Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Book: No More Heroes, by Ray Banks (UK 2008, US 2010?)

This is the third Ray Banks book I’ve touted in 2009, and the second this month. Why? Because Banks is just that good. And because the photographs that he has of me could be so easily misinterpreted by a judgmental public, various animal rights groups, and the good people at Comfort Inn and Suites.

Ex-con Cal Innes, through with the California dreamin’ of Donkey Punch (aka Sucker Punch Stateside), is back home with a new job serving evictions for Mancunian slumlord Don Plummer. When a publicity storm arises after Cal saves a young boy from a fire in one of Plummer’s deathtraps, he takes advantage by restarting his P.I. business. His first client: Plummer, desperate to know who torched his property and is threatening to do so again.

The sharply-turned, deceptively simple plot ranges the political spectrum from neo-Nazis to crunchy student protestors. But it’s the development of Cal as a character that shines. The Innes books are so closely linked that they’re practically one novel, and Banks capitalizes on the scarce daylight between them. Cal’s every decision has consequences. Many are physical; in a genre where other protagonists shake off a lead-pipe beating like a head cold, Banks makes every bruise count.

And, of course, Heroes is funny. Cal’s voice – profane, grumpy, hopeful – is one of the sharpest in crime fiction.

Beast of Burden, the last of the Innes books, is by all accounts something to look forward to. I’ve got a copy on hand, but I’m not going to dive into it. I want to pace myself.

I give it two weeks. Three at the outside.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sort-Of Related: McQ (1974)/Harry In Your Pocket (1973)

At The Rap Sheet recently, J. Kingston Pierce linked to this clip, an annotated car chase from the shot-in-Seattle cop movie McQ.

I found it fascinating, particularly because the sequence ends on the exact spot where Rosemarie’s office now stands. It got me thinking how infrequently the Emerald City turns up in movies. Sure, there’s Sleepless in Seattle, which depicts a romantic comedy burg I don’t recognize. And Singles, capturing the city during the decade it would define. But the truth is Seattle, especially the downtown core that I seldom stray from, has an innate seediness due to its hardscrabble roots and the weather. And if you want seediness on film, you’ve got to turn back the clock to the 1970s.

McQ seems to have been spawned in a fit of municipal jealousy. It’s as if Seattle’s city fathers said, “San Francisco had Bullitt and Dirty Harry. We need a movie that showcases us a crime-infested West Coast hellhole made for tough guys, too!” John Wayne is in Eastwood mode as SPD lieutenant Lon McQ. We never learn what that’s short for, but I’m guessing McQuestionable Police Practices.

You’ve seen McQ even if you haven’t seen McQ, and I don’t mean that as a knock. You’ve got a heroic cop kicking against the suits, police corruption, lots of talk about drugs as “junk,” a flashy pimp informant. It’s the ur-cop movie, the collective unconscious as Quinn Martin Production. Director John Sturges allows us one fleeting glimpse of the Space Needle as the Duke wakes up on his boat – of course he lives on a boat – determined not to show Seattle as a forward thinking bastion but a working-class town dealing with real-world problems. Colleen Dewhurst is great as an aging junkie waitress, managing a regal grandeur as she observes that she doesn’t do skag.

Rosemarie’s Review: “This movie has some of the worst small talk I’ve ever heard.”

McQ whetted my appetite for ‘70s Seattle sleaze. Harry in Your Pocket filmed here the previous year. By all accounts the production was a big deal locally; then-mayor Wes Uhlman has a cameo as one of the many people whose wallets are lifted by ace cannon James Coburn. Coburn and his partner Walter Pidgeon, dapper and addicted to cocaine, train a pair of kids (Michael Sarrazin and Trish van Devere) to become stalls, providing the distraction that allows Coburn’s Harry to work his magic. The youngsters have an extended practice session in King Street Station, currently being restored to the let’s say glory seen in the film.

Harry is the sole feature directed by Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller, and it’s essentially a photo negative of that series: a team of perfectly trained individuals functions in perfect sync, not to hoodwink a Latin American dictator but relieve innocent folks of their cash. The movie presents its characters as criminals in their native habitat, and that lack of judgment is its greatest asset. Harry ultimately feels a bit insubstantial, but it possesses a breezy charm. It’s not available on DVD, but you can watch the entire film on Fancast.

Rosemarie’s Review: “This movie also stars a woman who was married to George C. Scott?”

I’ve lived in Seattle more than fifteen years, and my personal jury is still out about the place. Several reasons why are enumerated in this article, particularly #3.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book: The Star Machine, by Janine Basinger (2007)

It’s a question Hollywood constantly wrestles with: are stars necessary? On the one hand, of course not. On the other, as the new TV ads remind us, Depp IS Dillinger. One reason why I was able to look past The Taking of Pelham 123 being a remake of my favorite movie is that it’s a rare chance this summer to see two big personalities go through their paces. Alas, that doesn’t seem to have helped at the box office.

Bringing me to one of the best books I’ve read on the film business in years. The Star Machine focuses on the system established by the studios in their heyday to groom and maintain those in the Hollywood firmament. As the title indicates, Wesleyan professor Basinger is interested in the mechanism of stardom, so she doesn’t write about actors who would have found their way to the top without it. Instead she concentrates on talented performers who were transformed by it, like Dennis Morgan and Ann Sheridan, and on oddities who benefitted from it, such as Maria Montez and Clifton Webb.

She also offers extended case studies on those who bucked the system. Tyrone Power, a beautiful (no other word is appropriate) leading man who had the misfortune to be talented and ambitious as well. Deanna Durbin, a massive draw in the ‘30s and ‘40s who became the true Garbo when she walked away from Hollywood and America at the height of her fame. Loretta Young, whom Basinger views as a now-neglected visionary. The book closes with a section on stardom without the machine. As Basinger notes, it’s easier to achieve but harder to hang onto in the modern era, and she singles out actors who deserve more credit for the way they’ve managed their careers (Matthew McConaughey) and who would have fared every bit as well under the auspices of the studios (Sandra Bullock, who just had the best opening weekend of her career with The Proposal).

The Star Machine is actually too much of a good thing; Basinger gets so absorbed in the details of the actors’ lives that she occasionally loses the thread of her argument. But she writes with such verve and wit that I didn’t mind. It helps that I share many of her opinions. I, too, am somewhat immune to the charms of Katherine Hepburn. And I second her passionate defense of Tom Cruise.

A late footnote made me feel bad, though. Basinger laments how genre has warped the understanding of film history. Most hardcore movie fans are more familiar with Dana Andrews than Ronald Colman or even Clark Gable, for instance, because of the emphasis on noir. I can only raise my hand and say guilty as charged.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book: Step by Step, by Lawrence Block (2009)

This is an odd book, and Lawrence Block lets you know that in the subtitle A Pedestrian Memoir. Not that it’s going to be commonplace; Block is incapable of producing a dull piece of writing. But it’s about walking. Specifically racewalking. Except when it’s not.

It’s a curiously reticent autobiography. Block begins an extended section on a trip during which he and his wife traced an ancient pilgrimage route by saying “it’s difficult for me to write about the Spanish walk.” He says that he writes fiction so he won’t have to reveal anything of himself directly, and when he does it’s as if he resents the intrusion.

There’s little about his career here save for a section on the creation of his strangest novel, Random Walk (which, to be fair, is about walking) and a few hints that he may not write another book. His focus, in these pages and in his life at present, is on racewalking.

Even that subject gives him pause. His concern about a book on it is “that no one but family members and indulgent friends would have much interest in reading it.” I can understand his fear. Initially, reading Step by Step reminded me of conversations I’ve had with friends after they pick up a new hobby. They do all the talking, laced with terms I don’t know and references to friends I’ve never met, and after a few moments I’m lost. (This is why I haven’t picked up a new hobby in ten years.)

But Block’s effortless style and the purity of his obsession won me over. When he explains why he’s prouder of a finish in a marathon event than anything in his entire literary career, I understood. I started to share his enthusiasm. Not enough to lace up my own sneakers, but it’s better than nothing.

Ultimately, this strangely compelling book isn’t about walking but the ebb and flow of interests in life, and how having one keeps you moving forward even when that interest is ... moving forward. Block touches on a few recent incidents that I wish he’d explored in greater detail - like his stint as a TV writer and collaborating on a movie with Wong Kar Wai – but they’re sights that we glimpse as we amble along. It’s maintaining a brisk and steady pace that counts.

For the record, if Mr. Block does decide to publish the memoir of his days in the ‘50s paperback racket that he admits he’s written a few thousand words of, I’ll snap that up at once. I know a few other people who will, too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Movie: OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009)

I’ve watched OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies more times in the past eight months than I care to admit. When a chance to see the sequel at the Seattle International Film Festival came up, I jumped at it.

In 1967, France’s best secret agent – vain, spectacularly obtuse, and culturally ignorant – heads to Brazil and teams up with a beautiful Mossad colonel in pursuit of a fugitive Nazi turned lucha libre impressario with plans to start the Fifth Reich. (The fourth one didn’t work.)

The original is, in its way, a perfect thing, lampooning early ‘60s spy films in part by flawlessly recreating their look. (I’ve said it before: even the fight choreography in Cairo makes me laugh.) The sequel is bigger, broader, and sillier, but then so are the late ‘60s movies it’s satirizing. Again the era’s filmmaking is meticulously copied, with split-screens and lens flares galore. There are some sharp political barbs amidst the physical comedy. But the biggest laughs come from star Jean DuJardin and his extraordinary facial expressions.

Rio is not yet scheduled for U.S. release, which gives you a chance to watch Cairo first. The follow-up isn’t as good, but it’s still funny. The opening sequence, of DuJardin doing the twist with a chalet’s worth of lovely ladies to Dean Martin’s “Gentle on My Mind,” made me feel like a million bucks.

Here’s a trailer, with captions available. And a Wall Street Journal article on the series’ success, with hints about a third film.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book: Gun, by Ray Banks (2008)

The Saturday Boy kept it brief, so I’ll follow suit. Gun kicks ass.

Less than ninety pages. Simple story. Richie’s out of stir and at the end of his rope. He goes to a guy for a job, is told to pick up the titular piece of equipment. Things go wrong. Not epically wrong. Just regular, grind-you-down wrong. Some days, that’s enough. It sure as shit is for Richie.

The Crime Express books from Five Leaves Publications are beautiful little editions. Pick this one up. It proves that stories are like weapons. They don’t have to be big to do a lot of damage.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Movie: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Come on. You knew this post was coming.

Regular readers are well aware of how I feel about the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s the movie I’ve seen more than any other. I have referred to it here variously as the perfect thriller, the quintessential New York movie, my all-time favorite film, and The Greatest Movie Ever Made.

When I heard that a big-budget remake was in the works - a second remake, actually - I had a brief bout of existential dread. It passed quickly, because I am a realist when it comes to the ways of Hollywood. I always knew I’d see the update. I like the people involved and the premise of John Godey’s novel – a carload of subway passengers held hostage – is still unbeatable.

In this open and optimistic spirit did yours truly approach the new version. And thus did he pronounce the new version ... good.

I’m going to keep comparisons to the still-unmatched original to a minimum and judge the new movie on its own terms. After all, New York itself has changed since ‘74, becoming slicker, more garish, more impersonal. I still go back home every chance I get. As a summer action film, the ’09 Pelham is an entertaining piece of work.

The material has been smartly updated in terms of technology and how New York City is now hardwired to respond to perceived acts of terrorism. It’s also been turned into a more conventional star vehicle with Denzel Washington’s regular Joe train dispatcher squaring off against John Travolta’s hothead criminal mastermind. This approach does not always pay dividends, but it quickly and clearly gets this version out of the original’s shadow. The best thing about the ’09 film is easily James Gandolfini as the mayor, offering a sharp and very funny gloss on current Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg.

The original film was made at a time when the city was falling apart, and a man with a plan could conceivably take advantage to get whatever he wanted. The only thing stopping him was the tenacity and spite of everyday New Yorkers, the working-class heroes who ride into the city on the 7 train. That’s a huge part of my affection for Pelham 1.0; it’s a movie where the good guys come from my old neighborhood. Enough of that spirit survives into the remake to make it worthwhile.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Movie: Picture Snatcher (1933)

This movie has been on my DVR so long that it has since been released on DVD. On the bright side, if it sounds appealing you can queue it up.

James Cagney plays Danny Kean, a New York hoodlum freshly sprung from the slammer. Only Danny’s decided to go on the straight and narrow, see? He’s gonna follow up on an offer to work as a photographer for a newspaper. Naturally, the rag’s the worst in the Big Apple. Naturally, his editor (Ralph Bellamy) is sneaking shots of hooch at his desk. Naturally, Danny’s got to hustle and cut corners to make his mark.

Does he succeed? It’s a lead pipe cinch. But Danny may take things too far when he returns to the big house – to snatch a picture of a woman in the electric chair at the exact moment of her execution.

This movie is over 75 years old, but the energy in Cagney’s performance feels so contemporary it’s startling. He’s virility incarnate, his every gesture – a wave, an offer of a handshake – a demonstration of aggression. Screw CGI and 3D. From now on, everything should be shot in CagneyVision™.

The plot creaks a bit. The great rollicking metropolis of New York has a population of about twelve when it suits the story. But on the whole Picture Snatcher is like its star, nimble and tough. This is a Pre-Code movie that delivers on the promise of illicit sex and violence. Bellamy’s girl, a reporter on the paper, puts her not-inconsiderable moves on Cagney because he’s a bad boy. Even better, the movie doesn’t punish her for it. And an entire arsenal is deployed during the climactic shootout. It’s seventy-seven minutes of moxie with a wicked sense of humor.

The movie was inspired by the Daily News photographer who strapped a camera to his ankle and snapped a photo of Ruth Snyder as she was electrocuted. In 1927, Queens housewife Snyder and her travelling salesman lover murdered her husband for the insurance money. The case served as an inspiration for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. The scandal surrounding her execution spawned both this movie and its remake Escape From Crime. Years later, Snyder’s cell at Sing Sing was occupied by Martha Beck, one of the Lonely Hearts Killers, whose rampage has been chronicled in at least three films. That has to be one of the strangest intersections of crime and popular culture ever recorded.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Music: Bucky Pizzarelli & Benny Green

The world’s greatest living jazz guitarist and the gifted hard bop pianist kicked off a brief West Coast tour with a long, extraordinary set at Seattle’s Jazz Alley on Tuesday night. Bucky is 83 years old – eighty-three! – and still throwing heat; I’m fairly certain I saw smoke pouring off his guitar neck at one point. He soloed on one of my favorite standards, “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, conveying every ounce of acceptance and regret in the song without any of the lyrics. And Benny’s got chops to spare as well. The two men’s styles complement each other beautifully, their joy at performing together contagious.

To top it off, Bucky offered me his hand as he walked offstage following the encore. Rosemarie shook the other one, then turned to me and said, “I got the one that does all the fretwork.” Bucky also thanked us, which is officially the most absurd thing that has ever happened to me.

Bucky and Benny have another show at Jazz Alley tonight, then hit California and B.C. over the next several days. See them if at all possible.

DVD: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell, Bastards! (1963)

So we’re in agreement. This is the greatest movie title ever, right?

This Seijun Suzuki film may lack the formal rigor of Tokyo Drifter, but makes up for it with sheer unadulterated goofiness. Two rival yakuza gangs find themselves victimized by a third that favors ascots. Jo Shishido, who may be a private eye but is almost certainly storing nuts for the winter in his cheeks, cons his way inside this third group to bring them down.

I think. I’m still not sure why the Japanese police trust Shishido so completely, or if the people who share his office actually work for him or are only subletting the space. But I enjoyed the movie tremendously. Especially the musical numbers. Think of it as a live action manga adaptation of a Black Mask story. (There, Kino Video! I dare you to slap that quote on the DVD box!)

Once my ship finally comes in, I will spare no expense to recreate the Christmas party from this movie. And on that grand day, brothers and sisters, you will all be invited.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Book: The Way Home, by George Pelecanos (2009)

When George Pelecanos is good – witness The Night Gardener – he has few peers. When he misses, he manages to do so in his own unique way. The unsuccessful Pelecanos novels seem to have been set down on paper because there were no stone tablets handy. They’re not sober but somber, ascetic to the point of being overbearing. Reading his books is occasionally like falling into conversation with a guy at a bar who becomes steadily more grave until he seizes your arm and says, “Let me tell you what it means to be a man.” Then you shake him off and point out that you only came in for a cold beer and some of the ball game, and things stay awkward until you close out your tab with the game still in progress.

That said, I prefer Pelecanos’s approach, always mindful of choice and consequence in people’s lives, to the cavalier one prevalent in other crime fiction. And I continue to pick up every book he writes.

It’s no surprise that The Way Home is one of his stronger outings, because he’s working with the genre’s elemental plot – The Bag of Money. It’s an intriguingly structured book, the first third devoted to the adolescence of Chris Flynn, a troubled kid from a good working class background. He finally goes too far and ends up doing juvenile time. Several years later he’s working as a carpet installer at the family business. Unambitious and half-heartedly trying to go straight, he’s still a worry for his father. And he continues to hang out with people he met on the inside.

Then, on a job, he discovers The Bag of Money.

The simplicity of the story and the leanness of Pelecanos’s prose complement each other here, leading up to a finale with genuine understated power. Pelecanos introduces the shrewish realtor trying to flip a house Chris is working on, apparently a minor character, then beautifully sketches in the woman’s life with a few concise paragraphs involving a waitress at the restaurant she frequents. He then goes one better by giving us the totality of the waitress’s existence in miniature. This is one of the Pelecanos books that’s like buying a round for a stranger to keep the conversation going.

On The Web: Ebony, Ivory & Jade

Meet my new favorite thing on the internet, courtesy of Jaime Weinman. It’s the titles to Ebony, Ivory & Jade, a busted 1979 TV pilot starring Bert Convy and Debbie Allen. (Convy is Jade, in case you were wondering.) As far as I can tell, the premise is Tony Orlando & Dawn as crimefighters. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pure genius. Turns out it was written by one of my heroes Jimmy Sangster, from a story by M*A*S*H’s Mike Farrell. I want this show found, and found now.

On The Web: New Blogs In Town

Hey! Joe R. Lansdale has a blog!

Hey! Scott Phillips has a blog, too!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book: The Midnight Room, by Ed Gorman (2009)

A serial killer cloaked by a veil of respectability in a small Midwestern city. For most authors, that’d be enough to play with for a few hundred pages.

But not for Ed Gorman. In The Midnight Room Ed gives you that entire city – not just the cops but a family of cops, along with their significant others. The victims, their families, the press, people on the margins of the investigation who will use it to make their presence felt. All that plus a bravura corkscrew plot. Ed starts the game, then every few dozen pages jolts the board so that pawns become kings and pieces you thought would stand tall topple over. Ed calls the book his version of a Gold Medal paperback, and it delivers the goods in that tradition. Put it on your summer reading list.

Miscellaneous: Links

Movieline sits in on a roundtable with TV gurus Norman Lear, Phil Rosenthal and Seth MacFarlane, parts one and two. For a roundtable of movie producers, you have to go to the L.A. Times.