Sunday 22 November 2015

Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin

I was going to write about the new Bond film this week, or maybe another Hugo Bishop novel, but I've prioritised the superb new film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin — because, perplexingly, it seems to have been received with little enthusiasm, and may vanish from our cinemas soon.

So please consider this a call to action — and rush out and see this extraordinary and splendid movie on the big screen while you still can.

It's obvious from the first seconds that Steve Jobs is an intelligent and surprising entertainment. It begins with black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke making extraordinarily accurate predictions about how computers will change our lives.

We are then tumbled into the world of Steve Jobs, with the wonderful trademark dialogue of Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network; one of our great screenwriters).

Sorkin has structured his script brilliantly, around three crucial product launches. And if you think that sounds dull, trust me it's anything but. The struggle to get the prototype MacIntosh to say hello in time for the press conference will have your heart in your throat — it's a masterpiece of suspense.

Besides providing a powerful and vivid portrait of Steve Jobs as a cultural force, the film also gives a memorable depiction of his turbulent personal life — his conflict with friends, and his ex-lover, and the daughter whom he initially disavows, and then comes to love.

Michael Fassbender is terrific as Jobs. And he looks eerily like a younger and more muscular Bradley Whitford (a star of The West Wing and a regular in Aaron Sorkin's repertory company). Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) does fine work, using what looks like period colour film stock to evoke the 1980s. He is perhaps a little too flashy in his visuals at times (did we really need the space footage?). But on the other hand, that amazing Arthur C. Clarke clip might have been his idea.

There's a couple of flaws in the script, where it slips up on period detail — no one would have made a joke about being a "Steve Whisperer" in 1984, because the novel The Horse Whisperer wasn't published until 1995 — and I'm still scratching my head over the supposed revelation about the Time magazine cover.

But make no mistake, Aaron Sorkin is a writer of genius and Steve Jobs is a magnificent film. Gripping, moving, revelatory and hilarious.

(Image credits: Only two posters available from Imp Awards, and that's always a bad sign in terms of a movie's commercial prospects. The black and white photo of Aaron Sorkin is from an interview in The Independent.)

Sunday 15 November 2015

The Last Witch Hunter by Sazama & Sharpless and Goodman

I like to go on movie binges. This often involves seeing a movie that doesn't especially interest me in order to bridge the gap between two films I really want to see. In the past this has paid dividends by exposing me to some great movies that I would otherwise have missed. 

And the validity of this approach was proved once again when I saw The Last Witch Hunter.

I'd been subjected to the publicity for this film and it looked flatly ludicrous. The presence of Vin Diesel (whose output has been so hit and miss) didn't help. 

But The Last Witch Hunter was a real surprise. It's fun, smartly conceived, well written and entirely effective. It features great production design by Julie Berghoff, photography by Dean Semler and impressive special effects. It's colourful, fast moving and vivid. Kudos to director Breck Eisner, who most recently did the remake of Romero's The Crazies.
The cast of The Last Witch Hunter is excellent. Besides Diesel, Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie delivers a smart and appealing performance as an absinthe-drinking British witch, Chloe, who runs a bar. (You will know Leslie from Game of Thrones where she plays Jon Snow's dangerous, freckled squeeze Ygritte.)

I think the key to this film's success is that, despite often being humorous ("What are you scared of?" "Public speaking."), it takes itself seriously. 

It creates its own silly little pulp-fiction world in which Kaulder (Diesel) has been cursed with immortality after slaying an ancient Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht in H.R. Giger style make up). So he roams the world policing the witches who live among us, making sure they toe the line, and if necessary killing those who go rogue.

When off-duty he picks up airline stewardesses and returns to his New York penthouse where he has a sealed walk-in closet full of exotic weapons and enjoys a drink with the latest in the long line of priests who mentor him, the "36th Dolan" (Michael Caine).

As I say, silly pulp stuff, but the film inhabits this world with cleverness, wit and conviction. The excellent script surprised me in that it wasn't based on a comic or computer game. It is an original creation by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless who did the early drafts, with a final re-write by Cory Goodman. 

Now, Sazama & Sharpless (the ampersand is significant) came to my attention last year with Dracula Untold, another fantasy/horror action flick which they wrote and which was way better than I expected. 

As for Goodman, he wrote the script for Priest, starring Paul Bettany, which was also fantasy/horror action. I think I saw it, but I can't remember... 

Normally that would say it all. But The Last Witch Hunter was so good I might give Priest another look.

The Last Witch Hunter is a small, unexpected gem. In its comic book/popcorn-movie it is one of the year's best films.

(Image credits: A vast selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 8 November 2015

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

BBC Radio's recent Arthur Miller centennial season has forced upon me a dramatic (no pun intended) re-evaluation of this great American playwright. 

I was familiar with The Misfits, Miller's ill-fated vehicle for his wife Marilyn Monroe — starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, with its Miller script and directed by John Huston, it should have been a masterpiece. But it wasn't. And then of course there's Death of the Salesman, which I'd read when I was young, and The Crucible, which I'd read when I was less young.

But nothing prepared me for the power, sophistication and breadth of his work. What really knocked me out was A View from the Bridge, Miller's mid-1950s masterpiece.

The bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the view is of the dockyards in Red Hook and its surrounding community. 

Miller had become familiar with these docks when he researched a screenplay with director Elia Kazan, called The Hook. (Also featured in the BBC season in a special radio adaptation.) Hollywood never bought the hook, but Kazan later developed a similar film without Miller. It was called On the Waterfront. You might have heard of it.

A View from the Bridge is set in exactly this milieu, and I expected it to cover similar territory — labour disputes, gangster involvement in the unions, the dangers facing the longshoremen. But it goes somewhere completely different.

It's a taut family drama. A kind of modern Greek tragedy. Eddie Carbone has raised his orphaned niece Catherine since the death of her parents. Now that she's a beautiful 17 year old his feelings for her have become something other than paternal, but Eddie can't admit that.

The situation comes violently to a head when Eddie and his wife Bea take in a couple of 'submarines' — illegal immigrants from the old country, Bea's cousins. One of these brothers is married and rather dull. The other is young, handsome, and unattached, Rodolfo. Of course, Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love. And Eddie just can't take it. Which leads him to commit an unspeakable act of treachery.

Miller's writing is sheer genius. Immensely powerful, subtle and profound. I was utterly gripped by the play, and knocked out by it. In no way pretentious or theoretical, it is utterly down to earth, accessible and potent. And, as one astute commentator pointed out, in works like this we can see the connection between Arthur Miller's dramas and the likes of The Sopranos.

This magnificent BBC Radio 3 production can be found here and will be available for a couple more weeks as I write. If you're reading this post after it's gone, I suggest getting a copy of the play and reading it.

And do what I'm going to do — catch the next live stage production that appears.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly love the vintage Bantam with the beautiful black and white illustration by Sanford Kossin. Its depiction of Eddie, Catherine and Rodolfo says it all.)

Sunday 1 November 2015

Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall

Now largely ignored or forgotten (good luck looking him up in the standard works on crime fiction — though this science fiction site has useful info) Adam Hall was one of the finest crime and thriller writers of the 20th Century. 

His 'real' name was Elleston Trevor — I put real in quotes, because his birth name was actually Trevor Dudley-Smith, and he wrote under a blizzard of pseudonyms. 

As Elleston Trevor he published The Flight of the Phoenix, a superb adventure novel which has been filmed twice, in a classic version in 1965 and a ho-hum remake in 2004.

But Trevor probably had his most enduring success with the Adam Hall pen-name, under which he released an excellent series of stripped-down, cynical and thrilling spy novels about the agent Quiller starting with The Berlin Memorandum (aka The Quiller Memorandum)  in 1965, obviously a boon year for the writer. 

The Adam Hall pseudonym became such a hit that Trevor began to reissue some of his extensive back catalogue under it.

Among the newly re-branded books were the Hugo Bishop mysteries. Bishop is a classic amateur gentleman detective. His day job, which hardly features, is writing books about abnormal and extreme psychology. The Hugo Bishop books were originally published under yet another pseudonym, Simon Rattray, and six of them appeared in the 1950s.

Initially the books had chess-based titles, making play on Bishop's name (Knight Sinister, Queen in Danger, Bishop in Check). Trevor evidently got bored with this halfway through the series and chose a new paradigm. 

The last three books were Dead Silence, Dead Circuit and Dead Sequence. The one we're discussing here, Dead Circuit, was sufficiently well received at the time to be serialised as a BBC radio drama. (And was issued as an audio book in Australia in 2012, read by John Lee. You can listen to a sample here.)

In the early 1970s, with the Adam Hall pseudonym proving so successful, Trevor cannily decided to recycle the Hugo Bishop stories under that by-line. He also altered the titles of the last three novels to bring them into line with the chess theme, so that all six books sat together more uniformly as a series.

Thus the novel under discussion was originally published as Dead Circuit by Simon Rattray in 1955, but was reprinted in 1972 as Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall. The author was actually called Elleston Trevor, and his real name was Trevor Dudley-Smith. I'm glad that's all clear.

Rook's Gambit is sometimes dated and clichéd. Our hero smokes a pipe and drives a grey vintage Rolls Royce in the classic tradition. 

Also in the classic tradition, he has a friend who, conveniently, is a senior cop who gives him absurd amounts of access. There are lines like "He must be working like a black." (Trust me, that could have been a lot worse.) 

And the guests at a bohemian party include "four reefer smokers and a nymphomaniac" (the latter, fleeting, description was meretriciously exploited for the cover blurb of the 1970s paperback as if it represented a major feature of the book). And there's some rather heavy handed wisecracking.

There's also some wisecracking which I rather enjoyed: "If I'm not back by cock's-crow, call out the Camel Corp."... "Where are you going?" "To see the maharajah about a jar of marmalade."... "If any stranger calls, shoot him in the stomach and then ask him for his card."

The book is somewhat reminiscent of John Creasey's Dr Palfrey tales in that the McGuffin turns out to be a clunky pulp science fiction device — quite literally a death ray ("It causes immediate mutation of the body's electricity"). 

But Trevor writes a much finer prose than Creasey: "the rain came down bead-bright"; he describes the screech of an old fashioned elevator "scaring the echoes"; and as the villain prepares to makes his escape, in a most casual and confident fashion, "Bishop thought of an eagle, released from a cage, studying its way to freedom before it rose."

There is also some welcome humour. "Is it any cooler on the balcony?" "Only when you jump off it." And nice hard-boiled description of the femme fatale who is working with the bad guy: "her voice was like honey being poured through a velvet sieve." And then this absolutely brilliant bit: "She smiled... Bishop was reminded of opening his refrigerator." 

Rook's Gambit is a little too clunky and of its period to really make the grade, but there are a lot of good things in it. 

Personally I would have liked to see more of Bishop's Siamese cat: "The Princess Chu Yi-Hsin was on the davenport, watching them with half-closed amethyst eyes." Trevor writes very well about this Siamese — "A cat has a phrase for scampi; it is Christmas-in-Paradise" — which perhaps isn't surprising. Under assorted names he had written numerous children's books with animals as the protagonists.

Some good cat writing aside, probably the most interesting feature of Rook's Gambit is the way the cinematic cutting of the Quiller books is already evident, as is the great concision and the technique of telling the story largely through dialogue.

Not a classic, but a flawed and often fascinating early work by a writer who was on his way to becoming a master of the genre.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the New English Library version comes from a site called — hilariously and not inaccurately — Most Boring Covers. The 1973 White Lion hardcover reprint, also jolly boring, comes from Caerwen Books at ABE. The much superior US Pyramid edition comes from the wonderfully named Books From the Crypt at ABE. The gorgeous facsimile Boardman dustjacket — a facsimile because the original is crazy rare and would cost a fortune — is from the invaluable Facsimile Dust Jackets site. The striking cover art for this splendid Boardman edition is of course by the great Denis McLoughlin. The audio book image is from Audible Australia.)