Sunday 29 April 2018

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames

Scots director Lynne Ramsay's most recent film was We Need to Talk About Kevin. 

'Recent' is a relative term... that was back in 2011. But it was an impressive and striking film, so I was very much up for seeing her new movie. 

We Need to Talk About Kevin was adapted from a novel by Lionel Shriver and You Were Never Really Here is again based on a violent prose story, the novella by Jonathan Ames, an intriguing writer who created the TV series Bored to Death and Blunt Talk.

You Were Never Really Here has echoes of Point Blank, but much more emphatically of Taxi Driver — I discovered I was far from the only one to draw this comparison when I saw how heavily the poster campaign leaned on it.

It’s the story of a hitman, Joe played by Joaquim Phoenix who is hired to rescue a politician’s young teenage daughter from a creepy bordello. He does so, and all hell breaks loose...

It’s an art movie, but scarily bleak, with profound violence. Also moments of great beauty and strangeness. 

Joe finds that his mother has been murdered by a couple of assassins in suits. He kills them both. It takes one quite a while to die, in Joe’s kitchen.

Joe gives him a pain killer. Then he lies on the floor beside him. They both sing along to a song on the radio, and the assassin reaches over and takes Joe’s hand and clasps it, just before he dies. 

Poetic, moving, and deeply strange.  (I'm clearly not the only one to find this scene extraordinary. One of the posters references it.)

Joe is also suffering massive PTSD after suffering abuse as a child, and serving as a soldier in Iraq. This is superbly presented in fragmented flashbacks without ever being fully spelled out or explained, as it would have been in just about every other film. 

The sound design, by Paul Davies, should have been amazing — sometimes it was amazing — but it had the curious and fatal defect of rendering the most quiet and irrelevant background noise highly audible, while the movie's dialogue was murky and muddy and often incomprehensible. (Maybe on a really state of the art cinema sound system it would have fared better.)

Johnny Greenwood provided what was almost a parody Johnny Greenwood score. But it was good. 
And there was brilliant use of source music — wildly inappropriate cheerful pop songs of yesteryear like 'If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake' and 'Angel Baby'.

Not a pleasant movie, but a genuine work of art, highly memorable and I’m already feeling faint yearnings to see it again…

(Image credits: For a rather small art movie, this has an amazing number of posters — and some really striking ones — at Imp Awards. Nice.)

Sunday 22 April 2018

Tomb Raider by Robertson-Dworet et al

Although I admire Angelina Jolie, the previous Lara Croft movies were a complete farrago (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a farrago as a "confused mixture" — perfect, eh?). 

But when I heard that a rebooted franchise was on its way with Alicia Vikander in the title role, I was frankly a little excited.

Vikander is a wonderful actress. I first saw her, with Mads Mikkelsen, in the splendid A Royal Affair and she was recently a highlight of The Man from UNCLE. And it turns out she's terrific in the new Tomb Raider, certainly the finest thing about the whole movie.

The film is directed by the Norwegian Roar Uthaug, a really cool name but not as cool as Geneva Roberston-Dworet, who co-wrote the first draft of the script with Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman). She also co-wrote the final draft with Alistair Siddon.

(In the wacky world of screenplay credits "co-wrote" doesn't necessarily mean any of these people ever actually met...)

The movie begins cannily with Lara as an underdog. She takes a licking in the boxing ring and then we see her in her crappy job as a Deliveroo rider (okay, it's not called Deliveroo, but we all know what they're getting at).

The film's best sequence is probably one that takes place in this section — a bicycle chase with Lara as the fox pursued by a pack of other cycle couriers as the hounds, in an attempt for her to win a much needed cash prize.

There's another good action scene when Lara is at the docks in Hong Kong and some street punks rip off her rucksack. Naturally Lara isn't about to stand for that... 

And another particularly fine one involving rapids, a waterfall, and the rusting fuselage of a Japanese World War 2 bomber. Lara saves herself from plunging over the waterfall by clambering onto the remains of the bomber... and it immediately begins to fall apart. ("Really?" says our disgusted heroine.)

Now, you might notice something about all of these action scenes... They're all pretty down to earth. They are not hugely fantastical far-fetched special effects extravaganzas. Those come in the tomb raiding section of the picture, which is for my money absolutely the worst bit of it.

I was also peeved about how the production design ruined a plot point. Lara receives a clue which involves checking out the "first letter" on her father's tomb. The way the tomb has been built, the carving on it reads "In the memory of Lord Richard Croft" — so the intended first letter, the ""R" in Richard, is actually the 18th...

But, like I said, Vikander is the best thing here. Gamine, gutsy and gorgeous, she is endlessly watchable.

In contrast, a distinguished supporting cast seem oddly like underpowered clones of themselves — I wasn’t even sure that Dominic West was Dominic West or that Walton Goggins was Walton Goggins. I thought they were look-alikes. 

However, there is a good bit where Goggins, as the ruthless, murderous bad-guy-in-chief Vogel, reveals that he really just wants to get home to his wife and kids. (The photo of them on his desk is a particularly nice touch.)

Similarly the sequence where — spoiler alert — Lara discovers her dad (West) is still alive takes the movie out of the action rut briefly, thank god, and provides the opportunity for a bit of human drama. But that's underpowered, too. And at the end the filmmakers commit this terrible sin of killing the father off after all, and as part of that crappy tomb raider sequence. (Lara to her dad: "I haven't come all this way to see you die."... Unfortunately, you have, dear.)

After Angelina Jolie, the less statuesque and less spectacularly pneumatic Alicia Vikander is a good choice. Her smaller physical stature and her carefully established underdog credentials elicit considerable audience sympathy. They also serve to tone down the inherent sexism of the character. 

And a bow and arrow instead of two hand guns is another vast improvement. Though I believe both these innovations were already inherent in the recent video game reboot. (The guns turn up at the end, anyway, though.) 

The new Tomb Raider is a mixed bag, but not a complete farrago. Alicia Vikander is so good that I actually hope there'll be some sequels. But they still have the problem that no one seems to know what the hell a successful Lara Croft movie should be about.

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

Sunday 15 April 2018

Thoroughbreds by Cory Finley

I was going to post about a high profile blockbuster movie this week, but I've postponed that so I can alert you to a little gem of a film, hopefully before it disappears from your local cinema.

Thoroughbreds sounds like it's a heartwarming movie about teenage girls and their horses. And, in a twisted way, I suppose you could say that it is...

They are teen girls, one of them has a horse (or, rather, did) and I guess it did warm my heart to find such a dark, distinctive and interesting film among the usual multiplex fare.

This is terrific little movie straight out of left field. It has echoes of everything from Heathers to Equus to Stoker. 

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to be the perfect teen, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is her troubled friend. But is it really that way around? We are going to find out, as Lily’s hatred of her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) graduates slowly to a desire to plot a murder…

This is a tight, smart, low budget movie which really only focuses on four or five characters. 

There is also brilliant economy — and considerable audacity — in some of its staging. The final, bloody, climax takes place offstage while we slowly track in on a girl sitting on a sofa watching TV.

Amazingly, this is a debut feature by Cory Finley, a young playwright influenced by Harold Pinter. I'm very impressed by this guy.

The movie also features a diabolical and wild music score by Erik Friedlander — also making his feature debut! It is one of the finest I’ve heard in recent times. 
Indeed, the sound design is generally impressive, with great use being made of the oppressive noise of the stepdad’s rowing machine from upstairs.

You should gallop to see Thoroughbreds.

(Image credits: The all-pink background poster is from IMDB. The other three posters from Imp Awards. All of the latter three designs are by Arsonal.)

Sunday 8 April 2018

Ten Novels and Their Authors by Somerset Maugham

I'm an admirer of the writing of Somerset Maugham, as I've mentioned before. Plus I'm always a sucker for top-ten type lists. But what really clinched this book for me was the cover art — it's part of the Penguin series with ravishing still-life photographs by the great Harri Peccinotti.

Once I'd finished admiring the cover, though, I got down to considering Maugham's list of "the ten best novels in the world". Here they are:

Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace.

Okay, so what do I think of this list? Well, I've only read Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice. Tom Jones is a bit vague, I admit. In fact, am I thinking of Joseph Andrews instead of Tom Jones?

All right — let's say I've definitely read three out of ten. And Madame Bovary is an absolute masterpiece. I was stunned by how modern and vivid and gripping it was. It read like a 20th Century noir novel — something by James M. Cain perhaps, with its character in the grip of a ruinous passion. But far better written than Cain.

Pride and Prejudice I regard with a sort of mild fondness. I remember being impressed that Austen's prose sometimes recalled Raymond Chandler's in its succinctly evocative descriptions.

Moby Dick was an experience I don't want to repeat. I got through it, but it was a long, hard slog.

Of the ones on Somerset Maugham's list that I haven't read, I'm in no hurry to get to David Copperfield. Hard Times made me wary of Dickens. Wuthering Heights I took a crack at once, and maybe I'll try again...

The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace are unlikely because I've got this thing about Russian novels... the characters have too many god-damned names, which are used indiscriminately and interchangeably. I can never keep track of who they're talking about.

But War and Peace has the Napoleonic wars going for it. So maybe...

That leaves the French novels. I'm such a chump I thought The Red and the Black was by Zola. But it's by Stendahl. And Le Père Goriot? What the hell is that? Ah, it's Balzac.

I might give that one a spin. I think of Balzac as being in the same school as Zola, and de Maupassant, whom I revere.

But what of Maugham's own book, about these ten novels? In his characteristically lucid introduction, he addresses  the obvious arguments about how any such list must be arbitrary and partial (in both senses of the word — incomplete and biased).

Then he says this astonishing thing:

"The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping"

Now, I suppose this explains why Moby Dick could make Maugham's list. Because for the all the brilliance of parts of that book, it's way too long and way too meandering.

But let me emphatically say two things here. 

If a book requires that you skip chunks of it to enjoy it — or worse yet, simply to manage to get through it — then it has no place on any list of the ten best. The books which do qualify are those which can be read, and enjoyed, in their entirety without skipping.

And, equally important, if you have skipped parts of a book you haven't read it. And you can't claim to have read it. You've only read a book if you've read every word.

I think both of these assertions are perfectly fair. 

But, to get back to Maugham and his introduction... 

It gets worse. Much worse. He goes on to say how, after reading his comments about skipping, an American publisher approached him with a proposal. Why not reissue the ten books on his list, with the cuts done already, by Maugham? In other words, abridge them, and give each one an introduction by Maugham. The old word butcher himself.

And, horrifyingly, Maugham didn't tell the guy to get lost. He thought it was a perfectly valid idea. "There is nothing reprehensible in cutting," he says.

Though he does at least concede,"I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as Pride and Prejudice, or from one so tightly constructed as Madam Bovary." 

"Some... will exclaim that it's a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece," he concludes.

Well I have to confess that I'm shocked, for that very reason. 

And I think considerably less of Maugham after reading that introduction.

(Image credits: The Penguin with beautiful Harri Peccinotti cover photo is scanned from my own copy. The Pan edition is from ABE. The green Heinemann hardcover is from My Maugham Collection, an interesting site which is well worth exploring. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 1 April 2018

Red Sparrow by Haythe and Matthews

This is a really terrific spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence (with bangs — I mean her hairdo. Not gunfire. Although there is that.  And not the other kind of bangs. Although there are those, too).

I'd heard disappointing reports about this movie, but went to see it anyway and I'm delighted I did. It started strongly and just kept getting better and better, finally concluding with a knockout ending. 

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Dominika Egorova, a successful ballerina. When Dominika's career as a dancer goes seriously off the rails, her sinister Uncle Vanya (no, honestly) conscripts her as a spy.

Dominika is a distinctive character, vulnerable but volatile. And, while we're on the V's, also violent and vengeful. 

Uncle Vanya is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a wonderful actor with a chameleon quality, who in this role has been given an hilarious and somewhat disturbing resemblance to Vladimir Putin. 

The versatile Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Nate Nash, a CIA operative running a mole in the Kremlin. Nate becomes romantically entangled with Dominika and apparently makes her a double agent.

But is Dominika a double or a triple?

This sort of plot is fairly standard espionage fare, but here it's been given a real freshness, edge and power.

The film benefits from gorgeous wintry photography by Dutch cinematographer Jo Willems who has a gift for bleakly beautiful urban compositions. 

It is outstandingly directed by Francis Lawrence who worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on three out of four Hunger Games movies (which were also photographed by Jo Willems). Francis Lawrence's directing debut was I am Legend.

The music is also memorable. James Newton Howard provides an edgy, insistent Bernard Herrmann style score. 

The story of Red Sparrow so strong and rich and inventive I wasn’t surprised to see it was based on a novel — a bestseller by Jason Matthews, a former CIA officer. Matthews also won an Edgar award for best first novel. The Edgar (Allan Poe) awards are nominally for mystery fiction but they also embrace spy thrillers.

The excellent screenplay was by Justin Haythe who wrote the oddball but memorable A Cure for Wellness and Snitch, a surprisingly good Dwayne Johnson movie. 

Red Sparrow has a tone of sexual violence and S&M which makes it distinctively dark and adult. This may be a turn off for some viewers. Otherwise, though, I highly recommend the film.

(Image credits: surprisingly, for such a big movie, only four posters available at good old Imp Awards.)