A Classic Thriller.

Blow Out


(5/5)


Pros: Well-done suspense, performances (especially Travolta).

Cons: Nancy Allen typical damsel in distress in spots.

(Note: This review originally appeared in slightly different form on Epinions.com)


Brian De Palma is one filmmaker who has often been popular with fans. But critics tend to be split on his work. Some rave over it, yet others complain that he’s often derivative of Hitchcock. Yet he has managed to make a few films that both critics and fans agree on. Chief among those films is 1981’s Blow Out.

The film is a sort of homage to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up in both title and subject matter. However, De Palma manages to infuse it with enough originality that it stands on its own. The film is an effective combination of paranoia thriller, political thriller and commentary on images and sound.

John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound technician for a Philadelphia film studio that specializes in making low budget sleaze-o films. We see one of those sleaze-os in the first few minutes. It’s awful and at first we think this is just another lame exploitation film. Then we see that De Palma has fooled us. The sleaze-o is one that Terry is working on and his producer is not happy with the sounds of the screaming co-eds that a masked slasher is about to fillet. Around him we see hints of other things, most notably a TV news report about an upcoming election.


Fast forward to later that evening. Jack’s out by a lake in a rural area recording some natural sounds. A passing couple comments on the weird man with the recording equipment. Then a car goes by a split second before a tire gives out and the car plunges into the lake. Jack promptly jumps in and saves one of the passengers, Sally (Nancy Allen). Immediately upon arriving at the hospital with the young woman he saved, Jack is informed that the other person in the car (and who’s now dead) is the leading candidate in the current presidential race. They urge him to keep quite about there being a woman in the car with him as they don’t want a repeat of Chappaquidick. Upon making sure Sally’s okay Jack takes her back to her house. He then goes back home and listens to the audio recording he was making up until the accident. He hears something just before the tire blow out that sounds suspiciously like a gunshot. So he starts to dig around and uncovers a trail that leads to a conspiracy.

When Travolta performances from the late 70s/early 80s are thought of, it’s easy to bring up Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. But in some ways, Blow Out tops all three of those. Terry begins the film as a man who’s cynical yet still has ideals. The events of the film chip away at those ideals and by the end of it, he’s struggling to hold on to what’s left of them. Travolta does a gradual slow burn throughout the film and that works. This performance definitely is in the upper echelon of Travolta performances.

Unfortunately one can’t say the same for Nancy Allen. She’s not awful. But there are times where she gratingly comes close to the typical damsel in distress role as Sally. However, there are good performances by John Lithgow as the chilling hitman Burke and Dennis Franz as a sleazy photographer who may know more than he’s letting on.


De Palma’s direction works well for the script that he wrote here. He doesn’t go over the top as he would in his 1983 remake of Scarface, he lets the suspense build gradually and that works well. The ending is also effectively disquieting.

While it may not have the subtlety of its influences, Blow Out is an effective thriller that’s more intelligent and way better made than most Hollywood thrillers. Definitely give it a look if you’re tired of un-thrilling ones.

Survivor in Death by J. D. Robb – decent addition to the series

Survivor in Death by J. D. Robb

 


pic1

(3.5/5)

Pros: Decent character development

Cons: Not the strongest mystery in the world

Survivor In Death is the 20th book in J.D. Robb’s In Death series.  Set in the 2050’s, this series follows Lieutenant Eve Dallas in the NY Police Department.  In each book, she’s dragged into a case – usually a homicide or two – and with the help of her co-workers, friends, and ever-present husband Roarke, solves the cases, and saves the day.

In this case, she has a horrible crime scene in front of her. Nearly an entire family wiped out in a terrible streak of violence. The only survivor – the young daughter on whom good luck just happened to shine at the right moment.

Now Eve takes temporary charge of this young girl. For not only is she a survivor – she’s the only witness, and thus a clear threat to the perps. For all of these reasons, Eve will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, and to find those responsible for the murders.

Along the way, more bodies will pile up and a convoluted story of revenge takes shape. And all the while, Eve develops a bond with this young girl as Eve’s own terrible childhood memories are called to the surface.

Survivor In Death was enjoyable in terms of the character’s growth and development even if it wasn’t the strongest mystery in the world. In fact, the mystery as to “whodunit” was pretty lame. I barely followed the convoluted logic involved in the motives given. And a whole lot of things made little sense, in terms of the chances the bad guys take, in order to meet their goals.

But Survivor gives us a whole lot of character growth, and in a series of books that currently stretches over 40 volumes, these characters need to grow and change, or the whole thing gets tiresome. Having Eve and her husband Roarke be around a kid was just the thing they needed. Truly. After all, a big part of their personalities comes from something they have in common – horrid, tragic childhoods. Getting to spend time with a kid who has been through the ringer helps Eve and Roarke put their own pasts just a little further behind them.

I also really enjoyed the banter between Eve and her co-workers. Typically these books have a bit of humor in them, but this one was exceptional in that regard. And best of all, Roarke wasn’t overly annoying in this book, as he sometimes is.

So, all in all, Survivor In Death worked, for me. Not the best mystery, but a decent addition to the In Death series.

Other books in the In Death series

Born In Death
Celebrity In Death
Ceremony In Death
Concealed In Death
Devoted In Death
Divided In Death
Festive In Death
Glory In Death
Haunted In Death
Immortal In Death
Indulgence In Death
Innocent In Death
Interlude In Death
Judgment In Death
Midnight In Death
Missing In Death
Naked In Death
Obsession In Death
Origin In Death
Rapture In Death
Reunion In Death
Salvation In Death
Strangers In Death
Treachery In Death
Vengeance In Death
Visions In Death

House Of Many Rooms by Marius Gabriel – not very thrilling

House Of Many Rooms by Marius Gabriel

 

pic1

(1.5/5)

Pros: starts out OK

Cons: devolves into a dull drama

I’m not sure what genre Marius Gabriel’s House Of Many Rooms should be in. On the front cover, it refers to itself as a “thriller” but it wasn’t very thrilling. It was a bit of mystery, but even that was pretty lame. Basically, it was a drama.

Imagine how you’d feel if you were living a decent life, minding your own business, when a newspaper article catches your eye. A woman is dead after a family home catches fire. And the suspect is the woman’s thirteen-year-old adopted daughter. Now imagine you’re the biological mother of that little girl – you’ve hardly thought of her at all over the past thirteen years. You gave her up for reasons that, at the time, seemed sound. But now you wonder – what has this girl’s life been like? What would drive her to do such an unthinkable act? Or, is she innocent, with something far more sinister going on in her adoptive family?

This is what’s happening to Rebecca. She’s recovering from a terrible accident when this information falls into her lap. And now she’s on a quest – to find her little girl and get her out of whatever trouble she’s in. But the road is a long one, fraught with dangers from several angles. Not the least of which is the adoptive father who has no intention of giving up “his” daughter.

The characters were well-fleshed out. We feel we get to “know” them. Not necessarily like them, but at least we understand their motivations a little bit. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book immensely. The part where Rebecca formulates her plan and puts it into motion. The final third, however, was a bit lacking. By that point, I pretty much knew how it would end; there was very little in terms of surprise or twist. And I hated when the bio-dad got involved. The story got a bit ridiculous, at that point. I just didn’t feel the characters acted in ways that rang true.

Basically, House Of Many Rooms is a drama. It would make an interesting Lifetime movie. But as a novel, it falls apart two-thirds of the way through. Forgettable and trite, this one gets two thumbs down from me.

Vivid horrrors of African child soldier life

Beasts of No Nation (2015)beasts-of-no-nation-Abraham-Attah

beasts-of-no-nation

[Rating: 3.4/5]

Pros: location photography, child actors

Cons: piling on

“Beasts of No Country,” the high-profile Netflix theatrical and streaming release of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala filmed in Ghana is not for the squeamish. Probably its target audience is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of child soldiers in African civil wars (including Ghana’s neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as the Sudan and the Congo and the Central African Republic). I can’t imagine a viewer not sympathizing with the boy Agu (Ghanian Abraham Attah) , who, after seeing his father and older brother shot (by government forces) and escaping into the forest is brainwashed by the Commandant. Though a quite scary and manipulative dude, the rebel (NDF) commandant (never given a personal name) as played by Idris Elba (Luther) does not seem to me to be psychotic enough (in comparison with Mizinga Mwinga’s rebel commander, “The Great Tiger,” in “War Witch” (2012). Both are megalomaniacs. Both persuade their child soldiers that they are magically protected from harm from bullets and both are masters of rhetoric, extending into frothy cheerleader mumbo-jumbo. Both are paternalistic opportunists with no clear ideological rationale for the mayhem their irregular troops commit (so is Michel “Daddy” Obese (Abby Malibu Knag) in “The Silent Army” (2009)).

beasts-of-no-nation_6189717

And though Agu’s initiation to killing is horrific and very graphically displayed, it not quite as traumatic as that of Komono in “War Witch” or of Abu in “The Silent Army.” (Both of them had to kill parents or be killed themselves.)

Agu is befriended by an agemate, Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom), who also is fiercely loyal to the Commandant, who used both boys sexually. That (plus drugs) seems to be what has made Strika mute, and Agu is far from garrulous even when in safety and telling a counselor that if he recounted what he had seen and done, the counselor would think Agu a beast or a devil.

As the title indicated, neither book nor movie specifes the country/civil war into which Agu is embroiled (and smoked, which I thought was a Melanesian rather than an African initiation constituent). Good as “Beasts” looks and sounds, and as good as the acting on display in it is, the most one can feel for Agu and Strika is pity, rather than caring about what happens to the somewhat older leads, Komono and Magician, in “War Witch.” (Both movies have voiceover narration, Komono’s directed at the baby she is carrying inside her.)

I think that the delusional Commandant at the end was influenced by Kurtz from “Heart of Darkness,” or perhaps by Marlon Brando’s upcountry Cambodian incarnation of him as a renegade US Army colonel in “Apocalypse Now.” The conception of the dangerous boys was perhaps influenced by “Children of Men,” though those Rio favela boys operated more independently than the Commandant’s cadres did.

Though probably best known for the first season of “True Detective” (2014), biracial (Japanese and Northern European ancestry) Fukunaga who was born in Oakland in 1977, seems to have an affinity for showing children in extreme situations: those fleeing gang violence from El Salvador across Mexico (mostly on the top of freight trains) in “Sin Nombre” (2009), the abused child Jane Eyre (2011), and now Agu. Though himself suffering from malaria, Fukunaga had to undertake operating the camera when the cameraman was disabled at the start of production. Dan Romer provided atmospheric, sometimes electronic music.

I often question MPAA ratings of sexual suggestion (let alone content), but think “Beasts” should have an NC-17 rating for ultra-graphic violence.

Trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xb9Ty-1frw

 

(I discussed the earlier African child soldier movies in my Kindle book , the book War Child and documentary movie “Lost Boys of the Sudan” on epinions.

Natrol Papaya Enzyme for Easier Digestion

Natrol Papaya Enzyme

Papaya Enzymes

(5/5)

Pros: good flavor, works well, fair price, no artificial ingredients

Cons: not readily available in stores, I must order online

I have a hard time with my digestive system being kind to me, so I’m always on the look-out for natural products to help me   I’ve been using Natrol brand Papaya Enzyme for  years now, and love them.

What first drew me to the Natrol brand was the ingredients.  When I take supplements, I prefer them to be devoid of artificial ingredients.  This fit the bill.  Sweetened with natural sugars and colored/flavored with  real, found-in-nature stuff, there’s nothing to dislike here.

These are round, chewable tablets.  They are sweet but not sickening sweet.  They have a nice, tropical fruity flavor.  The texture is smooth, not gritty or chalky at all.  They disappear quickly when you chew them up and leave no residue or film in your mouth.

I take them after dinner every night, and sometimes after lunch.  They aren’t medicine, they’re a dietary aid which helps the body naturally digest foods, especially protein.  I used to experience indigestion after eating a meal with red meat, no matter how slowly I ate.  That happens no more when I take my Papaya Enzymes.  I rarely have indigestion at all now, even on Burrito Fridays!

I am lactose intolerant (and severely so), and avoid dairy.  I will say that these Papaya Enzymes provide no help when I slip up and consume dairy.

A serving size is 2 chewable wafers.  I eat one when my meal is lighter, and two when it’s heavier or contains a lot of meat or spice.  If you forget to eat one right after your meal, don’t worry, it’ll still help you out even an hour later.  Trust me, I’ve done that a number of times!  On occasion, I’ll forget them or will eat out at a restaurant and not have any with me.  I’ll feel kind of heavy in my belly, slightly unsettled and then I realize I need my enzymes.  I take them at some point later and they will still help.  Longer than about two hours and it’s not going to help as much, though, as digestion is well under way.

If you’re wondering what exactly these enzymes are, they are papain, papaya, bromelain, and alpha amylase.  To me, this is a great combination to help with digestion of any kind of food.  I have tried several other brands over the years and none have given me the results the Natrol brand has.

Sadly for the gluten intolerant, these do contain wheat (found in the alpha amylase, according to the label).  However, they are free of dairy and egg.  In the future they may be gluten free, formulas can change, so it’s something worth keeping an eye on.

Right now I haven’t found these in any stores in my town.  I order online (from Vitacost.com) and they’re around $5.00 for the bottle containing 100 tablets.  Very fair price for this quality product.

If you suffer from even occasional indigestion, or “unwell” feeling after eating, try these, they’re awesome.  They really do make a difference in how I feel after eating a meal.

  • made in the USA

 

Tragicomic movie about a parody heist by disillusioned Jewish Romanian communists

Closer to the Moon

closer_to_the_moon-700x1000

(3.5/5)

Pros: cast, music, gallows humor

Cons: the reality was not funny, making for uncertainty of mood in making and reacting to the movie

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Romanian Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015, now streaming on Netflix) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.

Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

CloserToTheMoon4                                                  Lloyd and Strong

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

closer-to-the-moon-image02A gang that didn’t have to shoot straight (and re-enacment cameraman Virgil)

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of them gets closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches).

An effective soundtrak was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-nothc, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.

 

Death Rounds by Peter Clement – an “ok” medical thriller

Death Rounds by Peter Clement

pic1

 

(2/5)

Pros: decent premise

Cons: long dull passages, lack of action

Death Rounds by Peter Clement is a disappointing medical thriller.

Two hospitals are on the verge of merging. Needless to say, this makes some people very happy and others quite miserable. The atmosphere is full of tension at both places.

Meanwhile, a woman comes into the ER with flu-like symptoms. She’s quickly released. Perhaps too quickly. Because the next day she’s back – much, much sicker. In fact, she goes downhill very quickly, dead within hours. But the real problem is that she didn’t have the flu. She had something worse – much worse – and others are following suit.

It’s up to ER Doc Earl Garnet to put the pieces of the puzzle together – what’s making the patients so sick? Imagine his horror when he finds a frightening commonality among the patients. Is this illness the work of nature, or of a man – a man hell-bent on revenge?

The story held my interest and I certainly wanted to know how it would all turn out. But it gets dragged down by a lot of medical jargon. Overly long explanations and redundant descriptions. Long passages explaining Dr. Garnet’s thoughts, and precious little action. Worse, most of the characters were extremely unlikeable. With the exception of our hero and his wife, everyone else was cartoonishly evil. Doctors who refused to believe what’s staring them right in their faces. Inept police officers. And even though Dr. Garnet was a decent man, he did some very stupid things. Things that put his own life in danger over and over. It was simply difficult to deal with the characters in this book.

And then there was the ending. When all is finally revealed, I felt let down. The motives were far-fetched. I was waiting for some thrilling surprise, something that would make me happy to have slogged through 300+ pages, but it really wasn’t there. Death Rounds was “ok” but that’s about it – I certainly won’t remember it a week from now.

 

The Trial of the Memphis Three

The Devil’s Knot

devils-knot-dvd-cover-66

[Rating: 3/5]

Pros: cast, Georgia locations

Cons: script

Atom Egoyan (1960-) has made only one great movie, “The Sweet Herafter” (1997). The 2014 “The Devil’s Knot” seems in theory somewhat similar to that classic in approaching community-wide grief, after three West Memphis, Arkansas are slain, found nude and tied up with their shoe laces. Egoyan and screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson were, I think, too inhibited by fidelity to the story of the case that involved massive and repeated police incompetence (or worse), prosecutorial misconduct, and blatant prejudgement by the judge, David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood), that dorky teenagers flirting with Goth fashions were Satanic ritual murderers. The most astounding thing portrayed is the judge’s acceptance as an “expert witness” of someone with a mail-order Ph.D., who took no courses.

Egoyan had lots of acting talent to work with, including Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. She plays the mother of one of the three slain boys and comes to suspect her husband Terry (Stevie’s step-father, played by Alessandro Nivola) of involvement. Terry orders her not to talk to the pro bono detective, Ron Lax (Firth with some sort of accent), who opposes the death penalty in general, especially for teenagers, and more especially for teenagers who pronably  did not do what they were accused (and convicted) of.

Perhaps to entice the participation of Firth, the screenplay supplied Ron Lax with two romantic interests, a local waitress (Glori Shettles) and the wife (Amy Ryan) who has just divorced him. This leaves no time to explore the parents of the accused, and not much for the mother (Mireille Enos) of a boy who almost certainly was not telling the truth. Witherspoon plays grief and confusion and unwillingess to buy the sensationalist “explanation” of Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and led his followers, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (Seth Meriwether and Kristopher Higgins) as ritual killers in a local Satanic cult. The second and third most astounding aspects of the legal case are that no serious efforts were made to find a blood-covered (and black!) man who was wet up to the knees, and lost the blood samples from a restaurant bathroom’s walls. Less surprising, alas, is that the jury was prevented from hearing exculpatory evidence by the hanging judge.

DevilsKnot3

Damien was not executed and all three were released from prison in 2011, though still classed as “convicted felons” in Arkansas. The case of the 1993 murders was reopened but no charges have been levied. And the movie script does not include a version of what its writers think really happened in 1993, that is, identification of who the murderer or murderers were. The dubious official conduct and lack of credible evidence have been explored in a trio of HBO documentaries (Paradise Lost) and the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis.” Egoyan and company add nothing in the way of imagining the trial, let alone the murder, and do little to show the community grappling for meaning in the losses of young lives (the focus of “The Sweet Atom Egoyan (1960-) has made only one great movie, “The Sweet Herafter” (1997). The 2014 “The Devil’s Knot” seems in theory somewhat similar to that classic in approaching community-wide grief, after three West Memphis, Arkansas are slain, found nude and tied up with their shoe laces. Egoyan and screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson were, I think, too inhibited by fidelity to the story of the case that involved massive and repeated police incompetence (or worse), prosecutorial misconduct, and blatant prejudgement by the judge, David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood), that dorky teenagers flirting with Goth fashions were Satanic ritual murderers. The most astounding thing portrayed is the judge’s acceptance as an “expert witness” of someone with a mail-order Ph.D., who took no courses.

Egoyan had lots of acting talent to work with, including Oscar winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. She plays the mother of one of the three slain boys and comes to suspect her husband Terry (Stevie’s step-father, played by Alessandro Nivola) of involvement. Terry orders her not to talk to the pro bono detective, Ron Lax (Firth with some sort of accent), who opposes the death penalty in general, especially for teenagers, and more especially for teenagers who probably did not do what they were accused (and convicted) of.

Perhaps to entice Firth, Ron Lax is supplied with two romantic interests, a local waitress and the wife (Amy Ryan) who has just divorced him. This leaves no time to explore the parents of the accused, and not much for the mother (Mireille Enos) of a boy who almost certainly was not telling the truth. Witherspoon plays grief and confusion and unwillingess to buy the sensationalist “explanation” of Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and led his followers, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (Seth Meriwether and Kristopher Higgins) as ritual killers in a local Satanic cult. The second and third most astounding aspects of the legal case are that no serious efforts were made to find a blood-covered (and black!) man who was wet up to the knees, and lost the blood samples from a restaurant bathroom’s walls. Less surprising, alas, is that the jury was prevented from hearing exculpatory evidence by the hanging judge.

memphis3

Damien was not executed and all three were released from prison in 2011, though still classed as “convicted felons” in Arkansas. The case of the 1993 murders was reopened but no charges have been levied. The movie script does not include a version of what its writers think really happened in 1993, that is, identification of who the murderer or murderers were. The dubious official conduct (including illicit communications introducing evidence not presented in court funnelled through the foreman and illicit out-of-court communication between the judge and a jury member) and lack of credible evidence have been explored in a trio of HBO documentaries (Paradise Lost) and the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis.” Egoyan and company add nothing in the way of imagining the trial, let alone the murder, and do little to show the community grappling for meaning in the losses of young lives (the focus of “The Sweet Hereafter”).

Courthouse_of_Cartersville,_GeorgiaCarterville, Georgia  old Bartow County Courthouse where the movie trial was filmed, photo by NCalvin, Creative Commons release

 

 

 

Bad Trouble in the Berkeley Hills

The Savage Professor: A Novel by Robert Roper

 

[Rating: 3/5]

Pros: East Bay local color

Cons: buckets of blood and other carnage

What overcame my aversion to contributing to the fascination with serial killers enough to read The Savage Professor by Robert Roper (Nabokov in America, Mexico Days) was the local color. Epidemiologist Anthony Landau, the titular professor, lives in Berkeley. I think he earned his Ph.D. there, but has been a professor on “soft money” (grants) at UCSF, de facto the medical school of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and did early AIDS epidemiology.

Like many UCB professors, Anthony Landau lives in the hills and has a Latina house-cleaner. The latter (Elfridia Mattos) turns out to be the first victim of a serial killer, though the first dead body, which Landau finds in his bed is Samantha Bernstein Beevors, a former protégé and bedmate who turned on Landau and nearly scuttled his career with accusations of sexual abuse… but continued to bed not only Landau, but his son, Jad, now a general practitioner.

Anthony Landau is the prime suspect for a string of eviscerating homicides of women. The Savage Professor is unlike Kafka’s The Trial in that Landau is quite aware of the crimes for which he is suspected by Alameda County (Oakland as well as Berkeley) law enforcement personnel and has already been convicted by local news media.

The expensive lawyers he has retained are not convinced of his innocence, but work hard to present Landau in palatable forms (as well as representing him in court, securing him bail, albeit in the amount of two million dollars). Landau is mildly terrified of being convicted for brutal murders, but is still bemused by police and his attorneys.

There is way too much blood for me (and, OK, for Landau, whose international research has exposed him to seeing corpses, though not ripped apart ones of people he knows), and I don’t particularly like the protagonist (Professor Landau), despite resemblances to Oliver Sacks and Andrew Moss* (such as having a long career in the US, but remaining a British citizen, like both of them, being big (within the range of “hulking”) and being a swimmer like Sacks), but besides the local color of interest to me as someone who was a post-doc at UCB and lived in Berkeley a year before that, there is the stinging portrayal of the high costs of being a suspect in the system of American “justice” that includes rapid conviction by news media.

The characters other than Anthony Landau are not very well developed, and the answer to the “Whodunit?” question is not an answer I like. There is certainly some similarity between the puzzle of murders and the puzzles of epidemiology (not least focus on fatalities).

BTW, the book reaches as far north as Martinez, as far south as Fruitvale (within Oakland), but not across the bay to the west, nor the Sacramento River to the north. Also, though there are many undergraduate students in Berkeley, there are none in the book. Landau descends from the hills to shop, but lives in the least urban part of Berkeley.

One minor irritant is the repetition of the insulting (in the view of Taiwanese speakers) label “Min-hua” for a language, with “Hokkien” popping up seemingly as a different language (“Taiwanese” and “Holo” are other labels for the same language.)

 

*I first read of the book in Andrew Moss’s article in the UCB alumni magazine about finding himself the model for Landau, at

And the character Wally Winckelmann seems a version of Berkeley epidemiologist Warren WInkelstein.

 

Retrospects of Portuguese colonial white mischief

Tabu (2012)tabuposter

 

(2/5)

Pros: sonorous voice of Henrique Espírito Santo

Cons: Lisbon middle, ludicrous prologue, purple prose narrations

Though there is an adulterous liaison far from Europe in Miquel Gomes’s 2012 movie, and though it is often a silent movie, and at others a silent movie with voice-over explication, I consider titling it “Tabu” is very presumptuous. Murnau’s great final film (1931) was about “the natives,” not about colonialists getting into trouble far from home (a Portugeuse colony, either Anglo or (more probably) Mozambique) in Africa, rather than the Polynesia of Murnau’s film.

In the puzzling 7-minute  prologue with a very obtrusive narration (by Gomes) over old and silent home movies, a Great White Hunter (bearded and wearing a pith helmet) despairing over his dead wife  feeds himself to a crocodile, while the native servants dance. (There is live sound for the dance and chant.)

This is followed by a lengthy and tedious portrait of Aurora (Laura Soveral), an old woman in Lisbon and Santa (Isabel Cardoso) ,her black servant and a younger (though not young) white friend, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who doesn’t know how to help the old lady, until, hospitalized, the old lady sends her to fetch a man, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo),who turns out to have been her lover in Africa, while she was pregnant by her husband. (His younger incarnation is played by Carloto Cotta and Aurora by Ana Moreira. He bears some resemblance to John Gilbert, though she doesn’t invoke memories of Greta Garbo, except in the first still reproduced here. She looks more Jeanne Moreau in the other two, further below.

tabu-de-miguel-gomestabumor

The lengthy colonial African flashbacks do not show the grand passion of which the man speaks. He continues the tale after the sparsely attended funeral. Gian Luca does relate that the hunter in the prolog was Aurora’s father… which makes her having had a pet crocodile additionally macabre.

tabu

I think the Portuguese movie lacks not only the passion of Murnau’s film, but a compelling sorcerer, like the nemesis of the Polynesian lovers in Murnau’s film. And I don’t understand the critical acclaim and the collection of awards from the Berlin and other film festivals for Gomes’s movie, which I find awkward and unconvincing as a tale of grand passion or seething anti-colonial rebellion in Africa (though concern about that provides the space/time for the adulterous coupling). The prologue is risible, a murder blamed on the rebels is unsettling, and the contemporary Lisbon part is very tedious. (Yeah, I get that it is supposed to look sterile and Aurora is increasingly demented.)

It’s also frustrating that “Be My Baby” (with the lead singing in Portuguese, the backup singers in English—all are male and the lyrics are not subtitled back into English) is cut off before its ending twice! The covers for the song and the rebel activity place the Great Romance some time between 1963 and 1975 (Portugal gave up its African colonies substantially later than France and Great Britain.)