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