Friday, December 28, 2018

Freedomland (1998) by Richard Price

Freedomland (1998) by Richard Price: A critical and commercial hit in 1998, Freedomland has lost none of its sting in the intervening decades. 

Maybe it's more relevant now in The Age of Trump than ever, dealing as it does with America's deep-seated racial divisions and unequal treatment at the hands of the law, media simplification of tragic events, knee-jerk bigotry, the politics of policing, and so many other 'Hot-button' topics.

A white woman stumbles into a hospital in New Jersey claiming to have been carjacked by an African-American man at the very border between the 'white' and 'black' sections of the New Jersey city. And her 4-year-old son was in the car.

What follows is more than 700 pages of tense, mournful, and sardonic prose. It's a thriller that takes its time drawing its characters and situations, its places and racial strife. That 700 pages covers just about 4 days of events.

It's all rendered in third-person narration that alternates its focus between Housing Project police officer Lorenzo Council and ambitious reporter Jesse Haus. The mother, Brenda Martin, is a major character as well -- really THE major character -- but she's observed entirely from without by Council and Haus.

This is the sort of big, ambitious, intimately epic popular novel that often out-survives and out-performs far more self-consciously 'literary' works. It's heart-rending though sometimes hopeful. Price, a screenwriter as well as a novelist, is a great writer of dialogue and of pungent, slyly metaphorical description. 

Freedomland is, quite simply, a Great American Novel, one that entertains and instructs in the way only the best Art does. Highly recommended.

The Crushing Tedium of Area X

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

It Comes At Night (2017)

None blacker...

Rampage (2018)

Rampage (2018): written by Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel; directed by Brad Peyton; starring Dwayne Johnson (Davis), Naomie Harris (Dr. Caldwell), Malin Akerman (Claire Wyden), Jake Lacy (Brett Wyden), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Agent Russell):

Based on a 1980's video game I'd never heard of until after viewing this movie, Rampage is a dumb but enjoyable giant-monster movie. It's no Pacific Rim, but it's certainly better than Pacific Rim: Uprising, and it's certainly a frothier, lighter film than the 2012 Godzilla reboot.

Dwayne Johnson plays a gorilla expert who's also a former Black Ops super-soldiery sort of fellow. Through a series of unfortunate events related to an evil corporation headed by Malin Akerman, Johnson's best gorilla buddy gets exposed to what amounts to a growth serum that also stimulates aggression AND causes the infected to be compelled to follow a specific radio signal. Jesus, that's a lot of genetic engineering -- making an animal that can zero in on a radio frequency?

Thanks to the evil corporation, a 30-foot-gorilla is not the only problem. There's a giant wolf and a giant alligator! And they're all headed to... Chicago? Um, OK. The use of Chicago for the climax does give the viewer a great dialogue exchange in which the alligator is briefly mistaken for a submarine, causing the Idiot General defending Chicago to opine that "we don't have any subs in this area!" In Lake Michigan? What?

So there's lots of yelling and shooting and military strategy and tactics so inept that they make the military geniuses of the 1998 Godzilla reboot look like Rommel by comparison. Will The Actor Formerly Known As The Rock survive? Will he figure out how to get his gorilla pal back on the side of the angels in time for a climactic battle with the alligator and the wolf? Will all the carnage and death end with a 1960's and 70's-style 'Ha Ha Ha! Time for some quips!' bit?

Oh, well. Fun, dumb, and full of CGI. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Man Without A Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut

A Man Without A Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut: This is the great American humourist and satirist's last 'new' book, a collection of essays that appeared in the magazine In Our Times during the George W. Bush presidency.

At this late date (Vonnegut would die in 2007, still stuck in the Bush 2 Years), Vonnegut still had the power to amuse and instruct, though no desire to attempt another novel. At least one of the pieces did get reworked into his final 'half-novel' Timequake, half a novel because Vonnegut published it unfinished but filled out with observations about life in America.

Here in The Trump Years, A Man Without A Country reminds one of how lousy the Bush years were -- how criminal, how unsupportably undemocratic, how moronic and ridiculous. Trump is not an anomaly. Trump is a logical extrapolation. Have we forgotten so soon that the 2000 Presidential Election was stolen by disenfranchising minority voters and not just through all the more public post-election shenanigans?

Vonnegut notes at one point that a real horror story would be called 'C-Students from Yale.' Like Bush 2 and so many of his cronies.

If Vonnegut were around today, maybe he'd note that Bush 2 normalized all the crap that Trump has now expanded. Or that Trump is also dangerous because he makes seemingly rational left-wingers nostalgic for the days of Bush and Reagan and Nixon. Hidey-ho! So it goes! Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Predators (2010) and The Thin Blue Line (1988)

All the Money in the World (2017)

All the Money in the World (2017): adapted by David Scarpa from the book by John Pearson; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michelle Williams (Gail Harris), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty), Mark Wahlberg (Fletcher Chase), Romain Duris (Cinquanta), and Charlie Plummer (John Paul Getty III): 

Once upon a time, American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world. And once upon a time, Kevin Spacey played him in this film! 

Ridley Scott replaced Spacey after allegations of Spacey's sexual improprieties hit the press, resulting in a re-shoot with Plummer subbing for Spacey. 

Plummer is excellent, all rotted and wormy noblesse oblige as the eccentric billionaire. When his namesake grandson gets kidnapped in Italy, Getty is less than helpful to the boy's desperate mother, divorced from Getty's addiction-addled son. 

It's not a great film, but it certainly holds one's interest. Michelle Williams is terrific as the mother. Near the end, one realizes that one of the reasons Scott did the project was so that he could do an extended homage to Citizen Kane. There are certainly worse reasons to make a movie. Recommended

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, segment "All Gold Canyon" based on a story by Jack London, segment "The Girl Who Got Rattled" based on a story by Stewart Edward White; starring Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), James Franco (Cowboy), Stephen Root (Bank Teller), Liam Neeson (Impresario), Harry Melling (Artist), Tom Waits (Prospector), Zoe Kazan (Alice Longabaugh), Brendan Gleeson (Irishman), Chelcie Ross (Trapper), Tyne Daly (Lady), Saul Rubinek (Frenchman), and Jonjo O'Neill (Englishman):

On Netflix appears this early holiday gift from the Coen Brothers, an anthology movie set in the Old West. It's one Hell of an assembly. Beautifully shot and acted, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays with assorted tropes of the Old West, from singing cowboys to grizzled prospectors, from stagecoach rides to wagon trains, from bank robberies to traveling shows. 

The stories move from satire to bleak comedy to ironic tragedy and back again. Tom Waits stands out in a field of fine performances as that grizzled, tenacious prospector; so, too, Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous singing cowboy and Harry Melling as a traveling performer. Highly recommended.