Film review: London Boulevard

Said to be based on a book by Ken Bruen, I thought London Boulevard would be worth starting to watch when it cropped up a few times on TV in the UK last week. The plot is very simple: a man (Colin Farrell) is released from prison determined to go straight, but immediately accepts dodgy friend Billy’s offer of a free house to stay in, even though Colin knows that the house is owned by a doctor who has been struck off under suspicious circumstances and now seems to be a social centre for Billy’s gang. Colin also has a lock-up containing bundles of money, photos of (presumably) the wife and kids, and an unfeasibly large collection of clean, perfectly pressed suits, but we don’t know how he’s paid for it all these years or why he doesn’t stay there out of temptation’s way – even a lock-up is surely preferable to what is likely to transpire from kipping at the doctor’s place. (Colin is pretty dim for someone determined to go straight after a jail ordeal.)

There are a few welcome-home parties in various pubs, during which we learn that Colin is friendly with most of London’s gangland but not part of it – though possibly teetering on the brink. He ‘rescues’ his sister, superbly played by Anna Friel, who is addicted to sex, drink, pills, danger, drugs and anything else going. We move to the main plot, in which Colin is asked by a leading actress, Keira Knightley, to be her bodyguard and keep away the relentless paparazzi who camp outside her posh London home. Colin dithers, because he’s attracted to Keira and thinks that being one of the hired help would not be an appropriate position from which to start a relationship. (David Thewlis, another great acting turn, is a doped-up, effete, unemployed actor who lives with Keira and takes care of her, but he does not seem to be “bodyguard” material, unlike brooding Colin).

Colin is also getting more embroiled with Billy, tagging along while Billy shakes down various poor council-estate tenants for money. It turns out that Ray Winstone is the gang lord behind this operation – once Ray sees Colin’s class act he spends the rest of the film trying to persuade Colin to work for him so he can get rid of the unintelligent, incompetent Billy and increase the reach of his criminal empire.

For the first three-quarters, this film is pretty gripping and, despite the clichés, is distinctive. The script sparkles, the acting is great and the art direction fabulous (London is a major star of the movie). Keira turns in an excellent performance as a nervy superstar, isolated and abused, fragile and vulnerable. Colin seems finally to have decided to reform and to embark on a new life with her in Elysium (aka Los Angeles). Unfortunately, the film chickens out at this point, rapidly sinking into a mire of predictability in which everyone kills or tries to kill everyone else, at the same time behaving extremely stupidly (not locking doors when you know people are after you is a fault of almost every character, for example) however contradictory to the way in which their characters have previously been presented. What a pity that the issues that had been addressed earlier in the movie were abandoned in favour of a naff, predictable and boring ending.

London Boulevard at IMDb.

London Boulevard official trailer (YouTube).

Film review: No Way Out

220px-No_Way_out No Way Out is a 1987 film that I enjoyed very much when I first saw it, and which I have recently watched again on DVD, many years later. It's an excellent film which stands the test of time extremely well;  I recommend it highly.

Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is a naval officer who meets a woman at a Washington political party. After some repartee, they immediately begin an affair. He's assigned to the Philippines, but is soon recalled by his ex-college room-mate who is counsel to the Secretary for Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman), and offered a job. Farrell is a hero, and his appointment is more window-dressing than anything else, while Brice tries to stop a project to build a giant stealth submarine to spy on the Russians. Before much can happen, however, several shocking events and twists occur in quick succession, and Farrell is simultaneously running an investigation and hiding from it.

Not only is the plot of this film intelligent and exciting, but the film delivers on it, refusing the usual cop-out Hollywood ending (though there are a couple of cliches, for example when someone makes a secret appointment in a dark, isolated room to tell one other person of his suspicions). The context is also superbly convincing,with beautiful production values  perfectly capturing the Washington ambience. In particular Sean Young as the woman delivers a great performance, simultaneously Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, sophisticated, elegantly casual, vulnerable, witty and sexy. The second half of the film takes place in a basement incident room, where the technological advances since then would have destroyed a few of the tensions if applied now (waiting for a teleprinter or a scanner to deliver the goods). But the pace never lets up for a minute.

Kevin Costner plays an apparently straight-arrow officer perfectly. At the same time, the camera is deeply in love with his beauty, as shown by some of the earlier sequences on a boat in Chesapeake bay or when his girlfriend tries to take a photograph of one part of his anatomy but has to make do with another, to his amused embarrassment.  Costner's looks and physical grace are offset by the character of Scott Templeton, his old friend. At the start of the film, Scott looks normal. Yet when the pivotal event occurs, which is Scott's idea, he changes, and by the end of the film he is ugly, crazed and scary. He's overtly identified (by the head of the CIA) as being homosexual. Here is a (deliberate, I'm sure) paradox in the film: its extreme negative showing of the "labelled" homosexual character, and its intense romance with the clearly heterosexual, and did I say beautiful, Farrell.  Farrell, after his earlier scenes of romance, spends the rest of the movie in tightly fitting white uniform, which he has to change at least once, and the camera simply lingers on him all it can – but never at the expense of action and excitement. Marvellous – a film that has dated in all the right ways and none of the wrong ones. And it is one of those stories which, when the denouement comes, has one remembering back to many apparently innocent details, and realising what they actually signified.

The film is loosely based on the novel The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, first published in 1946.  The book was made into a film of the same name in 1948, directed by John Farrow and starring Ray Milland. I don't think I have read the novel or seen the original movie; clearly the 1987 remake provides a very different setting from the original journalism context, but keeps the basic premise.

Over the years since 1987, I watched several other films starring Kevin Costner after seeing this one (unsurprisingly), but I don't think he ever subsequently matched his sheer physical perfection in No Way Out.

No Way Out at the IMDB.

Quotes from the movie (don't read unless you've seen it or don't mind spoilers).

New York Times review of the movie (contemporary to its 1987 release).

Some short videos from the movie.

Spiral is back for a third series later this year

Ever since the online version of The Times has been converted to paid-for, the print edition keeps featuring interesting articles to which I'd quite like to link. The new subscription-only website does not let you even create a link to an article without registering, which I am not going to spend time doing just to find out whether or not linking is even possible (some publications allow you to read an abstract free, others don't even do that).

So, I write here about an article on page 47 of the print edition on Wednesday (14 July) all about Engrenages (Spiral, though a literal translation is "Gears"), the French TV series which is jolly good 
Spiral  indeed. Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD in subtitled versions, and series 3 will be broadcast in the UK "later this year". I was first alerted to the existence of this series by Euro Crime, and have never looked back since. I do, however, recommend either watching these filmic series on DVD or recording the episodes and watching them more frequently than once a week, to keep up with the convoluted plots.

The Times feature is by Sarah Hay, and describes her experience watching part of the new series being filmed. She calls it "France's answer to The Wire" for its "complexity of its characters, realistic depiction of Parisian life and biting portrayal of the French judicial system". If the depiction of Parisian life is truly "realistic" then the city would never attract any tourists – this is the Paris of Dominique Manotti, not the Paris of Gene Kelly or Coco Chanel. I should also add in all fairness that the three main characters: the policewoman, her main antagonist and the prosecutor, are all extremely good-looking. 

From The Times piece: "In Engrenages, viewers follow Captain Berthaud, a workaholic cop played by Caroline Proust, as she tumbles between the gritty underlay of Parisian life and the Kafka-eque corridors of justice, where ambition and intrigue thrive. Standing between Berthaud's team and resolving their cases are Pierre Clement, the handsome, idealistic deputy prosecutor; Judge Francois Roban, whose doddery 
Spiral2appearance hides a sharp instinct for unveiling conspiracy; and the deliciously unscrupulous lawyer Karlsson. In series three the web of storylines tightens until a nail-biting denouement, hinting at corruption that reaches to the very top." (Sounds just like series 1 and series 2, then.)

Among other revelations in the article, we learn that red-headed Audrey Fleurot, who plays the unsavoury Karlsson, has a role in Woody Allen's next movie (currently shooting in Paris), and that a real-life lawyer recently gave a press statement on behalf of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, using the phrase "C'etait un engrenage") – a title which Kerviel used for his book. 

Like The Wire, the criminal plot lines are created by an experienced police superintendent, who says that all the situations in the TV series are based on real cases. Viewers who can't speak French and rely on the subtitles are often in the same boat as native French speakers, because the dialogue is full of argot and police insider-slang. The pace, the secondary characters, everybody is guilty and everyone is losing the plot, the sidekicks and, of course, the main characters – these, according to The Times, are the factors that make this series such a delight and why I am so much looking forward to series 3. (And the good-looking actors, of course!)

Official series website.

Engrenages at Facebook

Euro Crime posts about Engrenages.

Film (DVD) review: District 9

District 9 I don’t often attempt film reviews, or indeed see films these days. Nevertheless, I did enjoy District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp) on DVD over the weekend. This film was successful commercially and critically when it was first released, but none of the many internet outpourings at the time made me want to shell out for what has become a ghastly experience that has to be endured to see a film on a big screen. I made a mental note to watch it when on DVD. I must have then forgotten all about it, but was reminded of its existence recently by Gillian Slovo’s recommendation at the London Book Fair South African panel discussion. In HMV on Saturday, I looked up the movie and found it there for cheaper than a cinema ticket (and it is even cheaper on Amazon). Hence I bought it and two people so far have seen it, thus satisfying my inner craving for a bargain.

Enough preamble, what of the film? It’s both exciting and formulaic. The basic premise, as I am sure everyone knows, is that an alien spaceship breaks down above Johannesburg, South Africa, and for the next 20 years the rescued aliens (called “prawns” as that’s just what they look like, in giant form) cause annoyance to the humans by their ugly, messy ways, obsessive love of tinned cat food, etc.  All the prawns have to live in a shanty town called District 9, but at the start of the film public ire has reached the point of no return, so the aliens are to be moved out to a more distant “tent city”, District 10.

The film is shot in documentary style, as the hapless military, public-health and corporate officials, followed everywhere by media cameras, make uncomprehending aliens sign their eviction orders preparatory to being moved out. Of course, everything goes horribly wrong in an assortment of funny and violent ways, not least involving a group of Nigerian opportunists who have set up shop in the District.

This film is extremely exciting and has a strong, if predictable, plot. Because it isn’t a Hollywood movie (the Lord of the Rings team of Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens are involved in the production), there is no mushy, compromise ending, thankfully. The film follows through on its premise. As an allegory for discrimination and prejudice, it is unlikely to surprise anyone, but it’s a nice touch to have revolting, unsympathetic (mainly) prawns as the underdogs and equally unsympathetic people as the oppressors. There are strong subplots about family loyalties, medical research and ordinary people’s attitudes to what they either can’t understand or don’t want to face.

The reaction in Petrona Towers was 50-50. I really liked the film as I was not expecting anything from it and it kept my attention (I didn’t fall asleep in the middle as I usually do in anything longer than an hour).  I liked the pacy docu-drama format which ensures no longueurs. There are no nice characters, which is also refreshing,  though I found myself quite liking the initially unsympathetic main protagonists (one  human and one prawn) more as the film progressed. The child  prawn is gorgeous and cute, thankfully not tripping over into Spielbergian Disneyfied sentiment. There is a rubbish “boys toys”, blood-splattered, shoot-out pre-finale, but I could forgive that given the great tension and excitement in the preceding hour and a half that did not fall into those common indulgences. And the real finale – it follows through. (Though of course there is lots of unexplained hokum about constructing spaceships and the like which you have to accept on its own terms or you’ll find the film annoying.) Prof Petrona was less keen on the movie than me. But then he had just finished a book about Dirac before watching it.
 

Gillian Slovo also recommended Invictus (dir. Clint Eastwood), which she said was unfairly overlooked on release as people assumed incorrectly it is a sports movie per se. So when that one comes out on DVD next month or thereafter, I’ll be watching that, too.

The Page Turner on UK TV on 23 September

image from movies.indiatimes.com

Sometimes, something just catches your eye and you aren't sure why. I was flicking through the various sections of the Saturday Times this morning (a Sunday morning habit) when the phrase The Page Turner jumped out at me. On closer inspection this turns out to be the title of a 2006 film which is showing on Film4 on Wednesday 23 September at 2250 UK time. From the Times's blurb:

Revenge is a dish served icy cold in the French writer-director Denis Dercoult's taut, psychologically charged Euro-thriller. Catherine Frot plays a successful concert pianist who hires a new assistant (Deborah Francois), not realising that this seductive femme fatale has scores to settle with her from years before (85 min).

I may have read about this film when it was first released, but if so, I'd forgotten about it – it sounds good even if it is not, as my subconscious brain must have at first thought, about books. The 85 min is also quite appealing, so I might attempt to set up the timer for it (if we even get this channel), because even though it is a short film, it's too late to watch "live" as it were.

More information:

La tourneuse de pages at the IMDB

Film4 review and info about the film

Observer review by Philip French

Millennium 1: film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Millennium 1 is the film based on the best-selling and superb novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, a book which very successfully combines the thriller with the traditional detective story as well as having a strong social conscience. Together with Karen of Euro Crime, I was lucky enough to be offered a ticket to the premiere, part of the current Film 4 FrightFest season in London, by the lovely people at Quercus, the UK publisher of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy.

The film is an initially alarming 150 minutes long, but boredom hasn't a chance as the pace and action never let up for a second after the start in which journalist Mikael Blomqvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) is tried and imprisoned for slandering Hans Wennerstrom, head of a multinational company. The film moves through this part of the plot in double-quick fashion, missing out virtually all the publishing and relationship dynamics of Millennium magazine and briskly moving on to the lonely Henrik Vanger (Sven Bertil-Taube)’s last-ditch attempt to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who disappeared without trace one summer in the 1960s.

Vanger and his lawyer hire a firm of private investigators to check out Mikael, who is out of work after resigning from Millennium and awaiting his jail sentence,  before asking him to re-open the Harriet case. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a young computer hacker who does the investigative work for the agency – and this is where the film bursts into another dimension. Clearly unhinged and dangerous, Lisbeth is a punky drop-out, a be-metalled, aggressive rebel – black of eye and hair – with no interpersonal skills. Paring the descriptive aspects of the book to the bone, we strongly identify with Lisbeth – how she falls into the power of an abusive guardian, and how she exacts revenge.

The film cracks on at blistering pace as Lisbeth and Mikael combine expertise and forces to discover the secret at the heart of the Vanger family. The film strips out most of the extraneous details, including the subterfuge that Mikael is writing a biography of the family, with the result that the tracking down of the crimes occurs with cracking drive and makes the mystery of Lisbeth sharper and clearer – why is she a ward of court and a delinquent? Why does she behave with such vicious drama? We can’t wait until the next film to find out (even though I already know part of the answer!).

What more can I write? The acting is without exception superb; the story is brilliantly adapted from the book in the sense that it is faithful to it without being over-wordy or over-respectful to it; Lisbeth in particular is a fantastic filmic creation, given bright life and intense, dangerous energy by the superb personification of Noomi Rapace, a feminist avenger of men who hate women.

I haven’t seen a film as good as this for years, and I can’t believe I’ll see another one to beat it for quite some time. Unfortunately it is not on general release in the UK until next Spring, but let us hope that the second two films in the trilogy follow very soon after that. I’ll be first in the queue.

More information about the film, together with Karen’s review, is at Euro Crime.
Trailers of the film, and more, at Stieg Larsson's website.
My reviews of the books The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire.
Quercus, Stieg Larsson's UK publisher.
Yellow Bird (film production company) Millennium trilogy website. (Yellow Bird also produces the Wallender TV series in Sweden.)

The return of Harry

Harry-Potter-and-the-Half-001 From Random Jottings: "as I stood in the check out queue there was at least one copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in each trolley. In front of me stood a gentleman with four copies and I could not resist asking him, Why Four? "Well, there is one each for the kids and one each for the wife and me and we are going to have a really great weekend as peace will reign in our house while we all read" ".

———

Four poems written by 19-year-old Daniel Radcliffe have appeared in an underground fashion magazine under the pen-name of Jacob Gershon. The collection was published in November 2007 in Rubbish magazine, an annual publication with a circulation of 3,000 which describes itself as "a playful platform for fashionable people". This, and many other fascinating details, are revealed in The Guardian.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: Warner Brothers official site.

Watching the film Jar City

So, one of the many good things about the recent snowy weather in the UK is that my younger daughter's parent-teacher evening at school yesterday (Tuesday) was postponed. Therefore, I could, if I wished, go to the cinema to see the one and only showing of the film Jar City in Kingston (2030 h on Tues). I decided I would see the movie, so tramped down to the cinema in the icy, silent and dark streets. It turned out that about six other people had made the same effort.

The film, based on the book by Arnaldur Indridason, is excellent. It is soon out on DVD (in the UK at least) and it is very well worth watching. Although the police team are not exactly how I had imagined from the books, the actor playing Erlunder was convincing in the role, really inhabiting the morose detective's skin and with the requisite intense focus. From my memory, the film stuck pretty closely to the plot of the book, and it was telling (if poignant) to note that the late Bernard Scudder, Indridason's superb translator, was responsible for the English subtitles.

So, what of the film? It is a straight police procedural, in that Erlunder and his team investigate the death of a late-middle-aged man bashed on the head with an ashtray. The case reveals to them that the victim may have raped a woman many years ago, and this is somehow relevant to the birth of a girl, Aude, who died young of a disease. Erlendur, the lead detective, and his team (portrayed tellingly as real, believable individuals that one might see on the street or at work tomorrow) soon discover that the death is linked with the Icelandic genetic database. There are many wonderful, atmospheric scenes of the hamlets of this barren, rocky isle, where people seem to be clinging to a life in a harsh environment – a hardy people, content in their solitude. But scratch the surface and unpleasant adaptations begin to emerge.

The Icelandic database project is real. Every person on the island (who has given consent, which is most of this small and inter-related population) has his or her genetic data held there. The plot depends on one person having faked a research project, got through several ethical and scientific review boards, and having access to all these data. This could not happen. A person could not undertake such a course without a body of published research, an active group, and other types of accountability. Indridason, and the film-makers, want to explore the consequences of an individual having total access to this information, so they venture into unrealistic territory. On one level, I am glad that they have done so, because the core of the story involves the genetic "deviants" who carry the potential for disease, and how this affects human emotion and entire lives. This field is one that is very little understood, apart from those who live under the burden of such genetic darkness. (I have personal reasons to understand this subject, as well as a professional interest.) On another level, I feel disappointed that the plot has to depend on the scientific community being stupid - the system simply does not and cannot work in the way shown in the film.

In the film, more than in the book, this discrepancy does not matter. Erlunder pursues his goal – discovering the truth – and in the process we see many small, delightful quirks that could never be conveyed in a Hollywood or other commercial film. I loved the depictions of Icelandic life- whether eating a sheep's head (eyes and all), snacking in the mortuary, the knitwear, the little houses clinging to the windswept rocks and plains, the introspection, misery, boredom, drug addition (the story of Eva Lind and her father Erlunder is a moving aspect of the film, as in the books) and bleakness is all there, speaking to the audience. But above all, the enduring memory is the beautiful young child in her white communion dress in her coffin, the ruin of the lives of her parents, and the sheer tragedy of it all, reflected in the eyes of Erlunder as he sings in the choir that forms the elegy in the prologue and epilogue of this remarkable film, which drew me in and absorbed me totally.

Jar City: Observer review.

Jar City: Times review.

Arnaldur Indridason's books reviewed at Euro Crime.

Update: review of the film at Crime Scraps.

Films (too) inspired by books

Thanks to Clare Dudman, who has a good memory, here is a site that lists films by almost any category you could care to think of: science and scientists, for example, nuns with guns and women cops. Whether you are interested in the top-grossing movies of a particular year, or amputation and body parts, there is something here for you.

But the reason Clare sent me the link is because of its comprehensive listing of books into film. Last year we discussed "movies better than the books that spawned them", suggestions including The Graduate, Brokeback Mountain, Farenheit 451, The Election, The Birds, Children of Men, and more. (Someone even had the temerity to suggest Harry Potter!) Now, those interested in identifying titles for the honour can indulge to their hearts' content, with what seems to be about 100 entries for "books to film" for a wide range of authors. Enjoy! And thank you again, Clare.