Sunday, 19 January 2020

Son of Rosemary by Ira Levin

I am only now beginning to give Ira Levin's late novels the credit they're due. 

One reason it's taken a while is because by this time Levin was such a consummate master of his craft. 

His books are so beautifully and smoothly constructed, and make for such effortless reading, that there's a danger of underestimating their brilliance.

Published in 1997, Son of Rosemary is the final novel Ira Levin wrote — it's a great shame that he only ever gave us seven. 
 
(I should say at this point that if you haven't read Rosemary's Baby you should go away and do that before continuing here — this post is full of spoilers.)

Son of Rosemary is similar to Levin's penultimate novel Sliver (1991) in its focus on an older woman's involvement with a dangerously charming — and possibly just plain dangerous — younger man.

Except in this case the older woman is Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby and the young man is her demonic son, now grown to manhood.

It's a short novel but it moves with a headlong velocity, starting with a brief passage in the present tense as a satanist dentist (yes, one of those) is killed — squished by a runaway taxi. 

At that instant, and still on the first page of the novel, we cut to Rosemary awakening from a coma in a long-term care hospital. 

She has been released from a spell she was put under by the coven who engineered the conspiracy that ended with her becoming Satan's babymother.

The (fantastic and hilarious) ending of the first novel featured Rosemary coming to terms with this situation and turning into a doting mother of Andy, the devil's spawn.

But the coven wanted her out of the way so they make sure the boy grew up evil. Hence the coma... which she has been in for 27 years.

This makes for a fantastically arresting and ingenious beginning for the sequel, with Rosemary's dawning horror as she realises how long she's been asleep. 
 
It's all beautifully and succinctly conveyed as Rosemary discovers that Andy has become a "charismatic leader and a great communicator." 

Indeed, he's founded a kind of world religion. Andy seems kindly, compassionate, a bringer of peace...

Which causes Rosemary to reflect that, "Either she'd done a really super job of mothering during Andy's early years — or the coven had found a really super disguise for the son of Satan."

As the ferociously slick and streamlined story progresses, Andy reveals that he is not a good guy — and to her credit, Rosemary has been sceptical all along.
 
The suspense, and the horror, grow until we reach the final sequence, Chapter 18 — or "6+6+6" as it is headed in the book — where the devil himself makes an appearance, sitting with his feet up and "eating caviar out of a pound tin with a spoon."
 
The book is beautifully, economically, vividly written even its smallest details. Here's the description of champagne being poured into a glass: "the foam fizzed down into pale gold wine."

And there's a wonderfully evocative sequence of Rosemary and Andy walking abroad in a snowbound New York without an entourage or bodyguards — like John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

This is a habit which of course proved tragically fatal for Lennon, and there's a scene in the book where Rosemary visits Lennon's memorial garden in Central Park — although I had no idea this is what it was until I read an explanation online.

This is an example of Ira Levin leaving things unexplained because he wants the reader to do some work. He also includes a puzzle that runs throughout the book.

This is a brain-breaker of an anagram: take "roast mules" and turn it into a common ten letter word that even children use.

I have to confess that I couldn't crack it. I ended up using the computer, and then kicked myself. I'd urge you to try and solve it without cheating...

The solution proves to be a brilliant metaphor for the dizzying ending of this unstoppably fabulous book.

(Image credits: a good selection of covers, some of them breathtakingly irrelevant, from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by Abrams & Terrio

This is a terrific movie. 

It also has a few major weaknesses, which are rather unnecessary and annoying.

Like the supposedly spectacular opening sequences which throw a lot of action at us, but which just fall flat because the audience hasn't been warmed up yet — the film makers haven't given us any situations characters to care about.

They could have saved many millions of dollars and just dropped these. The movie only really begins when we go to Chewy (Joonas Suotamo), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). 

We care about these guys all right, especially Rey. Daisy Ridley has a great face, a killer smile and, above all, lots of heart. 
 
Adam Driver who plays the bad guy, Kylo Ren, also has a great face. 

Foolishly, it is periodically concealed in a Darth Vader style helmet — though at least the film makers are smart enough to minimise this.

Essentially the movie is about the contrasting faces, and personalities, of Rey and Kylo in a kind of yin-yang opposition. This is the essence of the narrative.

Not the crappy storyline, which consists of the immensely dull and mechanical pursuit of a bunch of boring plot coupons.

As a result of it we get dialogue like, "The location of the wayfinder is inscribed on this dagger." Ouch.

Mind you, that's not as bad as the (apparently unironic) utterance, "I have a bad feeling about this."

However, the action set pieces that are sequenced along this dodgy storyline are truly splendid — like real pearls strung on a dirty, fraying piece of string.

The locations are also first rate, and varied. We go to snow planets, desert planets and ocean planets. And there's a memorable shot near the end where the twin suns of Tatooine wittily echo the double spherical structure of the droid BB-8.

Speaking of BB-8, he gets a new buddy in this movie (I thought it was going to be a romance, but no such luck) with a new droid called D-0 aka 'Cone Face'. 

And there's a lovely warm moment when Rey gives reassurance to the skittish little droid, who has been mistreated in the past. ("You're with us now.")

But it's the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren which is really wonderful here, with them having a psychic connection which enables the pair to see each other even when they're parsecs apart.

Which leads to the cool discovery that some of the physical objects surrounding Rey or Kylo can spill from one location to the other, when they are psychically connected. And this becomes a neat plot point.

Meanwhile, Rey is in the process of becoming a Jedi and her powers are growing, leading to a glorious bit where she virtually tugs a spaceship back down to the ground to try and stop Chewie being taken prisoner.

Unfortunately this leads to the old Superman problem... Rey is growing so powerful that, for instance, in what should be a nail biting sequence of her climbing at a great height, suspense starts draining away.

After all — isn't she virtually invulnerable?

Much worse, though is the gradual revelation of Rey's background.
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You might recall that she started out in this franchise as a scavenger, a nobody, the lowest of the low. 

Well, all that is discarded here as we discover that she actually has a glamorous background and a secret origin. She isn't a lowborn scumbag like you or me. She's someone special.

This is the fallacy of the "chosen one" that genre writers keep falling into. (My friend Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series is an honourable exception.)
 
Basically it tells you that if you aren't descended from gods or royalty, then you're worthless.

It's a great shame that a film that otherwise strives for inclusion and diversity should be peddling such damaging nonsense.

It's also incredibly lazy plotting.

But this is still a terrific movie, and a Christmas treat. 

(Image credits: A galaxy of posters at Imp Awards, though Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is reprehensibly under-represented.)

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Best Films of 2019

As is traditional in this (purely personal) annual selection, let's start with some movies which didn't quite make the cut...

Toy Story 4 was a surprise. Who would have thought there was still so much life in the old toys? 

This was quite lovely, with great characters, and some terrifically creepy ventriloquist’s dummies who take the franchise into horror movie territory. 

Speaking of horror, Happy Deathday 2U was an excellent sequel which cleverly exploits the possibilities of the original. 

Meanwhile Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle's Yesterday brought home to me, really for the first time, how good the Beatles’ songs were.

I thought Captain Marvel was terrific fun (though the cat shouldn’t have scratched out Nick Fury’s eye). Ben Mendelsohn manages to convey great emotion, despite being covered with a thick layer of latex.

The Mule, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood had a splendidly engrossing story about an old fart drug trafficker, and a superb support cast. It was good, but not quite as good as Eastwood's Gran Torino.  

Midway was an intelligent and often thrilling war movie which did an exemplary job of organising and dramatising historical fact.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker traded powerfully on the wonderful assets of Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver as Rey and Kylo.

Continuing in a science fiction vein, Ad Astra was almost terrific and has some great moments. Like the moon base depicted as a shopping mall, or the tacky therapy room on Mars where they project beautiful scenes of wildlife from Earth. 

The story follows Brad Pitt as he goes after his Colonel Kurtz style dad who is out in the orbit of Neptune with a weapon which can menace the Earth. Cue a journey which is a series of set pieces. 

And some of these set pieces are utterly wonderful, like the moon buggy chase. But then there’s the stupid scene with the rogue monkeys...

The Favourite had striking visuals that evoke Vermeer's painting. There’s also hilarious and engaging — though slightly overdone — use of a fisheye lens. The C- word is also overused in the dialogue. Indeed the whole picture is overdone. 

The Favourite overstays its welcome. At first I thought it was masterpiece, then I thought it just narrowly missed being a masterpiece. 

Finally I thought it narrowly missed being a good movie, though a lot of that might have been to do with a nasty bit of rabbit squashing at the end. 

Speaking of cruelty to rabbits... Us was a superb follow up to Get Out. And since we're back on the subject of horror movies, Midsommar was a little too long, but otherwise quite fabulous.  

Them That Follow was bleak but tremendous. It's a taut, harrowing anecdote about fundamentalist religion in a remote US mountain community where you demonstrate your faith by handling venomous snakes. 
 
 Walton Goggins moves up to a new level of acting as the local preacher whose teenage daughter (the excellent Alice Englert) has got knocked up — and by an unbeliever, too. "It's time to get clean, girl," he says as he drapes the "serpent" around her shoulders...

We are now among my top movies of the year:

Le Mans 66, with a memorable performance from Christian Bale (Matt Damon is good, too)  was so nearly a great film. The contrived last minute unhappy ending somewhat scuppered it for me. But it still makes it onto this list.

Terminator Dark Fate performed the difficult trick of reviving a franchise that wandered off course over decades. The triumvirate of strong female leads and Mexican setting were both  refreshingly novel.

Ready or Not takes us back to horror movies with a dark and delightful nightmare which aims to do for rich people what Get Out did for white people — and damned near succeeds.

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman was an engrossing masterpiece. At nearly three and a half hours(without intermission) you'll need to take a thermos of coffee if you see it at the cinema. But at home on Netflix you can just savour it's violent, sprawling splendour.
 
Al Pacino is simply magnificent as Jimmy Hoffa, in his finest performance ever. He deserves an Oscar but won’t get one because of the Netflix thing. I was delighted to see, as the end credits rolled that this was written by the great Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Green Book, a comedy drama with enormous heart, was utterly superb and I recommend it to you highly. It almost blew my mind when I discovered it was based on a true story.   
 
But top honours must go to Qunetin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As this movie counted down to the doomsday on Cielo Drive I had a sneaky, hopeful inkling that Tarantino would rewrite history again like he did in Inglorious Basterds. Thank heavens he did. Fabulous. 
 
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 29 December 2019

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson

Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murders, set at Christmas, is a classic mystery novel, and one which makes a perfect companion piece to the equally wintry The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr.

Not least because Carter Dickson is John Dickson Carr. Possibly he adopted the pseudonym because he was too prolific to publish all his work under his own name. 

The books are similar for other reasons. White Priory's master-detective Sir Henry Merrivale is distinctly reminiscent of Hollow Man's Dr Gideon Fell.

 Both of these sleuthing geniuses are comically corpulent — in the course of three pages, Merrivale is described as wheezing, lumbering and waddling.

Both are locked room murder mysteries, with the revelation (don't worry, I won't give anything away) being based on a breathtaking, but entirely plausible, shift of logic which entirely alters the frame of reference and confounds our expectations.

Fascinatingly, both novels feature authoritative summaries and overviews of the whole locked-room genre, in this case in Chapter 12.

And both are ideal Christmas reading, since they have moodily and beautifully described snowbound settings — "the sky was a moving flicker of snow. There was something insistent, something healing, about those silent flakes, that would efface all tracks in the world."

"So quiet was this muffled world that they could hear the snowflakes ticking and rustling in the evergreen branches."

Indeed, footprints in the snow, or the lack of them, are crucial plot features both here and in The Hollow Man.

Carr (or Dickson) is a really superb writer. And, while the mystery he spins is compelling, and I wanted to know what happened, the main reason I kept being drawn back to this book was the outstanding quality of the writing.

Carr simply can't resist terrific descriptions, and they enliven long passages of exposition by diving into vivid flashbacks: "He sailed... on a bitter grey day when the skyline was smoky purple."

And he creates moods beautifully: "the tension... it was as though the room were full of wasps, and you could hear the buzzing."

Or, the way the reminder of a recent death "intensified the grey loneliness of the room."

He can also be wickedly funny — "He had put on his thickest-lensed spectacles in honour of the occasion."
 
I found myself spellbound by the setting of The White Priory Murders — the isolated Restoration manor house is a chilling and eerie place. "It had grown darker outside, and dead tendrils of vine whipped the windows as the wind rose."
 
And the group of characters gathered here are also brilliantly evoked. Like Katharine Bohun —  "her eyes had a hot, hard brightness." 

Carr doesn't seem to have got the memo that this is supposed to be a potboiler. He is writing with an edge of poetry worthy of 'real' literature.

There a numerous moments of superb physical description — "With steady fingers she struck a match; the gas lit up with a hollow whoom, and little yellow blue flames... flickered on her face."

"He put the palms of his hands together before him, weirdly as though he were going to dive."

Or the way a character "pushed open the door...as you might prod a deadly snake" with his cane. 

In fact, the fellow putting his palms together and pushing doors with his cane is the very unpleasant Maurice Bohun, a wealthy, clever and vicious academic. 

He also has a nasty temper — "Maurice was white with a smiling, deadly lightly-sweating fury"... "For a second there was almost a deformity of rage in Maurice's face."

Maurice is an unforgettable character and there's a real sense of place, and a powerful atmosphere to his home, the White Priory. But the book ends, rather beautifully, back in town "high above the green Embankment, the glittering river, and the mighty curve of London."

This is a classic Golden Age crime novel which deserves to be remembered not for the ingenuity of its plot but rather for the beauty of its writing. 

(Image credits: The IPL edition — "Sir Henry Merrivale solves the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" — is from my own library. Incidentally, if like me you associate that phrase with Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, and the play based on it, it turns out that the quote is from a Sherlock Holmes story, 'The Adventure of Silver Blaze'. Cheeky people at IPL! Not least for the way the artist Nicky Zann has created a pastiche of the original Pocket Books cover. The green Penguin is from Amazon. The Pocket Books edition is from the wonderfully named Baskerville Books. The absolutely wild Belmont Tower edition featuring a 1970s image of hipster with a goatee and a gun who bears no earthly resemblance to Henry Merrivale is from Grant Thiessen Books in my old hometown, Winnipeg, via ABE. The yellow — giallo — Italian Mondadori edition is from Anobli. The other covers came from Good Reads. )