In the opening scene of Babylon an elephant on a pick-up empties its bowels over one of its handlers. This, I’m sorry to say, sets the tone for much of what follows. This is a long movie – three hours, much of which is crap.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who gave us La La Land a few years ago, turns the clock back to the 1920s when “Hollywoodland” was transitioning from silent pictures to sound. Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie play two leading actors who flounder during this period of adjustment, cast in a series of tawdry flops. Diego Calva and Jovan Adepo play a Mexican production assistant and a jazz trumpeter whose careers briefly flare. All four stars make the best of their roles despite the chaotic screenplay. Robbie’s damaged character, a stock favourite, fuelled by addiction to cocaine and gambling, is overdone and risks losing the viewer’s sympathy.
Orgiastic parties and a weird scene in a mountain torture palace presided over by Tobey Maguire in overdrive bring echoes of historic Babylon and some of the weirder extremes of early Hollywood. And there are many references to Singing in the Rain, that gem of a film set in the same era as this mash-up – one of the all-time greatest movies. With its messy script, erratic direction and uneven editing, Babylon is in an altogether different league. I can’t think of a picture I’ve hated as much as this. Sorry!
Here’s a new author bidding to join the ranks of Dan Brown/Daniel Silva international thriller-writers. Ricci (one of many aliases he uses) is an assassin-for-hire working for a vigilante organization that orders vengeance upon high-profile paedophiles around the globe. His current mission takes him from Lake Garda to Dusseldorf and on to India. Alternate chapters revisit the previous year when an Asian gang took reprisals against Ricci’s employers.
The Atenisti has fights and shoot-outs at almost the pace of a Jason Bourne movie. There’s an attention to detail that reminded me of Ian Fleming at his more lurid in, say, Dr No or You Only Live Twice. Only the hideous nature of the crimes being avenged makes this a somewhat discomforting read. Aidan Morrissey will be a writer to look out for.
Isabel Allende: A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA
Spain 1938. Victor Dalmau, a trainee doctor, flees the civil war that is tearing his country apart. He escapes over the mountains with Roser, a gifted pianist pregnant by his brother who is one of the thousands of victims of Franco’s remorseless tyranny.
From France the pair are evacuated to a new life in Chile. A deep platonic love – and Roser’s son – binds them, although they both have intense affairs with other people. Chile, like Spain, goes through turbulent times. The Marxist Salvador Allende (a cousin of the author) wins the presidency of Chile for only a few years before a military coup installs the brutal Fascist Pinochet regime, forcing Victor and Roser to seek exile again, this time in Venezuela.
In middle age their love for each other finds a new passion and a new depth. They return to Chile to live out their lives, despite the rigours of life under Pinochet. Better years lie ahead for Chile.
Isabel Allende writes beautifully, although in this book I felt her new translators did not quite serve her as majestically as their predecessors. A Long Petal of the Sea (the title is taken from a poem by Palbo Neruda, who appears as a character in the novel) is one of her greatest stories, up there with House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune (my two favourites): an epic story of love and loss played out against the changing tides of history. At her best – and she is at her best here – Allende is one of the greatest living writers. This is a romance both ‘of its time’ and timeless.
A stylish black comedy which riffs on Theatre of Blood, with Ralph Fiennes as the martinet chef of an offshore island restaurant whose specially invited customers are given a dinner they will never forget and which could become their Last Supper. Anya Taylor-Joy is Nicholas Hoult’s replacement date, who may or may not be the Plucky Survivor when the next course turns out to be The Hunger Games.
Fiennes’s performance, marshalling his team of sous-chefs/waiters like a black-ops army unit and explaining to his guests why they have been selected, has strong echoes of Vincent Price’s juiciest role as Edward Lionheart, though with rather less camp. The guest roles are perhaps a little under-powered and the climax is definitely OTT gothic, but The Menu is a gourmet dining-out experience that teeters between humour and horror.
This little gem of a movie is scripted (adapting a Japanese story) by Kashuo Ishiguro who gave us The Remains of the Day thirty years ago. Living is set in the 1950s. Mr. Williams (in those days men called each other “Mister” on the commuter train and in the office) manages a section of the planning offices at London’s County Hall where shuffling papers seems to be the order of the day. A widower living with his buttoned-up son and bitchy daughter-in-law, Mr. Williams is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and decides to try and “live a bit” in the time he has left. A strip-club in Brighton turns out not to be his cup of tea, and he goes back to London and finds a small project to invest his time and energy in. He also befriends a girl working in a Lyons Corner House (Aimee Lou Wood) – an awkward platonic relationship that has echoes of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day.
Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as Williams, a man of his time painfully incapable of expressing his emotions. The script and the direction (Oliver Hermanus) beautifully capture the austerity and self-restraint of postwar Britain. This is a splendid evocation of a desperately ordinary man whose small life has an important impact on other people’s lives, including ours, the viewers. Less is more – much more.
The Banshees of Inisherin
My multiplex bills this on its website as a comedy drama. Dramatic, yes, albeit at a slow pace. But comic? Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Padraig and Colm, two men in a tiny village on a bleak island off the coast of Ireland. They’ve been friends all their lives until Colm announces that Padraig bores him to death and he doesn’t want him to speak to him ever again; if he does, Colm, an accomplished fiddle player, will start to cut off his own fingers. Since I’ve questioned the humor of this movie, you can guess what happens next.
The acting is impeccable. Farrell, particularly, has never been better. Kerry Condon as Padraig’s sister, who longs to escape the island, has the beauty and poignancy of a Thomas Hardy heroine. Delicately written and beautifully filmed, this is a small grim drama about friendship and isolation. But you will not come out of the cinema smiling. Comedy? I think not.
Anthony Horowitz: A LINE TO KILL
This is the third of Anthony Horowitz’s Hawthorne series, in which he appears himself as scribe and assistant to ex-cop turned investigator Daniel Hawthorne, rather like Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes or Colonel Hastings to Hercule Poirot. A literary festival on the tranquil island of Alderney (actually murder-free since its brutal occupation by the Nazis in WW2) turns into a crime-fest when the event’s millionaire host is stabbed to death, a man with many enemies. There are plenty of suspects, including the visiting authors, more than one of whom is not who they pretend to be. There is – right on cue – a second murder.
Mr Horowitz has scripted episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders (as well as several series of Foyle’s War, which he created), so he is a past master at serving up false leads and red herrings. He has an unpretentious prose style and a keen sense of pacing. I doubt if many readers will second-guess the big reveal. I prefer my crime stories to be more lurid and even a bit gothic, but for fans of the “country house murder mystery” A Line to Kill is an exemplar of everything a whodunit should be.
Horowitz has also written three contributions to the James Bond legend, all splendidly close in theme and style to Ian Fleming’s original stories. I very much hope he holds on to the franchise.
TICKET TO PARADISE
A pair of feuding divorcees reunite to block their daughter marrying a guy they consider unsuitable. In Ticket to Paradise we have George Clooney and Julia Roberts recycling characters they’ve played before with a romcom plotline that’s been used many times: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable – all the way back to the silent movie era.. The setting is Fiji, which makes for beautiful backdrops, and their daughter is marrying a cute Fijian seaweed-farmer, which gives the movie an eco-friendly vibe.
And it works – sort of. Despite the second-hand story (and performances) the movie has enough pace and the cast enough charm to keep you entertained for 104 minutes. It’s not a spoiler to say you can see the ending from a mile off – in fact you can predict the ending before the movie starts! Familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt, although it will probably do so for more hard-bitten viewers.
I’ve been doing some online research on Parkinson’s Disease, which like Jeremy Paxman I was diagnosed with last year. Paxman shared his story on ITV last night. The title ‘Living With –‘ was replaced by ‘Putting Up With Parkinson’s’, reflecting how Paxman feels about it. Me too, to borrow a slogan.
There are about 40 symptoms of PD and each patient gets their own ‘pick-n-mix’ selection. Paxman doesn’t seem to have the tremor which I have (left hand only so far and somewhat reduced since I was put on levodopa, the medication of choice) and which most of the other people in the documentary had to varying degrees. Jeremy has a ‘frozen face’ which so far I do not. I have difficulty vocalizing, which means I cannot do book-reading events any more; this seems not to be a problem for Jeremy and isn’t the reason for his retirement from University Challenge. Paxo feels tired all the time, as do I, and he can no longer operate a keyboard – I’ve gone from being a two-finger typist to a single finger, with many a bloop!
Vivid dreams and hallucinations are very common. A neurologist said that over 50% of sufferers develop psychosis. I have vivid dreams, often featuring dead friends and family members (Bruce Willis can play me in the movie!) but so far no hallucinations.
My online research threw up some grim statistics. The progression is usually slow with a gradual decline in mobility and agility (Jeremy, like me, already finds doing up shirt buttons difficult), but PD sufferers have an 80% chance of developing dementia after ten years. We are most likely to die from a fall or from pneumonia (presumably pneumonia brought on following a fall?). Paul Sinha, “Sinnerman” on ITV’s The Chase, who is in Year Three of PD, said he was diagnosed after a fall, as was Paxman. I was diagnosed because of my tremor, two years after my GP assured me that the tremor was “almost certainly not Parkinson’s”, so I don’t know if I’m in Year Two or Year Four. I’ve had four falls at home, the last of which saw me lacerate my scalp when I hit a door jamb – easy to see how such a fall could save me the fare for that one-way trip to Zurich.
Last week I lunched with a Brighton friend and his wife. He’s in Year Twelve of Parkinson’s and has been spared a date with dementia but he looked as if he’d been beaten up, following two falls onto his face in recent weeks. Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, is not a pretty road to go down – I guess there aren’t any pretty roads in this area of terminal decline. £100 million in medical research has not yet found a cure, but more effective slowing-down treatments may be in the pipeline.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again –” My biggest regret is that I’ve been writing novels for sixty years and I’m still waiting to achieve serious sales as a self-published author or, best of all, get accepted by a mainstream publisher. I’ve always identified with Prince Charles, who had to wait more than sixty years to be King (on the plus side, I’ve been a ‘queen’ for more than sixty years!). I’ve got another novel waiting to go to print (the sequel to Soap-Stud & Blue-Movie Girl) and two more part written, including a follow-on to Lillian and the Italians and a book which does more justice to my mother as a main character (Lillian has elements of my mother’s life but not her spiritual journey). Hopefully, writing and peddling books will keep Alzheimer’s at bay.
Most people seem to live with PD for up to ten or twelve years. Keeping active is key, mentally and physically. As with dementia, the later years look more like a curse than a blessing. Watch this space. My guru of choice has long been Doris Day: Que sera, sera.
This biopic of Marilyn Monroe is based on a fictionalized biography by Joyce Carol Oates, so we don’t know how much of it is reality and how much fantasy. Like The Crown, the script flies close to what we think we know as the facts. Early scenes depict Norma Jeane’s wretched childhood with an unstable mother who nearly burned them both to death and was then committed to a mental institution. All through her life this Marilyn is obsessed with the absent father whose identity her mother never revealed.
One brutal session on the “casting couch” presumably represents the many such ordeals Marilyn endured. Her first lover here is Charlie Chaplin Jr whose baby she reluctantly aborts in order to secure the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There’s at least one more abortion and a miscarriage. She her husbands “Daddy”. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is a nice guy but he turns into a wife-beater. Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) is another nice guy; we’re not shown the break-up of this marriage. The one scene with JFK suggests that the President was not a nice guy in the bedroom. The conspiracy theories about her death are not played out here.
It’s a long, slow movie – almost three hours. Ana de Armas is a sensationally good look-alike and does the breathy voice perfectly. She is nude for much of the movie, which may be intended ironically but it gives Blonde a cruel hard edge. De Armas is dubbed in the re-staged songs – could they not have used the original soundtracks? Some clever CGI inserts the new Marilyn in clips from the actual movies, including the famous subway vent scene from The Seven Year Itch and some high spots from Some Like it Hot.
The screenplay brings out Marilyn’s serious side: she has read Chekhov and takes acting seriously despite all her neuroses and on-set tantrums. But except for the recreation of her famous comedy films, this is a consistently bleak movie, concentrating on Norma Jeane/Marilyn’s endless exploitation; she gets very few happy moments. For me, My Week with Marilyn gave a more rounded portrait of both the actress and the woman, highlighting her great comic talent as well as her instability. And Some Like It Hot is still my all-time favourite movie!