Friday, 24 February 2017

David at the movies: Gay and Black - a tough call

MOONLIGHT


This is the movie which (along with Manchester by the Sea) has the best chance of blocking La La Land from garnering a record haul at the Academy Awards this weekend. I hope it does. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but it rewards giving it your attention.

The life of a young gay black man in Miami is told in three instalments, with different actors playing him at three different ages (the lack of resemblance between the three is one of the movie’s hurdles). We first see him as a boy, neglected by his crackhead mother (Naomie Harris on blistering form), bullied at school for being weak and ‘different’ but befriended by a macho drug-dealer and his girlfriend. In Part Two Chiron is a troubled teenager who briefly finds romance with one of the bullies and learns to fight back. In Part Three he is an ex-con with a bodybuilder's physique and gold teeth but still very much a loner – and desperately lonely. A dark, bleak movie ends with a faint hint of hopefulness.

This is a very different movie from Brokeback Mountain but it addresses the same theme: the challenge of being gay in a gay-hating world. Moonlight suggests that a black neighbourhood in Miami is more homophobic than anywhere else (ironical given that South Miami is practically a gay ‘haven’ – if not a gay ‘heaven’). The three actors who play Chiron are all excellent, as are all the supporting cast. Much of the dialogue is unintelligible to a British audience and the mood of the movie is probably too bleak for many people, but anyone who admired Brokeback is sure to find Moonlight a deeply absorbing experience.


HIDDEN FIGURES


So soon after Jackie we’re back to the Kennedy era again, with this uplifting tale that puts a shaded meaning on the ‘race’ element of the Space Race. Hidden Figures – the title is a clever pun – is the story of three African- American women whose mathematical brilliance made a vital contribution to the effort to catch up with the Russians who’d rocketed the first man out of Earth’s atmosphere.

The women were called ‘human computers’ – we later see the installation of the clunky great IBM machine that would take over much of the laborious number-crunching these workers performed. The movie goes out of its way to show how tough black women’s lives were in the workplace: ‘colored’ toilets, restricted prospects for advancement and constant daily humiliations from white co-workers (one of them is given her own coffee dispenser next to the one the white staff use). Writer/director Theodore Melfi shows us their home lives too, which are surprisingly similar to the lives of white folk. The number-crunching sequences are executed crisply enough not to overwhelm the audience with mathematics.

The script perhaps slightly over-eggs the three women’s vicissitudes to heighten the drama, but the three actresses (Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) give rock-solid performances with very few moments of ‘grandstanding’. Kevin Costner is similarly ‘solid’ as the head of the Space Research Division.

This is another film, like last month’s Lion, that’s bursting with the ‘feel-good factor’. The feel-good factor is something Hidden Figures (if you’ll excuse another very un-PC pun) delivers in spades.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wot I'm reading: A box of gay goodies

A BOXFUL OF IDEAS


It’s not comme il faut to review one’s own work, but my contribution to this new anthology (their sixth) from Paradise Press is only a brief piece of Flash Fiction (‘Alice Swings’ – on the ‘B’ theme of LGBT), so perhaps it’s okay if I only mention it in passing.

An anthology is like a box of chocolates: they are all perfectly edible but some are more ‘delicious’ than others. Some have ‘a soft centre’; rather more have a harder edge (nothing too ‘hard-core’).  Not every-thing here is on a gay theme (don’t be put off: most of it is), and there is poetry as well as prose. There are several poems by Mike Harth who died last year, one of the founders of both Paradise Press and its ‘parent’, the Gay Authors Workshop (which he naughtily mocks in a story called ‘Group Reading’). Mike’s warmth, his wit and his wisdom are sorely missed by those of us in GAW who came to know and cherish him.

Jeremy Kingston contributes some delicious verse (as he always does at GAW meetings) and a clever story – ‘The Twist of the Vice’ – that revisits Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw from the viewpoint of one of the children and makes the governess more villain than victim. The narrator of Les Brookes’s ‘You Farzan, Me Duane’ recalls the summer when he fell in love with an Iranian boy in his school: this resonated with me! Beth Lister, another of my GAW favourites, has a story, ‘Dog Minder’s Monday Morning’, in which an 80-year-old lesbian yearns for a younger lover/companion. In contrast to this, Alice Wickham’s bitter-toned ‘Love and Hate’ shows a lesbian relationship that fails to take off.

Psychiatrist Donald West, GAW’s eminence grise, contributes an essay called ‘Facing up to Paedophilia’ which invites us to ‘understand’ the mind-set of child-molesters. Our bishops and pastors urge Christians to hate the sin but love the sinner – something many of us find a hard pill to swallow where paedophiles are concerned. I was 68 when I met my Iranian partner, who was 35. Had I met him twenty years earlier he would have been 15 (and probably very delectable, like Farzan in the story mentioned above!), so perhaps I must accept Professor West’s injunction not to be too judgmental.

You don’t have to be gay to appreciate the myriad pleasures of A Boxful of Ideas, though it helps if you are!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

David at the movies: American hero without a gun

HACKSAW RIDGE


Wow. Mel Gibson’s ‘comeback’ as a director is a war movie more savage, more visceral than anything I’ve seen since Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island in 1958, which probably wasn’t as brutal as I remember it.

Andrew Garfield is a powerful central presence as the Christian boy from Alabama who wants to serve his country with a medical kit rather than a gun and who is viewed by his comrades first as a coward, then as a hero. As he did in Silence last month, Garfield continues to remind me of the young Montgomery Clift. I'd like to see him - and Gibson - win Oscars for this. Sam Worthington contributes a solid performance as the platoon captain, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Garfield’s violent drunken father and abused mother were presumably cast as a ‘nod’ to Gibson’s Australian roots.

The end-credit ‘portfolio’ of photos and interviews with the real-life Desmond Doss and the men he served with clearly underlines the fact that this is a true story about an amazing true hero. Viewers may wonder if Gibson ramped up the battle scenes a few degrees. Was there really as much 'medieval' hand-to-hand combat between our guys and the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa as there was in the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses? Did our guys really torch the enemy with flame-throwers? Did Desmond Doss really single-handedly save so many wounded soldiers (some of them Japanese)?

As in Braveheart and Apocalypto (and even in The Passion of the Christ), Mel Gibson focuses perhaps too lingeringly on gory death and dismemberment, but there’s no denying that Hacksaw Ridge brings home the full horror of war – and the outstanding heroism that can blossom amid the carnage.

JACKIE


I’d intended to pass on this, assuming it would be another soap-opera version of history, like the dire Diana movie four years ago. But with Natalie Portman Oscar-nominated, it seemed worth seeing – and it is. The scenes recreating JFK’s assassination and the state funeral are as harrowing to view now as they were in 1963, and the moments Jackie shares with the children, John Junior and Caroline, are exquisitely poignant. The movie’s other main focus is on an interview between the First Lady and a reporter (Billy Crudup) in which she intends to secure her husband’s historical legacy. To hammer home the inextricable link between the Kennedy White House and Camelot (Jackie demands the credit for this), we get to hear Richard Burton singing the show’s title song – twice (a musical treat!).

Portman’s portrayal of the widow in the historical scenes is flawless, a woman forced to share her grief with the cameras and the Johnson Administration staff.  In the interview scenes Portman alternates between insecurity and a kind of imperiousness that made me think she was channelling Helen Mirren channelling Elizabeth II. The tour of the White House renovations she did for television in 1961 is reconstructed, with Jackie all nervy and breathless and reminding me (how ironical) of Marilyn Monroe. Peter Sarsgaard makes a believable Bobby Kennedy, mainly required to be a shoulder to cry on. Caspar Phillipson is a good look-alike for Jack in the historical scenes, although Billy Crudup also has a degree of resemblance to the President, which I found disconcerting.

I’m going to be the Grinch of the Season and say that, although this film does considerable justice to its subject, I don’t think it deserves to win awards, but then I feel the same way about La La Land, which is clearly heading for glory.


LION


As so often these days, the trailer for Lion gives too much of the story away, including the ending, which robs it of any chance to surprise us. What did surprise me was how involving the story was. Sunny Pawar who plays the 5-year-old Paroo, marooned in Calcutta 1500 miles from his home village, is the most appealing and compelling child star since Joel Haley Osment. Both in India and in the early scenes in Australia after he is adopted by Nicole Kidman and her husband, he is gut-wrenchingly convincing as a lost little boy. Not just likeable, this kid is utterly lovable.

Dev Patel is someone we already like thanks to the Marigold Hotel movies, and here as the 30-year-old Saroo he comes pretty close to being lovable as well. Ms Kidman delivers one of her best-ever performances as the Aussie mum with a heart of gold. The script slightly loses its edge and some pace as Saroo wrestles with his memories and with Google Earth before embarking on the trip to be reunited with his lost family. His brother in Tasmania, another adopted Indian but with behavioural issues, gets forgotten in the final scenes – a careless oversight in a movie about abandoned siblings. 

The postscript, offering us glimpses of the real Paroo and his two mothers, comes close to schmaltz overkill but this is a picture that sets out to warm the cockles of our cold cynical hearts – and warm them it does (if your cockles aren’t warmed you might want to think about a transplant).


LA LA LAND


After rave reviews there’s now a massive Oscar buzz attached to La La Land. Sorry to rain on the big parade but I was not blown away. Yes, there’s some charm here with all the homage to the Golden Age of romantic musicals, and Ryan Gosling remains the most charismatic of today’s young stars, but the music simply isn’t musical enough. Gosling and Emma Stone can just about carry a song and do a bit of amateur hoofing, but really the singing is nearly as ragged as it was in the screen version of Les Miserables and the dancing is about as far from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as the first round of ‘Dancing With the Stars’.

OK, Kelly and Astaire (and Ginger Rogers and other co-stars of theirs) did not have great singing voices, but they were fantastic dancers and the song-and-dance numbers in their movies were never less than dazzling. The closest La La Land comes to dazzling is in the final routine, a low-rent tribute to An American in Paris, but it just doesn’t have enough dazzle. As musicals go, fings ain't what they used to be. 

The jazz club scenes hit the only high spots. Gosling really looks as if he’s creating magic on the piano, but there’s no magic in his singing or his dancing – nor in Stone’s, who alas doesn’t have her co-star’s redeeming charisma. The love-story has a certain amount of charm but, like the music, it could do with a bit more 'zing'.

The Golden Age nostalgia also extends to a clunky tribute to Rebel Without a Cause. But nostalgia just isn’t enough and there’s too much clunkiness on display here. They say there isn’t the money to create great musicals like we had in MGM’s heyday. Surely it would take only a fraction of the budget for a CGI-heavy action movie or space opera to hire some first-rate dancers and singers who can act - or, if we must, actors who can sing (or mime to a better singer)? Singin' in the Rain cannot have been a big-budget production, but it's still the greatest of the greats.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wot I'm reading: Admirable but not lovable

Kate Atkinson: A GOD IN RUINS


It’s taken me several weeks to get through this, which normally indicates a boring book, but in fact A God In Ruins is one the best novels I’ve read in recent years. It’s not an easy read – there’s as much style as substance at play here – which may be why I kept putting it down. Not that it’s short on substance: over 500 pages on the long life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in World War II, and the complicated lives of his mother, his sister, his wife and his children.

Kate Atkinson does things that authors are generally told they shouldn’t. She switches viewpoint, she jumps in and out of different time periods and she leaks future plot developments. I sometimes felt as if a kaleidoscope was being shaken for me. Atkinson, like Fay Weldon, is an intrusive narrator, ironically critical of her characters’ flaws: ‘There was passion between them, but it was of the orderly, good-humoured kind.’ She pulls one last ‘trick’ at the end which I rather wish she hadn’t. I was reminded, only slightly, of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a novel I found a bit too literary, a bit too tricksy.

The sections covering Teddy’s bombing runs to Germany are some of the best war writing I've seen, at least as good as Pat Barker’s award-winning World War I trilogy. After giving away the fact that a key character will die early, she nevertheless makes the death chapter unbearably poignant. Her prose is wonderfully fluent; the plotting may be pretentious but the writing is not. Overall, though, like John Fowles and Elena Ferrante, Kate Atkinson is easier to admire than to love.

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! 

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’.  Finistère 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.