June 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guranteed: many spoilers


A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) by Eric Ambler is one of the forerunners of the picaresque international crime and espionage genre later shared by Graham Greene, John LeCarre and Alan Furst. I supoose we can also trace Ambler back to John Buchan and to an extent, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ambler masterfully sets scenes in Turkey, Greece, and Eatern Europe, with the denouement in Paris, with a supporting cast of international gangsters, master spies, and sinister Turkish policemen. His protagonist is a mystery writer toying with real life detection, following the trail of an ostensibly dead gangster just for his own entertainment. There is a remarkable explanation of the nature and economics of the heroin trade in Paris, reminding us that certain phenomena we think modern American transcend our time. Ambler deploys his characters and story very ably, constantly pausing for just enough credible detail.

The Citadel (1937) by A.J. Cronin, is a respectable attempt at a Zola- or Dreiser-esque social document, about a British doctor, brilliant diagnostician, who begins in the coal fields, becomes a successful and sought after London practictioner, then returns to the country-side to save his soul. The story captures the peaks and valleys of practice: he revives a newborn when everyone else has given up; he gives unnecessary injections to indolent wealthy who pay well. The writing and characters are somewhat wooden.

The Greenlanders (1988) by Jane Smiley is more evidence of this author's stunning versatility. A saga of the 15th century told in the style of ancient accounts, she nevertheless creates believable characters as she describes the interlocking history of the struggling families of the island, forgotten by the church and Europe, fighting the cold and their own ignorance and fear. Most of the people in the foreground are recognizable and worthy of our compassion, while history runs down around them; by the end of the fifty or so years covered in the novel, many things--how to build a ship and say mass--are forgotten.

Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book has kept me company for a lifetime. It was one of the first books I read in childhood, and unlike some of the others, has never faded for me. I reread it once a decade or so, and the stories are just as colorful and strange as they were in the beginning. Kipling is an amazing storyteller, unpretentious and original, and his animals are not barely disguised people (like those in "Wind in the Willows") but believably have claws, teeth and laws of their own. His virtuousity is evident in tales as different as "Rikki Tikki Tavi" (about a mongosose saving a human family) and two other more anecdotal efforts, one in which a man overhears the different animals in a military camp--horses, mules, bullocks, camels and an elephant--comparing notes about men and war, and one in which a crane, a jackal and a crocodile swap stories. Kipling is a natural writer; you never see the machinery at work, he never engages in pretentious lecturing, and you always take away a sense of a deeply strange world which is, at the same moment, recognizable and accessible. He had perhap the greatest power of imagination of any writer who ever lived; one thinks of him, sitting in a study in Vermont or England, day-dreaming of what the life of a house-mongoose would be like.

Turn Coat (2009) by Jim Butcher, is an effective entry in the Harry Dresden series about a mage-detective. Butcher's work is completely imagined, with a well-detailed and generally satisfying magic system, problems and resolutions, and yet I find it unsatisfying, partly because of the gee-whiz, slangy writing and partly because the characters are not that compelling.

The Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James is almost unrelated to the fine movie based on it. In general, when authors from other genres attempt science fiction, the results can be heavy, dull and pretentious. Although the premise--humans stop having babies for mysterious reasons--is interesting, I never believed in the details of James' world of a quiet dictatorship and geriatric navel-gazing people. The pay-off, in which the scholarly protagonist shoots the dictator, puts on his ring and replaces him, with no objection from the storm troops and toadies around him, was completely improbable. Although the book resonates as a religious parable--birth of the Son--it didn't really compel on that level either; no click.

The Finkler Question (2010) by Howard Jacobsen, annoyed me. Warmed over Philip Roth (who himself reheats his early stuff once a year), it is full of self-pitying characters: a Wasp sorry he is not Jewish, and Jews sorry they are. The novelist set out to present a Zola-esque panoply of Jewish identity emergencies and anti-semitic reactions; many of the examples (like the Jew attempting to reconstruct his foreskin) seem either improbable or of purely clinical interest, lacking the universality a novel needs.

Children of the Arbat (1983) by Anatoli Rybakov was a bit of a slog at nearly seven hundred pages, but fascinating for long stretches. Sasha is a committed and patriotic Young Communist exiled to Siberia for being outspoken and getting the short end of an engineering school intrigue. His suffering takes place against the backdrop of Stalin's purge of Kirov, whose murder is reported on the novel's last page. The most interesting insight you take away from this book is that people everywhere have more in common than differences; rather than being the crazed killer androids of 1950's American perception, the young people of the Arbat circa 1934 are completely recognizable in their desire for love, approval and security.


Jack Goes Boating (2010), directed by and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a low key romantic comedy about two awkward, marginal people who find each other, and whose romance is promoted and yet interfered with by their more conventional, earthier married friends. The movie achieves a deep sweetness while avoiding sentimentality; Jack learns to swim and to cook so he can help his new girlfriend achieve two of her long held aspirations (to go boating and to be cooked for). Amy Ryan is wonderful as the woman who can barely meet someone's eye or utter a complete sentence. She is one of my favorite actresses working today, in her powerful combination of an ordinary and rather urban look and charisma.

Stone (2010), directed by John Curran, is an interesting failure. It portrays a triangle involving three unsympathetic characters, Robert DeNiro as a mean parole officer, Edward Norton as a convict who set fire to his grandparents' home after they were murdered by his cousin, and Milla Jovovich as his seductive, unprincipled wife. Set against a backdrop of fundamentalist Christian talk radio, the rather slow-moving film becomes provocative for a few minutes after each tells DeNiro that the other is playing him. The would be art film, which makes much of the buzzing of flies and bees and background of unintelligible conversation and grinding music, has undigested ideas about the role of sound in life and religious epiphany. It also has something to say about responsibility and reincarnation and the principle that we all begin as a stone and climb the hierarchy of life from there. It bogs down in 1970's style depressive generalities, as (shades of iconic films like "The Conversation"), it becomes unclear who is doing what to whom, what is paranoia versus reality. Then it just grinds to a stop, and leaves everyone hanging, including the audience.

I have been catching up with lesser known Hitchcock films. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is a terrible mis-step, a wooden attempt at a screwball comedy with no humor or chemistry, not one persuasive line of dialog--proof that Hitchcock needed to stay in his comfort zone and could not imitate the success of "The Awful Truth" and "Bringing Up Baby". The Wrong Man (1956) is a quiet triumph, a grueling story of a case of mistaken identity in which the ultimate victim is not the wrongly arrested husband (Henry Fonda) but the wife who loses her sanity (Vera Miles). Under Capricorn (1949) is a costume melodrama set in Australia's early days, involving a triangle among a rough-hewn ex-convict, his noble wife, and an Irish society twit, the governor's cousin. It is the kind of story in which each of the characters has the chance to do something fine and noble; there are no villains. Ingrid Bergman is compelling as the alcoholic wife perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The Hill (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet, is about the breakdown of authority in a British military prison in North Africa during World War II. A sadistic guard causes the death of a prisoner from sunstroke and exhaustion, and the pertinent question becomes who is in charge, the passive, fearful commander, his right hand man, the medical officer or the murderous guard, as they all confront each other in advance of a hearing. There are fine performances by Sean Connery and Ossie Davis as prisoners. It fits squarely into, and is one of the better exemplars of, a long genre of prison and military prison movies, dealing with similar issues of justice and authority. Energetically directed by Lumet, the movie includes moments where those in authority simultaneously cover for their subordinates and rebuke them. The most terrible threat they issue against one another: how will you cope when you are a prisoner in here yourself?

St. Joan (1957), directed by Otto Preminger, is a not quite faithful adaptation of Shaw, lacking some of his cynicism but preserving much of the energetic Shavian dialog. Jean Seberg, savaged by critics at the time, is fine as one of the most enigmatic and interesting figures of history: the teenage girl who, through pure conviction, ascended to power and influence and changed the course of events.

Nicholas Nickleby (1947), directed by Cavalcanti, is one of those wonderful old black and white British versions of Dickens, inhabited by character actors, in which comic characters like the acting troupe or the Cheeryble twins come across with all the freshness and delight of the original. There is none of that dreary sense, which mars so many film adaptations, that we are doing serious work here, Bringing a Classic to the Screen.

Dust Be My Destiny (1939), directed by Lewis Seiler, is a forgotten social justice film starring the great John Garfield as a hobo who is sentenced to a work farm for a crime he did not commit. He escapes with the foreman's daughter, suspected of another murder of which he is innocent, and they live on the run while he develops a talent as a news photographer. At the end, the good old American jury comes to his rescue. The film is never quite believable, but Garfield's conviction carries it. Given what happened to him, it is poignant to see him in roles where his own hope and faith seem to radiate, his desire to believe in the fairness and honesty of the system which crushed him later.

The Kids are All Right (2010), directed by Lisa Cholodenko, annoyed me. An earnest portrayal of a longterm lesbian couple raising two kids (each bore one, from the same donor's sperm), the movie makes a rather risky choice to portray the disruption that occurs when the donor shows up and starts taking an interest in the children's lives. Setting aside the extreme cliche and tedium of Hollywood portrayals of the father/mother/sister/brother you never knew you had, the movie backfires by implying that lesbians will fall into bed eagerly with an available man--there is literally a scene where Julianne Moore reacts happily and eagerly to the long-awaited sight of a penis.

High Sierra (1941) directed by Raoul Walsh and co-written by John Huston, was Humphrey Bogart's break out film. Paired with the great Ida Lupino as his dedicated, fierce moll (unfortunately, the script has her cry and cling too much), Bogart developed the tough, smart and unwillingly compassionate bit to perfection. Having watched some of his early, forgotten films, most recently Love Affair (1932), directed by Thornton Freeland, I think less of Bogart as an actor; he tends to be either wooden or over the top in early roles. Bogart, to borrow Isaiah Berlin's term, is a hedgehog; he could do only one thing, but did it really well, and stuck to it the rest of his career after this film.

The Sea Chase (1955), directed by John Farrow, is an unusual John Wayne film, in which he plays a German captain reluctantly trying to get a freighter home to Nazi Germany from the South Pacific while being chased by the British navy. Wayne is effective, though he makes no attempt at a German accent. The movie is highly enjoyable for its interesting set up, in which everything possible goes wrong--a Nazi mate who causes severe trouble, a female spy on board, shortage of coal and food. It has a noir ending in which Wayne, sadly following a moral code he knows will lead to his death, steams towards a British destroyer in spite of his knowledge of being completely over-matched.

Animal Kingdom (2010), directed by David Michod, is an unusual and compelling Australian gangster film. It begins with a young man calling the grandmother he has not seen since early childhood, to tell her that his mother has just died of a heroin overdose. The grandmother herself delivers one of the most memorable performances of recent years: she is intense, loves her gangster children, and is completely amoral (at one point ordering the killing of her new-found grandson to protect her remaining sons). As the young man discovers the dangers presented by one of his uncles, the corrupt cops attempt to turn him into an informer. We watch him transform from a hapless newbie into a master manipulator and, finally, a stone killer himself, reminiscent of Michael Corleone's arc in Godfather I.

Lebanon (2009), directed by Samuel Maoz, is a stunning Israeli war movie, set entirely inside a tank. Only the last scene of the film is shot from outside, as the tank has come to rest in a field of sunflowers. Inside, condictions are claustrophobic, the floor is aslosh with oily water and cigarette butts, the soldiers are dirty. Set during the 1982 incursion, the tank accompanies a squad of paratroopers commanded by a stone-faced lieutenant. Almost every minute is harrowing, as the crew is in terrible danger at all times, fighting with one another, and breaking down, as they witness and commit civilian killings and other terrible destruction through the gunsights. There is an extended sequence in which an Arab Christian woman, being held hostage by Islamic fighters with her family, is blown out of the upper story of a house by the tank's shot, cries while searching for her dead daughter, catches fire and is put out by a nearby paratrooper, and ends up half-naked gazing desperately into the tank's periscope. In another scene, the gunner freezes ("I only shot barrels before") and his failure to act causes the death of an Israeli comrade. The scariest people in the movie are not the barely glimpsed enemy, but the sadistic Phalangist allies. One thing Israelis seem to do really well is make war movies (see also "Beaufort", set in the same war).

Night People (1954), written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, is a near miss. A noirish film set in divided Berlin before the Wall, it features an effective Gregory Peck as a burnt-out American officer tasked with recovering a young soldier who has been kidnapped and taken to the other side. The shadowy people who have him offer to exchange him for an elderly couple who turn out to be a dissident German general in hiding and his English wife. The unseen villains are former SS working for the Soviets. Its a highly interesting set up, and the movie has all the cynicism and humor of LeCarre's work, but unfortunately the denouement is unbelievable: the bad guys agree to make an exchange of hostages deep in American-held territory,allowing Peck to trick them easily.