Sunday, 22 January 2017

Taboo by Steven Knight

Regular readers may be aware of my admiration for the British screenwriter Steven Knight. He's not always as his best when adopting other writers' material, as in the disappointing Burnt, but his original screenplays for Allied and Locke were stunningly good. (Not to mention Eastern Promises.)

The new BBC TV series Taboo is largely Steven Knight's work, thought it's based on an idea by Tom Hardy's father, and both Hardys are credited as co-creators. It tells the story of James Delaney, missing and presumed dead in Africa, who returns to London on the death of his father in 1814 to claim his inheritance.

This includes a piece of land — essentially Vancouver Island which is of crucial strategic importance to the East India Company, who are willing to kill Delaney to get it.

The series is produced by Ridley Scott's company and is visually sumptuous and drenched in period atmosphere, but then we'd expect that from the BBC for an historical drama.

The first episode was rapturously good. It was packed with dark drama and fascinating detail — including testing the contents of a corpse's stomach for arsenic. 

I was riveted, and delighted to have found something on British TV which compelled me to tune in each week. (The last time that happened was Wolf Hall.)

The impressive cast includes the alluring Oona Chaplin as Delaney's half sister, a supremely sinister Jonathan Pryce at the helm of the East India Company and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run and the Bourne movies) as a whore with a heart of gold ("You have kind eyes", Delaney tells her). That last character, perhaps, is not entirely breaking new ground...

Unfortunately, the second episode of Taboo was a considerably more shaky affair. It was distinctly thin on plot, suggesting that this eight part series would have been better at six or perhaps even four episodes.

There was also too much swearing. This isn't a moral objection, it's just a fact that if you use a lot of profanity it loses its impact. Instead of saving the F-bombs for crucial bits of dialogue, this script just scattered them everywhere.

The episode also wasn't helped by a lurid turn from Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent. But the story rallied towards the end, with a new claimant to Delaney's birthright turning up out of the woodwork.

Last night's third episode rallied considerably, with a mercifully brief appearance by the Prince Regent, rather too much swearing still, but some fun dialogue ("Mr Delaney is outside with guns and a cannibal"). Finger crossed that this show lives up to its brilliant opening. 

(Image credits: the stylish poster is from Imp Awards. Tom Hardy with top hat and red stripe on his face is from Digital Spy.  Hardy in the rain is from What's On TV. The on-location shot is from — forgive me — The Daily Mail. The others are from the BBC's official website.)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Edge by Dick Francis

I'm always up for a Dick Francis novel. Gripping crime stories, beautifully written, with memorable, believable characters. The fact that they always hinge on horses is, if anything, a bonus.

Speaking of bonuses, The Edge is an exceptionally interesting Dick Francis tale as far as I'm concerned, because it's set on a train speeding across Canada. I grew up in Canada, and my dad worked for the railways. The story even includes a visit to my hometown, Winnipeg. 

I mentioned the quality of Francis's writing. His prose brings scenes to life with sensual immediacy, as when he talks of the "deepening orange of the autumn sunshine" or how "The daylight faded almost imperceptibly into night, electricity taking over the sun's job smoothly."

Indeed, all his descriptions of being on the train are terrific: "One moment we were stationary, the next sliding forward smoothly... as if on silk ... swaying gently now to the movement of gathering speed."

Then there's "the chilly shifting join between cars" and the "grunting uphill slither" as the train hits the mountains — which are described as "silent giants towering above". Plus there's some amusing character stuff, as with the teenager who momentarily "forgot to look sullen."

What I didn't like about the book is his dud evocation of one of the local characters. Dick Francis seems to think that Canadians say "eh" all the time. Now, I know this is a widely held view, but having lived in Canada myself for decades I've never encountered anyone who talked like that.

And every time Francis proudly trotted out this solecism I felt like throwing the book across the room. I mean, he wouldn't have written about a Cockney character who said "Cor blimey, guvnor" every five seconds, would he?

Lest we forget though, this is nevertheless a splendid book, classic Francis. And, like Come To Grief, it features an evil secret involving animal cruelty — in this case, nastiness to cats, which as you might imagine I found especially disturbing.

(Image credits: The main shot, the edition I read, is from G.D. Price at ABE Books. The other covers are from Good Reads, as is traditional.)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rogue One by Weitz, Gilroy, Knoll and Whitta

(Warning: contains spoilers... and loads of negativity, man.) 

I fully expected Rogue One to be on my list of best films of 2016. Instead it's unquestionably the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year.

You know you're in trouble when the most engaging and appealing character in your movie is a reprogrammed Imperial android. Sadly, the delightful K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) gets shot to pieces at the end of the movie. Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, also ultimately proves impressive in a poorly conceived and underwritten role.

Which makes it even more invidious that Rogue One ends with the clear suggestion that she doesn't survive, either. Although on the other hand I was delighted that the blind samurai — sorry, Jedi — was obliterated, along with a bunch of other boring minor characters.

Sorry for the spoilers, folks, but I strongly advise you to either give this movie a miss, or put it very low on your priority list.

I can't believe that with the example of The Force Awakens so clearly before them the makers of Rogue One could have done such a terrible job. The Force Awakens was so good it gave me goose bumps. Rogue One was so dull I almost fell asleep,

Not that it's short of spectacle, or action. But the filmmakers haven't learned the basic lesson that spectacle and action are irrelevant if they don't make us care about the characters or what they're doing.

The movie looks great. The design, settings and effects are all dazzling. But the script is a complete failure. Which is astonishing, because among the four credited authors is Tony Gilroy, one of the finest screenwriters of his generation. But this screenplay fails on every level.

We don't care about the characters, they are passive, they are dull and bland, have no clear goals, the whole plot is a murky mess and the dialogue stinks. Perhaps Rogue One isn't as badly written as the Lucas prequels. But it shares some of their major script deficiencies — for a start there is no clear cut, compelling story.

There's lots of chasing around for McGuffins, or plot coupons. And there's always one more stupid thing to do. They have to get the plans of the Death Star, then they have to plug in the transmitter, then they have to throw the master switch, then they have to adjust the angle of the antenna, then they have to open the force field to let the transmission through...

You get the picture. And all of this involves a lot of exposition, and explaining, and shouting by the poor actors, who have been given nothing to work with. Instead of this crap, someone needed to come up with a story. One which properly challenged and tested the characters and emotionally engaged the audience.

The Force Awakens grabbed us and never let go. Rogue One never manages to grip us even for an instant. It is full of filler and exposition and somnolent nonsense. There's a big debate among the Rebel Council which is a boring and irrelevant as any of that parliamentary bilge in the Lucas prequels.

And, as with those films, the dialogue in Rogue One really is bad. Mostly it's just flat, dull, boring and doesn't advance the story or reveal character. But now and then it lets off a real stinker. Here are two lines that may not seem too invidious to you, but they really irked me:

"You can stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy?" Well, darling, a flag doesn't reign. It might flap or fly or hang or any number of other things. But it doesn't reign. And then there's "I couldn't face myself if I gave up now"... When was the last time you faced yourself? I suppose we do it in the mirror, but instead of facing themselves in the mirror the producers should have got someone who can actually write dialogue to fix the speeches in this terribly mediocre script.

There are other problems, too, beyond the script. We have some wonderful actors here who are utterly wasted. The magnificent Forrest Whittaker has been put in a wild space suit which looks like something out of David Lynch's Dune, and he seems to have been infected with the sort of overacting Lynch encourages, and so proceeds to eat the scenery. It doesn't help that he has a silly wig.

Ben Mendelsohn, another wonderful actor is given another stupid hairdo, and nothing but cliché bad guy lines to bellow. Then there's the CGI revenant of the late Peter Cushing, a phantom menace if ever there was one. Is this thing convincing? 

No, it's way too deep in the uncanny valley to make anyone think it's Peter Cushing. Or indeed a human being.

And then the recently deceased Carrie Fisher turns up at the end, also CGI spawned to make her look youthful. In fact she looks like a sinister rubber faced automaton with grinning chipmunk cheeks. Like Cushing, she seems to have escaped from the Polar Express.

And on top of that, when Darth Vader first appears, he's supposed to make this big dramatic entrance. But he's so badly lit, and his costume looks so cheap and shabby, that the whole effect is just pitiful.

In fairness, when Vader turns up again near the end wielding a light sabre, he is considerably more impressive. But that doesn't save this movie. Nothing could. No doubt it will make gazillions of dollars and will be adored by fans. But I was a fan — utterly won over by The Force Awakens — and suddenly I'm not one any more.

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

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Best Films of 2016

First, a disclaimer. Although Rogue One opened in 2016, I haven't had a chance to see it yet. So I'm going to arbitrarily rule it out for this year's list and make it a contender for 2017. 

This is a good thing in a way, because otherwise (spoiler alert) this year's list might well have two Star Wars movies in it.

In my Best of 2015 post I noted how that year had seen a bumper crop of spy movies. 

Well, 2016 was especially good for horror flicks. None of the following made the final cut for best of this year, but they were on the long list:

For a start there was Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk — a horror western. Then we had Lights Out, another horror movie which actually works. A gem which swept aside the usual clichés. Teresa Palmer was tremendously effective in it

Even better was The Boy, written by Stacey Menear, which really delivered the goods. Excellent, and scary. 

Then we had Don’t Breathe  A sterling and impressive non-supernatural horror story, which flips the premise of Wait Until Dark on its head: instead of the blind heroine being menaced by bad guys, the bad guys — in this case teen burglars — are menaced by a blind home owner. Jane Levy was terrific in it.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Quite wasn't strictly speaking horror but it was possibly Tim Burton’s best movie ever. And Jane Goldman’s script is terrific. What a surprise.  

Moving on to science fiction we had Star Trek Beyond, the best of the franchise so far with a neat screenplay slotted together like a fine piece of carpentry. And I really liked Sofia Boutella as the alien chick. 

In Deep Water Horizon Mark Wahlberg had a great moment when he reels off a list of malfunctioning equipment on the oil platform like a homage to his list of girl’s porno names in Ted.  And in a year when I was getting fed up with Marvel movies, Doctor Strange scored strongly. Wonderfully trippy, often very funny, with some excellent actors.

I suppose you could classify The Purge: Election Year among the horror films. I was afraid this franchise would begin to falter with this third entry, but no way. 

I was struck again by the brilliance of the Purge concept. Like a zombie movie but it could actually happen. Unbearably suspenseful. And astonishingly radical: We are invited to applaud the spectacle of poor black people shooting rich white people... In a church. 

In Trumbo Bryan Cranston really revels in making himself look a wreck.This film was catnip for screenwriters. And it made a fascinating companion piece to the Coen Brother's Hail Caesar. 

Okay folks, that's it for runners-up. We are now moving on to the actual best of the year list. And this year there are a dozen movies which get that honour... and be warned, some of my choices are idiosyncratic, and fly in the face of received wisdom and the critical consensus.

So, the top twelve: 

For a start we have Criminal a science fiction/thriller hybrid featuring a longhaired Kevin Costner. Universally loathed by the critics but I loved it and think it's a classic. Check it out.

Even better was Matt Cook and John Hillcoat's Triple 9, a storming crime thriller. Genuinely dark and brutal and sleazy. And what an incredible cast. Kate Winslett was amazing as a ruthless gangster. Don't miss it.

Also in the dark thriller mould was The Accountant, a supremely well fashioned script by Bill Dubuque featuring Ben Affleck as a new kind of action hero, an autistic savant and bean counter.  

In an utterly different vein there was the extraordinary Room about a kidnapped woman held prisoner for years in a tiny room with the son fathered by her abductor. I thought it would end when they got out of the room but that’s when the story just begins...

Next is Arrival, a science fiction movie in the mode of 2001, Solaris or The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was made by the director and cinematographer of Sicario, which was the best film of last year. Arrival is deeply moving and beautifully made. It completely pulled the wool over my eyes.  

The Jungle Book was a surprise. Really excellent, and I’ve never seen an audience of bratty kids so rapt and silent. I've already mentioned Hail Caesar, another movie about Hollywood in its years of Cold War paranoia.  Hilarious, lovingly made and quite possibly the Coen’s finest.  

Now we're moving towards the top five and things are heating up (and if you've missed any of these I urge you to catch them).

Number five is no surprise, and it would rate higher if it wasn't such a colossal bleedin' global blockbuster. The Star Wars-reviving The Force Awakens needs no boost from my little blog. But it's still a masterpiece.  

Next we have Allied, a beautifully crafted tale of love, betrayal and espionage in World War Two. It's absolutely first rate, a proper movie which audiences can — and should — love.  I can’t believe the vicious negativity of the reviews that greeted it. Well, nobody knows less about cinema than a film critic...

We're in the top three now, and to be honest I couldn't decide whether number three should be Allied or Shane Black's The Nice Guys. But where Allied made me shed tears of grief, The Nice Guys had me crying with laughter. Utterly hilarious. It made me want to write a film. Apart from one very dodgy Nixon prosthetic, it's sheer bliss. 

America Honey was amazing, and utterly different from every other movie on this list. An indie masterpiece and a deeply moving exploration of the underside of the American dream. I couldn’t get this movie out of my head. 

And now we're at number one. The movie which, out of careful consideration and sheer visceral pleasure, I regard as the finest of the year. I've already cited Sicario, the best movie of 2015. Well, it was written by Taylor Sheridan. And Sheridan has done it again.

Hell Or High Water is a masterpiece in every regard. It tells the story of two Texas rangers who are on the trail of two bank robbers, brothers who are battling against the remorseless economic forces of the 21st century. Influenced by Larry McMurtry, Taylor Sheridan creates superb, believable characters and moves them through a exquisitely plotted and tragic adventure.  Exhilarating thrills and unbearable suspense... and profundity. Superb.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards. I particularly love the retro black-light Doctor Strange poster which captures the 1960s psychedelic aesthetic.)

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

My Aunt Barbara, whom I revered, was a crime fiction afficionado. Oddly enough, though, she didn't like Agatha Christie. And I sort of inherited her prejudice in an unconsidered way. For many years I dismissed the Queen of Crime.

But then I read a short story in an anthology and was rather impressed. And I saw her play Murder on the Nile and admired the plotting. Slowly I came around to the notion that I should give Christie a chance.

Card on the Table is the first full length novel by her which I've read. This was partly because it was on a list of her superior works given to me by my friend and Agatha Christie expert David Parsons. And partly because I found a copy with lovely elegant cover art by Milton Glaser.

What's more, this copy was a Dell map back, which means you have a nice floor plan of the mayhem in the story.

The plot concerns Mr Shaitana, a sinister rich mischief maker. As his name suggests, "He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect" in his clothes and appearance — satanic black moustache and pointy narrow beard, etc.

He's also two-dimensional and tedious. But Shaitana has an intriguing invitation for our hero, the detective Poirot. Come to a dinner party where some of the guests will be murderers who have escaped detection.

So Poirot turns up at what turns out to be a bridge party. There are two games, four guests each at a table (check out the map). One table consists of Poirot and other investigators, the other of the presumed murderers.

Their host doesn't play. He just sits happily in a chair by the fireside. And this is when Christie springs her first surprise — and it occurs so early in the book that this is not really a spoiler...

Naturally, the reader is expecting a murder to happen at some point as the story develops. But it takes place almost instantly — and Shaitana is the victim.

This is just wonderful, not only because it is completely unexpected — Shaitana is set up so it looks like he'll be in the story for the long haul — but also because Christie very cleverly disposes of a rather cardboard character before he has a chance to become a liability.

The other brilliant thing about the plot is that it effectively gives you five murder investigations for the price of one — since each of those four guests is supposed to have already gotten away with at least one unlawful killing.

The story unfolds neatly and briskly, although there are things that will take the modern reader aback, for example one of the characters holds forth, in all seriousness against “All this hysterical fuss about road deaths.” 

Also, Poirot talks to himself, which is a device I've always found clumsy and unconvincing. Plus he does far too much twinkling for my liking. On the other hand, Christie's dialogue is often surprisingly good, and there's more wit on offer than I expected. Along with with a refreshing self mockery.

For instance, during a discussion of murder mystery stories someone remarks “It’s always the least likely person who did it.” And one of our investigators is a lady crime novelist, whose detective hero is a “long lanky" Finn.

Here Agatha Christie is so clearly sending up her own portly Belgian sleuth that one is willing to forgive her a lot.

Cards on the Table is far from perfect, and all the stuff about bridge hands might as well have been written in ancient cuneiform on a clay tablet as far as I'm concerned, but it displays some flashes of genius which show why Christie is held in such high regard.

And it was certainly good enough to have me looking forward to the next one of her books that I read.

(Image credits: the front and back cover of Milton Glaser's Dell map back are scanned from my personal copy, bought this autumn in Winnipeg. The nice white Fontana version with the Tom Adams cover art is also from my collection, since it's a better copy than the one I found online at  Good Reads, which is where all the other covers come from.)

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald

Lew Archer is a private eye, the creation of Ross MacDonald. And the New York Times called his adventures "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." 

That's quite a claim when you consider the competition includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

But Ross MacDonald is an excellent writer, and The Goodbye Look is one of his best books. MacDonald's real name is Kenneth Millar. When he was looking for a pseudonym he actually chose "John MacDonald"...

There was a major problem with this pen name. There really was a John MacDonald, already writing crime fiction. As it happens, he's one of my favourite writers, and actually has the edge on Kenneth Millar.

Anyhow, once this fiasco was discovered, after the publication of Lew Archer's first adventure, both authors had to take evasive action, like ships avoiding a collision. 

Millar became John Ross MacDonald and the real MacDonald started using his middle initial and transformed to John D. MacDonald, whom he remained, while Millar finally settled on Ross MacDonald.  

What's in a name? Well, for a writer establishing his reputation, just about everything.

But The Goodbye Look comes from the other end of Millar's career. It is the 15th Lew Archer novel, published in 1969.  And it's a classic first person private eye novel with the character at the centre of the case (one Nick Chalmers) almost entirely absent from the narrative. This is quintessential detective novel technique — think of The Thin Man.

It's just beautifully written, with memorable descriptions of the physical — "the safe was about the diameter of a sixteen-inch gun and just as empty" and the psychological —  "I could feel the pressure of her cool insistence, like water against a dam".

Millar tells a fascinating story with vividly evoked characters — and they have memorable names: Truttewell, Lackland. My only worry was that I might not be able to keep track of them all. But at just the point where I began to feel this, the author gave a useful summary of the case so far, skillfully offering it at exactly the right moment. A true pro at work.

He also has splendid awareness of nature and wildlife, something which he has in common with John D. MacDonald.

The Goodbye Look is expertly told, addictively readable, terrifically engrossing and you find yourself racing through the pages.

It throws in a surprising love affair involving the hero, and it also features a Chandleresque dodgy doctor. And, although the Lew Archer novels became less action oriented as the year's passed, there is some sudden, explosive violence.

Archer is shot — accidentally, by a trigger happy cop. After a visit to the hospital he reflects that "the wound in my shoulder was beating like an auxiliary heart."

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