, would qualify to be the first gay novel of the modern era had Forster not lacked the cojones to publish it (it appeared in 1971, a year after his death). Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (1945) are generally hailed as breaking new ground, although the homosexual element in the two novels is less explicit than it was in the movie of Cabaret (having been left out in the stage play). Gore Vidal pioneered modern gay fiction with The City and the Pillar (1948), a more provocative book than Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (also 1948) which is exquisite but kind of precious.

The Charioteer, which first came out, so to speak, in 1953, is painfully slow, very dated and more than a little 'twee', similar in many respects to Forster's Edwardian-era  Maurice. Nevertheless (again like Maurice) it is an important and deeply felt novel about homosexual love. It was daring in its day and clearly sent out a plea for understanding and tolerance. The men in the story are living with the ever-present threat of what happened to Alan Turing: exposure, shame, arrest and the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. And let's not forget, there are many countries today where gays and lesbians live with the threat of violence and execution.

You can read up on Mary Renault (1905-83) on Wikipedia, as I just have. An English lesbian who relocated to South Africa with her lover, she is most remembered for a series of romanticized novels about the gay/bi warriors of ancient Greece. She declined to associate herself with the Gay Liberation movement, and yet her books made her one of the true 'champions' of our community in Britain and the US, We must continue to honour her memory.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Wot I'm reading: Horror epic; epic horrow

Justin Cronin: THE PASSAGE


After the 900-page spy thriller I Am Pilgrim I intended to swear off excessively long books, but a friend whose recommendations I value urged me to read The Passage, which comes in at a daunting 960 pages. From the beginning I found myself thinking that Stephen King's throne was finally in danger of being rocked. After the next 300 pages I wasn't so sure.

Two FBI agents are charged with bringing people to a secret research facility in the Colorado mountains. Some of them are Death Row prisoners who are being used as guinea pigs to test a mysterious virus with (only in the US) military implications. But the latest transportee is a six-year-old girl with a mysterious gift of her own. What happens to Amy and the FBI guys makes for a story as gripping as any of our cinema visits to the underground labyrinth in the Resident Evil series.

Then the story jumps a hundred years to a post-apocalypse world more reminiscent of The Walking Dead or the Living Dead franchise. Some survivors are holed up in a colony in the California hills outside Banning fighting off attacks by the vampire-like 'virals' who have taken over the rest of America and, presumably, the world. This is where The Passage comes unstuck. The new cast of characters are not initially as involving as Amy and her protectors and, despite the regular 'viral' incursions, the pace is leaden. Even the return of Amy, who has aged only a few years in a century, takes a while to crank up the action. But when a small group start to trek back with Any to Colorado, the book becomes a real page-turner again. The end is a bit low-key, paving the way for not one but two sequels. Not sure I've got the strength to carry on! However engrossing, some sagas are simply too long.

What starts out as a worthy rival to Stephen King's early apocalypse epic The Stand doesn't entirely live up to its promise. But on the basis of the first and last 300 pages I still think Justin Cronin might become the next King of Horror - he shares Stephen's god-given gift for bringing all his characters to living-breathing life. What he badly needs to be gifted with a really tough Editor!

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

TITLE OF THE YEAR: THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS

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.