Sunday 25 December 2016

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

My Aunt Barbara, whom I revered, was a crime fiction afficionado. Oddly enough, though, she didn't like Agatha Christie. And I sort of inherited her prejudice in an unconsidered way. For many years I dismissed the Queen of Crime.

But then I read a short story in an anthology and was rather impressed. And I saw her play Murder on the Nile and admired the plotting. Slowly I came around to the notion that I should give Christie a chance.

Card on the Table is the first full length novel by her which I've read. This was partly because it was on a list of her superior works given to me by my friend and Agatha Christie expert David Parsons. And partly because I found a copy with lovely elegant cover art by Milton Glaser.

What's more, this copy was a Dell map back, which means you have a nice floor plan of the mayhem in the story.

The plot concerns Mr Shaitana, a sinister rich mischief maker. As his name suggests, "He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect" in his clothes and appearance — satanic black moustache and pointy narrow beard, etc.

He's also two-dimensional and tedious. But Shaitana has an intriguing invitation for our hero, the detective Poirot. Come to a dinner party where some of the guests will be murderers who have escaped detection.

So Poirot turns up at what turns out to be a bridge party. There are two games, four guests each at a table (check out the map). One table consists of Poirot and other investigators, the other of the presumed murderers.

Their host doesn't play. He just sits happily in a chair by the fireside. And this is when Christie springs her first surprise — and it occurs so early in the book that this is not really a spoiler...

Naturally, the reader is expecting a murder to happen at some point as the story develops. But it takes place almost instantly — and Shaitana is the victim.

This is just wonderful, not only because it is completely unexpected — Shaitana is set up so it looks like he'll be in the story for the long haul — but also because Christie very cleverly disposes of a rather cardboard character before he has a chance to become a liability.

The other brilliant thing about the plot is that it effectively gives you five murder investigations for the price of one — since each of those four guests is supposed to have already gotten away with at least one unlawful killing.

The story unfolds neatly and briskly, although there are things that will take the modern reader aback, for example one of the characters holds forth, in all seriousness against “All this hysterical fuss about road deaths.” 

Also, Poirot talks to himself, which is a device I've always found clumsy and unconvincing. Plus he does far too much twinkling for my liking. On the other hand, Christie's dialogue is often surprisingly good, and there's more wit on offer than I expected. Along with with a refreshing self mockery.

For instance, during a discussion of murder mystery stories someone remarks “It’s always the least likely person who did it.” And one of our investigators is a lady crime novelist, whose detective hero is a “long lanky" Finn.

Here Agatha Christie is so clearly sending up her own portly Belgian sleuth that one is willing to forgive her a lot.

Cards on the Table is far from perfect, and all the stuff about bridge hands might as well have been written in ancient cuneiform on a clay tablet as far as I'm concerned, but it displays some flashes of genius which show why Christie is held in such high regard.

And it was certainly good enough to have me looking forward to the next one of her books that I read.

(Image credits: the front and back cover of Milton Glaser's Dell map back are scanned from my personal copy, bought this autumn in Winnipeg. The nice white Fontana version with the Tom Adams cover art is also from my collection, since it's a better copy than the one I found online at  Good Reads, which is where all the other covers come from.)

Sunday 18 December 2016

The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald

Lew Archer is a private eye, the creation of Ross MacDonald. And the New York Times called his adventures "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." 

That's quite a claim when you consider the competition includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

But Ross MacDonald is an excellent writer, and The Goodbye Look is one of his best books. MacDonald's real name is Kenneth Millar. When he was looking for a pseudonym he actually chose "John MacDonald"...

There was a major problem with this pen name. There really was a John MacDonald, already writing crime fiction. As it happens, he's one of my favourite writers, and actually has the edge on Kenneth Millar.

Anyhow, once this fiasco was discovered, after the publication of Lew Archer's first adventure, both authors had to take evasive action, like ships avoiding a collision. 

Millar became John Ross MacDonald and the real MacDonald started using his middle initial and transformed to John D. MacDonald, whom he remained, while Millar finally settled on Ross MacDonald.  

What's in a name? Well, for a writer establishing his reputation, just about everything.

But The Goodbye Look comes from the other end of Millar's career. It is the 15th Lew Archer novel, published in 1969.  And it's a classic first person private eye novel with the character at the centre of the case (one Nick Chalmers) almost entirely absent from the narrative. This is quintessential detective novel technique — think of The Thin Man.

It's just beautifully written, with memorable descriptions of the physical — "the safe was about the diameter of a sixteen-inch gun and just as empty" and the psychological —  "I could feel the pressure of her cool insistence, like water against a dam".

Millar tells a fascinating story with vividly evoked characters — and they have memorable names: Truttewell, Lackland. My only worry was that I might not be able to keep track of them all. But at just the point where I began to feel this, the author gave a useful summary of the case so far, skillfully offering it at exactly the right moment. A true pro at work.

He also has splendid awareness of nature and wildlife, something which he has in common with John D. MacDonald.

The Goodbye Look is expertly told, addictively readable, terrifically engrossing and you find yourself racing through the pages.

It throws in a surprising love affair involving the hero, and it also features a Chandleresque dodgy doctor. And, although the Lew Archer novels became less action oriented as the year's passed, there is some sudden, explosive violence.

Archer is shot — accidentally, by a trigger happy cop. After a visit to the hospital he reflects that "the wound in my shoulder was beating like an auxiliary heart."

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

Sunday 11 December 2016

Allied by Steven Knight

Sometimes I feel the urgent need to communicate something to the readers of this blog — sort of a public service message, if you will. This is one such occasion.

Because if you listen to the critics, Allied is supposed to be a terrible movie... this is kind of becoming the accepted wisdom. People who haven't seen it just assume that the badmouthing is true and shrug and write the film off.

This grotesquely unfair. Because Allied is a terrific movie. I urge you to ignore the critics and go see it and make up your own mind. 

There was no chance I'd miss Allied because I'm a huge admirer of its writer, the Brit Steven Knight. I first realised what a talent he was when I saw Eastern Promises. Since then he's perhaps made the most impact with his TV show Peaky Blinders. But for my money his masterpiece is Locke, one of my favourite movies of all time.

Anyway, Knight is a tremendous writer and Allied is a splendid spy thriller — and love story — set in World War 2. It tells the twisted tale of French operative Marianne, played by the radiant Marion Cotillard and the Canadian agent Max, played by Brad Pitt. And Pitt has never been better.

I've heard some snooty comments from critics about the use of CGI in the film, but I think director Robert Zemeckis has done an impressive job of recreating London in the Blitz. And it's obvious that Knight has painstakingly researched the period.

My only real quibble — and I'm a fiend about getting period detail right — is whether Max and Marianne would have had an upstairs extension for their telephone back in wartime London.

This is a powerful, exciting, gripping and ultimately moving piece of cinema. And Marion Cotillard looks just wonderful brandishing a Sten gun!

Give it a chance.

(Image credits: only three posters available at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Accountant by Bill Dubuque

Alert! This is a really good movie. I was intrigued by the trailer, but when I saw it the quality of the film really took me by surprise. 

It's an action thriller with the cheeky premise that the hero is an accountant. What's more, he's autistic — a savant with numbers, which has led to him being involved in money laundering by major crime combines. Just to stay alive, he's had to acquire serious survival skills and strategies.

Ben Affleck plays our hero, under a welter of pseudonyms based on famous mathematicians. Currently he's Christian Wolff. Hunting him down for the feds are J.K Simmons as a senior Treasury investigator and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as his analyst and aide, a former gang banger.

Our sympathies are with Affleck immediately, as in his role as strip-mall accountant — a cover for his true operations — he saves a middle aged farming couple from economic oblivion by showing them how to exploit tax loopholes ("The company truck").

The Accountant is full of gratifying, exciting action as our hero battles the bad guys. And it's such a strong, vivid, original set-up that I thought it must be based on a comic or video game or something. But no, it's a complete original, created by Bill Dubuque who is the sole credited screenwriter.

Dubuque was previously involved in the The Judge, another film I fondly remember which was surprisingly well written. Here he has come up with a thriller which is also fascinating and engrossing, cleverly structured and populated with quirky, original and intriguing characters. It really is an exceptional piece of work.

It's splendidly directed by Gavin O'Connor (Jane Got a Gun) and among a uniformly strong cast Ben Affleck is outstanding. He does a great job of depicting this character who is lost inside his head and has great trouble relating to ordinary people. 

Bill Dubuque has given his hero a repertoire of rote strategems for navigating everyday life, like remembering to say "Have a nice day". And Affleck has added his own clever small touches. I particularly like the way he gives the farm couple a casual little wave after they witness him committing an act of devastating violence.

The film's one flaw is that I thought I saw a major plot twist coming a mile off. And indeed I did. But Dubuque had another one up his sleeve, and I left the cinema gratifyingly surprised and elated.

(Image credits: Thin pickings at Imp Awards. Supplemented by the one with the lunchbox, which is from Fat Movie Guy. A very disappointing array. The idea of sticking a piece of paper across the star's face must have seemed like a clever gimmick, but I imagine it knocked tens of millions off the movie's revenue. And the jigsaw puzzle one, which only makes sense once you've seen the film, is absolutely dullsville.)

Sunday 27 November 2016

American Honey by Andrea Arnold

I couldn’t get this film out of my head, and I recommend it to you most highly. It's a sort of road movie — across the underbelly of America. It tells the story of Star, superbly played by newcomer Sasha Lane, who is living a terrible and marginalised existence salvaging food from dumpsters; fending off sexual creepswhen she meets the Mag Crew.

The Mag Crew is a bunch of teenagers in a van who go from city to city selling magazine subscriptions. They are outcasts and misfits and they are barely scraping a living, but they party hard, mostly in motel parking lots, and have a sense of family.

Star joins them because she is smitten with their leader Jake, played by Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf is a divisive actor, but I've had a lot of time for him since he appeared in Charlie Countryman. On the evidence of that film and American Honey, he has the courage to appear in unusual and interesting indie pictures instead of sticking to lucrative blockbusters.

The movie is written and directed by the Brit Andrea Arnold. Her last film was Jane Eyre, and had I known that I probably would have steered clear of American Honey; I really didn't like Wuthering Heights, but it would have been a tragedy to miss this movie. It really is outstanding.

As with her earlier pictures, Arnold has shot this in 4:3 ratio instead of widescreen. 4:3 is a square image like vintage Hollywood movies or old TV sets. "The reason I really like it," says Arnold, "is because I'm always telling stories about one person, and it's the perfect frame for that... it doesn't give a lot of space on either side."

American Honey is a little reminiscent of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, though it's considerably more gentle. It's still full of sex and drugs, with the occasional harrowing moment and violent confrontation. And the viewer is constantly in a state of dread about what might happen to Star. 

But perhaps the most notable thing about it is its concern with nature. The camera is always seeking out birds or insects. The Mag Crew have a pet squirrel and abduct a dog. And there’s an amazing scene where Star, at her lowest ebb, receives a hulking, ursine blessing from a brown bear. Also, he doesn’t kill her, which is nice.

Health warning: American Honey is 165 minutes long. Which I found offputting in prospect, and I would have said is about twice the natural length for a movie of this kind

I was grousing about this to the guy tearing tickets at the cinema as I went in. He said, "Yeah, but you won't notice the time. It's such a great movie." True.

(Image credits: The two white posters are from Pinterest. The sky blue poster is from Imp Awards. Sasha Lane is from Film Experience. Sasha Lane holding the slate from Ion Cinema (nice pun).)

Sunday 20 November 2016

The Magnificent Seven by Wenk and Pizzolatto — and Newman, Bernstein and Roberts!

I might as well say right up front that there are a number of things about this remake of the classic western that annoy me. But none more than the fact the writers of the original 1960 movie get no credit whatsoever. We'll discuss that in a minute.

First, what of this new incarnation? Well, it's a considerable hit, as was the last outing by director Antonie Fuqua and star Denzel Washington — The Equalizer. But I didn't think much of that, either.

Denzel looks impressive enough, but the script gives him virtually nothing to do. Vincent D’Onofrio is the only really vivid character in the Seven — as towering mountain man Jack Horne (gene spliced from real Western legends Liver Eating Johnson and Tom Horne) with a high, whispery, wavering voice. 

And there's some memorable performances from non-members of the Seven. Haley Bennett is splendid as a local woman widowed by the villain of the piece. And speaking of that villain, Peter Sarsgaard is just a terrific bad guy. 
But the movie takes forever to get going as it assembles its rather pallid and bland bunch of compañeros. And the final battle against Sarsgaard and his hordes doesn't redeem it. (Also — I don't believe a Gatling gun would have been of any effect at that distance. Any weapons experts out there who can confirm this?)

The movie is written by Richard Wenk (who did The Equalizer for Fuqua and wrote the remake of The Mechanic) and Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto is an interesting figure. He created the celebrated TV series True Detective. 

And Pizzolatto's much discussed fascination with Dashiell Hammett is in evidence here, with the Indian member of the Seven called Red Harvest (the title of a Hammett novel), and talk of a strike-busting Pinkerton-style detective firm called Blackstone (Hammett worked for Pinkerton). 

There have been some excellent westerns in recent years. Django Unchained was pure joy and The Salvation was an absolute masterpiece. In addition there's been a number of fascinating oddities such as Jane Got a Gun, Bone Tomahawk and The Homesman, but The Magnificent Seven fails to measure up to any of these.

Probably the most damning comparison is with the Coen brothers' True Grit, which showed that it's possible to come up with the remake of a beloved western classic which is as good as, and even better than, the original.
One of many nuisances with The Magnificent Seven is that, unlike Bone Tomahawk, no attempt has been made to give the dialogue an authentic period ring. It’s laced with an anachronisms — “hallucinating”, “bonding”, “capitalism”.

On the other hand the music — by James Horner and Simon Franglen — is invaluable, crucially adding suspense to a slack confrontation scene, pumping up the final big action sequence, and providing an impressive coda… though after that, over the end titles, they play Elmer Bernstein’s original theme, and we’re reminded what movie music is really all about. 

Speaking of the original, let's return to the matter of the writers' credits, and the fact that the creators of the 1960 version get no recognition here. Of course, that film — and this one — are based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni). But they don't get any credit, either.

So, just for the record, the superb sixties western was the work of three American screenwriters. Only William Roberts receives any official credit, but the first draft was by Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted at the time. Then Walter Newman took over and basically wrote the movie as we know it. But he wasn't available for location rewrites, and William Roberts took a hand.

When it was clear Roberts was going to get a credit, Newman petulantly had his name removed. A move which cost him dear, in terms of money and recognition.

But all of these writers deserve to be named in connection with the new version of The Magnificent Seven. Without them there would be no movie to remake... and screw up.

(Image credits: There's more than seven posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 13 November 2016

Deepwater Horizon by Carnahan and Sand

Like everybody else, when I think of Deepwater Horizon what comes to mind is the horrific oil spill and the ensuing devastation of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.

What I didn't realise was that the spill was preceded by a terrible conflagration on the eponymous drilling platform and considerable loss of life (eleven dead).

This movie ducks the whole environmental issue — and also has nothing to say about the culpability of Haliburton — but it is an absolutely riveting and deeply suspenseful account of the battle for survival on the doomed Transocean rig, and a damning indictment of the complacency, penny pinching and recklessness of BP which led to the disaster.

There's a terrific scene where our hero, Mark Wahlberg, reels off a long list of malfunctioning equipment on the oil platform, in a kind of homage to his list of girl’s porno names in Ted. Listening to him, but not taking it in, is John Malkovitch — just great as a slimy, serpentine BP executive who pushes the drill team to lethal folly.

Kurt Russell is wonderfully grizzled as Wahlberg's boss. Kate Hudson is effective enough as Wahlberg's loving spouse, but she has a fairly non-existent role as a stay at home wife and mom...

Much better is Gina Rodriguez as Andrea Fleytas, navigation equipment operator and one of three female Transocean employees on Deepwater Horizon. There's a nice running gag about why her Mustang won't start...

And some agonisingly frustrating and infuriating sequences in which the captain in the control room keeps overriding her (entirely correct) decisions to send a Mayday signal and cut the pipe. These are particularly powerful moments and really engage the audience emotionally, as this idiot stops Fleytas doing the right thing.

Deepwater Horizon is directed by Peter Berg, who recently filmed Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg getting shot to pieces in Afghanistan. Before that he made Battleship, a favourite guilty pleasure of mine.

The script makes some neat moves, such as illustrating the nature of the oil waiting under pressure in rocks by hammering a spout into a Coke can. And the way the pipeline is secured with drilling mud by pouring honey into the spout. Followed by a premonitory accident as the fizzy drink pours out, everywhere,

The film is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, The Kingdom) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) and it's based on a New York Times article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul.
This is a classic disaster movie, beautifully made and utterly involving. I commend it highly. There was one annoyingly mawkish moment, when all the survivors drop to their knees on the mud barge to give thanks in prayer — to the god who's just set their rig on fire and murdered their friends. 

But I guess there are no atheists in foxholes. 

(Image credits: a virtual gusher of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 6 November 2016

The Girl on the Train by Wilson and Hawkins

You can't copyright a title. Which is just as well, because this is the third or fourth movie to be called The Girl on the Train. It's based on a bestselling crime novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins, which rather rode on the coat tails of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl — a vastly superior work.

I haven't read Hawkins's novel but, as is so often the case, I've heard a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of it. And that was sufficient to expose fatal, basic structural problems with the story.

This is a whodunnit in which it's entirely obvious, almost from the get-go, who done it. The movie perhaps does a better job of, briefly, fooling the audience. But even here the bad guy might as well be wearing a sign around his neck saying "I'm the killer".

The other problem with the narrative is that the grand action climax is disappointingly ho-hum. Small beer indeed.

So what's left? Hawkins's novel does present a powerful portrait of a troubled, disintegrating woman. And it makes deft use of our deeply-programmed fear of babies being harmed. 

The movie makes effective use of the latter, but the former is overdone to the point of being tiresome. With unflattering make up and hair — to signal that she’s an unhappy alcoholic — Emily Blunt looks like she’s escaped from a zombie movie.

But director Tate Taylor, who also directed the outstanding James Brown movie Get on Up, has injected some memorable moments — there's a terrific bit involving a drop of water. 

And there's a well wrought script by Erin Cressida Wilson, who has some excellent screenwriting credits, from Secretary and Chloe to Men, Women and Children. All memorable films.

The ad campaign uses the slogan "What did she see?" which unfortunately brings to mind Rear Window, a short story by Cornell Woolrich, unforgettably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately because The Girl on the Train just isn't in that league.
The original novel was set in England. It's survived its translation to America without any major damage. 

But this is still an ultimately second-rate psychological thriller, and when set beside the magnificent film of Gone Girl, it pretty much ceases to exist.

(Image credits: a paucity of posters at Imp Awards — though there are some stylish ones, as you can see.)

Sunday 30 October 2016

Suicide Squad by David Ayer

It's been a busy summer and I haven't been able to get to the cinema as much as I would like.  

So I've had to really pick and chose which movies to see, and the first casualty was the usual slew of comic-inspired blockbusters. I missed the new X-Men, for instance.

But the one comic book feature I was not going to miss was Suicide Squad. Because it's the work of David Ayer, who has made a number of films I really admire. 

Check out the ruthless police story End of Watch, the neglected apocalyptic Schwarzenegger thriller Sabotage or, most recently, his magnificent tank war movie Fury.

So I am downcast to report that Suicide Squad is a real dud, a complete disappointment, and I'd advise you avoid it. And David Ayer has to take full responsibility, since he wrote and directed it, based on characters from the DC Comics universe.

The premise of Suicide Squad is essentially The Dirty Dozen with supervillains. Here the various bad-guys-turned-good-guys include Will Smith as Dead Shot, Cara Delevingne (so wasted in Face of an Angel) as the Enchantress, with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  

And a movie where even a sluttily dressed Margot Robbie's eventually becomes tiresome is a genuine failure. But all her character seems to do is pose with a baseball bat and display a perpetual smirk.

Anyway, these troublemakers are freed from prison by government suit Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis, essentially reprising her role from Black Hat, a vastly superior film) so they can deal with extraordinary threats.

This is where the movie's problems begin — the threat in question is Enchantress herself, who has gone rogue. Before they can deal with her, the squad first has to rescue a mysterious high value asset... who turns out to be Amanda Waller.

In other words, there really is no story. Just a plot which incestuously recycles its own elements. The result is dull and airless. And the fight scenes are just terrible. The squad slogs through ranks of literally faceless villains — lumpy, anonymous monsters. 

And the audience just doesn't care, doesn't care, doesn't care... Or at least, I didn't. I kept falling asleep during the pointless mayhem.

There is a brief moment when it looks like the movie is going to come to life as helicopters plough into towering black clouds of smoke above a city to the strains of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum. But it fails to ignite. 

Even the film score, by Steven Price, who did great work on Gravity and Fury, didn't appeal.
The only time when the film really finds its feet is when master assassin Will Smith starts talking to his young daughter about sniper ballistics, but that’s a few moments before the end credits roll.

(Image credits: The posters are from Imp Awards where there were no less than 49 on offer. Which called to mind the immortal words of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade: "The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter.")