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Capsule Reviews, June 2014: From the Vault

Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)

[originally posted 12Dec2001]

Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law dominate the movie poster.

War is hell. But war is pretty hell.
photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s hard to tell what you’re going to get when you find yourself watching a Jean-Jacques Annaud film. Some of his output deserves instant classic status; some should never have seen the light of day. Enemy at the Gates balances on the thin line between the two, but does eventually manage to fall on the side of the former.

Annaud teams up with Alain Godard (as in most of his truly fine efforts) to offer up a screenplay about two snipers, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and Major Konig (Ed Harris) during the 1942/43 siege of Stalingrad. The two are backed by a solid cast of minor characters, including the off-kilter-genius casting of Bob Hoskins as Krushchev. And while Annaud and Godard use the story of Zaitsev to examine the pros and cons of propaganda, they thankfully never lose focus on the real story– two guys trying to kill each other while a war rages around them. It doesn’t sound all that interesting when stripped down, and there are certainly a few places where the film drags, but overall it works much better than one would expect it to. Jude Law is, as always, a pleasure to watch onscreen, and Ed Harris gives one of his better performances (though he can’t seem to decide if he’s supposed to be speaking in a German accent or not). Worth a rental. *** ½


Trailer.

* * *

Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000)

[originally posted 12Dec2001]

Ed Harris decorates a canvas on the movie poster.

Blood, sweat, and paint.
photo credit: Wikipedia

Ed Harris was nominated for an Oscar (for acting, not direction); Marcia Gay Harden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. That’s pretty much all that needs said about this movie; Harris and Harden both turn in career-best roles as Pollock and wife Lee Krasner in this biopic, but the rest of it leads one to wonder what, exactly, Harris was trying to get at here.

Pollock, whether you get his art or not, was an interesting character. He spent his life battling a self-destructive urge (and finally succumbing to it in a truly remarkable way), and in the space of fifteen years went from nobody to the finest artist in America to nobody again. Depending on the outlook of the director, the last fifteen years of Pollock’s life could be presented as a morality tale on The Evils of Drinking(TM), as an odd quirk worth a second glance, or as a criticism of the fickleness of the art scene in general. Anyone who’s watched more than ten films over the span of his life could come up with a list of perfect directors to present the material in any of these modes and bring it off well, but Harris never quite holds onto any of them long enough to show us what path he’s trying to take. Thus, when compared to other biopics about artists (most notably Schnabel’s Basquiat), Pollock looks unfocused and unsure of itself. That forces the viewer to spend more time thinking about the acting skills of Harris and Harden, but it makes the film as a whole less enjoyable. Worth watching if you enjoy biopics, but not one to go out of your way for. ** ½


Trailer.

* * *

The Harvard Lampoon, Bored of the Rings (Signet, 1969)

[originally posted 20Dec2001]

A typical psychedelic sixties painting, which I assume is meant to be a scene from Middle Earth, adorns the movie poster.

There is nothing in the world quite so amazing as a pig riding another pig.
photo credit: ringlord.net

With the recent release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkein, it seemed like the perfect time to give Bored of the Rings a re-read. The Harvard Lampoon folks turn their attention to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and send it up with their usual blend of dead fish, toilet humor, Wizard air fresheners, third-grade satire, and fat, cheap cigars.

No doubt legions of Tolkein fans are offended by this book’s very existence. I think it’s worth a few chuckles here and there, but it relies a little too much (as do most Lampoon satires) on the usual mishmash of sexually suggestive humor enjoyed by twelve-year-olds and the same bad puns you now find in newspaper headlines. Not that it was all that great to begin with, but it’s not wearing well as time goes on. Still, it’s an artifact of American popular culture, as scary as that thought is, and so it does have some historical value. ** ½

* * *

Frank Coffey, Night Prayers (Jove, 1986)

[originally posted 20Dec2001]

A woman moves off into the water on the book's cover.

You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!
photo credit: ebay

Okay, first things first: Frank Coffey is not one of Dean Koontz’ pseudonyms, despite some speculation to the contrary. And anyone who’s actually spent time tracking down Coffey’s work will notice a marked difference in writing styles right off the bat. (Brian Coffey, on the other hand, WAS a Koontz pseudonym. Different animal altogether.) So if you’re looking for Dean R., this ain’t the place to poke your nose.

Coffey enjoyed a small amount of success in the eighties before fading into obscurity as the horror-novel craze went back to its normal level. Kind of sad, because Coffey wrote some pretty fun stuff, including this little tidbit about a girl who washes up on the coast of Maine in a very, very old ship and causes some very nasty things to happen to certain town residents. If you’re a person who doesn’t want to know the whodunit till the end, this isn’t for you; it would take a fairly thick reader not to figure out how the prologue relates to the rest of the book by page three or so. Coffey’s emphasis here is on the WHYdunit, and while it’s not a particularly original why, there’s also a WHO’SitgonnabedunTO aspect that makes the whole thing work. That should satisfy the mystery folks, the supernatural elements are all there for the horror folks, and everyone’s happy. The characters are drawn well enough to keep the reader’s interest, the pages turn quickly, and while no one’s going to confuse Frank Coffey’s books with M. R. James, they’re certainly some good reading. ***

* * *

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Pledge (Berkeley, 1957)

[originally posted 20Dec2001]

A treeline shrouded in mist adorns the book's cover.

The fog comes in on little cat feet.
photo credit: tower.com

While Durrenmatt is a well-known and well-respected author, it took making a film of one of his books to get most people in the States actually reading him. This new film tie-in translation of The Pledge is a great way to start, and will hopefully lead a lot more Americans to a lot more Durrenmatt.

The Pledge is the tale of Matthai, a Swiss police inspector who becomes convinced during the investigation of a child’s murder that the cops have got the wrong man. He promises the victim’s mother that he will find the killer, and that promise eventually leads to complete and total obsession. The novel, told by Matthai’s former superior over a long auto journey and dinner, leads exactly where you think it will, and then throws in a twist so nasty it’s almost painful to read. Agee’s translation was completed with an eye firmly on the readability factor, and this one goes relatively quickly (especially for a modern European novel); the payoff is well worth the time spent on the setup. Absolutely fantastic, and will cause me to have to revise my Best-of-2001 list. Very highly recommended. **** ½

* * *

Set Fire to Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (alien8, 2001)

[originally posted 7Jan2002]

A barn burning to the ground is pictured on the cover of the CD.

Godspeed You! Flaming Emperor.
photo credit: spinaltapdance.wordpress.com

Alien8 continues in their five-year-long tradition of releasing the best in cutting-edge music with the debut release from Montreal supergroup Set Fire to Flames, a thirteen-piece outfit whose indescribable music inhabits the same space as Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s (no surprise, since five GSYBE! members show up here). Set Fire to Flames’ music is perhaps best termed pseudoclassical; they eschew the pop-crossover sensibilities of GSYBE! for a straighter and more string-oriented approach, and the simple density of individuals gives the music here an orchestral feel. Interestingly, the songs are also the shortest, on average, of anything coming out of the Montreal collective; chamber music for the attention-disordered? One way or the other, an excellent gift for both the seeker of new and interesting sounds and the classical snob who hasn’t listened to anything recorded since 1799 on your list. While you’re at it, slip a few copies to your Yanni-loving friends. You may still be able to save them. *** ½

* * *

George Ryley Scott, The History of Prostitution (Senate, 1968)

[originally posted 1Feb2002]

An acient portrait of a courtesan decorates the book's cover.

I’m certain the author did extensive research while writing this.
photo credit: goodreads

Scott was certainly on the right track with his study of the prostitute, but unfortunately, he went quite wrong in a number of places and undercut his thesis. Scott, it seems, was trying to present a clearheaded call for the re-evaluation of the attitude towards prostitution in America and Britain, with the ultimate goal of legalization and regulation. In doing so, he covered the historical changes in attitudes towards prostitution, its reasons for existence, various results of its outlawing at various times, etc. Overall, his argument is clearheaded and lucid, and his heart is certainly in the right place; all the arguments he makes for the legalization of prostitution are solid ones, and most have been discussed into the ground by reasonable non-sex-obsessed people for decades. Where Scott goes wrong every time is in his citations. Some of his citations are worthwhile, from official reports and the like. However, the rest of them are from supposedly-eyewitness works like Slaves to Sin: The Trade in Women’s Flesh and Walter: My Secret Life, the very titles of which lead to speculation about how much of the stuff Scott is citing as fact was exaggeration in the first place, and how much of it deserved much, much closer scrutiny before being used as the basis for an argument. The use of such sources here is likely to lend the finders of prurience in everything they see all the ammunition necessary to deride Scott’s whole work as unreliable. And, in truth, such a position probably has legs. Scott ended up doing more to defeat his cause than to defend it. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a righteous cause with far too few defenders. ** ½

* * *

Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (Bantam Windstone, 1964)

[originally posted 4Feb2002]

A house tucked away in the trees adorns the cover of the book.

Pulp.
photo credit: scottgordleyart.com

I really, really wanted to like this book. An underread novel by an acknowledged American master of letters with a core of fans who consider it one of the best novels of the last century. What could be better? Well, to put it in as few words as possible, Kesey’s writing style.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest works, and works so well, because it’s tight. It’s terse. It says what needs to be said. Kesey knows what he wants to say and says it. You get the idea. It’s been compared to A Christmas Carol a number of times, and with very good reason. But if Cuckoo is Kesey’s Christmas Carol, then Sometimes a Great Notion is Kesey’s Bleak House. It’s long-winded, rambling, incoherent, and could easily have lost three hundred pages from its final length without anyone noticing anything had gone; when your main character doesn’t get to the place where all the action is happening until page 88, and still hasn’t gotten his baggage from the bus terminal eight miles away fifty pages later, you know there’s a whole lot of extraneous material therein. And while that makes sense within Kesey’s chosen stylistic framework (the story is told by a woman flipping through a photograph album), there’s just too much of the rambling and not enough plot advancement. It’s like being stuck in a whole novel of Melville’s two-hundred-page cessation of action in Moby Dick. If you thought that was painfully unreadable, Sometimes a Great Notion may well send you into apoplectic fits. (zero)

[ed. note 2014: in the interests of full disclosure, I abandoned the book halfway through. These days I go out of my way to put that in reviews when it is the case, but I did not here.]

* * *

Melek-Tha, The Sulfuric Vortex (Solipsism, 2002, limited to 100)

[originally posted 12Feb2002]

I have no idea what is on this cover. Never have.

Sulfur…the final frontier.
photo credit: melektha.free.fr

French act Melek-Tha return with their latest CD, a seven-track concept piece that seems to revisit the same territory Baal’s Species23 CD covered a few years ago. Perhaps the generally superior nature of that disc influenced my thinking on this one, but I found it hard to generate any enthusiasm whatsoever for this outing.

Six of the album’s seven songs run more than ten minutes in length (and the seventh isn’t much less), and each piece is dominated by a particular rhythm. Unfortunately, the rhythm for each piece never varies in any way, making the whole a rather monotonous experience. Perhaps different mixing, to bring out what’s presently in the background, would have improved things somewhat. But as it stands, it seems as if it’s a piece of so-called “ritual music” that managed to get mislabelled. **

* * *

 

Wo Hu Cang Long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (Ang Lee, 2001)

[originally posted 1Feb2002]

The principal cast adorn the movie poster.

Swords and wirecery.
photo credit: IMDB

I feel like something of an apostate saying this about a film directed by Ang Lee and starring Chow Yun-Fat (The Corruptor) and Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies), nominated for more academy awards than Steven Spielberg has teeth, and ranked at one time at #6 on IMDB’s all-time top 250 (as I write this, it languishes—relatively—at #27 [ed. note 2014: as of right now, it is no longer on the list]) but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon left me cold. Worse yet, I think the very reason the film had so little effect on me is the exact reason most of those who loved it so did—the choreography. The fight scenes were so impossibly over-the-top that the film lost anything that could be considered realism after the first ten minutes. Even the worst Jackie Chan movie retains at least a modicum of realism (note I do realize while saying this that that’s because Jackie Chan does his own stunts, and if we didn’t all know that, etc.).

Were it possible to divorce the surrounding film from the fight scenes therein, you’d still have a pretty flat movie. The plot takes a few amusing twists now and again, but the script is written with a jaundiced eye towards the “You! Killed! My! Brother! Now!… I must!… kill you!” dialogue parodied so many times by so many films, and it never gives a hint that it’s not taking itself seriously.

If you thought The Matrix would have been a far superior film without the special effects, you really want to avoid this. The Corruptor will do you one better. Trust me. **


Trailer.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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