Monday, January 30, 2012

Film Review: The Big Bus (1976)

I have never understood why Airplane!, released in 1980, was so fantastically successful and managed to spawn a sequel and a sub-genre of spoof comedies such as Scary Movie and Hot Shots! That success should have gone to The Big Bus, which was out four years previously, and by any scientific criteria (well, my own) is exactly 57.6% funnier than Airplane! One can even make a case that the latter was a blatant ripoff of the former, but in the world of comedy, theft is virtually a compliment.

The Big Bus, like Airplane!, is a spoof of disaster movies. The two films take the same approach with a non-stop barrage of jokes and sight gags. The difference being that Bus scores a higher percentage of hits. One reason for this is that in Joseph Bologna and Stockard Channing Bus has two fine actors who also have razor-sharp comic timing. He plays Dan Torrance, the bus driver with a dark secret in his past, and she's Kitty Baxter, the designer of the nuclear-powered bus that will revolutionize bus travel. Their scenes together are excellent, and the work of Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty in Airplane! doesn't compare at all.

The supporting cast in Bus is very good, especially Robert Mulligan and Sally Kellerman as The Couple With Relationship Problems. Honorable mention also has to go to Murphy Dunne as the world's most annoying cocktail lounge pianist. Now, don't get me wrong, I find bits of Airplane! amusing, especially the running gag about the addictions of the Lloyd Bridges character, but The Big Bus has more than its share of comic gems and a wonderfully cheesy score by David Shire. The clip below provides a good idea of what to expect.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Big O (2007) by Declan Burke

A warning: I didn't finish this book, so if you think it's unfair for someone to review a partially read book stop reading now. Still with me? Good. The Big O is a sad case of a good writer laid low by bad decisions. This crime fiction novel is, by any standards, an absolute dud. But, as I said, Burke is a good writer. His prose is crisp, quick-witted, and his dialogue can pack a punch. But he's like one of those Olympic figure skaters who look great, skate effortlessly, and then crash to the ice every time they try and do something clever.

Burke's first bad idea was to drink too deeply at the inspirational well of Elmore Leonard. Modern crime fiction has been heavily influenced by Leonard, but Burke appears to be mesmerized by the master. The standard Leonard plot has a criminal scheme at its centre, usually a swindle or complex theft, around which coalesces a variety of shady and not quite so shady characters. The players in these dramas have ulterior motives and alliances that often interfere with the course or the result of the central crime. Leonard has his characters do a kind of criminal dance of anticipation and reaction around the crime that's at the core of the story. Leonard makes the twists and turns of this dance tense and fascinating, but, most importantly, he keeps his stories moving forward at all times.

Burke has borrowed Leonard's plot structure but neglects to put his foot on the accelerator. The central crime in The Big O is the kidnapping for ransom of a plastic surgeon's wife. When I gave up on the book just past the halfway mark it was largely because the plot had barely advanced an inch. Characters are introduced, schemes discussed, and nothing happens. Burke works hard to show the unlikely links and cold-blooded alliances between the characters, but it all amounts to a lifeless schematic drawing. There's lots of talk, but nothing gets done.

Burke is so wanting to produce a Leonard he ends up draining his novel of any kind of regional flavour or identity. The story is set in Ireland, but Burke works very hard to avoid alerting us to this fact. Place names are barely mentioned, and the dialogue is pretty much stripped of any slang or nomenclature that would make us think these characters aren't from, say, Detroit. I'd call it a mid-Atlantic crime novel except that Burke leans so heavily to the west it becomes a mid-Lake St. Clair novel.

The main and minor characters come in two varieties: loathsome and not quite so loathsome. Burke has a sure, quick hand when creating a character, but here he's given us wall-to-wall shitheads. Elmore Leonard is also good at creating baddies, but he doesn't go overboard, as Burke does, in highlighting their nastiness. Leonard gives his villains positive and neutral qualities to make their negative qualities stand out all the more. Burke's characters have the asshole meter set at 11 at all times. What's worse is that Burke can't stop reminding us that they're rotten; for example, by page 50 we're very aware that Frank the plastic surgeon is a loser, a wanker, and a bastard. Unfortunately, Burke finds new and more redundant ways to tell us this over the next 100 pages. Shut up about it already!

Ray and Karen are partial exceptions to the nasty character parade. Ray is the kidnapper-for-hire and Karen is the surgeon's wife's friend. The problem with Ray and Karen is that way too much time is spent following their budding relationship. They flirt, they date, they banter, they have sex, they talk about sex, they breakup, they flirt, they talk some more about sex, and this goes on and on and on. Burke's second bad decision was to have these two in a relationship. It eats up a lot of time and it isn't the least bit interesting.

And now we come to Burke's worst idea: sex. The problem isn't descriptions of sex, which might have added a frisson of softcore fun to the proceedings, but his decision to have characters talk and think about sex more or less constantly. Burke seems to believe this is part of character-building but after a point it becomes distracting. In relation to this, there's a nasty streak of sexism in the novel. This takes the form of consistently describing women in terms of how sexually attractive or unattractive they are. Male characters aren't held up to the same standard. Early in the book a minor male character named Ferret is not described in any way, shape or form. A few pages later an even more minor female character is described as "an overweight woman with straggly hair." Ray meets another meaningless female character and spends a paragraph assessing her attractiveness, ending with the observation that "she'd want him to take her rough, like a pig snuffling truffles." Even the women get in on the act; Doyle, a female cop, is questioning a woman who's been kidnapped and threatened with rape. Her attacker also threatened to "staple her tits together" and Doyle thinks to herself that "...they'd need to be big staples. Marsha packing a pair of M&Ms in a training bra." Hilarious!

Like I said, I packed it in halfway through the novel, not too long after a R-rated Benny Hill-like scene in which Rossi, a demented thug, gets his erection caught in his zip. I wouldn't normally review a book I disliked this much, but it's frustrating to find an author who can clearly write, but who can't make an intelligent creative decision.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Film Review: Badlands (1973)

This is the one that set the template for films about sociopathic loners going on bullet-riddled road trips. Badlands spawned a flock of B-movie clones, as well as Natural Born Killers and True Romance. The last film amounted to a homage to Badlands, right down to re-using the original's signature musical theme, Gassenhauer by Carl Orff. The story is loosely based on the real-life killing spree by Charles Starkweather (how could he not be a killer with a name like that?) and his girlfriend Caril Fugate in the 1950s. Martin Sheen plays Kit, a loner who starts courting Holly, a 14-year old girl living with her father in small town South Dakota. Her father forbids the relationship and Kit kills him. He and Holly then camp out in the woods before driving across the Dakotas and Montana, evading pursuers and killing those who get in their way. They're finally caught in Montana and taken back to South Dakota.

This was director Terrence Malick's debut film and it was a groundbreaker in almost every way. One of the most notable aspects of the film is its non-judgemental tone. Malick's script and direction doesn't work to demonize Kit, instead he makes the film's tone match Kit's detached, unemotional personality. It's as though Kit is doing the directing. Kit is distracted and fascinated by oddities, trivialities and death. When we first see him he's working on a garbage truck and is examining a dead dog with a kind of bored curiosity. As he continues the route he has a momentary interest for any old thing that crosses his path. Malick's camera mimics Kit's worldview: arbitrary shots of landscapes and objects are scattered throughout the film, mirroring Kit's unfocused, random route through life. Kit is a monster, but Malick subtly conveys the hollowness that's at his core.

Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, is Kit's equal in moral blankness. His crimes don't faze her, even her father's death leaves no impression on her, and her first sexual experience leaves her wondering what all the fuss was about. Holly provides a dear diary-like voiceover for the film, and her flat, matter-of-fact tone and observations show that she's sees herself living out the plot of a pulp romance novel, albeit one with a high body count.

Badlands is also a great-looking film. Malick has a fantastic eye for landscapes, especially the way he integrates people and moving vehicles into the wide open spaces of the prairies. If David Lean had shot a film in these locations he couldn't have done any better. I lived in that part of the world for four years and Malick captures the look and feel of it perfectly:

The film ends on a dream-like shot of clouds and the setting sun taken from a plane that's carrying Kit and Holly back to South Dakota to face the law. Holly's voiceover lets us know that Kit got the electric chair and she got probation. She also married the son of the lawyer who defended her. The ending's dreamy feeling suggests that that's the way Kit and Holly saw life; as a waking dream in which nothing had any value or meaning. This is absolutely one of the best films of the 1970s, although it has suffered some neglect, largely because, I'm guessing, it doesn't sensationalize its subject matter.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ten Good Things In Ten Crap Films

The law that states that even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut also says that buried within the reeking compost of bad films one can sometimes find a black truffle of cinematic excellence. And here they are:

10. Mr. Billion (1977)

This one starred Terence Hill, an Italian actor (real name Guido Falcone) that Hollywood tried to turn into an international star in several grisly films in the mid-1970s. Hill always looked glassy-eyed and wooden, rather like a reluctant student in an ESL class. This film has him trying to claim an inheritance in the U.S. with the help of Slim Pickens. The gem in this movie is a scene in which Pickens discovers that his beloved trailer home has been destroyed. Pickens grief is so real you'll actually feel your throat tightening.

9. Alligator (1980)

Yes, indie film hero John Sayles wrote the screenplay, but it's still a cheapo creature feature. The best thing in Alligator is Robert Forster, who delivers an amazing performace, particularly in a throwaway scene involving a suicide bomber who walks into a police station. Quentin Tarantino gave Forster the lead in Jackie Brown 17 years later largely because of his performance in this film.

8. Zardoz (1974)

The title character is a faux god whose giant head floats over Irish hills and moors bellowing out commands to his barbaric, post-apocalyptic followers. The head is a great magical/fantastical image. The rest of the movie is completely mad and bad, starting with Sean Connery's fetish wardrobe and ending with a plot that resembles a stoner's idea for a R-rated Star Trek episode.

7. Star Wars (1977)

I realize I'm in the minority position when I call Star Wars a crap film, but I just can't get past the bad dialogue and acting (Sir Alec excepted). The opening scene, however, with Princess Leia's space ship being chased by Vader's ship still gives me a thrill. Why? Because this was the first time special effects were truly special. I can remember being in the theatre and thinking that the film world was about to change. And then Carrie Fisher opened her mouth and everything went to hell.

6. Fraulein Doktor (1969)

I can't remember much about this film except that it was a mediocre spy story set in WW I. What I do remember is the final sequence, which is a poison gas attack by the Germans against the Allied lines. This entire sequence is stunning. It's like an apocalyptic fever dream as imagined by David Lean. The highlight is the sight of the German cavalry's horses completely swathed in gas mask suits. Yes, full suits. It all looks incredibly nightmarish, and Ennio Morricone's score only makes things better.

5. Jurassic Park 3 (2001)

Pterodactyls. I love pterodactyls, and this crap film has a bunch of 'em. It also has William H. Macy looking very uncomfortable as the star of an action film.

4. Godfather III (1990)

It's a toss-up which is worse: the dense, dull plot involving Vatican banking, or Sofia Coppola's acting. What's brilliant is the ending. The last scene is of Michael Corleone, who is living in hiding in Sicily, sitting by himself in the courtyard of a palazzo. He drops dead of a heart attack and the only creature to notice his passing is a dog who barks furiously at the inert body. This is an elegant and painful counterpoint to Vito Corleone's death in his own backyard in America while playing with his grandchild. Vito struggled to escape Sicily and Michael ends up back there as a fugitive. Too bad the ending isn't strong enough to rescue the rest of the film.

3. Excalibur (1981)

So much to choose from: the risible costumes (chrome suits of armour!); Nicol Williamson's performance as Widow Twankey, sorry, I mean Merlin; special effects borrowed from early Dr. Who; and set design from the people who did the It's A Small World ride at Disneyland. And yet the whole thing has a berserk, kitsch entertainment value. It's like watching a train full of clowns and wild animals crash into a building filled with paint, helium and fireworks; you don't know what's going to happen next, but it'll definitely be worth watching. And congrats to director John Boorman for putting two films (Zardoz was the other) on this list.

2. Zabriskie Point (1970)

Even by director Michelangelo Antonioni's elliptical, opaque standards this was an unholy mess. The story, what little there is of it, is a clumsy diatribe against Western consumerism and capitalism. His first misstep was hiring two non-actors for the lead roles. The male lead, Mark Frechette, later robbed a bank and died in prison. The female lead was Daria Halprin and she suffered a worse fate when in 1972 she married Dennis Hopper. The good bit? The last five minutes of the film shows a huge house planted in the middle of the desert blowing up good, real good. Antonioni lets us see its destruction from more than a dozen angles, with lots of slo-mo, and adds in gratuitous shots of fridges, bookcases, and other things blowing up. Think of it as the art house version of Jackass.

1. King Kong (1976)

More than 40 years after the original was made, the best innovation Hollywood could come up with was special make-up effects guru Rick Baker stuck inside a gorilla suit. It was a very nice gorilla suit, probably purchased on Rodeo Drive, but it was still just a suit. The other special effects, what little there was of them, were equally lame, and the plot and dialogue were no better than the average episode of The Love Boat. The diamond in the dross was Jeff Bridges, an actor who throughout his career has been cursed with appearing in ambitious films that fall flat on their face: TRON, Heaven's Gate, Tucker: The Man and his Dream, Starman, and even TRON: Legacy. Despite the dodgy films, Jeff is always a great actor, and in Kong he acts up a storm. When he's on the screen you can almost pretend that you're watching a good film.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: The Black Sheep (1842) by Honore de Balzac

The most byzantine, Machiavellian, cold-blooded scheming by the combined brains of the CIA and MI5 against their espionage counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War could not begin to equal the plotting and counter-plotting displayed by the French bourgeoisie in pursuit of an inheritance as shown in The Black Sheep. Nineteenth century French literature is full of schemers, but no one wrote about them better than Balzac, and this novel has to be regarded as the Super Bowl of backstabbing, skullduggery, and double-crosses.

The plot? OK, I'll try. Agathe Rouget has two sons, Phillipe and Joseph, the first a soldier, the second an artist. They live in Paris, but Agathe is originally from Issoudun, where her much older brother, Jean-Jacques, lives with his mistress Flore. The first third of the novel takes place in Paris where we watch the gradual disintegration of Agathe's family, totally thanks to Phillipe, who is a thief, a cad, a bounder; in short, the black sheep of the family. Agathe loves him unreservedly and virtually ignores Joseph, who is a loyal and loving son. After the family's fortunes hit rock bottom, a desperate scheme is launched to secure money, and a piece of the will, from Jean-Jacques, who is totally in thrall to Flore and her live-in boyfriend Max, who is also an ex-soldier. The balance of the novel takes place in Issoudun where Phillipe and Max, who remain total bastards, fight it out to decide who will get to exploit Jean-Jacques. That describes about 15% of the plot, and keep in mind that this novel isn't particularly long.

The Black Sheep can be enjoyed just as a fast-moving, melodramatic tale about larger than life characters, but Balzac always had more on his mind than just churning out easy-to-digest dramas. The overriding theme in this novel is the pursuit of money in all ways and for all amounts. In Balzac's world money rules everything. It defines your social status and can literally make the difference between life and death. Not so different from today, really. Balzac takes an almost malicious relish in showing how all classes of citizens will do anything to acquire wealth or an income. His true feelings about money may best be shown through the character of Joseph, who spurns money-grubbing in favour of his art. After a great many years he gets both critical acclaim and wealth. And it's no accident that Balzac has Joseph use a skull as a piggy bank. It's fascinating to note that Balzac was way ahead of today's sociologists with his criticism of lotteries: "The passion for lotteries, so universally condemned, has never been studied. No one has realized that it was the opium of poverty. The lottery was the most powerful fairy in the world; did it not nurture magical hopes?" It's interesting and logical that Karl Marx intended to write a study of Balzac after he'd finished Das Kapital. Friedrich Engels was also a fan, saying once that a single Balzac was worth many Zolas.

In 19th century literature characterization wasn't something writers left to the reader's imagination. They told you what a character was all about and that was that. Here's Balzac describing a lawyer: "...with a shrill voice, a rough complexion, implacable eyes and the face of a weasel licking the blood of chickens from his lips..." Probably a face even mother could not love. There's something satisfying about the detail an author like Balzac goes into when describing his characters. He gives us all their physical features, as well as their personality and motivations in holographic depth. None of this elliptical, non-judgemental, modern character-building for M. Balzac. Although his characters can sometimes display cliches (one actually says "do not darken my door again"), they are, at heart, very, very real.

The Black Sheep is part of Balzac's 20-volume Human Comedy series of novels, and those I've read are as enjoyable as this one, although not all are this twisty.

A Reader's Guide to Book Reviews

Between reading a ton of books myself, and handling several tons more thanks to working at the library, I can say with confidence that the reviews and blurbs printed on the front, back and insides of virtually all books are worthless, mendacious, misleading, written-to-order, toadying, and not worth the 14pt, bolded Impact font they're written in. Is that last sentence hyperbolic and filled with outlandish claims? Yup; just like a lot of book reviews.

I do find that blurbs and reviews can actually make me pick up a book and give it a skim, but I've also learned what kinds of reviews can be safely ignored and which are warning signs of literary crap. To begin with, there are a whole category of books that don't have any reviews. This is usually hardcore genre fiction such as Harlequin romances and novels based on video games. These books don't need reviews because their readers are the reading equivalent of crack addicts. They're happy just to get their fix.

The next rung on the review ladder is occupied by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. They are publishing industry whores. I'm sorry, but there's no other way to describe them unless, oh, let's see, I called them publishing industry crack whores. But that would be going too far. Those two entities give positive reviews to everything. They would give a glowing review to a letter bomb: "SURPRISING!", "PACKS A PUNCH!"

Next we encounter reviews by bloggers, fanzines, and various online sites devoted to different genres or authors. These are tricky reviews to judge. On the one hand they're not tied into the publishing industry, but on the other hand they are, first and foremost, fans, and not usually critical ones. These reviewers do have an acute sense of where to place a novel within its particular genre, so if a fanzine says that an author's new work is a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and early John Updike they're probably bang on.

Now we come to reviews by other authors. This is a minefield. The most obvious problem is the quid pro quo factor; authors give generous reviews in the expectation that the favour will be returned. The giveaway that you're reading a quid pro quo review is that the reviewer will only mention the positive aspects of the novel, leading the prospective reader to imagine that the novel is without flaw. If the author/reviewer does say something negative it will be prefaced with remarks like, "one minor problem is...", "if I have a quibble with...", "the only thing that could make this novel better is...", and so on. These footling objections are inevitably tossed-off in a sentence or two in the last paragraph, usually just before one last burst of effusive praise. Some authors seem particularly prone to doling out four star reviews to other authors. The leader in this regard is Lee Child, who seems to spend his free time between counting his millions with reading other thriller/mystery writers. Lee has a good word for everyone. This brings up another point about author/reviewers. They have a fondness, I believe, for praising writers they know to be inferior to themselves. My theory is that they take a perverse glee in directing readers to books that end up making their own works look that much better. Like I said, it's a theory.

And why are authors' reviews featured on books? Film studios don't plaster their print ads with quotes from directors and scriptwriters. Did Green Lantern have blurbs from other directors? "Jean-Luc Godard says, 'Tense, gripping, capitalist filmmaking at its best!'" Godard is undoubtedly a big fan of comic book hero films, but it's interesting that studios don't bother to solicit praise from other people in the industry. The music industry is the same. Does Rhianna post fawning reviews about Lady Gaga's latest CD? Incestuous self-promotion seems to be a feature of the book world and no other.

Finally we come to reviews by major newspapers and magazines. Generally speaking they're a better guide than the others I've listed, but keep in mind that these reviewers are often authors as well so the usual warnings apply. The thing to watch out for with reviewers for the big papers is that they're often trying to make a name for themselves as masters of the perceptive, incisive, quote-worthy review. In short, they're actually more interested in how they sound to the reader rather than how well they communicate the merits of a book. Here's a reviewer from the Independent talking about David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, "“The book leaves a reader, as Ghostwritten did, in a space beyond "belief or disbelief", citizen of several worlds but tyrant or serf in none..." I'll be left in a space beyond belief or disbelief? Is that death or a coma or utter confusion? Clearly, the Independent reviewer is mostly interested in promoting himself.

The most foolproof kind of review is provided by the author in the first few pages of whatever it is he or she has written. When I used to review film scripts for a living the rule of thumb was that if a script didn't grab you by the throat within the first ten pages you should toss it aside. The same applies to novels. Read the first ten paragraphs of a book and you should get a clear idea if the author can write well and whether they have anything interesting to say. It's no coincidence that the best writers often have great openings to their novels. Here's an example from Mortal Engines, a young adult steampunk series by Philip Reeve: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the the old North Sea." Now that's a first line that grabs you by the throat and a few other places.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

TV review: Life's Too Short

At least when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant steal ideas they steal from the best...themselves. Life's Too Short is a cannibalized, hybrid, call it what you will combination of The Office and Extras. The lead character is the dwarf actor Warwick Davis, who plays himself, a semi-successful actor running a talent agency in London for little people. The actor is Warwick Davis but his character is pure, 100% David Brent from The Office. The only thing missing is the goatee. The show's entertainment industry milieu is the same as Extras, including guest appearances by A and B-list celebrities playing themselves. The whole thing's a disaster.

The feeling I got while watching this series is that Gervais and Merchant had left a lot of comic ideas on the cutting room floor, as it were, after their two previous series, and they decided to recycle them in Life's Too Short. A scene with Liam Neeson, for example, is simply a variation on Patrick Stewart's bit in Extras where he tells Gervais about his great idea for a script that features nothing but naked women. Neeson's scene is amusing, but it feels secondhand, and, like the other celebrity cameos, it's shoehorned awkwardly into the story. The same can be said for Gervais and Merchant's appearances in each episode. They're there for their brand power appeal and end up becoming a distraction. Each show has a moment or two that's amusing, but on balance it's unfunny, and at times the attempts to spin comic gold from Davis' dwarfism feel really tasteless.

If there is a saving grace in this show it's Warwick Davis. Despite having to work with leftover David Brent material, he shows that he's an excellent  comic actor. Equally good is Rosamund Hanson who plays Cheryl, Warwick's secretary. She's only required to be dim, but thanks to her odd accent and drawling voice she steals just about every scene she's in. Give this series a miss unless the sight of a dwarf falling repeatedly out of a car's front seat strikes you as insanely hilarious.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Film Review: Point Blank (2010)

The one and only reason Hollywood buys up the remake rights to foreign films such as L'appartement, The Departed, Cell 211, Lake Mungo and this one is that they all have rock solid scripts. These are films that start with clever, original concepts and carry through with polished, smart scriptwriting. Hollywood is, in effect, buying the blueprints for success. This begs the eternal question of why filmmakers outside the U.S. seem to be so much better at coming up with original ideas for films. The answer is money.

In lieu of creativity Hollywood has money. A film such as Cowboys & Aliens uses pricey stars, expensive sfx, and wall-to-wall advertising to put bums in seats. And all that money couldn't buy a concept that was as good as most old Star Trek episodes. It's as though the studio was trying to bribe the audience to come to the cinema. Elsewhere, however, filmmakers can't sell sizzle, they have to sell steak. That means coming up with a concept and script that's so compelling it stands out from the background noise of the Hollywood hype machine. A Spanish or French filmmaker can't go to local production company with a weak idea and say that the final film will succeed if only they fork over north of $100m on stars and marketing. It's not going to happen. They need a concept that works no matter how low the budget.

And this brings me to Point Blank, a nearly flawless French thriller that wastes not a second of screen time. Without going spoiler-crazy I'll just say that it's about a hospital orderly played by Gilles Lellouche (previously seen in Chamber of Death) who is forced to remove an injured criminal from the hospital he works in. Things go badly wrong, of course, and the balance of the film's lean 84-minute running time is spent in chases, fights, hairbreadth escapes and the unraveling of a conspiracy and a coverup. In other words, everything you want in a thriller, only without big stars, over-the-top (and expensive) action sequences, and a saturation ad campaign that gives away all the best bits.

Gilles Lellouche is excellent as the orderly who finds himself running for his life. The script doesn't have him be unbelievably resourceful or tough, just desperate and determined. Roschdy Zem, France's go-to tough guy actor, plays the injured and hunted criminal and he brings a lot of presence to the role. The only problem I have with the film is the title. Why confuse your film with a 1960s classic? That's the only unoriginal idea in the whole film.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: The 9/11 Wars (2011) by Jason Burke

Well, it's all here in one volume: the sad history of the various wars, insurgencies, riots, rebellions and terrorist campaigns that followed or stemmed from the attack on the World Trade Center towers. Jason Burke, a correspondent for the Guardian, gets full marks for a detailed and nuanced history of a fiendishly complicated subject. This is a history that covers events in Europe and America, as well as throughout the Islamic world, and the roll call of individuals, organizations, and groups is a long one.

Burke is at his best when he picks apart the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath. He shows that the U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq with a minimal number of troops was a boneheaded decision that doomed the country to years of terrorism and sectarian warfare. Equally tragic were the American decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and remove Ba'ath Party members from government. Those two actions instantly created a huge pool of angry, impoverished Iraqis who were happy to take up arms against the invaders.

This book also makes it clear that al-Qaeda, as a terrorist group, is more of a concept than an actual organization. Islamic militants in places as far apart as Morocco and Indonesia come together and form al-Qaeda groups, as opposed to recruiters from al-Qaeda travelling the world setting up terror cells. Basically, many militants use the al-Qaeda title to indicate their purpose and goals, rather than an actual affiliation to a governing body.

The saddest aspect of Burke's history is that he reveals the futility of hoping for any kind of truly democratic governments to take root in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all three countries tribal, clan, village and family loyalties and obligations take precedence over any kind of political organization. And a great many conservative Muslims, according to their interpretation of the Koran, view even the idea of government as anathema.

The only minor quibble I have is that Burke doesn't talk enough about the price Iraqi civilians have paid for the war. He says that up to 165,000 Iraqis were killed as a direct result of the invasion and its aftermath, but he doesn't detail the many more deaths, especially of children, that have occurred as result of Iraq's basic infrastructure falling apart. Disease, malnutrition, and contaminated water have probably killed as many Iraqis as have the bullets and bombs.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Film Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

Martial arts films used to be cheap and cheerful affairs. All you needed in terms of sets were a tavern with lots of breakable furniture, a couple of  kung fu schools with nicely proportioned courtyards suitable for mass brawls, and a few streets filled with hawkers standing behind easily upsettable carts and stalls. Add in some stroppy and arrogant kung fu masters, an evil warlord, and a recent graduate of Shaolin Temple and you were good to go. Not anymore.

Kung fu films have become Asia's answer to Hollywood's toga epics of the 1950s and '60s. Today's martial arts film features thousands of extras, elaborate costumes, and lots and lots of CGI to recreate China through the ages. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can be credited with starting the trend, and since then we've had Legend of the Black Scorpion, House of Flying Daggers, Musa the Warrior, Seven Swords, The Warlords and a whole bunch more of the same.

Detective Dee has the costumes, extras and CGI, but it also doubles down on the craziness.  Dee is some kind of martial arts wizard/judge/detective who's tasked with finding out why important court officials are suddenly bursting into flame. It looks like magic but it isn't. Dee learns that there's a plot afoot to kill the Dowager Empress Wu, who is poised to become China's first female emperor. Dee saves the day and solves the mystery after battling all manner of kung fu baddies. Along the way he visits an underground city to fight a semi-mechanical man; takes on a herd of ninja deer; and generally defies the laws of gravity and physics as he kicks all kinds of ass.

A fair number of kung fu films from the '70s featured this kind of zaniness, the best being Master of the Flying Guillotine, which, as titles go, is a 100% accurate description of the contents therein. It also featured a Hindu kung fu warrior with extendable arms. I'm serious. The point being that Detective Dee has a lot of the same silliness but now it's being done with a budget in the millions. It's quite enjoyable even if it can't quite match the lunacy of Flying Guillotine. Both trailers are below for comparison purposes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Film Review: Red Sun (1971)

I have a high tolerance for Euro-schlock films of the 1970s, the kind that feature multinational casts in thriller/western/cop movies with a B-movie sensibility. These films weren't always cheaply made, and there was usually some A-list talent in the cast. Red Sun is a good example of this type of film. It's a western, shot, of course, in Spain, and features a United Nations of stars: Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Alain Delon and Ursula Andress. Let's see, that's respectively an American, a Japanese, a Frenchman and a Swiss sex symbol. Bronson is the only one in the movie with an accent matching the film's setting.  In 1971 all four of these actors were major stars.

The story has train robber Bronson double-crossed by Delon, who also steals a ceremonial sword in the care of Mifune. Bronson and Mifune, playing a samurai, team up to find Delon. Basically it's a lightly comic road movie with Bronson initially mocking Mifune's strange ways, but then realizing he's a "hell of a man." Along the way they fight some bandits, slaughter some Comanche, and enjoy some gratuitous nudity courtesy of Ursula Andress. The actors seem to enjoy themselves, and this film probably marks one of the last occasions on which Charles Bronson actually did some acting. Once he transitioned from Europe to the U.S.A. he became the Easter Island statue of actors.

The action scenes are fairly plentiful, albeit perfunctory, which is a bit surprising considering that Terence Young, director of three of the early Bond films, was in charge of things. The most dated part of the film is its treatment of Indians. By this stage in Hollywood Indians were the beneficiaries of revisionist history and were presented in a sympathetic light, or at least weren't treated as devils in buckskins. In Europe, however, Indians were still just colourful villains. In Red Sun the Comanche are whooping, incompetent cannon fodder for Bronson's gun and Mifune's sword. And they wear the worst native outfits I have ever seen in a western; they look like leftover Hallowe'en costumes from K-mart. So if you're hopelessly addicted to westerns or Euro-schlock or both, check it out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

TV Review: Danger Man

Most people are familiar with Patrick McGoohan as number 6, the title character from The Prisoner. Before that series he became a star in Danger Man (called Secret Agent in the U.S.), a British TV series that ran intermittently from 1960-68. I recently got the whole series on DVD and have been pleasantly surprised at how it stands up.

Danger Man is a spy show, with John Drake (McGoohan) travelling the globe (as created on English sound stages) to catch double agents, moles, and so on. There are several factors that keep the shows entertaining even after nearly fifty years. The first is McGoohan. He's a compelling actor with an often eccentric way of delivering lines, and he's not above hamming it up, especially when he's called upon to play "roles" while undercover. In one episode he's a very proper butler, and in another he's garrulous playboy. McGoohan does both roles with a great deal of relish.

The series is also well-written and takes a realistic, non-James Bond look at spies and spying. In fact, some episodes, notably one set in the Middle East called Fish on the Hook, feel like something John Le Carre might have written. Spying is shown to be ruthless and, on occasions, a morally dubious activity.

One thing that's largely absent from the series is sex and romance. Spy shows and movies in the '60s were as much about babes as they were microfilm and thwarting the Red Menace. Evidently McGoohan insisted on a chaste spy show (he was a staunch Catholic) and this actually works to the show's advantage. Shows such as The Saint and the The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had to devote a lot of their plot time to getting their leads involved with an interchangeable series of curvy females. It was all rather juvenile and repetitive. Because Danger Man didn't have to waste time this way, more effort is put into plotting and characterization.

Not every episode is a gem. One titled The Paper Chase is directed by McGoohan and it doesn't add anything to his CV. It moves slowly and has a number of self-indulgent directorial flourishes. All in all, Danger Man is still worth watching unless you're adamant that TV spies must come equipped with female eye candy. The clip below shows the opening credits.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: Johannes Cabal, the Detective (2010) by Jonathan L. Howard

Saying that this is a steampunk novel is an almost useless definition. So many literary mash-ups fly the flag of steampunk that it should be a requirement that they come with flowcharts that explain the various influences and homages that make them up. In this case we have a story set in a mostly alternate reality Europe in which the usual eastern European countries are replaced by states called Mirkarvia, Senza, and Katamenia. The time period is, roughly speaking, Edwardian, and the technology features airships (of course) and entomopters, a dragonfly-inspired aircraft. The literary influences include Agatha Christie, H.P. Lovecraft, and boys adventure magazines like Chums. In sum, the usual DNA of a steampunk adventure.

What sets Cabal apart from the common herd of blood and thunder Victoriana steampunk fiction is that Howard clearly set out with a strong story idea before adding in the steampunk elements. And it doesn't hurt that he's a fine writer. Johannes Cabal, the Detective is the second in a series and it manages to mix together a locked room mystery with a spy action-thriller as well as a taste of supernatural horror. It's to Howard's credit that none of these elements feel forced or awkward. Other steampunk writers I've read tend to clutter up the foreground with steampunk set dressing, as it were, and leave the story behind. This novel would work well even if it wasn't set in an alternate historical reality. Really, the steampunk stuff is just a bonus.

This adventure finds Cabal, a necromancer, fleeing Mirkarvia after raising the country's king from the dead (temporarily). He flees to Senza aboard an airship under a false name and then the fun begins. One of the passengers is murdered and Cabal reluctantly takes the case. Much action and intrigue ensues, and the finale features a spectacular airship crash. As action-y as the story is, it's first and foremost a comic novel, with a comic style influenced heavily by Blackadder. Like Blackadder, Cabal is self-centred, vicious, and mostly concerned with saving his own skin. He does have a glimmer of humanity, and it's brought out by Leonie Barrow, his sidekick in this adventure who, I'm guessing, was introduced in the previous book.

There aren't many writers who can mix comedy and adventure this well, and Howard is definitely one of them. He even manages to provide a clever epilogue to the story that works beautifully as a standalone tale of supernatural horror. My only reservation about the novel is that Cabal's resolute nihilism might make him less interesting to follow in successive stories. But I'll take that chance.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Film Review: Champagne for Caesar (1950)

This comedy is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was one of Hollywood's first films about the growing popularity and power of TV. The Milady soap company is the sponsor of a TV quiz show that gives contestants the chance to keep doubling their money, starting at $5, just by answering questions in their declared field of expertise. If they get a question wrong they lose everything. It's a lame but popular show until one Beauregard Bottomly (Ronald Colman), a snob and polymath, decides to put the show off the air by refusing to bow out after winning a respectable amount of money. Bottomly wants to own the company.  The owner of Milady, Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price), cancels the show, but slumping sales force him to put Bottomly back on the air even as he's poised to win $40m and the whole company.

 Champagne clearly sides with Bottomly's view that TV marks the decline of Western civilization. The host of the quiz show is a bantering idiot played by Art Linkletter, and Vincent Price's Waters character is a crazed capitalist with the emphasis on crazed. What the film gets dead right is that the viewing public can become transfixed and emotionally-committed to utterly trivial individuals as long as they're on TV.

That Champagne succeeds as a comedy is largely thanks to Vincent Price. After seeing his performance you really have to wonder if he wasn't wasted in horror movies. Price acts the buffoon better than he ever acted the villain. Balancing out Price's performance in a negative sense is Art Linkletter, who really was a radio and TV celebrity of the kind being mocked. Linkletter clearly knows nothing about acting and his line readings are so off the mark you'd almost think English was his second language. The rest of cast is good, and the script has more than its share of good comic moments, but it's Vincent Price who makes this film worth watching.