Thursday, 20 April 2017

David at the movies: a life less lived


Emily Dickinson lived her entire life (1830-1886) in Amherst, Massachusetts, rarely leaving the town and, in middle age, not even leaving the family home. She never married and, in this biopic, only once falls seriously in love – with a married vicar who almost certainly did not know of her “quiet passion”. A young man who courts her later in the movie has to talk to her unseen at the top of the stairs.

Dickinson’s life lacks the stuff that might make a substantial movie. Cynthia Nixon does a valiant job of giving her substance – in conversations and arguments with her sister (Jennifer Ehle), her father (Keith Carradine, looking like a Mount Rushmore effigy) and visitors and relatives – but what little drama there is here comes from illness and death scenes, of which there are many, long drawn out. The overdone manners of the era are parodied in drawing-room scenes borrowed from Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, scenes that are pleasingly comic but seem more than a little contrived. Nixon reads some of the verse in voice-over but the early efforts, celebrating Nature, are not in Walt Whitman’s league and only the later poems anticipating (almost inviting) Death have any real resonance. It is for these that Emily Dickinson is mostly remembered.

The cinematography is splendid, and the costumes and the over-furnished sets convey a stifling sense of the period. A moment in which portraits of the younger Dickinsons morph into their older selves is exquisite and there’s another nice one at the end. The script – and the direction – struggle to make a mountain out of the molehill that was Emily’s life. I was constantly thinking how much more ‘oomph’ there is in an Austen or a Brontë adaptation.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Wot I'm reading: holy and unholy fathers

Robert Harris: CONCLAVE

A pope (who can only be, but - the author insists - is not Pope Francis) dies suddenly, and 118 elderly cardinals and archbishops from all over the globe gather in Rome’s Sistine Chapel to elect his successor. Events are observed from the viewpoint of Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and one of the less favoured candidates. It will take three days and eight ballots before white smoke emerges from the Chapel's chimney to tell the world 'Habemus papam' (We have a pope). Shocking revelations eliminate two of the contenders and, since Robert Harris is essentially a thriller writer, one outrageous surprise is kept for the final pages.

In my twenties I was a big fan of the Australian author Morris West, who wrote several highly respected best-sellers about Roman and Vatican politics, most famously The Shoes of the Fisherman, which was made into a movie (with Anthony Quinn). Robert Harris has done extensive research and revisits this territory with confidence and considerable élan. Papal politics and theology may not sound like the ideal ingredients for a thriller, but Conclave never becomes dry or dusty. The writing is elegant, and character and dialogue drive the story forward. It feels like a real picture of the Vatican and its priests, some driven by ambition, some by duty and service. I rather doubt the College of Cardinals will like the outcome of this imaginary election, and I wonder if this is the start of another Roman trilogy from Mr Harris. Perhaps we can look forward to following the career of his provocative new Pontiff. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wot I'm reading: "Love and Friendship do not age."


Irina, an ‘economic migrant’ from Moldova goes to work at a posh care home in San Francisco where all the residents 'had led interesting lives, or invented them.’ She forms a close bond with Alma Belasco who has led an especially interesting life, a Polish Jewish refugee whose parents sent her to an uncle in California only months ahead of the Nazi invasion. Alma, now in her 80s, reveals to Irina the details of her marriage to her cousin and her decades-long secret affair with Ichimei Fukuda, youngest son of her uncle’s Japanese gardener. Because of the difference in their culture and status, the pair never dared to marry but they never stopped loving each other.

 ‘Love and friendship do not age,’ Ichimei writes in one of his love-letters to Alma which punctuate the novel. Love and friendship are Isabel Allende’s themes here. Alma’s cousin/ husband is not her greatest love but he is her dearest and truest friend. Ichimei is her great love, and the author conveys the intensity of their passion with an aching clarity: ‘Love and desire for him scorched her skin.’ Equally unflinching is her depiction of the indignities of the WW2 internment camp in which the Fukudas are sequestered.

Allende is one of contemporary literature’s greatest storytellers. She peoples her narrative with characters as vivid as in a book by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, bringing them to life with an economy of style that neither Hugo nor Dickens was noted for! At the end she introduces a perfectly exquisite moment of the 'magic realism' which permeated her earliest novels. A new book from Isabel Allende is always a special joy, and this one finds her – and her translators - on top form.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

David at the theatre: another Gene Kelly revival: wow!


Like Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, An American In Paris started life as a movie, not as a stage show. The year was 1951 (I was nine and didn’t see it until I was a few years older). The director was Vincente Minelli (father of Liza with a Z) and the stars were – who can forget them? - Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. An interesting fact from Wikipedia: Maurice Chevalier turned down the role of Henri because he didn’t get the girl at the end (Georges Guetary played Henri).

This year’s stage production arrives in London after wowing audiences on Broadway. The movie’s slight and trite plot has been beefed up, with Henri and Adam as well as Jerry (the Gene Kelly character) now in love with the ballet dancer Lise. And a whole bunch of songs have been added that weren’t in the movie – all by the glorious Gershwin. The 12-strong chorus sounded at times like a much larger choir. The dancing is of course what this show is all about and the dance-scenes are superb - a mixture (as in the movie) of ballet and show-biz routines with even an occasional infusion of pop video.

Robert Fairchild from the New York City Ballet brings a real touch of Gene Kelly glamour to the role of Jerry, and Leanne Cope from our own Royal Ballet is an enchanting Lise.  Zoe Rainey stood out for me as the predatory millionairess Milo, the other American in post-war Paris. Jane Asher, as Henri’s mother, was the only cast member I've seen before.

The set is a super-smart mixture of mechanics and digitalization with some charming Picasso/Matisse-inspired motifs. All in all a dazzling evening at the theatre. I find myself in full agreement with the Guardian reviewer: “you feel as if the tarnished silver of the Vincente Minnelli movie has been turned into theatrical gold.”

Friday, 24 March 2017

David at the movies: Wolverine and Mini-Me


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


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.


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.