Saturday, March 30, 2013
Film Review: Innocent Bystanders (1972)
The plot is a tired bit of boilerplate about a Russian scientist who's defected...everyone wants him...old dog spy given last chance...double-crosses...rinse, lather, repeat. There are holes aplenty in the story, but that's not a deal breaker for this kind of film as long as it's done with style, wit and pugnacity. No such luck. It looks ugly, with cheap sets and some really inept camerawork. And special mention has to go to the decision to have Spain double for Maine, which leads to the novel sight of a car driving through the maquis landscape of New England. The action elements are minimal, and some decent fight scenes don't make up for car chases and shootouts that would look bad even on a TV cop show of the era. And the acting? Stanley Baker, the star of the film, does a workmanlike job, but the rest of the troupe are either miscast or sleepwalk through their roles.
The real tragedy of Innocent Bystanders is that it's a reminder that Stanley Baker never got the big break he deserved. After producing and co-starring in Zulu (my review here), he looked set to join the rising tide of Brit stars like Caine, Finney, and O'Toole. His subsequent films either did no business, were critical duds, or both. Part of the problem was that Baker was a capable, but not great actor, and also that he looked like Sean Connery's stunt double. In fact a lot of his films seem like projects the producers probably wished they could afford to have Connery in, but they had to settle for Stanley. By the way, don't let the cover art on the DVD box (pictured above) fool you: if the film was one-tenth as cool as this it would be worth watching.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Book Review: The Positively Last Performance (2013) by Geraldine McCaughrean
Having said all these wonderful things I have to admit that this novel is a tiny bit of a letdown. McCaughrean's writing is up to par, but there's a sentimental streak that's been absent from her other books. The novel's main character is Gracie, an eleven-year-old girl who come to the English coastal town of Seashaw with her parents, who want to take over the shuttered and decaying Royal theatre. The old theatre is in terrible shape and comes complete with a motley collection of ghosts that only Gracie can see. The ghosts come from all walks of life and from different eras, and seem to have ended up in the theatre the way floating debris is caught in an eddy. The ghosts are shocked that Gracie can see them, and thanks to her prodding they reveal something of their lives and how they died. The ghosts also have to deal with a plot by a property developer to burn the theatre down.
As is usually the case with McCaughrean's novels the character-building and descriptive writing are top-notch. She has a Dickens-like ability to churn out sharply-defined, cliche-free characters, and her eye for the telling detail is unmatched. She even adds an interesting wrinkle to the ghost genre with her explanation of why the spirits of the dead linger on. All that's to the good, but unlike her previous novels there's a tweeness and softness around the edges here that's a bit unfortunate. McCaughrean is light years away from being hard-boiled in any way, but her writing normally has a bit of an edge, enough to throw the profound humanity of her writing into greater relief. With one exception all the characters are lovely people with lovely life (and death) stories to tell, and that sameness is a bit disappointing. And the threat posed to the theatre, which is the backbone of the story, is a tired plot device and McCaughrean doesn't find any way to freshen it up.
Even though this novel isn't up to McCaughrean's usual standards, it's still head and shoulders above what other people are doing in the field, and if you've never read one of her books, read this one and bask in the knowledge that you've discovered one of contemporary fiction's great prose stylists, and then rush out and get your hands on The Death Defying Pepper Roux or Not the End of the World or Lovesong. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
|Canada's zombie-eyed Dear Leader|
The federal Conservative party, now emboldened by their status as a majority government, has been running a white propaganda campaign for the past several years. Their TV ad campaign promotes "Canada's Economic Action Plan", which is simply the thinnest of smokescreens for touting the joys of living under a Conservative government. The ads are a laundry list of economic initiatives and programs undertaken by the government, all of them described in glowing terms. The message in these ads is that Canada's economy is healthy, headed in the right direction, and being more than capably handled, and fossil fuels, God love 'em, are our very special friends. If these were straight up election ads there would be no problem with them, but they're made and paid for by the federal government. A portion of my leftie, anti-Conservative tax dollars, in fact. To add insult to injury, the Conservatives pile the ads on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster. The CBC would be within its rights, as a public, tax-funded broadcaster, to question whether it should be airing ads that are such blatant examples of political propaganda. The CBC, however, is highly sensitive to the fact that the Conservatives have a visceral loathing for them, and would, if they could, eliminate them. So while the ethical thing to do for the CBC is refuse the ads, self-preservation dictates that they hold their nose and run them.
And the propaganda doesn't stop there.The federal Natural Resources ministry has a TV campaign promoting "Responsible Canadian Energy" that's nothing more than an attempt to buff up the image of the oil sands industry. On top of these ads are the spots made by various oil sands lobbying groups, oil companies, and pipeline promoters. So an average evening's TV viewing for Canadians includes a staggering amount of propaganda disguised as wise and kindly information passed on by a benevolent government and their friends in the oil and gas industry. This volume of government-created propaganda is unusual outside of a totalitarian state, but then that's exactly the way the Conservatives have behaved under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper is notorious for avoiding the press, and during the last election campaign his staff only allowed the press corps a set quota (meagre) of questions per day. The Harper Conservatives despise the press, and this propaganda campaign is their snake oil salesman way of controlling their image without the influence of pesky journalists.
The roots of Harper's loathing of the press run very deep. Like many hardcore rightists he lives in a famtasy world in which the mainstream media is, in his words, "monolithically liberal and feminist". That last quote comes from a statement he made in 1997 approving of Conrad Black's takeover of the Southam newspaper chain, and we all know what a classy guy Black turned out to be. Underlying Harper's obsession with propaganda is his desperate need to be proven a winner no matter what the cost. A quick look through Harper's bio reveals that he's a careerist who has done and said anything as long as it gets him further up the right-wing ladder. He started out his political career as a quasi-Alberta separatist, and then as he got closer to the brass ring of the prime minister's office he ameliorated his previously reactionary views in order to make himself palatable to the general population. And like so many rightists of recent vintage Harper's rabid pursuit of power seems fueled by a desire to bolster his fragile self-esteem. At Harper's insistence official government communications use the term "Harper Government" rather than "Government of Canada." Is it possible his real last name is Kim?
So none of us should be throwing rocks at the Americans with their laughable, venomous, hysterical campaign ads. We voted in a government that now bombards us daily with a type of propaganda most people thought had gone out of style shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And at least when the dust settles after the U.S. elections the attack ads are put away in the armoury for another day. Here in Canada we have to put up with the constant drip, drip, drip of polite, smiley face propaganda. How Canadian.
What Makes a Conservative Conservative?
Worst of Breed
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Film Review: Buck and the Preacher (1972)
When the '70s arrived Poitier & Heston Inc. fell on hard times. The Method acting boys were taking over and the moguls stopped making the kind of films that matched the talents of a Heston or Poitier. Heston made a shrewd move to shiny, B-grade action films like Skyjacked, Soylent Green, The Omega Man and Two-Minute Warning. Poitier had a harder time of it. His role in Hollywood was to portray the Noble Negro Fighting Intolerance. That kind of role went the way of the dodo thanks to the cultural aftershocks created by the riots in Watts and Detroit, which in turn led to blacksploitation cinema. Poitier's Eisenhower-era acting style and Joe College persona had no place in films with people like Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Pam Grier.
Poitier tried to take a stab at blacksploitation with Buck and the Preacher, a western he directed as well as starred in. It's pretty poor. The paint-by-numbers plot has Poitier leading some settlers across the west. The black power wrinkle to this standard horse opera plot is that the settlers are ex-slaves fleeing the post-Civil War South. The settlers are harassed and attacked by a group of white gunmen who have been employed to drive blacks back to the South so that they can resume their menial lives on plantations. Episodes of Bonanza had more complex plots than this film offers, so the less said about it the better. You can sense that Poitier wanted to show an angrier, meaner side of himself, and certainly his character shoots a lot of bad white guys, but his heart doesn't seem to be in it: he remains the stolid, conservative actor who's afraid of doing or saying anything distasteful. And as a director Poitier does himself no favours. With one exception the performances are flat and in terms of visuals the film has no flair at all. In sum, this has to be nerdiest blacksploitation film ever made; it feels like it should be shown in classrooms on Martin Luther King day. The only ray of light comes from Harry Belafonte, who plays a gun-toting preacher. He hams it up pretty thoroughly and the film would be absolutely dire if he hadn't.
There's really no reason to seek out this film except to witness how a cultural shift managed to derail the career of a highly-regarded actor. Poitier made a handful of films after this outing and then went into semi-retirement from 1977-88. It's unfortunate he didn't try and reinvent himself as a character actor in the '70s, because way back in 1964 he showed he was good at that job in The Long Ships (review here), a B-movie that Poitier could have taken lessons from when it came to how to direct an energetic, entertaining film.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Book Review: The Mamur Zapt and the Donkey-Vous (1990) by Michael Pearce
In this novel Owen is called upon to investigate the kidnappings of two tourists from the terrace of Shepheard's, the best hotel in Cairo. What looks like a simple crime for profit soon gets more complicated, with links developing to a terrorist group and the Khedive, Egypt's symbolic head of state. Owen not only has to juggle the political aspects of the case but also figure out something of a locked room puzzle: how did two men vanish in broad daylight from a busy hotel terrace?
The real appeal of these novels is the way Pearce recreates Edwardian Egypt. This isn't a fictional Egypt you'd expect; there are no moonlit, romantic interludes in the shadow of the pyramids; no swarthy villains with knives clutched between their teeth; and there's definitely no ancient curses or ambulatory corpses wrapped in bandages. What Pearce concentrates on are the dynamics and tensions of a colonial power, as represented by Owen, attempting to control a country that is seething with nationalist and revolutionary ambitions. Owen is very sympathetic to Egyptian sensibilities and is never patronizing when dealing with his Egyptian subordinates. Pearce, who was raised in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, also earns praise for his refreshing portrayal of Egypt's working classes. When writing dialogue for foreign members of the "lower" classes, most English writers choose to represent their subject's class by having them speak in pidgin English, broken English, or in some version of a Cockney or Yorkshire accent when they're speaking in their own language. In this novel a good number of characters are humble street vendors, but you wouldn't know it by the way they talk. Since they're speaking in Arabic (Owen also speaks Arabic), Pearce makes their speech grammatical and free of malapropisms, as you would reasonably expect. It's nice to see Pearce, like Owen, showing this kind of respect for his characters. For contrast check out the way David Mitchell wrote dialogue for his lower-class Dutch characters in his bestselling The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
The mystery at the heart of this particular novel is cleverly constructed and revealed, and along the way Pearce effortlessly and elegantly describes the social and political character of Edwardian Cairo. Pearce is a very good writer, particularly of dialogue; like some of the better English writers he has a knack of having his characters speak little but say a lot: a simple phrase like "I see" can have a wealth of meaning in Pearce's hands. And he's also adept at dry, droll humor; in fact, his 1992 novel The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt won the won the Crime Writer's Association Last Laugh Award for funniest crime novel. If you normally cringe at the idea of reading a cosy, or being seen reading one, give Pearce a try and tell people you're reading a sharply-written study of colonialism and nascent Arab nationalism. You won't be wrong.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Film Review: Anna Karenina (2012)
The film's theatrical approach is certainly clever and visually arresting, but in the first quarter of the film it almost becomes too distracting; at various points Wright's stylized approach goes a step too far and what looks like a theatre production threatens to become some kind of ghastly Lloyd Weber musical: characters move around the "stage" in a sort of walk/dance, the music rises, and I extended a quivering finger to hit the STOP button in anticipation of Keira Knightley belting out a tune called "I Just Met a Man Named Vronsky." Thankfully, the film settles down and concentrates more on the story and less on the stage trickery.
On the whole this is a decent film version of the novel, mostly held together by the acting of Jude Law as Anna's saintly husband, and Matthew MacFadyen as Oblonsky, Anna's brother. The rest of the cast give polished, professional performances, and then we get to Keira Knightley: she's got acting energy to burn, but her acting is also a distracting combination of the hammy and the hysterical. She's all twitches and manic grins, which works part of the time, but on the whole the performance would have benefited from a leavening of subtlety. But the weakest member of the cast is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. He doesn't bring much to the party except an ability to fill out a period costume in a pleasing manner, and every time Jude Law comes on screen one is reminded that he would have been the first choice to play Vronsky ten or so years ago, and he would have done a far better job. Anna Karenina is worth seeing if only because it gives us a bracing re-imagining of how to translate nineteenth-century literature for the twenty-first.
Friday, March 8, 2013
|Zombie Jesus, coming this Easter.|
Zombie films have been a B-movie staple ever since 1968, mostly because they're a cheap and cheerful way to make a horror film. You don't need much in the way of special effects, no CGI necessary, just a lot of prosthetics, fake blood, and enthusiastic makeup artists. Somewhere along the way, however, the zombie film grew up. It may have been 28 Days Later (2002) that rebooted the genre. Previous to this, zombie films were definitely from the sweatshop end of the film industry. After 28 Days Later the public seemed to have an appetite for more and better zombie films. Since then we've had 28 Weeks Later, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, I Am Legend, [REC], Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, Zombieland, The Walking Dead TV series, and dozens and dozens of lesser titles. All these films are made to a higher standard than the vast majority of their predecessors, and this summer brings us World War Z starring Brad Pitt, a big budget zombie film with a big star.
The question has to be asked, why the, ahem, resurrection of the zombie genre? I'll go out on a bloody limb and say that its popularity is due to the way the genre legitimizes and indulges the suppressed genocidal impulses of its audiences. It's no use pretending people don't have a taste for genocide, history (ancient, modern and current) is littered with the corpses produced by genocidal violence. One of the key aspects of zombie films, its action film backbone, is seeing the humans slaughtering the zombies. Zombies are never shown mercy, they're simply mowed down by any means necessary, and their deaths are inevitably bloody and bizarre. And zombies are never seen as anything more than ghastly killing machines in human form; they don't speak or think, they just roam around with the sole purpose of killing the living. They are irredeemably evil and pernicious, and there are always far, far more of Them than of Us. It's not hard to see how this dovetails with the thinking of the people throughout history who've thought it was a good idea to pick up a rock or a torch or a gun and attack those people on the other side of town who speak/act/worship differently, and who are getting too numerous for the health of society.
Zombie films also allow audiences to project their fears of the Other onto undead surrogates. The past ten years has seen a rise in Us vs. Them hatreds at all levels and in many places. Iran makes genocidal threats against Israel; U.S. politics has become starkly polarized and venomous; Shiites and Sunnis wage a sectarian war in Iraq; North Korea promises to exterminate the South; an Israeli newspaper poll reveals that Israeli Jews would support an apartheid system; various minorities, from the Roma to Muslims, are vilified in Europe; and the poor and unemployed are increasingly described as "scroungers" or "parasites." All of this rests in the shadows of the World Trade Center towers. That act of terrorism seemed to usher in the current climate of genocidal and eliminationist language. Certainly in America there were a lot of people, including politicians, who were vocal about their desire to bomb various parts of the Middle East back to the Stone Age. So the following year we had 28 Days Later, and the zombie craze shows no signs of slowing down.
I've embedded the trailer for World War Z below, and this short sampler clearly shows the genocidal heart of the zombie film genre. The zombies, thanks to CGI, are shown behaving like a mindless swarm of enraged insects. They have no reasoning power, they don't even have any sense of self-preservation, they just want to kill Brad Pitt and his lovely family. Is it scary? Yes, but it also apes the thinking behind a lot of propaganda down through the years that has been used to put families in gas chambers or justify drone attacks. Before you kill people en masse, you first have to make them out to be sub-human, even animals, and this film seems to have that down pat. The trailer also shows us the other side of the equation: the mass, efficient slaughter of the Other thanks to badass machine guns mowing down the zombies in their hundreds. One half of the film makes us loathe and fear a group of humans, the other half releases the fear and tension by giving us a genocide.
Are World War Z audiences going to rush out and beat up the first minority group member they come across? No. But I think what gives zombie films that certain something that keeps them being made is that they tap into our deeply suppressed fears and hatreds of those we see as outsiders. As an experiment, just imagine it's 1938 and Josef Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, has ordered that a zombie movie be made. I'm pretty sure he'd have the zombies wearing Stars of David. And I think he'd call that movie Zombie Pogrom.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Book Review: I Hear the Sirens in the Street (2013) by Adrian McKinty
Sirens has many of the same strengths and pleasures as Duffy's previous outing (The Cold Cold Ground, my review here), especially its evocation of a particular time and place. McKinty brings Belfast and its environs to seamy and sad life, and for anyone wondering why the 1980s produced a diaspora of the best and brightest from N.I., this novel provides the answer. And McKinty continues to show he's one of the best in the business at crafting a police procedural; the dynamic between Duffy and his fellow "peelers" is engaging, entertaining, and always rings true.
Having dished out the praise I now have to say that Sirens isn't quite as good as its predecessor. The main problem I had is with the plot, which has some gaping holes I couldn't get past. Without letting slip any spoilers I'll just say that the poison angle seemed far fetched; the trip to Boston felt superfluous and breaks the story's mood; and the disposal of the American's body made no sense considering that the place where he died had a far more obvious and convenient option for making people disappear. These weren't deal breakers in terms of enjoying the novel, but I certainly didn't have these kinds of problems with the plot in the previous novel.
A more minor problem has to do with Sean Duffy: the more he's off investigating on his own (he does that a lot here), the less interesting a character he is. When he's interacting with fellow cops the story, and his character, has an elan and energy that seems to go AWOL when he's on his own. I think the problem may be that Duffy as a solo operator feels like a lot of other fictional detectives, a strongly-realized detective, but not the standout character he is when he's part of a team. But that's a minor quibble. Duffy is still a cut above most of his fictional peers, and I'm hoping that by some means McKinty can be convinced to keep Duffy going past the next novel.
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Book Review: Dog Boy (2009) by Eva Hornung
The strongest aspect of the novel is probably Hornung's unflinching portrayal of Romochka's life as a "dogboy." She doesn't make any part of the feral life cute or charming, and doesn't hesitate to show the grittiest or most savage details. Hornung also does a brilliant job of imagining exactly what such a life would be like, especially the constant conflict between Romochka's human and dog personalities. This conflict is the heart of the novel as Hornung uses Romochka's more than peculiar situation to look at what constitutes families, and the bonds that pull people (and animals) into relationships, tribes, clans and packs. At a few points the idea that animals are innately kinder to each other than humans gets trotted out, and while it's not preachy or obvious, the novel could do without this kind of anthropomorphism. That aside, this has to rate as a one of a kind gem of a novel. It's not pretty or polite, and Romochka isn't always a pitiable character, but Hornung's managed the hugely difficult task of making a wildly improbable concept believable, affecting and viscerally exciting. And for God's sake don't give this book to kids or dog lovers; both demographics will end up in tears and be angry with you for weeks, if not years.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
Film Review: End of Watch (2012)
As distinctive as the look of the film is, in all other respects it's as old school as an episode of Dragnet. Our two cops, Brian and Mike, ride a patrol car in south L.A. and answer the kind of calls that we've seen in a hundred different episodes of various reality TV cop shows. This being a film, the crimes and incidents are amped up (lots of blood, bullets and bravery), but basically we've seen this kind of thing before. As familiar as the format is, End of Watch manages to get its hooks into you. Brian and Mike are properly rough-edged as cops working the bad side of town should be, but in between the macho banter and bluster we see that they're, well, a lovely pair of guys. It's here that the film shows its traditional roots. The script goes a bit out of its way to make us like Brian (he gets married!) and Mike (he and his wife just had their first child!), which if you've paid attention to any cop film in the last forty years means that one or both run a high risk of getting killed. The plot is breezily uncomplicated. Through sheer happenstance our two cops bust two operations run by the same Mexican cartel, et voila: the cartel orders some local gangbangers to kill them. I'll say no more, but the finale is pretty bullet-riddled.
End of Watch is successful in the moment: fast-paced, well-acted, tense, violent, but a half hour after viewing it's blended into every cop show/film you've ever seen. A more complex plot would've helped lodge it in the memory cells, and I could have done without some over-the-top sentimentality and villains who are pit bulls in human form. Considering how uncommon realistic cop films are these days, I'm just happy Brian and Mike weren't on the trail of some kind of bizarro serial killer.
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