Sunday, 22 November 2015

Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin

I was going to write about the new Bond film this week, or maybe another Hugo Bishop novel, but I've prioritised the superb new film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin — because, perplexingly, it seems to have been received with little enthusiasm, and may vanish from our cinemas soon.

So please consider this a call to action — and rush out and see this extraordinary and splendid movie on the big screen while you still can.

It's obvious from the first seconds that Steve Jobs is an intelligent and surprising entertainment. It begins with black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke making extraordinarily accurate predictions about how computers will change our lives.

We are then tumbled into the world of Steve Jobs, with the wonderful trademark dialogue of Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network; one of our great screenwriters).

Sorkin has structured his script brilliantly, around three crucial product launches. And if you think that sounds dull, trust me it's anything but. The struggle to get the prototype MacIntosh to say hello in time for the press conference will have your heart in your throat — it's a masterpiece of suspense.

Besides providing a powerful and vivid portrait of Steve Jobs as a cultural force, the film also gives a memorable depiction of his turbulent personal life — his conflict with friends, and his ex-lover, and the daughter whom he initially disavows, and then comes to love.

Michael Fassbender is terrific as Jobs. And he looks eerily like a younger and more muscular Bradley Whitford (a star of The West Wing and a regular in Aaron Sorkin's repertory company). Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) does fine work, using what looks like period colour film stock to evoke the 1980s. He is perhaps a little too flashy in his visuals at times (did we really need the space footage?). But on the other hand, that amazing Arthur C. Clarke clip might have been his idea.

There's a couple of flaws in the script, where it slips up on period detail — no one would have made a joke about being a "Steve Whisperer" in 1984, because the novel The Horse Whisperer wasn't published until 1995 — and I'm still scratching my head over the supposed revelation about the Time magazine cover.

But make no mistake, Aaron Sorkin is a writer of genius and Steve Jobs is a magnificent film. Gripping, moving, revelatory and hilarious.

(Image credits: Only two posters available from Imp Awards, and that's always a bad sign in terms of a movie's commercial prospects. The black and white photo of Aaron Sorkin is from an interview in The Independent.)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Last Witch Hunter by Sazama & Sharpless and Goodman

I like to go on movie binges. This often involves seeing a movie that doesn't especially interest me in order to bridge the gap between two films I really want to see. In the past this has paid dividends by exposing me to some great movies that I would otherwise have missed. 

And the validity of this approach was proved once again when I saw The Last Witch Hunter.

I'd been subjected to the publicity for this film and it looked flatly ludicrous. The presence of Vin Diesel (whose output has been so hit and miss) didn't help. 

But The Last Witch Hunter was a real surprise. It's fun, smartly conceived, well written and entirely effective. It features great production design by Julie Berghoff, photography by Dean Semler and impressive special effects. It's colourful, fast moving and vivid. Kudos to director Breck Eisner, who most recently did the remake of Romero's The Crazies.
The cast of The Last Witch Hunter is excellent. Besides Diesel, Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie delivers a smart and appealing performance as an absinthe-drinking British witch, Chloe, who runs a bar. (You will know Leslie from Game of Thrones where she plays Jon Snow's dangerous, freckled squeeze Ygritte.)

I think the key to this film's success is that, despite often being humorous ("What are you scared of?" "Public speaking."), it takes itself seriously. 

It creates its own silly little pulp-fiction world in which Kaulder (Diesel) has been cursed with immortality after slaying an ancient Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht in H.R. Giger style make up). So he roams the world policing the witches who live among us, making sure they toe the line, and if necessary killing those who go rogue.

When off-duty he picks up airline stewardesses and returns to his New York penthouse where he has a sealed walk-in closet full of exotic weapons and enjoys a drink with the latest in the long line of priests who mentor him, the "36th Dolan" (Michael Caine).

As I say, silly pulp stuff, but the film inhabits this world with cleverness, wit and conviction. The excellent script surprised me in that it wasn't based on a comic or computer game. It is an original creation by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless who did the early drafts, with a final re-write by Cory Goodman. 

Now, Sazama & Sharpless (the ampersand is significant) came to my attention last year with Dracula Untold, another fantasy/horror action flick which they wrote and which was way better than I expected. 

As for Goodman, he wrote the script for Priest, starring Paul Bettany, which was also fantasy/horror action. I think I saw it, but I can't remember... 

Normally that would say it all. But The Last Witch Hunter was so good I might give Priest another look.

The Last Witch Hunter is a small, unexpected gem. In its comic book/popcorn-movie it is one of the year's best films.

(Image credits: A vast selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

BBC Radio's recent Arthur Miller centennial season has forced upon me a dramatic (no pun intended) re-evaluation of this great American playwright. 

I was familiar with The Misfits, Miller's ill-fated vehicle for his wife Marilyn Monroe — starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, with its Miller script and directed by John Huston, it should have been a masterpiece. But it wasn't. And then of course there's Death of the Salesman, which I'd read when I was young, and The Crucible, which I'd read when I was less young.

But nothing prepared me for the power, sophistication and breadth of his work. What really knocked me out was A View from the Bridge, Miller's mid-1950s masterpiece.

The bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the view is of the dockyards in Red Hook and its surrounding community. 

Miller had become familiar with these docks when he researched a screenplay with director Elia Kazan, called The Hook. (Also featured in the BBC season in a special radio adaptation.) Hollywood never bought the hook, but Kazan later developed a similar film without Miller. It was called On the Waterfront. You might have heard of it.

A View from the Bridge is set in exactly this milieu, and I expected it to cover similar territory — labour disputes, gangster involvement in the unions, the dangers facing the longshoremen. But it goes somewhere completely different.

It's a taut family drama. A kind of modern Greek tragedy. Eddie Carbone has raised his orphaned niece Catherine since the death of her parents. Now that she's a beautiful 17 year old his feelings for her have become something other than paternal, but Eddie can't admit that.

The situation comes violently to a head when Eddie and his wife Bea take in a couple of 'submarines' — illegal immigrants from the old country, Bea's cousins. One of these brothers is married and rather dull. The other is young, handsome, and unattached, Rodolfo. Of course, Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love. And Eddie just can't take it. Which leads him to commit an unspeakable act of treachery.

Miller's writing is sheer genius. Immensely powerful, subtle and profound. I was utterly gripped by the play, and knocked out by it. In no way pretentious or theoretical, it is utterly down to earth, accessible and potent. And, as one astute commentator pointed out, in works like this we can see the connection between Arthur Miller's dramas and the likes of The Sopranos.

This magnificent BBC Radio 3 production can be found here and will be available for a couple more weeks as I write. If you're reading this post after it's gone, I suggest getting a copy of the play and reading it.

And do what I'm going to do — catch the next live stage production that appears.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly love the vintage Bantam with the beautiful black and white illustration by Sanford Kossin. Its depiction of Eddie, Catherine and Rodolfo says it all.)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall

Now largely ignored or forgotten (good luck looking him up in the standard works on genre fiction) Adam Hall was one of the finest crime and thriller writers of the 20th Century. 

His 'real' name was Elleston Trevor — I put real in quotes, because his birth name was actually Trevor Dudley-Smith, and he wrote under a blizzard of pseudonyms. 

As Elleston Trevor he published The Flight of the Phoenix, a superb adventure novel which has been filmed twice, in a classic version in 1965 and a ho-hum remake in 2004.

But Trevor probably had his most enduring success with the Adam Hall pen-name, under which he released an excellent series of stripped-down, cynical and thrilling spy novels about the agent Quiller starting with The Berlin Memorandum (aka The Quiller Memorandum)  in 1965, obviously a boon year for the writer. 

The Adam Hall pseudonym became such a hit that Trevor began to reissue some of his extensive back catalogue under it.

Among the newly re-branded books were the Hugo Bishop mysteries. Bishop is a classic amateur gentleman detective. His day job, which hardly features, is writing books about abnormal and extreme psychology. The Hugo Bishop books were originally published under yet another pseudonym, Simon Rattray, and six of them appeared in the 1950s.

Initially the books had chess-based titles, making play on Bishop's name (Knight Sinister, Queen in Danger, Bishop in Check). Trevor evidently got bored with this halfway through the series and chose a new paradigm. 

The last three books were Dead Silence, Dead Circuit and Dead Sequence. The one we're discussing here, Dead Circuit, was sufficiently well received at the time to be serialised as a BBC radio drama. (And was issued as an audio book in Australia in 2012, read by John Lee. You can listen to a sample here.)

In the early 1970s, with the Adam Hall pseudonym proving so successful, Trevor cannily decided to recycle the Hugo Bishop stories under that by-line. He also altered the titles of the last three novels to bring them into line with the chess theme, so that all six books sat together more uniformly as a series.

Thus the novel under discussion was originally published as Dead Circuit by Simon Rattray in 1955, but was reprinted in 1972 as Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall. The author was actually called Elleston Trevor, and his real name was Trevor Dudley-Smith. I'm glad that's all clear.

Rook's Gambit is sometimes dated and clichéd. Our hero smokes a pipe and drives a grey vintage Rolls Royce in the classic tradition. 

Also in the classic tradition, he has a friend who, conveniently, is a senior cop who gives him absurd amounts of access. There are lines like "He must be working like a black." (Trust me, that could have been a lot worse.) 

And the guests at a bohemian party include "four reefer smokers and a nymphomaniac" (the latter, fleeting, description was meretriciously exploited for the cover blurb of the 1970s paperback as if it represented a major feature of the book). And there's some rather heavy handed wisecracking.

There's also some wisecracking which I rather enjoyed: "If I'm not back by cock's-crow, call out the Camel Corp."... "Where are you going?" "To see the maharajah about a jar of marmalade."... "If any stranger calls, shoot him in the stomach and then ask him for his card."

The book is somewhat reminiscent of John Creasey's Dr Palfrey tales in that the McGuffin turns out to be a clunky pulp science fiction device — quite literally a death ray ("It causes immediate mutation of the body's electricity"). 

But Trevor writes a much finer prose than Creasey: "the rain came down bead-bright"; he describes the screech of an old fashioned elevator "scaring the echoes"; and as the villain prepares to makes his escape, in a most casual and confident fashion, "Bishop thought of an eagle, released from a cage, studying its way to freedom before it rose."

There is also some welcome humour. "Is it any cooler on the balcony?" "Only when you jump off it." And nice hard-boiled description of the femme fatale who is working with the bad guy: "her voice was like honey being poured through a velvet sieve." And then this absolutely brilliant bit: "She smiled... Bishop was reminded of opening his refrigerator." 

Rook's Gambit is a little too clunky and of its period to really make the grade, but there are a lot of good things in it. 

Personally I would have liked to see more of Bishop's Siamese cat: "The Princess Chu Yi-Hsin was on the davenport, watching them with half-closed amethyst eyes." Trevor writes very well about this Siamese — "A cat has a phrase for scampi; it is Christmas-in-Paradise" — which perhaps isn't surprising. Under assorted names he had written numerous children's books with animals as the protagonists.

Some good cat writing aside, probably the most interesting feature of Rook's Gambit is the way the cinematic cutting of the Quiller books is already evident, as is the great concision and the technique of telling the story largely through dialogue.

Not a classic, but a flawed and often fascinating early work by a writer who was on his way to becoming a master of the genre.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the New English Library version comes from a site called — hilariously and not inaccurately — Most Boring Covers. The 1973 White Lion hardcover reprint, also jolly boring, comes from Caerwen Books at ABE. The much superior US Pyramid edition comes from the wonderfully named Books From the Crypt at ABE. The gorgeous facsimile Boardman dustjacket — a facsimile because the original is crazy rare and would cost a fortune — is from the invaluable Facsimile Dust Jackets site. The striking cover art for this splendid Boardman edition is of course by the great Denis McLoughlin. The audio book image is from Audible Australia.)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Sicario by Taylor Sheridan

Sicario (which, as the poster informs us, is Mexican for 'hitman') is easily the finest movie about the war against drugs since Traffic. This wonderful film is already, clearly, one of the best pictures of the year.

The film is written is by Taylor Sheridan, and unbelievably, it's his first produced screenplay. 

He does, however, have a considerable track record as an actor in television, credited as 'Tayler' Sheridan, where he had long runs in the wonderful Veronica Mars and also The Sons of Anarchy. I wonder if the latter series — focused on a drug-running biker gang — might have led to this well researched and beautifully written film script.

Although I tend to focus on the writer in these posts, full credit must also be given to Sicario's director, Denis Villeneuve, who has done a staggeringly good job. Villeneuve is a French Canadian and the only previous film I've seen of his was the glum but powerful Prisoners

One of the greatest assets of Sicario is its cast. Brit Emily Blunt is as wonderful as ever — a highly natural and affecting actress (when she flinches, we flinch, when she's scared, we're scared) who has moved on from comedies and relationship dramas to action pictures (last seen toting a gun, a very large gun, in Edge of Tomorrow) in a very interesting career trajectory. 

Supporting her are Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, both doing some of the best work of their careers.

The splendid photography is by Roger Deakins, who is perhaps a little too fond of shooting dust motes dancing in the sunlight, and the exceptional music, a pounding menacing monster of a score, is by the Icelandic Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also did Prisoners. You can hear some of that music here.

A serious, important and beautifully made film. Also, simply, a great thriller.

(Image credits: Exceptionally rich pickings and a fine selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Martian by Drew Goddard and Andy Weir

Last week I blogged about Andy Weir's glorious novel The Martian (many thanks to Lucy for turning me on to this great book). Now it's time to discuss the Ridley Scott film adapted from it. I won't keep you in suspense. The movie is superb, and entirely worthy of the book.

I was initially worried when I saw it was being made by Ridley Scott. Undeniably a great film maker, he has in recent years displayed an unfortunate knack for turning rich source material into unsatisfactory films (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood). But not this time. In fact, this is Ridley Scott's best film in decades. His best since Blade Runner, or possibly Alien. Certainly his best since Gladiator.

A lot of credit is due to Drew Goddard, who adapted the novel for the screen. Goodard got his start writing for TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his movie credits include the stupendous Cabin in the Woods, one of my favourite films of recent years. Here he has done a fine job of compressing the source material while remaining true to it.

The novel The Martian is essentially a tale of a man resourcefully overcoming life-threatening dilemmas, and then having more dilemmas thrown at him. The film simplifies the plot, and reduces the number of catastrophes that befall poor astronaut Mark Watney. Which is understandable... otherwise the movie would have been emotionally exhausting and overlong.

It also reduces the comic element of the book, which is a bit of a shame, though probably inevitable and possibly the right call... Nevertheless, I was disappointed to see some of my favourite jokes go ("I call it my lucky cable").

Where the movie scores over the book is that it actually adds a brief epilogue after Mark is rescued... something I would have welcomed in the book, which ends somewhat abruptly.

Lest I dwell too much on Drew Goddard's contribution, Ridley Scott obviously deserves huge plaudits. I particularly enjoyed the montage sequence he contrived, set to David Bowie's song 'Starman'.

My only real complaint is that the film makers made no attempt to depict the reduced gravity on  Mars. This particularly irked me when Mark Watney was chucking heavy objects out of a vehicle, and they fell to the ground just like they would on Earth. Ah well, Hollywood and science... (Oh, and Lucy had a thing or two to say about layered sediment in a landscape where there shouldn't be any.)

Anyhow, a great film from a great book. Nice work all around. Matt Damon is first-rate in the title role, and back on Earth Mackenzie Davis shines as a space nerd at NASA mission control. Indeed the large cast is exemplary. Sean Bean, Jeff Daniel, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor are amongst the excellent casting choices made.

The cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski. The fine music is by Harry Gregson-Williams, and is reminiscent of Vangelis's score for Blade Runner, and at times of Morricone.

I saw this movie in 3D, but I don't feel that brought anything much to the party. Catch it as soon as you can in whatever format is available to you.


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

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

I've been meaning to write about Andy Weir's excellent novel The Martian for some while now and I've finally been galvanised into it by the arrival of the movie on multiplex screens everywhere. (I shall write about the film in due course.)

I have my friend Lucy the Planetary Scientist to thank for turning me on to this great book. What really piqued my interest was when she described it as both immensely suspenseful and very funny. The suspense I could have predicted, but not the humour...

And The Martian scores hugely in both ways. It is utterly nail-biting and gripping as it details one man's attempt to remain alive when he is (inadvertently) marooned on Mars. 

And it is also hilarious, almost from the first page. Andy Weir writes brilliantly, casting his story in the form of a first person narrative — the device is that our hero, Mark Watney, is keeping a journal.

So we get asides like “caution’s best when setting fire to rocket fuel in an enclosed space”;  “If the RTG [Radioisotope Thermonuclear Generator] ever broke open, it would kill me to death”; “I've gutted that poor Rover so much, it looks like I parked it in a bad part of town.”

There is a considerable jolt when we cut back to Earth to begin the other strand of the story... NASA gradually awaking to Watney's plight and mounting a rescue mission. 

Here we leave behind the first person prose for third person. It's less funny and confident and lacks the perfection of the journal sequences. And we get sentences like “Teddy glared across his immaculate mahogany desk…”

But we're soon back on Mars with Mark, hearing everything in his voice. "Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died. Wish me luck!" 

The sardonic humour is an immense asset for this book, and sets it quite apart from anything else I've read. The Martian is, quite simply, the best and most enjoyable book I have encountered in many years. Thank you, Lucy!

And this novel isn't just funny (though I literally howled with laughter at one point). It is also a masterpiece of suspense. Every time Mark seems to be getting on top of his lethal situation, a new and terrible (and all too plausible) catastrophe befalls him. Christ, just when you think you're in the clear, the tension begins to build again...

But the appeal of the book is perhaps best summed up by Mark Watney (and Andy Weir):  “In space no one can hear you scream like a little girl.”

Most emphatically recommended.

(Image credits: the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly like the Chinese one.)