Sunday, 13 April 2014

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly

I only knew Bringing Out the Dead as a Scorsese movie — a very disappointing Scorsese movie with an inert script by Paul Shrader which featured Nicolas Cage as a tormented New York paramedic. 

It came from what I think of as Scorsese's wilderness years which began after the excellent Casino and now, thankfully, have ended with the even more excellent, in fact downright magnificent, Wolf of Wall Street.

I wasn't even aware, or I had forgotten, that Bringing Out the Dead was based on a novel. So when I discovered a copy of the book by Joe Connelly I was intrigued enough to buy it. I'm really glad I did.

I was gripped from the first few pages where the ambulance crew is summoned to treat a man with cardiac arrest. His family is desperately trying to give him CPR and the narrator bleakly informs us that they're wasting their time because they're performing it on a bed — you have to do CPR on a hard surface like the floor.

Joe Connelly really was a paramedic and his priceless inside knowledge infuses the novel with authenticity. He describes the way the steering wheel of the ambulance vibrates when the life support equipment is turned on in the back of the "bus".

And he writes beautifully, too. Here he is describing receiving intravenous meds: "the drugs were cold, like steel worms crawling over my elbow." And he has a nice dry wit. "The city that never sleeps had taken a pill." The book is full of a feeling of doom, very effectively evoked: "I watched these events unfold like a twister across the plain."

If there is a flaw to the novel it is that it's excessively bleak. The superb writing and the humour never quite compensate for the defeated nature of the hero and the hopeless situation all around him. The story is too unremittingly nightmarish — and too focused on a single individual — to constitute an urban MASH. But that doesn't stop this being a notable and impressive novel... particularly impressive since it's a first novel.

And vastly more memorable than the movie — though I'm going to give that a second chance now, on the strength of this outstanding book.

(Image credits:  rather thin pickings at Good Reads. The orange cover at the beginning of the post — the edition I read — is from Amazon.)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Starred Up by Jonathan Asser

At first glance, from the trailers, Starred Up appeared to be just one more thuggish, thick ear British gangster movie, albeit one with a very odd title. But then I read an interview in Sight & Sound with the screenwriter, Jonathan Asser.

Starred Up is a prison movie and Asser had worked for years in education, at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, and then Wandsworth Prison. Suddenly I was interested in the film. It was a rare instance of someone writing from a position of knowledge.

And it turns out Starred Up is a great film. Certainly one of the best of the year. I can't recommend it too highly... though it is unremittingly brutal, so be warned. 

The title refers to young offenders who are so violent and unmanageable that they are 'starred up', i.e. transferred to an adult prison. In this case, the young offender has a reason for wanting to be sent to a grown up jail. (Incidentally, the original title was 'L Plate' — sardonic prison slang for a life sentence.)

When Asser wasn't working in prisons he was writing poetry. And the visual quality of his poems suggested to an astute reader that he should try a screenplay. He took a shot at it, and after years of encouragement and mentoring he developed the brilliant script that is Starred Up. Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice was to change the nephew/uncle relationship to a son/father one. (A classic principle of screenwriting: always concentrate situations and make them more powerful.) Now the film suggests that its hero has deliberately plunged into the hell of adult prison in search of his father...

Besides the outstanding script, Starred Up is also superbly directed, by David Mackenzie who made one of my favourite films of 2009, the offbeat and cynical Spread (you'll never forget the end title sequence!). And the cast of Starred Up is also first rate, including Jack O'Connell as the young inmate and Ben Mendelsohn, who was so great in Killing Them Softly, as his dysfunctional dad.


The film depicts a situation of violence, cruelty and utter hopelessness, yet it manages to find a glimmer of hope. It is extremely powerful. After the (very moving) conclusion there was spontaneous applause from audience at the Thursday night screening I attended — in Wandsworth, appropriately enough.

(Image credits: The black and white poster is from IMDB. The photo of Jonathan Asser beside the poster is from Film 4. The photo of O'Connell and Mendelsohn is from Coreplan. The colour poster is from Letterboxd.)

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Captain America By Markus & McFeely

It's getting embarrassing, all these movies based on Marvel comics. It used to be that I could dismiss at least half of them as junk. Now, to my chagrin, every one is a winner. It makes me seem like I have no critical faculties left. But I prefer the thesis that the films are simply getting better. More specifically, they're getting better written.

Captain America: the Winter Soldier is overlong and has some dull patches, but it's really good. The writing is excellent and even the bits of the movie that shouldn't work — the overblown action scene at the beginning, the obligatory car chase — do work. In fact, this film features the first car chase in years which actually had me engaged. I might even have been on the edge of my seat, but I'm reluctant to admit that.
 
On top of that, one of the three big surprises in the script did surprise me. Completely. That's a hell of a good result. 

The only thing I really didn't like was the wonderful Scarlett Johansson being portrayed as a redhead. (Ironically enough.) Plus the character she plays, Black Widow, is a total bust as a superhero. Her special power? She shoots people with guns. Awe inspiring.

Speaking of which, the gun battles were exceptional. If you were ever caught up in something like that in real life it would be a terrifying, unforgettable, almost hallucinatory experience. Whereas gunfights in movies are a big yawn. Yet the set piece on the freeway in this one actually caught a whiff of how frightening and extraordinary such violence would really be. It crackled with fear and brutality.

It's the sort of sequence that James Cameron, at his best, can deliver magnificently. I still remember seeing the first Terminator movie. There had never been a shootout like that in the history of cinema. And Captain America: the Winter Soldier, for a few seconds, put me in mind of it. No small achievement.

This film was written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (note that ampersand) who wrote the Narnia trilogy, the first Captain America picture and the recent excellent Thor movie. It was based on comics written by Ed Brubaker. The directors were Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, who previously worked in television comedy, and a lot of credit must go to them, too.

If only the film makers had taken another leaf from James Cameron's book. When he was making Titanic he'd originally included a subplot about a stolen diamond which involved a chase and guns and shooting. But when he was completing the film he realised that this was just a silly distraction from the main thrust of the story — the tragic sinking of the ship. So he cut it.

In keeping with a general tendency among Hollywood blockbusters, Captain America: the Winter Soldier is overloaded with action — bloated almost to the point of torpor — and it doesn't quite know when to quit. It could do with some Cameron-style cuts. But it's nonetheless clever, engrossing, thrilling and brilliantly made.

Will these fine Marvel movies never stop?

(Image credits: All pictures from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Veronica Mars: the Film

Okay, I'll put you out of your suspense — and me out of mine — I just saw the Veronica Mars movie and it's good. It's better than good. It's a delight. Everything is in place. The noir setting, the tight plotting, the fine characterisation, the sassy dialogue. I loved it.

The film was only playing in one cinema in London, which at first seemed to me a depressingly bad sign. But it's thriving in that one screen — of course it is, legions of fans of the TV series want to see it. And in North America it seems to have achieved much wider distribution. (My brother lives in a small town in Canada and it's in the movie theatre there.)

It's amazing how easily the film transfers its basic concept — teen detective in high school — to the adult world without losing anything. It turns out that what were originally the main selling points — teen, high school — are actually irrelevant. What matters are the characters, Veronica (Kristen Bell), her dad (Enrico Colantoni), her on-and-off boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring).

Rob Thomas, who created the show (inspired by the teenage girls he knew when he was a teacher) has produced and directed the film. He also wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, in collaboration with Diane Ruggiero. Ruggiero was one of the mainstays of the original TV series. She wrote the classic 'Betty and Veronica' episode in which Veronica goes undercover at another high school, calling herself Betty and saying she's transferred from Riverdale High (both cheeky references to Archie comics). Working with Thomas, she's delivered a wonderful film.

My only reservation is that it contains some spoilers for people who — like me — haven't seen all three series of the TV show. (I did my best, but my series 2 boxed set only plonked through my letter box while I was out seeing the movie.)

I suspect the film will be a hit. A modest hit, perhaps, but that's all it needs to be. After all, it has a modest budget — I believe about six million dollars — which was raised up front through its Kickstarter campaign. So I'm sure it will not only break even, it will go into profit. Which raises the possibility of sequels

The success of Veronica Mars is heartening not only in itself, but because it suddenly gives hopes of a cinematic afterlife for any TV series with a devoted cult following which is cancelled before its time. This was a genuine example of people-power winning out over the bone headed decisions of executives. The idea of low budget, niche market, crowd-pleasing movies is immensely appealing. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.

(Image credits: all the pics are from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Veronica Mars by Rob Thomas

I've been aware of Veronica Mars for years but I've only just now found time to catch up with this excellent TV show. (Translation: I finally found a boxed set that was cheap enough.) A teen noir set in a California high school it's involving, funny, stylish and brilliantly written. 

Veronica (Kristin Bell) is the eponymous teenage private eye, working for her dad Keith who had to set up his detective agency when he was unjustly kicked out as the local chief of police.

Created by Rob Thomas, it has sharp characterisation and it's consistently funny. When Veronica goes on a stakeout her dad warns her to "Take back up." It turns out that Back Up is their pet dog, who pluckily launches himself on the bikers who try to molest Veronica, and smartly drives them off, jaws snapping.

And the dialogue is lovely. In an episode written by Harry Winer we have the following exchange. Veronica, who is a magnet for trouble, says to her fellow social outcast Wallace "I need a favour." Wallace says, "Why did the hair on the back of my neck just stand up?"

I love this show. My only criticism is the way some flashbacks and fantasy scenes are shot. When Veronica's ex boyfriend comes off his medication he starts to hallunicate. His dead sister (Veronica's best friend, played by Amanda Seyfried) comes and sits on the couch with him, chatting happily despite her lethal head wound.

The scene is shot with a greenish tinge and smoke floating in the background... in fact, they do everything except run a caption on the screen reading It's an hallucination, folks! I assume some suited dullard insisted on this to prevent audience confusion — those suited dullards really do have a rock-bottom opinion of their viewers.

Instead, the scene should have been staged in as naturalistic fashion as possible. This would have been far more effective and creepy — and more like a real hallucination. (That's the way Polanski would have shot it.)

Anyway, minor quibble. Veronica Mars may well be my favourite US TV series of all time. Individual episodes are delightful but the entire first season adds up to an arc-story of breathtaking adroitness. It was a whodunnit which completely pulled the wool over my eyes.

And in the course of researching this post I discovered that Veronica Mars, which ran for three seasons before being cancelled in 2007, is alive and well as a movie project. The feature film was first proposed by Rob Thomas when the series was cancelled, but Warner Bros. passed on it. Earlier this year Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. It set a new record when it reached its two million dollar goal in less than ten hours, and eventually topped out at nearly six million dollars.

The film has now been shot and and indeed was released in the UK this week (albeit in a handful of cinemas) and as a digital download.

I notice that Rob Thomas didn't start working on the movie script until the two million dollars were in place. That's my boy. Professional writers everywhere will love him for that.

(Image credits: the DVD cover is from Wikipedia as is the shot with Veronica and her dad, gun in hand. The shot of Amanda Seyfried with her head wound is from Fanpop. The nifty noir poster is from Telestrekoza. Very Very Veronica is from Rolemancer, another Russian site. The Russians seem big on Veronica. )

Sunday, 9 March 2014

More Thoughts on Dune

Here I am following up my earlier post on Dune by Frank Herbert... I had thought, a tad optimistically, that I'd said all I needed to say about this excellent novel. After all, one post was enough to wrap up other childhood favourites like Watership Down and The Hobbit. No disrespect to those masterpieces — I'm not sure that I don't actually prefer Watership Down to Dune, in terms of pure storytelling — but Herbert's book deserves and demands further exploration.

At over 500 pages, Dune is longer than either of those novels. But that isn't why. While all three books represent detailed creations of imaginary worlds, Dune is more packed with ideas than the others. It reflects — or perhaps anticipates — such major 1960s concerns as ecology and mind expanding drugs.

The ecological aspects of the book come across in Herbert's loving description of the desert and the power and detail of his imaginary world. Everything on Arakis is detailed in terms of water and its scarcity. ("The flesh belongs to the person but his water belongs to the tribe.") I've never forgotten the stillsuits, the ingenious garments the Fremen wear to preserve and recycle the water of their bodies. And then of course there are the giant sand worms and their mysterious relationship with the hallucinogenic spice.

Which brings us to the druggy aspects of the book. At times Herbert's prose is positively trippy: after Paul drinks the Water of Life "He felt that his head had been separated from his body and restored with odd connections. His legs were remote and rubbery... Paul felt the drug begin to have its unique effect on him, opening time like a flower."

Elsewhere in the book, the elaborate political intrigues are also rather well handled — "Feints within feints within feints." In stark contrast to, say, the science fiction politics of The Star Wars movies which, to this viewer at least, made no sense at all.

And as I touched on in my last post, Dune is memorable for some beautiful descriptions, usually related to the desert landscape. When Paul is waiting tensely for an attack to commence "He felt time creeping like an insect working its way across an exposed rock." Or dawn on the desert: "A faint green-pearl luminescence etched the eastern horizon." Or this evocation of a storm: "The horsetail twistings of blown sand could be seen against the dark of the sky."

Indeed, the climactic battle of the book takes place in the same kind of eerie storm light that presided over the rabbits' escape from Efrafa in Richard Adams' Watership Down. Brilliant stuff.

But the single most striking thing about Dune on this re-reading was Frank Herbert's prescience. He anticipated certain aspects of our modern world with disturbing accuracy. When he talks of his desert warriors with their prophet, religious fervour, suicide commandos, and holy war it now gives us a chill. The fanaticism of the Fremen has taken on an unsettling new dimension. When he writes "His people scream his name as they leap into battle. The women throw their babies at us and hurl themselves onto our knives to open a wedge for their men to attack us," it has an effect on the 21st Century reader that Herbert could never have anticipated.

This both strengthens the book and undermines it — events in the real world have rendered Dune simultaneously more relevant than ever, and less pleasurable to read.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. They include Polish, Spanish and French editions. The first illustration is of the rather handsome Barnes & Noble leather bound collectible edition. A couple weeks ago this was available for less than twenty dollars. Now it seems to be out of print and greedy profiteers are charging about a hundred bucks for it. So it goes...)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Person of Interest by Jonathan Nolan

I was going cold turkey having finished watching Season One of the magnificent Veronica Mars (is this the finest TV series of all time?) when a friend came to my rescue by recommending Person of Interest.

What a first-rate, beautifully crafted show this is. It's created by Jonathan Nolan, screenwriter for his brother Christopher's Batman films. And, indeed, if you look closely it is a cheeky little rewrite of the Batman myth.

Batman is a high-tech billionaire and a vigilante combat master. If you split that into two characters you get Finch, played by Michael Emerson and Reese played by Jim Caviezel, both of whom are splendid in Person of Interest.

The concept of the show is simple, strong and endlessly fertile. It's essentially a reworking of (and a considerable improvement on) the movies Eagle Eye and Minority Report: Reese has created a super computer, called 'The Machine', which uses surveillance data to spot patterns of behaviour. When it senses a lethal crime is imminent, it spits out a social security number.

This person of interest may be the victim — or possibly the perpetrator. This is one of the brilliant little strokes which make this such a clever and endlessly entertaining show.

Finch built the computer for the government to catch terrorists. But it also spots deadly crime of the vanilla, domestic variety and the government just isn't interested in those. So Finch decides to deal with them himself, enlisting the assistance of troubled former black-ops warrior Reese. 

What ensues is some of the finest television drama available, splendidly crafted, smart and funny. A couple of the episodes in the first season are no more than expert entertainment. But most of them have something extra.

Like Number Crunch by Patrick Harbinson which adroitly takes Reese's nemesis, the police detective Carter, and turns her into his ally, Super by David Slack which cheekily borrows the notion of Rear Window and energetically subverts it, and Wolf and Cub by Nic Van Zeebroeck & Michael Sopczynski which deliberately evokes the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series but develops the idea very movingly as Reese partners with a young ghetto kid out to avenge his brother's death.

This is great televsion. It's in its third season. I hope it runs for decades.

(Image credits: The DVD cover is from Amazon.  Reese with the handgun is from TV Dot Com. The surveillance image of Finch is from Sci Fi Empire. The other images are from the official CBS website for the show, which is cumbersome to navigate — just try clicking all the way back to the Episode 1,  Season 1 Gallery — and has a remarkably dull selection of photos. Sigh.)