October 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers


I read Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery because it came free on my new Android phone as a sample e-book. I expected to dislike it as a simplistic maudlin effort of the type I have always believed girls' books to be, prior to 1975 or so; but I was wrong. It is a powerful, original but non-didactic feminist work, about an adopted girl growing up in Canada, who cares about imagination and career. There is a boy, but he is well subordinated in importance to the things Anne finds truly important. The descriptions of Canadian landscape and farm life are vivid. Contrast this revelatory work with the entire oeuvre of Jane Austen, about helpless constrained females who finally triumph when selected by the right man.


The Debt (2011) directed by John Madden, is a well intentioned espionage morality tale which fails in every imaginable respect. Its so bad that the monochromatic writing causes the wonderful Helen Mirren to give an uncertain and listless performance. In 1965, three Mossad agents, including Jessica Chastain (mysterious smiler from "Tree of Life") as Mirren's younger self, bungle the kidnapping of a Nazi doctor in East Germany. The operation as planned makes no sense whatever; instead of seizing him from the street late at night, or luring him to a hotel, they concoct a "Mission Impossible" type operation involving an injection in the neck (administered in a memorable scene by Chastain while he peers up her--she is posing as a patient), and a fake ambulance. Then, when they fail to get him aboard a subway train to the West (its confusing to contemplate how that would have worked, had it worked), they go to pieces, in a frenzy of bad, over the top acting: the agents take turns having hysterics, channeling moments from old, better, Gene Wilder movies ("I'm wet! and hysterical! and in pain!"). Finally, the Nazi (who himself is a retread of every urbane, sociopathic movie Nazi in history--and is as addicted to Nietzschean lectures) gets away. The team then decides to lie and claim they killed him, and the movie, which has already hopped the track, jumps the shark. Thirty years later, Mirren and the two men get word that their quarry has emerged, now about 100 years old one suspects, in the Ukraine, and is about to give a newspaper interview. Meanwhile, they have been the subjects of public adoration for thirty years (as the Mossad always reveals its killings to public acclaim), and Mirren's adult daughter has written a book containing the lie. You could make a decent movie about remorse for killings committed while working for the Mossad--"Munich", which had its own problems, was that movie--but a film about remorse for claiming to have killed someone you didn't? Please. It is interesting that a film which wants to be about morality contains so little of any interest, while films which claim not to have any moral content (like "Inglorius Basterds") contain so much. The other lesson from "The Debt" is that something which Hollywood once found so easy--making taut little espionage thrillers, like virtually any film based on the work of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John LeCarre--has become so hard. Big contemporary dramas usually fail to tell any persuasive story at all.

Contagion (2011), directed by Steven Soderburgh, is dead on arrival like the "patient zero" character played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who has about five minutes of screen time. Soderburgh brings his elegant, restrained, "too cool for school" methodology to a script which seems like a bare remake of "Outbreak", the by-the-numbers Dustin Hoffman vehicle some years back. This results in a strange mismatch, of scenic tracking shots and onscreen head in hands reflection in the midst of a script more cut out for a quicker, jumpier treatment. In any event, the movie has the usual gaps in logic of diaster movies (less than a quarter of the population died, so where did the rest of the people go in those "Last Man on Earth" scenes where we see Jude Law or Mark Wahlberg wandering across empty city-scapes?) Soderburgh makes a tyro's error of including too many narrative threads and then editing them into bare incoherence. Paltrow stopped in Chicago on her infected way home from Hong Kong for an extramarital tryst with a lover, and there is a character in the credits identified as that man's wife, but I don't remember any actual story-telling fleshing out that scenario, which served only as a hook for the virus breaking out in more places than one. With much of the action removed, the actors all seem rather passive; some die hopelessly, others seem to watch the events without intervening. The final and fatal problem was that I couldn't care too much about these characters: there were too many and we knew too little of each.

Reunion in France (1942), directed by the otherwise great Jules Dassin, is a Joan Crawford vehicle with John Wayne in a surprisingly small supporting role. Set in France right after the Nazi takeover, it is a rather by-the-book Hollywood concoction in which even mean Nazis are played by studio contract players with familiar, kindly faces (the sort who doubtless played putatively Jewish delicatessen owners in their next films).

Blood Alley (1955), directed by William Wellman, is best left to completists and graduate students analyzing Hollywood's views of China. Once more we have a Caucasian woman trying to save Chinese villagers, and a Caucasian soldier/sea captain/rogue trying to save her. This one is unusually racist for its time, with Chinese speaking pidgin which Sternberg would already have avoided thirty years earlier. As usual, the lead Chinese roles are played by Caucasians, including Anthony Quinn, who probably had the honor of playing more ethnicities in his career than any other Hollywood actor. Lauren Bacall turns in a curiously listless performance opposite a more enthusiastic John Wayne, and there is zero chemistry between them. Set in contemporary "Red" China, it veers far into the propagandistic.