February 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers


The Vikings (2009) by Robert Ferguson is a human, readable and entertaining history of the rambunctious Northern race, from their origins up to the years just before the Norman invasion. The author adeptly mixes the archeological evidence, runes and gravestones, and the chronicles of bards, monks and Islamic scholars. A picture emerges of a courageous, amused, violent people, whose major contribution to the countries of Europe was their DNA. I was delighted to find out that there is Viking rune graffiti in Aya Sophia in Istanbul.

Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), by Garry Wills, is a leading example of a genre I really enjoy: the short history book, written in very clear and compelling language, which gives us substantial insight into a person or a moment. The book places the Gettysburg address in context, deriving it from Lincoln's personality, the historical moment, and the tradition reaching back to Pericles of moving, political funeral orations. Watching President Obama's speech at the memorial for the Tucson victims the other night, I was reminded how far downhill we have come from the days when Presidents wrote their own speeches and created enduring literary works.

Spies of the Balkans (2010) by Alan Furst was a lesser entry by the heir to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. I don't compare him to Le Carre because the latter's works are more operatic, grand machines where small noirish men striped with good and evil fight to an often apocalyptic, sometimes satisfying result. Furst's specialty is the day to day, even humdrum nature of espionage, and his books really have no plots; they are realistic summaries of experience of the characters for a year or two, and then usually stop with some kind of minor key resolution such as an escape from greater into less danger. He is a master of atmosphere. This one is set in Salonika, and Furst knows what the characters eat, their entertainments and reading material, and the politics of the time. Like some other genre writers, he has achieved an original, engaging formula, but there were moments here when Furst seemed to be sleepwalking, and some prose which was a little didactic and dreary.

Citrus County (2010) by John Brandon is a funny, original and hard to characterize second novel by a young writer. It focuses on three characters, a high school girl and boy and one of their teachers. Two of them, the teacher and the boy, are struggling with sociopathic impulses, and the book tracks both of them turning to the good side of their own natures, like plants turning to the sun. The girl is a valiant person isolated in a Florida wasteland, and we watch her struggling with loss, terror and the need to anchor oneself in a flood.

Music for Chameleons (1980) by Truman Capote, is the rare book which made me actively angry. Capote's last work, when he was struggling with alcohol and substance abuse, is a self-aggrandizing collection of stories and purported nonfiction pieces. He describes himself as a genius, and some of the writing is sloppy; also, he seems to betray confidences of friends (an accusation leveled against him in his lifetime for a number of other pieces). More significantly, the purported nonfiction in the book is often implausible. I had the sense on the first page of "Handcarved Coffins", which is subtitled "a nonfiction account of an American crime", that it couldn't possibly be true: a couple is murdered by the insertion of multiple rattlesnakes in their car. I couldn't imagine how anybody could get into a car without noticing all those six foot long rattlers in the back seat; a Google search of "rattlesnake murder" disclosed both that a few such attempts have been made and failed, and also that there was no actual American case reported in newspapers on which Capote could have based his account. A little more searching, and I found a 1992 London Sunday Times article which confirmed that Capote invented most of the details, using an actual case investigated by "In Cold Blood" detective Al Dewey as a hook. Compelling nonfiction thus subsides into a trite mystery story which no experienced genre author would have written. Most remarkable from an ethical standpoint: that Capote's fame apparently prevented reviewers and reporters from asking an obvious question for twelve years after the book came out. There is a saying that when you're unknown, you can't get anything published, no matter how great iot is; but when you're famous, you can publish anything, no matter how crappy.

Beasts (1976) by John Crowley is a mildly disappointing work from the author of the excellent "Engine Summer". This is an uneasy mix of allegorical fantasy and hard sci fi. I had trouble believing genetic engineers would create creatures by mixing human with lion and fox DNA. The background of a post-US America, with its fiefdoms and sometimes murderous politics, was believable, but the hybrid characters weren't. Crowley, who has a first rate imagination, tries another interesting experiment in this one, which almost works: the characters include a dog and a hawk, and we see some of the events from their limited point of view.


Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky, is ballet-horror; Natalie Portman has a psychotic break for the length of the movie, literally destroying herself to deliver one perfect performance. Aronofsky is a master of stories in which marginal members of American society beat their brains out against an unattainable ideal ("Requiem for a Dream" is the best addiction movie ever made, blowing away "The Lost Weekend", "Days of Wine and Roses", etc.) The movie is well-rendered and rather gripping. The problem is that neither the director nor his star take any apparent joy in the dancing, and the audience can't either, as we are so frightened in watching that Portman will break something, or bleed, or shapeshift into something horrible, or protrude spiky black feathers from her shoulder. The actress also is somewhat limited in range, and gives a rather monotonous and whiny performance.

Blue Valentine (2010), directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a harrowing, honest movie about a marriage slowly going south. It has two strands: the couple meeting and falling in love, and the 24 hours of their final argument and coming apart. The performers are excellent, especially the amazing Michelle Williams who was also so powerful in "Wendy and Lucy". The movie wisely takes oblique turns in a very well worn landcsape, so that no moment is exactly what you would expect. However, there are a few reveals which make you (or at least me) identify with the characters less, so that the stakes become lower and you spend the last half of the movie wanting them to split. Or at least I did.

The Social Network (2010), directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, is one of the better-constructed movies to come out of Hollywood of late. We start, without any narration, titles or explanation, in a bar, where an intense, nerdy young man is in the process of losing his girlfriend, through a combination of barely concealed hostility and arrogance. The dialog in this scene should be a classroom example of how to launch the action while filling in the setting, without the necessity of any of the tricks used by lesser writers and directors. The young man goes on to launch Facebook and become the youngest billionaire alive. At the end, having just settled a lawsuit brought by some of the people he stepped on along the way, he sits alone in his lawyer's office, and sends a friend request to the woman who left him in the first scene. then he sits there, nervously refreshing the screen, over and over, to see if she will accept it. Its a powerful, wonderful movie, and shows us--rather than telling us--how a billion dollars can still leave you lonely and powerless in a fundamental way.

I saw two Alfred Hitchcock movies. The first, Topaz (1969) is extraordinarily dull for the master, giving the impression he took on a pot-boiling commitment to film a script over which he had little control. There are only two characteristic moments in this very didactic movie: one, a key moment of exposition is unheard when a glass door shuts on the characters; in the other, we see a crane shot of a woman being shot; she collapses elegantly and the folds of her purple skirt billow out like blood flowing. The film itself is a complex espionage story taking place against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, and involving a Russian defector, American, French and Cuban spies.

Stage Fright (1950) is another minor film, but with substantial humor and flair. A very tired looking Marlene Dietrich plays a stage diva whose husband has been murdered, and who appears to be framing her young actor boyfriend. Jane Wyman, as his lifelong friend who is a little in love with him, chooses to investigate, and goes undercover as maid and dresser to Dietrich. There are some delightful moments, including a cameo by a Cockney woman at a fair who offers passersby the opportunity to "shoot beautiful ducks", and several scenes with Wyman's eccentric father. The resolution involves a reveal you may not believe, but who cares: its Hitchcock. "Topaz" would have benefited from a bit of this energy and flair. Another pleasure of the movie: hearing Dietrich sing snatches of a Piaf song.

The Lion in Winter (1968), directed by Anthony Harvey, is a marvelously juicy recounting of the battle between Henry II, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his three angry sons, over the succession. It is riveting for its ferocious, funny, regal dialog as delivered by Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor and Peter O'Toole as Henry. "I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!" Highly recommended.

Roman Holiday (1953) is a mild-mannered romantic comedy in which Audrey Hepburn (in her first major role) plays a bored princess who escapes her life for twenty-four hours and hooks up with Gregory Peck, in an against-type and not completely believable role as a raffish, somewhat dishonest journalist. The movie is notable for its bitter-sweet ending as she returns to her role and life goes on. It would make an interesting triple feature with "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" and "Summertime", in all of which Italy represents the vibrant life the female protagonist yearns for and from which she is separated.

Alec Guinness is a genius. Most young people may only know him from his bored walk-through as Obi Wan in the original "Star Wars" trilogy (which he rightly thought was nonsense). I watched two of his early Ealing classics, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer, and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), directed by Charles Crichton. In the former, Guinness plays numerous relatives a young scion is trying to murder on his way to a dukedom. Its a bravura set of performances: we see Guinness young and old, male and female, stuffy and vibrant. As Pauline Kael noted years ago, the theme--serial murder of somewhat innocent living people--is made tolerable and funny by the fact they are all played by the same person. "Lavender Hill Mob" is a better comedy, however. Guinness is a deferential bank clerk planning to steal a million dollars in gold. It is one of those movies where nothing turns out as you would expect; he finds partners easily, as people who should threaten him decide to be friends, while people who should be extremely innocuous (like a schoolgirl who unexpectedly makes a present of a gold-cast Eiffel tower to a friendly policeman) turn out to be threatening. There is a priceless moment where Guinness and a henchman run down the twisting staircases of the actual Eiffel tower, in a chase which is at once funny and hopeless, and arrive at the bottom dizzy and laughing. The twist at the end is funny, lovely and philosophical: Guinness attains everything he wanted, but only for one year.

The Last Mile (1959), directed by Samuel Bischoff, is a suprisingly good B-movie about men on death row, starring Micky Rooney as a remorseless killer. For the first half of the movie, we watch a succession of men go whimpering into that good night; then a sadistic guard pushes them too far, Rooney chokes him against the bars, and the inmates have guns and custody of the remaining screws, who contemplate (with little dignity) their own impending end as Rooney executes the hostages one by one. The noble priest character surprisingly does not prevail, though he survives; Rooney kills a wounded friend, at the man's request ("I didn't want to do that!" he howls after). The wounded man does not want to be taken to the hospital and cured, just to wait for death again. Rooney himself walks out of the cell block unarmed, knowing he will be killed by a fusillade of bullets; the end.

The World of Henry Orient (1964), directed by George Roy Hill, is a charming account of female adolescence, as two wealthy but sad friends on the Upper East Side, both from broken homes, bond around their adulation and pursuit of the cheerfully slimy concert pianist of the title, amusingly played by Peter Sellers. By the end, the girls will have graduated from childish fantasies to the possibility of actual boys. Patricia Neal is excellent as the loving single mother of one of them.

Room at the Top (1958), directed by Jack Clayton, is one of the social realist movies referred to as the British new wave or "angry young man" films. It is about a social climber, Joe Lampton, played by Laurence Harvey. From gritty urban working class roots, he aspires to marry a millionaire's daughter, but has an affair along the way with an older French woman, played by Simone Signoret, who represents an opportunity to escape from his dreary ambitions, and live contentedly. Everything turns out about as drably as can be expected; at the end, he rides off in a limo after the wedding, trapped for life by the realization of his wildest dreams, a look of desperation in his eyes. The major problem with the film is that the central character is a black hole: Signoret tells him he is something special, to just "be himself" (trite words to be done to death in the '60's), but we don't see anything worthwhile in him at all, no spark of love or compassion.

The Reivers (1969), directed by Mark Rydell, is a not very memorable movie, based on a forgettable Faulkner novel. However, it borders on being a guilty pleasure movie, for the vivacity of the performances, led by Steve McQueen, and for the nostalgic Southern slice of village life circa 1905. There is a black man whose escapades are tolerated by everyone because (as he himself is fond of pointing out) he is the grandson of a prominent white citizen. The role as written verges on stereotype but is performed with dignity by Rupert Crosse. Lucius, an eleven year old boy caught up in a weekend escapade with McQueen and Cross, falls in love with a reforming prostitute and becomes the only man ever to fight for her honor; there is a mean sherriff and a horse race, won by a horse motivated by the smell of sardines. The film, narrated by Burgess Meredith as the elderly Lucius, has mild Proustian overtones, with the sardines substituting for the madeleines.

I saw Josef Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932) and Shanghai Gesture (1941). In the first, Marlene Dietrich is unique, an original, an eruption in the role which made her career and Sternberg's. And Anna May Wong is dignified as a Chinese prostitute who is assaulted, and gets her revenge. the women have a special understanding with each other, which lies below language. Neither ever laughs, or even smiles, and neither applies any flirtatiousness or wiles. They just project a kind of ferocious womanhood which is immensely captivating, and blows the un-memorable and rather wooden men off-screen. "Shanghai Gesture" is a disturbing web of deceit noir with a rather stereotypical Chinese temptress, Mother Gin Sling, at the center. It is still vintage Sternberg, a tangle of colliding lives in a casino, some of whom will destroy one another by the dark and surprising end.

The Sea Wolf (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a rather mangled rendering of the Jack London novel which nonetheless makes for a compelling movie. London's sea captain was a tall, Aryan man, and the character's impersonation by Edward G. Robinson is rather bizarre; we simply don't believe it when he beats up or physically intimidates much larger, fitter men. Nonetheless, Robinson had a talent for the philosophical yet decadent. He has a triangle of opponents, of which John Garfield, as a sailor, and Ida Lupino as a fugitive are the most memorable. I am a bit in love with Ida Lupino and would watch her in anything. The movie does have the shapelessness of the novel; we are told that the captain's brother is his nemesis, but never actually see him. The movie is more than the sum of its parts because of the performances alone, but is a fairly decent tragedy about a superman who courts, and receives, destruction.

The Subject Was Roses (1968), directed by Ulu Grosbard, is a archetypical 1960's dysfunctional family movie, based on a Pulitzer-prize winning play by Frank Gilroy. As such, it has a certain spareness, and elegance of structure and dialog, which most movies don't. On the other hand, it is the same story as always, about people who have everything (including a lake house in New Jersey) but can't bear each other. Jack Albertson, who had played the role on Broadway, is a bit too skinny, too absent, for the drunken philandering patriarch which would have been better discharged by George C. Scott or Lee J. Cobb. The film is worth watching for Patricia Neal's fine performance as the mom, and to study the way in which a certain bouquet of roses keeps coming up.

In Our Time (1944), directed by Vincent Sherman, is an unabashed World War II propaganda movie starring the great Ida Lupino as a modest British personal assistant to an antiques dealer who meets and marries a Polish nobleman, played by Paul Henreid. It kept my interest due to her performance and the problems she has mediating the differences between her own middle class origins and her husband's aristocratic family. At the end, she and Henreid are walking to Warsaw, presumably to die in defense of the city against the Nazis, while her voice on the soundtrack rousingly tells us that a worldwide crusade is underway to set things right.

The Lady-killers (1955), directed by Alexander MacKendrick, is another wonderful Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness, as the strange-toothed chief of a band of armed robbers who base themselves in the home of an unsuspecting old lady. There are moments of pure physical comedy where somewhat irrelevant things going on to one side of the frame (such as a dancing parrot) may make you laugh out loud. The tone becomes a little darker when the charming old lady, who lectures everyone around her nonstop but very sweetly, becomes aware of the criminal nature of the enterprise (she thought they were musicians renting a room for practice) and the gang decides to knock her off. They wind up killing each other instead, while she remains gently oblivious to the most murderous side of human nature.

His Majesty O'Keefe (1954), directed by Byron Haskin, is an inferior entry in the "white guy goes native" genre represented by "Outcast of the Islands", "Lord Jim", "The Man Who Would be KIng", "Farewell to the King" and, most notably, "Lawrence of Arabia". Burt Lancaster, at his most roguish and athletic, overwhelms the natives of a Pacific island with the force of his personality, becomes their king, harvests "copra"--coconut meat--and soon discovers he is overextended, with both tribal and European enemies. The movie is very non-PC in places--a lot of it involves solving the problem of getting the lazy locals to work, something which would be handled in a more ironic way in later films, but is completely unselfconscious here. After a classic Conradian set up though, Lancaster works his problems out and gets re-named king by acclamation, skipping the obligatory everyone-stabs-him scene with which these movies usually end.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey, is a film I have waited to see since I was twelve, and my brother praised it to the skies after watching it on "Million Dollar Movie". I enjoyed those sword fighting skeletons exactly as if I were still twelve. This was the personal favorite of the great stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen; the skeletons, which seem to leer and yet are very graceful--and seem to be in pain when stabbed--are wonderful. There are also harpies, a giant and the hydra.

Morocco (1930), directed by Joseph von Sternberg, is another trancelike masterpiece. Von Sternberg had an understanding of montage that most American directors lacked, and he held each shot so long that modern deficient attentions may find the movie slow moving. A prime and rather wonderful example is a repeated shot of a group of Arab women marching after the departing Foreign Legion. Dietrich watches...and watches...and watches....then asks, "Who are those women?" She is told they are the women who love their men. In the last shot, she becomes one of them, and we again watch seemingly forever as the camp followers march away from us, into the desert, in long shot....until Dietrich enters the frame...and catches up to them....and they all vanish over a dune.

Chain Lightning (1950), directed by Stuart Heisler, is later and lesser Bogart, which means its still worth watching. He is Chuck Yeager type test pilot, flying a new experimental jet, and a bit of a bastard, to his girl and a friend who is also a mentor and romantic rival. He does have to dress in some funny flight suits, which must have embarrassed him. The movie has the kind of detail about deficiencies of the B17 bomber and redesign of the experimental jet that keep it somewhat real and interesting, though the romance at the core of the story is somewhat trite and conventional.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), directed by Robert Ellis Miller, based on the Carson McCullers novel, is a literally quiet tour de force. Alan Arkin plays a deaf mute man who can read lips. He comes to a small Southern town and rents a room to be close to another deaf mute, a friend who has been committed to a local mental institution. Arkin's character exerts a powerful gravitational pull that changes the lives of those around him: teenage Margaret ("Mick") who is the Carson McCullers stand in, a local African American doctor for whom Arkin becomes his first white friend, and Stacy Keach as a drunk Arkin meets in a diner and takes under his wing. The movie makes some plot and character changes from the novel, but preserves its heart. Arkin is quiet, nervous and retiring; there is nothing grandiose, hyped up or overtly Christ-like, but by the end of the movie, he has taken everyone else's troubles upon himself, and not shared his own with anyone. Extended scenes of uninterpreted sign language, no subtitles, work fine because we understand the gist of what is happening, and remind us that dialog is a relatively small and unimportant part of cinema. Many details of the story--Mick's behavior and family situation--fit so well with "Member of the Wedding" it could practically be a sequel, picking up Frankie's life six years later.

The Sea Hawk (1940), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a rousing sea adventure starring Errol Flynn, with lots of swordplay. The most notable thing in the movie, however, is Flora Robson's second turn as Queen Elizabeth; she is completely regal, august even, and totally believable, both in her strength and emotion. Contrast this with her performance as Fteetatota in "Caesar and Cleopatra"; she was a hell of an actress. Strangely, this is almost the same movie as "Fire Over England", in which she also played the Queen. In that, she defeated the Armada with the help of Laurence Olivier; here she does so with Flynn's assistance.