Sunday 24 September 2017

Wind River by Taylor Sheridan

Newsflash, folks. This is a genuinely wonderful movie, my top film of the year so far, and you should rush out and see it now.

Because, although it's a solid box office success, it's unlikely to be the kind of huge hit which lingers in multiplexes for months.

As soon as I learned of the existence of Wind River, I had a hollow feeling of profound excitement in my stomach — and also a hint of apprehension.

Here's why I was excited... Wind River is written by Taylor Sheridan. 

Sheridan is my screenwriting hero. His first script was Sicario, a magnificent and brutal tale of the drug war across the US/Mexican border. It was the best film of 2015.

His second was Hell or High Water, a beautifully wrought story of brotherly love and bank robbery in a modern day Texas ravaged by corporate greed. It was my top pick of 2016.

This explains the excitement. But why the apprehension? Because that was one heck of a track record to live up to. Two supreme successes. Was a disappointment now in wait? 

Or could Taylor Sheridan possibly pull off three great scripts in a row?

Yes — Yes, yes, yes. 

Wind River begins with the body of a young woman being found on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. She has frozen to death while fleeing half-clothed from a sexual assault.

The girl, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) has been discovered by Cory Lambert (impressively played by Jeremy Renner), a government Fish & Wildlife Agent who specialises in predator control — in other words, a professional hunter, tracker and sniper. 

Corey's special skills become crucial as the story develops. Young FBI agent Jane Banner (the wonderful Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to deal with the case because the FBI has jurisdiction on the reservation.

Naturally, up here in the frozen wilds, our city-girl Fed is a fish out of water. At one point she suggests they should wait for backup. Ben, the tribal police chief (played with sardonic humour by Graham Greene) replies, "This isn't the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you're on your own."

Nevertheless, Jane begins to learn how to survive in this new and ruthless environment. She teams up with Cory to track down the human predators responsible for Natalie's death, and this superb story develops and unfolds and gradually discloses its secrets.

Taylor Sheridan's writing is wonderful not least because of the research he does and the authentic feel of his stories.
And he understands procedure. Sicario hinged on the fact that Emily Blunt's FBI agent (yes, another one) was needed as a fig leaf for a CIA black ops team — because the CIA can't operate on US soil without the affiliation of a domestic agency.

In Wind River, there's a tense moment when the whole investigation looks it will fall apart because Natalie has died of exposure to the cold rather than being directly killed by a person. And, you see, if it's not homicide, then the FBI can't take the case...

I just love that Taylor Sheridan took the trouble to learn about these facts of procedure — and could see the dramatic potential in them.

Wind River — like Hell or High Water — is a riveting thriller studded with brutal action which is simultaneously a powerful drama of real human beings facing up to the contortions of their lives.

It also features one stupendous flashback sequence which is utterly beautiful in its quiet simplicity, elegance and coherence.

All through the movie I was curious about the identity of the director. Because no script is so good that it can't be spoiled by the wrong director. Whoever made Wind River was obviously the right director, but who was it?

In the modern manner, the credits didn't roll until the end of the film, so I didn't find out the name of the director until then...

Taylor Sheridan. 

Having now turned director Sheridan has clearly learned a lot from his previous films. Two of the actors in Wind River have appeared in earlier Taylor Sheridan scripts — Jon Bernthal was a dubious cop in Sicario and Gil Birmingham played one of the Texas Rangers in Hell or High Water.

The music for this movie is by Nick Cage and Warren Ellis, who also did the soundtrack for Hell or High Water.

And there's a moody helicopter shot of a convoy of vehicles rolling to an uncertain destination which is powerfully reminiscent of the lethal excursion to Juarez in Sicario.

Sheridan has learned from the best, and he just keeps getting better.

There was one thing I disliked about this film, though. At the beginning we see a wolf menacing a flock of sheep.

The wolf is shot dead. It's a bloodily realistic shooting. I stayed until the very end of the movie desperately hoping the credits would say something about "no animals were harmed in the making of this picture."

Nope, they killed the wolf.

(Image credits: A blizzard of cool posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 17 September 2017

"Deadly, cunning innocence:" The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

I know, I know... "Girl on a Swing", right? I suppose it's a case of English idiom, and an archaic one at that. 

Anyway, the thing to note is the name Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, one of my favourite novels and definitely the best epic adventure ever written about rabbits.

Given how much I love Watership Down, it's odd that I've never read any of Adams's other fiction. But I've bounced off The Plague Dogs and Shardik without finishing either of them, and I guess I'd resigned myself to being limited to his brilliant debut.

But then Centipede Press, a small publisher of beautiful limited editions, brought out a deluxe volume of Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams's fourth novel. (It's the grey cover with the embossed skull on it, depicted here.)

Now, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and so I splashed out for the special edition... then thought, what have I done? Well, there's nothing like spending a large sum on a book to motivate me to actually read it.

And, to my delight, Girl in a Swing grabbed me immediately. It's the story of Alan Desland, a dealer in ceramics in an idyllic rural English town called Newbury.

All the detail about ceramics in the story is absolutely fascinating, but what immediately hooked me is that Alan has a gift for ESP which surfaces unpredictably and randomly through his life.

These paranormal sequences give an eerie undertow to the story and promises harrowing things to come.

Alan is a bit of a prig and a stuffed shirt and mummy's boy, self described as "rather staid and old-fashioned." Which means he uses spellings like "Esquimaux" and "Mahometans."

And also in Alan's world words like 'bus, 'phone, 'fridge have to begin with apostrophes to indicate their primordial origins in omnibus, telephone, refrigerator.

Worse yet, there's a tedious tendency to stick in numerous quotations in a variety of other languages and if proles like you or I don't understand them, to hell with us. (But Adams's desire to show off his wide ranging literacy seems a lot less annoying when later on it includes Ambrose Bierce.)

Of course, these are more Richard Adams's defects than Alan Desland's, but I'm willing to forgive them because Adams tells such an engrossing story and he writes so well:
a Chien Lung dish is described as "glowing from its ebony stand like a Chinese pheasant on a nobleman's lawn."

The Girl in a Swing is addictively readable. The description of the ceramics trade and Alan's early psychic experiences set the scene for the turning point when our hero visits Copenhagen (Or "København", as good old Alan insists on calling it) on a buying trip.

There he meets the stunning, mysterious Karin Forster and immediately falls for her. So does the reader. But Alan also describes his first impression of our heroine as "pagan — unscrupulous and ruthless" and having a "deadly, cunning innocence."

Karin is an unforgettable character. The book really comes to life when she arrives on the scene and Adams shows what a terrific writer he is; the scene where Alan and Karin first go for dinner is indelibly vivid.

In his introduction to the book Reggie Oliver is right when he says "she's up there with... Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina."

The love story is tremendously effective. But of course Karin is way out of Alan's league, and he knows it. So when she agrees to instantly abandon her life in Copehnahgen and come back to England to marry him, we fear the worst.

Their honeymoon in Florida is described with considerable sensuality, so unexpected in the tale of a grown man who was still capable of snuggling up with his mother and reading Beatrix Potter.

 And the sequence at Itchetucknee River once again shows Adams's remarkable gift for nature writing. 

Karin has not only brought passion into Alan's life, she has also brought luck. The scenes where they return to England and she wholeheartedly throws herself into helping with his business are sheer delight, culminating in her discovery of the rare figurine of the title.

But soon the honeymoon is over in more ways than one, and the book proceeds with its agenda of building supernatural horror and revealing its dark secrets.

These are heralded by an hallucination sequence reminiscent of another masterful ghost story, Kinglsey Amis's The Green Man. Alone in his house, Alan awakes to hear water flooding in. But of course everything is "dry as a bone."

Water is a source of dread throughout the book, and ultimately we will find out why. The way Adams drip-feeds us information is beautifully controlled. He's a master writer.

And he goes on to conjure a sense of incomprehensible cosmic fear worthy of Lovecraft, although Adams is a vastly better writer: "Human beings in the universe are like dogs or cats in a house. Most of what is happening is really beyond our comprehension."

When we reach the nerve-shredding climax of the book Alan experiences "a terror as much like normal fear as a leopard is like a cat." Hospitalised and sedated, he finally sleeps: "the horrors went cackling down into oblivion."

But Adams hasn't finished with us yet. Worst is still to come.And when the book ultimately gives up its secrets, and Karin's, they are profoundly shocking, and astonishing.

The Girl in a Swing is genuinely disturbing, and it really packs a punch.

So it turns out there's a lot more to Richard Adams than rabbits...

(Image credits: the covers are all from Good Reads even, surprisingly the Centipede Press edition.)

Sunday 10 September 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes by Bomback & Reeves

Last week I posted about the entire sequence of the Planet of the Apes movies, and I described how my favourite of them all — indeed one of my favourite movies of all time — was Rise of the Planet of the Apes by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.

This is the second sequel to that film, and although it doesn't quite reach the same stratospheric heights as the Jaffa and Silver creation, it is a great movie, and one which really got to me. 

I cared so deeply about the characters in it that at times I felt sick with fear. It is heart rending, lyrical and poetic... It's also a great action flick. 

The script is by Mark Bomback, in collaboration with the director Matt Reeves. They worked together on the previous instalment in the franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and that was an excellent picture.

But this is in a completely different league. Together Bomback and Reeves have cooked up an amazingly rich and intelligent adventure, and they've made some quite brilliant decisions.

For one, they have Caesar the chimp (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes team up with a vulnerable young human girl played by Amiah Miller. She is mute, but eventually the apes, some of whom can talk, name her Nova.

Now, Nova is the name of the mute human from the second of the early movies, Beneath the Planet of the Apes back in 1970. So Bomback and Reeves may have some interesting long-term stratagem in mind.

But more importantly, Nova is a tremendous asset to this movie, adding a touching and vulnerable element among the tough band of furry warriors. There is a delicately lovely scene where one of the apes puts a blossom in her hair.

This is a startlingly poetic film, and Reeves shows considerable artistry in his direction. He also makes great use of close ups (especially the kid's face). Altogether the movie has a heartbreaking intensity.

For a large part of its running time, this is essentially a revenge Western, something like The Searchers. 

And Bomback and Reeves have the great intelligence and good taste to make it a Western in the snow which adds immeasurably to the mood of the piece.

Then, at a certain point, the movie changes course and begins to borrow instead from Apocalypse Now (the connection is openly and cheekily acknowledged by a piece of graffiti we are shown which reads "Ape-pocalypse Now"!).

Such a course of action could easily have been utter folly. But Bomback and Reeves are at the top of their game, and they actually come up with something superior to Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

That film had a scene involving a long monologue by Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in which he "explains" his motivation. I put the word in quotes because he basically spews a lot of pretentious hogwash. I've always found it ineffectual and unconvincing.

But here we have the Kurtz figure (played by Woody Harrelson), deliver an equivalent monologue which entirely makes sense, and which has a ferociously ruthless and tragic logic to it.

Thus Bomback and Reeves have improved on Coppola's original. And they do much else besides. This is a beautifully plotted movie which does honour to the art of film storytelling. 

And it achieves genuine profundity when Caesar, recalling the villain of the previous instalment, says "I am like Kobo — he could not escape his hate and I cannot escape mine."

There is so much to praise here that I'm in danger of going on for too long. But just allow me to say a word about the superb music by Michael Giacchino. 

In the last instalment he referenced Ligeti. Here it's Carl Orff. But make no mistake, the real musical genius at work is called Giacchino, and he delivers one of the finest soundtracks in a long time.

In a summer with a surprisingly strong selection of blockbuster movies, this is a standout. Please don't miss it.

(Image credits: A profusion of punchy primate posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 3 September 2017

The Ape's Tale: the Planet of the Apes movies by Pierre Boulle et al

I want to tell you about the summer blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes. 

But I'll get to that next week. (The short version of my forthcoming post is — go and see it!) 

But first, a bit of history about the whole cycle of Planet of the Apes movies.... 

It all began with the prolific French novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle was working in Malaya when World War 2 broke out and he became a secret agent for the French (and was decorated for his bravery). After the war he wrote a number of espionage novels.

But his breakthrough was another kind of story drawing on his wartime experiences — Bridge on the River Kwai which became an international bestseller in 1952. Boulle would in any case have gone down in history for that one book.

But eleven years later he wrote a novel called Les planète des singes, initially translated into English as Monkey Planet — confusingly and unhelpfully, singes in French means both "monkeys" and "apes." 

And of course they're not the same thing at all. For a start, no ape has a tail and virtually all monkeys do...

But never mind comparative primate physiology. Boulle's novel is of course now known as The Planet of the Apes. It was a brief satirical, sardonic parable. And although certainly science fiction, it was pretty light on the science.

None of that matters, though. It became the basis for the 1968 movie which was co-scripted by the rather wonderful Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. 

This was a great movie. I saw it at a drive-in when I was a kid, and it blew my mind.

And not just my mind; the movie was a big success. It gave rise to a relatively conventional sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and then, through the magic of flying a spaceship through a time-warp, a brisk series of very interesting prequels.

These were Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

All of these spin-offs were written by the fascinating and talented British writer Paul Dehn, previously best known for having a hand in the James Bond movies.

After Battle in 1973, the series (we didn't call them a franchise in those days) was dormant until the remake of The Planet of the Apes in 2001. 

The writers credited on this were William Broyles (Castaway) and the team of Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal. Together they wrote the movie Mona Lisa Smile and, solo, Konner worked on the TV shows The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

That movie was directed by Tim Burton. And I've already said too much about it. A terrible disappointment which seemed to have killed off the Apes and their Planet for good...

But then, ten years later, along came Rise of the Planet of the Apes, written by the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. 

They crafted one of the finest screenplays I've ever encountered and their film was a thing of beauty and a work of genius. 

It starred Andy Serkis as Caesar, the intelligent chimp, and it remains one of my favourite movies of all time.

If you haven't seen it, seek it out immediately (paying the correct fee to the copyright holders, of course. Writers have to eat).

Rise was followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, which was written by Jaffa & Silver with Mark Bomback (Unstoppable, The Wolverine). 

It was a worthy successor to that great first movie in what people are now calling the Planet of the Apes "reboot".

Which brings us to this year's War of the Planet of the Apes. And it's a humdinger. Please tune in next week to read all about it...

(Image credits: The movie posters are all from Wikipedia. I know, I know. But I was in a hurry. At least the stylish cover of the Portuguese version of the Boulle book is from Good Reads.)