Category: DavidGeeBlog

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!

 

David at the Movies: a comedy about death and dementia?

ALLELUJAH

 

Alan Bennett’s 2018 stage play has been adapted for the screen by Heidi Thomas, whom we mostly know as the writer/creator of Call the Midwife on TV. There are still plenty of lines which are clearly Mr Bennett’s acerbic originals and the play has not been sentimentalized. Far from. This is a bleak drama, intermittently comic, set in the geriatric ward of an old hospital in Yorkshire which is scheduled for demolition. Rightly so. The hospital looks and feels like the one where I had my appendix removed in the 1950s.

Jennifer Saunders is the ward sister, efficiently and briskly coping with everything from assisted showers to incontinence and patient deaths. Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi are among the patients, but the focus is mostly on Joe (David Bradley), a frail old gent hoping to be sent home, and his nerdy son Colin (Russell Tovey, the go-to actor for gay roles), who is on the team planning the new hospital.

The Bennett pedigree guarantees brilliant writing and all the cast do eminent justice to the script, but the tone of the movie is unremittingly glum, largely focused on death and dementia, and the dimly lit hospital adds more gloom. The ending is a bit rushed and not entirely in tune with what’s gone before.

Like The Banshees of Inisherin, this is a dark comedy that is perhaps a bit too dark. Alan Bennett has not lost his touch, but the humour in Allelujah is over-laced with bile and bitterness. Living, the Bill Nighy movie a couple of months ago, managed to find more lightness in a dark theme.

What I’m reading: Lord Alfred – Oscar Wilde’s toyboy and nemesis

Douglas Murray: BOSIE

 

This detailed and thoroughly researched biography of Lord Alfred Douglas was published over twenty years ago, so mine is a rather late review. Bosie here comes across as a bitter, vindictive man torn between love and hate for Oscar Wilde, whose downfall was brought about as much by Bosie and his father as by his own love of life in the gutter (from where, as we know, there is a view of the stars).

The young Bosie has been accurately portrayed in all the movies: lazy, spoiled and petulant. He graduated from college flirtations to commercial sex with London rent-boys (then called ‘renters’). Wilde was going to seed by the time they met; Bosie’s infatuation was more for the playwright and wit than for the bedroom partner. But he loyally visited Oscar every day while he was awaiting trial for sexual offences after the collapse of his libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry.

Breaking an oath to his wife that he would not see Bosie again, Wilde was reunited with him in Rouen after his release from prison. They lived for some months in a rented villa near Naples where Oscar wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, his last work, and Bosie wrote some of his best poems. The pair were forced to separate when first Mrs Wilde (reverting to her maiden name Constance Holland) and then Bosie’s mother withdrew their financial support.

Bosie did not see Wilde during his last days in Paris in 1900, but he paid for Oscar’s funeral. Less than two years later he married Olive, a fellow poet with (some say) lesbian leanings. They had a son who ended up in a mental hospital, and although the marriage failed they remained friends and confidants until Olive’s death in Hove in 1944 (Bosie died, also in Sussex, a year later).

Douglas Murray believes Bosie ‘went straight’ after he converted to Catholicism and married Olive. But he never could not let go of the past. He wrote several books about his relationship with Wilde and got involved in a long series of libel cases, many centred on Robert Ross, Oscar’s ‘ex’ from way back who deserves much of the credit for safeguarding Wilde’s legacy, the plays. Bosie edited a series of short-lived literary magazines and ‘discovered’ some notable poets, including Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. He took against the emerging modern poetry after the Great War and especially hated T.S. Eliot, never missing a chance to slag him off in letters to, among others, Bernard Shaw and Marie Stopes!

Murray’s major achievement is perhaps in arguing the case for Bosie to be recognized as a poet of some significance. Several critics of the time (and again when he was republished in the 1950s) rank Alfred Douglas’s sonnets alongside Shakespeare’s. How highly is he rated today? His early poems (many invocations to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’) are a bit twee. The middle ones are vituperative, reflecting his long period of litigiousness. Then sanctimony gets the better of him as he becomes an increasingly hardcore Catholic and denounces homosexuality.

This is not an easy book to read, especially for non-poetry lovers. Full of a queeny bitchiness and endlessly self-pitying, Alfred Douglas was neither lovable nor likeable. In death as in life, Bosie gets co-star status in the drama of the rise and fall of a great literary figure.

 

Famous photo of Oscar and Bosie before Oscar’s downfall

 

David at the Movies: Not the Full Monty

MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE

 

Despite its threadbare storyline this third instalment of the Magic Mike story is fairly watchable, almost entirely due to the charisma of Channing Tatum, who is not only sexy as all-get-out (or ‘all-get-off’!) but extremely likeable – lovable even. Mike is rescued from working as a bartender in Florida by rich-bitch Salma Hayek who takes him to London to stage a strippergram version of an ailing West End play in a theatre her husband owns.

Hayek is slumming in this role but she throws herself into it much as when she played the vampire dancer in Tarantino’s From Dusk to Dawn. Steven Soderbergh, who directed this and the first of the trilogy but not the second, is also slumming but he gives the movie plenty of pace and pizzazz. None of the new troupe of dancers gets a decent back story, and the show-stopping finale amounts to no more than a series of raunchy Madonna-style music videos. Nobody actually goes ‘the Full Monty’, which feels like a rip-off. The opening scene, in which Sayek purchases a sensationally erotic private dance from Tatum, is the highlight not only of this episode but of the entire series – and probably worth the price of admission.

David at the Movies: Stephen Spielberg shares his boyhood

THE FABELMANS

 

Another movie about Hollywood, but altogether softer and gentler in tone than last month’s loud garish Babylon. This one comes from Stephen Spielberg, who has been serving up unforgettable pictures for five decades. The Fabelmans is a fictionalized version of his boyhood. Sammy Fabelman, a Jewish kid growing up in Arizona in the 1950s, is given a movie camera and soon graduates from home movies to amateur action pictures starring his friends and schoolmates as cowboys and battlefield soldiers. His dad (Paul Dano) thinks Sam is wasting time and money, but his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is encouraging, as is his dad’s best friend who Sammy realizes is the other great love of Mitzi’s life. When dad’s job relocates to Los Angeles, Sam has to overcome anti-Semitism at his new school and watch his parent’s marriage collapse, but film-making brings popularity and a puppy-love girlfriend.

The home-life and high-school scenes come with welcome echoes of a hundred other movies (notably, for me, American Graffiti). Gabrielle LaBelle is totally convincing as the nerdy kid living a small life but dreaming big. Michelle Williams gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the neurotic Mitzi.

The film is a bit too long (two-and-a-half hours), but it’s easy to take Sam and his family to your heart, especially when you remember that the real Sammy Fabelman is going to bring us ET and Close Encounters and the Indiana Jones movies a few years from where this story ends.