Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sink-a-Palooza: Maritime Disaster Films Part 1

1. Beyond the Poseidon Adventure: This is actually a 1979 sequel to the original Hackman version of The Poseidon Adventure. The story centers on a team of salvage divers (headed by the always excellent Sir Michael Caine and supported Sally Field) who head out to overturned Poseidon the day after the events of the first film. They meet up with a crew of rescue personnel (led by Telly Savalas...who unsurprisingly turns out NOT to be who he says he is. Which--duh! It's Telly Savalas!) and head into the wreck in search of left-behind riches, only to find themselves trapped inside with a bunch of survivors. From there on out, it's pretty much exactly the same as the original film--"Oh noes! We're trapped! We must climb up! Come on everyone, climb! But it's flooded! And on fire! Climb damn you, climb!" The main characters do well (come on, it's Michael Caine, how bad can it be?) and there are some fun performances from the survivors, particularly Slim Pickens as a boisterous Texas oilman and Peter Boyle as the loudmouth. There also appearance from other familiar faces, included Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge), Shirley Knight (the woman has 158 IMDB credits, I'm sure you'll recognize her from something), and a very young Mark Harmon (Gibbs from NCIS). Although not a stellar film, it's decent rainy-day entertainment.



2. A Night to Remember: This is the original 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord's book of the same name. This the last Titanic film to be made in black and white, and is still regarded as one of the best. (It was referenced heavily by James Cameron in his Titanic.) It's a pretty good film, though in my opinion not quite long enough--there were many characters, and sometimes the film felt like it was bouncing around between them almost randomly. Also, although they touched on some of the less-than-wholesome sides of the tragedy, there was a lot of whitewashing going on, especially with regard to the treatment of the steerage passengers. Not a bad film, and certainly one that's relatively historically important in the disaster film oeuvre. Trivia: look out for a very young David McCullum (Ducky on NCIS) as well as an allegedly uncredited 20-something Sean Connery as a nameless sailor. In addition, this was made before it was known that the Titanic broke in half before sinking, so it's interesting to see the sinking of the entire ship using the special effects of the times.



3. The Poseidon Adventure (Hallmark Channel mini-series): No, okay, just no. I gave it a chance because I like Adam Baldwin, but just no. I will give you three very clear reasons:
A. Terrorists. Yes, not a tidal wave, terrorists.
B. Special effects I am pretty sure I could have done myself with MS Paint.
C. They LEFT THE CREDITS IN BETWEEN SECTIONS! All the credits, beginning and ending! Even though both halves of the mini-series were playing concurrently on the same side of the disk!
*Bonus*: Stars Steve Guttenberg. Also Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. Is basically where B-movie stars have apparently gone to die. Poor Adam Baldwin.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cannonball Read #13: Desperate Hours: The Epic Story of the Rescue of the Andrea Doria by Richard Goldstein

Don't worry folks, I am nearly through with my series on maritime disasters--I am slightly behind on my blogging, but there should only be two more blogs on this particular subject after this--and then we'll be on to fires! (I know, totally something to look forward to, right?)

On a fog-laden night in 1956, the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish ship Stockholm. While the Stockholm sustained only damage to her prow (and the death of five crewmen), the Andrea Doria was essentially t-boned, taking a mortal hit to her side. Over the next ten hours, the ship would develop and ever more pronounced list, and eventually capsize in a spectacular manner. All but a few dozen of her thousands of passengers would be rescued, and this is the story of the collision, the rescue, and the aftermath.

After reading enough of these books, I am beginning to figure out what makes a good account and what indicates a bad one. Unfortunately, Desperate Hours: The Epic Story of the Rescue of the Andrea Doria by Richard Goldstein is not one of the better books I've read in this literary series. It's unfortunate, because since it took place in 1956--comparatively recently, as far as the books I've read go--there should be a lot more available information. However, Goldstein doesn't seem to have done any real digging of his own, and the information he does have seems to be poorly arranged. The narrative never truly congeals, and never seems to become more than a recounting of facts. Too many names and dates, not enough character or detail. The only thing to recommend this particular book is the abundance of photos, maps, and drawings that allow the reader to get a better sense of what he or she is reading about.

On the whole, I found this a disappointment.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"What d'you think we are? Gangsters?": RocknRolla

I like Guy Richie's movies. I loved Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Therefore, it's not surprising that I enjoyed RocknRolla. Aside from the admittedly rather stupid title, it's not a bad little film...as long as you liked Richie's first two movies. Because to be honest, it's more or less the same thing. Not quite as good, but definitely a monstrous improvement over Swept Away.

The plot is familiar to any Richie aficionados--there are schmucks. There are unpleasant members of the London underworld. There are twists and turns and coincidences and chance meetings and some cars that smash together and some ass-kicking and a little bit of sex and some very funny lines and quite a few casualties. On the downside, there is no Jason Statham (I was surprised--I assumed there was some contractual agreement that he had to star in all of Richie's films) but Gerard Butler is a big yummy hunk of man-candy, which was enough to make me happy. The acting is pretty good, and all the performers manage to deliver Richie's sometimes unwieldy dialogue with the proper amount of snap. The plot moves along pretty well, and there is always something going on. There are also some moments of surprisingly interesting cinematography--particularly during the chase-scene with the winded Russian.

I guess I'd have to say this this sort of like a Kevin Smith movie, in that if you like Kevin Smith, you will like his movies, and if you don't, nothing he does is probably going to change your mind. Guy Richie is the same way--his movies are what they are, and if that's something you dig, then you'll probably want to pick this one up.

(I am also hoping that the notable rise in quality from this over his previous few films bodes well for his much-anticipated [at least by me] adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring RDJ.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cannonball Read #12: Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

Yes, it IS another maritime disaster book. Do you think they'll ever have a maritime disasters-themed Jeopardy that I could go kick ass on?

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew was another meticulously well-researched book from author Brian Hicks. You may have heard the story of the Mary Celeste--the ship was found floating intact in the middle of the ocean, her crew having disappeared leaving behind no explanations or clues to their whereabouts.

The story takes us from the ship's creation, though "the mystery" in 1872, and then covers the aftermath, including various inquiries into the circumstances of the crew's disappearance as well as the stories, legends, and hoaxes that were born from the tale. The author uses letters, court documents, newspaper stories, and many other primary sources to develop the story and its historical context. We are introduced to all the important characters and all the pertinent facts, and then we must try to figure out the answer to the mystery. At the end, Hicks unveils his own very convincing theory of what might have occurred on the doomed ship (Spoiler: it does not involve ghosts, aliens, pirates, krackens, or the Bermuda Triangle.)

This is a great read--Hicks moves deftly through the history, presenting convincing facts and debunking common myths while still remaining entertaining and enthralling. It's a fascinating tale of mystery on the high seas.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cannonball Read #11: Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury (and added movie review)

So I read Gangs of New York a few weeks ago, but as I may have mentioned it was not very exciting and made me rather sleepy. Not that it was a BAD book exactly--it definitely had a lot of information in it that I didn't know--but though it may be informative it's not an easy read.

The first problem I had was the fact that the book was written in 1927, and the author takes for granted the reader's knowledge of events at the time. Although I know a certain amount about American history (probably more than the average person, I think) I had no idea about some of the people, places, and happenings the author referenced. I needed wikipedia at the ready to help me along in some spots. Also, the book's rather poorly structured. It's extremely tangential, and often meanders off-track completely. There is no narrative, and although it's marginally arranged chronologically, it's still tough to keep up. There are often spots that start off with "Googly-Eyes McGee*...who hung out with Limpy-Leg Jones...who was affiliated with this gang...who lived here but then moved here later...and which also included Kid Monkeyface...who was killed by Ulster Pete, wielding a steak knife, in 1903." And then it goes back to Googly-Eyes McGee, but you've already forgotten all about him. I just found it a little tiring.

However, here are 5 things I liked about the book:

1. The names of these people are crazy. They are almost worth reading the book just to see the kind of things people called themselves.

2. There were certain facts about America's history that I wasn't aware of. For example, the New York Conscription Riots are not something that most people seem to know about. I mean, did you know that the Union Navy FIRED ON the slums of New York City? Yeah, that's not exactly something they bring up in 8th grade Civil War History, is it?

3. Some of the facts I learned were sort of unintentionally funny. Did you know that the firemen during the late 19th century in New York City were all volunteer companies, and each company was its own little gang? Since there was a bonus awarded to the first company to arrive at the scene of a fire, often the first two companies to arrive--instead of throwing themselves into fighting the fire--would start fighting each other for the right to claim first on the scene. Meanwhile, the crowd would loot the burning building while the neighboring buildings caught fire.

4. It's a glimpse into parts of history that mostly go unmentioned in modern times.

5. I learned that a brickbat is not in fact a type of bat. It's just a chunk of brick that still has the corners on it.

Having read the book, I figured it was about time I saw that movie (Gangs of New York) that is "loosely based" on it.

Well, let me tell you, when they say "loosely based" that is about the most generous use of the word "loosely" I have ever seen. Since, as I mentioned, there is no narrative to the book, basically the only thing based on the book is the context. The parts of the film discussing what was going on with the Draft Riots, the fire companies, the police, Tammany Hall, etc. were pretty accurate. However all the personal stuff was obviously fiction--while there was a man who went by the name Bill the Butcher, and his last words were supposedly "At least I die a true American" that's about the only things he had in common with the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

As far as the acting went, I was pretty impressed. Daniel Day-Lewis deserved any and all accolades he received for that part--although it was in some ways quite over-the-top, that's kind of the way the character needed to be played. Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly were good in their smaller parts, and for the most part, the ensemble of the cast did very well. However, I can't say I was altogether thrilled with the casting of the leads. First of all, I am not a fan of Cameron Diaz, and I find her particularly out of place in an historical epic. (Really, I don't think she belongs in any movie that doesn't involve her discussing shoes, belching, or shaking her ass...those are the things she excels at. Emoting...not so much.) And the hair! Really? Someone thought that red mess looked natural?

As for Leonardo DiCaprio, I guess I find him distracting. I mean, I know he's a good actor, but I find it really hard to forget that it's him. I never completely accept the characters he plays (with the notable exception of Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? in which I thought he was outstanding)--it's kind of the way I feel with Tom Cruise. I don't see "Amsterdam Vallon"...I see Leonardo DiCaprio with a hat. It's not really his fault--as I said, I think he's very talented. It's probably more that he was SO FAMOUS when I was younger and that he really hasn't aged much at all--aside from getting a little of the Tom Hanks fathead, he really looks pretty much exactly the same as he did in Romeo & Juliet. I simply couldn't get behind him. Also, after he's "horribly maimed," everyone goes on like he'll be forever hideous! Horrible! Children will weep when they see him! You'd think he had his nose and eyeballs removed...and then he turns up a scene later with what appears to be a little scrape on his cheek. That's seriously the best the make-up artists could do for a permanent disfigurement? Ridiculous.

On the whole, I enjoyed both the movie and the book, though I would recommend them both with cautions. I think one should certainly read the book first, in order to to understand some of the history involved. However it's not something you can power through in one night--it's kind of heavy, slow-going reading. Then watch the movie for the cinematography, the costuming, the amazing sets, and Day-Lewis's performance.

*Names are not accurate, but they're close enough for you to get the idea.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cannonball Read #10: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

Here we are with another maritime disaster, although this one takes place long before most of the others on the list. In 1819, the whaleship Essex, sailing from its home port of Nantucket, was attacked and capsized in the middle of the Pacific ocean by an 80-foot-long sperm whale. The members of the crew set out in three small whaling ships (roughly 25 ft oar boats) for the coast of South America, a trip of close to 3000 miles. Before the end, six men would die of hunger and thirst, three would be lost at sea, one would be executed, and the rest would resort to cannibalism. The men sailed for nearly 93 days straight, suffering from starvation, dehydration, exposure, and an almost crushing sense of despair. This story comes from the accounts of the survivors.

The author, Philbrick, has done an excellent job with research. (There are nearly 50 pages of notes at the end of the book as well as an extensive bibliography.) There is quite a bit of information about the whaling trade itself, as well as about the island of Nantucket's place in that trade. As an island with a mere 3000 residents (many of whom were gone for years at a time on whaleships, home only to drop off their precious whale-oil cargo, resupply, and take off again), the environment was very influential on those who had grown up there, and definitely effected the dynamics of the stranded sailors. There was also quite a bit of information about the daily lives of whalers and how they lived. However, the most interesting parts were the accounts of the survivors.

This is a story about overcoming all odds, and the consequences and guilt that remains after doing anything and everything to survive. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good sea-story or well-researched non-fiction. (I will say that it can be disturbing at some parts and is not recommended for children or the faint-of-heart.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cannonball Read #9: When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks

Well, here we are with number three in "The Caustic Critic's Maritime Disaster Series". (I will warn you...I have become totally obsessed. I have actually been checking Wikipedia for other disasters to see if in fact there are any non-fiction books about them. In case you're wondering, in the near future you can expect the whale ship Essex, the Andrea Doria, the Mary Celeste, the Lusitania, and the steamboat General Slocum. I have also added several related movies to my Netflix queue--Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, A Night to Remember, Poseidon [the made-for-TV-movie with "The Gutt"], and Deep Water as well as a couple documentaries on the Titanic.)

The Morro Castle was a luxury liner which sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba during the early thirties. Although its primary function was to transport mail between the two cities, the ship also had a decent passenger business--despite the ever-worsening depression--taking tourists to "Gay Havana" which at the time was still a wild party town. On the Labor Day cruise in 1934, the ship mysteriously caught fire and sunk, killing more than half the passengers and crew aboard. This book tells that story, but also tells the story of George Rogers, a radio operator who was convicted of murdering two elderly neighbors as well as attempting to kill a friend with a bomb. The connection between those two stories is that George Rogers was the radio operator on the Morro Castle, and many believe he was responsible for setting the fire, and possibly also for murdering the ship's captain before the fire began.

The author of the book, Brian Hicks, has obviously done painstaking research, and although the book tends to be a novelization, it is comfortable with inserting facts (as well as their sources) into the story. The main voice we hear from during the parts of the story which take place on the Morro Castle is Tom, a young man who was working on the ship that summer. Hicks had a chance to interview Tom (who was roughly 84 at the time Hicks met him) and get a lot of details not just about the fire itself, but also about the way the ship ran and about the tensions and problems among the crew leading up to the disaster.

Hicks follows an extensive description of the disaster itself with coverage of the various trials held to attempt to get to the truth about the matter with regards to fault and blame. The aggregious errors made by the replacement captain and the crew are brought to light by the combined efforts of the U.S. District Attorney's office, the department which would soon become the FBI, and the board that dealt with issues of the sea. After that, Hicks continues on to follow George Rogers, and the case quietly being built against him as far as the Morro Castle was concerned.

This book is well-written and includes a lot of interesting, gripping details. It has a certain feeling of being a detective story without getting totally side-tracked, never forgetting what the story is REALLY about. The author ties his strings together well, and in general I found the book to be a fascinating read.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cannonball Read #8: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Yes, another Cannonball Read entry. It's been sort of exhilarating to do so much reading--I'd really gotten out of the habit the past few years, and now that I have a goal and a motivational push (my goal right now is to try and keep pace with Mr. Controversy and Figgy, who seem to moving at about the same speed I am) I have been getting an awful lot of reading done. It also helps that I've discovered Half.com where I can order books for basically the cost of shipping (yes, I know about libraries, but our local book-den is kind of pathetic, and besides, I like to KEEP my books.)

Walter Lord's A Night to Remember is another addition to my strangely expanding "nautical disasters" book list. It's another book about the Titanic, this one written in 1955. Lord had the opportunity to interview more than 60 of the wreck's survivors, and he compiled a detailed narrative account of the disaster from the perspective of those who were there, beginning with the lookout who first saw the ice burg all the way to the passengers on the steamer Carpathia who were jolted awake in the middle of the night by the frantic dash to try and rescue survivors.

This book is far less technical than Ghosts of the Titanic, because it is based solely on survivor accounts rather than on an scientific exploration of the wreckage (the wreckage would not be discovered until the mid 1980s, long after this book was not only completed but already made into a TV movie--at Lord's time, it was still believed the ship had sunk as one whole piece, which we now know to be incorrect). There is much more detail here about what life was like on the ship--who the passengers were, where they were coming from, and how they spent their time. There are also details about the ship itself, about how the rooms looked, how the dining rooms functioned, about the staff and the crew and what their positions entailed. There are accounts from the crew of the Carpathia, testifying to heroic actions taken by themselves and their captain which helped save many lives. This story is much more human than clinical; Lord didn't have the luxury of science yet, he had only the survivors and the benefit of their 40 years of reflection, as well as news reports and the transcripts from various trials.

Lord also has a chapter which touches on the impact of Titanic on society at large--the only chapter that really takes us out of the narrative and allows Lord to voice some of his own personal opinions. In his mind, Titanic shook the confidence of the western world. That something seen as a beacon of modern strength and ingenuity--something thought to be well nigh invincible--could fail so spectacularly was a shock. If even the massive Titanic was fallible, what COULD be counted on? Lord also muses on the effect the tragedy had on class separation in the US--the fact that 75% of 1st class passengers and perhaps only 15% of 3rd class passengers survived says a lot about how things were done on the Titanic, and by extension in the world at large. Lord draws no solid conclusions, but asks a lot of questions for the reader to think about.

This is a well-known book about the Titanic, and a reference point for many scholars who have gone on to write about the disaster, since Lord had the most original sources. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Titanic, or who wants a tight, gripping read.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cannonball Read #7: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I am an unabashed thriller/horror novel geek. I am not ashamed to admit that Stephen King is my favorite author and that my favorite book in the world is IT. I like a good scary story with some creepiness and some tension and a little gore in it. When I heard that King's son Joe was also a writer, and had been winning some very serious awards for his writing, I figured I might as well check him out.

Heart-Shaped Box is the story of Judas Coyne, a washed-up heavy metal star, who has an obsession for the occult and macabre. One day, an offer comes in online of a ghost for sale. Jude can't resist, and a short while later he receives his purchase...and it isn't at all what he expected. Turns out the ghost has his own agenda, and Jude is not going to like it much. Jude, and his girlfriend Georgia (so called because that's where she's from, and that's how Jude labels his girlfriends) have to work together to figure out what the ghost wants and how to stop him before it's too late.

I found the characters very well-drawn (although I kept forgetting Jude was supposed to be in his mid-fifties and kept picturing him as looking like Rob Zombie) and engaging. Despite being someone who may not sound that sympathetic a character at first blush, I really liked Jude--he's a man who has made a lot of mistakes, but isn't afraid to own up to them. He knows who he is and isn't ashamed of it. Georgia is also great--she starts out as sort of a stereotypical groupie, but as the story goes on she shows her strength and determination. They are both characters that you want to root for.

The plot moves along quickly and doesn't drag, but it also doesn't fly along so quickly that there's no time for atmosphere or metaphors or literary gymnastics. The suspense is good, and your expectations are definitely turned upside down several times by the twists the story takes. It's a little gory and rather scary (though not "lying-in-bed-terrified-by-every-noise-and-dreading-the-nightmares scary) and has its funny moments, too. I will admit that I tore through this book faster than anything I've read for the Cannonball read thus far (unlike Manhunt and Gangs of New York [which I haven't even blogged about because it's such a drag] which were a constant battle to stay awake through.) Hill's work (as much as I'm sure this is something he's been desperately trying to avoid) reminds me a lot of his father's early work, back when Stephen King was really good and had editors who would tell him no once in a while.

It's a tight story and a fun read. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys spooky reads.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cannonball Read #6: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints by Dito Montiel

I happened across the film based on this book (also written and directed by Dito Montiel) on OnDemand last month, and decided to stop and watch it because Robert Downey Jr. is so awesome and Channing Tatum is not especially talented, but very VERY pretty. I was fairly pleased with the movie, though it is nothing particularly new or innovative--it is the story of young Dito Montiel (played by a surprisingly talented Shia LaBouf) growing up in a tough neighborhood in New York, and also the story of adult Dito (RDJ) returning many years after fleeing the violence and dead-end fates that he and his friends were destined for if they stayed.

Since I enjoyed the film, I decided to track down the book, since it is supposedly a memoir. The book deals less with Dito's youth and more with his adult life: touring the country with his momentarily famous band, meeting people like Allen Ginsberg, a brief stint as a Calvin Klein model, and generally dealing with the trials of trying to become a functional adult.

The book is very reminiscent of On the Road, which makes sense, since it seems Montiel has been heavily influenced by the beats. There is no real story structure, just a sort of rambling collection of stories, anecdotes, photos, poems, and steam-of-consciousness rants woven together around the vague theme of "saints." Although there was no plot to speak of, I found the characters to be distinct, well-drawn, and interesting. And I also enjoyed the specificity and detail of Montiel's memories.

On the whole, while no work of literary genius, this is an easy and interesting read.