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Feb 3/10

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page, while the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: The Girl Who Played with Fire (Mystery); The Last Station (Movie); The Yes Men Fix the World (Movie); Body (Movie)

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Mystery) by Stieg Larsson, 2009, English translation by Reg Keeland

To remind you of all the fuss about Stieg Larsson’s books: he delivered the manuscripts to his agent in 2004, then promptly died of a massive heart attack. Quite apart from the inherent value of the books, then, their posthumous publication took on the aspect of a sensation. To give one indicator of the effect of all the hype: the Toronto library system has over 300 copies of this book in circulation, with more than 600 more readers lined up with holds on it.

Which is not to say that Mr. Larsson's books might not merit attention in spite of all the hoop-la. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he created, in the person of Lisbeth Salander, one of the most notable detectives in recent fiction. (See review, Dilettante’s Diary, on the page titled Aug 23/09)

In that story, Ms. Salander helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve the disappearance of a young woman from her wealthy family’s compound several decades earlier. In this second installment, Ms. Salander isn’t so much helping Blomkvist as running from him. The journal he works for has been planning to publish an expos on Sweden’s sex industry. Several high ranking politicians and police will be implicated. But three murders throw the publication plans into disarray. The fiasco draws in Ms. Salander in a way that most reviewers would probably explain to you but we won’t do that because it would require the revelation of more plot than we like to give away.

So how does this account of the exploits of Salander and Blomkvist measure up to their debut appearance? Not very well.

Mind you, the book has its merits. Ms. Salander still comes across as an intriguing character, even if the relentless emphasis on her photographic memory and her phenomenal skill at hacking into computer systems sounds hokey. Some of the characteristics that make her distinctive are her stubbornness, her resolute indifference to what people think about her, her total lack of charm and her social awkwardness. (While reading, it occurred to me that she sounded like somebody with Asperger’s syndrome but the author eventually rules out that diagnosis.) And it must be admitted that the puzzle surrounding the murders holds one’s attention, while the eventual solution turns out to be satisfying and interesting.

But the book is replete with weaknesses of the mystery genre, so much so that it could almost serve as a textbook example.

- We get lame dialogue, prosaic sex scenes devoid of any erotic tingle, and banal exclamations such as "You’re nuts," "Oh no, that’s terrible," and (again) "That’s terrible."

- To try to heighten the suspense, the author tosses in the usual pressure from the media, the obligatory political complications and the inevitable conflict among certain police personnel.

- One of the cops expresses such ridiculously blatant sexism that it looks like a clumsy attempt on the author’s part to win feminist standing.

- People frequently teeter on the edge of figuring out some clue that just happens to elude them.

- Lists of boring details – the contents of someone’s apartment, for instance – take up space unnecessarily.

- At times, the dull, declarative prose resembles Sue Grafton’s "I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" rendering of Kinsey Milhone’s affairs, but without the leavening effect of Ms. Grafton’s quick wit.

- Several passages involve the laborious recital of information rather than the creation of engaging scenes.

- The division of the book into several "Parts", each of them emblazoned with its own title page, looks like just another device that so many authors these days resort to in order to make their books appear more impressive. No difference in the material from one section to another justifies any such divisions.

- Each of the title pages of these "Parts" features a problem in algebra, a subject that has supposedly engaged the attention of Ms. Salander. As far as I can tell, though, this is just another attempt to give the book a high-falutin’ tone, given that none of the algebraic cogitation has anything to do with the solution of the mystery.

The biographical notes on the author tell us that Mr. Larsson was a well-known left-wing journalist in Sweden, but it would appear from his writing here that he was by no means a master stylist. Consider sentences like "She felt like crying and spent two hours cleaning up." Even allowing for discrepancies that may have cropped up in the translation by Reg Keeland, you have to wonder how anybody with any concern for the effective wording of thoughts as related to human action could have come up with such a clunker.

One of the oddest weaknesses of the book, from my point of view, is the unnecessary repetition of material. It often happens that, after we have witnessed a scene among certain characters, we then endure the report on the scene by one of those characters to someone else. As a reader, you're shouting at the author: I know all this already! Is this about an author’s attempt to fatten his book, to make it look more prestigious, to bring in bigger advances? Or would Mr. Larsson, if he had lived, have accepted an editor’s advice to pare the excess material? Not only does it make the reading less enjoyable by slowing things down, it looks positively inept compared to, say, the work of a mystery writer like Lee Child, whose practice of reporting only what you absolutely need to know makes for riveting reading. (See reviews of his work on Dilettante’s Diary pages titled "Summer Mysteries 07" and "Myriad Mysteries 2009".)

One overall quality – or absence thereof – that makes this book less appealing than Mr. Larsson’s previous one is the lack of a strong sense of locale. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the ambiance of the family’s island retreat cast a kind of spell over the proceedings. Unless the mention of street names and places in Sweden does it for you, not much atmosphere of any particular place comes through in The Girl Who Played with Fire. At least, not until the final scene. Although the isolated farm house isn’t a very original setting for a climax, this one is taut and well-written, with a strongly evocative atmosphere.

 

The Last Station (Movie) based on the novel by Jay Parini; written and directed by Michael Hoffman; starring James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Anne-Marie Duff, Patrick Kennedy

Sometimes you get the impression that the reviews haven’t been very encouraging but you wanna take a chance on a movie anyway. In this case, say, you may be in the mood for that turn of the 20th century country lifestyle, a sort of D-H-Lawrence-goes-to-Russia: the picnics on the lawn while the servants hover, the babbling streams, the hearty rustics moiling in the fields. Besides, you wouldn’t mind catching up on your somewhat sketchy notion of Leo Tolstoy’s biography. Plus, some Academy Award nominations have cropped up in connection with the movie. Not that you’re much swayed by that sort of thing but, given that one nominee is one of Canada’s big stars, there might be some point in finding out what the rest of the world’s seeing in this example of his art.

Well, it turns out that, on top of all those reasons for viewing, the movie offers many more.

A fascinating mise en scene, for starters. The great writer’s reaching the point where he’ll soon be dipping his pen into the ink for the last time. His wife Sofya worries about his plan to leave the copyright to his masterpieces to the "Tolstoyans" , the agrarian, pacifist movement he founded. Supposedly, his great love for humanity motivates this magnanimous gesture. But what, wonders his spouse, does it say about his love for her and their family? She loathes the sycophant Tolstoyans. Led by the creepy Chertkov (Paul Giambatti), they try to control their hero by shutting her out as much as possible. Which raises the interesting question: who has the prior claim on somebody’s public image – his family or his followers?

Into this fraught household comes fresh-faced young Valentin (James McAvoy), newly hired as an amanuensis toTolstoy. Convinced of Tolstoy’s importance to the world, the young man willingly signs on as a spy for the great man’s controllers. After a while, though, Valentin isn’t quite sure whether he sides with the wife or her opponents. As if that weren’t enough to keep a lad on his toes, the script writers introduce Masha, a young woman who lives on the Tolstoyan commune where Valentin boards. This strapping lass looks determined to relieve Valentin of his virginity. From the way she wields an axe when chopping wood, you suspect that she’s going to wear down his resistance to her temptations pretty efficiently.

In spite of such considerable narrative interest, the movie does have its flaws. The pace lags in places. Countess Tolstoy’s repeated demands to see her husband’s will get shrill after a while. Some lines sound  too 21st century: "Look at me. This is who I am. This is who you married." Then: "This is what men and women do" (i.e. you-know-what). Or: "I don’t know who I am anymore." On the sound track, two operatic excerpts arrive with timing so exquisite that it’s almost hokey: the reconciliation between the Count and Countess from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and "Un bel di" from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. At other times, tinkly piano music signals poignancy too insistently. Then there are the incongruities. When you’re trying to overlook the fact that everybody acts and sounds so teddibly British, it comes as something of a shock to see them reading newspapers in Cyrillic script.

For the most part, though, the movie makes for good watching. Along with the bucolic pleasures, there’s the enjoyment of seeing so many "new" inventions being put to use: typewriters, telegraphs, phonographs and even movie cameras. Those latter novelties are deployed by the press corps, the forerunners of today’s paparazzi, who have staked out Tolstoy’s splendiferous home, ready to record for posterity the great man’s every move when he steps out the door. Thanks to the real-life journalists who actually did that back in the day, the final credits of The Last Station show jerky black and white archival footage of the Tolstoy tribe tottering around their estate.

Regardless of whether or not the voters in the Academy applaud his work, Mr. Plummer offers a beguiling take on the master. (Possibly what interests the award nominators is the fact that this is one of the rare times where the Christopher Plummer we know disappears into a role. That could be because the great white beard he’s hiding behind prevents us from seeing the characteristic Plummer sneer.) The movie gives us a Tolstoy who’s something of a rascal, not too scrupulous about obeying the strict discipline he advocates for all his disciples. As he himself puts it, "I’m not a very good Tolstoyan." I’ve heard rumblings about the fact that the movie doesn’t convey the greatness of the man. But that’s just the point, it seems to me: great men so often turn out to be erratic fuddy-duddies in the bosom of their families.

The more interesting performance, for me, comes from Helen Mirren in the role of Countess Tolstoy. Although you have to keep wondering whether any Russian woman of those times, even an aristocratic one, could be so slim, she keeps you watching her lightning swift changes of mood: cuddly love bird one moment and raging termagant the next. This may sound like I’m claiming a feminist sensitivity beyond my range, but it drove me nuts that Tolstoy and his male handlers never answered the woman’s reasonable complaints about his intentions. They always blew her away without any answers, as if her concerns were dismissible feminine fussing. One of the high points of the performance comes at the moment when she asks her daughter what her husband said about how he would feel if she, his wife, tried to kill herself. The daughter says that he said he would be upset. The Countess repeats "He’d be upset!" with a flair that makes for a cinematic moment on a par with Edith Evans' rendition of Lady Bracknell repeating John Worthing’s answer to her question about his origins: "A handbag!"

As the young admirer, James McAvoy has some lovely moments, like the one where, finding himself in the presence of his idol for the first time, he chokes up. Kerry Condon also has some good moves in her campaign to seduce him. It strikes me that the introduction of this pair into the affairs of the Tolstoys is probably the most fictional aspect of the enterprise. As for the larger theme, it seems likely that some sort of conflict between Tolstoy and his wife regarding his high-flown ideals, as opposed to his family obligations, did occur. Even if it didn’t, though, it makes for a great story. We always need more reminders that the lives of our most revered heroes often look more tawdry up close than as reflected in the media. Especially in the case of writers. One of the most revered writers in the world can be a total screw up on the family scene. Sound like anybody we know?

Rating: C + (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Yes Men Fix the World (Movie) by Andy Birchlbaum and Mike Bonanno; starring Andy Birchlbaum and Mike Bonanno; with Reggie Watts.

When my friends and I wanted to stir up some trouble as kids, we didn’t have You-tube to help us out. The telephone was the reigning technology then, so mostly, we played phone pranks on people. Occasionally, we’d get up enough nerve to go knocking on doors, then run and hide when the unsuspecting home owners came to the door and peered out into the night.

That’s more or less what the Yes Men (Andy Birchlbaum and Mike Bonanno) do -- on a somewhat more grandiose scale. Unlike our pranks, though, theirs usually have a point to make.

This movie opens with their spectacular stunt, a few years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. Having set up a fake website that established them as representatives of Dow Chemical, the guys got invited onto the BBC news. To a worldwide audience, they announced that Dow was going to liquidate Union Carbide, which it had recently bought and which was responsible for the Bhopal catastrophe. The billions in profit thus reaped would be used to compensate, at long last, the accident’s thousands of victims in India. Within a couple of hours of the broadcast, word got out that the announcement was bogus. But not before Dow’s stock fell a few percentage points and a couple of billion dollars.

Mr. Birchlbaum and Mr. Bonanno justified the stunt on the grounds that they were trying to shame the corporate world into doing the right thing. The movie goes on to show how they have promulgated that message with several other pranks. One that’s too ingenious and outrageous to reveal here involves a meeting of oil industry execs in Calgary. In New Orleans, in the debacle following Hurricane Katrina, they presented themselves as federal government spokespersons announcing sweeping new changes to housing policies that would, as they saw it, benefit the poor. Another charade highlighted corporate greed behind the fight against terrorism.

Greed. Capitalism. Free Market Forces. Globalization. Milton Friedman. Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher. They all come in for satirical denunciation. Maybe it really would fix the world if, as these guys suggest, the powers who call the shots internationally would do the right thing. Trouble is, not everybody agrees about what that right thing is. Many of us live in democracies were everybody’s opinions, at least in theory, carry some weight. Not just those of clever young film-makers.

But we’re not exactly experts in economics here at Dilettante’s Diary, or in matters of social justice or governance. What we get best is the aesthetic aspect of things. You could say, then, that the two Mr. B’s interest us less as activists than as artists. In that context, it could be that the most important points they're making by showing their demonstrations of bravado and the subsequent reactions of their audiences have to do with the way people handle issues of truth and fakery.

Still regarding its artistic values, though, a couple of things about this movie bug me. The voice-over narration, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek, seems a bit pass. And, as in some other documentaries, the intrusiveness of the camera makes me uneasy. What about those people who are being duped as they go about their daily lives? Can’t they see the camera? Don’t they wonder what’s going on?

Those quibbles aside, there’s no denying the film’s entertainment appeal. The two Mr. B’s serve up very amusing fare, complete with lively visuals, power point presentations, snappy tunes and artists’ renditions of future scenarios. For the continuity sequences, the hosts make assess of themselves, frequently falling into large bodies of water while wearing dress suits. When it comes to their hoaxes, it’s great fun to watch them keeping straight faces as they brazen it out. Sometimes the stakes are so high and the tension builds to such a point that you suddenly remember what it felt like to be hiding behind the bushes when you had  jumped off somebody’s porch after ringing their doorbell. As they came storming out into the night, it was all you could do to hold your pee.

Too bad for the homeowners if they couldn’t see that it was all in good fun. Same for the Yes Men’s escapades. No matter how serious their message is, this movie never conveys a feeling of bitterness or anger, unlike, say, Michael Moore’s movies. The people in Bhopal and New Orleans who might have been seen as victims of the Yes Men’s hoaxes responded to them jubilantly (as least in so far as the movie shows us any of them). Clearly, those people felt the two guys had helped their cause by ridiculing the opposition.

So you can’t help hoping that the Yes Men will carry on with their merry mischief. But could the success of their movies backfire on them? It could get to the point where everybody will recognize them. How will they then infiltrate the ranks of the unsuspecting?

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Body or Corpo (Movie) directed by Rubens Rewald and Rosanna Foglia; starring Leonardo Medeiros, Regiane Alves, Rejeane Arruda

Not much chance of my spoiling this mystery by giving you too many clues. That’s because I haven’t got a clue.

For me, this movie from Brazil fits into a genre of Latino culture that’s not entirely congenial to my take on the arts. Artistic works from the Latin cultures often indulge in what strike me as wildly imaginative, over-elaborate narratives. All that matters, it seems, is that you keep the story going, no matter how implausible, convoluted or far-fetched. Some of the films of Signor Pedro Almodovar strike me that way.

In Body (or Corpo, in the original) we have Artur, a pathologist who spends his working hours doing autopsies. In his spare time, he entertains himself by studying fellow passengers on the subways and predicting the eventual causes of their deaths. One day at work, a female corpse turns up, hidden among bones thought to be from the victims of the dictatorship back in the 1970s. Artur figures the female corpse also dates from that time. He reckons that is has been preserved by some strange process that, for all I know, may or not be possible.

His boss, a female curmudgeon, orders Artur to forget about the mysterious cadaver. So he, of course, tries to figure out its identity. His researches in police files turn up a name attached to a photo that looks likely. He finds the name in a phone book and calls the given number. A woman answers, then visits his morgue. Is it possible that the deceased was her mother? Maybe. But her mother (I think) turns up later on. Meanwhile, the younger woman has led Artur on a merry chase to nowhere. At first she’s an actress, she says. Then she’s a sociologist (or is that her mother?).

If there's any solution to the puzzle about the female corpse, it eluded me. Maybe if you didn’t have to read subtitles, you’d have caught the nuances that would have explained it all. Given that the author of the subtitles had a shaky command of English, however, it’s entirely possible that key details fell by the wayside.

Still, the watching might have been enjoyable if the people involved engaged one’s attention. Leonardo Medeiros, as Artur, has a sympathetic presence, in a hang-dog way. In case he doesn't seem intriguing enough, a locker room scene shows us that he has what looks like a bullet hole in the middle of his chest. Not that we ever find out the cause of that physical detail. The femme fatale (Rejeane Arruda) who leads Artur around by the nose is one of those types that some directors love: a woman who is supposed to be exotic, erratic, erotic and irresistible. After a while, her tiresome shtick makes Artur’s ball-breaking boss look good.

By way of incidental pleasures, the movie is artfully photographed in a cool, noir-ish way. Now and then striking images flash by: doodles that a bored receptionist makes on a clean, white page; images reflected in an iron that somebody’s working vigorously. You’ll get your fill if corpses and viscera if that happens to be your sort of thing. You’ll also learn some details about life in Brazil: the houses, the shops, the kind of place where a middle-aged guy goes to play paintball with his buddies. Apart from such trivia, the movie has no relevance to existence on this planet as experienced by human beings.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com