Wednesday, 2 September 2015

David at the movies: back to the Sixties (again)

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E


Guy Ritchie has given up on Sherlock Holmes (hard to compete with Benedict Cumberbatch's stylish modern revamp on BBCtv, perhaps) and now resurrects the 1960s James Bond rip-off (or was it a spoof?) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Superhunk Henry Cavill is the new Napoleon Solo with Armie Hammer a rather more dishy Ilya Kuryakin than David McCallum ever was. Hugh Grant, on the other hand, is a rather more stylish Mr Waverly than dear old Leo G. Carroll, although the part has been scaled down: Michael York got a better deal in the Austin Powers franchise; is Hugh's career on a downward trajectory?

The movie gets off to a slow start as the script gives a lot of exposition to establish that we are revisiting the 1960s and the Cold War. We are also treated to some back story on Solo and Kuryakin, making this feel like an 'Origins' story. The main plot, brazenly borrowed from Thunderball, is about a SPECTRE-sized gang of (mostly Italian) criminals intent on stealing a nuclear weapon to sell on to the highest bidder. The mastermind, Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), must be intended as a female Blofeld but the role is underwritten and underplayed and not different enough from the other female lead (Alicia Vikander) who seems to be working for both sides. There are confrontations and chases and even a torture scene (another borrowing from the 007 canon). The end suggests that this could be the beginning of a series, but I'm not holding my breath.

As they did with Sherlock, Ritchie and his team have gone to great lengths to get the period flavour right, but the performances, especially from the ladies, are much too modern, and the clunky screenplay somehow keeps the movie in the wrong gear. The Austin Powers series did a better job of sending up the early Bond pictures; there's not much humour here. This remake has too much the feel of a 1960s TV series. If that was the intention, then they've got it pretty well right, but in the age of Iron Man and Jason Bourne, audiences surely expect a few more bangs for their buck.

INSIDE OUT


Not the kind of film I usually go to see, but saddled (I mean "blessed") with my partner's children (5 and 7) on a rainy afternoon in Sussex, this seemed an easy option. (They call me 'Grandpa', by the way - out of respect for my age and the fact that I don't quite fit the Stepmom profile.) I think they were less dazzled by it than I was: no shoot- outs, no explosions, no witches and wizards.
Most of the voices were unfamiliar to me (including Riley's and all the Emoticons) although I recognised Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Mom and Dad, and Frank Oz in a bit-part. The voices hardly matter: what matter are the visuals and the storyline; both are cleverly conceived and cleverly executed. Maybe some of the areas inside our heads make for slightly indigestible brain-fodder for younger tots, but I was charmed and enchanted. Another superb offering from Pixar that addresses the kid inside all of us.

TRAINWRECK


This is being marketed with heavy reference to Bridesmaids, which had a few 'set-piece' scenes involving all the girls in mega mishaps on the way to the altar. The set-pieces in Trainwreck are mostly bedroom 'train-wrecks', although Amy Schumer's delivery of a funeral eulogy is a high spot and Tilda Swinton's appearances as Amy's uber-bitch boss at the magazine shift the film into a higher gear.
The movie - and Schumer's shrill in-your-face performance, melding all four of the Sex and the City girls - is like a stand-up routine with supporting cast: think Miranda, only much, much ruder and cruder. She's clearly meant to be annoying, which she surely is: I several times wanted to smack her! But she's also trying to warm your heart, which Miranda always manages to do, but Amy does not. There are a lot of laugh-out- loud moments, as there were in SATC, , but Bill Hader came over as too dorky and bland, especially after what we saw of Amy's comic array of one-night-standees. The last half-hour descends into rom-com cliché. Funny, yes, but hilarious (which Bridesmaids was) - nah.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Wot I'm reading: Cane and Abel get a Southern Gothic makeover

John Hart is a new name to me. This is his fourth thriller, and the critics have heaped praise on him. Well-deserved praise.

Michael and Julian are brothers, whose lives have taken different directions since they left the Iron House orphanage in North Carolina following the savage killing of a bully. Julian was adopted by a senator and has become the successful author of dark children's books. Michael ended up under the protection of a New York crime lord, for whom he has carried out many ruthless murders. The crime lord is now dead and Michael wants to start a new life with Elena, his new-found love. But the gangster's son wants to kill Michael and anyone close to him, including his schizophrenic brother.

They say that all the best themes can be found in the Bible. Iron House, like the famous Blood Brothers, is a variation on the story of Cane and Abel. A violent variation, but a highly original one. The senator's wife has terrible secrets of her own. There's a wild child in the woods who should belong in a fairy story but somehow suits this one. The plot goes off in unexpected directions with two distinct climaxes, separated by a hundred pages in which this crime-and-revenge thriller morphs into Southern Gothic melodrama. 

John Hart writes the kind of lean, vivid prose that is only seen in the very best thriller writers. The combination of Gothic and Greek tragedy brought to mind Thomas Harris's Hannibal, the most 'literary' book of the Lecter series. Here are two fine sentences from Iron House: "The tenement house that almost killed the man was a river's breadth away, and a lifetime apart." "Jimmy took a deep breath, and smelled all the places he could bury a man." A calibre of writing you are unlikely to read in the self-published books that increasingly dominate the thriller market today. John Hart is a writer I plan to follow. This is far and away the best novel I've read this year.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wot I'm reading: See Naples - and live

ELENA FERRANTE: Troubling Love


Elena Ferrante was written up in two articles I saw as a 'must read' author, so I ordered this. My own novel Lillian and the Italians (set in Venice, Amalfi and Provence) has been going the rounds of agents and editors - you can guess the response I'm getting (or not getting). Troubling Love is at the summit of the mountain I'm trying to climb.

Delia returns to her native Naples following her seamstress mother's sudden death from drowning in an apparent suicide. Investigating a mysterious figure from her mother's past, she also trawls her memory for clues to what might have driven her mother to such a step. The figure of her estranged, brutal father looms over both mother and daughter.

This may sound like a thriller - and I suppose it is a "psychological thriller" - but Elena Ferrante is not writing a piece of crime fiction, she's writing a highly literary novel where style is as important as substance. Delia's 'journey' is full of visions in which past and present merge discomfortingly. Her cast of weird characters is vividly sketched, and the city of Naples, teeming and yet lonely, is as powerful a presence as any of the characters.

Her translator has made a recurring error. People's apartments in high rises are referred to as "my house", "her house" etc. In Italian "casa mia" can mean 'my flat' as well as 'my house' (like "chez moi" in French, but a house on the fifth floor sounds very bizarre in English!

I haven't read any literary Italian since Moravia decades ago. I think his novels were less challenging than this. Ferrante's prose reminds me of Anita Brookner - lucid and dense at the same time - but there's an attention to detail that also evokes E.M. Forser and Virginia Woolf. Not a book for someone looking for a Montalbano-style caper, but a very worthwhile read for anyone looking for a new pure vision of the Mediterranean mindset.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Wot I'm reading: dishing the dirt on Hollywood royalty (and ex-kings)

In Chapter One of this bonk-and-tell autobiography the author gets a blowjob from Walter Pidgeon. I, naturally, fainted at this point but made a quick recovery and read on with mounting enthusiasm!

A farmboy from Illinois, Scotty Bowers headed for Los Angeles after his demob from the Marines at the end of World War Two (having seen some grim action in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima). Working the evening shift at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, he was soon running a lucrative sideline as a "call-boy" (he calls it "tricking") with well-heeled Angelinos, most of them in the movie business - both men and women (he claims to prefer straight sex). As well as turning tricks himself, he also set up many another hard-up young man (or woman) with movie people great and small. Then as now on Sunset Strip, straight guys willingly turned gay tricks for a few dollars of beer money.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant,
 a Hollywood 'Golden Couple'?
It's all yesteryear tittle-tattle, mostly set during the Fifties and Sixties. Everybody mentioned is safely dead and unable to start libel proceedings. But there is some juicy stuff here: pool-party orgies at Cole Porter's house, threesomes with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, bondage parties with John Carradine. Somehow we've always sensed that our stage and screen idols have feet of clay; Scotty Bowers wants us to know that a proportion of their off-screen time is spent wallowing in mud. Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power had particularly extreme tastes.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor,
better in bed than on the throne!
Many names here are familiar to the gay gossips: Noel Coward, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. I was only occasionally surprised by his revelations: moving on from deceased Hollywood 'royalty' to deposed royals, he says he bedded both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and fixed Edward up with call-boys and Wallis with girls; 'Eddy' was "a damn good lover" (not according to Thelma Lady Furness, one of Eddy's earlier ladyfriends); and Wally "really knew what she was doing," said one of the call-girls. Wow. At a time when pornography was illegal in the US (hard to imagine, isn't it?) he arranged a private showing of ex-King Farouk's extensive personal collection for Dr Alfred Kinsey and his fellow researchers.

Rita Hayworth, a famous beauty
and famously stingy
Not all the scandal is sexual: Rita Hayworth was too stingy to buy her out-of-work brother new tyres for his beat-up truck. And Scotty reminds us just how terrible was William Holden's decline (one of the non-gay clients) into the farther reaches of alcoholism.

Like the Collected Works of Kitty Kelley, Full Service is written (ghost-written in this case) in a gushing Louella Parsons prose style straight out of the "fanzines"; gushing enough to read at times like Barbara Cartland (who would churn in her urn at the comparison, I'm sure). I feel slightly ashamed to have wasted a few hours reading this tawdry drivel, but - oh dear - it's an undeniably compelling read. That said, I did find myself wondering how much of it is the sleazy truth and how much is money-minting fantasy.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Gay Authors Workshop had a garden party in Newhaven (Sussex, not Connecticut!) on Saturday. The weather was kind to us.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Wot I'm reading: Going, going, gone

Okay, I know I'm reading this two or three years after everybody else, but two months ago I was here reviewing a novel published in 1953 - so bear with me, people!

Luckily I'd forgotten some of the Big Twist from the movie of Gone Girl, so I still enjoyed the book's surprise reveal. It's narrated in alternate chapters by Nick Dunne, whose wife has gone missing, and by Amy, the missing wife. Nick is writing in the here and now, as he becomes the chief suspect in his wife's presumed abduction and murder. Amy's diary entries (with overtones of Carrie Bradshaw and even Bridget Jones) are a history of their marriage, from love and trust to cheating and mistrust, from falling in love to falling very heavily out of love.

Nick admits that he's lied to the police, from which we're obviously meant to assume that he might be keeping things from us. "I wasn't romantic," he admits; "I wasn't even nice." Amy comes across as the spoilt needy daughter of rich self-absorbed parents. It's hard to warm to a book when you take an instant dislike to its two main characters. In order to keep the reader guessing, plot and structure are elaborately contrived; and for me there was a bit too much contrivance, although the ending does give the story an edge which many potboilers lack.

This is, of course, a "woman's book", but here's one male reader who only gives Gone Girl four out of ten for literary quality, plus an ungrudging eight for the shock/surprise element. As in the movie, I came away with the feeling that this unlikeable pair deserved each other and the fate Gillian Flynn served up for them. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

God of Love, God of Hate?

Emily Watson as Julie Nicholson in BBCtv's A SONG FOR JENNY


A SONG FOR JENNY (BBCtv)


Television doesn't get much more harrowing than this. Life doesn't get more harrowing than this. A mother grieving for a daughter killed by terrorists in the name of their vile, vengeful faith. In the story of Jenny Nicholson, one of the 52 victims of the London bombers on July 7, 2005, irony is added to the maelstrom of emotions: her mum Julie was a Church of England vicar. Her inability to absorb the Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation (is it possible they are also Muslim virtues?) eventually caused Julie to leave the priesthood.

Emily Watson gave an almost unbearably visceral performance as Julie Nicholson, fearful that her daughter might be caught up in the bombings on her way to work, then having to wait days for dental and DNA analysis to identify the bodies of those closest to the bomber. We were spared a reconstruction of the explosion although there was a flashback to Jenny on the rush-hour train leaving Edgware Road Tube station, standing close to a seated man with a backpack on his lap. That man was Mohammed Sidique Khan, a British Asian from Leeds, at 30 the oldest of the four 7/7 bombers who between them destroyed the lives and families of 52 travellers that day.

The film chose not to investigate the motives for Khan and his fellow jihadists, whose horrific acts they - and we - are told came with the promise of a prime spot in the Muslim version of Heaven, which sounds like some ludicrous version of a Playboy Club, with 72 virgins dancing attendance on each of the holy suicide bombers.

Nicola Wren as Jenny, killed in the rush hour on 7/7/2005
There was a terrible scene in which Julie Nicholson anointed her daughter's shattered body with holy oil: holiness comes with different definitions in the world of faith and fanaticism. Did the white supremacist Dylann Roof imagine that he was somehow carrying out God's work last month when he shot nine black people during a church service in Charleston? There can be no doubting that Seifeddene Rezgui on the beach in Sousse believed, like Mohammed Sidique Khan, that he was serving the Will of Allah.

We are repeatedly told in the media - including by so-called 'moderate' mullahs - that the jihadi 'martyrs' do not reflect the true message of Islam, although those who brainwash them quote many verses from the Koran to justify acts that seem obscene and Satanic to outsiders. Medieval Christians found verses in the Bible that validated the savagery of the Inquisition, and popes promised pride of place in Heaven to those 'martyred' whilst slaughtering Jews and Muslims during the Crusades. In recent decades Christian militias have committed atrocities in Yugoslavia, in Lebanon, in Africa (to this very day in the Central African Republic).

Mohammed Sidique Khan (not an actor)
The notion, not difficult to take on board, that the God of Jesus is a God of Love whereas the God of Islam is a God of Hate, is both the truth and not the truth. Since the beginning of time evil people have used their gods to justify acts of terror and of horror. Nothing changes. Muslim fanatics bomb and murder in the name of Allah. In Asia there are Buddhist and Hindu fanatics who burn temples and kill 'unbelievers'. In the US Bible Belt bigotry and racism and homophobia are rampant. Not only in America.

It's also easy to take the view of those who call down a Curse on all Religions. And then you remember the millions eliminated in the name of godless Communism by Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot.

The third century Persian mystic Mani gave the world Manichaeism - later adopted by the Chinese, some of the Romans and medieval Christians in France - a philosophy which has the physical, material world ruled by a God of Darkness, with the God of Light only prevailing in the spiritual world. It almost makes sense.