Sunday, 15 July 2018

Frederic Raphael's WW2 Ghost Writing

Frederic Raphael is an illustrious British screenwriter and novelist (The Glittering Prizes, Darling, Far From the Madding Crowd, Eyes Wide Shut, to name a few...).

Raphael has recently published the first volume of his memoirs, Going Up, which details his early years including — and of course, this is the bit which really fascinates me — his initial struggles and eventual breakthrough as a writer.

It's reassuring to know that even someone as poised, talented and ultimately successful as Frederic Raphael (he won an Oscar for Darling) also had to scuffle and hustle at first. 

In the 1950s, between occasional jobs writing for the stage and movies, he earned a living ghost writing World War 2 memoirs...

The first of these was They Arrived by Moonlight, Jacques Doneux's account of his unnerving adventures as a secret agent behind enemy lines in Europe — escaping from Paris clinging to the underside of a train was just one. 

Raphael polished Doneux's "artless manuscript" with considerable success: "Jacques had scarcely noticed how I had deleted his clichés and with what terse invention I had stocked his lacunae."

(If you're wondering what that last bit means, Doneux had a tendency to understatement, to say the least, so Raphael had to make up stuff to fill in the blanks.)

They Arrived by Moonlight went down so well that soon the publisher was "keen for me to do a second ghosting job about secret agents. They would pay £600..." for him to rewrite They Fought Alone by Maurice Buckmaster.

Raphael met with Buckmaster and asked "how he would like me to deal with events where key details were missing. He smiled and said, 'Oh, my dear Freddie, make up anything that looks plausible'."

Despite, or maybe because of this, They Fought Alone is highly regarded ("as a documentary source"!). It has recently been reprinted and is considered "a classic of secret warfare."

What Freddie describes as "my last ghostly effort" was the memoir of Captain William Richmond Fell, a New Zealander submarine commander and maritime salvage expert. 

(This book is actually called The Sea Surrenders though, unhelpfully, Freddie repeatedly refers to it as The Sea Shall Not Have Them, a much more famous and completely different  book. I know this because I wasted a lot of time on Google finding it out. Freddie's publishers should be hit in the face with a whip cream pie for not checking basic facts.)
"Now a confident cosmetician of gallant prose, I supplied Bill's book with a leaven of nautical dialogue of the kind that first seasoned Noël Coward's  In Which We Serve and was recycled in The Cruel Sea. 'Steady as you go' was a staple line."

William Fell was not very pleased: "I'd sooner not have it printed," he declared. But Raphael cleverly explained his rewrites in terms of a salvage operation, and the mariner got the point. In any case he was sufficiently mollified to allow the book to be published.

For all the fascination these ghost-written memoirs might exert, the one I'm really interested in is Frederic Raphael's own, ectoplasm-free, memoir Going Up which I'll be posting about here soon.

(Image credits: The paperback of They Arrived by Moonlight is from Bid or Buy. The hardcover is from Hedgerow Books via ABE. The vintage paperback of They Fought Alone is from Dead Souls Bookshop in New Zealand. The red hardcover is from Codename Pauline. The reprint is from BiteBack Books, who also, intriguingly publish Freddie's memoir Going Up. The Sea Surrenders is from Pic Click.)

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The First Purge by James DeMonaco

Back in 2013 a film appeared, written and directed by James DeMonaco. It was a thriller called The Purge and it featured a brilliantly simple notion which turned it  into sociological science fiction.

in America in the near future a totalitarian government has institute 'The Purge' — one night a year, for 12 hours, all crime, including murder, is legal. 

This is purportedly to allow a cathartic cleansing of emotions and promote a peaceful society. It's actually a social control mechanism to keep the government in power...
The film followed one family locked into their fortress of a house and under siege during that night. 

It was successful enough to give rise to a sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, also written and directed by DeMonaco, and then another one, The Purge: Election Year.

Both of these sequels expanded the scope of their stories, taking us out onto the streets into the nightmare milieu of Purge night. One of the clever things about this concept is that it's like a zombie movie without zombies — just lethally armed, disinhibited, 'normal' human beings.

And both of these sequels were outstanding; I recommend them highly. Not least because they presented the almost unheard of spectacles of poor black American good guys gunning down rich white American bad guys.

In terms of racial politics, the Purge movies aren't up there with the magnificent Get Out, but they are still canny and biting social satires.

Now there's another Purge sequel in cinemas (cheekily released on the 4th of July): The First Purge, which takes the story back to its roots with a pilot experiment for the Purge which is limited to a sealed-off Staten Island.

Impoverished residents have been paid five grand each if they stay for the mayhem. Again social criticism is entwined with brutal action. Again James DeMonaco has written the script, but this time the director is Gerard McMurray.

Unfortunately The First Purge isn't up to the exhilarating standard of Anarchy or Election Year, but it does have its moments. Like a Klu Klux Klan murder gang being wiped out by heavily armed African American drug dealers.

And the grand finale is an amusing variation on Die Hard. The leader of the drug dealers (Y'lan Noel as Dmitri) goes alone into the high rise housing project to stop the white supremacists who are on a killing spree within. 

Dmitri is even dressed in a wife-beater vest, like John McLane in Die Hard.

So... good, but not great. If you're intrigued by the premise of the Purge movies you might want to check out the second or third film.

Or maybe you'd prefer to wait for the TV series, which is on its way.

(Image credits: A surprisingly large selection of posters — and some great ones (I particularly like the crime scene continent, and the burning ice cream truck) — at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Sicario 2: Soldado by Taylor Sheridan

Taylor Sheridan is my hero. He's probably the finest screenwriter working at the moment.  

He made his explosive debut with Sicario in 2015, and then followed it up with Hell or High Water and Wind River

An astonishing run of high quality movies marked by a flair for action, a sense of place, and strong characterisation.

So when I learned of this new film, I was very apprehensive. Not only was it Sheridan's fourth script, it was a sequel. And sequels are notoriously hard to pull off. I took my seat in the cinema both excited and braced for an almost inevitable disappointment.

This film, which in America is called Sicario: Day of the Soldado and in Britain Sicario 2: Soldado (both rather cumbersome titles) initially seemed to me to have a couple of difficulties to overcome...

Sure enough, it begins in the familiar brutal world of the US-Mexican border. The first image is of a rugged, primeval landscape which could be from a million years ago — and then a helicopter bobs into view, a menacing artefact of modern technology.

The story which is subsequently set out at first seems to hinge on intertwining the Mexican drug cartels with Islamic extremism. Hmm... Was this a contrived attempt to inject topicality?

More worryingly, this new film focuses on two characters returning from Sicario — Benicio del Toro's revenge-driven hitman Alejandro and Josh Brolin's cynical black-ops warrior, Matt. But it doesn't feature Emily Blunt as Kate.

In the original movie Kate was the anchor, the moral compass of the film. Whereas Alejandro and Matt are hardened, ruthless and accustomed to the nightmarish world they inhabit, Kate was still a normal person with values and feelings.

What would it do to the new movie to remove her from the equation?

Well, I need not have worried — about this, or anything else. 

Sicario 2: Soldado, or whatever the hell you want to call it, is spellbinding. It is a masterpiece. I loved every moment of it. 
Taylor Sheridan has done an astonishing job of constructing a film in which every scene has something fresh or fascinating to it. And it grips you relentlessly.

Sheridan does a superb job of enlisting the audience's sympathies and keeping us on the edge of our seat. There's also memorable characters,  unforgettable action sequences — including another terrifying cross-border excursion — and some great dialogue ("Beautiful day." "Yeah, blue skies... high calibre weapons... I just love getting out of the office").

Other than Taylor Sheridan, most of the creative team has changed from Sicario. 

The director this time is the Italian Stefano Sollima, making his English language feature debut. The cinematographer is Dariusz Wolski, who frequently works with Ridley Scott and recently shot All the Money in the World

The composer of Sicario, Johann Johannsson, died tragically young and he has been replaced by his collaborator the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guanodottir.

They all do a terrific job. But I regard this as Taylor Sheridan's movie. And it's a triumph.

In a summer multiplex environment congested with superheros and space ships, this is one sequel you mustn't miss. An exciting and disturbing action movie which manages to be moving, profound and thrilling all at once.

(Image credits: posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'

You're probably familiar with the extraordinary art of Robert Williams without even knowing it. His cover painting for Guns 'n' Roses Appetite for Destruction has been seen all over the world. 

The record has sold more that 14 million copies. A fact that Williams recalls with chagrin when recounting the minuscule payment he requested from the then-unknown band. 

 "When these people originally approached me they were unheard of and I considered them to be just another punk rock band."

Adding to the irritation, "They even used the name of the painting."

The image of a woman being assaulted by a robot (who is about to be dealt with by an avenging demon) was inevitably controversial. And it got Guns 'n' Roses into hot water, as Williams had warned them it would...

 "I gave them my best wishes, but I warned them that this was going to get them into a lot of trouble. And it got them into exactly the amount of trouble I thought it was going to get them into."

These and many other droll recollections are featured on a marvellous documentary available on DVD entitled Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'. Incidentally, "bitchin' " is slang for great, cool, wonderful, the best....

I've been an ardent — and often astonished — fan of Williams's art since I first happened on it in the underground comics of my youth. So I was delighted to discover that someone had made a film about the man and his work.

It is a terrific, amusing and informative documentary which really brings Williams warmly to life as an engaging and sardonic — and hugely talented — figure.

He began his career doing hotrod art (custom cars are a passion he shares with his wife) and working with Big Daddy Roth. Roth created Rat Fink, an icon of my childhood...

Williams used to illustrate ads for Roth's merchandise, and his art was so extreme that magazines began to refuse to run them. 

But extremity is Williams's middle name. And that's one reason I love his stuff.

Then came the underground comics I mentioned, then Williams turned to concentrating on his astounding paintings. His work has always had a cult following, but now he is poised to assault the citadels of fine art, and may perhaps realise his ambition to be recognised as a "blue chip artist".

If after watching Mr Bitchin' you find you have an appetite not for destruction but for further exploration of his work, I urge you to buy one of the many books of his paintings which are available. (There is a merchandise page on his own website here.)

Oh, and one last anecdote from the documentary. Debbie Harry of Blondie is depicted in one of his paintings, which unusually for Williams, features no explicit nudity. 

"I had Miss Harry's dignity to think about," he says. Before adding mischievously, "I did have her keister showing."

Debbie Harry herself gamely remarks, "I really wouldn't have minded being portrayed sitting on a taco with no clothes on. But Robert is a gentleman."

(Image credits: the DVD cover is from Cinema Libre Studios. The Low Brow Art book cover is from Wim Words. The Zap cover is from Pinterest. The other images are from a very useful article in the the Guardian. Thank you, Guardian!)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Boardwalk Empire by Terence Winter

This TV series is my current box-set addiction and I've just finished Season 2... which left me in a state of shock like nothing I've seen since Game of Thrones. 

I was initially attracted to Boardwalk Empire by the presence of Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode and is one of the producers.

But the crucial creative talent here is the writer Terence Winter who created the show. He also wrote Scorsese's best movie for many, many years — The Wolf of Wall Street. Before that he was one of the writers on The Sopranos, which makes absolute sense.

Like the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is a gangster epic, albeit a period one set in Atlantic City, the source of the boardwalks in the title. The period in question is the 1920s and the recently concluded mass slaughter of World War One hangs over everything.

One of the heroes of the show — though hero isn't quite the right word — is Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), a soldier home from the hell of No Man's Land with a permanent limp. He can't quite shake off his wartime experiences. When he drinks a toast it is always "To the lost."

Jimmy is the protege of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Nominally the treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky actually runs the town and its criminal operations, which are funded by bootleg liquor. Jimmy is his enforcer, assisted by Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), another vet and a lethal sniper. Richard came home with only half a face and wears a grotesque mask to stop little kids screaming in the street.

Michael Pitt looks good in a hat, something which became evident in the movie Silk, where he was required to wear an ushanka — a silly Russian-style fur monstrosity. A hat, especially one like that, can obliterate the essential image of many a movie star (in Conspiracy Theory Mel Gibson never quite recovered from donning a modest watch cap).

But Boardwalk Empire is absolutely the era of the hat for men, and Pitt is in his element. Luckily Steve Buscemi looks good in one, too. And Huston. 

Also under a fedora is Michael Shannon as a prohibition agent. He's tormented and priest-ridden, though not as priest-ridden as Kelly MacDonald, who is modelling headwear for the ladies. MacDonald first registered on screens as Ewan McGregor's schoolgirl paramour in Trainspotting. In Boardwalk Empire she's Nucky's love interest — and considerably more than that.
The influence of The Godfather is strongly felt here, and indeed Boardwalk Empire is the best example of that kind of gangster drama since The Godfather II.

The show has a strong, and richly researched, period feel. If the scripts are informed by the nihilistic aftermath of the Great War, the ravishing photography draws on sources like Maxfield Parrish paintings.

The music of the era, however — from a time before Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet made their mark on jazz — is accurately rendered and therefore pretty wretched. If you wanted something good from this period the thing to do would be to ignore popular music and go, instead, for Stravinsky or maybe Ravel. Although admittedly it's unlikely to be the sort of stuff these hoods would play at their parties.

(Image credits: The DVD covers are from Amazon. Kelly MacDonald is from USA Today. Pitt's pic is, appropriately enough, from a Gentleman's Gazette article about Jimmy Darmody's clothes. The posters are provided by good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Hot House by Brian Aldiss

Known in America as The Long Afternoon of Earth, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss was written originally as five (rather long) short stories and appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — probably my favourite sf magazine, by the way. 

This sequence of tales deservedly won Aldiss a Hugo award in 1962 and soon appeared as a book, more or less stitched together to form a continuous novel. I read it when I was a kid but I was prompted to pick it up again by a wonderful BBC radio adaptation, details archived here skilfully filleted by the writer Lu Kemp.

The thing that came across so forcefully in the radio version — and was no doubt responsible for the book winning its Hugo back in the 1960s — was the sheer richness of Aldiss's imagination and the strangeness of his vision.

In the far future the Earth is in a locked orbit, half the planet in freezing darkness, the other half permanently turned towards the sun, receiving the endless light and heat which accounts for both the American and British titles of this book.

In this hothouse world, vegetation dominates and indeed half the planet is pretty much occupied by one giant, interconnected banyan tree. In its branches are the remaining life forms, included the shrunken (and green-skinned!) descendants of humanity.

Animal life is scarce, though, and plants rule the world. And what plants. They are mobile, semi-intelligent (or at least sentient) and come in a breathtaking assortment of bizarre and dangerous forms. Particularly impressive are the zeppelin-sized traversers, sort of giant spiders who spin webs from the Earth to the (equally gravity locked ) Moon, as they move over the sky "like clouds".

Aldiss really excells in dreaming up lifeforms such as this. The bellyelm is a particularly brilliant creation; it's a two-part entity with its lure-and-decoy companion. And Aldiss also shows real flair in the naming of the flora and fauna of this weird new world. These names call to mind both James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. 

His depiction of the struggle to survive in this savage world — "green in tooth and claw"! — is quite unforgettable. The sequence where a downed the suckerbird tries desperately to escape the clutches of murderous seaweed is simply heartbreaking.

Aldiss often writes very well, as when he describes "the terrible silence of the forest" or "rain sizzling in cataracts off a great flat head" or vegetation that "rose as remorselessly as boiling milk" towards the endless light of the sun...

I was almost a third of the way through the book when I realised something terrifically obvious — it has its roots (!) in The Day of the Triffids. This dawned on me as I read how "gigantic nettles shook their bearded heads."

Like John Wyndham's novel of the Triffids, there's no doubt that Aldiss's book is a classic.

There are some problems with it, though. Not least the science. People have taken issue with the physics of the story, and I personally disliked Aldiss's story device of the devolved human beings having, deep in their brains, detailed racial memories of the past. There's some other basic biology which is also just plain wrong,

But this pales beside the real weakness of the book. Its central character Gren is an unpleasant self-centred bully. As I mentioned, Hothouse was written originally as five much shorter stories. In can see how in that format Gren wouldn't have outstayed his welcome with the reader. 

And I suspect Aldiss didn't realise just how intensely unsympathetic his protagonist would seem when these tales were joined back to back to form a novel.

Don't let that put you off, though. There is so much here to be enjoyed. This fascinating world is presented to us through a fast moving  adventure in the manner of the interplanetary novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (or, later, Michael Moorcock).

But the most striking influence here is that of William Hope Hodgson. There's a sequence in Hothouse involving an unseen nightmare thing called the Black Mouth which lurks inside a dormant volcano. It emits an eerie siren song that summons all creatures in the vicinity into the volcano and to their doom.

Our heroes only survive because they manage to hold out until that "dreadful melody ceased in mid-note." They watch as "five terrible long fingers came to rest precisely together on the lip of the Black Mouth. Then one by one they were withdrawn, leaving Gren with a vision of some unimaginable monster picking its teeth after an obscene repast."

Our heroes hurry away, looking back over their shoulders "to make sure nothing came climbing out of the volcano after them."

This is strongly reminscent of William Hope Hodgson's visionary horror stories, especially that Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tale 'The Whistling Room'. It also calls to mind Hodgson's novel Nightland, though not as much as the next section does...

As Aldiss's heroes trek into the lands beyond the terminator into the "Nightside Mountains", the whole situation strongly evokes Hodgson's Nightland with its clouds, storms, lightning, and the final glimpses of the livid twisted sun which is slowly going nova.

There's also an extraordinary sequence where Gren glimpses a sort of interdimensional opening into an "impossible green universe of delight" which prefigures Alan Moore's Swamp Thing.

It seems a little wrong to conclude with this list of comparisons, because ultimately Brian Aldiss's Hothouse is a classic because it's unique.

(Image credits: The covers are from Goodreads. The original green Sphere edition is from a French ABE bookseller. The orange and white Faber hardcover is from an American ABE bookseller.)

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story by Kasdan & Kasdan

As you will be aware, unless you've spent the last few years in a fallout shelter (tempting, I know...) there are now two series of Star Wars movies running in parallel. 

Firstly we have the mainstream films, which continue to explore the core narrative, like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

And then there are what I suppose we might call the sidestream movies, which have the subtitle 'A Star Wars Story', I guess to make the point they are not part of the Star Wars story.

So far we've had of these two sidestream movies. The first was Rogue One, which I think is a disgracefully bad piece of film making. A lousy script and an utterly inept piece of storytelling. 

I say this knowing full well that tens of millions of people loved this movie, and you dear reader may be one of them.

If so I apologise, but I stand my ground. Rogue One was awful. Which makes it all the sweeter to report that the new sidestream movie is just plain splendid. I simply loved it and can't wait to see it again.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has the tremendous advantage of a script by Lawrence Kasdan, the best screenwriter every to be involved with the franchise, working in collaboration with his son, Jonathan.

It is, of course, a prequel which fills in the back story of Han Solo. Solo is played by Alden Ehrenreich (not an easy name to spell), who made such a favourable impression in the Coen brothers' Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! where he played a laconic 1950s cowboy star with a fantastic command of the lasso. (He was also excellent in Stoker and Beautiful Creatures.)

The Kasdan's have come up with a strong, simple and rather smart concept to motivate the young Solo: he's in love. And early in the movie circumstances force him to separate from his sweetheart Qi'ra (pronounced Keera), played by Emilia Clarke.

Fans of Game of Thrones will know Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen (another bloody difficult name to spell). Now, there is no bigger fan of Game of Thrones than me. But I didn't even recognise that the actress playing Qi'ra was the same one who played Daenerys — her appearance is so different in this film.

What I did recognise is that Clarke is terrific, and fantastically fetching, in Solo. Her costumes in the movie also often have a kind of cowgirl thing going on, which sort of carries on the Western theme introduced by Ehrenreich's prowess with the lasso.

But Solo doesn't draw on Westerns. It's basically a heist movie. Indeed it begins as a heist movie in the middle of a war, which suggests that the Kasdans might have fruitfully studied Troy Kennedy Martin's great script for Kelly's Heroes.

As he's drawn into the heist plot, Solo teams up with Beckett (at last an easy name), played by Woody Harrelson and Val (ditto) played by Thandie Newton, who gets to say lines like, “Viper droids headed your way.” 

Beckett and Val are kind of a Bonnie and Clyde setup — and there’s convincing chemistry when they kiss. Newton is gone all too soon from the picture.

But the Kasdan's expert story has already propelled us to a new and engrossing situation as Solo finds his lost love — only to discover that she's the captive plaything of a genuinely nasty villain, Dryden Vos (great name), played by the outstanding Paul Bettany.

Which is not to suggest that Qi'ra is some kind of passive ornament. Indeed, she's basically a kickass film noir femme fatale. 

Although, as leading lady, she has some serious competition from the fabulous L3-37, a (literally) rebellious female droid unforgettably brought to life by Phoebe Waller-Bridge a British actor, comedian and writer best known for Fleabag.

To say any more would be to spoil the fun for you. But I will just remark that this is a really standout cast, making great use of a peerless script in which all the icons and tropes and characters we associate with Han Solo (Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon, Lando Calrissian) are skilfully and joyfully introduced.

The movie is directed by Ron Howard. He took over from the team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), reportedly because they were taking too many liberties with the Kasdans' script. 

If so, they deserved to go.

Anyway, this is Ron Howard's best film to date — certainly his best since The Missing. It also has excellent music by John Powell.

Oh — and Chewbacca's hair looks great.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards where, I kid you not, there are 45 to choose from. Even so, Thandie Newton as Val is scandalously under-represented.)