Sunday, 26 April 2015

Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess has written some first rate novels — notably Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers. So I was always keen to see what happened when he hopped on the the 1960s espionage-fiction bandwagon. 

And indeed, Tremor of Intent at first is highly entertaining, very promising and rather splendid. Complete with a colourful antagonist and "blonde pouting girls who twitch for savage anonymous love" — there is also a girl with "hair you wanted to eat" — it looks like it might be very much in the vintage Bond mould. 

It is particularly Fleming-like in Part II, where it shifts from the first person narrative to third person and Burgess begins referencing brand names like Daks (a make of menswear). But with his baroque language and sardonic humour Burgess soon begins to seem more like Derek Marlowe, another great British spy novelist.

Then the narrative grows more satirical — and acquires a slightly surreal edge — with a gourmet eating contest between the British intelligence operative hero Hillier and his hugely fat antagonist (a literal heavy). It appears to moving towards the more way-out fiction of Kyril Bonfiglioli. Unfortunately, by the time the book is over Burgess has drifted in the direction of  Graham Greene at his worst — self important, dull and priest-ridden. So much for the prospect of a classic 1960s spy novel.

Part of the problem is that, like so many respectable 'literary' writers (but unlike Kingsley Amis, or Graham Greene when he is on form), Burgess doesn't understand or respect the principles of genre fiction. This is clearest in the way that Hillier never confronts the real villains of the novel — shadowy senior intelligence figures and politicians. Indeed these villains remain pretty much offstage. Instead Hillier arbitrarily and pointlessly goes after a strictly minor bad guy, for no better reason that he has featured heavily in the plot (he is on stage) and bumps the bad guy off in a dull fashion. This is what happens when you bungle your structure, Anthony.

Worse yet, there is a coda where the hero discovers god. I'm not kidding. That's what I meant by that crack about Graham Greene.

Still, Burgess can certainly write. We have a scientist character who is "a highly efficient artefact crammed with non-human knowledge." The Cold War is "a great childish game on the floor of the world." And as Hillier entered a sinister foreign sea port, "A dog barked somewhere in comforting international language."

Also, this being Burgess, there are vivid musical references (when a character thinks about the woman he loves, "he looked for a moment as though he were listening to Beethoven"). And of course, the glittering, show-off vocabulary. Among the ten dollar words are old favourites like proleptic, ludic, mimesis and otiose. New friends include phatic, aleatoric, pudeur and 'gulous' — a word that seems to pertain to gluttony, but is nigh impossible to track down online. Often Burgess's highfaluting language strikes me as both otiose and aleatoric. He should feel pudeur.

More interesting are his own invented words. Hillier is trapped by the opposition and dosed with a (fictional) compound called 'vellocet' — a drug which also crops up in Clockwork Orange. Here it is B-type vellocet, which induces euphoria and loosens the tongue. In Clockwork Orange it is Moloko Vellocet, which is mixed with milk and will "sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence."

Tremor of Intent is a disappointment, but one with extended moments of brilliance. (Oh, and the title refers to a trembling of the muscles you get when attempting a precise movement. Like aiming a gun, or a bow and arrow.)


(Image credits: Thin pickings from Good Reads, though they did at least yield the stylish graphic Serpents Tail edition with the typewriter. The sniper rifle Ballantine, which is the edition I read, is from ABE seller 1. The nice photographic Penguin is from ABE seller 2. The silenced gun photograph Heinemann first is from ABE seller 3. The lovely cartoony Norton paperback is from ABE seller 4. The equally attractive stripey eyes Norton first edition is from ABE seller 5. Regarding the Nortons — "eschatological" means the branch of theology concerned with death, judgement, heaven and hell (bless you, Oxford English Dictionary!) — which gives you some idea of the god-bothering pretentiousness which finally and fatally sinks this book.)

Sunday, 19 April 2015

John Wick by Derek Kolstad

John Wick should actually be called Jon Wick — since the hero's name, as confirmed in dialogue is Jonathan. Getting its own title wrong is somehow emblematic of the loopy, unapologetic disconnection from reality which characterises this excellent thriller. 

It is the kind of movie where, when a cute puppy is introduced at the beginning, you know it will be dead by the third reel. But, uniquely in my experience, the death of the pet is not here solely to signal how nasty the bad guys are, or pile up menace on the good guys. Rather it is a trigger for revenge, and the direct cause of everything that follows.

The eponymous John Wick is very effectively played by Keanu Reeves, last seen committing seppuku for no apparent reason in 47 Ronin. 

Poor John, or Jon, Wick has had a hard time lately. He's just lost his beloved wife to a lingering illness. Knowing the end was nigh, she thoughtfully bought the aforementioned cute puppy to see her husband through his period of grieving. The dog poo hits the fan when Wick drives his vintage Mustang to the gas station and attracts the attention of a young Russian hood — son of a powerful gangster — who covets his ride. Wick won't sell him the car, so the hood steals it, beating Wick unconscious and killing his dog in the process.

The young hood is played by Alfie Allen, who was so excellent as Theon Greyjoy — a similarly despicable character in Game of Thrones. What Alfie hasn't realised is that the fellow whose pup he's just murdered is in fact an implacable hitman, recently retired. But now John Wick is back in business.

After the death of the dog — which is an unpleasant moment — this movie is pure pleasure. Wick wipes out everyone in his way in a sequence of splendid action set-pieces until the movie comes to its highly satisfying conclusion.

In many ways John Wick is reminiscent of The Equalizer. But that Denzel Washington revenge thriller was a complete failure on every level (I say this despite knowing it was a mammoth box office hit) whereas John Wick succeeds on every level. Okay, there is one really dumb moment of dialogue where the Russian punk's gangster dad tries to impress on him the folly of what he's just done: he describes how John Wick once killed three men with a pencil. A pencil. (Exactly the sort of idiotic thing Denzel was doing in The Equalizer). But, that aside, John Wick is a great shoot-em-up.

The movie exists in a stylised, slightly off-kilter version of reality. A parallel dimension where film noir rules — sort of a less extreme Sin City. In this respect the picture it most resembles is Payback. John Wick presents a world where there is a body disposal service which is just a phone call away, and there's a club and a hotel that cater only to hit men and top criminals, and payment is always in gold coins. The hotel clerk, revealingly, is called Charon — played impressively by Lance Reddick from The Wire.

It's a terrific cast, which also includes Ian McShane as the club owner, Willem Dafoe as Wick's hitman buddy, and Adrianne Palicki as Perkins, a briskly amoral hit-woman.

John Wick is written by Derek Kolstad whose previous credits are a couple of  Dolph Lundgren vehicles, The Package and One in the Chamber. With this movie he seems to have taken a big step up. The director is Chad Stahleski, a former stunt coordinator.

The film is shot in doom laden greys and lavenders (which, if memory serves, was much the same pallet as The Equalizer) by cinematographer Jonathan Sela.
 
This movie was pure unalloyed pulp pleasure, apart from the incident with that poor dog. But then, I'm more of a cat person anyway.

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

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Seventh Son by Steven Knight et al

Sword and sorcery is a tricky genre and most film attempts at it fail to a greater or lesser degree — including the most recent version of Conan, and the Solomon Kane film, based on another of Robert E. Howard's great creations.

So it's a real pleasure to be able to report the presence of a successful sword and sorcery movie in the multiplexes — Seventh Son.

This is a brisk, inventive, vivid and fun pulp adventure. It even prevails over Jeff Bridges's terribly dodgy accent which almost, but not quite, sinks the enterprise. And some unforgivably bad prosthetic make up on one of the characters.

But the list of good things about the movie is far longer, and far more significant. Most crucially, one of the two screenwriters credited with the final script is the brilliant Steven Knight, responsible for Locke, a masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2014. Here Knight is something of a hired gun, but he's contributed to a fresh and enjoyable script. 

The other major credited writer is Charles Leavitt, who wrote the excellent Blood Diamond. An early draft of the script was by Matt Greenberg, who worked on the dragon movie reign of fire.

The film is loosely based on ("inspired by")  the first in a series of young adult novels by Joseph Delaney called The Spook's Apprentice. In this fantasy world, a Spook is a kind of witch hunter and monster killer. This is the role of Jeff Bridges, complete with his silly accent. Vocal contortions aside, Bridges is excellent as are the rest of the cast. 

Ben Barnes plays the young apprentice with absolute conviction and he is surrounded by talent. His mother is Olivia Williams, his love interest is Alicia Vikander and the big bad witch is none other than Julianne Moore.

Sergey Bodrov (who did the Ghengis Khan movie Mongol) directs with a gift for speed and detail — I particularly liked his use of the dog to warn us something bad was about to happen.

The striking production design is by Dante Ferretti, a regular collaborator with Martin Scorsese and the colourful cinematography is by Newton Thomas Sigel. Marco Beltrami provides a highly effective, outstanding music score.

If you like sword and sorcery don't miss this excellent, unpretentious popcorn movie.

(Image credits: All the posters — rich pickings this time — are from the useful Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Face of an Angel by Winterbottom and Viragh

Meredith Kercher was a young British student who was studying in Italy when she was brutally murdered. Three people were convicted of her killing, including her room mate Amanda Knox, and Knox's boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. No one knows for sure what happened but on my — admittedly wholly amateur — reading of the case, Knox and Sollecito seemed to be clearly blameless and the victims of a publicity seeking fantasist of a prosecutor. To me their imprisonment compounded the tragedy of Kercher's death.

The story has therefore remained vividly in my mind and when I heard that there was a film based on it, directed by Michael Winterbottom, this movie shot to the top of my must-see list. Winterbottom has made some truly excellent films (not least The Killer Inside Me), often with a powerful documentary edge. He seemed the perfect man to make a riveting study of this case.

What I'd forgotten was that he's also the man who knows so little about drama that he thought he could take a tragic love triangle from a literary classic (Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy) and safely remove one of the characters. When you remove one point of a triangle, Michael, you end up with a straight line. Come to think of it, Winterbottom is a film maker who has even bungled pornography (in Nine Songs... the linear Tess adaptation was Trishna).

Winterbottom's screenwriter Paul Viragh (who wrote the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) must share some responsibility for the farrago which is The Face of an Angel. Despite being based on a non fiction book about the Kercher murder by the American journalist Barbie Nadeau, the film is a work of fiction, with the names of Kercher, Knox and Sollecito changed. And it doesn't even deal with the crime. It follows a film director as he fails to make a movie about the crime. If you think that all sounds too precious for words, then by golly you are right.
 
The film director — played by Daniel Brühl; a terrific actor lost here in a lousy movie — wanders around, snorts cocaine, whines about being divorced and separated from his charmless child, has an affair with an American journalist (Kate Beckinsale) and timidly circles an attractive young British student. The young British student is played with great charm and brio by famed model Cara Delevingne, who is the only one to emerge with any credit from this sorry mess.

Winterbottom and Viragh go on endlessly about the film director's lost daughter, as if this had some parallel with the central story (or lack thereof). They have also latched onto the hilarious notion that the works of Dante can be referenced as relevant to their meandering miasma of a tale.

Perhaps the worst moments of the movie — god knows there's enough to chose from — are the director's dreams which have been crowbarred into the narrative to try and add some action and suspense. There's even a bit where he's attacked by scaly monsters (presumably out of Dante's inferno) rendered in some of the worst CGI witnessed in mainstream cinema. I have seen The Face of an Angel described as a psychological thriller. Don't believe it. It's a very boring, incredibly pretentious attempt at an art film.

Just on its own merits, this has a strong claim to being one of the worst movies ever made. When you factor in the real life tragedies on which it is founded — and which it exploits — it then becomes unforgivably, reprehensibly bad. The publicity for The Face of an Angel makes shameful use of the real life murder case to drum up customers. And for the movie to conclude with a dedication to Meredith Kercher is just the final insult.
 
The film is so rotten it made me never want to see a movie again. But I suspect I'll get over that. Probably by tomorrow...

(Image credits: the poster is from Imp Awards; the shot of Brühl and Delevingne is from Ace Show Biz. The shot of Delevigne's face is from a blog about the crime.  The shot of her in a red and black shirt is from You & I. The book cover is from General eBooks.)

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Wolf Hall by Mantel & Straughan

I blog so much about American drama series — and I was just about to write about another one — that it is only fair to acknowledge the first British TV drama I've seen in years which seems emphatically worth celebrating.

Wolf Hall is a novel about Tudor England written by Hilary Mantel. I first began to feel kindly disposed towards Ms Mantel when she won the Booker Prize for fiction and they asked her what she was going to do with the prize money. "Spend it on sex and drugs and rock and roll," said Hilary.

Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall was published to a similar level of acclaim and now the two novels have been adapted for television (under the title of the first one), directed by Peter Kosminsky with scripts by Peter Straughan, a very gifted British screenwriter who was also responsible for the magnificent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, co-written with his late wife Bridget O'Connor.

Wolf Hall is like a medieval version of The Godfather. Lit only by natural light — which in this period means daylight or candles — the enveloping shadows suggest the encroaching conspiracies that surround the throne. (The impressive cinematography is by Gavin Finney.) 

It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's political fixer. Cromwell is generally regarded by history as a bad guy. Notably in Robert Bolt's brilliant play A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell is the heavy and Thomas More is virtually a saint.

Wolf Hall sets that record straight, showing Cromwell from a new perspective, and revealing startling facts about the unsavoury More – like him having captives brutally tortured under his own roof (presumably to save him the chore of commuting). Cromwell is played with quiet precision by Mark Rylance, More is Anton Lesser and Henry  VIII is Damian Lewis, whom I just finished praising for his acting in Homeland.

Mention must also be made of Claire Foy, who pulls off the profoundly impressive trick of being despicable and loathsome as Anne Boleyn while she is solidifying her position in the power structure, and then becoming heartbreaking and tragic when she is sent to her death.

A quality production all the way. But don't worry. Next week I'll be talking about American television again.

(Image credits:  The poster of Rylance's face is from Sharing Series. Damian Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn are from Live for Films. The Blu-ray cover is from Amazon.)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Kingsman by Goldman, Vaughn and Millar

Mark Millar is a prolific and successful writer of comics, an impressive number of which have been adapted into films. 

His work (with John Romita) was the basis for Kick Ass, which was a lot of fun, while his work with J.G. Jones was adapted as Wanted, which proved to be a thundering dud. Now his comic The Secret Service, illustrated by the great Dave Gibbon, hits the screen as Kingsman, which is deliriously good.

I must warn you, though, that it is an incredibly violent film: Colin Firth slaughters an entire church full of loathsome fundamentalists to the strains of 'Free Bird'. 

It is also, very, very funny. I was hooked on it from the (violent) opening sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman have actually managed to pull off a 21st Century spy thriller in the vein of a classic James Bond fantasy movie. (They were the team behind Kick Ass, too.)

The film is also rooted in reality, thanks to the neat narrative conceit of enlisting a young working class hoodlum into the elite cadre of posh spies. This is Eggsy, played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Eggsy is an engaging character. Pursued by the cops with his friends while joyriding in a stolen car, he crashes the vehicle and gets caught rather than running over a fox and getting away clean. His friend in the back seat reprimands him. "It was vermin, bruv. You should have driven it over." Eggsy responds with wistful bitterness: "Should have done a lot of things."

It's a great line, and a great movie, charting Eggsy's training as a 'Kingsman' secret agent. There is a top drawer cast, with Colin Firth as Eggsy's mentor and the 007 surrogate, Mark Strong as a 'Q' figure and Michael Caine as a malign 'M'.

Most importantly there is Samuel L. Jackson lisping his way brilliantly through the role of Valentine, as splendid an evil villain as ever coughed up by the Bond franchise, superbly supported with the most deadly of hench-women in the shape of the blade-limbed Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella.

My only beef is that Eggsy's fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is left with too little to do in the explosive grand finale. 

If you are up for the extravagant fantasy violence, Kingsman is a sheer delight. Lynyrd Skynyrd's greatest hit will never sound the same again, though.

(Image credits: All the posters are from the redoubtable, and fast downloading, Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Homeland by Gordon and Gansa

There is such a plethora of great television drama out there (mostly American, it has to be said) that I have only just caught up with Homeland. It came highly recommended by friends, and they weren't wrong.

Homeland is instantly riveting. It tells the story of — don't worry about spoilers, all this is revealed early, in episode 1 — an American marine sergeant, Nicholas Brody, who has been held captive in Afghanistan for eight years. 

Brody is rescued and is returned home, a hero. But a female CIA operative, Carrie Mathison, has reason to believe he has been turned and is in fact a sleeper agent for the enemy. Tension builds when no one believes her and it looks like our "hero" might even be a candidate for high political office.

It's great stuff, and our heroine is a terrific character. I particularly love the fact that Carrie is a jazz fan, which leads to one of the great title sequences in TV history — featuring Louis Armstrong. And a lovely jazz theme for the show. 

Carrie is played by Claire Danes, Brody is British actor Damian Lewis (recently a terrif Henry VIII in Wolf Hall). They are both splendid, as is Morena Baccarin (the evil alien empress from V) as Brody's  wife Jessica.

Homeland was developed for American television by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and they've done a splendid job. The show is based on an Israeli drama known in English as Prisoners of War created by Gideon Raff. 

Prisoners of War is considerably different, though. In it three soldiers are brought home and it is a shell game — which have to guess which one might be the traitor.

I haven't seen Prisoners, but Homeland is a delight. I'm on episode five of Season 1 and it is looking good. Where else do you get a show which drops the F-bomb every week in its title sequence?

Just one question. Why does Brody's wife call him Brody instead of Nicholas?

(Image credits: The Hero/Threat poster is from Wikipedia. The red burka is from IMDB. The others are from Collider.)