Wednesday, 22 April 2015

David at the movies: His Majesty's new garden

A LITTLE CHAOS


Belying its title, this is a charmingly well-ordered 'chamber-piece' movie about the creation of Louis XIV's spectacular grounds at Versailles. Landscape architect Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits - a surprise in 17th-century society - a woman to design one of the garden's water features. Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is a widow; Andre is married to a heartless slut (Helen McCrory); so we can expect something more than potting to be happening in the potting shed before the gardens are finished! There's a lovely scene when Sabine finds King Louis (Alan Rickman) alone and unwigged on a bench and mistakes him for the chief gardener. The king has also recently been widowed and decides that the untitled designer must be presented to the duchesses and princesses at court.

I worried that A Little Chaos might be like one of Peter Greenaway's movies, a triumph of style over substance, but it's got almost as much substance as an Oscar Wilde adaptation. There's no attempt to "Frenchify" the language in the style of 'Allo 'Allo: everyone speaks accentless English.
Alan Rickman as King Louis XIV,
gardening time at Versailles
Alan Rickman (who also directed) plays the king in the grand style of Lady Bracknell, and Winslet is perfectly cast as a woman of substance and quiet wisdom. Belgium's Monsieur Schoenaerts is having a busy year and although this is role is similar to the one he had in Suite Francaise he seems more comfortable in it this time. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Ehle play the top dogs/bitches in His Majesty's court and I'd like to have seen more of them both.

I've just googled a Guardian review, which called this "a load of compost". Rhubarb planting to them! Yes, it's a bit overdone and artificial (like the gardens at Versailles), but the cast are believable and lovable, and the story delivers comedy, romance and intrigue. If you liked The Duchess, you will love this. It's the film I've enjoyed most this year since The Theory of Everything.

JOHN WICK


Keanu Reeves, in the kind of role we tend to associate with yummy Jason Statham and not-so-yummy Nicholas Cage, plays a retired hitman in New York, grieving from his wife's death from cancer. When the son of a Russian mafia mobster steals his car and kills his dog, Wick goes ballistic, killing everyone in the Russian mob.

And that's it as regards motivation and plot. The entire movie is an orgy of shootings and beatings. There's even a fight scene with a hit-womanso that misogynists can get their jollies. Keanu obviously has bills - or alimony - to pay, which could explain his appearance in this piece of schlock. Willem Dafoe, presumably also in need of a boost to his pension, has an inexplicable supporting role, and Ian McShane makes an appearance so brief it can't have paid much more than Extra work.

The film is shot with pace and style, but the mayhem is endless, pointless, mindless. I normally avoid movies as bad as this; I should have avoided John Wick.


WOMAN IN GOLD


The title suggests this is going to be a "Woman's Picture" - and it is. But a high-quality woman's picture. And an uplifting true-life story.

Helen Mirren plays 80-year-old Maria Altmann, a widowed Jewish refugee living in California who persuades a penniless young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) to take on a seemingly hopeless case and sue the government of Austria for the restitution of one of their greatest treasures, Gustav Klimt's Woman In Gold, which is a portrait of Maria's aunt, stolen from her family by the Nazis in the 1930s. If you know your art history, you will know the outcome of this story, and if you don't you can probably guess.

Maria is feisty and tetchy and magnificently determined. Mirren plays her in a slight twist on her portrayal of Elizabeth II, with a piled-on Austrian accent (no jokes about the Queen's Teutonic pedigree, if you please); I found myself wondering if Meryl Streep had been approached for the role, accents being very much her thing. Reynolds does a nice turn as the nerdy but equally resolute lawyer, the kind of role Gregory Peck made his name in. 

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
(oil and gold leaf), the Woman in Gold
The movie has a sort of 'sheen' to it, which occasionally makes it seem a tad schmaltzy, and the flashbacks to the gilded glamour of pre-war Vienna are definitely over-polished. As in George Clooney's The Monuments Men, the theft of paintings is almost allowed to eclipse the true horrors of what the Nazis did to Europe's Jews. The intransigence of today's Austrian art custodians - and its legal system - provides a neatly different chill. 

The scenes I liked most were those (three of them) in which past and present are allowed to meld together. This device was briefly and subtly used in the Merchant-Ivory Heat and Dust (1983). It's less subtly employed here, but it helps to make the film memorable. Woman in Gold is a beguiling work of art and artifice, handsomely framed.

THE WATER DIVINER


Australia 1919. A year after the end of the Great War, Connor (Russell Crowe), an Australian farmer, goes to Turkey to look for the bodies of his three sons, lost in the Gallipoli campaign, fulfilling a promise to his dead wife to bring their boys home. In Turkey he has to fight officialdom from the British War Graves Commission as well as the Turkish authorities, humiliated from winning the battle for Gallipoli but losing both the war and the peace.

Connor's quest is interrupted with short but powerful flashbacks to the gruesome horrors of the battle. There's a charming if slightly awkward love-story played out between Connor and the widowed Turkish owner of an Istanbul hotel: she hates Connor on principle but her young son idolises him, and you kind of know how how this relationship will end (in fact, the climax of this particular story is perfectly handled). The quest for the lost sons has an even more predictable outcome and introduces a clumsy suspense element into the human story.

There's a lot to like about this movie. It has grand themes: Love, Loss, War and Peace. The locations are vivid, the pace is good, the performances un-showy and believable. This is a touching, almost noble story, well put together by Mr Crowe in his directorial debut But somehow there's a vital element missing: it doesn't feel tragic enough. This may be my fault, rather than Crowe's: I've never felt that Gone With the Wind works beyond the level of a magazine romance, Girl-finds/loses/finds/loses-Boy. The Water Diviner is an engrossing picture, but its epic themes have been diluted to make it a crowd-pleasing pot-boiler.

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: more M&S than S&M


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.