Sunday 25 October 2015

Sicario by Taylor Sheridan

Sicario (which, as the poster informs us, is Mexican for 'hitman') is easily the finest movie about the war against drugs since Traffic. This wonderful film is already, clearly, one of the best pictures of the year.

The film is written is by Taylor Sheridan, and unbelievably, it's his first produced screenplay. 

He does, however, have a considerable track record as an actor in television, credited as 'Tayler' Sheridan, where he had long runs in the wonderful Veronica Mars and also The Sons of Anarchy. I wonder if the latter series — focused on a drug-running biker gang — might have led to this well researched and beautifully written film script.

Although I tend to focus on the writer in these posts, full credit must also be given to Sicario's director, Denis Villeneuve, who has done a staggeringly good job. Villeneuve is a French Canadian and the only previous film I've seen of his was the glum but powerful Prisoners

One of the greatest assets of Sicario is its cast. Brit Emily Blunt is as wonderful as ever — a highly natural and affecting actress (when she flinches, we flinch, when she's scared, we're scared) who has moved on from comedies and relationship dramas to action pictures (last seen toting a gun, a very large gun, in Edge of Tomorrow) in a very interesting career trajectory. 

Supporting her are Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, both doing some of the best work of their careers.

The splendid photography is by Roger Deakins, who is perhaps a little too fond of shooting dust motes dancing in the sunlight, and the exceptional music, a pounding menacing monster of a score, is by the Icelandic Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also did Prisoners. You can hear some of that music here.

A serious, important and beautifully made film. Also, simply, a great thriller.

(Image credits: Exceptionally rich pickings and a fine selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 18 October 2015

The Martian by Drew Goddard and Andy Weir

Last week I blogged about Andy Weir's glorious novel The Martian (many thanks to Lucy for turning me on to this great book). Now it's time to discuss the Ridley Scott film adapted from it. I won't keep you in suspense. The movie is superb, and entirely worthy of the book.

I was initially worried when I saw it was being made by Ridley Scott. Undeniably a great film maker, he has in recent years displayed an unfortunate knack for turning rich source material into unsatisfactory films (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood). But not this time. In fact, this is Ridley Scott's best film in decades. His best since Blade Runner, or possibly Alien. Certainly his best since Gladiator.

A lot of credit is due to Drew Goddard, who adapted the novel for the screen. Goodard got his start writing for TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his movie credits include the stupendous Cabin in the Woods, one of my favourite films of recent years. Here he has done a fine job of compressing the source material while remaining true to it.

The novel The Martian is essentially a tale of a man resourcefully overcoming life-threatening dilemmas, and then having more dilemmas thrown at him. The film simplifies the plot, and reduces the number of catastrophes that befall poor astronaut Mark Watney. Which is understandable... otherwise the movie would have been emotionally exhausting and overlong.

It also reduces the comic element of the book, which is a bit of a shame, though probably inevitable and possibly the right call... Nevertheless, I was disappointed to see some of my favourite jokes go ("I call it my lucky cable").

Where the movie scores over the book is that it actually adds a brief epilogue after Mark is rescued... something I would have welcomed in the book, which ends somewhat abruptly.

Lest I dwell too much on Drew Goddard's contribution, Ridley Scott obviously deserves huge plaudits. I particularly enjoyed the montage sequence he contrived, set to David Bowie's song 'Starman'.

My only real complaint is that the film makers made no attempt to depict the reduced gravity on  Mars. This particularly irked me when Mark Watney was chucking heavy objects out of a vehicle, and they fell to the ground just like they would on Earth. Ah well, Hollywood and science... (Oh, and Lucy had a thing or two to say about layered sediment in a landscape where there shouldn't be any.)

Anyhow, a great film from a great book. Nice work all around. Matt Damon is first-rate in the title role, and back on Earth Mackenzie Davis shines as a space nerd at NASA mission control. Indeed the large cast is exemplary. Sean Bean, Jeff Daniel, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor are amongst the excellent casting choices made.

The cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski. The fine music is by Harry Gregson-Williams, and is reminiscent of Vangelis's score for Blade Runner, and at times of Morricone.

I saw this movie in 3D, but I don't feel that brought anything much to the party. Catch it as soon as you can in whatever format is available to you.


(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.) 

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

I've been meaning to write about Andy Weir's excellent novel The Martian for some while now and I've finally been galvanised into it by the arrival of the movie on multiplex screens everywhere. (I shall write about the film in due course.)

I have my friend Lucy the Planetary Scientist to thank for turning me on to this great book. What really piqued my interest was when she described it as both immensely suspenseful and very funny. The suspense I could have predicted, but not the humour...

And The Martian scores hugely in both ways. It is utterly nail-biting and gripping as it details one man's attempt to remain alive when he is (inadvertently) marooned on Mars. 

And it is also hilarious, almost from the first page. Andy Weir writes brilliantly, casting his story in the form of a first person narrative — the device is that our hero, Mark Watney, is keeping a journal.

So we get asides like “caution’s best when setting fire to rocket fuel in an enclosed space”;  “If the RTG [Radioisotope Thermonuclear Generator] ever broke open, it would kill me to death”; “I've gutted that poor Rover so much, it looks like I parked it in a bad part of town.”

There is a considerable jolt when we cut back to Earth to begin the other strand of the story... NASA gradually awaking to Watney's plight and mounting a rescue mission. 

Here we leave behind the first person prose for third person. It's less funny and confident and lacks the perfection of the journal sequences. And we get sentences like “Teddy glared across his immaculate mahogany desk…”

But we're soon back on Mars with Mark, hearing everything in his voice. "Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died. Wish me luck!" 

The sardonic humour is an immense asset for this book, and sets it quite apart from anything else I've read. The Martian is, quite simply, the best and most enjoyable book I have encountered in many years. Thank you, Lucy!

And this novel isn't just funny (though I literally howled with laughter at one point). It is also a masterpiece of suspense. Every time Mark seems to be getting on top of his lethal situation, a new and terrible (and all too plausible) catastrophe befalls him. Christ, just when you think you're in the clear, the tension begins to build again...

But the appeal of the book is perhaps best summed up by Mark Watney (and Andy Weir):  “In space no one can hear you scream like a little girl.”

Most emphatically recommended.

(Image credits: the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly like the Chinese one.)

Sunday 4 October 2015

Longshot by Dick Francis

Another magnificent thriller by Dick Francis, that most reliable of authors. It's wonderful to know that there's such a large body of work by this man and that I can reach in and chose a volume, pretty much at random, and be guaranteed a wholly satisfying reading experience.

I do most of my reading these days while I'm away from home, travelling on buses, trains, planes or — if I'm really lucky — cruise ships in the Caribbean. But there always comes a point when I'm working my way through a Dick Francis novel when I have to start reading it at home; I just can't wait until I go out again. The story has become irresistibly gripping and I need to finish it.

I've just finished Longshot, which was first published in 1990. By this time Francis had long since mastered the art of approaching the horse racing world from an oblique angle. The hero isn't a jockey or owner or anyone directly involved with racing. Rather, he's a struggling young writer called John Kendall who has been commissioned to write a biography of a wealthy trainer — a vanity project for the man.

Kendall has also written a number of books about survival in the wilderness. And in the course of Longshot it becomes a harrowing question whether these books, and the knowledge they've instilled in him, will save Kendall's life or result in his death...

Dick Francis has a marvellous gift for characterisation (I was particularly fond of Dee-Dee in this book) and I found myself, not for the first time with one of his novels, wishing for a moment that it wasn't a thriller and a murder mystery. Because his characters are so likable, and convincing, and their interactions and situations so appealing, that it seems a shame to inflict suffering and death on them. But this is a thriller and a murder mystery, and John Kendall and other characters are in for a hell of an ordeal.

The climax of the book is so powerful that I was squirming with sympathetic suffering. It reminded me of John Huston's remark about W.R. Burnett's books — how they caused him to break out in a sweat. Dick Francis really puts his hero, and his readers, through the wringer. 

His great talent for making you feel the physical reality of things pervades the novel, particularly in describing nature... both in its menacing harshness — "The relief of being out of the wind was like a rebirth" — and its lyrical beauty — "the trees... creaked and resonantly vibrated in the oldest of symphonies." Sometimes he neatly combines the beauty with the menace: "The sun sank... among the sapling branches and the alders. In the wind, the shadows threw barred stripes and moved like prowling tigers."

And of course he writes marvellously about horses: "Fringe was younger, whippier and less predictable than Drifter: rock music in place of classical."

On top of that, there is his compassion even for the most evil of villains, which reluctantly makes us see their humanity and, despite ourselves, feel sympathy for them. I would put Longshot up there beside Come to Grief as one of his best. But, then, I've never read a bad Dick Francis...

(Footnote: also like Come to Grief, at least one of the editions of Longshot has a cover that reveals rather too much about the plot. Silly publishers.)

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