Sunday, 25 June 2017

David at the movies: not worth digging up

THE MUMMY


People said this wasn’t worth the price of a cinema ticket. They were right! Luckily I saw it for free on a Tesco voucher.

Treasure hunter Tom Cruise and archaeologist Annabelle Wallis find an over-protected crypt beneath the Iraqi desert. It contains – what else did you expect? the Holy Grail? – the coffin of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was mummified and buried alive 3,000 years ago for trying to bring to life Seth, the Egyptian god of various kinds of nastiness. Transported to not-too-exotic Surrey and liberated by an act of will, Ahmanet unleashes lots more nastiness until … well, you can guess the rest.

Mummy movies date from 1932 when Boris Karloff was first bandaged up. Hammer exhumed up several mummies, starting with Christopher Lee in 1959. Then in 1999 Stephen Sommers launched a spectacular new series with Brendan Fraser busily trying to send Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) back to hell. The Imhotep movies were strong on CGI, as pacy as an Indiana Jones adventure and full of humour. This new version has plenty of CGI, an uneven pace and heavy-handed humour that mostly falls flat. Sofia Boutella may be sexier than Arnold Vosloo, but his Imhotep had a lot more charisma than her Ahmanet.

The desperate writers have also translated Dr Jekyll from Victorian London to a 21st-century laboratory, but he doesn’t add anything to the mix other than make Russell Crowe look uncomfortable at lowering his standards. Tom Cruise seldom chooses a dud role, but here he has: his Ethan Hunt action man doesn’t really work as Indiana Jones. The Mummy comes to life but the movie does not.


CHURCHILL


The critics have not taken very kindly to this 4-day biopic, but I found much to admire. It’s June 1944, in the week before D-Day, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is having grave doubts about the Normandy landings. World War One saw a similar beachhead go catastrophically wrong at Gallipoli, and Churchill took much of the blame for the disaster. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) are gung-ho for a great victory, and even King George (James Purefoy) is quietly optimistic. Clementine, Mrs Churchill (Miranda Richardson), worries about her husband’s stress – and his drinking. She doesn’t seem to worry about his smoking: we hardly ever see him without a cigar.

This is something of a ‘chamber piece’, more like a play than a movie, all talk and little action. There are no battle scenes; the Blitz is in the past; London is more or less a safe place in which to be planning a mighty campaign to defeat Hitler and Nazism. Brian Cox is made up to be a very believable Winston and he does a splendid job with the great man’s voice without lapsing into caricature. Only the cigars are overdone.

The rest of the cast are convincing, although Ms Richardson could have done with some sharper lines: her Clemmie is a bit like a Jane Austen mumsical matriarch. Cox is well-served by the script, although critics and historians are claiming that Churchill never actually had the four dark days of doubt and despair pictured here. There’s a scene of him at prayer which becomes very Shakespearean – the PM as King Lear!

So: a talky drama, not slight but a bit slender (in spite of Churchill’s Hitchcockian girth). The eve of a great moment in history. Authentic or not, this is stirring stuff.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Wot I'm reading: Mrs Blyton's call for a second referendum

Bruno Vincent:

FIVE ON BREXIT ISLAND 


Enid Blyton must be turning in her grave! Her Famous Five (four plus a dog) have been rudely pushed into adulthood by Bruno Vincent and confronted with some topical contemporary dilemmas. This one is Brexit. In the wake of the referendum George (Georgina) declares independence for Kirrin, her family’s private island off the Dorset coast. Nasty cousin Rupert arrives by a new water taxi service (called Uboat!) ahead of the media ‘Armada’ following the story that (for one day only) is making the headlines. In a possible nudge to Westminster, it takes a second referendum to settle the issue of ‘Krexit’.

Grown-up George has an air of Mrs Thatcher about her. Julian, podgy with flyaway blond hair, also strikes a familiar chord. The text comfortably recreates Mrs Blyton’s no-frills style. This is an amusingly slight parody, a tad overpriced at £7.99 for 102 pages. The full-page illustrations are lifted from the original era without maturing the characters: weren’t the publishers willing to pay for some new ones? The literary equivalent of TV and radio’s Dead Ringers, it has a few hits – and a few misses.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wot I'm reading: Brighton Schlock

PETER JAMES:

 Love You Dead


Brighton police super-intendent Roy Grace is having a busy month. The suspect from his last case, a serial killer, is on the run. There’s a string of car thefts and burglaries from the city’s poshest area. He has a new baby at home and his missing first wife has just been located in harrowing circumstances.

One of the burglars breaks into Jodie Bentley’s house in Roedean and dies from a snake bite. Jodie is a sociopath: she keeps snakes and other deadly creatures to help her bump off the rich old geezers she meets on dating sites. She marries them and kills them on honeymoon! Unluckily for this ‘Black Widow’, one of her victims works for the Mob, so when she returns to Brighton with 200 grand of looted money and a memory stick, there’s a hitman on her trail. Another worry for Superintendent Grace.

Peter James is Sussex’s best-selling author, a bigger seller than Henry James or E.F. Benson (the Mapp and Lucia books) and possibly even Rudyard Kipling, the three most famous authors to have lived in Sussex. Sussex is where I was born and the county I have returned to in my dotage. Brighton Rock is the most celebrated ‘noir’ novel set in Brighton (Graham Greene only stayed here while he wrote it).

Love You Dead is more 'naff' than 'noir'. Peter James is not a disciple of Greene, nor of that other noted James - Henry. If he’s a disciple of anyone, it must be Jackie Collins. Jodie Bentley is a campy creation who belongs in the pages of one of Jackie’s Hollywood Gothic sagas. James’s plotting, like hers, stretches credibility to breaking point, but (I concede this through gritted teeth) it does keep you turning the page. He writes, as she did, in short chapters with cliff-hanger endings His prose has a scarily similar sledgehammer subtlety: "She turned his face towards hers. He stared dead ahead. Unblinking. Nobody home.”

This is the first Peter James novel I’ve read. It will probably be the last. Brighton schlock.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wot I'm reading: D.H.Lawrence revisited in the 1960s

COLIN SPENCER: The Tyranny of Love


First published in 1967, this is the second in a quartet of novels about the working-class Simpson family from Croydon. I was deeply impressed by this when I read it in the 1960s and re-reading it now, it’s still an outstanding study of relationships.

The central character is Matthew Simpson, whom we first meet as a boy on the beach at Camber Sands in 1939, the last summer before the war. Matthew dotes on his sister Sundy (whose early life was the subject of Anarchists in Love, the previous novel in the series) and he’s close to his much put-upon mother Hester. The dominant figure in this part of the novel – and recurringly as Matthew grows up and grows away – is Eddy, his loud lecherous father, a builder and landlord, serially and unashamedly unfaithful to his wife. Matthew conceives a hatred for his father that will overshadow his life for years.

In postwar Croydon, now a teenager, Matthew falls in love with a fellow pupil at school, Jane, who is not a beauty but scholastically bright and timidly at odds with her middle-class parents who don’t think the Simpson boy is good enough for her. During his National Service Matthew realises that despite his (platonic) love for Jane he is more attracted to his own sex. He becomes depressed, even suicidal, and is finally rescued by Sundy’s bisexual husband Reg, a disturbed and dangerous love-object. Matthew drifts into voluntary work in a refugee camp in Austria, tormented by the impossibility of loving both Rex and Jane.

It’s clear that Colin Spencer was influenced by D.H. Lawrence. The Tyranny of Love has echoes of Sons and Lovers in its early chapters and even stronger echoes of Women in Love as the theme of complex sexual and romantic relationships is explored. There’s a power and intensity in the prose, although it’s not always an easy read: the dialogue is often clunky and laboured (as it is in Lawrence) and the viewpoint sometimes shifts disconcertingly from one paragraph to the next. There are some bawdy sex romps involving Eddy and his floozies which have almost the flavour of a ‘Carry-On’ movie, vividly contrasting with the fervent gay passion towards the end.

Spencer was writing in the era of the ‘Angry Young Men’ and a kind of rage underscores this novel throughout.  It’s not just a book for the Sixties, but also for today when many young people still struggle with their sexual identity and battle against parental influences that, however well-intentioned, blight their children’s emotional development.

A challenging read, but a rewarding one.

[Colin Spencer's quartet A Generation is published by Faber & Faber and is also available on Kindle.]

Friday, 19 May 2017

David at the movies: a John Hurt moment

ALIEN: COVENANT


Prometheus (2012) was a prequel to Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Covenant, also directed by Ridley (Gladiator) Scott, is a sequel to the prequel. Are you still with me? Keep up!

Ten years on from our last venture into deepest darkest space, another vast spaceship full of cryogenically dormant colonists is diverted by a radio signal to the planet where the Prometheus is marooned with robot David (‘synthetics’, they prefer to be called) the last survivor. Even before they find David, two of the crew inhale something nasty which puts the viewer on alert for a ‘John Hurt’ moment: there will be more than two of these.

The Covenant also has a synthetic crew member, Walter. Walter is an ‘upgrade’ of David, but his twin in looks, with both of them played by Michael Fassbender. Much as we had good Arnie and bad Arnie in the first two Terminator films, we have good and bad synthetics here, supplying the main plot ingredient – unless you think of the mutations and killings as the main course on the menu, which they more or less are.

The CGI (awesome) and the pace (erratic) of this epic try, not entirely successfully, to blind us to the fact that both on the planet and back on the mothership, there is some heavy recycling of the first two episodes in this 38-year saga. Billy Crudup’s captain is very much a re-run of the doomed captain of the Nostromo, and Katherine Waterston’s ballsy Daniels is practically a clone of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (who was, as we fondly remember, cloned herself in 1997’s Resurrection). Michael Fassbender is glamorous and persuasive in his Frankensteinian double role, but some of us still yearn for Sigourney to return.

Covenant is more of an action movie than Prometheus, which ventured down the mock-philosophical road of the Star Trek series. It’s also more of a horror movie, with regular infusions of ‘face-huggers’ and slaughter. Good scary fun. This franchise still has plenty of (alien) life in it.


THEIR FINEST



In wartime London a secretary from Wales, Catrin Cole, goes to work for the government’s propaganda film division. She has no screenwriting experience and is only required to write the ‘slop’ dialogue for the female characters in their latest production, which dramatizes the story of two sisters from Devon who pinched their father’s fishing boat to join the rescue of troops from Dunkirk. Of course, Catrin will prove indispensable to the success of the movie.

This is a slight comedy-romance with a feel of (deliberate?) amateurishness about it. London during the Blitz is splendidly recreated, but the cast of the movie – as well as the movie within the movie – play it like the members of a provincial repertory company; Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant and Henry Goodman turn in fruity cameos. Jake Lacy is appealingly awful as the US war hero pasted into the Dunkirk story, a hero with great looks and zero acting skill. Bill Nighy is encouraged to grandstand as an old ham whose ego is greater than his talent; he plays Ambrose in the style of Laurence Olivier, but the character rather recalls Sir Donald Wolfit (even more wonderfully sent up by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood).

Gemma Atherton is charming in the central role, although her Welsh accent doesn’t always hold up (reminding me of Vivien Leigh’s Belgravia Southern belle in GWTW). A star-crossed love story descends into mawkishness towards the end, but the film works best as a tribute to the chestnutty yesteryear comedies from Ealing Studios which we all hold so dear.


A DOG'S PURPOSE


If you love dogs (I hope this includes all my readers) you will adore this movie. If you don’t, take a hike – now. (All my hikes are with my dog.)

An engaging Buddhist philosophy underscores this tail – whoops, this tale – of four dogs who share the same ‘soul’ (isn’t it fantastic to be assured that our pets have souls?). Voiced by Josh Gad, our hero’s second and longest life is as the cherished companion of Ethan (K.J. Apa), a likeable teenager whose dreams of a sports scholarship and high-school romance  are egged on by the even-more-likeable Bailey. 

The trouble with a reincarnation movie is that Bailey has to die to be reincarnated. The cinema was awash with tears – and you have to go through this more than once. You somehow know that Bailey's next life as a police dog is unlikely to have a happy-ever-after. The final incarnation – perhaps only for now (there can be countless sequels)  – features Dennis Quaid as a curmudgeonly old geezer who will … well, you can guess what’s coming. The ending takes schmaltz to a new high – or, if your critical faculties haven’t been washed away completely, a new low.

Yes, there’s schmaltz overkill here. But I love dogs, and I adored this movie. The canine actors are splendid, and the humans acquit themselves very well also. 

A dog's purpose, most of us already know, is to love unconditionally. This movie affirms that - and does it beautifully.

Dennis Quaid with Buddy, Bailey's fourth incarnation.

A QUIET PASSION


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."

Isabel Allende: THE JAPANESE LOVER


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.