Friday, 24 March 2017

DON'T KNOCK TWICE (BUT OF COURSE THEY DO)

Jess, who is now married to a wealthy banker, has become a successful sculptor. But she is a recovering drug addict and nine years ago, at the bottom of her addiction, she gave up her daughter Chloe. Now she would like to resume being Chloe's mother, but at the home where Chloe has grown up, she gets rejected. Chloe and her boyfriend Danny proceed to investigate the local haunted house, into which another boy from the orphanage is reputed to have disappeared. Knocking twice on the front door is supposed to call up the ghost, so there is little question what the two kids will do. And soon after Danny disappears from his room. 

Next thing you know, Chloe has fled to her mother's mansion in the countryside.At this point, the Welsh horror film Don't Knock Twice gets interesting, and the real tension is not in the pursuit by the Baba Yaga Chloe claims she saw, but in the interaction of mother and daughter. 

It's driven by two excellent performances. Director Caradog James gets two great performances from his leads. Katee Sackhoff, channels her unexpected inner Claire Danes (cf her Homeland refrain of 'I'm So Sorry'), is unsettling as a woman whose inner torments are not far from the surface, and seem just as dangerous as the outer ones which make this a horror picture. She's part zombie, part succubus, part mother and she has great trouble sorting those out. Her disjointed intensity is a surprise, as is Lucy Boynton's Chloe: seemingly expected to be a classic horror teen, she makes the most of fighting her torn instincts about her mother, and her aggression plays against that helpless victim teen trope.
Given the parallel ghost story of the old woman in the house, this has the makings of a fascinating set up. Throw in Nick Moran as Detective Boardman, whose close connections to the children's home and the case push him to the point of obsession, and Pooneh Hajimohammadi as Tira, Jess' model with the vaguely eastern European accent and the mystic senses about Baba Yagas, and it's a buildup with much depth.

Unfortunately, not all those depths are really probed as the story resolves itself into its horror B movie self, complete with an Omen-like twist. An almost throwaway but crucial line about slaves makes little sense in terms of the monster we've seen (Javier Botet, who's made of career of such figures) nor of that monster's abilities, which one moment transcend space and the next seem limited to shambling along the ground, and though there is a nice twist before the final reveal, it becomes very standard indeed, and a great disappointment.

In some ways, director Caradog James, in his third feature, seems torn between his tale of family horror and what requires finishing in the mode of Giallo. You can see this in the manipulative score which reflects Argento, and is sometimes annoyingly forwarded, and the deft use of the shocker cut (one in particular is brilliant). But when the film works best it is in the expressive photography from Adam Frisch, and the smoldering interplay of mother and daughter which James clearly relishes. The two elements of the film might have been integrated to deeper emotional effect, but it would have required a different sort of scripting and perhaps more space. I'd have been willing to trust James with that space. 

Trivia Footnote: Ned Dowd is credited as line producer on the movie. Dowd was playing minor league ice hockey for the Johnstown Jets of the old Eastern League, which inspired his sister Nancy to write the screenplay for Slap Shot, still one of the greatest sports movies. Ned has a small part as Ogie Oglethorpe in the film, which will mean a lot to you if you know it. He's produced some fine films, including Last Of The Mohicans and The 13th Warrior

 Don't Knock Twice is in cinemas and on demand 31 March and on DVD 3 April

NOTE: This review will also appear, in a slightly different format, at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 20 March 2017

JIMMY BRESLIN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the newsman Jimmy Breslin is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, and what has been left out is what I needed to omit for space, and in consideration of an audience who were not familiar with his work. Luckily, I was writing for an audience of journalists, who understood it well.

One trim was the best quote I'd found about Breslin, from the Village Voice's ace muckrakers Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett. It would have preceded the story that led up to his 2002 book about Eduardo Gutierrez. They had called Breslin "an intellectual disguised as a bar room primitive" and that was in many ways true. Damon Runyon was certainly his model, but his writing drew on a lot of literary sources, not the least of them Dickens, as well as endless hours on the phones and in the bars, and endless days with people.

The other I missed was the story of his jumping into a cab to cover the race riots in Crown Heights in 1991. When he cab got there, rioters pulled him out and beat him seriously, leaving him with, as he wrote, only his underwear and press card. He wrote that from the scene, calling in his copy before being patched up, as cops stood by. "How do you like your friends now?" they asked.

I probably should have stressed the hard reporting he did as well. I did mentioned he'd won a Polk award in 1985 for metro reporting. His 1986 Puzliter cited his AIDS story, but in 1986 he had also brought down Queens borough president Donald Manes in a payoff scandal; Manes would commit suicide a few months later.

I had also given his wives a bit more prominence. When he married his second wife he moved from Queens to Central Park West, began swimming every day, and as I mentioned stopped serious boozing after that bender with Moynihan. I couldn't get into much detail after the cast of Runyon characters he was often accused of gilding, if not inventing, in his stories. And I would have liked to have examined the nature of the Irish-American reporter: Breslin and Pete Hamill and so many others in their trench coats and tweed hats. But that's another essay. As might be his campaign with Norman Mailer, but Breslin wrote that one himself in Running Against The Machine (1969).

I had mentioned his nomination for a Golden Turkey award for his role in the 1978 movie If I Ever See You Again. He had a brief late night TV interview show on ABC, but he was no Studs Terkel; his skill at drawing the stories out of people in print didn't translate to the screen. When he got fed up with the network he bought an ad in the New York Times announcing that when his contract was up he would quit. I had also discussed the argument he had with a woman in the Newsday newsroom who accused one of his columns of being sexist, and for which (the argument) he was suspended. He took his case onto the Howard Stern radio show, not a bastion of feminist sensibility.

He was direct. I didn't speculate about his childhood, but his father literally walked away from the family: went to the store one night and never came back. In a different context I might have used the story the New York Times used, but it didn't fit my piece, and besides, they'd used it. But I'll repeat it here, verbatim from Dan Barry's obit:

after Mr. Breslin had become famous, his father, destitute in Miami, came back into his life “like heavy snow through a broken window,” he wrote. He paid for his father’s medical bills and sent him a telegram that said, “NEXT TIME KILL YOURSELF.” 

And I wanted to use this quote from Ron Rosenbaum, who called him "one of the great prose writers in America. Period." Asked for his favourite Breslin line, he quoted this one: "somebody always hangs out at a collision shop." Think about it.  RIP.

Friday, 17 March 2017

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER: LONDON FILM FESTIVAL HORROR HIT GOES ON RELEASE

The setting is somewhere between bucolic and bleak: an isolated farm somewhere in America. It's the 1960s, at least judging by the car and the television. Young Francisca is following her mother, who was an eye surgeon in her native Portugal; life on the farm, with her taciturn father working and watching TV, seems to have little besides her mother's spark, to charm her. But she seems happy. 'Loneliness can do strange things to the mind,' her mother tells her, which might seem to encapsulate the whole story, except it's really the easy way out. Then a stranger appears, and in a few moments of violence, Francisca's world is turned inside out.  

The Eyes Of My Mother, which was the best of a strong selection of horror films at the London Film Festival last October and is released 24 March, is first-time writer/director Nicholas Pesce's calm but chilling, detailed but mysterious tale of that turning. The stranger fits the setting perfectly, as played by Will Brill he's the personification of the 60s/70s hippie gone bad antagonist, Andy Robinson stepped out of Dirty Harry. He's kept alive after his horrific attack on the mother, but he would rather not be. 'Why would I kill you?' young Francisca asks. 'You're my only friend'.

Part I of the film is titled 'Mother'. Part II is 'Father', in which Francisca is now grown. Part III is 'Family'. The setting doesn't change, only the nature of her family does. The passing of time is indicated only a few times, most notably when Francisca does to a tavern and brings a woman home. We realise that it is an internal world of her construction, but we aren't privy to all the details. We wonder how many other victims there might have been, that we haven't seen. We don't understand what brought her mother there in the first place, but we see some reason why she remains so attached her to dour father. And as we understand the nature of her own world, we are almost drawn to sympathise with her while wondering exactly what her motivation is. Are her actions the result of loneliness? Or would the horror have been inevitable? We are drawn to seek the answers because we are drawn to Francisca, despite the abominations.

This is in no small part due to the performance by Portugese dancer Kika Magalhaes as Francisca (and a young too to Olivia Bond, who is touching as the young Francisca. Magalhaes is both fragile, but dynamic: expressions and movements making up for the lack of dialogue; who else is there, after all, for her to talk with? She commands the screen; she draws you into her own world, and it is an uncomfortable drawing in. The bits of actual horror, visceral and cruel, are for the most part offstage, and they come as relief from her own inner turmoil. When we watch Francisca cleaning up the aftermaths is when the real horror sets in.

The balletic nature of her performance, the quiet, and the beautifully composed scenes, shot in stunning black and white by Zach Kuperstein, reminded me Guy Maddin's silent work, as did the score, in which Ariel Loh's synthesised horror is entwined with classic fado.

The more obvious influence, however, would be our image of the world of Ed Gein, most notably as seen in Psycho, but drawing as well on documentaries about him and even Wisconsin Death Trip, and even the feature film Ed Gein. Think back to the delicacy of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and you'll see moments of it in Magalhaes' approach. And take almost any scene-setting shot and you'll see that same bleak and horrific America just off the beaten path, just under that small-town surface. The dreamy child-like quality of the narration speaks of Night Of The Hunter. There are elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, out of which Will Brill might have stepped. And right from the opening sequence I was reminded of Spirit Of The Beehive.

There are some who will find this film exceedingly arty, too full of reference, too reticent in its gore and perhaps with some justification, too sudden and standard in its finale. It sometimes draws too much on its tropes: 'don't open that barn door'. But it is gripping, engrossing, and captivating: it draws you in the way a great horror film should, with perhaps misplaced sympathy. It is a hugely impressive debut by Pesce, and a performance worthy of wider attention from Magalhaes. Don't miss it.

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (USA 2016)
written and directed by Nicholas Pesce
starring Kika Magalhaes
released in UK cinemas 24 March

Note: this review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

ISRAEL'S BASEBALL DAVIDS: MY JEWISH CHRONICLE REPORT

I've written a piece for today's Jewish Chronicle about the recent success of the Israeli team at the World Baseball Classic (link to it here) and managed to use the David and Goliath analogy not once but twice. It's always nice to be able to mention Moe Berg; I recommend The Catcher Was A Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff for more of the story, including when Moe was sent to Switzerland to evaluate and if necessary kill Werner Heisenberg.

I was also surprised by the JC's use of 'Mr' on second reference; offhand, I'd say I've only seen that done by the New York Times, and it strikes me as quaint. Also, there's a slight ambiguity in the description of Babe Ruth, of all people. Perhaps my fault as I assumed even the JC's audience might be aware of Mr. Ruth's fame, but to be clear, he did not play for the New York Giants, he played for their cross-town (or cross-river) rivals the New York Yankees. 

And check out that nice Israel baseball cap....

JAMES COTTON: IN MEMORIAM

If my memory serves me well, I saw James Cotton as the opening act for BB King in the old field house at my university. Acoustically, it was a barn, but Cotton stole the show with his driving Chicago blues, though of course BB's smoother style won everyone over too. I also think he was playing with Otis Spann when I saw Spann in Boston opening for Mountain; my roommate drove up to Boston to see Leslie West, and I went for Otis, but frankly I remember so little of the trip I can't recall if it was Cotton or not. This was the Sixties, mind you.

Cotton's own groups could be really great: his bits in the Chicago/ The Blues/ Today series are uniformly fine; it was his first solo band and included Otis Spann on piano. But they always paled in comparison to his work with Howlin' Wolf and then with Muddy Waters, where he was in and out with Little Walter in that band that included Spann. Cotton and Hubert Sumlin, Wolf's guitarist, were boyhood friends, and they play on each other's solo efforts, and always well. He also had  Matt Guitar Murphy in his bands, whose guitar provided a different, lighter, sound, which matches his vocals well. And of course he played harp on Muddy's Hard Again in 1977, which was a landmark of blues coming out and re-establishing itself after the rock era.

There's a fascinating record from 1996, Deep In The Blues, with Joe Louis Walker and Charlie Haden, which won a Grammy for best traditional blues album, and is truly worth it. Haden said he was 'surprised that...he would call me to do this record. I'd never done anything like this before. But I love blues so I was very happy'. And it shows.

But go back and listen to Cotton in the day. Here's a link to him with Muddy and Spann:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx606E2OzPE 
RIP.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

THE CHAMBER: DIVING DEEP INTO BEN PARKER'S DEBUT

Mats is the Swedish pilot of a small submersible being rented out for research and oil exploration in the China Sea. When his craft, the Aurora, is commandeered by a trio of American special forces types, he goes along with the mission, trusting his British captain's word that nothing will happen. But Mats has worries. His craft is designed for two people, not four. It's old and temperamental. And they are right on the edge of North Korea's territorial waters. What could go wrong?

Of course something does go seriously wrong, and the four find themselves upside down in the damaged Aurora, stuck on the ocean bottom, with little power and the boat now a chamber filling up with water. And when contact is lost with the surface, with the likelihood North Koreans have boarded it, the odds increase against survival.

The Chamber is a title which suggests a horror movie, and first-time feature director Ben Parker's previous film was a horror short, Shifter. Indeed the film received its premiere at Fright Fest last year. But this is really a suspense thriller which plays out like a claustrophobic encounter session, the dynamic between the four victims shifting with each attempt to find a solution that might save their lives. Parker's control of the pacing is immaculate, the character shifts not forced, and if once or twice shocks are predictable, well, there is only so much you can do in that small space. It's a well-made work: Benjamin Pritchard's photography explores every inch of the space and every change of emotion, and Will Gilbey's editing makes the most of it. There's also a good score by James Dean Bradfield, of Manic Street Preachers, in his film debut. The Chamber moves without respite, while not overpowering the characters, which is what a good thriller should do.

It also works because of the cast. Johannes Kuhnke (best-known for Force Majeure) as Mats ('not Matt') has the same sort of Scandinavian calm as Ólafur Darri Ólafsson offered in Trapped. Which makes a nice contrast with the three Americans, Elliott Levey as the more practical technician, James McArdle as the hard man, and Charlotte Salt (who stole some scenes as Marguerite in Musketeers) as Red, the mission leader. McArdle is the only one of this British cast who doesn't quite convince as an American, but it is Salt who dominates the action in what is a striking performance; the one whose very American single-minded devotion to duty and to proving herself has to be overcome by Kuhnke's Swedish practicality. Or at least met halfway.

There is an an element of political thriller here, but it never really takes off, because of the relentless momentum of the action. It's not just the presence of the North Koreans, but more in the way Red's tunnel vision rebounds on them all, her willingness to lie and conceal, and her ultimate faith in her larger purpose contrasts with Mats' Swedish neutrality or humanity. It's left in inference only, but it's almost unmistakeable, especially because the tight setting and interplay of those two with the other two bring it into focus almost naturally.

This is an assured performance by all concerned, and its ending is something of a surprise, as well as making a conclusion that reminds you this four-hander offers elements of existential theatre as well as ocean-floor thriller. Ben Parker and his stars are three to watch.

The Chamber
written and directed by Ben Parker
starring Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt
released 10 March, available on DVD and download 20 March

Monday, 6 March 2017

JESSE STONE DISCOVERS THE DEVIL WINS

A nor'easter hits Paradise, Massachusetts, and when the storm has passed, three bodies come to the surface, as it were. One is an unknown man, only recently killed, the other two are the skeletons of two young girls, gone missing on a Fourth of July some twenty-five years before. And as Jesse Stone discovers, no one in Paradise really wants to talk much about the girls, or their disappearance, not even Molly Crone, his best cop. It's a great set up, as Jesse has to work to get beneath the rubble of silence and memory, and the killers work to make sure he doesn't.

I've written before about the difficulties of continuing another writer's character, and indeed have reviewed Michael Brandman's Jesse Stone novels (you can link to the most recent here). Now Reed Farrel Coleman has taken up the mantle, and the result is again something different from Robert B Parker's original.

It's a bad situation: if you stray too far from the original, you risk alienating fans, but more importantly you risk losing what it was that made the character and the stories, compelling. I've just reviewed one of Max Allan Collins' Mike Hammer novels; Collins has the advantage of working from Spillane's starts or outlines or notes, and he stays pretty close to the original; his prose style is somewhat less direct, though the bigger problem is that Mickey's stories are generally set in times the reader doesn't necessarily identify with Hammer. Coleman's problem is somewhat different. Brandman's Stone was the one from the TV movies he produced; still large part Parker, but somewhat dominant over the supporting cast, whose parts became smaller largely because Parker was so good at delineating character in short scenes with compact dialogue.

Coleman has brought back some characters, but he also seems to have strayed further away from Parker's Stone. It's partly a question of writing: Coleman's style is not the swift clean prose that made Parker's stories flow and work; he does far more telling than showing. More importantly, his Jesse appears to have far less inner confidence to draw back on: Jesse Stone is like a part of Spenser, and he can do things Spenser can't, like enjoy other women while staying faithful to the idea of his ex-wife Jenn. Well, this Jesse Stone can't do that, and he's having more trouble with his drinking too. His shrink, Dix, is back, but this Dix isn't really as penetrating as Parker's. And most importantly, neither Molly, who is at the heart of this story, and Suit, who recovering from a shooting and therefore not patrolling, are drawn as fully as they should be; Molly should be because of her inner turmoil and also because Coleman seems to be foregrounding Jesse's attraction to her.

Coleman's big strength is plotting, and though some might find a few things easy to guess, there is a neat twist toward the end. In fact, a twist as neat as the one in The Will To Kill, the Spillane which was my previous review, and it helps the story to have it. 

Robert B Parkers's The Devil Wins by Reed Farrel Coleman
No Exit Press, £7.99 ISBN 9781843448464

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

MIKE HAMMER'S WILL TO KILL

It's the mid 1960s and it's a somewhat mellower Mike Hammer. Though some things never change for the hard-boiled dicks, especially when they prowl the mean streets down by the waterfront in the early hours of a cold winter morning. Mike is catching a smoke and catching up with his thoughts when a body, or half a body to be precise, drifts past him on a slab of ice. Some men attract trouble, and Mike Hammer has always been one of them. 

But this is a different sort of trouble, and a different sort of story Max Allan Collins has finished working off pages and notes from Mickey Spillane. It turns out the body belongs to a butler, who worked for the Dunbars, a wealthy family up the Hudson near Monticello. And it turns out the late Mr. Dunbar was a friend of Captain Pat Chambers, Mickey's buddy. Dunbar's been dead three years, and his four children all still live on his estate, await an inheritance that won't kick in until they reach 40. When the state police rule the butler's death is ruled accidental, Pat's not so sure, but there's nothing he can do officially. So the man who can do more unofficially goes up to Monticello to look into things on Pat's behalf.

The butler didn't do it, but the fact that it was done to the butler ought to signal you that this is in not a typical Mike Hammer. In fact, it's more like a cozy who-dun-it, with a raft of suspects worthy of Agatha Christie for Mike to sort through, a will whose value would increase as the number of beneficiaries decrease, and soon more bodies are dropping. There are a couple of Hammer set-pieces; the most interesting at a casino, which plays a bit like Bogart as Marlowe at Eddie Mars' place. And though there are only two women to find Mike irresistible (Velda is also back on the scene) and Mike only is able to resist one, it's far less violent and less steamy than it might have been.

In Agatha Christie who dun its, the puzzle revolves around someone who is not who or what they say they are; often these characters are disenfranchised nobility trying to get or sometimes innocently getting their just desserts. Hammer's world isn't quite so predestined as the English, but it will not be a spoiler to say that, as with Christie, the story hinges on people who are not quite what they are supposed to be; sometimes this makes things clearer when Mike figures it out, sometimes it gets figured out for him. And there is a nice little twist at the end, where Hammer's sense of justice rears its head unexpectedly.

As I said, this is a mellower Hammer in some ways. He's more erudite, and actually corrects people with some unlikely facts. The changes in society brought on by the Sixties are just offstage, for now Luckies and Pabst are not quite declasse. Watching the way Max has worked to finish Mickey's work, and had to adjust to Hammer's changing world, I've sometimes questioned things: for me the Hammer with a deep-down rage will always seem the most authentic Mike. But this novel is intriguing precisely because, in the setting of a who-dun-it, a different side of Hammer that makes sense in terms of age and changing times suggests itself. It really seems like the kind of thing Mickey would have come to had he finished his original idea.

The Will To Kill by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Titan Books, £17.99, ISBN 9781783291427

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)