Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Dear Genre Letter

Maybe not if you're a genre writer, according to some.
One of the more interesting skirmishes going on in the literary world right now is over the question of genre vs literary fiction. In a September interview in the The Guardian, Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson took a vigorous slash at genre fiction, and now we have Arthur Krystal in the Oct 24 issue of The New Yorker explaining the difference between genre and literary fiction and coming down firmly on the side of the latter as being the only one with artistic merit. That people still get their knickers in a twist over this issue is one matter (I partially discuss that topic here), but what's interesting about the Krystal article is that it reveals some of the weaknesses in the arguments for a clear divide between genre and literary fiction.

First off, Krystal makes the mistake (as does Jacobson) of taking a narrow view of what constitutes genre fiction. He describes genre as books that are "born to sell" and that "...employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious." Without naming names, Krystal seems to be referring to writers like Danielle Steel, Lee Child and J.K. Rowling. The problem is that no one is claiming these kinds of mega-selling authors are producing quality fiction. What proponents of genre fiction are saying is that just because a book falls within an easily defined genre it should not be ignored or automatically assumed to be the product of a second-rate writer. Krystal's prejudices are very much on view when he says, "When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But what we don't expect is excellence in writing..." As illogical statements go, that's a doozy. It's a writer's skill and imagination that determines excellence in writing, not the genre they've chosen. Saying genre overrules talent would be like saying a great architect's status is determined by what's contained in the buildings he's designed. According to Krystal's logic, a Frank Gehry-designed museum would be art, but if he designs a condo tower it's just a pile of bricks and mortar.

Krystal also avoids dealing with the fact that the line between literary fiction and genre is often so thin it's not worth arguing about. Is Moby-Dick an adventure story or literary fiction? Is Metamorphosis sci-fi or literary fiction? Is The Little Stranger supernatural fiction or literary fiction? The answer to all three is both. Aside from novels that are purely about psychological insight and analysis (and there aren't a lot of those), the majority of literary fiction incorporates some kind of mystery, adventure or quest, something that knocks the protagonist out of his usual routine and thereby reveals something new about his world and his character. The mystery might be as prosaic as why a wife ran off with her lover, and the quest might be going on the road to win back her love. My point is that novels, literary or genre, are almost always about a rupture in quotidian life. The difference between literary and genre fiction in this regard is usually only a matter of degree.

Another trap Krystal falls into is equating artistic quality with utility, as he shows when he says, "Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror stories or police procedurals." The key word in that sentence is "understand." Krystal, like generations of high school English teachers, clearly feels that novels should have a purpose, a goal, and teach us something about ourselves or others. This view of literature as a didactic tool is old, dusty and blinkered. All kinds of art forms aren't "about" anything at all. Symphonies and instrumental jazz pieces are rarely "about" anything. The anger that greeted the advent of the Impressionists was largely to do with their subject matter not being deemed important or "about" anything. There is wide range of art that seeks to engage and play with the senses as its primary goal, and looked at in this way, genre fiction could be described as sensory literature. It can excite, arouse, anger and scare us, and the best genre fiction uses these emotions as a conduit for insight and ideas.

I'll happily admit that the vast bulk of genre fiction is formulaic and pedestrian, but there's certainly no proof that the same isn't true of literary fiction. And any list of the world's great literary novels would show a fair number of them are either genre or close enough to genre as to make no difference. One final example of the fine line between genre and literary fiction is found in that most literary of novels, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Probably the most memorable character in the novel's 3,000+ pages is the Baron de Charlus. He's an arch snob, a homophobic homosexual, and a raging antisemite. In short, he's an extraordinary, unlikely, larger-than-life character who could only exist between the pages of a book. And that makes him very much a character from genre fiction, which specializes in creating outsized characters who are too good, too bad, or too sexy to be true. The fact that Charlus is described with brilliant prose and an incisive intelligence doesn't alter the fact that with the addition of a hollowed-out volcano fortress and a death ray he'd make a superb Bond villain.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

TV Review: Mockingbird Lane

I happily admit I only watched the premiere of this NBC comedy series because Eddie Izzard's in the cast. Mockingbird Lane is a reboot of the The Munsters, one of those 1960s sitcoms in which a group of outsiders try and coexist with mainstream, white bread America. Shows like The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres were built around this concept, and all of them took their ridiculous concepts as far as they could go.

Mockingbird Lane is too cool and ironic to let its hair down and have fun like its predecessor. It's energy and ambition is directed towards special effects and set design, both of which are first-class. The comedy? A lame afterthought. The humour is detached and observational, and the cast seems to be working at half-speed. It's as though the creators of the show took a look at the original series, shuddered in horror at its rude, frantic sitcom energy, and decided that their show must be nothing like that. One wonders why they bothered with a reboot.

The most disappointing part of the show is Eddie Izzard, who plays Grandpa Munster. Izzard is one of the best standup comedians of the last twenty years, but he just can't catch a break when it comes to TV and movies. Nothing he's done has managed to capture his uniquely absurdist sense of humour. This is probably because his improv style doesn't translate well to a scripted format, but that could be said about Robin Williams and he managed to find himself a sitcom that was tailored to his talents. I also have to say that Izzard just isn't a naturally funny actor. By comparison, Russell Brand, who isn't in the same league as Izzard as a standup, can make the simplest line of dialogue funny. As Grandpa Munster, Izzard delivers his lines with a cool wit, but doesn't add anything to the gags as they're written. The best you can say about his performance in this show is that it's workmanlike.

There isn't much to say about the rest of the cast since the script didn't give them much opportunity to shine. And Jerry O'Connell in a comedy? Who decided he's a funny actor? If this series sees life beyond this season they better decide to move some brainpower from the art and sfx departments over to the writer's room.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Film Review: Special Forces (2011)

Regular readers of this blog (cue the sound of crickets chirping) will know that I have a soft spot for French films. I don't consider it a soft spot, I just think the French have a certain knack for thrillers that generally beats what Hollywood is offering. But just to show I don't play favourites, I have to nominate Special Forces as one of worst films I've seen this year. The problem is that the more the French try and ape American-style filmmaking and tropes, the more trouble they get into.

Special Forces is about an elite team of French commandos who are sent into Afghanistan to rescue a French journalist (Diane Kruger) who has been kidnapped by the Taliban. The plot is no more complex than the average John Wayne western, and a western is pretty much what this is, with the Taliban filling the role of the Apaches. The commandos slaughter loads o' Afghans, none of whom seem to have the least idea of how to take cover when engaged in a firefight. That's one of hoariest tropes on view in this film. In the older generation of westerns and WW II films the bad guys were easily identifiable as the ones who couldn't shoot straight, and who thought standing out in the open was a smart way to find out where the heavily armed hero was hiding. When I was kid, watching films like Where Eagles Dare and TV shows like Combat and The Rat Patrol, it bothered me so much that the Germans were incompetent buffoons that I actually began rooting for them as underdogs. Clearly, I was too young to know much about Nazi politics.

The other cliche that gets a good workout here is that of the small, elite military team that has one of those band of brothers bonds that stops just short of homoeroticism. This gang bickers, brawls and kicks Taliban ass, and mourns each death in the unit as though it represented a moment from the Twilight of the Gods. The Taliban clearly aren't suffused with such noble feelings, because they blithely leap over their fallen comrades on their way to being the next victim of French fire. Speaking of which, I'm getting tired of action films in which the leads carry their weapons in the prescribed military/FBI combat stances. I'm also weary of seeing commando teams giving each other inexplicable hand signals as they silently creep through a jungle or comb through buildings. Yes, I know it's all very accurate and true-to-life, and the actors probably all had a short spell in some kind of boot camp, but I just don't give a crap. This faux realism usually takes the place of crafting an energetic, smartly-choreopraphed action sequence. And if Lee Marvin, a Pacific War vet who did some actual killing, never held his gun in the officially approved FBI manner, then no one needs to do it.

This is how you hold a gun, maggots.

Are there any redeeming features in Special Forces? Nope. It just proves that the French should stick to thrillers and spiky romantic dramas. And for God's sake can we please stop with the action films that look like training videos for grunts and police cadets?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Film Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

On the list of the most noir films of the 1970s this one probably comes out on top. Starting with its bitterly ironic title, right through to the cold-blooded, inevitable finale, The Friends of Eddie Coyle doesn't give an inch in its ruthless depiction of the mercenary relationships between cops and snitches, and between criminals.

For a film about cops and bank robbers and gun runners, Friends is relatively bloodless, but that's not to say it's not violent. The violence comes from the way the characters use and betray each other. Robert Mitchum plays Eddie Coyle, a Boston crook who is on the lowest rung of the criminal ladder. He's middle-aged, has a family, and supplements his blue collar job with the odd liquor truck heist. As the film begins he's worried about facing sentencing in a robbery in New Hampshire. Eddie's also supplying guns to a gang of bank robbers who have drawn the attention of the cops. In turn, Eddie is acquiring the guns from a gun runner named Jackie, who in turn is getting them from contacts he has on a military base. Peter Boyle plays a bar owner who is yet another criminal middle man, and both he and Eddie, unknown to each other, are being used by the same police detective as snitches.

Peter Yates was the director, and the realism he brought to Bullitt (1968) pales in comparison to Friends. Boston has never looked so gritty or drab, and the look of the film perfectly matches the sombre, desperate mood of the major characters, but especially Eddie, who is looking at several years in jail. He's done time before, but now he's just too old for it, not to mention having a family to support. Eddie's horrified at the prospect of his wife going on welfare or taking a job. It's part of the tragedy of Eddie that he thinks his criminality is more honourable than having his family take social assistance or his wife get a job.

What anchors this film is Robert Mitchum. This is one of his great performances, right up there with his work in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. Unlike those two films, Friends required a more subtle approach from Mitchum. Eddie is, to a certain degree, a self-pitying loser, but he tries to cling to a sense of honour, and he's certainly committed to his family. Mitchum's rumpled face and sleepy eyes perfectly capture a man whose criminal career is winding down into disillusion and disaster. What's also notable about Mitchum's performance is that he so easily bridges the gap between old Hollywood and new Hollywood. This was a guy whose contemporaries from the 1940s and '50s were either fully retired or were restricted to doing cameos in all-star disaster movies. Mitchum's acting is of the same quality that Method actors like Hoffman and Pacino were starting to find success with. And I think Friends sometimes doesn't get the attention and respect it deserves because people associate Mitchum with a much older kind of filmmaking. In truth, this film feels much less dated that many others from the '70s. For my take on '70s "cop noir" check out the link below.

Related posts:

Film Review: The Seven-Ups

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: The Spanish Holocaust (2012) by Paul Preston

In the game of My Holocaust Was Worse Than Your Holocaust, the Spanish always lose out because the carnage that took place during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was immediately dwarfed in scale and popular memory by the Grand Guignol that was World War II. Paul Preston has done a superb job of dragging the horrors of the Spanish Civil War out of the shadows, and at the same time making a compelling argument that the atrocities committed by Franco's Nationalists should be considered as part of a genocidal program.

Tossing around the term "holocaust" isn't something historians do lightly. It's a politically-charged definition that continually sparks controversy; the best example being the continuing scuffle over whether or not the massacre of Armenians in Turkey from 1915-23 was a genocidal holocaust. The Turkish government, not surprisingly, has consistently denied the claim, and, most controversially, some Jewish groups have been accused of denying the Armenian Genocide in the interest of protecting the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. Historian Howard Zinn has a short but effective piece on this issue here.

Preston methodically assembles his evidence and shows that the rebels, a coalition of the military, police, landowners, industrialists and the Catholic Church, and led by General Franco, were quite clear in their intentions even before the war broke out. What we now call "eliminationism," the belief that political opponents must and should be removed from society through expulsion or killing, was rife in Spain in the years preceding the war. Political, economic and social relationships between the ruling classes and the peasantry and industrial proletariat in pre-Civil War Spain were still essentially feudal in nature. In short, the upper classes saw those at the bottom as beasts of burden, as virtually another (inferior) race. With the rise of unions and left-wing political groups (Anarchists, Communists, Socialists), the ruling classes became possessed with a hysterical and fanciful fear of a Jewish-Masonic-Marxist cabal that was somehow plotting to bloodily overthrow all that they held dear.

When the war broke out, rebel-held areas became the scene of mass executions of anyone with the slightest, most ephemeral link to the left wing. Preston estimates that over 150,000 people were massacred by the rebels, but cautions that since the Francoist forces held power  in Spain for decades afterwards, there's a reasonable suspicion that the historical record has been altered to reduce the evidence of rebel atrocities, and the true figures of those killed may be far higher. What's undeniable is that the rebel killings were genocidal in intent. Time and time again they stated that their opponents were sub-human or perverted, and the ferocity and cruelty of their actions against leftists are bloody proof of their beliefs. Not content with merely killing their enemies, the rebels also indulged in mass rapes of lower-class women that rival anything the Soviet Army did in Germany at the close of World War II. The role of the Catholic Church in the war deserves special criticism. Not only did high-ranking members of the Church advocate war on the left and the lower classes, more than a few rank and file priests actually took part in the killing.

The killing wasn't all on the right hand side of the ledger. The Republican forces are reliably credited with 50,000 extra-judicial killings. These murders also had an eliminationist flavour as some hardcore leftists, especially the Anarchists, saw the upper classes as irredeemably parasitical. The main difference between the right and left when it came to extra-judicial killings was that the Republican government did not advocate genocidal killings and even took steps to stop them. The problem was that the Republican government was shambolic, ineffectual and hesitant. The rebels, on the other hand, made murder, torture and rape an unofficial policy.

What gives this conflict an additional layer of horror is that its victims are almost completely forgotten. The Spanish Civil War now stands as a historical footnote, known mostly as a warmup for World War II, and as a venue in which various famous writers (Orwell, Hemingway, Koestler) earned some street cred. Even in Spain there's evidently a lot of resistance to digging up the past, and I wonder if that's had a subtle influence on Spanish filmmaking, which has produced  some excellent horror/fantasy films (The Devil's Backbone, The Orphanage, Pan's Labyrinth) that have their roots in the Civil War. One recent Spanish film that seems to be all about the corrosive heritage of the Civil War is The Last Circus. My review's here. And if I was a wealthy Spaniard whose recent ancestors owned large rural estates, this book would make me wonder not if, but how much blood was on the hands of my grandfathers.

The only fault I can find with this book is that it feels like it needs an additional chapter, rather than a brief epilogue, to describe how the post-1945 Franco regime worked to suppress the history of its crimes. That aside, this is a fantastic history of crimes that are largely unknown and have certainly gone unpunished.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where Are All the American Actors?

Jon Lovitz, the last of the great American actors
In the last month I've seen Looper, Dredd 3D and The Bourne Legacy. What they all have in common, aside from being slick and violent, is that they offer proof that while the Brits managed to lose America over 200 years ago, in the last 20 or so years they've mounted a determined campaign, with the aid of their Commonwealth allies and some Irish mercenaries, to retake the American colonies via the entertainment industry, one movie and TV series at a time. Brits Emily Blunt and Rachel Weisz are in, respectively, Looper and Bourne, and Kiwi Karl Urban stars in Dredd. All three play American characters, and the question has to be asked, why weren't Yanks picked for the roles? There's nothing special about any of these roles, especially in the case of Judge Dredd, a part which doesn't ask an actor to do anything except growl his lines and hide his face behind a helmet. You'd think a director or producer's natural inclination would be to hire an American actor to play an American character, but increasingly that's not the case. The list I've assembled below is, in a very non-scientific way, a guide showing how non-US actors have been scooping up roles that once upon a time would only have been given to Americans. I've listed the actors by country and then the films in which they play American characters.


Jude Law: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Cold Mountain, Road to Perdition, The Talented Mr. Ripley, All the King's Men
Ewan McGregor: Black Hawk Down, Big Fish, Down With Love, The Island, Amelia, I Love You Philip Morris
Gerard Butler: The Ugly Truth, Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen, The Bounty Hunter, Machine Gun Preacher
Daniel Craig: Infamous, The Invasion, Cowboys & Aliens
Kate Winslet: The Life of David Gale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, Revolutionary Road
Rachel Weisz: The Shape of Things, Dream House, Confidence, Runaway Jury
Liam Neeson: Battleship, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team

The Irish

Colin Farrell: Uh, virtually everything he's done.
Colm Meaney: Con Air, Law Abiding Citizen
Brendan Gleason: Lake Placid, Green Zone, Safe House, The Company You Keep
Michael Fassbender: Inglourious Basterds, Jonah Hex, 


Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves and Ryan Reynolds: Every role you can think of.

Aussies and Kiwis

Like the Canadians, Down Under actors snag American roles virtually every time they get a call from their agents: Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Sam Neill, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Sam Worthington, Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman have all played Americans in more films than I can be bothered to mention.

The above lists barely scratch the surface. I haven't even mentioned Brits on American TV like Idris Elba, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis, and then there are all the supporting actors like Tom Wilkinson. And I also forgot Daniel Day-Lewis. D'oh!

This phenomenon is definitely of recent vintage. In the 1970s and '80s  American films were filled with American actors playing American characters. There were odd exceptions, like Robert Shaw in Jaws, but for the most part non-US actors only played roles that were nationality-appropriate. In the '90s things began to change, but the symbolic turning point may have been Batman Begins in 2005. Batman is an iconic red, white and blue comic book character and had been played by a succession of  American actors, but when the time came for a reboot the reins were handed over to an English actor, Christian Bale, and, for good measure, Englishman Christoper Nolan was given the directing job. That seemed to open the floodgates. American actors are still dominant in comedies (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and as voice actors in animated films, but in other genres they compete for, and often lose out on, roles that a generation ago would not even have been offered to non-Americans.

Why has this come about? I see three possible reasons. The first is that the US doesn't have the minor league system, as it were, that the UK does. Look through the bios of any of the Brit actors I listed above and you'll find that they did lots of theatre work, both pro and amateur, as well as stints in drama schools, before getting their big breaks. As well, Brit TV has traditionally produced dramatic programming that asks a lot of its actors. Broadway and off-Broadway theatre produced a lot of the great American actors of the '70s (Pacino, Hoffman, Hackman), but that incubator has been almost wiped out by the dominance of mega-musicals and high real estate prices pushing out small theatres. Check out the bios of major American actors and it often seems that they simply drifted into acting when another career choice didn't pan out. Johnny Depp started out in punk bands and Shia LaBeouf began as a standup comic. Simply put, American actors don't have the training and experience foreign actors do.

Another reason for the shortage of American actors is that US producers seem to favour finding domestic actors, on the male side, who embody innocence and naivety, and who as part of that image have a pretty, baby-faced look. Depp, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, and Leonardo DiCaprio began their careers as toy boys, typically playing the newbie, the neophyte, the young hotshot who challenges an older male (Cruise vs Nicholson in A Few Good Men) or learns the ropes from a veteran (Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game). By comparison, Russell Crowe, who is slightly younger than both Cruise and Pitt, has never played a raw rookie in a major film, and the same could be said of Liam Neeson or Daniel Craig. Cruise and DiCaprio's respective careers were built on playing the cute new kid on the block. This kind of typecasting of American actors has meant that looks and a specific acting skill-set has taken precedence over overall acting ability. To put it another way, non-Americans get the mature roles, Americans get the immature parts.

Finally, American TV deserves part of the blame for reducing the depth of homegrown acting talent. In the 1990s the primetime network schedules started filling up with sitcoms, sitcoms and more sitcoms, and by 2000 reality television (Big Brother, Survivor) was added to the mix. All this meant a reduction in primetime dramatic programming, one of the traditional breeding grounds for new actors. Iconic stars like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin all got their starts on TV in the '50s and early '60s.

Is this trend likely to continue? Yes, but probably more slowly. Dramatic TV programming is falling off in all English-speaking countries thanks to reality television, and the mega-musical is a noxious weed infesting theatre districts all over the world. So it would seem that any rebirth of American acting talent must begin with the assassination of Simon Cowell...just kidding...I think.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Film Review: Looper (2012)

I don't know what it is about Bruce Willis but there's something about him that makes him easy to root for. Perhaps it's because he doesn't try too hard to come across as tough or charming, or maybe it's his everyman quality. The film's in which he falls flat are inevitably the ones in which he's trying too hard to be tough, like Last Man Standing, or funny as in Hudson Hawk. Within a narrow range of roles Willis has been one of the more entertaining American actors of the last 20 years. Looper gives him a role that's right in his wheelhouse, as they say. He plays the older version of himself in a time travel action/thriller that's a bit wobbly but makes it to the finish line without going into the ditch.

Looper is set in the near-ish future (2044) when American cities, as they are wont to do in the future as imagined by filmmakers, have turned into epic slums ruled over by gangs. In the still more distant future time travel has been invented, but made illegal, and the gangs from the future send people they want whacked back to 2044 for execution and disposal. Evidently it's very hard to dispose of bodies in the far future. Loopers are the hitmen of 2044. Occasionally the person sent back to be killed is the Looper's older self. The present-day Looper gets a rich payday for this last hit and goes off to enjoy the next 30 years of his life until he's sent back to be killed by...himself. It's at this point you can begin trying to figure out the time continuum problems this creates.

All time travel movies require a certain amount of head scratching, counting of fingers, and puzzled comments along the lines of, "If he knows that in the future, why doesn't he..." Looper has its share of time travel plot holes, but no more than the average Dr Who episode, and half the fun of this kind of sci-fi story is debating the time travel paradoxes with whomever you saw the movie with. The biggest flaw I could find is that it's never explained why a Looper has to kill his older self. Couldn't another Looper do the job? This aside, Looper works well as a thriller and has more than its fair share of gunplay.

One of the more enjoyable elements in the film is its look. The production design team didn't go overboard on creating a whole new world; they just tweaked a contemporary urban look with some futuristic tech, and the result looks more plausible than most imagined near-futures. The other plus in the film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young Bruce Willis. He does an amazing job mimicking Willis' tics and mannerism, while at the same time delivering a solid performance. What stops Looper from being even better is the addition of some characters with telekinetic powers. This serves an important plot purpose, but it feels like it came in from left field, especially because there's no explanation for why some of the population have suddenly acquired this ability. Looper is far from a great sci-fil film, but it's way better than Surrogates, Willis' last sci-fi outing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Film Review: The Long Ships (1964)

The Vikings were a race of warriors and seafarers who found America centuries before Columbus, terrorized all of northern Europe, and planted their DNA anyplace they pulled ashore for more than an hour or two. The only thing they weren't able to do was get decent representation in Hollywood. Despite being one of the most violent and colourful peoples in history, Viking movies are few and far between, and most of them are crap. The Vikings got the full Hollywood treatment in 1958 in the imaginatively titled The Vikings, starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, but after that it was B-movie all the way. The worst of the bunch was The Norseman, which had Lee Majors as a Viking invading Florida (!).

And so we come to The Long Ships, which for my money is the best of the bunch. I can't claim that it's a fine film, but as an exuberantly goofy and pugnacious Viking film it can't be beat. As is traditional with Viking films no actual Scandinavians were involved in the production. Instead, we get Richard Widmark, Russ Tamblyn, Sidney Poitier, and a supporting cast of Brits, along with an Italian, a Serb and an Austrian. Oh, and the whole thing was filmed in Yugoslavia, including the bits that are supposed to be set in Norway. The League of Nations cast produces a wonderful variety of unlikely accents amongst the Vikings; you know you're in a B-movie when Vikings are chattering away in Scots, Cockney, and BBC English accents.

The story concerns a rascally Viking called Rolfe (Widmark) who goes in search of a mythical giant bell which is supposedly made entirely of gold. He has to deal with a ruthless Moorish king (Poitier) who also wants the bell, and a Viking king who wants his head because he stole a ship. There is much energetic fighting, hearty laughter, manly oaths ("By Odin's teeth!"), a Viking raid on a  harem (cue the Benny Hill music), and that staple of Viking films, the banquet scene, which, as film tradition dictates, looks like a catered mosh pit. All the actors realize that they're in a goofball film and act accordingly. Poitier, coiffed like Little Richard, is a very hissable villain, and Widmark is athletic and light-hearted. This is actually the only Widmark performance I've ever liked. He always struck me as looking feral and creepy, like one of those weird school janitors who get up to pervy things in their utility rooms. Like I said, The Long Ships isn't quite a buried treasure, but it's a fine way to waste a couple of hours.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Thicker Than Water (2008) by Mike Carey

In an afterword to this novel Mike Carey describes how a section of it that takes place in Liverpool, where he was born and raised, morphed into something painfully autobiographical. He then had to do an edit to keep things more fictional and protect the innocent and guilty. Carey's act of flying too close to his autobiographical sun has paid off in what, up to now, is the best of the Felix Castor novels.

Felix Castor is an exorcist/gumshoe from the Philip Marlowe school of hard knocks and wisecracks, and he works in a contemporary London that has become infested with various forms of the undead. In this outing he finds himself accused of the murder of a childhood enemy who's been found slashed to death on a no-hope south London estate of giant apartment blocks. Felix soon determines that the entire estate is in the grip of violence that centres on stabbing and slashing, and behind it lurks a demonic presence. It also seems that the murder and the presence of the demon are events that have roots in Felix's past in Liverpool. I'll draw a veil over the rest.

What helps makes this book the best in the series is that Carey gets the balance between the mystery and the supernatural perfectly right. His previous book, Dead Men's Boots, was weak on the supernatural elements and was further marred by two supporting and recurring characters who ended up doing too much of the heavy lifting in the story. Carey's writing also seems sharper, darker, angrier, and I'm thinking that the autobiographical elements pushed him into producing something that's more serious. The previous novels are, at heart, bloody, but fun, romps around an alternate reality London that sits solidly in the urban fantasy genre. This novel strays into Ruth Rendell territory with a mystery that's as rooted in psychology and affairs of the heart as it is the supernatural. And the scenes set in Liverpool have an angry intensity and attention to gritty detail that brings Alan Sillitoe to mind. Not many fantasy writers manage to transcend their genre, but Carey's done it with Thicker Than Water.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Film Review: Dredd 3D (2012)

Karl Urban stars as The Great Gazoo Judge Dredd
If you've seen Robocop and The Raid you've seen Dredd 3D. The setting is a dystopian future with a "megacity" that's decrepit, overpopulated, and overrun with ruthless criminals. Judges are heavily armed, suited like a combination medieval knight and NFL player, and authorized to act as judge, jury and executioner. The plot has Dredd, the best of the judges, partnered with a female rookie named Anderson who has psychic powers. They answer a call about a killing in Peachtrees Tower, a 200-storey apartment block controlled by a drug lord named Ma Ma. Dredd and Anderson become trapped in the tower and have to shoot it out with Ma Ma's numerous minions.

Dredd is what results when the Hollywood imagination factory goes on strike. It's actually jaw-dropping how derivative and generic this film is. Judge Dredd is Robocop with less wit, and the story is virtually a carbon copy of The Raid. The action? There's a lot of creeping around concrete corridors and jumping out to kill baddies. The baddies, as is usual in the lamer action films, make things easy by obligingly standing out in the open and otherwise making themselves easy targets. The only thing that distinguishes Dredd from its peers is its bloodiness. The screen is awash in fake blood, not to mention flying bits of bone and flesh. The only other wrinkle in the film is Anderson's ability to read minds. This comes in handy from time to time, but it's an add-on that doesn't bring very much to the party.

The actors are as generic as the plot. Karl Urban as Dredd only gets to act with his chin thanks to a Great Gazoo helmet that almost completely obscures his face, and Olivia Thirlby as Anderson appears to have been kept tranquilized throughout the shooting of the film. And how about poor Wood Harris? He played drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in The Wire, and now he gets to play a subordinate to a drug kingpin. Never let it be said that roles are limited for black actors in Hollywood: they get to play a wide variety of roles within the illegal narcotics industry. Speaking of kingpins, Ma Ma is a terrible villainess. She looks and acts like a tired Denny's waitress who's stuck working the all-night shift. Scooby Doo has faced more convincing villains than Ma Ma.

If you have to watch this one at least wait until it's out on DVD; that way you wont have to sit through another example of why 3D sucks.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: The Big Roads (2011) by Earl Swift

My family knows that there's almost no subject too obscure or odd for me to read a history about it. Witch trials in 17th century East Anglia? I'm there. A look at pre-revolutionary Russian art movements? Yes, please. But a book about the genesis and construction of the US Interstate Highway System? God, that sounds obscure, odd and dry. Turns out it's none of the above. Earl Swift has done a marvelous job of blending anecdotal history, big picture facts and figures, and personal experience into a story that adds another chapter to our understanding of how and why we North Americans became enslaved to the car.

One of the fascinating aspects of this history is that it's both a triumph and a tragedy. Prior to, say, the 1930s the car was in many respects a godsend for North Americans: people and goods could be moved to where they needed to be faster than ever; rural communities were no longer isolated from larger centres; and for the car owner there came a new sense of freedom and mobility that had probably never existed before. It's this last quality that lingers to this day in our sense of what owning a car means. Want proof? Just look at most every car ad on TV with their montages of young, happy people driving off to nowhere in particular, enjoying the sights, stopping in scenic spots to lark about or indulge in a bit of kayaking/mountain biking/snowboarding and so on. As fanciful as these ads can be, there is a kernel of truth in them: under ideal conditions the car takes us exactly where we want to go, precisely when we want to, and by whatever route we choose. It's as close to a personal teleportation device as we're ever likely to see. That's the triumph of the car.

I mentioned ideal conditions, and Swift shows us that by the 1940s, and even sooner, those ideal conditions were becoming rarer. Cities were suffering from gridlock, and the highways that led from city to city and state to state were badly maintained, poorly planned, and exceedingly dangerous. A growing chorus composed of  politicians, industrialists and high-level bureaucrats pushed the idea of "superhighways," roads that would move traffic rapidly across cities and across the continent. By the late '50s the construction of the current interstate system was well underway. It was the biggest public works project in US history and would eventually cost out at over $100bn. The interstates were an economic boon for most everyone, but even as they were being built critics were pointing out that city neighborhoods were being plowed under to make room for ugly, noisy highways, and, outside the cities, towns and businesses that relied on road traffic withered away as the interstates allowed travelers to avoid the slow road. This phenomenon even became a film plot point when Norman Bates told Marion Crane: "We have twelve vancancies. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies...They moved away the highway." More collateral damage from the interstates.

By the mid and late '60s highways were widely seen as an eyesore and as agents of urban destruction and suburban sprawl. And the car began to be seen as a fundamentally unsafe creator of pollution and violent death. And all of this was true. This was the tragedy of the car, one that we still live with. Swift is no apologist for the car industry and he's quick to point out the many problems created by our carcentric lives. But at the same time he reminds us that despite all the drawbacks to cars and commuting, at a fundamental level owning and driving a car can be an ineffable pleasure. Most people probably hate ninety per cent of the driving they do, but that other ten per cent more than makes up for it.

Another interesting point that comes up in this book is the key role played by hard-working, selfless civil servants working for a federal government that was willing to tax and spend a colossal amount on what it saw as a common good. In today's political climate it's hard to imagine a project of this magnitude getting off the ground. Taxation has become anathema, government spending seen as a sin, and government employees are regularly vilified, often by politicians, as lazy, incompetent time-wasters. Expenditures of $100bn or more are now reserved for kicking the crap out of Middle Eastern countries. It's hard to spot any common good coming out of that kind of spending.

In the early '50s the car could do no wrong, and by the late '60s it was seen, in many respects, as a menace. It's interesting that his turnaround in popular opinion was mirrored closely by the tobacco industry. In the '50s cigarettes were still glamorous, endorsed by celebrities, athletes and even doctors! Most everyone smoked, and tobacco advertising was, along with cars, one of the pillars of the advertising industry. In 1964 the Surgeon General published his Report on Smoking and Health. One year later Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, a devastating critique of the car industry. Within a one-year period two of the most potent symbols of social status, consumerism and affluence were on their way to becoming, to differing degrees, pariahs. We still drive and smoke, but, more often than not, with a sense of guilt and shame. It's one of the more bizarre aspects of modern life that we cling to two activities that are guaranteed to kill hundreds of thousands of us every year. If any other activity had this kind of death toll it would be illegal or subject to the Geneva Conventions.

We're not giving up cars in the foreseeable future, so we're left with the twin, and costly, problems of maintaining the highways we do have and building mass transit so we can get off the overcrowded highways. The Big Roads is an entertaining way to find out why you spend so much time sitting in your car, cursing at people who can't hear you.