Sunday 29 December 2013

Dean Spanley by Lord Dunsany & Alan Sharp

Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, 1878-1957) was an Anglo-Irish fantasy writer whom some regard as the equal of Tolkien — indeed, early in their respective careers, Dunsany was much the more successful author. 

Among Dunsany's extensive literary output there is a strange and beguiling little novella entitled My Talks With Dean Spanley. This (literally) shaggy dog story concerns a clergyman, the eponymous Dean, who when plied with an appropriately expensive wine — Imperial Tokay — recalls his past life as a dog. It's a charming, oddball little tale.

And it had the great good fortune to fall into the hands of Alan Sharp, the magnificent Scottish screenwriter (Night Moves, Rob Roy). Sadly, Sharp died recently and there are numerous interviews, retrospectives, obituaries and tributes worth reading and a lot to be said about him, including this splendid one. I need to write about him at length myself. But right now we're concentrating on a drunken cleric and his life as a dog.

Alan Sharp loved the novella and developed it into a short (50 page) screenplay, purely for his own pleasure. He thought it might be a one-off TV show. But there were no takers. Then a producer called Matthew Metcalfe discovered the script and encouraged him to expand it to feature film length. No easy task. Dunsany's scant tale is just a series of dinner conversations. "There wasn't enough leg to fill the stocking," as Sharp put it. A "whole new plot" had to be added and attached to the original.

Sharp's brilliant solution — with Metcalfe's help and encouragement — was to invent for the narrator (played by Jeremy Northam) a troubled relationship with his father (Peter O'Toole), an emotionally shut down man who won't even grieve for his other son, recently killed in the Boer War.

The only trace of feeling in the bitter old man is his love for his dog Wag, who inexplicably disappeared when he was a small boy. Sharp weaves the old and new strands together by leading us to the discovery that the former incarnation of Dean Spanley (wonderfully played by Sam Neill) was that very dog.

When O'Toole finally learns, through Spanley, that Wag never came home because he was shot by a farmer, he is suddenly able to grieve both for his lost dog and his lost son. (The film's editor, Chris Plummer, came up with the beautiful notion of inter-cutting the shooting of the dog with the shooting of the son — a stroke of genius, and very characteristic of a film editor.)
And so the father is able to come to terms with loss and also to movingly connect again with his living son... 

Although he himself conceived these powerfully affecting additions to Dunsany's whimsical original, Alan Sharp was worried whether the expanded script would work. 

It was, he said, like "introducing Chekov into Gilbert and Sullivan." He needn't have worried. 

The film is a masterpiece and deeply effective, thanks in no small part to its top-drawer cast. Dean Spanley is full of delightful characters brought to life by top actors, such as the wheeler-dealer Wrather — a great name, as is Spanley, come to think of it — played by Bryan Brown.

Full credit is also due to production designer Andrew McAlpine,  cinematographer Leon Narbey, editor Chris Plummer, the aforementioned producer Matthew Metcalfe and above all the gifted director Toa Fraser.

"Sometimes you get lucky," said Alan Sharp. You certainly do.

Dean Spanley is a gem of a film, lovingly crafted and very touching, and you must see it. 
Some clever soul also thought to reprint the Dunsany novella complete with the Alan Sharp script and some excellent articles about making the film, as a movie tie-in. If you can find a copy (regrettably, it's become a somewhat pricey collector's item), you should grab one.

(Image credits: The poster of Sam Neill and the dog is from Media Fire. The book cover  with the red band is from ABE, where you can buy the book if you have deep pockets.  The cover without the red band is from an excellent blog about the book and film. The DVD cover is from Movie Talk. The image of the Dean (Sam Neill) sipping ecstatically is from Vimeo, where there is a trailer for the film. The happy doggie image is from Netflix.)

Sunday 22 December 2013

Homefront by Stallone and Chuck Logan

I've always been a bit dismissive of Sylvester Stallone as a script writer. This is largely because of his tendency to re-write people whom I consider to be considerably more formidable talents. Stallone has sought to improve on the work of Joe Eszterhas (F.I.S.T.) and James Cameron (Rambo), two of the greatest screenwriters of all time.

But Stallone himself is not a negligible film writer — after all, his 1978 script for Rocky was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA.

I was reminded of this when I saw Homefront, an edgy and exceptional popcorn thriller with a screenplay by Stallone (who produces, but does not appear in the film) based on a novel by Chuck Logan.  

The star of Homefront is Jason Statham. Normally a serviceable leading man in action movies, Statham was recently highly enjoyable in Parker and here is very effective, largely because instead of just being a killing machine he plays a vulnerable father. There is even a scene with his young daughter where we see a glint of a tear in his eye.

But don't worry, that was between beating people up and shooting them.

Homefront is a really superior thriller, though, and much better than its provenance would suggest — the posters make the mistake of invoking the title of the execrable The Expendables. The director of Homefront is Gary Fleder, who has largely worked in TV of late, but previously directed the wonderfully off-the-wall Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and the Philip K. Dick adaptation Impostor. He does a marvelous job on Homefront, as does cinematographer Theo van de Sande.

The film benefits immeasurably from its beautiful southern bayou locations, a fine score by Mark Isham, and also from a great cast. Kate Bosworth is terrific as a white trash mom, Winona Ryder outstanding as a crank (as opposed to crack) whore and the ever wonderful James Franco is a slimy but likable — and very formidable — villain.

This is a much better picture than I expected. Normally in a movie like this, when a cute little kitten is introduced in the first reel it's so that the bad guy can kill it in the third reel. But Homefront turns out to be a lot less formulaic than that (although the hero's black best buddy does get used as cannon fodder, in the grand tradition).

Great fun, involving, and unexpectedly smart, Homefront does finally fall apart at the end (I wish I had a dollar for every time I've had to say that about a movie) but it remains superior fare, and well worth a look.

(Image credits: all the photos and posters are from Aceshowbiz. It's instructive to compare the different campaigns: the posters of Statham and daughter, with and without gun in hand. And the way his shoulders are draped with the American flag in one version.)

Sunday 15 December 2013

Oldboy by Mark Protosevich and Spike Lee

I've seldom been as surprised — or moved — as I was by Oldboy. I was peripherally aware of the Korean film which came out some ten years ago, but I didn't really know anything about it. Which was lucky, because any prior warning might have diminished the impact of this great motion picture.

And it is great. It's one of those extraordinary, dark films — like Fight Club, Killing Them Softly or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — to which American cinema occasionally gives rise. It was extraordinary and shocking and beautifully made.

Not to mention deeply moving and ultimately heartbreaking. I think it's probably the best film Spike Lee has ever directed, though I fear it's too bleak and brutal to gain the huge audience it deserves. In — very brief — summary it is about a man who is mysteriously imprisoned for decades, then released to try and put his shattered life back together. 

The cast is pure platinum: Josh Brolin is the hero and is quite wonderful, Elizabeth Olsen is terrific as the woman who helps him on his quest, Samuel Jackson does a great turn as a bizarre heavy with some nifty costumes and Sharlto Copley, who was an unforgettable villain in Elysium, is an unforgettable villain again here, in an utterly different mode.

Lee does a superb job on the film, aided immensely by his writer Mark Protosevich

Protosevitch has been involved in a number of high profile productions. He co-wrote the screenplay for the most recent adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. But his most towering achievement was the brilliant sf-tinged serial killer story The Cell, whose script was entirely Protosevitch's creation. Another favourite film of mine and one whose macabre and ravishing visual sense is similar to Oldboy's.

Oldboy has its roots in a 2003 South Korean film with a screenplay by Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong and the director Park Chan-wook, based on a Japanese graphic novel (or, more accurately, a manga) by writer Garon Tsuchiya and illustrator Nobuaki Minegishi. The Japanese comic, when reprinted in translation in America won a prestigious Eisner Award. You can buy it from the excellent publishers Dark Horse

The Spike Lee and Mark Protosevich version of Oldboy is not a movie for the faint-hearted. It goes to some very dark places. But if you have the disposition for it, you will find it's one of the great films of the early 21st Century.

(Image credits: All the Oldboy posters are from Aceshowbiz. There is an interesting dispute reported on that site about the artist who allegedly created some of the posters. More details from the Guardian. And you can check out the comparison here. The red poster for The Cell is from Terrorifilo. The blue German poster for The Cell is from BlackBoxBlue, an intelligent blog posting about the movie.)

Sunday 8 December 2013

Gone With the Wind

It's not often one can report a miracle, but last week my local cinema held a one-off revival screening of Gone With the Wind. I eagerly attended and I can testify that, during the entire four hours, not one person used their phone.

I'd seen the movie before, decades ago, but it had faded in my memory and I was unprepared for how impressive it was. The early colour photography by Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes was immediately magnificent. It was often more expressionist than realistic. Rhett's farewell to Scarlett after the burning of Atlanta takes place in a world which is entirely a garish, gorgeous red. Scarlett's frightened nocturnal return to her ravaged plantation is a spectral blue. The scene where she finds her dead mother laid out is a jaundiced yellow.

Also stunning were William Cameron Menzies' set designs, the special effects by Jack Cosgrove, and Max Steiner's music. The cast were impressive: Clark Gable is predictably charismatic as Rhett Butler while the real surprise is Vivien Leigh, unforgettable as the scheming little tart Scarlett O'Hara. She's an English actress, who beat out every female star in America for the part. Interestingly, her impeccable Southern belle accent slips a little when she's playing scenes with Leslie Howard, another fine actor who was also English.

The brainchild of producer David O. Selznick, the film's named director was Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with uncredited contributions by George Cukor, a specialist in women's pictures and musicals and Sam Wood, who worked with the Marx Brothers.

But I'm chiefly concerned here with the story and screenplay. As the presence of three directors suggests, Gone with the Wind was a troubled production (known as "Selznick's folly") and there were also a lot of hands on the script. The sole credited writer is Sidney Howard but Oliver HP Garrett, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten and Ben Hecht are also known to be involved. 

It was based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell. This book was originally entitled Mules in Horses' Harness until her publisher insisted on something less catastrophically crappy. I haven't read the book, but I suspect that it's responsible for the movie's fatal flaw.

Gone With the Wind is entirely gripping for the first two hours, which sets up the characters and propels them into the inferno of the Civil War. And even when the war ends, after the thoughtfully provided intermission, it exerts a terrific narrative grip. Scarlett is trying to rebuild her destroyed plantation when she is visited by a renegade Union soldier. The deserter walks up the stairs towards Scarlett, intent on rape — but first, robbery. "What's that you've got in your hand?" he leers.

What Scarlett has in her hand is a gun and she shoots him dead at point blank range. Scarlett's sister in law Melanie, ill in bed, is drawn by the sound and comes running in her nightdress. Scarlett gets her to strip naked on the spot and uses the nightdress to mop up the soldier's blood.

There is also some wonderful dialogue. Rhett Butler insists on seeing Scarlett after her latest husband has died. Scarlett couldn't have cared less about the dead spouse, but is theoretically in mourning, working her way through a bottle of cognac.  "I told him you was prostrate with grief," says her servant, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). She has no illusions about her boss: knowing that Scarlett has designs on Melanie's husband she says, "You'll be waiting for him like a spider!" Rhett has no illusions, either. "You're a heartless creature," he says. "It's part of your charm."

The last hour or so gets hopelessly bogged down in the dull melodrama of the love triangle between Gable, Leigh and Howard. But up until then, Gone With the Wind is a revelation.

(Image credits: all the posters are from AllPosters, where you can actually purchase them.)

Sunday 1 December 2013

Gravity by the Cuaróns

I was utterly knocked out by Gravity, so much so that I have very little to say about it. You should rush to the cinema and see it. It's utterly gripping and immersively involving. I have seldom seen such a suspenseful film. I hope I didn't disturb the guy sitting behind me too much by writhing in terror as the characters endured threat after nightmarish threat.

In brief, Gravity concerns a routine space operation that goes horribly wrong. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney — virtually the only characters in the movie — are both great. I won't tell you much more because I don't want to spoil any of it.

I will tell you that it's superbly written — well researched, with deft characterisation — and has one of the greatest lines of dialogue in recent screenwriting history ("It's a little gloomy in here, isn't it?"). I just loved the script, which was written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. I respect their work so much that I learned how to put the accent over the "o" in their names. And the "a".

Alfonso Cuarón also directed Gravity and he has a long and distinguished track record as a director, most recently with Children of Men, one of my favourite films of all time.

A few other quick points about Gravity. It has a trailer which, rarely, doesn't give away too much about the film — unlike the trailer for the remake of Carrie which ploddingly, and reprehensibly, lays out the whole story of the film. (Presumably so as to ruin it for anyone not already familiar with the plot.) But the trailer for Gravity just gives harrowing and tantalising hints of what's in store.

Gravity is on release in both 3D and 2D. I saw it (twice) in 3D, which was fun but, for my money, didn't really add a great deal to the experience (though I have heard it is very impressive in IMAX 3D). I'm sure it would be just as much of a knockout in 2D.

The music score by Steven Price is also amazingly effective and adds considerably to the impact of this great movie.

And I just want to say that the ending of the film is one of the high points of modern cinema.

(Footnote: Jonás Cuarón, the director's son and fellow screenwriter has made a fascinating short film which is sort of a plug-in for Gravity, concerning simultaneous events on Earth.)

(All the images are from the ever-reliable, though ad-infested Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 24 November 2013

The Counsellor by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is an impressive writer and I found his novel The Road one of those rare examples of a book which I literally "couldn't put down", reading it into the pre-dawn hours when I should have been sleeping before catching an early flight.

No Country for Old Men was also an amazingly compelling, and grim, novel of great power. In fact, the only thing I've got against McCarthy is his crazed, idiomatic punctuation.

So when I saw a trailer for a new film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, featuring some acerbic, memorable dialogue, I had the highest of hopes. The movie, entitled The Counsellor — about a Texas lawyer who comes hideously unstuck when he gets involved in the drugs trade, classic McCarthy territory — also featured a top drawer cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt...

Unfortunately, the movie was for me a major disappointment. McCarthy's script does have some memorable moments and splendid cynical dialogue, especially from Brad Pitt's drug dealer, Westray (great name). But it lacks any centre of gravity and tends to the dull, extravagant, and incoherent.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the film is the calamitous miscasting of Cameron Diaz as a  preposterous flaming femme fatale.

If you want to see a truly great, taut, cautionary thriller about the drugs trade, and one which genuinely does have something profound to say, check out Who'll Stop the Rain, a magnificent 1978 film directed by Karel Reisz from a great script by Judith Rascoe and Robert Stone, based on Stone's novel, Dog Soldiers.

Or watch the Coen Brothers' adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. It's flawed but often brilliant.

Whereas the Counsellor is largely a mess, and a frustrating one. There are a number of scenes featuring the pet cheetahs owned by Javier Bardem's flamboyant drug dealer, and these magnificent beasts are so captivating that one ends up wishing one was watching a movie about them instead. Their reality and naturalness contrast fatally with the artificiality, contrivance and pretensions of The Counsellor.

The one big winner in The Counsellor is Natalie Dormer, credited merely as The Blonde, who makes a stunning impression in a couple of tiny scenes. Like the cheetahs, she is entirely natural and effortlessly convincing. I suspect stardom beckons.

The only other consolation of this film is that it may usher in a new career in screenwriting for Cormac McCarthy, which would mean we could enjoy his writing while being spared his loopy punctuation scheme. 

(Image credits: The posters are from Ace Showbiz except for the one of Natalie Dormer, which is from the official Tumblr site for the movie. The cheetah is from The Dissolve.)

Sunday 17 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I was a little reluctant to write about this film because I've been singing the praises of so many Marvel movies lately that I'm concerned I'll come across as an undiscriminating fan. Luckily there are a few aspects of The Dark World which I can comment on critically.

For me, it had a dull opening. Sure, there are two big battles. But the makers of blockbuster movies just can't seem to grasp the fact that action sequences are potentially boring if we aren't engaged with the characters: this is just a bunch of stuff happening to a bunch of people we don't care about... yet. Nor have they learned William Goldman's lesson that films should start small and low-key, and build.

Enough carping, after the boring battles, The Dark World hits its stride with the London sequences where we're reintroduced to an excellent trio of characters from the first Thor movie: Jane (Natalie Portman), Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Erik (Stellan Skarsgard). They are amusing and engaging.

Then we're really off to the races back in Asgard where the celestial realm comes under attack. It's such a smug, shiny place that it's great to see it getting trashed. Plus this action sequence is structured around a prison break, which is a trope that everyone can understand.

The rest of the movie is outstanding, particularly the final big action setpiece where the thrills and violence are cleverly interleaved with humour, and the characters of Darcy and Erik are particularly well used. As ever Tom Hiddleston is great as the nefarious Loki, Chris Hemsworth is impressive as Thor, and the supporting cast is to die for (Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson).

The script of the movie makes a lot of smart moves. For a start, the writers have realised that if you're going to be saddled with a McGuffin then it's vital to somehow embed that McGuffin in a character. For example, if your McGuffin is a computer memory stick, then have someone swallow the stick so you're chasing a person and not just an object. Or have a vital code or piece of information memorised by a child. (A variation on this is when someone witnesses a crime, as in the classic Witness.)

Anyway, The Dark World literally embodies its McGuffin, some evil energy called the Ether, when it actually invades Natalie Portman.

The script also has a strong line of humour and good use of minor characters. There are five names on the writing credits for the film. The screenplay is attributed to Christopher Yost (who has an extensive background in television, mostly on animated Marvel superhero series) plus the writing team of Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (the ampersand signifies a writing partnership in the cryptic world of screenplay credits) who wrote the Narnia films and the first Captain America movie. 

The 'story' credit (which means an early draft of the screenplay) is shared by Don Payne (who contributed to the script of the first Thor movie and has worked extensively on The Simpsons) and Robert Rodat who wrote Saving Private Ryan, co-wrote the excellent film Fly Away Home (about an orphaned Canada Goose... sob) and more recently has been writing episodes of the SF television series Falling Skies.

Nice work, boys. 

(Image credits: All the posters are from the ever reliable Ace Show Biz. Many thanks for making the picture research so simple.)

Sunday 10 November 2013

Escape Plan by Chapman and Keller

To say that I went to see Escape Plan with low expectations would be an understatement. It's a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone had last appeared in Bullet to the Head, which I thought was a dud, despite being directed by Walter Hill. Schwarzenegger had been in The Last Stand, which was a surprisingly crisp and engaging action picture. Escape Plan, however, looked like a very conventional prison movie.

But my preconceptions were almost immediately turned upside down. I thought Stallone played a con who had a knack for breaking out of detention. That's what you're supposed to think, for about ten minutes, and then the films moves in a much more interesting direction. 

This is a difficult movie to discuss without giving the fun away. Besides the unexpected set up, it features two major twists. One of these I spotted immediately, the other one totally sandbagged me.

It's a clever, inventive film — imaginative and well constructed. In fact it looks like it was originally a rather more thoughtful story which was rewritten for the high octane action associated with its two heavily muscled stars. So we end up with a movie with lots of swearing, fist fighting and weaponry — Arnold Schwarzenegger rips a .50 calibre machine gun from its helicopter mount and fires it from the hip. Naturally.

But the clever and imaginative movie is still in there.

The original story and screenplay for Escape Plan is by Miles Chapman, who mostly has TV writing credits (on Cybergeddon) and it was rewritten by Jason Keller (Mirror Mirror and Machine Gun Preacher). 

It's a superior popcorn movie, unexpectedly intelligent when it isn't busy hitting you on the head with a monkey wrench, and a surprising amount of fun. It also has a superior supporting cast, including Sam Neill.

Oh yes, and Arnold's goatee is a good look.

(Image credits: all the posters are from the laudable Ace Show Biz site.Thanks, chaps.)

Sunday 3 November 2013

How I Live Now — the Novel

I recently posted about the film adaptation of How I Live Now and mentioned it was based on a novel by Meg Rosoff. I was so impressed with the movie that I picked up a copy of the book at the first opportunity. 

The process of turning prose fiction into film is fascinating. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong, misrepresenting and demeaning the source material. For an example of that, just look at any of the misbegotten movies derived from Elmore Leonard's crime novels prior to the excellent Get Shorty.

At other times, films can stick remarkably close to the books and succeed brilliantly: Fat City, Deliverance, John Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon.

But the oddest situation is where the movie departs wildly from the original book, yet somehow brilliantly captures its essence. A classic example would be LA Confidential.

And that's the case with How I Live Now.

If I hadn't read the novel I wouldn't have realised what a superb job the screenwriters (Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner) did of reinventing it. For a start, they've very sensibly boiled down the number of protagonists. In the film there are now only two brothers. In the book there are three, including Osbert, a character so unmemorable that even the novelist seems anxious to be shot of him.

Instead the movie gives us a friend of the family Joe, played by Danny McEvoy a well rounded character with his own developed backstory who takes up some of the slack for the missing brother and also very effectively stands in for a character with a tragic fate who is introduced late in the book. He is sort of an all purpose replacement.

Most crucially, the screenplay gives us a more coherent and organised picture of the novel's shadowy war that befalls the characters in England and — very wisely I think — junks the whole telepathic angle of the book. Meg Rosoff has conceived Daisy's British cousins as a family of mind readers who also have a supernatural link with animals — the latter idea survives in a subtle form in a couple of scenes in the movie.

The problem with giving the kids ESP and then springing World War 3 on them is that we have extraordinary events happening to extraordinary people. And that's just a little too extraordinary.

Also missing from the film are some of the book's tropes of teenage anguish du jour. In the novel Daisy has an eating disorder and Edmond ends up self-harming. Again, I think the screenwriters were canny in what they left out.

In fact, comparing it to the original text, How I Live Now seems all the more remarkable. It's a magnificent movie.

All of which is not to run down the quality of Meg Rosoff's novel, which scores in an entirely different way. It has a splendid tone of wise ass humour which is faultlessly maintained throughout, by way of the voice of its narrator, the cynically amusing Daisy. This is combined with a vigorous gift for description.

When Daisy first meets Edmond she says he had "hair that looks like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night." Before long she and Edmond are falling in love and there is "a feeling flying between us in a crazy jagged way like a bird caught in a room."

But soon they are separated by the war and Daisy is a refugee on the run with Edmond's sister Piper, hiding in the woods and sleeping by day until "we woke up sweaty and anxious."

Together Daisy and Piper encounter the same atrocity so unforgettably evoked in the film, in a farmyard now deserted except for opportunistic foxes. But the book differs in that they also find their pet baby goat in the barn, where he is starved beyond recovery. Daisy's solution puts this book forever beyond the pale of teenage chick lit: "so I covered him with a grain sack and shot him in the head."

The novel differs substantially from the film but they are worthy companion pieces. Meg Rosoff's book is a striking, vivid story of adolescents surviving a future war, told in a memorably hard boiled style:"staying alive was what we did to pass the time."

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 20 October 2013

Picasso by Patrick O'Brian

What prompted me to read this biography of Picasso was the fact that it was written by Patrick O'Brian. In case you haven't heard of him — O'Brian, that is — he wrote the marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures. They are beautifully written and highly intelligent and if you haven't encountered them, seek them out. (I suggest you don't start with the first book in the series, Master and Commander, which I think is the dullest. Perhaps try The Nutmeg of Consolation instead.)

O'Brian is not only a fine writer with a deep knowledge of art, he also had the benefit of personally knowing Picasso, so his biography of the man is uniquely advantaged. It's an absorbing book and brings its subject emphatically to life.

Indeed, it even got me off my ass and down to the Courtauld Gallery in the Strand on a bright wintry morning to see an exhibition of Picasso's early paintings, for which I'm duly grateful.

Picasso's life was an eventful one, marked by love and war. When France fell to the Nazis in May 1940, thanks to incompetence of the French high command, Matisse likened the Generals to the hidebound French art establishment and said, "If everyone did his job as Picasso and I do ours, this would not have happened." 

But in many ways Picasso remained unmoved by the currents of history, a rock in the middle of a river. He lived for his work, which he turned out at a prodigious rate. O'Brian brings his extraordinary talent to life on the page, and it's clear that he regards the artist as something unique among human beings — if not something more than human — and he communicates this admiration to the reader.

O'Brian offers thoughtful commentary on Picasso's works of art, from famous masterpieces like Guernica to the metal sculpture of a goat which originally featured a rubber bulb you could squeeze to emit a farting noise... and the monkey-mother whose head is formed from a toy car that belonged to Picasso's son (see left).

But the writer never takes his own commentary too seriously, adding "This is mere interpretation."

By the 1950s Picasso had become about as famous as it's possible for a man to be. Yet, if anything, that fame grew in the following years, as did the desire of just about everyone to have a piece of Picasso. O'Brian ironically recounts how Franco's government came begging for Guernica in 1969, when they were the very same people whose atrocities had inspired the painting in the first place.

Picasso's tremendously productive life was also impressively long and healthy, perhaps because he followed his doctor's prescription for  "Plenty of sex and red wine."

Although Picasso was often a difficult and even a brutal man, he was more often a kind and likable one. One of the surprises in the book is his love of animals. The sculpture of his pet Afghan hound Kabul can be seen here in Chicago's Daley Plaza (below right), and it's wonderful.

O'Brian's excellent book does full justice to his subject. I suspect it's unsurpassed as a biography of the great man and may remain unsurpassable.

The only thing that could improve it would be a lavishly illustrated edition (the book, frustratingly, has no pictures) or, better yet, an electronic edition where you could just click on the title of any of the art works mentioned and see an image of it displayed on your screen.

(Image credits: The 1907 self portrait at the top of the post is the cover of the edition of O'Brian's book which I read — search as I might I couldn't find this cover anywhere on the world wide web, except for a miserable postage stamp sized image, quite unusable. Grrr. Anyway, this self portrait is from Graphical Gods. The sculpture of Kabul the dog is from Dog Art Today (!) which has a nice article on Picasso and his pooches. 

The blue nude ('Women of Algiers') is from SFMOMA. The lovely tomato plant — grown in his Paris window when food was scarce during the Nazi occupation — is from Feedio. The monkey and her baby is from AC Grenoble. The ravishing full face sketch just above of Sylvette David, the striking blonde with the pony tail, is from a Picasso website. The full face photograph of Sylvette to the right is from Pinterest. The profile drawing of her further above is from Site VIP. The blue abstract profile of her is from Picasa. )