Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Film Review: Two Days, One Night (2014)

In addition to run-of-the-mill critical commentary, films these days are often judged on their attitude towards visible minorities, gender roles, ageism, ethnic or religious stereotyping, and the LGBT community. The sequel to Zoolander, which has yet to be released, has gained the ire of the transgender community, Adam Sandler's western series for Netflix has been attacked by native American groups, and Get Hard with Will Ferrell was criticized for its racial politics. It's no surprise that modern films are under this kind of scrutiny given that until fairly recently filmmakers had no qualms about mocking, vilifying, disparaging or ignoring a wide variety of minority groups. There is, however, still one group that lacks adequate or sensitive representation on screen: the working class.

Working class characters are common enough in films as victims or perpetrators of crime, as comic cutups, sidekicks, army grunts, slackers, or as individuals pole vaulting into a higher tax bracket thanks to pluck and luck and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. What we almost never see are stories about working class people where the focus, the heart of the drama, is on their actual working lives and their relationship to capitalism. Losing a job is one of the most dramatic and painful things that can happen to a person, but it's rarely presented on film. We sometimes see middle- and upper-middle-class people lose their jobs, but that's usually just the jumping-off point for a feelgood story about "self-discovery" and learning about what "really matters." For people who are paid by the hour, having a permanent job is what really matters.

Two Days, One Night is about a French woman, Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who loses her job and then fights to get it back. She works for a small firm that assembles solar panels in the north of France. The job is blue collar, there's no union, and the pay is just adequate to sustain a decent lifestyle for her husband (who also works) and two kids. If she doesn't get her job back the family will probably have to move back into social housing. Sandra lost her job because her co-workers were given a choice: get a 1,000 euro bonus and see Sandra let go or keep Sandra and not get a bonus. A clear majority of the 16 workers voted to take the bonus and say goodbye to Sandra, who had the least seniority. At the urging of her husband and her friend, Sandra goes to the company's owner and asks for another vote. She points out that the vote wasn't fair because the foreman who initiated it led the workers to believe that if Sandra wasn't let go then it would mean someone else going out the door, which wasn't the case at all. Also, the ballot wasn't secret. The owner agrees to another vote, and Sandra has the weekend to try and change the minds of the people who voted against her.

It would have been so easy to make this film overly sentimental, preachy or polemical. What we get is a subtle, nuanced portrayal of working-class life under pressure. Each visit Sandra makes to one of her co-workers is a glimpse into the ambitions and struggles of the average worker. In terms of film dramas, one thousand euros (equal to about $1,500) is a paltry sum. In the real world, and in this film, that money represents school tuition, essential car repairs, debts repaid, a family vacation, home improvements, and so on. These aren't world-shaking issues, except to the people who have to deal with them. What's also shown in these meetings is the empathy some workers have for their fellows. They all acknowledge that Sandra got a raw deal and isn't just a victim of bad luck. They also feel terrible that they've  been put in the position of deciding the fate of a co-worker. Without saying so explicitly, all of the workers are disturbed or even horrified that they've been put in the position of deciding the fate of Sandra and her family.

The characters are superbly and efficiently drawn. Sandra is no model worker. She suffers from depression, and it's hinted that this affected her work in the past, which may have made it easier for people to vote her out. And by pleading her case with her co-workers Sandra causes some mini-crises in other households as people argue over whether they're justified, morally and otherwise, in sending her packing. One couple breaks up over the issue, and in the film's most powerful scene, a young worker breaks down in tears of shame and relief when he finds out he'll get a chance to change his vote and keep Sandra at the company. Sandra also suffers during this weekend because she's forced to beg people for her job, knowing full well that she's causing them hardship if she convinces them to change their vote.

The end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) is a mix of pain and hope. The second vote ends in a draw and so Sandra does lose her job. She isn't, however, crushed by this decision. Her experiences over the weekend have revealed her own strength, and, more importantly, the empathy and solidarity of many of her co-workers. The film ends with Sandra going off to begin the search for a new job, buoyed in spirits (slightly) by what she's learned about herself and her co-workers. It's a bitterly realistic ending, but one that points that fighting for justice in the workplace is both difficult and rewarding and makes for fantastic, if rarely seen, drama.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best Books of 2015

An actual photograph of me reading.
This past year I read as many books as I usually do (somewhere in the 50-75 range), but I didn't post as many reviews as usual. Why? Laziness, pure laziness. So here are the books I enjoyed the most this year. Some of them I did full reviews of (click on the titles), and the others you'll just have to make do with my thumbnail opinions. And in no particular order...

Iron Gustav (1938) by Hans Fallada

Fallada's Alone in Berlin made my list last year, and this one is almost as brilliant. The eponymous character is the owner of a fleet of cabs in pre-WWI Berlin. His "iron" character is what causes the slow and sure destruction of his family and business over the course of the story, which has to be definitive portrait of Germany in the 1920s and early '30s.

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

This alternate reality/SF novel shows a Europe that's dividing and sub-dividing into smaller and smaller states, all of them throwing up more and more border controls. Did I say this was fiction? It's also wholly, exhilaratingly original and ends with the promise of stranger things (and sequels) to come.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015) by Jill Leovy

L.A. Times journalist Jill Leovy has been on the crime beat (specifically murder) since 2007, and this book is her answer to the question of why there is so much black on black crime in America. Her reportage on the cops, criminals and hapless bystanders in the city's predominantly black south-central district is never less than fascinating, and her explanation for why the area suffers an unending crime wave is analytically sound and completely fascinating.

Moon in a Dead Eye (2009) by Pascal Garnier

This is a surreal novel in the tradition of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel. A miscellany of retired French folk live in newly opened retirement/trailer park and spontaneously combust, as it were, into various forms of madness as a forest fire sweeps down on the park. Garnier is a master at peeling back the skin of the middle class to show the scary and weird stuff lying underneath.

The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994) by Jonathan Coe

This fictional summation of the Thatcher years in the UK is my book of the year. Coe has several axes to grind, and he does so with LOL humor, diabolical plotting, savage characterization, and, dare I say it, a certain brio (read the book and you'll spot the joke in that last sentence.).

The Cartel (2015) by Don Winslow

What makes this all-encompassing novel about the narcowars in Mexico so compelling is that Winslow gives us fully rounded Mexican characters. This subject area is usually dominated, in dramatic terms, by American characters doing all the heavy lifting (see Sicario). Winslow doesn't let the reader forget that it's Mexicans who suffer most from the cartels' predatory actions.

Days Like These (1985) by Nigel Fountain

A shambolic mystery-thriller is usually not a good thing, but in this case it works beautifully. The hero is John Raven, who has a cool name, but is a decidedly uncool hack who lives and works in left-wing political circles. Raven stumbles on a right-wing conspiracy and the fun begins; the fun being a sly and droll look at life on the political edges, played out in grimy bedsits and questionable pubs.

Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairy lore gets a reboot in this YA novel about a young girl who's been stolen by fairies. These fairies aren't a pack of Tinkerbells. They're dangerous, capricious, and yet not entirely evil. Hardinge's prose, as usual, is brilliant, and her world-building puts her at the top of the class in fantasy writing.

Five Children on the Western Front (2014) by Kate Saunders

Another YA novel, but this one has a title that sounds like a Monty Python skit. It's anything but. Saunders follows E. Nesbit's beloved characters into the First World War and what results is a novel that honours the source material as well as dealing out a harsh anti-war message.

Gun Street Girl (2014) by Adrian McKinty

The fourth D.I. Sean Duffy mystery is as strong as the previous three. The secret to their success is that in Sean Duffy we have a sleuth who actually enjoys (most of the time) what he does. He even likes a lot of his fellow coppers. This is very much against the grain for most contemporary cops who bitch and whine endlessly about their jobs, pausing only briefly to allow their significant others to bitch and whine about police work. McKinty keeps threatening to end this series, but I think he, like Duffy, enjoys the work too much to do that.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: The Islanders (1998) by Pascal Garnier

This is the fourth Garnier novel for me, and I've come to the conclusion that he's the poltergeist of French literature. Garnier's novels are studies of individuals whose inner demons are kept in check (barely) by the routines, beliefs and ceremonies of middle-class life. Garnier, in his role as a poltergeist, tears apart the delicate web of social respectability and responsibility that keeps his characters on the straight and narrow, and then records what happens to these people when they get off the leash and start barking and biting and killing.

In this novel we have Olivier, a recovering alcoholic, Rodolphe, the world's nastiest blind man, and Jeanne, Olivier's long-ago girlfriend, with whom he shares a murderous secret from their teenage years. Olivier returns to the Paris suburb of Versailles to make funeral arrangements for his deceased mother. Versailles is where he grew up, and it's a place he wholeheartedly detests. Olivier's shocked to find that Jeanne and her brother Rodolphe are living across the hall from his mother's apartment. Olivier and Jeanne haven't seen each other in twenty or so years, but they're almost instantly drawn back to each other. The folie a deux crime for which they were never caught as teenagers was the kidnap and murder of a two-year-old boy. Olivier decides to hit the bottle again, and the bodies start to pile up.

Garnier's plots are spare but smart; he gives his characters a bit of a push in one direction and then, in keeping with the poltergeist metaphor, commences to pinch them, throw things at them, occasionally push them down a long flight of stairs. and otherwise torment them until the worst and truest part of their character is fully revealed. And so it is here. Olivier goes off the wagon for one night and so begins a parade of murders and a trip into madness for the only two characters left standing at the end of the book.

Garnier's artistic inspiration would seem to come from Jean-Paul Sartre's observation in No Exit that "hell is other people." In this novel, as in others by Garnier that I've read, the characters find humanity to be a sorry spectacle, and an excruciating one when having deal one on one with people. A typical Garnier character looks around and describes what he sees and feels using a palette filled with venom-based paints. At times Garnier can go overboard with seeing the world through dystopia-tinted glasses, almost to the point of parody, but his misanthropy is always delivered with a poetic zeal that keeps his novels palatable and energetic rather than dreary and pretentious.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Film Review: Spectre (2015)

Oh, James, how could you do this to me? I forgave Roger Moore's safari suits and Inspector Gadget gadgets. I overlooked Timothy Dalton's incongruous Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas. And I even tried to pretend that On Her Majesty's Secret Service never happened. But I draw the line at being bored senseless for over two hours.

For this entry in the Bond franchise, 007 is up against Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Chrisoph Walz. Blofeld's madcap scheme this time out is to tap into the databases of all the world's leading intelligence agencies, which will enable him to...I'm not actually sure what will happen, but it's probably quite naughty. To combat this dastardly plot Bond has only one option: he must travel from London to Rome to Austria to Morocco in a series of increasingly stylish and acutely-tailored outfits. Once Bond turns up in a white dinner jacket on the dining car of a Moroccan train, we, and SPECTRE, know the game is up. Blofeld has nothing to match Bond's sartorial supremacy, and he even makes the ghastly faux pas of wearing loafers without socks. Seriously, how can a man who's still using Miami Vice's Sonny Crockett as his menswear muse hope to defeat Bond?

To be honest, plotting has never been the strong suit of Bond films. They're a bit like Christmas trees: essentially just scaffolding for lights, decorations and presents. And what we like to find on and under the tree is dry humor, jaw-dropping stunts, one-of-a-kind action set-pieces, outlandish villains, and a bit of very softcore porn. Spectre fails spectacularly at all the traditional Bond elements.

Things get off to a reasonably good start with a fight aboard a helicopter above a packed square in Mexico City, but after that it's all downhill. A car chase in Rome is the definition of perfunctory. Any old episode of Top Gear does something more exciting with cars than this sequence does. Next up is a car/plane chase in the Austrian alps that has some of the ridiculousness of the Roger Moore films, but none of the raised-eyebrow humor. The humor is crucial because without it sequences like this just feel silly. A well-placed gag lets us in on the joke. Bond then proceeds to Blofeld's base inside a huge meteorite crater in the Moroccan desert. This looks promising, I thought, preparing myself for an all-out battle akin to the climax of You Only Live Twice. No such luck. Bond basically walks out of the base whilst shooting some obligingly stationary henchmen ("Shoot me, Mr Bond, shoot me! I'm standing over here! Oof! Gosh, I've been deaded by James Bond 007. My mum will be proud...urghh."). The actual finale happens in London, and it's an unimaginative piece of business that I thought had died out with silent films: Bond's love interest has been tied up in a building that Blofeld has wired to explode, and James must race through the place to find her before time runs out. The only thing missing is a loyal canine to lead James to his girlfriend.

This also has to be the worst Bond film for overall sexiness. Lea Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann is, alas, far too young for middle-aged Daniel Craig and they have zero chemistry together. Roger Moore also had problems with the age gap, but his awful puns seemed to take the sting out his love scenes with women half his age. Monica Bellucci makes a brief appearance in the film in what must be the most awkward and creepy sexual episode in any of the Bond films. James backs a seemingly reluctant Bellucci against a wall and disrobes her as though he was unwrapping a Ferrero Rocher chocolate he'd been saving for a special occasion.

I enjoyed Daniel Craig's Casino Royale, but it marked the beginning of an attempt to make Bond more nuanced, human, and believable. It's as though the producers and directors felt slightly ashamed to be associated with a film franchise that had such a sexist and puerile history. But who the hell wants a real world James Bond? If I want that I'll rewatch any of the Jason Bourne films. And as each of Craig's Bond films has come along, his performance have become stiffer, more laconic, and increasingly humorless. Sam Mendes, the director, seems happiest when he's filming lush interiors and Bond's wardrobe. Now, I expect James Bond to dress well, but this film takes it to the next level; so much so that at times he seems to be wearing body art rather than anything made of wool or cotton. The surest sign that the people at the top end of the production team feel that they're too good to be making a Bond film is the name given to Lea Seydoux's character. Madeleine Swann? Really? Is a laboured and witless A la recherche du temps perdu reference supposed to convince us that some very tall foreheads were involved in the making of the film? Sorry, but dragging Marcel Proust into a Bond film is something I can never forgive.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review: The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994) by Jonathan Coe

I'm not even going to try and fully outline the plot of this novel except to say that it's a wonderment of deviousness, coincidence, and mystery--Dickens on steroids. In a nutshell, the eponymous Winshaws are the Borgias of post-war Britain. From a family fortune founded on the slave trade, the Winshaws now have their bespoke talons securely fastened in banking, politics, the arms trade, media, and agribusiness. The central character is not a Winshaw, but one Michael Owen, a novelist with emotional baggage to spare. Owen takes a commission to write a history of the Winshaw family. The person underwriting the commission is Tabitha Winshaw, who has been confined in a mental asylum for the past twenty or so years by the other Winshaws. Tabitha is convinced that her brother Lawrence caused the death of her other brother Godfrey during World War Two. And it's Godfrey's death in the war that forms the coiled spring at the centre of a plot that encompasses tragedy, farce, acidic social and political commentary, mass murder, and some of the most polished comic writing this side of P.G. Wodehouse.

The dexterity of the plotting is breathtaking. The story has multiple narrative layers and voices, bags of characters, and sudden tonal shifts that sometimes put the story up on two wheels. It's understating matters to say that Coe is successfully juggling a lot of balls here; he's also keeping a flaming torch, a roaring chainsaw and an angry cat aloft. This is one of those rare novels that's thrilling because we're witnessing a writer making all kinds of high-risk maneuvers that could end very badly. Let me put it this way: how many writers would dare to incorporate both Sid James (star of the Carry On films) and Saddam Hussein (star of various crimes against humanity) as characters in the same novel?

The Winshaws, all nine of them, are mad or bad, and sometimes both. Some reviews that I came across have complained that the presentation of the family lacks subtlety; that the Winshaws are too starkly villainous. Some of the same reviews have also complained that Coe's depiction of political and social issues in Thatcher's Britain is similarly stark and simplistic. These reviewers are missing the point. What Thatcher unleashed in the UK was nothing less than a conservative counter-revolution against a generation of public policies aimed at creating and improving the social welfare state. Thatcher's "reforms" were as brutal and unsubtle as it's possible to be. To talk about those changes in a subtle manner would be to diminish their intent and dumb savagery. If the Winshaws are presented as posh, greedy brutes, it's because those were the foot soldiers in the war to turn back Britain's social and economic clock to somewhere in the Victorian age. And, of course, there are villains, and then there are exceptionally well-written villains. Coe has created a wonderfully diverse group of monsters in the Winshaws, and while they are all determinedly rotten, they are also very entertaining; although none of them goes so far as too stick their genitals in a pig's mouth. No one could possibly believe that...

If I've made The Winshaw Legacy sound like a polemic, believe me, it isn't. Coe is too smart a writer for that. This is first and foremost a novel filled with keenly observed characters, and some powerful episodes describing human suffering of both the physical and psychological variety. Rather amazingly, these tough elements don't jar at all with comic characters and moments that are often wildly funny. So if your taste runs to state-of-the-nation novels (UK division), make this one your choice rather than Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo (my review), which is essentially written from the POV of a Winshaw. And remember that this novel was written in the early 1990s, long before Winshawism, to coin a term, came to fruition under David Cameron, with hearty endorsement by Britain's financial and media elites.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: The Radleys (2010) by Matt Haig

Vampires; can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Vampirism in literature and film is at once the most tired of genres and also one that still occasionally manages to come up with new and interesting tales to tell. Speaking as someone who works in a big library system, I get to see a lot vampire-lit detritus. The library's shelves are full of vampire romances, vampire manga, vampire thrillers, and lots and lots of vampire teen fiction. I've even come across a Regency-set vampire romance titled Bitten by the Count. Amidst this sanguine avalanche you can still find gems, and The Radleys is one of them.

The Radleys are a British family living an all too normal life in suburbia. Peter is a GP, his wife Helen works for the local government, and their teenage children, son Rowan and daughter Clara, struggle with the social side of school life. And, of course, Helen and Peter are also vampires, albeit abstaining vampires. They are the vegans of the vampire world, unlike many of their peers, and especially Peter's brother Will, who continues to lead the vampire version of the rock star lifestyle. Peter and Helen haven't told their children the family secret, and themselves struggle with staying on the straight and narrow. Both the children suffer from weakness and lassitude from not drinking blood, but put it down to other reasons. The entire family is waist-deep in angst when we meet them. Peter and Helen feel bored and constricted by their non-vampire lives, Clara is nauseous all the time because she's become an actual vegan, and Rowan is experiencing the sheer hell of an unrequited first love. Things take a turn for the very much worse at a nighttime field party when one of Clara's classmates tries to rape her. Clara's vampire side comes bursting out (much to her shock and horror) and her attacker ends up dead. Very dead. The Radley family is now in full crisis mode as Clara's crime has to be covered up, the family secret is revealed to the kids, and Will arrives to "help" the family with their troubles.

Every modern vampire story has to build its own unique mythos, and Matt Haig does an excellent job of putting some clever wrinkles on the standard rules and regs that govern bloodsucker behavior. His vampires are long-lived, but not eternal; can tolerate sunlight, but don't like it; only gain supernatural powers with the consumption of blood; are known to the police, but somewhat tolerated; and can only "create" new vampires by sharing their own blood with their victim. Haig's world-building is admirable, but his real focus is on the psychological pressures facing the Radley family. More specifically, the various flavours of depression afflicting their lives. Both Peter and Helen pine for the freedom and wantonness of life as a predatory vampire. Clara and Rowan are dealing with the usual tortures of teen life, but with the added pressure of longings and anxieties they can't understand.

The vampire component gives this novel its narrative backbone, but it's heart is invested in describing how a family copes with heartbreak, buried secrets, resentment, and fear. The Radleys go through the emotional wringer, and the plot, which is built like a thriller, doesn't give them time to catch their breath. This effectively doubles the story's tension, because it's a race to see what will happen first: will the family be "outed" or will it be destroyed by its own inner tensions. The novel is, by necessity, very dark, but there are moments of humour, and Will is the sort of character who's hugely entertaining as only a truly wicked vampire can be. If The Radleys is ever filmed, the casting call for Will will describe him as a "younger Bill Nighy-type." The only fault with the novel (a very minor one) is that the tone lurches back and forth from YA to adult and back again several times. But I'd still recommend it to both audiences.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Bite-Sized Bad Books

These days it seems that for every good book I read, I have to start, and abandon, at least one dud. I can't be bothered to do full reviews of every turkey I come across, so here are three mini-reviews of two books I gave up on, and one that I ended up skim-reading. Consider yourself warned.

Carter & Lovecraft (2015) by Jonathan L. Howard

You wouldn't hire a bespoke tailor to run you up a pair of board shorts and a T-shirt, so why was Howard, the author of the excellent series of Johannes Cabal novels (my review), commissioned to write this tie-in novel for an upcoming TV series? The premise is that a descendant of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft teams up with an ex-NYPD cop to fight supernatural baddies of the Lovecraftian variety. Howard is an excellent writer with an amazing ability to meld steampunk, horror and humour, and he does so with fluid, smart prose and a lot of originality. In Carter & Lovecraft, Howard takes all of his strengths as a writer and tosses them out in favour of a narrative voice that's supposed to sound American, but comes across as second-rate Lee Child. The story is slow, the American setting is poorly realized (Howard is a Brit), the dialogue and banter between the main characters is awkward, and the horror, by the time I abandoned the book at the one-third mark, consisted of one mildly unpleasant death. I hope they paid Howard well, but he should have used a pen name. He has a reputation to protect.

The Color of Smoke (1975) by Menyhert Lakatos

The first English translation of this "epic novel of the Roma" came out in August of this year, and I was intrigued because I've never read anything fictional about the Roma, let alone a novel written by a Roma author. Turns out Lakatos has nothing good to say about his own people. The novel is set just before World War Two in Hungary in a rural community of Roma. Lakatos is unsparing, even savage, in describing the backwardness and brutality of life in this world. In fact, by the halfway point it seemed the book's only purpose was to take vicious swings at the Roma. Lakatos is a good writer but I could only stomach so many descriptions of rural poverty and the abuse of women.





The Road to Little Dribbling (2015) by Bill Bryson

I'll take it on faith that Bill Bryson actually went to the places he describes in this rambling tour around Great Britain. On the other hand it's entirely possible that he sat down in front of his laptop and created this travel book entirely through the generous use of Wikipedia, Google Earth, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Tripadvisor. And he does, in fact, frequently quote from these sources. Here's the book's formula: Bill travels to a British town or point of interest (Stonehenge, the South Downs, etc.) and lists the local shops, tours a museum and describes its contents, throws in a bit of history culled from the internet, complains about litter/rudeness/various bureaucratic inefficiencies, makes a humorous observation or two, throws in some invented comic dialogue between himself and a local, and then ambles off to his next destination. And he even steals a gag from one of Eddie Izzard's routines. I skim-read my way through this one, marveling that apparently the most successful authors are now allowed to plagiarize their books from the web. It's cheaper than hiring a ghost writer, I suppose.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book review: The Cartel (2015) by Don Winslow

The simplest way to describe The Cartel is to say that it's a panopticon of a novel about the bloody, futile and destructive "war on drugs" waged by the U.S. against the Mexican drug cartels. The central character is Art Keller, a DEA agent who's spent years fighting the cartels, and who has seen and participated in many acts of violence. Keller is almost a burnout case, and the only thing that keeps him going is a deep love of Mexico and a pathological hatred of Adan Barrera, the head of Mexico's strongest cartel. Barrera, like many of the other cartel leaders we meet, wages a constant war to fend off other cartels, stay out of the clutches of the police, and maintain the strength of his organization. The action of the novel is spread over a decade, ending in 2014, and there are simply far too many plots and sub-plots to mention. And that's a good thing. The story masterfully toggles between micro and macro views of the conflict so that every facet of this ongoing tragedy is examined in full.

Winslow's novel is partly didactic in intent. He wants to show his North American readers the sheer extent and endless savagery of this war, particularly its impact on the civilian population. The people who have died in this war aren't limited to those handling drugs and the cops opposing them. The cartels kill to both intimidate and impress, and over the period covered in this novel tens of thousands of Mexicans died at their hands. The actions of the cartels have, to a certain degree, turned Mexico into a failed state. But this isn't really a Mexican problem. The cartels exist to feed American demand, and bought-in-America weaponry does most of the killing south of the border. Winslow does not miss a single political, historical or sociological issue in describing the breadth and horror of this war, and he makes it very clear his sympathies are with the thousands of innocent people brutalized by the cartels and their allies, Mexico's frequently corrupt politicians and policemen.

Although The Cartel often has a docudrama feel, Winslow doesn't neglect his literary duties. Dozens of major and minor characters are sharply described, and even the human monsters, of which there are more than a few, aren't given the cursory treatment. There is much violence, but its brutality is necessary to give us an approximation of how barbaric the "rules" of conflict are; anything ISIS has done has been surpassed years ago by the cartels. It's not a flawless novel. Art has a rather cliche relationship with his superior at the DEA; he's one of those bosses who's always yelling that he's not going to put up with this kind of lone wolf behavior and then does exactly that. And while there are some very strong female characters, there are a few too many fulsome descriptions of women in terms of their sexual desirability. But these are minor issues. What might be the novel's greatest achievement is that it's a major American novel that wrestles with hot button political and social issues. That's a rare event in contemporary American literature, which seems more concerned with the emotional travails of the upper middle classes.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: Vertigo (1954) by Boileau-Narcejac

Yes, this is the novel that Hitchcock's Vertigo was based on, although the original French title was D'entre les Morts. It's been republished with same title as the film, and the good news is that in some ways it's even better than the film. The major difference between the novel and the film is that the novel is set in France, but other than that the film follows the book relatively faithfully. For those of you who've been living in a cave, the story is about a retired police detective (Flavieres) who quit the force after a traumatic incident on a rooftop. Some years later, an old friend he hasn't seen in years looks him up and asks to follow his wife, Madeleine. She is, according to the husband, acting strangely and might be suicidal. Flavieres follows her and saves her from a suicide attempt. Flavieres falls in love with Madeleine, but a few weeks later she throws herself from a church tower, a fatal event witnessed by Flavieres. Four years pass and Flavieres sees a woman he swears is Madeleine. He follows her, woos her, and tries to get her to admit that she is Madeleine. She finally reveals that she played the role of Madeleine as part of a murder plot. Flavieres strangles her and is hauled off to jail. Roll credits.

Hitchcock sensibly made his ending more visual and more dramatic, but what gives the novel extra interest is its Second World War setting. The first part of the novel takes place during the so-called "Phony War" period of 1940, when the French (and British) populations were confident that the war was going to end with a whimper, if it ever managed to get going. The final section of the story is set in late 1944, with France mostly liberated but still demoralized and licking its wounds. Madeleine's deception is meant to find its echo in the Phony War, and the revelation of her role in the plot is, I think, a symbolic reference to those French who collaborated with the Nazis.

Boileau and Narcejac (they were a writing team) had a reason for setting their story during the war, and this added political component gives the novel more depth, more resonance than the film version. Usually writing teams are a recipe for bland prose, but this duo's writing is lively and clever, even stylish. If Vertigo the film is about obsessive love, Vertigo the novel more about betrayal of both the romantic and political variety.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Review: Sicario (2015)

Major spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. First off, I'll acknowledge that Sicario looks great, has an inventive, tension-inducing musical score, and has some action set pieces that are really, really well choreographed. That's where the good news ends. Sicario is also the most badly-plotted film I've seen in a very long time. Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films have more logical and believable plots. The few reviews I've read of Sicario (all laudatory) have apparently been blind to this titanic flaw, apparently fooled by the film's muscular realism and energy. This is a film that skips merrily from one bit of plot inanity to another without catching its breath. And that's not the worst thing about Sicario.

The first scene in the film has FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on a suburban house in Arizona that we assume is a drug den or something of that ilk. She kills one of the men guarding the house and then finds that the ranch bungalow's walls are stuffed with bodies, victims, presumably, of a Mexican drug cartel. Why the cartel would go to all this bother rather than burying people in the surrounding empty desert isn't explained, nor why a cartel henchman would fire at Kate when it's a clear he has no chance to avoid arrest. I'll give the scriptwriter a pass on this one, as the real purpose of the scene is to show us that Kate isn't reluctant to shoot people and that the cartel does some really bad things. Shortly after this raid, Kate is asked to volunteer for a special task force that's targeting the head of one of the Mexican cartels. The task force is led by Matt (Josh Brolin), who commands a small force of ex-Navy Seals(?), and one scary dude named Alejandro played by Benicio del Toro.

From here on, the plot get worse. The film's main action sequence involves the transfer of a prisoner from a jail in Juarez to the American side of the border just a few miles away. It's great cinema, but it has no internal logic. Why ferry the prisoner out of Juarez in a convoy of SUVs (they're ambushed, naturally) when a chopper ride would be easier? Even more ridiculously, the convoy has a cleared road and Mexican police escorts from the border to the prison, but then when they get back to the border the convoy vehicles have to line up with all the other daytrippers going to the U.S. They couldn't get a special lane to themselves for the return journey? Was U.S. Customs afraid the Seals might bring back some undeclared booze? An ambush takes place that's notable for continuing the cinematic trope of henchman being more than willing to give up their lives in a lost cause.

The film's big plot reveal comes past the halfway mark when Matt tells Kate that the only reason she was asked to volunteer for the group is so the CIA could operate on U.S. soil. Evidently the law dictates that the CIA can't operate domestically unless it's allied with a law enforcement agency. So Kate's role is purely symbolic. And why the CIA, you ask? Because they want to wipe out the Mexican cartels and replace them with the Medellin cartel from Colombia. According to Matt, things were better for everyone when only one cartel was in charge of things. All I can say is that a CIA plot this stupid belongs in a Steven Seagal movie.

And that brings me to the film's biggest problem: Kate isn't just a footnote to the CIA's operation, she's a footnote in the film. Take Kate out of the film and absolutely nothing about the story changes. The CIA operation goes as planned, the same people end up dead, and the same final result is achieved. Kate is entirely superfluous. If that wasn't bad enough, the film also goes whole hog on the sexism and misogyny. Kate might be brave, good with guns, and able to kill ruthlessly when necessary, but that's only the script paying lip service to the idea of gender equality. What the story has her mostly doing is fulfilling the traditional role of women in issue-oriented action films; she acts as the scold and nag, the voice of conscience. Poor Emily Blunt has to spend the entirety of the film whining and complaining about "following procedure", and generally being the finger-wagging schoolmarm/mom/wife while Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro get to act cool, look cool, and talk cool. The film then doubles down on the sexism with some bonus misogyny; to wit, Kate is held down and choked by a corrupt cop (and rescued by Alejandro); shot in her bulletproof vest by Alejandro; and then knocked to the ground and pinned there like an unruly puppy or disobedient child by Matt. What all three scenes have in common is that she's assaulted by these men after she dares to interfere with or criticize their respective schemes. And the film's penultimate scene has Kate crying when Alejandro forces her to sign an incriminating document, because, well, girls always cry under pressure, don't they?

With a 93% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, it's clear that Sicario's technical excellence and sharp action sequences have acted as a smokescreen to a more critical examination of its script. Take away Denis Villeneuve's slick direction and Roger Deakins' wonderful cinematography and you have a film that feels like a sequel to Lone Wolf McQuade, a Chuck Norris vehicle from the 1980s. The plot is an unholy mess, its sexual politics are reprehensible, and the politics of the drug trade are ignored in favour of random scenes that reassure we northerners that Mexico is just as big a hellhole as we imagine it to be.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: Brodeck (2007) by Philippe Claudel and Eat Him if You Like (2009) by Jean Teule

The French know a thing or two about mobs. In fact, they pretty much invented the modern mob back in 1789, and since then they've stayed in game shape with major mob events in 1830 (the July Revolution), 1870 (the Commune), 1968 (the May riots) and, most recently, the 2005 riots in the country's banlieues. It comes as no surprise, then, that a couple of French authors should write novels that dissect the psychology of mob activity.

Brodeck is set in an alternate reality Europe that mostly resembles Austria or Germany in the 1930s. The title character lives in a small village high in the mountains where he works as a low-level government functionary. As the novel begins, Brodeck is summoned to the town's inn where he learns that almost all the men in the village have murdered a man know only as the Outsider. The men ask Brodeck to write a report on what happened in the town that led to the killing of the Outsider. The narrative now skips back and forth between Brodeck's investigation and flashbacks to his grim and tortured life before arriving in the village.

Claudel's novel is a slightly surreal, fable-like meditation on all the ways people can find to despise and persecute those unlike themselves. The Outsider who ends up being killed is emphatically more symbol (a saint? a holy fool? God?) than a character. He's odd and eccentric, mostly silent, and it feels like he's dropped into the village after an adventure in one of Italo Calvino's fabulist novels. The slightly whimsical nature of the Outsider is offset by Brodeck's back story, which is a litany of some of the 20th century's showcase atrocities--concentrations camps, pogroms, persecution, and total war. Claudel's novel veers towards the didactic from time to time, but he more than makes up for it with some wonderful world-building. His alternative Europe is artfully done, and his detailed descriptions of the village and its citizens are beautifully realized.

Eat Him if You Want is the nasty, brutish and short take on mob behavior. It's actually an almost blow for blow recounting of a true event in French history that took place in 1870. The setting is a small village during a summer fair. Word has come from the north that the war with Prussia, only a few weeks old, is going badly for France, which is simply more bad news on top of the drought which is gripping the region. A local haute bourgeoisie man, Alain de Moneys, comes to the fair to conduct some business and a few members of a semi-drunken crowd think (wrongly) that they hear him say something pro-Prussian. What starts as anger among a few drunks metastasizes into an orgy of violence directed against Moneys. For over two hours he's beaten and tortured in ways only French peasants could dream up, culminating in his being burnt alive and, yes, partially eaten. His death was the definition of senseless, and many of his attackers were later arrested and executed or sent to penal colonies.

No gruesome detail is spared in Teule's novella, but the blood and horror is leavened with black humor and a tone of ironic detachment that makes the savagery and madness on display all the more affecting. Teule doesn't ask us to draw lessons from this historical incident, or even try to understand more than the simplest of motivations behind the attack. He simply shows in clinical detail how a mass of people can turn into not just killers, but brutal architects of pain.The worst thing about the crime is that it reveals how imaginatively cruel the average person can be and how willing they are to put their sickening fantasies into action.

Both novels are in the Premier League of harrowing, and not to be read on a crowded subway train where people are likely to be testy and react badly if you bump into them while your nose is buried in one of these books. And kudos to Gallic Books for bringing out Eat Him if You Like and a raft of other French novels in translation which I'm slowly working my through. Allons-y!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Film Review: Black Mass (2015)

If Black Mass was a pizza it would only have one topping; if it was a car it would be a base model Toyota Corolla; and if it was a day of the week it would be Wednesday. Black Mass is the blandest gangster film that's ever been made. It's not dull, it's not bad, but it leaves absolutely no impression on your cinematic palate. The film tells the true story of Whitey Bulger, a small-time Boston gangster who became a big-time gangster in the 1980s thanks to the tacit support of the FBI, who were relying on Bulger to give them intel on Boston's sole mafia family. Bulger gave them very little real info, but the protection and tips he got from the FBI (and one agent in particular) let him rule Boston's underworld for more than a decade.

Where Black Mass goes wrong is in concentrating on the FBI's involvement with Bulger. It's true that this is what makes the Bulger case of news interest, but it has very little cinematic value. The appeal of gangster films lies in the gangster lifestyle. Goodfellas is a masterpiece because it shows the visceral appeal of life in the mob, especially how that life was for street-level hoods. The Godfather also shows us a gangster lifestyle, albeit one that's built around an operatic plot and an acidic attack on the myth of the American Dream. Black Mass goes through the motions of showing Bulger whacking some people, beating up others, and generally being feral and threatening, but we don't get any clear idea of what his criminal empire was built on. His downfall began with his involvement with jai alai games in Florida. The film does a terrible job of telling us what jai alai is and how Bulger profits from it. And Bulger's underlings are barely developed. We register their presence, but they might as well be nameless extras for all the impact they have. Instead of describing the gangster life, the film gives us scene after scene of guys sitting around tables in homes and offices doing nothing but talk, talk, talk. At the halfway point in the film I began to feel I was watching some kind of dramatic re-enactment show on the History Channel.

The actors all turn in capable performances, but they're held back by a script that lacks wit and energy. All the salient points in Bulger's career are covered, which is fine for an essay, but not so charming in a film. And one odd thing I noticed is that either the actors or the scriptwriter have no ear for swearing. Everyone curses up a storm, but it always sounds awkward and forced. Goodfellas evidently holds the record for sweariest film of all time but in that film the expletives felt natural and almost poetic. In Black Mass the curses are there to enliven otherwise dreary dialogue sequences.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film Review: Figures in a Landscape (1970)

One of the great things about filmmaking in the late 1960s and early '70s is that no one knew what they were doing. The studio system in Hollywood was collapsing into bankruptcy, formerly reliable film genres such as musicals and westerns were dying on the vine, and laxer censorship meant whole new avenues of creative expression were opened up. All this meant that producers, who were as much in the dark as anyone, were willing to take a chance on projects that were non-traditional; in fact, some producers were probably hunting for oddball films to make in the hope that they'd catch the next wave that would carry them out of the film production wilderness. And that's probably how Figures in a Landscape got made.

Figures is not a good film, but it's eccentric ambitions make it very watchable. The two stars are Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell, the director was Joseph Losey, and Shaw also wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Barry England. The minimalist story has two men, Mac and Ansell, on the run from the authorities in an unnamed country. We don't know their crime, their guilt or innocence, or the political character of the country they're in. They're pursued by an ominous black helicopter that seems able to find them at will and direct ground forces against them. The landscape of the title is arid and mountainous (it was shot in Spain), and might be a country in southern Europe or even Latin America. The men's goal is a snowy mountain range that marks the border with another country.

Harold Pinter's name isn't on the credits, but it might as well be. Shaw and Losey had both worked with Pinter on multiple occasions and his influence is very clear. This is an action film that's also a bickering, claustrophobic, absurdist drama, with the helicopter and its faceless pilot becoming a symbol of...well, whatever you want, I guess. Mac and Ansell dislike each other from the beginning and are reluctant allies. They spend most of their time quarreling or telling redundant stories about their lives back in Britain, and like many Pinter characters they attach enormous importance to the most trivial details of their lives. As a Pinter play, it's not a very good one. The dialogue isn't sharp or witty or off-kilter enough, and Mac (Shaw) gets far too much of the dialogue. Ansell (McDowell) spends most of the film looking scared and not much else.

What saves this film are its cinematic elements. The cinematography and use of locations is excellent, as is the musical score by the underrated Richard Rodney Bennett. What's most surprising about the film is its action scenes. Early in the film Mac and Ansell are buzzed by the chopper in a sequence that looks like it was very dangerous to film for both the actors and the pilot. Another sequence set in a cane field is equally dynamic, and, all in all, it's possible to enjoy this film as the most stripped-down action/escape film ever made. I have a feeling that was the intention all along; to try and do an action-adventure film without any of the traditional back story and character development that encumber most films in this genre. The attempt to add some intellectual cachet to the story through the use of stylistic references to Pinter and Samuel Beckett is wholly unsuccessful. Although the producer really missed an opportunity to call the film Running From Godot. Now that's marketing.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy

The first Cormac McCarthy novel I read was Cities of the Plain (my review), and it's fair to say that I found it comprehensively bad. "But no!" people said. "That's the wrong one to start with. You should have read Blood Meridian!" There's a small group of writers I've read over the years that have elicited the same sort of response from friends and acquaintances. I tell someone I've read novel x by Ernest Hemingway/Graham Greene/Thomas Pynchon and not been impressed, and I'm then immediately told I read the wrong one--I should have read For Whom the Bell Tolls/Brighton Rock/Gravity's Rainbow. There seems to be a category of authors who are guaranteed to disappoint the reader unless you know how to tiptoe through his or her literary minefield.

Long story short, I gave McCarthy another chance. It was a qualified failure. Blood Meridian is widely regarded as his best novel, and is frequently mentioned as one of the great novels of modern American literature. I'll start with the good. Unlike Cities of the Plain and its dry, tone deaf prose, this novel features some superb descriptive writing. The novel follows a group of rapacious gunslingers called the Glanton gang on an odyssey through Texas, Mexico and the American Southwest as they hunt Apaches for a bounty on their scalps. McCarthy's descriptions of the land, the weather, and the hardscrabble towns the gang pass through are magnificent. His masterful way with metaphors and similes is astounding, and the novel can be enjoyed (partially) as an epic prose poem about the Old West.

Unfortunately, great description does not a novel make. It helps to have compelling characters, and McCarthy can't create characters if his life depended on it. All his cowboys comes from a big bin marked "Western extra type B: laconic." The Glanton crew are an undifferentiated mass of slow-talking cowpokes who sound as though they're in a western film rather than a western novel. The only exception is Judge Holden, who is given paragraph after paragraph of opaque, overripe, rambling dialogue about life and death and fate. It's pretty silly stuff, and feels like a misguided attempt to ape some of William Faulkner's characters, the ones who muse on existence and metaphysics while out on quail hunting trips. Holden is more symbol than man, and just in case the reader doesn't get this, McCarthy makes him exceedingly tall, completely hairless, white as a ghost, and exceptionally cruel. I'm surprised McCarthy stopped short of giving him a tattoo reading "Evil Incarnate." Holden is to be regarded, I'm guessing, as either a cruel god, a playful demon, or Death itself. He's so overdrawn, however, that he ends up in the same camp as cartoon horrors such as Freddy Kruger, Hannibal Lecter, and the better-quality Bond villains.

The plot is somewhere between thin and threadbare. The gang roams across the west killing just about every man, woman, child and animal they encounter. In-between massacres, atrocities and isolated killings, the boys get drunk, shoot up towns, and rob and rape. It's all a bit lather, rinse, repeat. If you were to stop reading it after about a hundred pages the only thing of interest you'd be missing is more prose poetry. The violence is unrelenting and, in the end, tedious. It doesn't add to our understanding of the barely-there characters, and the various bloody events read like scenes culled from McCarthy's favourite western films. In fact, one brief scene feels like a direct steal from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The farther I got into Blood Meridian, the more I realized that Phillipp Meyer's 2013 novel The Son (my review) is a kind of rebuttal to McCarthy's book. Meyer's western novel tackles some of the same themes, even has an ultra-violent Holden-like character, but spreads itself over a much larger canvas with more imagination and skill, and, perhaps most strikingly, features native American and Mexican characters who aren't just cannon fodder for Yankee guns. And as it happens, I wouldn't recommend reading Meyer's first novel, American Rust (2009). It's the wrong one to start with.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Book Review: Days Like These (1985) by Nigel Fountain

The left-wing thriller has always been a rare animal. Eric Ambler started the sub-genre in the late 1930s with novels like Journey Into Fear. After the war Ambler's enthusiasm for communists in the role of heroes cooled, but not his hatred of fascism and dictators. The vast majority of thrillers, if they have any political content at all, are usually right-wing or, more commonly, take a cynical, all sides are rotten and corrupt view of the world. The few writers who continued the leftist tradition (in English) included Julian Rathbone and John Fullerton. Rathbone eventually gave up thrillers and Fullerton (my review of This Green Land) is almost totally forgotten.

Days Like These is very much from the Ambler school of thriller writing. Ambler's protagonists are almost always middle-class Britons, politically naive, who find themselves caught up in conspiracies and plots that both baffle and frighten them. An Ambler hero has to muddle his way through danger, aided only by luck, pluck, and the timely intervention of a savvy leftist with a gun. The lead character in Days Like These is John Raven, an intermittently employed journalist in London who was once a committed lefty but is now content to drift around the edges of the movement. John is leading a quiet life of floating from odd job to pub to bedsit and back again, until he has the bad luck to buy some odd photographs and also witness the bombing of a politician's house. The two events are connected, and John is soon the focus of thugs and a nascent fascist conspiracy.

If the overall structure of the novel is Ambleresque, the tone and style owes more to Evelyn Waugh. This is as much a bleakly comic novel as it is a thriller, and Fountain takes great delight in describing the petty squabbles and bickering that constantly divides and sub-divides his characters on the left. The comic nature of the novel becomes even more apparent at the end when Raven becomes a hidden witness to a fascist conspiracy crumbling into internecine bloodletting. In fact, Raven ends up not having a much or any effect on the plot. He accidentally becomes aware of a right-wing conspiracy (it's a rather shambolic conspiracy) and spends the rest of the novel evading the bad guys until they eventually self-destruct. It's not a traditional thriller structure, but something about it reminded me of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Unlike Waugh, however, Fountain's sympathies are definitely on the left. His leftists may at times be absurdly idealistic, petty, doctrinaire and quick to anger, but they are not bloodthirsty or ignorant.

Fountain is an excellent writer. His descriptions of the demi-monde of left-wing London are richly detailed and quietly comic. Everyone seems to have one eye on the next deviation in political orthodoxy and the other on who's due to stand the next round. And London itself is presented as a seedy, frayed city of drab pubs, ratty apartments, and littered streets. This makes the novel sound bleak, but the vivacity of the characters and Raven's cynical, time-for-another-pint charm more than make up for the tatty surroundings. Days Like These isn't going to fit with most people's idea of a thriller, but excellent writing doesn't need to sit squarely in a genre box. My main problem with the book is that it's the only thriller Fountain wrote. If he does write another I'll gladly stand him several rounds in his favourite questionable pub.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Stephen Harper's Flock of Odd Birds

Like a harsh light casting long and dark shadows, the combination of a federal election campaign and Mike Duffy's fraud trial has thrown into sharp relief the strange group of characters that flit around PM Stephen Harper and the upper echelons of Conservative politics in Canada. This eccentric crew includes: Nigel Wright, Ray Novak, Guy Giorno, John Baird, James Moore, Jason Kenney, Jenni Byrne, Arthur Hamilton, and Patrick Brown.

Now, bear with me because I'm going to be practicing psychology without a licence for the duration of this blog post. What unites the aforementioned dramatis personae, aside from politics, is their sheer oddness. A kind of weirdness that was best described by Charles Portis in his brilliant comic novel Masters of Atlantis, about a ludicrous only-in-America cult:

Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales, Inc., he got his hands on a mailing list titled Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana, which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men.

Yes, that pretty much describes the people circling in Harper's orbit, except that they aren't as harmless or humorous as Portis' creations. Reading through the bios and newspaper profiles of these assorted Conservatives leaves one with the clear impression that this bunch (including Harper) is made up entirely of social misfits, loners, psychopaths and religious fanatics. One thing they almost all have in common is that they attached themselves to conservative politics with limpet-like determination as teenagers. While the rest of us were out drinking, partying, chasing the opposite sex, or just goofing around in various nerdy ways, Harper's odd birds were canvassing for rightist candidates, campaigning for student president, and generally marking themselves out as people no one wanted to hang with. Call me a libertine, but there's something scary/sad/suspicious about a teen who embraces politics with steely determination to the exclusion of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. 

Harper's flock are determined loners. With the exception of Hamilton and Giorno, all of them are single. Patrick Brown, the new leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives and once an MP in Harper's government, has said that he hasn't "had much time for that". The "that" in question is a relationship. It's telling that Brown can't bring himself to use words like "marriage" or "girlfriend.", and as a Conservative it's too much to expect him to admit to wanting a boyfriend.  It's slightly disturbing that so many of Harper's inner circle are unable or unwilling to form long-term relationships, although it's also possible that some of them, as rumor would have it, are deeply-closeted and simply don't want to upset Harper's socially-conservative base. Ray Novak, currently Harper's chief of staff, is the poster boy for social self-denial. He actually moved in with Harper and his family for four years and became a sort of uncle or brother to the Harper family.

As a substitute for personal, intimate relationships, this crew has opted for dog-like devotion to Harper and the cause of conservatism. Their bios are littered with references to their selfless, tireless, continuous efforts to promote and sustain the Conservative party and conservative causes. If they weren't working for the party directly they were laboring for right-wing advocacy groups or think tanks. None of them seem to have taken a breath of air in a non-political environment. The only break some of them take from political fanaticism is to indulge in some religious fanaticism. Wright and Giorno are staunch Catholics, and Hamilton and Harper are from the evangelical side of the spectrum. This religiosity wouldn't be remarkable for a random group of US politicians, but in Canada it gives them "odd bird" status.

Harper is notoriously uncomfortable around other people, even his own children, and this election campaign has seen him fence himself off from any kind of human contact that hasn't been thoroughly vetted. But this kind of anti-social activity pales next to Arthur Hamilton, who in an interview with the Globe and Mail basically said that the only thing that keeps his sociopathy in check are his fundamentalist Christian beliefs. And what's with the all the running? Wright gets up before dawn every morning, every morning, and runs 20km. Novak gets up at 5 a.m. to run, although his jogs are evidently shorter in length. These regimens smack more of self-flagellation than of fitness.

This leads me to the big question: why has Canadian conservatism attracted, or turned to, so many apparent head cases? The answer comes in a study done of incompetent military commanders done by psychologist Norman F. Dixon. He writes:

Incompetent commanders, it has been suggested, are often those who were attracted to the military because it promised gratification of certain neurotic needs. These include a reduction of anxiety regarding real or imagined lack of virility/potency/masculinity; defences against anal tendencies; boosts for sagging self-esteem; the discovering of loving mother-figures and strong father-figures; power, dominance and public acclaim; the finding of relatively powerless out-groups on to whom the individual can project those aspects of himself  which he finds distasteful; and legitimate outlets for, and adequate control of, his own aggression.

Dixon is writing about military commanders, but his analysis applies equally well to many right wing politicians (who are almost always militarists as well) and especially to Harper & Co. Stephen and his covey of odd birds use conservatism, of both the political and religious variety, to assuage and hide some aspects of their personalities they'd rather not face. Self-esteem, or the lack of it, is at the root of what attracts this bunch to conservatism. Brown had a painful childhood stutter, Wright was adopted, Hamilton has a dark, violent secret in his past, and several others appear to have spent their lives terrified of coming out. It's an absolute Las Vegas buffet of self-esteem issues.

Over the last several decades conservatism has become more militaristic, xenophobic, intolerant of cultural differences, doctrinaire, religious, scornful of economic underclasses, and hostile to criticism and analysis. These qualities give strength to people whose perceive their own identity as being weak or uncertain. Today's conservatism trades in simplistic certainties backed with macho bluster, religious pieties, martial rhetoric, and facile, pitiless economic logic. It's a movement that gives strength and purpose and confidence to those who can't find these qualities in themselves. 


Related post:

What Makes a Conservative Conservative?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

TV Review: Penny Dreadful

When I was growing up in the 1960s, horror films came in two varieties; there were American creature features like Them or The Thing, and then there was Hammer Films. Hammer had the smart idea to take classic horror icons such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman and give them a bit of a polish--Technicolor, more realistic violence, and, most importantly, much better acting than was the norm in horror films. The style, professionalism and gravitas of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is what gave Hammer its unique appeal.

In truth, Hammer's output was very spotty. For every Horror of Dracula there was a piece of dreck like Twins of Evil. And even Hammer's best efforts can today be looked at as respectable, slightly earnest Masterpiece Theater-style attempts at horror. Nostalgia has made Hammer into something better than it actually was. The brilliance and appeal of Showtime's Penny Dreadful is that it gives us Hammeresque horror that actually matches up to our fond and fuzzy memories of Lee, Cushing & Co.

The central characters, or what turns out to be a sort of Marvel Avengers team of supernatural superheroes, are Dorian Gray, Viktor Frankenstein, Frankenstein's monster (called John Clare), the Werewolf, an Allan Quatermain clone, and Vanessa Ives, who is some variety of witch. Season one had the crew battling a vampire who has taken possession of Vanessa's childhood friend, Mina Harker. Yes, that Mina Harker. Season two has our late-Victorian heroes up against a coven of witches who want to offer up Vanessa to Satan for breeding purposes.

As is usual with limited run series on specialty channels, the plot is spread out very thinly over a few too many episodes. I can easily forgive that sin in this case. Penny Dreadful is a luxurious exercise in the visual and literary tropes of Victorian horror, with a dash of steampunk thrown in. The production design is sometimes breathtaking, the costumes magnificent, and the bloodletting is abundant. Even better is the acting. Eva Green as Vanessa is asked to chew up copious amounts of scenery and she does so with absolute gusto. It's a wonder she didn't permanently damage some facial muscles with all the weeping, screaming, howling and raging she's required to do. The other standout in the cast is Rory Kinnear as John Clare, Frankenstein's monster and easily the most complex character in the show. He's subject to murderous rages, but at heart he has the soul of a poet. Kinnear brings intense humanity to the role and banishes any comparisons with other actors who've played this character. Honourable mention goes to Simon Russell Beale as Ferdinand Lyle, in a performance that's so camp he must have channeled the spirit of Kenneth Williams. The only slightly disappointing thespian is Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray. Dorian is supposed to be a decadent, world-weary aesthete, but Carney makes him into more of a decadent, world-weary barista.

Penny Dreadful also earns marks for being dead serious about its basically absurd concept. John Logan, the screenwriter/producer, never gives the audience any knowing winks, and I think there's only one scripted joke in the entirety of the two series. This seriousness helps pulls the audience into the story because we never get the feeling that we're watching an homage or pastiche. Logan also gives his series an overall philosophical theme: the destructive and redemptive power of love. There's something you won't find in Hammer films. All of Penny Dreadful's main characters wrestle with the problem of love in all its forms: forbidden, unrequited, impossible, tragic, sexual, and platonic. In fact, Penny Dreadful could be described thusly: when loves goes wrong, the supernatural shit hits the fan.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Film Review: Delitto d'amore (1974)

In the 1960s and '70s Italian cinema seemed to specialize in reinventing film genres from other countries. The spaghetti western was a deconstruction of the American western with an added dollop of Japanese samurai films; giallo films were Hitchcock with more blood and less humour; and poliziotteschi were American cop noir films like The French Connection given a frenzied and feverish makeover. Or to look at it another way, Italians were the counterfeit designer label purveyors of the film world. But this ersatz cinema was always vastly entertaining.

Delitto d'amore is Love Story (1970) redone with bonus Marxism, environmentalism, political violence, labour activism, and angry debate about Italy's north-south divide. The lovers are Nullo and Carmela, both of whom work in a noisy, smoky metalworks factory in Milan. Nullo is a northerner whose family are all anarchists. Carmela and her very traditional Catholic family are recent arrivals from Sicily. They live in a crowded hovel in a part of town that looks as if it would be more habitable if it was bulldozed. Carmela falls in love with Nullo at first sight, he takes a little longer to come around to her charms. They want to get married but fight over her demand for a religious marriage and his insistence on a civil marriage only. Carmela gets a fatal illness from toxic fumes in the factory, and marries Nullo in a civil ceremony on her deathbed. The last shot of the film has Nullo walking through a crowd of workers protesting the factory's working conditions, and as he goes off-camera we hear a pistol shot as he shoots (we assume) one of the factory managers.

There are a lot of raw edges in this film, but it's charm and power comes from its dogged enthusiasm in embracing every hot button issue of the day, and subtlety be damned. Pollution? How about a scene by a river that was once pristine (according to Nullo) but is now foaming with industrial effluents and bordered by trash heaps. Poverty? Carmela's tenement is horribly overcrowded and surrounded by wasteland. The screenwriter was Ugo Pirro, who, not surprisingly, also did the script for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (my review). This was a guy who knew how to tackle themes like social injustice and make them entertaining.

The film really has a bit too much on its plate, but that's par for the course in Italian films of that era. Some of the giallos of that period (Death Walks on High Heels comes to mind) had enough plot for three or four movies. Considering how politically-neutered Hollywood filmmaking has been over the years, it's always refreshing to watch a film that sinks its teeth into big issues and won't let go. The location photography is great. Milan in winter is wrapped in perpetual fogs and mists, and as is usual in Italian films of that time, the cinematographer seems to go out of his way to avoid locations that show the country's natural and architectural beauty. The acting is all over the map. Stefania Sandrelli is very good as Carmela, but Giulano Gemma is a bit meh. Like too many leading men from '70s Italian cinema, Gemma is a pretty face and a cool haircut in search of an acting class. He tries, though.

Delitto d'amore (Crime of Love in English) isn't a classic, but it's energetic, angry and clumsily entertaining. The gold standard for films about the Italian proletariat and labour strife has to go to The Organizer (my review), but there are several other films in a similar vein (1900, The Working Class Goes to Heaven, The Railroad Man) so I'm thinking there needs to be a genre classification for them. How about classe operaia films?

Related Posts:

Review of Plot of Fear 
Review of Almost Human

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Film Review: It Follows (2015)

The horror genre has always been kind to directors who want to showcase a particular style or indulge in directorial affectations. Directors from Jacques Tourneur to Brian de Palma to Stanley Kubrick to Sam Raimi used horror films to highlight their eccentric talents. It Follows takes the generic 1980's horror film (Halloween is the template here), passes it through a film school aesthetic, and what comes out at the other end is stylish, but ultimately rather dull.

The terror at the heart of teen horror movies isn't really a maniac wielding something sharp and stabby, it's sex. It's old news that this genre revels in t & a, punishes its sexually active characters with gruesome deaths, and makes the virginal into heroes. It Follows has the clever idea to cut to the chase by having its titular nasty be a new kind of STD--a sexually transmitted demon. If you have sex with an "infected" person they will pass on a curse to you. The curse is that you'll be followed (at a walking pace) by an evil spirit that will kill you if it catches you. The spirit or demon can take any human form, but is only visible to its victim. By having sex you can pass the demon on to the next person. So there it is, all the dread, guilt and anxiety teens feel about sex wrapped into one tidy concept. The execution is the problem.

The story unfolds in a very low-key manner by the standards of the genre. Jump scares are kept to a minimum, characters have aimless conversations that don't include the use of word "dude", and very little is done in a rush. It all has the feel of something done in film school that's self-consciously trying to avoid the cliches of the genre but can't find anything better to replace them with. The cinematography is moody, and the director plays with the time period it's set in (is it contemporary? Is it the '80s?), but the visual and tonal conceits can't paper over the weak internal logic of the story. We don't get a back story to the curse, which is OK, but the logic of how the curse works and how the demon is defeated seems arbitrary. Also, at the end of the day this is essentially a zombie movie with only one zombie, and I hate the zombie genre.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairies are overlooked in most contemporary fantasy and YA literature. It's werewolves and vampires who rule the roost these days when it comes to folkloric creatures. Clearly, fairies need better representation; a high-profile PR firm, perhaps, or maybe a top agent at CAA. Once upon a time, as they say, fairies were a staple of fantasy stories stretching all the way back to Shakespeare. For quite a while now, however, fairies have been relegated to picture books and junior fiction that presents them as Barbie dolls with wings. Frances Hardinge's fairies are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The setting is a fictional English town in the early 1920s. Triss Crescent, age thirteen, has just woken from a coma that resulted from a fall into a pond. She seems fine, but Triss knows that somehow she's not the same person she was. For one thing, she has an insatiable appetite that no amount of food can satisfy. And what about those cobweb tears? Pen, Triss' younger sister, angrily declares that Triss is not, in fact, Triss: she's an impostor. Their parents don't know what to make of the changes in Triss, and Pen's accusations are simply ignored. It's clear Pen has always ranked lower on the family totem pole than Triss. The family is also haunted by the loss of their adult son, Sebastian, who died five years previously in World War One. His former fiance, Violet, is also on the scene, and her independent, motorcycle-riding, ciggy-smoking, jazz-loving ways deeply offend Mr and Mrs Crescent. In short order we, and Triss, come to the realization that she's a changeling, swapped by the fairies (called Besiders here) in order to punish Mr Crescent. The novel is essentially a mystery-thriller, as Triss tries to uncover the secret of her origin, retrieve the real Triss from the fairy kingdom, and find out what the Architect (the Oberon of the Besiders) is up to.

Hardinge's plot is lean, cleverly put together, and always exciting, but what sets her apart from almost everyone else in this field is the quality of her prose and her unbridled imagination. The average writer in the YA/fantasy world is obsessed with world-building, to the point where some novels read like computer software manuals. One gets the feeling that Hardinge writes in this field because it allows the greatest scope for her prose, especially her exquisitely-crafted metaphors and similes. Here's a sample:

Every time she closed her eyes, she could sense dreams waiting at the mouse hole of her mind's edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go.

Hardinge's world-building is right up there with her prose. She ticks all the fairy lore boxes, but in each case adds an extra ingredient or a twist on the conventions of the genre. One example: there's a fairy ride at midnight that both honours convention (humans think it sounds like a flight of geese) but takes the form of a tram filled with fairies that bounds over snowy rooftops in a sequence that brings to mind the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. And then there's Violet, whose grief for the dead Sebastian takes magical shape in cold, ice and snow if she stays in one place for more than a few hours. It's an outstanding visual metaphor for sorrow and loss.

The fairy characters are true to their roots in folklore. They're feral, hostile to humans, kindly on occasion, unintentionally persecuted by the spread of civilization, and largely unknowable. But mostly they're dangerous, and Hardinge even gives us Mr Grace, a fairy hunter (fairybuster?) who specializes in ridding the world of changelings. Hardinge isn't the first writer to give us fairies cast in the role of sharp-fanged villains. Alice Thomas Ellis did something similar in A Fairytale (my review), and Chris Adrian wrote a modern and very, very dark version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review) set in San Francisco. Both are excellent and definitely not for the YA demographic. As I read Cuckoo Song I got the sneaking suspicion that it may have been inspired by a poem called The Changeling written by Charlotte Mew, a British poet who died in 1928. I may be wrong but the poem certainly captures some of the tone of the novel, and here it is:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child!

In the garden at play, all day, last summer,
Far and away I heard
The sweet "tweet-tweet" of a strange new-comer,
The dearest, clearest call of a bird.
It lived down there in the deep green hollow,
My own old home, and the fairies say
The word of a bird is a thing to follow,
So I was away a night and a day.

One evening, too, by the nursery fire,
We snuggled close and sat roudn so still,
When suddenly as the wind blew higher,
Something scratched on the window-sill,
A pinched brown face peered in--I shivered;
No one listened or seemed to see;
The arms of it waved and the wings of it quivered,
Whoo--I knew it had come for me!
Some are as bad as bad can be!
All night long they danced in the rain,
Round and round in a dripping chain,
Threw their caps at the window-pane,
Tried to make me scream and shout
And fling the bedclothes all about:
I meant to stay in bed that night,
And if only you had left a light
They would never have got me out!

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!

'Times I pleased you, dear Father, dear Mother,
Learned all my lessons and liked to play,
And dearly I loved the little pale brother
Whom some other bird must have called away.
Why did they bring me here to make me
Not quite bad and not quite good,
Why, unless They're wicked, do They want, in spite,
to take me
Back to Their wet, wild wood?
Now, every nithing I shall see the windows shining,
The gold lamp's glow, and the fire's red gleam,
While the best of us are twining twigs and the rest of us
are whining
In the hollow by the stream.
Black and chill are Their nights on the wold;
And They live so long and They feel no pain:
I shall grow up, but never grow old,
I shall always, always be very cold,
I shall never come back again! 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It seems that Hollywood has learned something from the fast food industry. Until recently, burger chains and the like competed on price, but over the last decade their strategy has shifted to inventing ridiculous and/or oversized food items that attract publicity as well as diners. That's why we get things like the Krispy Kreme burger or KFC's Double Down sandwich, and so on and so on. Fury Road is the supersized, high fat and sodium content addition to the Mad Max franchise. Instead of one kick ass lead character (Max), why not two? Why cheap out with only one evil, ugly, deranged warlord? Let's have three! And keep the car chases virtually continuous, sort of like the free refills at McDonalds' pop machines.

Fury Road isn't bad, and by the standards of most contemporary action films it's quite good, but measured against the standards of the first two films in the series (we'll try and forget the egregious Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), it's a bit of a disappointment. To begin with, even though the car chases are bigger and longer, they aren't any cleverer. In fact, you could say they've been dumbed down a bit since this time around guns play a larger role in the action. In Road Warrior bullets were a scarce and precious resource, to be used only in extreme occasions. Here our heroes use them, in relative terms, with abandon. And the problem with unending car chases is that after a while you run out of ways to attack and crash vehicles. The violence is on a bigger and louder scale (although not R-rated, unlike the first two films), but it lacks the spark of demented originality the first two films had.

The oversupply of goodies and baddies means that characterization is an afterthought. Furiosa, the Charlize Theron character, is all-steely resolve, all the time. And Max, the titular star of the show, is reduced to a weapon or tool to be used only during action set pieces. He barely speaks, and, unfortunately, when he or Furiosa do say anything they're given to pompous utterances about looking for "hope" and "redemption." The Warboys and their leader Immortan Joe are visually splendid, but with so many characters involved in the action there isn't time to develop Joe into a memorable villain. He does have a respiratory problem, however, something that's de rigueur for all your top villains.

On the plus side, Fury Road is an emphatically feminist narrative with Furiosa leading the way against Joe's women-enslaving death cult; a cult that bears a strong resemblance to groups like ISIS and the Taliban. The use of a starter pack of supermodels to play Joe's "brides" undercuts the feminism somewhat, but that's only a minor glitch. Charlize Theron definitely earns her stripes as an action hero, and a Furiosa sequel seems both inevitable and welcome. As for Tom Hardy, he needs a sequel just so his character can be properly introduced.