Saturday, 20 April 2019

David at the movies: a slow ramble to the gold rush

THE SISTERS BROTHERS


A Western that isn’t a Western (no cowboys or Indians), the weirdly titled Sisters Brothers is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) or, further back, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). It’s set in the 1850s, the Gold Rush era. Charlie and Eli Sisters (the Sisters brothers – geddit? – Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are killers-for-hire, pursuing the also weirdly named gold prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his pursuer turned protector (Jake Gyllenhaal) from Oregon to California. There are misunderstandings and shoot-outs along the way, with an inevitable stopover at a bar-cum-brothel.

This rambling story only settles down when they get to the goldfields and we are introduced to a bizarre twist on the science of prospecting. There’s a lot of mumbling and squabbling in the script. Direction and cinemato-graphy are uneven: too many gloomy night scenes - and some of the daytime shoots are also very grainy. The last half hour is extremely grim. All four lead performances are rock solid, but none of these characters is particularly likeable, which makes this an Interesting rather than an Engaging experience. It’s one of those movies which will probably seem better on a second or third viewing.

PET SEMATARY



Nice poster. Shame about the movie. Another pointless remake. This doesn’t add anything to the 1989 version apart from superior special effects courtesy of advances in CGI.

Only minor changes to the story. A family move from the city to the outskirts of a New England village where there’s a spooky outcrop in the woods beyond what the local kids have mislabelled as the “Pet Sematary”. Trucks thundering past their new house on Day One signal with no subtlety disasters that are to come. First the family cat and then – whoops, almost a spoiler.

There are more scares before the “resurrection shuffle” than after. The second Second Coming is totally OTT and seems to be sourced from the Chucky movies rather than Stephen King’s original novel. I’m guessing Mr King was inspired by the 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw (by W.W.Jacobs) which was somehow more spooky because they didn’t open the door when ‘he’ came back. Not enough for today’s grossed-out audience, of course.

John Lithgow is clearly slumming here as the old-timer neighbour who sets the drama in motion but he’s the best thing in this. Except maybe the CGI cat.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY



There's a spate of ‘Based on a true story’ movies this spring. Stan & Ollie is the best so far. Fighting With My Family, a comedy-drama biopic, is in the Not-as-good-as league, along with Fisherman’s Friends.

Soraya and Zak Bevis ( Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) are up-and-coming teenage wrestlers living in Durham in with an amateur wrestler dad and a wrestling-mad mum. They get the chance to try out in front of Dwayne Johnson and the coach (Vince Vaughn) from the US wrestling equivalent of The X-Factor. Soraya is flown to Florida to train for the big time; Zak has to stay home and coach the local kids.

Soraya dyes her hair and changes her name to Paige. The coach (Vince Vaughn) is a hard man to please and she fails to bond with the cheerleader bimbos in the training group who all seem to have gone to school with Buffy and Willow. Will Paige drop out or will she make it to the giant stadium for a title bout at ‘Wrestlemania’? No spoilers, natch, but Paige’s story is somewhat predictable. Zak’s story is a lot more involving, as he struggles to settle for broken dreams.

I didn’t find this grabbed me emotionally in the way that Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby did but it’s an agreeable movie, with believable performances all round, crisply scripted and pacily directed by Stephen Merchant. Dwayne Johnson, who they say sold the story to the studio money men, seems immensely likeable. The wrestling scenes are a joy to watch - so much more spectacular than what we used to see on black-and-white TV screens when I was the age of Paige and Zak!

FISHERMAN'S FRIENDS


If you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, you’ll be inclined to like this; it will help if you’re a fan of sea shanties.

There’s not a lot of plot: a music executive (Daniel Mays) is tricked by his mates into offering a recording contract to a group of Cornish fishermen who sing in pubs and at country fairs. Not an easy sell to the X-Factor generation, but when Danny falls for a fisherman’s daughter (Sarah Winter) his commitment grows and – if you know your pop music folklore, the rest is history. This is a movie loosely based on fact.

Despite its slimline script, Fisherman’s Friends has a lot of charm. We’re in Poldark territory, so the scenery is a guaranteed hit, and the fishermen are a likeable (mixed) bunch.  All in all, there’s a healthy dollop of the feel-good factor that made The Full Monty and the Marigold Hotel movies such crowd-pleasers.

 CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?


Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant didn’t win Oscars for this, but it’s easy to see why they were considered award-worthy. We’re used to watching McCarthy in loud potty-mouthed comedies. Here she’s in a lower key – still foul-mouthed – as Lee Israel, a lesbian New York writer of celebrity biographies whose sales are not keeping up with the rent or her whisky consumption. She hits on the idea of forging letters from famous dead authors and selling them to collectors of literary memorabilia. The money rolls in, and so does a down-on-his-luck near-neighbour Jake, also gay and also a big boozer. They drink together – rather a lot – and a friendship is 'forged'.

This is a sort of gay ‘bromance’. Not a lot happens and there are no big surprises, but as a character study it works perfectly. The two stars are on winning form (or not, as it turned out) – Grant has never been better - and the script strikes exactly the right balance between comedy and drama. It’s a lot like repertory theatre and leaves you wanting to applaud the actors. Another small ‘gem’ this winter, like Stan & Ollie.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Theatre at the cinema: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy night."

ALL ABOUT EVE


Gillian Anderson and Lilly James as Eve and Margo

Having given us her (magnificent) take on Blanche Dubois a few years ago, Gillian Anderson now brings another of the 20th-century’s great screen ladies to the stage: Margo Channing, a role Bette Davis played like a fire-breathing dragon. Ms Anderson attacks the role with appropriate scenery-chewing gusto; I wanted to applaud when she delivered the key “fasten your seatbelts” line! The set combines backstage scenes with video close-ups which build a vivid bridge between stage and screen. The male cast members, I should add, are uniformly splendid, but this is a play about women.

Monica Dolan is excellent as Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm in the movie) and Sheila Reid milks some good laughs from the part of Birdie, Channing’s put-upon dresser (Thelma Ritter in the movie). It’s hard not to picture Sheila Reid as Madge, driving her wheelchair like Boudicca’s chariot in ITV’s Benidorm. Gillian Anderson will forever be Agent Scully to me (and maybe to you too), and a hint of Scully’s vulnerability neatly underscores her steel as Margo. I hope she adds Norma Desmond to her CV in the near future!

Gorgeous Lily James plays the pivotal role of Eve Harrington, the star-struck fan who becomes Margo’s PA and then her understudy and finally her nemesis. James has done good work in movies and TV and she is good here too, but her performance lacks the subtlety of Anne Baxter’s in the movie, although this may simply have been lost in the translation from screen to stage.

Sheila Reid, Gillian Andderson and Monica Dolan

A great actress (I know, I’m supposed to say actor) inhabits the role she is playing, becomes the character. Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith – they always do this. Bette Davis was Margo, just as she was Baby Jane Hudson. Joan Crawford was a good actress, but as with so many actors you could see her applying technique to the role. Bette Davis (ditto Katharine Hepburn) was a great actress; you see the character, not the technique at work. Gillian Anderson brings that touch of greatness to her roles. Lily James does not – not yet – but I think she will.

NT Live will bring “Encore” showings of All About Eve to cinemas in your neighbourhood. For a fraction of the price of a theatre ticket you will get a masterclass in acting. Not to be missed.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Wot I'm reading: Never too much of Mr Bennett


Alan Bennett: KEEPING ON KEEPING ON


Having read the previous volumes of Mr Bennett’s Diaries, I put off reading this, thinking it was bound to be more of the same. Well, it is – and that’s what so joyful about it! His life is only a little bit grander than yours and mine – he and his partner shuttle by car and rail between their homes in Camden and Yorkshire (and an annual trip to a cottage in France). They take sandwiches on visits to beauty spots and country churches, they shop for antiques which usually require Rupert to do some restoration. Alan, of course, also does talks and readings and book-signings – and writes plays.

He supports causes close to his heart: keeping libraries open and schools open-minded are two of his great concerns. And he has bees in his bonnet: during the decade covered here, 2005-2015, the police kill an innocent Brazilian on the London Underground and never apologise. The British government colludes in the rendition of terror suspects. Tony Blair continues to pop up; Mr B despises him as powerfully as he did Lady T in a previous era. Nor is he a fan of David Cameron (“smart alec”), Richard Branson (“a bit of a pillock”) and Boris Johnson (“doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in his body”), among many others. He blames Classic FM and the National Trust for “the Torification of life” and deplores “the nastification of England” by property “improvers”. Waiting to go on a stage in West Yorkshire he is confronted by a pair of “sabre-toothed pensioners.”

He confesses to “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”. A newborn baby, his partner’s nephew “doesn’t make me feel old, just huge.” Old age (he’s approaching 85) has brought health issues and other drawbacks: “These days I am too old to be on my best behaviour. And I’m too old not to be on my best behaviour.”

Alex Jennings (who plays Mr Bennett)
 and Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van
There are insights into his creative process, in this case the writing of his Britten/Auden play, the one set in a not-so-stately home and the movies of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van. There’s a nice smutty episode when the cast of A Habit of Art are listening to sound-effect farts to choose an appropriate one for the actor playing Auden. After the Diaries there are some bits and bobs, including a lovely funeral tribute to John Schlesinger who directed An Englishman Abroad, in my opinion one of the finest hours television has ever produced.

 He is offered a cameo in the BBC mini-series of Fanny Hill – playing an old codger whom Fanny “fucks to extinction” – but turns it down: “I’ve always thought of myself a bit of a fraud as an actor.” Back in the 1960s when Beyond the Fringe was on Broadway he declined a supper invitation from Jackie Kennedy, only because of his natural shyness, from which he still suffers. Not only shy but modest. He tells us the critic Robert Hanks remarked that “personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel.

One cannot have too much of Mr Bennett.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Wot I'm reading: Sleeping Beauty and the Italian Stallion

Kate Zarrelli: TUSCAN ENCHANTMENT


I’m not normally a reader of Erotic Romances, but I made an exception for this one because Kate Zarelli and I became friends last year after meeting up on an editorial course run by the Curtis Brown literary agency. What a little gem her newly published novel is.

Antonia, a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ English librarian, emotionally scarred by a heartless lover, takes refuge in a research job in Italy and falls for her employer’s nephew Lorenzo, a magnificently gorgeous Italian stallion (the 'Bobby Ewing' cover doesn't do his gorgeousness justice!). Lorenzo’s ex, a Swiss beauty with a heart of ice, casts a shadow over their happiness.

Kate Zarelli’s style, polished and elegant, put me in mind of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. She breathes Tuscan warmth and perfume into the pages of the story. The erotic scenes are intense and sensuous with none of the lurid sensationalism of Fifty Shades of Grey. Tuscan Enchantment is very much at the Quality end of the Romance bookshelf.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Wot I'm reading: old cop, new cop

Michael Connelly: DARK SACRED NIGHT


In his last book Michael Connelly introduced a new detective, RenĂ©e Ballard, recently demoted to the LAPD night shift. In this follow-up he introduces Ballard to Harry Bosch, several years retired from LAPD and now working cold cases in San Fernando. The two team up on the unsolved murder a decade ago of teenager Daisy Clayton whose mother is a recovering junkie temporarily living with Harry. The investigation brings cop and ex-cop into conflict with a Latino gang headed by the improbably named Tranquillo Cortez (if Connelly drew his inspiration from Placido Domingo he could have called him Tranquillo Sabado). Another gangster is known as ‘Uncle Murda’ – puh-lease!

This is a messy case, a collection of loose ends that have to be pulled together. Tension is not as tightly ratcheted as we are accustomed to, but an ‘officer-in-peril’ episode cranks up the pace. Connelly’s great strength is his insight into the tarnished underbelly of the Golden State. The resolution of Daisy’s murder proves once again that Justice sometimes moves, like the Lord, in mysterious ways. Mysterious but satisfying.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

David at the movies: a gay 'bromance'?

STAN & OLLIE


Never a fan of Laurel and Hardy (didn’t like Norman Wisdom either; slapstick comedy doesn’t push my buttons), I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Stan & Ollie. But - a nice surprise - I was totally charmed by it.

After a Prologue showing the making of one of the movies of their Hollywood heyday, the story jumps to the 1950s when, thanks mainly to television, comedy has moved on from their kind of humour. They come to England for a tour of provincial theatres. Ollie (John C. Reilly) is overweight and overdue for a stroke. Stan (Steve Coogan) is struggling to come up with new material. Luckily for them, their fans are still happy to pay to see the same old pratfalls and clunky one-liners.

Coogan and Reilly are pitch-perfect as the two old hams; no-one could have played them better. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arlanda are terrific as their wives: Lucille (Henderson) watches Ollie’s drinking like a hawk; Ida (Arlanda) loves to talk about the acting career she never really had before marrying Stan. There could almost be another movie about the lives of the wives.

the originals!
Laurel and Hardy bicker like the old married couple they sort of are; they come close to falling out. Their act – especially the dance routines – was quite camp for its time, but there’s nothing here to suggest a gay relationship (something of a relief after this year’s early crop of lesbian rustling under the bedcovers!).

Stan & Ollie wears its heart on its sleeve – an affectionate tribute, beautifully written, splendidly directed and magnificently played, to a comedy duo who were deservedly loved by millions for a few decades in the mid-twentieth century. A joy from start to finish.


COLETTE


We mainly know Colette as the author of the book on which the much-loved movie Gigi was based, but before that she was a literary superstar in France and beyond as the author of the mega-selling Claudine series of saucy novels, which were to early 20th-century France what Fifty Shades of Gray has been to the new millennium. 

Her husband Willy Gauthier-Villars, a gambler and womanizer, originally published the first Claudine episode under his own name, although Wikipedia tells us he almost certainly employed a ghost-writer. The next ‘ghost’ was his teenage bride who battled in the courts to get herself credited as the books’ author.

The real Colette
The new movie dramatises, with a few necessary liberties, this battle. It also dramatises their marriage, how freely I’m not sure. Colette (Keira Knightley) is initially happy with her husband (Dominic West) and seemingly very happy with their energetic sex-life, but then she falls in love with an American millionaire’s gold-digging wife (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson). Later she becomes the great love of Paris’s most in-your-face butch bitch, Missy (Denise Gough). Colette’s affairs are reproduced in the Claudine books, making her a scandalous success in society as well as book sales.

 Plot-wise, the movie has to build a mountain out of a series of mole-hills, the moles being Collette and Willy’s frequent changes of partners. Unlike this winter’s other lesbian love-fest The Favourite, with its bawdy comic overtone, Colette is played very straight (ahem), so it’s not quite so much fun. Bravura performances all round. Sumptuous cinematography beautifully recreates Belle Epoque Paris, and with gorgeous frocks and throbbing sex scenes the movie is definitely a feast for the senses.


THE FAVOURITE


It’s the early 1700s. England’s war with France is not going well, and the Queen is playing with her rabbits. She has 17 rabbits, in memory of the 17 children she lost or miscarried. When she’s not playing with rabbits, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), gouty and doughty, is playing with her latest squeeze, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Yes, dear fellow citizens of the realm, our sometime sovereign lady Queen Anne was a "friend of Dusty" (long before Dusty). There is (Wikipedia) historical evidence (mostly letters) of a whole series of attachments to ladies of the court. In the movie Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) inveigles her way into the palace and, surprisingly soon, into the Queen’s bedchamber. The feud for Anne’s affections has ramifications in Parliament as well as in the palace.

There are some lesbian scenes here, plus a small amount of heterosexual sex in the movie – played for laughs – and a large amount of swearing, with liberal use of both F-word and C-word. The somewhat camp vulgarity and the brisk pace of the narrative will have reminded many in the audience of the Carry-On comedies. I was more reminded of The Madness of King George, Alan Bennett’s royal Regency romp, which wore its lese-majesty with a similarly brazen air of triumph.

The acting by the three female stars is nothing less than glorious. The male cast members are also outstanding in more ways than one. There are some weird camera angles which I found distracting and some of the music score is painful to hear, but this is another right-royal romp, tragi-comic with a bias towards comedy, not quite as enjoyable as Mr Bennett’s, but a splendid visual feast.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Wot I'm reading: The cemetery of unforgettable books


Carlos Ruiz Zafon: THE LABYRINTH OF THE SPIRITS



The Shadow of the Wind was one of those books that ‘blew me away’, much as John Fowles’s The Magus did in my teens and, much later, Salman Rushdie’s Shame and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. These were novels which seemed almost a reinvention of the storyteller’s art, taking fiction in new directions.

The Shadow of the Wind has become a quartet with the splendid overall title of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. After 18 years the series concludes with The Labyrinth of the Spirits. This – 800 pages - has taken me much longer to read than the others. The ‘magic’ that drew readers in their millions to Shadow is still there, though perhaps a little diluted this time.

As well as continuing the story of Daniel and Bea Sempere, the Barcelona bookshop proprietors, and their larger-than-life friend Fermin in the 1950s and beyond, Labyrinth introduces a new heroine, Alicia Gris, physically and mentally scarred in Spain’s civil war and grimly pursuing Mauricio Valls, a minister in Franco’s regime who formerly directed a brutal prison for political dissidents. The monster Valls is kidnapped and treated to some overdue rough justice. Alicia has a hard time catching up with him.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Towards the end of the novel Zafon unveils his literary ‘alter ego’ whose mentor stresses the importance not only of writing but of re-writing. Ironically, this epic novel could have done with a bit more rewriting. Many scenes are very overwritten and some of the dialogue is larded with clunky humour that seems to be channelling Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. But Zafon’s insightful way with words has not entirely deserted him: phrases like “the perfume of broken souls” fairly jump off the page.

This quartet is a magnificent achievement and its conclusion is sure to resonate with Zafon’s multinational legions of admirers. Salud y fuerza!