Monday, April 28, 2014

Peter Robinson. Dead Right (1997)

     Peter Robinson. Dead Right (1997) A well done police procedural. DCI Alan Banks and sidekicks DC Susan Gay and DS Jim Hatchley investigate a beating death that quickly complicates into racial tensions, neo-Nazis, and drug trafficking. Office politics and personal relationships mix in for a satisfyingly complex plot with well-drawn characters that we care about. The crime puzzle’s solution does not, however, resolve Banks personal difficulties, which means the sequel(s) will have guaranteed soap-opera interest. One should not downplay this: people’s private and work lives always intersect. To leave that intersection out of a story diminishes it. For that matter, the crime itself has a far more complicated  motivation and context than at first appears. Robinson is good at showing the inevitable: a crime’s effects ripple outward and damage many more people than the victim, often including the perpetrators.
     I’d never noticed Robinson before this, but “Alan Banks” triggered interest when I spotted the book in the discard rack at the library. WGBH’s channel 44 runs the DCI Banks TV series, and so his name was stored somewhere in my internal database. The paperback cost 50 cents, worth it. I’ve already found another book at Value Village, but they charge a good deal more. ***

Sunday, April 27, 2014

August: Osage County (2013)

     August: Osage County (2013) [D: John Wells. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney] Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts received several nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The film was nominated for other awards and won a few round the world. If I cared about the characters, I’d care about these awards and nominations. But the main characters are nasty, mean, self-centred, self-pitying, self-justifying, callous – after watching this film, you’ll no doubt be able to add to this list. They really don’t know what they are living for. People without a sense of meaning in their lives aren’t likely to behave well. Maybe that’s the lesson of this movie.
     Story-line: A family gets together when the father (Beverly Weston, an alcoholic academic poet) kills himself after putting up with his awful wife (Violet) for too many years. There’s a lot of “truth-telling”, but not the kind that leads to self-discovery and through that to healing. I can see that for many viewers, the portrayal of severe family dysfunction will have its awful attraction, and for some will recall painful memories. I’m not in either of those groups. The movie began to bore me almost at once.
     Watching Streep and Roberts do their bravura performances had a certain interest, in fact all the actors (and director) did an amazing job with what is an awful script. This showed especially in Streep's performance, in which you could often see her pulling the strings of the puppet. She's a great actor, but this time her technique was showing. The movie’s adapted from a play, the kind that some theatre buffs mistake for “serious” drama because it shows ugly people doing ugly things to each other using ugly language. It left me with a couple questions: Who is Tracy Letts, and why does he think that profanity makes for a strong script?
     Should you watch this film? Only if you like to see people torture each other. *

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Life of Python (2000)

     The Life of Python (2000) A compilation of clips and interviews, plus an English version of one of the two German episodes for Westdeutscher Rundfunk, made in 1972. The interviews are strictly for Python fans, the selected clips will raise a Huh? Or a chuckle or a guffaw, depending on your fan status. The Dead Parrot is missing, and none of the clips is complete. The German episode includes a long sketch based on a mix of Grimm fairy tales, suitably messed up and parodied, and a real treat for fans. I’m a fan, I thought this three-video set was worth watching, but non-fans will no doubt find it merely average. It’s from Jon’s collection. ***

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Talk of the Town (1942)

     The Talk of the Town (1942) D: George Stevens. Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Ronald Coleman] One of the great Hollywood comedies when Hollywood made great comedies. Leonard Dilg (Cary Grant), a falsely accused prisoner escapes, holes up in the house that a stuffy law prof, Michael Lightcap (Ronald Coleman), is renting for the summer, and Nora Shelly (Jean Arthur), the teacher who owns the house, becomes the prof’s secretary/cook. The three develop a nice relationship, and when mob-violence and obvious corruption become too much for the prof to ignore, he takes the case, finds the man whose supposed death has earned Dilg the murder rap, and makes a Grand Speech when he interrupts the trial, which is about to turn into a lunching. Lightcap gets his seat on the Supreme Court, the crooked factory owner and bent judge who concocted the plot against Dilg are indicted, and Dilg and Shelley end up in each other’s arms.
     As you can see, a preposterous plot, but it doesn’t harm a well-directed, fast-paced, well-acted and photographed movie. The three stars are pros, they act their parts with just enough conviction to make us believe the silly story. The supporting actors are pros, too, and every one does at least a workman-like job. The centre of the movie is Nora Shelley: Jean Arthur is an under-rated actor, I think. The situations sometimes reach the absurdist heights of a Laurel & Hardy, and the second ending showing Shelley choosing Dilg over Lightcap is contrived. But so’s the whole movie, really, so a shift in tone is as logical as all the other plot twists.
     We enjoyed this movie, it holds up well. ***

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Citizen Black (2004)

      Citizen Black (2004) [D: Debbie Melnyk] Documentary that serendipitously follows Conrad Black from the time just before the unravelling of his life up to the first trial for financial misdoings.
     Melnyk seems to have won Black’s confidence; at a book signing for his biography of FDR, he jokes with her, at other times he answers her questions courteously. She gives us a sketch of his life and career, along with lots of opinions and reminiscences by people who knew him (but not a word from Barbara Amiel). There is more than one instance of a slapdown that the speakers would not have dared when Black was at the peak of his economic and social power.
      Black comes across as a man too full of his own importance, and confident that he will be acquitted. There’s no doubt that he engineered excessive non-compete payments by selling newspapers to himself. It was this that brought him down, but he was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice. His yearning for the cachet of a nebulous nobility, his hobnobbing with the great and glittery, his contempt for the people who made his money for him, his skill with words, and the charm that made so many people blind to his faults, all these are plainly shown. What we don’t see, and perhaps will never know, is what drove his ambitions.
      His career since his release from prison has been spotty. He doesn’t have much money left compared to what he used to have. He has a gig on Zoomer on Vision TV, but his first set, a poorly done interview with Rob Ford, received a lot of bad PR. He’s living in Toronto, and has suggested he may want to regain Canadian citizenship. He blogs for the Huffington Post. The Ontario Securities Commission is still investigating his case (very slowly). His lawyer claims that Black is a victim of the Hollinger affair, not its perpetrator. His Order of Canada has been withdrawn. And so on.
     I have never had much sympathy for him, but this documentary arouses some pity. It’s not pleasant to watch a man delude himself. The film has been overtaken by events. Search on his name. The story ain’t over yet. **½

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Martin Reese. Just Six Numbers (1999)

     Martin Reese. Just Six Numbers (1999) The six numbers characterise our universe. This is how Reese describes them:
N: the strength of the electrical force that holds atoms together;
ε: the strength of the force that binds  the atomic nucleus together;
Ω: the amount of material in our universe;
λ: the force that expands the universe;
Q: the ratio of two fundamental energies;
D: the number of dimensions.
     If any one of these were too different, our universe would not exist, and we wouldn’t be here to wonder about those six numbers. This fact is referred to as the ”fine-tuning” of our universe. This freaks some people out. And the people who yearn for reassuring support for their religious fantasies have jumped on this fact as providing proof. In fact, it does no such thing. It suggests that there could be other universes with different combinations of those six numbers, and some theories appear to imply that such universes actually exist, although what “exist” means in a cosmos whose parts cannot know of each other is a nice question.
     Reese writes well, but I found too often that it was my prior reading about cosmology and physics that enabled me to understand him. He’s nicely modest about what’s known and unknown, and what may be unknowable. In the 15 years since he wrote, a number of speculations are on the verge of becoming hypotheses. The recent announcement of evidence for  gravity waves, ripples in the space-time fabric, is a step towards distinguishing between several proposals for a Theory of Everything. The notion of a multiverse is no longer mere speculation, and string theory may be examined again. There is hope that a model that unifies gravity with the other three forces is possible.
     Nevertheless, theories at the outermost boundaries of the knowable will always be more or less speculative. The strongest theories will be those that one the one hand imply what we can observe, and on the other require assumptions of what we cannot observe. Nature has a way of confounding our expectations, which is good: this helps us distinguish between viable and unviable speculations. Reese knows this. In his last chapter, he allows that a final Theory of Everything may not be possible. That would not be the end of science, however. Just because you have a good theory doesn’t mean you know all its implications, nor that you know all the ways in which it applies to what see around you. A good theory contains surprises.
     A good book, but you need some background to profit from it. **½

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Ruth Dudley Edwards. Carnage on the Committee (2004)

     Ruth Dudley Edwards. Carnage on the Committee (2004) Hermione Babcock, the chair of a literary prize committee dies of ricin poisoning, which is an excuse for Georgie Prothero and Robert Amiss to arrange the appointment of Jack Troutbeck, well known curmudgeon and Mistress of St Martha’s at Cambridge, for the post. Three more members of the committee are offed before the murderer confesses, via letter, mailed on his way out of the country into his private crook-protection scheme.
     The plot is rather thin, but Edwards is really more interested in satirising the literary prize racket and all that goes with it than with concocting a proper police procedural. The book may be a roman a clef, but I wasn’t interested enough to pursue the necessary research. It’s a funny and for the most part well-aimed satire on the pseudo-intelligentsia and dimwit academics and other infestations of civilised society. See, I approve of Edwards’ targeting these types, and so I was amused enough to keep reading.
     The resolution is the butler ex machina ploy, which suggests that Edwards was also needling the crime genre. Or else she just ran out of ideas, and decided to end the story while she was ahead. Edwards narrates the novel almost entirely in dialogue, which allows for lots of bon and not-so-bon mots, as well as the kind revelations that make us feel we know the characters and their relationships better than we actually do. Well done, but not quite as well done as the cover blurb promises. It says “Devilishly funny...  beautifully written satire”. I wouldn’t go that far, but I still rate it above average. Found on the library’s discard shelf at $1, and worth it. **½

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Maureen Jennings. Season of Darkness (2011)

     Maureen Jennings. Season of Darkness (2011) I borrowed this book because of The Murdoch Mysteries TV series, which we’ve been enjoying. This is the first story in a trilogy. Set in late summer/early fall of 1940, it deals with the murders of two Land Girls, both of which were accidents in that they weren’t pre-meditated. The girls just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The connection is a German spy embedded in an internee camp, and several more people die before he’s caught. Ironically, the information he killed for is forwarded to Germany by MI5 moles.
     Inspector Tom Tyler investigates, but he doesn’t so much solve the mysteries as stumble upon their solutions. The cast includes his family, his first lover, MI5, the camp commander, a motley crew of internees, several soldiers who survived Dunkirk, and some villagers whose back stories will no doubt be expanded in later stories, and so on. This makes for a rather laid back narrative, and some plot difficulties, which Jennings solves by giving us “meanwhile, the spy is thinking...” and other such ploys to fill in details that she can’t provide through Tyler. He’s the focus of the novel, and we get to know him quite well. He’s a flawed nice guy, with a strong sense of duty, and enough imagination to appreciate the ironies of his life, his task, his profession.
     The 1940s setting is well done considering that Jennings is too young to know it even at secondhand, as I did when we visited England several times after the war. Post-war England took a long time to recover from the effects of the war. The real difficulty with writing a historical novel is language: it’ s remarkably difficult to write in the right tone, to avoid anachronistic idioms and pop-culture references. Recognising these errors diminished the effect of this novel, but overall it was a good read. **½