Friday, 18 November 2016

David at the movies: at last - an INTELLIGENT sci-fi movie

ARRIVAL


A sci-fi movie that assumes there is intelligent life in the cinema is something of a rarity. Arrival reworks themes from other movies - notably 2001 and Contact - but it reworks them with a fresh perspective that makes this movie seem intriguing and original.

Shell-shaped spacecraft arrive at various locations around the globe. The US one hovers over a field in Montana which quickly becomes a military zone like Area 51. Linguistics expert Amy Adams is summoned to try to communicate with the octopus-shaped aliens who squirt their words onto a clear wall that separates them from the scientists and their military escorts whom they allow inside the craft.

The big question, of course, which occupies the entire movie, is: Have they come in peace? With (fond!) memories of Mars Attacks and War of the Worlds, I was constantly anticipating mayhem. In the Pentagon (clearly not presided over by a Bush or a Trump) the doves, for once, are not silenced, but around the world the hawks squawk the loudest, inevitably.

The CGI here manages to be stunning without being over-the-top. Adams gives a nicely judged performance which justifiably dominates the movie. The story lacks pace but it delivers on thought-provoking content. Probably, as in 2001 and Contact, most of the audience will come out wondering, What the hell was that all about? Good: get 'em thinking. Treat us as intelligent beings - like the tentacle people!

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Seven years after his debut movie A Single Man, Tom Ford has directed another offbeat movie, adapted by him from a fairly off-the-wall novel. Amy Adams plays NYC art gallery owner Susan whose ex-husband Edward has just published a novel that she reads as an acid attack on her. The word REVENGE is spelled out in one of Susan's paintings, so we know where she's coming from. Edward's novel, visualised for the audience, features the violent outcome of a highway breakdown for Tony and his wife and daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and Tony, although in the desert scenes his wife is played by Isla Fisher, not Ms Adams.

The movie switches from the Susan scenes to the desert drama without confusion for the viewer. The violence is very graphic and reminded me of the Toby Jones version of Capote's In Cold Blood, which I watched again recently. As in A Single Man, fashionista Tom Ford directs for Style as much as Substance: the camera hovers on the details of decor both in Manhattan and in the desert; it also lingers on the faces and bodies of the actors. Gyllenhaal has rarely acted (or looked) better. Rather like Julianne Moore in the earlier movie, Amy Adams is unsympathetically presented: it's Jake who's as much the victim as his alter ego's family. This is a dark and disturbing movie, intelligently scripted and powerfully directed.

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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

David at the movies: Dante but not dandy!

INFERNO


This is the weakest of Dan Brown’s four books featuring 'symbologist' Robert Langdon and it certainly makes for the most mediocre of the (three, so far) movies. The Da Vinci Code was clever but a bit too earnest in its tone. Angels and Demons was over-the-top but enjoyably daft. Inferno is just a big muddle, unintelligible and occasionally inaudible to boot. Like most of the recent James Bond movies and the latest Jason Bourne adventure, it recycles plot elements and has a distinctly underweight villain.

Professor Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with amnesia and a very attentive doctor (Felicity Jones) who rescues him from an attempted assassination. As the pair go on the run through some of the city’s landmarks, Langdon’s memory starts to come back and we learn that he is meant to be thwarting a plan to unleash a plague that will reduce the world’s population by fifty per cent. As well as the villain's hitmen, the World Health Organisation is in pursuit him, led by an old flame of his (Sidse Knudsen, whom many of us remember as the Danish Prime Minister on TV). We are meant to be confused as to – excuse the pun – WHO is the bad guy here. The big 'reveal' halfway through is the point where the whole story becomes ludicrous. Cranking up the pace for the climax beneath the streets of Istanbul does not rescue the movie from chaos.

Tom Hanks looks as if he’d rather be in any movie but this one; his is not the only performance with an air of embarrassment. The plague scenario has already driven too many movies; it was perhaps best used in 007’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The Da Vinci references in Langdon’s first screen outing just about made sense; the Dante visions of Hell-on-Earth that pepper Inferno seem contrived and clunky. The usually dependable director (and Oscar-winner) Ron Howard has messed up here, big-time. Nice to be taken on a tour of Florence, though!


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN


Like this summer's Tarzan, here's another remake that is apt to make some viewers (me, for instance) ask: Why? There's plenty that's good about it, especially the lighting and cinematography, but the screenplay springs no surprises and neither do the performances.

The story is the same old same old. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt (hunky), Ethan Hawke (looking a bit weather-beaten) and four other gunslingers help the folk of a mining community in California confront the robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants to drive them out of town. I seem to have missed a vital point: why wouldn't he want the town to supply and support the miners? Anyway, Denzel and Co are recruited to turn the townspeople into an army that can outwit and outgun the nasty Bartholomew Bogue (I wanted his name to be pronounced 'bogie' or 'boogey'!). 

None of the gunmen is given much in the way of a back story: they all appear to be mercenaries, so the movie lacks a moral tone beyond the basic Good (town) versus Evil (mine-owner). The impending battle drives the narrative, which inevitably drags until we get to the shoot-out. This is extremely well done, relying on stunts and acrobatics rather than on CGI, always welcome from my viewpoint. Sarsgaard's Bogue is a lacklustre villain, like Christoph Waltz's recent take on Blofeld, and Denzel W, usually a very charismatic presence, doesn't invest too much in his role. 'Oomph' is conspicuously absent.

Not, then, a ground-breaking new Western like Unforgiven. More a retread than a remake.


BRIDGET JONES'S BABY


This is only Bridget's third appearance on the big screen but already she and her chums - all back except Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) - have the pleasing familiarity of the Carry On cast from an earlier era. The story begins, shockingly, at Daniel's funeral where Bridget has an embarrassing encounter with her Lost Great Love, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), now married to somebody else. To get over her grief Bridget goes to the Glastonbury music fest where she falls in the mud and is rescued by dating-site billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), the New Stud On The Block. Unfortunately only days after bestowing her favours on Jack (who wouldn't on still hunky Mr Dempsey?) Bridget also bestows them on old flame Mark. So when she finds out she's pregnant, she doesn't know who the father is; the plot, heavily recycled, requires her to be scared of allowing the foetus to be DNA-tested.

The rest of the movie goes down familiar rom-com territory as the two men compete to be The Man and Bridget's career in a TV newsroom goes, like her, pear-shaped. It's all extremely predictable but again, as with the Carry-Ons, familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt and the sheer pace of this frantic comedy helps make it seem fresher and more fragrant than it actually is; there are several gags which seem not so much borrowed as stolen. The ending manages to deliver a small surprise which allows us to look forward to Bridget IV.

Renee Zellweger slips effortlessly back into the role of Bridget, perilously poised between very annoying and rather endearing. Emma Thompson and Patrick Dempsey are welcome additions to the cast. There's a great soundtrack and a pleasing cameo from Ed Sheeran. This has better performances and a better script than the big screen version of Absolutely Fabulous - and is a lot more fun.


SWISS ARMY MAN


Movies don't come much weirder than this! Paul Dano plays Hank, marooned on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe. His Man Friday is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a washed-up corpse whose spectacular flatulence propels Hank into an amazing odyssey. Despite being dead Manny has other gifts – for starters, he can talk - and he’s a great listener. An unlikely friendship bonds the two of them together as they trek and scavenge their way back to civilization. Hank has a major crush on a girl he’s seen on his daily commute and she has a role to play in their bizarre adventure.

As ‘bromances’ go, this is at the far extreme of bizarre. Monty Python meets American Pie, with too many fart and ‘stiffie’ gags. Paul Dano’s Hank is the apotheosis of nerdiness (I thought him horribly miscast in the recent TV version of War and Peace), but here he manages to become sympathetic to the viewer as well as to Manny. Daniel Radcliffe has charm and a fair degree of charisma, even when playing a flatulent corpse; it’s safe to say he has laid Harry Potter to rest.

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.