Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Film Review: Seven Days in May (1964)

This past week saw the latest chapter in the GOP's hysterical attempts to demonize anything Barack Obama says or does. On this occasion they brought in a pinch hitter, Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed Congress (against all normal protocol) on the dangers of signing a nuclear treaty with Iran. The Republicans cheered and applauded Benjy's every word, and the only thing missing from the event was the ceremonial lighting of torches and sharpening of pitchforks prior to attacking the White House to drive the monster out. Yes, the GOP is now officially one of those peasant mobs in Universal horror movies of the 1930s, with John Boehner in the role of the burgomeister. The Iran fuss follows on the heels of GOP ragefests over immigration, the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi, Obama's birth certificate, and a variety of other issues, both large and small. The common denominator is that the Republicans and the Nazguls at Fox News are convinced that Obama is a crazed muslim marxist who is hellbent on destroying the US of A.

The right-wing's vitriol and fear, both strongly flavored with racism, has been epic, and at several points during Obama's tenure I seriously wondered if a significant minority of Americans who have their hands on the levers of power wouldn't be OK with a coup. I also wondered why no one was rushing to remake Seven Days in May, a thriller about a cabal of Pentagon generals and a right-wing TV news host who conspire to overthrow the government before the President can sign a treaty with the USSR banning all nuclear weapons. Burt Lancaster as Gen. Scott is the head conspirator, Frederic March is the Prez, and Kirk Douglas plays an aide to Scott who uncovers the conspiracy. Probably due to its age, or perhaps because it's story was seen as too far-fetched, Seven Days in May never seems to make any lists of the all-time great conspiracy thrillers. It should. John Frankenheimer was the director, and he's a master at eliciting intense performances from alpha male actors. The discovery of the conspiracy and the President's attempts to derail it are effectively handled, the dialogue is intelligent, and its documentary-style look makes the whole story seem that much more probable.

The film isn't, however, entirely without flaws. A sub-plot involving Gen. Scott's ex-lover and some incriminating love letters could have been pruned, and the documentary look of the film sometimes veers into flat, made-for-TV visuals. Produced at the height of the Cold War, Seven Days in May shows the coup plotters enraged by a policy decision. They have no personal beef with the president, just his plan to scrap nuclear weapons. Contrast that with Obama, whose bitterest opponents have a visceral loathing for him that transcends matters of policy. The remake practically writes itself with Obama's fictional equivalent facing a hostile array of billionaires such as Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers; the combined forces of talk radio and Fox News; and Christian fundamentalist elements in the armed forces. Denzil, are you paying attention? This is your next big role.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) by M.R. Carey

I find zombie films tiresome and relentlessly unscary, if that's a word, so I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying this post-apocalypse zombie thriller. Sorry, that's hungries, not zombies. Author M.R. Carey goes out of his way not to use the z-word. I'm not sure why he does this, and it definitely seems odd that none of his human characters use the z-word, but I guess in the crowded field of zombie films, zombie graphic novels, zombie TV shows and zombie novels, you do whatever it takes to stand (lurch?) out from the crowd. But enough about etymology and on to the eating of flesh!

The setting is England twenty or so years hence. A nasty fungus that normally infects ants has somehow jumped species and turned almost all of humanity (the English portion of it, anyway) into crazed zombies hungries. The hungries are akin to the zombies in 28 Days Later; they move fast and they never give up. They also have extra strength and heightened senses. The story begins on a fortified army base where a group of children are being held captive. It emerges that the kids are hungries who, unlike all other hungries, retain their intelligence and personality along with an uncontrollable desire to eat human flesh. They're kept restrained and locked up. The land outside the base is overrun with hungries and "junkers", who live and act much like the bad guys in the Mad Max films. The brightest of the children is 10 year-old Melanie, who is in love with her teacher, Ms. Justineau. Justineau is racked with guilt because she knows that the children are only being kept alive so that Dr. Caroline Caldwell can dissect them in an attempt to find a cure for the plague of hungries. The children are unaware that they are hungries and have no knowledge of the world outside their cells. A band of junkers overruns the camp and Melanie, Caldwell, Justineau and two soldiers, Parks and Gallagher, escape together. They have go on foot to the Beacon, some kind of redoubt located south of London. But that place of safety is a long way off in a land filled with dangers, not the least of which is Melanie, who is trying to manage her urge to eat her companions.

Like I said, I don't care for the zombie genre, but Carey is such a good writer he manages to get past my walking dead defenses. The appeal of the novel, aside from its well-crafted moments of violence and peril, lies in the character of Melanie. She's a sweet child with a love for all the new things the world has to show her, but at the same time she has to control the inner demon that wants to turn her into a remorseless killer. This inner conflict gives the novel its backbone and its most touching moments. The remaining characters are good, but they betray the novel's origins (as we learn in an afterword) as a failed screenplay. Caldwell, Justineau, Parks and Gallagher all fit neatly into their respective action movie character slots--cold-hearted scientist, vocal moralist, grizzled grunt, greenhorn grunt. Carey handles these characters very effectively, but at times they feel a bit too celluloid. The ending betrays its film roots with a scene that's very neat, that brings things full circle, but also makes no sense. That aside, M. R. Carey (the unimaginative pseudonym of Mike Carey) may have made me a convert to zombie fiction. but his best work remains the Felix Castor novels. And here's my piece on why I have a beef with the living, shambling dead.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: How's the Pain? (2006) and Moon in a Dead Eye (2009) by Pascal Garnier

In my experience French crime writers can be divided between the relentlessly quirky (Fred Vargas, Alex Lemaitre, Pierre Magnan) and the relentlessly ferocious (Dominique Manotti, Sebastian Japrisot, Jean Patrick Manchette, Georges Simenon). The first group specializes in oddball characters and wildly improbable plots. Team number two can also craft some truly Byzantine plots, but what really makes them special is their merciless examination of the fears, beliefs and motivations of their characters. A writer who favours quirky characters is usually also a sentimentalist at heart. Sentimentality isn't in the vocabulary of the second group. They have ice in their hearts and take a vivisectionist's approach to the human psyche, showing no mercy when it comes to throwing their characters into harrowing situations and horrible fates. Pascal Garnier is the definitive ferocious writer.

How's the Pain? is about an elderly hitman, Simon, who's dying of cancer and has one last job to finish. He meets a simple-minded young man, Bernard, in a town in southern France andd hires him as a driver. Bernard is a Labrador retriever in human form: loyal, friendly, ready for anything, and eternally optimistic. Simon is a shark. He kills without remorse and for any reason. This sounds like a humorous, odd couple pairing, but it's anything but. Bernard immediately complicates what's left of Simon's life by befriending a slatternly single mother and bringing her along for the ride. The story takes a succession of left turns, usually involving death, and the ending is as bleak and sudden as a car accident. Moon in a Dead Eye strays out of the crime genre into surrealism. The setting is a newly-built trailer park in the south of France that caters to retirees. Two retired couples, a caretaker, and two single women are the only occupants of the park. What happens to them is best described as a series of psychological breakdowns of a surrealist nature that ends with multiple deaths and a forest fire. The novel's title is probably a nod to a famous scene in the film Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist classic by Luis Bunuel.

Both novels take a cold, pitiless look at aging and mortality. The elderly characters in these stories are chased to their graves by dementia, illness, sadness, and regret for things they did or didn't do in their lives. Garnier seems determined to remind his readers that not only is Death waiting for us all, but he's also in a bad mood and wants to take it out on us. As is usual in French crime fiction, the middle classes take a thorough kicking. This is particularly so in Moon in a Dead Eye, which charts the fragile, tenuous nature of bougeois dreams and respectability. In this way it's an interesting companion piece to two other Bunuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. The inhabitants of the Les Conviviales trailer park descend into different kinds of madness, all laced with the blackest of humor. It's this quality that makes Moon in a Dead Eye more of a surrealist novel than a piece of crime fiction, although major crimes do take place.

Garnier's novels are so short they almost qualify as novellas, but his writing is so psychologically acute, his observations so sharp, he seems to pack more intellectual content into his novels than most "serious" writers manage in novels five times as long. Garnier's far from being your average crime fiction author, but if you like Jean Patrick Manchette, or you're just a fan of scorched-earth prose, then Garnier's your man.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Film Review: The Border (1982)

For some people Jack Nicholson is a grandstanding actor who has spent most of his career chewing up the scenery in films like The Shining, Batman and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nicholson does have that side to his acting personality, but there's also a more buttoned-version, and that's what we get in this unfairly neglected film about corrupt Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas.

Nicholson is Charlie Smith, an Immigration and Naturalization agent in L.A. who's pushed into joining the Border Patrol by his wife, Marcy, played by Valerie Perrine. Marcy wants the better things in life, especially a house, and argues that a new job in El Paso with the Border Patrol will give that to them. In parallel with the Smiths move to El Paso, we see Maria, a young Mexican woman, heading across Mexico towards the U.S. border with her infant child and teenage brother. They've been uprooted by an earthquake that's destroyed their village. Charlie hasn't been in the job long before he realizes that his job is essentially pointless; he grabs illegal immigrants as they sneak across the border, processes them, sends them back, and then catches them all over again the next day or the next week. He also learns that some of his fellow agents (Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates) are being bribed by the head of a local smuggling ring. Charlie figures he might as well make some extra money out of this pointless process and he agrees to go on the take. That ends almost immediately when he sees that the smugglers expect the agents to kill their competition. Maria is caught crossing the border and the smugglers steal her baby to sell it on the black market. Charlie befriends Maria and the film becomes a thriller as he tries to find her child and not get killed by smugglers and corrupt Border Patrol agents.

One startling aspect to The Border from a 2015 perspective is its sympathy for illegal immigrants. In these days of Mexican drug cartels and hot button topics like amnesty for illegal immigrants, it's hard to remember that Mexican immigrants were once viewed sympathetically. The film wears its heart on it sleeve by portraying all the American characters, excepting Charlie, as complete bastards. The Border Patrol is corrupt and uncaring, and the wives of Charlie and the character played by Harvey Keitel are shrieking, whining monsters of consumerism. With the exception of one oily smuggler, the Mexican are shown in a rather better light. The director, Tony Richardson, even manages to find a visual metaphor for this divide between the nationalities. Scenes on the Mexican side of the border show water being used to baptize babies, for washing up, and for drinking. On the U.S. side it's akin to a toy; something that only has value when it's used in water beds (Marcy's purchase of an expensive one precipitates Charlie's turn to the dark side) or pools. And then, of course, there's the river that divides the two countries and that features in the final shot of the film.

The Border still works well as a thriller, makes good use of its Texas locations, and reminds you that Jack Nicholson could turn in a subtle, restrained performance when he wanted to. What hasn't aged well is the treatment of the female characters. Maria is saintly and mostly silent, and the American wives are just out and out harridans, full stop. The job of proving that American culture is shallow is given to them and it's festival of sexism and misogyny. And any film that has Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates acting together deserves your full attention.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Film Review: American Sniper (2014)

Is American Sniper as morally blind, jingoistic and lacking in political context as a host of commentators and critics have described it? Yes. Yes it is. Most of the critical flak has been aimed at director Clint Eastwood, but I'd say scriptwriter Jason Hall and producer/star Bradley Cooper deserve more of the blame.

Eastwood's direction here ranges from efficient to perfunctory to downright lazy, but I'm calling out Hall and Cooper for a jaw-droppingly bad script that feels as though it was crafted by a committee comprised of PR people for the NRA and the Tea Party. The script does such a thorough job of ducking the hard and nasty truths about Chris Kyle and the war in Iraq that it should qualify as a fantasy film. Kyle's ghostwritten autobiography and subsequent revelations about his post-war life made it clear that he was a racist, a sociopath, and a congenital liar who fantasized about killing civilians. These qualities probably helped make him grade A material for the Navy SEALS, but why would a scriptwriter and producer go so far out of their way to whitewash a character who was, to put it mildly, halfway to being a serial killer? The script also cuts and pastes the historical record in order to suggest that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. I'd say this kind of revisionism, and the film's fawning celebration of good ole boy machismo, is a calculated and cynical strategy to appeal to a specific and considerable American demographic; namely the kind of people who flesh out the ranks of the Tea Party; holiday in Branson, MO; fill the stands at NASCAR races; attend gun shows on Saturdays and pack the pews of megachurches on Sundays. This is the audience this film is tailor-made for. American Sniper glorifies, even beatifies, the values and myths they hold dear and does it with a rigorous disregard for the thorny inconveniences of irony, historical accuracy, psychological insight, and the moral and political consequences of military actions.

American Sniper also continues a tradition of  mainstream Hollywood films portraying wars purely in terms of their effect on American soldiers and civilians. Vietnam films, even politically liberal ones such as Coming Home, had nothing to say about the two million Vietnamese killed in the war. The Hurt Locker, another film about the Iraq war, is very similar in tone and subject matter to American Sniper and also shares its lack of interest in the war's impact on Iraqis. If your only knowledge of Iraq came from those two films you'd be left with the idea that Iraq was entirely filled with terrorists and their civilian supporters. The combination of two wars and brutal economic sanctions between those wars have led to the deaths, by some estimates, of a million Iraqis and the displacement of millions more. According to Hollywood's moral accounting, none of that counts for anything compared to the temporary psychological stresses suffered by one soldier, Chris Kyle, and his wife.

Looked at purely from a cinematic perspective, Eastwood's direction is robotic. The plentiful action sequences are visually dull and lack tension, the boot camp section is an afterthought, and the scenes that show Kyle suffering from PTSD make it look like it's a condition akin to having a few too many coffees. I think at some point in pre-production everyone decided this best way to approach this film was to be non-judgmental and let the facts (according to Chris Kyle) speak for themselves. That's translated into a dull, witless, nasty film that might have worked better if it had paraphrased the title of an earlier, better Eastwood film: how does White Sniper, Black Heart sound?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Islamophobia, More Theophobia, Please

Public Enemy number one.
The first side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has been an orgy of analysis and commentary by politicians and the press, many of whom are advancing agendas (more power to the police and secret services) or grinding axes (all Muslims are crazy mofos). After reading far too many opinion pieces and analyses over the last few days, I can no longer resist adding my two cents to the glittering mountain of coins that's already out there. So here goes.

A common theme voiced by many people is that Muslims need to be, well, less religious, or at least less fanatical. How this is to be done isn't usually defined, but one gets the sense that what people mean is that Muslims should do what most Christians do; pay nominal attention to the tenets and ceremonies of their religion but ignore all the barbaric and nonsensical stuff. Advising Muslims to dial down their religiosity is something I can get behind as long as it's part of broader theophobic movement. It seems monstrously hypocritical to ask Muslims to be chill about depictions of Mohammed when in the US creationism is being taught in schools; no US president can get elected unless they loudly proclaim that they are a practicing Christian; TV networks routinely bleep the use of "goddamn" or "Christ" when it's used as an expletive; women's reproductive rights are being eroded in the name of Christian religion; the military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism; and a wide variety of pressure groups and politicians are constantly attempting to erode or end the constitutional separation of church and state. In sum, any attempts by non-Muslims to lecture Muslims on religious tolerance ring hollow unless it's matched by equal fervour in putting all religions in their place, which, in my view, is out on the street with their brethren operating the three-card monte games.

Are the Hebdo cartoons offensive? If you're looking and hoping to be offended, yes. Charlie Hebdo has a meage circulation of 60k in a nation of more than sixty million, and I doubt many French Muslims, or any one of a conservative bent, would be on their subscription list. Like the people who used to rail against Playboy magazine, Hebdo's detractors don't read the magazine themselves, but they're mortally offended that other people do. Those who argue that the cartoon images shouldn't be disseminated further because they might upset Muslims are falling into a dangerous logical trap. If a cartoon, an act of ephemeral humour, is too daunting for the sensitivities of some people, where do we draw the line in criticism and commentary? If a newspaper columnist does a piece in favour of atheism should there be a warning on the front of the paper about it lest a religious person come across the column? And why should religious sensitivities count for anything? Why should people of faith be protected from criticism or satire or a contrary opinion? We don't expect politicians, their parties, or their ideologies to be shielded from scorn or commentary (unless you're living in a totalitarian state), but somehow in the early 21st century it's not seemly to ridicule religion and its adherents.

The Paris killings have also produced the usual spate of right-wing chaff that attempts to disassociate Islamic terrorism from recent political and military history in the Middle East. The usual line taken in these arguments is that Islam is existentially committed to overthrowing the West (just read what it says in the Koran!) and what's gone on in Iraq and Israel has little or nothing to do with attacks on Western targets. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the major Western powers, Israel, the USSR and, later, Russia, have terraformed, as it were, the Middle East, North Africa and AfPak into the hot messes that they are today. This does not make ISIL less of a horror show or excuse what happened in Paris, but to pretend that monsters won't arise from the toxic ecosystem that much of the Arab world has become seems ingenuous in the extreme. And if Islam is existentially obliged to attack unbelievers and spread the one faith by the sword, why wasn't the West facing Islamic terrorism in, say, the 1950s? Or the '20s? Why not the 1860s, for that matter? Nothing in the Koran has changed over the centuries, so it seems odd, unless you factor in politics and foreign policy, that the West hasn't been under siege from the Muslim world for the past thousand years.

And now for the big picture stuff. I'd argue that Islamic fundamentalism is merely one branch of a conservative counter-revolution that's been going on across the world since the late 1970s. Bear with me here. The post-war era (for argument's sake I'm going to say this extends to 1979) was marked by greater social welfare spending, the growth and influence of unions, a bigger role for government in social and industrial policies, and the political, economic and social emancipation of visible minorities and women. In simple terms, power and wealth was flowing from the top of society to the bottom. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that flow began to reverse itself. The conservative counter-revolution had begun. This counter-revolution wasn't just about dollars and cents. The '60s and '70s had seen the growth of counter-cultural movements, alternative lifestyles, feminism, and gay rights. As these cultural changes gained momentum, the opposite and equal reaction was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the US and right-wing racist/nationalist parties in Europe. In broad cultural terms, what the counter-revolution was, and is, trying to do is re-establish a rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal  and mono-cultural society.

Although the West was where this struggle began, the rest of the world was not immune. The combined effects of globalization, immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the Internet have unsettled traditional societies all over world. Liberalism, in the cultural sense, has backwashed into countries and cultures that were anywhere from Victorian to medieval in their social outlook. Since the 1970s developing nations have been invaded by liberal Western values. These values have been carried there by Western businesses, immigrants returning to/communicating with their home countries, and the spread of the Internet. One sure sign of this cultural counter-revolution is the increase in misogyny just about everywhere. Women are always at the bottom of the pecking order in any kind of conservative culture, and because of this we've seen the spread of sharia law; gang sexual assaults on women in India; rampant cyber-bullying of women as seen in the Gamergate scandal; a mostly successful effort by rightists to turn the word "feminist" into a pejorative; and an epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the US military and colleges. Click here for a longer piece I did on women and religious oppression called Jim Crow is a Transvestite.

So even without the impetus of Western military incursions in the Muslim world, it's quite likely Islamic fundamentalism would have been on the rise as a reaction to liberal and progressive values arriving from the the West. But take this counter-revolution, combine with real and imagined political/religious grievances and young men who are desperate, alienated, mentally unbalanced, and you get killers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Charlie Hebdo assassins.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson needs to network more. I've read any number of mediocre and crap SF novels that are covered in enthusiastic blurbs from other authors, bloggers, and online fanzines. Europe in Autumn has one measly blurb from someone named Eric Brown, who may well be Dave's downstairs neighbour for all I know. This novel deserves a raft of accolades, so for his next novel (which will surely be a sequel to this one) Dave needs to start hitting the fan conventions and standing rounds for his fellow SF writers down at the pub.

One of the chief pleasures of this novel is its unpredictable ambition. The setting is Europe in the near future and the region has spawned dozens and dozens of new states, some as small as a few city blocks. All these polities, as they are called in the book, have thrown up new borders and travel restrictions to go with them. There are always people who want to move themselves or contraband across borders unnoticed, and a shadowy organization called Les Coureurs des Bois has sprung up to serve their needs. Rudi, a young Estonian working as a cook in Krakow, joins the Coureurs and begins a career that becomes more dangerous and mysterious with each mission he takes on. The novel ends with Rudi discovering that there is, quite literally, more to Europe than meets the eye.

Europe in Autumn is shelved in the SF section of the bookstore, but it mostly reads like a great espionage novel, perhaps a forgotten title by Len Deighton. All the tropes and flavour of the spy novels of the 1960s are here: tense encounters with border guards; middle of the night frontier crossings under the glare of searchlights; double and triple crosses; dead drops; passwords and false identities; and sudden, shocking violence. One sequence in particular, set on a snowy night in the state of Potsdam, stands out as a brilliant blend of SF and old school John Le Carre-style tension as Rudi tries to smuggle a man across the border. The first half of the novel is picaresque in structure as we follow Rudi around Europe in his job as a Coureur. His various adventures are entertaining in their own right, but Hutchinson's portrait of a divided and sub-divided Europe is rich and endlessly inventive. He smartly pays attention to the small details of life, which gives his imagined Europe greater verisimilitude than is usual in these kinds of alternate reality stories.

Rudi is an excellent guide to this new Europe. He's witty, cynical, clever, but motivated by a quiet idealism to see Europe once again become borderless. Rudi more or less stumbles into his job with the Coureurs, and in this regard he's very much like one of the heroes of Eric Ambler's spy novels, many of whom are men with ordinary lives and jobs who suddenly find themselves having to cope with terrors and realities that are far outside their experience.

Although Europe in Autumn starts out as an alternate reality spy novel, by the end it's begun a seamless transition to something far stranger and more in keeping with its SF designation. There's clever future tech on display throughout, but it's always kept in the background. What's most remarkable about this novel is that Hutchinson's prose is fully the equal of his imagination. All those SF writers with big, bombastic ideas (and blurbs) rarely have the writing skills to back up their glitzy concepts. Hutchinson's writing is so good it he'd be worth reading no matter what genre he tackled. And if he doesn't use some part of this review as a blurb then he's just being difficult.