Sunday, 18 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's new film is overlong, deeply self indulgent... and I loved it.

Before I went to see it I'd heard criticism from people that it was "not a movie, just a bunch of scenes."

Well, like the film's considerable length, this is a conscious and deliberate line of attack by Tarantino. His movie is, after all, an explicit homage to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West...

And here's what Tarantino said about Leone's epic (in Chris Frayling excellent book about that film): 
"Whereas in his other movies... he's still trying to tell a story... By the time he made Once Upon a Time in the West he was able to streamline it so that it's just set piece after set piece after set piece."

So, there you have it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also set piece after set piece after set piece. 

And while there might be one or two of them that are expendable, most  are varying degrees of delightful.

And some are simply stunning.

This is a story of a TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is trying to make headway in movies, but his career is on the decline and he's drinking too much. 

In fact, Rick is so sure that he's washed up that he breaks down in tears outside a restaurant while waiting for the valets to fetch his car.

"Don't cry in front of the Mexicans," Cliff admonishes him.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is often hilarious, and it lovingly evokes Los Angeles in 1969. At first it's just a rambling series of anecdotes about Rick and Cliff, interweaving them with real people from that time and place.

Most notably there's a cameo from Damian Lewis, who is an eerily perfect choice with his striking resemblance to Steve McQueen.

But then we discover that Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) on Cielo Drive, the home where Sharon would be savagely murdered by the cult followers of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman).

With this revelation Tarantino ingeniously sets a time bomb ticking and we know that however inconsequential and amusing his film may appear to be, it is inexorably heading somewhere very dark and violent indeed.

It's in the depiction of the Manson family that this film scores most strongly. They are brilliantly cast and performed, giving an impression that is disturbingly off kilter and deeply scary. In particular, Margaret Qualley is indelibly haunting as Pussycat.
And there's a scene where Cliff goes out to the run-down ranch where the cult members live, which is almost unbearably suspenseful. We are terrified, not knowing if he'll get out of there alive.

Tarantino correctly judges this "one of the best scenes I’ve ever done," and references the work of Peckinpah and Polanski. 

He also says, "I had been setting up Cliff as this indestructible guy. And yet you’re afraid for him."(*)
Absolutely right. It's a masterful sequence. 

But all the while that time bomb is ticking, and we know we're heading steadily towards that nightmare night on Cielo Drive...

However, this is Quentin Tarantino, who had no hesitation in rewriting the history of World War Two so that Hitler ends up shot dead in a movie theatre. 
So I was gratified and relieved to see the wild, mind blowing and uproarious climax he fashioned for his new film.

Of course, there's a question to be asked about whether it's acceptable to repurpose such an horrific personal tragedy as a pop culture collage.

But Tarantino apparently made his peace with Sharon Tate's widower, Polanski, and her sister, Debra.

So I suggest we all just relax and enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — did I mention that it also features Sayuri, who is superb in the role of Cliff's dog, Brandy? 

She gives a great performance despite being fed cans of rat flavoured and raccoon flavoured dog food.

(*These quotes are taken from an excellent in-depth interview with Tarantino by Mike Fleming at Deadline.  Image credits: a wonderful wealth of posters courtesy of Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Midsommar by Ari Aster

Midsommar is a terrific film but, I think, it's being rather poorly promoted. Flicking through the movies on my cinema website I saw the poster and assumed at first it was a Swedish language remake of A Midsummer Night's Dream...

No, no, no. It's an American horror movie — though it is largely set in Sweden, with the occasional use of subtitles. Don't let that put you off. It's an extraordinary film of genuine hallucinatory power. 

Midsommar is written and directed by Ari Aster, who also made Hereditary, another horror film, and a highly regarded one which I now seriously regret missing on the big screen.

The new movie tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who is so clinging and needy that her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is eagerly looking for the opportunity to dump her — being encouraged in this by his frat-boy university buddies (including the ever engaging Will Poulter).

But, in fairness, Dani has damn good reasons to be needy and clingy, as is established by a horrifying family tragedy which we witness in the first few minutes of the film.

So, in an attempt to repair their relationship, Christian agrees to let Dani come along with him and his buddies on a midsummer vacation jaunt to Sweden. Their agenda being to take magic mushrooms and hit on blonde girls and visit an isolated rural community (where one of the university friends hails from).
One of the striking things about this community is that the inhabitants all dress in white, which means it's easy to pick out the outsiders, even in a long shot.

The place has its own odd beliefs and rituals — and if I mention The Wicker Man at this point, you'll have some idea what is coming, though nothing can quite prepare you for the places Midsommar chooses to go.

Aster is an impressive film maker. There is an early sequence where Christian and his cronies are sitting around a table (stacked with books and bongs) in their apartment, when Dani pays an unwelcome call. The scene is shot with the austere virtuosity of Kubrick.

Midsommar is long, perhaps too long at two and a half hours — another Kubrick trait. But it doesn't drag, and it certainly holds the viewer's attention.

This is a movie you'll remember long after you leave the cinema. Images that linger include Dani's troubled face, the pupils of her eyes constantly shrunk by the intense perpetual sunlight of midsummer in Sweden, as if to shut out the horrors she is about to witness.

(Image credits: The three official posters come from Imp Awards. The impressive poster with five faces is from Amazing Zuckonit at Deviant Art. The distinctive grey poster and the one with the flower-faced girl are from the clearly talented Joan of Dyke on Tumblr.)

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Yesterday by Curtis and Barth

Yesterday is a romantic comedy with a fantasy element. Jack (Himesh Patel) is a struggling young musician who has an accident and is knocked unconscious at the same moment a kind of cosmic time slip takes place.

He wakes up in a world where no one remembers the Beatles or their music. When he eventually becomes certain that this is actually the case Jack does the inevitable —  he begins to reconstruct their songs and pass them off as his own.

This is an oddball premise if ever there was one, and I can't say I found it immediately irresistible. But then I learned that the film was scripted by Richard Curtis, one of the finest British screenwriters, responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually.

What's more, Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle, a film maker I admire. He made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, but for my money his best movie is the masterful Steve Jobs.

So I went to see Yesterday and I was captivated. Himesh Patel is excellent, as is Lily James (Fast Girls, Baby Driver) in the role of his manager and love interest Ellie and the ever reliable Kate McKinnon giving a savagely funny portrait of the big American agent who scoops Jack up.

But the most striking aspect of this movie is the music. I'm not the biggest Beatles fan, but the power and attraction of these songs is stunning, especially when they're just being strummed by Jack on his guitar or picked out by him on a piano. 

This is where the central conceit of the film really pays off. The audience believes that the potency of this music, even pilfered and secondhand, is enough to raise Jack to superstardom in a world that never heard these tunes before.

There is an hilarious and excruciatingly and deadly accurate depiction of a local talk show early in the movie, where Jack and 'his' songs are exposed to a TV audience. This leads to Ed Sheeran  — playing himself — looking Jack up.

Sheeran is terrific and there's a really moving scene where he challenges Jack to a songwriting contest — who can come up with the best one in ten minutes. Jack dusts off 'The Long and Winding Road', and Sheeran is utterly crushed.

"You're Mozart and I'm Salieri," he says. And naturally Jack doesn't feel great about this. Because none of these songs are really his.

Of course, the fact that Jack is living a lie is the dramatic heart of the movie. And I have my reservations about how Richard Curtis resolves the situation. But that's a small criticism of an excellent film.

The more interesting question is the one of authorship, in which the reality of the film somewhat mirrors its story.

Because Richard Curtis didn't create the idea for Yesterday. It was originally a script by Jack Barth. Curtis heard about it, loved the concept, and asked not to be told any more details. Without reading Barth's script, he sat down and wrote his own version.

This was a very interesting approach. Indeed, Curtis's techniques as a screenwriter are fascinating and instructive. You can learn more about them in a fascinating two-part interview here.

However, the really interesting thing for me was how Curtis never actually mentions Barth's name in the interview, although he's entirely open as to how the film came about.

In fairness, Jack Barth does get a decent screen credit in the finished movie — although I would rather it appeared at the beginning than the end of the picture.

But an even more intriguing question of authorship involves Jack Barth and Jean-Philippe, a 2006 French film written by Laurent Tuel and Christophe Turpin.

It tells the story of a fan of French singer Johnny Hallyday who falls into a coma and wakes up in a world where no one has ever heard of him.*

Of course, almost no one outside of France has heard of Johnny Hallyday...
Naturally none of this should interfere with your enjoyment of Yesterday, a perfectly crafted summer feel good film. 

And one which will make even die-hard Rolling Stones fans (like me) reconsider the importance of The Beatles.

(*My thanks to the film critic Philip Kemp for drawing attention to this in his review of Yesterday in the July 2019 Sight & Sound magazine.)

(Image credits: The four film posters are from Imp Awards. The photo of the three stars at the premiere is from Reuters. The photo of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis is from the Hollywood Reporter. The Jean-Philippe poster is from IMDB. The purple-background photo of Jack performing is from the Sun Daily. The shot of him singing in a purple suit is from YouTube via NME.)

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer

Reading the plays of Agatha Christie, (such as Go Back for Murder) has got me digging into other classic stage mysteries and thrillers, like Ira Levin's Deathtrap...

And, like Ira Levin, Anthony Shaffer is a great admirer of Christie. In fact he calls her "the most revolutionary storyteller of our time."

Anthony Shaffer is the man who wrote Sleuth, a classic in this genre if ever there was one.

First staged in 1970, Sleuth ran for eight and a half years in London's West End, and for four and a half on Broadway.

According to Shaffer it only ended on Broadway because of the release of the movie. (As he observes, the film version didn't seem to deter British audiences.)

Sleuth is also one of only two non-musical stage shows to run over 2,000 performances in both New York and London. Interestingly, the other is Arsenic and Old Lace, also a dark comedy with murder in its heart.

Before Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer had written one stage play and co-written some crime novels with his identical twin brother, Peter, who by 1970 was already a world famous playwright, having written The Royal Hunt of the Sun, among others. Peter would go on to write Equus and Amadeus, two of my all time favourites.

Although Anthony didn't quite achieve a track record like his twin, Sleuth remains one of the great stage successes of the 20th Century. And another all time favourite of yours truly.

It's also a great title, so I was intrigued to learn that it didn't come easily — the play started life as Anyone for Tennis? which I think is somewhat weak and commonplace, and was briefly Deaths Put on by Cunning, a quote from Hamlet, which is evocative but unwieldy.

The script itself also underwent radical transformations. In its first draft Shaffer had included Andrew Wyke's wife and mistress as characters. The play just wasn't working, until he had the inspired notion of removing both the wife and mistress and making them merely offstage presences.

This is particularly interesting in view of Agatha Christie's own principle that a good stage mystery or thriller generally requires simplification — which often means removal of characters. In the case of adapting her own Hercule Poirot novels for the theatre, she invariably removed Poirot altogether!

Sleuth concerns the aforementioned Andrew Wyke, a successful mystery novelist, and Milo Tindall, who is having an affair with Wyke's wife. Wyke doesn't seem at all bothered by this — but is that really the way he feels? 

Some combative, and dangerous games-playing ensues — don't forget, Wyke specialises in fashioning murderous puzzles in his books...

I'm deliberately avoiding saying too much about the plot of Sleuth because I don't want to give away any of the dazzling surprises. But I should at least quote some of the shockingly funny dialogue. 

When Wyke convinces Milo to stage a fake break-in at his house, he insists on him doing so in disguise in case anyone sees him. Milo demands to know who's likely to be outside such an isolated country house. "A passing sheep rapist," suggests Wyke.

There's also a choice bit where Wyke badmouths his wife, who is of course Milo's lover, saying that she, "converses like a child of six, cooks like a Brightlingsea landlady, and makes love like a coelacanth."

(Brightlingsea is, or was, a dingy coastal town in Essex; a coelacanth is a prehistoric fish.)

Sleuth is imbued with a knowledge, and a love, of classic detective stories, populated as they were by brilliant, eccentric amateurs.

And it joyfully creates a clashing dissonance by slamming these tropes against the real world. 

As a police inspector remarks in the second act, "We may not have our pipes, or orchid houses, our shovel hats or deer-stalkers, but we tend to be reasonably effective."

The pipe and deer-stalker are Sherlock Holmes references. The orchid house belonged to Nero Wolfe. The shovel hat to Dr Gideon Fell

Sleuth is a work to stand beside these greats in the genre.

In 2001 Anthony Shaffer could gleefully assert that there was a production of Sleuth being performed somewhere in the world every day since it first appeared.

If there is one near you, I'd urge you to go and see it.

Failing that, get hold of the play script and read it.

Failing that, you might want to see the 1972 film. But avoid the 2007 film like the plague. It's adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter but is a dreadful aberration. 

But that's another story, for another post.

(Image credits: The Bantam movie tie in and the Marion Boyars edition with the black and orange cover are scanned from my own library. The other covers, including one apparently in Farsi, are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death is the 19th Hercule Poirot novel, published in 1938.

It is one of Christie's greatest stories — one of her most original and ingenious set-ups, a truly powerful situation with fascinating, indelible characterisation. 

It is not, however, one of her greatest novels, for a very surprising reason —  which, like Poirot, I will save for a revelation at the very end of this piece.

Certainly the novel has a superb, arresting opening with Hercule Poirot in his hotel in Jerusalem, overhearing a fragment of conversation drifting in through his window:

"You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?"

"The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness towards the Dead Sea."

Fantastic stuff, and beautifully written. Certainly one of Christie's best ever beginnings.

And the story just gets better as we're introduced to the Boynton family, a group of young American tourists who are ruled with an iron hand by their elderly "hippopotamus" of a mother.

Old Mrs Boynton turns out to be a "mental sadist" — she loves inflicting mental torment on her children who, despite being adults, are all still under her thumb. 

They all "depend on her financially" (like the family of Gordon Cloade in Taken at the Flood), but it's more than that.

Mrs Boynton is like something out of Stephen King, a "hulk of shapeless flesh, with her evil, gloating eyes."

Christie reveals her to have once been a wardress (i.e. female warden) of a prison. It makes perfect sense. Indeed, it was the ideal job for her — she "became a wardress because she loved tyranny."

Retired now, Mrs Boynton dominates and intimidates her family the way she once did her prisoners. (In fact, effectively they are her prisoners.) 

And she bullies them not physically but psychologically (psychology is a major feature of the novel).

So it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the old hippopotamus is soon bumped off (by lethal injection — hence the syringes which feature on the various covers here) and Poirot is duly enlisted to bring his "highly specialised services" to bear.

In his classic manner, he gathers the various interested parties together at the end of the book, and there is considerable excitement and pleasure as he enumerates the features of the case and ponders who might be guilty.

The slow, inexorable discussion of the possibilities, and the sifting of the suspects, creates almost unbearable suspense. 

And I never could have guessed the final revelation...

But I was, for the first time reading a Christie, disappointed by it.

And that was because I'd previously read the stage play which Christie had adapted from the book — which features a different culprit.

And the solution in the play is truly stunning, reinforcing the central situation and themes of the story in the way that the ending of the novel doesn't.

I believe Christie herself sensed this weakness and that's why she came up with a better ending for the play — and how.

Don't hesitate to read the novel of Appointment with Death. It's fine. But once you've done so — or even before you do so —  get hold of the play and read that.

The denouement is a knockout. One of her best ever.

(Image credits: The covers of the various editions are from the admirable GoodReads except for the fab front and back cover of the Dell Map Back edition which are from Flickr. and the poster for the play is from Foothill Theatre.)

Sunday, 14 July 2019

SS GB by Len Deighton

Somehow I'd got hold of the idea that Len Deighton was past his prime when he wrote SS GB. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is at the height of his powers here.

I'm so glad that the excellent TV adaptation spurred me into finally reading this book. I'd say that SS GB is one of Deighton's finest... I only hesitate because it's such a bleak and harrowing narrative...

The novel depicts a Britain which was defeated and subjugated by the Nazis and is set not long after the invasion. It follows the exploits of Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective who is increasingly out of his depth in a murder investigation which leads him into some very dark waters indeed.

This is of course an alternate history novel — and, effectively science fiction, though Deighton's publishers would never use that term, since it would be commercial suicide for a bestselling thriller writer to be categorised in that genre ghetto.

There's a thriving subgenre of alternate history stories, detailing for instance what would happen if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore) or if the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded (Pavane by Keith Roberts). 
Indeed, SS GB isn't the first work of  fiction to depict a Nazi victory (The Sound of His Horn by Sarban). Nor would it be the last (Fatherland by Robert Harris). But it's probably the best.
Deighton's tale is intriguingly reminiscent of The War of the Worlds in its portrait of devastation in recognisable London locations such as Putney Hill and Wimbledon. "Halfway up Wimbledon High Street — at the corner that makes such a perfect spot for an ambush — there was the blackened shell of a Panzer IV."

And Deighton uses the brilliant, offhand device of describing the headlines on a newspaper used to wrap fish and chips (what could be more cheerfully English?): Canterbury declared open city as German tanks enter.

There are also chilling throwaway lines such as the mention of "the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge."

Deighton describes this parallel reality so distinctly and with such telling detail it's as if he's actually seeing it.

The book is immaculately researched, as you'd expect from the author of the brilliant novel Bomber and a series of masterly nonfiction works about World War 2. 

But more than that, it's beautifully written: "the colourless sun only just visible through grey clouds, like an empty plate on a dirty table cloth." 

The story is intensely imagined visually: "the wind was plucking at their coats, and lashing the trees into a demented dance... dark clouds were racing."

A German officer on a motorcycle "craned forward over the handlebars like a witch riding a broomstick" racing through "the evil-smelling London fog that swayed in front of the headlight... sometimes moving aside to reveal long ghostly corridors that ended in miserable grey streets."

And there are superb descriptions which make the reader physically present in the moment: "the shockwave of the explosion punched him in the face like a padded glove." 

And splendid observations, like the parachutist who split his footwear on landing and now "massaged his broken shoe as if it were a small animal that needed comforting."

This is wonderful writing with a real edge of poetry, as with this observation of interned prisoners waiting for interrogation: "But mostly they did no more than stare into space, eyes unfocused as they tried to see tomorrow."

Like I said, Deighton is at the peak of his powers here.

This outstanding novel has only, I think, two flaws. For one chapter in the entire book (Chapter 37) he abandons his hero, Douglas Archer, and moves to the viewpoint of someone entirely different. 

I can see why he did it, but this is an artistic flaw and I'm surprised it didn't offend his sense of craftsmanship; it's certainly jarring to the reader.

And I winced at the cruel, ruthless and casual way he killed off some of his characters. But that was a valid artistic decision — just one I wouldn't have shared. And it's certainly true to the facts of wartime. And it's nothing new in Deighton's work. He did the same in Bomber.

(Image credits: The main illustration is my scan of my own copy of the original Jonathan Cape hardcover, which I greatly enjoyed reading; the Panther paperback with the skull badge is also my own scan of my own copy. All the various other covers are from the excellent Good Reads.)