April 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: contains many spoilers


Our Kind of Traitor (2011) by John LeCarre is a fair to good entry in the author's long meditation on real-politik and morality. LeCarre has become more political and didactic as he ages, but still tells a hell of a story, and in general his work suffers less from entropy than many genre novelists turning out a book a year for this long. This one mixes an innocent English couple who meets a Russian money-launderer on vacation, the British intelligence agents who recruit them, and the world of the Russian vory, ex-prisoner gangsters who run everything. As always, in the foreground there are well-meaning, flawed people who have a half-unconscious awareness that they cannot win, while in the background the mysterious Forces at Work grind relentlessly away. You open each new LeCarre novel knowing it will be a tragedy (as opposed to some earlier works like the first and third of the Smiley trilogy, which ended rather well) and steeling yourself for the possibility he will kill everyone you care about, as he did in "The Constant Gardener", but does not do here.

Samuel Johnson (1974) by John Wain, is that relatively rare thing, a biography which lives and breathes. Wain has an acute sense of the personality, beliefs, choices and sufferings of his subject, and renders him believably and compassionately. Wain is sure enough of himself that he inserts himself into the narrative at a few moments--typically betraying his own impatience with some modern development or another, which he gets to by using Johnson as a hook. You don't really mind, because Wain has ingratiated himself via his love for Johnson, and handles these moments with grace anyway. He made a sad choice, though, not to have any footnotes.

Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1951) by John C. Miller is a reasonably thorough description of the first grave attack on freedom of speech in U.S. history. The book falters by not taking a nuanced view of either President Adams (who is the villain of the piece) or of Vice President Thomas Jefferson (who is close to being its hero). I see Adams as a good man who got into a bad position, and Jefferson as a dangerous hypocrite who, on this particular issue, had the moral high ground. The book briefly mentions Adams' remorse for having signed the acts, and also Jefferson's secret subsidies of the scurrilous scribbler James T. Callendar, who would later turn on Jefferson during his own administration. The book also fails to give a complete and organic understanding of how the Acts contributed to the defeat of the Federalists. They gained seats in a 1799 election, but had been completely turned out by 1801, after which the party faltered and died. It appears to be one of those mystical moments in American history, where an individual or party goes from hero to goat in the blink of an eye (like President Obama from 2008-2010).

Jefferson and the Press (1943) by Frank L. Mott, is an old monograph detailing Jefferson's relationship with the press, which he officially vaunted as the cornerstone of democracy, refused to write for, never wanted to see his name in and privately (and hypocritically) encouraged libel suits against towards the end of his presidency. It is a useful addition to the Jefferson literature and the annnals of free speech.

The Evolution of Useful Things (1992) by Henry Petroski, begins with a history of the paper clip. Its principal lesson is that no invention is conceived wholeblown in a vacuum, in an ideal form dictated by some kind of magical determinism or by human genius. Instead, every designed object is a kluge, modified incrementally to try to overcome prior failures. I love the idea of humans flying to the moon on a kluge, though the spectacle of klugey Japanese power plants melting down post-tsunami is not amusing.


Jane Eyre (2011), directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a competent re-imagining of the story, less romanticized, with strong Gothic and horror elements. Mia Wasikowska, as a plain, intense Jane, delivers a powerful performance, but the film is somewhat handicapped by a complete lack of chemistry with the actor playing Rochester, Michael Fassbender. Its been a long time since I read the novel, but perhaps Rochester there too was more of a wish fulfillment than a character. Its worth mentioning the persistence and resonance of the novel itself (the novel and film of "Wide Sargasso Sea" tell the story from the viewpoint of the mad, violent first Mrs. Rochester) and of the theme of the cold, half-empty huge English mansion on the moors, ridden with secrets ("The Secret Garden", the 1949 film version of which is reviewed below, is set in that same milieu).

3 Backyards (2010), directed by Eric Mendelsohn, succeeds and fails at the same time. A leisurely meditation on the lives of three people on a suburban Long Island street one summer day, it spends a lot of time showing us the sun and caterpillars. Which made me realize how we accept this from some directors (Terence Malick) and find it pretentious or imitative in others. I am not sure in these cases we are viewing the works (as we should) without reference to the personality or history of the director. It would be a shame if innovations or quirks we accepted from a famous artist, we rejected from a lesser known one. Some of the effects the director used here bothered me: he puts a little girl in terrible danger just for a comic relief moment; Edie Falco plays an intrusive fan who disturbs the day of a grief-stricken, reclusive movie star, and this kind of distasteful portrayal by a famous actress of an ordinary person carries a subtext with it I found distasteful. However, the movie sent us out into the sunlight talking about it for an hour, which is a kind of success.

Ball of Fire (1941), directed by Howard Hawks, is a delightful screwball comedy about a group of professors writing an encyclopedia, led by Gary Cooper, and the meteorite-female who crashes into their midst (Barbara Stanwyck). Few so-called comedies make me laugh out loud, but this one did in the extended denouement, where the geeky scholars pile into a grbage truck and rescue Stanwyck from her gangster-boyfriend. Cooper studies a book on boxing on the way, and wins the fight with the gangster despite his preposterous stance and windmilling arms. Her initial interest to them is her knowledge of slang, and the movie is full of colorful language such as "Ameche" for telephone (because Don Ameche played Alexander Graham Bell in a movie...)

I'm All Right Jack (1959), directed by the Boulting brothers, is a member of a genre so tiny, this is probably the only film in it: the union comedy. A goodhearted upperclass twit who must work for a living becomes a sort of Candide, experiencing the collusive evil of both his union brethren and the bosses. Peter Sellers is a slimy shop steward, and is in full, delightful chameleon-mode. The movie is so decidedly strange (it begins and ends, for no particular reason, in a nudist colony) that it qualifies as a "whatsit".

Pride of the Marines (1945), directed by Delmer Daves, is a wartime injury-and-recovery film which is didactic in a good way. John Garfield turns in a fine, fussy performance as a Marine who is blinded on a Pacific island and must learn to accept his disability. Pride dictates that he break his engagement. The rest of the film is his learning to cope, and his fiancee resolutely navigating a way back to him. There are some well written and engaging discussions among veterans in a VA hospital about what they expect from society. It reminded me a bit of "The Best Years of Our Lives", a much better movie.

Life at the Top (1965), directed by Ted Kotcheff, picks up where "Room at the Top" (reviewed recently) left off. Joe Lampton is married to a brainless rich wife, has two polite, absent children, is miserable. She cheats, he boldly leaves, moves in with a powerful newscaster, finds that without a university education he can't get a job, and retreats to the safety of his empty suburban life. At the end, he is metaphorically trapped by a huge cast iron fence. These movies, because energetic, unpretentious, and well acted, escape the usual "adultery in suburbia" deadness, perhaps also because the protagonist is a working class social climber. Anyway, these are not films of self pity, as most such works are.

Alice Adams (1935), directed by George Stevens, is a failed American attempt at social realism, which is notable for an endless scene of the title character, played by Katherine Hepburn, experiencing consummate social humiliation when her wealthy boyfriend comes for dinner. Then it jumps the tracks into wish fulfillment, as everything is fine anyway; the boyfriend still wants to marry her, and even the cutthroat capitalist turns out to be extraordinarily compassionate, forgiving even Alice's brother's embezzlement of funds (we know that happens every day). Hepburn, very young and coltish, is watchable as always, but the ingenue (with lots of insincerity here) is not her best role.

I had always wanted to see Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), directed by Vincente Minnelli, in particular for its noirish, existential title. Its a strange mixture: part pat psychoanalytical drama, part soap, against a Roman fresco, with elements of Fellini's "8&1/2" in the extravagance of the Cinecitta setting. Kirk Douglas is sympathetic enough as a washed up, ex-alocoholic actor summoned to Rome by an amoral director (played by Edward G. Robinson) who worked with him on his greatest past successes. You have the sense that Minelli (who had previously made "The Bad and the Beautiful" with Douglas, on similar themes) is working through his own story, of past glories and present humiliations.

Pulp (1972), directed by Mike Hodges, is an interesting failure, crippled by tedious narration. Narration always kills movies, unless it is short and oblique, like music setting a mood. Here, Michael Caine talks too much. The conceit is that he is a pulp writer solving a real mystery, so some of the time what he is narrating includes fanciful elements which diverge from what we are seeing onscreen, but a little of that goes a long way. The mystery he unwraps is fairly interesting, though the movie hands us a comedy version of the despairing endings of contemporary movies like "The Parallax View". The small town Maltese backgrounds are quirky and interesting, particularly a boar hunt which takes place against the closing credits.

Deep Valley (1947), directed by Jean Negulesco, is a find--one of those movies which you stumble upon knowing nothing about it, and are riveted. Its a small, noirish drama, starring the great Ida Lupino as a stuttering young woman who mediates between her angry, alienated parents in a farmhouse stuck on a California cliff far from anything. Nearby, convicts are building the Pacific Coast Highway. When she falls in love with one and vanishes for a few days, her mother comes downstairs for the first time in years, takes the frying pan away from her father, and cooks breakfast. The convict is an earnest young man with a murderous temper, who knows he is an unredeemable killer but longs to be something better. Everything works out about as you would expect, in a bleak world with little occasional rays of redemption. William Faulkner took an uncredited hand in the script. Ida Lupino is great precisely because she is never actressy, always modest, always willing to vanish into the role--the exact opposite of a Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn.

Light in the Piazza (1962), directed by Guy Green,is a strange artifact. A mother finds happiness for her twenty-six year old brain damaged daughter, who has the mind of a ten year old, by marrying her off in Italy, where women are expected to be irresponsible children, to chatter and be charming. Where no-one will notice she is brain damaged. Nonetheless, it is compelling, because of the leap of faith involved when the mother decides to follow her own impulse and instinct and ignore everything she knows is right and reasonable, to bring about the marriage which will allow her daughter to lead a life independent of her, under the care of her new inlaws. At the core is a fine, strong performance by Olivia DeHavilland.

Lost Horizon (1937), directed by Frank Capra, is a comfortable oddity (perhaps because I loved the book as a child). It has an unusually slow pace for a movie, pausing for contemplation and admiration, much like the imaginary culture the protagonist discovers in the Himalayas. For much of the movie, there is a lack of conflict; but it is redeemed by the poignant ending, as three characters flee Shangrila, only to discover that one of them, an apparently young woman, ages irredeemably and dies the moment she exits. The hero, sole survivor of this flight, successfully struggles to return, disproving Proust's dictum that lost time cannot be recaptured.

The Painted Veil (1934), directed by Ryszard Boleslawski, stars Greta Garbo in a version of the Somerset Maugham novel. Garbo is always compelling, but icy, and is probably miscast as the lonely, impulsive, needy heroine. The film has a quasi-happy ending, in which the doctor-cuckold-husband apparently survives and is reconciled. In the novel, he dies and she is left alone and remorseful.

Lust for Life (1956), directed by Vincente Minelli, delivers a powerful Kirk Douglas performance as Vincent Van Gogh. Douglas looked like the painter and is persuasive in his misery and intensity. He suffers and dies trying to achieve the things he believe exceed his grasp. The color scheme of the movie, and its views of Van Gogh's paintings, are also interesting. Portraying the life of an artist is always hard (especially novelists, as looking tortured at a canvas is at least easier than looking tormented at a typewriter). This movie is a credible entree in that genre.

Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), directed by Mark Robson, contains a very strong performance by Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward, a maid who became a missionary in China before World War II. The movie is interesting for the human conundrum of a very ordinary, rather meek person with a powerful will bending to an obsessive idea. Aylward believes God has summoned her to China, and she gets there, despite everyone's objections and without any qualifications. She makes herself indispensable to, and becomes beloved of, the locals. At the end, as she leads a group of one hundred orphaned children out of the mountains past Japanese troops, she says casually that she believes this is why God called her to China. She is a bit too perfect, but the actress is humble, and that carries the movie. There is a lot more to be said about the whole genre of China through Hollywood eyes; in recent months I reviewed "Shanghai Express", "Shanghai Gesture", "The Bitter Tea of General Yen", "The General Died at Dawn", and (just above) "The Painted Veil". All of these touch on mystery and desire, the alien life which is at once dirty, violent and transcendent, and the forces which draw Westerners. Several of these movies deal with interracial love, and this one does so unusually boldly, though as usual the half-Chinese colonel is played by a Caucasian.

Macao (1952), dircted by Josef von Sternberg, is a serviceable noir set against the background of a corrupt Portuguese colony in which nobody is quite whom he seems. Robert Mitchum is effective as a wanderer who may be a cop, and Jane Russell is dynamic as a bad girl who would like to be good. There is a great set piece in which a casino owner, the villain of the piece, teaches Mitchum a lesson about pushing your luck by allowing him to win, and then lose, a substantial sum in a rigged game. And Russell utters one of the great noir lines: "Everybody's lonely, worried, and sorry. Everybody's looking for something."

Nobody Lives Forever (1946), directed by Jean Negulesco, is a noir starring John Garfield as a swindler who falls in love with his victim. Its better written than most, and sets Garfield up against a has-been, angry, self-pitying conman who would have acted as the seducer himself a few years before, but has declined so much he needs Garfield to do it (played by George Coulouris). Walter Brennan is memorable as another aging swindler with a better attitude, reduced to picking the pockets of people he persuades to look through a telescope. Matters come to a head satisfyingly in one of the great noir denouement settings, a dock shrouded in fog.

The Secret Garden (1949), directed by Fred Wilcox, is a forgotten gem, a lively representation of the Burnett novel which avoids the insensate glorification and stultification of child actors current at the time, instead including three who can actually act and who carry long sections of the picture when no adult is visible. What I love about the "Secret Garden" in all its incarnations is that it tells one of the best stories ever imagined, something which qualifies as an ur-narrative, one of the most primal and captivating plots. An angry, lonely little girl is imported into a completely arid, death-inflcted environment and, through her undaunted life-force, brings the other people in it to life. Love, locked out at the door, comes in through whatever chinks in the window it can find. And, despite the Victorian origins, all of this is delivered with a minimum of sentiment; Mary Lennox is no pious, saint-like little girl, but angry and impetuous. There is a scene in which she tames the spoiled, despairing young master of the household by telling him she is worse than him, and can shout louder (and proves it). All of this is accomplished through the splendid metaphor of a garden that has been locked and left to die, which is pruned and regenerated by Mary and an accomplice, realistically delivered without too much sentiment. The film is in black and white except for the scenes in the garden, which are color.

Fury (1936) is a really bad Fritz Lang movie. It's sad that the director of "M" made so many American pot-boilers. This is a good-intentioned didactic film about lynching which is never believable. It reaches its nadir when the judge gets on the stand to testify--always the hallmark of a bad trial movie. And it contains an unusually over-the-top Spencer Tracy performance.

Red Dust (1932) directed by Howard Hawks, is a throughly enjoyable love triangle set on a rubber plantation, with Mary Astor as the woman Clark Gable loves and Jean Harlow as the one he belongs with. Harlow, not as well remembered today as other iconic stars of the thirties, us always electrifying to watch; she's like a less dreamy Marilyn Monroe with more personality. The movie was remade more than twenty years later as "Mogambo", by Hawks and Gable.

Shakespeare Wallah (1965), directed by James Ivory, represents a transition from the stagey, fake China and India films of the 1950's, when the local love interest was always impersonated by a Caucasian, to a more genuine, observed kind of film-making. An Emglish family of actors, reduced in circumstances, interacts with indian pomp and wealth; for much of the movie, the daughter, Felicity Kendall, conducts a love affair with a wealthy young man, Shashi Kapoor, which despite their mutual fascination, will founder on the shoals of their cultural differences: her need to be on stage, and his idea of honor and possessiveness. At the end, she is on a ship bound for England, as her parents wish for her, severed probably irrevocably, from the world and culture where she has spent her entire life so far. Madhur Jaffrey is delightful as a superficial, impetuous film actress, who at Kapoor's invitation, sweeps in to see Othello ten minutes before curtain, and disrupts the production.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964), directed by Jack Clayton and written by Harold Pinter, is an interesting sociological artifact, a relatively thoughtful and female-centric tale of male adultery in suburbia, a genre I normally detest. Like most of the books and movies on this theme, it is written by a man, and relatively forgiving of his sins. Anne Bancroft turns in a sensitive, believable performance as the much-imposed on wife, who at the end (because this is a man's world) accepts and forgives the cheating (which we have no reason to think will stop). In this male-imagined world, adulterers are wonderful necessary scamps. (I noticed, after writing the foregoing, it is based on a novel by a woman, which I have not read.)

Malena (2000), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, disturbs and confuses me. At its core, it is a story about a young woman who is hated and distrusted in a small Sicilian town during World War II, mainly because she is so beautiful. When her husband is reported killed, she is mercilessly harassed, denied food and work, until she is forced to become a prostitute to survive. When her husband shows up after the war, she is accepted back into society as if nothing had happened. The problem is that the movie, with its potentially compassionate and even feminist theme, is relentlessly exploitive; Malena, played by the unfortunate Monica Bellucci, who seems to have had to enact more than her share of victims of terrible violence, has barely a line of dialog, and the movie relentlessly ogles her body and presents the fantasies of every man around her, which the actress must portray, often nude. The character is so passive, that she becomes the plaything of everyone around her; the protagonist, a teenage boy who loves her, watches helplessly, never even speaking to the woman of his dreams, and does nothing to assist until very late in the film. So the whole enterprise leaves me with a queasy taste, as an addition an old dishonored genre of movies by men which officially protest violence against women, while secretly enjoying it.