Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Film Review: True Grit (2010) vs. True Grit (1969)

After recently seeing the Coen brothers True Grit for the second time (on DVD), and having seen the John Wayne-starring version on numerous occasions, I can definitely say that...I'm not sure which is better.

Let's begin with the stars.  Jeff Bridges is a masterful actor, better than John Wayne ever was, but in this role he gives a rather predictable performance. He talks in a gruff, growly monotone, and basically tries to let Charles Portis' brilliant dialogue do the work for him. Wayne, to be honest, hammed it up. He set the John Wayne dial at 11.  Bridges creates a more believable character, but Wayne extracted more entertainment value out of the role.

Moving down the cast list, Matt Damon and Hailee Stanfield are a quantum improvement over Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. Campbell shouldn't have been allowed in home movies let alone feature films, and Darby I found irritating instead of determined. When it comes to the minor characters, however, the older version wins hands down, with A-list character actors such as Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper, Dennis Hopper as Moon, and Strother Martin as Stonehill, the horse trader unlucky enough to barter with Mattie Ross. For the sake of comparison, check out Martin's scene with Mattie and compare it with the Coen version using an actor named Dakin Matthews. The two sequences are virtually identical, but Martin turns the scene into a small comic gem. Matthews just reads the script.

The 1969 True Grit has a conventionally pretty look to it. The Coens make their True Grit look, well, gritty. And that's a plus. The Portis novel was a de-romanticized version of the Wild West, and the Coens remain true to that idea by showing us buildings and people that almost give off the smell of manure, sweat and tobacco. This tough look also makes Mattie's journey into the wilderness seem that much more daunting and dangerous. The 1969 version made the trip seem like a bit of a holiday.

The backbone of any western is the action sequences, and in this regard the Coens fall flat. Henry Hathaway, the 1969 director, had been directing westerns and action movies since the advent of sound, and it shows. His action sequences are fluid and energetic. The Coens, on the other hand, have a static, unimaginative approach to action. This may be where their committee approach to directing lets them down. The scene in the dugout cabin where Rooster Cogburn questions Moon and Quincy is a good comparison point.  Hathaway builds tension in the scene by having Moon become increasngly agitated due to his leg wound.  He also parallels this action by having Quincy become more violent as he cleans a turkey carcass (the Coens omit the turkey), while at the same time he's showing us Mattie becoming more distressed by the rising tension and anger. When violence suddenly erupts it's like a hissing boiler suddenly exploding. The Coen version has Moon talking in a flat montone up until he's mortally wounded by Quincy. The whole scene is shot with a minimum of fuss and a minimum of excitement.

The winner? Both. I just wish Glen Campbell hadn't been in the original and that the Coens could have had a coaching session from John Woo.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Worth Dying For by Lee Child

Jack really missed his morning coffee
The guy on the right is not Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's ultra-successful novels, but it might as well be, considering how implausible, invulnerable and unstoppable he is. And that's what makes Reacher fun. Child has put a patina of realism over a character who really belongs in a comic book or a pulp novel from the 1930s.

This time out Reacher is thumbing his way through rural Nebraska where he runs afoul of the Duncans, a local clan of nasties who rule their corner of the state with an iron fist and a squad of beefy ex-football players. Much violence ensues, Reacher rights wrongs, and the true evil of the Duncans is revealed. The plotting is tight and fast, heads are broken and bodies pulped in various thrilling ways, and the tension is constant. In sum, Child and Reacher are back on form.

The last Reacher adventure, 61 Hours, was a tiny letdown. There was minimal mayhem, and Reacher seemed to spend a lot of time whining about how cold it was in South Dakota. Of course, one of the pleasures of a Reacher novel involves spotting Lee Child's unfamiliarity with North American culture. Child is a Brit, and it shows when he has Reacher refer to old people as "wrinklies" and gamblers as "punters." And if he thinks it's insanely cold in South Dakota, he should try Edmonton in January. Child, like many Europeans, also seems fascinated by how outsized everything is in America. He always has most of his characters driving big cars, which he describes in loving detail, and many of Reacher's adventures seem to take place in the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi.

Child's errant Briticisms are only the most minor of glitches. He remains the best thriller writer going, and this despite the fact that his hero, Reacher, is so damn ridiculous. Reacher is part Sherlock Holmes, part The Man With No Name, part Bruce Lee, not to mention a loner, a drifter, a two-fisted existentialist, and a coffee addict. Yes, Reacher is basically a cartoon character or something from a first person shooter video game, but Child never lets the action slow down enough for us to fully appreciate that Reacher is bonkers. In Worth Dying For Child makes sure that virtually every paragraph is either moving the story forward, revealing or deepening a mystery, creating anxiety, or describing some violence. And it doesn't hurt that Child knows his way around a sentence. This is how thrillers should be plotted.

This latest novel also benefits from Reacher not being given a love interest; although it would be more accurate to say a sex partner. In previous novels Child has put Reacher in bed with an interchangeable selection of female FBI agents or cops. and these scenes are always deadly. For one thing the plot always comes to a screeching halt for them, and for another, Child only seems to have included them to assuage any doubts we might have about Reacher's sexuality.

I hope Child keeps Reacher as nutty as a fruitcake, but I'd like to see him give up the Wild West plots with Reacher riding into town and defending the settlers against the land barons. He's done at least three of those now and there's a certain sameness to them. Put Reacher in Europe for a change, where he can enjoy a really strong cup of coffee.

Film Review: Mid-August Lunch

It would be hard to imagine a film more low-key than this one. Gianni, a middle-aged man, and his very elderly mother are having trouble paying the maintenance fees on their Roman condo. A condo rep suggests a solution: if Gianni takes in the rep's mother for the Ferragosto holiday, he, the rep, will forgive the fees. Gianni agrees. In short order Gianni is saddled with two more elderly mothers that friends want to ditch over the long weekend.

The action, such as it is, revolves around the old ladies getting to know each other, and Gianni having to cook for them and settle some petty squabbles. Nothing even close to dramatic happens, and the humour is very gentle, so that does that mean it's dull? Not at all. The director, Gianni Di Gregorio, who also plays the role of the son, knows that an observed life can be as pleasurable to watch as a dramatic one. Gregorio has a keen eye for details, letting his camera linger over simple things such as Gianni's meal preparations. In fact, the film's camerawork is excellent given that the main location is a none too spacious apartment.

The actors are all non-professional, which is all for the good, and Gregorio as Gianni seems to be channeling Marcello Mastroianni, or is it that all middle-aged Italian men channel Mastroianni? The only message in the film seems to be that no matter how old we are we all still crave the pleasures of good food and agreeable companions. Worth seeing, if only because it will give you a keen appetite for some Italian food.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Film Review: X-Men: First Class

Here's the odd thing about superhero/CGI movies: they lack visual style and artistry. It's odd because, in theory, a director can create any kind of image he wants these days. So many of these films stuff themselves with visual effects, but almost none of them have any kind of visual artistry. Shot composition, the use of colour, lighting effects, and camera movement seem to be alien concepts in most of these films. In many ways these films are a throwback to the silent era of a Cecil B. DeMille, when the camera's only purpose was to act as a recording device for the sight of thousands of extras milling around on grandiose sets. The X-men movies and their ilk achieve a similar result; we end up seeing what the CGI boffins are capable of, but not what the D.O.P. and the director can do.

And this is at the heart of what's wrong with X-Men: First Class. The film has some energy and interest when James McAvoy (Dr. Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) hold centre stage, but once the CGI action starts, things get very dull, and I mean visually dull. The director, Matthew Vaughan, stages the action with less flair than a Saturday morning cartoon, and the cinematography in all scenes is flat and lifeless; a sitcom can look like this, but not a film.

Other complaints: Michael Fassbender's English accent goes on hiatus at times, to be replaced by a flat American accent, and, on a few occasions, by his own Irish accent. January Jones as Emma Frost is so wooden you'd get splinters if you saw her in 3D. And, finally, the various subsidiary mutants are a pretty sorry bunch of actors with lame mutant skills to match. The worst has to be Banshee, who flies around through the power of shrieking, which, by my reckoning, would make most 14 year-old girls mutants.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Things I've Learned From Working at the Library

I thought I was familiar with most literary genres before I started at the library, but here's one that's new to me: English working-class romantic historical fiction. For convenience, I'm going to call it kitchen sink romance. Sounds unlikely, but there's tons of it, and it's churned out by authors such as Emma Blair, Freda Lightfoot, Irene Carr, and many others.

I can't say that I've actually read any of these novels, but going by the plot summaries found on the backs of them it's possible to form a general picture of what makes them unique. The stories are all set in the U.K., often have a specific regional focus (Lancashire, Yorkshire, east end of London), and are mostly set in the twentieth century, but never more recently than, say, the early 1960s. The heroines are uniformly working class or lower middle class. They work in mills or markets, or, slightly higher up the socio-economic scale, run pubs or corner stores. Their romantic affairs are often with men of their own class, sometimes higher, and these affairs are often made problematical by the intrusion of history: the Depression, either of the world wars, the failure or rise of specific industries, and so on.

To give you the flavour of this genre, here's a plot thumbnail from the back of an Annie Murray novel called Soldier Girl: 'Molly Fox has grown up in the back streets of Birmingham at the mercy of her grandfather and her cruel, drunken mother. Though she has grown into a tall, beautiful woman, Molly is haunted by terrible family secrets. When, one night during the Blitz, her old friend Emma Brown finds her lying drunk in a gutter, Molly reaches a turning point. She decides to escape by joining the army as an ATS girl. At first her new start seems fated to be a disaster, but soon her life is flourishing, bringing new freedoms, friendship, and above all, the joys and confusion of love.' I don't think many of Barbara Cartland's heroines ever woke up drunk in a gutter.

One of the most interesting things about this genre is that historical events seem to play a key role in them. Most romantic historical fiction uses history only as a colourful backdrop (costumes, manners, traditions, etc.) for romance: think the Regency period in England or the antebellum South in the U.S. In kitchen sink romance historical events assume the roles that characters would in other kinds of romantic fiction; they influence, for good and bad, the paths characters choose or have chosen for them.

But the most fascinating aspect of this genre is the role that work plays in it. Having a job, keeping a job, getting a job, or losing a job is of crucial importance in these stories. These are not characters who take a steady income for granted. In fact, many of these novels seem to be as much about work as they do about romance. And these aren't rags-to-riches stories. At most they're rags to ready-to-wear stories. This genre states that employment, or the lack of it, has as much of a role in romantic fiction as good looks, nice clothes, and a winning personality. Even modern literary fiction rarely has anything to say about the importance of work, especially the kind that's paid by the hour.

Kitchen sink romance stands in stark contrast in this regard to almost all other romantic fiction. Most romantic historical fiction revolves around women getting their hooks into titled plutocrats, or winning their rightful (and juicy) inheritance and marrying Lord Wavy-Chesthair. Contemporary romantic fiction is even worse. Harlequin publishes a line of romance novels that's entirely devoted to stories of 9-5 women landing millionaires or billionaires, and urban romances (code for fiction for African-American women) are all about poor women snagging rich pro athletes or even richer hip-hop artists.

Interestingly, there is no equivalent to kitchen sink romance in the U.S. Not even close. I think this points out the absolute horror Americans have of the concept of poverty or menial labour. To an American, being at or below the bottom rung of the economic ladder signifies a personal failure, not the result of specific economic conditions. Kitchen sink romance takes a more holistic look at romance, seeing it as something that can't be separated from work and current events. Having read passages from a few of these books I can't say that there's any deathless prose in this genre, but, unlike virtually all other romantic fiction, kitchen sink romance clearly isn't afraid to acknowledge reality.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The key element in a gothic novel is the Terrible Secret. The TS must be so awful it will destroy careers, honour, loves, even lives if revealed. The action in a gothic novel therefore revolves around the hero or heroine attempting to uncover the TS, and another individual (not always a villain) trying to keep the TS a secret. Jane Eyre was one of the first in the genre, and The Shadow of the Wind, set in post-WW II Spain, attempts to resurrect it. I'll give Zafon full marks for trying.

The story clips along at a good pace, it's very well-written, and the characterization is more than competent. What's not to like then? Well, the problem is that there's always something fairly ridiculous about gothic novels, specifically, the terribleness of the TS. In this case the TS scores fairly high on the awful-o-meter, but, at the end of the day, the TS seems improbably unfortunate rather than terrible. It's also possible to see the TS and its consequences as a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, but that's a subject that would only resonate with Spanish readers.

There are two other problems with the novel. The first is that our hero, Daniel, has to unravel a great many personal histories in order to learn the truth of the TS, and, while this journey is usually entertaining, after a while I found I was getting impatient. Also, it's not a wise idea to hand the story over to a different narrator in the final fifth of the story. The second problem is that the action of the novel is precipitated by a trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in a spooky, labyrinthine building in Barcelona. Now, that sounds cool, but it belongs more in a fantasy novel than a gothic novel, and it starts the novel off with the wrong tone.

I was mostly entertained by Shadow, but in the end it wore out its welcome.