Sunday, 19 October 2014

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL III: TENNIS GIRL

It  has nothing to do with the famous poster of a woman in tennis whites rubbing her bottom, but Tennis Girl, a 2013 short directed by Brazilian Daniel Barosa, and written by him with Humberto Palmas, packs a lot of emotion into its 15 minutes. It does it by showing very little but implying a lot. Ju is a pretty teenaged girl running late. She's snappy with her harried mother, she's distracted by text messages, and she's more interested in flirting with her tennis coach than actually having a lesson. On the face of it just a brief slice of a day in her life.

But as Felipe, the coach, ignores he flirting and implores Ju to concentrate on her lesson, she runs off to the toilets. But she stops along the way, contemplating yet another call on her mobile, and for an instant rubs her belly. We think back; the film opens with a shot of an empty corridor in the family's apartment; Ju eventually emerges from the loo. She skips eating, she ignores her mother and her godmother, and on the way out she barely has time for her friend, or her boyfriend who has been texting.

This film works like a quiet short story; I thought of Alice Munro, which might be too much praise, but the tone is perfect because its quiet, and the bleakness of the ending, contrast with Ju's young hormonal energy. Bianca Melo is perfect as Ju, while Gabriel Godoy as Felipe is simply playing normal, emphasizing her adolescent energy, and Renata de Paula as her mother does much the same with great tiredness. Tennis Girl lingers with you, as a snapshot would, and by implying much more than it states, is very impressive indeed.




LONDON FILM FESTIVAL NOTE: LEVIATHAN WINS BEST FILM

Irresistible Targets seal of approval shows its influence again. I posted my review of Leviathan yesterday afternoon; last night an email from the LFF informed me that it had been chosen best film in the Festival.

Right now I'd say it quite likely was the best film I've seen so far, and it's combination of a big theme with moving (and amusing) personal stories will probably make it a favourite for the best foreign film Oscar come the spring. Cue more celebrating from an exceptional cast and a very talented director/writer.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL II: LEVIATHAN

Leviathan is a Russian film that at times feels like a 19th century Russian novel; it's also a tightly-focused story about political corruption that at times feels almost epic. I saw it just after The Drop in this year's London Film Festival, and there are some similarities between the two: both are stories of people struggling with lives of quiet repetition, badly-paid work and a lack of control in the face of more powerful forces. They both also have a sense of failed religion about them, but there is a difference, because in Leviathan the church's presence is far more overt and the corruption is engrained throughout society.

Kolya is a handyman and mechanic who's built his own house overlooking his hometown on the northern Kola peninsula, near Murmansk. But the town mayor, Vadim, wants the property for a redevelopment project, and Kolya's old army buddy Dimitri (Dima), who's now a lawyer in Moscow, has shown up to help him, bearing a file of information about Vadim's shady dealings. Meanwhile, Kolya's first wife died, and his son Roma doesn't like his stepmother, Lilya.

The story plays out in the contrast between the lives of the characters who would have been called peasants in a 19 th century Russian novel, and the machinations of the bureaucracy which Vadim can use, with a little old-fashioned physical force thrown in. For a moment it seems as if Dima's approach, trying to get justice through the system combined with a little blackmail within the shadowy system might work. But then there is factor of human emotions, and of drink.

Kolya's life is an erratic dance between pain and pleasure. He and his friends, a couple of traffic cops, drink, smoke, drink, eat pickles, drink, shoot, and drink to excess. Alexey Serebryakov conveys the necessary facade of bluster with an endearing sensitivity; I could swear I was watching Victor the Ape, one of my drivers at the Moscow Olympics, as we got drunk on vodka and ate sour berries in 1980. As his nemesis, Vadim, Roman Madyanov is perfect, a mix of more effective bluster, feral cunning, and short-tempered violence which is contrasted with his public piety with the Orthodox bishop who is his confessor.

Vladimir Vdovitchenkov as Dimitri is a sort of Russian Belmondo, a figure of some glamour, which helps explain the tension which boils over between him and Lilya. As Lilya, Elena Lyadova steals almost every scene she is in, even as she seems to disappear into the background. And just as in classic Russian novels, it is a small personal event that triggers the resolution of the bigger tale.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev keeps a firm hand on this, and at times his portrayal of ordinary Russians fighting the system and taking their small pleasures it allows is both funny and touching. And it's tragic. The landscape of Kola, icy water, bare rocky hills, seems almost a character itself; one wonders what could be built on the land Vadim covets. And the landscape is littered with loss; the skeletons of boats and a beached whale speak of desolation, and the latter is referenced when a priest talks about the story of Job.

Kolya is a Job figure, but unlike Vadim he has no faith, no church, on which to fall back. The original story may have been inspired by a fight against eminent domain in Colorado, but it's a different, very Russian fight here, just as there is none of the organised violence that marks Heinrich Von Kliest's Michael Kohlhaas, another scource for this screenplay, and itself based on a true 16th century story. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin won the best screenplay award at Cannes this year (see photo, from left: Madyanov, Vdovitchenkov, Lyadova, Zvyagintsev), and Leviathan will be the official Russian entry at the Academy Awards.

At times the religious underpinnings at first seem a bit heavy handed, wearing the hypocritical moralising on its sleeve, but there is a twist at the end that brings the sense of it home powerfully. There's also an ambiguity, lef unsolved, about the death at the centre of the film's resolution. I believe the answer is hinted at and were I correct it would make tremendous tragic irony, but either way the point seems to be the inevitability of the film's denoument. The scenes of the church, and the scenes of the drunken friends having fun shooting their rifles at the portraits of former Russian leaders now discarded by the offices of the state, reinforce that point. It's a carefully layered story, a film that works brilliantly as those classic novels do, but satisfies on its own terms as well.

NOTE: This review will also appear, in a slightly different form, at crimetime.co.uk


Thursday, 16 October 2014

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: THE DROP

The Drop tells the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender at Cousin Marv's, whose owner, Marv, actually is his cousin. But Marv isn't really the owner; the bar belongs to Chechen gangsters, and they use it as a drop, where the money collected from their night's activities is dropped off. They have lots of drop bars; the collection moves around. Bob's life is about to change, when two things happen. Walking home one night he rescues a battered dog from a garbage can; he's forced to adopt the dog and he also meets Nadia, who helps him cope with that. It changes again when two guys in masks rob Cousin Marv's. It wasn't a drop night, but the five grand lost still belongs to the Chechens; they want it back and they want the robbers gone. Bob's quiet but he knows things. 

The movie opens in the bar, with Bob buying a round for a group of friends remembering Richie 'Glory Days' Phelan, a small-time drug dealer who disappeared ten years before, after leaving Cousin Marv's. Marv doesn't like that Bob sprang for the round; it tells you a lot about the two, almost but not quite all you need to know.


Bob is a showcase role for Tom Hardy, the British actor who's got to adapt to Brooklynese (usually difficult, British actors tend to switch from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Alabama in the same sentence) and Hardy handles it well. When I reviewed Dennis Lehane's novel, an expansion of his original short story (you can link to that here) I said Hardy would have to underplay the role significantly (you can link to that here) and he does just that. In fact, at times his performance recalls Tim Robbins' in Mystic River, playing the slow retard shuffle for all it's worth. Mystic River, of course, was another Lehane story, and like Dave in that story, Bob may have seen too much.

The setting of The Drop has been changed, from Lehane's Boston to Brooklyn. Cousin Marv's bar is now decorated with a New York Giants football helmet light, and the patrons sport Giants and Jets jackets instead of Patriots or Red Sox. I suppose Brooklyn is hipper than Boston, but the film is resolutely unhip, set in the same kind of working class neighbourhood, full of dead ends and alleys, which Belgian director Michael Roskam seems to relish.

Because of the dog, and Nadia, Eric Deeds enters Bob's world. The dog was his, and if Bob wants now to keep it, there will be a price to pay. Deeds is a borderline psycho who is rumoured to have killed 'Glory Days'. And Bob has provided the police (and thus the Chechens) with a small piece of identification about the bank robbers: one wore a watch stopped at 6:15. From these roots the story proceeds slowly, but almost relentlessly. You have to pay attention to small bits of dialogue, to small actions, to keep up with it fully; there are hints dropped along the way which pay off as the story is resolved, but more important, there are echoes: characters who mirror each other, events that reverberate in time, and a feel of tragic inevitability to almost everything that happens.

It's the Eric Deeds character who's most problematic. Matthias Schoenarts, as if taking a cue from Hardy, underplays this character too, but sometimes the sense of real menace in Deeds is lacking. What the film does, subtly and quickly, is establish the way in which Deeds and Bob are yin and yang, contrasting sides of a coin. I don't want to review the film by comparison to the story and book, but in the novel Deeds is given a lot of background, establishing his own victimisation in prison, his own violence, and his self-help list of things to remember, a perverse sort of Dale Carnegie perscriptions to influence people, if not win friends. Also lost is the backstory for Detective Torres, which is not so essential, and, sadly, the wonderful speech about life which Chovko, the Chechen gangster, makes when Bob pours him a Middleton Irish. Only the punch line remains.

The original story was called 'Animal Rescue', and that's what the whole story is about. There are people who need rescuing throughout the film, and some get rescued, while others don't. That the local church, which Bob has attended regularly for ten years without taking communion, is being sold off for redevelopment simply echoes that theme. Hardy's hang-dog expression makes this theme of rescue clear, and Noomi Rapace is very good at playing another damaged person in need of rescue herself even as she throws a lifeline out to Bob. Picking up a small statue of angel with one wing at Bob's kitchen table she asks, 'do you want me to fix it?'

But the hidden center of the film is James Gandolfini, in his final role, as Marv. Once a player, if only on a small scale, he's now living with his sister (the excellent Ann Dowd), both of them hanging on to dreams but barely getting by. After the film one critic told me it was sad to see Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano yet again in his final role, but nothing could be further from the truth. He inhabits Marv, and his TV role never enters into it. It's a fine performance that works in perfect contrast to Hardy's restraint, exactly the way the characters should be, and it's that concentration on the contrast that makes The Drop work so well.

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

Sunday, 5 October 2014

IN MEMORIAM: GEORGE SHUBA

George Shuba was the last of the 'Boys Of Summer', the Brooklyn Dodgers whose 1955 season, when they won their only World Series title, was memorialised in Roger Kahn's book of that title. But Shuba's claim to immortality rests on something that occured a decade earlier, in a single moment that happened to be recorded by a wire-service cameraman in a photograph whose simple beauty and impact made it a 'shot heard round the world' every bit as much as Bobby Thompson's home run was a few years later. It's a rare thing, to have your life encapsulated in single frozen instant, but it was something Shuba never regretted.

The moment came at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 18 April 1946. It was the home opener for the Jersey City Giants, the top farm team of the New York Giants. They were playing the Montreal Royals, the top farm team of their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Making his debut for the Royals was Jackie Robinson, the first black player in 'organised' baseball since the 19th century.

In the third inning, Robinson hit a home run. As he toured the bases he got a slap on the back from his manager, Clay Hopper, who came from Mississippi. But his two teammates whom he'd driven in didn't wait for him at the plate, as is traditional, but went back to the dugout. So as Robinson approached home plate, Shuba, the next hitter, came up to the plate and shook his hand, before Robinson had even touched home. Look at the second, reverse angle photo: Jackie is still in the air.

 George Shuba, of course, was white. And he understood what he was doing. 'When he hit the home run, everyone was looking to see if a white guy would shake his hand,' Shuba recalled in 1996. 'It didn't make any difference to me that Jack was black. I was just happy to have him on our team.'

Look at the famous picture. Robinson's pure joy at hitting that shot, at belonging, at being part of this thing that was baseball and that had been closed off to him and those like him. Look at the umpire's reaction. And look at the packed crowd and the patriotic red white and blue bunting, and realise how significant this was for a country who'd gone to war with a segregated military, and had court-martialled Lieutenant Jack Robinson for refusing to move to the back of a Texas bus.

Shuba was nicknamed 'Shotgun' for the way he sprayed line-drives off his bat. He played for the Dodgers in the late 40s and early 50s; he was a good-hitting outfielder but not a great fielder, especially after he hurt his knee in 1952. He usually found himself stuck behind someone Branch Rickey thought was better, no doubt he would have had a better career with some other team. In fact, his main to claim to fame on the diamond would be as the answer to the trivia question ' who batted for Don Zimmer in game 7 of the 1955 World Series?'. Shuba didn't get a hit, and in the bottom of the inning Junior Gilliam moved from left field to second base, and Sandy Amoros, not Shuba, replaced Gilliam. Amoros then made a spectacular catch of a sure double hit by Yogi Berra. Three innings later, Brooklyn won their only World Series ever.

Shuba was the son of immigrants from what is now Slovakia. He saw baseball as a way to avoid a lifetime in the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up playing sports with blacks as well as whites in the integrated mill town. As a kid he hung ropes from the ceiling of his bedroom, with knots to mark off the strike zone, and swung a bat through the zone 600 times a day. He signed with the Dodgers aged 19, after a tryout camp in 1944. With the war on players were in short supply, but Shuba was exempt because of a burst eardrum suffered when a nun slapped him during lessons at Catholic school.

He hit well in what was then class A in 1945, and began the '46 season with AAA Montreal. Jackie Robinson got four hits on that opening day, but the next day Shuba hit three home runs. Nevertheless, he was sent down to AA Mobile by the end of the month. He would not make the Dodgers until 1948, but for the next three years he shuttled between the big team and their farm clubs. His stats in part-time minor league ball are impressive (.389 batting average in '48, 28 homers in '49) but need to be put into the context of a hitters' era. And of course into the context of the likes of Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, and only 16 big league clubs, you can understand why Branch Rickey stockpiled talent in his system and kept it away from other teams. As Shuba told Roger Kahn, 'As long as he could option me, you know, send me down but keep me Dodger property, Rickey would do that so's he could keep some other guy whose option ran out. Property, that's what we were. But how many guys you know ever hit .389 and never got promoted?'

Ironically, he was having his best year when he injured his knee in 1952: in about half a season he hit .305 with 9 homers and 40 rbis. He came back to mediocre stats for the next two years, and in '55 hit .275 (with a .422 on base pct) but had only 64 plate appearances. He was back in the minors in '56, and in the Cubs' system in '57, when he finally hung up his spikes. He returned to Youngstown, got married, and worked as a postal inspector.

Shuba kept only one piece of baseball memorabilia: a copy of that AP photo. As his son Michael told the press after his father died, when he came home from school complaining about bullying, his father would say 'Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally.' It was only an instant, but it was one that should live forever.





Saturday, 4 October 2014

DRAFT DAY: KEVIN COSTNER FINALLY FANCIES FOOTBALL


In a low-key kind of way, Kevin Costner has become to sports movies what Clint Eastwood was the westerns: the go-to guy who can change with the generations. Costner's been a baseball player (three times), a golfer, a cyclist, and a boxing fan (OK I'm stretching things a bit). Now, after a gap of 15 years, which is a decade and a half in sports terms, Costner is back in Draft Day, playing Sonny Parker, general manager of an American football team, the (real life NFL team) Cleveland Browns. We know for a fact this means trouble, because most of us have seen the real life Cleveland Indians baseball team embrace Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes in Major League! And this is football, and football is what Cleveland and Ohio are all about.

But Sonny has problems. He's the general manager, but his father was once the Browns' legendary coach, and the new coach (Dennis Leary) is an obnoxious ball of tightly-wound ego. The team is coming off a losing season during which they lost their star quarterback to a serious injury, and the bad finish which has earned them the number seven pick in the annual NFL draft of college football stars. Sonny has ideas about who he wants to choose with that pick, but Coach Penn has his own ideas, and even worse, Anthony Molina, the team's owner (Frank Langella) wants him to 'make a splash' with the fans, and trade up in the draft to get the nation's biggest college star, quarterback Bo Callahan.

As if that weren't enough, Sonny's girlfriend has just told him she's pregnant. They've been keeping the relationship secret because she also works for the Browns, controlling their salary cap. And in the final touch, Sonny's mother wants to scatter his father's ashes on the team's practice field. On draft day.

That's the set-up for a behind-the-scenes look at American football that works as a cross between Moneyball and Jerry Maguire. And it does work, especially when you consider there isn't actually any scene of football in the movie, apart from when Costner or the scouts examine game film of the prospects they're arguing about. This means you don't have to be fully versed in the game itself, though the concept of the draft, the use of draft picks, and even of trades of players, might be a challenge for some of the British audience. That's not because the movie doesn't explain, but because it often relies on American commentators to explain and embellish what's happening, and their faces won't mean much to the British audience, and their explanations do assume knowledge.

But this isn't rocket science we're talking about, and the concepts are pretty clear, certainly no fuzzier than any of the spate of recent films about financial chicanery on Wall Street. If you can understand shorting sub-prime mortgages, you ought to be able to follow trading three future first-round picks for this year's first pick overall. If you do understand the game well, you'll have to cut the film-makers a little slack; a couple of the deals simply wouldn't get made without some further tweaking, but this is Hollywood, not Cleveland.

And the roots of Costner's dilemma go back to more basic questions of character, both his and the prospects he's evaluating. He has doubts about Callahan which no one else shares. Which runs parallel to the decision he has to make over his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner). This may be the part of the film which is actually harder to understand. Sonny's obviously a successful mature man. Ali works in football. She tells the coach that 'I am a Cleveland girl and I am football'. She loves football. And she's Jennifer Garner. Costner's only dilemma ought to be whether or not he should be having her babies.

The movie's well done, keeping the action moving, and making it look real, not least because it features real teams, NFL people, and TV announcers walking around. Of course we know the Seattle Seahawks won the last Super Bowl; they didn't finish last and have the first overall draft pick. Leary didn't really convince me as a football coach (he looks more like a quality control assistant) but Langella is brilliant as the owner, used to getting his way and dominant especially when he's in the same room as Commissioner Roger Goodell (playing himself). Langella's clearly relishing the role. There's an equally brilliant brittle turn by Ellen Burstyn as Sonny's mother: and when the twist that explains a lot of Sonny's insecurity is revealed it helps explain a lot. Football fans will recognise Arian Foster as one of the college players; Terry Crews (last seen on Newsroom as Jeff Daniels' bodyguard) plays his father, an ex-Browns star. Crews played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, and I remember interviewing him: that's a pretty neat career arc in just 20 years.

But the film rests with Costner. His seriousness helps it stay anchored, even when director Ivan Reitman seems to be more concerned with comedy, or split screen techniques. The film needs that stolid sense that Costner projects. I compared him to Clint Eastwood at the top of this piece, but that was just on subjects of films (and really Wesley Snipes may be running Costner neck and neck on sports movies). But the classic actor whom Costner resembles most is Gary Cooper—strong and silent, able to play sensitive, and occasionally funny when playing off that wooden exterior (think of Cooper in Ball Of Fire or Costner in The Bodyguard). Cooper's Pride Of The Yankees is Costner's Field Of Dreams. Open Range is Costner's High Noon. Cooper's Sgt. York is Costner's Dances With Wolves; Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell is JFK, Morocco is No Way Out and so on. Costner may wrestle with his conscience in most movies, but the match is almost always tilted one way.

If you're a football fan you'll enjoy draft day, and if you're not the most knowledgeable fan you might pick up a little bit about how the business works. If you're not a fan, you'll still able to follow the twists, and if you liked the gushy bits of Jerry Maguire, Jennifer Garner won't disappoint you. Draft Day is worth an evening, whether in football season or not.
Draft Day opened on release Friday 3 October, and is also available for download.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

TYRANT: SOUTH FORK MOVES TO SYRIA

I was on Front Row a couple of weeks back, discussing Tyrant with Kirsty Lang (you can listen to the programme here for another year!). Kirsty's first question was what did I think about Tyrant, and my response was that it was 'all over the place'. And so it is.

The credits say it was 'created' by Gideon Raff, who did the Israeli series that became Homeland in the US. But I suspect Raff came up with the pitch. Homeland took an American, turned him into a Moslem, and then brought him back to America to do the bidding of his terrorist mentor in Islam. Tyrant works the other way around: take a Moslem, in this case the younger son of the ruler of 'Abbudin', turn him into an American, and then bring him home and have him stay to help his brother rule the country when their father dies.

If you consider the concept far-fetched, don't forget that Bashar al-Assad was studying opthamology in England when he was called home after the death of his older brother Basil. But even as you remember that, you need to accept that the concept is far fetched and the execution is fetched to infinity. Because the show seems to have been developed by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money) and it seems trying desperately to incorporate as much of all those shows as possible. So what you get is a family soap opera but in an opulent fantasy setting, Dallas with revolution in the air, Dynasty without blow-dried hair.

The family saga owes a lot to the Godfather. Bassam Al-Fayeed is the younger brother who wanted out of the family business. He has traumatic reasons buried in his past, and he's trying desperately to hold them in. Which Adam Rayner, a British actor playing this Arab-American, does by holding everything in. He makes doe eyes to show he's struggling within, he makes sad eyes to show he doesn't like what he has to do. If he's Michael Corleone, older brother Jamaal is Sonny Corleone out of Caligula. Ashraf Barhum is a kind of Arab Mark Strong, and the role lets him let everything out, including rape, pillage, and killing. To make it more interesting, his wife Leila (Moran Atias), the Alexis Carrington of this show, all plotting and accessorizing, has 'history' with Bassam, which will eventually, one supposes interfere with Bassam/Barry's American wife. Although Molly is also supposed to be a doctor, Jennifer Finnegan plays the part with the wide-eyed surprise of a guest on Oprah discovering things in her life are not the way they seem.

I also found it curious that Bassam would be called Barry, since America has only one 'Barry' who's also (allegedly) a Moslem in thrall to powers from the world of Islam, and that of course is President Barack 'Barry' Obama. I note only that the show airs on Fox's FX network, for whose audience the default position is fear of the different, unknown, and Islamic, and leave it to you to decide how coincidental that all is.

In case you believe my Dallas anology might be forced, wait for the moment Barry's English-born mother, played by Alice Krieg comes on stage in full Miss Ellie mode. 'Oh Bassam, I know your brother is a sadistic unstable homicidal rapist and abuser of his people, but if he's late for the barbeque at the palace Friday I'll never forgive him!'.

And then there are the kids. This is the part of the show that bears Gordon's heavy touch, as both 24 and Homeland seemed to relish their subplot of obnoxious troubled daughters who exist mostly to create desperate situations for their fathers. You need to remember that the 18-35 market of TV watchers is assumed not only to have zero interest in anyone or anything older than they are, but zero intelligence to comprehend the same. So give them kids to identify with. In Tyrant, the daughter is actually the reasonable one, but Barry's son Sammy is both obnoxious and gay, both of which are dangerous things to be in this kingdom. I really don't want to hang around and see the way that pans out.

It is a shame they killed off the father in the first episode, as the conflict between the brothers could have been milked more effective with his presence, and because Nasser Farris as Khaled is very good; he's a subtle actor, which suits the nature of his character here. There is one major problem, however. Khaled has always favoured older son Jamaal, but after the 'twist' which ends the first episode, you would have thought that he would have recognised something different in his sons. Instead, Bassam becomes Barry. He's lucky he didn't move to Britain, or he would have become Bazza.

Meanwhile there is an actual revolution fomenting, and Barry is tasked with trying to be the reasonable American with good intentions who can just get everyone to be nice to each other, while preserving the status quo. Sounds very familiar? The most interesting character, potentially, is the CIA agent John Tucker (Justin Kirk), who somewhere along the line ought to be shown to be less straightforward and good-intentioned that he was in the first two shows. Or he'll never get a spot as a Fox Contributor on Megan Kelly or Sean Hannity's shows.

Shot in bright light, with little depth or shadow, Tyrant reflects its presentation, but since I did the Front Row segment, FX has commissioned a second series of the 'political' drama, as they call it. It's one of those shows you might feel compelled to watch, just to see what outrage Jamaal will perpetrate, or what horrible plot twists will drive Adam Rayner to have to emote, but it's the Middle East as soap. All that's missing is the Abbudin Oil Barons Club.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

DENNIS LEHANE'S THE DROP: BOSTON'S BEST


The Drop was originally a stunning short story, called 'Animal Rescue', which was the  best story in the 2007 anthology Boston Noir. Dennis Lehane has expanded it into a short novel, and also written the screenplay for a film which has just opened in the US and will come to the UK as part of the London Film Festival. I suspect the screenplay may have preceeded the longer prose version, but I could be wrong. If you listened to this week's Americarnage podcast you heard me recommend it to our audience (if you didn't, you can take in the full hour of sports and arts mix here; if you do note that I was wrong in my guess about the cast; I checked afterwards and James Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, which in retrospect is perfect casting) because this is a finely crafted piece of exceptional writing.

The Drop is the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender living a life of quiet loneliness until he rescues a beaten dog and takes it home. There's more to Bob than meets the eye—he's a steady presence Cousin Marv's bar; Marv actually is his cousin, but the bar is no longer his. It's owned by Chechen gangsters, who use it periodically but irregularly as a drop for their day's illegal profits. Marv is bitter about his fate; Bob seems resigned to his. The dog begins to change all that. But with him comes a woman, another battered soul named Nadia, and eventually with her comes a sleazy ex-convict, Eric Deeds, who's supposed to have murdered a local character called Richie Whalen, also known as 'Glory Days', one night when he left Cousin Marv's.

Dennis Lehane's writing took a great leap forward from his Kenzie and Gennaro series of detective novels with his first stand-alone, Mystic River, which he followed with Shutter Island, a smaller novel whose writing is tightly controlled in the service of a remarkable exercise in the ambiguity of psychological gothic horror. He wrote on The Wire, and his next two books were larger, historical pieces, The Given Day being the more ambitious of the two (you can read my Given Day interview with Lehane here) and then made a return to Kenzie and Gennaro a decade on.

Two things make this novel another step forward. First is the way, even within a shorter framework, Lehane layers his story. There is a cop, stuck in a dead-end within the force, who's investigating a robbery at Uncle Marv's, and whose senses tell him other secrets lie hidden. He attends mass at the same church as Bob, and has noticed Bob never takes communion; the church itself is being sold off by the diocese; it's community has disappeared.

Everything reflects, everything connects. It's all personal, the story is driven by human needs and human reactions. But the story is made memorable by the writing. At one point, the Chechen boss comes into Marv's, and we start to see glimmers of Bob's character as he, unbidden, reaches to the top shelf and pours a glass of Midleton Irish whiskey for Chovko while telling Marv to fetch a bottle of Stella Artois for his muscle, called Anwar. There's some tension around the return of money stolen from the bar, money left in bag with a severed hand included. Bob has cleaned, literally laundered, the dirty cash. Not confident in his position, he serves Chovko.

Chovka considered the drink Bob had placed in front of him. 'This isn't what you gave me last time'.
Bob said,'That was the Bowmore 18. You thought it tasted like cognac. I think you'll like this more'.
Chovka held the glass up to the light. He sniffed it. Looked at Bob. He put the glass to his lips and took a sip. He placed the glass on the bar. 'We die'.
''Scuse me?' Bob said.
'All of us,' Chovka said. 'We die. So many different ways this happens. Anwar, did you know your grandfather?'
Anwar drank half his Stella in one gulp. 'No. He's dead long time.'
'Bob,' Chovka said, 'is your grandfather still alive? Either of them?'
'No, sir.'
'But they lived full lives?'
'One died in his late thirties,' Bob said, 'the other made it into his sixties.'
'But they lived on this earth. They fucked and fought and made babies. They thought THEIR day was THE day, the last word. And then they died. Because we die.' He took another sip of his drink and repeated, 'We die,' in a soft whisper. 'But before you do?' He turned on the stool and handed Anwar the glass. 'You gotta try this fucking whiskey, man.'

I don't often quote a passage, but that is some writing: perfectly paced, with the right tone and resonance. It's reflective, it's telling, and it breaks the very mood it sets. The book is filled with writing like this. I say this with some hesitance, and not just because it's Boston, but The Drop might be the closest thing I've read to the quality on honesty in writing which mirrors honesty in character, the quality that made The Friends Of Eddie Coyle so special. That means it's among the best Boston writing ever, and more important, among the best crime fiction too.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane
Abacus £7.99 ISBN 9780349140728

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S REYKJAVIK NIGHTS

After the haunting brilliance of last year's Strange Shores (see my glowing review of it here), we thought we had seen the last of Erlendur, and one of the very best Nordic detective series. But Arnaldur Indridason has brought Erlendur back, albeit with a twist. Reykjavik Nights is a prequel, apparently the first in a series approaching the detective's early years on the police force.

It's a daring move (though it worked for Star Wars) because Reykjavik Nights is a book that works on two levels, but far more successfully for those who've followed the series already. If you're a reader new to Erlendur, this is simply a novel about a dogged, lonely policeman driven to keep poking at the corners of a seemingly inconsequential accidental drowning of a homeless drunk. But he was a drunk Erlendur had encountered, and his curiosity has to be satisfied. New readers might find it a little slow, because the story builds at Erlendur's own pace, and they may wonder too about the outward dullness of the character, and his social awkwardness. And they may not understand that the story is set in the Icelandic past, in a country not yet as 'modernised' as it is today.

But readers who know Erlendur will spot the differences in the two Icelands. More importantly, when they read about the young Erlendur, they will see him in light of the character they know, and they will watch the seeds of that man being planted, and in some cases starting to sprout. There will be moments when those readers may, like I did, wish a little prescience into the young Erlendur, so his life might turn out differently. Of course, that would take away the fascinating character who made the series so compelling, and as Indridason is reminding us, the smaller decisions we make early cannot be undone, and the reasons we make them are already embedded in our characters as much as they shape the characters we become.
I found Reykjavik Nights compelling, a very knowing piece of perfectly pitched writing. I am tempted to recommend that new readers go back and work their way through the series before tackling this prequel, but I suspect that, if they move on, they will experience a similar frisson of knowledge about Erlendur, only from the other side of the picture. And it's the picture of one of the most compelling detectives anyone has written, anywhere.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, £16.99 ISBN9781846558122



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

Saturday, 6 September 2014

JOAN RIVERS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

In case you missed it online yesterday, my obituary of Joan Rivers is in the paper paper today (Saturday). If you insist on cyber-browsing the G, here's the link to it. I wrote it a couple of years ago, but at the beginning of the week I added about 300 words and re-edited it. After it went up, the Guardian then asked if I'd like to include her final controversy: some comments she made to a TMZ 'reporter' about the Israelis and Gaza; I passed after watching the interview and realising that her viewpoint meant almost nothing and that the callous, controversial part of it was drawn out of her doggedly for effect.

What I would have liked to do was write a bit more about her comedy style, because it involved a lot of soul-baring which the laughter only partly covered up. That was why I concentrated so much on the difficulties she faced throughout her career--as the very fine documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work made clear, she was her work, and every part of her life for gist for the relentless mill that drove her comedy. It took real talent and a lot of courage, and as the doc showed, it took its toll.

I also would have liked to expound a little further on the difference in her popularity in America and Britain. Here she is seen as the kind of American Britain would like to think Americans are--that's why clowns like Ruby Wax, Rivers' leading imitator here, are so popular only on this side of the Atlantic; apparently, Ruby was on BBC television Friday night; I doubt they billed her as I've described her.

But the difference in perception was crucial. Her talk shows failed in this country because everyone was expecting her to cut her guests to pieces, Dame Edna with fangs, but when Rivers was at her peak as Carson's fill in, what got her there and got her the show on Fox, was her ability to rein in it, and make the guests comfortable. As her career became more specialised, she became more and more aggressive, but that doesn't work in the talk show format unless you're all-out lampooning your guests, and then you won't get the usual big name suspects booked.

The other big question was where her husband Edgar, who killed himself, was born. Some sources say Germany (which Joan herself said: that the family moved to Denmark and then South Africa before settling in England) or England, where he was educated. I lean toward the former, but it's risky to trust spouse's memoirs for your info.


Sunday, 31 August 2014

LAW AND ORDER: TWO SEPARATE BUT EQUALLY IMPORTANT THOUGHTS

Happily, although the series ended after a record-tying run of 20 seasons, there is always a Law & Order episode playing on television somewhere in the world. While watching one on Channel 5 last night, I started thinking about a dual conundrum in the opening credits, which reminded me of another one I've pondered for years. Since it was late, I thought I'd share these.

'In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police, who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders...."

Listening to the famous opening, it struck me perhaps for the first time that if there's anything Law & Order shows us, it's that the police and DAs are certainly NOT separate groups. They may not always work in concert, but they are joined at the legal hip. More importantly, however, DAs do NOT prosecute offenders: they prosecute the accused offenders. It's not as if everyone prosecuted over 19 seasons of L&O has been guilty as charged.

In the opening credits, the characters are divided into 'Law' (the police) and 'Order' (the DAs), but surely this is backwards. It is the police who protect order, while the attorneys enforce and play with the law, a concept which, if the show teaches us anything, has little to do with justice, criminal or otherwise. Somehow I doubt this matters to anyone but me.

I'd just picked up L&O in series 18 on Channel 5, and I was thinking that this grouping was as good as any I'd seen since the Jerry Orbach days. It was perfect for Sam Waterson to take the District Attorney's role when Fred Thompson left to return briefly to politics; Thompson never convinced as a New York politician, but then none of the successors have ever caught the nature of the role as well as Stephen Hill did. Linus Roache plays the ADA part somewhere between Michael Moriarty and Waterson, and Alana de la Garza is the best second chair since Jill Hennessy or Carey Lowell. Meanwhile, on the police side (Order, remember?) S. Epatha Merkerson was getting more space, which is good, and the chemistry between Jeese Martin's Green and Jeremy Sisto's Lupo recalls the days of Orbach with a number of partners.

Of course, I no sooner thought about this than I discovered the episode I was watching was the one where Martin leaves the show, written out and replaced by Anthony Anderson, who's going to have a hard time getting a balance with Sisto. Knowing the series has only two more seasons beyond this is not encouraging, especially as the 5 in Channel 5 seems to stand for 'get them five years after they run in America and only make them available for five days!'


THE HIDDEN MESSAGE YOU SHOULD TAKE FROM 'THE GIVER'

It must be the summer of dystopia, especially if you're a kid. My son Nate watched Divergent on the plane over to the US, and in North Conway, New Hampshire, I and my cousins took him to see The Giver. He's ten, and he's gone back and forth on which he liked better, but The Giver seems to have stayed with him better. My cousins were in the book trade, and knew the 1993 young adult novel by Lois Lowry well; I hadn't heard of it and obviously Nate hadn't read it. Apparently it's been adapted pretty faithfully, with one big change: the characters are older: 12 when they go through the ceremony and get their career paths in the book, but 18 (just like high school) in the film.

On the one hand, since The Giver is about a society designed to eliminate conflict by limiting people's emotions and choices, removing everything from sex to colour to music. Thus it's looked at as an allegory of conformity, a story of how individualism triumphs in the end. There's nothing very original in this, apart perhaps from its being directed at teens; you could point to dozens of sf novels and many recent movies that explore the same theme. I found it echoing Ayn Rand a bit too often; in this society conformity is enforced in part through the killing of babies, bringing a couple of the wingnut right's favourite tropes together.

On the other hand, it's appeal probably comes from the obvious allegory of the teenage years, kids faced with the alternatives of conformity or individuality, of following their families or following themselves. Jonas (Brenton Thwaits) has to choose between his own perceptions and feelings and those prescribed by commmunity and family. Take either approach, and the film of the The Giver reflects its 'young adult' source novel; neither allegory is particularly overloaded with ambiguity, and the world they inhabit sometimes seems to adjust itself to the storyline without full regard for its own internal logic. 

There are many times the story can't suspend disbelief: the kids can't help being kids and joke (and show jealousy). We see colours at times when we're supposed to be seeing black and white. Asher, as a drone pilot, has seen there is an outside world; we also wonder what the outside world has made of this city on a mountain top.It's the dystopian Waltons atop Walton Mountain, and Thwaits as Jonas is our century's Richard Thomas as John Boy. Jonas is also falling in love with Fiona (Odeya Rush, all wide eyes and open lips) and there's actual conflict with his best friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan, perhaps his generation's Peter Sarsgard) who becomes a drone pilot, whose drones somehow pass through the force field and transmit back to him only in black and white, even when they don't.

We also wonder what the community makes of the police who suddenly show up on motorcycles (not the uniform bicycles everyone else rides) and are adept at violence. We wonder how Jonas knows how to ride a motorcycle, much less make an Evil Knevil jump off a mountaintop. We then wonder where all the stuff Jonas has escaped with actually came from.

In this effort to try and suspend disbelief, while appealing to its target audience, The Giver is nicely done by director Philip Noyce, whose shots concentrate on individuals, as if to belie their environment, and by his DP, Ross Emery, who's especially taken with the contrast of the Giver's tower with the rest of the community, and the outside world with that too. He gives the snow scenes a gingerbread Christmas feel which implies the fairy tale we are watching. But it's impossible not to note that the film dissolves into a chase and survivalist race against time. Jonas and Gabriel have to sled through the force field surrounding the community, and reach Switzerland at Christmas, for the story to resolves itself.

In those terms, it's a showcase for Jeff Bridges, imparting wisdom to Jonas, who is appointed the Receiver of Memory and told that he alone in this society is allowed to lie. 'Precision of language' is one of the important points of keeping conformity. As the giver of memory, Bridges plays a cross between Gandalf and Leo Tolstoy, and almost literally opens Jonas' eyes to the big world out there. His antagonist becomes the head elder, played by Meryl Streep, but it will turn out that Bridges' last, failed pupil (played by Taylor Swift) was also their daughter, which raises a lot of questions about exactly how the asexual, apersonal birth process actually works.

 Jonas has also developed an attachment to Gabriel, a baby his 'father' (Alexander Skarsgard) has brought home from the maternity hospital; he's the weaker of two twins, and if he doesn't shape up, he will moved on to 'Elsewhere'. His father's compassion is unexplained within the constricts of the community; when he gives unacceptable babies a shot that stops them breathing, and sticks them in a box and drops them down a chute, it's hard to imagine what he thinks their fate would be. That he's married to an elder (Katie Holmes) makes it even stranger. And Holmes' presence as an elder is a question until you realise she's there for a purpose.

Because in reality, The Giver is about a far important subject than the making of a utopian society, or the progression of the cinema's remaining audience into adulthood. It's a topic far closer to Hollywood's heart.

The Giver is really an allegory about the fate of Katie Holmes.

When Jonas finally cracks the force field we see Holmes shedding a tear. Even Bridges, the one person allowed emotions hasn't done that.

And then we realise that The Giver is about someone who's been a true believer in a cult and has just had the realisation forced on her that what she has believed in was false. Does that suggest a certain cult founded by an sf writer and practiced by Holmes' former husband? Has she been given Alexander Skarsgard as penance? If Meryl Streep is the image of Ayn Rand as Scientologist, and Katie Holmes is her victim, what hope is there for the rest of us?