Sunday, November 24, 2013

Black Beauty; Kon-Tiki; Marathon Man

Black Beauty (film).  Dir. Caroline Thompson, 1994. From the 1877 novel by Anna Sewell.
Kon-Tiki (film).  Dir. Joachim Ronning, 2012.  From the 1948 book by Thor Heyerdahl.
Marathon Man (film).  Dir. John Schlesinger, 1976.  From the 1974 novel by William Goldman.

All three of these had been on my list for years, having read the books, or in the case of the Marathon Man, seen the film when I was young.

Black Beauty was thankfully faithful to the book, and well done.  Kon-Tiki was a bit too fictionalized for my liking, and I would have preferred more of the technical details of the raft building etc.  And Marathon Man was as gripping as the first time I saw it, except this time I understood it.  

Black Beauty: 3.5*
Kon-Tiki, Marathon Man: 3*
Nov 2013.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord

At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Peter Matthiessen, 1965.

Stunning.  Ambitious, a novel of ideas aiming for the most profound intent.

An American midwest missionary family come to a hellish South American village, at the edge of the Amazon, to convert the fiercely independent Niaruna tribe.  They are preceded at this base camp by another missionary from their sect, and his beautiful wife.  The newly arrived missionary family has its own internal fracture, and the missionary husband cannot help but be attracted to his colleague's wife.  The corrupt, ruthless, local police chief needs to tame the Niaruna also, as the government wants their land for precious natural resources.  And also at this village are a pair of disgraced, dissolute and desperate American adventurers, one of whom is himself half native American.    

No one is innocent; all just vary in their degree of foolishness and delusion; except for Billy, the son of the new missionaries, who is simply a boy in awe of the adventure and beauty around him.  This potent mixture of desires and conflicts cannot but explode into tragedy.  

Challenging, uncomfortably close in its dead-on see-through knowingness of hypocrisy and vanity.  A chronicle of the struggle between naivete and innocence, between stupidity and simplicity. And at the same time so poignant in places that I couldnt bear to read and had to put the book aside.  The portrait of Billy, in particular, is sketched obliquely but skillfully, and reminds me of John Henry from "A Member of the Wedding".

People have compared the book to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, and to the film The Mission.  In some ways maybe it is derivative, particularly from Conrad.  But more accessible and direct.

Oct 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole: A novel
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Trans. from Fiesta en el Madriguera by Rosalind Harvey

A masterpiece.

All the horror, violence, corruption and grief of the drug war in Mexico, compressed into 70 pages, as narrated by the young, innocent, impressionable, precocious son of a drug lord.

Tochtli lives in a palace, surrounded by a retinue of servants, watchmen, and tutors; and his father, whom he idolizes in a confused way.  He is sure he is macho, and not a faggot; he and his father are in a gang, and he is sure that gangs are about solidarity and about not hiding things; he is sure that some of his retinue are deaf-mutes.

All of Tochtli's certainties are one by one overturned; but the only pain he speaks of is the recurring pain in his stomach, until he himself is a deaf-mute ...

Poignant, with touches of searing humor.  Or, as the precocious young Tochtli would say, Devastating.

Nov 2103


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Other Woman

The Other Woman
Dir. Don Roos, 2011

What a waste of Natalie Portman.  The movie could have been a chance to see her play a complex character that we both loathe and empathize with.  But it is too confusing in its intentions, and too superficial in its gaze, to offer her that.

2*, Oct 2013

The African Queen

The African Queen
Dir. John Huston, 1951

I read an abridged version of the book when I was 10 or so I think, and always wanted to see the movie.

I was not totally disappointed, although I think far too much has been made of it and I would not rate it as a classic.  Bogart is interesting for playing against type, and the film takes a truly dark turn toward the end when all seems lost.

The casual racism in the beginning, when Bogart throws a half-finished cigar to the ground behind him, knowing full well that it will lead to a scrambling of half-naked black savages diving and fighting to grab it, is simply unpardonable, except sadly, it probably comes straight from the book by C. S. Forester (who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series of books that I also immensely enjoyed).

Nov 2013


Dir. Peter Glenville, 1964

Stiff, traditional costume drama with lots of pretentious posturing about the "honor of God".  Burton is solemn and wooden, and the direction is plodding and all too self-important.  The only saving grace is Peter O'Toole as Henry II, who is human and alive: sly, impetuous, dangerous; yet true, vulnerable and appealing at the same time.  (And an aside: Brad Pitt has a slight resemblance to O'Toole, although without the energy and fiery eyes.)

Henry II appoints his childhood friend, fellow debaucher and confidant Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury, to thereby control both church and state.  To his shock, fury and hurt, Becket turns against him in supporting the independence of the clergy.  Tragedy eventually ensues.

Why do people lionize Burton as a great actor and as a handsome man?  In this film he seems neither, especially with the helmet haircut.

Many historical details are also wrong.  For example, much is made of the plot angle that Becket is Saxon and is widely considered a traitor by the vanquished Saxons for joining the Norman court of Henry II.  But in fact Becket was not Saxon but Norman.

The only other interesting aspect was the plainly homoerotic relationship between Henry and Thomas.  Henry openly speaks of his love for Thomas, and his jealousy and pain is obviously that of an abandoned lover rather than a man who finds a dear friend unfaithful.  This seems pretty bold for the time the film was made, and strikes a true note in an otherwise monotone production.

Nov 2013