Movie review: “War Horse” the tear-jerker

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Shot from War Horse

It pulls your heart strings right out of your chest.  Steven Spielberg, you stinking genius!  How do you do it, time and time again?

You start with a grown-up, flawed but wise.  Then you add a young person, precocious and special.  Mix in a creature, wild and untamed, that has a connection to the youth.  Then fold in tragic external events which complicate the bond between the youth and the enchanting animal.  Add dashes of evil, goodness, comedy, and syrup.  Bake for two hours and enjoy!  Or just cry your eyes out.

No, it’s not “E.T.,” “Gremlins” or “Jurassic Park,” but “War Horse” (2011).  Yes, I’m way overdue in watching it, but since it is set during World War I, it’s not a time-sensitive movie that requires immediate viewing.

That being said, there has been a great surge in interest in military working dogs since the inception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To me this movie felt like a natural extension of the newly rediscovered affection for animals in military service, but with horses instead of dogs.

The movie also gave Spielberg, and the rest of us, a chance to look back at the Great War.  Unlike World War II, which is the setting for many of Spielberg’s films, World War I is less morally clear, with good people on both sides of the conflict.  The English, French, and Germans are all presented sympathetically in “War Horse,” with horse-friendly humans among the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers.

The plot is not quite as predictable as I laid out in the Spielberg template above.  At the beginning, it seems that Joey, the leading horse, could become a racehorse (or maybe I had Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat on my mind).  Then it seems he’s destined to be a plow horse, then a cavalry horse, then fill other roles, but it’s rarely obvious where the war will lead Joey next.  Whether and how Joey will be reunited with Narracott, the boy who raised him, is key to the atmosphere of suspense and longing in the movie.

The landscapes of the English and French countrysides, including the Narracott cottage, are breathtaking.  The trenches and no man’s land of the battlefront are stark and horrifying.  The camera work and horse effects are real, even painful to watch at times, earning the movie its PG-13 rating.  It’s a beautiful film.

It is also maudlin and manipulative, sending stern Germans and stiff Englishmen into temporary truces for their mutual love of a beautiful, unfairly victimized horse.

Watch it, learn from it, and be prepared to discreetly wipe your eyes while you enjoy it.

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Book review: funny crooks Down on Ponce

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Money laundering noir from Atlanta in the 1990s

James knocks on Sam’s door and asks him to kill his wife.  Sam asks, “Ever thought of divorce?”  James hadn’t.  Thirty thousand dollars later, Sam relents.  He promptly double-crosses James, tells his wife, and keeps the cash.  It’s all fun and games until somebody else kills James and his wife and burns down Sam’s mobile home.

The strong opening is followed by Sam going into hiding in plain sight on Ponce de Leon Avenue in east Atlanta.  He hooks up with a crew of colorful crooks: Charley who works at a funeral parlor and drives around town in a hearse, Bob who can’t talk but writes poems, and amputee Stinky.  Later they’re joined by Bug, a wisecracking lady’s man lunatic they help bust from an asylum, who may only be pretending to be crazy, but is insane enough to love killing his posse’s enemies.

We learn that people who live on the streets, especially criminals, are better adjusted than those dangerous freaks in the suburbs.  That’s the order of affairs in Down on Ponce, the 1997 novel by Fred Willard.  Street people’s approach to theft is individualized; suburbanites’ approach is institutionalized.  This is illustrated by the savings & loan crisis that preceded the action in this book but is alluded to, and the drug trafficking and money laundering that was ongoing from the time period of the book to the present day.  The cops in North Georgia don’t care because they see it as the natural evolution of moonshining, or something.

Sam figures that James was involved with a money laundering ring run by Dong Chandler.  Sam’s plan is to trick Dong into believing that his crew is experienced in laundering money through the Dutch Antilles or Costa Rica.  That way they can steal the money and figure out who burnt down Sam’s mobile home at the same time.

Sam is a sharp protagonist.  Maybe too sharp.  His foresight and leadership over the crew are on par with Robin Hood.  His morals are more variable.  He always stays a step ahead of his opponents, and outwits them in every conversation.

Sam’s fellow travelers are eccentric and constantly craclomg jokes.  They get embroiled in random, comical situations. Willard’s writing style is entertaining and even joyful—he seems to love being in the company of the characters he creates, and it’s infectious.  It’s a humorous book, and its humor helps distract from the excessive anti-suburban, anti-conservative, and anti-institutional messages of the story.  The book is also so funny that after a while you stop taking the book seriously.  It’s marketed as “hard-boiled” or “cracker noir,” but the levity of the constant gags undercuts the hardest edges.

Three stars out of five.

Review of Zoo: The Graphic Novel

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Chimp looks at Manhattan by moonlight in Zoo: The Graphic Novel

Chimp looks at Manhattan by moonlight in Zoo: The Graphic Novel

Zoo: The Graphic Novel is better than the original book, Zoo.  The book was fast-paced, but became tedious about two-thirds of the way through.  Not so with the graphic novel, which remained engaging throughout.

It’s the exact same story:  grad school dropout Jackson Oz studies increasing cases of “human animal conflict” (HAC).  Scientists and politicians delay the research for a cure because they don’t believe Oz.  By the time they acknowledge it, it’s almost too late to pinpoint the cause and the solution.  Without spoiling anything, the solution has downsides that the people in power don’t like, so once again Oz finds himself in the minority.  He wants the solution fully implemented but everybody else is too stuck in their ways to accept wholesale change.

The pictures helped tell the story and cut down the need for text descriptions of setting, animal appearance, and animal behavior.  For example, the scene of Oz following a dog into a dog lair, which helped him uncover a key clue about HAC, was handled much more efficiently in the graphic novel in just a few panels than in the book, where that story seemed to stretch on for multiple pages.

As in the book, Chloe transitions from being a scientist with independent expertise into a stay-at-home mom.  However, the graphic novel smoothed it out a little, with Chloe retaining some strength and independence, whereas the book presented her as Oz’s fawning doormat.  However, Oz’s character development was probably stronger in the book than in the graphic novel.  Oz in the graphic novel is too distant—I couldn’t really get a good feel for him as a person.

Amazon reviewers have complained about the graphic novel being black and white.  The lack of color struck me as odd at first, but once you get into it, you forget about it.  In some ways it helped—it’s easier to make out character features and details in the animal’s faces in black and white.  Too much color can be a little distracting and intense.  Maybe they also wanted to keep it family friendly without a bunch of red blood splattered on the pages.  The drawings of Oz’s chimpanzee Atilla are very well done.

If you already read the book and you’re watching the CBS miniseries “Zoo,” or if you’re planning to read Zoo 2 (Patterson’s new novella) then reading the graphic novel is a great refresher on the original story.  If you never read the original book, just skip it and read the graphic novel.

Book review: Red Harvest still fresh and raw

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Elihu Willsson runs a mining town.  The thugs he brought into town to stop the miners from striking have since matured into their own gambling, loan sharking, and bootlegging rackets in the 1920s.  The racketeers, including corrupt public officials, appear to have gotten out of hand when Willson’s son is killed after publishing newspaper articles about the corruption.  Red Harvest is about the detective at the center of the story who undertakes to destroy the corruption by pitting the rival gangs against each other.

Dinah Brand, a whore and addict, has enough dirt on each of the different factions to keep the detective interested in her.  The best parts of Red Harvest are the scenes of the detective and Dinah sitting in her kitchen trading exquisite insults over generous servings of gin.  The crackling dialogue and careful drip of intelligence from Dinah to the detective are the bait to seduce readers into an ugly, violent, convoluted mob world.

The complicated plot is challenging to follow (especially in audiobook format).  Noonan, the police chief, favors certain crooks.  Noonan and the powerful men in town pin most crimes on Max “Whisper” Thayler, a gambler who makes it easy for them since he commits so many crimes anyway.  Distinct adventures including a fixed boxing match, a bank robbery, and a police raid illustrate the extent of corruption and the major players involved.

Like most corruption investigations, there is rarely a smoking gun.  There are a series of personalities and questionable activities that the detective has to unpeel like an onion one layer at a time.  Although he is a detective, this book is not a mystery.  We know that dark forces are at work originating from Willson himself.

Unfortunately, Hammett’s tale is all too relevant today.  For example, elements of Pakistan’s spy agency determined in the 1990s that supporting the burgeoning Taliban gave Pakistan strategic depth and better control of Afghanistan.  Their “solution” became worse than the problem.

A “red harvest”—a bloodbath of rivals—isn’t the gentlest method of cleaning up, but Hammett showed it can be exhilarating, tragic, and effective.

Movie review: “Piranha” fun even though it bites

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Woman straddling raft with toothy fish approaching

Keeping up with my shark-week themed reviews this summer, it’s time for a look back at “Piranha” (1978), if you dare…

The military-industrial complex hatches a plan to destroy the river systems of North Vietnam toward the end of the war.  The war ends, but the secret program lingers on to juice up piranhas and enable them to survive in fresh or salt water.  Sexy teens trespass into the old test site to go skinny dipping by moonlight.  After they’re eaten alive, an agent from a skip-tracing company (blonde and perky of course) is dispatched to find them.  Working together with an alcoholic single father mountain man, she pulls the plug on the pool to the horror of the man running the program, which drains and releases the piranhas into the river.

The duo dash downstream by raft, by stolen patrol car, and motorboat to warn the adults and save the children.  Of course, nobody believes them in time and a host of fisherman, swimmers, inter-tubers, and pleasure-boaters are turned into fish food.  It’s formulaic but fun.  The piranha backstory is clever as any creature feature.  The pace of the movie is pretty quick.

The good guys are actually well-developed characters.  The agent and the mountain man grow on each and the audience throughout the film.  They seem to be enjoying themselves along the way, which is kind of rare but refreshing for a movie like this.  We’re rooting for two to save his daughter.  Like “Orca” which came out a year earlier, the man is so focused on saving people that he ditches the bottle.

The supporting characters are one dimensional—a mean summer camp manager who refuses to listen to warning and jeopardizes campers in the process, a venal politician hell-bent on a big opening day for the water “arena” he helped develop, and a wicked witch of a scientist (brunette and dowdy of course) who consistently downplays the threat and treats people like dirt.

The movie seems to be low-budget because the piranha effects are crummy.  We never really see the fish, or when we do they look like flounder.  The sound effects, a high-pitched pulsing sound, are more annoying than scary.  Their impact on victims seems to vary in proportion to how good, bad, or inconsequential to the plot they are.  Some people end up nibbled and bloody, others get totally de-fleshed and a tub of ketchup explodes on the river’s surface in a matter of seconds.

No, it’s not as well-done or as good as “Jaws.”  It is corny but it is amusing.  There are some scenes like the skip-tracing agent ripping open her shirt to distract a guard that are worth a look and a chuckle.  Modern-day marketers brand it as a “cult classic” and it lives up to that designation.  Recommended.

Movie review: “Tarzan” swings into action

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Legend of Tarzan promotional graphic

King Leopold dispatches Leon Rom to the Belgian Congo to exploit the colony by enslaving its locals and stealing the diamonds of Opar.  Chief Mbonga gives Rom the diamonds on the condition that he bring Tarzan back from England to the Congo.

Rom’s unseen hand is at work as Tarzan is misled twice to induce him back to Africa.  First by British business interests who want his presence in the Congo to calm the nerves of investors, then by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Dr. George Washington Williams, an envoy from America interested in exposing the slave trade and militarization of the Congo.

At first Tarzan refuses.  He’s John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke, a wealthy and sullenly dignified nobleman.  When a little girl asks him if it’s true that his mother is a gorilla, he pooh-poohs it, even though a gorilla nursed and raised him.  He doesn’t want to go home, but Dr. Williams talks him into it.

Fearing the effect her shirtless husband could have on female audiences, wife Jane insists on travelling with him.  Upon arrival, she is abducted by Rom, a prayer bead fondling creep.  He keeps plucky Jane in check by threatening to kill her native friends.

Abandoning every shred of doubt about going home, Greystoke immediately becomes Tarzan again, and is given a warmer welcome than Ali at the Rumble in the Jungle.  Greystoke reconnects with a friendly tribe, and warriors travel with him and Williams to head off Rom and Mbonga at the pass.  On the way is where most of the vine swinging takes place.  The good guys free slaves and hash out an old family feud within Tarzan’s gorilla family along the way.

The current day’s scenes are intercut with flashbacks to Tarzan’s youth and his first encounter with Jane.  Although the multiple flashbacks would be confusing in any other movie, they make sense here because we already understand Tarzan’s backstory.

Samuel L. Jackson provides comic relief along the way without profanity or silliness.  The story is adventurous but a tad on the serious side, so Jackson’s character is a welcome counterweight.  Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Tarzan, is the straight man making few jokes and smiling only a few times, mostly when among his tribesmen friends.  (That’s is why it’s perplexing that he was so reluctant to leave England.)

The big fight scenes—one during an escape effort by Jane, a two-round grudge match between Tarzan and his super-heavyweight gorilla brother Akut, and a battle against Mbonga, are all exciting.

But to me, the most exhilarating scenes are swinging into action from the treetops.  The Tarzan concept is a precursor mashup of Ewoks and Spiderman, with the freedom to swing around and serve justice under the jungle canopy instead of navigating New York’s skyscrapers.

It’s too bad that there aren’t more scenes in the jungle.  That’s where we normally think of Tarzan living.  In “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) most of the scenes are someplace else:  England, the port, the village, the railroad, the river, Opar, etc.  On that score, “The Jungle Book” that came out earlier this year outperformed this movie.  (Plus it was fun to see little Mowgli use his wits to outsmart the bad guys, unlike Tarzan who relies more on physical traits.)  Nevertheless, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a thrilling movie to watch on the big screen.

Book review: Orca starts with a bang, ends on ice

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Before there was “Blackfish,” there was “Orca.”

And alongside Orca the book (1977) was Orca the movie.  And a dreadful movie it was.  My main memory is of a whale fetus ejected from its mother’s womb, landing on a ship deck, and squealing like a human baby.  It put the “ick” in flick.  As others have pointed out, the novel is superior.

Jack Campbell, the main character, is an alcoholic who is hopelessly uninterested in anything life has to offer, barely keeping his father’s charter boating business in Florida afloat.  His sister Annie’s boyfriend finds a newspaper article about a $125K reward from the Japanese for the capture of a great white shark.  Campbell’s crew, including surly Gus, head north in the Bumpo.

While hunting fish, Campbell finally finds that the activity excites him.  He begins to step away from the bottle.  Ending up in Canadian waters, the Bumpo fails to capture a shark.  Netting an orca, the killer whale, is more feasible.  Campbell and the Bumpo’s crew gain the blessing from the leaders of a South Harbor, a Newfoundland fishing village, to ship out on a whaling mission.

During the expedition, a pregnant orca delivers a stillborn calf.  The orca father, dubbed “Nickfin” by a local Indian chief, blames Campbell.  That sets into motion a series of attacks against vessels, Campbell’s loved ones, and South Harbor.  The Bumpo is damaged, and Campbell is stuck back in town awaiting repairs while the entire town turns on him.

There he falls in love with Rachel, a whale expert who doesn’t want Campbell to kill the orca.  He doesn’t want to tangle with Nickfin either, since he knows how dangerous the whale is.  But the town becomes so antagonistic that Campbell has little choice but to ready for battle with the orca on the high seas.

Campbell is a strong, engaging character.  The succession of events leading to the final battle is compelling.  The orca’s attack scenes are gripping.  The fickleness of the villagers—cheering on Jack at one point and trying to run him out on a rail later on—is frustrating but true to life.  Overall, I liked the book.  People who like sea monster fiction like Jaws and Meg will find this to be a quick and entertaining read.  The audiobook was fun because of the sly narration by Mark Moseley.  I’d give the novel three out of five stars.

Why not a higher rating?  There’s an odd theme in the book involving Campbell’s bonding or soul connection with Nickfin.  Campbell perceives that the orca represents freedom.  That doesn’t make sense since the whale seems as obsessed with revenge as Campbell does.  At other points, the orca represents Campbell’s own demons—perhaps his alcoholism or sense of worthlessness.  At times the connection borders on the paranormal with Campbell practically reading the whale’s thoughts.  That element didn’t work for me, and the final page or two made for a limp ending.