Sunday, 18 July 2010

"Tell No One"

Guillame Canet's slick 2006 thriller has been sitting on my to-be-watched pile for ages. I've had a couple of stuttering starts at watching it, but never really had the time to do it the justice I felt it deserved. All this was rectified on the Eurostar to Brussels last week.

A train heading into a Europe about to be gripped by the world's most monumental thunderstorm provided a suitably menacing backdrop to this noirish piece of cinema. I've blogged before about location - and this is again a case where surroundings matter. "Tell No One" works fine on the big HD TV at home, but somehow it was more fitting to be immersed by it on a small laptop screen whipping through Flanders as the world threatened to come to an end outside.

"Tell No One" is based on a Harlan Coben novel, originally set in New York (and which I haven't read) but translates it into something ineffably French. The world inhabited by Alexandre Beck, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife, and then thrown the curveball of an email purportedly from her, is not the Paris you see as a tourist. This is a much more real Paris featuring the banlieue, the no go suburbs on the outskirts of the city, as well as the staggering wealth of the Parisian horsey set.

This is a dark film full of baroque violence and menace. The fleeting, often unexplained characters, including a truly evil androgenous torturer who just will not die, hint at a richness and deep wider story that works at your mind long after the final credits have rolled. There are some obvious links with "The Fugitive" - a doctor wrongly accused of murdering their wife and seeking the real killer - but these are superficial - "Tell No One" is a very different proposition, and much better for it.

Much of the film's strength lies in what's left unsaid. The enormously appealing Bruno (Gilles Lelouche) walking away from his life, son, and girlfriend is all massively understated, but given what you know he's done for Alex, is genuinely moving.

A film you want to watch and then watch again to see what you missed while you were captivated by the story, and a film you want to persuade anyone who will listen to watch with you.

An American remake is apparently in the works. One has to ask why? Okay the original novel is set in US, but somehow Canet has managed to make this a very French story, and to my mind it should remain so. Sure there might be a call for it, and it might well be a commercial success, especially given the  depressing number of comments on LoveFilm stating that it's clearly rubbish because it's not even in English. This if nothing else is a persuasive argument for leaving this as ultimate cinematic representation of this particular tale. In fact, if your French is up to it, and this is a bit of an ask, because it does explore a lot of dialogue, turn off the subtitles and enjoy the gorgeous film-making.

Among many awards "Tell No One" has won, it secured best soundtrack at the 2007 Cesar awards - and it deserves it - this is almost a film that could work on the radio with nothing done to it, and leaves tunes in your head that stay with you. Groove Armada's "Hands of Time" is more than usually effective. This is almost Michael Mannish in the linkage of music with image, and believe me, it works.

If you've got a LoveFilm subscription, it's a available to freely watch online; even if you don't you should track this film down and watch it. It will make your life better for being in it.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag", Tony Southgate

For someone who first started to be interested in motor racing in 1982 Tony Southgate was consistently present in the background of the races I watched. It helped of course that he was associated with underdogs at that stage; teams like Theodore and Osella were never going to win anything, but with the latter in particular, they were doing something  different, that appealed to me. There was also the real attraction of an attempt to do something with extraordinarily limited resources, which is an ethos that appeals to this day.

In this light Tony Southgate's autobiography has been a long time comings, and it doesn't disappoint. Told in a concise and to the point manner the true richness of Southgate's career, which has involved winning the Indianapolis 500 with Eagle, the Monaco Grand Prix with BRM, and Le Mans with Jaguar and Audi, is revealed.

This is a story that strips away a lot of the glamour that is often associated with motor racing. The red in tooth and claw nature of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, when death was common occurrence is exposed, but so too is the gritty unrewarded hard graft that working in the industry entailed. The frankly unpleasant birth of Arrows was before my day, but this is told clearly by one of the participants, who has managed to lose a lot of the rancour with the perspective of distance. Back in the 1980s Southgate would refuse to refer to Arrows, instead calling it Arrow (the team name was built up from letters of the founders Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass, and Tony Southgate), feeling he wanted nothing to do with them. Reading now of his abrupt dismissal and the borderline fraud that valued his 10% of the company at £5,000 you can understand the level of bitterness felt, especially when put in the context of the court battle with Shadow and the supreme efforts in producing a string of cars in Arrows' early years.

The core message here is that while there's a lot of money sloshing around the sport, it says something that Southgate had to work all the way to 2000 to ensure financial security. This is the story of a career where as he put it "I had always been paid well, but there is a difference between living well and having excess money to save for a rainy day" (p.170). You do however wonder if Southgate would have wanted it any different way? He's clear that the excesses of motorsport hold no appeal to him, and in being compelled to work later into his career he got the opportunity to work on some marvelous machinery and make him a figure who neatly spans the era when an individual could have an impact on every aspect of car design to the present, when the complexity of design means that the nature of the beast means cars are now inherently designed by committee.

As well as being a genuinely good read, right up there with recent classics from Vic Elford and John Horsman, "From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" brings some real new insight for the student of motor racing. In 1982 then Osella designer, Herve Guilpin quit in disgust at the Caesar's Palace Grand Prix, being fulsome in his criticism of Enzo Osella's approach including choice words such as "The reason is always lack of money. The result is the FA1D [Osella's 1982 car] is and always has been a potential public menace" and questions about resource allocation, such as questioning the building of a test track at the Osella factory. For those who want to know more, the full story is told on page 45 in the 1982 Caesar's Palace edition of Grand Prix International magazine.

Tony Southgate brings a different perspective. When he visited the Osella facility at Volpiano to discuss the project for fitting an Alfa Romeo V12 engine to the FA1E, not long after Guilpin's outburst, he was clearly pleasantly surprised. Summing it up he states "Compared with the likes of Arrows and Shadow, Osella looked very impressive. Where teams allocate their money is always a case of individual priorities, and in Osella's case he obviously spent a lot of it on the factory." (p.126). Different observers, different perspectives, and different circumstances, but it all clearly shows how primary sources can be so contradictory.

"From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag" is beautifully put together and tells a fascinating story. It deserves to be read by anyone with a real passion and interest in motor racing in the latter part of the 20th century.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

"Payback", James Barrington

Since an idle purchase of "Foxbat" at the Eurotunnel crossing in the autumn of 2007, I've enjoyed James Barrington. It's nonsense, requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but as a fried, leafing through the first pages of "Payback" in The Rake one evening this week commented, for nonsense, it's pretty well written.

Throughout Barrington's work it is possible to discern a steady reigning in of his protagonist, Paul Richter. In "Payback" he's a more straightforward character. He's an individualistic and unorthodox intelligence officer, not necessarily anything unusual in a spy thriller, but now there's no merging in of him being a Royal Navy fighter pilot. This, on balance, is a good thing. Barrington can undeniably write both spy fiction and techno-thrillers, but when the genres were fused quite so firmly it somehow didn't quite work.

"Payback" is thus a tighter story, and has a tight geographic focus on Dubai. Here we can see a clear example of how real world events can undermine an author. The Dubai here is a super-rich Sheikhdom basking in opulence, and it is almost certainly an accurate representation of what it was like while Barrington was writing. Sadly by mid-2010 the financial collapse of Dubai has transformed people's perception, and somehow the idea of the Dubai government blithely paying off terrorists with billions of dollars doesn't ring quite so true. Other little niggles, such as Dubai airport's Terminal 3 being described as "soon to open" when it's been working since 2008 are more easily glossed over, but still illustrate how hard it is for an author to achieve complete veracity.

In truth though, there are some aspects of a thriller such as this where accuracy is needed. Getting the technical details wrong, or just making them up, will jar with the seasoned reader of such material, and Barrington doesn't miss a step here. Other aspects of background, such as the issues with Dubai or the riding roughshod over the finer details of intelligence process can be seen as areas where it's unfair to criticise a work for being unrealistic; the function of a book like "Payback" is not to inform, it is to entertain. The end product is a highly readable and enjoyable book. As with everything else Barrington has written, it's not great literature, but doesn't seek to be. It's summer, people will be flocking through airports, "Payback" is the sort of book to readily keep you distracted while cooped up on a long haul flight.