Sunday, 30 August 2015

Max by Yakin & Lettich

Just to be clear, we're talking about Max here, not Mad Max...

Max is a movie about a dog. It is sentimental, predictable, soppy tosh... and I loved every minute of it.

It tells the story of Max (played by Carlos), a short-haired Belgian Malinois who is especially trained for weapon detection by the US military, and Kyle Wincott (played by Robbie Ammell), a short-haired Southern Baptist, his handler.

I thought we were in for a story here about a dog in a war zone. (And the poster for the movie — "Best Friend, Hero, Marine" — cunningly plays up to this preconception.) But in fact Max takes a rather brilliant turn.

Kyle is promptly killed in an explosion (early in the movie, so this isn't really a spoiler), Max is traumatised by the incident ("Dogs can suffer PTSD, too") and is returned to the States where he is about to be destroyed, since he can no longer work, when Kyle's family steps in and rescues him.

What follows is a touching story of Max's recovery and reintegration, neatly parallelled by  Kyle's brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) coming out of his shell, thanks to the dog. All this splendidly interwoven with a subplot about gun running which was adroitly set up back in the Afghanistan sequences.

The script is an excellent piece of work, beautifully constructed, with some deft, fresh, fun characterisation (notably Mia Xitlali as feisty Latina teen Carmen). It was written by director Boaz Yakin (who most recently co-wrote Now You See Me) and Sheldon Lettich (whose credits stretch back to Rambo III). They are clearly true professionals and did a great job.

In the course of the film lessons are learned, differences are reconciled, an emotionally shutdown father (Thomas Haden Church) reaches out to his son, a troubled teenager becomes integrated into society, a shellshocked dog recovers, bad guys are punished and the pure of heart triumph to live happily ever after... 

It's a string of cheap, shopworn, emotionally manipulative clichés, and I just adored it. Highly recommended.

(Image credits: Posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Man from U.N.C.L.E. by Ritchie & Wigram and Kleeman & Wilson

This is a great summer for espionage movie fans, what with the hilarious comedy Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, and now this absolutely classic action thriller from Guy Ritchie. What a delight to report on such a wonderful, profoundly enjoyable film. I loved very minute of it.

I was worried about what Ritchie's first project outside the Sherlock Holmes franchise would be. The Holmes movies are terrific fun, and made to a very high standard, but the director's work prior to them was often hit and miss. Add that to the fact that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series was a beloved relic of my childhood, and I had high anxiety about how it would fare in Ritchie's hands.

I needn't have worried. This is a consumate treat, from the first instant to the last. Indeed, the movie was still scoring points as the end credits rolled on the screen — these consisted of dossiers on the main characters, and the one belonging to the Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin mentions that he's a sambo champion. 

Far from being the racist slur you might suspect, "sambo" is a Russian martial art (everyone's favourite mad dictator Vladimir Putin is a "master" of it) — in other words, someone has done their research here.

The 1960s setting for The Man from UNCLE film is crucial to its success, starting in Cold War Berlin and playing on nuclear war paranoia throughout. The period is rendered pretty much flawlessly, except for the McGuffin, a rather stylish computer tape which is referred to in dialogue as a "computer disk". 

Disks were a decade away, and anyhow we see at the end of the movie that it's a tape. Maybe the film makers just didn't think audiences would understand what a computer tape is (although we still talk about "taping" audio, even when using microchip technology). Oh, well.

On a more cheerful note, the swinging sixties provides some welcome fashion opportunities for the gorgeous Alicia Vikander as Gaby, a spunky female car mechanic from East Germany with a family connection to a former Nazi rocket scientist. Vikander was the luminous star of A Royal Affair and also was the best thing in Ex Machina. She's magnificent here.

All the principals are. Armie Hammer, who first made a mark as the privileged Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network, is ideal as Kuryakin. 

There's some amusing dialogue about how tall he is ("A giant on the loose with a firearm," squawks the East German police radio) but it doesn't quite work because the height of people doesn't really read on screen — hence the large number of, ahem, vertically challenged male leads who become major movie stars. But there is a lovely moment when Vikander stands on a table beside him.
 
Henry Cavill, who was too cold as Superman is absolutely ideal as the caddish, sophisticated Napoleon Solo. The casting in this film is outstanding, as is the chemistry between the stars. (Elizabeth Debicki is also swell as an evil villain and Hugh Grant ideal as Mr Waverly.)

It's been a long time since such a fun movie hit the screens. It is also thrilling and suspenseful. Indeed, these moods are strikingly juxtaposed as in a genuinely scary and disturbing torture scene which takes an hilarious turn. Similarly, a violent and life threatening motorboat gun battle is set against a pleasant snack in the cab of a truck.

Guy Ritchie's direction is often audacious, as when what we expect to be a spectacular and protracted seaborne attack on an island is swiftly dismissed as a split screen montage. But in case anyone is disappointed, this is followed up by a smashing dune buggy chase and knife fight in the rain.

Ritchie and Lionel Wigram (who contributed to the script of Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes adaptation) wrote the excellent final screenplay of this film, working from an earlier draft by Jeff Kleeman, who has written some US television and David Wilson who wrote the film Supernova.

The music is intoxicatingly good, too. The score is by Daniel Pemberton, who recently did the BBC TV spy thriller The Game. He does outstanding work here. I was going to say at one point he sounds just like Ennio Morricone, but a Morricone track has actually been used in the film (a trick Ritchie also employed to great effect in his second Holmes movie).

A truly wonderful film, right up to the deeply satisfying ending which sets up what I hope will be a long and successful series of movies — and which reveals that Alicia Vikander is actually The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.!

It's traditional for me to end a post about a movie with a complaint about it, and this one is no different. Here it concerns the sandwich Solo devours during the aforementioned speedboat gunfight. It's supposed to be a 1960s Italian sandwich — but the bread is all wrong. They wouldn't have been eating that spongy Chorleywood processed crap at that time, or in that place. Some nice ciabatta or focaccia would have been about right.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

(Image credits: The posters are from the trusty Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Ant-Man by Wright & Cornish, McKay & Rudd

With this summer's disappointing crop of Marvel movies (Avengers Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four) I was getting ready to dismiss the whole genre... but then along came Ant-Man.

This movie is a winner, and for an unexpected reason — its sense of humour. The original draft of the script was by the English team of Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright. 

Both have a strong background in TV comedy, and both have written and directed previous films (Cornish, Attack the Block. Wright, the splendid Hot Fuzz): they previously collaborated on the excellent screenplay of Spielberg's Tin Tin.
 
Edgar Wright was originally scheduled to direct Ant-Man. He was bumped in favour of Peyton Reed (Down With Love) and the Wright & Cornish script was rewritten by US comedy writer Adam McKay and the star of the movie, Paul Rudd.

But whatever transformations the screenplay was subjected to, the film which ended up on our screens is great fun. 

I particularly treasure the role of Luis, played by Michael Peña (seen in last year's classic Fury). Luis is a small time crook who is also an unexpectedly good natured sophisticate. When he isn't making waffles for his fellow criminals he is attending wine tastings or exhibitions of non-representational art and enthusing about rosé and Rothko.

It also features a cherishable scene where Michael Douglas catches his daughter (Evangeline Lilly, who played Tauriel in The Hobbit – cinema's hottest elf) snogging with Paul Rudd outside his door. 

And there's a fleeting but unexpectedly moving moment when the hero's favourite insect friend (dubbed "Ant-ony") is killed. Plus the movie boasts a terrific score by Christophe Beck.

Ant-Man has some dull Avengers continuity crow-barred into it, but that doesn't matter. It is altogether an unexpected summer treat, which I warmly commend to you.

(Image credits: All the posters are from good ol' Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Jurassic World by Jaffa & Silver and Trevorrow & Connolly

Jurassic World had a lot going for it right out of the gate. 

Not only was it based on a fondly remembered franchise, not only did it star the engaging Chris Pratt (last seen in the fine, funny Guardians of the Galaxy) but it had a script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.

Jaffa & Silver were responsible for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the finest films of the century. They also wrote its worthy sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

On the basis of Rise alone, this husband and wife team are among the finest screenwriters on the planet (of the screenwriters).

Well, Jurassic World is entertaining, engrossing fun. And it has highly suspenseful setpieces and some clever ideas (the raptors as good guys!). It is neatly plotted, and superior to the various Jurassic sequels, and in some ways to the first film. And it is a huge box office hit... (Do you sense a "but" coming?)

But...

Jurassic World begins strongly, promising a film which might even be on par with the Ape pictures, a movie with some real depth. Towards the end, though, it just turns into a routine action flick. 

The promise of being something more than that (which Rise of the Planet of the Apes so memorably was) is simply squandered.

I don't know for certain why this is, but I suspect it may be something to do with the screenwriting credit for director Colin Trevorrow and his regular collaborator Derek Connolly. 
 
No doubt they made substantial changes to the Jaffa & Silver draft. And I am far from certain that those changes were all improvements.

I'm now looking forward to Jaffa & Silver's next project, Avatar 2. Maybe that will once again deliver the goods, big time.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards who come through again. Yay, Imp Awards.) 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Maggie by John Scott 3

William H. Gass's collection of short stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country depicted a rural America of unremitting bleakness. His tales are grim, grey and gloomy. 

But never in his darkest moments did Gass come up with a story of farmer who has to watch his beloved daughter slowly turning into a zombie.

That's the plot of Maggie. As soon as I glimpsed the rather alluring poster (the one with the large face and the shotgun) I knew I had to see this movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tenderly emotional zombie flick? How could I resist? 

Maggie has some good things going for it. For example, there has been a zombie plague, but humanity has put it down pretty quickly — which is way more plausible than most of these movies. (After all, they're zombies; they're not hard to outsmart.)

The other novel aspect is that, in Maggie, the zombie virus has a long gestation period. Once you get bit it takes you a month or two to 'turn'. The problem with this is, it's hard to imagine how the zombie plague could ever get started in the first place with such a long lead time...

Anyway, Schwarzenegger is a farmer. Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is his teenage runaway daughter who has been bitten. Arnie brings her home to tenderly care for her as she slowly and inevitably turns into a rotting, ravenous, revenant.

There are some fun moments in the film. As Maggie scratches at the hideous zombie bite on her arm, her father snaps "Don't pick at it!" And there are a couple of suspenseful bits when Schwarzenegger fights zombie attackers.

But in the end, a sullen and moody teenager stomping around the house is just a sullen and moody teenager, even if she is slowly (very slowly) turning into a zombie. 

Maggie is not a very gripping picture. It doesn't have a great deal of plot development or emotional variation. And it's often murky in the wrong kind of way — I didn't know Maggie's stepmother (played by the excellent Joely Richardson) wasn't her birth mother until way too late.

I wondered how this movie came about — it's so oddball — and I did a bit of research. It turns out that the screenplay by John Scott 3 was a hot spec script back in 2011, just when the zombie bandwagon was getting rolling. (A spec script is one which is written speculatively, without a guaranteed buyer; it's how most new writers break in.) Maggie attracted attention because it was a fresh new angle on the genre.
 
But the problem is, it's too much a family drama to work as a zombie movie, and too much of a zombie movie to work as a family drama.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

For decades I've had a set of novels on my bookshelf by Iris Murdoch, purchased largely because of their gorgeous, sexy Harri Peccinotti covers. They've been standing there unread ever since I once tried, many years ago, to read one and found my brain bouncing off its boring, incomprehensible surface.

I wish I could remember what the title of that culprit was, and pick it up again. Because I've given Iris Murdoch another chance and discovered that she is an outstanding, and often astounding, novelist. 

This time the book I chose was The Black Prince. The title is both a reference to Hamlet and to a dark god of sex and love — a sinister Eros who drives the hero. If that sounds heavy, it isn't. The book is amazingly good, and a lot of fun.

Not that it's entirely without its boring or incomprehensible moments. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a rather repressed and fussy middle aged bachelor writer. Here is the grumpy old bugger's description of birds singing in the garden: "The feathered songsters were still pouring forth their nonsense." He's not exactly a life-affirming type.

(He also has a maddening habit of putting "quotation marks" around "words" where they are "absolutely" not "needed". Until it begins to feel like a Krazy Kat comic. I thought Iris Murdoch was using this as a means of indicating what a jerk her protagonist was... until I reached some portions of the book which are ostensibly written by other characters. And "they" have exactly the "same" annoying "habit"...)

But Bradley's dusty existence suddenly and unexpectedly explodes with passion. If the novel has a flaw, it's that this splendid main narrative is occasionally interrupted by commentary from Bradley. And because he's a boring, pompous bastard these bits — mercifully brief — are also boring and pompous. They culminate in an incredibly tedious and pretentious meditation on the nature of art. I couldn't tell whether Iris Murdoch was being tongue in cheek about this, or deadly serious. God forbid the latter. Either way, it's dullsville, baby.

Yet this a minor moan. Having slogged through these interruptions — just a few pages, each, thank the lord — you will find yourself immersed in a riveting narrative which begins with an old friend turning up on Bradley's doorstep and confessing that's he's murdered his wife. From there the story develops swiftly in many very unexpected ways, eventually turning into the greatest novel of rapture in English since Nabokov's Lolita.It is both hilarious and intoxicating. And Murdoch's dialogue — the odd fake Americanism aside ("dough" for money) — is very good.

On top of all that it morphs into, if not a thriller, then at least a gripping noirish and doomed tale of crime worthy of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson. It also features such a hellish portrait of marriage (CF Gone Girl) that it comes as a shock to remember that Murdoch was herself so happily married.

If only some editor had done us a favour and removed those bloody quotation marks...

(Image credits:The slightly dodgy picture of the Penguin with Peccinotti's ravishing photo of the blue girl was taken by me with my phone camera, because there is virtually no image of this edition to be found anywhere on the internet. So I hope you bloody well appreciate it. The only other one I could find anywhere was the selfie by Sonya Davda at her excellent book tip. The covers of other editions are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Savages by Don Winslow

Readers of a certain age may want to respond to the name Don Winslow with the words "Of the Navy". Well, this is a very different Don Winslow, a new American crime novelist who is making waves (no nautical pun intended). I'd been reading about him, and then I saw Oliver Stone's — flawed but impressive — movie of Savages. 

What really got me interested, though, was reading a novella entitled Extreme by Winslow which was serialised in a magazine (all right, it was Playboy). It was very impressive. Terse, enthralling, blackly humorous. And I didn't even mind Winslow's trademark minimalist style in which a paragraph — or page, or chapter — can consist of a single sentence. Or even a single word. 

Normally that sort of thing drives me nuts. I seem to recall James Ellroy's Cold Six Thousand was written in a similar manner and I found it too distracting to read (and I like Ellroy). 

But somehow Winslow pulls it off. (On the back cover Stephen King says, "Winslow's stripped-down prose is a revelation." And he's not wrong.)

So, when I saw a copy of the original novel of Savages in a shop (okay, it was Pound Land), I jumped at the chance to read it. And it really delivered the goods. It's the tale of a trio of California hipsters (two guys, called Ben and Chon, and their shared girlfriend O — for Ophelia) who move into the marijuana business big time and fall foul of the Mexican cartels. (The characters are notably convincing and well motivated throughout.) Winslow tells this story in a manner which is both briskly sardonic and utterly terrifying.

Here is a video calling card sent by a cartel to show what happens to people who don't cooperate: "the trunks of the decapitated bodies hang neatly from hooks, as if the heads had placed them in a locker room before going to work." So our heroes "can take De Deal or De Capitation."

Winslow's prose is marvellously compact and darkly comic. When O's mother is poised to report her daugher missing, Ben and Chon fear she's about to "go milk carton." And the female head of the Baja Cartel is impertinently referred to by O as "the Pink Power Ranger." 
 
The dialogue, too, is first rate. Afer Chon is wounded he's about to be injected with pain killers by a shady physician. Chon asks for a beer. "Morphine and beer?" says Ben. "It's not just for breakfast any more," chirps the doctor.

(The story includes a fascinating account of how the US government actively encouraged the opium poppy growers in the mountainous Sinaloa region of western Mexico during World War Two — the opium was essential for making morphine, needed in massive quantities for wounded troops. And how this came back to bite them in the ass after the war.) 

There is also Thomas McGuane-tinged social commentary here: "Republicans — they cry on TV these days like a twelve year old girl who didn't get invited to a birthday party."

And the book presents a witty, deeply jaundiced view of the world: "Whatever happened to morality?" asks Ben. "Same thing that happened to CDs," says Chon.

It also has, for a crime thriller, something startlingly profound to say about the depersonalisation caused by violence — "It's all fun and games until someone loses an I."

A great book. There's some sloppy editing, though: throughout the novel confusion reigns over whether its five or seven decapitated dope dealers the cartel made an example of. 

It also sees the triumph of the abbreviation and the acronym — DW is aware of this, and amusing about it. Yet it's still a little annoying at the big climax for the reader to have to pause and decode "AR" into assault rifle. 

But I have to have something to complain about... Don't mind me. This is a dark classic of a crime thriller told in a distinctive voice and I am keenly looking forward to the next book I read by Don Winslow.

(Image credits: The covers — a handsome bunch — are all from our good friends at Good Reads. The Don Winslow of the Navy lobby card is from the blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)