Sunday 11 April 2021

Casino Royale by Fleming, Wade & Purvis and Haggis

I saw Casino Royale, the first Daniel Craig Bond, when it came out in 2006.

I remembered it as a terrific movie.

And I was right. Watching it again for our podcast, I confirmed that it is indeed a terrific movie.

But only after Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) sits down with Bond on a fast moving train...

What I'd forgotten was that for a good hour or so before that, Casino Royale is so dull that it makes me want to pack in watching it and go and do something else.

It suffers from that familiar, pointless, action film dullness that comes from scenes stuffed with fast moving, violent incident which fails to engage the viewer.

It doesn't engage because we don't yet care about the characters and we aren't hooked by a strong story — in Bond movies the stories are seldom strong, in any case.

Daniel Craig does his best, and he makes a great 007. Certainly the best since Sean Connery.

But he's up against a vast avalanche of perfunctory mayhem (though I did quite like the scene with the cobra and the mongoose) in which he inflicts untold harm on innocent bystanders as much as the villains.

All this culminating in an ill judged sequence where he pursues a bomb maker into an African embassy in Madagascar.

Seeing an Aryan hunk of a superhero smash his way through a series of African bad guys made for some uncomfortable viewing.

Admittedly, prior to all this there is a cool little introductory section (shot in black and white) summarising Bond's origin story as an assassin, with some excellent elliptical dialogue about how you become hardened to killing.

But Daniel Craig'a abilities as a leading man — as Bond — only really begin to get traction once he's paired off with the mockingly enticing Eva Green on that aforementioned fast moving train.

In this respect Casino Royale is very similar to View to a Kill, which also had a tedious and dispensable opening section. And  which also only really got started when 007 was paired off with the main Bond girl. In that case Roger Moore with the engaging Tanya Roberts playing a feisty seismologist.

Anyway, Casino Royale is great once Eva Green is on board ("I'm the money") and we're in the section of the movie that bears some resemblance to Ian Fleming's original, though relocated from the Riviera to Montenegro.

The movie still departs wildly from Fleming, of course. But from this point on it is firm, assured and entertaining and culminates in a great sequence in a sinking house in Venice.

The movie is directed by Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Reilly Ace of Spies, Edge of Darkness).

Judi Dench is very sensibly retained as M, and the script is by Robert Wade & Neal Purivs and Paul Haggis (a Canadian writer who won an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby).

The villain is Mads Mikkelsen whom I think is a terrific actor but who is wasted here .

So a shaky start, but Casino Royale ushers in a splendid new era for the Bond movies.

Oh yeah, great title sequence, too.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Monday 22 February 2021

The Long Goodbye by Chandler, Altman & Brackett

Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye is his next-to-last Philip Marlowe detective story. 

And it is considered one of his weakest novels. But I didn't know that when I first read it as a teenager...

 And I found it dark, compelling and powerful.

Robert Altman's movie adaptation, scripted by Leigh Brackett, is wayward and whimsical and, at the time of its release (1973), had Chandler purists up in arms..

Altman recalls, "A lot of heat came down from people who said, 'That's not Raymond Chandler'." *

But I loved this movie when I saw it in 1973 and I love it just as much, perhaps even more, now.

It represents Altman and his leading man Elliot Gould's conception of Philip Marlowe, private eye and urban knight errant, defender of the vulnerable and enemy of the wicked...

But in their irreverent take, Marlowe is a guy who can't even get his cat to eat her dinner. 

And she won't be fooled when he tries to con her by putting another brand of cat food into an empty tin of her favourite...

And so she promptly abandons her owner. (Leaving through a piece of cardboard in the window labelled El Porto del Gatto.)

This is how the movie begins, and not surprisingly it was not the brainchild of screenwriter Leigh Brackett. "The cat... is all Robert Altman," says Alan Rudolph.

But it's a great sequence. And it features an amazingly well trained cat.

Amazing cat aside, the movie begins with Marlowe being approached by an old friend who is in trouble, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton).

He wants Marlowe to drive him across the border into Tijuana. No questions asked.

Loyal to the death, Marlowe would never turn away a friend in need. So he does exactly that. 

But on Marlowe's return to LA the cops come knocking, and tell him Terry was fleeing because he'd murdered his wife.

Marlowe doesn't believe his friend is guilty, and refuses to cooperate. The ensuing sequence, with the police arresting Marlowe and grilling him, is played for silly, surrealistic laughs.

But others parts of the film are played powerfully straight— like the story of doomed writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) and his long suffering wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), which has considerable reality and power, rooted by van Pallandt's touching performance.

This is virtually Nina van Pallandt's film debut (before this she was half of the folk singing duo, Nina and Frederick). But she is a tender and commanding presence, and one of the best things in the movie.

And she was entirely Altman's idea — he spotted her on a talk show and thought, "That's Marlowe's blonde." 

Altman always was a genius at casting. And he was the actor's director par excellence.

Looking back years later on van Pallandt's performance in the film, Altman reflects, "She's terrific."

She certainly is. Gould clowns throughout this movie, but he dials down the clowning and really turns up the charm in his scenes with van Pallandt. 

(And he can be very charming, with a great face and a killer smile.)

Nina van Pallandt plays Eileen, wife of Roger Wade who was a famous writer but is now an erratic drunk, spiralling down to self destruction... not a million miles from Chandler himself when he wrote this novel.

When Wade disappears from home, Eileen hires Marlowe to find him. By the end of the movie this story will end up neatly entwining with Terry Lennox's.

Along the way Marlowe will be threatened by a hood called Marty Augustine, vivdly portrayed by Mark Rydell.

Augustine is a psychopath, and to show Marlowe he means business he smashes a Coke bottle in the face of his own girlfriend. (Even Augustine's henchmen are horrified.)

Given the level of violence against women here (the murder of Terry's wife, Eileen evidently being a battered spouse...) you might be surprised to learn that the screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, was a woman. 

Howard Hawks certainly was surprised when he hired her in 1946 to work on The Big Sleep, without question the greatest Philip Marlowe movie, the one with Bogart as Marlowe and Bacall as "Marlowe's blonde".

Brackett was a gifted writer who could fashion first rate screenplays, novels and short stories in the genres of crime, westerns (she did some fine westerns for Hawks) and science fiction (her last script was The Empire Strikes back).

For a woman who had been writing movies for almost 40 years by the time The Long Goodbye was made, Brackett remained impressively unconventional when it came to adapting her second Chandler novel.

For instance, she violates the rule that everything in the movie should be from the private eye's point of view.

Brackett makes the audience privy to a conversation between Eileen and Wade while Marlowe strolls on the beach outside their Malibu house.

The same beach where the film's most unforgettable sequence takes place, Roger Wade's drowning.

In this brilliant scene Hayden fights the waves like Canute, slashing at them with his cane, before disappearing into the heaving haze... 

Then his dog brings his master's cane back out of the tumbling surf...

Vilmos Zsigmond's fluid photography excels in these scenes. 

Altman said this constantly moving camera freed the actors up for the improvisation that he so loves.

(A more fixed camera would have encouraged a more fixed lighting scheme, where the actors would have to stick to rehearsed moves and positions.)

Altman liked this prowling camera technique so much that he did it again in Gosford Park.

But to return to Leigh Brackett, her most radical revision of Chandler is the ending of the movie.

"You're a born loser, Marlowe," someone tells our hero.

"Yeah, I even lost my cat," he replies. It's the last line of the film and it precedes a genuinely shocking conclusion which diverges dramatically from the novel.

Altman loved Leigh Brackett's ending — it was this, and the fact that he could cast Gould, that decided him to do the film

As for Gould, he loved "This opportunity to reinvent Philip Marlowe." And The Long Goodbye is Gould's favourite picture.

It's also one of mine. It's really given me a craving to see more of Altman's work.

Maybe Gosford Park next.

*All quotes are from the excellent set of documentaries that come with the Arrow Blu-ray release. (Alan Rudolph was Altman's assistant who went on to become a prolific writer-director in his own right.)

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Monday 1 February 2021

More on the Watchmen by Lindeloff and Moore

Okay, so I've now finished watching the Watchmen, so to speak, and it didn't disappoint. Except in one regard — it was only nine episodes long.

(Actually the friend who gave me the Blu-ray for Christmas had told me eight, so the discovery of an 'extra' episode was cause for considerable rejoicing.)

In my previous post on this mini series (all too mini), I discussed how Alan Moore's genius graphic novel had become a television classic by Damon Lindeloff.

Of course, I am oversimplifying the authorship here. Alan Moore collaborated with the illustrator Dave Gibbons and Damon Lindeloff worked with a whole roster of talented writers and directors...

But essentially Moore's creation has been artfully reinvented for television by Lindeloff.

And I do mean reinvented. We are some 40 years in the future of the graphic novel's setting, and approaching events from a black American point of view, with the Tulsa race riots as the point of entry.

In fact that city looms large in this tale, which has a wonderful circularity to it, beginning and ending in the same downtown theatre in Tulsa.

The theatre's called the Dreamland. Which allows for a gag at the end, after a lot of things blow up, when most of the letters of DREAMLAND have dropped away, just leaving "DR M"...

Yes, it's a Doctor Manhattan gag...

Watchmen is explosively brilliant, searingly original stuff. And it's really well plotted.

Which is kind of hilarious. Because, as I mentioned in my last post, Damon Lindeloff was involved in the scripts for Prometheus, Cowboys and Aliens, and Lost — all of which I regard as being among the worst plotted and weakly constructed things I've ever seen.

But Watchmen is brilliantly constructed and the plot has the coiled, curling ruthless power of a boa constrictor.

There are some flaws. No one who is really science fiction literate would have allowed the dumb time travel paradox sub plot, for example. And there really is no need for explanatory flashbacks of things that were perfectly obvious.

And Dr Manhattan's life-changing passion for Angela Abar is never motivated or justified. Just presented as an arbitrary fact...

But to hell with all that. Let's linger on great characters like crazy genius Lady Trieu (pronounced True, played by Hong Chau), hilariously hardbitten fed Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and badass cop and masked crime fighter Angela Abar herself (Regina King).

Because the television Watchmen is also a new take in being so strongly from a female perspective.

Just one more reason it's breathtakingly good and represents a wild departure from the detail of Alan Moore's original, while being remarkably true to the spirit of it.

A seriously impressive achievement. A pity it's only nine episodes... But it could have been only eight.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Monday 18 January 2021

Watchmen by Moore and Lindelof

Thanks to an absolutely bullseye Christmas present from a friend (a Blu-ray box set; I'm old school) I have caught up with one of the cutting edge television series of recent times.

Watchmen is of course based on the ground-breaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Published in 1987, Moore's Watchmen remains perhaps the greatest graphic novel of them all.

And now along comes a TV adaptation which, on the basis of the first three episodes, is actually worthy of it.

The television Watchmen begins unforgettably in Oklahoma in the 1920s where black city dwellers are being systematically murdered by the KKK — they are even being bombed from the air.

I was stunned by this depiction of the Tulsa Massacre, even when I thought it had merely been invented by the writers and was alternate-universe history. But, terribly, it really happened.

The writer behind the TV incarnation of Watchmen is Damon Lindelof. Lindelof's previous credits include Lost, Prometheus (the crappy Alien sequel) and Cowboys and Aliens. Which in my mind constitute three substantial strikes against him.

However, he was also involved in writing World War Z, which I liked a lot.

And there is no question that his adaptation of Watchmen is a work of genius.

For a start, it is not a straight adaptation. 

There are some hints and reference points for the viewers to relate it to the comics — like the Rorschach masks which have now been adopted by white supremacist terror groups — but otherwise we're in unknown territory.

It gradually emerges that we are indeed in the world of the Watchmen, but some 40 years on from the time of the comics. Its a rich, complex and violent world.

And some of the dialogue is eerily, accidentally prophetic: "Masks save lives." "The president can pardon anyone he wants."

But the president is apparently Robert Redford and we are in a liberalised America (a conservative's nightmare) where cops have to obtain permission from headquarters before they can unlock their firearms.

And even though this makes for an incredibly harrowing and suspenseful sequence in the first episode, it still seems like a pretty good idea — compared to the current situation.

Like the unfortunate policeman waiting for his gun to unlock, the main character in Watchmen is also a Tulsa cop, Angela Abar, played by Regina King.

And Don Johnson, who was so great in Dead Bang, is also a strong presence here as Judd Crawford, Angela's boss.

The cops are wearing masks, and so are some costumed heroes — and costumed villains — and Dr Manhattan is on Mars, where he ended up in the comics, having forsaken mankind.

So far, Watchmen is mind-blowingingly good. My only gripe is a failing that isn't even the fault of the people making the show.

Dave Gibbons gets a credit for co-creating the comic. But Alan Moore is not mentioned anywhere. I was fully expecting this, but it still makes me a little angry...

It's a long story, but basically Moore was once intimidated by some lawyers in Hollywood and he found the experience so unpleasant that he foreswore all the screen rights in all of his creations. 

He gets no money and no credit when they are turned into TV shows or movies. Both of these things are insane, but the no credit is the most insane.

Let's be clear about this, Watchmen the TV show, for all its audacious originality, is still the fruit of the tree that Alan Moore planted.

And in its use of little known but savagely apt historical events it evokes Moore, in all his wide ranging erudition and his genius story construction. 

But his absence from the credits fosters the destructive myth that the writer is irrelevant in comics. I am not denigrating the role of the illustrator here.

On the contrary, Dave Gibbons is a uniquely gifted draftsman. 

But the fact remains that without him Watchmen would have had a different appearance, but it still would have been Watchmen.

Without Alan Moore there would be nothing.

If you want to know more about this mad situation, no money and no credit for Alan Moore — which is entirely of Moore's own making — Neil Gaiman describes it here.

Gaiman recounts how Moore did it "because he was deeply hurt and offended and irritated by being accused in the Larry Cohen lawsuit of having written League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as some kind of studio shill, and because Alan never does anything by halves. 

"Up until the lawsuit his position was that he didn't care about the films people made from his work, but was happy to cash the cheques; after, he decided that he didn't even want to cash the cheques."

Okay, enough about that. I've made my point.

Now, back to watching the Watchmen.

I will report further soon.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday 10 January 2021

Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

I was prompted to re-read this Kingsley Amis novel after hearing a really excellent BBC radio adaptation. And I'm very grateful for that impetus, because this is one of Amis's finest books.

Indeed, it turns out that many of the classic Kingsley Amis scenes that I so fondly remember and chuckle at over the years come from Girl, 20.

It is Amis at his funniest, which is high recommendation indeed. It is also often bigoted, blinkered and pointlessly bleak... which is about par for the course with our Kingsley.

That really excellent radio adaptation I mentioned was foolishly retitled All Free Now (this is the title of the last chapter of the book but... still... foolish). 

But otherwise it was brilliantly written by Tony Bilbow. The next time it's available, I urge you to have a listen. In a couple of ways it even improves on the novel.

Now, on to that novel itself. Girl, 20 is the story of Roy Vandervane, sort of an André Previn figure — a serious conductor of classical musical who is also seriously trendy.

And, like Leonard Bernstein in the States, he is an avid supporter of left wing causes and the youth of the day (the day being the late 1960s or early 70s).

Roy has been married a couple of times, and indeed is still married, with three kids, two of them grown up. But he hardly bothers to conceal his constant affairs with other women.

These other women are increasingly young. The title refers to the fact that Roy is moving towards Girl, 20... but he has now actually overshot that destination and is currently with Sylvia, 17.

You might be inclined to think that Sylvia is some sort of victimised waif. Think again.

Referred to by Roy's wife as a "filthy little barbarian of a teenager," Sylvia is in fact a full blown monster and one of Amis's greatest comic creations.

The story is told from the point of view of Roy's old friend Douglas — affectionately known as Duggers — a music journalist. 

Duggers disapproves of Roy's womanising in general, and of Sylvia in particular. He definitely doesn't see what Roy sees in her.

His descriptions of Sylvia's appearance are uniformly unappetising — looking like her "hair had been sprayed with glue while she stood in a wind tunnel" — but it's her behaviour and personality Duggers really takes issue with and the heart of the book consists of his attempts to get Roy to give up Sylvia. 

Meanwhile, Roy is busy making use of Duggers as camouflage so that he can see Sylvia in public. This leads to some classic scenes in the novel. Every time Duggers is forced to meet Sylvia again my heart lifts with joy.

And although Sylvia is depicted as a hateful troglodyte, Amis is fair minded enough to give her a fantastically funny and cuttingly accurate tirade against Duggers and everything he stands for. 

Calling him a "top-heavy red-haired four-eyes" is the least of it. She does such a spectacular job of demolishing Duggers that even he is impressed. 

Sylvia also has some scathing things to say about Roy's grown up daughter ("you can put her through a mincing machine for all I care").

Sylvia may be a monster but she's clearly a monster that Amis loves and she is the occasion for his most ferocious comic genius.

The book is full of Amis's adroitly amusing descriptions — "a fat and silent aunt-like figure" conjures shades of Wodehouse. Red double decker London buses go ""rampaging around Marble Arch."

And when Duggers gets to the bedroom with his own complicated but often passionate girlfriend she starts "undressing with the speed and conviction of someone about to go to the rescue of a swimmer in difficulties."

Kingsley Amis became more reactionary over the years as his brain softened with alcohol, but he could always write well and he often remained sharply, zanily, almost surreally funny.

And with Girl, 20 he's near the peak of his powers.

(Image credits: The main image is my scan of my own copy of the London Book Club hardcover, which I think has the most striking cover design of any edition. The art is by the mysterious J. Critchard who has absolutely no presence on the internet whatsoever. Except, I guess, for this footnote now. The other covers are from Good Reads. The title of the Spanish edition means "We all want to be young" — see? My Spanish lesson are paying off.)

Sunday 3 January 2021

52 Pick Up by Frankenheimer, Steppling and Leonard

I recently wrote about John Frankenheimer's Dead Bang. That movie is genuinely great. A small forgotten masterpiece.

So I couldn't wait to see what Frankenheimer, one of my favourite directors, did with a book by Elmore Leonard, one of my favourite crime writers.

52 Pick Up is a terrific novel. (I wrote about it here.) And the film, while not in the same league as Dead Bang, is also rather terrific.

Chiefly because it tries hard to be faithful to Elmore Leonard's book — and it succeeds. 

It shares the same emphasis on offbeat characters, and is faithful to much of Leonard's original dialogue — "his dialogue is laconic with a mordant wit," as Frankenheimer rightly notes.

This was not the situation with the script that the director first received. It was by "a young Los Angeles dramatist, John Steppling... Steppling did an inadequate job. He contributed nothing and he took away a lot of Elmore Leonard."

So Frankenheimer sensibly hired Elmore Leonard to restore Elmore Leonard to the screenplay.

(In fairness to John Steppling, he would later go on to script the memorable prison drama Animal Factory.)

52 Pick Up is the story of a wealthy, happily married businessman Mitch (Roy Scheider) who becomes the victim of a blackmail plot.

But Mitch isn't so happily married that he isn't involved in an affair with the beautiful young Cini (Kelly Preston)...

And he isn't so wealthy that he can afford to give in to the blackmailers' exorbitant demands.

But Mitch also isn't inclined to give in. As the bad guys find out, they've chosen the wrong guy to lean on.

But what bad guys they are — an unforgettable trio lifted straight from Leonard's novel. "Nobody does villains better than Elmore Leonard," says Frankenheimer,

How true. The villains here are Clarence Williams III as Bobby Shy, a gunman who in the novel amusingly and knowingly evokes the outlaws of the Old West.

Here he seems more like he's sauntered in from a blaxploitation movie, but is equally splendid, a sardonic, charismatic, murderously laidback presence.

Then there's Robert Trebor as Leo Franks, the greasy peep show entrepreneur, wonderfully cowardly and sycophantic.

And, perhaps best of all in a very fine trio, John Glover as Alan Raimy — called Raimi in the book, and described as a "hip creepy guy" with "a weird fucking mind." 

Glover is the perfect personification of Alan and is one of the most memorable things about the movie.

And then there is Vanity (a singer and protégé of Prince) who makes an indelible impression as Bobby's affably corrupt girlfriend Doreen.

These guys — and girls — are all vivid and distinctive, because they're gifted actors and their characters are taken straight out of Leonard's novel.

But the movie also inherits some problems from the book.

Let's set aside the overblown (no pun intended) climax in both novel and film, where Mitch solves his problems with explosives.  

We're setting it aside because I don't have a better suggestion for the ending...

Where I do see clear room for improvement is in the treatment of Cini. In the book she is entirely an offstage character.

Very sensibly, in the movie we get to see her, albeit briefly. But this just intensifies the problem of both novel and film.

You see, when Mitch refuses to pay blackmail for having an affair with Cini our three, deeply evil, bad guys kill her and threaten to frame Mitch for her murder, unless he coughs up.

For the rest of the film (and novel), Mitch does a fine job of not coughing up.

Unfortunately, he also seems to do a fine job of not giving a damn about Cini's death; and he was supposed to be in love with her.

And, especially in the film,the death of this lovely young woman sits too heavily on our emotions to let us fully enjoy the dark, violent crime comedy that unfolds...

Very much to his credit, Frankenheimer was keenly aware of this.

"I had only one problem on the whole picture — to show Roy Scheider's emtional breakdown... after watching the execution of his girlfriend."

And Frankenheimer had an excellent idea of how to solve this problem. But it involved a scene what would have cost an additional $75,000. So they went for a cheaper version of that scene, which simply doesn't work.*

But it would be misleading of me to dwell on the imperfections of this film. When it hits its stride, it's exhilaratingly good.

Because of the constrained budget — the movie was shot non-union — Frankenheimer wasn't working with his A-team.

But while he may not quite be in the same league as Ken Adams, production designer Philip Harrison does an outstanding job — Alan's creepy bachelor pad is superb as is the Leo's peep show establishment.

And although Frankenheimer couldn't work with a star cinematographer like Gerry Fisher, he seized the opportunity to work with someone new and up and coming:

"I had seen... Das Boot, and the camerawork by Jost Vacano, and particularly the lighting, really impressed me." Following this, Vacano would go on to a distinguished career in Hollywood.

Beautifully shot, superbly scripted and acted, with a driving score by Gary Chang, 52 Pick Up is one of the best Elmore Leonard movies. Up there with Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.

It also happens to feature a very nice cat.

(*For more details, please see Gerald Pratley's excellent book The Films of Frankenheimer, which was also the source of the quotes in this post.

(Image credits: IMDB.)