Thursday, April 30, 2015

Film Review: '71 (2015)

If you want to make a decent thriller these days, your first step to success is to make sure your budget is low. The lower the better. A budget that wouldn't pay for Robert Downey Jr's per diem on The Avengers: Age of Ultron is ideal. Minuscule funding means your film can't rely on extravagant action set pieces or big stars like, uh, Robert Downey Jr. Instead of those two crutches, your film will have to focus on character and plot, on the writing, in other words. '71 is a beautiful example of this.

The story is set in Belfast in, of course, 1971. The Troubles have reached a full, rolling boil, and a raw group of Brit soldiers have been sent out into a Catholic area to provide protection for a group of RUC officers (the Protestant-dominated police force loathed by Catholics) who are conducting a raid on a house. A riot ensues, one soldier is killed and another, Pvt. Gary Hook, becomes separated from his platoon and must go on the run through enemy territory. Hook sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to his accent and uniform, and nothing has prepared him for this kind of situation. The action takes place over one night, and Hook becomes the prize quarry for two different IRA groups, a trio of ruthless MI5 men, and his own platoon.

The hunt for Hook is deftly handled. The different groups looking for him have motives that aren't immediately apparent, and the double-crosses and deaths soon begin to mount. The different narrative strands are kept coherent, and thanks to the low budget, there's no time wasted on pointless relationships or redundant background information. In short, the strength of '71 lies in the script's efficiency and attention to detail. One standout example of this is our brief intro to Hook. Before he arrives in Northern Ireland we learn (or infer) from only a few brief scenes that Hook is from a poor background, has no girlfriend, and his only relative is his young brother who's living in an orphanage. This intro gives us a rooting interest in Hook, but it stops well short of an assault on our tear ducts, which a fatter, lazier film might have done. Even minor characters are given a polish that makes them more than predictable storytelling pawns. The platoon's commander is initially presented as a bit of an ineffectual, upper-class twit, but at the end he's got more backbone and more of our sympathy. And what might be the most memorable character is a Protestant boy, who can't be older than ten, who has been transformed by the Troubles into a menacing, pint-sized Liam Neeson.

What gives the film a lot of its tension is that Hook is played by a relative unknown. Put a big star in this role and the audience knows he's going to survive until the end. Stick a nobody in the role and now we're not so sure. Also, I wonder if calling the soldier Hook isn't an ironic nod to the Pvt. Hook in Zulu? The latter film is about heroic empire-building, while this one is about an empire falling apart. And that brings us back to the budget. A Marvel-sized payroll would have given us superfluous characters, action scenes that went on too long, and preening superstars. A low budget, like living on a low income, forces filmmakers into smart and creative choices. They can't paper over plot holes with money. The French film industry has been cranking out smart action-thrillers like '71 for years, and I can only wish there were filmmakers doing the same.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: American Rust (2009) by Philipp Meyer

This is Meyer's debut novel, and I'm so glad I read his second, The Son (my review), before this one. The Son is big, bold, self-assured and its few flaws are the result of too much ambition. American Rust reads like a novel created by a committee tasked with putting out a literary version of a multi-part New York Times piece on life in the Rust Belt. That Meyer is a good writer isn't in doubt; he writes sharp dialogue, his characters (the male ones, anyway) are rugged, edgy and painfully real, and his descriptions of landscapes, urban and natural, are superb. The problem here is that his novel doesn't have the ambition to be more than just a literary litany of what ails Pennsylvania's coal and steel towns.

The two central characters are Isaac and Billy, best friends, both barely out of their teens, and both unsure what to do with their lives. They live in Buell, PA, and like every other town in the region it's been economically devastated by the death of the US steel industry. Those who aren't unemployed are working for minimum wage or are living a semi-criminal life. Isaac steals some money from his crippled father and decides to hit the road to California by hopping freight trains. Billy, an ex-high school football star, opts to accompany him for no better reason than it seems like a good idea at the time. They are an unlikely pair; Isaac is a weedy brainiac and Billy is a jock with a penchant for violence. They've barely started on their journey when they have an altercation with three homeless men that ends with Isaac accidentally killing one of them by way of defending Billy. A few days later Billy is arrested and charged with the murder, which he doesn't deny in an act of self-sacrifice to give some meaning to his selfish and wasted life. Isaac, meanwhile, goes on the run. Isaac's and Billy's fractured families are drawn into the story, but it's at this point that the story runs aground. The novel is told from the POV of a half dozen or so characters, but what's missing is a compelling narrative. Once Billy's arrested the story drags its feet as we hear from the different characters and their stories of despair and struggle in the heart of the Rust Belt. The only tension or narrative momentum is provided by Billy's stint in jail as he awaits trial and faces the wrath of prison gangs. The writing in this section is excellent, but it could just as well have been dropped in from a standard crime fiction novel.

American Rust is brimming with sympathy for its beaten-down characters and the region that's become an industrial dust bowl. What's missing from this story, what makes the novel so frustrating, is that Meyer shies away from bringing politics into the story. The plight of people in the Rust Belt is entirely the result of a series of ruinous political and economic decisions made by politicians and corporate executives stretching back decades. Meyer barely hints at the factors that impoverished this region. It's akin to writing a novel set in Vichy France and not mentioning the war or the Nazis. The virtually apolitical outlook of the novel isn't unusual in American literature. European writers, especially in the crime fiction field, enthusiastically bring politics and big business into their stories. American writers can't seem to get past their nation's religious belief that the individual and the individualism is everything. They don't seem happy with the idea that a character can be a hopeless victim or puppet of forces beyond his control. Or perhaps they feel that the nuts and bolts of politics and high finance don't have a place in literature. Nineteenth century writers such as Zola, Balzac, and Trollope happily took on these subjects, but the only American of that ilk that comes to mind is Gore Vidal.

Meyer's novel ticks all the boxes when it comes to mentioning issues like drug abuse, unemployment, underemployment, municipal underfunding, poor healthcare, and so on, but without giving these issues any historical or sociological context, Meyer is doing a disservice to the very people he so clearly sympathizes with. The people in the Rust Belt know they've been victimized by politicians and big business, but in American Rust this catastrophe is almost presented as a natural disaster, something that happened for no rhyme or reason.

The committee feel to the novel comes from the inclusion of far too many stock characters and tropes from modern literary fiction. There's the suicide of a mother that damages the children; the Ivy League woman who can't resist the manly charms of Billy the jock; the embittered father, broken in body and mind; and the young, tortured genius who's just too sensitive for this world. And does anyone actually ride the rails these days? Last of all, it has to be said that Meyer is poaching on literary territory created and mastered by K.C. Constantine (my piece on hiin is here), who wrote a series of crime novels set in Pennsylvania's coal and steel country. Constantine, however, was not afraid to bring politics into the mix.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: Iron Gustav (1938) by Hans Fallada

The eponymous anti-hero of this novel is Gustav Hackendahl, the owner of a large fleet of horse-drawn cabs in pre-World War One Berlin. As his nickname implies, Gustav is hard, unyielding, and largely devoid of any emotions, excepting rage when his will is thwarted. Not a person you'd pick for father of the year, and that's the tragedy at the heart of the story. Gustav has a wife and five children, and this sprawling novel charts the decline and fall of Gustav and his family (and Germany) from 1914 to the early '30s. Gustav has no love or even affection for his children. The only reason he seems to have had a family is so that he'd have people to honour and obey him.

The war begins the ruin, financial and otherwise, of the Hackendahl family. Gustav's horses are requisitioned, his eldest son joins the army, and the other children make life decisions that will take them far away from their father. One daughter, Eve, becomes a prostitute, the middle son a corrupt politician and speculator, the eldest daughter a nurse, and the youngest son drifts from school to long-term unemployment as Germany staggers through the post-war era of economic chaos and political upheaval. Sounds like fun, right? The genius of Fallada is that even though he's describing a cascading series of calamities, defeats and crises afflicting the Hackendahls and Germany, his writing never swerves into mawkishness or sentimentality. The tone throughout the novel is bitter amusement at the ways people can willfully and enthusiastically fuck up their lives and their nation. Fallada points out the political and social reasons that help push the Hackendahls over the edge, but he doesn't let the individual characters off the hook for some terrible personal choices. Fallada also allows for sheer, dumb, bad luck to enter into the story as it does in the real world.

As in his masterpiece, Alone in Berlin (my review), Fallada shows an uncanny gift for describing life on the edge. The physical and psychological pains of being unemployed and/or destitute are something he had first-hand knowledge of, and he writes about the subject with a kind of morbid joy, like someone attentively picking at a large and clingy scab. Fallada is telling the story of an entire epoch in German history and he does it through the prism of Gustav. The qualities that Gustav most prizes--stubbornness, pride, self-sacrifice, patriotism, obedience to authority--are the very ones that send his children off on orbits that mostly end in death and disaster. Gustav's prized qualities are also shared by the pre-war state, which makes his eventual decline all the more inevitable in the context of the post-war Weimar Republic.

Iron Gustav was originally conceived of as a film project, and there is a cinematic quality to certain parts of the novel that helps make it one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable tales of calamity I've ever read. It's hard to describe this novel without making it sound like a sure cure for happiness, but writing this incisive and energetic, even on a dismal subject, is always a pleasure.

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.