Monday, June 30, 2008

8 Unanswered Questions About The Tenderness of Wolves

It took me two tries to get into this historical mystery about a murder in the snowy Canadian wilderness in the 1860s. Once I did, I enjoyed it, but it's almost breathtaking in its loose-endedness, leaving plots unresolved and characters scattered across the landscape. So herewith, the list of things I still want to know:

  1. Whatever became of Amy Seton?
  2. With Moody dead, how are the Knoxes going to learn about Eve Seton/Elizabeth Bird?
  3. Why and how did Mrs. Ross leave the asylum with Mr. Ross?
  4. Who was Half Man and what was his relationship with Stewart?
  5. Why did Mr. Ross start to turn away from Mrs. Ross, and what is she going to do about it?
  6. What's Jacob going to do when he learns that Moody was killed while he wasn't around to protect him?
  7. What's going to become of Francis, Line and her children, Susannah, Maria, and Mr. Knox?
  8. So what is that mysterious bone tablet anyway?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Defy the AFI

It's no use getting too bent out of shape about the lists published by the AFI. Tastes differ; also, they're an institution that depends at least partly on donations and they're not above pandering to certain films because they were popular or made a lot of money. But their broadcast last night of the 10 Top 10 was very badly done (each segment way too short, then wasting time on recaps; dubious experts), and I have to take issue with some of their more egregious choices:

And whose idea was it to trot out Kirk Douglas? I'm sure whoever did it kidded themselves they were doing something very noble, but I found it just sad and exploitative.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

True Dreck

I used to have a razor-sharp memory for everything I had read or watched, but as time goes on I find myself losing my grasp on the details. So, as it now often happens, I remembered that I really hated the movie True Lies, but not why. Thus, having nothing in particular better to be doing last night, I watched it again.

And then I remembered. Because this is the movie where THE HERO (Arnold Schwarzenegger) thinks that it's a fine idea not only to abuse his position as a Government agent to spy on his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) when he thinks she's having an affair, but also to kidnap her, throw her into a cell, interrogate her, and threaten her with torture and exposure. And who also thinks it's fun to torture and humiliate the man she's involved with. And who thinks it's sexy to then force her to pretend to be whore and make her dance naked for what she thinks is a stranger.

And not only does she not think he's a sick bastard, she LIKES IT. And then proceeds to torture and humiliate the other guy herself a little more at the end.

With good guys like this . . . .

As a side note, the whole conjunction of Arab terrorists/planes/tall buildings takes on a whole new resonance in the post 9/11 world.

You know, I've always kind of despised Tom Arnold. The fact that he's pretty much the best thing in this movie is deeply depressing.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Garden Spells

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen

I am in love with this book, which is all about love and loss and hurt and happiness. It's about families, about small towns where you carry the baggage of all your ancestors, and about sisters. It's about wanting to belong, and what happens when you don't. It's about magic, and some seriously tasty-sounding food. Go read it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Long Overdue Post #2: Does the Wind Get Tired Out There?

This post also got started and lost in the shuffle a good while ago.

I watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost every time I run into it. There's a lot to admire in this 1939 Frank Capra classic, notably the acting from almost everyone involved: Jimmy Stewart as the idealistic young Jefferson Smith; Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders, the hard-boiled secretary who's transformed by Smith's sincerity; Claude Rains as stately, silver-haired, but corrupt Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine; and Edward Arnold as smooth-talking political boss Jim Taylor; not to mention Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Harry Carey, and Jack Carson. The dialog by screenwriter Sidney Buchman is snappy and often very funny, as when drunken urbanite Clarissa tries to repeat what Smith has told her about the plains she's never seen.

In outline, the plot is simple. Naive young publisher Smith is appointed as an interim senator for his state, in the expectation that he won't get in the way of the Taylor machine. In the person of Sen. Paine, the machine is trying to engineer passage of a bill to construct an unnecessary dam on land owned by a Taylor advocate that will (somehow) enrich Taylor, Paine, and others. By chance, Smith decides to sponsor a bill asking the government to buy that same land to sponsor a boys' camp (you know it's 1939 when all the sincere speeches about kids growing up to respect each other never consider that some of them could be, you know, girls). Taylor tries to buy Smith; when that doesn't work, he decides to smash him by showing that Smith, not Allen, owns the disputed land. With coaching from Saunders, the disgraced Smith provokes a confession from Paine, brings down Taylor, and clears his name.

It's fine, rousing stuff. But despite my recognition of its good qualities, I've never loved the movie the way so many other people do, and it's taken me a long time to figure out why. I think it's a series of three interlinked problems. First, Smith does a terrible job of defending himself. Sure, the Taylor syndicate blindsides him with the forged contract, but if there is enough time for a trial with three different handwriting experts, there's enough time for Smith to try to expose the connection between the landowner and Taylor. But it looks like he doesn't even try; nor does he try to tell his story and ask for time to prove his allegations when he has the chance and it might do him some good.

That failure leads directly to his desperate filibuster, which is the second problem. For most people, I think, this is the highlight of the film: a lone man, battling the forces of corruption arrayed against him, with nothing but his voice and ability to stay on his feet. And I must admit it's genius when, hands deep in the negative telegrams Paine has trucked into the Senate chamber, an all-but-spent Smith turns to him and rasps, "I guess it's just another lost cause, Mr. Paine." But the whole idea falls flat for me. Smith really does nothing with his opportunity except assert his innocence again and again. It's no wonder his fellows turn their backs on him, if he can't summon up a shred of proof. He says he's trying to reach the people in his state, but again, what does he offer them except hollow assurances without evidence?

The third and biggest problem, though, is that he wouldn't need much evidence if he simply applied a little logic. Taylor's whole scheme depends on the fact that owning the land on which the dam will be built will bring in a huge profit. Would that not be equally true if Smith owned it? Why would he bother trying to con schoolboys out of nickels and dimes for a camp if he could sell the land to the Government for an enormous amount? It's so OBVIOUS, yet neither he nor anyone else ever points that out.

Honesty and bravery and patriotism and good intentions are all great qualities in their place. But I like my heroes, and my elected officials, to have a few smarts as well.

Long Overdue Post #1: Mystery 101

I started to write this post quite a while ago, and for some reason never got around to finishing.

By coincidence, the same night I watched To Catch a Thief (1955, Alfred Hitchcock), I also happened to finish Lisa Scottoline's Dirty Blonde. At first glance these two works, one of Hitchcock's most famous movies and a better-than-average paperback thriller, would seem to have very little in common. But actually they share a very important characteristic. They both violate the principles of good mysteries in not playing fair with the audience.

To Catch a Thief is the story of former jewel thief John Robie the Cat (aging though he is, Cary Grant is still one terrific hunk, although he's never looked less sexy than in the striped shirt and red bandana he wears at the beginning of the movie). At the start of World War II, he escaped from a French prison when the Germans bombed it, and he and his fellow prisoners became heroes of the Resistance. Now, 10 years after the end of the war, Robie lives in a huge villa on the Riviera where he raises flowers and grapes, and his cohorts toil away in a restaurant one of them owns. Suddenly, somebody begins duplicating Robie's crimes, and both the police and his old buddies think he is responsible. He must catch the real thief to clear his name, before the police lock him up or one of his pals decides to kill him.

One of the old gang, the wine steward Foussard, has a daughter, Danielle. Her age is never exactly made clear, although from dialog it appears she's supposed to be under 20. We meet her several times: first, she drives Robie away from the restaurant in a boat. She flirts with him, exposits the whole story of the prison and the Resistance, and taunts him with his wealth and the comrades' poverty. Next we see her at the beach at Cannes, where she flirts with him and taunts him some more. The third time is at the funeral of her father, who has been killed in a trap set for Robie; Danielle blames Robie for his death. But Foussard can't, as the police want people to think, have been the cat burglar himself, because he had a wooden leg.

At the climax of a dramatic rooftop chase, we see Danielle for the last time, when Robie rips off the mask of the burglar to reveal her. He shouts: "I figured it was you the night your father died! He always got you to do his legwork, even during the war when you were a kid."

And that, my friend, is cheating. Robie knew something that the audience was never told. Nowhere in her three prior scenes did we ever get a hint that Danielle was part of the wartime gang. Indeed, the scene on the boat is clearly played as though the whole thing is a story she has heard, not something she lived herself. It would have taken only a line of establishing dialog to make it clear. Even a bit of business at the restaurant, where Foussard sends her to fetch something from a high shelf, would have laid the groundwork. But Hitchcock (and screenwriter John Michael Hayes) didn't want to chance spoiling the surprise ending: in opting for the cheap twist over the carefully hidden clue, Hitchcock robs the audience of its satisfaction in the solution of the mystery.

Dirty Blonde, a mostly successful return to form after a couple of disappointments from Scottoline, tells the story of Cate Fante, a newly appointed federal judge with a penchant for picking up guys in sleazy bars. After ruling against Richard Marz, a writer who has sued Hollywood producer Art Simone, Cate is shocked to learn that Marz has apparently killed Simone and then shot himself. Marz's friend Detective Russo, however, believes Cate is responsible, and soon he has leaked her secret sex life to the press. Dumped by her boyfriend, made a citywide laughingstock, and with her job in jeopardy, Cate begins to search for the truth. She's supported only by her loyal secretary Val, her oddball clerks Emily and Sam, her best friend Gina, and new love interest Det. Nesbitt.

I've always liked Scottoline's books, but she has a habit of telegraphing the bad guys very early. I thought she had done it this time too -- a fellow judge called Meriden. I sat confidently through Cate's determination that the killer was Simone's former assistant (for a lawyer, Cate has apparently very little acquaintance with what constitutes evidence). Sure enough, right on cue, there is Cate in her deserted office at night when in walks Meriden. But no, he isn't the nut with the gun -- it's Cate's Goth chick clerk, Emily.

Emily who? you may be asking yourself. We haven't seen nearly as much of her as we saw of Danielle. Our only real view of her is way back in Chapter 5, when she and Cate talk about the case. Cate says something about Marz's dream and Emily responds, "My dream is to pay off my student loans. I have trailer trash dreams." Then we get a few fleeting glimpses of her being worried how Cate's troubles are going to affect her job. That's it until the final confrontation, when she confesses that she was being paid to pass information on to Simone. She shot him because he threatened to tell Cate about it, then set up Marz's suicide to make it look like he'd done it. She says, "I followed him to dinner and I shot him. I had to. My family depends on me. You remember that day, when we talked about people and their dreams? This is their dream. I am their dream."

Now, I don't mind having my expectations confounded. I like it when I pit all my cunning against an author and she still outwits me. That's the intellectual pleasure a good mystery provides, the tingle you get when you look back and say to yourself, "Of course! THAT's what that meant." But that kind of challenge depends on the author's bravely hiding all the clues in plain sight, not burying them by the dark of the moon in a cave on the far side of forever. No strike that: it involves actually PROVIDING clues, which Scottoline has signally failed to do.

As with Danielle, even a very little more information would have been sufficient to set the stage. Scottoline could have given us even a hint of the pathetic pride Emily's parents have in her, just the suggestion that Emily is so desperate for money she'll do anything to get it. But no, there's nothing like that, and without it, the girl's exposure as the murderer is completely random -- it could just as easily have been some bum off the street for all the sense it makes. It's as though we see the Man Behind the Curtain unmasked without ever seeing the great and powerful Wizard of Oz at all. And that's not just cheating, my friend. That's bullshit.

As You Might Have Expected

Keeping up my movie diary has become more of a chore than a pleasure, so I'm giving it a rest until further notice. If I've got an observation about a movie that's absolutely dying to be made, I'll make it. Otherwise, you can just imagine me watching Notorious and Now, Voyager for the kajillionth time each.