Sunday, 23 April 2017

Free Fire by Wheatley and Jump

Sometimes I regard this blog as a forum for public-health style warnings, so it's somewhat in that spirit that I'm writing about Free Fire, the latest feature film directed by British wunderkind Ben Wheatley and written by his long time partner (writing and otherwise) Amy Jump.

It's regrettable that I'm going out of my way to advise you to dodge this movie. At one time — after the release of Kill List — Wheatley appeared to be a film maker of impressive talent and originality. But Free Fire is an abjectly feeble and very dull film. It's sub-Quentin Tarantino and sub-sub-sub Martin Scorsese (unbelievably, Scorsese is a producer on it).

Free Fire tells the simple (far too simple) tale of an arms deal gone wrong. Some IRA men (played by Cillian Murphy, late of Peaky Blinders, and Michael Smiley) are in the States, in Boston, in 1979  to buy automatic rifles from American crooks. 

The transaction is taking place in the abandoned factory beloved of film makers and, when it goes sour, the movie spends the rest of its duration in there with the characters shooting at each other.

The cast is strong, featuring such wonderful actors as the South African Sharlto Copley, who has portrayed memorable heavies in Old Boy and Elysium; Armie Hammer — The Social Network and Man from UNCLE; Brie Larson, who was magnificent in Room; and Sam Riley from SS GB

Hammer and Larson are among the few Americans in a cast which is either explicitly foreign or British actors passing. And one of the impressive aspects of this movie is that the whole thing is passing as American — it was actually shot in Britain, but I never would have guessed.

But that's about all I can say in favour of Free Fire. It's desperately boring and, at 90 minutes, feels more like three hours. Once we realise we're stuck in this abandoned factory for the rest of the film, our hearts just sink. 

Yes, these characters are shooting guns at each other, but since we care nothing about any of them, and nothing is at stake, none of it really matters. And it's a long, long slog to the end titles.

In a perceptive review in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Tony Rayns points out that one reason for the utter lack of suspense in Free Fire is that it's devoid of establishing shots. We don't know where the protagonists are in relation to each other and so we don't understand the overall situation. But unlike Tony Rayns, I don't think this is daring artistry. I think it's a fatal mistake.

Rayns also says "Wheatley obviously risks boring his audience stiff" and asks "So what keeps us watching?" To which I can only reply that Wheatley doesn't just risk it, he succeeds: and I wish I hadn't kept watching, but rather had walked out instead of losing an hour and a half of my life which I'll never get back.

However, to be scrupulously fair, there were people in the cinema who were chuckling at the dialogue, so maybe this film will appeal to some. Personally I'd advise you to steer well clear and spend 90 minutes doing something else.

And, although I have yet to see Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, I have seen his movies Sightseers and High Rise and, as far as I'm concerned, Free Fire represents his third strike. Regrettably I think this young British director is out.

(Image credits: Unbelievably, there's 28 posters for this slight film at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 16 April 2017

One for the Dog: Scandal by Shonda Rhimes

There used to be a joke about the god of Christianity: "And she's black." In a white male world this was considered unthinkable, and at one time the notion of a female African American television showrunner would have been equally extraordinary. But now Shonda Rhimes is one of the most potent and brilliant talents working in US TV.

Rhimes created Grey's Anatomy, which was a huge hit, and which I followed myself for a year or so before finally concluding that it was the My Little Pony of medical dramas. It's still a considerable success, in its 13th season (seven seasons are usually the maximum).

More importantly, Shonda Rhimes went on to develop other hit TV shows, and currently has four on the air: Grey's Anatomy, The Catch, How to Get Away with Murder...

And Scandal. I have to thank my friend Celeste for turning me on to Scandal. It was the double punch of Celeste's praise and the discovery a cheap boxed set of the first three seasons that got me watching this show after a long period of neglecting American television dramas.

Scandal is simply amazing. Essentially it's the story of a fixer — a lawyer who solves problems and makes deals, generally operating behind the scenes, rather than practising standard case law and going into court.

If you want a quick — and brilliant — introduction into the way a fixer operates, then watch the wonderful film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney and written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Scandal bears a fleeting resemblance to Michael Clayton, but rapidly moves into even darker and more troubled territory.

It has a Washington setting and politics are its meat and drink — both of them often poisoned. The central emotional engine of the series (so far; I'm still watching Season 2) is the fact that Olivia Pope (our fixer-in-chief, played by Kerry Washington) has had an affair with the new Republican president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and they are still deeply involved with each other.

Pope's firm is the usual crew of interesting and diverse characters — or at least, it first seems that way. But then it rapidly becomes clear that there's nothing "usual" about resident hacker and computer nerd Huck (Guillermo Díaz). He is ex-CIA black ops, and is the show's device for getting us into some extraordinary, and disturbing stories.

In short, Scandal is less like The West Wing and more like the Manchurian Candidate. I'm finding it riveting drama and I commend it to you. It starts off looking like a glossy, frothy soap (making great use of popular songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the Staples Singers) but soon turns out to be amazingly hard-hitting and daringly extreme.

Oh and in case there's any confusion about the title for this post, it quotes a memorable piece of dialogue from Series 2, listing how many bullets one of our heroes is going to put into an adversary, and why.

(Image credits: Good old Imp Awards. It turns out they do TV posters, too.)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Last One Left by John D. MacDonald

I've mentioned elsewhere how much I admire John D. MacDonald. Indeed, he is probably my favourite crime writer. And considering my bookshelf is jam packed with the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Charles Willeford and Thomas Harris that's no small accolade. (Interestingly, I believe Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, was fruitfully influenced by John D. MacDonald.)

MacDonald is most famous for the creation of Travis McGee, self styled 'salvage consultant', a fresh and intriguing variation on the classic private eye. But the book I'd like to tell you about is not one of the McGee novels — although it is dedicated to him. (MacDonald also dedicated a book to his cats; a man after my own heart.)
The Last One Left is a powerful standalone novel about murder for profit. The cold blooded killings take place in the Caribbean and are carried out by Staniker, the hired captain of a pleasure boat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Crissy Harkinson, the ice-hearted femme fatale who set the crime in motion, waits for her cut of the proceeds.

MacDonald writes strikingly about the "tumbling blue indifference" of the sea, and effortlessly conjures up mood and atmosphere, as when he evokes the "silence and emptiness of Sunday afternoon." The brilliance of his descriptions extends to everyday objects an audio tape on fast forward sounds like a "nest of agitated mice."

Most powerfully, in this book, is the way he conveys the horror of the murders and their terrible psychological toll on the killer, who has to live with what he's done. After the crime Staniker is alone on the boat with the bodies of those he's killed. "They were all — making a silence," he tells his accomplice later.

In this regard MacDonald's writing is suggestive of the great French realistic novelists like Guy de Maupassant or Emile Zola (check out Zola's classic tale of murder, Thérèse Raquin)... This connection is natural enough, since the French writers influenced the likes of James M. Cain and the whole American school of hardboiled crime fiction.

Heartbreakingly, John D. MacDonald brings his various characters vividly to life before the murders so the reader feels their tragedy of their loss all the more keenly. And his gift for characterisation is of a very high order. 

For example, MacDonald delves into the childhood of Crissy Harkinson in a brilliant sequence, and we learn where the book's title comes from — a childhood game, where the winner takes all — and we get an insight into what has made her the selfish killer we see today.

MacDonald has his faults, too. His British aristos in Nassau talk in phoney limey clichés ("Rather a fool then, what?") and one set of characters he keeps returning to, in this multi-viewpoint novel, really get up my nose as we limeys say. 

This is the Cuban couple Cristy Harkinson's maid and her journalist boyfriend, plucky little Raoul who fought heroically against Castro at the Bay of Pigs and is busy trying to single handedly expose the evil communists' attempts to take over Latin America.

MacDonald's efforts at espionage stories have always struck me as terribly phony — his one full-on spy novel Area of Suspicion is my least favourite of his books. On the other hand, The Last One Left was written around 1966 and the Cuban Missile Crisis would have still been painfully fresh in the author's memory. So maybe we should cut him some slack. 

And in contrast to Raoul, one of the other major characters, Corpo, a brain damaged war vet is touching, expertly wrought, and simultaneously scary and delightful. In fact he's sort of a Bizarro World Travis McGee.

And there is one sequence which was so masterful it had me in awe. MacDonald stages a confrontation between Oliver, a teenage kid whom Cristy has seduced and is busy manipulating, and his mother. 

Now, the mother is basically a narrow-minded, bible thumping bigot, so I found myself siding with the sulky Oliver against her... I was thinking, "Shut up, you sanctimonious old bat" — but then I suddenly realised, shit... she's absolutely right. "She's callous and vicious. She's just using you," says the mother about Cristy, and she couldn't be more correct.

In fact, it's tragic, because Cristy's plan involves cold-bloodedly killing Oliver, and throwing the blame for another murder on him. Which she does, hardly batting an eyelash. So this scene shows just how subtle and profound MacDonald's writing can be.

The book has other flaws, though. In the end Crissy is ultimately entrapped with the cooperation of her own lawyer in a manoeuvre which is arguably more evil than the crimes she'll be punished for.

And when I learned that the victims of Staniker's killing spree had been previously hunting dolphins — Jesus, did people do that? — suddenly their brutal murder didn't seem such a crime.

On the whole, though, if you can filter out the Cuban spy subplot, I still think this is something of a masterpiece. And it ends on a savage vignette of ecological disaster that makes me forgive any of the book's inadequacies.

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads, except for the Fawcett with the white cover and green circle which is from the useful and informative John D. MacDonald Covers, the British Companion Book Club edition which is also from there, and the Doubleday hardcover which is from Amazon. Isn't the original British hardcover beautiful, with its Barbara Walton art of the girl's face against the deep blue background?)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Get Out by Jordan Peele

Examinations of race, class and poverty in America are rare in mainstream cinema. Admittedly, we've recently had a series of lauded pictures dealing with such such subjects — Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences were all acknowledged at the Oscars this year.

But for my money, the boldest and most powerful treatment of these issues is in exploitation movies — notably the horror/action Purge series. And now we have Get Out, a superb horror film (one of the best of the year) and an incredibly dark and sophisticated comedy.

Essentially Get Out tells the story of what happens when talented young African American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to accompany his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a weekend visit to her parents. Chris's best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) forecasts that no good can come of this... and, my word, is he right.

The combination of sophisticated (non-supernatural) horror and black comedy here is reminiscent of another recent film — A Cure for Wellness. And both pictures are similar in that they share a definite kind of Roman Polanski vibe . But while A Cure for Wellness was effective and impressive in its oddball way, Get Out is hugely superior. It was made on a vastly lower budget, and it really has something to say. 
The writer and director of Get Out is Jordan Peele. This is his directing debut, but he previously worked on the script of Keanu, a movie which I will have to see now — not least because it's about a kitten.

Peele does an absolutely masterful job of manipulating our expectations in Get Out. The movie is often hilariously funny. But it is also deeply disturbing and very suspenseful. And it makes amazing use of small, telling moments to generate enormous drama and fear, as when Chris discovers a box of photographs.

The picture loses the plot a bit at the end when it veers into total science fiction mode. But the final cathartic burst of violence is very satisfying.The use of music is brilliant, and mention must be made of an outstanding performance by Bradley Whitford as Rose's dad.

If you enjoy horror or suspense films at all — or you're intrigued to see a savage dissertation on race in contemporary America, don't miss Get Out.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

I've had a lot of fun reading Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone detective novels (also known as the alphabet series). Unfortunately this will be the last one I'm reporting on, at least for a while...

This is a pity because Grafton can really write. She brings her character and settings vividly to life. As Kinsey enjoys an early morning drive she tells us she feels a "jolt of pure joy". Grafton knows how to use language. She's the real McCoy and her story have freshness and great immediacy.

When Kinsey feels angry she says "I could freel the heat flash through my frame". When confronted with the dead body of a friend, she forces herself to detach from her emotions: "I pulled a mental plug." 

Similarly when she goes undercover to join a car insurance-scam gang, she has to take part in the cons. As she dupes the marks she again has to detach herself, "employing the same mental detachment I adopt when I enter a morgue".

She can also be very funny. A telephone emits a sound like a "garbage disposal grinding up a live duck."

But one of the things that has always impressed me the most about the Kinsey Millhone books is the authenticity of the protagonist and her behaviour. In this story, despite her friend being killed, she leaves the case entirely to the cops — the way a professional would.

Of course, she ends up being involved after all. As we expect she should. But it's the way that Grafton engineers this which causes the book to go seriously off the rails. 

When a woman Millhone is investigating gets arrested, our heroine attacks one of the cops so she can be arrested, too. And therefore get thrown in a cell with the woman and glean valuable information and bond with her.

This just does not fit with Millhone's common sense and low-key professionalism. When she assaults a police officer she is jeopardising her licence, in fact throwing it away forever. Never mind that she's acting undercover

Worse yet, this reckless action is utterly unmotivated. Kinsey Millhone has absolutely no reason to believe that the woman she's following will prove to be such a valuable lead as to justify such extreme behaviour....

Now, all this might make sense if our detective knew she was onto a huge and important case, and the woman was a vital link. But at this point in the story she doesn't, and couldn't.

It's exactly as if our heroine has read the outline of the novel, as if she's privy to Grafton's game plan. Eventually the narrative gets back on track, sort of. But the story never quite worked for me after that.

This was my second Kinsey Millhone disappointment, after S is for Silence, a book which went completely off the rails at the end with a rushed, unsatisfying and entirely unconvincing denouement.

Writing a long running series of crime novels is a very serious business. There is always the danger of penning a weak instalment. But if you do that, you will keenly disappoint your readers. They will feel betrayed. And they may be reluctant to pick up the next book.

This is where I currently stand with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Having been let down twice I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for these stories which I did before. In fact yesterday I took my unread Grafton's to the charity shop and got rid of them.

I'm sorry things turned out like this. I was looking forward to 26 highy enjoyable reads. I'll let you know if things change and I return to these books. But meantime, it's a salutary and sobering lesson to anyone who aspires to writing a long-running series of crime novels.

Including myself.

You can't afford to write a dud. Let alone two.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads. except for the main image (the blue dog cover) which I scanned from my own copy because the Good Reads one was a bit of a mess. Oh, and I quite like the yellow Spanish cover... but can anyone tell me what the hell it's a picture of?)

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

It's about time I followed up my previous post on John D. MacDonald. (And in case you're interested, here is an even earlier one where I explained why that middle initial is so important.)   

I recently discovered a useful little book about John D. by crime fiction specialist David Geherin and that has launched me on a project of re-reading many of MacDonald's novels. A project which is proving both fun and educational...

First up, appropriately enough, is The Brass Cupcake, his very first work of book-length fiction, published in 1950. This novel has a couple of flaws, which I won't be able to resist slagging MacDonald off for later, but a fair person would have to concede it's actually a very impressive debut.

Clearly MacDonald's apprenticeship writing short stories for the pulp magazines — he sold over 200 between 1945 and 1950 —  paid off spectacularly in terms of giving him command of his craft.

The Brass Cupcake — the title refers to a worthless prize — tells the story of Cliff Bartells (good name), an insurance investigator on the trail of a fortune in stolen jewels. But, crucially, Bartells is an ex-cop, squeezed out of the local police force for refusing to knuckle under to the pervasive corruption.

Cleverly, MacDonald uses the jewel robbery as leverage for his hero to ultimately get even with the cops, politicians, and indeed the entire corrupt system which wronged him. The setting is Florida, a favourite John D. MacDonald location, mostly in the imaginary municipality of Florence City but also in the very real Ybor City (which recently featured in the film Live By Night). 

The locale is intensely and convincingly evoked, with a lovely touch of cynicism: "Florence City met the hot February sun with a wide financial smile." And elsewhere the writing is of an equally high standard, whether he's describing a murderously vengeful woman — "her eyes were like broken stone" — or the experience of suddenly being awakened from deep sleep "the dream split across the middle and blew away like smoke."  

Even everyday objects are brought to life with deft intensity, as when he talks about the "thin sharp teeth of the zipper." And, as always, MacDonald writes about the sea and maritime things with great acuity and allure: "the drone of the approaching launch separated itself from the deep voice of the waves." 

MacDonald also scores strongly on characterisation, he has sharp and witty observations of people and social mores, as with two men who don't really like each other but are routinely civil when they meet, whom he compares to "rival car dealers."  And the bad guy in this story is the onlie begetter of many a plausible and charming psychopath in the Travis McGee novels.

On the debit side of the ledger are the sex scenes, one of which is so decorous ("I got out of the car and walked down to the surf line...") we're not even sure it's happened, while another is disastrously overwritten ("a wild shout thrown upward at the stars in crescendoed apex...").

Indeed, the sexual attitudes of the book are sometimes quite alarming. But then, it was written in 1950.

On the whole, though, this is a small, intermittent masterpiece which shows clear signs of the great work which was to come. 

And it features a scene where the police beat the hero which is so savage, concise and vivid that I found myself expecting physical after-effects just from reading it. 

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there is rather a good selection. The exceptions are the earliest Gold Medal paperback (number 124) from Vintage45's blog, the nice 35 cent cover, from Pinterest, the one with the brandy and the automatic, from ABE.)

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Wonderful Nightmare Journey: The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

In much the same way that John D. MacDonald is the crime writer I most admire, Fritz Leiber is my favourite writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror — Leiber excels in all three fields. 

The Wanderer is the first of these — science fiction — and indeed won the Hugo award for best SF novel of 1965. It's one of the genre's all time classics. 

It tells the tale of what happens when a new planet suddenly appears above the Earth — popping out of hyperspace — just beyond the orbit of the moon.

What largely happens, of course, is earthquakes and flooding caused by monstrously magnified tides as a result of the planet's gravitational impact on us. 

Leiber's account of this is characteristically knowledgeable and well-informed, as he tells us for instance that the safest places at sea are the “tidal nodes near Norway and the Windward Isles and at Tahiti.”

But science fiction writers who know their science are pretty commonplace. What sets Leiber apart is the brilliance of his imagination and, above all, the superb quality of his prose. He really is the ultimate SF and fantasy writer, combining these traits to great effect.

He talks about how the new planet — soon dubbed the Wanderer — has  “poisoned the radio sky" with static. And when it becomes clear that this world is inhabited, and indeed piloted, by aliens he talks about the shocking impact on the human psyche. 

It is an end to our secure isolation in the galaxy  —“how safe the Earth had swung in all its loneliness for millions of years, like a house to which no stranger ever comes.”

Initially the book functions like a disaster novel (indeed it virtually invents that genre), moving swiftly between groups of characters as they deal with the catastrophes conjured by the new planet's presence. 

But soon Leiber moves on to the more fascinating possibilities of human interaction with the inhabitants of the Wanderer.

Leiber shows great psychological acuity, as when his heroine Margo Gelhorn acquires one of the aliens' weapons, a fascinating device she calls a "momentum pistol." (It is literally dropped from a flying saucer.)  

At first Margo revels in the confidence it gives her, then she discovers she doesn't need it any more, having developed her own inner resources: “she herself was now the big gun she could rely on and experiment with.”  

The book just keeps on getting better, as we discover who the Wanderer's inhabitants are, and why they're here. 

The beautiful cat-like Tigerishka (a name she adopts, combining her fondness for Earth's big cats... and ballet) explains, "your juvenile delinquents — we're like those. Running, running, running. Every step, pounding the hollow planetary pavement, under the cold streetlight of the stars." And the Wanderer is their "getaway car."

And then we find out what it is that the Wanderer's inhabitants are running from...

I realise the feline aspect of some of the cover art depicted here might suggest to you that I love this book because I'm a sucker for cats. Trust me, there's a lot more to it than that. The Wanderer is a masterpiece and I commend it to you most heartily.

(Image credits: The Philip Castle airbrushed "good cat art" cover is my own scan of my own copy. The handsome Gollancz yellow typographic copy is also my own — and I can't find another image of this anywhere on the internet. The original Ballantine printing of people fleeing is from Lankhmar, a useful and interesting site dedicated to Leiber. The two French covers are from a Pinterest gallery. The other covers are from Good Reads.)