Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: A Walk In the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio's books are described on the jackets as mysteries, but in reality they're legal thrillers, with a side dish of psychological insight into the character of Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, the hero of Carofiglio's novels. Fortunately, Guerrieri is an engaging character; well-read, a film buff, a fan of American rock 'n roll, and reluctantly committed to doing the right thing in his legal career.

In A Walk In the Dark, Guerrieri is representing a young woman who is charging her ex-boyfriend with assault, and therein lies the appeal of Carofiglio's books; he doesn't give Guerrieri sensational or improbable cases. Carofiglio shows us how much drama can come out of pedestrian criminal cases. His previous novel, Involuntary Witness, was about a child murder, but it didn't offer any sensationalism, just the patient defence of a man accused of a crime he didn't commit. This most recent novel has a thrillerish conclusion, but still earns most of its appeal from Guerrieri's clever undoing of his client's attacker. The main weaknesses of the novel are Guerrieri's improbable, but fleeting, relationship with nun named Claudia, and the ending, which is largely predictable.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

This is a Luc Besson-produced film so you know it's going to look good; this is a Luc Besson-produced film so you know the script will be a bit of a shambles. Besson is something of a European Roger Corman, albeit one with more financial clout and artistry. He comes up with B-movie concepts and gives them an A-movie gloss: The Transporter, From Paris With Love, Taken, and so on.

Adele Blanc-Sec is more of the same. Set in 1911, the titular character is a French journalist/female Indiana Jones who we first meet as she's retrieving a mummy's sarcophagus from a burial chamber in Egypt. A mediocre action sequence ensues, and the scene switches to Paris where an aged scientist is, through some unexplained form of mental power, causing a pterodactyl egg to hatch in the Louvre. It turns out that Adele wants to bring the mummy back to Paris so that the scientist can reanimate the mummy, who, it turns out, was an eminent Egyptian doctor circa 3,000 BC. Said doctor will then cure Adele's sister who is in a coma thanks to a...hatpin lodged in her skull.

After the action-y opening the film settles into French silliness, by which I mean a lot high-speed banter, slight visual gags, and way too much comic mugging. None of it is funny enough, and the pterodactyl, who looks good, is not given, as it were, a lot to do. The one interesting thing in the movie is the appearance of some reanimated mummies at the end, who, unlike all previous movie mummies, aren't the least bit threatening, but turn out to be regal and just a bit fey. The film is based on a series of French comic books that appeared in the 1970s, and it's in that decade that this lightweight fare would have seemed more original and exciting.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Film Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

Hurrah! Matthew McConaughey's finally made a movie a male audience can enjoy. I don't know why, but McConaughey is always getting roped into starring in lame ass romantic comedies such as Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Isn't that what Paul Rudd's for? McConaughey's been excellent as an action hero in otherwise B-grade films like Reign of Fire and U-571, but he seems to prefer romcoms.

In The Lincoln Lawyer he plays a semi-slimy lawyer named Mick Haller who operates out of the back seat of his Lincoln Continental. The car is driven by his (political incorrectness alert!) black chauffeur. Anyway, he ends up representing a spoiled rich kid accused of assaulting a prostitute and things get sticky from that point on.

The fun of this film is that it has a retro 1970s feel. The stylish opening credits seems to announce this fact, and the gritty L.A. locations aren't the usual postcard scenes of piers, beaches and boardwalks. Although there are thriller elements here, the film is mostly a courtroom drama, and it's one of the better ones to come along in recent years. The glue that holds the whole film together, though, is McConaughey's performance. He's got the rogue with a heart of gold (divorced with a daughter he loves dearly) thing down pat, and he's believable as a sharp-witted lawyer.

The film does suffer a bit from a couple of scenes that require McConaughey to show some teary emotion; it's not that he can't do this, it's just the scenes feel shoehorned in to make the character more human. Ryan Phillipe's rich kid is completely one-dimensional, which is fine since the fun in this kind of film is a clever plot, not revealing layers of character motivation. And in that regard the ending is pleasantly unexpected. Instead of being changed by his experience, the Haller character goes right back to being a sharp, slimy lawyer who's fun to watch. Not a perfect movie, but it's always fun.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: The Star of Algiers by Aziz Chouaki

You often see novels promoted as having a rock 'n roll feel or sensibility, but it's not often you read one that has an actual rock 'n roll beat to it. More specifically, a nasty, angry punk rock beat. The Star of Algiers is set in Algeria in 1990-91, just on cusp of the Algerian civil war. The Algiers we see, feel and smell in this novel is, in keeping with the rock 'n roll theme, a mosh pit of a city: dirty, noisy, smelly, overcrowded, and often drunk and/or stoned.

The main character is Moussa, a man in his 30s who shares a three-room apartment with his extended family of fourteen people in a slum district of Algiers. Moussa's ticket out of anonymity and poverty is music; he's a Kabyle singer, which is, it seems, a popular Algerian folk music. But Moussa has aspirations beyond being a successful wedding singer; he constantly reminds himself and others that he's very influenced by Prince and Michael Jackson and wants, in some ill-defined way, to be their Algerian equal.

Moussa's talent is genuine, and he begins to rise in the local music scene against a backdrop of his city and country collapsing into chaos and civil war. Inevitably, as in many rock 'n roll fables,
Moussa descent is fast and furious, and ends with him turning into a militant and bloodthirsty Islamist.

While Moussa is more a symbol than a character, he's an effective guide through the hell of Algiers. On one side is the urban elite: educated, French-speaking, affluent, defining themselves by their Westerness. On the other side are the Islamists, or "beards" as Moussa dismissively calls them. These are men who've embraced religious fanaticism as an unconscious protest against the crushing poverty and corruption of Algeria, and will soon go to war against the one-party government.

What gives this novel is its energy and power, what makes it feel like a throbbing speaker sitting on the side of a stage, is the prose, which is rapid-fire, terse, choppy, acidic. As good as the novel is in depicting a country in free fall, it's even better at showing the wonderful highs and soul-crushing lows of a young man reaching for the stars and falling.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Film Review: The Unknown Woman

I knew nothing about this film, other than it had picked up a load of Donatello awards (Italy's Oscars), as well as being the Italian nominee at the Oscars for best foreign language film in 2007. In a nutshell, the film is about an ex-prostitute (Irena) trying to insinuate herself into the life of an affluent family. She believes that the family's young daughter is actually her daughter. Irena is originally from the Ukraine and came to Italy to work as a prostitute. She fell under the control of a brutal pimp who arranged for the several babies she had to be sold to childless couples. Now, after running away from her pimp, Irena becomes the family's cook, cleaner and nanny, and tries to gain the love of their daughter.

Early on the film looks and feels like a Hitchcockian thriller, thanks to some nice cinematography and Ennio Morricone's score. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that this film is also about the way Italian society relies on thousands of "unknown" women from impoverished countries to act as cleaners, caregivers, sex workers, and even as surrogate mothers. On that level it's subtle and effective, especially thanks to its bittersweet ending.

The thriller aspect of the plot works fairly well, although there a few holes, and one improbably quick recovery from a grievous wound. Kseniya Rappoport as Irena is superb and gives the the film a lot of its power. Well worth seeing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

Originally published in serial form in a Spanish newspaper in 1990, No Word From Gurb is the diary of an alien who, along with his co-pilot Gurb, lands in Barcelona for the purposes of research and exploration. The two aliens can adopt any physical form they choose, and Gurb, in order to blend in, chooses to disguise himself as Madonna--the singer, not the virgin. Gurb leaves the spaceship and immediately disappears, leaving his worried and unnamed partner to search for him.

Gurb is not sci-fi, it's just silly, and I mean that as a compliment. Mendoza is an excellent comic writer, able to make his befuddled alien a lovable character, while at the same time delivering industrial quantities of parody and absurdist humour. There are many laugh out loud moments, and probably a lot more if you're familiar with Spanish culture and politics.

One example of sublime absurdity comes when the alien is describing his problems with keeping the different parts of his human body at the right temperature: "The worst is my head, perhaps due to the intense intellectual activity going on there. Its temperature is sometimes in excess of 150C. In order to lessen the effects of this heat, I always wear a top hat, and fill the inside with ice cubes I buy in service stations. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution. The ice soon melts, the water boils and the hat is sent up into the air with such force that first ones I had are still somewhere in the air."

There's almost a Lewis Carroll quality to that passage. Mendoza has also written a trilogy of comic detective novels featuring a thief who lives in an insane asylum, but is let out on occasion by the police in order to solve difficult crimes. I've read the first, The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt, and it's excellent, in a silly sort of way.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Secret Millionaires & Undercover Bosses

If you were a PR firm charged with the task of buffing up the image of plutocrats and robber barons, you couldn't do better than to create the TV programs Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss. The former is British, while the latter is American, but both share a common goal of putting the heart back into heartless capitalists.

The Brit show sends millionaires to live in the most disadvantaged areas of the U.K. (bad teeth alert!) for a period of about ten days. They pretend to be poor or unemployed, and try to become part of the community, usually by helping out at some locally-run, underfunded aid organization. At the end of each show that week's millionaire strokes some cheques for needy individuals and/or community groups and reveals himself to the people he's befriended. Tears ensue, as well as many cries of, "I'm gobsmacked!" and "You do look proper brilliant in that suit!"

Undercover puts incognito CEOs to work in their own companies, usually in a variety of entry-level positions. The CEOs stumble and bumble their way through the simplest tasks, all the while remarking, in an astonished way, on how hard their employees work. Undercover ends with the boss revealing his true identity and handing out cash and promotions to deserving employees.

Two factors make these shows particularly odious. The first is that we're asked to feel sorry for millionaires when they're forced to live in tatty lodgings (strange smells! noisy neighbors! no media room!). The second, and more appalling, is that no one in these shows, rich or poor, makes the point that it's largely through the efforts of millionaires and their various lobbying organizations and paid-for politicians that people are made and kept poor. The undercover bosses, in particular, never mention that a minimum wage of $8 is what makes life so hard for so many of their employees. I'd hazard a guess that the poor and the poorly-paid in these shows do make comments about economic injustice in the U.K and U.S., but I'd also guess that such comments are ruthlessly edited out. After all, why further upset a CEO who has another night in a Motel 6 to look forward to.

It's bad enough that the mass media so often glorifies the wealthy, but is it really necessary to sanctify them as charitable angels?