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.