Thursday, 11 January 2018

David at the movies: the film not starring Kevin Spacey


On a distinctly smaller scale than Gladiator, Ridley Scott revisits the kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty III by Calabrian gangsters in 1973. JP's parents are divorced; his father JPG II is zonked out on pot and other drugs in Morocco, but he has a devoted mother (Michelle Williams). His zillionaire grandfather JPG the First (Christopher Plummer) refuses to pay the $17 million ransom and tells his ex-CIA security chief (Mark Wahlberg) to rescue the boy.

The opening credits tell us this is “inspired by real events”. A few liberties have been taken with the facts as most of us remember them, especially towards the end of the movie. One delicious fact is the British Telecom payphone guests are obliged to use in the hall of Getty’s magnificent Tudor mansion in Surrey.

Christopher Plummer is excellent if somewhat OTT as the Scrooge-like mogul. The pace is good, with lots of fast cutting between the family and the kidnappers. It’s an okay movie, even a good movie, but it’s not in the league of Gladiator (which, let’s not forget, heavily recycled the plot of Ben Hur).

The big story with All the Money in the World is of course the surgical removal of Kevin Spacey from the first final print following his “fall from grace”. I read that Spacey’s bio-pic of Gore Vidal is now unlikely to be released – a story I’d very much like to see. Is his back-list also going to be shelved, meaning that we will never again see American Beauty or The Usual SuspectsWill Harvey Weinstein’s output (including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and –one of my all-time favourites – Shakespeare in Love) also disappear from TV screens and online video stores? 

However vile the "crimes" these two men (and others) have been accused of (and found guilty in the court of public opinion), it surely does not totally degrade the work they – and everyone else involved in those productions – have achieved?

Hollywood is not the only ‘workplace’ where the top dogs prey upon those lower down the food chain. Throughout history great art has sometimes been produced by not-very-admirable people. When we banish the creators, do we also ban what they created?

Only asking.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Wot I'm reading: The patron saints of terror

DANIEL SILVA: The Black Widow

Mossad’s latest confront-ation with the worst the Islamist world has to offer is an annual treat. This year’s villain, as topical as he could be, is an Iraqi known as ‘Saladin’ who is master-minding outrages in European capitals on behalf of ISIS and has the US in his sights.

Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon recruits Natalie, an Arab-speaking French Jewish doctor, and creates a new identity for her that will make her attractive to ISIS: she becomes Leila, a Palestinian ‘black widow’ thirsting for vengeance after the death of her husband at the hands of the Zionists. The infiltration works, although Natalie/Leila’s first meeting with Saladin is under circumstances very different to what she or Allon expected.

This is Silva’s 16th thriller featuring Gabriel Allon. They have inevitably become formulaic. Israel’s military – and moral – superiority over the Islamists is hammered home, although this time round the Jordanian secret service has a part to play, as also (and more regularly) do the British and French services and, of course, the CIA. The climax in Washington is nothing less than apocalyptic. We are once again reminded that no matter how conclusively the West defeats Islamic State (and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban) on the battlefield, 'the patron saints of terror' will continue to bring their war to our cities and our streets.

Another page-turning, nerve-shredding read from Daniel Silva.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Wot I'm reading: a Superstar's busy - and varied - Sex life

Wow. This is a deeper dirt-digging biography than any of those by Kitty Kelley. Darwin Porter charts the long career of Paul Newman – ‘the man with the baby blues,’ it says on the cover, referencing his eyes, not his tears in the crib. The author also charts Newman’s sexual history – and what a history it is!

Mr Porter’s main sources seem to be Eartha Kitt, Shelley Winters and an actress known as Vampiria, all of whom claimed close confidence with the blue-eyed star. Porter reports whole conversations which can only be recon-structions based on ‘information received’. There are some startling revelations here, starting with the main one: Paul Newman’s bisexuality which will come as a shock (unbelievable even) to many of his lifelong fans around the globe.

Grace Kelly: (not) 'the ice princess'
Early in his career Newman was competing for roles with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. According to the author, he had sex with all of the above – even ‘love affairs’ with some of them. Some stellar ladies’ reputations are also trashed here. Gary Cooper is quoted as saying that Grace Kelly ‘looks like a cold bitch before you take her pants down – and then she explodes.’ As well as Grace’s sheets, Newman got to perform on Joan Crawford’s, Lana Turner’s and – OMG! – Sandra Dee’s and Audrey Hepburn’s.

We all (nearly all) like juicy gossip, don't we? But at close to 500 pages this is tittle-tattle 'overkill': an exhaustive – and exhausting – catalogue of all the roles Newman played or failed to get, plus all the men and women he ‘dated’. There are a few gems among all the sleazy details: Judy Garland unzipped his trousers on a nightclub dance floor; ‘I like to check out what I’m getting.’ There’s a memorable ‘cross-over’ moment when Newman is having sex with Kim Stanley (whom he met at the Actors Studio in 1952); after Paul ticks her off for calling out the name of ‘Marlon’ in the heat of passion, she tells him: ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be fucked by Marlon Brando.’ Paul’s answer cannot have been the one she was expecting!

Newman & Woodward: the 'Golden Couple'
Joanne Woodward, the second Mrs Newman, knew she was marrying a serial philanderer, although it's clear that she was the great female love of his life. As to the great male love, we are told that Brandon de Wilde, his cute young co-star in Hud (1963), played a supporting role in Paul’s private life for many years after Hud; but so, if Darwin Porter is to be believed, did Steve McQueen. It really is La La Land out there.

It’s not all sex. Actually, it mostly is. And it’s not all about Paul, although, again, it mostly is – obviously. A jaunty incidental revelation is Anthony Perkins’s claim that he lost his (hetero-sexual) ‘virginity’ at the age of 44 with none other than Dallas’s Victoria Principal. And – a spooky detail I’d not heard before – Tony Perkins’s widow, Berinthia Berenson, was a passenger in one of the jets flown into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The ‘Casting Couch’ is back in the headlines this year. In Newman’s early days it was seen as going with the territory that he would kneel to or be knelt in front of by agents, producers, directors, studio execs – not all of the time, but a lot of the time. More surprises when the author names men who have, however briefly, trod the ‘lavender path’. Tyrone Power is quoted telling Paul that director John Ford ‘used to throw John Wayne on his casting couch back in the Stone Age.’ Pass the smelling salts! Robert Stack, an early lover of Paul’s, claimed to have shared his sheets with, among many others, Howard Hughes and Jack Kennedy. Come on!

After he married Joanne Woodward (1958) Paul Newman had a stock answer when interviewers asked if he was ever tempted to ‘stray’ with any of the gorgeous leading ladies he partnered onscreen; his regular reply was “Why go out for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?’ This revealing biography suggests that Paul got through a lot of hamburgers during his marriage to Ms Woodward. At the risk of sounding crude (this is a fairly crude book) I’m tempted to say that quite a lot of sausages were also consumed. 

Newman and Brandon de Wilde in HUD (1963)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

David at the movies: More grey than 'noir'


Co-scripted by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney, who have all brought much joy into our lives, Suburbicon is a 1950s satire that falls very flat. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife and son live in an all-white enclave with gleaming white picket fences and manicured lawns. All hell breaks out when the first black family move into the house next door. When Gardner’s wife is murdered by intruders in a clumsy burglary, he rapidly finds consolation with his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore). The boy soon learns that his mother’s death is just the beginning of his troubled home life.

The 1950s setting is so believable that I kept expecting Lana Turner or Susan Hayward to enter the story. If only they had! Damon and Moore don’t quite get a handle on their characters, and the peril that builds up around the young son, which seems to be reaching for Joe Orton grotesqueness, comes over as tacky and tasteless. The script also requires us to believe that the town’s emergency services are too busy dealing with the rioting racists (practically the entire population) to notice the mayhem in the house next door. As ‘noir’ satire goes, this is a dingy shade of grey.


Oh, but they do. Well, almost. This slight but beguiling slice of movie memorabilia is about the last days of Gloria Grahame, a feisty blonde Hollywood actress who played, well, feisty blondes in a bunch of 1950s gangster movies, although my fondest memory of her is as the ‘Gal Who Cain’t Say No’ in Oklahoma.

In her fifties, with movie roles drying up, Gloria went back on stage and and guested in TV series like The Fugitive. She had a weakness for younger men (her fourth marriage was to her stepson by husband number two). A young stage actor in London, Peter Turner, was her last lover and it was to his mum’s house in Liverpool that she retreated in 1981 when her remitted cancer flared up again. Peter and his mum looked after her till almost the very end.

The original Gloria Grahame
Annette Bening has given many fine performances and here she adds another one. I hope this wins her a statuette or two. Her Gloria is vulnerable but cranky and sometimes imperious. There’s a lovely moment when they go to the pictures to see the original Alien: Peter is nearly sick during the John Hurt 'birthing scene', but Gloria finds it laugh-out-loud funny.

Jamie Bell gets to show off his disco-hustle moves and take us back to Billy Elliot. He and Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham (mum and dad) give terrific support. There are some great 70s hits in the sound-track: super to hear Jose Feliciano again. Liverpool (if that’s where it was actually filmed) is atmospherically rainy and grainy; back-to-back houses, grimy streets, shabby pubs. The wall-papers in the Turner house are epically awful (I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s deathbed gag in the Paris hotel: ‘either that wallpaper goes or I will!’) The last scene of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is deeply touching and stops perfectly short of being mawkish.

One moment a love-story, another a comedy, but always a ‘weepie’ in the making, this is a small but exquisite gem of a movie that reminded me (a lot) of My Week with Marilyn.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Theatre at the cinema: Sour cocktail with a great taste

Stephen Sondheim: FOLLIES

This was the latest West End show to come to a movie theater near me last night. I saw it in London in 1987 – twice – with Dolores Gray and then Eartha Kitt singing the show’s ‘anthem’ “I’m Still Here”. This new production goes back to Stephen Sondheim’s original vision: a single extended act and a character development study (wow – in a musical?) rather than a plot-driven drama.

A crumbling brick wall on a revolving stage creates the minimalist set, with a fire escape replacing the grand staircase down which the chorus girls would have paraded in the heyday of the Ziegfeld-style Follies decades earlier. At this 1970s reunion (the theatre is soon to be torn down) the focus is on two couples whose marriages have gone very stale: Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben. Sally was in love with Ben (still is) but she married Buddy, who is a serial philanderer, as is Ben and also Phyllis. These four interact with their younger selves in crisp scenes and songs. If this show were a cocktail – and it very much is - it could only be a whisky sour.

Follies makes a kind of 'companion piece' to Sond-heim’s earlier show Company, which took an equally cynical view of several marriages from the viewpoint of a ‘confirmed bachelor’ (the character wasn’t gay, although that was how gay men used to be referred to - PM Ted Heath for instance!). Some of the songs and production numbers in Follies are re-runs of pastiche vaudeville numbers with the players shadowed by and even dancing with their younger selves .

But it’s the bitterest lyrics – ‘torch songs’ - that stand out, show-casing failed relationships and the disappointments life dishes out. ‘Could I Leave You?’ is sung by Phyllis (Janie Dee who kept reminding me of Sigourney Weaver). ‘Losing My Mind’ is Sally’s big number – Imelda Staunton came into her own with this, though I felt she was underplaying the character in the first half of the show. 

Tracie Bennett sings "I'm Still Here"
The absolute show-stopper (equivalent to ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ in Company) is ‘I’m Still Here’ sung by retired stage siren Carlotta (Tracie Bennett). The best ever performance of the song, for me, was Carol Burnett’s in a concert version of Follies from the Lincoln Center in 1985. Shirley MacLaine sang it memorably in Postcards From the Edge, playing a character meant to be Debbie Reynolds. In this new production Tracie Bennett comes close to eclipsing everybody else. Ms Bennett memorably recreated Judy Garland on stage some years ago – a pity she won’t be in the next year’s new bio-pic (Renee Zell-weger). Much as Elaine Stritch lit up the stage with ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ in the 1972 Company, Tracie Bennett stole the show for me last night.

And what a show this is! Catch a repeat when they show an 'Encore' at your local multiplex.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Wot I'm reading: Chamberlain in Berlin

Robert Harris: MUNICH

A few years ago Robert Harris revisited the Dreyfus affair. Now he turns his attention to another ‘dodgy’ moment in history: Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in September 1938 to attempt a watering-down of Adolf Hitler’s intended annexation of a large chunk of Czechoslovakia into the new German Reich. The only alternative to appease-ment is war, and after 10 million deaths in 1914-18, Britain and France are reluctant (and ill-prepared) to face another world war.

Much has been written about Munich. Harris injects a fictional element into history by planting a young traitor in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry who hands a secret document to a former university friend on Chamberlain’s staff, a document which may deter the British from doing a deal in Munich. Paul Hartmann, the traitor in Berlin, is a splendidly complex character: a patriot, proud of his country’s history and culture and deeply appalled that his country’s future is now in the hands of a power-crazed madman. I wonder if Harris will bring Hartmann – and Hugh Legat, his Downing Street friend - back in another story from the war years?

In Fatherland, his acclaimed first novel, Harris vividly and disturbingly created a Britain that had lost the war against the Nazis. The reader is perhaps expecting another rewrite of history here. The Munich scenes are highly dramatic. And what a cast of players! Hitler, whom one character remembers from a few years earlier as “this half-sinister, half-comical brawler and dreamer” who is now poised to turn the world upside-down. Mussolini, when he smiles, is “like a child’s drawing of a sun”. And Chamberlain, “a Messiah of Peace” with no personal charisma but a desperate commitment to postpone another war to end wars.

People are cheering in their gardens as the Prime Minister’s Lockheed aircraft climbs out of Heston aerodrome. The great optimism with which the mission to Munich was greeted by almost everyone in Britain (except Winston Churchill) reminds us that appeasement was welcomed in 1938, however disparagingly later historians have come to view.

Like John Le Carré (and like Graham Greene), Harris elevates the thriller to the class of Literature. His prose makes other best-selling writers look trite. This in the opening scene in the Ritz hotel restaurant: ‘He turned to find the maître d’, palms pressed together as if in prayer, grave with self-importance.’ A page later, with war seemingly inevitable, the author imagines: ‘The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park.’  Sorry, but you don’t get sentences of that calibre in Dan Brown. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Tomorrow's headlines?

SAM BOURNE: To Kill the President

A US president described as ‘a drooling sexist predator …[who] makes billions, never pays taxes, dumps his wives as soon as they sag even a teeny bit’ – we can only be thankful that this is a piece of fiction. Sam Bourne’s unnamed and unstable President is offstage throughout the book, but he wants to bomb North Korea off the map, deport Muslims and other migrants (not just first-generation migrants) and demolish healthcare to lower higher-rate taxes. Not the kind of man you want as leader of the “Free World”.

This is a conspiracy thriller with a difference. From the start we know that it’s the Secretary of Defense and the White House Chief of Staff who decide that POTUS needs to be eliminated for the good of the nation. Maggie Costello, a principled West Wing aide left behind from the previous Administration, learns of the planned assassination and sets out to save the life of a man she loathes – at great risk to herself, obviously.

Mr Bourne’s Washington is horribly believable and many of the characters are believably horrible. The President’s chief counsellor, 'Mac' McNamara (interesting choice of name), is a racist thug whose ideology comes from further to the right than the Klansmen. When the previous year's election campaign is revisited, some familiar chords are struck.

This must be the best assassination thriller since The Day of the Jackal (1971, in case you can’t remember), brilliantly plotted, tautly paced and deeply disturbing. It reads very much as if it’s ‘torn from tomorrow’s headlines’. It has – I will say no more than this – a very satisfactory ending. Watch for those headlines.