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…]
Tag Archives: 1980s
Only late enough that December’s capsule reviews are coming next Monday…
White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)
There a number of directors who have become canonical over the years whose films I have simply never gotten. Woody Allen. Mario Bava. Sam Fuller. Every time I dig into a Fuller movie I try and see what it is that sets him apart, and every time I fail. My most recent attempt was with the 1982 racism melodrama White Dog, and I think that perhaps I’ve figured out what the canon sees in him. I still didn’t get to the “all that and a bag of racists” point with this one, but it’s starting to make sense. The thing about Sam Fuller’s strain of melodrama, if I’m right in my hypothesizing, is that in movies like Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street, both of which left me kind of cold, Fuller was doing that gig first; Douglas Sirk and Grace Metalious and Russ Meyer and all that lot would come after and hone the genre, so that when Fuller returned to the fold in the eighties, he not only had his own base to work from, he had everyone else’s, too. And I think that, more than anything, may be what impressed me about White Dog: Fuller wasn’t afraid to build on the work of others, rather than focusing obsessively upon his own corpus.
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (Tor, 1985)
[originally posted 22Nov2002]
Orson Scott Card says in his preface to Ender’s Game that one of the main criticisms with the book people have is that gifted kids just don’t act and talk like Ender and his battle school mates. To which Card usually responds with something like “they’re just smart enough not to talk that way around adults.”
Been there, done that. He’s right.
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]
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. ***
* * *
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit (Grove, 1956)
[originally posted 24Jan2002]
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)
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. ***
* * *
From a Whisper to a Scream (Jeff Burr, 1987)
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. ***
* * *
La Casa de las Sombres (The House of Shadows) (Ricardo Wullicher, 1976)
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)
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. ***
* * *
Nancy Shaw, Sheep Blast Off (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
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)
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)
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
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Kathryn and Byron Jackson, The Big Elephant (Golden Press, 1949)
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. **
Stephen Stark, The Outskirts (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988)
[originally posted 26Feb2002]
Stephen Stark’s debut novel is a confusing, exhilarating run through the spring of a high school senior’s life. Albie Santamoravia is eighteen, almost completely disaffected, close to failing out of school, and has a penchant for long distance running and a photographic memory for classical music. When he runs, he hears the music in his head (various Mahler pieces during most of the book’s scope). It’s something to cling to, Albie’s island of sanity in a world he doesn’t quite get.
William M. Valtos, Resurrection (St. Martin’s Press, 1988)
[originally posted 19Feb2002]
Late-eighties horror novels that faded quickly into obscurity seem to be becoming something of a specialty of mine these days; I’ve read more than I care to count in the past few months. I find that, in general, most of them had very good reasons for becoming obscure. Resurrection is no exception to that rule, but there’s something about it that sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill horror novel. There were some sparks of true potential running through here. If the reviews of Valtos’ most recent novel, The Authenticator, are anything to go by, it sounds like he’s realized that potential in later books. More power to him. If you’re a Valtos fan, this may well be worth picking up as a “where did they come from?” type book. If you haven’t yet been introduced to him, picking this up may, hopefully, make you want to grab the newer book (it did in my case).
Danielle Steel, Thurston House (Dell, 1983)
[originally posted 14Feb2002]
Over the past quarter-century or so, Danielle Steel has sold more novels than there are people in America. Fifty-three books, with sales (at present, according to Steel’s website) of more than four hundred sixty-three million. She’s one of a handful of novelists who have not had a single book go out-of-print in decades. Remember those old Slim Whitman late-night TV ads talking about how he’d sold more albums than Elvis and The Beatles? Well, Danielle Steel really HAS. She’s the Slim Whitman of the book business. So what is it, I asked myself for years, that makes people read Danielle Steel so obsessively? What is it about her books that makes them so all-fired popular? I must have known I would eventually want to know the answer, because some years back I picked up a worn-out dog-eared copy of Thurston House. And thus my education in mass-market romance begins.
Robert B. Parker, Early Autumn (Dell, 1981)
[originally posted 12Feb2002]
It may still be a little too early in the game to call the Spenser novels some of the great twentieth-century detective fiction. There cannot, however, be any doubt as to the continuing popularity of, and loyalty to, the line of novels written by Robert Parker about the combination renaissance man/gumshoe. Over the twenty-odd years since The Godwulf Manuscript hit the shelves, Spenser fans have accumulated like mosquitoes in a light fixture. We’ve watched the characters, consistent over the space of more than twenty novels, grow and change, not just reflecting the spirit of the times (go back and read about some of the godawful getups Spenser dressed in in the mid-seventies, and you can easily imagine Spenser himself looking back and saying, “what WAS I thinking?”) but reflecting real changes in the characters themselves. Robert Parker has achieved something remarkable; he has given us a quarter century in the lives of a select few people in real-time (for the most part) without the storyline ever degenerating into soap opera.
One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)
One from the Heart initially stuck in my head because of Sneak Previews, the original Siskel and Ebert movie review show back when it was on public television. My favorite section of the show was always the Dog of the Week, at the end, when each critic would highlight the worst film he’d seen that week. I got a lot of recommendations from the Dog of the Week. That, naturally, led to a year-end list of the ten worst movies of the year. If a movie showed up on the Ten Worst list, I was almost guaranteed a good time. One from the Heart was on Gene Siskel’s ten worst list for 1982; if I recall correctly, it was #1. (Pretty much anything that made their lists from that year is gold; they also included Inchon, Pink Floyd: The Wall, and Halloween III.) But I’d never gotten a chance to see it until recently. While Coppola has always been an on-and-off director for me, I’ve found over the years that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with Frederic Forrest, and with One from the Heart, Forrest gets a rare starring role. It’s not the best movie in the world—certainly not in the same league as Forrest’s other major 1982 film, Hammett—but it’s certainly not one of 1982’s worst movies.