Thursday, 28 October 2010

CARLOS AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL AND ON THE STRAND

On last Tuesday's Strand (BBC World Service), prompted by the ever-incisive Anna McNamee, I discussed Olivier Assayas' film Carlos, which opened last Saturday at the London Film Festival. Our discussion started with the fact that the movie was originally made as a five-hour mini-series for TV (which is the version the LFF, to their credit, showed), and it is now being released in two versions, a two-part saga much like last year's Mesrine, and a 2:40 version, which I saw, and which hangs together well, although omitting some of Carlos' famous 'missions'.

The crucial point about these formats is not whether or not Carlos (shot on wide-screen 35mm) is or isn't a film (it was excluded from consideration at Cannes) but that the sheer size of the TV mini-series format allows the film to take a documentary-like perspective. It also points out that the DVD box-set may become the preferred vehicle for watching the best filmed dramas we can produce these days. Were Carlos scripted or edited as a normal feature film, 100 minutes or even two hours, there would be a greater necessity for a stronger story arc, a more simplistic reduction of Carlos' motivations, his career, his position as hero, villain, anti-hero. As it is, the film joins him in media res, training with the PFLP, his Venezuelan upbringing by a left-wing father, and education in Moscow isn't mentioned. Instead, we see him in the middle of the internal conflicts for control of the Palestinian movement, and this is the situation that will repeat itself over and over again, as the shifting faces of real-politick make the life of a revolutionary more and more difficult, until it finally becomes almost redundant.

This is becoming a familiar format for a sort of sub-genre of revolutionary 70s retro chic, which mixes facets of the gangster/spy film with its pseudo-documentary approach (Mesrine again is a reference point), like Munich, One Day In September, El Lobo, or Good Morning, Night, films that draw on Battle Of Algiers and Reds, The Godfather and The Informer. You can also see the ways straight-forward documentaries borrow feature-film techniques; the quick-cutting and pacing of Argentina's excellent but overlooked Trelew, or even the crime-scene reconstructions of Enron. More to the point, last year's Baader-Meinhof Gang took a similar approach, yet had a more conventional story arc because it used Ulrike Meinhof as its conscience. In fact, looking at Carlos' German 'army', it's as if some of the second-generation BMG characters have switched movies and allegiances. In particular the character of the trigger-happy raging young girl (Julia Hummer as the apropriately named 'Nada') echoes the dissolve between the two BMG generations.

But of course there is a story arc, and that is Carlos' progression to international celebrity and counter-culture superstar. The whole 'Jackal' business was a media creation, which gave him a James Bond kind of identity, which he inevitably feels compelled to live up to. In this sense, Edgar Martinez, who is brilliant in coping with the changes the role demands, reminded me of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors, particularly in their fat decline as their celebrity overtakes their artistic (or terroristic) success. Martinez has spoken of the appeal of playing a revolutionary who insisted on dressing in Pierre Cardin, and he's also a liberator still trapped in macho attitudes toward the women in his life as well. When he seduces, almost claims, the girlfriend of the head of his German cell, it's played like a 1970s porno film, and when he leaves her it's like an 80s soap, Dallas played as Damascus. Although these points of personal politics do, in the end, give the character his structure (he was, after all, captured while recovering from a liposuction operation), the fact that the film has the scope to continue to play with the changing politics, the way Carlos eventually becomes more of a burden to whomever his latest employer is to justify both the danger of his celebrity and the lack of value he provides in terrorist operations.

I had seen little in Olivier Assayas' work to suggest he'd make a film like this (Boarding Gate, which could be seen to share some elements, is truly abominable), my thought is that the structure required tight dramatic control, and the centrality of the Carlos role allowed the camera's and script's focus to remain on Ramirez. In fact, you sense when Carlos gets with Magdalena Kopp, that Assayas sees a lot of Asia Argento in Nora Van Waldstatten, but the German actress is too strong to fall into that trap. In fact, at times it's as if Assayas is making Bonnie and Clyde, but without having to worry about Bonnie!

Assayas also takes a remarkably neutral political stance. The film's historical scope makes that easier, we see the hidden hands of the Soviets, their allies, as well as the various Middle Eastern countries and their shifting allegiances. One of the problems with Carlos is that his idea of who the enemy actually is never really takes shape; the specific goals of the Palestinians are not necessarily those of revolutionaries committed to overturning the international capitalist system. As Carlos becomes a glamourous gun for hire, this becomes more and more of a problem--the cult of the personality overpowering his revolutionary zeal. This becomes most telling when one of his German followers quits, because when terrorists separate the Jews from the other hostages, it reminds him too much of his German past. When the Berlin Wall falls, everyone keeps saying 'things have changed' and Carlos, like many celebrities, is trapped in his image from his days of stardom.

The best tribute to this film is that, having seen the nearly three hour version, I actually wanted to watch the full five hours, and see what I'd missed. In whichever version you can, you should see it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

THE KING'S SPEECH: THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL PREMIERE

The buzz around The King's Speech, which started when it won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, was confirmed last night at the London Film Festival's American Express gala showing at the Odeon Leicester Square. With an compelling performance by Colin Firth as 'Bertie', King George VI, at its heart, this is a film concerned not only with courage and personal triumph, but one which celebrates old-fashioned virtues of duty and loyalty. In setting up a parallel between the courage required to overcome his stammer, and that required to assume his role as King when his brother proves incapable, and then to lead his country into war, screenwriter David Seidler has crafted a story which strikes many of the same chords as Chariots of Fire did thirty years ago, with a similar degree of unlikeliness given the current tenor of our times. Perhaps that is why it seems so appealing.

In fact, Seidler's script began life as a play, and it really plays out as a series of exceptional two-handers, in which director Tom Hooper allows the actors to flourish. Firth's is a bravura physical performance, twisting himself around his speech impediment, but it draws on the kind of inward, repressed characters he has played before, in say The Single Man or Where The Truth Lies, and gradually reveals his character's immense inner resources. Helena Bonham Carter, as Queen Elizabeth segues perfectly from testing her formality with Geoffrey Rush as the lugubrious Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who eventually helps Bertie overcome his stammer, and revealing the person beneath that formality with Firth. Firth and Logue's scenes are like a royal odd couple, battling at its finest, with Rush's assertive, but sometimes naive, colonial commoner set off against Firth's withdrawn and lonely aristocrat. Logue's consulting rooms are like a small theatrical set; he is a failed amateur actor, and it's as if he's luring the Duke of York into his own amateur production. Other two-handers will follow, most effectively Bertie with his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and his brother David (the abidicator, Edward VIII) played brilliantly by Guy Pearce full of weakness covered with a thin veneer of surface charm. Even when the set-pieces open up, Hooper often isolates the point of impact into a two-shot, again most notably when Claire Bloom is incapable to react to her son David's tearful break-down on his father's death making him king.

By opening up the play in such a careful way, Hooper also delivers scenes which have the power of soliloquy--by leaving Firth in half the frame as he recalls his brother Johnny, dead at 13, he suggests Bertie's loneliness, which arises literally from the unfilled space familial affection should have provided. It makes the scenes with his own daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret more telling. Hooper comes back to this half-frame often; Bonham-Carter, in another perfectly-judged performance, enters it to provide that love; Logue pops through it like an uncontrollable primitive force. Seidler is also very good on issues of class--something where Logue himself (and his wife, well played by Jennifer Ehle) serves as a commoner constrast to Mrs Simpson (played by Eve Best with remarkable physical similarity, but perhaps, as with Spall's Churchill, too strong a single note). It's no surprise the film gathered such an exceptional cast, since Seidler's script allows so many of them moments of real emotional impact, and because Hooper's careful direction allows them to shine in those moments.

Where the film is perhaps weakest is in the broader historical sense, where it really does need to open out. The same was true of Hooper's John Adams, at its best in the scenes where Paul Giamatti's Adams either negotiates one on one or shares the screen with Laura Linney's Abigail. Here, it results in a lessening of the tension of the two biggest external dramas, the abdication and the coming of World War II. We know the outcome of both, and they might have detracted from the focus on Bertie and Lionel, but somehow the intertwining of personal and political might have had more hefor. It is most obvious in Timothy Spall's caricature of Churchill; in a film where few of the actors try to become superficially the characters they play, yet catch their essences perfectly, Spall's Churchill, pleasant enough and making the point he's needed to make, seems out of place even compared with Anthony Andrews' restrained Baldwin (recalling that Derek Jacobi, here the Archbishop of Canterbury played Baldwin opposite Albert Finney's bravura Churchill in The Gathering Storm).

But the focus is Bertie's battle. Not only with his stammer, but to open himself up, to accept a friend, to overcome the psychological trauma that Logue, like a modern psycho-therapist, gets him to reveal. Seidler was a stammerer as a boy, and King George was an inspiration to him; having learned this, it's easy to see that inspiration still reflected on the screen. This may be why the film has gone down well in North America, the sight of a royal reaching his inner 'we' is too good to be true. It's also very funny, which may help it in this country too: the scenes of Bertie using curse-words to help overcome his disability originally saw the film rated '15' here, but it has now been opened for 12 year olds and parental guidance, lest their children absorb some history as well as vocabulary. It's suitable for them, it's entertaining for anyone, it's thought-provoking and uplifting, and it's a masterclass in acting. It is the kind of film that may leave women laughing as well as men crying, and Toronto is right, it certainly will be contending for Oscars.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

WAKE UP SLEEPYHEAD: SKY'S THORNE AT THE NFT

Thorne, based on Mark Billingham's novels, made its debut on Sky 1 HD last week, but I was lucky enough to catch the first three episodes, a complete adaptation of Sleepyhead, presented as one film in an event organised by the BFI at the National Film Theatre. The question of what constitutes film and television is, if you'll pardon the pun, a thorny one these days; Carlos, which I'm in the process of reviewing for the BBC World Service's Strand programme, was denied consideration for the Cesars because, although it was shot on 35mm film and in widescreen, it was commissioned for TV, and shown in three parts, before being re-edited for cinema release.

It isn't just a question of technology, although huge flat screens and HD allow the living room to come somewhat closer to the look, if not the psychological dynamic, of the cinema, but it's also that much of the best writing, and acting, and sheer craftsmanship is currently taking place on television, which is functioning somewhat like the studio system did, say, in the 1950s, when stars began to become producers and B features were still being made by independents. It's also a further suggestion that the future of drama lies in the disc, works of flexible length designed to be perused in large chunks at the audience's beck and call, exactly the equivalent of, dare I mention it, the book.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Sleepyhead, although it could probably be improved with a little tightening (three 'Sky Hours' amounted to more than two hours running time) and the elimination of a couple of plot glitches, held up exceptionally well in the theatres, with acting that played on the big screen and a look which was impressive in any format. It's one of those adaptations that stays faithful to its source material, while using it in different ways, making some different points, and entertaining in a different, but just as powerful, way. In fact, in the excellent panel discussion which followed, with producer/actor David Morrisey and actor Eddie Marsan, Billingham noted that the screenplay solved problems with the plotting that he would have addressed from what was, after all, his first novel.

We're used to the settings on the streets of London as part of crime drama, but Stephen Hopkins works brilliantly, not only in the ways he opens up the backgrounds, but in the way he moves us through them along with the characters. Interiors reveal people's inner spaces, and even the cop shop, one of British crime dramas most reliable cliches, is given a new look, something between a benefit office and the Washington Post's newsroom in All The President's Men. Within this setting, the characters are free to move beyond the realms you might expect from typecasting. It shows in Thorne's modern flat along the canal in north London; its spareness suggests bleakness inside and outside, and here the brief snatches of alt.country music seem like snatches of another world.

David Morrisey suggested that a lot of directors would make Sleepyhead a 'hero-based' story, but Hopkins 'knew it's not the Thorne story.' So where Thorne could easily be played along the lines of Mankell's Wallander, Morrisey, who bought the rights to Billingham's work and is billed as an executive producer, similarly refused to short-cut the character. The inner torments are referenced from outside, and then in flashback, and though Morrisey gets Thorne's hang-dog quality perfectly, he's also projecting his flawed strength and more than that, his obsession.

Morrisey discovered Billingham's novels while shooting a film in New Zealand, when he had lots of time to spare. Meanwhile Mark had already blogged and told anyone who would listen that he thought Morrisey would be the perfect Thorne. When his wife met Morrisey on a tube platform as he was on the way to their meeting, the karma was firmly established. They quickly established trust, and as Billingham noted, it was helped by the fact he didn't for a 'nanosecond' want to work on the screenplay. 'I could write another novel in the time it would take to do 25 drafts of a screenplay,' he quipped.

The second in the series, Scaredy Cat, is apparently more different from its source than Sleepyhead, but this film is really less about the chase for the serial killer, and more about Thorne, specifically about his resolving the triangle of love-hate with two of his colleagues; his former partner Kevin Tughan (played with brilliantly hidden intensity by Marsan) and the medical examiner Phil Hendricks (Aiden Gillen, last seen as mayor of Baltimore in The Wire). Hendricks is openly gay, and Gillen gets to camp it up a bit, but it serves as contrast to Thorne's tightly-wrapped inner conflict, and Marsan's pent-up rage. It all fuels suspicion, which provides the perfect parallel, a correlative as it were, to the story of the killer they chase, and it gives the actors perfect storm moments, most notably when Thorne believes Hendricks is a killer, and when Tughan tries to get a confession implicating Thorne in a long-ago crime that is his deepest secret.

But the central role is that of the victim who remains alive, but trapped inside herself, and as Alison Sara Lloyd Gregory steals the show, getting all the best lines, including comedy, in voice-over and relishing the kind of role that Who's Live Is It Anyway made an actor's dream. Hers is the central role because she is also the reflection of Thorne, a character trapped inside himself in a less dramatic way. Thus he's more alive in her presence than in his burgeoning romance with her doctor, played by Natascha McElhone. Her screen-dominant face often seems to be in another far more glamorous movie; she projects a sense a coldness and remove here that makes her character less than convincing, as if she's trying to match Gregory in inert power. The one thankless role belongs to Lorraine Ashbourne, as the DCI charged with being exasperated and giving Thorne one last chance.

The thinnest part is the actual killer, whose identity needs to be kept secret, and in the secret-keeping come the plots biggest holes. SPOILER ALERT! It seems odd that forensics (the sneakers, perhaps?) would not be able to establish a link beyond the original suspect's alibi, and it is extremely odd that as the plot resolves itself Hendricks should recognise a photo as being Frank Calvert—who grew up in Canada and took another identity-- and if you can accept for some reason that it would that Thorne somehow would not. But quibbles aside, the working out of the mechanics of the plot succeeds because of the dramatic resolutions, plural, it provides. Just as the real story is not Thorne v Sleepyhead, so the dramatic resolutions involve the release of trapped people and trapped emotions.That this cop drama is able to render this so clearly and with such involving presentation, and that I'm so reisistent to the idea of watching it in three parts, suggests the DVD drama is indeed the way of the future.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

BITING INTO LIZA MARKLUND'S RED WOLF

Red Wolf is the fifth in the series following intrepid reporter Annika Bengtzon, immediately following The Bomber, which was fourth in the series but, confusingly enough, the first published in English translation. Bengtzon is back to work but still recovering from her tunnel ordeal at the hands of the eponymous terrorist. Travelling to the far north of Sweden to write about a terrorist incident at a Swedish air base forty years earlier, she is drawn into a series of murders which begin with a local reporter who was working on the same thing. Soon Bengtzon finds herself in the middle of an old Swedish revolutionary cell, whose leader, like Carlos, became an international assassin for hire and now has returned to his homeland to die. And perhaps kill.

It's a complicated plot, replete with terrorist issues that resonate in today's climate, and with a serious reflection on the fate of the extreme left within Sweden's evolving social democratic system. But, as ever, the real drive of the novel comes from Bengtzon herself, and her life. She's still a bull in a china shop, both at her newspaper and with her husband, and her experiences have taken some of her always shaky confidence away. What is most impressive is the way Marklund shows us Annika best through other characters: the reactions of her husband, considering an affair, as he contemplates her qualities; the inablity of her friend Anne to cope with personal problems of her own. In the end what makes Bengtzon so interesting is that she often is less than sympathetic, but she is always driven by her own innate sense of justice and fairness, which puts us on her side, especially when faced with government apparatchicks and newspaper editors. And in fact, that's the other real strength of this series, the way Bengtzon's commitment to old fashioned journalism is constantly at odds with those in power who prefer not to be investigated. And in Red Wolf, she finds her investigations being simultaneously blocked by her editor and used for commercial opportunity by her publisher.

It's easy to see why Marklund would be one of James Patterson's choices to collaborate with. She's one of the more approachable of the Scandinavian writers; her prose is utilitarian at best, and that comes through in this translation, but she's able to mix adroitly the personal with large scale plots, and of course, as a woman she brings a new dimension to the Patterson machine. The best thing one might say about Red Wolf is that it makes the reader willing to test the Patterson waters with their collaboration, The Postcard Killers.

Red Wolf by Liza Marklund
Corgi, £6.99, ISBN 9780552162319

Friday, 15 October 2010

STEVE HAMILTON'S LOCK ARTIST

When Michael was eight he managed to escape a murderous rampage by his father. Ten years later, he has never spoken since, and is adept at only two things, drawing and picking locks. It's that latter skill which leads him into a life of crime, and which makes The Lock Artist such a compelling read.

Steve Hamilton switched gears after writing seven novels about Alex McKnight, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The thriller Night Work, about a probation officer in upstate New York, had some similarities to his series novels, particularly in the cold loneliness that seems to pervade his characters, but it went in different directions. He's moved in another direction with this one, and in one sense he's put together a caper novel with a series of robberies whose executions and malfunctions would do Donald Westlake proud. The detail of lock picking and safe-cracking is fascinating and convincing, and the sense of anonymity around professional thieves fits perfectly with his character's needs.

Almost too perfectly, because The Lock Artist is another book in which Hamilton puts the alone in stand-alone. Michael is literally closed off from the world around, and the real question in the book is not whether or not he gets caught, or gets killed, or even gets the girl. It's whether anyone, including himself, will be able to pick the lock on his silence, and free the boy who's underneath. This is not a rhetorical question, and the way Hamilton has structured the book, which is told through multiple flashbacks and being narrated from a prison cell is challenging, because it closes off some story options while keeping many of Michael's options open. And much as I am inclined to like characters named Michael who come from Milfords (this one's in Michigan, not Connecticut, but still) Hamilton never gets too soft or sentimental, although there is the sense, in the budding comic strip relationship he has with his girl, that he is indeed a different character from the one whose survival instincts seem pretty well honed.

The Lock Artist works as a thriller, and it works as an interesting character study in which Hamilton plays against the type for a cool technician of thievery. The novel seemed to slip between the cracks when it was published here in June; it deserves more attention, and I recommend you read it and see why.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton
Orion £18.99 ISBN 9780752891958

Thursday, 14 October 2010

THE AMERICAN: GEORGE CLOONEY A HIT MAN AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

NOTE: This review contains serious spoilers, so if you are intending to see the movie and don't want to know where it tries to go, don't read beyond the first three paragraphs...

It appears that all big-time actors need to play a hit man (cf Cruise, Tom) and it may be a corollary to that idea that all arty directors need to make a sombre crime drama. There are worse things, as anyone who suffered through the mockney gangster cycle can attest, but if, with The American, which opens at the London Film Festival Saturday and will go into release later, Anton Corbijn and George Clooney have both gotten their wish, the result is a mish-mash of hommage and cliche which seems to have fallen between two critical stools: in America there isn't enough action for the film to make sense, in Europe there is too much action, in the sense that the cliche-driven story appears to be too confusing for them to make sense of it. I'm not sure why, because, although it is ultimately an immensely unsatisfying movie, shot through with more holes than Clooney's victims, it's also interesting visually, offers Clooney's and some other performances, and plays with some of the tropes of the genre with at least some seriousness. Or you can simply ogle Violante Placido, as the director seems to do.

Although it's based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, screenwriter Rowan Joffe seems to have signposted it with obvious elements drawn from gangster movies and westerns (that Once Upon The Time In The West is seen on the TV is neither coincidental nor subtle) and only plays with them to occasionally soften them for the benefit of Clooney's Jack, which as we shall see is unconvincing. Meanwhile the plot's ultimate silliness is exaggerated by small details that don't work (her insistance on ordering a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, in Abruzzo, but not specifying which of the hundreds available) and which remind us that it's just a way to get Clooney to the resolution. At one point the friendly priest says to Clooney, 'you Americans, you think you can escape history,' but that doesn't appear to apply to filmmakers.

That resolution reinforces the sense that the real influence this film draws upon is Paolo Sorrentino's marvelous 2004 film, The Consequences Of Love, which also played at the London Film Festival, and which featured Toni Servillo as a man confined to a Swiss hotel as a Mafia go-between, whose life changes when he begins a relationship with the hotel barmaid. The parallels with the quietness of a closed-down man coming out of himself are too close to miss, even without a sniper sight.

Clooney plays a big-time hit-man apparently souring on the business, especially when he's 'forced' to kill his Swedish girl-friend in the midst of a Stieg Larsson idyll. Someone's out to get him, and he retreats to Italy, leaving bodies behind, taking his gun, and apparently attracting no attention even when he appears to be the only person on his getaway ferry. In Italy his contact, Pavel, Terrance Stamp as played by Johan Leysen, persuades him to do 'one last job', and right away you realise that the story options are limited. That this last job involves not shooting anyone, but merely constructing a weapon for someone else, suggests where the story is going to go, as he creates the means of his own destruction, and sure enough, it goes there.

Pavel sends Clooney to a small village in Abruzzo, where Clooney drives around because that's what happened in Antonioni's Passenger, which was also about an America in a strange environment, though Jack Nicholson was only adopting a hit-man's identity, and Maria Schneider was, well, Maria Schneider. Clooney then realises that he sticks out like, uh, an American, Clooney ups stakes for another small village where he, uh, sticks out like an American. So it goes. There he rents a cottage that conveniently has an industrial strength vice bolted to its kitchen table, and meets a priest, Father Benedetto (benediction, coming to an end, you get it?) so philosophical yet flawed you wonder if the hit man is aiming at creating some weapon of Mass destruction. Luckily, said priest has an illegitimate son whose garage provides the necessary materiel for Clooney's gun (and what it doesn't can be sent by fedex, presumeably from the same Acme company that provided Wile E Coyote with his weapons). So far so good.

Corbijn makes a lot of this visually interesting, especially when he uses aerials that gives a sort of of Gursky sense of individuals being lost in a wider pattern beyond their control. Sadly, Google Earth has rendered some of those images redundant, taking away their power, but still the mountainous landscape and twisting roads make the idea work. There is also the stunning landscape provided by Placido, who's the daughter of the actor Michele Placido, as Clara, the local whore with the heart of gold who can't help falling in love with this hit man because, after all, he is George Clooney. She appears to be auditioning for producers the world over as she channels her inner Maria Schneider, and Corbijn rarely misses a chance to expose her body parts as if they were the fleshly equivalent of the gun Clooney is constructing. If there is a metaphor lost in there I've missed it. Or maybe she is the temptation to which Father Benedetto (nicely played by Paolo Bonacelli) has succumbed.

Clooney is making the weapon for a Belgian woman, Mathilde (Thekla Rueten) who shoots almost as well as Clooney and whose motivations remain shadowy (unless you've figured out where this all is going, which you should have). The mysterious assassins who tried to kill him in Sweden return, and again he leaves the body and takes the gun, and no one seems to make any connections. And finally, having been suspicious of a whore who'd offer him real affection, Clooney decides to fall in love with his hooker, and also decides to get out (yes, we thought he'd already decided that, since that's what 'one last job' means) and that means, of course, that Pavel will betray him and have him killed. Since the implication is that it is Pavel who's been orchestrating the previous attempts, this may be redundant, but assuming that he's only just concluded the kinder, gentler Clooney is a liabilty, it makes his next actions very obvious (to everyone except the art-housers).

Clooney, of course, figures it out, and rigs the gun (indicated in a brief shot whose meaning is hammered home to anyone familiar with the genre, but appears to have been too subtle by half, which says more about audiences these days than anything else) to blow up in Mathilde's face, but in a shootout with Pavel he suffers the standard at-first-unseen-but-fatal wound, and dies just as he gets to the idyllic picnic spot where he had come to realise Clara (clear, if you're unclear) is his true love.

The problem with the endgame is basically the inability to leave the cliches alone. We've already seen feelings from Clooney (his expression when he shoots his Swedish girlfriend) and now, as he drives away with what anyone who's ever seen a western knows is his fatal wound, he pounds the steering wheel in frustration. It's as if playing with gray hair and lonely exercise has created a new soul for both actor and killer. This is Mel Gibson as Richard Stark's Parker, unless we are to believe that love has rendered him soppy all of a sudden. We know, as Father Benedetto did, that Americans may think they can escape history, but movie hitmen can't. When he gets to the picnic spot where he and Placido are to meet, and this time she isn't wearing her hooker-heaven sunsuit, she runs to the car screaming, and as Clooney's head hits the horn, her screams continue. This shows a lack of subtlety, but then the camera moves up, through the tree tops, giving us a final shot of the sky, and eternal freedom (or nothingness). What this does is render all those previous aerials meaningless: the last shot should have been another from above, with Clooney, his car, and his love all disappearing into the Abruzzo landscape. But the ending as is seems more like The Passenger, and maybe that's the signpost Corbijn and Clooney were after.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

JAMES KILPATRICK: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of the right-wing columnist and TV pundit James Kilpatrick, who died almost two months ago, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. I remember the Watergate tapes incident very clearly, the pathos of 'Jack' opining the tapes showed merely Nixon's great sense of humour, and my delight at the restraint Nick Von Hoffman showed by likening Nixon to a dead mouse on the kitchen floor of America, rather than the more apposite 'rat'. I still remember Kilpatrick's staged expression of shock, and thinking how shallow power's defense of itself could be.

Von Hoffman got fired anyway, too uncontrollable for the tight strictures and entertainment boundaries of a show like 60 Minutes. He was replaced by the anodyne wishy-washy middle-of-the-road Shana Alexander. It set the tone for America's right-left 'debate' for the next 40 years; unreconstructed right-wing extremists beating up on conservative centrists. You saw the result during the second Bush regime, when those opposed to an illegal war justified by lies and killing tens of thousands of people were labelled 'haters', and the only coherent mainstream opposition arose on a comedy show.

The question of Kilpatrick's racism is a more interesting one, whether or not you believe he actually did 'reform'. Articulating faux-leagalistic positions for racism is one thing, white supremacy another, but he was equally adept at both. That the right is allowed leeway to play- act around oppression by wrapping it in constitutional issues and still be taken seriously, while at the same time arguing thinly-disguised racism and be taken as jolly good fellows amazed me then and amazes me now.

It also bothers me that the issue of grammar and usage has been usurped by the right, as if only conservatives could write well. William F Buckley's patrician pretense and fake English accent charmed many Democrats (not least my mother, who watched his show faithfully, inciting my teenaged vitriol). I recall William Safire, the left fork of Nixon's tongue, lecturing us about how the word 'homosexual' came from the Latin 'homo' meaning man. At least the Times ran some letters correcting him, including one which suggested that 'homogenized' milk must then be milk from male cows. I think this appropriation of 'correct' prose serves the authoritarian impulse, but also is used to provide a thin coating of justification for conservativism itself, as if the use of proper English led naturally to the right.

Kilpatrick was a ground-breaker in many ways for American conservatives. It would be nice to say we won't see his like again, but we surely will, if generally in coarser versions.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

TELL IT TO TIGER WOODS!

I saw a quote from Lisa Pavin, wife of the US Ryder Cup losing captain, Corey, defending/promoting the role of golf WAGs (especially crucial to British fans who still moan about their running across the green to celebrate, when they were just getting revenge for all those fans stomping their feet on the aluminium stands during US putts at Valdarama).

She said 'golf is a very individual sport, so when you come home your wife is your best friend, your confidante, your lover, your sports psychologist. A wife plays a very big role in a golfer's life. I think a wife's as big a part of your team as your caddie'.

But a caddie doesn't get half your community property. Maybe Elin wasn't a good sports psychologist, though osmosis is not a generally recognised theraputic practice (see left).

Though this may explain why James Ellroy (follow this link) enjoyed caddying so much! Never thought I'd get to link Ellroy and the Tiger in one post....

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

IRVING RAVETCH: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Irving Ravetch, who along with his wife Harriet Frank, Jr. wrote a number of outstanding movies, particularly those directed by Martin Ritt, is in today's Guardian. You can link to it here. Hombre remains one of my favourite westerns, one I consider considerably underrated, and The Cowboys (directed by Mark Rydell) was probably appreciated less than it should have been because John Wayne was starring in it. Hud is one of the best of the contemporary westerns (The Misfits, Lonely Are The Brave) which were popular in the early Sixties, just as the huge western boom on TV was coming to an end.

The Long Hot Summer
is an odd mix of Faulkner and the Actor's Studio, which makes it seem very much like a Tennessee Williams play. But the Ravetches were very good with Newman (in Norma Rae Ron Liebman does a Jewish Newman, ironically, of course). In my original version of the obit I had actually assigned the Ravetches blame for creating the opportunity for Sally Field's Oscar acceptance speech, but not surprisingly, that was lost along the way...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

ROBERT LITTELL DISSECTS STALIN'S EPIGRAM

I wonder how hard it has been for this excellent novel to find its audience. Robert Littell is one of America's best espionage novelists, best known for The Company, but a major player ever since his first stunning novel of Cold War spies, The Defection of AL Lewinter. He's never been a one-trick pony (see The Visiting Professor) and his speciality has been Russia, which he once covered as a journalist for Newsweek. But the casual reader might well look at The Stalin Epigram and mistake it for a proto-Ludlum thriller, when in reality it is a finely-judged and moving novel about the poet Osip Mandelstam, and the eponymous poem that got him sent to the Gulag.

It's a novel of ambiguity, which is appropriate because Stalinist Russia was a land where ambiguity was a way of life, where even the simplest tasks of daily living could take on an Alice in Wonderland sense of unreality. It is this atmosphere which Littell not only captures, but thrives on, and he does it by setting up opposites, the most telling being that of Mandelstam himself and his fellow prisoner Fikrit Shotman, champion weightlifter turned circus strongman, imprisoned because a trunk he bought has a sticker of the Eiffel Tower on it. Really. The most telling contrast is thus between Mandelstam, who lives in the mind (even when engaged in a menage a trois with his wife, Nadezhda and the actress who eventually turns him in for writing the offending poem) and Shotman, who lives in the body. Shotman believes what his interrogators tell him, that he is a member of spy ring, even if he didn't realise it, and it is this ability to live with ambiguity, rather than be confounded by it, frustrated with it, that keeps him alive. Whereas Mandlestam winds up being arrested for the second time for writing a poem which would not offend Stalin, in effect being condemned by own artistic insincerity.

Littell writes the book in first person narrations, as if he'd interviewed each character; he does appear to have interviewed Nadezhda, though that too could be an artistic conceit. The narrators range from Stalin's bodyguard to the poet Anna Akhmatova and the writer Boris Pasternak, and there are also telling sections of Mandelstam's 'encounters' with Stalin himself, which also appear to have been conducted solely in the poet's head. The best sections are those where the personal details carry the wider points; occasionally some characters slip into what might almost be authorial voice, but this multi-narrator approach is difficult in the extreme, and overall it's convincing. What makes it work is the building sense of frustration, the foreboding, and the absolute strain of living in that society. Littell does this so well the readers comes to internalise some of the frustrations of the system, to the point where the denoument ought not to be as moving as it is.

You can see where the material for Cold War thrillers, the nature of that Soviet 'evil empire' (sic) came from. I was in Moscow in 79-80, and saw it first-hand, and have seen the difference in the new, more chaotic but less ambiguous Russia. This was the stuff that Littell, LeCarre, Hennisart and McCarry were able to mold into their exceptional spy fictions, but the strength of this book is that we may be led to wonder whether we celebrate the great Russian writers of the Stalinist era with the right understanding of the surreal dangers of their existence.

You might also consider a little aside which Stalin makes to Mandelstam (and which, since it sounds so much like the poet's voice, helps us understand the unreality of their conversations) that his status as a Georgian is like Napoleon's as a Corsican or Hitler's as an Austrian (he might have added Alexander, the Macedonian). The nature of totalitarianism seems to be something easier understood from the outside, or by poets, and in this novel Littell makes this touchingly clear. This is a major novel, which deserves far more attention than it has thus far received.

The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
Duckworth, £16.99, ISBN9780715639030

Saturday, 2 October 2010

SOLOMON KANE: THE FILM

It also took me a while to catch up to Solomon Kane, Michael J Bassett's adaptation of Robert E Howard's Puritan swordsman, who was the most ambiguous of Howard's pulp heroes, a sort of 17th century version of The Shadow, and for that reason always my favourite. With that sort of foundation, it was amazing no one got to the character more quickly, and though I'd like to say it was worth the wait, the Shadow comparison is an apt one. Although Bassett gets much about the character right, he is more concerned with creating an origin story, and his Kane has an origin much like the Shadow in the Alec Baldwin film, an evil doer on a massive sadistic scale, who is somehow reformed.

Sadlt, this doesn't really work. The key conflict for Kane is between the sober restrictions of his Puritanism and the unsheathed evil which he encounters; his Kane may well be a sinner but he is also in the spell of this simple version of Christianity freed of paganesque ritual. Howard would contrast this with the unspeakable evils hidden in the dark continent, making a Kane a Kurtz in pulp clothing (see the cover of the Centaur Press reprint of Kane, the version I first read, left).

In this film, Kane, having been sworn off the rape and pillage we see at the film's start by an encounter with a devil who wants him for his own, is hiding out, as it were in a monastery, trying to find himself and lose himself from the devil. He encounters Puritans after he leaves, though the devotion of Pete Postlethwaite and family to the actual tenets of their faith seems somewhat tenuous. Drawn into the fight by the Raiders who massacre the family and kidnap the beautiful daughter, he follows them to his own family's ancetsral castle, where the ultimate confrontation with the masked warrior (hiding an identity obvious almost from the start) and his master, who can call upon great powers of CGI which somehow seem sub-Harryhausen in their awesome power.

Within this simple and predictable format James Purefoy is pretty good, if a little too muscular, as Kane: his inner demons are always externalised, more like Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing than Howard's Kane, though you can see the parallels between Howard's Kane and Stoker's Van Helsing quite clearly. Postlethwaite is excellent in his role, and Max VonSydow has a brilliant couple of cameos as Kane's father, and there is one brilliant scene in which Mackenzie Crook plays a priest gone mad and serving up sacrificial victims for ghouls hidden under the floor of his church. There are some other nice touches: the laying of hands by the evil Leatherface, the demons captured behind mirrors, and even the setting and the everyday people who inhabit it; Dan Lautsen's photography moves equally well between the grimness of the 17th century setting and the gruesomeness of the supernatural.

Sadly, Rachel Hurd-Wood is a boring heroine, who gets her final screams as the CGI monster appears with no purpose except to claim Kane and drain all the drama which has been built previously and make it redundant, kind of like the car crashes in a John Landis movie. Alice Krige, as her mother, deserved a bigger part. But the real cut and thrust of the picture seems to be setting up a sequel, where she is dumped and Kane and his few sidekicks get to go off searching for more devils. I suspect that one may be closer to the real thing, but this was entertaining enough in its generic way.

SHUTTER ISLAND: THE FILM

The big problem with adapting to film any story which withholds crucial information as a key device is maintaining the secret, the illusion which drives the story's twist. It can be desperately hard to do; think of Angel Heart as a prime example. In Shutter Island, to which I've finally caught up, the deftness with which Martin Scorsese illuminates the depths of Teddy Daniels' psyche merely serves to reveal, alarmingly early, what is going on, that the threats he (and more importantly we, the audience) experiences are internal.

At times, Scorsese, who seems to draw on any number of cinematic references throughout the film, almost restages Marat/Sade, which may, in the end be the best reference for this version of Dennis Lehane's much more low-key novel. Robert Richardson's camera moves with the kind of fluidity you expect in Scorsese, drawing out the shadows and the horror-movie iconography as if charting the actual inside of Daniels' damaged mind (think of Roger Corman's House Of Usher). It's probably no coincidence that Scorsese produced a 2007 documentary about Val Lewton's RKO horror pictures, which depend more on mood and psychological drama than actual physical schocks. And of course there's more than little Alfred Hitchcock here; although Robbie Robertson's score is composed of found music, much of it 20th century classical, it is often amplified to almost hysterical levels, in a way that recalls, as I'm sure it was meant to, Bernard Herrmann working for Hitchcock.

Scorsese remains faithful to Lehane's novel, but is able visually to draw out the business of Daniels' having bee with the soldiers who liberated Dachau. But there's a strange disconnect, between the horror of the Holocaust, the fear of nuclear destruction (classic 1950s sf paranoia) Jackie Earle Haley rants about, and the actual killings that form the heart of Daniels' personal tragedy. I found myself constantly trying to fit the jigsaw pieces of trauma together (and Max Von Sydow, as the almost cliched Nazi scientist has a small lecture of trauma and dream, which would be where even the slowest member of the audience would finally pick up the hints) but failing.

Von Sydow relishes his role, but the film is stolen in some ways by Mark Ruffalo, who seems to physically transform himself depending on which role he is playing to Teddy, and by some of the players in smaller parts, notably Ted Levine, as the warden, and Patricia Clarkson, as one of the two versions of Rachel, the disappeared patient Teddy has come to the island's hospital for the criminally insane to find. It's awkward that Ben Kingsley is always doing exposition and trying to look nervous, and that John Carroll Lynch as the deputy warden appears to channelling Danny Aiello. Rachel Williams is sometimes badly judged as his dead wife; Teddy's description of her is far more chilling than any attitude she can muster. But the other difficulty is Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have brought along his bad faux-Bahstan accent from The Departed to play the same character he played in Revolutionary Road, with the same problem of believablity as a grizzled 1950s WWII veteran. He just doesn't have the matter-of-fact gravitas you'd expect from the era; more Tony Curtis than Richard Conte.

Scorsese, although this is DiCaprio's film, taking place within Teddy's head, never actually lingers there too long. In the end, that's why the movie works well as it does, because he's taken the Brian DePalma-like decision to make us the character, and let us experience what's happening to Teddy, and try to make sense of it. That we can figure it out, and still not make sense, still feel caught up by the swirling morass of his sanity, is a tribute to his immense skill as a film-maker.

Shutter Island (2009) directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane