Saturday, June 1, 2013
In the 1920 short story “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” H. P. Lovecraft is presents his version of Homer’s Troy. The piece is largely a descriptive writing exercise presented in the context of a faux-legend. The ancient city of the title is referred to as “[t]he wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind.” Lovecraft revels in describing the glories of its architecture and the luxuries enjoyed by those within its walls. Both are recounted in extensive detail. As for the ersatz-legend aspects of the piece, well, like Troy, Sarnath comes to a terrible, catastrophic end. However, the cause of its destruction is not, as with Troy, the pride of kings. The city is destroyed as part of a what-goes-around-comes-around scenario that is rooted in the distant past. Sarnath is located on the site of an even more ancient city that had been populated by a race of alien beings who may have descended to earth from the moon. The founders of Sarnath slaughtered those beings, demolished their city, and built a new city in its stead. Centuries later, Sarnath is leveled in what appears to be the aliens’ revenge. Lovecraft’s treatment of this material is completely lacking in suspense. There are no developed characters, the story is all exposition, and there is no dramatic momentum. The only conspicuously crafted effect is the ironic coda. An object that is a trope for the undying pride of the aliens--and the one thing they would not allow Sarnath’s founders to keep as a trophy--becomes the only thing that survives either city. It all adds up to a very minor effort on Lovecraft’s part. The story lacks resonance, and several hallmarks of Lovecraft’s material, such as the desolate landscapes and the notion of humanity having no inherent claim to earth, aren’t presented in a fresh way. The piece was first published in the June 1920 issue of The Scot.
Reviews of other works by H. P. Lovecraft:
Sunday, May 12, 2013
The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning adventure novel, is an imaginative and thrilling effort. The story is set in the North Korea of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-il; the country is described as “a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them.” It’s a ramshackle, fun-house-mirror Potemkin village ruled entirely by the self-aggrandizing and often bizarre whims of its Dear Leader. One’s identity is decided for one, and even that can change from day to day. One can be an enemy of the state in the evening, and a national hero come morning. One may even become yesterday’s national hero today, and replace that person among their family and friends. That’s the experience of Pak Jun Do, the book’s protagonist. He careens from role to role: a non-orphan who is nonetheless treated as an orphan, a state-sanctioned kidnapper of Japanese citizens, a fishing-boat radio operator who spies on other countries’ transmissions, a member of a diplomatic delegation to the U. S., an ostensible traitor condemned to hard labor in the mines, the official substitute for a national celebrity, and finally a genuine hero who sacrifices all for love in successful defiance of the country's despot. Johnson has crafted a compelling, suspenseful black farce out of Pak Jun Do’s travails, and the conflicts between state-declared reality and the truth of the various circumstances are by turns disturbing and hilarious. The comic high points are Johnson’s treatments of the absurdly fanciful propaganda missives that tell what happens as Dear Leader wishes it to be. They are so over-the-top in their flattery of his twerpy albeit megalomaniacal vanities that a reader often cannot help but laugh out loud. Johnson’s handling of the story’s adventure and humor elements are first-rate, but what really sets the book apart is his evocation of the tragedy of the North Korean people, who endure horrible oppression and poverty in the wake of their ruler’s often lunatic egotism. It’s a terrific novel: hard to put down while one is reading it, and harder to forget once one is finished.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Killer Joe has some impressive behind-the-scenes credentials: an Oscar-winning director in William Friedkin, and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts as screenwriter. The film, though, is a piece of misanthropic pulp that congratulates itself on the depths of its nastiness and sleaziness. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas police detective with a sideline as a hitman. He’s hired by a young, ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) and the dealer’s father (Thomas Haden Church). They want him to take out the dealer’s mother so they can collect on the insurance policy. However, they are unable to pay his fee up front, so he offers to let them pay a "retainer": the sexual favors of the dealer’s somewhat addled younger sister (Juno Temple). The dealer and his family, which includes Gina Gershon as his stepmother, are probably the most amoral, indecent, and stupidest examples of working-poor whites in the history of American movies. Friedkin and Letts have quite a time chortling at them, and the class bigotry on display is almost enough to make one look back longingly on the hipster-snob sneering of the Coen brothers. The dealer and his family cannot do anything right, which ultimately results in a vicious reprisal from the detective once he realizes he will never be paid. This comeuppance takes up the film’s final act, and the scene is about as vile as they come. (The treatment of the Gershon character is especially despicable.) It’s hard to say who is more demeaned by this finale: the characters or the audience. McConaughey is the only good reason to see the picture. He has an eerie calm as the psychopathic detective, and what is most frightening is how methodical the character’s violence is once it explodes. He is remarkably compelling in his quieter scenes as well, with his character’s seduction of the dealer’s sister being a particular standout. Caleb Deschanel provided the excellent cinematography. Letts based the script on his 1991 play of the same name.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
The English director Joe Wright has often treated dramatizing his material as a secondary concern. He has generally seemed more interested in using the script as a springboard for his directorial virtuosity. He has never before taken this to the extravagant lengths he does in Anna Karenina, and this time it leaves one applauding. Any effort to realize Leo Tolstoy’s enormous 1877 novel as a feature-length film cannot help but be a diminution. Wright treats this stumbling block as beside the point, and he ends up doing the book more justice than a more conservative approach ever could. This Anna Karenina is a series of grandly executed set pieces that illustrate the story far more than they retell it. The basic plot is still there: screenwriter Tom Stoppard follows the general outline of the book and distills it into concise scenes. Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a high-ranking Russian official (Jude Law) falls in love with a dashing young military officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She cannot let go of him, and in turn lets go of her marriage and privileged societal position instead. Story-wise, the film feels like a summary of Tolstoy's novel, but Wright realizes every moment in the most flamboyant and theatrical terms; he seems to relish making the artifice as conspicuous as he can. The sets call attention to themselves as sets--the film deliberately looks as if much of it is being presented on a theater stage--and the action in the scenes is as boldly choreographed as a ballet. The spectacular staging and camera movement are complemented by the gorgeous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, music composer Dario Marianelli, and costumer Jacqueline Durran--the film is a feast for the senses from beginning to end. Knightley is a vivid, compelling Anna, and a few of the scenes are quite well-realized in dramatic terms. A particular standout is the dance when Anna and the officer fall in love, much to the chagrin of an unmarried hopeful also at the ball. The film isn’t for every taste, but if one can enjoy unbridled cinematic bravura for its own sake, it’s a treat.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has become easier to pigeonhole as time has gone by; he’s essentially a 21st-century hipster version of Mel Brooks. He also has a fondness for 1970s blaxploitation tropes, a remarkably tasteless approach to serious historical subject matter, and a penchant for gore that makes Sam Peckinpah look squeamish. Brooks went from one movie genre to another with his free-for-all spoofs, and so does Tarantino with his absurdist bloodbaths. He tackles the Western with Django Unchained, and, well, I much preferred Blazing Saddles. For starters, it was a lot shorter. (Django Unchained runs two hours and 46 minutes.) Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, a freed slave who is partners with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) in the late 1850s. The first half follows their adventures together hunting down criminals and collecting rewards. The second half is a convoluted melodrama in which the two conspire to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from her current owner, a Mississippi plantation master (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is an enthusiast of “mandingo” fighting, an ahistorical sport that has two male slaves fight until one beats the other to death. I suppose Tarantino is trying to portray the dehumanizing horrors of slavery with this and other depictions. Among other things, the viewer is treated to whippings, brandings, and a runaway slave being torn apart by dogs. However, Tarantino doesn’t use these for anything more than shock value, and the absurdist context--almost every scene has an oddball spin--makes their inclusion seem especially inappropriate. Tarantino isn’t in particularly good form outside of these moments, either. The dialogue is some of the flattest he’s ever written, and most of the scenes are poorly shaped and meandering. The action set pieces are so over-the-top in terms of violence that they quickly become tiresome; one sits there marking time until the blood explosions end. Christoph Waltz is one of the film’s few saving graces. He has exquisite comic timing, and he plays his character’s impeccable manners off the uncouth, even barbarous environment hilariously. The other actors are nowhere as interesting. Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington are stolid bores, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the plantation’s head house slave, take turns chowing down the scenery. It must be said, though, that their cartoonishness is of a piece with the rest of the film; Tarantino's sensibility is nothing if not immature. Robert Richardson provided the handsome cinematography.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Les Misérables, the screen adaptation of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, is a whirlwind treatment of the material, and that is not a compliment. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, the reformed convict who, rather than see an innocent man condemned in his place, gives up almost everything for the life of a fugitive. The commitment he will not abandon is the upbringing of Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman). It's a promise he made to her mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) on the woman’s deathbed. His initial challenge is to stay out of the clutches of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a dogged lawman who fervently believes in the law but has no understanding of justice. Years later, a greater challenge comes: accepting Cosette’s love for the young bourgeois revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and letting her become the fellow’s wife. Everything comes to a head during France’s 1832 June Rebellion. Director Tom Hooper bit off a lot more than he could chew. He had three challenges: mounting the large-scale production, bringing off the musical set pieces, and effectively realizing the sprawling story. He succeeds almost completely at the first, and intermittently at the second. With the third, he fails: the audience is rushed from plot point to plot point, and the narrative cannot build any momentum. The drama only comes to life with a few of the musical numbers. The best of these are “I Dreamed a Dream,” heartbreakingly performed by Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Tables and Empty Chairs,” his character’s reflections on the rebellion and lost friends. “On My Own,” performed by Samantha Barks as Éponine, a poor young woman who joins the uprising, also deserves singling out. Hugh Jackman is perhaps the finest musical-theater actor in the world today, and he is quite compelling as Valjean, but his singing here is of mixed quality. He’s a baritone being required to sing tenor, and while one can see his considerable skill, one can also see the strain. Russell Crowe would probably be a fine Javert in a non-musical production, but he’s hopeless here: his flat crooning completely locks one out of the character. The work of the film’s artisans, including cinematographer Danny Cohen, costumer Paco Delgado, and production designers Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, is first-rate. The screenplay is by William Nicholson, from Hugo’s novel and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage play. The English-language lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Beasts of the Southern Wild, the début feature of director Benh Zeitlin, is an exuberant, uncategorizable, and marvelous film. It mixes up magic-realist allegory, slice-of-life parent-child drama, documentary-style local-color social realism, and probably a few other story genres and modes that I’m forgetting. The central character is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives with her father (Dwight Henry) in an isolated Louisiana bayou community. They and their neighbors want nothing to do with the rest of the world. Their only goal is to live and let live, and they fill their days with fishing, scavenging, and carousing. What would look like squalor to most is idyllic for them. All things come to an end, though, and their way of life is threatened by a hurricane that floods the area. That threat is deepened by the insistence of the authorities that they all evacuate and be relocated. Hushpuppy has her own challenges, particularly her tempestuous relationship with her often manic father and their realization that he is dying. But I’m making the picture sound dreary, and it’s anything but. Zeitlin captures the vigorous, indomitable spirit of the people the film portrays. His ace in the hole is the sometimes fierce, sometimes soulful, and always charming performance by Wallis in the lead. She seems like a force of nature at times, and she commands the screen with an ease that almost any adult actor would envy. Wallis leads the viewer gladly through even Zeitlin's most outré passages, including the eerie, dreamlike quest for the girl's long-lost mother and the goofy poetic fantasy of her belief that ancient boar-monsters are coming to reclaim the bayou. Dwight Henry, who is both savagely intense and deeply moving as her father, gives almost as impressive a performance. The gritty, lyrical cinematography is by Ben Richardson. Zeitlin and Dan Romer provided the rich musical score.The screenplay is credited to Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, and based on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
“Queen of the Black Coast,” first published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (cover image above), isn’t the most accomplished of Robert E. Howard’s stories featuring Conan the Barbarian, but it may be the definitive one. At the very least, it probably best captures the indomitable, fast-living man-of-action quality Howard sought to give the Conan figure in the stories of him as a younger man. Conan’s motto in the story is, “Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exaltation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content.” Howard’s sense of both characterization and narrative irony is only on display in the story’s first half. As it begins, Conan is fleeing the authorities. He refused to give up a friend who murdered a guardsman, and he killed a judge while making his escape from the court. He takes refuge on a merchant ship, only to see its entire crew killed when it encounters pirates. It seems honor is only important to Conan as long as there isn’t anything to be otherwise gained. He loses all interest in avenging the crew when he encounters the pirates’ leader, a beautiful woman named Bêlit. The two are immediately smitten with each other, and he joins her and her men in their privateering. The story after that is just solidly executed fantasy-adventure action narrative in which Conan demonstrates his fighting prowess. In the face of the deadliest challenges, he will inevitably prove the last man standing. The most striking aspect of the story is Howard’s fairly brazen handling of sex: he has Bêlit seduce Conan on the deck of her ship in full view of her men. One also notes that Howard’s prose in this outing is especially purple. The use of adjectives is extravagant, and the metaphors and similes are often gratuitous. The tropes are also frequently heavy-handed, such as the description of a ruby necklace as “a line of crimson clots that shone like blood in the gray light.” In addition to being perhaps the definitive Conan story, the tale may exemplify pulp prose style as well.
The story is currently in print in the Howard collection The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.
Reviews of other stories by Robert E. Howard:
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
- "The God in the Bowl"
- "The Phoenix on the Sword"
- "The Scarlet Citadel"
- "The Tower of the Elephant"
Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi cements his place as the David Lean of his generation--he’s undoubtedly the current king of literate spectacle filmmaking. The film’s screenplay, credited to David Magee, sticks closely to the story outline of the book. A middle-aged Hindu Canadian (Irrfan Khan) relates the story of his life before coming to North America in his late teens. We see his life growing up in the Indian city of Pondicherry, including his experiences at his father’s zoo, the story of how he came by the name “Pi,” and his explorations of religion. As a teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), his family decides to move to Canada, and this sets the stage for the story’s centerpiece. The cargo ship on which the family is crossing the Pacific sinks at sea, and Pi is the sole human survivor. He finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the family zoo’s adult Bengal tiger. For several months, the two are lost at sea together, and Pi is committed to seeing that both of them survive. He gradually learns to coexist with the animal, and their journey opens him up to the magic of nature and a more profound connection with God. Ang Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and visual-effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer use their considerable talents to give the film all the pictorial grandeur they can muster. By any standard, the film works well as an intelligent, exciting survival adventure story. But the depth of one’s admiration most likely hinges on one’s reaction to the epic visuals. Many will undoubtedly get swept away in the sense of wonder and awe at nature that the film is seeking to evoke. Others, though, may find the imagery too blandly pretty, pristine, and self-consciously monumental to give over to it. The film also doesn’t come close to the book's existential philosophical richness; the efforts at transposing those aspects of the novel are rather shallow. Ang Lee, like David Lean before him, often mistakes lavishness for artistry, but he’s a fine storyteller nonetheless.
Click here for my review of Yann Martel’s original novel.
Monday, April 22, 2013
The 1965 film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, directed and produced by Martin Ritt, is a workmanlike, no-frills, and effective effort. Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a British intelligence field officer during the Cold War. As the film begins, he watches as the service’s Berlin operation, which he oversees, collapses. He then returns to civilian life, and appears unable to adjust. The truth is he is marking himself as a target for defection by East German operatives in Britain, all with the aim of manipulating the upper echelon of the Communist country’s intelligence corps. As the scheme progresses, he discovers the full extent of how he and the woman he loves (Claire Bloom) are pawns in the double-dealings of intelligence officials in both countries. The script, credited to Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, does a capable job of adapting and condensing le Carré’s novel, although one would rather it had followed the book’s lead of letting the audience discover the specifics of Leamas’s mission instead of explaining it up front. But Ritt and the screenwriters maintain the book’s uncompromising view of the dirtiness and amorality of espionage work on the part of all involved. One might wish Ritt were a more imaginative filmmaker, but he keeps the story tense and clear. The main reason to see the film, though, is Burton’s fine performance in the lead. He foregoes his usual dramatic ostentation, and his restraint makes him all the more forceful. He superbly conveys the character’s misanthropy, and the nuance he shows in the character's more manipulative moments is remarkable. There is also no doubting his cold fury when the caring for others he thought behind him is used as a devious weapon. Burton is ably supported by the warmth and sympathy Bloom brings her role, and Oskar Werner is quite compelling as the protagonist’s principal German interlocutor. Oswald Morris’s gritty black-and-white cinematography serves the material well. For my review of le Carré’s original novel, click here.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, is a compelling portrait of a rural Chinese patriarch in what appears to be the early decades of the twentieth century. The story begins with him as a poor farmer on his wedding day. He is apparently somewhere in his twenties, and his bride, whom he has never before met, is a slave in the kitchen of a local wealthy family. The novel ends with him wealthy and close to death, with his adult sons making plans for the family estate. At first, Buck seems to be using the farmer and his wife as a celebratory illustration of Protestant-work-ethic values--the ideal of hard work, and so on--but her perspective proves far more ambivalent. Hard work means nothing in the face of famine and flooding, and one’s safety from crime is pointedly shown to be arbitrary. The work-ethic values can even prove destructive; one story thread implicitly asks if pride at not begging or stealing is worth the cost to one’s children. The farmer and his wife are hardly paragons of virtue, either. The seeds of their later wealth come from mugging and burglary, and the farmer certainly has his callous, hedonistic side--he thinks nothing of his wife’s feelings when he purchases a concubine and brings her into their home. The book also explores other consequences of building a better life, including the complications and conflicts that result from the bourgeois values that become instilled in the couple’s sons. Buck is fond of platitudes about the fulfillment found in working the land, but the virtue the book promotes is a rather cynical one: one must make the most of opportunities, and corrupt ones are acceptable. In this, the story is very similar to the Biblical tale of Jacob, whose dedication to hard work and lack of principle in pursuit of his ends is quite similar to Buck’s protagonist. Buck’s prose recalls scripture as well. It’s straightforward third-person narrative that uses homiletic repetitions to both render the protagonist’s mindset and anchor the scenes. The repetitions come close to functioning like a recitative at times, and they help make the novel a fast, engaging read. Buck is in the august company of authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the book does not rise to the level that honor promises. It is not especially profound, much less innovative or poetic. However, it is a very satisfying piece of popular fiction, and that cannot be discounted.