Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Notes: John D. MacDonald At 100

If you are not a critic, or an academic specializing in crime fiction or a reader obsessed with it, you are forgiven if all the MacDonalds are just a bit confusing. In addition to John D. MacDonald, there is Ross Macdonald and Gregory Mcdonald. What they have in common, besides ever-so-slightly different last names is that they are all critically acclaimed crime writers, and all three have sold a helluva lot of books.  I once thought that I should change my last name to McDonald if only to capitalize on the magic of the name. Because my first name is Ronald, I quickly gave up on the idea.

John D. MacDonald
The reason I am focusing on John D. is to honor on the last day of a two-week celebration of the centennial of his birth and the appropriately timed, handsome reissues of some of his work. Perhaps his most esteemed work is the 1957 thriller, The Executioners, better known to moviegoers as Cape Fear, a film so good they made it twice.  MacDonald is also the creator of one of America’s most popular fictional P.I.s, Travis McGee, who works out of his a boat in Florida.

If you are a new reader though, it’s probably a good idea to start with this first of his 21 Travis McGee novels because The Deep Blue Good-By is the series exposition — building the character, painting the setting, and developing the mechanics, which is how this P.I uniquely goes about his business.  The year is 1964, and McGee is a tough but conscientious man of his times. Though we are not mired down in his philosophy of good and evil, we are dealt at least some thoughtful, literary exposure to the subject as the P.I. sees it.  In this first of his series, we witness a strange kind of murderer: A monster, maybe, but not a sophisticated, brilliant Ripley or a sophisticated, obsessed Hannibal Lecter, but a coarse, rough-hewn charmer, whose motives include but go well beyond self-enrichment, at least in the monetary sense.

“There are men in the world who are compelled to destroy the most fragile and valuable things they can find, the same way rowdy children will ravage a beautiful home. Look at me, they are saying.”

In The Deep Blue Good-By, McGee hunts for such a man, a twisted Romeo who sees fragile women as an object to dominate extort, and ravage. To break. If Travis McGee can be warm and compassionate, he can also be vicious in pursuit of justice. After a long sea-chase, the finale is a testament to up-close and very personal violence.

Though John D. is not my favorite of the various McDonalds, there is no doubt he is one of the masters of the genre. The good looking cover of the recent rerelease shows the high regard in which he is held by current luminaries, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Jonathan Kellerman.  Lee Child wrote the introduction to this edition.

Final note: Though a promised Travis McGee film is in dry-dock, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt — all of them — flirted seriously with the P.I. role in The Deep Blue Good-By.  Also, over at The Rap Sheet, there’s more interesting stuff on the 100th birthday of John D, especially a gallery of old John D. covers.

Happy birthday, John.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Film Pairing — Inner Directed, Outer Directed Movie Making

I grew up with adventure movies. The action was the plot.  The characters were essentially good or essentially bad.  We rooted for a good outcome. Good prevailed after a suitable period of doubt and fear.  This is the core of American movies in particular, which was all I saw before my teens and a little independence fueled by curiosity. The French not only introduced me to nudity, but to more complex characters.  Lately, American audiences have fallen in love with the cold, barren landscapes of Scandinavian countries and the complex emotions emanating from the darkness of the soul, sometimes ameliorating the significance, or enhancing the understanding of good and evil. Unlike the American products that focus on the external circumstances, the meat of many Scandinavian dramas comes from plunging into depth of character.

Point Break — This is an American film and surprisingly good, though relatively superficial.  I say surprisingly “good” because it is also a surfing and sky diving film with a series of powerful bank-robbing scenes.  Director Kathryn Bigelow makes the odd mix work, putting together an exciting couple of hours of adrenaline-infused sports adventure with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves as criminal cat and FBI mouse on the thriller side.  The film, also featuring Gary Busey and Lori Petty, was released in 1991.  It was a major financial success and has evolved into a cult favorite. Ample male and female pulchritude. This is not to be confused with the remake.

The Absent One — Unlike the outer-directed Point Blank, this intense crime drama is focused on and propelled by investigating the depth of its characters, particularly a neurotic and obsessive cop brought in for cold case murders and a witness traumatized by the murder who is in hiding.  The film, released in 2014, is based on the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen. It was directed by Mikkel Norgaard, and stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbaek, David Dencik and Danica Curic, is set in Denmark. As we have come to suspect of Scandinavian crime films, the movement is slower, the screen is darker and the emotions richer than most of its American counterparts. Incidentally, there are three films in the Department Q series.

What to have while watching these two films: Akvavit or for something lighter, Carlsberg beer, which, very chilled, would also work for the beach scenes in Point Break. For the non-imbibers, we can always fall back on lemon and tonic water.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rant — Crime Reduction for the One Percent: Make Bribery Legal

In the Citizens United Decision, The U.S. Supreme Court somehow came to he conclusion that corporations are people AND money is speech.  To put limits on corporate donations to political candidate is to therefore limit free speech.

It is apparent now — if the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United didn't clue you in before – that bribing government officials is quite all right. The U.S. Supreme Court said so, and has just said so, again. There is no intellectual or common sense argument that justifies these decisions.

Here is what The New York Times had to say then.

It’s that tortured logic that led to the conclusion that money is speech.  We’ve known this for a long time.  Except it used to be said in a less constitutional way that “money talks.” And while practiced widely, it was illegal.  But now that it’s “speech,” bribery is legal.  So if you are the P.R. czar for a big company or an organization that wants to sell guns or pills or food or without regulation you can pay congressional representatives to pass laws to help you succeed.

George W. Bush And Pro-Bribery Justice Alito
I don’t know about you, but my twenty bucks isn’t going to buy much influence; whereas the NRA can buy off congress who might otherwise regulate the sale of military assault weapons to the public; whereas big food corporations can pay off reps to prevent full and honest product labeling; whereas Nestle can continue to use public land for free to sell your water back to you.

If we were naive enough to believe that Citizens (money is speech) United was a one-off, here’s a case (taken from a story by Jon Schwarz at Intercept) that shows this is the direction of the ultra-right leaning Supreme Court, who like their Republican friends believe it’s only fair the rich get richer – no doubt because they are so kind to  the rest of us.

Former Virginia Governor Bob  McDonnell

“In the McDonnell case, it was proven that Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a dietary supplement company, gave McDonnell an engraved Rolex watch, took McDonnell’s wife Maureen on a $20,000 shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Oscar de le Renta in New York, loaned the couple over $100,000, and much more. In return, McDonnell set up meetings for Williams with Virginia officials that Williams used to push for the state to fund studies on the effectiveness of his supplements, pestered his staff about it, let Williams throw a product launch lunch at the governor’s mansion, and allowed Williams to add himself and associates to the guest list for a reception for state healthcare leaders. Williams himself testified that the gifts he gave the McDonnells were ‘a business transaction.’”

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction. The Justices, as well as many of McDonnell’s friends and associates, believe that he simply did what friends do for friends.  We’d like to think that when a judge gets to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, the last chance for justice, you really try to find your higher self.

The Supreme Court is determined to make bribery not only legal but also an enforced right, therefore an integral part of U.S society.

Young Justice Alito is one of the prime players in this mess. I’m not sure he’s bright enough to figure he is largely responsible for legalizing pay-offs.  He actually denies it. He should brush up on his Shakespeare: A rose by any other name….”

Meanwhile, this far right George W. appointee will be around awhile. And if the next president provides him with some allies on the bench we will have a even smaller voice in our government for years to come — unless of course you, like Trump, have a few million tucked away for such incidentals as bribing senators.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

If You Haven’t Already, Binge On Bosch

I’ve read most of Michael Connelly’s books. I haven’t reviewed them here because he gets a giant’s share of crime writing attention as it is.  Deservedly so.  I did praise the film, Lincoln Lawyer on this blog. I loved the book, but I was shocked at how much I liked the movie. I wasn’t a Matthew McConaughey fan, but his incredibly believable portrayal of the too easily compromised attorney was more than convincing. There was a sense of gritty reality to both the book and film that came across.  Magic.  I bought it all.  When the folderol exploded for Amazon’s Bosch series based on Connelly’s books, I was curious, but not impatient to see it. In promotional footage I saw brief flashes of Titus Welliver who would be Bosch and I thought “naaaah.”
Titus Welliver And Jamie Hector

I had been wrong about McConaughey.  And now I have to admit I was wrong about Welliver. So wrong. He is good, walking a thin line between being foolishly human and holding fast to his principles. I binged on the bookseller-gone wild’s bold entrance into programming. The day before the Bosch binge, I watched a big-budget crime-action film with a major star as the driving force.  I found myself predicting every scene, what was going to happen before it happened, and the whole point of the film – revenge – when the super hero killed off a whole contingent of bad guys single-handedly.  All we needed to know about the characters is the bad guys were bad guys, the good guy was not only always right, but he could dodge bullets and deal deathly blows to a well-timed onslaught of attackers.  He must have killed 20 bad guys. With Bosch, I had a sense we were dealing with believable people in dramatic but believable situations.

I guess loving superheroes is as valid as anything else.  We are talking fiction. I certainly don’t mind stylistic approaches to crime cinema.  Sin City is a favorite. Blade Runner is at the top of my favorites list. But if a movie wants to reflect the moment, I need to be convinced the moment really exists. I don’t want to know what’s happening next and I certainly don’t want cardboard characters being shot like targets at a gun range.

Bosch's Boss, Amy Aquino
The Bosch series avoids the pitfalls.  The cinematography is by Eric Allen Edward, who gets L.A. just right, and the actors, especially cops portrayed by Amy Aquino, Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick, bring this often underplayed realism to a suspenseful story-line.  The story or stories were developed by Eric Overmyer who, I think, smartly decided not to do the obvious, simply put each of Connelly’s books on screen, but instead decided to use an amalgamation of some of Connelly’s books for each season.  Also smart was having Connelly himself close by for the writing and production. I’m told that writers are often on the lowest rung of hell in Hollywood. This should help right this wrong way ship.

For those unfamiliar with Connelly’s most popular protagonist, the first season sets up police homicide detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch as he searches for a serial killer. The story echoes or perhaps pays homage to the darker turn by author James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia. Whatever the intent, it works well, giving us the background necessary to understand Harry’s underlying bitterness.

Season two is a little slower than one, providing a bit more backstory and depth of character. It is also not as gritty and tough as “The Wire.” Understandable. This isn’t front-line Baltimore. These are L.A. stories being told. They are as much about the soft life in the bedroom as the tough life on the streets.  I’ve only visited Los Angeles — or as some might call it, ‘a whole bunch of suburbs in search of a city. A few days here and there on business and visiting friends.  After 20 episodes of Bosch, I feel like I’ve lived there. And now I do, sort of.  I’m a couple of hours east in Palm Springs.

Amazon says it is definite: There will be a season three. When is it going to be available? No one seems to know, but those more in the know than I suggest a premier in early 2017.

If you binge and need some refreshments as the hours go by, remember Bosch orders beer.  Flat Tire.  But we’ll spend most of our time in Southern California. It’s hot. Lemonade will do.





Thursday, June 30, 2016

Film Pairings — Crime Tales of Two Cities

Films can take us where we’re not likely to go on our own. And sometimes that’s a blessing.  Here are two quick trips to places, one we, as Americans, were once unable to visit and one we might not want to get to know very well.

3 Days In Havana – Though I’m sure some critics disagree, we are treated to clever shades of noir in this short and twisty crime film. However Havana is the star and makes this quirky, often wacky little film worthwhile.  Gil Bellows directed and starred in this light-hearted, dark humored 2013 release. Most of the kudos go to the cinematographers, Doug Schwartz and Blaine Ackerly.

Metro Manila – And now for something completely different.  While there is footage showing the beauty of the Philippines and while the film  certainly reveals what life is like in the Philippines, Metro Manila is, like most great movies, a reflection of something universal. No matter what you believe to be right what would you do if backed into a corner and you had to feed your family?  Sean Ellis, co writer (along with Frank E. Flowers) directed this 2013 film about a family no longer able to eek out a living on a farm and who believe their only hope is the big city of Manila. But the young farmer, his wife and two kids must start at the bottom of the economic ladder.  They soon find themselves in a ghetto within a ghetto and scammed out of what little they have by others more desperate and certainly more seasoned than they are. To feed the children, she takes a job as a bar girl and he might have made a friend who just might guide him through the perils of metro Manila..  Are things turning around? Might the family be destined for a good life after all?  Sometimes the cards are stacked against those who only want to live a good and just life.  Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega and John Arcilla head a talented cast in this excellent international, award-winning film about the making of a criminal.

To accompany the double feature: One of the things Cuba and the Philippines have in common is rum.  It’s summer.  It’s hot.  Rum and tonic and a twist of lime would work for both films.    Even if you opt out of the alcohol portion of the program, think citrus. Tonic optional.