Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell

It's clear David Mitchell did a Ph.D's worth of research for this novel set in 1799 Japan, and, unfortunately, every bit of it ends up on the novel's pages. Historical fiction requires a delicate balance between creating a rich and believable historical background while at the same time not allowing it to act as an anchor on the storytelling, and in this case the pudding has been overegged.

The novel's plot is not overly complicated. The titular character arrives at the Dutch trading station of  Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour in 1799 as a simple clerk in the pay of the Dutch East India Company. Jacob soon runs afoul of his scheming and corrupt superior and, more importantly, falls in love with a Japanese midwife named Orito. Orito attracts the attention of Lord Enomoto, a powerful noble who controls a mysterious shrine high in the mountains several days journey from Nagasaki. Orito is enslaved by Enomoto and put to work in the shrine, which turns out to be a perverse and evil cult that sacrifices babies. The bulk of the novel is concerned with Orito's imprisonment in the shrine, and an attempt to rescue her by Ogawa Uzaemon, a member of the samurai class who is also in love with Orito. The final quarter of the novel suddenly introduces a new danger for Jacob: a British frigate comes into Nagasaki Harbour and demands that the Dutch surrender their trading rights.

There's a fair bit going on there, and at times the story proceeds at a gallop, but far too often the novel is marred by narrative digressions and anecdotal asides about characters who are not central to the plot. These literary "speed bumps" become maddening after a while. One example: when the frigate arrives, one of the Dutch contingent (an Irishman, as it happens) is terrified he'll be recognized by a particular British officer. The Irishman was a convict in Australia and escaped after killing a guard. The Irishman's story is told in very full detail, and it all turns out to be redundant since the two never even come close to meeting. This is only one of many speed bumps in the book. Some of them are diverting, but most of them feel like a showoffish display of historical research.

Leaving aside the incessant history lessons, Mitchell's prose has a nice rhythm to it, and his imagery and descriptions are lean and effective. He also gives the novel some extra resonance by making it clear that his characters are part of global changes as well as personal ones. The Japanese characters are coping with the inevitable intrusion of Westerns ideas and technology into their hermetically-sealed culture, while the Dutch are coping with their nation and empire being eclipsed by the British.

The main characters I didn't find terribly compelling. Jacob is conscientious, good at his job, fairly pious, and moral. In short, dull. He's faced with all kinds of difficult choices and situations, but that doesn't change the fact that he's not someone you want to spend a lot of time with. The same can be said for most of the Japanese characters, who, thanks to a repressive, status-conscious society, are terribly circumspect in what they say and do. The most colourful characters are minor ones, and they tend towards the cliche. Marinus, a Dutch doctor, is an Enlightened Man of Science, and as such his orotund utterances are stuffed with rhetorical flourishes, Latin words and phrases, and the driest wit. He's mildly entertaining, but he feels like a stock character. The working class Dutchmen in Dejima are easily indentified: Mitchell makes them sound like a cross between a Thomas Hardy peasant and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa character from Pirates of the Caribbean. Did they really need to sound like caricatures to let us know they're not of the same social class as Jacob and Marinus? And speaking of dialogue, Mitchell is overly fond of italicizing key words in almost every spoken passage, as though he doesn't trust the reader to figure out where the emphasis lies in the sentences. It's really irritating.

Autumns has received nothing but rave reviews, which I can only put down to critics rewarding Mitchell for his hard work in the library. As an entertainment, as a piece of historical fiction, Autumns is a distant second to anything by Patrick O'Brian. And better still is Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie (review here), which strikes a perfect balance between history and narrative.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Film Review: The Artist (2011)

The Artist, in case you weren't aware, is a modern silent film shot in black & white and set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies. It's funny, clever, heartwarming, and inventive, which is all great, but it's also a lesson in the power of film's most basic language and tools. The Artist is rigorous in creating a silent film that adheres to the language and sensibility of silent films. The fact that the film succeeds so well is testament to how powerful the medium of film can be, even when it's stripped down to its basics.

The artist of the title is George Valentin, a silent film star in the style of Douglas Fairbanks, brilliantly played by Jean Dujardin. In a storyline borrowed largely from A Star Is Born, Valentin's career starts to fizzle while his platonic love interest, Peppy Miller, becomes the major star he used to be. Berenice Bejo plays Peppy and is as good as Dujardin. In keeping with the silent films it emulates, The Artist uses a plot that's stuffed with melodrama, silliness and sentimentality, but makes it work. We know the story is silly and mawkish, but the elan of the director and the stars give the story a charm and lightness that can't be resisted.

The film ends on a happy note with a dancing sequence (with sound) being filmed on a sound stage, but as the camera pulls back during the final shot, our view of the stars is obscured and the soundtrack is filled with the shouts of film technicians calling out instructions to each other. This last shot is director Michel Hazanavicius' subtle reminder that when sound entered the picture, it announced the arrival of the age of techies and computer programmers taking over the creative process of making films. It would be wrong to call The Artist old-fashioned; a more apt description would be artisanal.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, Drunk and Sober

There's really no debate about the fact that Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant writer. His essays, opinion pieces and columns are models of logical argument, wit, and eloquence. And unlike many columnists, Hitchens backed even his most casual opinions with research. In the years to come I think he might be most remembered for leading the charge against faith-based thinking and politics. The conflict between faith and reason is not going away any time soon, and this conflict is not merely a subject for academic debate: there are real-world victims of malicious, fanatical religiosity. Hitchen's God is Not Great is an invaluable resource and weapon for anyone trying to knock down the walls of myth, superstition, and mendacity surrounding the world's major religions. It's a work that will be read up until the day religions fade away, or until the religious triumph and burn every last copy of the book. This is Hitchens at his best.

The political Hitchens, the supporter of the Iraq war and vocal opponent of various tyrants, is more problematic. Hitchens was effective and relentless in detailing the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Iran's ayatollahs, but he never adequately faced up to the human cost of trying to remove these regimes. The Iraq war has, directly and indirectly, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and led to the exile of more than a million others. And no one is predicting that Iraq will be a viable democracy in the future. So far, the victory over Saddam Hussein has been a pyrrhic one for the Iraqi people. The human cost to the U.S. has, in relative terms, been negligible, but the economic cost has been almost as disastrous. America is becoming an also-ran in the global economy, and a large part of the reason is the bill for the Iraq war. The last American soldier left Iraq yesterday, but given the blood toll and prospects for further unrest, it doesn't look like a happy occasion for Iraq or America.

Where Hitchens seemed to go completely off the rails was with his visceral loathing of the Clintons, Bill and Hilary. He accused them of lying, financial misdeeds, cronyism, and of generally using low tactics and sharp elbows to get to the top of the greasy pole of American politics. And on one memorable occasion on Bill Maher's show, a drunk Hitchens actually accused Bill Clinton of rape. Hitchens' hatred of the Clintons made him look foolish and hypocritical. Foolish because the Clintons roughhouse political tactics (if true) are par for the course in post-war American politics. That's the way the game is played. Kennedy turned to the Mafia for political help, Nixon employed burglars, and both George and Dubya Bush ran election campaigns that set new lows for viciousness (the Willie Horton ads, Swift Boat Veterans, lies about Sen. McCain's daughter). And in terms of morals, Bill Clinton's sins don't begin to equal the immorality of the enthusiastic support Nixon and Reagan gave to death squad governments in Central and South America. The charge of hypocrisy sticks thanks to Hitchens support of George W. Bush. Bush, a southern-fried Christian creationist with a limited intellect, is the sort of person Hitchens normally scorned and mocked. In fact, on October, 9, 2000, in The Nation he called Bush an ignoramus and a "special" child. And yet on the day of Obama's Inauguration he stated in Slate that he was glad that Bush had triumphed over Gore and Kerry. Clearly, Hitchens had a conversion on the road to Damascus, or, in this case, Baghdad. It also has to be noted that he never made mention of the collateral damage caused by the Bush administration: reckless deregulation in the financial sector, tax breaks for the wealthy, a rollback of environmental protection measures, and an increased level of anti-intellectualism, something that Hitchens should have been very sensitive to. In supporting Bush, Hitchens was supporting a worldview that was fundamentally hostile to his own. Hitchens had a great intellect, but it was one that sometimes wore blinders.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: A Renegade History of the United States (2010) by Thaddeus Russell

Where do I begin to describe the nonsensical and illogical nature of this book? It's thesis, in a nutshell, is that America's rights and freedoms are not due to the actions of politicians, social activists, and deep thinkers, but are thanks to the actions of "renegades" of various stripes, dating from colonial America right up until the late 1960s. Renegades, in Russell's view, consistently rejected the status quo, the norms of capitalist society, in favour of individual expression and pleasure. In short, renegades didn't want to be cogs in a machine.

The author takes us on a quick tour through U.S. history, stopping at different points to argue that various criminal, social and economic underclasses were in fact fighting for freedoms that we all now take for granted. The underclasses, Russell argues, were always despised by those above them because they refused to conform to the model of what constitutes an efficient, reliable and moral American citizen. In a section on slavery Russell opines that slaves who shirked or sabotaged work on plantations were, in some way, standing up to conformity and the harsh Protestant work ethic. Russell ignores the fact that slaves, or those who are de facto slaves, have always been bad workers. One of the stock characters in classical literature is the lazy, scheming slave, who in Elizabethan literature became the lazy, scheming servant. Russian serfs were equally famous for being grossly lazy and inefficient. It would hard, though, to argue that slaves, servants and serfs ever acted as agents of social change.

If Russell was simply trying to prove that renegades were able to influence social mores that would be fine, but he also has some political axes to grind. This is most obvious in his section on the New Deal, in which he argues that fascism and New Deal liberalism were largely one and the same. This view is much in favour with Tea Party ideologues and Fox News, but it doesn't stand up to close examination. Because both fascist Italy and the New Deal had economic stimulus programs that were, on occasion, identical, Russell leaps to the illogical conclusion that this makes Franklin Roosevelt a quasi-fascist. This is bit like claiming that vegetarians are Nazis because Hitler was a vegetarian. Another problem is that fascism, both in Italy and Germany, was not much concerned with economics. The core features of both strains of fascism, and what dominated the imaginations of Hitler and Mussolini, were muscular, messianic nationalism and a vicious contempt for democratic institutions. Russell clearly doesn't see it that way as he ends his section on the New Deal with this eyebrow-raising statement: "...the New Deal and fascism went to war [WW II] not over ideas or values or a way of life. Rather, it seems, the war was a struggle between brothers for control of the world family." Sounds like someone wants to be invited to Glenn Beck's next barbecue.

Renegade takes a sharp turn into the nonsensical when it looks at the case of Japanese-Americans interned during WW II. Russell states that a significant number of these people were, in fact, loyal to Imperial Japan, and belonged to various organizations that swore loyalty to the Emperor and Japan. What does this have to do with renegades or social change? Nothing. Equally silly is Russell's claim that the beginning of gay liberation, which he dates as 1969, somehow produced heterosexual liberation as well. His proof of heterosexual liberation is that The Joy of Sex, a huge bestseller, was published only four years later. Russell conveniently forgets that popular culture in the post-war era had become increasingly comfortable with the idea of sex before and outside marriage. If there is such as thing as heterosexual liberation it's probably thanks to Hugh Hefner, Russ Meyer, Marilyn Monroe, hippies, the Pill, and James Bond movies.

Russell does make some convincing arguments that nineteenth-century prostitutes played a role in advancing women's rights, and that the civil rights movement, widely hailed as being non-violent, actually benefited from less pacific black protestors. Most of the time, however, Russell uses faulty logic and anecdotal evidence to manufacture proof that "renegades" were unconscious leaders in the fight for individual freedom. In sum, this book feels more like an extended opinion piece than a work of historical scholarship.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Film Review: Harper (1966)

Harper is a pretty good film, but it's more interesting as an example of a Hollywood style of filmmaking that was about to enter its death throes. It's also an example of Hollywood trying, in a halfhearted, clumsy manner, to act cool.

The title character, played by Paul Newman, is a private detective hired to investigate the apparent kidnapping of a wealthy Californian; in other words, a pretty standard gumshoe plot. The movie is based on a Ross MacDonald mystery called The Moving Target. MacDonald was a solid writer who had a way with intricate mysteries that had their roots in long-buried family secrets. Stylistically he's very much of the Raymond Chandler school, although less inclined to have his detective crack wise, as they used to say. In true Hollywood fashion Harper mostly junks the source material by renaming the lead character (Archer in the novels) and jazzing up his character to make him a more suitable vehicle for Paul Newman.

The script, by William Goldman, gives Newman ample opportunity to shine. He's called upon to act silly, sarcastic, tough, downtrodden, lonely, you name it, Newman does it, and it's a borderline hammy performance. Speaking of the script, it amounts to a master class in how to create a slick, punchy screenplay that continually holds the audience's attention. Every scene has a gag, a revelation, some action, an arresting location, and so on. Goldman is sort of the Michael  Bay of scriptwriters; he keeps throwing new things at you so fast you don't have time to pay much attention to the story.

The script also tries to be tougher and nastier than than its P.I. predecessors with some, for 1966, salty language and gritty violence. Harper's roughness pales in comparison to what was coming down the road in the shape of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). And in terms of edginess, Point Blank (1967) would be soon be setting the bar very high. Harper tries hard to be hip and cool, but it has a sleek, glossy and traditional look that doesn't jive with its desire to be edgy. The supporting character actors, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner, are also very old Hollywood. They're competent, but all of them would be scrambling to find work only a few years later in "new" Hollywood. The most dated and clunky part of Harper is the music. In this film rock 'n roll hasn't been invented. Harper's investigation takes him through several nightclubs, all of which play ersatz film approximations of jazz and rock. The most awkward scene has a teenage sex kitten played by Pamela Tiffin dancing to what sounds like cha-cha music. Did Hollywood really think teenagers were dancing to this kind of thing? You can see that scene in the trailer below, which is itself a creaky example of Hollywood promotion.

If you can look past Harper's dated elements it remains a mostly entertaining mystery-thriller. Paul Newman is particularly fun to watch, and some of the California locations have a nostalgic appeal to them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Film Review: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

One of the early frontrunners for scooping some of the important Oscars next year is The Artist, a French film directed by Michel Hazanvicius and starring Jean Dujardin. It's been winning prizes at film festivals and it's set for wide release in North America on Dec 9. I don't doubt it's good because Hazanvicius and Dujardin created comedy magic five years ago in OSS 117.

OSS 117 is the codename for a secret agent who appeared in a huge number of pulpy thrillers in Europe in the 1950s. The novels led to some B-grade films and then, many years later, this spy spoof. Now, OSS 117 pre-dated James Bond, and his adventures didn't involve gadgets or supervillains, so bear in mind that this film is not riffing on the world of 007. Jean Dujardin plays Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117, and he plays him as an arrogant, patronizing, self-centred, slightly dim and very French exemplar of Western imperialism circa 1955. A French agent has disappeared in Cairo and OSS 117 is sent there to investigate the disappearance. French-Egyptian relations are not improved by his visit.

French comedies sometimes choke to death on high decibel silliness, but this script is a superb mix of wit, satire, slapstick, and, yes, some silliness. What brings it all to life is Jean Dujardin. This is one of the great comedy performances in the last ten years, the highlight of which is a scene involving OSS 117 having to pass himself off as an Arab musician. Dujardin plays the scene as though he was Peter Sellers reincarnated, and Sellers at his most brilliant could not have done a better job.

There's a sequel to Cairo called OSS 117: Rio ne repond plus, and it's good rather than great. Dujardin's other films alternate between drama and comedy, and the ones I've seen have been so-so. One of his earliest comedies was Brice de Nice. It's fairly amusing, and he's very good, but it maxes out on French silliness. So hurry up and hunt down OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies so you can tell people that you knew all about Dujardin before he appeared in The Artist and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: The Devil You Know (2006) by Mike Carey

This supernatural thriller/murder mystery is remarkably similar to Rivers of London, a novel I reviewed exactly a month ago. Both novels offer an alternative reality version of London in which ghosts and various supernatural baddies plague the general citizenry. Rivers had a cop/wizard as its hero, while this novel has a freelance exorcist named Felix Castor taking top billing.

Felix specializes in ridding homes and businesses of ghosts. The ghosts in London are just your common or garden variety ghosts, and there are lots of them, but their ordinariness doesn't stop them from scaring the crap out of Londoners, and that's where Castor comes in. He exorcises ghosts with the aid of a tin whistle; he essentially "whistles" them out of existence. That sounds silly, but Carey doesn't an excellent job of making the magical elements in his alternate world feel believable. In relation to this, he also does a great job of what's known in fantasy writing as "world-building." Carey's London is gritty, detailed, and the supernatural elements fit quite smoothly into this milieu. In this story Castor investigates a ghost haunting an archive in central London. He also has to deal with a murderous vice lord with a zombie henchman, and a succubus who wants his soul. 

Castor's job title is exorcist, but he's basically a gumshoe: Philip Marlowe in everything but name. And take away the ghosts and demons, and the plot of The Devil You Know is pure hardboiled murder mystery. Castor gets slapped around, cracks wise, and can't resist a damsel (or ghost) in distress. The problem with the plot is that it goes on and on and on. The final quarter of the story, when things should be speeding up, feels bogged down with lengthy background stories and explanatory passages. Devil isn't lardy and prolix the way the final Harry Potter books were, but it definitely would have benefited from some pruning.

Putting aside the plot problems, this is a very entertaining read. The supernatural bits have a visceral thrill, and the characterization is much better than average. In these respects Devil is superior to Rivers of London. Where the latter scores better is the plot, which was lean and efficient, albeit a bit shambolic towards the end. This is the first of six Felix Castor adventures, and I'll definitely give the next one a try.

Book Review: Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s (2008) by Alwyn W. Turner

The story of Britain in the 1970s boils down to the relationship between the ruling parties (Labour then Conservative then back to Labour) and organized labour. Turner does a good job of documenting and analyzing the political side of the ledger, but he seems to view unions through the wrong end of the telescope. We hear a lot about their militancy and political muscle, but the background, the base reason for Britain's labour woes (as opposed to, say, Germany's labour calm) isn't really hinted at. Were unions just naturally stroppy? Were they fueled by old grievances? Was it something about their internal culture or organization? There's really no answers to these questions.

On the social history side, Turner provides a skim reading of British popular culture of the 1970s. Everything from David Bowie to Confessions of movies to the travails of the National Theatre are referenced and commented upon. It's all interesting, and a bit of a trip down memory lane for people of a certain age, but Turner doesn't bring a whole lot of insight to the party. For example, he doesn't comment or notice on the sea change in British comedy in that decade, which began with films like Carry On Up the Jungle and ended with The Life of Brian.

I'd recommend this book on basis of its strength as a political history, but keep in mind that when it comes to the role of unions in British society it's pretty much analysis-free. The social history aspect of the book is OK, but it's far from insightful.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Film Review: The Outfit (1973)

I've written previously about the Parker novels by Richard Stark on this blog (you can read the post here), and this early 1970s adaptation of the novel by the same name comes closest to capturing the flavour of Stark's writing. Point Blank is the best film made from a Parker novel, but it's not really true to the spirit of the books. And although The Outfit feels more like its source material, it still manages to miss the boat. It's entertaining, but there's some wonkiness that's hard to overlook.

The first oddity is that short, balding Robert Duvall is cast in the Parker role. Now Duvall can play tough, but he just doesn't appear tough (why does he hold his gun in that odd way?), and Parker is certainly described as looking rangy and menacing. The second oddity is that his character is called Earl Macklin instead of Parker. I can't even guess why that change was made. Joe Don Baker plays Macklin's sidekick and he would have been a much better choice for the Parker character.

The story is one that Stark would recycle in Butcher's Moon: the Outfit has killed Macklin's brother in retaliation for he and Earl having robbed a bank a few years previously that was controlled by the Outfit. Macklin goes to the Outfit's boss and demands a payment of 250k as a penalty for killing his brother (such brotherly love). The Outfit refuses, and Macklin and his sidekick begin knocking over Outfit properties until they agree to pay the "fine." They try to double-cross Macklin and that turns out to be a bad idea.

And now a word about the Outfit. The Outfit is a feature of the old Parker novels, and it's one that now feels somewhat dated. To a certain degree it plays the role that SPECTRE did in the James Bond novels. Both are highly organized criminal enterprises with interests in all kinds of criminal activity. The Outfit is essentially the Mafia, only it seems to be run entirely run by WASPy types. In Parker's world, every city has a parallel criminal economy, and it's all run by the Outfit.

The scenes of Macklin knocking over Outfit properties are done very well, and a lot of Stark's terse, muscular dialogue makes it to the screen to great effect. The acting is equally fine, which isn't surprising given that cast is stuffed with veteran character actors, everyone from Elisha Cook to Robert Ryan. Some parts are more uneven. Bruce Surtees is the cinematographer (he shot a lot Clint Eastwood's films) and he gives some scenes a nicely gritty look, but a lot of other scenes just look like a made-for-TV movie. Macklin's relationship with his girlfriend, played by Karen Black, is pointless and has an unpleasantly abusive aspect. The ending is the biggest disappointment. It feels hastily assembled and finishes on a jokey note that is very un-Parker.

The Outfit is worth watching, but I wouldn't go out of my way to track it down.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Film Review: Seduced and Abandoned (1964)

This film is remarkably similar in theme to the novel Bell' Antonio, which I reviewed in August. Both are about the corrosive effects of Sicilian codes of honour and machismo. The novel takes a look at an arranged marriage that falls apart, while Seduced, made in 1964, is about various frustrated attempts to arrange a marriage.

Seduced begins during a siesta in the affluent Ascalone household. Everyone's asleep except Peppino Califano, who's engaged to Matilde Ascalone, and Agnese, Don Vincenzo Ascalone's youngest (15) and most beautiful daughter. Peppino and Agnese steal away to a deserted corner of the large house and the deed is done. It's not clear if they love or even like each other, but they definitely succumb to a mutual lust, with Peppino leading the charge.

Sure enough, Agnese is left pregnant by her one tryst with Peppino and that begins a comic war between Vincenzo and the Califano family. Vincenzo wants Peppino to marry Agnese to save his family's honour. Peppino counters that he doesn't want to marry a girl who can be seduced so easily; it clearly means she's a whore at heart. The battle takes some twists and turns, and in the end the Califanos find themselves being forced to beg Vincenzo for his daughter. And along the way there's been an attempted honour killing and what can only be called a ritual kidnapping. A wedding finally takes place, but it's left nothing but scorched earth behind it and no future prospects for happiness.

This film is described as a comedy, but only in the sense that it's a ruthless satire of Sicilian culture. There are some laughs, but what's to be enjoyed here is the meticulous examination of the hypocrisy and idiocy of Sicilian concepts of honor and pride. None of the characters come away looking good or innocent, and the final shot in the film is a brutal but effective commentary on the pointlessness of upholding honour. Pietro Germi was the director, and he did an excellent job of keeping a nice balance between acidic satire and silliness.

The cast is excellent, led by Saro Urzi as Vincenzo. You may recognize him from The Godfather where he played the father of the Sicilian girl Michael Corleone takes as his wife. Choosing Urzi for this role was clearly a tip of the hat to Seduced and Abandoned from Francis Ford Coppola. The cinematography is also good, and the soundtrack by Carlo Rustichelli sounds remarkably like something Ennio Morricone might have created. I wonder who influenced who.

Sicilian codes of honour don't have much contemporary resonance, but the film can still be enjoyed for the sheer craft and pleasure and wit that went into making it. There's a film version of Bell' Antonio and I'm going to have to hunt it down to compare and contrast.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: Family Planning (2008) by Karan Mahajan

If there's one common thread running through the Indian literature I've read it's the frustration felt by the Indian middle and upper classes with the chaotic, corrupt state of their country. Balancing this is a love for India's eccentricities, traditions and downright absurdities. Add in the siren call of the West and you can see that Indian writers have some rather big issues to deal with.

Family Planning takes the madness of modern Indian life and compresses it into the Ahuja family of New Delhi. The family, all fifteen of them, are led by Rakesh Ahuja, a cabinet minister in the government. His cabinet portfolio has him in charge of "flyovers", an elevated series of expressways that are intended to lift traffic above the sprawl and congestion of Delhi. His oldest son, Arjun, 16, is a big fan of Bryan Adams and wants to start his own rock band in order to impress a schoolgirl he sees on the bus everyday.

That's the basic setup for the novel, but beyond that the author doesn't do a lot with his two main characters. Rakesh's political career comes a cropper for entirely farcical reasons, and Arjun's band gets nowhere entirely because they have absolutely no talent. Mahajan is mostly interested in showing the contradictions in Indian life, such as a cabinet minister trying to tame Delhi's traffic while at the same increasing it with his oversized family. Mahajan is a clever and amusing writer, but his novel borders on being plotless. The writing is entertaining but after a certain point it needs to be attached to a story.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Film Review: Season of the Witch (2011)

You could do a lot worse than watching this on DVD. Season of the Witch came out for a short and disastrous theatrical run in January of this year, and was harpooned by every critic in the solar system. It's actually pretty good if you accept it as a B-movie that wants to deliver some swordplay and supernatural CGI.

I checked out some of the reviews by nationally known critics (Roger Ebert, PeterTravers) and found it interesting that the same critics who thought Witch was an abomination managed to give Captain America: The First Avenger glowing reviews. I watched Captain earlier this week and found it so lame I didn't even bother to review it. But I will now.

Captain America is barely a movie. At about the halfway point of the film Steve Rogers (Captain America) finds himself in Italy in WW II and hears that his best friend is being held captive by the Germans. He goes to rescue him. He succeeds. The rest of the film is almost entirely an extended montage of Steve kicking Nazi ass. There's no plot, there's no character development, and the action scenes are lifeless. The acting never rises above competent, and none of the characters has any personality.

Witch, on the other hand, has a solid, coherent plot that has Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman as ex-Crusaders delivering a witch for trial to a monastery. Basically, it's a variation on a quest story. It's the kind of tried and true plot that's worked well in everything from westerns to samurai films. They face various dangers en route and then a nasty surprise awaits them at the monastery. The locations used in Hungary and Austria are atmospheric, and the director gives the action elements a lot of energy. And Cage and Perlman are always watchable.

So why the animosity directed towards it? I think the reason is that it's a straightforward B-movie and not an ironic B-movie like Planet Terror or Hobo With a Shotgun. An unaplogetic B-movie doesn't allow much room for critical comment; you either find it entertaining or you don't. But why did Captain America, which by any standard is a poor movie, get such a polite response? I'd hazard a guess that a lot of critics are closet comic book nerds who somehow feel it's their duty to cheer each new additon to the superhero genre.

Let me be clear about Witch, it's no classic. Some of the actors are forgettable, the CGI isn't the best, and the dialogue isn't going to win any scriptwriting awards. But despite all that the film is a lot of fun. It wants to be imaginative, scary, fast-moving and violent, but without Michael Bay levels of bombast and overkill. and on those terms it succeeds.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Film Review: The Princess of Montpensier (2010)

Do people still want to see historical epics like this? I thought this film might offer a bit of a wrinkle on an old and tired genre, but it doesn't. The costumes are gorgeous and detailed, there's romantic and political intrigue, and there's a fair amount of swordplay. The problem is that it all feels tired and paint-by-numbers.

The actors are all good, with Melanie Thierry being quite beautiful in the role of the beautiful Princess Montpensier. In fact, she looks a bit too good. This is the 16th century, after all, but Thierry always looks like she's just finished shooting a shampoo commerical. I never got past the feeling that I was watching actors playing dress-up.

The story is about the arranged marriage of Marie to the Prince de Montpensier. This being a period piece, Marie, naturally enough, doesn't love the Prince, but pines for Henri de Guise, played by Gaspard Ulliel, who looks like he's just back from doing an aftershave commercial. Passions run high, love follows a rocky course, and the Catholic/Protestant wars rage in the background.

Maybe Bertrand Tavernier, the director, felt he needed a costume drama on his resume, but I can't see any other reason to make this film; the plot is generic and even the action elements are lacking in energy. If you want to a fairly recent French costume epic that really delivers the goods watch The Horseman On the Roof with Juliette Binoche.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Film Review: The Mill and the Cross (2011)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Procession to Calvary in 1564. It was commissioned by Nicholaes Jonghelinck, a rich merchant from Antwerp. The purpose of the painting, according to this film, was to depict Christ's suffering and crucifixion within the context of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.

The above synopsis isn't appreciably leaner than the information supplied in The Mill and the Cross. The film attempts to literally take us inside a painting, to deconstruct and almost atomize its various visual and symbolic elements. Lech Wajeski, the director, shows us how Bruegel took the raw material of daily life and shaped it into a political allegory, and Wajeski does this without turning his film into some kind of dry docudrama.

As befits a story about a painting, The Mill and the Cross is all about images, and Wajeski does a stunning job of making his own images stand comparison to Bruegel's. There's really not a lot more that can said about the film; you either respond to the idea of the film and its images or you don't. It definitely worked for me. The trailer below gives a clear idea of what to expect.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: Falling Glass (2011) by Adrian McKinty

If you've read McKinty's Michael Forsythe trilogy (Dead I May Well Be, The Dead Yard, The Bloomsday Dead) your enjoyment of Falling Glass may be slightly impaired. The reason is that the shadow of Michael Forsythe looms large over this thriller. Forsythe is a compelling character: crafty, funny, tough, ruthless, and a great observer of the world around him. He's always the most interesting (and dangerous) person in the room. Forsythe makes a few appearances in Falling Glass and that means Killian, the lead character, suffers by comparison. Killian is an adequate hero, but he just feels like a slightly paler version of Forsythe. Much is made of the fact that Killian is an Irish Traveller, but his ethnicity doesn't translate into a character who's significantly different from Forsythe.

As a thriller, Falling Glass is in the Premier League. This is largely because McKinty does not try and put his plots together like a Swiss watch. A great many thrillers have a flowchart feel to them: plot point follows plot point in reliable progression, and even the surprises have a predictable feel to them. In McKinty's plots, as in the real world, shit happens. That means plans and schemes suddenly go pear-shaped and cause stories to spin off in unexpected directions. In Dead I May Well Be what begins as a crime thriller suddenly becomes an escape from prison thriller. The prison section of that novel is a classic of its kind.

This novel has Killian, a semi-retired tough guy, being tasked with finding the ex-wife of a Northern Irish aviation tycoon named Coulter. The woman, Rachel, is a barely recovering drug addict and has two young daughters. She also has a laptop that contains very damaging information about Coulter. It's because of the laptop that Coulter, unbeknownst to Killian, has sent Markov, a Russian hitman, after Killian. Once Killian finds Rachel, Markov's job is to kill her and recover the laptop. Killian discovers what Markov's purpose is and he decides to protect Rachel and her girls. Cue the tension, the violence, and a very unexpected conclusion. The plotting here isn't quite up to the standard of the Forsythe novels, but it's still very good. The main drawback is that things don't get underway quickly enough thanks to sidetrips to Mexico and Macau that aren't really necessary.

Falling Glass, like the trilogy, isn't all about the running, the hiding, the shooting, and the killing. McKinty is a literary writer. He writes dialogue that's so lively it practically dances, and his characters certainly have far more depth than is usual in a thriller. In this novel he even brings some layers to Markov. Implacable, taciturn Russian hitmen are a dime a dozen in pop culture, but Markov is allowed to be more than just a walking, talking gun.

The most interesting aspect to this novel is that Killian, Rachel, and Markov seem to be trapped in their roles by forces beyond their control. Killian was out of the crime game until the collapse of the Irish economy; Rachel is a prisoner of drug addiction; and Markov is the warped product of the fall of the U.S.S.R and the brutality of the Russian military. Even Coulter is suffering through a meltdown in the airline business. In short, the drama we see is a by-product of collapsing societies and economies. In contrast to this are the Travellers, who give shelter to Killian and Rachel. Their traditional, communal, tribal, nomadic existence seems idyllic and healthy in comparison to the harsh realities of the straight world.

The conclusion to Falling Glass is really going to annoy some people. I thought it was the highlight of the novel. It's The Italian Job cliffhanger with a subtle twist. The twist is that the two participants are, I'm guessing, stand-ins for the twin poles of Irish history: the lyrical and the profanely violent. In literary terms Ireland has been punching above its weight for a very long time, but, by the same token, it's also known an amazing amount of violence and tragedy for an island that would fit quite easily into southern Ontario.

Falling Glass would be up there with the Forsythe novels but for the character of Killian, and some imagery and metaphors that feel forced and awkward. But that's nitpicking. This is still one of the best thrillers I've read this year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shakespeare Review: Richard II

No one tell the Tea Party, but Shakespeare may well have been on their side. In Richard II the king is opposed and deposed because he's been a profligate spender and tax happy. A tax and spend liberal, as it were. The political and dynastic machinations of England's peers provide the backbone of this play, but its power lies in the character of Richard, and Shakespeare's meditations on the duality of man and king.

In a way, Richard is a cousin to Hamlet, the man whose tragedy. according to Laurence Olivier, was that he could not make up his mind. Richard can't decide whether to act like a king or a man, and his vacillations make him a pitiable and tragic figure. In the early stages of the play Richard is all kingly pride and condescension as he banishes Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) for having taken part in a treasonous plot. When Bolingbroke's father, the Duke of Lancaster, dies Bolingbroke returns to England to claim his dukedom and lead a rebellion against Richard. When Richard returns from Ireland and hears of the rebellion he says, with regal disdain:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift the shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel, then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for Heaven still guards the

Richard's showing a lot of confidence before the big match. But mere moments later Richard gets the bad news that most of the peerage has turned against him and he now faces very long odds. It's at this point that Richard's character splits in two. Half of him becomes a frightened, friendless man who suddenly sees his own mortality as something inevitable and separate from his role as a king. With shocking clarity Richard realizes that kings are very much flesh and blood creatures, and he reveals this to his few followers in a witty and heartbreaking speech shown in the clip below. The performance is a bit too jocular, but it captures the spirit of the thing.

For the rest of play Richards swings between the role of king and common man. In times of stress he cracks and bemoans his fate, welcoming the idea of simply abdicating. At other times his pride takes hold and he sees himself as a king, having a divinely-ordained obligation to fight against whatever odds to oppose those who would overthrow a man chosen by God to rule on Earth. He dies as a king, sword in hand, cut down by assassins.

Although Shakespeare always paid lip service to the concept of the divine right of kings, and showed equal support for an ordered, hierarchical society, in Richard II we see that there was more than a little ambivalence in his mind on the subject of kings. I think Shakespeare felt this way due to a profound feeling of existential dread, probably rooted in atheism. In Shakespeare's time atheism was, according to historian Keith Thomas, a not uncommon belief, and where atheism goes, agnosticism follows in even greater numbers. In showing Richard losing faith in his kingship, Shakespeare was possibly showing his own loss of faith. It's notable that in this play and others, characters who speak of death in the abstract speak of God and Heaven; characters who are facing their own imminent demise, as Richard is in the clip above, speak of death as the bleak, meaningless end of existence.

As though to replace the idea of kings with something that transcends flesh and blood, Shakespeare invents the concept of nationalism in Richard II. Well, invent may be going a bit far, but prior to Shakespeare if nationalism existed it was bound up with the role of a monarch as a divine representative. Shakespeare has Bolingbroke's father delivers a rousing speech that pretty clearly states that it is England's greatness that produces great kings, not great kings that make England great. The speech is in the clip below from 1:30 to 4:08

Shakespeare adds to his nationalist theme with a short speech by the soon-to-be exiled Mowbray, who feels the bitterest part of leaving England's shores is that he will no longer be able to speak English. Mowbray doesn't mention the loss of family and friends, it's the loss of his language, which he almost seems to regard as part of his soul, that causes him the most grief. A lesser writer would have Mowbray bemoaning leaving behind family, wealth and England's worldly charms. Shakespeare shows England having a spiritual hold on Mowbray.

I give Richard II a solid 8 out of 10 on the Bard-o-Meter.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Film Review: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

This film began life a few years ago as a short shown on YouTube. The feature version feels like a short that's been stretched waaaay out. The high concept premise is that Santa and his elves are actually malevolent creatures from Finnish folklore who like to kill children. Things begin with a team of engineers digging something big out of a mountain, which turns out to be a giant, horned Santa creature frozen into a block of ice. Meanwhile Santa's elves, apparently alerted to this excavation, start kidnapping local children in preparation for the big guy thawing out and feeling hungry. A young boy named Pietari somehow fathoms all this and attempts to warn his father, but, of course, dad won't listen until things are almost too late.

Half the fun in a horror/fantasy story is the setup, the sense of rising dread or excitement we get as things get creepier, stranger or scarier. Rare Exports does a terrible job of setup. Nothing's explained, the story lurches forward, characters are barely introduced, and the whole folklore aspect of the story is barely described or developed. Really, the director only seems interested in the final 15 minutes of the film wherein we get most of the special effects and some tongue-in-cheek riffs on action movie tropes. If as much imagination and attention to detail had been paid to the rest of the film this would be something to remember.

I'd have more to say about Rare Exports but there's really so little to it. It looks good, the acting is fine, but the storytelling, the nuts and bolts of building up atmosphere, are so clumsily handled that the film ends up feeling like a first draft for a another, better film.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review: Rivers of London (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch

Right now the book world is awash in fantasy literature. This is largely thanks to the twin aftershocks of Harry Potter and the Twilight books. Anything, it seems, with a fantasy or horror element, and any mash-up entangling the two with other genres, gets a warm greeting from the publishing industry. This has produced a lot of dreck, usually involving Buffy clones finding romance as they splatter the undead.

Rivers of London avoids zombies and romance, and is mostly successful, largely thanks to some solid comic writing and a clever mash-up of a police procedural and the world of magic. Our hero is Peter Grant, a young police constable who looks to be headed for a dull, behind-the-scenes job in the Met. All that changes when he's assigned to guard a crime scene involving a headless corpse and then ends up taking a witness statement from a ghost. From there it's a short step to becoming an apprentice wizard under the tutelage of Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who is, yes, a fully-fledged wizard. Nightingale's remit, which is known only to a few of his superiors, is to investigate supernatural crimes and keep the peace on the otherworldly side of London.

The headless corpse is the first in a series of gruesome deaths perpetrated by a vengeful ghost who is using the bodies of Londoners to reenact a bizarre and bloody Punch and Judy show. On top of trying to collar the murderous ghost, Grant and Nightingale have to keep the peace between the gods of London's rivers. London apparently has many rivers, mostly hidden, but each has it's god, and Mother Thames and Father Thames rule over them all.

Aaronovitch has a slick, chirpy writing style that owes a lot to Terry Pratchett, and he's smart enough to have Grant make a couple of references to Harry Potter just so we know that Grant realizes he's dropped into an absurd and improbable world. Aaronovitch also does a good job of explaining, or creating a theory of, how magic works. This is always a bit of a problem in books about magic; the authors either ignore the how and why, or they come up with a dopey, New Age-y explanation. Aaronovitch takes a more technical approach, and it works rather well. Even better is his decision to make the cop elements as real as possible. Take away the magical element and this would be a solid police procedural mystery; Grant talks like a cop, he follows Met protocol, he relies as much on police equipment as he does on magic, and he really seems to enjoy being a policeman.

Where Aaronovitch runs into trouble is with the plot. The final section of the book is a bit of a mess. The first problem is that the author begins to tie himself into thick, confusing knots explaining the magical and supernatural logic behind what's happening. Another bad decision is to have a climactic scene set in a packed Royal Opera House in which the killer ghost reveals himself and a massive riot breaks out. The problem is that this isn't the finale of the book. The riot ends, the reader's excitement evaporates, and the real end comes a short time later. The opera house scene is very Pratchettesque, but Sir Terry would have ended the novel right there.

Notice something? I haven't mentioned the river gods when discussing the killer ghost plot. That's because Aaronovitch fails to make the two plots intertwine in any meaningful way. That would be fine if the river gods' story was a sub-plot, but it isn't. A big chunk of the novel is devoted to dealing with the various gods and, while all of it is interesting and clever, it really doesn't have a damn thing to do with the main plot. The river gods need their own novel, not a superfluous role in a ghostly murder mystery.

There's a sequel to Rivers of London called Moon Over Soho (werewolves, I expect), and yet another is in the pipeline. I'll definitely read the next one and hope that the author has let an editor get a look at it first.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Film Review: The Last Circus (2010)

The Spanish title is A Sad Trumpet Ballad
If this film can claim nothing else, it's assuredly the most violent circus movie ever. And it's one of the best films I've seen so far this year. It's definitely not for all tastes; you'll need a high tolerance for over-the-top, operatic storytelling and extreme imagery, but it's certainly a masterpiece of visual imagination.

The director is Alex de la Iglesia, who I'm completely unfamiliar with. His directing style is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's (Micmacs, Amelie), both men filling their films with outlandish and striking images, and characters who are as odd and eccentric as the visuals.

The Last Circus begins in Madrid in 1937 in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. A Republican Army officer pressgangs all the men in a circus troupe to fight against the fascist Nationalists, and in the ensuing battle a circus clown is captured. He and other prisoners are put to work after the war building an enormous monument to the Nationalist war dead. The clown's son, Javier, tries to rescue him, but his father is killed during the escape. Before dying, Javier's father tells him to seek revenge. The story now jumps to 1973 as Javier, now a blobby man in his 40s, joins a circus as the "sad" clown. The "happy" clown is Sergio, an absolute brute who drinks and beats his girlfriend Natalia. Sergio is the star attraction of the circus. Javier falls for Natalia and attracts the wrath of Sergio. The rest of the story is better seen than described.

Iglesia tells his story in images, and his inventiveness never flags. The opening credits and the initial battle form the most visually dynamic opening sequence I've seen in years, and the final ten minutes or so are just as strong. Iglesia doesn't just string together eye-catching scenes for their own sake; he maintains a strong storyline throughout, albeit it's a story that can be a bit loopy and improbable. The only problem with this film is that it's filled, I assume, with political commentary and symbolism that's completely opaque to a non-Spaniard such as myself. This didn't lessen my enjoyment of the film, it just annoyed me to think that if I was Spanish I'd be enjoying it even more. The Last Circus is one of those films that celebrates that fact that film is a visual medium first and foremost, and not just a recording device for dialogue and images cooked up in a computer.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: Dr. Yes (2010) by Colin Bateman

Colin Bateman can do better than this. I've read two of his Dan Starkey mysteries, Belfast Confidential and The Horse With My Name, and they work quite well as hard-edged mysteries with a side order of comedy. In Dr. Yes the emphasis is on the comedy, and there's very little edge, hard or otherwise. In fact, this novel could almost qualify as a cosy mystery, and that's not something a lad-lit writer like Bateman would want. The Starkey books are definitely lad-lit, with lots of boozing, casual violence, sexism, and a hero who's lippy and self-centred. Those can be good things.

Dr. Yes is the third of a series featuring Mystery Man, the owner of No Alibis, a mystery bookstore in Belfast. The never named owner of No Alibis (it's an actual Belfast bookstore) finds himself investigating the murder of Augustine Wogan, a forgotten mystery writer, whose wife has disappeared after going to a cosmetic surgery clinic run by a Dr. Yeschenkov. Aided by his girlfriend, Alison, and Jeff the shop assistant, Man solves the case. This is really sounding like a cosy now, isn't it?

The plot of  Dr. Yes is pretty generic, with only minor twists and turns. As I said, this novel's all about the comedy, and to that end Bateman makes Man a grab bag of comic cliches: he's a hypochondriac, he speaks his mind at inopportune moments, he's a coward, and he never passes up a chance to needle someone. The problem is that Bateman can't maintain a high enough level of comic writing. Bits and pieces of the book are amusing, and it's clear Bateman's a good writer, but too often Dr. Yes begins to sound like a mediocre sitcom. This is particularly true of the bantering between Man and Alison, which consists mostly of unfunny insults and comebacks. Their dialogue isn't mediocre sitcom writing, it's bad sitcom writing; think Everybody Loves Raymond bad. The best thing I can say about Dr. Yes is that at least Mystery Man doesn't solve his mysteries with the help of a cat. There are some lines that simply can't be crossed, even by sitcom writers.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Film Review: The Seven-Ups (1973)

Philip D'Antoni isn't a name you hear mentioned often when the history of modern cinema is discussed, but he certainly deserves some credit for two notable contributions to film history. The first is the car chase. D'Antoni was the producer of Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. Now there were certainly car chases before Bullitt, but they were usually done for comic effect as in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or they were clumsily filmed scenes (lots of rear projection shots) of squad cars chasing bank robbers. In Bullitt and The French Connection the car chase became an action centrepiece, the equivalent of the cavalry charge in westerns and historical epics. D'Antoni's "modern" car chases looked and sounded real, and created a new kind of cinematic excitement. After The French Connection virtually no action film was complete unlesss it included one or more elaborately staged car chases.

D'Antoni's other addition to film history is the creation of a sub-genre I'd call cop noir. Cop noir begins with The French Connection. If film noir was all about doomed lovers, laconic private detectives, and moody cinematography, cop noir was about documenting the decline and fall of American cities and the institutions that make them function as seen through cop eyes. Cop noir looks raw, sounds raw, and shows big American cities torn apart by street crime, organized crime, drug addiction, poverty, and corruption. Hard on the heels of The French Connection came Dirty Harry, Across 110th Street, Busting, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham 123, Badge 373, and a score of similar films. Bullitt isn't cop noir if only because Steve McQueen looks great, acts cool, mostly keeps his temper, and has a supermodel girlfriend before there were supermodels. Compare and contrast with Gene Hackman in The French Connection and you'll see what I mean.

And that brings us to The Seven-Ups. The story has a pre-Jaws Roy Scheider leading a small team of N.Y.C. cops who go after villains wanted for crimes that earn sentences of seven years and up. Why seven years? Because it makes for a punny movie title. The film's title is a dud, but the film isn't. The Seven-Ups is essentially a sequel to Connection in everything but name. It has the same gritty look, Don Ellis scored both films, and it features possibly the best car chase of the three films D'Antoni produced.

The plot has Scheider's team investigating why some of the city's crime bosses are being kidnapped. It turns out Scheider's main snitch, played by Tony Lo Bianco, is using information he gets from an unwitting Scheider to target wealthy criminals for kidnapping and ransom. Things are further complicated by the fact that snitch and cop are childhood friends.Things don't end well for one of them. The story is original and engaging, and might have been even better if D'Antoni hadn't decided to direct this film himself. He had no experience at directing and it shows on occasion. A couple of sequences, notably a scene in a car wash, are clumsily handled and feature a variety of glaring continuity errors.

D'Antoni does redeem himself with the action sequences, which are quick, dirty and efficient, and the car chase, which is certainly as good as the one in Connection as well as being longer. D'Antoni the director also does a nice job with the actors, choosing an all-ugly cast of New York actors who bring a lot of verisimilitude to the film. And New York looks like, well, the New York you don't see in Woody Allen movies. This is Ratso Rizzo's N.Y.C.

If you like to remember New York as being mad, bad and dangerous to visit, check out The Seven-Ups. Spoiler alert: the trailer below shows way too much of the film's highlights.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Film Review: The Robber (2010)

This Austrian film is based on the criminal career of Johann Kastenberger (called Rettenberger in the film), a marathon runner who also doubled as a bank robber. Kastenberger was a one-man crime wave, hitting a string of Viennese banks in the late 1980s before being captured by the police. He then made a daring escape from a police station and ended up being shot and killed at a police roadblock days later. This biopic changes some of the facts of Kastenberger's life and is also given a contemporary setting.

The Robber is very well made, technically speaking, but it's just about as lifeless a film as you could imagine. Half the problem lies in the character of Rettenberger. He runs, he robs, and that's all we know about him. He's a character without characteristics. Rettenberger walks around with a semi-catatonic look on his face for the entire film, which seems to be a perfect match for his zombie-like personality. Why is he like this? What's his background? It's all left a mystery and the film suffers badly because of it. We don't root for or against this guy, we just watch his actions in a half-interested sort of way.

The cinematography deserves praise, and the robbery sequences are efficiently handled, but too often the director lets his camera linger over shots that are lovingly composed, but have no impact. Overall, The Robber has a minimalist feel, as though the director was trying very hard not to be flashy and frantic. This was not the right approach. The robberies should give us the adrenaline rush that Rettenberger gets from running. In fact, it's made clear that this might be the motivation for his thefts; after one robbery he takes off a monitor that has been recording his heart rate, and we see that it spikes during the robbery. The director should have been equally concerned with spiking our heart rates.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review: Time Out of Mind (1966) by Pierre Boulle

You may not be familiar with writer Pierre Boulle, but you've almost certainly seen either The Planet of the Apes or The Bridge On the River Kwai, both of which are based on novels he wrote. Clearly, this is a guy who can come up with some clever story ideas.

Time Out of Mind is a collection of twelve short stories, most of them with a sci-fi angle. As a writer, Boulle is definitely more of a concept guy than a wordsmith. All his stories have a kind of binary structure in which two opposing ideas or entities are in perfectly synchronized conflict. This sometimes produces good results, but on the whole Boulle's stories aren't in the same league as, say, Ray Bradbury's.

One of the best stories is The Enigmatic Saint, about an overpopulated leper colony in medieval France that's visited by a man who appears to be a saint. The description of the colony is appropriately gruesome, and Boulle does a nice job of showing the colony mirroring the brutal class structure of the outside world. The final reveal is a bit shouty, but it's still good. The Miracle, which is about a priest who, to his own amazement, performs a miracle, has nice twist to it, and The Man Who Picked Up Pins is an amusing and ironic diatribe against one particular folktale.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TV Review: Detective Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Commissario Montalbano
I'd heard of author Andrea Camilleri and his Commissario Montalbano mysteries, but until last week I didn't know they'd been filmed for Italian television. Twenty-two of them, no less. The library recently got the whole collection on DVD with English sub-titles and I've been working my way through them. They're excellent.

Putting aside their quality as mysteries for the moment, the thing about this series that really stands out is the craftsmanship with which they've been made. All ten episodes I've seen so far look great. The cinematography is absolutely first-rate. Two cinematographers have worked on the series and they both make great use of single-source, natural lighting for their interior shots. And an equal amount of care has been put into set design with the careful choice of colours to complement the cinematography. The locations? Let's just say you'll be booking a vacation to Sicily after seeing only a few episodes. The soundtrack also deserves praise both for its quirkiness and its unobtrusiveness. Some TV shows, notably Dr. Who, give the audience an unrelenting earbashing with bombastic scores. In sum, Montalbano looks and sounds fantastic.

As mysteries, this series relies more on characterization and pitch-perfect casting to carry the weight rather than clever, devious plotting. The stories are always interesting, often intriguing, but more for the characters they introduce than the plots. One episode, for example, "borrows" the plot from Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders. That plot is one of the most original in crime fiction, but by now it's been lifted by just about every crime writer going, and most viewers are quite familiar with it.

The actors, led by Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano, are uniformly excellent. I get the feeling that the producers have tried to use local non-professional talent, because some of the smaller roles are filled by people who have, shall we say, non-professional faces but a great deal of enthusiasm. This is all for the best because the glossy look of the shows is balanced out by cast members who look like they've been pulled off the streets and fields of Sicily. But Zingaretti is very much the star of the show. He looks and acts tough without coming across as vicious, and he's equally adept at looking foolish or awkward when the story calls for it. He's in virtually every second of every show, and it's a testament to his acting ability and appeal that he never wears out his welcome.

If you try and order the DVDs from Amazon keep in mind that for some reason they're listed as Detective Montalbano, not Inspector or Commissario. If your taste in TV cops runs to something grittier and French, check out my review of Braquo, a nasty but entertaining mini-series about some ruthless Paris cops. The trailer below is for the most recent episodes of Montalbano.

Related posts:

Film Review: Un Maladetto Imbroglio 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Bandit Love (2009) by Massimo Carlotto

I'm a big fan of Massimo Carlotto, but Bandit Love is a mess. Carlotto is one of the better Italian crime writers, and knows more about the subject of crime than most writers thanks to having once been thrown in prison for a murder he didn't commit. His autobiographical novel about his ordeal, The Fugitive, is sensational, and his crime novels The Goodbye Kiss and The Master of Knots are lean, tough and gritty.

The problem with Bandit Love is that it's issue-driven. The issue is the corruption of Italian society from top to bottom and from side to side. In the Italy of Bandit Love everyone takes bribes, pays bribes, use drugs, sells drugs, hires illegal immigrants, or is an illegal immigrant. And while Carlotto obviously has a lot to say on this subject, he doesn't have a plot to carry his editorializing along for the ride. The story has "Alligator" (Carlotto's private eye character) helping a friend track down his kidnapped girlfriend. That story is wrapped up halfway through the novel and then Carlotto switches gears and we follow Alligator and his friends as they take revenge against the Serbian mafia boss responsible for kidnapping the woman. Both plots are lazily developed and generate zero tension.

Another sign that Carlotto really didn't have a coherent plan for this novel is that he has Alligator nattering on about jazz and blues, mentioning his favourite songs, and so on. Any time a crime writer has his main character making frequent commentaries about music, films, food or local history, you know the author's treading water because his plot is too thin. If Silvio "bunga-bunga" Berlusconi is any indication I can well believe that Italy is as rotten as it's depicted in Bandit Love, but whining and bitching about it isn't a good basis for a novel. Carlotto should take a look at Dominique Manotti, a French crime writer who effortlessly mixes political commentary with complex, fast-paced, violent plots.

Below is the trailer for Arrivederci Amore, Ciao, the film version of The Goodbye Kiss. The film's excellent, and even though the trailer isn't in English, it is available on DVD with English sub-titles.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Shakespeare Review: Troilus and Cressida

So, I'm going to start rereading, and in some cases reading for the first time, all of Shakespeare's plays. I'm starting off with Troilus and Cressida only because I saw someone at the library ordering it and I figured it's as good a play to start with as any.

Troilus is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, meaning it doesn't fit easily into the slots marked Tragedy or Comedy. Nor is it a history play in the sense that Julius Caesar is a dramatic retelling of historical facts. The play is set during the siege of Troy and revolves around Cressida's betrayal of her lover Troilus. After one night together Cressida, a Trojan, is exchanged for Antenor, a Trojan warrior held captive by the Greeks. Troilus enters the Greek encampment under a truce and finds that Cressida has almost immediately given her heart to Diomedes, a Greek. The play also gives equal time to the story of Achilles, and his stubborn refusal to join the battle because his plus-sized pride has been wounded, and the efforts of Ulysses and others to get him off his ass, as it were.

The most remarkable thing about this play is that Shakespeare seems to find almost all the characters contemptible. Really, only Hector, champion of the Trojans, comes away looking good. Everyone else is loutish, scheming, stupid, vain, or foolish. Even Achilles, the great warrior of legend, is shown to be petty and vicious. Instead of meeting Hector in single combat he begs off, claiming exhaustion, and then has his followers, the Myrmidons, trap Hector and spear him to death as though he was a farm animal slated for slaughter.

Shakespeare's dyspeptic feelings towards the Trojans and Greeks are summed up in the character of Thersites, a Greek, who plays the role of a fool, but not a poetic, lightly taunting fool. Thersites is an unfunny Don Rickles. He simply castigates anyone who crosses his path in the bitterest terms imaginable. At one point Thersites is cornered by a Trojan warrior and describes himself to a T:

"No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing
knave, a very filthy rogue."

Shakespeare was a great promoter of the concept of kingly rule, the idea of an ordered society flowing down from a single ruler. The problem with the story of Troy is that is, at heart, a tale about a petty crime leading to the plunder of a city. There's not much that's noble there, although many nobles are present. Maybe this explains the problem aspect of the play; Shakespeare simply couldn't work up a lot of enthusiasm for his subject. On the Bard-o-meter this one ranks as a 5 out of 10.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Film Review: 13 Assassins (2011)

The plot of most samurai films, like most kung fu films, is largely irrelevant. We're not watching samurai films to get a keener understanding of clan rivalries in feudal Japan. Nor are most samurai film fans obsessed with bushido, the samurai code of honour; we're just glad it existed so that samurai would have a handy excuse for slicing each other up. We watch samurai films for the swordplay, and 13 Assassins delivers mayhem in industrial quantities. The plot, for those who care, pits 12 samurai and one agile, deadly peasant against Lord Naritsugu and his 200 soldiers. Naritsugu must be killed because, well, he's so evil. How evil? If Hitler had an even more evil twin brother he wouldn't be as evil as this guy.

13 Assassins would be unremarkable if it was all about the body count. The Lone Wolf and Cub series of samurai films made in the 1970s were just as bloody, but they were short on artistry. Takeshi Miike, the director of 13 Assassins, shows a fine appreciation for the formal pleasures of the best samurai films. In the first half of the film characters are introduced and the plot is developed. Most of these scenes take place inside minimally furnished noble houses. For a director and cinematographer these are demanding scenes because all you're filming are people kneeling and talking in nearly bare rooms. There's very little to engage the eye. Miike makes the scenes come alive with beautifully lit and composed shots that are a pleasure all by themselves. And when the action moves outdoors, Miike and his cameraman are equally adept at framing figures and groups of soldiers against classic Japanese landscapes.

And the swordplay? Top notch, and there's lots of it. Some scenes in the final battle are a little over the top, and the warrior-peasant makes a remarkable recovery from a major injury, but all in all this film has to belong in the Premier League of samurai films.

Book Review: Butcher's Moon (1974) By Richard Stark

In 1962 Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, introduced the character of Parker, a professional thief who is as remorseless as he is efficient. This first novel was The Hunter (filmed as Point Blank with Lee Marvin) and it probably marks the beginning of the modern American crime novel. Prior to The Hunter crime novels were largely about detectives and detection, and stories about criminals usually ended with the crooks caught or killed. Stark changed all that. Parker always lives to steal another day, and he usually leaves a high body count in his wake. And Parker's no Robin Hood; he steals for himself, and if his accomplices are caught or killed that's their bad luck. Parker isn't just hardboiled, he's frozen in carbonite.

One of the chief pleasures of the Parker novels is the plotting. The stories begin at a dead run and then rarely pause for a breath. Parker and his confederates always plan their heists to the last detail, but then something usually goes awry, and Parker ends up avoiding pursuers or doing some pursuing himself. Sometimes he's doing both at the same time. Despite the breathlessness of the plotting, Stark takes care to add some depth and shading to even minor characters, and he can also add humour here and there; in Butcher's Moon, in the middle of a casino heist, two thieves and the casino operator they're robbing suddenly have a ridiculously passionate discussion about health food and fitness.

It's easy to see the influence Stark had on Elmore Leonard, who began his crime writing career just as Stark was winding down the Parker series. Leonard's plots are also about criminal plots that go off the rails, his heroes are often Parker-like, and Leonard's novels always feature humorous, parenthetical moments. And Leonard in turn has influenced a host of other writers and filmmakers (step forward Mr Tarantino). The character of Parker has also been reborn in Lee Child's Jack Reacher thrillers. The Reacher character is definitely on the right side of the law, but his ruthlessness, his skill, his matter-of-fact approach to danger is pure Parker.

In Butcher's Moon, Parker and his frequent partner Alan Grofield travel to a small city in Ohio to reclaim a stash of money they'd hidden there years before. The money is missing and the finger of blame points towards the head of the local crime syndicate. Parker wants his money and applies pressure to the crime boss, but that ends with Grofield being wounded and captured. Parker then assembles a gang of thieves he's worked with in previous novels and they begin an all-out assault on the syndicate's men and businesses. Things get very exciting and very bloody. 

Butcher's Moon, written in 1974, marks the end of "old" Parker. In 1999 Stark resumed writing Parker novels and these very definitely gave us a "new" Parker. New Parker is even better than old Parker. Old Parker novels occasionally suffer from stilted tough-guy dialogue, and the depiction of women can be summed up by the fact that they're usually referred to as "broads" or "dames." Also, the plots of some of the old Parkers sometimes bordered on the farfetched, straying out of the crime genre and into action/adventure. Butcher's Moon suffers a bit from this last problem, but in other respects it's a bridge to new Parker. The dialogue is free of cliche and there's no blatant sexism.

New Parker began with the aptly-titled Comeback, and in all respects Stark's writing is better. The plots are more unpredictable and believable, the dialogue is leaner and devoid of cliches, and Parker is made more human, but no less implacable and lethal, by the addition of a steady girlfriend. The best of the new Parkers is Breakout, which features both a prison escape and a heist. I suspect Stark brought back Parker because he felt a bit miffed that Leonard, Child, and others were getting rich in a genre that was largely his creation.

Check out the trailer for Point Blank below, but be warned that while it's superb, it makes significant departures from the book.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Film Review: Hanna (2011)

An angry Saorise Ronan learns this isn't a Hannah Montana reboot.
"It's Grimm's Fairy Tales meets The Bourne Identity!"

I'm sure at some point in this film's development those words were spoken by a producer pitching a studio for money or a distribution deal. Or maybe the director said it to a producer. Or maybe a scriptwriter said it to the director. That pitch line represented the creative peak for this film; the writing, the casting, the filming, it was all downhill after that.

Look past the fanciful visual patina of cuckoo clock houses marooned in snowy forests, the coy references to witches, and you end up with the dollar-store version of a Bourne film. The title character is a 15 year-old girl who is seeking revenge against a CIA operative who killed her mother. The spook is played by Cate Blanchett, who uses an annoyingly twangy American accent and hams up her part without being entertaining. It seems Hanna was the product of some CIA gene therapy project to create superhumans, blah, blah, blah, plan cancelled, children and mothers killed, yadda, yadda, yadda, and Eric Bana, playing Hanna's surrogate father, saved Hanna and raised her to be a teen Jason Bourne.

The plot is quite irrelevant in a film like this. Hanna is all about set design and locations, so the story traipses around Europe from snow-covered forests to arid deserts to an abandoned amusement park. And it's all so hollow and tedious. The action sequences are third-rate, handicapped by the fact that Saorise Ronan, playing Hanna, doesn't move with any athleticism or fluidity. And the fairy tale elements peter out about ten minutes into the film and then make a contrived reappearance at the end. By the end of the film you're left wondering how someone convinced a studio that there was any entertainment value in this script. It doesn't satisfy action fans, and it's just not smart enough for the arthouse crowd.