Sunday 28 January 2018

The Last Jedi by Rian Johnson

What a relief... I am always up for a good Star Wars movie, and I utterly rejoiced in The Force Awakens. Or The Franchise Reawakens, as I like to think of it.

Then along came Rogue One. It was a big hit and beloved by millions upon millions of people worldwide (and indeed many people I know personally). What can I say... I hated it.

So I was braced for a disaster when The Last Jedi came along. But it was simply terrific. It gripped me from the first moments when the good guys (the Resistance) are getting their asses kicked in a space battle.

In particular there's a nail-biting sequence as the last of the Resistance bombers — their final hope — get shot to pieces as Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo) pilots it on a suicide mission. I won't tell you what happens...

At the other end of the movie there is a lavishly wonderful ground battle on a snowy* world called Crait where the war machines gouge up streaks of bright red dirt as if the planet itself is bleeding.

So the Last Jedi is visually ravishing, and it's also expertly plotted. Whenever the Resistance seems about to succeed, they get knocked back. This gives the film a dark tone which is deliberately reminiscent of the second instalment of the first trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (another favourite of mine).

Last Jedi is written and directed by Rian Johnson. Yup, just one name on the screenplay, which is pretty amazing. Johnson has made some notable films, starting with Brick, a Dashiell Hammett style crime story recast as a high school movie which I loved. 

He also wrote and directed the time travel thriller Looper and directed several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad. Johnson brings a fresh and intriguing sensibility to the Star Wars canon.

The cast of the Last Jedi features some fine performances. I am increasingly impressed with Daisy Ridley now that I've seen the range of her acting (she was excellent in Murder on the Orient Express). Here she continues to light up the screen as Rey, a luscious tomboy with a light sabre.

In Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), the franchise has hit the jackpot in terms of a truly great villain. There is a sequence where Rey and Kylo Ren have a sword fight in a bright red throne room and the place ends up ripped to pieces with burning cinders falling through the air. It's amazing.

But the most surprising performance is from as Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. His mature and embittered depiction of Skywalker has real depth.

He's not my favourite character in the movie, though. That honour goes to Benicio Del Toro as DJ, a complex figure — you don't know whether to like him or hate him — and probably the only pragmatist in the entire story.

There also some fun alien animals. You can hardly have missed the cute porgs — big eyed, stubby birds. In one cherishably funny scene they almost convert Chewbacca to vegetarianism.

However, my favourite exo-fauna are the tinkling crystal critters on the planet Crait.

The Last Jedi has its flaws. On second viewing the clumsy dialogue began to grate — is it supposed to be a homage to some of the awful George Lucas writing of yesteryear? If so, it's a miscalculation.

But let's not end on a down note. The Last Jedi is magnificent. And spectacular. And great fun.

Oh, and here are the box office receipts for the three recent Star Wars films. Rogue One is in third place. So there is some justice in the world...

(*Yes, I now know it's not snow on the planet's surface but salt. But I don't give a shit.)

(Image credits: No less than 67 posters to chose from at the indispensable Imp Awards.)

Sunday 21 January 2018

Peepland by Faust, Phillips and Camerini

I've previously written about Hard Case Crime, who publish an outstanding range of crime novels with beautiful retro trappings but often cutting edge content. 

One of the first of their books I read was Money Shot, by Christa Faust, a memorable modern reinvention of the hardboiled thriller. 

Now Hard Case have broadened their output to include graphic novels. And judging by the first few titles, this is going to be an exceptionally high quality project. 

Among those first titles is Peepland, scripted by Christa Faust in collaboration with Gary Phillips, a writer experienced in both the world of prose and comics.

As a former sex worker, Christa Faust knows well the seedy world of 1980s New York and the Times Square peep show booths which are the setting for the story. 

She says it's "by far the most autobiographical project I've ever written... I had Gary to teach me how to think in panels."

The art is by Andrea Camerini — who's a guy, and Italian. Camerini has an edgy, angular style which is highly suited to the period and milieu of the story. 
I particularly like his silhouette of a scared cat on page 108. (Incidentally, the cover illustrating this post is by Fay Dalton, not Camerini.)

The plot for Peepland is inspired by a real life crime — and a scandalous miscarriage of justice — known as the Central Park Five

And the shadow of Donald Trump falls chill and wide across the story. (Oddly, I had just read about that incident, and in connection with Trump, in the London Review of Books.)

The thing which struck me most forcefully about this graphic novel was the ferocious ruthlessness of the plotting. The writers are willing to kill anyone, in the most brutal and merciless way. This is grownup stuff, and disturbing in the right sort of way. It aims to show us the dark side of life, and succeeds.

I do have some issues with Peepland, though. There's a secondary character who I at first  thought was the victim of an atrocity, then I discovered he was the perpetrator — as you can see on the pages here.

I assume this ambiguity was deliberate. But I'm not sure it added much to the story, other than confusion. 

And there's also a deus ex machina ending in which the heroine defeats her assailant by pulling out a knife we've never seen before.

But these are minor quibbles. Peepland succeeds amply, on its own terms. It's a gritty and distressing 1980s noir about the sleazy side of urban life.

So far all of the Hard Case graphic novels I've encountered are worth reading, and some are simply dynamite. More on these soon.

(Image credits: All of the art was provided by Will O'Mullane at Titan. Thank you, Will!)

Sunday 14 January 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle by McKenna & Sommers et al

I've never seen the 1995 Robin Williams movie Jumanji. It was based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote The Polar Express, and had a trio of screenwriters (plus the book's author) who were credited on the script. One of these, Greg Taylor, also gets a credit on the new movie...

This is a movie I wouldn't even have considered seeing if my friend Celeste hadn't alerted me to it. 

The intriguing aspect of the new film is that it involves a group of teenage kids who end up sucked into a video game in the form of avatars...

So a curly haired wimp Spencer (Alex Wolff) morphs into the Rock — sorry, Dwayne Johnson — and high school jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) is converted to Kevin Hart.

But, best of all, nasty hot girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) becomes a fat, bearded Jack Black and the socially awkward Martha (Morgan Turner) ends up as a Tomb Raider-esque Karen Gillan.

What ensues would just be a routine action fantasy romp, except for this body-swapping aspect. It lifts the movie to a whole other level. 

Jack Black is an absolute scream as the spoiled Bethany ('Where's my phone?') and Karen Gillan is wonderful, pretending to be uncomfortable in her body and not to know how to flirt.

But it all goes deeper than that. When Bethany/Jack Black meets a cute guy and falls for him, it's actually sweet and quite touching. And Karen Gillan's performance is wonderfully subtle and nuanced – I had no idea what a marvellously gifted actress she is.

Whoever dreamt up the avatar device was a genius, because it transforms Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from a disposable piece of junk to something actually quite memorable. 

It's worth noting that the screenwriting team of Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers worked both on this and Spider-Man: Homecoming, another dumb title with a colon in it, and another unexpectedly good movie.

The other writers credited on this film are Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle may not be a towering cinematic masterpiece. But it does vastly exceed all expectations.

If you're looking for a movie to take the family to, I recommend it highly.

(Image credits: A dense jungle of posters at good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday 7 January 2018

One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald

Among the many excellent suspense novels by John D. MacDonald, this is another favourite of mine. There is an amazing grim sense of foreboding and approaching doom in the book, which derives not least from the brilliant title.

The set up is simple and powerful. A small town cop called Fenn Hillyer has an idyllic marriage save for one small detail — his wife Meg's brother, Dwight McAran. McAran is a psychopathic thug. And he's just about to be released from prison.

And he's sworn revenge on the town where our hero lives. 

Heightening the tension is the fact that Meg utterly refuses to believe that there's anything wrong with McAran. She's protective of her little brother. So much so that, to Fenn's chagrin, she invites him to stay with them when he gets out of the slammer.

Fenn reluctantly drives up to the prison to collect McAran and brings him home. As soon as they get out of the car, the big silly family dog comes bounding towards them in a frenzy of delight to offer a friendly greeting.

And, in one of MacDonald's most brilliant scenes, McAran responds thus: "He punched her in the chest with a quick lift of the knee... she landed a-sprawl six feet away." With "a shrill keen of spinster despair" the poor dog turns tail, flees and hides. 

"The back of my neck felt cold," says Fenn. And then his wife Meg, who has not witnessed any of this, comes racing out of the house to welcome her beloved brother.

Which is where MacDonald's unique brilliance and dark humour really show themselves: "for one nightmarish moment I had a vision of the knee lifting again... to send her, too, tumbling onto the sodden ground."

Soon the entire family except for Meg, including the kids and the dog, realise there is a psychopath in residence.  

Actually MacDonald — or at least his character Fenn — dismisses the term "psychopath", but he gives a pretty shrewd description of the characteristics ("considerable surface charm... impulsive and unreliable"). Fenn is content to conclude that "the quick dark shapes of his thoughts were beyond my capacity to imagine."

Meg attempts to keep things jolly, but "The unyielding presence of McCaran made it like trying to play a banjo in a crypt."

This book is close kin to MacDonald's The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear) in that is shows an ordinary family on a collision course with a criminal psychopath while the hero is helpless to lawfully do anything to stop it.

Probably the most powerful engine in the story is our frustration at Meg's stubborn refusal to realise what McAran is, and the grim delight we take in the terrible inevitability of her finally seeing the truth.

Throughout the book MacDonald's superlative powers of description are in evidence. An impulsive, spoiled young woman is "as random as the March wind." And the death rattle of a character is described as "a last sound that was like somebody trying not to cough in church."

The climax, which takes us out of town and into the wilderness of the surrounding hill country, is particularly vividly evoked. Fenn looks up into the morning sky where "A hawk drifted, turning his head from side to side, his mind on a breakfast mouse."

And Fenn's grim early assessment of his own situation is entirely accurate: "there's no way to stop it. It's like a long hill and no brakes."

By the way... I committed a professional foul earlier when I said that McAran was Meg's brother. MacDonald actually made him a half brother instead of a full sibling. Which was, I think, a failure of nerve. Or perhaps it was imposed on him by a weak-kneed publisher.

That has no effect on the greatness of this beautifully written, utterly compelling, compact thriller. I know I've said it before (of The Drowner), but if you're thinking of trying John D. MacDonald, this is an ideal place to start.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads. Incidentally, the Bob McGinnis cover of the snowy landscape is bizarrely irrelevant. There isn't a flake of snow in the entire book. But then, for that matter, as far as I can tell nobody actually gets killed on Monday in the story... The magazine spread with illustrations by Thornton Utz is from Pinterest. The Danish cover — even more irrelevant than the snowscape — is from a handy site entitled John D. MacDonald Covers as is the Spanish one. The back cover art for the Gold Medal edition is from Time Machine to the Twenties.)