Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Seeking Justice (2011), directed by Roger Donaldson

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Distraught after the brutal rape of his wife, English teacher Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage) accepts the offer of Simon (Guy Pearce), a mysterious man who tells him his organization will take care of the rapist in exchange for a simple favor at a later date.  Will, clearly more familiar with Shakespeare than the movies, is shocked six months later to learn that Simon wants him to kill a man.  Screenwriter Robert Tannen strings together one cliche after another (Simon’s organization turns out to be unbelievably high, wide, and deep; Will magically acquires superhuman resourcefulness; and so on), finally closing the loop with a predictable showdown in an abandoned mall.  Cage makes it watchable, but can’t make it worth watching.

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The General’s Daughter (1992) by Nelson DeMille

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The hook is hard to resist. The body of Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of General Joe Campbell, is found — naked, spreadeagled, and staked to the ground — on a Fort Hadley rifle range. The rope around her neck indicates that she was strangled and her condition suggests rape. Paul Brenner, of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, knows the bizarre scene must have an equally strange explanation. His job is to find it, and the murderer.

Nelson DeMille makes this stuff look easy, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s nothing easy about writing a compelling mystery, especially one like this, which could easily have slipped into prurience. But this is a book that, as its title tells us, is about Captain Campbell — her life, history, and personality. Though she is dead when we first see her, it is about bringing her to life and showing us how she met her tragic fate.

And so, like any mystery, information is paramount: when we get it, how we get it, and whom we get it from. DeMille doles it out beautifully, with a mix of detective work and forensics, interviews with suspects and acquaintances, and clues in Campbell’s personal effects. As the suspense builds, so does our understanding of Captain Campbell.

It’s a sordid story, but that’s not to say the book is depressing. It begins on a humorous note, as Paul discovers that fate has put him on the same base and in the same room with an old lover, Cynthia Sunhill. Their previous encounter didn’t end well, but Paul has carried a torch for her ever since. Because Cynthia is a rape specialist, she is assigned to work alongside Paul on the Campbell case. Their personal and professional interaction provides just the relief the Campbell case needs.

And then there’s Paul himself, who is like an early, somewhat toned down version of the author’s John Corey character. Also a loose cannon, also smart-mouthed, also a man’s man, Paul, however, is military, dealing with a military crime with mostly military suspects; it helps keep him from indulging in some of the more outrageous behavior that Corey gets away with. I don’t think he’s ultimately any more sensitive than Corey, but maybe his sensitivity is a little more evident here. He’s funny and tough and his heart is in the right place.

It’s a description that applies to the book itself. This is a page-turner with heart. The crime, we learn, is far more devastating that it at first appears (which is saying something), and DeMille handles it all with tact and grace.

Robocop (2014), directed by José Padilha

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Joel Kinnaman is rather bland in the title role of this science fiction actioner, but it rises slightly above average on the performances of Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, and Samuel L. Jackson.  Keaton (the greedy head of a company seeking to crack the U.S. market for robotic law enforcement) orders Oldman (his chief scientist) to rebuild good cop Kinnamen after he is ripped apart by a car bomb explosion devised by a gang of gun-runners.  Despite wired-in safeguards, Kinnaman proceeds to solve his own near-murder, leading him to uncover high-level corruption.  Jackson, meanwhile, as the host of a futuristic “news” program, provides intermittent commentary.  Basically substitutes savvy veteran acting for the novelty of the original’s effects, if anything losing a point in its skin-deep portrayal of the star’s emotional turmoil.

The Devil’s Labyrinth (2007) by John Saul

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It should be a sin to read this book.

In fact, it is, for only indolence will keep you turning the pages. The Devil’s Labyrinth, thy name is Sloth.

Ryan McIntyre gets himself beat up at school, prompting his mom, Teri, to send him to Catholic School. It could be worse: with his soldier father dead, Ryan’s mom has started seeing Tom, and Ryan, who doesn’t like Tom at all, is happy to get away from him. Oh, sure, St. Isaac’s is a strange place — one kid slits a woman’s throat shortly before Ryan arrives and ghostly screams wake Ryan up in the night — but where else can a geek like Ryan find a beautiful girlfriend in two days? We know she’s a hummer because her name is Melody.

Melody has a roommate (no, not Josie or Valerie). Sofia. Sounds Italian, or Latin. Lusty. She’s a bit of a bad girl. She gets caught one night with her boyfriend’s hand in her blouse by a no-nonsense nun who drags her off to a secret chapel in the maze of tunnels beneath the school’s sprawling campus. The mysterious Father Sebastian, knowledgeable in the arts of exorcism (or so the nun thinks), performs the ancient ritual on Sofia, purifying her soul (or so the nun thinks). But we know and Sofia knows that Father Sebastian hasn’t exorcised anything; instead, he’s done rather the opposite and called forth the evil in her soul. And Melody wonders why her roommate isn’t the same when she returns.

Meanwhile, a couple of Muslim terrorists search for a precious object and the Pope himself takes an interest in the wondrous doings at St. Isaac’s.

Now, just how dumb is all this? Well, imagine a nun (strict, but devoted to God) who sees nothing wrong with an exorcism that includes a giant crucifix carved to a point just above Christ’s head, suspended upside down over the “sinner,” then multiply that tenfold. That’s how dumb all of this is. It’s only through multiplication that you can arrive at Muslims who reject the Catholic faith not because its tenants are false — indeed, they’re demonstrably true — but because Allah can beat up God.

This is a book in which good people have convenient “feelings” about people and things that are never wrong. Like Ryan’s dislike of Tom. One particularly idiotic scene has Teri lying to a couple of cops because of a “feeling” she has about someone else in the room. This comes after one of the cops had a “feeling” Teri was in trouble. Teri supposedly loved her husband, Ryan’s father, who was Good and Brave and Pure (he was a soldier, after all), but unlike Ryan, she can’t sense anything amiss about Tom, who is, underneath, nothing at all like her husband.

Oh, and there’s an equally convenient ghost that pops up now and again.

The Devil’s Labyrinth shifts point of view so often that it’s only barely accurate to say that this is Ryan’s story. But it’s an awfully shallow story, with a weak and unappealing hero. Things happen to Ryan, he doesn’t do much of anything. He doesn’t fight the boys who put him in the hospital to begin with, he doesn’t have to work for Melody, he gets pushed around by everything and everyone — all he ever learns is that supernatural forces are a lot stronger than he is. (Sofia, at least, learns to enjoy eating maggots.)

Saul’s “theology” is just as shallow. He raises an interesting question: what if the evil in all men’s souls could be drawn out and destroyed? Having raised the question, though, Saul has no intention of answering it. He doesn’t even go near it, in fact. The only character it really seems to matter to (he’s part of the Church) spends his time creaming over the idea of it without ever thinking about what it would mean. He thinks it would be wonderful, but I think he might change his tune when he found himself suddenly unemployed.

Secular readers should avoid this book religiously. Catholic readers should be prepared to confess it on Sunday.

Stir of Echoes (1999), directed by David Koepp

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Not bad horror thriller based on Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes, though little more than the premise of the novel remains.  Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) challenges his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) to hypnotize him at a party, but her “harmless” post-hypnotic suggestion that he should open his mind soon has him seeing ghosts; specifically, the ghost of a girl (Jennifer Morrison) who mysteriously disappeared six months earlier.  And she wants him to solve the mystery.  Kudos to David Koepp for delivering a more tightly plotted story than did Matheson.  Released the same year as The Sixth Sense, this film also features a little boy who sees dead people, but here, though the kid’s ability is crucial to the plot, it comes off as an afterthought.  Creepy and fun, but lacking the sort of character development that could have put it over the top.  (Critics praised the ghost effects, without noting their similarity to Ringu, released the year before.)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

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First of all, allow me to clear away some distractions. The movie, for one thing. I never read this book as a kid, but I’ve seen the movie a time or two. The movie is better. I don’t think the filmmakers were concerned about redefining the fairy tale for modern audiences the way Baum was. But more importantly, they took an episodic story and gave it much greater unity, which brought with it a satisfying narrative arc. I was disappointed with the Wicked Witch episode in the book, but only because it was just another peak in the overall cardiogram of the narrative.

I also found Baum’s intent, which he spells out in the Introduction, quite puzzling. He seems to feel about classic fairy tales much the way Dr. Wertham felt about comic books: that they were much too violent for children. Yet at least they were up front about it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is chock full of violence and horror. The fates of the Scarecrow (before Dorothy saves him) and the Tin Woodman (before she meets him) are terrifying. Does it really matter that they are treated so matter-of-factly? I’m not sure, but that may make it worse.

And then I had to go and read the Afterword in my edition, by a man named Peter Glassman. Among the book’s many virtues, Glassman writes, is that the “capitalist ideal of the free market is in evidence when the Wizard tells Dorothy, ‘You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return.'” Of course, I had already noted the quid pro quo nature of Oz, but seeing it presented as a virtue was too much. I happen to believe that “capitalist ideal” is an oxymoron. It’s the capitalist ideal that has Dorothy starting the book on a farm in Kansas where everything, even the grass — even her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry — is gray. It’s a place where only a child can find a reason to laugh.

The truth is, I liked the book. I didn’t love it, though. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it ain’t. I especially enjoyed the characters of Dorothy’s companions: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who each want something they think they lack, but who, of course, already possess it. The way Baum dovetails this with the Wizard and his “gifts” is simply brilliant (and it’s far superior to what we find in the film).

On the other hand, while the interchangeability of their various adventures might be good for very young readers (since it doesn’t require of them much in the way of memory or reasoning), it isn’t so good for adults. I can appreciate Baum’s desire to avoid the overt moralizing of classic fairy tales, but it’s as if, when he made that decision, he threw out unity along with it, thinking, perhaps, that structure itself is inherently moralistic. It would explain why Dorothy’s quest to the Emerald City doesn’t in fact conclude in the Emerald City. This kind of book doesn’t conclude, it ends. And where and when it ends is but a matter of authorial whim.

Oz is a fast read, but not a particularly light one. Part of this is that Baum’s style isn’t as airy as he might have wished it to be. His grim description of Kansas sets a tone even the wonders of Oz can’t entirely lift. Fortunately, that has its compensations. Regardless of Baum’s intent, it’s the book’s darkness that makes it compelling. This book naturally shows up on lists of fantasy books, but does it also show up on lists of dark fantasy? It should. Loneliness, abandonment, dismemberment, slavery, deception — it’s a cornucopia of the horrible. In the movie, the Wizard is known as the “Great and Powerful”; in the book, he is the “Great and Terrible.” It’s a distinction that applies to the stories, as well.

Fail Safe (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet

Fail_safe_moviep♦♦♦½

Stark, faithful adaptation of the book by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler about an American nuclear bomber group that, due to a mechanical malfunction, flies into Russia on a mission to bomb Moscow, while the officers of the Strategic Air Command, the President, and of course the Russians attempt to stop it.  Walter Matthau plays a civilian Pentagon advisor who sees the accident as a golden opportunity for a first strike.  Henry Fonda lends weight and credibility as the President.  Just as unflinching as the novel, with some nice directorial touches by Lumet to heighten the impact of this horrifying tale.

Gattaca (1997), directed by Andrew Niccol

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Gattaca has a few nice moments. They pop up every now and again to remind you how silly the rest of the movie is. Take its message. It isn’t the usual science fiction pablum of how humanity is superior to any given alien race. No, this is a story about genetic engineering. So, instead, we discover that humanity is superior even to its modified self. Or at least just as good. It tells us we could be Beethoven, too, if we only worked hard enough.

Ethan Hawke plays our hero, Vincent Freeman. (Subtle, isn’t it?) He’s dreamed of going into space since he was a kid, despite the fact that his parents had him the old fashioned way and the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation only accepts genetically modified applicants. Like his younger brother, Anton — if the latter had any interests other than proving to Vincent why their parents didn’t make the same mistake twice. Vincent knows he can’t get into Gattaca unless he can pass for a “Valid.” So he makes a deal with one to swap identities.

That isn’t easy, genetically speaking. Jerome (Jude Law), the Valid who becomes Vincent’s “borrowed ladder,” has to provide blood, hair, and urine to fool Gattaca’s testing equipment. Vincent has to make sure he doesn’t slip up and leave any untoward traces of his real identity lying around. So he clips and scrubs his body religiously. But not enough. When the director of Gattaca is murdered, one of Vincent’s eyelashes gets swept up by the CSI team. The cops don’t know where he is, but Vincent instantly becomes suspect number one.

This is really the problem with Gattaca: there’s too much going on. Vincent and his brother; Jerome, who has serious problems of his own, which is why he agreed to be a ladder in the first place; Vincent’s career; a murder investigation; and, of course, the usual love story. Uma Thurman is Irene, a Valid who isn’t quite valid enough to ever get picked for a really good mission. One of the good scenes has Irene presenting Vincent with a strand of her hair so that he can check out her vitals, as it were. But he gives it to the wind instead: he doesn’t care.

It’s a nice moment; yet it demonstrates how superficial all of this is. If Vincent were truly a Valid, it would mean something that Irene’s “defects” are of no concern to him. But he’s not. He’s even more defective than she is. So of course he doesn’t mind. Why should he? That she doesn’t know any of this only means that his romantic gesture is little more than a lie — to Irene, and to us.

The movie is slow-going and the Gattaca sets are wide and pretty, which fooled a lot of people into thinking this was a serious movie with serious themes. But there’s not a bit of it that stands up to serious thought.

Fail-Safe (1962) by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler

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Quintessential Cold War novel about the prospect of accidental nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When a UFO is detected heading toward America, several bomber groups routinely plot a course for their “fail-safe” points, positions in the sky from which, if given a “go” signal, they can attack Russia. The UFO is identified as a friendly and all the groups are recalled — except one, which, due to a mechanical malfunction, receives its go signal and heads towards its target: Moscow. The action shifts between Strategic Air Command, the Pentagon, the White House, and the bombers. Authors Burdick and Wheeler eschew satire and ridicule, presenting instead a satisfying and realistic portrayal of intelligent, driven, and powerful men who in many ways are at the mercy of the machines they funded, created, and allowed themselves to become dependent on. With a great deal of interesting character-building through backstory that only underlines the cold and impersonal nature of the villain: the system itself and the computers and machines that make it possible. Gripping and suspenseful, this cautionary tale ends unflinchingly.

The authors were sued for plagiarism by British author Peter George based on the many significant parallels of this story to that of his own 1958 book Two Hours to Doom (published in the U.S. as Red Alert). The case was settled out of court. Interestingly, George’s book served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was released the same year as Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Fail-Safe, both movies — the one satirical, the other realistic — having been produced by Columbia Pictures. George co-wrote Dr. Strangelove and had a hand (uncredited) in writing Fail-Safe.

The Blair Witch Project (1999), directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick

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I don’t really have much to say about this movie. Many critics raved about it, and it’s certainly popular, but it isn’t very good. The best thing about it, really, was its marketing, specifically the website created for it, which treated the whole thing, as did the movie itself, as if it really happened. It was a brilliant idea, but the brilliance stopped there.

I deplore the “found footage” thing — not on principal but because what I’ve seen of it is crap — but I don’t hold that against Blair Witch, which was the source of the modern wave. At the time, it was novel and vaguely interesting because of it. That’s when I first saw it, not long after it was released. And at the time I thought, Well, it’s all right, but nothing to write home about. Having recently seen it again, I came to the same conclusion.

I’m sure you know this already, but it’s about three kids who go into the woods to make a documentary about a local legend, “the Blair Witch.” They get lost, find strange figures made of sticks, hear noises, and become increasingly unglued. Ostensibly it’s all very scary.

Occasionally, it even is. But most of the time, it’s herky-jerky photography, dull dialogue, and decision-making that would make a typical slasher victim proud. Cause, you know, it isn’t real. It’s a movie. And it needed better planning and a much better script. Had it had those things, it might be fair to look at the later movies in the same genre and say they just don’t get it. Instead, they do get it: grab a camera and wing it. But the novelty’s worn off.