Sunday, 14 September 2014

How Not to End a Movie

Before I Go to Sleep is an engrossing and clever thriller. It is directed by Rowan Joffe with a script by him based on the novel by S.J. Watson. (Joffe previously wrote an excellent screenplay for the outstanding George Clooney thriller The American.) Before I Go to Sleep is also superbly cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong) and beautifully photographed. 

Unfortunately, it features a final scene so badly miscalculated that it almost nullifies all the positive qualities of the preceding movie. And for anyone interested in movie scripts or film storytelling, it's worth briefly considering what went wrong here...

Inevitably, this is going to involve some spoilers, so if you think you might want to see the movie, I strongly advise you to watch it and only then read this. Thrillers thrive on surprise, and I'm about to let some cats out of the bag.

First, however, I'd like to cite another movie which blundered spectacularly in its final moments – and for much the same reason. Billy Elliot was a touching story of a skinny working class kid who wants to be — of all things — a ballet dancer. Against all the odds, and predictable prejudices, he succeeds. 

And at the end of the movie we jump ten years to watch the grown up Billy in action. Suddenly there's this big hairy bastard we've never seen before, and don't know from Adam, bounding around on stage. The grandiose ending just doesn't work — because we have no emotional investment in this stranger. Who is this big hairy bastard? Where's the plucky, skinny kid whose plight we've come to care about? Catastrophically misjudged, I say.

Similarly, at the end of Before I Go to Sleep, our amnesiac heroine, played by Nicole Kidman, is reunited with the husband and son she thought she'd lost forever. And we are given to understand that her memory is coming back. 

The problem is, we've never seen the husband and son before in the movie. Not as they are now. So they come across as total strangers. And the grand emotional ending has no emotion impact whatsoever. The reaction of the audience is, Who are these jokers? 

Rowan Joffe pulls out all the stops for this tearful reunion, pouring on syrupy music and drawing the camera back in a long retreating tracking shot. All to no avail. 

I'm afraid the patient is dead on the table, doc. No amount of electricity shot through this corpse will ever make it sit up. I guess the only way to conceivably make such a scene work would be to cast huge stars as the husband and son. Maybe Johnny Depp for the hubbie. And for the kid — Christ, I don't know — Justin Beiber? That at least would make the audience think they knew these people. But even that might not work.

There is an old screenwriting adage: Show, don't tell. Meaning you should dramatise a scene and actually see it, rather than just try and report it in dialogue. Well, in this case Joffe should have done exactly the opposite. Tell, don't show.

Do it as a scene between Kidman and Mark Strong as her sympathetic shrink, both of whom we've come to know well throughout the movie, and let their dialogue indicate Kidman's recovery.

I don't want to pillory Before I Go to Sleep, which is otherwise a good film. But this really is how not to end a movie.

(Image credits: All the pictures are from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block

With the exception of Thomas Harris, famed for dreaming up Hannibal Lecter and creating the whole serial killer genre, I would say the greatest living crime writer is Lawrence Block. But whereas we're lucky if we get a Thomas Harris book every ten years, Lawrence Block is blazingly prolific. There are 18 titles in his Matthew Scudder series alone.

Although I've been increasingly aware of Block and the superlative quality of his writing, I am a late discoverer of this series, having only read my first Scudder novel (which is actually chronologically the tenth) — A Walk Among the Tombstones. Thanks to the magical Miranda, the UK editor of Hard Case Crime, an advance copy of Hard Case's lovely movie edition of Walk Among turned up in the mail the other day. Cue a series of late nights as I sat turning pages, unable to put this powerful, gruelling novel aside.

I won't give away much if I reveal that A Walk Among the Tombstones concerns some exceptionally vicious kidnappers. Block's stroke of genius is to make the first victim of these kidnappers a drug dealer, which means he can't go to the police. Instead he goes to private detective Matt Scudder.

What makes this fictional private eye different from all the others on the market? He's a former cop and reformed alcoholic — nothing new there. But what does distinguish this Scudder novel is simply the brilliance of Block's writing. The plotting is brisk, original, unpredictable and shocking. Great fundamental carpentry. But beyond that we have Block's prose which is of an impressively high order. It's cool, vivid and highly readable. His characterisation is also terrific; I especially like Scudder's streetkid sidekick TJ. And in keeping with this, Block has a knack for smart, authentic-sounding dialogue. Given that his characters include a young black hustler, an old Irish bar owner and a Russian gangster, it's just as well.

And his dialogue is also often very funny, as in this exchange about a struggling ex-junkie: "He's pissed of at God." "Shit, who isn't?" Or when Scudder and his callgirl girlfriend discuss a very strange woman they've just met. "She was probably on magic mushrooms, or some hallucinogenic fungus that grows only on decaying leather. I'll tell you one thing, she could make good money as a dominatrix."  "Not if her leather's decaying."

This dark, sardonic sense of humour pervades the book, which is told by Scudder in the first person. When a computer hacker tries to enlighten him on a technical issue, Scudder ruefully observes, "It was a little like trying to explain the fundamentals of non-euclidean geometry to a field mouse."

Combine this with a plot driven by relentless and unremitting suspense — there are sequences when you literally won't be able to stop reading — and you have an exceptional novel and a classic crime thriller.

What I should warn readers about is that this is a novel which pulls no punches. It's often gruesome and extremely violent. (That pond water in front of Liam Neeson ain't tinted red for no reason.) But this is balanced by the humour, warmth of characterisation and the fact that Scudder is a proper hero. A genuine good guy and urban knight errant. Down these mean streets...

Promisingly, the movie of Walk Among the Tombstones, which is due out soon, stars Liam Neeson and is written and directed by the outstanding Scott Frank. Fingers crossed, we could all be in for a treat. Personally, I'll be first in line when it opens.

(Image credits: With the exception of the lovely film tie-in — thank you, Miranda! — the covers of this great novel are a pretty dull bunch. The Hard Case beauty can be found here at the Hard Case website. The best of the rest is the Avon skull edition, which I gleaned from ABE. The others are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Twenty Year Death by Ariel S. Winter

In a recent post I wrote about the admirable publisher Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime. I thought I was fairly familiar with their list of authors. But thanks to a recommendation by Hard Case's lovely UK editor Miranda, I have been introduced to the work of someone I've never heard of — Ariel S. Winter.

Winter has written a remarkable trilogy of books called The Twenty Year Death. Theoretically you can read them in any sequence, but I followed Miranda's advice and read them in strictly chronological sequence, and I'm glad I did.

The novels are entitled Malniveau Prison, The Falling Star and Police At the Funeral and they are set in 1931, 1941 and 1951 (hence the umbrella title for the series). They are available as individual volumes or in a large compendium edition. I don't think it matters what form you buy them in, but if you enjoy crime fiction you should definitely buy them,  and read them.

Ariel S. Winter has created a brilliant series of — I was going to say pastiches, but that doesn't really do justice to the books. A pastiche is a work deliberately fashioned in the style of someone else. And Winter accomplishes this superbly. Each volume is written in the manner of a different giant of the genre. But his achievement goes way beyond that.

Malniveau Prison, which is set in rural France, skilfully evokes the understated, unemphatic, matter-of-fact style of  Georges Simenon, famed for his Maigret detective stories. In terms of plot Malniveau Prison is fleetingly reminiscent of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels, with its mad killer in prison advising and teasing the detective. Something of a cliché, I know, but don't let that put you off. It's the last time in the trilogy that Winter flirts with the familiar, and his book soon moves in a different direction.

The writing is impressive and cleverly evokes the original with its subdued Simenon-esque descriptions: there is a "dirty-sheep-coloured expanse of clouds." As a train approaches a railway station "the tracks began to sing their metallic whine." A police officer stands "with a case file open... as a man reads a newspaper while waiting for the bus."

The gripping story, low-key style and vivid characters make Malniveau Prison a real treat, something very fresh and surprising in modern crime fiction. But Winter is just warming up.

With The Falling Star he really hits his stride. This forties crime novel is set in a fictional version of Los Angeles (called San Angeles, or SA for short) and not surprisingly is written in the manner of Raymond Chandler. There is no shortage of Chandler pastiches and parodies out there in the world of fiction, but Winter has done a particularly splendid job, bringing his own distinctive twist to the material.

And he comes up with some lovely, amusing moments which live up to the original. A thug follows the hero "with all the subtlety of a white suit at a funeral." At the race track an announcer's voice "droned like a dentist's drill." The detective confronts an untrustworthy old friend and says "We stared at each other. Taxidermied deer couldn't have done it better." And there are moments of simple beauty: "He opened his hand in front of him as though letting a lightning bug go."

And this lively, immaculately crafted Chandlereque prose is used in service of an engrossing and unpredictable story of murder and obsession on the fringes of the movie business, with a compelling plot and agreeable sudden bursts of violence.

The Falling Star is a terrific novel and I didn't think Winter could top it, particularly since the third book Police At the Funeral (great title) evokes the works of Jim Thompson. Thompson is undoubtedly a figure to be reckoned with in crime fiction. He has written significant novels some of which (like The Killer Inside Me) border on depraved genius. There is no denying the power and allure of his work, particularly when translated into films, like The Getaway, The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me, or even This World, Then the Fireworks (another brilliant title). But Thompson's books are seedy and sordid and when I'm reading them I often feeling like I'm wearing someone else's (dirty) underwear. Indeed, I find some of his stuff unreadable. 
So it is ironic that my least favourite author should have yielded the strongest novel in Ariel S. Winter's trilogy — but there you go. I suspect it's something to do with the books building up steam and Winter getting better as he went along, not to mention wanting to write a corking climax to the series. Also, there's the simple fact that he's a better writer than Thompson, so when he adopted Thompson's tools and material, Winter put them to better effect.

In any case Police At the Funeral is, as they say, a smasheroo. Jim Thompson was a hopeless drunk who wrote about drunkenness and hopelessness. Winter captures that magnificently. His novel is gripping and clammy. Reading it I felt hopeless, I felt like a drunk, and I felt guilty of murder.
And the writing is just gorgeous. The protagonist describes "a diffuse headache sitting on the top of my head like a newsboy's cap" and how "the sight of the bed hammered me with exhaustion." Or how about this for the description of a noir heroine "She leaned forward and the candle lit her face from below as though she were telling a ghost story at a camp fire."

(Warning: the following paragraph contains some spoilers of this book.)

And as the crazed, bloody events crowd in on the narrator they reach a pitch of madness which is both hilarious and horrifying: "I just needed to let myself into the suite with the key before Browne got back, beat Vee to death, and then wait for Browne with Vee's gun."

The novel, and the trilogy, build to a magnificent ending which does justice to this volume and the entire series. Reminsicent of Hemingway's The Killers, it's set in a rural location — "It was in a diner in Iowa. There was nothing but corn all around and enough sky for everyone on the planet."

Ariel S. Winter has proved himself to be an outstanding writer, and The Twenty Year Death is a milestone in crime fiction.

(Image credits: all the Hard Case Ariel S. Winter covers are from Good Reads. The movie edition of Jim Thompson's Killer inside me is also from Good Reads. The vintage Signet cover of The Getaway is from The Eclectic Reader. And the cover of the vintage Gold Medal edition of The Killer Inside Me is from Indie Wire where there is an interesting article which touches on Jim Thompson's work as a screenwriter with Stanley Kubrick, and it's well worth a look.)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — Jaffa & Silver and Bomback

I approached this film with considerable trepidation, because it's a sequel to one of my all-time favourites. I was very worried that it wouldn't live up its illustrious predecessor. So it's sighs of relief all round to report that it's an immensely enjoyable, high quality movie. 

The writers have done an admirable job with it, despite having much less promising material to work with than in the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There we had the whole fascinating subject of how the apes overcame human subjugation, and could witness the world as we know it begin to change beyond recognition. There was also the built-in powerful emotional tug of the apes' oppression by humans, in zoos and experimental labs.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was written by the husband and wife team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, and it was a masterclass in screenwriting, one of the great movie scripts of all time. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is set in the world after the collapse of humans, as apes begin to become dominant is also — thank heavens — written by Jaffa & Silver, although a subsequent draft was done by Mark Bomback who wrote the great suspense movie Unstoppable, had a hand in the terrible Total Recall remake and was the other credited writer (along with Scott Frank) on 2013's excellent The Wolverine.

I have no idea of who was specifically responsible for what in the script, so it would be unfair of me to attribute some of its weaknesses — like the whole damned dam thing — to Bomback. The whole damned dam thing is the central plot device of the movie. The surviving humans in San Francisco need access to a hydro electricity generating dam in the wildnerness outside the city controlled by the apes. So far, so good.

Gary Oldman has a big speech about how they must get this electricity so they can try and make contact, by radio, with any other surviving pockets of humanity in America or around the world. Also so far, so good. But then he says they still have two week supply of power (presumably generated by gasoline) before they run out. So why are they waiting for the hydro before they try to make contact? Why aren't they on the case already? You don't need a special variety of hydro electricity to run your radio. It's just blithering nonsense.

But that's the only flaw in what is an otherwise intelligent film with some gratifyingly subtle touches — the apes' intellectual development is signalled by their use of body art: face paint and other decorations. And the script still shows Jaffa and Silver's great strengths: powerful, moving characterisation and an unerring instinct for areas of big dramatic potential and crucial turning points in the story

Also, Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) is a magnificent villain. There is an ancient tradition of ugly or disfigured characters who are evil, but here there is a built in reason both for his disfigurement, and the fact that he is evil.

Andy Serkis as the good ape Caesar is outstanding in a strong cast (Rise of the Planet of the Apes also had a great cast). The movie also looks beautiful thanks to the cinematography by Michael Seresin. It is well directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), who has actually fashioned a work of art. I love the way it begins and ends with the same image: a close up of Caesar's formidable, staring face. There is also an outstanding music score by Michael Giacchino. Particularly noteworthy is his hunting cue which is an homage to Ligeti.

So, how does it stack up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Well, that film was one of the best of the decade. This is merely one of the best of the year.

(Image credits: a selection of the few images at Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Hard Case Crime — Paperbacks versus Pulps

A chap called Charles Ardai must have been as fed up as I was with the boring state of current paperbacks, with their insipid, graphically confused and feeble cover art, because ten years ago he founded an imprint called Hard Case Crime

As befit their retro approach, Hard Case titles were originally available in the classic paperback format, i.e. pocket sized rather than 'trade paperback' — but now are mostly in the larger size, and sometimes even appear as handsome hardcover editions.

And they invariably have striking cover art, including beautiful paintings by the glorious Robert McGinnis — including Quarry's Choice, which is due out from Hard Case early next year. I see the geniuses at Wikipedia describe these covers as being in the 'pulp' style. Of course, they are actually nothing like pulp magazine covers. Rather, they evoke the golden age of paperback art from the 1950s and 1960s. Always happy to correct the Wikipedia boys on a point of fact. 

It really irks me when people throw around a term like 'pulp' in a faux-knowledgeable way. A casual trawl of the internet shows chumps putting up galleries of what they say are pulp covers when in fact they are a hopeless melange of paperbacks, 'sweats' (later, post-pulp magazines) and a few genuine pulps. 

I suppose, since Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction (a movie I adore, incidentally) the term has become diluted and confused beyond recall. Anyway, you can see real pulp art here

And, in fairness to the high-functioning heroes of Wikipedia, I suppose you could make a case for a handful of Hard Case covers being done in a pulp manner — the best candidates to my mind would be Seduction of the Innocent, Nightwalker and  the gorgeous Branded Woman, the latter painted by Glen Orbik in a striking poster style using dramatic lighting and a limited and deliciously non-naturalistic colour palette which calls to mind George Rozen's work on the Shadow Magazine, a genuine pulp if ever there was one. I'll include images of both here, because I love 'em.

Anyway, inside their tasty vintage paperback style covers, Hard Case features a blend of original fiction and reprints by giants of the genre. I loved their books from the first time I glimpsed them, at a convention in Los Angeles years ago. I immediately bought a couple — quite by chance one example of each kind of Hard Case. The original was Money Shot by Christa Faust, the reprint Fright by Cornell Woolrich.

I enjoyed both these books — I finished the Woolrich on the plane back to London — but I had only just begun to dip my toe into the ocean of great reading which is Hard Case. 

Over the next few weeks I'll be posting about some genuine masterpieces from the imprint which have been keeping me up all night, turning pages. 

(Image credits: all the Hard Case covers are from Hard Case's own fine site. The beautiful Shadow Magazine cover is from a great website here. At times like this I realise what a wonderful resource the internet is.)

Sunday, 3 August 2014

"Mom, Where's the Gun?" The Purge Continues

Last year a clever, sleek little movie slipped into the cinemas. It had cunningly positioned itself as a horror movie without any supernatural trappings (and no weary slasher clichés). Instead it was science fiction, but not science fiction as we know it (in the movies), Jim. No monsters or space ships or futuristic technology. Just a single sociological notion.

In The Purge we see a near-future America where the authoritarian government has created a social safety valve by declaring one night every year when, for 12 hours, all crime is legal. You can loot, murder and ravage to your heart's content. 

I'm sure if you trawled through sf literature you'd find similar tales that anticipated the central conceit of The Purge. But it remains a bold, strong, simple concept. And in terms of movie science fiction it was refreshingly thoughtful.

The cleverness of that film didn't stop there. Shrewdly, it told the story of the night inside the house of one affluent family. Which made for unsettling, potent intimacy. And of course by limiting the location it kept the budget low. The Purge was a canny movie in every way. And it was deservedly a modest box office hit.

All of which brings me to this year's sequel. The Purge: Anarchy. Thanks to the commercial success of the first instalment there is a bigger budget available and that has led to a film which is better in every imaginable way. This an immensely suspenseful, deeply enjoyable movie — and not for the faint hearted.

One of the things I love about The Purge: Anarchy is the way it functions like a zombie movie, but without the ridiculous premise which requires the viewer's walloping huge suspension of disbelief. Here we can still have the sick sense of dread as our protagonists wander a nocturnal city where every shadow can hide a horrible death. But it's all founded on a plausible, and even possible, premise.

The other thing I love is the detestation of the wealthy and privileged in the story, and the way we side with the impoverished underclass. This is very rare in American films, and downright radical.

Like the first movie, The Purge: Anarchy is written and directed by James DeMonaco and he has done a smashing job. The movie is kind of a 21st century revision of movies like Assault on Precinct 12 and The Warriors, but vastly more sophisticated. Ah... how interesting. I just looked up DeMonaco's credits and discovered he wrote the remake of Assault on Precinct 13. That makes sense. 

I didn't like that remake very much — at the end everybody ends up suddenly transported from the urban setting into a wintry forest, as if magically carried to Narnia — but never mind that. James DeMonaco is spectacularly on form with his Purge movies and they are a series to cherish and he is a filmmaker to watch.

Do catch The Purge: Anarchy this summer if violent thrillers are your cup of tea. And if you do, make sure you stay for the magnificent title sequence at the end.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz comes up trumps. Thank you, folks.)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Do Androids Dream of Accurate Scripts? (Part 2)

I posted recently about a radio adaptation of  Philip K. Dick's sf classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book which provided the basis of the film Blade Runner. The great thing about the radio play is that it finally motivated me to read the original novel. And I was seriously impressed.

I have a confession to make. I'd always regarded Dick as a second rate writer. Or rather (quick, before I receive hundreds of enraged comments) a second rate stylist. I thought he had great ideas but his prose was crude and clumsy. This impression was largely based on reading his book Galactic Pot Healer, back when I was at university and living in sin in a damp freezing flat in Clapton with Linda Simpson (Hi Linda!) who was a big fan of that novel, and of Philip K. Dick in general. Well, Linda was right and I was wrong. Galactic Pot Healer may or may not be a dud (I must re-read it). But Dick is the real McCoy.

True, there are some clumsy moments in his prose, even in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Instead of saying his characters disembarked from an elevator, he says they "disemelevatored"(!)... But there are also moments of considerable beauty. 

Here is a description of what it was like before an apocalyptic war denuded the world of animals (the owls were the first to go, hence the emphasis on owls in the movie and on the book covers): "the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life." 

Or when bounty hunter Rick Deckard is performing the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachael and discovers she's an android. The billionaire Eldon Rosen (Tyrell in the movie) who manufactured her, and expected her to pass as human, "regarded him with writhing worry." The book is often startlingly well written, and peppered with odd and intriguing observations. In a discussion about what it really means to be alive, ants are referred to as "chitinous reflex-machines". 

The novel is surprisingly witty, too. The Voigt-Kampff test involves questions designed to provoke an emotional reaction, and in a world where animals have almost disappeared and are sought after and priceless, these questions often focus on cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. 

It's a sign of Dick's prescience, and his compassion, that these are things we callously take for granted today, or at least did when the book was published in 1968: calf skin wallets, bullfights, killing jars for butterflies, deer heads mounted on a wall, lobsters dropped in boiling water, bearskin rugs. When Rachael is about to go to bed with Deckard, she declares her love for him by parodying the test questions, "If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide, I'd score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test."
Voigt-Kampff is a great name and it survived intact into the film, as did the test questions. Dick had a knack for names, great, unusual, ludicrous, hilarious. We have a Milt Borogrove (a common mis-spelling of "Borogove") in this book. But what is really characteristic of Dick is the unsettling sense of reality about to give way under the reader like a tattered spider web. Here it arises in the uncertainty of who is an android and who isn't. In a spectacular scene, not replicated in the movie, Deckard is arrested and taken to an entire parallel San Francisco police department who have never heard of him or his branch of the police.
This is deeply disturbing stuff. Suddenly you don't know whether Deckard is the android passing itself off as human. And here Dick is at his best. Deckard is interrogated by a police officer called Garland. As they square off we're no longer sure which one is a real person. An uncertainty which even infiltrates the prose. As Dick puts it "Neither man — or rather neither he nor Garland — spoke for a time." 

It's impressive how Dick zeroes in unerringly on the most interesting aspect of his material — what it means to be human. There are weaknesses to the book, though. The whole religious element, concerning a cult called Mercerism, is something which I could have done without. Especially when the prophet Mercer pops up out of nowhere to arbitrarily help Deckard in the climactic final shoot out. Very sensibly, this aspect was entirely dropped from the movie.
Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a striking, profound and often slyly well-written novel. If you are only familiar with the film it is very much worth checking out the original.

(Image credits: All are from good ol' Good Reads where I was spoiled for choice. There are more editions of this book — with more good covers — than any other title I have researched. Look at that great Greek one. Look at that totally irrelevant robot (!) cavorting with naked chick one.)