Friday, 24 March 2017

David at the movies: Wolverine and Mini-Me

LOGAN


This is Hugh Jackman’s widely announced ‘swansong’ as Wolverine/Logan, the mutant with adamantine knives in his knuckles. As the movie opens, he seems more mortal than super-hero, care-worn, drinking too much, driving a stretch limo near the Mexican border to pay for the meds desperately needed by ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). A young girl, Laura, arrives in their lives, pursued by mutant-hunters: she’s a Mini-Me version of Wolverine, possessed of similar talons and talents. Logan gets his ‘mojo’ back and he and Laura fight off the first wave of hunters. But there are more where they came from, directed by a Frankensteinian doctor (Richard E. Grant) in whose lab the girl was created, along with a Terminator version of Wolverine. The rest of the movie is chase and run, fight and run – pretty much the standard fare of the X-Men franchise. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are fairly visceral with now four sets of blades chopping up the baddies.

The world-weariness and a certain elegiac quality raise this above the mainstream of Marvel adaptations. Jackman and Stewart, two very charismatic players, give more nuanced performances than the genre normally allows. Stephen Merchant makes his mark in a cameo as a kind of super-albino. We may see more of Laura (Dafne Keen) if she takes over Logan’s role in the next X-Men instalment: will she be ‘Wolverina’? And will there be another Final Chapter to usher Magneto into the Twilight Home?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Wot I'm reading: the Internet of Deadly Things

Jeffery Deaver: THE STEEL KISS


Lincoln Rhyme’s twelfth investigation begins with his NYPD partner Amelia Sachs in pursuit of a murder suspect inside a Brooklyn store. An escalator opens up and a shopper falls to a ghastly death inside the mechanism. As Amelia and Lincoln start to help the widow get compensation from the escalator manufacturer, other ‘malfunctions’ occur around the city in fridges and cookers. A devious serial killer is hacking into the software which now appears in many domestic appliances in the age of the ‘Internet of Things’.

This is a squeamish case and one that will make you approach escalators – and even your humble microwave – with a new nervousness. All the regular ‘team’ are on this case, plus some fresh faces. Paraplegic Lincoln has an intern, also wheelchair-bound, and an old boyfriend of Amelia’s is trying to clear his name after coming out of jail. The seriously creepy killer narrates some of the story.

Jeffery Deaver never writes a dull book, but this is not his finest. An air of contrivance hangs over it and his highly original staccato style strains to sustain the reader’s interest during the long stretch between the grisly first death and the quickening of pace as the team close in on the weirdo suspect. The twist in the final ‘reveal’ has much of the ‘get-outta-here’ surprise factor at the end of an Agatha Christie. Nice one, Jeffery, but we know you can do better.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

David at the movies: Gone with the soap

VICEROY'S HOUSE


This is a slightly 'potted' version of the events of 1947 when Lord Louis Mountbatten was sent to Delhi to preside over India's transition from unruly colony to full Independence. Mountbatten and Nehru wanted a single nation of two faiths, but Whitehall - for reasons which the movie attempts to explain, briefly and simplistically - preferred the option of Partition, creating the new Muslim nation of Pakistan, with a down-sized India populated mostly by Hindus. As we know from our schooldays - and other (better) movies like Richard Attenborough's Gandhi - millions of citizens died in clashes and massacres as Muslims migrated to Pakistan and Hindus to India. This new movie chooses to show the carnage of Partition via newsreels rather than reenactments.

Gillian Anderson gives a vivid portrayal of Lady Edwina Mountbatten, terribly 'posh' but genuinely concerned for the displaced natives during the violent transition. Hugh Bonneville, still trapped in his Downtown Abbey character, is rather wooden as Lord 'Dickie' (who was probably a bit wooden too). There is no hint of the much-gossiped-about affair between Lady M and Mr Nehru and likewise no hint that his lordship may have been an acquaintance (if not quite a Friend) of Dorothy. We see enough of Nehru and Jinnah to understand what was at stake in 1947 but for some reason Gandhi is largely written out of this screenplay.

To give the movie a bit more box-office appeal there is a Mills & Boon romance between two of the staff in the Viceroy's House, a beautiful Muslim secretary and a Hindu valet (also rather lovely). This soap-opera element brings unavoidable echoes of the (enormously superior) Jewel in the Crown and a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs which was one of the many addictive pleasures of Downton.

There's not a lot that's wrong with Viceroy's House and much to enjoy: the costumes, the spectacle, the splendour that is colonial Delhi. The movie does offer a 'History-lite' version of the birth of a nation. I remind myself that this is exactly what Gone With the Wind did with the American Civil War - but (forgive me, please) I've never been a great admirer of GWTW.


KONG: Skull Island


Partly a remake, partly a ‘re-imagining’ of the grandaddy of all monster movies. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts whets our appetite by 
introducing the mighty Kong in an opening scene during World War Two. Then we go through a brisker-than-usual series of crisis-funding meetings in the 1970s before a team of explorers and a platoon of Vietnam vets fly into the ‘newly discovered’ island in the Pacific where Kong, although the last great ape, is not the only giant of this Jurassic-era World: octopuses, spiders, bugs, pterodactyls and – most daunting of all – Godzilla-like lizards abound, all of them ravenous predators. The usual primitive natives shelter behind the usual massive stockade, protected (as usual) by Kong, the benevolent King of this jungle. John C. Reilly has a jaunty role as a Robinson Crusoe survivor from WW2 living with the aboriginals.

Tom Hiddleston is somewhat miscast as the lead explorer: he’s playing against his natural middle-class type in this Indiana Jones role, but he joins in the action with gusto. Brie Larsen as a photographer gets the obligatory Fay Wray ‘Beauty and the Beast’ moment with Kong. Samuel L. Jackson borrows from Jon Voigt in Anaconda as the platoon commander from the gung-ho “kill-‘em-all” school, overplayed to the pantomime level of a Harry Potter baddie. The director frames some shots of Jackson’s furrowed brow which exactly mirror close-ups of Kong, clearly inviting the audience to ponder about Who is the Monster Here?

There are several references to Apocalypse Now and even some to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel which inspired Coppola’s 1979 movie. If this is an attempt to make this a film for adults as well as children, it works, although a well-made movie like this appeals to the kid inside all of us. The 3D is nicely old-fashioned, constantly blasting things out towards the audience. The CGI is beyond awesome: Kong and the Godzillas never for a moment look less than real.

The big question, of course is: How does it compare to Peter Jackson’s 2005 version? This one is an hour shorter and therefore a lot pacier. If it slightly lacks the epic grandeur of Jackson’s vision, it’s arguably even more entertaining. This is the most fun I’ve had a cinema for many a moon.




A CURE FOR WELLNESS



Pretentious title for a pretentious movie. Part psychological thriller, part horror flick, it falls between two stools – and falls a bit flat. Pushy young office junior Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps to bring home his company’s CEO who’s badly needed in New York. A car crash on his arrival turns Lockhart into a reluctant patient of Dr Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the clinic’s director. The other ‘guests’ seem to be happy if slightly zombified, all of them old and rich apart from teenager Hannah (Mia Goth), a protegee of Dr Volmer's with a mysterious past. Treatments include immersion in a vast water-tank teeming with giant eels. Eels feature strongly in the movie, although some of them - Spoiler alert - behave like piranhas!

The horror element is a lot less horrific than recent ghost and slasher movies have accustomed us to (the 18 certificate may be due to a nasty scene at the dentist’s) and involves borrowings from (or perhaps homage to) fondly remembered yesteryear ‘classics’ of dubious merit from Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. The chateau-style clinic has strong echoes of Castle Dracula. Hammer would have cast Peter Cushing or Donald Pleasence as Dr Volmer, although – credit where it’s due – Jason Isaacs brims with creepiness until the movie’s predictably daft climax.

The film I kept recalling was Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining which similarly substituted pretension for the knuckle-chewing scariness of Stephen King’s novel and, like A Cure For Wellness, was painfully slow and at least half an hour too long. 

Friday, 24 February 2017

David at the movies: Gay and Black - a tough call

MOONLIGHT


This is the movie which (along with Manchester by the Sea) has the best chance of blocking La La Land from garnering a record haul at the Academy Awards this weekend. I hope it does. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but it rewards giving it your attention.

The life of a young gay black man in Miami is told in three instalments, with different actors playing him at three different ages (the lack of resemblance between the three is one of the movie’s hurdles). We first see him as a boy, neglected by his crackhead mother (Naomie Harris on blistering form), bullied at school for being weak and ‘different’ but befriended by a macho drug-dealer and his girlfriend. In Part Two Chiron is a troubled teenager who briefly finds romance with one of the bullies and learns to fight back. In Part Three he is an ex-con with a bodybuilder's physique and gold teeth but still very much a loner – and desperately lonely. A dark, bleak movie ends with a faint hint of hopefulness.

This is a very different movie from Brokeback Mountain but it addresses the same theme: the challenge of being gay in a gay-hating world. Moonlight suggests that a black neighbourhood in Miami is more homophobic than anywhere else (ironical given that South Miami is practically a gay ‘haven’ – if not a gay ‘heaven’). The three actors who play Chiron are all excellent, as are all the supporting cast. Much of the dialogue is unintelligible to a British audience and the mood of the movie is probably too bleak for many people, but anyone who admired Brokeback is sure to find Moonlight a deeply absorbing experience.


HIDDEN FIGURES


So soon after Jackie we’re back to the Kennedy era again, with this uplifting tale that puts a shaded meaning on the ‘race’ element of the Space Race. Hidden Figures – the title is a clever pun – is the story of three African- American women whose mathematical brilliance made a vital contribution to the effort to catch up with the Russians who’d rocketed the first man out of Earth’s atmosphere.

The women were called ‘human computers’ – we later see the installation of the clunky great IBM machine that would take over much of the laborious number-crunching these workers performed. The movie goes out of its way to show how tough black women’s lives were in the workplace: ‘colored’ toilets, restricted prospects for advancement and constant daily humiliations from white co-workers (one of them is given her own coffee dispenser next to the one the white staff use). Writer/director Theodore Melfi shows us their home lives too, which are surprisingly similar to the lives of white folk. The number-crunching sequences are executed crisply enough not to overwhelm the audience with mathematics.

The script perhaps slightly over-eggs the three women’s vicissitudes to heighten the drama, but the three actresses (Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle MonĂ¡e) give rock-solid performances with very few moments of ‘grandstanding’. Kevin Costner is similarly ‘solid’ as the head of the Space Research Division.

This is another film, like last month’s Lion, that’s bursting with the ‘feel-good factor’. The feel-good factor is something Hidden Figures (if you’ll excuse another very un-PC pun) delivers in spades.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wot I'm reading: A box of gay goodies

A BOXFUL OF IDEAS


It’s not comme il faut to review one’s own work, but my contribution to this new anthology (their sixth) from Paradise Press is only a brief piece of Flash Fiction (‘Alice Swings’ – on the ‘B’ theme of LGBT), so perhaps it’s okay if I only mention it in passing.

An anthology is like a box of chocolates: they are all perfectly edible but some are more ‘delicious’ than others. Some have ‘a soft centre’; rather more have a harder edge (nothing too ‘hard-core’).  Not every-thing here is on a gay theme (don’t be put off: most of it is), and there is poetry as well as prose. There are several poems by Mike Harth who died last year, one of the founders of both Paradise Press and its ‘parent’, the Gay Authors Workshop (which he naughtily mocks in a story called ‘Group Reading’). Mike’s warmth, his wit and his wisdom are sorely missed by those of us in GAW who came to know and cherish him.

Jeremy Kingston contributes some delicious verse (as he always does at GAW meetings) and a clever story – ‘The Twist of the Vice’ – that revisits Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw from the viewpoint of one of the children and makes the governess more villain than victim. The narrator of Les Brookes’s ‘You Farzan, Me Duane’ recalls the summer when he fell in love with an Iranian boy in his school: this resonated with me! Beth Lister, another of my GAW favourites, has a story, ‘Dog Minder’s Monday Morning’, in which an 80-year-old lesbian yearns for a younger lover/companion. In contrast to this, Alice Wickham’s bitter-toned ‘Love and Hate’ shows a lesbian relationship that fails to take off.

Psychiatrist Donald West, GAW’s eminence grise, contributes an essay called ‘Facing up to Paedophilia’ which invites us to ‘understand’ the mind-set of child-molesters. Our bishops and pastors urge Christians to hate the sin but love the sinner – something many of us find a hard pill to swallow where paedophiles are concerned. I was 68 when I met my Iranian partner, who was 35. Had I met him twenty years earlier he would have been 15 (and probably very delectable, like Farzan in the story mentioned above!), so perhaps I must accept Professor West’s injunction not to be too judgmental.

You don’t have to be gay to appreciate the myriad pleasures of A Boxful of Ideas, though it helps if you are!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

David at the movies: American hero without a gun

HACKSAW RIDGE


Wow. Mel Gibson’s ‘comeback’ as a director is a war movie more savage, more visceral than anything I’ve seen since Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island in 1958, which probably wasn’t as brutal as I remember it.

Andrew Garfield is a powerful central presence as the Christian boy from Alabama who wants to serve his country with a medical kit rather than a gun and who is viewed by his comrades first as a coward, then as a hero. As he did in Silence last month, Garfield continues to remind me of the young Montgomery Clift. I'd like to see him - and Gibson - win Oscars for this. Sam Worthington contributes a solid performance as the platoon captain, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Garfield’s violent drunken father and abused mother were presumably cast as a ‘nod’ to Gibson’s Australian roots.

The end-credit ‘portfolio’ of photos and interviews with the real-life Desmond Doss and the men he served with clearly underlines the fact that this is a true story about an amazing true hero. Viewers may wonder if Gibson ramped up the battle scenes a few degrees. Was there really as much 'medieval' hand-to-hand combat between our guys and the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa as there was in the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses? Did our guys really torch the enemy with flame-throwers? Did Desmond Doss really single-handedly save so many wounded soldiers (some of them Japanese)?

As in Braveheart and Apocalypto (and even in The Passion of the Christ), Mel Gibson focuses perhaps too lingeringly on gory death and dismemberment, but there’s no denying that Hacksaw Ridge brings home the full horror of war – and the outstanding heroism that can blossom amid the carnage.

JACKIE


I’d intended to pass on this, assuming it would be another soap-opera version of history, like the dire Diana movie four years ago. But with Natalie Portman Oscar-nominated, it seemed worth seeing – and it is. The scenes recreating JFK’s assassination and the state funeral are as harrowing to view now as they were in 1963, and the moments Jackie shares with the children, John Junior and Caroline, are exquisitely poignant. The movie’s other main focus is on an interview between the First Lady and a reporter (Billy Crudup) in which she intends to secure her husband’s historical legacy. To hammer home the inextricable link between the Kennedy White House and Camelot (Jackie demands the credit for this), we get to hear Richard Burton singing the show’s title song – twice (a musical treat!).

Portman’s portrayal of the widow in the historical scenes is flawless, a woman forced to share her grief with the cameras and the Johnson Administration staff.  In the interview scenes Portman alternates between insecurity and a kind of imperiousness that made me think she was channelling Helen Mirren channelling Elizabeth II. The tour of the White House renovations she did for television in 1961 is reconstructed, with Jackie all nervy and breathless and reminding me (how ironical) of Marilyn Monroe. Peter Sarsgaard makes a believable Bobby Kennedy, mainly required to be a shoulder to cry on. Caspar Phillipson is a good look-alike for Jack in the historical scenes, although Billy Crudup also has a degree of resemblance to the President, which I found disconcerting.

I’m going to be the Grinch of the Season and say that, although this film does considerable justice to its subject, I don’t think it deserves to win awards, but then I feel the same way about La La Land, which is clearly heading for glory.


LION


As so often these days, the trailer for Lion gives too much of the story away, including the ending, which robs it of any chance to surprise us. What did surprise me was how involving the story was. Sunny Pawar who plays the 5-year-old Paroo, marooned in Calcutta 1500 miles from his home village, is the most appealing and compelling child star since Joel Haley Osment. Both in India and in the early scenes in Australia after he is adopted by Nicole Kidman and her husband, he is gut-wrenchingly convincing as a lost little boy. Not just likeable, this kid is utterly lovable.

Dev Patel is someone we already like thanks to the Marigold Hotel movies, and here as the 30-year-old Saroo he comes pretty close to being lovable as well. Ms Kidman delivers one of her best-ever performances as the Aussie mum with a heart of gold. The script slightly loses its edge and some pace as Saroo wrestles with his memories and with Google Earth before embarking on the trip to be reunited with his lost family. His brother in Tasmania, another adopted Indian but with behavioural issues, gets forgotten in the final scenes – a careless oversight in a movie about abandoned siblings. 

The postscript, offering us glimpses of the real Paroo and his two mothers, comes close to schmaltz overkill but this is a picture that sets out to warm the cockles of our cold cynical hearts – and warm them it does (if your cockles aren’t warmed you might want to think about a transplant).


LA LA LAND


After rave reviews there’s now a massive Oscar buzz attached to La La Land. Sorry to rain on the big parade but I was not blown away. Yes, there’s some charm here with all the homage to the Golden Age of romantic musicals, and Ryan Gosling remains the most charismatic of today’s young stars, but the music simply isn’t musical enough. Gosling and Emma Stone can just about carry a song and do a bit of amateur hoofing, but really the singing is nearly as ragged as it was in the screen version of Les Miserables and the dancing is about as far from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as the first round of ‘Dancing With the Stars’.

OK, Kelly and Astaire (and Ginger Rogers and other co-stars of theirs) did not have great singing voices, but they were fantastic dancers and the song-and-dance numbers in their movies were never less than dazzling. The closest La La Land comes to dazzling is in the final routine, a low-rent tribute to An American in Paris, but it just doesn’t have enough dazzle. As musicals go, fings ain't what they used to be. 

The jazz club scenes hit the only high spots. Gosling really looks as if he’s creating magic on the piano, but there’s no magic in his singing or his dancing – nor in Stone’s, who alas doesn’t have her co-star’s redeeming charisma. The love-story has a certain amount of charm but, like the music, it could do with a bit more 'zing'.

The Golden Age nostalgia also extends to a clunky tribute to Rebel Without a Cause. But nostalgia just isn’t enough and there’s too much clunkiness on display here. They say there isn’t the money to create great musicals like we had in MGM’s heyday. Surely it would take only a fraction of the budget for a CGI-heavy action movie or space opera to hire some first-rate dancers and singers who can act - or, if we must, actors who can sing (or mime to a better singer)? Singin' in the Rain cannot have been a big-budget production, but it's still the greatest of the greats.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wot I'm reading: Admirable but not lovable

Kate Atkinson: A GOD IN RUINS


It’s taken me several weeks to get through this, which normally indicates a boring book, but in fact A God In Ruins is one the best novels I’ve read in recent years. It’s not an easy read – there’s as much style as substance at play here – which may be why I kept putting it down. Not that it’s short on substance: over 500 pages on the long life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in World War II, and the complicated lives of his mother, his sister, his wife and his children.

Kate Atkinson does things that authors are generally told they shouldn’t. She switches viewpoint, she jumps in and out of different time periods and she leaks future plot developments. I sometimes felt as if a kaleidoscope was being shaken for me. Atkinson, like Fay Weldon, is an intrusive narrator, ironically critical of her characters’ flaws: ‘There was passion between them, but it was of the orderly, good-humoured kind.’ She pulls one last ‘trick’ at the end which I rather wish she hadn’t. I was reminded, only slightly, of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a novel I found a bit too literary, a bit too tricksy.

The sections covering Teddy’s bombing runs to Germany are some of the best war writing I've seen, at least as good as Pat Barker’s award-winning World War I trilogy. After giving away the fact that a key character will die early, she nevertheless makes the death chapter unbearably poignant. Her prose is wonderfully fluent; the plotting may be pretentious but the writing is not. Overall, though, like John Fowles and Elena Ferrante, Kate Atkinson is easier to admire than to love.