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.)

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Longshot by Dick Francis

Another magnificent thriller by Dick Francis, that most reliable of authors. It's wonderful to know that there's such a large body of work by this man and that I can reach in and chose a volume, pretty much at random, and be guaranteed a wholly satisfying reading experience.

I do most of my reading these days while I'm away from home, travelling on buses, trains, planes or — if I'm really lucky — cruise ships in the Caribbean. But there always comes a point when I'm working my way through a Dick Francis novel when I have to start reading it at home; I just can't wait until I go out again. The story has become irresistibly gripping and I need to finish it.

I've just finished Longshot, which was first published in 1990. By this time Francis had long since mastered the art of approaching the horse racing world from an oblique angle. The hero isn't a jockey or owner or anyone directly involved with racing. Rather, he's a struggling young writer called John Kendall who has been commissioned to write a biography of a wealthy trainer — a vanity project for the man.

Kendall has also written a number of books about survival in the wilderness. And in the course of Longshot it becomes a harrowing question whether these books, and the knowledge they've instilled in him, will save Kendall's life or result in his death...

Dick Francis has a marvellous gift for characterisation (I was particularly fond of Dee-Dee in this book) and I found myself, not for the first time with one of his novels, wishing for a moment that it wasn't a thriller and a murder mystery. Because his characters are so likable, and convincing, and their interactions and situations so appealing, that it seems a shame to inflict suffering and death on them. But this is a thriller and a murder mystery, and John Kendall and other characters are in for a hell of an ordeal.

The climax of the book is so powerful that I was squirming with sympathetic suffering. It reminded me of John Huston's remark about W.R. Burnett's books — how they caused him to break out in a sweat. Dick Francis really puts his hero, and his readers, through the wringer. 

His great talent for making you feel the physical reality of things pervades the novel, particularly in describing nature... both in its menacing harshness — "The relief of being out of the wind was like a rebirth" — and its lyrical beauty — "the trees... creaked and resonantly vibrated in the oldest of symphonies." Sometimes he neatly combines the beauty with the menace: "The sun sank... among the sapling branches and the alders. In the wind, the shadows threw barred stripes and moved like prowling tigers."

And of course he writes marvellously about horses: "Fringe was younger, whippier and less predictable than Drifter: rock music in place of classical."

On top of that, there is his compassion even for the most evil of villains, which reluctantly makes us see their humanity and, despite ourselves, feel sympathy for them. I would put Longshot up there beside Come to Grief as one of his best. But, then, I've never read a bad Dick Francis...

(Footnote: also like Come to Grief, at least one of the editions of Longshot has a cover that reveals rather too much about the plot. Silly publishers.)

(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Visit by M. Night Shyamalan

It's a delight to report that M. Night Shyamalan is back on form. After a major success with his breakout third feature The Sixth Sense in 1999, Shyamalan seemed to be on course to become a reliable writer-director of offbeat hits. His 2004 film The Village is a particular favourite of mine, wickedly clever and beautifully crafted. 

But immediately after The Village, things began to go wrong for M. Night. Lady in the Water had its moments, but also showed signs of a decline into oddity and incoherence. And after that it was all downhill (I give you The Happening, The Last Airbender (!) and After Earth).

Things had reached such a sorry pass that when I learned The Visit (which, from its pre-publicity, had intrigued me) was an M. Night Shyamalan film I was tempted to give it a miss... I'm very glad I didn't and I'm genuinely pleased that this talented writer is back in the game.

The greatest strength of The Visit is that it's funny. Shyamalan seems to have rediscovered his sense of humour. I've heard the movie described as a horror comedy, and that's not far off the mark.

Telling the story of two kids visiting their grandparents, it's another in the "found footage" genre where everything has supposedly been recorded by the participants. This a restrictive convention and The Visit suffers from it a little, but not enough to matter.

It's a chamber piece, with basically four characters, two youngsters and two oldsters. All the parts are beautifully cast, but the kids (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are particularly good — and very likeable (how often do you say that about children in a movie?). This had the considerable bonus of me actually caring about their fate.

Like The Sixth Sense and The Village, The Visit has a huge built-in twist. Like The Sixth Sense (and very much unlike The Village) you can see it coming a mile off. But that doesn't matter. This movie is great, scary fun.

I enjoyed The Visit a lot and commend it to you, especially if like me you had lost faith in M. Night Shyamalan. Welcome back, Night.

(Image credits: the posters, a sparse handful, are all from the reliable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

S is for Silence by Sue Grafton

It's a testament to the talents of Sue Grafton that her books exert what I call 'The Dick Francis Effect'. This is what happens when the paperback which I've been using exclusively to divert myself on public transport (buses, trains, the tube) becomes so compelling that I have to read it when I'm at home, too. The effect has kicked in again, with S is for Silence.

This is another episode in the adventures of engaging female private eye Kinsey Millhone, also known as the Alphabet Series, for reasons that aren't too obscure. Similarly to T is for Trespass (yup, I'm reading them out of order; disgraceful) this novel cuts back and forth between Kinsey's investigation and a separate, but parallel, line of story. 

Once again (as in Q is for Quarry) Kinsey is working on a cold case — trying to discern the fate of a woman called Violet Sullivan, who disappeared in 1953 in her brand new purple Chevrolet Bel Air coupe. The parallel narrative depicts the actual events of 1953, told in the third person.

This is a rather complex story due to the number of characters involved, and it's very difficult to keep all of them straight in the mind of the reader. It is particularly problematical because there's a strong suspicion that Violet has been murdered, and the suspects are all cut from similar cloth: they are all businessmen, all from the same small community, and all were sleeping with her. 

The novel would have benefited tremendously from a list of characters (a dramatis personae) at the front of the book — hey, there's no shame in it. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon includes one in some editions, and it's the greatest detective novel of all time.

As usual, Sue Grafton's splendid descriptive powers are on display. She brings the environment of the story decisively to life: "bougainvillea grew... in a tangle of blossoms the shape and colour of cooked shrimp";  "the air seemed fresh as a florist's shop". And there's a fantastic bit where the car which Violet disappeared in is disinterred from its burial place. It looks "like some hibernating beast whose rest had been disturbed".

Grafton is also great at describing states of mind. "I felt my attention narrow like a cat's at the sound of a little mousie scratching in the wall." Or when Kinsey becomes frustrated with the difficulty of the case, "It's like working on a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box."

Where the book falls down somewhat is in the 1950s sequences. These feature rather too many anachronisms. People back then didn't say things like "He'd scoped out the house". "Scoped out" only began to come into use in the 1980s. Worse yet is "I need to get the hell out of dodge" — a phrase which only really took off in the 1990s.

(If you're wondering how I know this stuff, there's a fantastic tool on Google called the Ngram Viewer.)

In other areas, though, Grafton has done her research scrupulously. I thought I'd caught her out with a mention of Seventeen magazine. But it turns out, astonishingly, Seventeen began publication in 1944. I didn't even know they had teenagers in 1944.

And then there's Grafton's wonderful gift for describing behaviour — "They were like two dogs tugging on opposing ends of a towel" — and, especially, physical states of extreme emotion: "Jake sat as though shot, his heart pounding at he shock"; "Cold seeped up from the floor and climbed his frame"; "there was a sensation in my chest like a faraway electrical storm." This is great writing. 

Sue Grafton is also strong on characterisation and psychologically acute; there is a terrific, satisfying scene involving a doormat of a female character finally turning on her bullying "friend". Unfortunately this big dramatic moment hinges on referring to a character called Phillip —  but who the hell is Phillip? I assume he'd been mentioned earlier in the novel, and I suppose I could have gone combing through it in search of him. On the other hand, I could always infer who he was. But I really shouldn't have to do either of these things. Clarity is crucial. (Other people were pissed off about Phillip, too.)

Clarity is even more important at the very end of a book. Grafton has developed a technique of finishing her stories with a very swift, no-nonsense burst of action. Often in the course of just a couple of pages. There's nothing wrong with this. Ian Fleming used to wrap up his James Bond novels in the same way and it makes for a brisk, bracing conclusion — in fact it can be downright exhilarating. 

But the Bond novels aren't whodunits. Whereas S is for Silence is very much a whodunit. And for a mystery to have a satisfying ending the reader has to fully comprehend the solution to the puzzle. I am not arguing for a lengthy explanation by the detective sipping a whisky in front of the fireplace, in the Golden Age tradition (though there's nothing necessarily wrong with that).

Unfortunately S is for Silence reveals the identity of the killer at the end — but it doesn't disclose his motive. No doubt this was obvious to Grafton. Sadly not to me. Again, I could think it through and come up with a hypothesis. 

But, again, I shouldn't have to.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. The edition I read is the one with the flowers on the cover — and those hydrangeas are rather an important, and very satisfying, clue.)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Legend by Brian Helgeland

Legend loses a few points for borrowing its title from a 1985 film by William Hjortsberg which featured Tim Curry sprouting an impressive set of antlers. This Legend is rather different. It's the true(ish) story of the Kray twins, a pair of thugs who rose to the top of London's gangland cesspool in the Swinging Sixties. 

Ronnie and Reggie Kray were previously the subject of a 1990 movie by Philip Ridley which wasn't much cop (as we say here in London). But the new film is a keeper.

Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, a terrific screenwriter whose masterpiece to date was probably LA Confidential. Helgeland's magnificent script for that, co-written with Curtis Hanson, won an Oscar. Helgeland has gone on to direct movies, with varied results. Payback was a troubled but entertaining dark thriller, A Knight's Tale was superb and The Sin Eater was a dud. Legend is certainly his best work since A Knight's Tale.

I would have wanted to see Legend just on the strength of Helgeland's involvement, but what really motivated me to scamper to the cinema was the presence of Tom Hardy. 

Hardy is one of the most interesting new movie stars (recently featured in Mad Max, and you should really check out his performance in Locke). Here he plays both the Kray twins.

Hardy's performance in Legend is so brilliant that for most of the film I forgot I was watching the same actor in two different parts. Other members of the cast are also uniformly outstanding  — memorable British acting talent in virtually ever role. (Ronnie Kray's coterie of catamites are particularly splendid: Charley Palmer Rothwell and Taron Egerton.)

Brian Helgeland does a great job, too — especially for an America director. He has clearly done his homework. The cultural British detail, right down to the lemon sherbets sweets, is faultless and the period (1960s) is also convincingly evoked.

Helgeland's script is based on a celebrated book about the Krays, The Profession of Violence by John Pearson. Helgeland has cannily compressed and organised the material, structuring it around a love triangle consisting of Ronnie and Reggie and Frances Shay (played by the fetching Emily Browning, an Australian actress who previously made an impression in Pompeii and Sucker Punch). 

Reggie love Frances. Frances loves Reggie. But Reggie also loves his twin brother Ronnie, and Ronnie loves Reggie — and is dangerously insane. This is basically the engine that drives the movie. If Reggie and Frances's romance seems too implausibly dreamy early on (Reggie, intimidated by her gorgon mother, shinnies up a drainpipe to deliver a bouquet of flowers to his beloved's bedroom window), by the end it is more than balanced by the nightmarish nature of events.

This is the best movie about the Krays and their milieu since Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's Performance, which presented a fictionalised version of the gangster's world. Legend has fine photography by Dick Pope and production design by Tom Conroy. Carter Burwell provides a memorable music score studded with songs of the 1960s, some sung in the film by Duffy.


(Image credits: .All the posters are from Imp Awards. I think the one with the silhouette of the gun is particularly cool and graphically striking... and Ronnie did indeed use a Luger, to kill Jack "The Hat" McVitie — the murder that led to his downfall. Also, check out this amusing article in the ever reliable Slate about the Legend poster.)

Sunday, 6 September 2015

American Ultra by Max Landis

(Warning: this post contains spoilers which will impair your pleasure in the surprises sprung by the film.)

I was eager to see American Ultra on the basis of the trailer, and especially, the poster. This cheeky image of the movie's two engaging young stars sitting in approximations of the lotus position, four-armed like Hindu deities, appealed to me a lot... Although I was amused to learn that this British poster was bowdlerised — instead of holding a bong and a joint as in the American version, Kristen Stewart was to be seen in the London Underground brandishing handcuffs and a stick of dynamite.

American Ultra is written by Max Landis, son of director John Landis (American Werewolf in London). Max previously wrote the script of the excellent sort-of-superhero movie Chronicle, with Josh Trank. American Ultra is directed by Nima Nourizadeh who previously did the splendid Project X. The laudable photography is Michael Bonvillain.

This movie is a kind of slacker version of Shane Black's The Long Kiss Goodnight. It also calls to mind Quentin Tarrantino's True Romance and Goldman, Vaughn and Millar's Kingsman. 

It tells the story of pot smoking loser Mike and his implausibly gorgeous girlfriend Phoebe. Mike has a weird phobia that prevents him leaving the little town where he lives. This is because he is a brainwashed CIA super-agent and Phoebe is his handler. Unfortunately for them both, the Agency has decided to close their program down and wipe the slate clean.

Sad to report, American Ultra doesn't quite come off. It has brilliant moments, magnificent visuals and some priceless dialogue — when Mike's friend and drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo) suggests they drop acid and go into a "titty bar", Mike politely declines because it's 8:15 in the morning. But the movie fails to live up to its considerable promise.

This is perhaps because it all plays out on the same level. Once the mayhem is in motion, there is no real dramatic development, revelation or surprise. True, Phoebe is revealed to be a "fake girlfriend", but that was signposted earlier. And then there's the bad guys, who are perfunctory CIA suits with no discernible motivation.

But the big demerit for me is the way the hero will ignore seven perfectly lethal firearms and instead insist on killing his foes with household objects, like a metal dustpan. This was also a ludicrous failing in The Equaliser (a movie I really didn't like, though it was a huge hit). Possibly American Ultra is paying cheeky homage to The Equaliser. There is even a similar fight scene in a sprawling Walmart style store. Whatever the motivation, it's ridiculous and it spoils the movie — if your hero behaves stupidly and his motivation is distorted to suit the needs of your script, audience identification and sympathy go out the window.

This was particularly annoying since in American Ultra (unlike The Equaliser) it would have been easy to justify such suicidally silly behaviour — when Mike was brainwashed to forget who he was, he could also have been programmed so he couldn't use a firearm, as a safety measure.


(Image credits: the posters are all from Imp Awards except the UK quad, which is from Aimee on Twitter – thank you, Aimee!)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Max by Yakin & Lettich

Just to be clear, we're talking about Max here, not Mad Max...

Max is a movie about a dog. It is sentimental, predictable, soppy tosh... and I loved every minute of it.

It tells the story of Max (played by Carlos), a short-haired Belgian Malinois who is especially trained for weapon detection by the US military, and Kyle Wincott (played by Robbie Ammell), a short-haired Southern Baptist, his handler.

I thought we were in for a story here about a dog in a war zone. (And the poster for the movie — "Best Friend, Hero, Marine" — cunningly plays up to this preconception.) But in fact Max takes a rather brilliant turn.

Kyle is promptly killed in an explosion (early in the movie, so this isn't really a spoiler), Max is traumatised by the incident ("Dogs can suffer PTSD, too") and is returned to the States where he is about to be destroyed, since he can no longer work, when Kyle's family steps in and rescues him.

What follows is a touching story of Max's recovery and reintegration, neatly parallelled by  Kyle's brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) coming out of his shell, thanks to the dog. All this splendidly interwoven with a subplot about gun running which was adroitly set up back in the Afghanistan sequences.

The script is an excellent piece of work, beautifully constructed, with some deft, fresh, fun characterisation (notably Mia Xitlali as feisty Latina teen Carmen). It was written by director Boaz Yakin (who most recently co-wrote Now You See Me) and Sheldon Lettich (whose credits stretch back to Rambo III). They are clearly true professionals and did a great job.

In the course of the film lessons are learned, differences are reconciled, an emotionally shutdown father (Thomas Haden Church) reaches out to his son, a troubled teenager becomes integrated into society, a shellshocked dog recovers, bad guys are punished and the pure of heart triumph to live happily ever after... 

It's a string of cheap, shopworn, emotionally manipulative clich├ęs, and I just adored it. Highly recommended.

(Image credits: Posters are from Imp Awards.)