November 2009
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Beat The Devil” (1953), directed by John Huston, is not as bad as Humphrey Bogart thought it was. It is minor league Huston, though: the usual suspects (Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Robert Morley standing in for Sydney Greenstreet) are traveling to Africa to defraud the current owner of the rights to a uranium deposit. Along the way, alliances are made, backs are stabbed, murder is committed, and Bogart cheats on Gina Lollobrigida, who doesn’t seem to mind. Truth be told, any Bogart movie with Lorre in it is worth seeing, though the quality was uneven.

Tell No One” (2001) by Harlan Coben, interested me mostly because I saw a rather good French thriller based on it. There haven’t been many recent French movies derived from American mass market books, though Truffaut used to convert American pulp into good movies back in the day (“Shoot the Piano Player”, “Mississippi Mermaid” and “The Bride Wore Black”). I had never read Coben before. He is no greater a prose stylist than most (there are few Raymond Chandlers working today), though at least his prose doesn’t get in the way. It’s the kind of book that succeeds if the plot keeps you reading, and guessing, and there are few or no twists that leave you thinking, “Bad authorial choice.” Lee Child, who writes the gripping but highly unsteady Jack Reacher series, is constantly throwing stuff at you that just doesn’t work. Coben skates so fast in this book that by the time you notice the ice is thin, he is somewhere else.

A husband and wife go swimming in a favorite lake and are attacked. She vanishes while he almost drowns. A few days later, her cop father identifies her mutilated body; she is chalked up as the last victim of a serial killer, “Killroy”, who is soon after arrested. Eight years later, he receives an email which leads him to believe she is still alive. What follows is rather satisfying, even when improbable. Which is all you can expect of this kind of book. Coben has one stylistic tic I found a little annoying: the protagonist (who narrates alternate scenes) keeps telling you how trite his lifestyle is, his favorite expressions, etc. But we don’t excuse a writer for triteness, even if he tells us that he knows he is being lazy.

The Dangling Man”(1944) by Saul Bellow is the earliest example I have found of something I will dub the “Whiny Little Bitch” trend in literature. From Flaubert and Zola through Hemingway and Faulkner, protagonists were a little larger than life, capable of acts of strength and nobility. Even when they leaned towards the flawed and passive, as in “Education Sentimentale”, they were still presented as men capable of strength and action. Bellow’s protagonist here, a man waiting to be drafted during World War II, is an intellectual who spends his days sitting in his boarding house room while his wife supports him. He wanders around, cheats on her, and gets into fights. He isn’t making the least attempt to write anything or to find a project of any sort to fill his time. What is most remarkable and disturbing is that it was published during the war. Aside from one reference to a childhood friend whose plane crashed in the Pacific, the novel lacks the slightest sense that the protagonist’s problems (his niece doesn’t like him) don’t amount to “a hill of beans in this crazy world” where other men are dying on beaches under intense machine gun fire. The overwhelming sense that I get from this novel, and much of the later work of Bellows, Roth et al., is that the novelist (not just the character) feels really sorry for himself. There have been great novels of rage, regret, romantic ecstasy, etc. But there has never been a great novel of self-pity.

On Chesil Beach” (2007) by Ian McEwan is a short tragicomedy about sex and inexperience and stubbornness and how they lead to a near miss on a wedding night and then the annulment of a marriage. Both spouses are virgins (it is 1962). He has a tendency to come prematurely. She secretly is horrified by sex (though there is a hint that if touched with patience and invited along slowly, she would be as sensual as anyone else). They end up fighting on the beach instead of consummating their marriage. One feature of the book I appreciated was the last few pages, in which the author fast forwards forty years in the life of the ex-husband; he realizes how different everything would have been, had he called his wife back when she stormed away from him on the beach. One surprise omission: we learn that the husband overcame his celerity in later relationships, but we are never told if the wife later overcame her frigidity, married or had children. This is particularly surprising, given that the novel was alternately narrated from the viewpoint of each. It felt unfair to have the epilogue focus on only one of them.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” (1994), by Lorrie Moore, is a short, almost perfect coming of age vignette, presumably autobiographical. It is mainly a reminiscence of some events in the life of the French-Canadian-American narrator, Berie, at age fourteen, hanging out, meeting boys, drinking, smoking pot and working at an amusement arcade with her more developed, self assured and beautiful friend Silsbury Chauffee (wonderful name). It is seen from the perspective of the narrator in her forties, on a visit to Paris with her Jewish doctor husband, and is full of poignant detail and Proustian nostalgia. Berie steals for Sils, to help her get an abortion; they attend a rock concert, ditching Berie’s older, obese, foster sister, LaRoue, who will kill herself in a mental institution many years later; they work together at Storyland, Sils dressed up as Cinderella, Berie in a puffy medieval dress behind a cash register. Like “On Chesil Beach”, the last few pages speed up to cover years of life. When we last see Sils, she is a letter carrier for the Post Office, unmarried, childless, and hoping for a transfer to Hawaii. In both “Chesil Beach” and “Frog Hospital” we have the spectacle of life turning out to be so much smaller than anyone expected, and to contain the suffering that at the same time makes us real and lets us know we have lived.

Shutter Island” (2003) by Dennis Lehane, is a capable thriller of the “what is real?” genre, more often seen in science fiction. The visit of a U.S. marshal to a spooky mental institution on a Boston harbor island in the 1950’s turns out to be something completely different than Lehane leads us to believe, and he plants his clues very adroitly, so when the whole thing turns inside out there is a very satisfying click. The more you think about it after, the less sense it makes, and there are parts in retrospect which seem impossible or objectionable, unless you chalk them up to a hallucination or fantasy of the protagonist. Still, it’s a well-made machine, of a kind not every writer can construct, and keeps you reading intently to the conclusion.

Beowulf” (2007), directed by Robert Zemeckis, raises the question, “Why bother?” Does every single work of the Western canon eventually have to be ground down into a film? Robert Downey Jr. in “The Inferno”? Newly corpulent Russell Crowe in “The Miller’s Tale”? Keanu Reeves in “Sartor Resartus”?

Zemeckis’ version, oddly, reverses the usual Hollywood process, and makes this retelling gloomier than the original. In the poem, Beowulf fights and kills three monsters, Grendel, his mom and (many years later, back in his native land) an unrelated dragon. The movie Beowulf is more boastful and dishonest, less heroic, than the original; he claims to have killed the mother but has sex with her instead (played by Angelina Jolie, she is certainly a MILF), engendering the dragon. At the end, the new king, Beowulf’s friend and heir, stands gazing wistfully at the sea, and Jolie rises from it dripping. They look at each other speculatively. Leaving a little narrative space in case Zemeckis ever decides to shoot “Beowulf II”.

Festivaling. Sundance has become something of a parody of itself, giving the world the “Sundance film”, also known as “bloody depressing Sunday”. Adult children return home on a visit, to view the physical ruins their parents have become; everyone airs the family’s dirty laundry; they shout at one another; some sort of catharsis is achieved. (When I was a child, reading about “catarrh” in Mark Twain, I wondered if the word had the same root, if a terrible nose-bleed was a form of catharsis.) “Margot at the Wedding”, reviewed last month, was a quintessential Sundance-type film, as was “Reservation Road”, “In the Bedroom” or anything else dealing with parents’ reaction to the death of a child.

Every October, the Hamptons International Film Festival comes to my neighborhood. I sit with the catalog awhile and read the descriptions, looking for those films that don’t remind me of 100 others. This year, finding an endless supply of dysfunctional family, dead child and midlife crisis movies, I took things one step further, and decided I would only see “testosterone” movies.

Accordingly, the first festival film I saw was “Max Manus” (2008), directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandburg. This is an able telling of a true story, of a Norwegian resistance fighter responsible for blowing up ships in dry-dock and killing numerous Nazis. I was intrigued by the fact it was told completely straight, without the least hint of irony or Brechtian distancing. It reminds me there is a world of movies out there, most of which never play the art houses in New York, whose writers and directors actually feel entitled to their sincerity and enthusiasm. Manus was pretty shaky by the end of the war—afterwards he suffered from “nerves and alcohol”, as an ending title tells us. But, married to his true love—who was his handler in Sweden during his sabotage days—the ending titles also tell us he had a very good life. There is no moral shading whatever; Manus would never dream of lying to a wounded man, then leaving him behind to tell a credible but false story to the Nazis, as Gregory Peck’s character did in “Guns of Navarone” almost fifty years ago. You leave the theatre after “Max Manus” reflecting that war is heck.

I regret the next film I selected, “Van Diemen’s Land”(2009), directed by Jonathan auf der Heide. Drawn by the idea that the movie was a true story from the earliest days of Australia—a period I find highly interesting but know little about—I wasn’t prepared for the untempered brutality. Think of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” without gold, humor, adventure or Walter Huston—and with cannibalism. Eight dirty bearded convicts escape; it’s the kind of movie where you can’t tell the actors apart, so you never develop a relationship to any of them. Then they start killing and eating one another, and at the end, only one is left. Its not a horror movie—it would require creepy music, and a certain kind of stagy, kitschy editing and special effects for that. It appears to be done by Dogme 96 rules—no music on the soundtrack, for example. Just a bleak little art film about man being an animal. When the survivor kills his last companion, he carves a piece off his arm and eats it raw. It’s the kind of movie which sends you out of the theatre feeling dirty, exhausted and nauseous. What I should have said to my fellow sufferers in the theatre: “Anyone want to come over to my house for a snack?”

The third and last festival movie I saw was “Deliver Us From Evil” (2009), directed by Ole Bornedal. This one actually made me angry. Described dishonestly in the program as a social document—about prejudice and moral corruption—it had the look, feel and incoherence of something Roger Corman tossed off in half an hour. A Bosnian Muslim refugee in a small town is suspected of running over a local woman; almost immediately, he is besieged by revolting locals in the home of a liberal. This empty-hearted movie has no characters, only puppets, who cringe and hide their heads until required to take stunning, flawless action, and then cower again. Everyone transforms into something quite improbable as needed by the plot; a sad old man takes his shotgun and kills the local cop; a thug with bad teeth, who believes himself guilty of the killing, beats his girlfriend at the outset, but has a heart of gold at the end; the liberal’s wife, who has an appointment with the dead woman to distribute religious tracts at the local school, wears a blouse which leaves most of her large breasts exposed, and may as well be wearing a sign which says “Rape Me”; the liberal,.channeling Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs” (which this movie unabashedly rips off), proves adept at using a nail gun to keep the local creeps out of his castle. As if all that weren’t ridiculous enough, the movie begins and ends with completely unnecessary narration, delivered by a female punk who is not otherwise a character in the movie. Also, when the liberal wife flees the house in order to be gang raped, she stands a moment on the steps, in the shadows of night time; but a moment later she is fleeing through bright woods with the sun glinting through the trees. Actually, this movie makes Roger Corman look like Orson Welles. Maybe I should have picked the dysfunctional family movies after all.

“Smash Up: the Story of a Woman” (1947), directed by Stuart Heisler, is an entry in the alcoholism genre, which also featured the better “The Lost Weekend”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, etc. (Let’s not forget the closely related addiction genre: “Panic in Needle Park”, “Requiem for a Dream”, etc.) But its also a weepie. A fine Susan Hayward marries the very wooden Lee Bowman, giving up her singing career and helping foster his. (The very wooden Eddie Albert as his sidekick, chews gum nonstop during his performance, which is very annoying.) Later, she is lonely, bitter and starts drinking too much. There is some fine dialog contributed by Dorothy Parker, and a remarkable scene in which her daughter’s bed is in flames and Hayward runs around it looking for a way in. The movie unrealistically ends on a very upbeat note, with her faithful husband at her feet again, newly in love with Hayward for rescuing their daughter from the fire she herself negligently caused.

I was glad George Clooney decided to make “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), though in his inexperience, he uses the dullest framing device imaginable, an awards dinner a few years after the events at which Edward R. Murrow is honored. Still, it is a great story, and told mostly faithfully to history (with a little elision of the passage of time). Television journalist Murrow went eyeball to eyeball with Senator McCarthy, and the good senator blinked first. There is a subplot, involving a colleague of Murrow’s being lambasted daily as a pinko by an obnoxious “Daily News” columnist; Murrow is too busy to defend him, and tells him frankly that doing so would take Murrow too far out on a limb. The man committed suicide. A Google search informed me that the columnist who hounded him to death continued writing entertainment coverage, in lesser venues, for another forty years. The inexperience of the director is compensated for by the strength of a splendid cast, which includes David Strathairn as Murrow, Clooney himself as his producer Fred Friendly, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson.

Movie rule no. 413: When an actress starts getting horribly murdered in every role, her career is soon over (the Marthe Keller/Judy Davis phenomenon. Judy Davis was actually murdered twice in “Naked Lunch”; I had the sense David Cronenborg was saying to her career, “Get down and stay down”).

Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), directed by Spike Jonze, is a wild delightful effort from a director who has specialized in “whatsits” (“Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation”). Based on the highly memorable, strange and somewhat disturbing—and wildly popular—Maurice Sendak book, the movie inhabits the daydream of an imaginative boy, punished for acting out while his single mom has a man over. He retreats to an island where huge, powerful, sympathetic creatures are wrestling with the same kinds of things he is. One of them, Carol, is first encountered having a temper tantrum and knocking down everybody’s huts because “this isn’t the way things were supposed to be.” Carol will have another key tantrum later when “we were all supposed to sleep in a big heap” but the protagonist, Max, a small boy, is caught making a little hiding place just for himself. Another key issue which almost destroys the community is whether one of the members, K.W., is allowed to make friends with two outsiders (owls named Bob and Terry). The theme is community, loneliness and rage caused when the first fails to mediate the second. This highly absorbing, funny and shocking movie won’t remind you of any other.

Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009), directed by Michael Moore, is a vintage Moore documentary, a combination of reporting, visual essay and satire. Moore always focuses on things I want to think about, but his shtick has become a little tiresome; I don’t really need to see him being refused entry to a corporate headquarters one more time. And he has a tendency to present loosely related things as tightly coupled, blaming capitalism, for example, for the recent Pennsylvania juvenile prison corruption scandal. I am always glad to see a new Michael Moore movie, and never bored; but I m always dissatisfied, as if I have just eaten an éclair when I needed a main course.

The Moon and Sixpence” (1919) by Somerset Maugham is one of the definitive novels on the insanity and immorality of artists, along with Zola’s “L’Oeuvre” and Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth”. Maugham seems to want to smash any remaining illusion that artists who create beauty are therefore elevated, compassionate or moral people. Maugham’s Charles Strickland is a brute who walks out on a loving wife and children, never seeing them again, in order to paint. Later, he causes the suicide of a young woman who has fallen in love with him, and feels absolutely nothing about it. As an artist, he is quite stripped down and minimalist, caring nothing for fame or reviews or even sales of his work, either. He is in a ferocious struggle with himself to be able to attain a certain expression, to create something which meets his own exacting standards, and once he succeeds, he cares nothing what happens to him, or even his work, after that. Because of his commitment to creating something exacting, he is an admirable if scary animal, rather like Carol in “Where the Wild Things Are”, above. Maugham’s dull, supercilious writing style, and boring use of himself as novelist/narrator (as in “The Razor’s Edge”) does not emasculate the power and savagery of the protagonist and the theme. Maugham stands, however, as a prime example of a novelist whose prose and structure are eternally at war with his theme. Conrad was another one.

Lewis Thomas’ “Lives of a Cell” (1974) is one of those emphatic books of short essays which come along every once in a while and stand out in memory because they bring a different way of seeing almost everything. It reminds me of “Godel, Escher, Bach” in that respect. Thomas, a physician and hospital CEO, takes a look at developments in medicine, biology, sociology, and linguistics. Each essay is two to three pages long, written in simple language with a touch of playfulness, and proposes inferences completely different from the everyday. Thomas may not have been a great original thinker; he was more of a broker of ideas in the zeitgeist such as the earth as a single organism, language as a technology, and humanity as a group mind (some of his prose vaguely presages the Internet, a litmus test for strikingly original writers of the twentieth century).

Surrogates” (2009), directed by Jonathan Mostow, is a successful science fiction suspense flick, set in a world in which almost everyone stays home locked into a control rig manipulating a robotic surrogate. The surrogates go to work and also live the social lives of their owners. They are younger looking and more beautiful and not always the same gender. Bruce Willis is an FBI agent investigating the appearance of a new weapon which can destroy a surrogate and remotely kill the owner at the same time. The movie riffs amusingly on the truism that Willis has silly hair in bad movies and is bald in good ones. The surrogate has ridiculous hair, but Willis himself, who emerges from his room when his surrogate is destroyed, has a face redolent of years, sadness and experience. The movie, like other good science fiction, mostly plays by the rules it has set; though there is a last minute show down, as a computer virus spreads through the network, in which a human computer nerd saves the day by invoking a software buffer we weren’t sufficiently forewarned about. Science fiction movies live or die in the details, and there are a few here which are very good: when Willis emerges into the street, he discovers that the surrogates around him walk a little faster, and closer, than he is used to. There is a chase scene, after he discovers a familiar surrogate is being manipulated by a stranger, which is quite good. The movie, like most science fiction, engages the idea of what is human; Willis’ mission is to break through to his own life, and to his wife as well, who is unseen in her room for much of the movie, represented by her young, beautiful surrogate, who seems disdainful that Willis has left his in the charger.

Inglorious Bastards” (1978), directed by Enzo G. Castellari, shares nothing other than its name with the recent Tarantino movie. An Italian Z-movie with a cast of international actors playing Americans with funny accents, it is the story of a group of prisoners awaiting court martial in France, who escape and head for Switzerland in 1944. Along the way, they mistakenly kill a squad of Special Forces wearing German uniforms, and decide to carry out their mission, an attack on an armored train. The actors all mug, make faces and walk funny too much, but this lively, unambitious movie has an enjoyable elan which is missing in bloated Hollywood productions. It also has one unforgettable shot of a naked, screaming German woman chasing the Bastards away with an automatic weapon. Definitely in the guilty pleasures category.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004), directed by Wes Anderson, is almost a whatsit but doesn’t have a strange enough structure. It features Bill Murray as a sort of fading Cousteau type, energizing his troops for one last mission to confront a jaguar shark” who ate his best friend and business partner. Owen Wilson shows up, as a young airline pilot who may be Zissou’s son. It is a slow moving, dead pan movie, interspersed with a few amusing action sequences, and some other mildly humorous moments (Jess Goldblum, as a rival scientist, asks the name of Zissou’s three legged dog, then hits it with a rolled up newspaper while cursing it by name). Surreal aquatic scenes are punctuated by brightly colored, animated sea creatures. Neither Zissou’s discovery of his son, or the quest for the shark, comes to very much. However, Bill Murray, with his almost-jowls and big sad eyes, creates an aura of disappointment and weariness that becomes quite compelling to watch. Otherwise, the movie is so fey its positively twinky.

I’ve been watching the second season of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”. Its consistently interesting, and Eliza Dushku of course is very telegenic, but the requirements of its story line make it very hard to suspend disbelief. Technologies featured on science fiction series tend to malfunction so frequently it is impossible they would really be in widespread use; on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” the holodeck got out of whack and threatened the ship every other week. Similarly, people who rent the human “dolls” seem to get beaten, stabbed, and murdered, or have their babies stolen, on every episode. Makes you wonder what kind of warranty the Dollhouse gives, and what its liability insurance payments might be.

I had never seen “Sixteen Candles” (1984), directed by John Hughes, which has proven to be one of those zeitgeist movies everyone remembers. It is a light, effective comedy, very well handled; that is not damning with faint praise, because virtually nobody in Hollywood remembers how to make a comedy any more. Hughes’ formula is to start with sweet, believable teenage characters, and then put them in situations just enough skewed from the everyday. Molly Ringwald in particular, with her thin frame and large almost bug eyes, has an iconic, lovely quality and is able, unlike most young actresses, to carry the movie. Nothing that happens is exactly what you expect, but nothing is that far away either. Even the stereotypes, the Asian exchange student and the grandparents, are likeable. What Hughes accomplished that made several of his movies zeitgeist-quality was capturing the weirdness and rhythms of high school: everyone’s knees are jumping; there is a girl with a weird neck brace; various youngsters are ejected from, or forced to attend, the dance.

I haven’t reviewed much nonfiction here, and just made a decision to make sure I read more every month, particularly to reduce the backlog on my bookshelves. (I bought an interesting looking book about Otto von Bismarck and his Jewish colleague, Bleichroder, circa 1978 and haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.)

Fire in the Lake” (1972) by Frances Fitzgerald, is another book I have been meaning to read since it came out. This analysis of America in Vietnam won a Pulitzer. It is a scholarly work, avoiding the journalistic/impressionistic mode of most Vietnam books of the time, which was one of the first to present, in deep detail, the fatal disconnect between Vietnamese culture and American intentions. It is not easy reading, but in its analysis of our self delusion and unwarranted optimism, bogging down in South Vietnamese corruption and dishonesty—trying to instill a democracy where none was wanted or needed, and using locals completely incapable of running a government—it should have been required reading for Dick Cheney before the Iraq invasion. Another good, shorter, more superficial account, really just a few collected essays on the topic, is “The Bitter Heritage” (1967), by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger makes some predictions about the near future (such as the possibility of a coalition government in South Vietnam) which were wildly wrong, but gets a few things really right: the nonexistence of a monolithic world communism by the mid-60’s, and particularly, the negative impact of the war on American domestic life and freedom of speech in particular. I scavenged this book at the East Hampton dump, which gives it a certain mana.