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, 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.