Monday, 28 February 2022

What I'm reading: the new First Lady of spy fiction

Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny: STATE OF TERROR

The principal character in Hillary Clinton’s literary debut is – can you believe it? – a female US Secretary of State. With terrorist bus bombings in three European cities and a clear and present danger of outrages in the US, Ellen Adams, newly appointed to the new administration of President Douglas Williams, goes on the diplomatic offensive, jetting to Kabul, Tehran and Moscow to meet leaders who may help to defuse the situation. She is handicapped by hard-right ‘moles’ in Washington who are in league with those - a global group - orchestrating the outrages. It’s very gung-ho, very Jason Bourne; Ms Adams is frequently in the firing line, from fisticuffs in the Oval Office to shoot-ups in caves in the mountains of Baluchistan.

President Williams has a potty mouth which calls Richard Nixon to mind more than the current incumbent. His predecessor, Eric Dunn, presided over “four years of chaos” and now lives in kingly splendor in Florida – hmmm. Other world figures, up to and including Iran’s Supreme Leader, are lightly (very lightly) fictionalized. Russia’s President Ivanov was famously photographed shirtless on a horse!

The sheer geopolitical scale of this taut and tense thriller suggests that Mrs Clinton has contributed more than just her name to the project. I’m guessing it’s the Second Lady rather than the Former First Lady who’s responsible for the actual writing. Characters are pithily described. The pithiness extends to the staccato prose style: short sentences, short paragraphs – a style practiced by the late Jackie Collins, among many others. Not a style I warm to, but the exhilarating plot and the sheer pace kept me engaged through to the nerve-shredding (if slightly daft) conclusion.

Saturday, 19 February 2022

David at the Movies: Poirot and his moustache


As with Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh doesn’t add a great deal to the recipe of previous film and TV versions of this Agatha Christie whodunit (or how many dunit). Poirot’s moustache, highly amplified from David Suchet’s, is given a back-story prologue of its own, but once we get to Egypt, it’s pretty much the mixture as before.

The cast is a bit more glamorous: Armie Hammer and Tom Bateman are the male leads, Gal Gadot and Letitia Wright on the female side. Sophie Okonedo’s jazz singer replaces Angela Lansbury’s romance novelist from the Ustoinov version; Bette Davis’s frumpy dowager is a bit less frumpy played by Jennifer Saunders, with Dawn French replacing Maggie Smith as her not-so-put-upon companion. Annette Bening plays an impoverished painter (and Tom Bateman’s mother), a new character and a new suspect. Kenneth Branagh Belgian detective rather steals the movie, much as Ustinov’s did in 1978.

Poirot and his moustache
I found myself the whole time waiting for replays of the earlier movie and making comparisons, mostly in favour of 1978. There aren’t enough new elements to the story to fully refresh this old warhorse, but sumptuous sets and judicious CGI pep proceedings up, and really it’s an enjoyable two hours of cinema hokum.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

David at the Movies: Another film with Awards buzz

The Lost Daughter (Netflix)

The Lost Daughter is reminiscent of those New Wave movies of the ’50s and ’60s in which not much happens at a very slow pace.

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley play Leda at different ages, an English intellectual who found it hard to juggle bringing up two daughters and developing a career in literary criticism. Now middle-aged and holidaying on her own on a Greek island, she develops a bond with a young mother who’s also finding motherhood a struggle. Leda attracts admirers of different ages, which may be a clue to where her life has gone wrong. Key to the story is a doll that Leda steals from the child, a symbol that is over-worked.

There’s an awards buzz attached to Colman’s performance and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. Colman conveys so much emotion even in scenes with no dialogue, and she makes you want to understand this complex woman without necessarily making you like her. Buckley is equally intense in the flashbacks.


I would have liked to see more of Leda’s grown-up daughters – how damaged were they by their erratic upbringing? The film is sourced from an Elena Ferrante novel, which is probably just as elliptical and may be just as hard to actually enjoy.

Friday, 11 February 2022

David at the Movies: Penelope Cruz, an incandescent presence


Pedro Almodovar is the maestro of the modern Women’s Picture, and Parallel Mothers is emphatically that. Two women give birth to their babies in a Madrid hospital. Ana (Milena Smit) is the teenage daughter of an actress who is only interested in her career. Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a fashion photographer and the mistress of a man who isn’t free to marry her. Ana and Janis’s lives and destinies are irrevocably bound by something that happens in the hospital.

If that sounds like a soap-opera story – well, it is, and a well-worked one. Almodovar’s gift is to take this trite situation and give it a glossy sheen that makes it seem almost fresh. All the cast take their roles seriously. Penelope Cruz is the best of them; on screen she has an incandescence that reminds me of Sophia Loren’s early films.

There’s a background story in which Janis’s lover is trying to get permission to excavate the grave of some villagers savagely killed in the early years of the Civil War. I rather wish that this had been given more screen time. The final scene of this movie is nothing less than magnificent.

Monday, 7 February 2022

What I'm reading: Ballard & Bosch back on the beat

Michael Connelly: THE DARK HOURS

With Covid restrictions in place and the “insurrection” in the post-Election Capitol, the latest case for night-shift LAPD detective Renee Ballard and retired cop Harry Bosch is about as on-the-button as you can get. A murder on New Year’s Eve has a ballistic link to an unsolved ten-year-old case of Harry’s. The pair are hamstrung by lazy and inept colleagues/superiors, a recurring theme in Michael Connelly’s books – and presumably a factor in real-world police work.

Ballard is also investigating an ongoing serial rape case – a creepy brace of rapists called the “Midnight Men”. Both cases require dogged detective work and interviews that occasionally reveal a tiny clue to move the team forward. Connelly writes the best dialogue in current crime fiction, which gives an edge – a “zing” – to all this routine stuff. As he always does, he ratchets up the tension to a nail-biting finale. Nobody does it better in Police Department thrillers. 

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

David at the Movies: Bradley Cooper as a carnival conman

 Nightmare Alley

Co-scripted and directed by Guillermo del Toro, this is an unnerving voyage into the Darkside, hovering between psychological thriller and crime drama. Bradley Cooper turns in a commanding performance as Stanton Carlisle, a man on the run from his past in the early 1940s. He joins a travelling carnival and soon becomes an effective huckster. He goes independent with the female half of a mind-reading act and then crosses paths with an amoral psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who helps him con his way into richer pickings.

There are a few welcome echoes of The Prestige (2006), which featured a different kind of magician. Here and there I even detected some fruity Roger Corman excesses. Production values are gloriously high; the sets evoke the turn-of-the-century as much as the 1940s. Bradley Cooper brings an intensity to his role that reminded me of Anthony Perkins. In a first-rate cast, the females are outstanding: Rooney Mara, Toni Collette and Mary Steenburgen as well as Blanchett, who is never less than superb. Del Toro here delivers another visual feast with elaborate plotting that turns confidence tricksters into dangerous predators. A must-see movie.