What I’m reading: Corruption in the Kremlin – and elsewhere

DANIEL SILVA: The Cellist

 

This is the 2021 “operation”, which I somehow missed, featuring Gabriel Allon, the art restorer and former assassin who is now the head of Israel’s secret intelligence outfit – “The Office”, as it’s known.

The target this time is Arkady Akimov, a Russian oligarch who manages the investment of the billions of dollars that flow into the coffers of the country’s corrupt and tyrannical president, whom some people call “the Czar”.

To bring down Akimov, Gabriel recruits Isabel Brenner, a young German banker who has recently whistle-blown the machinations of a bank deeply involved in money laundering and sanction-busting activities. Isabel also happens to be an accomplished cellist – hence the book’s title. Akimov has an eye for a pretty face, and Gabriel hopes to infiltrate Isabel into the management of the oligarch’s funds and bring him down, together with his boss in the Kremlin. “The Russian president is not a statesman, Isabel,” Gabriel tells her. “He is the godfather of a nuclear-armed gangster regime.

No prizes for guessing who the gangster president is, nor his opposite number in Washington who is contesting the result of the election that has removed him from office even as the novel’s events are unfolding. In the text Daniel Silva doesn’t name either of these presidents, although the Russian is referred to sometimes as Vladimir Vladimirovich or Volodya, Putin’s patronymic and his pet name (if we can imagine Putin being anybody’s pet).

This is arguably Daniel Silva’s most important novel to date. In a lengthy Author’s Note at the end of the book he re-examines some of the “evidence” for Putin having interfered in the election that brought Trump to power; he also suggests that there were undocumented meetings between the two men during Donald’s time in the White House.

The politics and financial chicanery that make up most of The Cellist make for an occasionally stodgy read. The one high-octane scene, a chase in the French Alps, is too much like an outtake from a Bond movie. This is a book which, like many of John Le Carré’s novels, clearly draws on the author’s concern about the great issues of the times we live in. A fictitious story of corruption in the Kremlin and the White House is based on the belief that there is or has been corruption in these seats of power.

David at the movies: Goodbye to a magnificent actress

The Great Escaper

 

This is mainly going to be remembered as Glenda Jackson’s last movie, and what a glorious swansong it is. Her ancient, heavily lined face – far removed from the face of Elizabeth the First, the role that sealed her stardom in 1971 – conveys shades of emotion that not all actresses can hint at. She’s playing Irene Jordan, the wife of Bernard (Michael Caine) who has gone AWOL from the care home in which they live, taking himself off to Normandy to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings.

This is another of those small movies with a big heart. Nothing very dramatic happens (apart from brief flashbacks to D-Day which Bernard’s best pal did not survive). John Standing has a nice supporting role as another veteran who takes Bernard under his wing; there was a hint of camp in Standing’s performance, which made me think an LGBT ‘attitude’ moment could and should have been shoe-horned in.

 

Michael Caine has weathered the years better than Jackson (or he’s had some work done, which Glenda very clearly has not). His performance is not quite as subtle as hers, but this is a beguiling and totally believable reconstruction of an episode which made the papers back in 2014. A couple who have loved each other for seventy years are two people you have to take your heart.

 

* * * * * * * *

RIP Glenda, one of the finest actresses Britain ever produced. And Happy Retirement to Sir Michael, who has given us a great deal of pleasure in a long and splendidly wide-ranging screen career

Peter Finch, Murray Head and Glenda Jackson in SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971) – was it the first time an actress used the f-word on screen? And I remember the audience groaned when she ran the hot tap for a cup of coffee!

 

What I’m reading: The book that inspired my latest novel

Thomas Tryon: CROWNED HEADS

 

Crowned Heads, which dates from the 1970s, was one of the major inspirations for my own Hollywood novels Soap Stud & Blue-Movie Girl (published this year under my other pen-name David Godolphin) and Howl and the Pussy-Kat (still editing with a view to publishing next year). Re-reading Crowned Heads after forty-plus years, it’s still one of the great Tinseltown tales, if perhaps not as exquisite as I remembered it.

Fedora, the first of four linked novella-length stories, is the best and was memorably filmed by Billy Wilder (his last movie in 1978). Fedora is a Garboesque Hollywood legend who comes back from a period of seclusion more beautiful – and a better actress – than before. The explanation, narrated to an interviewer like one of Anne Rice’s vampire sagas, is a bit too slow.

Lorna is Lorna Doone (that name is unforgivable!) is a burnt-out star whose life falls into a haze of booze and sex on holiday in a second-rate hotel in a third-rate resort in Mexico. Lots of candidates for the inspiration here whom it would be ungentlemanly to name – she may be an “amalgam”. This too takes a long time to reach its gloomy climax.

Bobbitt is the former child-star forever trapped in the role he outgrew. Mickey Rooney and even Shirley Temple could be sources here. Repetition spoils this one.

Willie (another unfortunate name to an English ear) is Willie Marsh, an elderly movie legend, clearly inspired by Ramon Novarro, whose home, a shrine to his dead but still dominating mother, is invaded by a trio of creepy hippies. This takes Thomas Tryon back into the horror territory where he first made his mark as actor-turned-writer. The invasion scene is far too protracted and its inevitable conclusion goes way over the top.

The poster for Billy Wilder’s 1978 movie of FEDORA

 

Four distinct tales, richly original and yet echoing true events in the life of Movieland. They constitute four ‘obituaries’ from Hollywood’s Golden Era. The writing is a long way from the brisk blunt prose of Jackie Collins and becomes over-ripe in parts, but this is quintessential Tinseltown: art imitating life imitating art. A must-read for La-La Land buffs if you’ve missed it; it’s on Kindle but the print edition is only available second-hand.

You can read the first chapters of David Godolphin’s Hollywood novellas Soap-Stud & Blue-Movie Girl on my website: www.davidgeebooks.com

 

David at the Movies: The Exorcist – fifty years on

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER

Fifty years after the original Exorcist, the franchise gets a reboot in this schlocky tale of two 12-year-old girls who come back possessed by demons after disappearing for three days. Exactly how and why this happens is never fully explained; the script is full of holes, one of several areas in which it falls short of the earlier version.

Linda Blair gets a credit and a brief reappearance as middle-aged Regan. Her elderly mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has a key role: she is now an exorcist herself and together with dropout-nun Ann Dowd takes a lead role in de-possessing the girls; in this movie the priest gets to play third fiddle.

Believer is a bit better (not much) than I’ve made it sound. The build-up is good, but the actual exorcism is inevitably a rehash and the CGI is less terrifying than the original’s use of stunts and make-up. The acting teeters on the edge of parody. Ann Dowd, rigid as a drumskin and “fruity” as ever, is the best thing in it.

David at the movies: A murky death in Venice

A Haunting In Venice

 

Kenneth Branagh’s third foray into Agatha Christie territory doesn’t have the handicap of previous all-star movie adaptations to be compared with. This has enabled him to make savings with a slightly B-list cast (no disrespect intended). And, by taking one of the less well-known Poirot cases as its core, Branagh is able to put more of his own stamp on the project. This is not such a “sacred text” as Death on the Nile and Orient Express.

Sorry to say, these factors have not proved advantageous. A Haunting in Venice seems rather under-scripted and under-played. A séance in a decaying palace in Venice ends in a murder, with all those present anxious to prevent the medium (Michelle Yeoh, miscast but on fine form) revealing their secrets. There’s not enough back-story to establish character and motives. Even Poirot (Branagh) is a bit flat this time. Jude Hill as a precocious schoolboy steals the acting honours with a performance possibly inspired by Paul Dano.

The cinematography lavishly evokes a dark mysterious Venice redolent of Don’t Look Now. Unfortunately, murkiness overwhelms too many of the interior scenes, heightening confusion rather than tension for at least one viewer. Maybe Mr Branagh should invest his considerable talent in revisiting a different 20th-century author: is Anthony Powell due for a revamp?

David at the movies: Where’s the adrenaline rush?

 

MEG 2: The Trench

 

A new Jason Statham movie should be – and usually is – a cinematic treat. Not this time. Meg 2 confirms the truth universally acknowledged that sequels always disappoint. Jonas Tyler (Jason) is back with a team of Chinese oceanographers exploring the depths of the Pacific Ocean and unleashing a whole pod (or whatever the collective noun is) of giant prehistoric sharks. There’s a subplot involving a rogue mining outfit whose staff are mainly there as shark-bait.

The first Meg just about got by on novelty value, despite blatantly rehashing the Piranhas franchise, which in its day was a mash-up of the Jaws compendium. The island resort finale in Meg 2 is a rehash too far, seriously stale. Jason, bless, tries to put some meat on the bare-bones script, but this role enhances his pension fund rather than his reputation.

Stephen Spielberg’s original 1975 Jaws had moments of high tension and shock-horror despite the plasticky-looking shark. There is no adrenaline rush in Meg 2 – and the CGI monsters sometimes look a bit plastic. Victims tend to be swallowed whole, often by the boatload, rather than bitten in half, so even the horror element is diluted.

I saw this on ScreenX: the side panels were a distraction rather than an enhancement, and I often felt like I was sitting in an aquarium tank (if this should have been a delight, it wasn’t). My first movie for five weeks was a major disappointment. Correction – a minor disappointment.

Harry Bosch – nearly his last case

Michael Connelly: DESERT STAR

 

A new Harry Bosch crime story used to be an annual highlight. Now we have to share him with LAPD’s Renée Ballard and (not every year) Mickey Haller, “the Lincoln Lawyer”. In Desert Star Bosch and Ballard are given alternate chapters as they investigate two cold cases: a rape/murder from 1994 and the brutal killing of a whole family a year earlier, whose bodies were buried in the desert.

New forensic evidence from DNA plays a crucial role, but re-interviewing witnesses and suspects is the most effective way of digging slowly toward a resolution. Both cases bring Harry into deadly confrontations, and you may begin to think, as I did, that Michael Connelly is getting ready to kill off his hero, our hero.

Because Ian Fleming didn’t kill him off, James Bond’s life and career has been placed in the hands of other writers, some as gifted as Fleming, some woefully talentless. Peter O’Donnell sent Modesty Blaise and her sidekick Willie Garvin on a final, fatal mission: the best option in my view.

007 clearly perished – heroically, of course! – at the end of No Time to Die. It will be interesting to see how the writers manage to resurrect him in the next movie, after they resolve the increasingly tiresome saga of naming Daniel Craig’s successor. Chrisopher Lee’s Dracula had almost as many lives as a cat; his ashes were easily reassembled (fully dressed, every time!). James Bond is clearly hallmarked for immortality.

We must perhaps brace ourselves for the death of Harry Bosch within the next book or two. Desert Star is not one of Connelly’s best tales, the pace is a bit slow and Ballard fails to come to life on the page in the way that Bosch always does, but the story has two thrilling climaxes and Harry Bosch reaffirms his status as the most believable of all investigators.

What I’m reading: Erotic tales across the centuries

 

Paolo G. Grossi: SEARAFINO DA FERRARA

 

In Renaissance Ferrara, young Serafino is talent-spotted as a promising artist and apprenticed to a series of high-profile painters, culminating in Michelangelo, who has been commissioned to paint a chapel ceiling for the Pope. Michelangelo, like other artists and apprentices, is jealous of Fino and abuses him. A new patron rescues him, and his love life acquires a new intensity.

500 years later, Parker Henderson, teenage son of the newly appointed American consul in Florence, falls intensely in love with a boy in his school class and uncovers a link to the sixteenth-century painter, whose home is now the consul’s residence.

Paolo Grossi’s first full-length novel is an easy, lightly erotic read. Stories written in the present tense tend to raise my hackles, and the author’s prose style here lacks the refinement that hallmarked his previous collection of Berlin stories. I would have liked a stronger contrast between the Renaissance scenes and the modern ones; the period dialogue needed to be a bit more archaic.

There’s a brief scene when the consul’s son is subjected to the attentions of an ageing celebrity painter, and the tone of the book changes subtly. I would have welcomed more of this, but the passionate encounters of teenage lovers across the centuries plainly have a stronger appeal to today’s readers.

David at the Movies: a small movie with a big heart

 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

 

This, for me, is a “companion piece” to last year’s Bill Nighy movie Living, since it again has an elderly gent in the central role. On hearing that a former colleague in the brewery where he worked is dying, Harold (Jim Broadbent) impulsively decides to walk from his home in Devon to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. His wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) sees this as a long-postponed way of leaving her. Their marriage has gone stale because of the disappearance of their only son, which is eked out in a series of flashbacks.

Like other road movies, the film alternates between motivation and meetings. Harold crosses paths with a few fairly ordinary people who each have a tale to tell. At one stage he becomes a kind of Messiah figure, leading a flock of followers, but he arrives in Berwick on his own to resolve the story of the dying woman’s role in his life.

I got a slight sense of “wokeness” being applied to both the characters and the actors, and there are a few scenes that don’t really ring true. The best element is the seesaw on which Harold’s marriage is quietly riding. Broadbent and Wilton are two fine actors on top form here. This is another small movie with a big heart which it wears on its sleeve.

David at the movies: The Exorcist – and Dracula – revisited

THE POPE’S EXORCIST

 

This is a lot less schlocky than I expected. Father Gabriele, the priest played by Russell Crowe, is based on a real Vatican cleric who carried out many exorcisms in a long career. The demonic possession we see here, a small boy in Spain, brings unavoidable echoes of Linda Blair’s Regan in the 1973 movie. The demon speaks in a guttural voice. The boy levitates and also hurls people across the room by pure mental power. Writing appears on his skin.

But despite the recycling there are many genuinely goose-bumpy moments. The boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is believably desperate. Russell Crowe and his young sidekick (Daniel Zovatto) give measured performances, not too shouty. Franco Nero as the Pope is still a commanding screen presence at 81.

The last quarter of the film goes into CGI overdrive, bringing The Mummy remakes to mind, but even if the ground is a bit familiar, this is an exciting and entertaining way to revisit it.

 

RENFIELD

This is a lot more schlocky than I expected: another entry for the Worst Movie of the Year. Count Dracula and his ‘familiar’ Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) are in modern-day New Orleans, embroiled in a war between a drug baroness and the one honest (female) cop in a mega-corrupt police precinct. Huge liberties are taken with the vampire mythology. Renfield not only eats insects but gets super-hero powers from small doses of Dracula’s blood.

Nicolas Cage’s Count has teeth like a barracuda and is played in camp overdrive. His main role – and Renfield’s – is to tear limbs and heads off people in a succession of fight scenes that belong in a kung-fu movie.

There’s a long history of vampire movies that messed with the legend or fell wide of the mark (Blacula and its sequel spring quickly to mind – they wouldn’t be made today, would they?), but Renfield takes the biscuit. It’s meant to be a spoof, which I think was most brilliantly brought off by Roman Polanski’s sublimely comic Dance of the Vampires (1967).

Renfield is woeful, dire. Nul points!