Tuesday, 4 August 2020

David at the Movies: "the horror ... the horror"


BBCtv just showed this extended (2 hours 53 mins) version of Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmare vision of the Vietnam War. There’s a French plantation scene I don’t remember from 1979 which seemed improbable – in a movie which makes the improbable seem horribly believable – but the stand-out moments still stand out. Robert Duvall (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) encouraging his men to surf the incoming tide during a bombardment. The Playboy centrefolds strutting their stuff on a riverside stage. Marlon Brando’s Kurtz like some primeval demonic god in his jungle temple.

There is no iota of romance or sentimentality here: the GIs load an injured toddler into a helicopter but we don’t know if the child lived or died. On the river they rescue a cute puppy from a shoot-out, only to mislay it during the next confrontation.

At the heart of this dark, dark movie (inspired by Joseph Conrad’s African novel Heart of Darkness) is Martin Sheen’s Willard. A bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we see from the start that Willard is a man already damaged, probably a sociopath, but the perilous trip up the river and the confrontation with Kurtz turn him into a psychopath, as deluded and dangerous as the renegade he has been tasked with eliminating.

The Radio Times film critic named this as his favourite picture. Brilliant as it clearly is, it’s not mine (If it’s possible to have a “favourite” Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter is mine, as much thanks to its beguiling theme music as to its disturbing central storyline). Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (I even admire the operatic Part Three) is in my top ten movies, even in my top three, and I very much admire his gloriously Gothic take on the legend of Dracula. But the power and the sheer brilliance of Apocalypse Now cannot be denied. Very few movies have this intensity.

Brando’s last words – “the horror ... the horror” – haunt Willard. They haunt me.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

What I'm Reading: the ruthless Saudi Crown Prince

Daniel Silva: THE NEW GIRL

Khaled bin Mohammed, generally known by his initials, KBM, is the proactive and ruthless Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Previously famous for opening cinemas and allowing women to drive in the Kingdom, he’s now reviled because he ordered the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi dissident in the embassy in Istanbul. Reema, his 12-year-old daughter, attends an exclusive private school in Switzerland. Only a handful of people know who the New Girl's real identity, so her kidnapping should have been impossible. Because there are geopolitical ramifications, the Prince calls in the world’s most efficient spymaster to mount a rescue – Gabriel Allon, head of Israeli Intelligence.

Racing between Geneva, London, Washington and Tel Aviv, there are (literally) explosive moments in the muddy trail followed by Gabriel and his mixed team of Israeli/MI6/CIA operatives. There’s another New Girl in the story, Rebecca Manning, newly appointed to Moscow's SVR (the former KGB) but previously close to the top of MI6 - Gabriel exposed her as a "mole" in The Other Woman, the previous Silva novel. Rebecca is the illegitimate daughter of the most famous double agent of them all, Kim Philby.

This is one of Mr Silva’s more "audacious" spy thrillers. In a Foreword he makes no secret of the fact that he has drawn on a real-life Saudi prince known by his initials – and widely believed to have sanctioned a grisly murder in an embassy in Istanbul. Silva fictionalizes the British Prime Minister (more Cameron than Johnson), but he avoids naming the Presidents of the USA and Russia (as previously, he calls Russia’s head of state “the Tsar”, a term that could almost be applied to the imperious current White House ruler!).

Bold, brisk and highly believable, The New Girl showcases Daniel Silva’s exceptional grasp of global politics. Incidental details are always a pleasing part of the mix: the sedate Essex village of Frinton-on-Sea provides one of his UK locations. This is my third Gabriel Allon adventure in a little over a year. It’s the best of the three – and one of the finest in the 20-plus series.

Monday, 13 July 2020

What I'm reading: the new Fanny Hill?


I seem to be having an “erotic week”. 365 Days on Netflix, which seriously pushes the envelope on soft-core movie-making. And now Kate Zarelli’s new novel which does the same for X-rated fiction, the area most famously occupied in recent years by Fifty Shades of Gray

Ellie Murphy, a raven-haired Irish beauty teaching English in Venice, begins a torrid affair with the hunky professor whose book on Casanova she is proof-reading. A master of the sensual arts, Piero soon has her role-playing some of the legendary lothario’s amorous adventures, appropriately costumed: the chambermaid with the novice priest, the prostitute with the soldier on furlough. Piero also introduces Ellie to a gifted artist who paints her in provocative poses for a “special” client, who is allowed to watch the modelling.

Signorina Zarrelli’s steamy sex scenes are the most explicit I’ve seen in a long time. They are also elegantly written. Phrases like “her quivering moistness” reminded me of Fanny Hill, the 18th-century “grandmother” of literary pornography (I bought my copy of Fanny Hill on the Via Veneto in 1969, a stone's throw from the Vatican!). Zarrelli also brings the city of Venice richly and vividly to life – its beauty, its magic, its mystery. And its dark side: Ellie has a mysterious stalker who adds dramatic tension to the story.

This sort of book is not everybody’s taste. It’s not usually mine; I found Fifty Shades unreadable. But The Casanova Papers is in a very different league. It deserves to become a new Classsic of literary erotica.

Friday, 10 July 2020

David at the Movies: the Italian super-stallion

365 DAYS (Netflix)

Wow! The line between soft-core and hardcore is getting a heck of a lot narrower. This Polish/Italian mish-mash is a tale of obsession, although its star stud, Italian stallion Michele Morrone, looks like a model for Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance. He plays Massimo, a Sicilian gangster who kidnaps a Polish woman, Laura (Anna Maria Sieklucka), because she resembles the girl of his dreams. He tells her he will keep her for 365 days until she falls in love with him.

Needless to say, it takes only a few minutes of screen-time before she surrenders to his considerable charms. His career as a Godfather is hardly shown, in case it gets in the way of the ‘romance’. Sieklucka is a pretty woman, but the camera concentrates on Morrone, who is impossibly handsome. His hair, never out of place, reminded me of George Hamilton.

The plot is about as slender and incidental as it was in Joan Collins’s two forays into erotica, The Bitch and The Stud. The endless bonking is the only reason to watch this. Female (and gay) viewers will drool. Signor Morrone is the pinnacle of drool-worthy. Straight male viewers might prefer to dig out their old video of Debbie Does Dallas.

Friday, 3 July 2020

What I'm reading: Gays in High Places


It’s the winter of 1976. Tom Wildeblood, a 20-year-old rent-boy, accidentally becomes a private eye following the murder of another youngster from the Piccadilly arcade where punters find their prey. The trail rapidly leads to Gays in High Places, notably to the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. In this ‘What If’ version of real events, amateur hitmen have murdered Thorpe's toyboy Norman Scott and are now looking for our inept hero and his boyfriend.

With Tom Driberg, Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender in its cast, Beneath the Streets is an uneven mix of the mighty and the mundane. Tom’s estranged mum and dad in Reading are about as mundane as you can get. In Downing Street, Wilson is a fading force, over-reliant on Falkender, a PA with too much power. We are reminded that people in high places frequently have feet of clay – in Jeremy Thorpe’s case, very muddy clay. And the story ends with a chilling hint of other shocking scandals that, in 1976, were still under the radar.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

What I'm reading: Funny and sad and a bit disturbing

David Sedaris: NAKED

An earlier set of recollections than the David Sedaris book I read last year, this is a memoir covering his boyhood in North Carolina and some time he spent 'on the road'. Needy and nerdy, he suffered from OCD and competed aggressively with his siblings for their parents’ attention. His mom once congratu-lated herself on having six unmarried children: “I’ve taken the money we saved on weddings and am using it to build my daughters a whorehouse.” Wish my mother had been so acerbic!

Sedaris grew up gay in a town and a time where ‘faggots’ were easy bait for bullies. He worked as a volunteer in a local mental hospital and met an equal number of weirdos and psychos hitchhiking or riding Greyhound buses. Dropping out of college, he spent a summer fruit-picking and fruit-packing. One of his co-workers was a major-league dumbass: “I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer."

David Sedaris 
Hard to believe from an early life like this that Sedaris, now in his sixties, matured into a noted broadcaster and essayist. There are pleasing echoes of Truman Capote in his fluent prose and even his life style. Naked (the title is from a chapter in which he moves into a nudist trailer camp: weirdos in the buff!) is funny and sad and a bit disturbing. Keep an ear out for the author’s occasional monologues on Radio 4 – like our 'National Treasure' Alan Bennett, he’s a joy to listen to as well as a joy to read.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

What I'm reading: Romance with Hardy echoes


It’s 1917. In Oxford-shire’s Chiltern Hills beautiful young Ellen Quainton has been brought up in the austere Primitive Methodist faith. Grieving for a fiancé lost on the Western Front, she is wooed by Sam Loveridge, one of a group of gypsies helping to bring in the harvest. Sam has an ill-tempered wife who has failed to give him any children.

Ellen recklessly surrenders to seduction by the hand-some gypsy. Romany culture is as hide-bound as the “Prims” and Sam is forced to serve jail-time for another man’s crime. In prison he is brutally flogged, but then befriends a parson who teaches him to read and write. Meanwhile, in the Chilterns, an elderly widower rescues Ellen from the shame of pregnancy, but her heart has been lost to Sam, who knows he will look for her after his release.

Passion and tragedy are combined by Katie Hutton into a rich powerful saga. The author is a writer of substance: this fateful love affair brings echoes of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The Gypsy Bride has a fine pedigree; romance readers will find it deeply absorbing. And a sequel is promised next year!

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

What I'm reading: Bosch and Ballard - the new A-team

Michael Connelly: THE NIGHT FIRE

Harry Bosch is now an ex-detective, pushing 70 and nursing a new knee. But you can’t keep a good man down, and Harry is helping his half-brother Micky Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’, unravel a wrongful-conviction case. He also assists Renée Ballard, of the LAPD night watch, on what seems to be a random crime, the burning to death of a homeless man in his tent under the freeway. And the widow of an old friend gives him a file that reopens an old 'cold' case. Of course, these three investigations will crisscross and eventually intersect. Not for the first time, Bosch and Ballard find themselves looking down a gun barrel.

Michael Connelly’s cops solve crimes by stakeouts and wiretaps and dogged persistence. Every now and then this author produces an outstanding thriller – The Narrows and Echo Park are two of his greatest: chase them up if you’ve missed them. The Night Fire is not outstanding, but it‘s very, very good.

Friday, 8 May 2020

What I'm streaming: Rock Hudson, the pioneer of gay liberation


This is up there - for me - with Grace & Frankie in the "Best of Netflix". It starts well in a splendid recreation of 1940s Hollywood with a far-from-fictitious LA gas station, run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott, clearly enjoying himself in an off-character role) with a sideline in pimping his hunky attendants as gigolos and rent-boys. The hunkiest of the gigolos is Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a wannabe filmstar who can’t even get hired as an extra until he screws Avis Amberg, a studio head’s neglected wife (Patti LuPone, outstanding in a cast of fine actors). Another of the gas station boys is Archie (Jeremy Pope), a cute black guy whose first ‘client’ is Roy, another struggling actor who will come to be superstar famous when his name is changed to Rock Hudson (Jake Picking, a very good look-alike).

David Corenswet and Dylan McDermott, a gigolo and his pimp

When Avis takes over the running of her ailing husband’s studio she ‘greenlights’ a movie about Peg Entwistle, the actress who jumped off the Hollywood sign in the 1930s. The movie is scripted by Rock’s new boyfriend Archie and directed by another newcomer Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss, who played Gianni Versace’s serial killer stalker a couple of years back).

There never was a movie about poor Peg, and this take on her story goes somewhat off the rails when the decision is made to change Peg to Meg and give an opportunity to Raymond’s gorgeous black girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier). So, the two big twists on the ‘real’ history of Tinseltown are the breakthrough for black actors on screen being brought forward by several decades, and Rock Hudson becoming a pioneer of gay rights also many years before any major player risked coming out of the closet.

Jack Picking as Rock Hudson: "Fill it up, and while you're about it ..."

Gays everywhere knew that Rock was a ‘fag’ but it was kept a secret from his female fanbase until just before his death from Aids in 1985. Even today, when privacy is harder to come by and a number of high-profile stars are Glad to be known to be Gay, there are several who aren’t (naming no names).

Other real-life people are woven into this story – Vivien Leigh, Cole Porter, Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah, always a joy to watch) – which adds to the glamour as well as the authenticity. The making of the Peg/Meg movie becomes a bit tiresome – I wish they’d thought up a grander project for the era of Mildred Pierce and The Best Years of Our Lives – but the gas station brothel contributes plenty of juice to the story (and it’s true) and I relished the fantasy that Gay Liberation was kick-started by Rock Hudson in the 1940s. He could be canonized!

The real Peg, who jumped off the big H in 1932

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

What I'm reading: Gays just wanna have fu-un


This is a tough read. James Wharton writes about the world – an “Underworld” – of gay and bisexual Londoners who hook up on Grindr and party in each other’s homes for long nights and whole weekends, off their heads on psycho-active drugs. The drug of choice is “G”, also known as “Gina” (GBL, liquid Ecstasy), which is fast-acting and gives a terrific high, but there’s also crystal meth (“Tina”) and mephedrone (“Meow Meow”). G is mostly swallowed in very small amounts, but some users “slam” (inject) it. An overdose will knock you unconscious. Wharton woke up from one overdose to find himself being raped. The serial killer Stephen Port subdued his victims with G. In London somebody dies from an overdose of G every twelve days. 

Why do gay guys take these risks, only three decades after the peak of Aids? Lots of people, gay and straight, settle for promiscuous sex to ease the pain of a failed relationship or the failure to find a loving partner. But for many, Wharton says, it’s just hedonism, the pursuit of fun. Pre-Aids it was amphetamines and poppers that were used to give sex an extra boost. Back during the “Summer of Love”, the mid-1960s, it was pot and “acid” (LSD). Aldous Huxley was experimenting with mescaline in the 1950s (and took LSD to hasten his death from cancer in the week of Kennedy’s assassination). In Queen Victoria’s time opium was widely used by both the upper and lower classes.

James Wharton quite rightly extols individuals and groups that offer support to those severely affected by addiction and those struggling to detox themselves. And he urges the rest of us not to be judg-mental, an appeal that will fall on many a deaf ear in Europe as well as in Bible Belt America. People of my generation (78 next week) came up (and came out) through the Sixties and quite a lot of us will have experi-mented with "recreational" drugs, so let us not now, amid the comforts (or discomforts!) of old age, throw stones at the younger folk who fall for the more dangerous temptations currently on offer. If we believe – which I hope we do - in Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness for everybody, then I guess that includes the freedom to ingest substances which enhance sexual pleasure, even at the risk of an overdose that may expose the user to victimhood and death.

In the early years of Aids, reviewing for LAM in Shepherds Bush, I read The Plague Years, one of the first books about the “new” epidemic carving a swathe through the back rooms and bathhouses of New York and San Francisco. Later came Randy Shilts’s encyclo-pedic And The Band Played On, which was made into an all-star movie.  Something for the Weekend is a similarly grim book, full of grim statistics, but if society can offer support rather than condemnation, the gay community will weather the Chemsex crisis as it has weathered HIV. It has to. But it’s gonna be an uphill climb.

Friday, 24 April 2020

What I'm reading: a Dog and his Ghost-writer


I have to declare an interest here. Havoc, the author of this travel memoir, stayed at my flat in Hastings in 2007, halfway through his 5,000-mile walk round the coast of Britain – raising over £50,000 for Guide Dogs and the Lifeboats.

It’s not often you read a book written by a dog. Havoc’s ‘ghost-writer’ Wendy is my second cousin. She gets the dog’s ‘voice’ exactly right. During a spell of pet-sitting: ‘I soon put the other dogs in their place and let them know that I was still top dog, whoever’s house we were in.’

Havoc’s perspective on their 11-month trek (and subsequent campervan excursions to the Scottish Isles, Ireland, France and the Spanish costas) is loaded in favour of riverside walks, beach chases, food and treats, dogs and other animals encountered. There’s quite a lot of peeing and pooing, but he does take time to notice the scenery and historical attractions. He also records the break-up of his Mum’s relationship with an abusive partner and its happier sequel with a new partner (soon husband), who drives the campervan on their later adventures. And he touchingly chronicles his own declining health on their continental journey. Expect to shed some tears.

If you loved Marley and Me and A Dog’s Purpose (and how could you fail to?), you will very much enjoy this happy/sad autobiography of an adored and adorable collie/terrier cross.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

What I'm reading: rewriting the Book of Genesis

Dan Brown: ORIGIN

The Da Vinci Code is where most of us first encountered Dan Brown, although his first Robert Langdon thriller Angels and Demons is in my opinion a better thriller and slightly more plausible (the book rather than the movie). The Lost Symbol was clunky (similar to but not as good as the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure), and Inferno was seriously daft.

Now comes Origin, which in some ways is more daring than Da Vinci with its descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, a challenge to Christians everywhere, especially Catholics. Now Mr Brown flings mud in the eye of followers of every faith by offering, he claims, scientific proof of the origins of life in the universe. Evolution is also redefined, so Brown sets out to upset Darwin’s disciples almost as much as those (half the population of the USA, we are reminded) who insist that the Six Days of Creation in the Book of Genesis is the only true version of How It Happened.

Dan Brown
Edmond Hirsch, the techno-geek author of this new theory, is murdered to block its presentation, in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum where Robert Langdon is among the audience. Langdon, like Indiana Jones, is soon on the run again – yes, with a beautiful distressed damsel, of course – and trying to sort out which of the suspects is the real villain. A Catholic bishop is one, the (fictionalized) Crown Prince of Spain is another. We are also introduced to a breakaway Catholic sect – the Palmarians (Google them!) – who have their own cathedral in Andalusia and their own pope (fictionalized here). The Palmarians are ultra-conservative believers and bound to be ultra-offended by the novel.  

The story reaches its climax in Barcelona with its weirdly wonderful church of the Sagrada Familia. Langdon’s ability to decipher codes and symbols is under-used in this adventure. He and his companion are helped by an AI computer voice inspired by Hal in 2001, a borrowing the author acknowledges and perhaps overdoes. As thrillers go, this one, like Inferno, is pretty daft, but – plus or minus the pseudo-science – it’s an undeniable page-turner. The goods are sometimes shoddy, but Dan Brown always delivers.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What I'm reading: Love in the shadow of the gas chambers


I had reservations about this. I still do. A love story in a Nazi death camp? I still question the ethical stand of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which made the fate of one German officer’s son an ironical counter-point to the systematic slaughter of six million victims of Adolf Hitler's extermination programme.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who chanced into the job of tattooing the new arrivals, Jewish and Romany, at the twin Polish concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He falls in love with Gita, also from Slovakia, who escapes the gas chamber by getting clerical work documenting the deportees (the Nazi obsession with documentation makes the Holocaust even more chilling). Their love affair consists of snatched moments together and is overshadowed by the constant threat of illness or execution. The most beautiful girl in the camp becomes the plaything of the commandant. Some of the women processing new arrivals steal cash and jewellery which Lale smuggles to the local villages through bribed guards to be exchanged for extra food. 

'Work will set you free.' The great Nazi lie.
This is a harsh story, but it could have been harsher. Heather Morris gives us one glimpse of the gas chamber in operation and a few glimpses of the rain of ash from the crematorium chimneys, but she spares readers the most harrowing images we have seen in other accounts and TV documentaries. Josef Mengele appears (‘this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel,’ she calls him), but she gives barely a hint of his obscene medical experiments on prisoners. Yes, it’s all been detailed before, but I think we do the six million dead an injustice if we gloss over the full horrors of the Final Solution.

Morris writes in the present tense, as does Hilary Mantel. Past history in the present tense grates with me (the only time I enjoyed it was in John Updike’s Rabbit quartet, four of the greatest novels of my lifetime). But, for all my reservations, I can see why The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been so widely acclaimed. It has a surprise ending. And there is an irresistible charm to the notion that Love can blossom, can flourish, even on what in another memorable phrase the author calls ‘the threshold of Hell.’

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

David at the Movies: Sister Act minus the wimples


I’m fighting the temptation to wax cynical about Military Wives. There have been a lot of movies about Choirs (and even more TV shows), so this picture is a bit short on originality – and not short enough on predictability. But it’s as full of the feel-good factor as anything else in this genre and worth seeing for that alone.

I’m not sure which county the military base is in; the only road sign we see offers only London as a desti-nation. The men have all been posted to Afghanistan. Coffee mornings and quaffing wine aren’t enough to keep the grass-widow wives occupied, so they start a choir. Kristin Scott Thomas is pitch-perfect as the posh colonel’s wife whose vision of the kind of choir they need is at odds with that of the newly-promoted sergeant-major’s missus (Sharon Horgan, also spot-on). You may be able to guess the rest.

The rehearsals and performance scenes are not as much fun as those in Sister Act, and the women aren’t as engaging as The Calendar Girls were, but the director, Peter Cattaneo, who gave us The Full Monty in 1997, brings the same full-heartedness to this belated follow-up. Predictable or not, the widowing of one of the women is very movingly presented, and the finale in the Albert Hall should bring a tear to the flintiest eye. It brought one to mine.



Of the films in contention this year, I think I would have given Best Director and Best Picture awards to Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – a sly ‘revisionist’ take on Tinseltown at the far end of its Golden Age. Yes, Parasite is highly original and filled with ironical social commentary, but -- Best Picture? Nah.

It’s hard to write about it without spoilers, but it’s a tale of two Korean families, one rich and living in a hilltop mansion, the other struggling in a grimy basement below the bottom of the same hill. Crafty as well as envious, the poor people slowly (a bit too slowly, IMO) infiltrate the lives of the rich folk. When the plutocrats take off for a camping trip, things start to unravel.

The theme of the working class subverting the Upper Crust was brilliantly explored in Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), which did not morph from Social Drama into Horror territory. I think Parasite has to be judged as a horror movie, since that’s where it ends up. Set against the standards of Class-A horrors like Psycho and The Exorcist, I would not put Parasite in their league. Good, yes, and clever, beautifully shot and edited (and acted), but not up there with The Best. Sorry!

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Armando Ianucci offers a Monty Python take on this much-loved (and much-filmed) Dickens novel, emphasizing the comic elements more than the romantic drama that is usually highlighted. The director’s other big innovation is colour-blind casting, with several black and Asian actors, including (my favourite) Dev Patel in the title role. Hopefully it’s a sign that we are maturing as cinema-goers, but this casting ‘anomaly’ within minutes seems completely natural and completely ‘right’.

Apart from Patel and Ben Whishaw (as a harder tougher Uriah Heep), the most outstanding performances come from actors with longer career histories. Hugh Laurie hits a new high as Mr Dick, David’s delusional distant cousin. Peter Capaldi’s Mr Micawber is a pantomime take on his Dr Who and Tilda Swinton gives a rich fruity version of Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

There are some clever camera tricks, such as the location peeling back like an onion skin. For my taste the humour was sometimes too manic, but at its heart the film offers vivid insights into the creative process, which was very much central to the novel in 1850. The Monty Python comparisons kept coming back: after Life of Brian we have a clever and irreverent Life of Dickens. Weird and wonderful, and worth seeing for the OTT acting.

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Am I becoming more gullible, or are biopics getting better? Taron Egerton was uncannily good as Elton John last year and Renee Zellwegger really did seem to reincarnate Judy Garland. Now we get Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Popes Benedict and Francis, and within minutes I totally believed in them as the two Holy Fathers. (Make-up people perhaps deserve some of the credit.)

The story covers the eight years of Benedict’s papacy following the death of John Paul II in 2005 to his unexpected abdication in 2013 when Francis succeeded him. The key scene is a visit from Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Francis) to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo: Bergoglio wants to retire early but so, he is shocked to learn, does Benedict.

This scene – and I guess the bulk of the movie – is a fictional dramatization, but Anthony McCarten's screenplay gives both men dialogue that is crisp and believable, with some nice comic moments (pizza and football!). The story is loaded in favour of Francis: flashbacks recapture his early Jesuit priesthood and the painful compromises he made with the ruthless Argentinian military rulers in the 1970s. Benedict’s boyhood in Nazi-era Bavaria is not revisited, and the (ongoing) scandal over paedophile priests, which Benedict severely mishandled and which was we assume the unstated reason for his abdication, is rather skated over – the only flaws in a near-perfect movie.

The sets – is it a set or a digitally recreated Sistine Chapel? – are stunning, the script sparkles, Pryce and Hopkins give deliciously nuanced performances. Who would think that a drama about Vatican politics could have the emotional heft of an opera, both grand opera and soap opera?

(The Two Popes) is streaming on Netflix.

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Director Sam Mendez is already raking in awards and nominations for this visceral picture of the “Great War”. Two British infantrymen cross the No Man’s Land between our trenches and the German trenches on the Western Front carrying a vital message that will prevent a massacre. Massacres were the order of the day in World War One as towns and villages were reduced to rubble and a few metres of French farmland slowly gained or lost.

Brilliantly shot, mostly at waist level, and cunningly edited to give the illusion of a real-time sequence, 1917, like Spielberg’s Warhorse in 2011, presents as authentic an impression of trench warfare as we are likely to see. Not just barbed wire and bomb craters, the two lance corporals crawl over rotting human corpses and dead horses to get to the German lines. There are a couple of overdone sequences which trip the movie into Indiana Jones territory, but mostly you do feel that this really is how it must have been for our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

In the key roles Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are totally "right" for the story and the period. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott are shoehorned into cameos. It’s a tough two hours to sit through, almost as gruelling as a Holocaust story, and it rams home the message that – extraordinary heroism and sheer endurance apart - there was nothing Great about the Great War.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

What I'm reading: Copycat child murderer


I bought this because it’s a Richard & Judy Book Club selection and cover reviews compare it to Thomas Harris and Alfred Hitch-cock. It’s good but not that good.

Newly widowed Tom Kennedy and his ten-year-old son Jake move into a creepy house in Featherbank (no indic-ation as to what county this is), a town where a serial paedophile killer was active 15 years ago and where a seemingly copycat abduction has just taken place. Young Jake has an “invisible friend” who turns up both in the new home and the school playground. She tells him about “the boy in the floor”, which turns out to be a link to the earlier murders. The detective who caught that killer visits him in prison for clues to the copycat abductor, a rather obvious echo of Hannibal Lektor.

Fathers and Sons is a recurring theme. The detective, the widowed father, the serial killer and the copycat perpetrator all had violent abusive fathers. For me this made the story top-heavy, and the mix of first- and third-person narration is laboured. But the writing strengthens as the plot moves towards its (inevitable) climax. There’s a possible movie in the offing, which will hopefully highlight the book’s spookier elements.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

What I'm binge-watching: the resurrection of Joan Crawford

A billionaire financier (Renee Zellweger) offers a young chemist (Jane Levy) twenty million dollars towards launching her new miracle therapy in exchange for a night with her dishy husband (Blake Jenner). Not exactly a fresh jumping-off point for a “Netflix Original” drama series, but with ten 50-minute episodes to fill there are enough sub-plots to distract from the borrowed theme. Lisa (Levy) has a gay brother who’s doing threesomes with his partner and a go-go dancer. Sean (Jenner) has a black workmate whose intern wife is being romanced by a psycho surgeon. Hit-and-run and kidnap are shoe-horned into the drama. At least three characters, including Zellweger’s Anne, have dark secrets in their past.

Yes, it’s a mishmash of ingredients and like most maxi- and mini-series it could have been done in half the time – or a quarter. But the pace fairly gallops apart from one turgid episode where Anne and Lisa buddy up in motel during a rainstorm. Zellweger’s look combines – why wouldn’t it? – Bridget Jones and Judy Garland. Facial tics and brisk high-heeled walks highlight her nervy portrayal and I often felt she was channeling Joan Crawford, who would have sunk her teeth into this role with some relish.

What/If is tosh/hokum, elevated to top-drawer dosh by its star lead - and highly watchable. A second series is promised, which, obviously, will give us more of the same, possibly more than we need. They always do.