Thursday, 12 July 2018

David at the Movies:A girl called Tom

LEAVE NO TRACE


A plot summary of this movie would put most filmgoers off. A traum-atised US veteran and his daughter are living ‘off the grid’ in a forest in Oregon. Social services catch up with them and house them in a suburban com-munity. The girl begins to enjoy a more ‘normal’ life but her dad insists on returning to the wilderness until an accident forces them to stay in a trailer park and come to a decision about their future.

This slight story is given huge substance by the intense performances of Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. There’s a lot the viewer has to guess at. We can see Dad is deeply disturbed but we’re only given brief nightmare glimpses of military chaos in whatever godforsaken war zone he served in. We learn that Mom’s favourite colour was yellow but we’re not told how or why she left them. Why is the daughter called Tom – surely not because the actress is called Thomasin?

Thomasin McKenzie: a girl called Tom
McKenzie’s Tom is heart-wrenchingly believable; you care deeply about where this girl’s life is headed. The role and the story carry strong echoes of Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘break-through’ picture Winter’s Bone (2010) from the same writer/
director team, Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik. Where other films have masses of action and crude dialogue, Leave No Trace has slow moments and silent faces which convey hope and heartbreak. This is a movie that sets out to touch your soul and, boy, how it does.


OCEAN'S 8


Oh dear. I wanted to like this – a heist movie for the #MeToo sisterhood. It's barely more than so-so, not as entertaining as the George Clooney remake of Ocean’s 11, but – mercifully – not as dire as Ocean’s 12 (I can’t recall 13 – was it good or awful? So-so?).

Danny Ocean is dead and buried (in one of those multistorey catacombs): his sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) visits his grave at the beginning of the movie. Debbie has just come out of a five-year jail sentence for an insurance scam. She comes up with a plan to steal a zillion-dollar diamond necklace at a charity gala at the New York Met and recruits some other girls to help her, including best friend Cate Blanchett, loopy fashion designer Helena Bonham Carter (conspicuously ‘channelling’ Vivienne Westwood) and (wow) Rihanna.

Although written and directed by a man (Gary Ross), this is very much a ladies-only excursion. Girls rule the caper; men are there to be turned into mincemeat. The actual heist scene is stylishly (and expensively) staged, but getting there takes a bit too long. As in the Clooney trilogy, there’s an implausible (and not very original) twist in the tale. The cast seem to be having fun, but the audience was not. The script needed a lot more Sex and the City-style zingy one-liners.

Is this the launch of trilogy? Oceans 9 and 10? And then we’ll find out Danny isn’t really dead: Ocean’s 14. Oh dear.


HEREDITARY



Hereditary is a ghost story from the school of Insidious. An affluent family in a forested town in Utah experience spooky goings-on when a grisly accent kills their young daughter only weeks after they buried their beloved grandmother. The high-school-age son (Alex Woolff) goes rapidly to pieces, as does his mother, played by Toni Collette who makes her the most formidable character in horror movies since Kathy Bates in Misery. Dad (Gabriel Byrne) tries vainly to hold the family together.

The key character in the story is a neighbour, Joan, also bereaved, who dabbles in Ouija-board-style spiritualism. Joan is played by Ann Dowd, whom we know (and fear) as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. Like Aunt Lydia, Joan seems to mean well but we are obviously supposed to wonder about her true intent.

The casting of Dowd and Collette lifts this movie above the routine. Writer/director Ari Aster tries to give it the kind of epic ‘grandeur’ Stanley Kubrick brought to The Shining (a much over-rated film, in my opinion: it did not do justice to one of Stephen King’s finest novels). Hereditary also has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and that hoary old Hammer horror, The Devil Rides Out. The ending is totally daft, and really there is very little that’s new here, but you get a few nice jumpy moments along the way, and Toni Collette and Ann Dowd work very hard to elevate this story into the Gothic ‘pantheon’.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Wot I'm reading: The Spy who went back to the Cold

JOHN LE CARRE: A Legacy of Spies


Crafty John Le Carré: after 55 years he produces a sequel to the book that made his name. Peter Guillam, one of George Smiley’s dogsbodies, long retired to Brittany, is summoned back to London to face an enquiry into the operation that ended at the Berlin Wall with the death of Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). Leamas’s son Christoph and the daughter of Leamas’s mistress Liz Gold are demanding ‘reparations’ for the death of their parents in a mishandled Cold War mission.

The story is narrated by Guillam, who recalls his work with Smiley and ‘Control’ (Le Carré’s version of James Bond’s ‘M’) and re-reads stashed files from the 1960s. His interrogators at MI6 still talk in that stilted, slightly camp way we are familiar with from the plays of Alan Bennett. This is also a sequel to Smiley’s People (1980), with the return, if only in memory, of ‘Circus’ friends and a few old enemies from those Glory Days. Bill Haydon (Le Carré’s version of Kim Philby) is talked about. The ‘spectre at the feast’ is George Smiley, who became a father figure to Guillam. Along with Peter we are kept guessing for much of the book as to whether ‘owlish’ George is still alive.

Alec Guinness as BBCTV's George Smiley
Recreating old service files is like rummaging through a dusty attic, except that these are matters of life and death – and treachery. When Guillam briefly meets the son of agent ‘Tulip’, whose defection from East Germany’s notorious Stasi he and Alec Leamas masterminded, Le Carré reminds us that the bleakness of Cold War lives on in the children of that era, children who are now old and still bitter.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are two of the greatest espionage novels ever written. A Legacy of Spies is not quite as sublime as those two – I found the switching between past and present tense an irritant - but John Le Carré at his ‘nearly best’ is streets ahead of almost every other thriller writer. Smiley is a lot like the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu: at the end I was wondering if this is the last the world will hear of him.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

David at the movies: An Oscar for this Wilde movie?


THE HAPPY PRINCE


Rupert Everett spent ten years getting the finance for this biopic of Oscar Wilde’s last years, which he has scripted and directed as well as reprising his stage role as the ‘martyred’ Victorian playwright. The result is a triumph of writing, direction and performance. There have been three excellent previous screen versions of Wilde’s fall from grace, but The Happy Prince outshines them all.

Pre- and post-Fall are interwoven. Oscar tells ‘The Happy Prince’, his dark (Grimm) fairy story, to his children in flashbacks from Paris, where he also tells it to a couple of street kids who have become the children of his exile although the older brother is also his rent-boy. Bloated and dishevelled, the old Oscar still has the appetites which sent him to prison. And he still loves Lord Alfred Douglas, who joins Oscar in a villa in Naples (with more rent-boys) in Naples for a few bickering months. Robbie Ross (Edwin Turner) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) are the last London friends who offer loyalty and handouts.

Colin Morgan as Lord Alfred Douglas
Everett’s Wilde is as poignant as Stephen Fry’s but even more pitiable as poverty and ill-health overcome him. Colin Morgan gives ‘Bosie’ his prettiest incarnation since John Fraser in 1960. Emily Watson shines in brief scenes as Oscar’s wife Constance, also forced into exile by his disgrace. Tom Wilkinson contributes a vivid cameo as the priest brought to Oscar’s hotel deathbed. The famous lines about the wallpaper and ‘dying beyond my means’ are not forgotten; and Everett has scripted a few one-liners Oscar would happily steal the credit for.

The 'real' Oscar and Bosie
The final scenes almost certainly take liberties with the facts, but they add an operatic grandeur to the 'Last Act'. Rupert Everett’s long struggle to realise this project is a splendid homage to the tragedy of the 'comeback' that was Wilde's greatest drama, his greatest tragedy. The movie deserves to be garlanded with awards: an Oscar for Oscar!


ON CHESIL BEACH


I was never a big fan of Ian McEwan’s novel, which seemed to me a bit slight. The movie version has more meat on its bones, but at its core is the same dilemma: a middle-class couple in their twenties who are ill-prepared for the  ‘consummation’ of their marriage in 1962 – five years before the "Summer of Love".

Most of the film happens on the day of the wedding. Alone in their room in a Dorset hotel, deeply in love but both sexually inexperienced, Florence and Edward (their names, like their story, belong to an earlier era than the 1960s) slowly move towards the Moment. We see their courtship in flashbacks. They met as newly graduated students. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) is a talented violinist. Edward (Billy Howle) is a nerdy historian. Her parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) are stuck-up snobs. His family are more appealing, although his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) shows bizarre behaviour following a head injury.

The ‘consummation’ which goes so clumsily wrong must surely be something which has happened to many couples in times both ancient and modern. The movie has a coda in 2007 that shows how their lives have progressed since that disastrous evening.

The performances are extraordinarily good. Saoirse Ronan gives Florence a nervous intensity that is spot-on for the character. Billy Howle has the right look and the right awkwardness. The parents, nice and awful, are all perfect. The cinematography is lovely. The music uses some appropriately ironic pop songs from the 60s. McEwan’s script expands his novel with humour as well as pathos.

For me there is still a problem with the fact that one moment of ‘sexual clumsiness’ could have such a lasting impact. That said, there was a girl I knew at university (also in 1962) who – would not thank me for publicising her hang-ups.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Wot I'm reading: Fashion and passion



LESLEY BLANCH: On the Wilder Shores of Love


Lesley Blanch, who died at the age of 103 in 2007, must be the very last of the great Bohemians. She wrote about fashion and interior design for Vogue and published books celebrating her passion for Russia and the Balkans. This new compilation has been put together by her god-daughter and includes some of Blanch’s travel writing, a retrospective memoir of her Edwardian childhood and (previously published only in French) the story of her marriage to the Russian-French soldier-diplomat and writer Romain Gary.

Her god-daughter calls her “a Sheherezade figure”. Blanch romanticises in vivid detail her girlhood in the years leading up to World War One. She had a baby by an Italian soldier, gave it up for adoption and never mentions it again. I couldn’t decide whether she was heartbroken or heartless. Her first teenage impression of Florence was that it was “forbidding”; Venice was “draughty”.

Blanch’s style, very much trapped in the era between the wars, is often as indigestibly rich as Lawrence Durrell and occasionally as suffocatingly gushing as Barabara Cartland. I was also reminded of Gore Vidal. Like Gore, Lesley must have been a fabulous guest at a dinner party: a colourful talker but not perhaps a great listener. Her writing suggests a monstrous ego at work (Vidal again!) She had a prodigious memory but what she recalls in the most vivid detail are people’s homes and “collectables”. The portrait of her marriage is disappointing: she refers to Gary’s “amorous conquests” (he was a serial adulterer) without going into details and draws a veil over her own infidelities.

I was gifted this book and would not have read it otherwise. Lesley Blanch “lived a life of high intensity on many a wilder shore” (her god-daughter’s words). There is a lot to like, even to admire, in this recollection of a peripatetic life that spanned the entire twentieth century, but its author, I suspect, was not a likeable woman.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: Life and death row

MICHAEL CONNELLY: Two Kinds of Truth


Episode Twenty in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch casebook. This author has never produced a dud and frequently, as with this one, he delivers an absolute cracker.

Harry, now in his sixties and working ‘cold cases’ for the San Fernando Police Department, is called to a ‘hot’ crime scene when Mexican father-and-son pharmacists are killed by suspected Russian hitmen. The murders are linked to a major racket involving prescription drugs and Harry takes a huge risk going undercover. This story has a life-and-death climax more worthy of an action-man movie than a semi-retired cop.

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch on Amazon Prime TV
There’s a parallel story involving a man who’s been on Death Row for 30 years, convicted on evidence found by Harry. New DNA evidence suggests that Harry and his partner must have framed the guy. How could this be? Harry’s half-brother Micky Haller (“the Lincoln Lawyer”) takes on the case which ends in a dramatic court scene that John Grisham would surely be happy to put his name to.

Crime and punishment and the scales of justice. Weighty themes which John Connolly makes as exciting as any adventure story. Another hard-to-put-down read from a master storyteller.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: Fifty Shades of Lavender

GORDON MERRICK: The Lord Won't Mind


Continuing my intermittent trawl through the ‘classics’ of gay fiction, I’ve just re-read this hideously titled novel (I’m tempted to say ‘novelette’, it’s so very gay!) from 1970, which is raunchier than most of its predecessors and must have seemed fairly ‘hardcore’ in the 70s. There is much sterner stuff out there now, making this more ‘semi-hardcore’ – a bit like Fifty Shades but minus the spanking and much better written.

Charlie Mills is in his twenties, gorgeous and talented (and seriously hung) when his grandmother introduces him to Peter, who is a bit younger, almost as gorgeous but a bit less talented and not (quite) so hung. They fall into bed and love – in that order. It’s Peter’s gay debut and he falls heavily. Charlie has been round the block before but doesn’t want to be thought of us ‘queer’, so their affair doesn't always run smoothly. But, as the songwriters would have us believe, the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up, so you sort of know where this boy-gets-boy/boy-loses-boy story is likely to end up. Charlie’s grandma is a figure out of Wilde; Hattie, the aspiring actress with whom he strays down the path of bisexuality, is cruelly presented. The New York gays who play supporting roles are surprisingly similar to today’s big-city queens.

Gordon Merrick 1916-1988
The writing sometimes evokes Henry James but more often Margaret Mitchell. There are so many endearments – ‘baby’, ‘darling’, ‘champ’ - that it feels a bit like a Gidget-era script at times. Mostly I found myself thinking of E.M.Forster’s Maurice – there’s a lot of intense dialogue about how much in love they are. Forster would probably not have written a sentence like ‘his whole body was shaken by the spasms of an enormous ejaculation’, but I could (almost) see Henry James (or do I mean E.L. James?) writing it.

I’ve only just found out that this is Part One of a 70s trilogy and have ordered the other two volumes (second-hand). The Lord Won’t Mind is turgid and occasionally terribly twee, but it’s also touching and sexy. It must have meant a lot to gay readers in 1970 even if today it reads like a risqué museum-piece.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: a town full of secrets

John Hart: REDEMPTION ROAD


The third novel of John Hart’s that I’ve read, and it’s another humdinger. The Gothic element that featured strongly in The Last Child and Iron House is less evident here, but it’s a splendidly complex thriller. An ex-cop is freed after thirteen torturous years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. A female cop who idolised him is facing charges over the killing of two kidnappers. 

Teenagers play key roles: the kidnapped girl who loves the cop who rescued her more than her parents, and the son of the woman whose murder the ex-cop took the rap for. And the town, unnamed and in an unnamed state, is full of secrets – and killings - past and present. The ending is a tad hard to swallow but it goes on for fifty nerve-jangling pages. Redemption comes at a high price.

Mr Hart writes a richer prose than your average crime novelist. “Gideon’s father wore his days like a faded suit.” “She was alone on the road, just her and the wind and the last line of bruised sky as full night descended.” Quality writing, dense plotting, deeply damaged but believable characters: Hart is in the ‘pantheon’ of thriller writers. I shall wait impatiently for his next book.