Sunday, 8 December 2019

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie

Lord Edgware Dies, published in America under the inferior title 13 At Dinner, is the ninth Hercule Poirot adventure, published in 1933.

And it is great Agatha Christie. The setting and characters are extremely vivid but – above all – the solution to the mystery is simply brilliant.

... Although perhaps the ultimate surprise in an Agatha Christie would be if the killer really turned out to be a passing tramp, a theory propounded and discarded in just about every one of her books.
But not this one. Lord Edgware Dies is set in the milieu of the London aristocracy and the theatre crowd, including a couple of alluring actresses who are among Christie's more memorable creations.

The gorgeous but shallow Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, says things like, "I'll find a rag to put on" and "All those hats are too frightful. Ring up the other hat place, Ellis. I've got to be fit to be seen."

So, an intriguing and well evoked setting, inhabited by memorable characters moving through a really top notch mystery... 

This is a ripping good Poirot, really engrossing and with an immediately interesting set up.

I should perhaps also mention that the book has hardly started when it sets a new record for the number of racial slurs on one page, all emanating from a "strangely likable" young man.

This is Ronald Marsh, who will become the new Lord Edgware after the one in the book's title gets bumped off.

Marsh has his own idea about who killed his uncle. And he proposes a solution that would be another genuine surprise reveal in an Agatha Christie — that Poirot did it.

"The perfect crime," says Ronnie, "by Hercule Poirot, ex-sleuth hound."

Lord Edgware Dies is swift, economical and prime Poirot. His sidekick Hastings is back and rather amusingly fed up with his friend's cliches: "I'm afraid that I have got into the habit of averting my attention whenever Poirot mentions his little grey cells."
Hastings has reason to be fed up, considering that his friend is saying things like, "Where the master goes, there the dog follows." 

A remark which Hastings says "I could not think was the best of taste."

On the other hand, the great detective acknowledges the importance of Hastings as a sort of experimental control. 

"I see reflected in your mind exactly what the criminal wishes me to believe,"  Poirot tells him.

Hastings for his part talks about Poirot with ideas "lingering in his fantastic brain." 

And as that fantastic brain works out the solution to this remarkable whodunnit, once again,"His eyes were green like a cat's." 

They needed to be very green and very like a cat's. 

Because this novel is right up there with Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders,The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (a lot of murders there...) and Taken at the Flood for the sheer genius of its final revelation.

(Image credits: The main image of the classic Tom Adams cover painting is from my own battered copy. Otherwise, thank you, GoodReads, for your fine selection of cover art including the early Finnish version which is really stretching a point by featuring the Eiffel Tower — all the Paris action in this book takes place strictly offstage and in the past.)

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Addams Family by Lieberman, Addams et al

 I've virtually stopped going to animated movies but I was lured back into the cinema for this one because of my love the for black and white 1960s TV series, and indeed the original (non-animated) cartoons by Charles Addams which inspired this whole shebang.

One of the great things about the TV series was that it was the only show on American television depicting a marriage that was both happy and passionate — Gomez just couldn't get enough of Morticia. ("Tish, that French! Cara mia!")

It also had a fabulous theme song and a great soundtrack by the wondrous Vic Mizzy.  ("They're creepy and they're kooky, altogether spooky...")

Well the new animated version has completely lost the passion between Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron). But at least it keeps the theme song.

The movie has a lot of good gags, such as the one featuring Thing, a disembodied male hand, who is caught watching pornography on his computer — naked, disembodied female feet.

And it has a fine cast, especially Chloë Grace Moret, whose understated deadpan, malevolent performance as spoonfaced, spooky Wednesday is just a scream.
What the movie doesn't have is a decent script. 

It begins with an origin story, the Addams clan fleeing persecution by a mob of torch wielding old villagers in Europe to take up residence in America. 

(There's a nice gag later on where a mob of modern American villagers come after them bearing cell phones with images of burning torches on them.)

Thereafter the movie settles down to focus exclusively on a story concerning each of the children. 

This is basically a fatal mistake. For a start it completely sidelines Morticia and Gomez, the mum and dad. 
I guess the thinking, if you can call it that, is that this is an animated movie aimed at children, so it should be about children.

Which is nonsense, of course. After all, the Toy Story films are about the toys, not the kids who own them

Anyway, the boy Pugley is given an incredibly dull rite of passage / coming of age plot. Enough said about that.

Meanwhile, Wednesday fares rather better as we follow her decision to attend the local school with the normal kids. 

This leads to the best scene in the film where she disrupts a biology class by bringing the dissected frogs back to life.It's a genuinely terrific sequence and very funny, featuring a nice nod to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version).
Afterwards, as Wednesday walks out of the school with her very impressed new friends they invite her to "Come to the mall." Wednesday diffidently agrees. "I haven't been to a good mauling in ages."

But we never go to the mall with her. Which is a huge missed opportunity. And indeed we never again reach the heights of the biology class scene. The movie has peaked.

There's a lot of business about a TV makeover star and property developer (Allison Janney) which features a lazy swipe from the plot for Ira Levin's Sliver. It's not great...

But the animation is great, there are some nice gags, Moretz as Wednesday is a hoot.

And the more cryptic lyrics to that Vic Mizzy theme song have finally been deciphered for me ("Put a witch's shawl on, there's a broomstick you can crawl on...")

(Image credits: Many creepy, kooky posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Midway by Wes Tooke

It's hard to get a movie like this right — a fact based war story with an epic scale which needs to balance thrills with historical accuracy. Just look at the terrible Pearl Harbour, directed by Michael Bay in 2001.

Midway covers similar material. It begins with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour then, like the Michael Bay film, follows with the Doolittle raid — a revenge bombing attack by the US on Tokyo. (Is it wrong of me to note that Pearl Harbour was a military target but Tokyo was a civilian one?)

Midway, however, then progresses to the title incident, the Battle of Midway which I previously knew nothing about. The American navy sets a trap for the Japanese navy, luring them into an ambush near the Midway Islands and inflicting a major defeat on them.

So much for history — what is this film like? Well, it's really rather terrific. I was wary of it because it's directed by Roland Emmerich, whom I associate with empty, mindless spectacle (Godzilla, 10,000 BC).

But it turns out that he can also direct spectacle which is neither empty nor mindless. 
Midway is an admirable blend of large scale events and small human detail. It also does an impressive job of mixing explicit action with behind the scenes strategic planning and intelligence gathering.

All this is thanks to an excellent screenplay by Wes Tooke. With a track record in television drama, it's his first feature film script but I very much doubt it will be the last. This is an exceptional movie.

And perhaps the most unusual thing about Midway (and quite unexpected in a Roland Emmerich production) is the very refreshing strain of realism in the film. 

It really gets across how incredibly difficult it was to score a hit on your target — even a a target as big as a Japanese aircraft carrier — whether you're a submarine firing a torpedo or a dive bomber plunging nose first into a hellish maelstrom of anti-aircraft fire.

In fact, the film scores highly on authenticity throughout. Even some of the most outlandish incidents turn out to be historical fact — as discussed here.

In the end, though, one of the images that remains most strongly with me is the squadron of Japanese planes forlornly circling their destroyed ship like birds returning to find that their nest is gone...

(Image credits: a plenitude of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate by Goyer, Cameron et al

This new Terminator sequel is excellent, indeed the best since the first two movies, when James Cameron was supervising the franchise. Which shouldn't be a surprise, since Cameron is back on board, producing and writing an early draft of this film.

Dark Fate is immediately fresh and engaging, being set for a large part in Mexico and beginning in Mexico City (actually Madrid). It centres, as usual, on a killer robot sent from the future to assassinate a human being who is crucial to the fate of mankind.

In this case, the human is Dani (Natalia Reyes), a hardworking young woman who lives with her brother, her father and their dog Taco. Dani and her brother work on the assembly line at a car factory, where her brother has just been replaced by a robot ("The future," says a colleague) — a nice touch.

Meanwhile what appears to be a good terminator (like in the second film in the series) has been sent to protect Danni. I say "what appears" to be because Danni's protector is not a terminator at all, but actually a human being — like in the first film in the series. 

But in this case the protector has been augmented with technology as a kind of cyborg — thereby splitting the difference between the first two movies.

The cyborg is Grace, a young woman who arrives from the future, as is traditional in the series, with no clothes on. Causing the local Mexican cops to talk approvingly about "naked women who fall from the sky."

Grace is superbly played by McKenzie Davis, a Canadian actress who looks eerily like Armie Hammer's sister and who was also excellent in the role of Mariette in Blade Runner 2049. Mariette was a replicant, so let's hope Davis isn't going to be typecast.
In no time at all Dani's father and brother are dead and she is on the run with Grace doing her best to save her from the relentlessly pursuing REV-9 robot (an impressive Gabriel Luna).

Pretty soon, though, Grace herself needs saving, and in the nick of time we're treated to Linda Hamilton turning up, reprising her role as Sarah Connor.

The story then progresses around the adventures of these three women on the run. This strongly female slant also adds to the movie's freshness and it's altogether admirable.

Perhaps this should also be no surprise.

Because James Cameron has a laudable track record in presenting strong female characters. After all, he's the one who built the first Alien sequel around Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and turned her into the first female action hero of blockbuster cinema.

With its Mexican setting, coyotes, a refugee train and interned migrants, Dark Fate develops like Sicario meets the Terminator. It has memorable characters and a fast moving plot which keeps ladling on the jeopardy.

It also keeps deftly blending the old and the new. After Sarah Connor turns up, quipping "I'll be back," we get Schwarzenegger himself, with a greying beard and a grizzled teddy bear look. It's kind of reassuring that his accent is still incomprehensible after all these years

Terminator: Dark Fate manages the difficult trick of both being great fun and, occasionally, deeply serious. 

It is a wholly satisfying film, and I left the cinema with that feeling you have when you've seen a good one.

I'm still worried about what happened to Taco the dog, though...

(Image credits: a healthy selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood divided opinion — to say the least. But I really loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that it set me off on something of a Tarantino retrospective.

And this was my first stop. I saw Inglorious Basterds (yes, that is how it's spelled) on the big screen when it first appeared in 2009.

This was Quentin Tarantino's excursion into World War Two. Or his "guys on a mission" movie as he put it. And in my memory I had retained four things from the film... 

The excruciatingly suspenseful opening sequence in which a Nazi officer (Christopher Waltz) interviews a French farmer (Denis Ménochet) in his kitchen.

The wildly outrageous ending in which history is flagrantly — and rather hilariously — rewritten. (Something Tarantino would do again, to great and welcome effect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

And two episodes of truly unsettling violence. One involving a finger probing a wound and the other featuring a baseball bat.

In fact the baseball bat sequence was so brutal that it sort of turned me off this whole film and had caused me to downgrade it in my memory.

So it was very odd to watch the movie again and see how brief and fleeting that scene actually is. It had swollen to enormous proportions in my mind, but really it is hardly there at all... yet it had huge impact.

A disproportionate impact, since it caused me to underestimate this terrific, ferociously entertaining film which I now view as one of Tarantino's best. 

Among Inglorious Basterds' many virtues is the sheer speed and economy with which things are set up. 

We see Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) telling a bunch of special recruits that they are going to be parachuted behind the lines in occupied France on a guerrilla mission to harass the Nazis.

And in the very next scene they are already there, well established, and their mission has been underway for some time.

Similarly, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is being briefed by top British brass (including Churchill) about his own espionage mission. And then, bang, we see him already linked up with Brad Pitt and his men in France and about to embark on a perilous rendezvous.

There then ensues another staggeringly suspenseful setpiece which culminates in tremendous violence. All admirably done and highly characteristic of Tarantino.

But in other ways Inglorious Basterds is distinctly different in his oeuvre, and indeed it's often overlooked when people are discussing his work. 

I recently heard a radio program where people were slagging Tarantino off for his supposedly stereotypical depiction of women — they're all hotpants-wearing bimbos, was the thrust of their commentary.

Which just isn't true. Or, rather, to build that case you need to ignore Inglorious Basterds for a start, which features a couple of powerful and unforgettable women, in the shape of Shosanna Dreyfus and Brigdet von Hammersmark

Classy and sophisticated heroines both, beautifully played by Mélanie Laurent and Diane Kruger, as a Jewish resistance fighter and a German film star respectively.

And they are balanced by a staggeringly evil villain in the twistedly charming Colonel Landa
perfectly brought to life by the great Christopher Waltz, who would go on to be tremendous again in another Tarantino movie, Django Unchained

Then there's the fantastic character of Fredrick Zoller, an engaging young German soldier who modulates from charming to monstrous, thanks to the considerable talent of Daniel Bruhl.

This is the first film I saw Bruhl in, and he's gone on to make his mark many times, notably in the fabulous Entebbe.

Inglorious Basterds is also a film which glories in film itself. It's no coincidence that much of the action, and the incendiary climax of this movie, takes place in a cinema.

It's also interesting to note how the film fits into Tarantino's body of work, looking ahead to Once upon a Time in Hollywood: one of the marketing slogans for Basterds was "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France."

And at one point in the movie Pitt goes undercover by pretending to be a stuntman. Of course, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he is a stuntman.

What's more, both films feature villains who are so monstrous that fantastically vicious punishment can be meted out to them and the audience can watch with guilt-free pleasure.

Inglorious Basterds is a wonderful entertainment. In fact, it's a great war movie. Of course, it is utterly unrealistic — a complete fantasy — but that doesn't stop it being stupendously enjoyable. 

I have overcome my reservations about the brutality, but I do regret the body count, in the sense that the film is full of memorable characters and I wish more of them could have survived to the end credits.

You may think you don't like war films, or the work of Quentin Tarantino, but I would urge you to put your preconceptions on hold and give Inglorious Basterds a try.

You may want to look away when that baseball bat comes out, however.

(Image credits: a wealth of posters at the indispensable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 3 November 2019

A Visit to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap

 The Mousetrap is of course a murder mystery written for the stage by Agatha Christie. You knew that. And it is the most successful play in history (or stage production of any kind, I believe), having run continuously since 1952.

To illustrate this point in the foyer of the theatre there is a large sign with changeable numerals recording the number of performances of The Mousetrap that have taken place (well over 28,000).

I know all this because I went to see the play a couple of days ago. It was at the St Martin's Theatre, The Mousetrap's home for decades, but it wasn't the normal St. Martin's production that I saw, but rather a unique and different version.

Because, you see, I've been writing stage plays myself for years now, and as a result I've met a lot of very talented people, including an actor called Jamie Hutchins.

And Jamie Hutchins is appearing in a new Mousetrap production which is going on a tour of India this month (November 2019).

His company have been using the St Martin's Theatre for rehearsals. And this Friday they had a full dress rehearsal there — virtually indistinguishable from a full scale, finished production.

They invited an audience along to watch them perform. And I was lucky enough to be part of that audience. 

Which meant not only did we get to see a beautifully polished performance of this classic thriller, in the best seats in the house — we also had the privilege of a backstage tour afterwards...

We saw the fly tower with its mechanism for sending down a steady cascade of styrofoam pellets, to simulate snow falling outside a window with startling accuracy.

We saw the small room where actors had more of these styrofoam pellets scattered on their costumes, so they could make an entrance as if racing into the sanctuary of Monkswell* Manor guest house from a fierce blizzard.

We saw the long table with painted squares for each vital prop to reside in, ready to be deployed, like the newspaper reporting the murder which sets the story in motion. 

(There is also a gun, which is an especially crucial prop, and that has a place all its own, ready to be grabbed by the killer before they come on stage for the climax.)

And there was also this big, odd looking apparatus consisting of a cylinder of canvas lying on its side with a handle on it. When you turn it, it creates the whooshing sound of the eerie wind that persists throughout the play.

One of our party (not me) reached out to crank that handle, causing a stage technician to come running and intervene. "If you turn it the wrong way, all the damned canvas unwinds."

But we didn't just go backstage but also on stage. It was an extraordinary feeling to be standing in the set where the drama had just taken place, looking out at the seats of the theatre, past the dazzle of the lights.

On the mantelpiece of the set there's a clock which, like that canvas wind machine, has been doing service in this play since the very first performance. Thinking about the history associated with these objects is almost dizzying.

It was an extraordinary privilege to see this great play so beautifully performed, and then to cross over from the audience's point of view to that of the actors'.

On my way home on a dark, damp autumn evening, walking down grey pavements strewn with yellow leaves, I paused by the statue of Agatha Christie on Cranbourn Street and silently thanked her.

(Thanks too to Jamie, for making this happen. He is seen here (in the leather jacket) with me and his charming girlfriend Meena Begum on the set. My gratitude also to the multifariously gifted Conrad Blakemore for taking these photos. The other images are scans of the St Martin's Theatre flyer and a photograph of the Agatha Christie memorial, sculpted by Ben Twiston-Davies, taken from Bronze Age London. *The misspelling on the guest house sign is deliberate, a bit of comic business in the play.)