Sunday, 30 July 2017

David at the movies: Retreat for Victory

DUNKIRK


Remember the opening scenes in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan? The Normandy beach landings in June 1944. Explosions on the beach, bullets zipping through the guys in the sea. Dunkirk offers the same visceral experience of combat, only it lasts for an hour and three quarters. There are a few moments of calm between battles and bombardments, but these are always the preamble to the next grim phase of the conflict.

Christopher Nolan has directed some weird movies (Memento, Inception, the Dark Knight Batman trilogy). His only ‘weirdness’ here is to take three separate time frames – a week for the men on the beach, one day for the flotilla of small craft setting out to rescue them and one hour for the Spitfire pilots fighting the German bombers – and meld them into a fairly seamless narrative that condenses the drama into a solid 90 minutes of nerve-shredding tension. The scenes onboard a sinking mine-sweeper are among the most harrowing depictions of the total horror of war I've seen.

There are panoramic CGI shots to show the sheer size of the retreating army (400,000) but the script focuses on one soldier fighting to survive the day (Fionn Whitehead), one fishing boat captain (Mark Rylance) and one RAF pilot (Tom Hardy): these three are used to bring home to us that each of the soldiers and their rescuers had a backstory – a home, a family, a life – that they were laying on the line for their country, their king and their fellow men. A spot-the-celebrity element includes cameo appearances from Harry Styles, Michael Biehl and others whom I failed to identify. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play naval officers who occasionally veer close to the officers parodied in Oh What a Lovely War! – I hope this was intended.

Dunkirk joins the ‘pantheon’ of all-time great war movies and will surely win awards next winter. I was misty-eyed through much of it – and not just because my dad was one of the soldiers who went to Belgium and didn’t come back (I was two years old). There’s a temptation to see the ‘strategic retreat’ from the French coast in 1940 as an awful defeat, when in fact – as this version makes clear – many of the 300,000-plus men who were brought safely home to England returned to Normandy in 1944 to begin the destruction of Hitler’s military machine.


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES


Not a lot to say about this. There’s a limit to how much magic today’s over-done CGI can inject into to a franchise that’s run out of steam. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the thinking man’s King Kong, takes the last band of apes to a mining colony run by the vicious Colonel Woody Harrelson, where Caesar’s son is among the prisoners. The war is not just between the slave-apes and their masters (humans and ‘collaborator’ gorillas) but also between the colony and another army of humans who’ve survived the apocalyptic virus.

There are pleasing nods to other movies outside the genre. Some early snowscape panoramas reminded me of David Lean's awesome cinematography in Doctor Zhivago, and the prison colony is a cross between Mad Max’s Thunderdome and Kurtz’s jungle hideout in Apocalypse Now. Woody Harrelson’s ‘transition’ from monster to misfit makes no sense, and the humanity of the 'good' apes contrasted to the inhumanity of the humans is ladled on much too thickly. The sequels to the 1968 Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes became progressively dafter, so we must hope they shelve the franchise back in the studio archive for a decade or two now that this remake trilogy is complete. 


ALONE IN BERLIN


Germany 1940. Anna and Otto Quangel receive the telegram that every parent dreads. Their only son has been killed during the Nazi invasion of France. Otto's reaction is to place handwritten postcards around the city denouncing the Hitler regime. The inspector (Daniel Bruhl) in charge of finding the ‘traitor’ gets harsh treatment from his superiors as the cards keep turning up. But it only takes a small mishap for the case to be solved and justice, swiftly and harshly, administered.

This is a true story, recreated in a city very much like 1940s Berlin with ageing trams and the ever-present swastika banners. Emma Thompson's Anna has one moment of rage against her son’s death, and then for the rest of the movie her grief is internalised but always vivid in her face. Brendan Gleeson's Otto keeps his emotions even more in check, but you sense his concentrated fury as he slowly pens the seditious cards, careful to disguise his handwriting.

I didn’t know that the Nazis used the guillotine – that most grisly of capital punishments, always associated in my mind with France's revolutionary Reign of Terror. The fate of a Jewish widow in the Quangels' building is handled with a delicate touch that barely hints at the vaster horrors which lie in the years ahead.

The film has some of the flavour of repertory theatre. Its slight story gains magnitude from the subtle intensity of the two central performances. It perhaps does well to remind us that not all Germans rolled over in the face of the Nazi ‘machine’ – and that the loss of a son is just as momentous to an enemy as to ourselves and our allies.



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.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre at the cinema: New York in the 'Plague' years


Part Two: Perestroika

This was more than Part One in every sense of the word. Longer (4 hours 20 minutes) and considerably louder but covering very much the same ground. As the gay Mormon torn between his neurotic wife and (equally neurotic) boyfriend, Russell Tovey holds his own against the competition from Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in considerably showier roles, as do Susan Brown in the role (one of several she plays) of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and Amanda Lawrence as the Mormon mom who 'adopts' Garfield in the hospital Aids ward (she also has multiple roles). 

Nathan Lane has a protracted death scene which is both comic and tragic. Garfield looks like a latter-day Greta Garbo much of the time. He has several more scenes with the Angel who has told him he is to be a 'Prophet': the theme is central to the play but this kind of New Age mysticism (whoops, I nearly said 'claptrap') tends to get on my nerves. Good as the play is, brilliantly acted and thrillingly presented in this production from the National Theatre, I felt that Less might be More (the TV version 'condensed' the two plays into five-and-a-bit hours), but there's no denying what a powerful picture it presents of America during the Reagan years, the 'Plague' years. 

This is a one-of-a-kind play: long, shouty, vehemently anti-Establishment - but dazzling.  

There will be be ‘encore’ showings of both Parts in cinemas next month. Challenging theatre but highly recommended.


Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in ANGELS IN AMERICA

ANGELS IN AMERICA Part One: Millennium Approaches
(Review from last week)

I didn’t see this award-winning play when it was first performed in the 1990s. This new production from London’s National Theatre was screened live in cinemas this week, with Part Two showing next Thursday. The play revisits the 1980s, when New York gay men were dying in frightening numbers from Aids and the Reagan administration was trying hard to look the other way.


The play is weirdly structured, a mixture of domestic drama, anti-Republican satire and New Age pseudo-spiritualism. The central drama is the relationship between Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a gay man with Aids, and his lover Louis (James McArdle). Then there’s the collapsing marriage between Joseph (Russell Tovey), a repressed gay Mormon from Utah, and his neurotic wife Harper (Denise Gough). Joseph is a protégé of real-life New York attorney Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), who didn’t consider himself to be gay – he was a heterosexual who had sex with men! – and claimed to be suffering from liver cancer rather than Aids.

Andrew Garfield shows he is as good onstage as he is onscreen in a blistering performance, including a memorable drag-scene in the style of Norma Desmond. Nathan Lane converts his gloriously OTT character from The Producers into an odious but somehow pitiable loudmouthed Roy Cohn. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is much less showy but very persuasive. Nearly all the cast play multiple roles, including gender-crossing parts by Denise Gough and Amanda Lawrence.

This is a tough play about a tough time for New Yorkers. There’s a lot of shouting, a barrage of f-words and even some simulated gay sex. At three-and-a-half hours (with four-and-a-quarter more to come in Part Two) this is a long play, funny, sad, crude, occasionally tiresome (too many hallucinations for my taste), but viscerally enthralling.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Wot I'm reading: Bosch is back

Michael Connelly: 

THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE


It’s a long time since I read a book in just three days, but this one was hard to put down – like pretty well all the previous Harry Bosch tales (this is number 21). Harry has had a sour parting from the LAPD and is now attached part-time to the San Fernando Police Depart-ment, investigating a serial rapist who the profilers expect to morph into a serial killer. Harry also does some private work and is hired by a dying billionaire to find the child he thinks he fathered decades ago, who if he/she exists will inherit his vast fortune.

Neither of these cases is unduly complex but Michael Connelly’s great gift is to make the painstaking follow-up of clues and leads intensely fascinating. He always describes the routes Bosch takes criss-crossing the freeways of Greater Los Angeles: after 21 books I feel I could easily find my way around the city! Like Stephen King (and Charles Dickens – we’re in a great tradition here), Connelly fleshes out even minor players into fully rounded characters, and he also manages, in every book, to spring a last-minute surprise to Bosch’s investigations – two surprises here. 

Mickey Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’ and Harry’s half-brother, makes a guest appearance, and the paperback ends with the first 40 pages of Connelly’s next book which will introduce an ambitious new female detective to the LAPD. Can we wait? We have to!

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Wot I'm reading: the judge's gay son

Adam Mars-Jones: 

KID GLOVES


Subtitled ‘A Voyage Round My Father’ (borrowing from John Mortimer’s memorable biography), this is a subtle and charming memoir from one of Britain’s leading gay writers. William Mars-Jones was a Queens Counsel, a Knight and a High Court Judge. As a father he was somewhat Victorian, not touchy-feely like today’s dads (up to and including Prince William), not noted for humour, more generous with criticism than praise. He was also homo-phobic, making him a less than ideal parent for Adam. The process by which he came to terms with his son’s homosexuality was a slow one, helped to a considerable degree by the onset of dementia. Ironically it was the gay son who offered the most support during the judge’s long decline.

Adam takes us through the highlights of his father’s illustrious career, but it is the family ‘saga’ that provides the most engrossing element of the book. Some of the peripheral characters are wonderfully presented: the agency carers, lawyers great and small, and Adam’s lovers (odd that he makes them peripheral to his memoir) – one of whom died of Aids at 26.

William’s wife, Sheila, died before him, of a grim cancer. She died at home, in a separate bedroom from her husband to spare him, with his own health struggles, full exposure to her death. ‘She had uncoupled the marital train and left her husband behind in a siding,’ Adam writes in one of the book’s many memorable sentences. ‘It was kid gloves all round,’ he explains the title, ‘some of them elbow-length, in the debutante or drag-queen manner.’

The book is written with dry humour and a measured detachment, but the reader is always aware of the pain and the grief that have been the author’s frequent companions. His dad ought to be immensely proud of him.

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.