April 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


Guaranteed: many spoilers


            “Hard Times” is small, relatively satisfying Dickens, about a father who mistakenly hews to facts and resolutely keeps his family away from instincts or emotions, in an industrial wasteland in which Dickens also gives us a sympathetic look at the lives of workers. More closely verging on didactic than most of his works, the novel has enough humor and flair to avoid being a dry treatise on  early British capitalism. And it has the virtue of being short; an entree to Dickens for people who don't want to slog through 700 pages.


            “Tokyo Drifter”  (1966), directed by Seijun Suzuki, is a delightful, unpretentious little B-movie which dynamically represents the genre which inspired, nay created, Quentin Tarantino. There is even a pre-credits shot of gangsters walking towards the camera which looks like the poster for “Reservoir Dogs”. It includes a singing and shooting protagonist, numerous nightclub numbers and shoot-outs staged amidst '60's kitsch.


            “Samurai Rebellion” (1967), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is its antithesis, a beautiful, sober tale starring Toshiro Mifune as (no surprise here) a samurai forced to choose dishonor or death. An overlord requires Mifune's son to marry the overlord's ex-mistress, but the forced match proves, contrary to everyone's expectations, to be a union of tender love. Later, when the overlord orders the woman to leave her husband and return to the castle, the shit hits the fan. Its a movie of slow, beautiful, eerie moments; the final confrontations take place in a windy grassland, with numerous long distance and crane shots. The amorality and cruelty of the overlord is underlined in the final confrontation: swords against newly introduced muskets.


            A friend of mine in San Francisco recently spotted a wonderful bumper sticker: “What would Toshiro Mifune do?”


            “Ugetsu” (1953), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, is set against the same background of feudal Japan, but is not a samurai movie, as it is not about the fighting. Based on a classic novel, it is an episodic and occasionally surreal tale of two peasants, one of them a master potter, in a time of war and disruption. One forsakes his wife and marries a ghostly lady; the other, who wants to be his samurai, realizes his wish in comic fashion (by bringing his lord the head of an adversary he didn't actually kill), only to encounter his own forsaken wife as a courtesan. The movie, which is fitfully very funny, has a pleasingly dream-like quality. The wives make out very badly; one dies, and the other, after an interlude as a prostitute, at least is able to return to peasant life.


            “Black Narcissus” (1947), directed by the wonderful and strange Michael Powell, is a classic and unique tale of the tragedy of good intentions and unrealized aspirations set against an exotic Indian background. Accepting a local warlord's invitation, some nuns open a school in a place where life is too intense, and the air too thin, for them to hang on. A group of monks has already failed there, so you know from the outset the nuns will too. This beautiful film is an exercise in watching things play out, and waiting for the reasons for their new failure.


            “Nine Dragons” (2010), by Michael Connelly, is a lesser entry in the author's long running Harry Bosch series. While more satisfying and less mechanical than “The Scarecrow”, reviewed last month, this novel confirms my feeling that Connelly is writing too much, and with fewer returns (two novels a year instead of one every two years). Long series tend over time to include a sense of the author himself as a character, the god of his created world, pulling characters' strings like a puppet

 master. I could hear Connelly's thoughts: “Let's bring Bosch's daughter back from Hong Kong to live with him”. Bosch's ex-wife Eleanor, a subsidiary character across many novels, is accordingly killed off in a very casual, off-handed fashion I found offensive.


            “The Heiress”  (1949), directed by William Wyler, is an adept translation of the Henry James novella “Washington Square” to film, by way of the assured play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Olivia DeHavilland's performance as the shrinking violet who becomes an angry commanding woman, is remarkable; of course, she is too beautiful to play an ugly duckling, but Hollywood always has the beautiful and charismatic play the ugly. The ending, with Montgomery Clift pounding on the door and pleading, is probably relatively unusual for a film of that era (or any), with the woman in the position of strength and the man reduced to an abject figure. I can only think of “The Blue Angel” as another film  portraying a similar balance of power.


            Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), directed by Isao Takahata,  is a bleak, lovely anime about two children, a brother and sister, who are abandoned and become homeless at the end of World War II. They starve to death. Some of the people around them are bad, like the aunt who allows them to slip away; but there are many good people who can't help, like the neighboring farmer with no more food to sell them, or the doctor who says only food can solve their problem, but has none to give. I can't remember an animation this sad since the starving kitten sequence in “Allegro Non Troppo”.


            “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), directed by Peter Weir, like “The Last Wave”, is a mystical, unsatisfying Australian whatsit. Some girls and a teacher vanish during a visit to the natural feature of the title; this has profound consequences but is never explained. Some stories are so post-modern they vanish up their own ass. It is well filmed and acted, with interesting and strange shots of Australian nature; but in the end it withholds too much information to be truly interesting.


            “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), directed by Stuart Rosenberg, is one of the great 1960's movies, of the antihero-crushed-by-the-system genre (up there with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and far superior to “Easy Rider”; Godard's “Pierrot le Fou” would make an interesting companion in a double feature). A naturalistic low security setting—almost benign compared to modern day prison views like “Oz”--is crammed with wonderful character actors (George Kennedy, Wayne Rogers, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton). Newman's character comes with an interesting lack of back story—we know he is a war hero who got arrested while drunk settling an unspecified dispute by clipping the heads off parking meters. Like all great '60's films, the story goes sideways when a lesser narrative would plunk along in a line. Rather than the loving forgiving wife, Luke's emphysemic mom, played in a memorable single scene by Jo van Fleet, shows up, to tell him she is dying and to apologize for giving his brother the farm. Luke, who never unstiffens but never heats up, tells her she did the right thing. The brother, who hovers off to one side ignoring Luke, never speaks a word the entire scene, until Luke is summoned back to his cell. As Luke turns to leave, his brother hands him a banjo, and says, “Now there's no reason to come back.”


            Luke's only moments of anguish come when he rages against the expectations the other men have, that he will embody all their anger and their rebellion. The film is slightly marred by some gratuitous visual Christ-references (also common in the '60's in the most unlikely places: Charlton Heston dying at the end of “Omega Man”). It also gave us a fondly remembered, once much quoted line: “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. What I liked the best, though, seeing the film for the first time since the 1960's, was Luke's statement that “sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand.”


            “Hombre” (1967), directed by Martin Ritt, is another “loner hero” movie starring Newman, released the same year as “Luke”. In this one, titled a “revisionist Western” in the Wikipedia article, Newman plays John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches who feels more Indian than white. There is a stripped down, minimalist confrontation—stranded stage coach, dead horses, bandits in the rocks. Without much dialog or any didacticism, Russell gives his privileged companions several life lessons in morality, courage and the treatment of Indians. At the finale, the bandits have staked a woman out in the sun who will die soon, if no-one walks down the hill with a satchel of money. Russell is perfectly willing to let her die (she said some appalling things earlier about his people on the reservation, and is married to the corrupt supervisor of Indian affairs). However, when another woman in the group is the only one with enough courage to start down the hill, Russell goes in her place. It as if he said, “No-one should die for her, but if anyone does, it will be me.” Soon after, we see him lying dead and Christ-like. At least his arms aren't splayed out.


            “A  Canticle for Leibowitz” (1960), by Walter Miller, Jr., is an unusual science fiction classic about an order of monks whose self-appointed job is preserving scientific and historical texts they don't understand from the general violence that has befallen humans after a nuclear “Flame Deluge” in the late twentieth century. A series of linked novellas concerning different monks of the order, we skip hundreds of years in between each story; like “Foundation”, the protagonist is the human race itself, not any individual.  Leibowitz himself was a secular, Jewish nuclear engineer who took refuge in a shelter   during  the bombing and was ultimately stoned by an angry mob. This ironic but religiously faithful and lovingly detailed novel follows an arc from the halting rediscovery of technology, gleaned from the scraps of paper preserved by the order, until the inevitable second nuclear holocaust which follows. In the author's  brief bio on the book cover, we are given a remarkable motivation for the novel: Miller as a bomber crewman in World War II, participated in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino.


            “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest” (2010), by Stieg Larsson, is an intense and satisfying wrap-up to the Millenium trilogy which began with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. While that novel was a stand alone, the latter two are really one extended book, which recounts the story of Lisbeth Salander's confrontation with her Soviet defector father, Zalachenko, and with the secret intelligence faction whose job it is to protect him, and themselves, against disclosure. Larsson, even more self assured in this last novel (he died of a massive coronary at age 50), layers on some relatively unrelated but satisfying subplots, including the pursuit of a stalker who has been harassing Millenium's publisher Erika Berger,who in the meantime has accepted the job of turning around one of Sweden's largest, most conservative daily newspapers. Even more so than the earlier books, “Hornet's Nest” has an amazing, panoramic sweep. Its characters include hackers, an immigrant janitor, an outlaw motorcycle club, journalists, cops, a private security company, spies, and the Prime Minister—all described realistically and interacting with each other persuasively against the background of a national constitutional crisis. Larsson's work rarely has the huge holes of credibility or motivation I have noted here in reviews of Michael Connelly and Lee Child. Perhaps he would have gotten there if he lived long enough to write twenty Salander novels.


            An unusual aspect is that his two main protagonists, Salander and her friend and sometime lover Mikail Blomkvist, are almost never in the same place in this five hundred page novel. He rescues her at the end of the second novel—she has been shot in the head—and she opens a door to him at the end of the third one. In between, they communicate by email and chat, while confronting wildly different problems and threats of violence. Salander is locked up in a hospital ward for much of the book, while Blomkvist is obsessively investigating a story about the secret intelligence cabal who protected her father by  consigning her to a mental ward as a teenager. Whether Larrson is describing the janitor's day, a hacker's approach to finding one cell phone signal among thousands in a government office, the detectives' investigative procedures, an elderly, weary spy's response to a challenge, or a meeting at the large daily paper to determine the next day's stories, he does so with equal self confidence, interest and detail. While I mourn Larsson's premature death, I am glad these characters leave us wanting more of them, rather than returning to wear out their welcome.


            “Ride the High Country” (1962), is early, less violent and quirky Peckinpah. Two aging gunslingers, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, ride up a mountain to a gold claim to transport the miners' ore back to the bank in town. One plans to steal the gold, the other faithfully to fulfill the mission. They are old friends, now living by different codes, and in the denouement, involving a girl in need of protection and some lawless miners after her, they will be reconciled. An excellent illustration of the thesis that every Western without exception is about the clash of competing moral schemes.


            “Twentieth Century Ghosts” (2009) by Joe Hill is a book of horror short stories. Horror is a confused genre; the standard approach seems to be to slap together a bunch of disparate elements in an evocative narrative that can't possibly resolve all of them. There is a short story in here, “My Father's Mask”, in which a married couple tell their small son outrageous stories on the way up to their country cabin, all of which turn out to be true. They are being pursued by “playing card people” who cannot recognize the son if he wears a mask. At the end, the playing card queen comes to take the father, chillingly   writing labels on his skin to indicate where his organs are, and last seen locked in a passionate kiss with him. But the story for no particular reason also includes a ghost child on an antique bicycle and a trip into the past, to meet the parents as children. Hill, who sets out to be a sort of neo- or punk horror writer, does not completely evade the trite tropes of the genre; a story about a movie-loving ghost ends with a very traditional conclusion. At his best, he combines snark and satire with genuine compassion and fear, as in a story about an inflatable boy. His human friend, in his honor, later as a young man marries an inflatable woman—the perfect punchline to a story which nevertheless moves. Even Joe Hill's choice of the name of a famous corpse (“I never died, said he”) is both snarky and satisfying.


            “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), directed by Elia Kazan, is reminiscent of 

Vincent Benet's story “Too Early Spring” in its account of young love, too intense, stifled by convention, and 'La Dentelliere”in the incidental madness of the woman. We are in Oklahoma right before the crash of 1929; Bud loves Deenie, Bud's domineering oilman father thinks he can do better, and Deenie falls apart and is institutionalized. Natalie Wood turns in a powerful performance, and the last scene—Deenie, post-institution, visiting Bud at his modest ranch and discovering he is married with child—is very poignant. The film is framed by some lovely lines from a Wordsworth poem:


Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

 We will grieve not, rather find

  Strength in what remains behind....





            “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman” (1997), by Walter Miller, Jr. is a strange, dense sequel to “Canticle”, issued 40 years later. Miller sank so far into the details of his imagined world that you can smell the smoke, hear the grunting around the campfires, see the visions walking around the edges of civilization. Miller's post-Apocalyptic world is an amalgam of technology, Catholicism, shamanism and violent jockeying for power. As he does in the first book, but more densely and realistically, Miller portrays the human race as a failed enterprise, doomed always to go down in flames whenever anything grand is attempted. There are no jumps in time; we follow a controversial Pope, Elias Brownpony, as he raises an army to overthrow the temporal power in Hannegan City, fails and commits hara-kiri. Our protagonist, who watches and comments on the action, is sometimes an actor and often merely carried along like a chip, is a Nomad monk from the monastery of St. Leibowitz, Blacktooth, known fondly as “Nimmy”. He falls in love with a beautiful young mutant named Aedrea,who starts out promiscuous, has sex with Blacktooth and bears him twins (who are put up for adoption and vanish from the novel). Aedrea becomes a nun and a saint. At novel's end, rather than finding each other again and riding off into the sunset, they live in adjoining valleys but choose not to see each other. The message is the impossibility of fulfilling desire, or even of escaping a calling from the Church. The denseness of detail—of culture, myth, arms, politics—makes the book an act almost of schizophrenia, of detail-oriented madness, hard to put down but not very satisfying. It is set seventy years after one of the segments of “Canticle”, not the last one (in which humans reinvented nuclear weapons and had another apocalyptic war). Some of the elements of “Canticle” reappear: the Wandering Jew turns up several times, and there is a mutant child in the ruins of Hannegan City, speaking the same gibberish as the two-headed woman in the nuclear ruins at the end of “Canticle” (“Accurate am I the exception”).


            “Scene of the Crime” (1986), directed by Andre Techine, is an atmospheric, rambling little noir, in which in an escaped convict saves a boy from his brutal partner, and is then aided by the boy's mother, played by Catherine Deneuve. She owns a bar, has a shiftless but powerful ex-husband, and her son is haunted by visions of catastrophes which will kill everyone at his school. The heart of the movie is Deneuve's decision to abandon her entire life and her reputation to help the criminal with whom she has fallen in love, and who is much younger than her. The movie is made by small details—Deneuve's father seems to hate his whole family for unexplained reasons, and is always escaping to the river to fish (but never catches anything). The movie came at the end of an era in which women were more routinely portrayed as being fundamentally different than men—Deneuve, though an able business owner, has something passive and irrational at the core, something also very French.


            “Havana Bay” (1997) by Martin Cruz Smith, was third in the series of novels about a rebellious, suicidal Moscow detective, Arkady Renko. Here he travels to Cuba, in search of a missing KGB agent and old friend. Smith is a master of layering detail of strange worlds. Here the deprived but lush and sensual world of Cuba steps in for the icy deprivations of Moscow. Smith, whose prose is more serviceable than most thriller writers—you never trip over paragraphs which are howlingly bad—is capable of some nice flights of description, of flowers, shadow, ocean currents. He is also adept at offering you a detail which doesn't make sense until much later. His best set piece here is a bunch of generals ordering lobster at a secret party at a closed Havana casino. Many leave without eating; we find out much later that an order for lobster is a vote to assassinate Fidel. There is a local detective and loyal Communist, Ofelia, who is of course black, beautiful and falls in love with Renko. Despite a few too many scenes where she chooses to put herself in danger—sometimes, not always, to be rescued by him—Ofelia is never a puppet, but a real woman, a single mother with two daughters and a sarcastic,difficult mom of her own. Smith is one of the most skilled thriller writers working, almost on a level with John LeCarre in creating atmosphere and portraying disillusion. There are a number of great supporting characters, including an American radical who arrived on a hijacked jet decades before and a refugee financier. The only weakness of the story, and it isn't a very great one, is that the plot that Arkady and Ofelia discover is one which largely resolves itself without them—they turn out to be almost irrelevant to the forces in motion, irritants more than catalysts. What happens would have happened anyway, with a few fewer deaths; they don't save anyone, and no-one is grateful. But that is Renko's world.


            “The Empress of Mars” (2009) by Kage Baker is comic, picaresque but realistic  science fiction, set on a colonized Mars which is still the wild frontier. Baker can write intelligently about the risks of decompression and of farming methods, but the characters are quirky, warm and mostly loveable. The novel is one of a series about the “Company” which I haven't read.


            “The Tipping Point” (2001) by Malcolm Gladwell made me angry, which few books do. It is glib, superficial, incoherent and the author's extreme cockiness shines through. It is reminiscent of a trend in business writing from the 1980's, exemplified by Tom Peters, in which small innovations were reified into Cosmic Solutions. Peters was the prophet of the concept that to have a business you needed only a brand and a fax machine, a perception which fed into the hype of the Internet bubble ten years later. Gladwell similarly (and irrelevantly to his thesis) pays homage to companies without org charts and the like. His example of an unfashionable shoe brand getting a new life through adoption by young hip people would make a mildly interesting case study in Inc. magazine. His next focus—on Bernhard Goetz' decision to shoot five young black men on the subway, is appalling, amoral and completely incomprehensible. He has to twist his facts around, and winds up with the conclusion that subway graffiti created an environment in which the sociopathic Goetz was enabled to shoot. The similarly sociopathic Mayor Giuliani comes off as a hero with his focus on broken windows and squeegee men. Through-out, Gladwell shows no sign of really understanding what a “tipping point” is. This is pop sociology at its shallowest.


            “Tobacco Road” (1941), directed by John Ford, should be watched by Ford completists and not necessarily by anyone else. A tiresome example of Hollywood's devotion to extremely primitive and lame backwoods eccentrics (remember the famous Variety headline about this trend, “Stix Nix Hix Pix”), Ford had already directed a better-remembered venture into this territory, “The Grapes of Wrath”, just one year before. Focusing this time on a bickering, hungry, starving clan which grows no crops, the movie, with its thick accents, shouting and posturing, is almost unwatchable until the poignant ending. Jeeter Lester's land has been saved for six months by an unexpected good samaritan, and all he has to do to keep it longer than that is to grow some crops. In the last shot, he is sitting on the porch where he has spent much of the movie, ruminating that he will start planting tomorrow...or maybe next week...or... We have the poignant sense that the Lesters are so degraded there is no road back.


            “Soldier of the Mist” and “Soldier of Arete” by Gene Wolfe (1986-89) are sturdy mid-level entries in the author's record of picaresque, literary science fiction. At his height, as with “Three Heads of Cerberus”, Wolfe is one of the best novelists working today in any genre, and the Autarch tetralogy is the best (and densest, most evocative and puzzling) science fiction novel ever written. Here, Wolfe turns his lens to ancient Greece, where the brain-injured Latro, a Roman mercenary, wanders through Greek and Thracian landscapes during the Persian wars. Wolfe loves to tell stories about adventurers on the road, encountering gods and demons, and this is a good one. The unusual wrinkle is that Latro forgets everything every time he falls asleep, so must keep a written record to ground himself each day (a trope since utilized in “Memento” and “Fifty First Dates”).  This is two thirds of a trilogy, of which I have not yet read the last volume, published in 2007. .



            “The Green Zone” (2010) directed by Paul Greengrass, is a well intentioned but completely ersatz political thriller. Matt Damon plays the leader of a squad tasked with finding WMD in Iraq in 2003, frustrated by continually coming up empty. He stumbles across and attempts to run down a fugitive Baathist general who knows the truth, while a squad of evil Special Forces soldiers try to kill the genral first, to cover up the lies which have been told the American public. Like most conspiracy movies, it is vastly oversimplified, and soon enough Damon starts making unjustifiable choices, bad enough that you blame the screenwriter, not the character. If you wanted to bring in a fugitive with promises of protection, wouldn't you find a trusted go between, to carry messages in both directions? Damon merely sends a message he will be waiting at a particular location; sounds like an invitation to an ambush if I ever heard one. The sad thing is that this would have been a great story told straight, without the thriller trappings. “Hurt Locker” is a better and much more honest movie. Another small tragedy here is the misuse of the fine Amy Ryan in a do nothing role of the type usually given to Vera Farmigia and Jennifer Connelly.