Sunday 30 December 2018

Best Films of 2018

Let's say farewell to 2018 with a summary of my personal favourite movies from the past year. As usual, before moving on to the top ten we'll start with a dozen honourable runners-up, including some really oddball choices...

The Happy Time Murders — which elsewhere has been declared one of the worst films of the year — is LA-noir X-rated Muppet fun and it really tickled me. 

Searching was another of those found footage thrillers which supposedly consists solely of computer screens — they bust a gut trying to maintain the convention here, but the twists are well planted and very satisfying.

Unsane was entirely filmed by Steven Soderbergh on an iPhone (yes, really) and featured Claire Foy wrongly locked up in a mental hospital... or is she? Gaping plot holes reduce the impact of this thriller, but it remains impressively powerful. 

In Alpha a Stone Age boy is separated from his tribe and survives by befriending a wounded wolf and thereby creating the first domesticated dog. It begins rather disagreeably — plenty of animal slaughter — but becomes quite wonderful.

12 Strong is a fact-based military thriller. Its Ted Tally script is an asset as is the Lorne Balfe score. And there’s something inherently thrilling about a cavalry charge. For me the best bit was when Chris Hemsworth’s horse, whom I thought was a goner, gets defiantly to his feet (hooves?) and shakes himself, ready to go on fighting.

Mile 22. Who would have thought this Mark Wahlberg shoot-’em-up would be of such high quality? Molly’s Game. As good as this was, I didn’t feel it lived up to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue at his finest. Love, Simon was an extremely well crafted teen gay romance comedy.

All the Money in the World. Ridley Scott’s best movie in decades. Maybe his best ever. Hostiles is a powerful Western. After harrowing and terrible sequences, it has a marvellous ending.

Black Panther. A great movie, but Andy Serkis was such an outstanding villain, as Ulysses Klaue, that Michael Jordan as his replacement had a hard time matching up — although Jordan has the most extraordinary and telling dialogue… breathtaking, really.

Solo: A Star Wars Adventure. Excellent. A double-Kasdan ampersand of a script and a top notch cast. Thandie Newton gets to say lines like, “Viper droids headed your way.” And there’s convincing chemistry when she and Woody Harrelson kiss.

Okay, now for the top ten itself:

Thoroughbreds is a terrific little movie straight out of left field. Echoes of everything from Heathers to Equus to Stoker. Lily seems to be the perfect teen, Amanda her troubled friend. But is it really that way around? A diabolical and wild music score by Erik Friedlander is one of the finest I’ve heard in recent times. 

You Were Never Here has echoes of Point Blank, but much more emphatically of Taxi Driver. It’s an art movie, but scarily bleak with profound violence. Also moments of great beauty and strangeness. 

Red Sparrow is a really splendid spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence which just keeps getting better and better and finally concludes with a knockout ending. 

The Shape of Water is a rare fantasy movie fit to sit beside the likes of The Wizard of Oz. And I think it will be an enduring classic.

I completely love The Girl in the Spider's Web, a surprising high-quality addition to the Lisbeth Salander saga, with director Fede Alvarez channelling David Fincher.

The Predator was another huge surprise with Shane Black not only reviving this franchise but surpassing the original.

Right... now we're down to the best four. And, as usual, it's very hard to chose between these absolute gems.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is utterly wonderful. A sharp, comic and tragic tale of teenager Cameron (Chlöe Grace Moritz) who likes girls — so she's sent for gay conversion therapy (read brainwashing). It also stars Sasha Lane from American Honey (one of my best films of 2016).

Every Day. Under this banal title lurks one of the truly notable films of the year. A body-hopping romance which, in its gender fluidity, makes an interesting companion piece to Love, Simon and provides an amusing corrective to Robert Silverberg’s short story ‘Passengers’.

I was just knocked out by Entebbe. I expected a  gripping account of real life events. But this is a genuine work of art. The screenwriter Gregory Burke and director José Padilha bringing great creative energy to create something profound

But — and this will come as no surprise to regular readers — for the fourth year running, my pick for the best film of the year is one written by Taylor Sheridan: Sicario 2: Soldado, a sequel  which does a superb job of enlisting the audience's sympathies and keeping us on the edge of our seat. Spellbinding. A masterpiece. I loved every moment of it.  

(Sheridan's previous films — all winners of top honours in my annual lists — are Wind River, Hell or High Water, and the original Sicario.)

Happy viewing, thanks for reading, and happy New Year.

(Image credits; All the posters are from the admirable and invaluable Imp Awards.)

Sunday 23 December 2018

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

For this year's Christmas blog post I've chosen a classic crime novel, a cosy locked room murder mystery, set in a beautifully evoked winter London where "The snow was whirling outside, and it was not a night to venture far..."

The first thing that has to be said about The Hollow Man is that this is not anything to do with the Paul Veerhoven movie featuring an invisible Kevin Bacon.

The second thing is that it is also widely known under the title The Three Coffins.

Whatever you call it, it's an outstanding example of the aforementioned "locked room" sub genre. 

In case you're not familiar with these, and at the risk of explaining the thunderingly obvious, these are murder mysteries where the crime appears to have taken place under impossible circumstances — for instance in a locked room where the killer couldn't have got in, or out.

The Hollow Man was published in 1935 and it's the work of John Dickson Carr, who wrote prolifically under his own name and also under a series of pseudonyms, including Carter Dickson.

Carr was an American, which comes as a surprise, since he writes so convincingly about British locations. But that's because he moved to England at the beginning of his long writing career.

The Hollow Man is a purely rational and realistic story (albeit rather sensational) but it begins by conjuring an air of supernatural menace, which it renews from time to time — fairly deftly. So it isn't surprising that elsewhere Carr did write some memorable fantasy novels, including Fire, Burn! in which a 20th century London cop is transported back to 1829.

But, as I say, The Hollow Man is firmly rooted in the rational and the hero of the book is one Dr Gideon Fell, who is not merely a rationalist, but an amateur detective who has a brain to rival that of Sherlock Holmes, although his corpulent body is a bit of a mess — on a single page he is evoked with the words "lumbering", "wheezed" and "waddled." Not exactly a picture of health and fitness. (Fell is said to be based on the crime writer G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown.)

The Hollow Man was a big surprise to me. In this kind of story I expect the prose to be serviceable at best. But Carr is an excellent writer. His descriptions and dialogue are of a high standard, but it's his characterisation which really scores outstanding marks for him.

Particularly his women. He has some strong and memorable female characters here, which is very unusual at this time, especially from a male writer. 

Take for instance the "restless, sleek and puzzling" Rosette Grimaud, a self described feminist (I didn't even know the term existed in 1935) who announces that she's in favour of "less talk and more copulation."

This sort of characterisation, besides being vivid and original, is way ahead of its time. 

Carr is also often very funny. Superintendent Hadley of the CID — the Inspector Lestrade to Fell's Holmes — says at one point, "We can get ideas even from a clever man."

And Dr Fell describes the benefits of "Having been improving my mind with sensational fiction for forty years."  And then goes on to provide a lucid analysis of the whole field of locked room murder mysteries, citing names of writers and detectives in a way that's reminiscent of Stieg Larsson (whose hero Blomkvist devours crime novels while he is busy pursuing his own investigation).

This is very modern and witty — not to mention almost disturbingly meta... as when Fell declares "we're in a detective story and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not."

Naturally the crucial thing in a detective story, especially a complex puzzle mystery like this one, is whether the payoff is satisfying or not. And here the author delivers the goods. The solution is diabolically ingenious, holds water, and I'm willing to wager you'll never guess it.

But for me the real revelation was the quality of Carr's writing. I'm seriously impressed  and I'll be looking for more of his books to read.

Meanwhile, if you want to curl up with a classic mystery this Christmas, I recommend that you let John Dickson Carr cast his spell on you, and accompany him into this moody, menacing tale where "London, on the morning of a grey winter Sunday, was deserted to the point of ghostliness along miles of streets..."

(Image credits: A delightfully huge selection of covers, including a couple of striking Chinese editions, at good old Good Reads.)

Sunday 16 December 2018

You Live Once by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of my all time heroes. He wrote nearly 80 books, primarily crime thrillers and suspense fiction, and almost every one of them is excellent. 

Most of these novels began life as disposable American paperbacks and many were never published in a more permanent format — i.e. hardcover editions. In the UK, though, a publisher called Robert Hale reissued a lot of MacDonald's work between hard covers.

I pick up these Hale editions whenever I can. I like their durability, even though sometimes the cover art leaves something to be desired — as in the case of You Live Once, which I just got hold of this week. (It features this silly and quite irrelevant photo of a glamour model with a fishing rod and a gun.)

You Live Once dates from 1956 and I'm posting about it now because I just happened to glance at the first page yesterday, before putting it on my MacDonald shelf, and I promptly found myself falling under its spell...

And 24 hours later I've finished it and I'm writing this. 

It's the story of Clint Sewell, who has been dating a troubled rich girl called Mary Olan. As the book begins he wakes up with a very strange, intense headache and discovers that Mary has spent the night at his place — dead in his closet.

Clint isn't the type given to morbid self doubt, so never for an instant does he question whether he might have actually killed Mary, perhaps during a blackout. That might well be the basis for a memorable noir tale by Cornell Woolrich...

But MacDonald is a very different sort of writer. (And, it has to be said, a superior one.) So, instead, Clint correctly infers that someone wanted Mary dead and is trying to frame him for the crime.

Therefore he decides to get rid of the body...

What could possibly go wrong?
This plot neatly combines a classic murder mystery — who really killed Mary? — with a powerful suspense element: will Clint end up going to the electric chair as the fall guy, after all?

And indeed, at times, the suspense is almost unbearable.

But what really distinguishes MacDonald, as I've said before, is the quality of his writing. He can even make the description of a parked car memorable — "My black Merc sat dozing in the sun." 

Or here he is talking about "the cruel slant of the bishops" on a chess board. (He also reflects on the intellectual purity of the game "... a special, clean geometric world... Perhaps it was a good world to hide in.")
And here he describes a man receiving bad news: "staring at his large clenched fist as though he held something small there, captive."

MacDonald shows that, even at this relatively early stage in his career, he was capable of great psychological acuteness. After dumping Mary's body in the woods, Clint reflects, "If no one found her, I knew I would live with nightmares for a long, long time." 
(As it turns out, he doesn't have to worry about that.)

The characterisation in You Live Once is excellent and often darkly funny, but I would say this is not absolutely top notch John D. MacDonald. It's perhaps a bit too cursory —as if the author never entirely fell in love with the story. And there's a slightly drippy romantic sub plot.

But the absorbing murder mystery is skilfully constructed. You're highly unlikely to guess who the culprit is, but when all is revealed, the answer is entirely satisfying. 

Which is the highest accolade for plotting in this genre.

Well done again, Mr MacDonald.

(I have also previously written posts on these other John D. MacDonald novels: The Brass Cupcake, The Last One Left, The Crossroads, All These Condemned, Border Town Girl — actually two novellas, but let's not split hairs —  The Drowner, Murder in the Wind and One Monday We Killed Them All.)

(Image credits: The crazy Hale hard cover with the gun-toting fisher-girl is from Flickr. The 25c Popular Library edition — the first incarnation of this book — is from the admirable John D. MacDonald Covers site. The more recent version of the McGinnis cover, with the Green Ripper citation is from Good Reads. You Kill Me is from Pinterest. The Magnum edition with the green cover of photo and gun is from the bookseller GD Price. The other covers, including the Cosmopolitan magazine (where an early version of the novel appeared), are from the truly excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold.)

Sunday 9 December 2018

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (Part 2)

I've previously discussed the background for Rosemary's Baby — its context and predecessors — now onto the novel itself.

(Spoiler alert. If you have no idea of the secret of Rosemary's Baby, stop reading this post immediately and go and read the book instead.)

Ira Levin's novel is quite wonderful. I've read it a number of times before, but I welcomed another chance to immerse myself in it as part of this complete survey of Levin's work. And a couple of things struck me anew on this reading.

Firstly, just how damned funny the book  is. Secondly, how utterly villainous and what a bastard Guy is. Guy Woodhouse is Rosemary's husband, and he's an actor. And this is the key to his being a villain — and a bastard.

He is entirely ready to sell Rosemary down the river (in this case, the River Styx) to further his career. Knowing what he's up to really hammers this home, as in the sequence where he's forcing her to eat the doped chocolate mousse. (Don't eat it, Rosemary! But she does...)

Guy's actorly self absorption and narcissism and gift for duplicity are all signalled from the beginning, like at the dinner party where Rosemary's friend Hutch is warning them not to move into the sinister Bramford building, and lists the inexplicable frequency of bad things happening there: " 'What's the answer, Hutch?' Guy said, playing serious-and-concerned."

Later, after Rosemary has been drugged and knocked out (the aforementioned chocolate mousse) by Guy, and pimped out by him to be raped and impregnated by Satan, her treacherous hubby finds himself a little spooked by the whole situation.

At this point Rosemary (and the first time reader) has no idea what's happened, but she knows something is wrong between her and Guy. He won't touch her... he'll hardly look at her. 

So she calls him on it. He immediately apologises profusely and pleads the pressure of work —

"It was awkward and charming and sincere, like his playing of the cowboy in Bus Stop."

With adroit and acute little hints like this, Ira Levin is telling us that Guy is not to be trusted and not only is he capable of doing something terrible to Rosemary, he's already done it.

I mentioned how funny the book is. This is not just in its incidentals but also, so brilliantly, in its climax. 

When Rosemary frees herself from captivity, arms herself with a kitchen knife, and goes to rescue her baby, whom she believes to have been kidnapped by Satanists, she discovers instead that her child is the spawn of the devil himself...

Complete with eyes that are "golden-yellow, with vertical black-slit pupils", little budding horns, clawed hands and misshapen feet (there's a subtle and hilarious warning of this earlier when Rosemary finds her klutzy Satanist neighbour Laura Louise knitting some "shaped-all-wrong bootees" for the baby).

When she sees the baby, Rosemary completely freaks out, of course. But within a few pages she's thinking, "His eyes weren't that bad really, now that she was prepared for them." And rocking his cradle. And calling him "Mr Worry-face" and "Andy-candy."

Yup, she's bonded with the little devil. I'd forgotten how utterly Rosemary buys into all this at the end. It's so priceless, and so perfect, and so unexpected. Levin is such a genius.

Oh, and the other cherishable moment in this final scene is when she spits in Guy's face.

Now that Rosemary is embedded with the Satanist's as the baby's doting mother, and accepted that she's spawned the Anti-Christ, I found myself hoping that will she mete out some appropriate punishment for Guy.

I'll let you know when I report on the sequel, Son of Rosemary.

(Image credits: Rich pickings at Good Reads where, as you can see, various publishers the world over have leaned heavily on the film as a source of images for their cover designs.)

Sunday 2 December 2018

Widows by Flynn & McQueen and LaPlante

Widows is potent material. It was the writing debut of former actress Lynda LaPlante and she did a fantastic job. Its first — and possibly still finest — incarnation was as British TV mini-series in 1983.

The concept is simple, and brilliant. A gang of crooks die during a heist. Their widows band together to pull off one last big score, using a plan left by the dead criminal mastermind...

A considerable success back in '83, Widows also had quite an afterlife. There was a sequel, Widows 2 in 1985, a sequel called She's Out in 1993, and an American mini-series ("They took over the family business and made out like bandits") in 2002.

It's great material and I was delighted to hear it was being made into a new feature film. I was less delighted when I learned the director was Steve McQueen.

McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) comes from a high-art background and I don't think he really understands drama, or perhaps even film. However, there's no denying he made one genius decision early on — to chose Gillian Flynn as his co-writer on the project.

Flynn wrote the novel Gone Girl and also the screenplay for the David Fincher film adaptation, both of which are stupendous. For Widows she brings a lot of richness and depth to the script, but there's a little too much coincidence in the plot for my liking.

The new film is well worth seeing, but it's frustrating. Every time it really starts to burn with excitement, McQueen throws a shovel full of sand on the fire, so to speak. The trouble is, he's trying so hard to be arty...

For example, there's a whirling circular tracking shot which makes the audience feel sea sick. 

And also a fixed camera sequence, shot continuously and in real time, where we are stuck outside a car and unable to see the people speaking inside — a corrupt politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his decorative fixer Siobhan (Molly Kuntz).

There's some great dialogue here but it just doesn't work because we can't see Mulligan or Siobhan. It's an amazingly frustrating scene, and seems to break basic rules of film making.

Now, this was a careful and deliberate decision by McQueen, who wanted to show what a short drive it is from a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Chicago to Mulligan's posh suburban home.

Fair enough. Keep the camera mounted on the hood of the car. But don't make the vehicle a chauffeur driven limo with opaque smoked glass windows. Make it a car with windows we can see through and stick Farrell and Kuntz in the front — it makes perfect sense that Mulligan would drive himself in a less flashy vehicle, because he's just put on his man-of-the-people act.

As I say, Widows is frustrating. It's good, but it could have been great. Art films and thrillers need not be incompatible — look at John Boorman's Point Blank, a movie which shows just how far short Widows falls short.

(Image credits: Very thin pickings — just three variations of  effectively the same poster — at Imp Awards. The Blu-ray cover of the original British mini series is from Network, who have a great catalogue and frequent sales. The poster for the 2002 US remake of the mini-series — which was directed by Geoffrey Sax, a very nice chap — is from IMDB.)