July 2011

Top of This issue Current issue


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bay.net

Guarantee: contains many spoilers


The Postman (1985) by David Brin was the source for Kevn Costner's most reviled movie, the one which ended his career as a first-ranked star. Brin is a science fiction novelist of the old or Asimov school: interesting ideas, clumsy prose, cardboard characters. The concept at the core here is compelling: a post-apocalyptic vagrant dons a scavenged post office uniform, only to find that the people he meets respond with such hope and awe that he begins spreading the lie of a restored United States: a lie that over time may work to turn itself into a truth (Herzl: "If you will it it is not a dream"). However, Brin then descends to some deep silliness: the stultified cliche of a supercomputer which itself turns out to be a human fraud (with the obligatory meta-nod to "The Wizard of Oz" and the man behind the curtain). Even worse, there is a kind of condescending, crack-pot would-be feminism as a woman forms her own military squad to save the men from attack...then does so by having her women bed the attackers and try to stab them in their beds. Good theme, inadequate book.

John Crowley's The Translator (2002) is a fine mainstream novel by an author who made his bones writing science fiction. While many other genre novelists flounder and become generic when they attempt this transition (Patricia Anthony), Crowley proves you can leverage an outsider worldview and knowledge of genre mechanics to write an excellent straight novel. Set mainly in 1962, the book is about the encounter between a college girl and an exiled Soviet poet. It avoids most of the trite old guy-young girl stuff (whether they ever make love is left ambiguous, though they love each other greatly). What is most remarkable about the book is that the poetry of both characters, quoted at length, is quite good, and very different; Crowley also makes much of the differences between Russian and English expression, and the great difficulty of translation. Embodying good original poetry in a novel about poets is an almost impossible task; even A.S. Byatt, a fine writer, could not do it in "Possession", and most such attempts are lamentable doggerel. The novel's only flaw is a rather weak ending, where the Russian poet basically vanishes up a metaphorical waterspout, a reverse deus ex machina in which the metaphor for the first time comes un-moored from the naturalistic elements.

Shardik (1974) by Richard Adams is a six hundred page mixed bag. Set in an imaginary quasi-Sumerian world, it is about a huge bear which emerges from the woods one day and the all-female cult which adopts him as its returned God. Adam's strength is to find gripping situations and describe them very suspensefully, while keeping a lot of ideas flying. He probably felt himself hobbled by the wild success of his first novel, "Watership Down", with dealt with many of the same themes of death, despair and cruelty from well inside a safe haven of a colony of adorable rabbits. Under pressure I imagine from agents and publishers to write "Watership Down" again, he had the courage and integrity not to do so, with the result that none of his later stories are as beautiful and satisfying. "Shardik" is his first novel in which the animals don't even talk. Like "Plague Dogs", where he offhandedly threw in a happy ending because the audience would expect it, this novel doesn't really conclude; momentum carries him a hundred pages or so too far, even throwing in unnecessary brand new characters to mediate the wrap-up. Worse, the pay off is disappointingly small: after a monster bear, empires, armies, wars, slavery and cruel murder, the moral is to cherish the children. Along the way, Adams violates an unwritten rule of polite literature and shows us a slaver murdering a four year old girl by standing on her in shallow water, something which even Hannibal Lecter never did. The bear itself hovers disappointingly between the real and supernatural, never taking a decisive position on either side of the line.

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1983) by Anthony Beevor, is a very accessible and interesting history of the German invasion of the island and the fierce Cretain resistance against German occupation. Like most honest accounts of war, it is a story of pure fuckology; the complacent and confused British failed to counter-attack aggressively as the German paratroops landed, and lost the island as a result. It has many other interesting elements: Hitler's surprising compassion for the troops he ultimately squandered in the Russian misadventure; he told General Kurt Student, the creator and leading proponent of German parachute warfare, that he would never use paratroops again, because the first day losses were too great--then sent the soldiers off to the Russian front as infantry. Though the occupation of Crete involved much German brutality, including reprisal murders and torture, the overall effect is of German soldiers terrified to go out at night, frightened of peasant knives wielded by men and by women. The intensity of Cretan, particularly the mountain people, resistance is unparalleled in any more "civilized" European place. And, as a backdrop, you sense the ancient dreaming island, which has seen Minoan and Greek civilization, Turkish invasion, so much violence and resistance. I remember standing on a southern beach in Crete as a young man, completely unaware of its use for evacuation and infiltration during the Nazi years, looking up at the skyline where Moorish castles and World War II bunkers shared the view.

The Book of Daniel (1971) by E.L.Doctorow is powerful but flawed. In the structures he imagines, Doctorow is like a more accessible Don DeLillo; in this book we have the Rosenbergs, the 1967 march on Washington, and Disneyland, along with disquisitions on Stalin, American diplomacy, capitalism, electricity, and strangely, balloonists attempting the Pole. I find DeLillio empty and unreadable, while Doctorow can characterize, and dragged me along. There is a problem of sympathy: the protagonist, son of the undisguised Rosenbergs, here called the Isaacsons, assaults his loving young wife in a moving vehicle, forcing her to strip and then burning her with a cigarette lighter. It is hard to keep any sympathy after that. There are repellent occurrences of that Sixties trope, in which women are reduced to their body parts, hips and breasts dragging a brain; and they all want to sleep with Daniel. The novel switches from first person to third, and is at its best when unreliable narrator Daniel disappears, with his violence and self pity, and we try on different theories as to who knew what, whether the man who implicated the Rosenbergs was innocent himself or not, and bullied into making up a story by the FBI; or complicit with the Rosenbergs, in the sense of "we are all sacrificing for the Party together". There can of course be no pay off; a final confrontation with the informer at Disneyland, when Daniel is a thirtyish hippie, reveals a senile old man who can tell him nothing. Daniel describes himself at all times as a "criminal of perception", a child turned into a street rat by his parents' ordeal. His younger sister, more innocent and truthful than he is at all times, dies of that truth. Its a good awful novel--I couldn't put it down while hating Daniel--but it also raises an interesting ethical issue about fiction: Doctorow's version was inspired by living people, the two Rosenberg sons. He may have added to their suffering by writing the novel.


Tree of LIfe (2011), is Terrence Malick's best movie since "Days of Heaven" in 1978, which remains on my list of greatest movies ever made after repeated viewings across thirty years. "Tree" is visually stunning, and reveals an expert knowledge of the unimportance of dialog, which is relegated to a sound effect equal in stature to the rushing of wind and burbling of water. The core story, however, seems an unusually superficial and even New Agey one: Sean Penn, as an anguished, middle aged businessman, searches through time and memory for knowledge and (God help us) closure regarding his dysfunctional family in his childhood. What makes the film unforgettable are its extended visuals of childhood activity: endless running around on manicured 1960's lawns, exploring the woods, sprinklers, church. Brad Pitt is fine as the angry, disappointed, occasionally violent dad, and Jessica Chastain radiant as the mom whose entire role consists of smiling and kissing her children. The movie announces at the outset it will be about the distiction between "nature" (dad) and "grace"(mom), which appears to be rather the same thing as will and grace: angry, rebuked willful desire versus serenity and resignation. The film takes a highly self indulgent detour into the creation of the world and evolution of life, which includes a scene in which two species of dinosaurs play out an unforgettable moment. One is dying and the other pins it down with a claw, stares at it and then stalks away without eating it, while a voice on the soundtrack intones, :"I have searched for you, life by life." There are three brothers, one of whom will die in an unspecified way at age 19; since mom is informed by telegram, we assume he dies in the military, probably in Vietnam. Malick, a master at withholding information, a usually very effective strategy in post-modern story-telling, goes too far, as he also did in "Thin Red Line": I was not sure which son died (probably the oldest) and which grows up to be Sean Penn (probably the middle).

Super 8 (2011), written and directed by J.J. Abrams, is a highly competent and rather enjoyable work of Hollywood fakery. This is an achievement, because most heartless and soulless Hollywood movies are also embarassingly bad patchworks these days (The "3:10 to Yuma" remake, with its weird kluge of a tragedo-comical ending, is a prime example). So there is something to be said for an auteur who, in a flashback to studio days, can create a movie which is an effective machine. This one, in the "Stand by Me", "Goonies", "Explorers" and "ET" genre, is a pre-pubescent coming of age story with science fiction and horror elements. Set iat the end of the '70's, it combines a sweet but very familiar interaction among geeky male friends and the girl who up-ends their lives, with a rampaging alien story. Abrams expertly delivers first a puzzle, then pieces of the answer one at a time, again in an expert genre fashion; but the entire solution, once we understand it, is both trite and contradictory. The creature at the center of the story is apparently meant to be simultaneously a terrifying "Alien"-like people-eating marauder, and a cute, lonely, lost, "ET"-style refugee trying to get home. Abrams' expertise is evident every minute, but the elements he is snapping together have all been used many times in better movies. If you have enough creativity to roll them out with this much panache, why wouldn't you be able to come up with something genuinely new and surprising? And nobody could pull off the magic trick of making the monster nasty and nice all at once.

Resident Evil (2010), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, is a guilty pleasure. I enjoy watching Milla Jovovich, who is not much of an actress but excels at turning cartwheels wearing a long coat and firing two sawed off shotguns simultaneously. I appreciate the unpretentious skill of the auteur-director, who knows how to deliver these stories expertly. I'll give two satisfying examples. Jovovich places a pile of quarters on a table; she tells someone they are "a hobby". Later, when she has fired a shotgun at a zombie, the quarters rain all over the room:they are ammunition. In another scene, we see a huge hooded figure with an axe walking resolutely down a street. It produces an "oh shit, what's that" reaction among the bealeaguered human defenders, and the audience as well. Is it a zombie? Is it an orc which escaped from Middle Earth? We never find out, never see its face, nor do we need to; it is an enjoyably scary problem for Alice and her allies to solve, and they do. This movie, like its predecessors, is not very original, and is full of borrowed and stolen elements. Something it should have stolen, and opted not to: the humans have to swim through a flooded hallway to reach some weapons, but the movie avoids showing us swimming zombies, shades of "Aliens IV". What the movie does is something Hollywood has largely forgotten: sets the bar low and then jumps high over it.

My friend Samantha just acquainted me with the Bechtold test for movies and plays: are there at least two female characters, do they have names ("Girl on Train" won't cut it), and do they talk to each other about something else than men? "Resident Evil" passes with flying colors: there are three named women in this one, and they talk to each other a lot about killing zombies.

Salt (2010) directed by Philip Noyce, fails to achieve what "Resident Evil" does easily. It is a somewhat similar genre exercise, with Angelina Jolie in the role of a CIA agent who must fly through the air, jump from truck to truck, and kill scads of people, something the actress can impersonate as well as (or better than) Milla Jovovich. But the movie has no pay off. One significant difference is that it does not inhabit a wearily familiar world. One of the pleasures of the "Resident Evil" series is that the protagonist knows the rules, knows how to kill zombies; the conflict comes from the sheer volume, and the humans and part-humans seeking to defeat her or prevent her from doing her daily job. "Salt" takes place instead in the world of Hollywood exceptionalism, where everything is brand new, nothing has happened before. It never achieves credence; we don't suspend disbelief. It makes some trite choices along the way. So does "Resident Evil", but delivers them with such flair, we aren't bothered; "salt" is just another action flick I won't remember in a year, when it has merged in memory with all the other, similar ones. And, by the way, it fails the Bechtold test, because there is only one female character.

Ulzana's Raid (1972), directed by Robert Aldrich, is one of a trio of dark, skeptical Westerns Burt Lancaster made in his final years on screen. In this one, he is an aging scout, engaged by the cavalry to track an Apache chief who has left the reservation. There are no good guys; the local storekeeper is shorting the reservation Indians on beef; some of the cavalry men, as they start to mutilate an Indian corpse, are as cruel as the Apache. There is a noirish showdown in a canyon at the end, where almost everyone dies. The extent to which the film departs from the usual Western ethic is demonstrated in a scene where a soldier, escorting a mother and son to the fort, starts to flee as the Indians attack. The woman screams, "Don't leave me!"-- so he rides back, shoots her in the head, and attempts to rescue her ten year old boy. When the Indians kill his horse, he puts his revolver in his mouyth and shoots himself, leaving the boy to face the attackers. Lancaster, reconstructing this man's actions a few minutes later, approves them: "Horowitz was a good man." Together with "Go Tell the Spartans", Lancaster's three late Westerns are an auteur-ish meditation on war, civilization and morality.

Saints and Soldiers (2004), directed by Ryan Little, is a routine little World War II movie, pleasurable because of a type I didn't think they knew how to make any more. Unlike the last few decades of highly depressing, dark, ambiguous Vietnam and Iraq war movies, this one is set squarely in the 1950's tradition, a squad of guys trying to do the best they can in a hellacious situation. Though I appreciate and respect a fine anti-war movie, such as "Hurt Locker", there is a lot of pleasure in old formulas, well delivered. Hollywood mostly does not know how to do that any more. Here, the men are escaping a German massacre of GI's just before the Bulge counter-attack. Meeting a British flyer with crucial information about German plans, they must travel twenty miles or so through enemy troops to deliver the intelligence to Allied command. The only innovation the well-made film introduces (I assume deliberately and tongue in cheek) is that the kid from Brooklyn is (with the British flyer) one of the two survivors. In most war movies from the forties on, "Brooklyn" catches the first bullet. "When this is over, I'm goin' to Nathan's on the boardwalk and--" Kapow, a sniper's bullet to the brain.

Centurion (2010), directed by Neil Marshall, is an effective if very violent little movie about the war between the Roman legions and the Picts. A lost centurion organizes a small unit of refugees in a failed attempt to rescue a captive general, then to escape the natives. It is a noirish world in which both sides commit atrocities; our protagonist is both a skilled fighter and a somewhat under-written innocent,not personally responsible for any horrors. When he gets back to safety, he discovers that the departing Roman administrator, looking forward to a political career in Rome, would rather murder him than have the loss of an entire legion noised about at home.

Jar City (2008), directed by Baltasar Kormakur, is an enjoyably grim little procedural in the Northern European style (this one is from Finland). A joyless middle aged detective tries to solve a blunt trauma murder while also dealing with his daughter's addiction. The mystery itself is unusually interesting, involving a rapist who transmits a rare genetic disease. One outstanding feature is that the bad guys--gangsters and killers--are more weak and fearful than we Americans are used to in this genre. The most brutal sociopath in the movie weeps helplessly when returned to solitary, and two thugs sent to collect a debt from the daughter break and run in terror at the sight of the not very imposing detective.

Beyond Hypothermia (1996), directed by Patrick Leung, is the kind of small wild noir that only the Chinese, and maybe Luc Besson, can pull off, at once over the top and spare. A woman raised to be a super-assassin, who hasn't even a name let alone a personal life, falls for an ex-gangster who sells noodles on the street corner. JUst as she pulls off a supposed last job which causes an equally efficient killer to come after her, she contemplates retirement, romance and life. The movie answers her question with a crane shot of five cars which have crashed into one another in the final blood ballet, and a gunshot which puts her hopes and ours to rest.


I don't review plays here very often, though I see a lot of theater. The reason is that I attend mainly new plays performed off off Broadway, of which the playwrights are my friends and peers. However, I saw two small productions this week of works by dead playwrights, which motivated me to review the scripts (not the productions, which were fine).

Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis was effectively the playwright's suicide note; she killed herself within a year or so after writing it. I saw it performed with five people; it specifies no number of actors, has no characters or plot, but alternates a series of declarations about the meaninglessness of life and desirability of death, with brief dialogs between suicidal people and their uncomprehending or unsympathetic friends or therapists. Though some of the writing is quite good, it left me unsympathetic (despite the fate of the author). First, it dripped with self pity. There have been great works of love, rage, regret, jealousy and compassion, but no great literary work has ever been driven by self-pity. Second, existential despair seems to me to be a luxury afforded only by those of us, mainly Caucasian, who are well fed, well-clothed, and have a warm place to sleep, meaning that the vast majority of the people who have ever lived didn't have the choice of feeling it.

August Strindberg's The Father is an amusing example of an effective tragedy obviated by technology. A man goes crazy, and dies, when doubt is raised as to whether his daughter is biologically his; as I recall, this is not the only play in which Strindberg pursued an obsession that no man can ever know for sure a child's origins. Today, he would run out to Duane Reade and buy a home DNA gest kit, steal his daughter's hairbrush and find out to a certainty. Its like watching plays in which divorce is not a possibility, or women cannot possibly live alone; you watch with polite but strained attention. That reminds me of the amusing aphorism that in Star Trek worlds, any problem can be solved by the transporter beam, which can rescue the good guys from captivity, or beam the bad guys (or the bomb, or evil computer, or malfunctioning holodeck) into space. That is why in so many episodes of various Star Trek series, it was necessary to explain why the transporter could not be used (because of paralyzing levels of delta or rho particles in the atmosphere or local space).