September 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Brooklyn's Finest (2010), directed by Antoine Fuqua, is a disappointment. A great cast and setting lead to a very small pay-off. Richard Gere is a sadsack cop doing the least possible in the days before retirement; Ethan Hawke has gone rogue becausde of the need to buy a new house to replace the moldy one which is harming his asthmatic wife (Lili Taylor, underutilized); and Don Cheadle is a cop so far undercover he can barely see the surface. In classic "Crash" style, though they work in the same precinct, their lives barely intersect until the end, and not even then (and not believably). Cheadle's character is thrown away rather disturbingly (becoming murderous first). Only Gere undergoes any positive transformation, rescuing a missing white girl who is being raped by a large, angry black man, in a trope disturbingly close to racial stereotypes of fifty and a hundred years ago. Why couldn't the missing girl whose disarming face jumped off the bulletin board and caught Gere's attention have been African American and a local resident?

The Messenger (2010), directed by Oren Moverman, is one of the finer Iraq war movies, following two soldiers, a veteran who has never seen combat and a heroic newbie fresh from being shot up in Iraq, whose job it is to notify families of the loss of their loved ones. The performances are all excellent, especially Woody Harrelson as the older soldier. We watch a series of almost unendurable notifications, well handled despite the fact we have seen this scene in so many movies. Steve Buscemi has two excellent scenes as a bereft father who reacts first with rage, then with shame. The power of the movie is in the two men absorbing all this grief, with nowhere to take it. Their stone faces, as notified family members collapse, hit them or fail to react, are a study in macho stress verging on madness. Unfortunately, the movie becomes muddled, and the two protagonists unsympathetic, during a long, alcoholic four day vacation, culminating in their disruption of the the wedding of th younger one's ex-girlfriend. Samantha Morton is excellent as the younger soldier's current love object, plain, strange and glowing all at once. She is the wife who at first seems to have no reaction, but blossoms in our sight into a fully realized character, the most interesting in the movie.

The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet (2010), by David Mitchell, is not on the level of Cloud Atlas, which was one of the ten most memorable novels of my lifetime. But it is a beautifully written, flowing, well-researched variation on the genre novel. It is essentially a thriller set in 1799, at a station on Japan's coast where the Dutch are permitted to trade. There is a unique, somewhat anachronistic heroine, Orito, who is a midwife and a scholar, and is loved both by Dutch clerk Jacob and interpreter Ogawa. The book painstakingly, but never dully, sets the terms and details of its world for the first couple hundred pages, then detours, entertainingly but trivially, into Eric van Lustbader territory, with Orito's abduction to a convent governed by a mad monk, where the nuns are pregnant and their babies sacrificed in a savage ritual intended to produce immortality. Ogawa and de Zoet then scheme to free her, while history marches on around them (the Dutch East India Company goes bankrupt, the British send a warship, everyone learns of the existence of Napoleon and his bid to dominate Holland). The book is sumultaneously a riff on the enlightenment and superstition, anbd the liminal place where Japan meets the West. Along the way, a third novel intervenes: we are in "Master and Commander" territory with long scenes set on shipboard. The ending is poignant; Orito is freed but the expected pay-off of a lifetime of happiness for her and de Zoet (Ogawa has died) does not happen. Everyone achieves some measure of contentment, just not the one for which they fought, planned and sweated blood.

Red Beard (966), directed by Akira Kurosawa, is mid-level work of the master, a bit too sentimental. In an unusual medical drama set in an unspecified time (late 18th century? Early 19th?), the great Toshiro Mifune plays an irascible doctor who runs a clinic for the poor. He nevertheless gets to break the arms and legs of some thuggish attackers in a memorable scene. In a rather simplistic and overdone story line, he must mentor an arrogant, resistant young doctor, who by the end is his devoted acolyte. The movie is most interesting for the long side journeys it takes into the lives of some supporting characters, such as a dying artisan, an abused, nearly psychotic twelve year old girl, and at the end, a seven year old thief.

Hustle and Flow, (2009), directed by Craig Brewer, comes close to a guilty pleasure. I haughtily feel I should not have enjoyed so much a movie about how difficult it is to be a pimp: the hos are so demanding, constantly in your face, and having trick's babies to boot....But Terrence Howard as D.J. is so charismatic, and works so hard to be good to the people around him, that you end up suspending disbelief. D.J., of course, is an aspiring rapper, and the climax of the movie involves his approaching a famous rapper returning for a visit to West Memphis, asking him to listen to a demo tape. Just when you are set up for an inspirational ending, the rapper throws D.J.'s cassette in the toilet, causing D.J. and the plot to go crazy for a strong, unexpected and differently inspirational ending. One of the prostitutes, the only white girl, Nola, steps up and transforms herself into a wonderful salesperson, getting D.J.'s mixtape radio play while he sits in prison.

Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), by Lawrence Block. I only started reading him a few years ago--had missed him somehow during the years when I avidly read hardboiled writers such as Hammett, Cain, Chandler, the two McDonalds, etc. In his Matt Scudder series, Block has proven himself adept at creating the evocative, depressive, quirky atmosphere which makes such books. Unlike most detective protagonists, Scudder changes over time. In this superior entry, he is struggling with aloholism, just having had a couple of black-outs which landed him in hospital. The story is a good one too--he is hired by a high class hooker to help her get free of her pimp. She is murdered, but the pimp proves to be a sympathetic, multi-faceted and rather intellectual character, as interested as Scudder in solving the crime. The book is set in New York's darkest days, against a backdrop of senseless violence. Block relates one anecdote--I couldn't verify if it was a real incident from the time--of two elderly neighbors who have a fatal confrontation about a barking dog, with a World War II souvenir Walther and a bow and arrow.

Block understandably disliked the movie of the same name made from his book in 1986, directed by Hal Ashby. In typical Hollywood fashion, the filmmakers fixed elements that weren't broken, moving this very New York story to Los Angeles, introducing the killer, who is revealed at the end of the book, as an ongoing character, and radically changing the story-line. Nevertheless, Jeff Bridges does good work as a goofy, West Coast Scudder, and Andy Garcia is fine as the killer. The plot is incoherent, but with some compelling set pieces, notably a warehouse confrontation with guns, hostages, drugs and fire (which is not in the novel). At the end, when Scudder attends an AA meeting, its on the beach in Malibu.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, (1966), directed by Sergio Leone, is a stripped down Western, with all the sentimentality, and accordingly all the morality, cut out of it. It is a movie which will never lecture you about anything, and which rediscovers the mostly forgotten fact that dialog is not important in films, especially those set in huge empty spaces across which men hunt each other with guns. The theme music, itself stripped down, and over-exposed in the decades since the movie, is unforgettable.The story, almost incidental to the movie, is of three men whose paths cross in search of a stolen $200,000 buried in the grave of a dead Union soldier. Certainly the man the titles tell us is "the Bad", played by Lee Van Cleef is evil; but as such he is almost indistinguishable from the Clint Eastwood character who supposedly represents "the Good". This is the exception to the rule that Westerns are always morality plays.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), directed by Clint Eastwood, wants you to believe it is set in the same world, but is a much more traditional, sentimental Western. Eastwood, a Confederate soldier who refused to surrender, rescues every threatened Indian and endangered white woman along his path, ending up with a ragtag group of followers at bay in a house on an Indian reservation. The climactic battle where he and his liminal group shoot down attacking Union soldiers is reminiscent of the battle in "Avatar"--you are cheering the killing of those you would usually regard as the good guys.The movie is worth seeing for slight touches of oddball 60's characterizations, such as the Indians who won't stop talking and aren't any good at sneaking up on people.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979), directed by Don Siegel, is an effective genre movie in which we watch four prisoners, led by Clint Eastwood, apply human ingenuity to the problem of getting out of an island prison from whom no-one has ever successfully escaped. The solution includes surreptitiously welding digging tools in their cells, making fake gratings to replace the real ones, stealing a fan and converting it into a drill, and fabricating models of their own heads to fool the guards overnight and give them a head start. Like the one in "Birdman of Alcatraz", this is a calm prison, with no rape, and very little swaggering, not a bit like HBO's "Oz". One flaw in these kinds of movies is that the prisoners are all too nice to be criminals; it is hard to imagine Eastwood's compassionate character committing armed robberies. At the end, one man can't get out of his cell because he was too slow digging the hole; the other three get to the water and paddle away on a life raft improvised from rain coats. It is based on a real story, and their fate is left ambiguous; the actual prisoners are presumed to have suffered hypothermia in the fifty degree water and drowned, though their bodies were never found. The film is very watchable and engaging, but illustrates how stars warp a story out of shape, as Eastwood is given a couple of silly moments which contrast with the general realism. In the worst one, he takes the beloved pet mouse of a defunct prisoner with him as he escapes.

Ride Lonesome (1959), directed by Budd Boetticher, is a wonderful small and unpretentious example of the Western as morality play. A bounty hunter with the evocative name Ben Brigade is taking a killer to justice not, as we soon discover, for the bounty, but to lure the killer's older brother into a confrontation. The older brother hung Brigade's wife from a tree decades before. The final showdown takes place at the same tree; Brigade puts a rope around the younger brother's neck, and challenges the other to take the risk of hanging him by firing a shot. Which he does. Another subplot involves a former criminal eager to go straight, who can get amnesty if he takes the killer away from Brigade; in a last graceful scene, instead of shooting it out, Brigade makes him a present of the man. There is also a beautiful but unafraid young woman who can shoot, and assists in the battle scenes, a rarity in '50s movies. Brigade is played by Randolph Scott, a limited actor with a face like a ruined national monument. In the final shot, Brigade has set the hanging tree on fire.

Darwin's Radio, (1999) by Greg Bear, is a science fiction novel I picked up because of the title. It is a successful merger of hard science and characterization, about a genetic scientist and an anthropologist who detect that a new human species is coming into being, through a series of strange miscarriages followed by apparent "virgin" births. The first foetus, which inevitably dies, propagates the second, which is superhuman. The anthropologist discovers a site in the mountains where the frozen bodies of two Neanderthals and their Cro Magnon baby suggest that this has happened before in human history. The novel deals effectively with the fear, the panic and the social implications, as well as with the politics of science and nations and the immediate interest of big Pharm in the problem. The novel ends with the scientist choosing to get pregnant (by the anthropologist). The new babies, when they arrive, are a little disappointing, an affectionate version of the Midwych Cuckoos.

Hornet's Nest (1997), by Patricia Cornwell, is a stand alone novel; she is best known for her series about Kay Scarpetta, Virginia medical examinder. I don't much like Cornwell's writing; her series novels are packed with too much incident and personal upheaval. Scarpetta has by now faced too many Hannibal Lecter-like geniuses, and suffered more personal loss and trauma in a series which could have gotten by with less. This book, however, is a comedy, an element almost totally lacking from the Scarpetta series. Cornwell paints a small Virginia city in which men and women have switched places. The chief of police and most of her top brass are women; the men in the novel are mostly dependent, emotional, and impulsive, especially the beautiful protagonist, a twenty something reporter, whom the women spend most of the novel chasing through the streets to protect him against his own impulses. Its an entertaining farce with strong and admirable female characters.

A Walk in the Woods (1998) by Bill Bryson is the rare book which made me angry. Bryson, a writer of humorous nonfiction, set out with a friend to walk the Appalachian trail, and abandoned the attempt several times. Although he walked 800 miles of it, which is not to be sneered at, the book's publication nonetheless indicates the old precept that you and I won't get published, no matter what gold we submit, while Bryson will get his next book contract regardless of what crap he sends his publisher. I am sure many finer books about completing the trail have been rejected because Bryson already fills that "trail-walking" niche. In the book's final chapter, he joins up with his buddy again to climb Mount Katahdin, the trail's northern terminus. This would have made a strong ending, given a shot of redemption for their previous failures. Instead, they bail out again, in a particularly craven way, after just a few days. What's more, Bryson (who spends pages obsessing about murders on the trail, two of which occurred while he was walking it) never seems to have acquired the least understanding of the trail's aesthetic and culture. He reports his companion killing eight mice in a lean-to as if it were cute, unaware that they are visiting the mice's environment and shouldn't be killing anything at all. Bryson's stock in trade seems to be his superiority to other people (which is hard to understand given his descriptions of himself as an out of condition fearful wastrel). Therefore, everyone he meets on the trail is an idiot, and most of his portraits of through hikers (people who walked much further and more resolutely than he did) present them as clueless morons. With the same self-satisfied "weren't we cute?" tone, he describes abandoning a female hiker alone in the woods because he found her annoying. Because he did relatively little hiking (he drove from trail head to trail head for parts of the trail in Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire, another gross violation of the aesthetic) much of the book is somewhat irrelevant filler about geology, the history of towns along the way, etc. The beauty and virtue of certain authors is that you would love to spend time with them. If I ever meet Bryson, I would like to slap him.

Inception, (2010), directed by Christopher Nolan, is a complex, thoughtful science fiction movie with real characters and background non-genre struggles between fathers and sons, the bereaved and loss. Nolan puts himself in opposition to James Cameron, who has complained that he can't make the movies he really wants, without oversimplification, sentiment and sensationality. Even "Avatar", which was a very good movie, was heavily tainted by these three vices. Nolan responds that you can trust the audience, even with quite subtle material. In a story about invading people's dreams to get work done (reminiscent of "Dreamscape" and in its effects of shifting worlds, "Dark City"), Nolan has created a remarkable spectacle, particularly the scene in which a "kick" must be administered to get the characters up four levels of a dream and back to the waking world. With a memorable final shot of a spinning top which will fall over only if we are truly back in the real world, Nolan sends you out the door debating which universe the film began and ended in, and which of the characters is real and which merely a dream "projection".

The Middle of the Night, (1959), directed by Delbert Mann, was that rare pleasure, a good movie I never heard of which happened to be playing on Turner MOvie Classics at 2 a.m. when I couldn't sleep. Adapted by Paddy Chayevsky from his own Broadway play, it represents a forgotten genre, the intelligent black and white drama shot on the streets of New York (even the interiors were filmed at a studio in Queens). The characters talk about being neurotic and dependent and ask after each other's sex life. As much as I dislike Woody Allen, I just realized his dramas such as "Hannah and Her sisters" were the last roar of this kind of film-making. One has the sense watching these 1950's films that the filmmakers remember what it was like to live an ordinary life, while I feel watching contemporary "small" dramas (which still cost more than $50 million to make) that everyone involved, writer, director and actors, is aping a life they know nothing about. In this one, Fredric March plays a 58 year old widower in the garment business who falls in love with his 24 year old receptionist, played by Kim Novak. Of course, all those around them-- her crazy mother, who rants at March on the stairs of their apartment next to a bodega, his over-intellectualizing daughter-- are against the match. March has scenes in which he acknowledges to friends the odds aren't good; but he has never been so happy in years, and wonders if he isn't entitled to a little warmth and pleasure, taking care of someone who really needs him when no-one else does. His daughter says, "It sounds more like you want to adopt her than marry her." Kim Novak acknowledges that she may not be in love, or even know what it is, but has found a man who really cherishes and is kind to her. And so they stumble along, fighting and making up. Each of them wants to believe in illusions and know they are illusions. At the end, despite a regretted infidelity on her part, they decide to take a chance. In a lesser movie, the subsidiary characters would be fighting about whether to have a baby, or whether to stay together; in this one, March's daughter and her put-upon husband struggle about whether to vacation in Florida. He needs to get away from his accounting job, and she is afraid to leave her father. "I knew we were never going to Florida," he shouts bitterly. The garment business scenes are realistic and interesting; Hollywood rarely tells us exactly what the characters do for a living, and even when we know, hasn't done any research of the kind that novelists routinely do, to establish the reality of a world.