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Capsule Reviews, November 2014

Only late enough that December’s capsule reviews are coming next Monday…
[update 25Nov2014: and this should have been posted yesterday, but WordPress seems to be having problems with graphics uploads for some reason. I will get there, honest…]

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Selected Poems (1957): The Cutting Room Floor

Kenneth Patchen, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1957)

[originally posted 22Nov2002]

A collection of line drawings of very strange creatures adorns the cover.

All the best freaks are here, please stop staring at me.
photo credit: ndbooks.com

Selected by the New Directions staff after Patchen’s death, Selected Poems was meant to introduce a new generation to the poet and novelist the back cover calls “the most compelling force in American poetry since Whitman.” (One wonders what Allen Ginsberg, whose “Howl” had been published by New Directions two years previous, had to say about that.) The collection does a good job at introduction, and does an even better job at showing the inconsistency of Patchen’s poetic work.

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Capsule Reviews, October 2014, Part 2

Normally this would be the vault reviews part, but I only have two capsule-length vault reviews left. So I filled the rest with new reviews…

 

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (Avon, 1996)

[originally posted 7Jan2002]

A portrait of a London subway tunnel heading off into the distance decorates the book's cover.

Somewhere down there, King Rat awaits.
photo credit: Amazon

Gaiman took the script from his own miniseries and novelized it, and that’s where many of the problems with this volume lay. While the plot moves along at a fine enough pace, and the pages turn quickly, there’s not really much in the way of development going on. The characters are 2-D all the way through, and we never get to feeling that there’s more than that surface. So if you’re a person who can’t find anything worth liking in a novel with badly-drawn characters, this probably shouldn’t be the first place you turn when looking for something to read.

On the other hand, if a well-realized plot and some great place descriptions are enough to make you eschew characterization, you could do a lot worse. Gaiman is quite good at coming up with new and interesting places to send his characters, most of which obviously started with the question “why in the world was this tube station named <x>?” Gaiman creates an alternate London that’s quite a bit of fun to explore. I just can’t quite shake the feeling that the miniseries would be more absorbing than the book. ***

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Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit (Grove, 1956)

[originally posted 24Jan2002]

The outline of the protagonist is cut out of the cover's red background, revealing newsprint.

She does not stroll. She does not stride.
photo credit: Better World Books

Another excellent piece of work from Friedrich Durrenmatt. The story of The Visit takes place in a dying town in central Europe somewhere; the country is not given (the reasons should be obvious). As the town is on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost total unemployment and a pervasive sense of despair, one of the town’s local folk made good comes back, hinting that she will give the town enough money to bail it out: get the factory working again, allow the stores to restock, that sort of thing. The night she arrives, she tells the townspeople that their expectations of the reasons for her visit are true, and that she will give them the money they need. She has one condition: she requires justice in the form of a lynch mob. She wants the townspeople to kill one of their own.

The revelation of the intended victim is the major twist here; in many ways, the play’s climax is actually this scene, at the end of Act I, and the following two acts are a painfully drawn-out dénouement as we watch the townspeople’s changing reactions to the woman and her demand. Unlike The Pledge, in which we see the gradual development of one man’s madness, in this case we’re given a woman who’s arguably mad from the get-go (certainly, she’s as obsessed as The Pledge’s protagonist
is at the end of that novel from long before the beginning of this play), and we watch the way her madness, combined with her wealth, affects the town around her over the course of a few days. Durrenmatt is a master at using small details to show how the community changes its views over a relatively short period of time, and even manages to make the rather horrific journey humorous at times (the play is defined as, and works as, a tragicomedy). We find ourselves alternately sympathizing with and horrified at the actions of the townspeople, and see no conflict in the two attitudes. A wonderful play. ****

* * *

The Reeds (Nick Cohen, 2010)

A lone figure wades through human-high reeds on the movie poster.

Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.
photo credit: scarsmagazine.com

The Reeds is not a bad little film, certainly not one deserving of the kind of calumny it has received around the Internet (4.6 at IMDB, 10%[!!] at Rotten Tomatoes). It’s nothing spectacularly original, but if you’re looking for a somewhat understated supernatural thriller, this will do as well as most of your other options. A group of young-and-beautifuls head out of the city to spend a weekend boating in the middle of nowhere…but “middle of nowhere” turns out to be a much more accurate description than they were hoping, and the reeds are home to all sorts of the kinds of noises that make people wonder just how alone they are on the desolate moor. While the climax does get a touch ridiculous, that did not, in my estimation, detract from the basic enjoyability of the movie. It’s empty calories, but it’s an easily-swallowed ninety minutes that does not leave a nasty aftertaste. ***


Trailer.

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From a Whisper to a Scream (Jeff Burr, 1987)

A headless body walks around with a machete in one hand and Vincent Price's head in the other on the movie poster.

The Headless Boresman.
photo credit: youjivinmeturkey.com

I’ve said a great deal about American attempts to make horror anthology films since Creepshow, and it feels silly to reiterate it all here. From a Whisper to a Scream is another of those American anthology films where the framing device ends up working better than any of the stories therein, but unlike many movies of that stripe, the shorts in this one range from competent to pretty durned good, and the cast they dug up for this thing is pretty spectacular, with Vincent Price as the framing device’s narrator and a solid B-movie cast with names like Clu Galager, Susan Tyrrell, Larry Kiser, and Lawrence Tierney delivering the fun. I wish Burr had pushed a little harder to try and send this one into the realms of Creepshow (though in hindsight—Burr’s later output would include Pumpkinhead II and the fourth and fifth Puppet Master movies—he simply might not have had it in him), but what we got is watchable enough if you’re looking for a handful of short, sharp shocks. ***

Trailer.

* * *

La Casa de las Sombres (The House of Shadows) (Ricardo Wullicher, 1976)

The principal cast's heads loom over the titular house on the movie poster.

Teenage giallo grind, the geriatric remix.
photo credit: filmaffinity.com

Odd Argentine/US hybrid mystery that attempted to do giallo without any of the operatic cinematography or over-the-top gore scenes, with the expected result. Take away those things that make giallo what it is and you’re left with the parts that fans routinely overlook, namely the thin characters and anemic plot, with only a bit of faux-psychedelic camera trickery to give the same away (e.g., when Audrey witnesses the murder). If you’re a really big fan of seventies mystery/thrillers, this might be worth your time, but otherwise you’re better off forgetting you even know this exists. *

Not finding a trailer for it. You’re not missing anything.

* * *

Edge of Madness (Anne Wheeler, 2002)

Caroline Dhavernas looks apprehensive on the movie poster.

Can I play with… oh, forget it.
photo credit: IMDB

Historical drama/mystery set in nineteenth-century frontier Canada about a woman (Devil‘s Caroline Dhavernas) who walks into a sheriff’s office and confesses to murdering her husband (Final Destination‘s Brendan Fehr), and the investigation that follows. Enjoyable, if somewhat slight, and most of the relationships never quite rang true for me (the exception is that between the alleged murderess and the lead investigator); how much you can overlook that likely determines how much you’ll end up liking it. Would have been better with a slightly less predictable ending, but you can’t find many of those these days. ***

Trailer.

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Nancy Shaw, Sheep Blast Off (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

The beloved sheep of the series head for the stars on the book cover.

Sheeeeeeep…iiiiiiiiiin…SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!
photo credit: booisforkidsblog.blogspot.com

Another of the Sheep books that doesn’t measure up to the original (cf. recent review of Sheep Take a Hike), but that has the interesting side effect of revealing another facet of the original that makes it work so well. Obviously, if you’ve got a flock of sheep in a jeep with one driving, you’re suspending a modicum of disbelief, but once you’ve gotten to that level, you don’t need to go farther; everything works, everything is internally consistent. With Sheep Blast Off, on the other hand, it seemed almost as if Shaw was trying to outdo herself with every passing page with the silliness. On the other hand, the language is consistent and fun—if your child is already a fan of the Sheep series, take this one out of the library and give it a look. Else, start with the original (and still best) book in the series, Sheep in a Jeep. ** ½

* * *

Sebastien Braun, Digger and Tom (Harper, 2011)

Digger and Tom (err, Skip) pose on the book cover.

You’re not short, Digger. You’re bucket-challenged.
photo credit: Amazon

Okay, I don’t get it. Why did the publisher feel the need to change this book, originally published in England, to have the title Digger and Tom instead of Digger and Skip? You can’t seriously think that was a cultural reference that would not be glossed over by the intended audience (or their parents, so you really know anyone who doesn’t watch at least one British import home show on TV? I mean, I don’t even have cable and I know that one). One way or the other, though, out of the whack of books (six) that came home from the library with mommy and the Bean on Friday, this was the winner (Tubby was the only other one that came close). Digger is a small backhoe who works on a construction site with a number of other machines. The dump truck Tom is his friend, but the rest of the machines look down on him because he’s kind of clumsy. When the team runs into a problem they can’t solve, Ton encourages Digger to take a whack at it, because digging is his specialty. Pretty standard stuff, but for a construction-equipment-obsessed two-year-old it seems to be the best thing ever. If your kid takes a shine to it, expect to be re-reading this one a lot. Doesn’t hold up to that all that well, but it’s short and easy, so not a huge problem. ***

* * *

Watty Piper, The Little Engine that Could (Platt and Munk, 1930)

The little engine steams down the mountain on the spoilerific cover of the book.

I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to.
photo credit: NPR

When I was a kid, I was pretty open to reading just about anything, really, and there were very few books I simply did not like. One of them was The Little Engine that Could. Well, a copy of it popped into our house tonight thanks to the mother-in-law, and I read it to the Bean tonight. Forty years later, my opinion of the book has not changed one bit. Repetitive prose, unlikable characters (in the engines who refuse), trite, inspirational resolution…I wouldn’t have put things in those words when I was four, of course, at that time all I knew was that I was bored by it compared to other books in my collection of which I wore out multiple copies (Big Max, The Snowy Day, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, I could go on all day), but now, with a quarter-century of analysis and criticism behind me, I can put fingers on why the book rubbed me the wrong way so badly when I was young. And it still does. I know it is beloved of millions, but sorry, folks, I have never been able to get on this bandwagon, and at this point it’s pretty obvious I never will. * ½

* * *

Kathryn and Byron Jackson, The Big Elephant (Golden Press, 1949)

The big elephant in a natty suit and yellow cap adorns the cover of the book.

All ready for his first day of school.
photo credit: Amazon

The Big Elephant is one of those Golden books from when the company was still, I think, finding its feet and trying to come upon a winning formula for pre-lit. This one doesn’t quite get there, though it’s not as bad as some of their other experiments (have you read Polly’s Pet? [shudder]). I should note, however, that the Jacksons, a year before this, came up with one of Golden’s early winners, Busy Timmy, and note in passing that experimentation is a good thing. But this book’s one big problem is its repetition, which is so pervasive, and so noticeable, it’s the only book from this batch of six that we did not finish the first time through; it took another pass the second night to get all the way to the end of the book. Would have liked to see a rewrite of this one with some of the repetition fixed to see how much the book would have been improved, but almost sixty years later, I’m thinking that’s probably impossible, at least with the original authors. **

Capsule Reviews, August 2014 (new)

Inkubus (Glenn Ciano, 2011)

Robert Englund taps his eye with a red knife on the DVD case.

This devil is out of the details. Way out.
photo credit: Ebay

Glenn Ciano’s debut film, Inkubus, is not all that great, though in hindsight it is leagues better than his followup, Infected. But then he’s starting from a pretty good place: casting Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm St.) as a demon who walks into a police station during the night shift and starts confessing to almost seven hundred years’ worth of crimes. Why this station? You’ll find out eventually, if you stick around long enough. Whether you will want to or not depends entirely how you feel about Robert Englund; this is his movie entirely, and if you feel he’s good enough to carry it, then you’ll probably like it. I was less impressed. * ½

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Capsule reviews (new), July 2014

Better late than never…

Homicide for Three (George Blair, 1948)

Audrey Long looks horrified in an artist's rendition on the movie poster.

Mortafella?
photo credit: moviepostershop.com

Barely-feature-length mystery potboiler featuring a honeymooning couple (Warren Douglas and Audrey Long) who get caught up in a game of mistaken identity after being lent a hotel room when they arrived in New York at the wrong time. Hijinks ensue. There is nothing at all about it that would set it off from hundreds of its peers, but on the other hand, if you’re looking for a quick and easy mystery with some amusing moments and a decided lack of time investment, this will fill the bill as much as any of those others would; certainly worth a look if you happen upon it one one of the subscription streaming services, where it appears with some regularity. ** ½

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Blackmailer (1952): Fauxlio

George Axelrod, Blackmailer (Hard Case Crime, 1952)

A babe on a bed. What more do you need on a book cover?

Ah, the good old days. No, the GREAT old days.
photo credit: noirboiled.blogspot.com

Ah, the dime novel. You may have never read one—the dime novel was going out of style before the majority of people now walking the planet were born—but if you read modern novels, you owe a great deal of your reading experience to the dime novel. Grab yourself a few novels written before World War II—not necessarily rarefied tomes, but the popular novels of the day. Then, right on their heels, preferably the same day, grab a few novels written in, or since, 1960, and notice the change. Not anything specific as much as the overall tone and atmosphere. Today’s books are, for lack of a better word, punchier. They’re less languid, faster-paced. Their word choice has been boiled down (and let’s not dwell too long on the 1984-ish implications of that, shall we?). All of this you owe to the dime novel. It was one of those “just a fad” things that the major leagues turned up their noses at, leaving them to be printed by small upstart presses who used leftover newsprint (one of the sources of the term “pulp novel”) to produce almost unbearably cheap books…that sold by the millions and made those young upstarts very rich people indeed. The majors were right in that it was a fad, and dime novels, which were basically printed with an expiration date (you will never find one today still in readable condition that has not been in an airtight plastic bag for the past half-century), did indeed fade out over time—though that publishing model switch over in the seventies to what we now euphemistically term “adult books” (read: porn)—but the style in which those writers worked enchanted an entire generation of young writers, and those who were still too young to be writers yet. They all wanted to be Chandler, but they all wrote like Spillane.

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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.

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