Sunday, 1 May 2016

Criminal by Cook & Weisberg

I was going to quip that any movie which kills off Ryan Reynolds in the first 15 minutes has to be a winner, but actually Criminal is much better than that and doesn't deserve to be dismissed in such a smart-ass way.

This is a thriller with a heavy element of science fiction — it involves technology developed by scientist Quaker Wells (Tommy Lee Jones) which allows a dead man's memories to be transferred to the brain of a living subject. The complication is that the living brain has to be undeveloped — stunted — in a certain way. And the ideal candidate is a dangerous criminal called Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner in a comeback role).

Ryan Reynolds has played a similar role in Self/less, one of the better films of last year, in which he was the recipient, rather than the donor, of someone's personality. But Criminal is even better.

This kind of story has its antecedents in the 1966 Frankenheimer film Seconds. And there are also echoes of Daniel Keyes's sf classic Flower for Algernon. I could go on to mention Ralph Blum's novel The Simultaneous Man, but that would be showing off.

The Reynolds character, Bill Pope is an intelligence agent who has — or had — vital knowledge of a deadly terrorist plot. His memories are duly downloaded into Jericho, who then escapes from the authorities but, as you might imagine, eventually ends up foiling the plot.

This is a fine thriller, with genuinely great use of London locations, but what really makes the movie is that Jericho is a sociopath who has never really experienced any emotional connection with another person — and he has to deal with the fact that the dead man's love for his wife and daughter (Gal Gadot and Lara Decaro, both dazzling) begins to surface in him.

Adding urgency and poignancy to the plot is the fact that Jericho only has Pope's memories in his head for about 48 hours — this is where it's similar to Flowers for Algernon, which told the tragic story of a mentally subnormal man who is given superior intelligence, only to gradually lose it again. In this case, what Jericho is going to lose is his humanity.

This is a truly terrific movie, with what used to be called a star-studded cast, which also includes Gary Oldman and Michael Pitt. And I was particularly impressed by the work of director Ariel Vroman (who previously did the Michael Shannon hitman movie Iceman).

But the real prize here goes to the writing team of Douglas Cook & David Weisberg who also wrote Double Jeopardy, another clever thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones. Here they truly deliver the goods in a complex, engrossing script with real depth.

My only quibble is the scene which depicts a London black-cab driver using GPS instead of relying, as is required, on his memory (ironic in a movie where memory is the theme). He's promptly shot dead, which is the least he deserved.

(Image credits: as usual where movie posters are concerned, Imp Awards comes up trumps.)

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz (pronounced "bunch-key-a-vitch") is a distinguished series of supernatural thrillers which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over the last seven years. The concluding mini-series has now gone out and the entire range of episodes were available online for a while here.  

Sadly these have now expired, but some of the adventures are available for download, and the whole thing will soon be available on CD (here and here).

I'm going into such detail about where you can hear these dramas because they're genuinely terrific and well worth searching out. 

They tell the story of William Palmer (superbly played by Paul Hilton), a stone mason in the 12th Century who was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury when he inadvertently offended the king of the Grey Folk (the fairies), who cursed him to life eternal. In the succeeding centuries Palmer has become a kind of fixer in conflicts between the Grey Folk and the Hot Bloods (humans). (Incidentally, Palmer is often referred to as 'Pilgrim', or Billy, suggesting that Baczkiewicz might be a Kurt Vonnegut fan — Billy Pilgrim.)

The series is made distinctive by its emphasis on regional locations and accents, and also its great use of popular music — usually to eerie or unsettling effect. Baczkiewicz is very talented indeed and has clearly learned from Harold Pinter in the way he writes taut dialogue which he pointedly invests with the jaunty menace of everyday cliché

I'd heard bits and pieces of Pilgrim over the years, but thanks to the recent BBC bonanza I was able to enjoy a week-long blitz of listening to all seven series (29 episodes), at a length of over 20 hours. The downside of this kind of 'boxed set' approach is that one detects certain element of repetition (people kept saying "What's that when it's at home?"); the much more substantial upside was seeing subplots slot neatly together and vivid minor characters recur in a welcome fashion.

My favourite episodes include Lyall Park, which combines elements of the Shining with the Lord Lucan case; Daventree Mansions, in which a magician disappears into a painting, and St Lewin, which features the priceless Mister Truffles.

Pilgrim is full of wonderful characters, like the were-fox Handley played by Joel MacCormack, the vivaciously dangerous Coral (Cassie Layton), and the seductive and lethal Mirabella (Janice Acquah). Baczkiewicz has a particularly strong line in villains including the aforementioned demon cat Mister Truffles (Zubin Varla) and the delightfully evil Birdie (Kate Fleetwood) who describes Pilgrim as "raggedy but kissable". 

In that regard the German CD cover is more accurate than the BBC ones — which stupidly seem to assume that Palmer is still wandering around dressed like a 12th century pilgrim. He isn't. Palmer's very modern in some ways, and the clash between the old and the new, and our hero's long-term world view, make for some interesting observations — he casually mentions that Picasso was a messy eater and some keenly amusing dialogue: "What did your last slave die of?" "Dysentery."

Or, when Palmer describes a troubled spirit he found inhabiting a well: "Inhabiting it how?" asks a sceptical young woman."Well, he didn't have a fitted kitchen," says Palmer.   

Baczkiewicz writes great dialogue: "If that face could talk..." "That face can talk." And I admire his descriptions of supernatural beings: "...a giant." ... "What kind of a giant?" ... "An I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman kind of a giant." 

I loved listening to this entire saga. Or, as one of Baczkiewiecz's sinister grey folk puts it, "A sausage dancing in a frying pan could not be happier."

My only regret is that it was over so soon. I feel it could have easily run for ten or twelve seasons instead of seven. There is a ray of light, though. Pilgrim hasn't been as emphatically concluded as Sherlock Holmes was when he went over the falls. And, like Holmes, I hope he'll be back by popular demand.

The Pilgrim dramas were directed by Marc Beeby or Jessica Dromgoole (a great name for this material.) 

(Image credits: .The groovy tree monster is from Rare Share. The cave is from the episode Jackson's Mill at the BBC. The wonderful cat Mr Truffles is from a gallery at the BBC. The 'Complete First Series' is from Audible. The rather cool painted cover of the 3-CD set, and the two images derived from it, are from the German publisher Christoph Merian.)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Dune — the Folio Society Edition

Dune is one of the great science fiction novels. Many people would maintain it's the greatest. It's certainly one of my favourites, and I've written about it before.  What has prompted me to return to it is the release of a beautiful new version from the Folio Society.

With original first printings of the hard cover selling for $10,000, I'm always up for deluxe new editions of Dune at a more reasonable price. A few years ago the American bookstore giant Barnes & Noble added it to their range of collectible editions in a leather bound, illustrated hardback. This goes in and out of print, with the price fluctuating accordingly. But when it's available at the standard rate of about twenty bucks it's a tremendous bargain.

However, the Barnes & Noble Dune has been trumped by the gorgeous Folio Society edition, published in 2015. Far from cheap, with a retail price of seventy five quid, this is nevertheless the definitive hardcover version of Frank Herbert's 1965 masterpiece to date, and if you can afford it you ought to splash out.

The illustrations by Sam Weber are impressive — which is far from always the case with Folio Books, which suffer from wildly erratic art direction. Weber's style is sympathetic to the story and there are 12 full colour plates. The Barnes & Noble Dune had no plates, just illustrated endpapers, rather classily using the work of John Schoenherr, the greatest Dune illustrator. The endpapers of the Folio volume are devoted to some very nice maps. And Weber's embossed cover is just a beauty.

But where this edition really scores is with its excellent supplementary text. Michael Dirda has provided a notably perceptive introduction in which he talks about the sand worms surfacing in the desert "like Moby Dick rising from the depths." He correctly observes the parallels with Lawrence of Arabia and notes both are stories of "a young man caught up in a myth." And he makes a fascinating — and fresh — comparison between Dune and Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword.

Dirda is amusing on the "idiotic misjudgements" of the 23 publishers who turned down Dune, is insightful on Herbert's prose style and the way his short paragraphs drive the narrative; he sensibly equates the Bene Gesserit witches with the Jesuits (even the name is an echo) and makes an effective point about a single-product economy when he says "for 'spice' read 'oil'."

I'm seriously impressed by Dirda and I am going to seek out his Conan Doyle biography (a winner of the Edgar Award).

The Folio edition also features an afterword by Brian Herbert. I have the traditional suspicion of a son cashing in on father's writing (Brian has co-written a horde of Dune sequels) but he, too, has some compelling observations. He says his father "spent more time with Paul Atreides than he did with me", suggests that the Beast Rabban Harkonnen is "essentially a fool" archetype and finds an intriguing comparison with Beowulf.

Importantly both foreword and afterword make clear that science fiction writer Sterling Lanier is the unsung hero of the Dune saga. 

As an editor at the publishing house which finally accepted Dune, he was absolutely pivotal in the book getting into print at last
Without Sterling Lanier there might not be a Dune for us to covet in deluxe editions today.

(Image credits: The Folio images are from Gizmodo where you can find an excellent appreciation of this edition. The picture of the Barnes & Noble Dune is from a thread on NeoGAF.)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Bone Tomahawk by A. Craig Zahler

The horror-western is an interesting hybrid, and one with considerable potential. So it's surprising how rare examples are. Of course, there's the proverbial — and silly —  Billy the Kid vs Dracula, but serious attempts at cross-splicing the genres are few and far between.

The best examples which come immediately to mind are a Harlan Ellison script for a 1968 episode of the TV show Cimarron Strip, called A Knife in the Darkness, which explored the idea of Jack the Ripper relocating in the Old West. 

And then there's a Richard Matheson novel called A Shadow on the Sun. Matheson was a specialist in horror who also wrote a considerable number of Westerns, so he was ideally situated to explore this specialised territory.

Well, sadly Richard Matheson is gone and Harlan Ellison largely inactive now, but a guy called A. Craig Zahler has fashioned an excellent film with the evocative title Bone Tomahawk (though I must admit that at first I thought it sounded like a porno comedy).

Without giving too much away, the premise of Bone Tomahawk is that a clan of highly primitive cave dwelling proto-Native Americans (referred to as "troglodytes") are discovered. They're ferocious and cannibalistic... and they've kidnapped the hero's wife. A posse sets off to rescue her, and a great deal of satisfying mayhem ensues.

The movie is a kind of cowboy take on The Hills Have Eyes... which is actually a great idea. Zahler does a commendable job of directing, but the strength really lies in his script. He's obviously done a lot of research, and his dialogue has an unerring sense of the period. Also, it's just good dialogue: "What's the time?" "It's about nine, but it feels like next week."

The characters are imaginatively conceived and well rounded, with a good cast to bring them to life, notably led by Kurt Russell as the sheriff, with Patrick Wilson as the aggrieved husband, Lili Simmons as his wife the local doctor and Matthew Fox as a gun-slinging dude. The music, by Jeff Herriott and Zahler is also memorable.

Zahler is a talent to watch. This film is extremely well made — and well worth checking out — assuming you don't have an aversion to westerns, or horror movies.

(Image credits: The posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Hail, Caesar! by Ethan & Joel Coen

I've long had my doubts about the Coen Brothers — ever since their first film Blood Simple, in fact, I seemed to be immune to their charms. People loved their stuff, but it didn't float my boat. I especially disliked Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. However, no one could deny that True Grit was a tremendous movie.

And now we have the delightful Hail, Caesar! This is a flawless satire of Hollywood in the 1950s, which has a lot of interesting overlap with the excellent Trumbo, including a major plot concerning communist screenwriters. It even features a Hedda Hopper style gossip columnist, again wonderfully played by a British actress, this time the sublime Tilda Swinton.

Swinton is just part of a fabulous cast, all doing splendid work — Scarlett Johansson as an aquatic siren, Ralph Fiennes confirming the gift for comedy he displayed in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Josh Brolin as the studio fixer. 

But particular credit must go to those who are willing to undermine their usual image  — Tatum Channing of Magic Mike fame, doing great work in a camp sailor-suit dance sequence and most of all George Clooney sending himself up as a commie-stooge catamite.

Above all, however, kudos must go to Alden Ehrenreich who seems to have learned how to do tricks with a lasso and acrobatics on horseback for his role here as an amiable singing cowboy star forced into a tuxedo in a spectacular bit of miscasting by Brolin's studio boss.

Beautifully written by the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a terrific comedy with great parodies of vintage Hollywood output, especially the titular biblical epic, which is nailed with uncanny and hilarious precision. (There is also a priceless scene with religious leaders invited into the studio to argue about the script — and the nature of the deity.)
I only noticed one slip up in evoking the era: Lockheed Aircraft Corporation is trying to poach Brolin and we get a shot of a letter from their "Human Resources" department. In fact "human resources" is a trendy modern term for what would have been called the Personnel Department back in the 1950s. Let's get these period details correct, folks.

Pedantry aside, this movie is faultless, charming and huge fun. Who knows, maybe I should even take another look at Barton Fink.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards, where shamefully there was none featuring Ehrenreich, who has a far greater and more important role than, for instance, Jonah Hill, who gets a great big poster all his own.)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Triple 9 by Matt Cook

What a shame this vanished so quickly from my local cinema. I immediately wanted to see it again. Triple 9 is a storming, brutal, brilliant movie. 

It's the best crime thriller I've seen since Ben Affleck's The Town. (Oddly enough, Triple 9 star's Affleck's brother Casey.) Both movies have strong sense of place — in The Town it was Boston; in Triple 9 it's a vividly evoked Atlanta.

Starting with a pulse-pounding bank heist that goes off the rails, Triple 9 is tremendously compelling and never lets up. It is also relentlessly dark and sordid. The title is a police code for "officer down" and this is a movie which is knee deep in corrupt cops.

This is the first feature credit for writer Matt Cook, who has done an ace job. The film is magnificently directed by Aussie John Hillcoat who previously distinguished himself with Lawless.

The cast of Triple 9 is rather amazing. Casey Affleck is quietly convincing, Aaron Paul plays pretty much the same character he played in Breaking Bad, and Woody Harrelson seems to be in competition with Nic Cage's character in Bad Lieutenant.  

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has previously specialised in admirable and upright characters who suffer nobly here goes off in a whole new direction as a hardnosed crook. And Kate Winslet is stunning in an equally unusual role as a viciously ruthless Jewish-Russian mob boss.

The ending doesn't quite live up to the rest of this dazzling film (how often I find myself saying that), but if you're in the market for a compelling, tough crime movie you mustn't miss it.

(Image credits: I was spoiled for choice by the nice selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

London Has Fallen by Rothenberger & Benedict

When I was in LA recently they had the posters for London Has Fallen up everywhere and the strapline on them was "Bloody Hell". I thought that was pretty amusing, and rather effective. Although of course no one in England has actually said "bloody hell" since about 1964.

This movie is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, a weak film and one I didn't like at all. It was deeply inferior to the very similar White House Down. But London Has Fallen is way better than its predecessor. Mainly because it is set in the city I love — and blasts the crap out of it. ("... the decimation of all of London's major landmarks," as the stilted dialogue puts it.)

Olympus Has Fallen was scripted by the writing team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. On this new film they get a "characters created by" acknowledgement and also lead writing credit. Christian Gudegast and Chad St John, who are not a team, get secondary script credit. The movie was directed by Babak Najafi who has worked on the TV show Banshee.

The cast, as before, is led by Gerard Butler as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, Aaron Eckhart as the president and Angela Bassett as the Secret Service director. Morgan Freeman is also knocking around in a dull and inconsequential role as the vice president. Charlotte Riley is excellent in a small part as an MI6 agent.

Mike Banning is a blunt instrument held together by "bourbon and bad choices." The writers have given him an irrelevant love interest and a baby on the way (just for once, not a sure sign the character is slated for impending death). Why bother? The guy's a killing machine.

The film begins, somewhat daringly, with the chief baddie surviving a US drone strike — at his daughter's wedding, where masses of innocent people are killed. This acknowledgement that the good guys aren't entirely good is rather refreshing, although the drone-strike-killing-innocents is one of the biggest clichés of recent times.

Anyway, we're soon in London and blowing hell out of it. I somewhat resented the movie's notion that the British police and security services could be so thoroughly and easily infiltrated by murderous terrorists. Although this does lead to the somewhat surreal and disturbing spectacle of Gerard Butler machine-gunning London cops. (A bigger problem is that the chief mole in the Brit security services is all too obvious, making for a feeble revelation at the end.)

The real bad guys, however, are of course foreigners. From "F*ckhead-istan" as Banning puts it, with his nuanced grasp of geopolitics.

For all the guns on display, Banning prefers a good old fashioned knife. And the movie exhibits a level of sadistic savagery which is reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, and actually in an odd way lends it some distinction.

It has to be said that the gunbattles are brilliantly shot — there's a memorable 360 degree pan — and the London locations are excellently used. So why did I feel so detached, and a little bored? It was the same old problem. I didn't care about the characters. As I sat there, unmoved by the film, I did a little thought experiment. What if it wasn't the president who was about to be executed live on the internet at 8pm, but the president and his cat.

Now, that would have been a story I could get caught up in.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards, though none of them feature the Bloody Hell campaign as prominently as I seem to recall the LA ones did.)