Monday, 9 December 2019

David at the Movies (on Netflix): The Godfather revisited

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Martin Scorsese has ‘done’ the Mafia before – several times. Now he revisits the Mob with this biopic of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hitman for New York mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a close friend of the Teamsters union president Frank Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose disappearance in 1975 has never been fully explained. Scorsese offers a solution now, though according to Wikipedia Frank Sheeran’s account has been challenged by others who claim to Know the Truth.

Played against an evocative score of pop hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s, we watch Sheeran’s transition from (almost) ordinary union activist to stone-cold serial assassin over two and a half decades. At three and a half hours the movie sometimes seems as long as its timeframe. In the background we are shown the rise (and death) of JFK, the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, Vietnam, Watergate – in nearly all of which the Mafia are shown to be deeply involved.

Two obvious comparisons come rapidly to mind: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, which featured both De Niro and Pacino in key roles and highlighted the Mafia involvement in trade unions, and Oliver Stone’s JFK, which detailed the Mob’s role in Kennedy’s election and his execution.

Robert De Niro as Don Vito Corleone in GODFATHER 2 (1974)
So, ground already covered and in similar detail. The ‘novelty’ here is the use of CGI to de-age the principal actors rather than have two players for each role. The de-aging of De Niro is fairly flawless, but Pacino’s looks a bit weird and Pesci’s (he seems to have been aged rather than de-aged) looks more like plasticine prosthetics. De Niro plays Sheeran much as he played Vito Corleone, a family man exterior masking a ruthless killer. Pesci gives us his familiar slightly shrill gangster “shtick”. Pacino (who was so subtle in The Godfather, shading from war hero to monster) is in shouty over-drive, reminding you of how loud (and how good!) he was in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. His Hoffa behaves like the president of a country rather than a union, but that’s probably how Jimmy Hoffa was, another kind of gangster.

The Irishman is loud and crude, way too long. It takes us into territory we’ve seen before, but it’s also very watchable, very absorbing. I hope they aren’t, but these may be “swansong” performances from some of the finest actors of the last half-century.

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This is a ‘Marmite’ movie: love it or loathe it. I like Marmite, but I didn’t think much to this.

Ancient millionaire Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies in his Southern mansion, apparently from suicide, after rows with his greedy would-be heirs. An investigator is hired, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with an accent like that over-ripe sheriff in the Roger Moore Bond films). There’s a Will to be read, short and surprising.

The key character is Harlan’s Latina nurse Magda (Ana de Armas), who administered intravenous medication on the night of his death. Ms de Armas majorly under-acts whilst everybody else majorly overacts, particularly Don Johnson, Toni Colette and Jamie Lee Curtis. Chris Evans, the bad-boy grandson, seems to be channelling Rupert Everett. Bette Davis had a similarly unappealing family gathering in The Anniversary (1968), one of the direst movies of her decline.

1973 an earlier Agatha Christie spoof
Writer/director Rian Johnson is clearly torn between homage to Agatha Christie and a send-up. If you’re going to spoof Christie, you need to spoof one of her grander whodunits like Murder on the Orient Express. Knives Out, with its gothic-ish country house setting, is more reminiscent of The Moustrap, Dame Agatha at her creakiest. The Sondheim-scripted The Last of Sheila (1973) was not good, but it wasn’t as clunky as this.

The element I enjoyed most was the presumably unintended one of seeing how unkind the years have been to yesterday’s stars. Don Johnson is – how to word this? – a little less glamorous than in his Miami Vice days. Jamie Lee Curtis has an increased resemblance to her dad at this age; her mother aged more appealingly. Toni Collette appears to have shared a tanning booth with Donald Trump. After his Southern-fried piss-take on Poirot, it’s gonna be hard to watch Daniel Craig back in his 007 tuxedo next year.

This is tosh – and really not ‘quality’ tosh. Mildly – very mildly – entertaining.


Two British pensioners meet on a dating app, but one of them is a confidence trickster. We are shown quite early that Roy (Ian McKellen) is a conman, but Betty (Helen Mirren) has a gay grandson (Russell Tovey) who is rightly suspicious, so how will Roy and his crony Vincent (Jim Carter, Downton’s butler sliding off the path of virtue) get to fleece Betty of her million-plus pension pot?

There is an obvious twist to this story which even the dimmest viewer will be expecting, but the twist comes with a twist of its own. Which would be fine if only it wasn’t just too hard to swallow. The movie starts like a comedy, until we are shown that Roy has a very foul mouth and a homicidal streak, so the comedy has to turn dark.

HEARTBREAKERS (2001): a much fruitier movie
The two (three) senior stars give fruity per-formances and seem to be enjoying them-selves, but the film falls clunkily between comedy and drama and doesn’t really succeed in either category. There are some shivery flash-backs to the ruins of postwar Berlin, but the scenes in Mirren’s naff suburban bungalow are too slow and very repetitious.

I kept remembering Gene Hackman and Sigourney Weaver in an altogether more glorious geriatric con-artist movie, Heartbreakers (2001), in which the two leads took ‘fruitiness’ to another dimension. The Good Liar will presumably add a small chunk to its stars’ pension fund, but it is not something for which they will be remembered.

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The last movie take on Pearl Harbour (2001) was largely spoiled by a soapy love story. There’s only one wife featured in Midway and she’s just there as a token Woman Who Waits For Her Husband’s Return. What Roland Emmerich gives us this time is a solid chunk of naval history, superbly illustrated by the GGI effects he used so thrillingly in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.

With lengthy scenes of both the Japanese and American battle planning, the movie shows how the Japanese superiority after the ‘infamous’ damage they inflicted on the US navy at Pearl Harbour was overcome, mostly thanks to radio intercepts and code-breaking by the guys at Naval Intelligence (sorry, ladies).

Back stories are minimal, in keeping with the documentary style of the film. Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid give un-showy performances as key admirals and all the fighter pilots play as a team, much as they would have in wartime, with nobody pushing for extra screen time. Good to see Luke Evans on solid form; he reminds me increasingly of the young Richard Harris, and I hope he has an equally substantial career ahead of him.

The CGI bombing at Pearl Harbour and out in the Pacific is nothing less than awesome. Here and there the aerial combat scenes (and camera-shots behind ordnance) give off a PlayStation flavour, but overall Midway does eloquent justice to a turning-point moment in 20th-century history.

(Scenes in Midway are date-stamped or time-stamped. I couldn’t help noticing that the Battle of the Coral Sea, six months after Pearl Harbour and one month before Midway, took place on the day when, here on the Sussex South Downs, I was being born.)

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It was 1980 when Stanley Kubrick took us to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Stephen King was said to be unhappy with the movie. I was too: key elements of the novel were excluded, and Jack Nicholson seemed completely manic from the outset, which diluted his transition to psychopathic under the influence of the hotel’s ghostly residents. Hopefully Mr King is happier with the movie of his belated sequel, Doctor Sleep, directed by Mike Flanagan, who brought us the TV Haunting of Hill House and co-wrote the screenplay for Doctor Sleep with the author.

It’s a different kind of horror, although an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor, always a strong presence onscreen) and a feisty black girl, Abra (Kyleigh Curran), both have the gift (or curse) of ‘the shining’. Danny, a recovering alcoholic, still gets visions and nightmares of The Overlook, but what brings him into contact with Abra is the serial killer Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her followers, who inhale the ‘vapour’ of the Shining from their dying victims.

The original poster for THE SHINING (1980)
Danny and Abra use their telepathic skills to track down Rose and her gang. Their con-frontations give the movie a series of escalating climaxes and moments that may cause some viewers to close their eyes. Or even scream.

The cannibalization of teenagers makes for a much nastier tale than a haunted hotel. This is a long picture (two and a half hours) but it rarely flags. The flash-backs to Danny’s boyhood recreate very exactly highlights from the Kubrick movie. It’s hard to say which is scarier, revisiting The Overlook or Rose and her gang of life-stealers, but I can say that this is a thriller-chiller that may haunt your dreams for longer than The Shining did.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

What I'm reading: Russian mole becomes a fox

DANIEL SILVA: The Other Woman

A new Gabriel Allon adventure is an annual treat, much as a new James Bond or Modesty Blaise used to be. (The Bond stories continue with their pick-n-mix authorship, but Peter O’Donnell wisely killed off Modesty before the franchising wolves could gather). This year I’ve got through two Gabriel Allons, playing catch-up.

The Israeli superspy turned intelligence chief is usually defending his beleaguered homeland (and the world’s capital cities) from fanatical Muslim terrorists, but every now and again he turns his attention to the other great threat, the new republic of Russia with its tyrannical president whom Daniel Silva refers to as “the Tsar”.

A Russian defector reveals that a mole has infiltrated British Intelligence at the highest level since the era of the “Cambridge Five”. A parallel story introduces the reader to a French exile in Spain who had an affair in Beirut with a famous traitor – and bore him a child. Most readers will guess the name of her lover well before Mr Silva names him, the most famous of the Famous Five.

MI6 traitor Kim Philby
 depicted on a Soviet stamp
As Allon and his pals in the CIA and MI6 close in on the identity of the highly placed defector, the mole becomes a fox and a chase ensues, nail-biting and, frankly, a bit credulity-stretching. For the first time I found an error in Silva’s intensive research: he refers to “the dreary London suburb of Crow-borough” where Kim Philby abandoned his wife and children in 1956: Crow-borough is a small town on the edge of a forest in the High Weald of Sussex, 25 miles from me, 50 miles from London, and deemed “an Area of Outstanding National Beauty”.

Revisiting the Cambridge Spies gives The Other Woman strong echoes of John Le Carré, although the climactic chapters belong more to the age of the cinematic Jason Bourne. This is Daniel Silva a little off his very best, but that said it’s ideal reading for anyone on a longhaul flight or a sun-lounger – gripping stuff.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What I'm streaming: God help our gracious Queen


Some people will have watched the new Netflix series of The Crown in a one-day binge. I’ve taken a week.

In the pre-publicity I thought that Olivia Colman still looked like Olivia Colman but minutes into Episode One I totally accepted that she was the Queen, every bit as much as Claire Foy before her. She has caught perfectly that air of haughtiness and slight discomfort that Her Majesty has never quite shaken off. I’m not so sure about Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip: Matt Smith seemed a better look-alike somehow, though he actually wasn’t. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as Margaret: needy, greedy and totally self-absorbed. Ben Daniels is well cast as Snowdon and despite looking nothing like him Charles Dance makes a credible Dickie Mountbatten. Josh O’Connor bears little resemblance to a young Prince Charles but he grows into the part well. When Emerald Fennell first appeared as a potential girlfriend I thought she was Sarah Ferguson, as she looks more like Fergie than Camilla, but Camilla she is, playing her as a sort of junior Margaret, promiscuous and manipulative.

The series has produced some fine moments, though perhaps not as many as the Claire Foy episodes, and one or two surprises. The series highlight was the Aberfan episode with its vivid CGI recreation of the slagheap engulfing the village school, though I rather doubt the Queen would have admitted to faking a tear after meeting the bereaved at Aberfan. Anne bonking Mr Parker-Bowles was a bit of a shock, as was Sir Anthony Blunt threatening Philip with some unwanted publicity if he (Blunt) was outed as one of Cambridge Spies. Did Mountbatten and the Queen Mum really ‘conspire’ to break-up Charles’s puppy-love affair with Camilla and accelerate her marriage to Parker-Bowles?

Helena Bonham-Carter and Ben Daniels as the Snowdons
- a marriage not made in heaven

Which raises the obvious question: is some of this royal ‘docu-drama’ factual or fictional? We’ve been down this road before with the Helen Mirren movie and more than one screen version of Diana’s life and loves. The writers this time seem to have toned down Prince Philip’s alleged philandering, which was such a feature of Kitty Kelley’s scurrilous book about The Royals (1998), and there were ‘revelations’ there and elsewhere that (so far) have not made into The Crown.

I’m as fond of a juicy piece of gossip as the next person, but I wonder how fair shows and movies like this really are. I’m sure Her Madge and the senior Highnesses don’t watch it, but it must be mortifying to the younger royals, whether they see it or not, to know that all their friends are tittering over the lives (especially the sex lives) of their parents and grandparents.

Prince Andrew: not exactly helping
You could almost argue a case that the Royal Family need a #MeToo movement to restore a bit of their right to privacy. In trying to modernize the institution, the Queen has perhaps allowed us to let too much “daylight” in; the “magic of the Monarchy” is getting a bit tarnished. Prince Andrew, of course, is not exactly helping.

Monday, 18 November 2019

What I'm reading: a timeless classic of Love and War (but not Peace)

Dave Boling: GUERNICA

I’m a bit late reviewing this novel, which was published in 2008. Critics have compared it to Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The English Patient. Its historical and romantic sweep even brings an echo of War and Peace although, sadly, peace does not come to Guernica within the time-frame of the novel.

The title is enough to send shivers down your spine, if you recall Picasso’s famous mural. The artist appears in the background of the story; we are shown him conceiving and executing the painting. Franco is another background character, the ‘generalissimo’ who tried to destroy the Basque culture and presided over decades of brutality for all Spaniards. The German aviator who leads the bombing raid over Guernica is a Von Richthofen, a cousin of the ‘Red Baron’, suave and gentlemanly, and ruthless.

At the heart of the story are the three Ansotegui brothers (Basque names are as intimidating as Tolstoy’s patronymics), three motherless boys whose father abandons them. One will become a fisherman, one a carpenter, the third a priest. We follow them from boyhood to manhood and watch as they work and play, dance and drink, fall out and fall in love. Guernica is, like many of the great novels, a superior kind of soap opera (very superior). While you read this, you are waiting for the bombs to fall. The history we know casts a dark cloud over the story. On the day of the bombing you wonder – and you care deeply – who, if anyone, is going to survive.

This was Dave Boling’s first novel. His wife is from the Pays Basque. He writes simply and vividly about the horrors of the Civil War. A villager taken away by the Guardia “was gone as if erased.” After the bombing, in a makeshift mortuary, “The undead shuffled past, staring into the faces, praying to find loved ones and praying not to find loved ones.”

The post-bombing story introduces two British characters and a hint that there can be light after the most terrible darkness. I’m a novelist. I sometimes kill off my own characters. It’s rare that a novel moves me to tears. This one did.

Picasso's GUERNICA

Friday, 27 September 2019

Wot I'm reading: More Israeli spies and spymasters

DOV ALFON: A Long Night in Paris

An Israeli tourist is ‘honey-trapped’ by a gorgeous blonde at Charles De Gaulle airport. His disap-pearance is investigated by the French police and by the Israeli Security Service when they realise that another Israeli on the same flight, who works for them, may have been the real target.

A Long Night in Paris is written in short chapters (some only one page), so it zips along at a cinematic pace. Jurisdictional spats in Paris and promotion tussles back in Tel Aviv slightly skew the story, but they demonstrate that catching spies is dirty work in more than one sense. There’s a nice cynical tone (the author used to be an intelligence officer): news reports are “the twilight zone in which legitimacy is created.” And a nice twist at the end brings an echo of the Ocean’s movies. Mr Alfon is clearly keen to see movie rights snapped up. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon is still my favourite Israeli superspy, but Dov Alfon gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Theatre at the cinema: comedy at its rawest


Raunchy gets redefined in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show, which wowed Edinburgh Fringe audiences in 2013 and is now back in London and being relayed to a cinema near you. She developed the character into two not-to-be-missed TV series. And she scripted Killing Eve, which was more must-see television. (Onstage last night she reminded me quite a lot of Villanelle.)

Fleabag is not stand-up - well not exactly. It’s billed as a “one-woman play”, so perhaps the character is a performance rather than an autobiographical confession. Phoebe W-B sits on a chair and tells us Fleabag's recent life story, which is mostly about her busy hectic life (mostly with men, but some of it “solo” with online porn), her collapsing business (a guinea-pig themed cafe), relations with her business partner (dead, a suicide), her sister (estranged) and her mother (also dead). There are some sound effects and one voice-over (a job interview), but mostly she either talks about people or does impersonations of them. Her mimicking of a weasel-faced Tube pick-up is one of many high spots.

This is humour – this is life – at its rawest. A lot of it is rude (very) and funny (achingly), but there are hollows in Fleabag’s life which she doesn’t flinch at showing us: laughter some-times comes through tears. Waller-Bridge is at the cutting edge of contemporary comedy. If you missed it last night, cinemas plan a whole bunch of repeat showings. Do not miss it.

PS. If you're hoping to see the cute horny priest from Series Two of Phoebe's TV show, you're out of luck. BUT Andrew Scott will be appearing at a cinema near you this autumn in an NT Live (actually recorded) showing of Noel Coward's Present Laughter. And, of course, we'll be seeing Phoebe's contribution to the script of the new Bond movie next year. Will she bust his balls?

Monday, 19 August 2019

What I'm reading: 007 before Casino Royale

Anthony Horowitz: FOREVER AND A DAY

Anthony Horowitz contributed Trigger Mortis (daft title) to the 007 canon four years ago, which slotted into the chronology between Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only. He now gets a second bite of the franchise cherry with Forever and a Day (not much better as a title, a bit Barbara Cartland), which is a prequel to Casino Royale, giving the 66-year series a new first chapter.

It begins with an echo of Daniel Craig’s cinema debut with M conferring on Bond, the new kid on the block, his ‘licence to kill’. This is the old pipe-smoking M, not the Judi Dench version. Our hero is then sent to the French Riviera to investigate the murder of his immediate predecessor, whose 007 handle he has chosen to inherit. On the Côte d’Azur Bond  encounters a CIA guy, a predecessor to Felix Leiter (who has been fed to the sharks more than once onscreen). He also meets an American billionaire who insists on calling him 'Jim' and a humongously fat Corsican gangster who could only be played by Marlon Brando or Orson Welles. And he meets a mysterious French beauty called Sixtine who seems to be playing two sides. Madame 16, as she’s also known, is a few years older than 007, but you get the feeling she will be bedded if not wedded in due course.

Like Ian Fleming, Horowitz lifts the sheet on the bed but doesn’t take us beneath it, so the erotic element is left to our imagination. (I always wished they had done this in the Roger Moore movies.) But he doesn’t skimp on the mayhem, and the adventure gathers plenty of momentum: a casino, a factory in the hills guarded like Fort Knox, a brand new cruise liner. The villains (more than one) get their just desserts, as we expect. The romance is one of those with an elegiac ending, paving the way for Bond to meet Vesper Lynd on his next assignment. Sixtine is a somewhat daft name, though not as daft as Pussy Galore (truly unforgivable, Ian, and only exceeded in awfulness by Plenty O’Toole in one of the films!).

Mr Horowitz perhaps does the best job of any of the inheritors of the mantle at capturing Fleming’s style: elegant prose with just the right amount of background, a seductive heroine, credible adversaries and slowly rising tension. The franchise is in safe hands.