Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book: Pariah, by Dave Zeltserman (2009)

There’s dark, and then there’s dark.

Pariah, the latest from Dave Zeltserman – the sick puppy of crime fiction, says the Washington Post (sort of) – opens with Kyle Nevin’s release from prison. The South Boston gangster did his full bid, which is more than can be said for his boss, an FBI rat now in the wind. Kyle plans on tracking him down once he pulls off a kidnapping to give him operating capital.

Things don’t go well.

You know Zeltserman is up to no good with the page one note from Kyle to his editor. More are scattered through the text. How Kyle ended up writing the manuscript you’re reading is too twisted and too bleakly funny to spoil here.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that genuinely disturbed me, but Pariah takes that crown. Kyle Nevin is a stone-cold predatory sociopath who never dresses up his ruthlessness. I loathed the guy. I also couldn’t stop reading about him. At least Joe Denton, the protagonist of last year’s Zeltserman scorcher Small Crimes, tried to justify his self-serving actions. Kyle can’t be bothered, which makes him either terrifyingly compelling or compellingly terrifying. After all, rationalization is what separates us from the animals. Except for dolphins. Those flippered punks rationalize constantly. And what does it get them?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TV: Edge of Darkness (1985)

For years I’ve said that Edge of Darkness was the greatest program I’d ever seen on TV. And Stateside at least, nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.

I was a high school kid when this six-part miniseries aired in the U.S. Unlike most BBC productions it didn’t run on PBS but in syndication, which may account for what I remember as a lack of fanfare. I watched it over three consecutive nights, and it left quite an impression. The score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen still drifts through my head, and several images from the closing episode are seared in my memory. I even remember the character names, for crying out loud, and sometimes utter one of them – Darius Jedburgh – to relish its sheer awesomeness.

Ronald Craven is a widowed Yorkshire detective, principled but pliable. He’s in the midst of investigating union corruption when a gunman ambushes him at his home. Craven’s student activist daughter Emma is killed. The theory is that an old adversary is seeking revenge, but Craven begins to suspect that his daughter was the actual target.

The script by Troy Kennedy Martin (Z Cars, The Italian Job, Reilly, Ace of Spies) had the foresight to look past the Cold War and say screw the Russians, we’ve got bigger problems. Corporate malfeasance, environmental radicalism, mistrust among allies and intelligence agencies. It seemed to know exactly what was coming after the glasnost era.

Earlier this month, Edge of Darkness finally became available on DVD. Revisiting it for the first time in over twenty years, I continue to be impressed.

Sure, it’s dated somewhat. In 1985, after all, you had to break into a building to gain access to a computer network. It’s deliberately paced, there are a few story issues, and the politics in the wrap-up can get a touch ... allegorical. But it remains a staggeringly prescient work; it amazes me that Martin addressed these issues directly in the 1980s. And the program’s emotional power hasn’t dimmed a bit, thanks to some dazzling acting.

Joe Don Baker is a revelation as the wily CIA officer Jedburgh, giving the role his all. What’s astonishing is that as powerful as Baker is, it’s still not the best performance in the series.

Bob Peck’s Craven is a man of guarded emotions and inappropriate intimacies – with his daughter, with men he’s interrogating. He’s both genuinely good yet strangely unreadable. Peck died of cancer far too young at age 53, leaving behind a brief but indelible filmography. There’s his turn as the great white hunter in Jurassic Park, uttering “Clever girl” with a note of admiration before he’s slain by the raptor he’s stalking. And there’s Craven in Edge of Darkness, which goes on my list of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Time for some blasphemy. Edge of Darkness has been remade as a feature film due early next year, and I think it’s a good idea. The story is as relevant as it ever was. Martin’s script has been updated to the U.S. by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (the lamentably under-seen Lantana). The roles originated by Peck and Baker are now played by Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone. And Martin Campbell, who directed the original series before rebooting the James Bond franchise not once (GoldenEye) but twice (Casino Royale), is back behind the camera.

However the movie turns out, it simply won’t have the room afforded by the mini-series format to flesh out its characters. I don’t know that I’d still call Edge of Darkness the greatest program I’ve ever seen on TV, but it is in the running. It’s certainly the finest thriller ever produced for the small screen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movies: The Quality of Mercer

Amidst multiple deadlines I’ve been making my way through some of the films in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long salute to the centenary of the birth of Johnny Mercer, singer and songwriter extraordinaire.

1937’s Ready, Willing and Able introduced “Too Marvelous for Words,” as well as some lesser tunes. (“Handy With Your Feet,” anyone?) “Marvelous” is featured several times, most memorably in the stupendous closing number. When it was excerpted in TCM’s Mercer documentary, Rosemarie began waving her hands in front of her face like a giddy six year old. Ruby Keeler and Lee Dixon, a second-rate Cagney impersonator trapped in Conan O’Brien’s body, dance on a gigantic typewriter with the legs of a bevy of chorines serving as typebars. Based on the words that appear on the equally enormous sheet of paper behind them, it’s a non-QWERTY keyboard.

I just looked down to spell QWERTY. How sad is that?

Hollywood Hotel (1937) gave the world “Hooray for Hollywood,” the tongue-in-cheek anthem that Tinseltown took at face value, belted out by Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis. The real reason to watch is the Benny Goodman Orchestra performing “Sing, Sing, Sing,” followed by a tight session with Benny, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

Garden of the Moon (1938) is the least regarded of the three films that we saw, so naturally I liked it the most. Lots of novelty songs here performed by a band that includes Davis, John Payne and Jerry Colonna, among them “The Lady on the Two-Cent Stamp.” The closest thing to a standard on the soundtrack is “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” and when I heard it I got a touch giddy myself. Whenever Warner Brothers needed a hint of Arabian Nights mystery in a cartoon, they’d play an instrumental version of this song. Which is unfortunate, because the lyrics show off Mercer’s wordplay at its best.

She’s got her nervish
Throwing him a curvish
Which, of course, he doesn’t deservish

Astute readers will have noticed I haven’t bothered with plot synopses. All three movies are trifles, showbiz farces with mistaken or bogus identities. There’s just enough story to keep things humming ‘til the next tune starts. Warner Brothers’ musicals owe something to the studio’s signature crime dramas; they’re earthy and sharp, with a kick of bourbon in the meringue. It’s worth noting that these three films, in addition to the handiwork of Johnny Mercer, also share writing by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. They would later pen They Drive by Night and Manpower together, while as a producer Wald would make Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage and one of my favorite backstage dramas, The Hard Way.

TCM has one more night of Johnny Mercer fare airing on Wednesday – after their showing of The Money Trap at 4:15PM EST, 1:15PM PST. I told you there’d be other reminders.

UPDATE: Here’s “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” which grows progressively unhinged. It’s still odd to see John Payne singing, considering that I think of him as the lead in noirs like Kansas City Confidential and Slightly Scarlet. Oddly the original choice to star in Garden of the Moon was Dick Powell, who preceded Payne down the boy-singer-to-tough-guy path.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

Hear that sound, kids? It’s issue #28 of the Noir City Sentinel, trade rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hitting in-boxes around the globe. Why not cough up a few shekels and get yourself a copy?

Eddie Muller, Don Malcolm and company have truly outdone themselves this go-round. The issue focuses on the role that the blacklist played in film noir. Included for your entertainment and enlightenment:

* Several perspectives on enigmatic expat Joseph Losey

* Alan K. Rode on the extraordinary career of writer, producer, Oscar winner and con man Philip Yordan

* A blacklist case study from Jake Hinkson on He Ran All the Way

* An astonishing piece by film writer Ehsan Khoshbakht surveying noir in Iran

All that plus a report on the first Noir City: Lyon, Elvis noir, and more, not to mention a tribute to the cinematic union of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth penned by yr. humble correspondent. Please note that my contribution leans heavily on a terrific, little seen 1966 film called The Money Trap. It’s finally available on DVD from the Warner Archive, but it will also be getting a rare television airing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, November 25 at 4:15PM EST, 1:15 PM PST. Schedule your travel plans and turkey consumption accordingly. This will be the first of several reminders.

In the meantime, contribute to the Film Noir Foundation and get a Sentinel all your own. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

DVD: The Merry Gentleman (2009)

This movie opened at my neighborhood theater earlier this year on a Friday when I was heading out of town. I made a note to see it on my return but never had the chance; by Wednesday it was gone. It deserved better than a five-day run. A lot better.

Chez K favorite Michael Keaton plays a suicidal assassin. Through a random act of kindness he crosses paths with Kelly Macdonald, a women fleeing an abusive relationship. A strange bond forms between the two over a blustery Chicago winter.

Keaton, typically a bundle of energy, opts for a powerful stillness here, achieving all he needs with a flicker of his facial muscles. He’s also sporting a great look. Macdonald beguiles in a role that requires every man to fall in love with her. Using her own Scottish accent aids in that enormously. Tom Bastounes shines as a lonely detective smitten with Macdonald, and the always welcome Bobby Cannavale is a powerhouse in his scene as Macdonald’s husband, never quite apologizing for his actions while touting his newfound salvation.

Most impressive of all is Keaton’s direction of the film. (The actor took over behind the camera when screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti suffered appendicitis.) The Merry Gentleman is a quiet, deliberate movie, and Keaton nails the tricky tone from the outset. He has a nice eye for composition and an unforced feel for working people; the interactions with cops and hospital staff have the texture of real life. Pair this sleeper with Blast of Silence for a Christmas hit man double-bill.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book: The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter (2009)

Matthew Prior is in trouble. He’s been downsized from his newspaper job after the failure of his own business venture, a website offering financial advice in verse. A massive balloon payment is due on his house in a matter of days. He hasn’t told his wife about it because she’s busy preparing for an affair with her old boyfriend. Then Matt hits on a way to retain his redoubt in middle-middle class heaven. He’s going to sell primo pot to his fellow boomers. He’s even got a street name. Slippers.

Jess Walter covers a lot of ground in this novel: the immediate effects of the economic meltdown, the slow death of old media, the perils of social networking. So determined is he to pin down every aspect of life-at-this-instant that the overstuffed plot verges on antic. But each page brings a turn of phrase or an observation about contemporary America that is electrifying, laugh-out-loud funny, or both. And there are poems.

Walter, an Edgar Award winner, National Book Award nominee and author of the best crime novel you’ve never read, has a sharp yet forgiving eye. Matt notes, “Perhaps the most pathetic thing about long-married guys like me is the delusional list that each of us keeps in our heads, a list of women we think are secretly attracted to us.” He then introduces us to one of the names on his personal roster, an HR gatekeeper whose inappropriate suits are described as “0-2 fastballs – little high, little tight.”

Over the course of the book, Matt learns that there are no such things as epiphanies. But damned if he doesn’t keep having them even in the midst of the most mundane activities, like ordering dinner for his sons.

So I make one phone call, and just like that, we’re eating pizza at 6:30. What is this world? You tap seven abstract figures onto a piece of plastic thin as a billfold, hold that plastic device to your head, use your lungs and vocal chords to indicate more abstractions, and in thirty minutes, a guy pulls up in a 2,000-pound machine made on an island on the other side of the world, fueled by viscous liquid made from the rotting corpses of the dead organisms pulled from the desert on yet another side of the world and you give this man a few sheets of green paper representing the abstract wealth of your home nation, and he gives you a perfectly reasonable facsimile of one of the staples of the diet of a people from yet another faraway nation.

And the mushrooms are fresh.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Book: Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord (2009)

It was always odd to encounter one of my teachers outside the confines of the classroom. I’d be at the mall on Saturday afternoon and run into Mr. Granding, 6th period history. The ensuing conversation would be awkward and brief. For those few moments, he’d no longer be an imposing, vaguely unknowable figure who only had to flip to the back of the book for the answers. He’d become a suburban father, one of legion, pushing a stroller, wearing an ill-fitting sports shirt and ... dude, are those sandals?!?

That academic overlap of worlds public and private, adult and adolescent is the subject of Hummingbirds, the lovely debut novel by Joshua Gaylord. A new year starts at the Carmine-Casey School for Girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Two seniors, one popular and one smart, warily circle each other for the last time. Meanwhile Leo Binhammer, for years the only male teacher in the English department, has to make room for an interloper with whom he will develop a complex friendship. Gaylord flits between characters with an almost-but-not-quite omniscient voice that he deploys to startling effect. The result is a novel that, like the girls at its center, is delicate yet surprisingly resilient.

I had the chance to hear Josh read from Hummingbirds last month in New York, as well as meet his wife, Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott. A literary power couple who have written two of my favorite books this year. I’m entitled to hate them a little bit for this.

TV: What I’ve Been Watching

While not tuned to a World Series in which I was rooting for inclement weather, that is.

Poliwood. Barry Levinson’s loosely-structured “film essay” about showbiz and politics covers no new ground but does include some fascinating scenes. One shows ex-GOP pollster turned consultant Frank Luntz leading a communication seminar for members of the Creative Coalition at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He tells the assembled actors that he admires their passion, but that if they change their language they can reach a wider audience. Several actors immediately take offense and turn it into a First Amendment issue, thus proving his point. Later, Levinson and Luntz arrange a focus group on celebrity at the RNC. One woman tears into the actors with an almost sensual relish. That the person she describes – having millions of dollars, multiple homes and no commonality with regular Americans – sounds more like John McCain than Tim Daly passes without comment.

Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me. I’m a Mercer fan and this documentary had me saying, “He wrote that song, too?” Factor in his singing, his role in founding Capitol Records and his work as a producer, and it’s clear that Mercer is one of the great men of the twentieth century. For the record, the other names on that list are Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tom Seaver.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Book: The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville (2009)

During the mystery vs. thriller panel at Seattle Bookfest, author Robert Ferrigno said he preferred thrillers because they allowed more room to explore character. (For the record, I still think there should have been someone arguing the mystery side of this panel in the interests of fairness.) (Also for the record, I bring up Bookfest again because being cited in The Stranger’s coverage is the closest I’ve come to being enmeshed in a literary feud, and I’m enjoying that.) ( ... ) (What the hell was I talking about? Oh, right.) You’d be hard-pressed to find better proof of Ferrigno’s argument that the debut novel by Stuart Neville, published in the U.K. and elsewhere as The Twelve.

For years Gerry Fegan was one of the most feared killers at the IRA’s disposal. Now the men who ordered him to commit murder are politicians and power brokers while he downs whiskey to still the voices in his head. Only they’re not just voices. Fegan’s victims appear to him in physical form, dogging his waking hours and denying him sleep. But at long last, these damned souls are telling Fegan how to end his torment. All he must do is eliminate those who are responsible for their deaths.

Neville lays out the complexities of Northern Ireland politics without ever letting the pace flag. And he fills the pages with a rich array of characters, including undercover agents and dealmakers. None are more fascinating than Fegan. He becomes even more compelling with the early revelation that he saw “shades” as a child, a risky move that lends an element of the supernatural to an already potent thriller.

Movie: The Damned United (2009)

Here’s how much of a Peter Morgan/Michael Sheen fanboy I am. The fourth collaboration between this writer and actor, based on a novel by David Peace, got me to give a damn about soccer. (Fine, overseas readers, football. Happy now?) This after I’ve proven immune to Seattle Sounders mania, which has swept through this town like swine flu.

There’s not a lot of action on the pitch in the movie, the story of charismatic coach Brian Clough’s disastrous six-week reign at the helm of Leeds United in 1974. But there’s drama to spare. Two thoughts:

Never have I seen an actor who more resembles the real-life figure he’s playing than Colm Meaney and Clough’s predecessor, Don Revie.

I’ll say this for ... football. Failure has consequences. Lose badly enough and you’re demoted an entire division. Last year a certain Pacific Northwest team that will remain nameless became charter members of baseball’s 100/100 club, the first franchise to lose 100 regular season games with a payroll in excess of 100 million dollars. Come 2009, they still got to play the Yankees. A little fear might not be such a bad thing.