Saturday, July 31, 2010

Movie: Mother (U.S. 2010)

Joe Queenan is the latest to claim that “2010 is the worst year in the history of motion pictures.” I disagree. I’d call 2010 a banner year, nay, an embarrassment of riches ... provided you’re talking about first-rate crime dramas from outside the United States. Yet another example is now on DVD.

The middle-aged title character in Mother doesn’t have a name, only a responsibility: taking care of her mentally-impaired son Do-joon. When a schoolgirl is murdered in their South Korean town and circumstantial evidence points toward Do-joon, the police are content not to look any further. His mother, however, is determined to get justice for the son to whom she has devoted her life, even if it means conducting her own investigation and angering local hoodlums. Hye-ja Kim is a powerhouse as a woman who has spread herself thin only to discover that she hasn’t come close to reaching her breaking point. Director Bong Joon-ho, now three-for-three after the cracked police procedural Memories of Murder and the monster movie The Host, has scaled down his ambitions but made his most emotionally satisfying film yet.

And for the record, Mr. Queenan, I would see The Four Amigos. There are plenty of questions the first movie didn’t answer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book: Savages, by Don Winslow (2010)

Sweet Jesus, the voice.

That’s what I keep coming back to when I think about this book, and I think about it often. The astonishing voice that Don Winslow uses – omniscient yet friendly, benevolent but wised-up – in this electrifying novel. It’s like God himself has beckoned you closer after a long afternoon on the beach. He watches the sun douse itself in the Pacific with a wry smile on His face. He turns to you, the smell of cervezas and fish tacos on His breath. And He says, “Let me tell you a story. About some people I know.”

The people: Ben, Chon and O. Ben grows the finest marijuana in the Southland and plows his profits into saving Mother Earth. Chon came back from several tours in Iraq with badditude to spare and a pronounced lack of post-traumatic stress. O shops and loves both her men.

The story: The Baja cartel comes calling and says you work for us. Ben and Chon say, no we don’t. Trouble ensues. It’s a SoCal Jules & Jim directed by early ‘90s John Woo.

And, of course, told in that voice. One that manages to be relentless while still finding time for digressions on politics and the spoiled golden promise that is California. If Savages has a flaw it’s that Winslow’s style is too intoxicating; you want to pump the brakes so you can savor the ride, burrow a little deeper into the characters. But they don’t slow down. There just isn’t time. They act and react. So should you. Pick up Savages, and be blown away.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On The Web: Ed Gorman, The Whistler & Me

Over at his must-read blog, Ed Gorman, for reasons known only to him, interviews me about The Whistler movies. It’s inspired by the article I wrote for the current issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine, the Noir City Sentinel. Go and be edified.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Your Weekend Viewing: Wicked Woman (1953)

I’ve told the story before. But it’s a favorite movie-going memory, so I’m telling it again.

It’s the final night of Noir City 2007. The lights dim in advance of Wicked Woman, which Eddie Muller assures us is one of the sleaziest movies of the 1950s. A man I haven’t seen before slips into the seat in front of me, a figure of a certain age wearing a cologne equal parts Marlboros and hair tonic.

The film starts. And as the dulcet voice of Herb Jeffries belts out the title song, the guy in front of me croons along, his hands aloft conducting the orchestra he’s assembled in his head for the occasion. He’d waited a long time to see Wicked Woman again, and now they were back together.

Wicked Woman, amazingly, lived up to that opening, and that’s because of its star. Beverly Michaels, to put it kindly, is not an actress. What this six-foot tall blonde is, however, is a presence. Some kind of dark magic takes place the second she appears, glaring out a bus window in what she’d call “a bad yuma,” ogled with the dead-eyed camera of a stag reel. There’s an undeniable aura around her character Billie Nash (the ultimate B-movie femme fatale name), a sense that she has used her body and had her body used, and she’s getting pretty damn tired of it. She comes on screen and your first thought is: That woman looks like nothing but trouble. Think I’ll buy her a drink.

The movie calls to mind the old saw about academic politics being so brutal because the stakes are so low. There are no murders in Wicked Woman, no crime plotted more grandiose than a little run-of-the-mill fraud. Those threadbare ambitions give the movie its power; Billie aspires to nothing more than a few months in Acapulco (I love how Beverly pronounces the name as if it’s four complete sentences), but stupid men keep fouling up her meager plans. There’s a true desperation in this movie, borne of small lives lived in furnished rooms.

Not to mention a last call, somebody-take-me-home sexiness. The movie is in love with every inch of Beverly Michaels, content to watch her do anything. Exhibit A: the scene in which Beverly settles into her new digs, puts on a record, takes off her shoes, and points her huge bare feet toward the camera. Where they stay for what seems like an eternity. Director Russell Rouse would go on to marry his leading lady, who would leave movies soon after. He would later win an Academy Award, and their son Christopher would take home a statuette himself decades later for editing The Bourne Ultimatum.

And now more good news. It turns out Wicked Woman is on YouTube. In nine installments, the first of them below. I guarantee you will not spend a better seventy-seven minutes this weekend. Watch it for Percy Helton’s performance as the first poor sucker who falls under Billie’s sway. Watch it for the erotic magic of Billie knotting her robe, over and over. Watch it for the one-of-a-kind Beverly Michaels. Watch it now.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book: The Wolves of Fairmount Park, by Dennis Tafoya (2010)

Lives and worlds collide outside a dope house in Philadelphia, where two middle-class teenagers miles from home are gunned down. The fathers of both boys – Brendan Donovan, a veteran police officer, and George Parkman, Sr., a businessman who barely knows his son at all – want answers, and think they can be provided by Brendan’s junkie half-brother Orlando, found not far from the scene of the crime.

Dennis Tafoya skillfully weaves together several viewpoints – the grieving parents; Orlando, the wounded outsider seeking connections in every sense; a streetwise detective convinced he’s being played and the dealers who may be playing him – in this dense and satisfying novel. It’s about the bonds between family and friends, discovering which ones are fragile and which are surprisingly durable. There’s real darkness in these pages, which makes the rare break of sunlight that much more brilliant. Fans of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos would do well to start reading Tafoya.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movies: Solitary Man/Harry Brown (U.S. 2010)

I haven’t kept up with the exploits of centenarian vampire Edward Cullen in the latest Twilight movie. I’ve been hanging with guys who are a few years younger but have more problems.

In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas plays Ben Kalmen. Once the biggest car dealer in the tri-state area and now a train wreck, he’s pulled off the neat trick of screwing everything that moves as well as himself. Familiar faces abound in this rich character study with a sharp script by Brian Koppelman (who co-directs with Rounders screenwriting partner/crime novelist David Levien). But it’s Douglas’s show. He’s in every scene, giving a sensational, swaggering performance that nails the victimhood beneath the surface of every egomaniac. Not that Douglas’s old dog tricks don’t work in a young man’s game; when he successfully beds a woman a third his age, you understand why both of them do it. The movie has a real feeling for well-off New Yorkers. The way Douglas says “lobster Cobb” to an associate giving him the brush-off over dinner is priceless.

Michael Caine is Harry Brown. So say the titles. The movie is not entirely successful; the story of an aged ex-marine who launches a bloody vendetta against the hoodies who rule his housing estate eventually strains credulity. But the parts that do work cut deep. Caine and the gifted director Daniel Barber give us an entire life in the wordless sequence of Harry fixing himself breakfast before visiting his dying wife in the hospital, the familiar spaces of his flat terrifying now that he knows they are soon destined to be empty. Barber’s shots – a sucker punch intro of Harry at a funeral, a long look at the self-loathing on his face as he chooses to take the long way around instead of walking past some raucous teenagers – are brutally communicative. And the hair-raising scene in which Harry tries to buy a gun proves that, with this and the Red Riding trilogy, Sean Harris is now the scariest mofo in movies.

Speaking of seniors with attitude, here’s the scoop on the upcoming Damn Near Dead 2, edited by Bill Crider.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

Can you have too much of a good thing? We’re about to find out.

The latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, house rag of The Film Noir Foundation, streets today. And this one is truly epic. 53 – count ‘em! – 53 glorious pages of news that’s red hot and ice cold. Feature:

* An extensive overview of British noir!

* My pal Alan Rode’s exclusive interview with Eleanor Parker, Oscar-nominated star of the greatest of all women in prison movies, Caged!

* FNF kingpin Eddie Muller on Walk Softly, Stranger, crippled by “one of the worst endings of all time,” and on the career of Paul Stewart!

* The one and only Woody Haut on the one and only Elisha Cook, Jr.!

* Jake Hinkson counts the ways of voiceover!

* Yours truly on The Whistler, the only film noir series produced by Hollywood!

* And a hell of a lot more!

Donate at least ten bucks to the Film Noir Foundation and all this can be yours. Everybody’s gonna be talking about it come Monday. Don’t be left out.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book: Don’t Point That Thing At Me, by Kyril Bonfiglioli (1972)

The Keenan family motto, Eo sensim quod etiam supervenio, loosely translates from the Latin as “We’re slow, but we get there.” (Bear in mind that translation is exceedingly loose. Bear in mind also that’s not the Keenan family motto. I’m simply lobbying for it to replace the one that has served my clan in good stead for generations: “Are you going to finish that?”) I read this New Yorker article about the novels of Kyril Bonfiglioli in 2004 and bought one that very day. I finally got around to plucking it off the shelf a mere six years later.

Bonfiglioli wrote a trio of tales about one Charlie Mortdecai, a shady aristocrat who toils in the art world along about the patch where it becomes a racket. Charlie’s a sweetheart whose only vices are haberdashery, alcohol and sloth. In his employ is a manservant blessed with the name Jock Strapp, the crudely effective Jeeves to Charlie’s sociopathic Wooster. Here’s our Charlie on a thuggish policeman who has come to call:

Somewhere in the trash he reads Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips about like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun. In he pranced, all silent and catlike and absurd, buttocks swaying noiselessly.

Why should I prattle on when Charlie can regale you with a description of the meal he’s served on an international flight?

... plastic smoked salmon, rubber chop in vitreous aspic, chicken turd wrapped in polystyrene bacon and weeping half-thawed strawberry on dollop of shaving soap ...

Most every chapter begins with Charlie rousing himself from slumber and closes with his return to that blissful state. (“I suppose I went to bed at some stage.”) Other that than, I’m not entirely sure what transpires in Don’t Point That Thing At Me. The plotting is, shall we say, casual, a lot of complicated business involving a stolen Goya and some nasty government types. What matters is that Charlie is forced to go to America – which he adores, especially the Cattleman’s Breakfasts – to deliver a Rolls Royce containing the purloined painting, and then kill the recipient. I never understood why.

Don’t Point That Thing At Me is hilarious – until it’s not. The story grows so dark that the savage playfulness of Bonfiglioli’s voice eventually seems out of place. I can also say, at the risk of spoiling the ending, that considering there are two more books in the series with the same characters Bonfiglioli didn’t care a whit about continuity, either. It’s a strange one, this book. It’s funny while not being that good. Or is it not good while still being funny? Yes, that’s the way to think of it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Book: Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire, by Gabriel Hunt as told to Christa Faust (2010)

The latest Gabriel Hunt extravaganza begins in media res with our two-fisted adventurer eyeballing a treacherous ex-lover across “a murky, nameless Moldovan hole-in-the-wall” in pursuit of a bejeweled dagger. I tore through the action-packed opening pages expecting to catch my breath in Chapter Two, as the histories of the kindjal and Transdniestrian unrest were explained.

Nope. A furious chase on horseback. Chapter Three, then, will certainly –

Huh. An assault on an ancient fortress. No time for backstory, Mr. Hunt. Exposition comes on the fly. Even more astonishing, this mayhem is merely preamble. Hunt returns to his Foundation offices in Manhattan just long enough to get sent on an another expedition. This one involves the requisite beautiful woman, her missing scientist father, and the possibility of a lost civilization beneath the South Pole. Before it’s over, there will be more derring-do and generous helpings of sex. My friend Christa Faust never lets the pace flag for an instant. As fast as it moves, you’ll read it even faster. A wild, fun ride.

Bookstores don’t have “men’s adventure” sections anymore, so I never know where to look for the Hunt novels. Asking for them only baffles clerks. “They’re written by Gabriel Hunt. Well, technically, they’re not, because he’s a fictional character. They’re credited to him, but this one is written by ...”

After two chain stores and an independent let me down, I bought Frozen Fire on my Kindle. It felt wrong; the Hunt books, with their gloriously overripe covers, demand to be read in paperback. But it worked out for the best. I wasn’t entirely certain what spavined and portcullis meant, and could look them up instantly without breaking the story’s flow. I’ve read some highbrow stuff on my Kindle, but who’d have thought a pulp adventure novel would crack the whip on the dictionary function?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Sort Of Related: Nobody’s Angel, by Jack Clark (1996)/Two O’Clock Courage (1945)

For personal reasons, I’m a fan of taxi noir. Two examples of the form recently came my way.

Cabdriver Jack Clark wrote Nobody’s Baby in the 1990s. After repeated rejections he self-published the book. Until Hard Case Crime brought out a new edition last month, the only way to score a copy was to hail Clark’s rig in Chicago.

Eddie Miles has seen plenty in his years behind the wheel, but nothing prepares him for being at the center of two different murder investigations. A veteran driver is shot to death at the same time Eddie prevents a killer of prostitutes from claiming his latest victim. Eddie doesn’t exactly investigate either crime. But he sticks close, his own fate seemingly bound up in the outcome.

Both cases are ultimately solved, but neither is the point of the book. Nobody’s Angel is about broken people in a broken place. Eddie – tired, cranky, certain he’s about to be screwed by the world and whoever’s in the back of his cab – knows only he’s to blame for the sorry state of his life. He struggles to find compassion for his fares, and on the rare occasions when he does it’s powerful stuff. In pared-to-the-bone prose Clark offers a street-level view of the city, always changing and forever breaking hearts.

A cabdriver is the only thing Nobody’s Angel has in common with the frothy nonsense of Two O’Clock Courage. Amnesiac Tom Conway flags down a hack driven by Ann Rutherford. Conway realizes that he’s implicated in the murder of a theatrical producer and Rutherford, as any cab driver would, ferries him around town trying to clear his name. This overplotted B-movie hooey, complete with strained comic relief, is made bearable by Rutherford, who can only be described as adorable, and strong early work from two noir stalwarts. Jane Greer, still Bettejane in her first credited appearance, makes a great venomous party girl. And director Anthony Mann keeps the meter running with some nice business in the backgrounds of shots. For the record, even Eddie Miles would look fetching in Ann’s sporty cap.