Friday, September 30, 2011

Movies: In Theaters Now!

Illness, new projects and a surfeit of pennant race baseball have kept me from my rounds. (Allow me to pause at this point and say that this past Wednesday was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan. I’d also like to extend my congratulations to your 2011 National League batting champion, Jose Reyes of the New York Mets.) I have, however, been to the movies a few times.

Drive. This adaptation of James Sallis’ brief, brilliant novel, written by Hossein Amini and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, begins as a lost Michael Mann movie circa 1982, right down to the pink title font. But it soon develops a hypnotic, doomy rhythm all its own. Ryan Gosling is a wheelman of few words but eloquent, minimalist gestures. It’s a great film about Los Angeles as a capital of both self-invention and self-abnegation. (Future double bill: this and The Lincoln Lawyer, two movies set in L.A.’s less showier precincts featuring terrific Cliff Martinez soundtracks.) It’s a dream-like fantasia about vanishing into the bloodstream of a city punctuated by nightmarish bursts of graphic violence. For all the stylization and bravura performances – who knew Albert Brooks could be scary? – my favorite moment is a quiet conversation between Gosling and Oscar Isaac in an Echo Park hallway.

Moneyball. As referenced above, I am a baseball fan. And as I’ve stated more than once, Michael Lewis’ look at the rise of sabermetrics is one of the three greatest books of all time. (The others, if you’re interested, are Nick Tosches’ Dean Martin biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, and The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook.) I was rooting for the movie before the lights dimmed, so you won’t be surprised to hear I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lewis’ sprawling story is smartly condensed to focus on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his (then) unconventional approach to running the Oakland A’s. I apologize to everyone at the screening I attended for laughing hysterically whenever Philip Seymour Hoffman turned up as A’s manager Art Howe, but Hoffman absolutely nails the face Art regularly made during his two dismal seasons as skipper of the Mets.

Also still in a handful of theaters, the excellent and sorely neglected Warrior, which I reviewed for Crimespree.

Want more? Fine. At the work blog I write about Electronic Detective, a treasured game of my youth. Or you could just watch this commercial featuring paid endorser Don Adams.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon (2011)

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has his prominent disciples and, even more impressively, has been incarnated onscreen by the great Brian Cox. Personally I found his magnum opus Story to be an impenetrable brick, full of charts and jargon that made no sense. My copy came with an Allen wrench. I still have no idea what it’s for.

Actors/writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have written a riposte not only to McKee but every other screenwriting manual. They tell you up front they’re not interested in helping you realize your vision. They want to write movies studios want to make, and they have the credits (both Night at the Museum films) to prove it.

The book is funny, studded with irreverent footnotes.* One section consists of nothing but the addresses of every In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, along with a glossary of secret ordering terms. Another offers the hidden hierarchy of studio parking passes.

Of course, this information is actually useful. That’s the secret of the book: it’s relentlessly practical about the very specific business of writing big-budget Hollywood movies. The vast majority of which, as the authors state repeatedly, “suck donkey balls.” They include some of their own work in that category. There’s very little here about developing characters, yet plenty about how to take notes from executives and stars (two very different tasks), how to handle getting fired off a movie – the authors stress “there is a 99 percent chance you will be fired off of EVERY SINGLE SCRIPT YOU EVER WORK ON” – and then how to get hired back on. The brief section on plot, in which the boys claim that every studio movie from Casablanca to The Matrix has exactly the same structure, may be a work of genius. And several of the “free movie ideas” scattered throughout I could easily see opening at a multiplex. I probably wouldn’t go to them, and odds are they’d suck donkey balls, but they could get made. Dismiss it as a joke, but WMFFAP is the rare instructive book on writing movies.

* I once had dinner at a New York restaurant next to Thomas Lennon. He seemed very Thomas Lennony.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Miscellaneous: Met Them in St. Louis, Louis

It wasn’t until we were on the plane en route to the annual crime fiction writers and readers convention Bouchercon that we learned St. Louis was also playing host to over 40,000 Christian women attending various conferences the same weekend. This sets up any number of obvious jokes. But after listening to Rosemarie and her seatmate, who was bound for one of those conferences, have a long conversation about their favorite mystery writers, I’ve decided to take the high road and focus on what unites these groups. St. Louis was full of people inspired enough to get out into the world and meet with like-minded individuals. I can only hope the ladies returned home as I did, with a satchelful of memories, an inexplicable minibar bill (we didn’t HAVE a minibar!) and a hacking cough so dry it merits a brushfire warning.

(With that ecumenical moment out of the way, I will say to the women wearing sweatshirts reading “God’s Love is Better than Life” that that sentiment chills me to the fucking bone. I know what it means. I do. But I can’t help thinking there’d be an unholy uproar if hundreds of members of a different religion – no names; just pick another of the major ones – walked around an American city similarly attired.)

The trip kicked off with one of STL’s fabled Noir at the Bar readings. Among the evening’s line-up were soon-to-be Crimespree and Anthony Award winners Hilary Davidson and Duane Swierczynski, John Rector, and Matthew J. McBride. Plus the St. Louis Walk of Fame ran down the sidewalk, honoring local luminaries like Buddy Ebsen and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who legend has it could throw a pork chop past a wolf.

We came, we saw, we paneled. Rosemarie and I split the duties again this year to take in as many relevant ones as possible. Some of my favorites included:

• The fight panel, with themed moderation by Eric Beetner and savvy comments from Frank Bill, my secret sister Christa Faust, Jamie Freveletti and Tom Schreck

• One on Hitchcock’s enduring legacy, disappointing only in that nobody named Strangers on a Train as their favorite

• The comics panel, with panelist Duane Swierczynski ably doubling as emergency moderator and Max Allan Collins (a ubiquitous presence whose band provided the closing night’s entertainment) provoking an interesting conversation about why graphic novels were separated from an author’s other work

• The first “Bouchercon After Dark” panel, with a battery of reprobates and S. J. Rozan discussing “Sex, Violence and Everything That Makes a Book Great”

I’d suggest to future organizers putting Christa Faust on as many panels as possible, but that might cut down on her time intimidating tough guy writers at the bar, which offers tremendous entertainment value.

But for my second Bouchercon I spent more time prowling the halls and the book room, which yielded terrific dividends. Like meeting Robert J. Randisi, one of this year’s local living legends and author of the Rat Pack mysteries. (I read the latest entry, Fly Me to the Morgue, just before the con and as usual enjoyed the hell out of it.) He even sang an Elvis song with Max Allan Collins’ band. And hearing firsthand James Crumley stories from the con’s unofficial mayor Scott Phillips and the inimitable Robert Ward. And having a long conversation with the gentleman of the genre and my favorite blogger Bill Crider. And getting to say hello to Craig McDonald.

Then there’s the bar. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy until next year in Cleveland, when I certainly hope to be in attendance. It was here that I learned Megan Abbott shares my obsession with reality TV’s staged trainwreck Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals. That I shook hands with Johnny Shaw, like me a hugely talented man hoodwinked into writing for Ray Banks’ movie blog for free. That I bore witness to Martyn Waites’ uncanny imitation of Brian Cox in The Music Man and glimpsed the performance of Renfield in Dracula that made Martyn the gay icon he is today. That I shouted at Wallace Stroby about ‘70s New York movies. That I saw Reed Farrel Coleman bust out his Mr. Met moves at the mere mention of our shared home team. That I gaped in amazement as Lisa Brackmann chowed down on scored sheep’s head brought from Iceland by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and choked down some sheep’s head pate myself. That I lost sight of Rosemarie for a moment only to realize she was tugging Laura Lippman’s boots off. It was here, then, that I became a man.

All praise and credit is due to Jon and Ruth Jordan, Judy Bobalik, Jeremy Lynch, and the many volunteers. I also have to acknowledge the sterling work of the staff of the Renaissance Grand Hotel, especially the crack team in the bar. And I salute the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, your friend and mine Ed Gorman.

It was raining when we left St. Louis yesterday, so I put on my cap as we walked to the train to the airport. Two stops later a group of people on a scavenger hunt yelled, “Is anyone here wearing something sports related that’s not from St. Louis?” With a sigh I walked to the rear of the car. Somewhere out there is a photograph of me in my Mets hat, pretending to be at home plate alongside four total strangers wearing neon deely bobbers. I will never see this photograph. Somehow it seemed the perfect way to end the weekend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Me Elsewhere: On Warrior

One of the best films of the year is in theaters begging for an audience. At Crimespree, I tell you why you should do yourself and moviegoing a favor by going to see the brilliant MMA/family drama Warrior.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Me Elsewhere: On Coldblooded

If you’ve been paying attention you know about Norma Desmond’s Monkey, the movie blog set up by novelist and recovering male model Ray Banks. All the kids are talking about it. Ray just wrapped up a terrific week of posts as part of the Nicholas Ray blogathon.

For some reason, he’s allowed me to play in his sandbox. Go read my post about the forgotten 1990s hit man comedy Coldblooded, the real remake of The Mechanic which features one of my all-time favorite supporting performances.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Book: The Killer is Dying, by James Sallis (2011)

The latest novel from James Sallis – who will be receiving plenty of deserved attention when the award-winning adaptation of his book Drive opens shortly – tracks three individuals adrift in Arizona. Christian, the aging assassin of the title, in town to do a job only to get beaten to the punch. Sayles, the detective assigned to the case, treating the investigation as a respite from a personal life that is falling apart. And Jimmie, a young boy abandoned by his parents and unseen by nearly everyone, who for some reason is experiencing Christian’s dreams.

As a crime story Killer is lean and involving. As a portrait of Phoenix, a sprawling city of brownouts that’s all cracks and no sidewalk, it’s without peer. But it’s primarily a strange yet compelling book about connections, the overall lack of them and the ultimate severing of the few that matter. The imminent death of Sayles’s wife might seem one grim specter too many but Sallis finds ways to sidle up on the subject, as when Sayles reads hospice brochures. “Declining years. Family ties. Waning faculties. Terminal care. Parades of word pairs that reminded him of comedy teams, one straight man earnest as the day is long, one innocent who just never quite gets it.” The magic realist element of Jimmie’s subconscious link to Christian makes emotional but not narrative sense; there’s no reason for Jimmie to be present other than to illuminate the story’s larger issues. Yet it works:

All our lives are a going-away. Maybe we have to pretend that we’re going toward something, hang the image there in the air ahead. A better, more equitable world. Life everlasting in a place that looks like Scottsdale only better. A desert oasis with seventeen virgins. Because we can’t bear the thought that this is all there is. All there was.

The pieces don’t fit into a seamless whole. They suggest one, and that’s enough. Like all Sallis books The Killer is Dying is spare and not so much written as composed. It reads like a poem and has that kind of impact as well.