August, 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: contains many spoilers


Little, Big (1981), by John Varley, was a disappointment. A five hundred page foray into the world of folk tale, the novel posits an upstate New York family which has close relationships with the magical folk from the "other side", a house which serves as a door to their world, and a mysterious destiny to play a significant role in the Tale which never ends. I enjoyed the territory, reminiscent of R.A. Lafferty and some short stories of Fritz Leiber ("Roll Dem Bones"), and also of Neil Gaiman's superior "American Gods". After hundreds of pages of slow accretion of interesting detail, Varley finally introduces an interestingly Satanic character, Russell Eigenblick; but the foreshadowed Gotterdammerung never arrives, as confusing alliances and repositionings result in all of the humans departing for a banquet, or peace treaty, or some sort of gathering, on the Other Side. In the end, it is a novel entirely without action, which peters out much as the many-roomed house, now uninhabited, starts to fall apart on the last page. When Varley is good ("Engine Summer", "The Translator") he is excellent, but this novel seems less than fully conceived and executed--a particular sin at that length.

Breathing Lessons (1988) by Anne Tyler took a while to get started, but was well worth the wait. Set across a single day, with flashbacks, the protagonist takes a detour on her way back from a friend's husband's funeral to retrieve her ex-daughter-in-law and grandchild and bring them to Baltimore, in the endless hope of arranging a reconciliation with her son. The whole thing blows up, as every previous effort has, due to the hopeful lies she told each of them to bring it about. Her wastrel son, as her husband bitterly understands, is so much less than she wants him to be; the two, who have been separated seven years or so, don't belong together; yet every time she tries to re-unite them, everyone is carried on the wings of her imagination. At the end, after the day's bitter failure, she plans the next day's excursion, to retrieve the young woman again, a quest which will never stop. I enjoy Tyler's quirky, compassionate style, but there is a moment of incomparable comedy, when the young woman discovers that her ex does not really sleep every night with the plastic box in which she kept her soap when they were married. No, says the bitter father: he sleeps with an auto greeter. We, like the other characters, wonder what kind of device this is. Dad explains it is the woman who greets you at the door of the dealership.

Back When We Were Grown-ups (2001), also by Anne Tyler, creaked a little. Maybe I am reading too many books by this author, but the characters and prose seemed sadder and duller this time. Her people are all cut from similar molds: this time a quiet, insecure young woman who ditched a steady suitor to marry into a large, lively, odd family--taking on four step-daughters when she was barely twenty herself--finds herself in her fifties, widowed for years, lonely, and dreaming of the man she abandoned, now head of the physics department at their old college. She locates him, draws him into her world, and just when (pathetically lonely himself, divored and hated by his teenage daughter), he begins to have expectations of happiness, she abandons him again. For the first time I found myself confused by a Tyler character's motivation, and bothered by her brutality. Also, while I am always happy not be reading about characters who quote Proust while suffering existrential angst, Tyler's women who read cooking magazines while worrying about their weight are also beginning to wear on me.

The Help (2009), by Kathryn Stockett is a satisfying story which got me thinking about whether it should have been written or published at all. It is a white woman's imagination of the circumstances of black housekeepers in Mississippi in 1964. Much of their dialog is in dialect, and they even say "Sho nuff". The author says in an afterword that she was raised by a black housekeeper in that era. So was I, but in Brooklyn. I have the impression in retrospect of an almost unbridgeable divide of mutual incomprehension. Despite daily contact for years on end--I saw more of her than of my parents--I know almost nothing about her home life, and would never dare to try and imagine it in fiction, nor would I ever use dialect in any endeavor. However, some black readers have been quoted praising "The Help" for its immense sympathy, its desire to know. Another issue is that the novel falls into the long-dishonored genre in which people of other ethnicities are viewed, and experienced, through the lens of a magical white person who intervenes to help or save them. From "Schindlers List" to "A World Apart" to "The Killing Fields" to numberless other movies about the American South, South Africa, Cambodia, etc., there is always a white person encouraging the natives to resist, tell their stories, etc. Nevertheless, Stockett, with her sympathetic portrayals and the small uptick in pride and optimism in her ending, tells a good story, if you can see it through the clouds of political incorrectness.


Bad Teacher (2011), directed by Jake Kasdan, is a modestly successful comedy, which is saying a lot in today's world of crushingly unfunny, committee-designed farces. Cameron Diaz plays a materialistic, shallow, dishonest schoolteacher who is humanized by hard knocks along the way. The movie is more notable for funny situations than it is for laugh out loud moments. Diaz, who covets a breast job, marvels over another woman's breasts while the self satisfied surgeon sits by grunting and grinning; she unsentimentally re-directs a lovelorn, poetic student onto a better path ("College is your window. Don't miss it"). Lucy Punch is amazing as her nemesis, the quirky-cute-hateful rival both for school status and the affections of Justin Timberlake's vapid math teacher.

Terri (2010), directed by Azazel Jacobs, is a sweet but unsentimental independent film about a morbidly obese high school student, the assistant principal who takes an interest in him, and the strange friends he makes as a result. It is a movie of modest hope for lonely people, while avoiding the "gee whiz" moments that a more Spielberg-influenced director would have brought. Everyone in it, the assistant principal (John C., Reilly) included, is flawed, but (as Reilly's character says in a memorable speech) just trying to get by, do the best they can.

Kick-Ass (2010), directed by Matthew Vaughn, is a strange little combination of two stories. In the foreground, we have a rather familiar teenage coming of age tale, in which a geeky boy costumes himself as a superhero, and almost accidentally wins the girl he admires, though he has no super-powers and tends to get beaten up whenever he tries to stop a crime. There is one poignant scene in which (helped by deadened nerves from an earlier beat-down) he won't stop coming back at some thugs, until they quit and run away. In the background, there is a story very different in tone, in which a bitter ex-cop raises his daughter to be an accomplished killer, under the persona "Hit Girl". Expertly played by an actress, Chloe Moretz, who seems to be ten years old, Hit Girl repeatedly is shown killing everyone in various rooms, including a woman, with knives and guns and without any visible hesitation or remorse, and also being bloodied and beaten herself in the process--raising the bar on Hollywood film violence yet again (amazing how movies can still do that at this late date) and giving the film a rather queasy backdrop. Oh, in case I didn't make this clear: Hit Girl is a heroine of the piece.

The Fountain, (2006), written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a fascinating crock. Worthy of inclusion in a double feature topped by "Tree of Life", it is a similar meditation on life, death and meatloaf--and literally includes a tree of life at the center. Three narrative strands are entwined in which the same actor tries to save the life of the same actress; in the first, he is a knight and she is Queen of Spain, threatened by the Inquisition; in the second, they are physician husband and terminally ill wife in the present time; in the third, he floats in a bubble six centuries from now, with her ghost, and presumably her corpse, towards a supernova which somehow he hopes will bring her back to life. In the medieval strand, his quest is to go to the Mayan lands of Latin America and bring back a branch of the tree of life; in the present day, he experiments with a bit of its bark as a cure; in the future, he carries the tree itself in his bubble, presumably with her corpse subsumed in its roots. Are these all the same people, ageless or reincarnated? We are never told. The movie is grossly flawed to the point of being laughable; it is slow moving, and the actors look a little embarassed, as they strike poses they probably didn't understand (you can often tell when an actor doesn't really "feel" a role). It also suffers from the grandiosity and triteness that non-genre writers bring to science fiction. But it is a large, interesting failure, from one of the best auteurs working today. And there is a tiny little click at the end: to accept death, to be with the one you have lost by dying yourself, instead of fearing death so much you will travel to a distant nebula in a soap bubble in hope of avoiding it.

The Warlords (2007), directed by Peter Chan, is a well-made epic about a war against rebels in the 1870's, with Jet Li as an anguished general of peasant origins who fights his way to victory and an empty heart. Like many movies, especially historical epics, coming out of Hong Kong since the handover, it appears to have a Chinese government subtext. Li's character massacres 4,000 enemy soldiers who have surrendered, explaining that there is not bread to keep them alive and feed his own army. On the soundtrack, a narrator (ostensibly one of his right hand men) insists over and over again he was right to kill them. I have never seen a movie in which a war crime was portrayed in such detail, and then explained and justified. The archers who commit the atrocity are crying and even vomiting; Jet Li looks anguished; yet one has the queasy sense that the government-approved script is telling us that sometimes mass murder is necessary.

Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), directed by Lewis Gilbert,moved me very much, though it is a step or two short of complete historical accuracy. It is the mainly true story of Violette Szabo, a British woman who was executed by the Germans as a member of British intelligence shortly before the war ended. Remniniscent of an American Western, "Westward the Women", I reviewed a few month's ago, it portrays a woman responding uncomplainingly and heroically to life's challenges by learning to parachute, use a gun, and fight larger male adversaries. While movies are usually concerned with artifice and romance, and actresses spend much of their careers being ornamental, artifacts such as this one from eras we consider archaic and unenlightened suggest that men have always understood that the differences between them and women are vanishingly small and that women can in fact do all the same jobs as men.

Space Cowboys (2000), directed by ClInt Eastwood, is a mildly enjoyable Hollywood fraud. A feel good movie about geezers who can get the job done when no-one else can, it makes not one risky plot choice, but runs in predictable grooves to the very end. Clint Eastwood, who is a better filmmaker than an actor of his record has any right to be, has rarely escaped this kind of vehicle his whole career. Any movie which gathers up Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner and lets them all bluster and twinkle can't be a complete waste of time. It does suffer from what I call "Carrie Fisher syndrome" after the actress' famous disquisition on how hard it was to act the scene in which Darth Vader blows up her planet. In this one, a woman watching as her new love sacrifices his life in space to send some nuclear weapons away from the earth, looks like she is having a mildly annoying day.

The Savage Innocents (1960) directed by Nicholas Ray is a fascinating artifact. Member of a significant and somewhat disreputable genre of films set in foreign cultures where the lead characters are played by Caucasians (think "The Good Earth"), this film about Eskimo culture differentiates itself in several ways. Unlike many such films, including the ones set in China I reviewed this past year, the film does not have a white person as lens/interlocutor; the whites are all supporting characters. Second, the film makes an apparently honest effort to portray the details of Eskimo culture and language (the interesting if somewhat stilted dialog suggests an enforced cultural humility, with Eskimos referring to themselves as "stupid" and "worthless" and saying "someone" or "this one" when they mean themselves). As a sympathetic clash of cultures movie, it predates efforts to portray American Indian culture compassionately ("Little BIg Man") by more than a decade. And most of the supporting Eskimo characters are played (quite well) by Japanese American or Japanese actors. Anthony Quinn (himself a Mexican American who would portray a wide variety of ethnicities in his career) plays Inuk, a hunter who sees his first gun late in life and is drawn to a white trading post, where he trades skins to get one and has his first drink of whiskey. Rather than succumbing to powerful outside influences, like many Westernized Eskimos he meets there, he follows the counsel of his intelligent wife and flees, accidentally killing a priest who refuses his traditional offers of food and his wife's company. This sets the stage for a final confrontation among Eskimo morality, Western law and individual compassion as a Mountie, Peter O'Toole, pursues him and then is saved from freezing and starvation by Inuk. The film includes a rather feminist portrayal of Eskimo women, as partners to and sometimes leaders of their men, and even in the scenes where they are being loaned to visitors, the women seem to suggest it and then enjoy it.

The Plague Dogs (1982), directed by Martin Rosen, is a beautifully animated, largely faithful short rendition of the bleak Richard Adams novel I reviewed a few months ago. Notably, this version abandons Adam's snarky, sewn-on happy ending, and leaves the dogs at sea, swimming and sinking. I assume the animator's love of the material overcame his common sense, as it is impossible to imagine this very depressing story doing any business (dogs are tortured, escape, kill sheep, are relentlessly pursued, and drown).

Rope of Sand (1947), directed by William Dieterle, is a Humphrey Bogart movie without Bogart, starring Burt Lancaster instead. As a discredited big game hunter, he returns to a South African principality called "Diamondstadt", where he confronts much of the cast of "Casablanca" (Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid against type as the sociopathic police chief). In an interestingly tangled story about a hidden diamond cache, the actors all do what they do best: Claude Rains is charming and amoral, Peter Lorre provides some interestingly strange chatter about the symbolism and effect of diamonds. The plot takes a couple wrong turns towards the end, but this is an effective action story on the level of lesser Bogart like "Tokyo Joe".

Netflix is changing their pricing to promote streaming and to make receiving disks in the mail much more expensive. The company also expanded into several foreign markets on a streaming-only basis. Streaming is the Next Big Thing, but Netflix is at a cross-raods. A few years ago, it seemed to aspire to be the world repository of all Cinema, offering every movie available on DVD. Now, the collection is shrinking: disks of relatively obscure but artistically important independent and foreign films which crack in the mail, as Andrei Wajda's "Kanal" did on its way to me, are not replaced. Worse, for the strategy of all streaming all the time, some sixty or more films I added to my list are no longer available online. It seems possible that Netflix no longer plans to be the world cinema repository, but merely a modest competitor of HBO and Hulu, offering "Hangover II" and some other commercial choices.