October, 2009

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net



Guarantee: All reviews contain spoilers


            “Ponyo” (2009), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is a dense, beautiful, mysterious fairy tale, told in Miyazaki's unique manner, about a little goldfish girl who wants to become human. Static images of the girl used in advertisements almost deterred me from seeing the movie; the art seemed trite and simplistic. But set it in  motion, with waves and wave-creatures, and prehistoric fish resurrected and swimming free, and the movie exerts a magical influence. There isn't much conflict and no real villain; the girl's father mildly opposes her wishes, then apologizes. Most of the suspense in the film is caused, vaguely, by her desire, which unleashes a tsunami which almost obliterates the island she visits with newly-grown legs. Miyazaki, like all geniuses, can take shopworn elements (aliens who want to be human, cataclysmic forces magically unleashed by emotions) and make them seem completely fresh.


            “Thieves Highway” (1949), directed by Jules Dassin, is for me that very rare thing, a really good movie encountered by accident without any foreknowledge and with no expectations. A small, effective noir with no pretension, it is the story of a sailor who comes home to discover that his trucker father was critically injured through the malice of a criminal who dominates  the San Francisco fresh fruit market. The young man sets out to avenge his dad and collect the payment the crook evaded. His dad's  truck has been sold to another shadowy local figure who hasn't made any payments; when our hero goes to repossess it, he discovers, in classic noir style, an adversary who is also a potential partner. Together, they leave in search of an orchard which has an early harvest of golden delicious apples, and whose precise location it is necessary to keep secret from other wildcat truckers who are the competition. They buy the apples and tracked by envious competitors who are potential allies, take them to San Francisco to confront the crook, wonderfully played by Lee J. Cobb.


            The truck makes the movie: it is a rattling, skeletal deathtrap which must be coaxed and wheedled, and which breaks down constantly. In a key scene, one of the most suspenseful I have ever seen in a movie, its brakes give out on a mountain road. Along the way to the final confrontation with the villain, we learn a lot about fruit and markets, and meet fruit thugs and a bad girl with a golden heart. Its a satisfying little movie. Dassin made it just before going into exile, under pressure from Red-hunting federal investigators. A couple of years later, in France, he would make “Rififi”, his noir masterpiece.


            “Thieves' Highway” assumes a very honorable place in the subgenre of trucking noirs, of which “Wages of Fear” is the best known and which also includes Bogart's “They Drive by Night” (1940), directed by Raoul Walsh.


            I ordered the latter from Netflix, on a trucker noir kick, and was very disappointed. It turns out to be  derived from a novel by the same guy, A.N. Bezzarides, who wrote the book “Thieves Highway” is based on. Bezzarides became a screenwriter and wrote some good movies, including the noirs “On Dangerous Ground” and “Kiss Me Deadly”. The problem with “They Drive” is it is two movies in one, not well integrated. As long as Bogart and his brother, played by George Raft, are on the road, it is gripping. But Bogart loses an arm in a fiery crash, and Raft goes to work in a trucking office, where his boss's wife, played by a fierce and fine Ida Lupino, falls in love with him. What ensues for about the last hour is a pale “Double Indemnity” or “Mildred Pierce” reflection. Raft declines to have an affair with her; she kills her husband and frames him. When the trucks disappeared from the movie, my interest went too. Another problem: this was right before Bogart's break out, apparently. He is a supporting character, not onscreen enough, and the wooden Raft is the star.


            “Reservation Road” (2007), directed by Terry George, is an unusually affecting Hollywood drama but also a near-miss. It has a great cast, with Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the parents of a ten year old boy killed in a hit and run, and Mark Ruffalo as the perpetrator. The performances are fine, and the stresses on a good marriage caused by the loss of a child are well-detailed and interesting to watch. But the movie, based on a novel I haven't read by John Burnham Schwartz, soon turns to uncomfortable coincidences (Ruffalo signs on as Phoenix's lawyer to investigate the death he himself caused). Then it bogs down entirely in a heavy handed revenge trope, reminiscent of “In the Bedroom” and scores of other movies.


            Elmore Leonard's “Out of Sight” (1996) is another quality entry from the master, and was made into a fine movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. One of the pleasures of Leonard, as in Tarantino,  is in the somewhat irrelevant but highly interesting conversations. Bank robber Jack Foley at one point muses about movies where unseen things in boxes or trunks emit a glow which is never explained: he lists “Kiss Me Deadly”, “Repo Man” and “Pulp Fiction”. Foley doesn't mention it, but  in a similar vein is the unexplained buzzing box in “Belle du Jour”.


            Leonard's “Up in Honey's Room” (2007) is a rare misfire. Set in his beloved Detroit at the tail end of World War II, involving some Nazi spies and sympathizers and a U.S. marshal chasing them, the characters are all strangely passive and as a result, Leonard's formula is all too evident. Honey is one of his trademarked sexy, smart and devious women, like Jackie Burke from “Rum Punch”; the marshal is one of his strong, sensitive lawmen, like the cops, marshals and FBI agents who inhabit his contemporary novels; and there is a lot of talk, about movies, dresses and politics. Usually, the chatter is highly palatable because it alternates with action; but here almost nobody does anything to pursue professed goals, including the marshal who mainly just hangs out with Honey and visits the Nazis (rather unbelievably) without arresting anyone.


            Mike Judge's “Extract” (2009) is a mildly enjoyable movie. We follow the mild mannered, compassionate, hapless founder of a food extract business as he deals with a work accident, a potential buy out offer, a threatened strike, a thieving employee and the slow failure of his marriage. I find Judge's career hard to explain. I have watched a few episodes of “King of the Hill”; I saw “Idiocracy”; I detested “Beavis and Butthead”. As far as I can tell, Judge deploys a mixture of unbearable and sympathetic people in mildly amusing situations. He never goes for the ultimate comedic payoff; in “Extract” there are a few situations (such as a factory accident, or stoners smoking a bong) where Judge stops far short of all the possible slapstick someone like Judd Apatow would extract. Maybe Judge is too cool for school, and you have to be hipper than I am to think his work is really funny. I also have this impression watching the movies of Jim Jarmusch. Which inevitably reminds me of what Bogart said about “Beat the Devil”, which caused him never to work with John Houston again: “Only phonies like it.”


            Jack London's “The Sea Wolf” (1910) is one of the all time great novels about believable super-men, powerful intelligent men with no morality who stand outside and above society. Captain Wolf Larson beats, manipulates, cheats and kills his crew until he meets his nemesis, his even more lethal brother, Death Larson. He takes occasional breaks to philosophize to the narrator, a rich weakling he rescued from shipwreck and enslaved as cabin boy. Larson's philosophy is that all living things are like an active kettle of yeast, and that the sole recognizable ambition is to rise to the top. He is a chilling, believable character, and the novel is a stirring adventure despite the talk, set at sea and reminiscent of the best of Conrad. Larson is on a mission to find and club seals in the Sea of Japan, and bring their pelts home for ladies' coats. An essay appended to the edition I read, written by a college professor, calls the novel highly flawed structurally, because instead of ending with a confrontation between Larson and those who hate him, it sends the narrator off to a deserted island with a beautiful woman where they play at Robinson Crusoe for a chapter. Then Larson coincidentally shows up, alone and suffering from a brain tumor. I wasn't bothered by this; though the woman ex machina is a little bit too beautiful and good to be true, Larson is still a formidable adversary when sick and blind, as he tries to burn the boat the narrator intends to use to escape the island. In the end, the novel is a powerful, almost Shakespearean portrait of a world in which ripeness is all, similar to “Heart of Darkness”, which I also love and honor; but less pretentious.


            A few weeks later, I re-read “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild”, which I last encountered about forty years ago. They both stand up as “ripping yarns”, and further elucidate London's bleak philosophy of the domination of the strongest. London makes a respectable attempt to get inside the mind of a dog, without too much sentimentality. “Call” is the better novel, because less sentimental; by the time White Fang the reformed wolf rescues his masters from a killer, we are in the full sway of a somewhat Victorian-Dickensian exaltation.


            George Orwell's “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” (1936) is a hoot. The protagonist swears off money, quits a job in advertising, and starves while trying to write an epic poem. He discovers when you have no money, its awfully hard to concentrate. He can't hold a conversation with anyone without whining about his lack of money, and when he starts a new poem with a stanza about the wind, it winds up being a poem about money. At the end, he gets his girlfriend pregnant (he didn't have enough money for a condom) and recognizes that the only chivalrous choice is to get back the advertising job and marry her. What makes the pay off, though so expected, so delightful, is that instead of feeling a noble despair, he instead feels a wonderful sense of relief, that he has been let off the hook, set free from poverty and given an excuse to live better. Orwell's dead pan, accurate moral is what Virginia Woolf also knew: you have to have money in order to write. And despise money.


            “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), directed by J. Lee Thompson, is an above average men-on-a-mission movie based on a novel by Alistair Maclean. A team of British and Greek commandos is sent to destroy some particularly large and nasty Nazi guns on a Greek island. Everything is a little exaggerated—the cliffs are taller and steeper than any real island, and the team must rappel up them; at the end, the guns and their surroundings are reminiscent of the villain's headquarters in a James Bond movie. However, the movie, besides being fast-moving and suspenseful, is surprisingly compelling for something so formulaic: there is a lot of discussion—its the '60's, but barely—about duty and compassion, centered around Gregory Peck's decision to “feed” one of the injured team members to the Nazis with false information. Anything to get the job done, and save other Allied lives. Then the traitor on the team turns out to be a young woman, who must be killed so the end game can begin. Peck is  hesitating,  when a fatal shot is fired by another team member, an older, harder Greek woman. A moment later, Peck has a tantrum at another team member, for no reason other than his sorrow and relief. One small thing I appreciate about this movie is that the Germans actually speak German to one another, and the Greeks speak Greek, rather than everyone speaking funny English when alone. Its a small detail, but it makes or breaks a war movie for me.


            “Taking Woodstock”(2009), directed by Ang Lee, is a small sweet movie a little reminiscent of “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”: the protagonist's one big desire is to hear the concert at Woodstock and he never quite gets there. He brokers the arrival of the festival at Yasgur's Farm, provides housing to the promoters, takes some acid, has a one night stand with a hunky construction worker who is putting up the stage, but can never break all the way through the crowds to hear the music up close. Not much happens: we see some hippie types and some others who are mainly sweetness and light, and some angry villagers who are not that villainous, despite some anti-semitism. At the end, our hero is changed, ready to leave the locale, and get on with his life. Ang Lee is a fine director whose movies differ from one another so much its hard to find the outlines of his oeuvre, except perhaps for the sweetness. This movie aligns more closely with his early ones, 'Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Wedding Banquet”, than with anything since.


            William H. Kennedy's “The Flaming Corsage” (1997) , part of the Albany cycle, is the story of two supporting characters from “Ironweed”, playwright Edward Daugherty and his intelligent, beautiful and mentally ill wife, Katrina. The novel is a collage of interesting elements—class conflict, lives of the super-rich in the late 1800's, the self made Irishman, jealousy, adultery, crime, murder, fire and play-writing. However, it never quite coalesced for me, partly because neither character really came alive off the page. Katrina, glimpsed across the years in “Ironweed” as the great love of Francis' Phelan's life, is a fascinating apparition there, because only hinted at; here, with so much more information, she bogs down rather than being set free. She is a smart, willful rich Protestant girl, who converts to Catholicism and marries an upstart author, and who goes mad (if she truly is) because society refuses her a vocation (but why couldn't she write? Women did in the latter half of the 19th century). Her husband is a bit of a superman, intervening when gangsters assault the party-goers aboard a ferry, and later saving most of his family from a hotel fire. Two main trends in the novel are the failure of a marriage despite the intensity of love the two strong, complicated people feel for one another, and success being brought down by mediocrity and jealousy. The novel suffers from the same problem “Legs” did, but which “Ironweed” avoided: there is too much going on at once, and not enough. Kennedy is always rewarding reading, however, because his books are full of fascinating detail and never trite. I could read his work all day instead of the “whiny college boy or girl  confronts life”  stuff which has been so much more prevalent these last forty years and probably well before that.


            Kennedy's “Billy Phelan's Greatest Game” (1983), is the story of the several days before the commencement of “Ironweed”. Billy is Francis Phelan's son, and hasn't seen him in twenty years. He makes a living playing poker, pool and other games. Another major character is Martin Daugherty, journalist son of Edward and Katrina from “Flaming Corsage”. Like the latter, the book is overstuffed with characters, incidents and description; Kennedy will spend a page or so telling you who lives in a particular neighborhood, or what stores used to be there, just for the pure hell of it. However, the descriptions and anecdotes are never boring.


            The book, like most of Kennedy's, has elements of magic realism; Daugherty has visions, like one of a well dressed man with an animal head sitting by his bed as he awakes. Sometimes these visions presage events which will happen to him or other people, sometimes they connect to nothing. The action of the book concerns the kidnapping of the son of an Albany political leader; Daugherty helps sort it out; Billy Phelan has information which may help, and is torn between helping the kidnapped man, a friend, and being perceived as a rat. His father, Francis, turns up twice, drifting through the city's underbelly, having returned to Albany to make some money by voting fifteen or twenty times for the Democratic candidates in the city elections.


            Kennedy creates a believable underworld in which journalists and gangsters rub shoulders. The book succeeds both as an engaging crime novel and a literary work.


            “9” (2009), directed by Shane Acker, is an animated film about some little robot creatures made of burlap, with zippers and camera lenses for eyes. They survive in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been destroyed and killer machines rule. The film has a unique and appealing look, as the little creatures pursue a quest of simultaneously defeating the machines and learning their own origins.


            “9” joins an ever-widening group of movies which are beautifully art-designed and woefully under-scripted. The mcguffin of the movie (why couldn't the creatures be their own mcguffin?) is a trite piece of circular metal with hieroglyphic engravings. Watching what ensued after it was introduced, I formulated a law of movie-making which I will arbitrarily designate my rule #539: movies which involve talismanic objects are always incoherent. A science fiction writer, meditating on his craft—I  believe it was Larry Niven—once wrote that first you establish the rules of your universe, than you stick to them in working out your solution. His example: if your protagonist has the telekinetic ability to move objects not more than a foot from his body, you can't have him get out of a jam at the end by manipulating an object twenty feet away. But in movies, once the cliched talisman shows up, there are no rules; it can do anything it wants. Like all trite devices, it is a lazy one, utilized in lieu of really working out your premise.


            Another common problem with this type of movie is the voice characterizations. “9” has some fine actors involved—Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly, among others—but the voices they provide are flat and childlike and stop the movie in its tracks.


            Horror fiction is a genre I don't really like, but at least once every ten years I read a Stephen King novel. My major reason is to try to understand what he does, and what has made him such a huge success. My latest adventure in Kingology is “Duma Key”, (2007), which also interested me because set on the west coast of Florida, where I have lived this past year.


            Horror novels tend to violate Niven's tenet about following the rules. Every King novel I have read is a collage of disparate, poorly integrated elements. Here the protagonist is an amputee who can still use his invisible arm sometimes. He had a traumatic brain injury in the same accident which took his arm, and he becomes an artist who slowly discovers that his drawings and paintings have magical power. If he sketches a draw bridge and erases part of the machinery, a real drawbridge will break down, and so forth. He goes to live on Duma Key, where an ancient evil from the ocean has summoned, and is making use of, several people who had traumatic brain injuries.


             I suppose horror is best read for the set-pieces, which in this novel involve animated drowned corpses and giant frogs. I am deterred by the fact there are no rules and that anything can happen. Horror wouldn't be very frightening if the ancient evil had very limited powers; but the horror can reside in the unexplained nature of things which come to light later, providing the click of a denouement. King actually plays partly by rules; the ending involves “drowning” the evil by encasing it in a durable container filled with fresh water and sinking it in a lake.


            King's novels are never boring but are nonetheless (now that they are typically 400+ pages) an exhausting slog. I finish them tired and mildly depressed.


            Also, “ancient evil” is almost as boring a trope as magic talismans. (Talismen?) In this world, humans are all we know of horror, and all we need to know.


            Some writers have a completely original voice (Gabriel Garcia Marquez springs to mind, as a writer whose novels didn't remind me of anyone else's, though his early short stories channel Hemingway). But most are trope wranglers (and the worst are trope manglers). King is one of the better wranglers, except most of his novels contain too many and not enough detail. This novel, for example, would have been fine without the invisible arm.


            I read and watch movies almost every day, and have episodic preferences or focuses I can't explain: this month has been William Kennedy and Elmore Leonard novels, trucker noir and movies about Vikings, of which I saw two. The first, “Pathfinder” , (2007), directed by Marcus Nispel, was an adequate but not very interesting saga about evil, monochromatic Vikings fighting noble Indians before Columbus. Like “9”, someone art-designed the hell out of this movie; blue light over snow, the movie is set in a beautifully evocative constant twilight. Even bad movies often look great these days. I think this comes out of the discovery made about twenty years ago that art direction, editing, etc. could be applied to make commercials look really slick, selling more product I suppose. Many of today's directors emerged from the world of commercials and the similar one of music videos; they know how movies should look and sound but haven't really learned story-telling.


            The second, “Outlander” (2008) , directed by Howard McCain, is a competent but completely derivative science fiction story with elements of “Alien”, “Dragonslayer”, “Soldier” and a hundred other movies. A human from another planet crashes on earth in the year 740 (we are told that Earth was a colony which was abandoned, and the people reverted to savagery). He is being pursued by a dragon-like “Morwen”. He gains the trust of the local Vikings and helps fight the Morwen, marrying the girl and becoming their king. At the end, he decides not to return to his own planet.


            The girl he meets is a hybrid character, symptomatic of weak story telling. She is fierce and courageous and a fine swordswoman but spends most of the movie in peril, screaming and running away. Not that long ago, the women in these kinds of movies existed to have sex with the hero and then get tied to the railroad tracks by the villain. I enjoy and applaud the more recent trend in which women are strong and can fight, but then they probably shouldn't scream. A watershed moment for me occurred back in the 1970's on an episode of “Rockford Files” when the young Blair Brown, playing an assistant district attorney, found the body of her boss and exclaimed, “Oh my Good Lord!” It was the first time I had ever seen a female character not scream in that kind of situation.


            Another such character is played by Kate Beckinsale in “Whiteout” (2009), directed by Dominic Sena, a competent but underwritten thriller set in Antarctica. Beckinsale plays a federal marshal but (a limited actress in the first place) ends up unconvincing, partly because the writers give her so little to go on. She gasps a lot when a cop wouldn't (upon finding bodies even of strangers). When attacked by the ice axe wielding villain, she either can't get to her gun or loses it immediately, and spends a lot of time running away and being rescued by other people.  Like the two Viking movies, though, “Whiteout” looks great. It ends with a view of the aurora borealis, a phenomenon I once saw from a plane crossing Nova Scotia and would love to see again.


            George Pelecanos is a crime writer who has staked out a unique turf, both in terms of his voice and the geographical location (Washington and Maryland) where his novels take place. Like many others, including Elmore Leonard and Norman Green (reviewed here recently), a side effect is that his books tend to repeat or merge into one another. An indication is when you have to skim quite far into a novel to determine whether you have read it before. Looking at a list of Pelecanos novels, I would be hard put to tell you which I have read, or what any particular title is about. In general, there is a mixture of hard luck black ghetto criminals and struggling lower middle class white ones, and often a cop from the same background trying to solve a murder or prevent a conflagration. Along the way, Pelecanos has wrangled some memorable tropes: an idea which has turned up in several novels is the ghetto child fascinated by astronomy, and brilliant enough to become a scientist, but who lacks the means and cultural encouragement (from his own family, his teachers, cops and the powers that be) to become anything other than a criminal.


            Pelecanos' “The Way Home” (2009), breaks out from this pack while containing many of the same elements. The protagonist, Chris, is a middle class white teenager who falls into petty crime and is sent away to a juvenile facility where he befriends several of the black inmates. In the second half of the novel, Chris, working in his father's carpet installation business and struggling to stay straight, has maintained his friendships with two of these men, who have also tried to remake themselves. When two white criminals kill one of the friends, Chris has to mediate the two parts of  his life: will he respond as an inhabitant of the same underworld the killers live in, or as a middle class citizen? Although some of the plot twists which drive the action are too convenient (Chris and his partner find a bag with $50,000 in cash under the floor during a carpet install), the characterizations, including Chris' suffering parents, are strong, and Pelecanos' ear for dialog alone makes his novels compelling.


            Marina Lewycka's “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” (2005) I confess to having read for the title alone. I have had a good experience with novels which have attention-grabbing titles, most recently “The Howling Miller”.


            This is an engaging novel about a Ukrainian family fleeing Stalinism and Nazis which washes up in the U.K. after World War II. Forty years later, the two daughters are secure middle class Britons, mom has died and their brilliant engineer dad, verging on senility, has married a thirty-something Ukrainian illegal immigrant to try to get her a British visa. The two daughters, who have long disliked and distrusted each other, join forces to try to protect dad from the gold-digger. Along the way, they take a tour of British immigration and divorce law, and also of their own buried family history. Fatefully, the older sister was born before the war, and is old to enough to have endured and to remember horrors which are not fully spelled out. The younger one, the narrator,  is a “peace baby” with a more naïve and optimistic outlook on life. Dad, even as he is physically abused by his new wife and longs for her, is writing the titular discourse, and the tractors he describes provide a unique metaphor for the life of his family and for similar civilian survivors of war. This is a fast-moving, comic short novel with overtones of early Martin Amis or Christopher Buckley with its socially-minded absurdity.


            If I weren't so committed to reviewing everything I see or read, I might want to conceal the fact I watched the “The Mutant Chronicles” (2009), directed by Simon Hunter. I tend to see even quite terrible science fiction movies, while avoiding equally bad suspense, romance, etc. This one is a mess, based on a really silly and dull Z movie premise, that an alien machine (shades of the talism(e)n discussed above) is converting humans into shambling zombies with one crab like arm. The story-telling itself is all over the place, starting with an extended sequence introducing three of the characters in a World War I-like trench warfare setting, then bouncing around as it introduces numerous others, including a priest played by Ron Perlman (a fine actor almost ubiquitous in cheesy sci fi; he was also in “Outlander”). Some scenes follow people we will never see again, like a brother and sister attempting to flee earth; additional characters are dropped in much later in the movie just as we think we have met all the members of the team responsible for destroying the alien machine. John  Malkovich appears for less than five minutes, doing a patented John Malkovich turn (“Do you even have a name?” he asks the zombies as they come for him).  The movie, like several of the others reviewed this month, has one aspect which made it minimally worth seeing: its design. It is set in a “steam punk” future where even space ships appear to be steam-powered, and the look of some of these machines is quite striking.


            I guess I was on a definite Z-movie kick this month, because I also watched “10,000 BC” (2008), directed by disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich. Reminiscent of “The Quest for Fire” but not nearly as innovative or entertaining, the movie follows a young mammoth hunter on a mission to a proto-Egypt to rescue his girlfriend from slavery. The movie was made  with no regard for ethnography, biology, archaeology or geography; it begins in Alps-like snowy mountains; within a few days' walking, the hero and his colleagues arrive at the encampment of what is apparently an African tribe; then they all travel together a few days more to Egypt. Along the way, they encounter mammoths, sabretooths and (most amusingly) some raptor-like killer ostriches. The movie ends with the Egyptians vanquished, and agriculture and world peace instituted; we have a hazy glad sense that the mammoths will be conserved instead of hunted to extinction (sabretooths too), and there will be no more war. Shades of the colonists choosing to return to Europe and leave the Indians alone at the end of Disney's “Pocahontas” (and as different as possible from the more realistic, despairing ending of another somewhat similar movie, “Apocalypto”).


            “Passage to Marseille” (1944), directed by Michael Curtiz, reunited Humphrey Bogart with many of the members of the “Casablanca” cast, including Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The film, one of his lesser known, falls squarely into the war propaganda genre that includes every second movie Bogart made during the war (“Sahara”, “Action in the North Atlantic” and even “Casablanca”). You know for sure a movie is war propaganda when a soldier is seen machine-gunning unarmed Nazis or Japanese (in this case, struggling in the water after their plane crashes) and then defending it on the grounds they are animals.


            I had last seen this movie as a teenager, and watching it again after a gap of some forty years, was impressed by the same thing which made it memorable then: the story is constructed as a flashback four levels deep. This makes it almost a mind-game or “whatsit” like “The Saragossa Manuscript” except for the lack of surrealism or irony. At the outset, a journalist arrives at a Free French air base in England (a very tired framing device not redeemed by “Citizen Kane”) and, chaperoned by Claude Rains' character, watches Bogart depart on a bombing mission. Rains starts telling the reporter about Bogart; flashback to a merchant ship carrying a cargo of nickel and some soldiers, including Rains, back to France. Bogart, Lorre and some others are picked up in a canoe and revealed to be escapees from Devil's Island. Flashback to Devil's Island, and Bogart and the others preparing their escape. Flashback to the events in pre-war France which sent Bogart to prison and we are now four levels deep. What would be particularly enjoyable in this kind of structure would be if the whole thing turned out to be a shaggy dog story, and we never returned to the “surface” (essentially the structure of the “Saragossa Manuscript”). But “Marseilles” is dead serious in its intentions; its impossible to tell if the writers were engaged in an intentional narrative experiment or hit on this structure by accident. Still, it could have been told in one flashback—start at the end at the air-force base and then go all the way back to the beginning, and proceed forward the rest of the movie until we are back in England.  What would have been otherwise one of Bogart's more forgettable films becomes gripping because of its strange construction. 


            “Johnny Guitar” (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a definite “whatsit”, not because of its structure, which is traditional, but because the narrative is jaw-droppingly strange for the time it was made. Despite the title, the protagonist is Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, formerly we don't know quite what—probably a prostitute—who now owns a saloon placed exactly where the newly arriving railroad will create a station, making her a millionaire. Some local ranchers, led by the evil Annie (Mercedes McCambridge) hate her and want to drive her out. She is protected to some extent, but also compromised, by a desperado called the Dancing Kid, because he is an excellent dancer; but  she sends for an ex-lover, Johnny Nolan, a well known gunfighter who has renounced violence and now carries only a guitar. In this film, the women are most powerful and the men are ornamental; there is even a scene where the Dancing Kid dances (with Annie) while Johnny plays his guitar. The climax of the movie is a gunfight to the death between Vienna and Annie; the women handle their guns somewhat awkwardly but both hit their targets; there is none of the screaming, hiding and running away you expect from women in 1950's Westerns. Its a feminist movie, also Freudian (we are told Annie hates being reminded she is female), and abidingly strange in almost every shot. Joan Crawford's midlife grotesqueness is used to good effect here; Vienna is hard as nails, bitter and angry and yet there is something at her core which makes us identify with her and want her to triumph. She is smarter and better than anyone else in the movie, Johnny included. One of the most memorable American movies ever made.


            “Jumper” (2008), directed by Doug Liman, was better than I expected. Science fiction films tend to endlessly rehash tired tropes; witness “Alien” and its many imitators, or  the fact that no “Alien” sequel includes anything really new or different than its predecessors. “Jumper”, by contrast, introduces some ideas that have not been done to death: individuals who can teleport anywhere on earth, but who must follow certain rules (they must have visited or looked at a picture of the destination). An individual who jumps leaves a momentary distortion in space, which others can exploit to track or follow him. Jumpers can bring other people or large moving objects such as vehicles with them, but are killed if they attempt to bring something large and stationary, like a house. This is the kind of material in which hard science fiction excels: a universe with unusual rules the characters must work within to accomplish their goals. The movie makes good use of fresh teleportation special effects—jumpers cause some destruction in the places they leave and also in their destinations—and turns some interesting variations on the theme of how jumpers use their skills to fight.


            Unfortunately, with all of this going for it, the movie also makes some dull choices. Samuel Jackson, with the most ridiculous hair ever (sillier even than “Pulp Fiction”), represents an ancient mystical organization of “paladins” which tracks and kills jumpers. (The movie is based on, and supposedly somewhat faithful to, a series of novels I haven't read.) The acting is wooden (except for the character of Griffin, a jumper the protagonist meets who specializes in killing paladins). And the movie peters out in an unsatisfying way which makes all too clear that it is not a stand alone work, but the first in a series.


            “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1978), by Milan Kundera, is the first work by this author that ever really disappointed me. Presented on the jacket and in some publicity somewhat deceptively as a novel, it is a thematically loosely linked collection of stories with some recurring characters. The most important one, Tamina, is a hapless female victim heavily reminiscent of the protagonist of Pauline Reage's “Histoire d' O”: anyone she encounters seems entitled to violate or strike her, and she accepts her fate with very little resistance. Kundera even adds an element of pedophilia: most of her sexual oppressors are children. Although intended as a parable of the authoritarian state, this is the kind of sticky, gross story which calls the author's judgment, and even his personality, into question.  Most of the male characters are seducers, libertines and worse. In one autobiographical passage, Kundera describes a strong urge to rape a frightened but good-hearted woman who was helping him protect himself against state oppression. Kundera's libertine protagonist in “Unbearable Lightness of Being” was balanced by strong, independent female characters. The women in “Laughter and Forgetting” range from compliant objects to victims.


            “Adam” (2009), directed by Max Mayer, tells the story of a love affair between a young man with Asperger's and a “normal' woman. The guy is good looking and high functional—he can hold a job, with difficulty—but strange, obsessed with astronomy and unable to make small talk. The success of a movie like this turns on whether we believe these two would come together; a subplot about the woman's family helps provide the glue. Her father is a smooth-talking accountant under indictment for cooking corporate books, and we believe that she might look for a man who cannot lie, who is the antithesis of her father in every way. In a key scene, we see how she, apparently all sincerity and kindness, nonetheless resembles her dad; the two, father and daughter, cook up a scheme in which Adam is tricked into meeting her folks unexpectedly. When Adam discovers the con, his grief and rage are very poignant. The movie avoids Hollywood trickery, and the two, never quite recovering from this moment, don't end up together.  Adam finds the perfect job for him, atop a mountain in an observatory, where he can be just as strange as he needs to be, and is treasured by the astronomers both for his math skills and his strangeness.


            “The Informant” (2009), directed by Steven Soderburgh, riffs on “The Insider” from some years ago. Instead of the painfully sincere informant played by Russell Crowe in that film, we have a pathological liar played by Matt Damon. The movie extracts a lot of humor from the journey of discovery as we find that nothing we thought we knew about Damon's character is correct. Late in the movie, there is a scene where a journalist interviews his mother about the protagonist's claim that she died in a car crash when he was six. Along the way, the movie draws parallels between the moral deficiencies of the character and the atmosphere of bombast and theft at Archer Daniels Midland in which he thrived. An ending title tells us that after serving a term in prison, he is now the CEO of another company.


            “Of Human Bondage” (1934), directed by John Cromwell, is an able version of the Maugham novel, starring Leslie Howard and a surprising but effective Bette Davis as the waitress he loves, to his own near destruction. The actors are near perfect in these roles, and we can understand the obsession which causes him to turn away from women who are kinder, better and in his social class. The movie is marred by a few tricks from the silent era which would soon lose currency: the protagonist's obsession is illustrated by a skeleton at which he is staring (he's a medical student) transforming into Bette Davis.


            “Key Largo” (1948), directed by John Huston, is a disappointing collaboration between the director and Humphrey Bogart. The fault is in the script, which is adapted from a very static, talky stage melodrama, full of monologs in which various characters opine, not very profoundly, on the American attitude to gangsters and to Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson, in particular. While it is nice to see Bogart with Lauren Bacall one more time, and also bouncing off Robinson for the last time, its a trite story and not much happens that is new and different. Rocco and his cohorts have taken over a seaside motel, waiting for a boat to Cuba; Bogart, aided by the motel owner and his beautiful, widowed daughter, fights them. For an instant, an Indian woman more than a century old crosses the screen, and Huston lets her linger there an extra  moment, the camera in close up on her beautiful, lined face. For just a moment ,we remember what Huston is really capable of when not crippled by a bad script.


            “Murder My Sweet” (1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk, is a strong noir, and probably the best movie adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel. Chandler, who was a very cinematic writer and later actually wrote for the movies,  is very hard to adapt. The plots of his novels were nonlinear, complex and suggestive (most famously, he was unable to say who commits a particular murder in “The Big Sleep”), and tended to be ground down into Hollywood dross. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, only ever fires a shot in the first and (if I remember correctly) last of the series, and Hollywood tended to produce movie versions in which Marlowe is constantly running and gunning. Finally, the character of Marlowe is so vivid on the page, that no actor ever tends to really fill the role. Of the people who played Marlowe, Dick Powell in “Murder My Sweet” is probably the most successful, though he seems a little small, not quite virile enough. Bogart in “Big Sleep” is a little too brutal; he lacks Marlowe's sensitive, intellectual side. Robert Mitchum was terribly wrong for the role—too savage—James Garner too lightweight, and Elliot Gould in the Robert Altman travesty of “The Long Goodbye” was deliberately cast for his all-around inappropriateness.


            “Murder My Sweet” does a good job representing Chandler's night-shadowed world of nostalgic criminals, old alcoholic women with crucial information, missing showgirls and converging plot lines. It is a truism in this world—also in the novels of Ross Macdonald and others—that when a detective is hired to work on two apparently unrelated matters, they end up connecting to each other.


            One regrettable decision: in the opening scene of the novel, huge, dumb criminal Moose Malloy, looking for his missing girl Velma, takes Marlowe to Dorrian's, a bar where she formerly worked which is now frequented by black people. In the movie, Dorrian's, though it has changed ownership, still has a white clientele.


            “Classe Tous Risques” (1960), directed by Claude Sautet, is a French gangster noir, with Lino Ventura as an armed robber whose best friend and wife are killed in a shoot out with Customs police. He seems more broken up by the death of the friend. Saddled with his two young sons, he flees to Paris, where he confronts old associates who seem to be reluctant to help him, given his recent notoriety and the intensity of the police manhunt. He spends a lot of time finding someone who will raise his children; he has a premonition he isn't going to be around. Eventually, as they always do in these movies, the knives come out, as several of his former partners try to kill him, and he responds in kind. “Classe Tous Risques” supports the proposition that all noirs are moral fables, about loyalty and greed. Ventura, with his sad, pushed in face, is a sympathetic anti-hero, despite the killings and assaults we see him commit. The movie peters out with a final bit of narration: Ventura decides not to kill his last adversary—he is too tired of his life—and then a voice over tells us that he will be arrested within a few days, tried and finally executed for his crimes.


            “House Made of Dawn” (1969), by N. Scott Momaday, is a Pulitzer-winning short novel, set between 1945 and 1952, about a young Indian man who returns from World War II to the reservation,has an affair with a wealthy white woman, kills an evil albino member of his tribe, serves seven years in prison, and then washes up on the streets of Los Angeles, alcoholic and alone. The narrative, in high '60's style, is fragmented, with parts told in the first person by another Indian who befriends him in Los Angeles, numerous flashbacks to the protagonist's traditional childhood and one to a scene of warfare, and the inclusion of some myths and songs. The novel serves well as a tapestry of American Indian life, from the reservation to the street. The prose is lyrical, and some of the songs are quite beautiful (the title comes from one of them). The extended reservation scenes, in which much of the action is seen through the third person eyes of a disillusioned Catholic priest, are reminiscent of a literary genre I think of as “southwestern gothic” (Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, etc.) I almost bailed out when the white love interest was introduced, as she is all hair, skin and sexuality (also a high 60's trope) and not someone you can imagine having a conversation about Harry Truman or “Murder My Sweet”.  However, she is only in the novel for a few pages, and turns up again later, more human and less idealized, seven years older with a streak of grey in her hair, visiting the protagonist in hospital after he has been brutally beaten by a corrupt cop. Another white female character is a big boned, lonely social worker and, by contrast to the seductress, is completely real.