Sunday 25 August 2019

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

The title of Hickory Dickory Dock will probably baffle non-English readers, and quite a few English ones. It refers to a nursery rhyme. 

The connection is utterly tenuous, though — most of the action takes place at a boarding house in Hickory Road, an imaginary location in London. 

Agatha Christie was weirdly fond of nursery rhyme titles and had a tendency to crowbar them in where they didn't belong. Possibly the worst example is Five Little Pigs, where she imposed an utterly irrelevant moniker on a masterpiece of a novel.

Hickory Dickory Dock isn't in that league, but it's good enough to deserve a better name. Still, the title provided the justification for that Tom Adams cover painting with the cute little mouse on it.
This is the 32nd Hercule Poirot novel, published in 1955. It begins with Poirot's faithful, infallible automaton of a secretary Miss Lemon revealing that she has a sister. And that this sister has a problem...

The sister is called Mrs Hubbard (possibly another nursery rhyme reference) and she runs that boarding house I mentioned. It's a student hostel and it is being plagued with a bizarre series of thefts.

It is refreshingly different to have a Poirot story being set in motion by a  crime other than murder — though there will be plenty of murder, too, of course.

What develops is a fascinating mystery, and Poirot himself is on fine form, "deliberately playing the mountebank"and revealing unsurprisingly that the "sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him."

At the same time his sharp and enquiring mind is very much in evidence. "Everything interests me," he declares. And after one of his awe-inspiring deductions a lawyer remarks, "In the Middle Ages you would certainly have been burnt at the stake."
This is the first Agatha Christie I've read from the 1950s, and her transformation is fascinating. Gone are the casually racist attitudes of, say, Death in the Clouds.

Here Christie is clearly bending over backwards in an attempt to be enlightened and tolerant. There are several non-white characters, including a young West Indian law student called Elizabeth Johnston.

Her intelligence and articulacy are constantly cited. Indeed, she's declared a "a very superior girl."

And when the thefts begin at the house in Hickory Road the woman who owns the house suggests that they should simply kick out all "these coloured ones."

"Not while I'm in charge," responds Mrs Hubbard coldly.

All very admirable. But we also get a dreadfully embarrassing comic turn by the African student Mr Akibombo. Still, full marks for trying, Agatha...

And also for straying so far outside the Christie comfort zone. As Charles Osborne puts it, "she makes a brave and remarkably successful attempt to move, temporarily, with the times, away from the grand country houses or the cosy cottages of St Mary Mead and into the genteel squalor of students' London in the mid-1950s."

What's more, Poirot's methodical investigation in the story is suitably fascinating, and baffling to the reader: "I dissect rucksacks. It's very interesting," he tells a police colleague. He also does a great bit of ratiocination involving a bowl of soup.

And Christie's storytelling is lively and engaging. One of the students says that if a girl she doesn't like is charged with murder, "I should rejoice madly." 

While elsewhere another student is searching through a pile of clothes in a woman's room, "burrowing like an excited terrier." Agatha Christie was obviously having fun writing this.

I had a bit of trouble keeping track of the characters — there are a lot of them and they're often referred to just by their first names, but the level of confusion here is certainly nothing like that of The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

And the solution to the mystery is suitably unguessable, if a little convoluted.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads, except for the main one, the Fontana Tom Adams, which is a scan of my own copy. Besides the two versions of this Tom Adams, with its adorable little mouse, I particularly like the blue Swedish cover featuring a selection of the stolen items.)

Sunday 18 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's new film is overlong, deeply self indulgent... and I loved it.

Before I went to see it I'd heard criticism from people that it was "not a movie, just a bunch of scenes."

Well, like the film's considerable length, this is a conscious and deliberate line of attack by Tarantino. His movie is, after all, an explicit homage to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West...

And here's what Tarantino said about Leone's epic (in Chris Frayling excellent book about that film): 
"Whereas in his other movies... he's still trying to tell a story... By the time he made Once Upon a Time in the West he was able to streamline it so that it's just set piece after set piece after set piece."

So, there you have it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also set piece after set piece after set piece. 

And while there might be one or two of them that are expendable, most  are varying degrees of delightful.

And some are simply stunning.

This is a story of a TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is trying to make headway in movies, but his career is on the decline and he's drinking too much. 

In fact, Rick is so sure that he's washed up that he breaks down in tears outside a restaurant while waiting for the valets to fetch his car.

"Don't cry in front of the Mexicans," Cliff admonishes him.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is often hilarious, and it lovingly evokes Los Angeles in 1969. At first it's just a rambling series of anecdotes about Rick and Cliff, interweaving them with real people from that time and place.

Most notably there's a cameo from Damian Lewis, who is an eerily perfect choice with his striking resemblance to Steve McQueen.

But then we discover that Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) on Cielo Drive, the home where Sharon would be savagely murdered by the cult followers of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman).

With this revelation Tarantino ingeniously sets a time bomb ticking and we know that however inconsequential and amusing his film may appear to be, it is inexorably heading somewhere very dark and violent indeed.

It's in the depiction of the Manson family that this film scores most strongly. They are brilliantly cast and performed, giving an impression that is disturbingly off kilter and deeply scary. In particular, Margaret Qualley is indelibly haunting as Pussycat.
And there's a scene where Cliff goes out to the run-down ranch where the cult members live, which is almost unbearably suspenseful. We are terrified, not knowing if he'll get out of there alive.

Tarantino correctly judges this "one of the best scenes I’ve ever done," and references the work of Peckinpah and Polanski. 

He also says, "I had been setting up Cliff as this indestructible guy. And yet you’re afraid for him."(*)
Absolutely right. It's a masterful sequence. 

But all the while that time bomb is ticking, and we know we're heading steadily towards that nightmare night on Cielo Drive...

However, this is Quentin Tarantino, who had no hesitation in rewriting the history of World War Two so that Hitler ends up shot dead in a movie theatre. 
So I was gratified and relieved to see the wild, mind blowing and uproarious climax he fashioned for his new film.

Of course, there's a question to be asked about whether it's acceptable to repurpose such an horrific personal tragedy as a pop culture collage.

But Tarantino apparently made his peace with Sharon Tate's widower, Polanski, and her sister, Debra.

So I suggest we all just relax and enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — did I mention that it also features Sayuri, who is superb in the role of Cliff's dog, Brandy? 

She gives a great performance despite being fed cans of rat flavoured and raccoon flavoured dog food.

(*These quotes are taken from an excellent in-depth interview with Tarantino by Mike Fleming at Deadline.  Image credits: a wonderful wealth of posters courtesy of Imp Awards.)

Sunday 11 August 2019

Midsommar by Ari Aster

Midsommar is a terrific film but, I think, it's being rather poorly promoted. Flicking through the movies on my cinema website I saw the poster and assumed at first it was a Swedish language remake of A Midsummer Night's Dream...

No, no, no. It's an American horror movie — though it is largely set in Sweden, with the occasional use of subtitles. Don't let that put you off. It's an extraordinary film of genuine hallucinatory power. 

Midsommar is written and directed by Ari Aster, who also made Hereditary, another horror film, and a highly regarded one which I now seriously regret missing on the big screen.

The new movie tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who is so clinging and needy that her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is eagerly looking for the opportunity to dump her — being encouraged in this by his frat-boy university buddies (including the ever engaging Will Poulter).

But, in fairness, Dani has damn good reasons to be needy and clingy, as is established by a horrifying family tragedy which we witness in the first few minutes of the film.

So, in an attempt to repair their relationship, Christian agrees to let Dani come along with him and his buddies on a midsummer vacation jaunt to Sweden. Their agenda being to take magic mushrooms and hit on blonde girls and visit an isolated rural community (where one of the university friends hails from).
One of the striking things about this community is that the inhabitants all dress in white, which means it's easy to pick out the outsiders, even in a long shot.

The place has its own odd beliefs and rituals — and if I mention The Wicker Man at this point, you'll have some idea what is coming, though nothing can quite prepare you for the places Midsommar chooses to go.

Aster is an impressive film maker. There is an early sequence where Christian and his cronies are sitting around a table (stacked with books and bongs) in their apartment, when Dani pays an unwelcome call. The scene is shot with the austere virtuosity of Kubrick.

Midsommar is long, perhaps too long at two and a half hours — another Kubrick trait. But it doesn't drag, and it certainly holds the viewer's attention.

This is a movie you'll remember long after you leave the cinema. Images that linger include Dani's troubled face, the pupils of her eyes constantly shrunk by the intense perpetual sunlight of midsummer in Sweden, as if to shut out the horrors she is about to witness.

(Image credits: The three official posters come from Imp Awards. The impressive poster with five faces is from Amazing Zuckonit at Deviant Art. The distinctive grey poster and the one with the flower-faced girl are from the clearly talented Joan of Dyke on Tumblr.)

Sunday 4 August 2019

Yesterday by Curtis and Barth

Yesterday is a romantic comedy with a fantasy element. Jack (Himesh Patel) is a struggling young musician who has an accident and is knocked unconscious at the same moment a kind of cosmic time slip takes place.

He wakes up in a world where no one remembers the Beatles or their music. When he eventually becomes certain that this is actually the case Jack does the inevitable —  he begins to reconstruct their songs and pass them off as his own.

This is an oddball premise if ever there was one, and I can't say I found it immediately irresistible. But then I learned that the film was scripted by Richard Curtis, one of the finest British screenwriters, responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually.

What's more, Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle, a film maker I admire. He made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, but for my money his best movie is the masterful Steve Jobs.

So I went to see Yesterday and I was captivated. Himesh Patel is excellent, as is Lily James (Fast Girls, Baby Driver) in the role of his manager and love interest Ellie and the ever reliable Kate McKinnon giving a savagely funny portrait of the big American agent who scoops Jack up.

But the most striking aspect of this movie is the music. I'm not the biggest Beatles fan, but the power and attraction of these songs is stunning, especially when they're just being strummed by Jack on his guitar or picked out by him on a piano. 

This is where the central conceit of the film really pays off. The audience believes that the potency of this music, even pilfered and secondhand, is enough to raise Jack to superstardom in a world that never heard these tunes before.

There is an hilarious and excruciatingly and deadly accurate depiction of a local talk show early in the movie, where Jack and 'his' songs are exposed to a TV audience. This leads to Ed Sheeran  — playing himself — looking Jack up.

Sheeran is terrific and there's a really moving scene where he challenges Jack to a songwriting contest — who can come up with the best one in ten minutes. Jack dusts off 'The Long and Winding Road', and Sheeran is utterly crushed.

"You're Mozart and I'm Salieri," he says. And naturally Jack doesn't feel great about this. Because none of these songs are really his.

Of course, the fact that Jack is living a lie is the dramatic heart of the movie. And I have my reservations about how Richard Curtis resolves the situation. But that's a small criticism of an excellent film.

The more interesting question is the one of authorship, in which the reality of the film somewhat mirrors its story.

Because Richard Curtis didn't create the idea for Yesterday. It was originally a script by Jack Barth. Curtis heard about it, loved the concept, and asked not to be told any more details. Without reading Barth's script, he sat down and wrote his own version.

This was a very interesting approach. Indeed, Curtis's techniques as a screenwriter are fascinating and instructive. You can learn more about them in a fascinating two-part interview here.

However, the really interesting thing for me was how Curtis never actually mentions Barth's name in the interview, although he's entirely open as to how the film came about.

In fairness, Jack Barth does get a decent screen credit in the finished movie — although I would rather it appeared at the beginning than the end of the picture.

But an even more intriguing question of authorship involves Jack Barth and Jean-Philippe, a 2006 French film written by Laurent Tuel and Christophe Turpin.

It tells the story of a fan of French singer Johnny Hallyday who falls into a coma and wakes up in a world where no one has ever heard of him.*

Of course, almost no one outside of France has heard of Johnny Hallyday...
Naturally none of this should interfere with your enjoyment of Yesterday, a perfectly crafted summer feel good film. 

And one which will make even die-hard Rolling Stones fans (like me) reconsider the importance of The Beatles.

(*My thanks to the film critic Philip Kemp for drawing attention to this in his review of Yesterday in the July 2019 Sight & Sound magazine.)

(Image credits: The four film posters are from Imp Awards. The photo of the three stars at the premiere is from Reuters. The photo of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis is from the Hollywood Reporter. The Jean-Philippe poster is from IMDB. The purple-background photo of Jack performing is from the Sun Daily. The shot of him singing in a purple suit is from YouTube via NME.)