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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Film Review: Drive (2011)

It looks good, it sounds good, and if it came in Smell-O-Rama it would be musky yet pleasant, but like so many of the Detroit products its lead character drives, Drive has problems under the hood.

First the good. The director, Nicholas Winding Refn, has an eye for color and composition that makes most of his L.A locations come alive. He even manages to make a drive along one of  L.A.'s over-photographed drainage canals seem original. The score is another plus. Refn avoids obvious musical themes and cues and goes for bombastically romantic pop songs that are a nice counterpoint to the violence and the very subdued  romance between the male and female leads, played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.

The acting is very good. Gosling can't have more than three pages of dialogue in the whole film, but he manages to speak volumes with his eyes; he even manages to put meaning into the angle of the toothpick his character (known only as the Driver) always has in the corner of his mouth. Carey Mulligan, as Irene, is good, but the script doesn't ask her to do much more than produce winsome smiles. It's Albert Brooks' performance that really holds this film together. As a deceptively ordinary-looking middle-aged mobster he's scary, amusing, and very believable. He also gets all the best lines.

Where this film has problems is in the mechanics of the plot. The story is pretty basic film noir: a problematic romance becomes entangled with a criminal enterprise and nobody goes home happy. The romance portion of the plot just didn't work for me. The main problem is that the Driver almost never opens his mouth around Irene and yet she falls for him. Yes, the Driver is nice to her son, but that's one of the oldest romantic cliches in the book; almost as old as the romantic montage sequence that ends with the Driver, Irene and her son skipping stones in a creek. Skipping stones! Even Nicholas Sparks would laugh at that. And doesn't it bother Irene that the Driver is only a few syllables away from being a mute?

The final act of the film falls apart at the seams. Up until then the Driver's been acting with ruthless logic, but then his common sense seems to go out the window; he dons a needless disguise before offing one opponent, and yet continues to wear a highly individual white silk jacket that's covered in blood. He even walks into a crowded restaurant wearing the jacket and no one seems to notice it. And in a final meeting with the Albert Brooks character the Driver takes no precautions whatsoever and disaster ensues.

At times you get the feeling that Refn is presenting the Driver as more of a guardian/avenging angel than an actual person, similar to Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's films. This is an OK concept, but then The Man With No Name never attempted a romantic relationship. That kind of thing doesn't work with symbolic characters. In the end, the plot problems turn Drive into nothing more than an exercise in style. All-style films are fine with me, but just don't annoy me with a shambolic and distracting plot.

Book Review: The Coming of the Third Reich (2003) by Richard J. Evans

This is the first in a three volume history of the Third Reich, covering the period from 1919-33. And while the author can't offer any new information about this era, he certainly does an admirable job of analyzing and laying out the reasons for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Evans does a particularly good job of pointing out that the Nazis were not voted into power by the German electorate. It's a popular misconception that Hitler gained power democratically, when in fact the most support the Nazis ever got in a free election was 37% of the vote. The left wing vote was only marginally lower, but it was split between two parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats. The appointment of Hitler as Reich Chancellor in place of Hindenburg in 1933 is what allowed to Nazis to fully grab the reins of power, especially after the Reichstag fire (which wasn't an act of Nazi sabotage) gave Hitler an excuse to declare a state of emergency.

The idea that Germans followed Hitler blindly and unhesitatingly also takes a bit of a drubbing in Evans' analysis. Once Hitler became Reich Chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis, via their SA and SS goon squads, began a reign of terror against anyone and everyone they regarded as a real or possible opponent. Hundreds were killed, thousands beaten up, and tens of thousands were arrested and held in the first concentration camps. Although the terror wasn't on a Stalinist scale, a clear message was sent to the German people that dissent from the Nazi party worldview was a guarantee of harsh persecution.  The hundreds of thousands of Germans who joined the Nazi party at this time were, it would seem, motivated by fear more than ideology.

The author also does a good job of placing the Nazis' anti-Semitism in a historical context. Prior to WW I Germans were probably not Europe's most noted anti-Semites. That title could have been given to the French or Russians. Germany's military failure in WW I and its subsequent economic collapse had many Germans looking for a suitable scapegoat and Jews were, of course, the historically-preferred choice for that role. Beyond that, it would seem that it was Hitler's own pathological, visceral loathing of Jews that motivated the Nazi party to move from harassment to persecution to genocide.

There's an interesting parallel that can be drawn between the Nazi party and contemporary right-wing movements such as the Tea Party. The Nazis never had a rational political platform or philosophy. Their "politics" consisted solely of railing against the corruption and ineptitude of the Weimar Republic and appealing to aggressive fantasies about race and nationalism. Likewise, the Tea Party screams that the federal government is incompetent and pernicious, wraps itself in the flag at all times, sees America as preordained to rule the world, and has a thinly disguised dislike of Americans who aren't white and Christian. In both cases, the real or perceived failure of central government provides the impetus for a kind of blind, unreasoning anger that finds expression in a political party built around slogans and imagery rather than coherent policy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Film Review: The Night of the Generals (1967)

Despite what the cover art on the DVD box might indicate, this is not an action movie about WW II. This is a murder mystery set in Warsaw and Paris about a Nazi general with a fondness for butchering prostitutes. The film begins with the discovery of a dead prostitute in Warsaw, and the investigation is handled by Grau, a major in German intelligence. He learns from an eyewitness that the man seen leaving the dead woman's flat was wearing the uniform of a German general. Grau, played by Omar Sharif, learns that there were only three generals in Warsaw that night who do not have an alibi: Generals Kahlenberg, Gabler and Tanz. The generals are played by, respectively, Donald Pleasance, Charles Gray and Peter O'Toole.

Grau attempts to question the generals but is rebuffed, and then finds himself transferred to Paris. The story picks up two years later with the Allies about to enter the city and the three generals all, once again, in the same city. In truth, the film doesn't offer much of a murder mystery. It's patently obvious from the beginning that the Peter O'Toole character is the killer, and Grau does little of what could be called investigative work.

What makes this film entertaining is the cast, which, with the exception of Sharif, is all-British. This seems to have produced a healthy spirit of competition amongst them because they don't stint on trying to upstage each other. Pleasance does a fine job of combining acerbic wit and humanity, and Charles Gray, who made a career out of playing upper-class weasels, gives us a weasel with knobs on and oak leaf clusters. But the star attraction here is O'Toole, who goes over the top and around the bend as a Nazi madman. Tanz isn't just a serial killer, he's also a kleptomaniac, an alcoholic, and obsessive-compulsive. The highlight of the film, from a thespian point of view, is when Tanz stands before one of Van Gogh's more disturbed self-portraits. O'Toole/Tanz goes through a brief, but epic, nervous breakdown that the director must have enjoyed so much he has Tanz revisit the portrait the next day to have another freakout. As a demented killer, O'Toole's Tanz is right up there with Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter; both performances are hammy, but in both cases it's Grade A artisanal ham.

The script might not offer us much of a mystery, but it is intelligently written and there is lots of crisp, witty dialogue for the Brits to tuck into. The novel the film was based on is by H.H. Kirst, and I definitely want to check him out.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book Review: Serious Men (2010) by Manu Joseph

One of the more common motifs from folktales is that of the clever servant or peasant who gets the better of the rich and powerful. Manu Joseph brings this motif to contemporary Mumbai with his darkly comic story of a clerk named Ayyan who works at the Institure of Theory and Research. The Institute is filled with India's best and brightest eggheads, led by Arivind Acharya, a physicist of international renown. Ayyan is Acharya's personal clerk.

Ayyan is not only clever, he's also mischievous, rather like one of the  lesser gods from various mythologies who enjoy causing disorder. As the story begins Ayyan is constructing an elaborate ruse to make his peers believe that Adi, his 11 year-old son, is a genius. Through some simple tricks, and with Adi's willing participation, even the Press starts taking notice of Adi. At the Institure, meanwhile, the arrival of a beautiful female scientist throws the all-male facility into a subdued uproar. Oparna, the female scientist, also has a gift for disorder, but her aims are more malicious. You could almost call her a manifestation of Kali. She initiates an affair with Acharya that has disastrous consequences for both of them.

Joseph's aim with this novel is to show the great gulf that exists in modern India between the educated Brahmin elites and the hundreds of millions of others who live in squalid apartment blocks and raise their children with no expectation that they will see a better future. And this goes double for the Dalits (or Untouchables), India's despised underclass. Ayyan is a Dalit, and his mischief-making is explicitly a reaction to the disdain and prejudice he receives from the Brahmin world. All this sounds dreary and depressing, but Joseph has a light touch and Ayyan's scheming is done as much to raise his son's spirits as it is for his own pleasure.

One of the more elegant jokes in the novel revolves around the fact that while the boffins are caught up in an acrimonious battle over the best way to search for extraterrestrial life, they are woefully ignorant about the lives of ordinary Indians, who are as alien to them as anything outside Earth's atmosphere. And for all their intelligence and modernity, the scientists traditional dislike of Dalits almost proves their undoing.

Serious Men comes close to being a flawless novel, but what holds it back is the character of Oparna. I suppose at one level she's supposed to represent India's other underclass, it's women, but she's more of a plot device than a character. Her affair with Acharya causes several kinds of chaos, but her attraction to him is inexplicable. He's a lot older, he's unattractive, and he barely talks to her. It's also unclear why she takes a cruel revenge on Acharya after he ends the brief affair. All in all, she's not much more than a one-dimensional femme fatale.

Despite the problems with Oparna, Serious Men is an excellent novel that's a pleasure to read even if your knowledge of Indian society and culture is limited to Indian restaurants.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Film Review: Cell 211 (2011)

I so looked forward to this film. It's high concept from the word go: a new prison guard named Juan, still in civvies, gets caught up in a prison riot in the wing housing the worst of the worst. Once the prisoners take control of the wing Juan has to convince the prisoners that he's a newly arrived convict. To add to his problems his pregnant wife on the outside is trying to contact him and the prisoners have a corrupt guard who's leaking them information.

With a story idea this good it's no surprise Hollywood grabbed the remake rights in record time. I have a sneaky feeling they might do a better job than the Spanish original. Cell 211 is good, but it just doesn't live up to its clever premise. The first problem is that Juan becomes the right hand man of Malmadre, the prison's daddy, in no time flat. Although this bond allows for some plot complications and keeps Juan at the centre of the action, it just defies belief. Malmadre is supposed to be tougher than beef jerky left out in the sun, and yet he bonds with weedy, middle-class Juan in what seems like a matter of minutes.

With equal rapidity Juan begins to sympathize with the prisoners, who face brutal conditions and, on occasion, brutal guards. This Stockholm syndrome part of the story is an OK idea but it's handled in a pretty obvious way and it's questionable how much sympathy we feel for these prisoners. The final act of the film is especially disappointing. A death that takes place outside the prison removes Juan's motivation for hiding his identity, and Malmadre faces an attack on his top dog position in the prison that isn't setup at all well. These two plot holes left me applauding the film for its original concept, but wondering why they couldn't do a better job with the execution. So much of the film's tension ends up being frittered away because the plot simply asks us to suspend our disbelief too often.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Film Review: Strigoi (2009)

At this point in time it would seem that there's nowhere left for film vampires to go. From Billy the Kid vs. Dracula to Dracula: Dead and Loving It to Let the Right One In all possible film genres have taken a crack at bloodsuckers. Maybe it's time for vampire stories to move on to ballet or Damien Hirst-style installation art. But wait! Here's something new: a vampire film actually filmed in Romania, the country that invented the damn things. And just to add to the novelty factor the film is set in the here and now and features Romanian actors working in English from a script written by an Englishwoman, Faye Jackson, who also directed the film.

Another variation is that the undead in this film are called Strigoi, which is evidently a kind of downmarket vampire. The Strigoi, it seems, simply refuse to remain dead due to grievances they have with the living. And although they do take blood, they also seem to be content to gorge on whatever food is handy. The story has Vlad (of course), a medical student, returning to his ancestral village after a failed attempt to make a life for himself in Italy. He's arrived shortly after a local couple, the Tirescus, have been killed by the villagers. The Tirescus were local tyrants first under the Communists as well as after the fall of Ceausescu. Even after death Constantin and Elena Tirescu haunt the village. Constantin still strives to buy up all the land, and Elena is content to eat everyone out of house and home. Vlad tries to be rational about what's going on around him, but in the end he has to do some vampire hunting.

The political message in Strigoi is obvious but interesting; communists, and now capialists, continue to plague the Romanian people with their insatiable thirst for power and wealth and...blood.  The political aspect to the film isn't overplayed, and neither is it a splatterfest. The film's tone is droll, observational, and quite laidback. The actors have to be commended for doing an excellent job in their second language, and despite the low budget the film has a very polished look. It would be a better film if it was shorter and if the humour was not so understated, but it's definitely an interesting addition to the vampire genre.