Friday, 20 January 2017

David at the movies: zings ain't what they used to be

LA LA LAND


After rave reviews and the Golden Globes there’s now an Oscar/Bafta 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.



PASSENGERS



The critics have been a tad underwhelmed by this space opera, but I liked it. It’s a love story with a few echoes of 2013’s Gravity, including seriously stunning CGI, but there is better chemistry (and more gorgeousness - sorry, George!)   between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt than there was between Ms Bullock and Mr Clooney.

There’s not a lot of plot: Chris and Jennifer wake from hibernation 80 years earlier than they should do on their universe-crossing starship and then have to cope with mechanical problems that threaten the vessel’s survival. The pace is a bit slow until things start to go wrong with the nuclear reactor and with Michael Sheen, an android barman whom I found more than a little tiresome. The 'epilogue' is cringe-making but kinda charming.


A part of me kept hoping for something out of the Alien franchise to bust in and liven things up, but no, this is just a slightly soppy story about a pair of galaxy-crossed lovers and – I’ll say it again – I liked it.


SILENCE


My first movie of 2017 is a fairly challenging one – Martin Scorcese’s ‘treatise’ on Faith and Apostasy in 17th-century Japan. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests who travel to the Orient to look for a missing predecessor (Liam Neeson) and to bring comfort and sacramental rites to Catholic converts who are being persecuted and tortured by Samurai inquisitors.

Interesting to discover that Buddhism, which most of us think of as a pacifist, contemplative religion, has a history as dark and violent as that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The silence at the heart of the movie is the silence of God: does He hear the prayers of the persecuted; and does He mind if people stamp on an image of Christ to save their lives?

Apart from the harrowing scenes of torture and brutal execution, much of the film is shot in darkened rooms and daytime fogs. There are many long scenes – too many, too long – of dialogue between Garfield and the Inquisitor. There are a couple of clunky moments which attempt to echo Christ’s Passion, and a Japanese ‘Judas’ pops into the story a little too often. Garfield gives a performance that reminded me of Montgomery Clift – that sense of tension waiting to be uncoiled. Driver’s role is more physical, more heroic, less subtle. Liam Neeson relies too much on the gravitas of his presence. The last chapter in the story undermines much of the film’s intensity and the final frame feels like something added as a ‘sop’ to today's evangelists.


Inevitably you find yourself comparing Silence to Roland Joffe’s 1986 epic The Mission. Scorcese’s movie arguably has more depth and definitely more debate, but The Mission had a ‘magnificence’ which Silence has less of – and Joffe’s movie had that resonating Morricone score. Silence deserves points for nobility of purpose and Mr Scorcese is clearly a man of huge integrity.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Wot I'm reading: Harry Bosch for the defence


LAPD's  finest, Harry Bosch, and his half-brother, maverick defence lawyer Micky Haller, alternately 'guest-star' in each other's cases. This is a Bosch story, in which Harry, now retired from the Police Department, reluctantly crosses 'to the other side' to help Micky liberate a client who's been framed for the savage murder of a deputy sheriff's wife. Harry, of course, spots a seemingly trivial detail at the crime scene that the investigators have overlooked and which cracks open the case and unleashes more killings.

Connelly includes brief scenes featuring two 'rogue' members of the squad, so this is not so much a Whodunit as a Will-they-catch-'em. The investigation builds to a violent climax with Harry once more staring down a gun barrel.

This is Number Twenty in the Bosch series. Some of them have been outstanding: The Concrete Blonde and Echo Park are my personal top two. The Crossing is slightly run-of-the-mill, but anything from Michael Connelly's word-processor guarantees a taut, tense read.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Wot I'm reading: Jungle nastiness

Jonathan Huls: AYAHUASCA


I only know Jonathan Huls through the internet. This is the second novel he's asked me to review. I like it less than the first. Not the most fun I've had at Halloween.

Californians Damien and Paxton take themselves off to the jungles of Peru after graduation. The pair are clones of American Pie's Steve Stifler although they don't come across as cute as Seann William Scott and are a great deal nastier. A flashback to boyhood days shows them brutally torturing a dog; I wanted them to suffer a much uglier retribution than the author eventually gives them. They meet a cute girl on the Amazon who introduces them to an hallucinogenic drug called Ayahuasca, which turns them into savages. The girl ends up on a raft in the ocean with a plot twist that makes you realise Kate Winslet got off lightly after the Titanic sinking.

This book has an ugly cover and an unattractive storyline. Mr Huls has been meticulous in his proof-reading, which few self-published authors are, but lines are not 'justified' in the print version, which I found very distracting, and a major edit was badly needed. There's a wildness in your writing, Jonathan, which needs a bit of taming before you produce something that thrills the reader without turning his stomach. Good luck! 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

DAVID GEE "event"!


I'm doing readings from THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS and SHAIKH-DOWN, my gay 'Arab Spring' novel, for Brighton GEMS this  Friday. GEMS is a group for gays 'of a certain age' (old enough to go on a Saga holiday!).

In the canteen of Dorset Gardens Methodist Church in Brighton:  1900-2100 Friday 28 October.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Wot I'm reading: 60-year old gay novel still shocks

Fritz Peters: FINISTERE


Another episode in my trawl through the gay ‘classics’.  Finist√®re was first published in 1951, three years after Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. In many ways it’s a more daring novel. Matthew, our young hero, moves to France – the year is 1927 – with his mother following her divorce.  At boarding school he begins a relationship, more sexual than romantic (though nothing too explicit), with a fellow pupil. Then, aged fifteen, he falls in love with Michel, a thirty-something PE teacher. Their intense affair is explored from both viewpoints – and also from the viewpoint of the mother and stepfather. When Matthew’s stepmother enters the story, she and the stepfather begin the process of ‘outing’ Matthew and precipitate a terrible climax. Happy endings seem to have been ruled out in these early gay novels, although in all fiction a tragic finale tends to have more resonance.

The implicit element of pederasty – a slightly lesser ‘sin’ (or crime) than paedophilia – is largely overlooked by the author. He presents the relationship between the teenager and his teacher as if it’s entirely natural (which it is, obviously) and even normal, which it very clearly is not. This must have been a ‘shocking’ story in the 1950s. It’s fairly shocking today.

The writing is sometimes a bit precious, a bit ‘twee’. Perhaps because of the French setting there’s a Proustian attention to details of setting and moments of introspection. Rapid switches of viewpoint, much frowned on by writing schools, are always disconcerting for the reader. And of course it’s a bit dated, but the struggles of a teenager with his sexual identity are as relevant now as they were sixty years ago, and Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with divorce and step-parents are powerfully conveyed. Overall this is an elegant read and a story that engages the reader’s emotions.


Even in these liberal times of ours there are many places (not all of them in Muslim countries) where homosexuals face intolerance and often persecution. In the ultra-liberal West we face a growing threat from the forces of ultra-conservatism. We need to keep our guard up.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Wot I'm reading: San Francisco gothic

Jonathan Moore: THE POISON ARTIST


This stylish new thriller comes with rave cover reviews from Stephen King and Lee Child - praise indeed! Mr King compares it to Red Dragon, although I was more reminded of Hannibal, the most gothic of Thomas Harris's Lecter quartet. 

San Francisco toxicologist Caleb Maddox has just had a bruising break-up with his girlfriend when he meets a glamorous 'lady in red' in a late-nite bar. Emmeline is from another era, beautiful but damaged, with an edge of mystery and danger about her.  Caleb is himself damaged by an episode in his past that continues to haunt him. Called in to examine the bodies of men fished out of the bay, he finds evidence of poison and hideous torture. There's gruesome stuff here: one victim's body has turned to soap in the water ('saponification' - look it up). 

At times I wasn't sure if this was meant to be a medical/psychological horror story or an erotic thriller. A long scene in a period mansion lit by candles and a hurricane lamp is quasi-Victorian, with some highly-charged sex.  Jonathan Moore's writing is accomplished and often vividly original. The mansion has a secret room with "the heavy scent of dust and dead memories." For me the metaphysical denouement was hard to swallow, shifting the tone from Victorian gothic to Hollywood gothic (Brian De Palma territory), but this is a stand-out read, dark and deeply disturbing.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Wot I'm reading: Artistic tantrums


Brian Sewell: OUTSIDER


In the first chapter of this memoir (2011) Brian Sewell reveals that, seeing Aladdin as a teenager gave him 'an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow Twanky.' With his highly affected speech Brian’s Twanky would surely have sounded like Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell. When you read Alan Bennett’s diaries it’s easy to hear his Yorkshire vowels in your head. Mr Sewell similarly writes as he speaks: a plummy, precious, over-elaborate prose. In the early chapters of his memoir he describes his early life – mother, father, stepfather, schoolfriends – with the same clinical brutality with which he will later appraise artists and their work.

One of his tutors as a student of art history at the Courtauld Institute was Anthony Blunt, the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge Spy Ring. You feel his passion, inspired by Blunt, for Poussin above all other painters. Paint, rather than blood, runs in Sewell’s veins: he recalls in vivid detail the paintings he saw on a Grand Tour of Italy with five fellow students in an old Vauxhall in the 1950s. The detail of his studies – in these long Victorian paragraphs – and his subsequent career as a cataloguer and appraiser with Christie’s becomes wearisome after a time.

Arguments over attribution are only a little bit exciting, although Alan Bennett gave them an extra ‘frisson’ in his play about Blunt, set mostly in the Queen’s art gallery. Outsider offers a few moments of high drama in the auction rooms. In the 50s and 60s many great paintings and drawings sold for a fraction of what they are worth today. His rarefied view of art – and of his own importance – seem designed to make the rest of us (‘outsiders’!) feel like philistines; I certainly did.

Having been both Catholic and Anglican, Sewell is content to call himself an ‘an agnostic Christian,’ a label I relished and am tempted to borrow. After years in the bosom of Christianity – he flirted with the attractions of the priesthood – Brian surrendered to the temptations of the flesh. A period of gay promiscuity and occasional love affairs ensued, but he describes his lovers with less intensity than he gives to a Burne-Jones painting needing emergency repairs before its sale at Christie’s. At the end he offers a bizarre apology for having used ‘bugger’ rather than the F-word throughout his book. I would have preferred an apology for his Dickensian syntax.

Sir Anthony Blunt: tutor and traitor
He is generous with praise for the people in the art world he liked and equally generous with disdain for those he didn’t: a lot of old scores are settled in this cavalcade of tantrums, which often reminded me of Kenneth Williams’s acid-queen diaries. This is a mean-spirited autobiography, only enlivened by the occasional titbit of gossip and revelation. When Anthony Blunt is unmasked as a spy, a traitor, Sewell refers to this in passing with no suggestion that he shared the Establishment’s sense of betrayal. Presumably he goes into the scandal in more detail in the second volume of his memoirs, which I will steel myself to read sometime in the not-too-near future.