May 2015
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by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I just caught Chimes at Midnight (1966), directed by Orson Welles, on Turner Classic Movies, the last labor-of-love movie channel not to have been degraded by commerce, when even Sundance and IFC are showing vigilante movies and episodes of Law and Order. It is Orson Welles' low budget but magnificent assemblage of all the Falstaff scenes from Henry the 4th and 5th. Welles was perfect for Falstaff at that time in his life, and he delivers magnificently. For a movie he could barely afford to throw together, the cinematography is amazing; the shots of passersby, carts, gates, prostitutes, children set the scene very skillfully, but the climactic battle, at which prince Hal kills Hotspur while Falstaff feigns death, somehow manages to be one of the greatest and most honest war scenes ever filmed, portraying the chaos, the clubbing and stabbing, the random ruthlessness of outcomes. This is probably the best film ever made of Shakespeare, and it has just been promoted to my list of the greatest movies ever made, with The Seventh Seal, La Strada and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I saw it only once before, sometime around 1978, at the Orson Welles cinema in Cambridge, Mass.

Mockingjay part 1 (2014), directed by Francis Lawrence, confirms that the Hunger Games series is really not a feminist parable. I can't speak for the books, which I haven't read. Katniss Everdeen fires a single arrow in this installment (which improbably brings down an airplane). Otherwise, she cries, is comforted by good looking men who love her, is dressed in a variety of outfits (the designer is a character, and the details of the clothing a plot point), and generally functions as the still center of the turning world, a beloved icon who doesn't have to do anything. She might as well be Princess Diana. I feel bad for Jennifer Lawrence, a strong, capable and active actress, as she proved in Winters' Bone.

I had very mixed feelings about Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland. On the one hand, it leaped the very low bar to be a moderately acceptable science fiction movie, because it had some ideas behind it, and it made a better use of the Turing Test than did the recent Turing movie, The Imitation Game. But it was still a sexy robot movie, of which we have really had more than our fill, and the heroine's escape at the end from the unique setting dictates there can be no sequel (if there is, it will be Terminator).

The Homesman (2014), directed by Tommy Lee Jones, actually made me angry. It was a near miss movie, with all the elements of a good 1970's Western, like Missouri Breaks or Buffalo Bill and the Indians: bleak surroundings, morally ambiguous but well-intentioned characters, irony. But the movie sets us up with a strong woman, Cuddy, played capably by Hillary Swank, and then has her hang herself on the prairie more or less in violation of everything she has stood for until then. I skimmed the novel at the library, and the movie is faithful to the plot. But novels and films follow different rules. If you are going to switch protagonists on us, there has to be damn good machinery operating to make us accept it, as there is in Psycho. Tommy Lee Jones, an actor I like and find always watchable, foregrounds his capering buffoon character when Cuddy dies, transforming the film into a vanity production: we get to watch Jones perform a silly jig twice.

I have wondered for about five years why there were no drone warfare movies, to the point where I suspected that our government might be encouraging studios not to make them. Good Kill (2015), directed by Andrew Niccol, is a pretty good first entry in the genre. Ethan Hawke plays a grounded F16 pilot who cannot bear sitting in a trailer at a computer terminal every day, and starts losing his mind when asked to shoot Hellfire missiles at rescuers and funeral parties. This is a movie which does not try, like so many contemporary war films, to have it both ways, though it does leave us with a bare suggestion there may be some good lethal uses of drones.

Metaphorically similar to Peter Mathiessen, who wouldn't ice skate for fear of breaking the ankles he needed for long hikes in Third World back country for books like The Snow Leopard, I have been mainly reading for research rather than entertainment for some years. I took a vacation this month and read a few thrillers. Andy Weir's The Martian (2014), about an astronaut stranded on Mars, consists of harder, more didactic science than I ever encountered in a Larry Niven novel; it is more textbook than true genre novel. If you skim some of the details of making oxygen and how to pile twenty-four solar panels on top of a lander, it is quite gripping, and should make a very satisfying movie.

Martin Cruz Smith's Tatiana (2013) was a satisfying continuation of the Arkady Renko series. While too many thriller series become formulaic and uneven (nobody can sustain a pace of a book a year), Smith has only written eight Renko novels since Gorky Park in 1981. The quality, interest and characterizations remain consistently very high. The novels have tracked Russian history closely; Renko has barely hung on from the end of the post-Stalinist era into the world of Putin. Smith is a master of weaving unrelated strands together into a compelling whole; this one involves a murdered Russian journalist, a translator's unique pictorial shorthand, and a thirty thousand dollar bicycle.

Michael Connelly's The Drop (2011) is also a good entry in what has been a somewhat more uneven series. Harry Bosch is a believable, aging detective and single dad whose neuroses and flaws make the story interesting without ever being in the immediate foreground. In this one, he investigates two incidents, the apparent suicide of a lobbyist (surrounded by the city and police politics he calls "high jingo"), and a new DNA hit from a 1988 murder which somehow leads back to a then eight year old boy as the suspect. The procedural stuff, the relationships with other cops, his teenage daughter, and a woman he clumsily attempts to date, make it diverting reading without demanding even as much thought and attention as an Arkady Renko novel.

Lee Child's Personal (2014) is one of the better installments in what has been an extremely uneven series. The books are at their best when Jack Reacher is believably solving problems in an unusual way. One of the best I remember from an earlier book: Reacher needed a gun on a few minutes' notice in New York City; he went to a bad area, found a crack sales operation, punched the guard and took his weapon. On the other hand, Child often makes inexplicable plot-driven choices, as in another book where the bad guys, for no reason, left Reacher wandering free on their ranch. In this one, he is looking for a sniper he arrested twenty years ago, who has just taken a shot at the president of France. He has the usual attractive female sidekick (a CIA agent this time) and refreshingly refrains from having sex with her (though she does cry on his shoulder after stabbing a man in the eye with a piece of glass).