Sunday 28 April 2019

Us by Jordan Peele

Us is the innocent sounding title for the new film by Jordan Peele, the genius (I don't think that's too strong a word) who brought us the astonishing Get Out.

Get Out was a razor sharp thriller which trod the borderline between acute social commentary and science fiction. It was reminiscent of John Frankenheimer's Seconds, although it was more darkly funny and more deeply satirical.

For me, the one flaw with Get Out was its more blatant 'genre' aspects — the rather outrageous science fiction/fantasy/horror plot elements. Its greatest strength was its critique on race in America.

Well, Peele's new film doesn't have much at all to say specifically about race in America (although it made a fascinating double feature the same day I saw it with Green Book), whereas it moves explicitly and emphatically into the genre zone.

In other words, the new film emphasises what I regarded as the weaknesses of Get Out and discards the strengths. So you might think I didn't like it. But I loved it.

Us is a remarkable and disturbing movie which will grip you from the very opening scenes where a little girl gets lost at a fun fair, and you expect the most horrific consequences — and you're right, but not in any way you could imagine.

Peele is uniquely talented. Once again, the brilliant precision of his film-making combined with the audacious strangeness reminded me of Roman Polanski.

I don't want to give too much away about the movie — just allow me to urge you to see it — but I will say that it plays with notions of symmetry and duality and concurrence. 

There is a recurring motif of a biblical quotation, Jeremiah 11:11 and at one point a digital clock radio reads 11:11. Seeing the film a second time (how appropriate) I began to notice how subtly Peele has woven this theme in — in the background we hear about a baseball game tied 11:11.

But never mind the subtleties, let's talk about the overt aspects of the film. Us is both laugh-out-loud funny, in a very dark way ("I've got the highest kill count in the family") and utterly terrifying — both by means of physical brutality and psychological creepiness. 

And the performances are astounding — particularly Lupita Nyong'o. Since I'm not going to give too much away, you'll have to go to the movie to see what I mean.

Also deserving mention is the luminous photography of Mike Gioulakis, the hellishly unsettling music score by Michael Abels, and a very strange guest appearance by a whole bunch of white rabbits.

(Image credits: six posters from Imp Awards. The one with the three faces is from Notre Cinema. The disturbing image of the distorted face little girl is by Scott Saslow and is a fan art poster from Indie Wire. The Rorschach-looking grey one is again a fan poster, this one by Alex Lanier and is also from Indie Wire.)

Sunday 21 April 2019

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is the 25th Poirot novel, published in 1942 and the sixth one to come my way* — and it's fabulously good. Easily the best I've read so far. 

To start with, it is also the basis of a really superb 1960 stage play by Christie called Go Back for Murder, which is a much better title than Five Little Pigs (so is Murder in Retrospect, a rare example of me preferring an American title for a Christie novel).

I loved that play, which I also just finished read, so it's certainly predisposed me in favour of this novel. 

For another thing, Five Little Pigs is a cold-case story, dealing with a killing which took place 16 years earlier. And these are always fascinating, with their need to dig into the past and reinterpret situations, and of course their hints of a terrible miscarriage of justice...

Or, as Poirot puts it, "That was my task — to put myself in reverse gear, as it were, and go back through the years and discover what really happened."

This is a bit of a departure for Poirot, which is one of the wonderful things about Christie. Although she wrote dozens of novels about her detective, she didn't allow them to fall into a standard pattern. 

She'd constantly vary the kind of plot — locked room, serial killer, cold case — and also the narrative style — it's often first person narration by one of Poirot's 'Watson' surrogates, but here it's more like an omniscient narrator or what we'd call a close third person.

(But, crucially, we are never allowed to know what Poirot is thinking. Because that would reveal the truth too soon, and spoil the fun.)

Christie was always willing to experiment, and that keeps her work fresh.

This book is also marked by some wonderful dialogue as when a distinguished lawyer talks of someone having "joined the great majority" (i.e. died).

And the characters are genuinely memorable.

Five Little Pigs (I hate that title) tells the story of Amyas Crale — great name — a hugely talented but relentlessly womanising painter who was allegedly poisoned by his wife during a memorable summer when he brought his mistress into his home to paint her.

The painter, the wife, the mistress, all are impressively real and vivid.

The novel is set in motion by Crale's daughter, Carla, who was rushed out of the country as a child after her father's killing, and raised in Canada. But her mother arranged for Carla to receive a letter when she turned 21, declaring her innocence. 

And Carla believes her. So she goes back to England (goes back for murder) and hires Hercule Poirot.

And Poirot begins to probe into the past.

This is a book which will linger in your memory long after you finish it. The arrogance — and genius — of Amyas the painter...

The determination of his sensual young mistress, Elsa, to steal him out from under the very nose of his wife — and the way she is "insolent with triumph" when she thinks she has succeeded...

Then her "frantic unrestrained grief" after the poisoning. And how she dies inside because of the death of her lover. "Big grey eyes — like dead lakes," says Poirot.

And here is how Elsa describes her love affair with Amyas: "happiness isn't quite the word. It was something deeper and more frightening than that." Christie really is a good writer.

You won't forget this book — the hot summer day, the brilliant painting coming to life on the canvas, the vicious sexual tension in the household, the glass of beer, poisoned with the extract of hemlock...

Poirot pieces together what happened all those years ago by interviewing everyone present, including the governess, Mrs Williams who is a lucid feminist and coldly intelligent, saying "I admire self control."

As each of the witnesses give their statements, their characters are beautifully delineated. Christie's characterisation is of a very high order here.

The very ending of the book — and I don't just mean the revelation of the culprit — is stunningly good. The last couple of sentences are absolutely brilliant. This is a first class piece of writing.

If you've never read an Agatha Christie, I'd recommend starting with this one. I have many, many of her novels yet to go... but it wouldn't surprise me if this was her best.

(*You can also read my discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in Mesopotamia, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table and Death in the Clouds.)

(Image credits: The main image, another ravishing Tom Adams cover painting for a Fontana edition, is my own copy which I scanned myself. The remaining covers are all from Good Reads, including another of the Indonesian series, of which I'm increasingly fond — white covers with a bold splash of red — and the lovely vintage Portuguese Coleccao Vampiro edition.)

Sunday 14 April 2019

Dumbo by Kruger, Aberson & Pearl

Dumbo was, as you know, a classic Disney cartoon released in 1941. It was primarily written by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, based on a slender and obscure book for children by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.

The new film which is now in your cinemas — though not for long, judging by the lukewarm response — is written by Ehren Kruger, a prolific screenwriter with a special line in fantasy material. I thought his spooky story Skeleton Key (2005) was terrific and his quirky heist movie Reindeer Games (2000) very nearly terrific (one twist too many in its twisty plot).

And the new Dumbo is, of course, directed by Tim Burton. Which is why I bothered going to see it in the first place.

This 2019 Dumbo is not a great picture. But neither is it the glum failure I expected from the early sections of the film — like the flapping-eared pachyderm himself, the movie manages to pull out of its death plunge and, if not exactly go soaring, at least achieve flight.

Those early sections set up the characters, and the circus they work in. And it's all as dull as ditch water. Danny DeVito fails to charm, and his antics with a mischievous monkey are just pitiful.

But the central character is Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, a cowboy star in the circus who has just returned from World War One missing an arm. Holt's scarred-veteran backstory is almost the only interesting and effective thing about the character — although Farrell looks surprisingly great in clown makeup.

Holt's wife, who used to ride horses with him in their act, died of the Spanish Flu while he was away, but Holt is reunited with his son and his daughter Milly. Milly is played by Nico Parker and she is striking — one of those slightly scary, not quite human looking kids you find in Tim Burton movies.

Milly is the only major female character in the first part of the film and she isn't enough. It badly needs a strong, grown up female lead.

The only successful scene in this early section is a rather heart rending depiction of Dumbo separated from his mother which, tellingly, not only closely follows the same sequence in the original 1941 cartoon but is also scored with the song which accompanied it — the gorgeous 'Baby Mine'. (Here is Bonnie Rait's fabulous version of it. Please buy a copy.)

(Later on we almost, but not quite, get a version of 'Pink Elephants on Parade'; which is sort of this movie in a nutshell — it's almost but not quite.)

But things pick up considerably when Michael Keaton arrives on the scene as V. A. Vandervere, a sinister and eccentric impresario who wants to do a Svengali number on the little flying elephant.

Best of all, Vandervere is accompanied by his slinky girlfriend — in the best Tim Burton slinky-girlfriend tradition — Colette, played by Eva Green

Colin Farrell snaps awake at this point, as well he might. Eva Green is absolutely magnificent and pretty much single-handedly saves this movie.

She's a sexy French acrobat with a Louise Brooks hairdo and carloads of attitude. She's supposed to do a double act with Dumbo when he's relocated to Vandervere's Atlantic City theme park — sort of Disneyland's evil twin.

Various complications ensue, with Eva Green always fantastically watchable and compelling, and proving what a fine actress she is.
Keaton is also good value in these sequences, and he has some priceless dialogue. When he first sees Colette and Dumbo's double act, supervised by Holt, he bursts out, "You beautiful one-armed cowboy, you've made me a child again!"

At the end, Dumbo is thankfully reunited with his mother and Danny DeVito's circus thankfully ceases to exploit animals.

In the final scenes, Dumbo and mum rejoin an elephant herd in the beautiful basin of majestic waterfalls in the Indian jungle. Dumbo soars over them in the company of flamingos and, just for a moment, the movie soars too.
You can see why Burton was attracted by Ehren Kruger's somewhat dark take on this story, with its evil-Walt Disney villain and his evil-Disneyland (which burns down at the end.)

The script is full of interesting decisions, but seemed to me astonishingly under developed, especially from such a talented and experienced screenwriter as Kruger.

Just to give one example, Farrell doesn't just have a daughter, Milly, he also has a son. But I've said almost nothing about him because he has almost nothing to do in the movie. He has no presence or role in the story and is completely expendable.

Removing this character would have immeasurably strengthened the script. Giving Farrell just the one child — all that's left of his family — would have raised the stakes.

It would have magnified his predicament, and also Milly's isolation, when he finds he isn't up to being a father.

And that isolation could have driven Milly into a deeper friendship with Dumbo — both of them forsaken by their parents — and made for an entirely more compelling movie.

Oh well, maybe Kruger (who was also the producer) got a note from the studio insisting that he include a young boy in the story, to allegedly guarantee appeal to all kids, everywhere.

It's just the sort of stupid note a studio would give.

I wouldn't recommend you see Dumbo in the cinema, but when it's available for home viewing you might want to rent a copy. I'd advise you to skip through the early part of the film, except for that lovely sequence with the song 'Baby Mine', and start watching at the point where Michael Keaton and Eva Green turn up.

Approached in that way, I think you'll enjoy it.

(Image credits: A remarkable 20 posters to be found at good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday 7 April 2019

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

This is a cracking Christie, enthralling from the first page. 

Death in the Clouds is the 12th Poirot novel to be published, coming just before The ABC Murders*. It appeared in 1935 and in America was stupidly retitled Death in the Air, which is somehow much less evocative and resonant.

The reason Death in the Clouds grabbed me so immediately is the setting. It begins on an airplane making a scheduled flight from Paris to Croydon, a town outside London where I once worked. (In my day it had an excellent record store but no longer any aerodrome.)

The aircraft location is inherently interesting and exciting, and we also have the old but irresistible trick of bringing together a group of diverse and distinctive characters and exposing them to some serious trauma.

Since this is Agatha Christie, that trauma consists of a murder taking place right there in the airplane, effectively in the full view of all the passengers, without anyone seeing what happened or who did it.

By now I've pretty much given up on trying to guess who the killer is in any Agatha Christie story. Which is just as well, because here once again she fooled me completely.

And I am by now finding Poirot quite a compelling figure. When I follow his adventures what I register is not the cartoonish appearance or the perfunctory foreignness or the rote mannerisms — I see his methodical, patient nature, always analysing but always withholding judgement until the big reveal at the end. 
One of the characters in Death in the Clouds reflects, "What an odd little man he was — hopping from subject to subject like a bird from one branch to another."

But the best observations about Poirot come from the man himself, "I am eccentric, possibly, but mad, no." And he has a charming arrogance — "practically speaking, I know everything."

He also displays a neat line in aphorisms such as, "Nothing can be so misleading as observation." Very true in an Agatha Christie mystery.

The other characters in this novel include a coke-snorting countess ("a woman who's got the cocaine habit hasn't got much moral restraint"); a hack mystery writer who has some cherishable observations about the genre — regarding Watson-style sidekicks he says "interesting... how the technique of the idiot friend has hung on." 

And a charming young couple who begin by discussing how lovely and fragrant the pine trees are in the south of France but are soon agreeing about how they dislike "Negroes."

I admire Christie so much that it's really dismaying for me to encounter the casually racist attitudes of some of her characters. Is it sufficient excuse to say that this book was written in 1934?

Oh well, at least it's not Poirot displaying these attitudes. His little grey cells have yet to show any colour prejudice.
Death in the Clouds is a compact little classic, and the wasp that features on some of the covers is an important clue.

(*I've also posted about these other Poirot novels: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Cards on the Table.)

(Image credits: The main picture, with the beautiful painting of the wasp, the plane and the clouds by Tom Adams, is a scan of my own copy from my own library. The other covers are from Good Reads.)