May 2011
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers


William Gibson's Zero History leads me to believe that some great authors are really made by anonymous editors, as Raymond Carver was. His first six novels, from "Neuromancer" on, were amazing, intricate, always surprising re-inventions of the science fiction genre. More recently, as Bruce Sterling also has, Gibson's novels are set, less interestingly, in a quasi-present. For much of this one, all that is at stake is whether the protagonist will discover the identity of the creator of a "secret brand" of blue jeans, which is a far cry from an era where entire worlds contained on hard drives hung in the balance. Worse, Gibson's writing, apparently unedited, once taut, has become sloppy, as characters spend paragraphs thinking about towels, or telling each other things the reader has already learned. Still, a bad Gibson book is better than, say, a good Harlan Coben or even a good Stephen King...

Three Stations (2010) by Martin Cruz Smith is a fine but short Arkady Renko novel. Smith, unlike most genre writers, writes carefully and sparingly about his subjects, so that there have been only six or so Renko novels since the first one in the 1980's. His prose skills and his imagination place him at the top of the genre; Renko is a believable, flawed man, and the settings and details are intense and interesting. This very brief book has an unusual feel; by putting three separate, barely related mysteries in play, and by leaving Renko offstage for long sections, it feels like a collection of compelling vignettes about the present day Russian underbelly, rather than a plot driven thriller. Renko novels are usually discursive, this one more so. The story lines involve a murdered dancer, a stolen baby and a bankrupt Russian billionaire. Smith excels at strange, confusing set pieces that make some sense later. In one memorable moment, Renko, in the ceiling structures a dizzying distance above a nightclub stage, interviews a sinister "single wire" flyer.

Wolves Eat Dogs (2004) by Martin Cruz Smith is an earlier Renko novel (I had somehow missed several installments in the series). It is more traditionally structured than "Three Stations" and takes Renko to Chernobyl to solve a murder. Its worth reading for this alone, though as usual chock full of other unique detail. Renko bonds with a street child in an orphanage, Zhenya, who will become a major character in one of the strands of "Three Stations".

Reversal (2010) by Michael Connelly is a medium entry in the author's uneven output, far better than the last one. It is one of his omnibus novels in which he brings all his characters together; half brothers Micky Haller and Harry Bosch work on an unusual trial, in which Haller is tapped to act as a special prosecutor, and FBI profiler Rachel Walling puts in an appearance. Connelly is at his best with procedural and legal detail: the high points of the book are set pieces in which Walling reveals that the profile used at the time of an old crime in 1986 was completely wrong, Haller buffaloes an opposition witness by bringing someone disturbing into the courtroom, and Bosch digs his way into an abandoned storage area under the Santa Monica pier to make a disturbing discovery. Because this is essentially a Haller book with Bosch as a supporting character, it is fresher than the usual; Connelly has written less about him, and is not as burned out.

The Tourist (2009) by Oleg Steinhauer disappointed me. I had read reviews indicating he was a major new talent in the John LeCarre/Alan Furst space. There is a lot of interesting stuff being juggled here--a protagonist who works for the CIA with a secret Russian background, for starters--but in the end there is more noise and relentless action than insight, and the characters weren't that believable. Perhaps the dividing line between the genre masters and this kind of work is that the double-secret "tourist" team portrayed here routinely commits assassinations without a second thought, while killings in better novels are rarer and result in more of a moral and psychological struggle. This has no relationship to the Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp movie of the same name. (Bad joke alert:) Did you know the latter is being remade with Bette Midler and Billy Crystal? Title: "The Tsouris".

The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1973), by Michael Les Benedict, is a short account of an ill-remembered but important episode in U.S. history. Benedict, a somewhat amateurish and opinionated writer, believed that Johnson should have been removed for his disregard of Congress and interference with Reconstruction. The book was completed just as the Watergate investigation was picking up steam; Benedict complains that it concentrated too much on minor facts regarding burglaries, rather than high crimes and misdemeanors. Nonetheless, the pursuit of impeachment charges, which later forced Nixon's resignation, proved the strength of the machinery in a situation where it was badly needed to protect democracy. On the other hand, the impeachment of Bill Clinton was a classic use of the mechanism in an amoral environment where there were no "high crimes", just in order to kneecap an opposition President. The details of the Johnson impeachment given by Benedict, made me a bit queasy; on the one hand, Johnson crossed a line in refusing to carry out the legislative will of Congress; on the other, there was a huge partisan aspect to the process (including the possibility that some of those taking the lead in proscuting Johnson, were candidates to replace him) that suggests it will be used again in ways which harm American democracy.


The Fighter (2010), directed by David O. Russell, is a respectable fight film which disappointed me because it didn't really break any new ground. The bar, of course, has been set very high since "Raging Bull", which was one of the finest American movies of all time. Boxing is an amazing metaphor for all the lesser conflicts of life, and presents a stage for powerful stripped down stories about expectations, success and failure, moral conflicts (throw the fight?) and aggression. This one contains amazing performances both by Mark Wahlberg and the chameleon-like Christian Bale. It is a story of family and sibling relations, with Bale the crack-addicted older brother and trainer as likely to doom Wahlberg's career with his troubles as to save it by his wise boxing counsel. The movie is so realistic that it does not fear making all the characters physically unattractive at moments, even the ingenue, Wahlberg's tough, sometimes heartless girlfriend. One strange feature, probably dictated by the movie being based on a true story, is Wahlberg's dull fighting style, which involves protecting his face and bouncing off the ropes until his opponent tires out, and then knocking him out. The movie is well-detailed and satisfying, but does not achieve the epic status of the better films of the genre.

Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright, is a visceral and innovative suspense film that is an honored addition to the genre of exciting chase movies whose plots make absolutely no sense ("North by Northwest", "Diva"). A barely teenage girl who is a genetically engineered soldier has been raised in the Arctic by a man she thinks is her dad. She speaks many languages and is packed with sometimes useful knowledge of countries and people, but has all the awkwardness of a child who has never met another her own age, heard music or watched television. Set loose in the world, chased by an American agent intent on murdering her (a wonderfully creepy performance by Cate Blanchett), she must learn to interact with other people, protect herself and solve the mysteries of her own origins. She and her adoptive dad both kill a lot of innocent or semi-innocent people along the way, but somehow that doesn't keep us from identifying with her and hoping for the best. She is briefly adopted by a sympathetic British family who are probably all murdered by Blanchett a moment after we last see them, but the movie leaves this vague--a detail which would have greatly disturbed me in my younger, more sensitive days. "Hanna" is pure spectacle, brilliantly shot and edited, and never lets up til its satisfying conclusion.

Let Me In (2010), directed by Matt Reeves, raises an ethical dilemma of film-making which is perhaps worth an essay someday: that of the adaptation. It is a faithful English-language rendering so close in look and mood to the Swedish original that it becomes almost indistinguishable in memory. I feel bad for the director, who undoubtedly worked very hard to achieve this, but the goal seems like an artistically trivial one, aimed at reaping commercial benefit from an audience which will not see sub-titled films. There is more to be said about adaptations in general: the ethics of changing stories and endings and representing them to be the same product (see "Stage Door" below). My comment on "Let Me In", generically applicable also to the Swedish film: the story of two adolescent loners bonding, one a vampire, is compelling. The story taps a deeply-rooted desire to have a powerful friend, a theme which continually re-appears in myths, folklore, and art of all kinds. One of the most memorable genre movie moments ever is the climactic scene of both movies, when the protagonist,watching from underwater, perceives his powerful vampire girlfriend killing several bullies, only as a series of disturbances on the surface of the pool (and one sinking head). The snowy setting, reflective and relatively slow moving pace which made the original movie so interesting, probably was not palatable to American audiences despite the English dialog. As the director of "The Vanishing" discovered, usually you have to change much more than the language to make an American movie. I can imagine a version of "Let Me In" with a perky vampire girlfriend speaking Valleygirl....probably already been made and forgotten.

The Last of Sheila (1973), directed by Herbert Ross, is an intricate, strange murder mystery co-authored by Stephen Sondheim, simultaneously distasteful and rather gripping. It takes the form of a cozy mystery, set aboard a yacht, where the characters, Hollywood people, debate nonstop who did what to whom; but when the murderer is revealed, the remaining characters blackmail him for money to produce a movie, rather than turning him in. It has lively performances by all concerned, including James Coburn, Richard Benjamin and Joan Hackett. Justice is not done in the end; its very 1970's.

Monte Walsh (1970), directed by William Fraker, is a lesser-known but quintessential 70's Western. Inhabiting the same sad genre as "The Wild Bunch" and "The Missouri Breaks", it is set towards the end of a West where nothing can ever be right again. Monte, played by the incomparable and crazy Lee Marvin, is a cowboy who witnesses the work drying up and the accountants taking over. Jeanne Moreau is the prostitute he promises to marry, who dies of tuberculosis, alone, before he can. In the meantime, a friend kills a friend, and he must avenge him. Its mostly picaresque and plotless, as these films tend to be. There is the best bucking bronco scene ever, in which Walsh, idly mounting a horse he finds penned on the street late at night, knocks down half the town, including balconies, a china shop, and a water tower.

Jules and Jim (1962), directed by Francois Truffaut, was the movie, first seen as a teenager in 1969, which made me fall in love with movies for all time. I can even tell you the two scenes which captured me: the girl with the cigarette reversed in her mouth, pretending to be a steam engine, while the camera romps with her around the room, pace for pace; the slide of the statue with the mysterious smile presaging Jeanne Moreau's. I had already seen a million movies, from 1959 on, but never one that broke the linear nature of story-telling, improvised, digressed and reveled in pure spectacle. I have never been the same, since "Jules and Jim".

That Hamilton Woman (1941), directed by Alexander Korda, is a really good historical yarn and an opportunity to watch Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, married at the time, bounce off one another. I can't comment on whether the film is true to history, but its a compelling drama. Leigh is the better actor; Olivier always seems stilted, a bit pretentious, to me. Here he is Lord Nelson, and she is Emma Hamilton, a woman of immoral origins, married to an elderly ambassador, who has captured the court of Naples by sheer force of her personality. While her dull husband pens a request to see the King to ask for troops against Napoleon, and predicts the endeavor will take weeks, Emma slips in to see the Queen and obtains the forces on the spot. The movie supports my theory that almost all films, and possibly all the really good ones, are about ethical dilemmas. This one juggles several: the two lovers' obligations to their society and spouses; Nelson's duty to his country; and Emma's duty which prevails when she sends Nelson off one last time to save his country. In a set of framing scenes, she is a vagabond and alcoholic in a French port city after his death; she has a stunning last line, how after his loss, nothing remained.

Across the Bridge (1957) directed by Ken Annakin, is probably the least-remembered movie based on a Graham Greene story. It deserves more recognition, as it is a fine, unusual noir set on the Mexican border, somewhat reminiscent of Welles' "Touch of Evil" in that people freely pass back and forth, and a border-spanning complex web of relationships and corruption is illuminated. In this one, Rod Steiger plays a tycoon who stole money from a public company. He flees to Mexico using a complex shenanigan, in which he uses a stolen passport (of a man he ultimately kills) to get in, then his own passport to stay. In a metaphorical morality play reminiscent of endings of stripped down noirs such as the novels "The Getaway" and "Double Indemnity", in which criminals successfully escape only to be punished anyway by cosmic forces, Steiger's money, passport, luggage and hotel room are all taken from him, until he is homeless, half crazy, comforted only by a dog. Then a British agent pursuing him ties the dog up on the American side of the bridge. Its all quite chilling, a story which narrows down to a point, then blinks out.

Stage Door (1937), directed by Gregory LaCava, is a wonderful ensemble movie about aspiring actresses living in a tacky boarding house while they try to break in to Broadway. It is made by the dialog, which according to a Wikipedia article was partly improvised by the actresses. Though based on a George Kaufman-Edna Ferber play, the plot and characters were so greatly changed that Kaufman said the movie should be renamed "Screen Door". Katherine Hepburn is a young bluestocking who doesn't have much riding on her success, and some fine actresses such as Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball are there in the background. The movie includes one remarkable and extended shot of a contemplative young woman who has just had a mental breakdown, ascending a staircase to her own suicide, while we hear scratchy, distorted applause.

The Milky Way (1969), directed by Luis Bunuel, is one of the didactic and amusing cinema essays he favored in the late '60's and early '70's, along with "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Phantom of Liberty". Two hobos are making the pilgrimage from France to San Juan Compostelo in Spain, though not really for religious reasons (one is an atheist who challenges God to strike him with lightning). Along the way, they weave in and out of different time periods, encountering priests and acolytes from different eras. Christ himself is a character, presented as a man who runs, laughs and otherwise is a real, everyday and sometimes childish man, not a stiff figure with a thousand-yard stare. The movie is in effect an essay on Catholicism and faith, with significant excursions into various heresies; Bunuel delights in presenting, probably verbatim from ancient writings, some of the debate on trivial issues for which earlier Christians were willing to kill each other, such as the singular or triune nature of God.

Cabin in the Sky (1943), directed by Vincent Minnelli, is a fascinating artifact--a film about black life in which not a single white face appears. It was, however, written and directed by white people. Generally, it allows at least the protagonists to portray a somewhat dignified image of black life, though there are tinges of minstrelsy, especially in supporting roles. It is worth seeing for the knock-out performances by Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. Good music too. In a portrayal of black life, I was a bit troubled by the denouement in which both Waters and her faithless husband are shot to death by a gangster, though this was a plot twist to get them to heaven and a solid final judgment scene--then followed by a revelation that It Was All a Dream. Good story, weak ending.