Sunday, 17 September 2017

"Deadly, cunning innocence:" The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

I know, I know... "Girl on a Swing", right? I suppose it's a case of English idiom, and an archaic one at that. 

Anyway, the thing to note is the name Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, one of my favourite novels and definitely the best epic adventure ever written about rabbits.

Given how much I love Watership Down, it's odd that I've never read any of Adams's other fiction. But I've bounced off The Plague Dogs and Shardik without finishing either of them, and I guess I'd resigned myself to being limited to his brilliant debut.

But then Centipede Press, a small publisher of beautiful limited editions, brought out a deluxe volume of Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams's fourth novel. (It's the grey cover with the embossed skull on it, depicted here.)

Now, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and so I splashed out for the special edition... then thought, what have I done? Well, there's nothing like spending a large sum on a book to motivate me to actually read it.

And, to my delight, Girl in a Swing grabbed me immediately. It's the story of Alan Desland, a dealer in ceramics in an idyllic rural English town called Newbury.

All the detail about ceramics in the story is absolutely fascinating, but what immediately hooked me is that Alan has a gift for ESP which surfaces unpredictably and randomly through his life.

These paranormal sequences give an eerie undertow to the story and promises harrowing things to come.

Alan is a bit of a prig and a stuffed shirt and mummy's boy, self described as "rather staid and old-fashioned." Which means he uses spellings like "Esquimaux" and "Mahometans."

And also in Alan's world words like 'bus, 'phone, 'fridge have to begin with apostrophes to indicate their primordial origins in omnibus, telephone, refrigerator.

Worse yet, there's a tedious tendency to stick in numerous quotations in a variety of other languages and if proles like you or I don't understand them, to hell with us. (But Adams's desire to show off his wide ranging literacy seems a lot less annoying when later on it includes Ambrose Bierce.)

Of course, these are more Richard Adams's defects than Alan Desland's, but I'm willing to forgive them because Adams tells such an engrossing story and he writes so well:
a Chien Lung dish is described as "glowing from its ebony stand like a Chinese pheasant on a nobleman's lawn."

The Girl in a Swing is addictively readable. The description of the ceramics trade and Alan's early psychic experiences set the scene for the turning point when our hero visits Copenhagen (Or "København", as good old Alan insists on calling it) on a buying trip.

There he meets the stunning, mysterious Karin Forster and immediately falls for her. So does the reader. But Alan also describes his first impression of our heroine as "pagan — unscrupulous and ruthless" and having a "deadly, cunning innocence."

Karin is an unforgettable character. The book really comes to life when she arrives on the scene and Adams shows what a terrific writer he is; the scene where Alan and Karin first go for dinner is indelibly vivid.

In his introduction to the book Reggie Oliver is right when he says "she's up there with... Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina."

The love story is tremendously effective. But of course Karin is way out of Alan's league, and he knows it. So when she agrees to instantly abandon her life in Copehnahgen and come back to England to marry him, we fear the worst.

Their honeymoon in Florida is described with considerable sensuality, so unexpected in the tale of a grown man who was still capable of snuggling up with his mother and reading Beatrix Potter.

 And the sequence at Itchetucknee River once again shows Adams's remarkable gift for nature writing. 

Karin has not only brought passion into Alan's life, she has also brought luck. The scenes where they return to England and she wholeheartedly throws herself into helping with his business are sheer delight, culminating in her discovery of the rare figurine of the title.

But soon the honeymoon is over in more ways than one, and the book proceeds with its agenda of building supernatural horror and revealing its dark secrets.

These are heralded by an hallucination sequence reminiscent of another masterful ghost story, Kinglsey Amis's The Green Man. Alone in his house, Alan awakes to hear water flooding in. But of course everything is "dry as a bone."

Water is a source of dread throughout the book, and ultimately we will find out why. The way Adams drip-feeds us information is beautifully controlled. He's a master writer.

And he goes on to conjure a sense of incomprehensible cosmic fear worthy of Lovecraft, although Adams is a vastly better writer: "Human beings in the universe are like dogs or cats in a house. Most of what is happening is really beyond our comprehension."

When we reach the nerve-shredding climax of the book Alan experiences "a terror as much like normal fear as a leopard is like a cat." Hospitalised and sedated, he finally sleeps: "the horrors went cackling down into oblivion."

But Adams hasn't finished with us yet. Worst is still to come.And when the book ultimately gives up its secrets, and Karin's, they are profoundly shocking, and astonishing.

The Girl in a Swing is genuinely disturbing, and it really packs a punch.

So it turns out there's a lot more to Richard Adams than rabbits...

(Image credits: the covers are all from Good Reads even, surprisingly the Centipede Press edition.)

Sunday, 10 September 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes by Bomback & Reeves

Last week I posted about the entire sequence of the Planet of the Apes movies, and I described how my favourite of them all — indeed one of my favourite movies of all time — was Rise of the Planet of the Apes by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.

This is the second sequel to that film, and although it doesn't quite reach the same stratospheric heights as the Jaffa and Silver creation, it is a great movie, and one which really got to me. 

I cared so deeply about the characters in it that at times I felt sick with fear. It is heart rending, lyrical and poetic... It's also a great action flick. 

The script is by Mark Bomback, in collaboration with the director Matt Reeves. They worked together on the previous instalment in the franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and that was an excellent picture.

But this is in a completely different league. Together Bomback and Reeves have cooked up an amazingly rich and intelligent adventure, and they've made some quite brilliant decisions.

For one, they have Caesar the chimp (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes team up with a vulnerable young human girl played by Amiah Miller. She is mute, but eventually the apes, some of whom can talk, name her Nova.

Now, Nova is the name of the mute human from the second of the early movies, Beneath the Planet of the Apes back in 1970. So Bomback and Reeves may have some interesting long-term stratagem in mind.

But more importantly, Nova is a tremendous asset to this movie, adding a touching and vulnerable element among the tough band of furry warriors. There is a delicately lovely scene where one of the apes puts a blossom in her hair.

This is a startlingly poetic film, and Reeves shows considerable artistry in his direction. He also makes great use of close ups (especially the kid's face). Altogether the movie has a heartbreaking intensity.

For a large part of its running time, this is essentially a revenge Western, something like The Searchers. 

And Bomback and Reeves have the great intelligence and good taste to make it a Western in the snow which adds immeasurably to the mood of the piece.

Then, at a certain point, the movie changes course and begins to borrow instead from Apocalypse Now (the connection is openly and cheekily acknowledged by a piece of graffiti we are shown which reads "Ape-pocalypse Now"!).

Such a course of action could easily have been utter folly. But Bomback and Reeves are at the top of their game, and they actually come up with something superior to Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

That film had a scene involving a long monologue by Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in which he "explains" his motivation. I put the word in quotes because he basically spews a lot of pretentious hogwash. I've always found it ineffectual and unconvincing.

But here we have the Kurtz figure (played by Woody Harrelson), deliver an equivalent monologue which entirely makes sense, and which has a ferociously ruthless and tragic logic to it.

Thus Bomback and Reeves have improved on Coppola's original. And they do much else besides. This is a beautifully plotted movie which does honour to the art of film storytelling. 

And it achieves genuine profundity when Caesar, recalling the villain of the previous instalment, says "I am like Kobo — he could not escape his hate and I cannot escape mine."

There is so much to praise here that I'm in danger of going on for too long. But just allow me to say a word about the superb music by Michael Giacchino. 

In the last instalment he referenced Ligeti. Here it's Carl Orff. But make no mistake, the real musical genius at work is called Giacchino, and he delivers one of the finest soundtracks in a long time.

In a summer with a surprisingly strong selection of blockbuster movies, this is a standout. Please don't miss it.

(Image credits: A profusion of punchy primate posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Ape's Tale: the Planet of the Apes movies by Pierre Boulle et al

I want to tell you about the summer blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes. 

But I'll get to that next week. (The short version of my forthcoming post is — go and see it!) 

But first, a bit of history about the whole cycle of Planet of the Apes movies.... 

It all began with the prolific French novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle was working in Malaya when World War 2 broke out and he became a secret agent for the French (and was decorated for his bravery). After the war he wrote a number of espionage novels.

But his breakthrough was another kind of story drawing on his wartime experiences — Bridge on the River Kwai which became an international bestseller in 1952. Boulle would in any case have gone down in history for that one book.

But eleven years later he wrote a novel called Les planète des singes, initially translated into English as Monkey Planet — confusingly and unhelpfully, singes in French means both "monkeys" and "apes." 

And of course they're not the same thing at all. For a start, no ape has a tail and virtually all monkeys do...

But never mind comparative primate physiology. Boulle's novel is of course now known as The Planet of the Apes. It was a brief satirical, sardonic parable. And although certainly science fiction, it was pretty light on the science.

None of that matters, though. It became the basis for the 1968 movie which was co-scripted by the rather wonderful Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. 

This was a great movie. I saw it at a drive-in when I was a kid, and it blew my mind.

And not just my mind; the movie was a big success. It gave rise to a relatively conventional sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and then, through the magic of flying a spaceship through a time-warp, a brisk series of very interesting prequels.

These were Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

All of these spin-offs were written by the fascinating and talented British writer Paul Dehn, previously best known for having a hand in the James Bond movies.

After Battle in 1973, the series (we didn't call them a franchise in those days) was dormant until the remake of The Planet of the Apes in 2001. 

The writers credited on this were William Broyles (Castaway) and the team of Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal. Together they wrote the movie Mona Lisa Smile and, solo, Konner worked on the TV shows The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

That movie was directed by Tim Burton. And I've already said too much about it. A terrible disappointment which seemed to have killed off the Apes and their Planet for good...

But then, ten years later, along came Rise of the Planet of the Apes, written by the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. 

They crafted one of the finest screenplays I've ever encountered and their film was a thing of beauty and a work of genius. 

It starred Andy Serkis as Caesar, the intelligent chimp, and it remains one of my favourite movies of all time.

If you haven't seen it, seek it out immediately (paying the correct fee to the copyright holders, of course. Writers have to eat).

Rise was followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, which was written by Jaffa & Silver with Mark Bomback (Unstoppable, The Wolverine). 

It was a worthy successor to that great first movie in what people are now calling the Planet of the Apes "reboot".

Which brings us to this year's War of the Planet of the Apes. And it's a humdinger. Please tune in next week to read all about it...

(Image credits: The movie posters are all from Wikipedia. I know, I know. But I was in a hurry. At least the stylish cover of the Portuguese version of the Boulle book is from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

Of all the modern directors who are artistic descendants of Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the two most notable are Christopher Nolan and David Fincher.

Both partake of Kubrick's chilly brilliance to some extent. But, for my money, David Fincher is the better and more interesting film maker. Because his movies have humour and passion. 

Whereas Christopher Nolan's pictures tend to be intellectual puzzles — Memento, Inception, Interstellar — and now Dunkirk. 

Although it's theoretically a straightforward story of an historical event, Dunkirk has a complex flashback structure that I didn't really grasp until the second time I saw the movie. 

(There are onscreen titles to explain the structure, but they just confused me further.)

In fact, in an interview, Nolan says, "It's the most experimental structure, or radical structure, I've taken on since Memento."

To go back to the comparison with Fincher for a moment, even at their most ferocious, Nolan's movies (for example, the Batman franchise) don't match the harrowing impact of Fincher at his best (Seven, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl).

But there is plenty of ferocity on display in Dunkirk. The combat scenes are painfully suspenseful and very powerful. Indeed the movie shocks and seizes you in its opening moments and never lets go.

We wince and flinch at the perpetual assaults from an unseen enemy. And they are actually called 'the enemy' throughout, not 'the Germans'. Similarly the heroes don't talk about getting back to England — they always speak of 'home.'

Was this a cynical ploy by Nolan to simplify the story for young American audiences who know nothing about geography and even less about history? 
If so, it worked, because the movie is an enormous hit in the States.

Or was it an attempt to raise the conflict to something emblematic, universal, mythical? 
 
(When he first pitched the idea of Dunkirk to Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan emphasised the "potentially universal appeal. The simplicity of the story, the primal nature of the situation.")
 
If so, it worked too. Because Dunkirk is certainly a masterpiece which will reach out to any audience, anywhere, and perhaps in any time.

It has its flaws, though. Since they're all wearing uniforms, most of the actors look so similar it's impossible to tell them apart. 

The early section of the movie seems to be the adventures of a pair of identical twins. And this is before their faces get covered with oil.

Nolan praises Alfred Hitchcock for his ability to engage us emotionally. "Nobody was better than Hitchcock at manipulating an audience's sympathies." But the confusing similarity of the leading men is not a mistake Hitchcock would ever have made. 

And then there's Hans Zimmer's score. It incorporates the sound of a pocket watch of Nolan's which has "a particularly insistent ticking." The resulting music delivers such unremitting harrowing tension that it eventually becomes a nuisance. 

And when it finally breaks into a big rhapsodic climax — to welcome the arrival of the rescue boats — the music fails to measure up, conjuring soupy synthesiser schmaltz.

But the beautiful colour photography is simply stunning. Nolan has spoken of the superiority of real film ("photochemical film") over digital photography. "Digital is never going to be like film... I think it has a very unique impact."

And Dunkirk certainly supports his thesis. The brilliant cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also did Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of my favourite films of all time.

And taken in its entirety Dunkirk is a remarkable success, both artistically and commercially. You should certainly see it, and see it on the biggest and best screen you have access to. (It was shot in IMAX).

Yet when I walked out of the cinema I didn't feel elated or uplifted — or that I'd seen a great movie. I just felt numb.

In the end, perhaps Dunkirk's greatest achievement is to make me look forward keenly not to Christopher Nolan's next movie, but David Fincher's.

(The Christopher Nolan quotes are either taken from the Radio 4 program which I've linked to above, or Sight & Sound Magazine. Image credits: A surprising plethora of posters at good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Atomic Blonde by Johnstad and Johnston

Set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller starring Charlize Theron as a British operative, Lorraine Broughton, sent on a dubious mission which will involve considerable killing, betrayal, smoking and lesbian sex.

Sounds irresistible? Well, the movie begins as the usual confection of glib comic book violence (indeed it is based on a graphic novel series written by Antony Johnston and drawn by Sam Hart). 

But oddly, and agreeably, it grows more serious as it goes along. Eventually you actually find yourself caring whether Eddie Marsan's Stasi defector (codenamed 'Spyglass') survives to join his wife and child in the West.

Marsan is dignified in what could have been a really one dimensional role and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman) turns in what may be her best performance yet as Delphine Lasalle (good name), a French spy whose involvement with Broughton becomes more than professional.

But the main support for Theron is David Percival (James McAvoy), the principal British agent in Berlin. He smokes a lot and wears sleeveless sweater vests.

I have to say I'm getting bored with James McAvoy doing his shtick. Like Ewan McGregor he's an immensely talented actor who is becoming calcified by his mannerisms, seemingly giving the same default performance repeatedly. 

On the other hand, his breathtaking work in Split — an otherwise failed film, should have earned McAvoy an Oscar. But here, as usual, he's busy being the sleazy operator, smoking and swearing.

There's altogether too much swearing in Atomic Blonde. (And the smoking. It just gets ridiculous.) The film isn't as funny, daring or transgressive as it seems to think it is. But it's still a pretty good action movie...

The screenplay is by Kurt Johnstad (who worked on Act of Valor and 300) and the director is David Leitch. This is his first directing credit but he has extensive experience as a stunt coordinator and stuntman.

And it shows. The best thing about Atomic Blonde are the gritty hand-to-hand fight scenes. Charlize Theron acquits herself well and is suitably athletic (though I never bought her British accent for a second).

But, for my money, if you want an action movie about a kick-ass chick involved in espionage shenanigans, there are at least three superior examples which I'd like to bring to your attention...

Salt starring Angelina Jolie — a spy movie which was apparently written with a male star in mind before Jolie stepped in and asked for the script to remain substantially unchanged. She did her own stunts, too. Go, Angelina!

Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Gina Carano, who was actually a professional kick boxer and martial arts champion. And the hand-to-hand combat in this film is unforgettable, giving Atomic Blonde a run for its money and maybe even outclassing it.

Then there's Unlocked, a well written and engrossing espionage thriller in which Noomi Rapace displays a tremendous physicality in the action sequences. And her character, Alice Racine, is so professional and ruthless she could eat Lorraine Broughton for lunch. No sexual innuendo intended.

Atomic Blonde isn't bad and as, I said, it gets better as it goes along. But if you're in the market for a female spy movie to rival Jason Bourne I'd recommend any of those three. Particularly Unlocked, which may still be on a big screen near you.

(Image credits: all posters from Imp Awards.)

Atomic Blonde spares

Set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller starring Charlize Theron as a British operative, Lorraine Broughton, sent on a dubious mission which will involve considerable bloodshed, betrayal, smoking and lesbian sex.

Sounds irresistible? Well, the movie begins as the usual confection of glib comic book violence (indeed it is based on a graphic novel series written by Antony Johnston and drawn by Sam Hart). 

But oddly, and agreeably, it grows more serious as it goes along. Eventually you actually find yourself caring whether Eddie Marsan's Stasi defector (codenamed 'Spyglass') survives to join his wife and child in the West.

Marsan is dignified in what could have been a really one dimensional role and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman) turns in what may be her best performance yet as Delphine Lasalle (good name), a French spy whose involvement with Broughton becomes more than professional.

But the main support for Theron is David Percival, the principal British agent in Berlin. He smokes a lot and wears sleeveless sweater vests.

I have to say I'm getting bored with James McAvoy doing his shtick. Like Ewan McGregor he's an immensely talented actor who is becoming calcified by his mannerisms, seemingly giving the same default performance repeatedly. 

On the other hand, his breathtaking work in Split — an otherwise failed film, should have earned McAvoy an Oscar. But here, as usual, he's busy being the sleazy operator, smoking and swearing.

There's altogether too much swearing in Atomic Blonde. (And the smoking. It just gets ridiculous.) The film isn't as funny, daring or transgressive as it seems to think it is. But it's still a pretty good action movie...

The screenplay is by Kurt Johnstad (who worked on Act of Valor and 300) and the director is David Leitch. This is his first directing credit but he has considerable experience as a stunt coordinator and stuntman.

And it shows. The best thing about Atomic Blonde are the gritty hand-to-hand fight scenes. Charlize Theron acquits herself well and is suitably athletic (though I never bought her British accent for a minute).

But, for my money, if you want an action movie about a kick-ass chick involved in espionage shenanigans there are at least three superior examples which I'd like to bring to your attention...

Salt starring Angelina Jolie — a spy movie which was apparently written with a male star in mind before Jolie stepped in and asked for the script to remain substantially unchanged,

Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Gina Carano, who was actually a professional kick boxer and martial arts champion. And the hand-to-hand combat in this film is unforgettable, giving Atomic Blonde a run for its money and maybe even outclassing it.

Then there's Unlocked, a well written and engrossing espionage thriller in which Noomi Rapace displays a tremendous physicality in the action sequences. And her character, Alice Racine, is so professional and ruthless she could eat Lorraine Broughton for lunch. No sexual innuendo intended.

Atomic Blonde isn't bad and, as I said, it gets better as it goes along. But if you're in the market for a female spy movie to rival Jason Bourne I'd recommend any of those three. Particularly Unlocked, which may still be on a big screen near you.

(Image credits: all posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Valerian By Besson, Christin & Mézières

I am not necessarily a huge fan of Luc Besson, so normally if I'd heard he'd invested vast sums of his own money in a movie, and the movie had tanked, I would hardly be moved...

But as it happens, my heart goes out to him. Because that movie is Valerian, and it's enormous fun. I urge you to go see it before it disappears. 

(And, judging by the empty cinema where I saw it last Saturday night, that may not be long. Which is a real shame.)

I first encountered the Valerian comics, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières when I was working on Doctor Who, and I found them enchanting. 

The thing I remember most vividly about these colourful science fiction adventures is how they featured exotic creatures and their behaviour, instead of exotic devices and their function  — biology instead of technology.

And writer-director Luc Besson has succeeded in being true to this. Indeed, it is a pleasure to report how well he has succeeded, generally. Valerian (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, to give it its full unwieldy title) may be rather silly...

But it is fun.

In fact, Besson seems to have absorbed the lessons of the Guardians of the Galaxy and has crafted a colourful, exotic, fast-moving science fiction romp which is cheerfully entertaining. In short, it's a Gallic Guardians of the Galaxy.

The movie's theme and treatment Besson also seems to be interestingly influenced by Ender's Game, another science fiction film with a baby-faced male lead. Plus, there's a dash of Avatar in here.

Now, the Valerian comics are actually a double act — Laureline and Valérian (the acute accent over the 'e' seems to have got lost to simplify matters), with the hero's female partner getting equal billing.

In the movie Laureline is played by Cara Delevingne, a successful model who began her career in movies with Face of an Angel, one of my least favourite films of all time. 

Here, though, she has a worthwhile movie, and her acting ability has developed pleasingly. And of course Besson is a heavily visual director, so it's no surprise that Delevingne looks so fetching clumping around in space armour and big boots. 

The eponymous Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan, who recently starred in the curious but memorable horror movie A Cure for Wellness. The two principals share baby-faced good looks and diminutive stature and have a routine, but entertaining, spiky almost-romance thing going on. They make a good team. 
 
Alexandre Desplat's music is another asset of the film. In an early sequence on the planet Mül he does an astonishing job of modulating from paradisiacal bliss to apocalyptic terror.

But it is in its visuals that Valerian is at its most stunning. Thierry Arbogast's cinematography is outstanding, and so is Hugues Tissandier's production design.

And Olivier Bériot's costumes must also be singled out for praise. (In the long list of credits at the end for the costume department there's the hilariously bleak one 'Dying and Ageing'.)

If Valerian has a weakness it's in Besson's dialogue — people bark "Copy that" in response to information, no less than seven times during the film. And there are plenty of other verbal clichés. 

So it's a pity the writer-director didn't get someone to do a quick dialogue polish for him. Particularly since his script is deceptively superb in its deft structure, expertly interweaving its plot threads and action sequences. (When this sort of thing is done successfully it looks easy, but it's actually very difficult to achieve.)

Incidentally, a re-writer might also have been able to fix an egregious lapse of scientific knowledge. Because unfortunately Besson seems to think "700 million miles" is a huge distance in space... 

In fact it wouldn't even get you out of our solar system.

Copy that.

(Image credits: Lots of lovely posters at Imp Awards.)