Sunday 31 March 2019

Green Book by Vallelonga, Currie & Farrelly

This film was entirely wonderful, and full of surprises. 

For a start I was wrong-footed by the place it begins — the Copacabana night club in New York in 1962, where we establish the character of Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip because he's such a persuasive talker.

Tony is played by Viggo Mortensen looking bulky and very much gone to seed in a stellar performance. He is a bouncer at the club, existing on the fringes of organised crime — though the movie takes pain to make it clear that he doesn't want to get too close to the real bad guys.

And Tony has a down-at-heels but rather idyllic home life, with a couple of kids and the enchanting Linda Cardellini as his wife Dolores.

The first note of conflict sounds when we discover the racial attitudes of Tony and his friends, which are incredibly deftly delineated in a scene where Dolores can't be left alone with the black workmen who have come to put down some flooring.

Tony is feeling a financial squeeze because the Copacabana has had to close for a couple of months for renovations. So he reluctantly agrees to take a job as driver and minder with Dr Shirley, a waspish and aristocratic black musician, played superbly by Mahershala Ali (who was previously so good as the drug dealer in Moonlight).

Dr Shirley is embarking on a tour down South, a dangerous business in the segregated USA of that time. The Green Book of the title was a real publication, a guide for African Americans which listed the (generally few and squalid) hotels where they were permitted to stay.

I immediately braced myself for the ordeal that Shirley was about to encounter. And I also had a pleasant tingle of anticipation. His hiring of Tony was clearly a smart move. Tony is a tough and resourceful guy.

I looked forward to his confrontation with the inevitable redneck knuckleheads, as he was forced to defend his employer.

And I was not disappointed.

The trajectory of this movie was very clear. The journey of these two characters would also become a journey of self discovery and enlightenment, and Tony's racial prejudice would fall away, while Shirley's snobbery towards Tony would melt and vanish.

Well, that's pretty much what happens. But it in no way diminished my profound enjoyment of this magnificent film.

Dr Shirley is a pianist and he embarks on his travels with two other musicians, both white, a cellist and a bass player — I thought this was a very unusual musical combination, but that's because I expected Shirley to be a jazz musician.

In fact he plays popular versions of classical music in a super high speed, virtuosic piano style (Ali's work on the keyboard is truly impressive. He must have practised like a demon). 

Effectively, as is acknowledged in the film, Dr Shirley is a kind of black Liberace. And like Liberace, he has to conceal his sexuality.

This entire movie is beautifully done, carefully setting up engrossing situations and playing them out in the most satisfying manner. It's abundant with opportunities for audience delight in a way I haven't experienced in a film for a long time.

I assumed this was a (brilliant) work of fiction, though when Dr Shirley was referred to by his first name, Don, a distant bell began to ring in my memory. And at the very end of the picture they reveal that it's based on a true story.

Ah yes, of course. I'd heard of the Don Shirley trio. But having so thoroughly enjoyed the story thinking it was entirely invented, this sudden revelation blew my mind.

Since I've seen the picture, I've come across some criticism of it because it didn't adhere completely to historical fact (a common complaint for movies based on real people).

To me this is an utterly absurd objection. I adored this movie when I thought it was completely fictional. To discover it's a tiny bit fictional certainly isn't going to reduce my admiration for it.

Astonishingly, Green Book is the work of director Peter Farrelly — famed for his work on gross-out comedies, There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. Farrelly also contributed to the outstanding screenplay.

The other writers involved were Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga — Tony's son.

I loved Green Book. I urge you to see it.

(Only one poster at Imp Awards. The "For your consideration" poster is from Cinematerial. The "Recognizes seismic changes" one is from Gold Poster. The Chinese poster of the steering wheel is from Alizila. The stylish green art deco poster by the talented Chung Kong is from his website. The striking image of the car on the keyboards is from Poster Spy, and is the work of Eileen Steinbach. The cover of the real Don Shirley album, which features hilariously in the dialogue of the film, is from Discogs. Good luck finding a copy since this movie came out!)

Sunday 24 March 2019

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Here is the 14th adventure of Hercule Poirot, following the brilliant The ABC Murders and preceding Cards on the Table.

And as with The ABC Murders, Christie is here increasingly concerned with character. Rather than the detail of how a killing was engineered (though this is indeed fascinating, and I would never have guessed it) it's the emerging, complex characterisation of the victim which is really fascinating.

The setting of this novel is an archaeological dig in Iraq. A British nurse called Amy Leatheran (great name) is hired to look after Louise Leidner, the highly strung American wife of the man running the dig.

Louise is described as an "allumeuse" — a word that sent me scampering to the dictionary. In this case, the Oxford Dictionary, where it's defined as a "A woman who is alluring but sexually elusive; a flirt, coquette (usually with some degree of sophistication implied)."

Not surprisingly, Louise's behaviour is ratcheting up the tension among the party of archaeologists, which includes a somewhat sinister French monk, Father Lavigny; Marie Mercado, the "Nasty slinking little cat" of a wife of Joseph Mercado; and Mercado himself, another one of Christie's drug addicts...

The setting is well researched and authentic — not surprising when you learn that Christie's second husband was an archaeologist and that she attended such digs with him — and I found the detail captivating...

Such as when the characters "cleaned some pottery, pouring a solution of hydrochloric acid over it. One pot went a lovely plum colour and a pattern of bulls' horns came out on another one." 

And for those of you whose murder-mystery Spidey sense starts tingling at the mention of hydrochloric acid... all I can say is, full marks to you.

The story is told from Nurse Leatheran's point of view. And once a murder has taken place — you're not getting any spoilers from me — Poirot appears on the scene. 

In Amy Leatheran he has acquired a new Watson: "I got the feeling... that M. Poirot and I were the doctor and nurse in charge of a case... I was beginning to enjoy  myself."

Although he remains a rather grating caricature, Poirot has by now acquired a certain amount of gravitas and status just through the sheer volume of his adventures. And I loved some of his cynical pronouncements — "I have never found two handwriting experts who agree on any point whatsoever."

More chillingly he observes, "murder is a habit." And sure enough, there is soon another killing, a particularly horrible one. The authorities are summoned once more and return to the dig. "And finally with the dawn, Hercule Poirot." 

Agatha Christie is energised by the exotic location of this story and some of her best descriptive writing is aroused to set the scene. And once more we have her sardonic observations about the female of the species:

"Women are wonderful realists... women can put up with a lot when they've got what they want."

And Louise Leidner, our allemeuse, is particularly well evoked: "she experimented — with people — like other people experiment with chemicals."

I also really liked Sheila Reilly, the daughter of the local doctor, who offers a savage and absolutely devastating critique of the various characters in the archaeological team. In this sequence Christie depicts her cast and their relationships with an impressive ruthless brilliance.

But as you know, the plot is the thing in a murder mystery. And here Christie is on top form.

After reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I now approach every one of her stories with a genuine sense of unease — no one is to be trusted, and no one is safe.

Which is just as well, because I would never have guessed any of the developments in Murder in Mesopotamia. When Poirot announces it's time to "summon the others"and everybody gathers to hear him reveal the truth, I had no idea what was coming...

While this wasn't quite as stunning as The ABC Murders, it's a really accomplished and memorable piece of work and the unusual setting clearly inspires Agatha Christie, and impresses itself vividly on the readers.

Christie is really on roll at this point in her writing career... as is emphatically revealed in a throwaway line at the end of the book: "Poirot went back to Syria and about a week later he went home on the Orient Express and got himself mixed up in another murder."

I will look forward to joining you on the Orient Express.

(Image credits: The Italian Mondadori edition with the woman's face and the scary mask — copied from the Tom Adams Fontana — is from Anobli. All the others are from a rich selection at Good Reads — I particularly admire the Indonesian one with what looks like an avenging Babylonian demon on it.)

Sunday 17 March 2019

Twilight Zone — the Play, by Washburn, Matheson, Beaumont & Serling

Created by Rod Serling, the original Twilight Zone TV series (1958-64) is an all-time favourite of mine. Serling wrote the bulk of the episodes, but there were also substantial and memorable contributions by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, among others.

In 2017 the Almeida Theatre in north London created a stage production based on the series. It attracted a lot of attention and I regretted missing it, especially after an intriguing review in New Scientist.

So I was delighted when the show proved successful enough to launch a new production at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End, just around the corner from where Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been playing for 60 years or so.

I hastened along to see the play — which runs until June 2019 — and it was a knockout. It's written by American playwright Anne Washburn and it makes the very smart move of being sturdily based on a selection of original episodes — by Serling, Beaumont and Matheson. 

(Incidentally Richard Matheson is a particular writing hero of mine. He created classics such as The Shrinking Man and I am Legend.)

The play also has the good sense to make use of some of the fine original music for the TV series, including themes by Bernard Herrmann.

But despite having its roots firmly planted in the original, Washburn's stage version of The Twilight Zone is full of surprises. 

For a start I expected it to be a fairly straight adaptation of a series of stories from the show. 
But instead of presenting these stories in a linear fashion it chops them up and intermingles them, moving from one to another with strikingly surreal transitions

It's also very funny — there's a great running gag about how Rod Serling (who appeared onscreen to introduce the TV show) always had a cigarette in his hand.

And it's just plain wild, featuring stage magic, illusion and a song and dance sequence which is like David Lynch meets The Simpsons. (Interestingly, one of Anne Washburn's other plays is Mr Burns, inspired by The Simpsons.)

The assorted stories are variable (I felt Matheson's Little Girl Lost could have had a more chilling impact), but the cumulative effect is one of exhilaration, and great affection, for the show.

The play does have one flaw though — at two hours and twenty minutes, it goes on a little too long. And at one point in particular I found my attention straying.

This was during a segment based on Sterling's story The Shelter, which concerns a family with a fallout shelter, to protect them in event of a nuclear attack. When the sirens go, they lock themselves in and refuse admission to their neighbours...

While you could argue this sequences carries a powerful social message — and it unequivocally provides the fine cast with an opportunity to display the calibre of their acting — it feels out of place here. 

It lacks any supernatural or science fiction element. It's conventional, mundane and earthbound. And its endpoint is never in doubt. It also goes on far too long and it's too obvious.

Nor is it deeply connected with any of the other stories in the otherwise complex intertwining of the narrative structure. So the play could lose this segment without any damage.

And I feel cutting it would turn what is already a wonderful evening at the theatre into something like a masterpiece. 

(Other opinions are available — the New Scientist thought The Shelter was the best part of the play.)

But never mind any of that. As it stands, The Twilight Zone is a glorious experience. And if you're in London in the next few months you should try and get a ticket.

(Image credits: I have scanned a flyer I obtained at the theatre the night I attended, plus the rather cool script book I purchased there. The colour photos are sourced from the Almeida wesbsite.)

Sunday 10 March 2019

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

It's kind of fun to be out and about in London on a windy spring day, standing at a bus stop in Putney, post code SW15, reading an Agatha Christie and discovering that the crazed killer in the story is posting his taunting letters from — yes, "Putney, SW15."

The taunting letters in question are addressed to Hercule Poirot. The ABC Murders is Poirot's 13th adventure, and it really is outstanding. The previous ones I've read were Cards on the Table (the 15th) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the 4th). 

Cards on the Table was okay. Roger Ackroyd had a devastatingly brilliant twist, but was rather creakily written.

The ABC Murders, however is superb. By now both Christie and her detective hero are increasingly concerned with the characters involved in the story — "More and more I interest myself in the human developments which arise," says Poirot.

Christie's characters are distinct, varied and very concisely evoked through dialogue. Her dialogue is variable but is often superb. No wonder she was such a natural and brilliant playwright.

Indeed, her colloquial speech can be as convincing as Pinter's. The working class voices in her work are surprisingly well caught. It's odd that her more affluent and upper class characters come across as rather artificial, when this was the milieu Christie was born into...

We even see improvement in the dialogue of Poirot — which normally  tends to be a string of mannerisms ("little grey cells") and fake foreignness ("Une bonne idée"). But in The ABC Murders he accurately and amusingly describes one of the victims as a "pretty fluffy fool." 

(Christie is always good at depicting vapid, vain, foolish or shallow women.)

But naturally in Agatha Christie, and in murder mysteries generally, plot is king. And the plot here is staggeringly good.

For a start, this a complete departure for Poirot. Instead of dealing with a conventional murder, he is pitted against a serial killer — "the 'chain' or 'series' type of murder," as it is described.

He remarks to Captain Hastings (his Dr Watson), "this is the first crime of this kind that you and I have worked on... cold-blooded, impersonal murder."
The serial killer, who begins to emerge in the story as a highly organised madman, is choosing his victims — and their location — alphabetically. Hence the title, which also alludes to the ABC Railway Guide which was a major feature of British life at the time.

(And which is why so many covers of this book feature trains — rather misleadingly, since they play no part in the story. Unlike Murder on the Orient Express.)
The manhunt for this dangerous lunatic makes for a very compelling read. But what really distinguishes this book is the utterly unexpected ending. I sincerely doubt you will guess the final revelation.

I sure as hell didn't.

At this point in her distinguished career Agatha Christie was a writer in full and confident command of her craft. So much so that she can pause for a mischievous discussion of murder mystery cliches à la John Dickson Carr, and even audaciously include Poirot's description of his ideal whodunit —

He murmurs, "four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the  end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four... has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed... Which of the four was it?"

This is, of course, the plot for Cards on the Table, which Christie would publish a few months later.

Talk about cheeky...

(Image credits: the covers are from Good Reads, where I tried to avoid ones where the railway motif is rather done to death.)

Sunday 3 March 2019

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is one of the greatest mysteries of all time, one of Agatha Christie's finest, a 24 karat classic. 

And it was ruined for me before I had a chance to read it by some wonderful genius on a radio program who thought it would be a grand idea to blithely reveal the identity of the killer to thousands of listeners...

But I overcame my fury (eventually) and decided to read it all the same.

Published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the fourth adventure of Hercule Poirot and as it begins we find he has supposedly retired to the country to grow marrows and that Arthur Hastings, the Watson to his Holmes, has moved to the Argentine.

So in this story the local GP, Dr James Sheppard, neatly steps into Hastings' role. 

The story is told from Sheppard's point of view, in a first person voice, again like Watson and Holmes.

Sheppard's gossipy sister Caroline, who lives to recount tidbits of local scandal, may well be the best character in the story, memorably and amusingly described throughout. 

Christie has fun with her and is inspired to some of her best descriptions. 

When she is caught between two choice pieces of gossip, "Caroline visibly wavered for a second or two, much as a roulette ball might coyly hover between two numbers."
Caroline also has some caustic things to say about the male of the species: "Never worry about what you say to a man. They're so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it's unflattering."  

And when Poirot and Sheppard have to leave her behind as they set off to stage the final confrontation and revelation of the murder mystery, she is rather touchingly disappointed, left "like a dog who has been refused a walk, standing on the front door step gazing after us." 

The other character Christie seems to have really had fun writing is Mrs Ackroyd, the  sister in law of the victim, who is pretentious, selfish, hypocritical and generally just won't shut up. She is "all chains and teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman." 

Mrs Ackroyd's handshake is "a handful of assorted knuckles and rings." She is also a deadly snob who complains about "those peculiar gurgling noises inside which so many parlourmaids seem to have when they wait at the table."
There are parlourmaids aplenty here; it's a classic English country house murder story.

I do have to mention one thing that bothered me about it, though. Christie, who otherwise seems to have been scrupulous in her research, does appear a little confused about the use of recreational drugs...

I wonder what Dashiell Hammett would have had to say about her suggestion that it's a common practice (or even a very rare one) in America (or indeed anywhere else) to use a goose quill to either store or snort (she's not entirely clear) heroin, or is it cocaine? (She's not entirely clear about that, either.)

But perhaps it's ungallant of me to harp on about one small solecism in such a neatly and seamlessly plotted story.

And I was surprised at how funny Agatha Christie can be. I've only read one other novel by her so far, and I'd always imagined her to be rather humourless. 

But here she is playfully describing how the boring big game hunter Major Blunt "stood squarely in front of the fireplace looking over our heads as though he saw something very interesting happening in Timbuktu."

Of course, Poirot is allegedly a comic figure. But he has been described by Ian Ousby, cruelly but accurately as an "embarrassingly crude cartoon." 

However, it's just as well to remember that he only pretends to be a clown. Occasionally the real Poirot shows through, as when Sheppard observes that the detective "was looking at the case from some peculiar angle of his own."

And at the end of the book Poirot "suddenly became dangerous" with "real menace in his words."

This ending involves everything being wrapped up with a gathering of the suspects and the detective revealing the truth.

It's a relief that this takes place in Poirot's sitting room, not his library, but otherwise it's a classic, not to say clichéd, example of the murder mystery denouement.

Actually, it avoids cliché through the doctor's rather chilling description of it as being like "a trap — a trap that had closed."

The revelation of the identity of the murderer is brilliant. And I can only imagine the impact if that joker on the radio hadn't spoiled it for me.

If you're a fan of whodunits, especially in the classic style, I urge you to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before someone gives away the brilliant ending.

(Image credits: The lovely vintage Pocket Book cover, which is the main illustration, is from Ah Sweet Mystery. The equally lovely vintage Portuguese edition with a similar vibe — the Coleccao Vampiro edition — is from Capas & Companhia. The beautiful early Tom Adams painting for Fontana — with the dagger in the tweed jacket (Adams stuck a dagger through his own jacket and put red dye on it, then painted the result) and that beautiful sinister detail of the fly, is from Flickr. The rest are from Good Reads, including the gorgeous white and red Indonesian edition. And the other Adams cover of the maid's apron floating in a ghostly fashion in front of a window.)