Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Film Pairings —Pierce Brosnan: One Comedy, One Not So Funny

Salma Hayek With Brosnan
I’m a Pierce Brosnan fan. Not obsessive, but I have the sense that if he is in a film, while it may not be a classic, it will be entertaining.  Ghost Writer, and Matador were examples of Brosnan at his best. For me – and I know how debated this is – he made a fine Bond, splitting the difference between Sean Connery’s earthy and Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek portrayals.  The two Brosnan movies tonight do not tap any deeper level of acting skill than a Bond film requires, and the movies will not give you any greater understanding of the universe, but if you are looking for an escape from the daily grind you could do far worse:

After The Sunset — Lots of fun.  We have a charming diamond thief, a beautiful and smart woman, a rogue FBI Agent, an exotic local island, a quirky local gangster and an extremely desirable diamond.  In addition to Brosnan, we have Salma Hayek, Woody Harrelson and Don Cheadle, all of whom perform admirably in roles that fit well, but are not especially demanding. Released in 2004, this heist comedy was directed by Brett Ratner.

Brosnan As The November Man
November Man — The film opens in a sunny seaside town. In moments, the fun is over. This is a gritty violent, spy film. Reviews when it was first released in 2014 were not entirely favorable. That may be explainable.  It is not as splashy as a Bond film and not as subtle and wily as movies based on John le Carré novels. November Man, based on a series of spy novels by Bill Granger, falls somewhere in between and works just fine on a smaller screen. The story raises questions about the use of killing as part of the exercise of some larger justice. Pierce Brosnan is the central figure, an ex-spy lured back into the game to protect a loved one.  It wouldn’t be a spy plot if there weren’t enough twists and betrayals to fill a couple of hours and keep us guessing. Turns out we can’t trust the Russians or the Americans. Who knew?  Directed by Roger Donaldson, the cast includes fine performances by Luke Bracey as an ambitious young CIA agent who sees Brosnan’s character variously as a hero and a devastating disappointment, and Olga Kurylenko as the hunted, the only one who is able to put all the pieces together.

If you want an accompaniment to the evening’s entertainment, something light and tropical (don’t forget the umbrellas) is suitable for After The Sunset. However you may wish to switch to something darker and more sinister for the November Man as the setting eventually moves from a lush tropical isle to a bleak Eastern Europe.  If your spirits need to be unspirited, switch from coconut water to a good, strong Coca Cola.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Writing – Not Ripped From The Headlines, But Stolen From The Ignored

Richard Burton and Peter Firth in Equus

Playwright Peter Shaffer wrote the award-winning Equus after reading a story about a young man blinding six horses. Disregarding what might have been the true motive, Shaffer instead created a fictional story in which a psychiatrist becomes a mind detective and the audience witnesses the tragedy of the cure being worse than the disease.  I didn’t see the play (the original or revival), but I have seen The Richard Burton- Peter Firth film version and it is stunning.

My point is that the news —and not necessarily those events that make the headlines – may answer the question readers often ask writers.  Where do you get your ideas? From life. Maybe even a filler story in your local paper. Though that is rarely my source, there was one very short news article that sparked the plot of a full-length novel. I wrote it without knowing the facts of the actual crime, but merely the premise. And that sparked the question, “how could this be true?”  And off I went.

There is one recent news story out there that should have been big news and seems like the basis for a fine high-society, British-style mystery by a writer knows his or her way around families like the Rockefellers.   The Waltons have the money, but not the pedigree. Nor do the Kochs. However, there are so many angles to the transplant story and the legendary family that it could be the source of several mysteries.

I can’t say the Rockefeller heart story was ignored.  After all, it wasn’t all that far under the stack of “if it bleeds, it leads” new stories.  Several sources pop up when Googled.  It’s true.  It’s fantastic. I am amazed that it didn’t receive more attention, especially while our country is engaged in a heated political battle over economic inequality. Six hearts, for goodness sake. I’m not saying he’s wrong to receive them. But it says a lot about the way our country works. The issue, not Rockefeller specifically, just the luck and the largesse of it, promises to be the central focus of the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Six Hearts And Holding
Yes, David Rockefeller, 99, has received six new hearts, so far. The latest transplant surgery was performed at his home. He is now recuperating on his private island.  His nearly $3 billion in self-worth has its roots in family ties to Standard Oil and Chase Bank. His family name is a synonym for rich and powerful.

Being a touch cynical as I am, I wonder what keeps him going. Perhaps it is just a fiery, passionate spirit for life, perhaps a desire to make sure his philanthropic philosophy is adhered to, or to piss off aging and frustrated family members who feel they’ve waited long enough. Certainly there are a number of Rockefellers eager to be the family matriarch or patriarch. Also, any number of foundations that are on the bequest list might be impatient for that chunk of promised dough.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of hearts as an example of what the super-wealthy can buy provokes all sorts of public arguments over the haves and have nots. What a background for a murder drama. Aren’t most murder mysteries morality plays?

I have no personal animus toward the senior Mr. Rockefeller. Get well, David.  However some clever mystery writer should use this remarkable story as grist for the mill.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Commentary — Fiction, Art, Music: Perchance To Dream Or Live In Another World

I’ve wandered into this territory before.  I understand dreams that feature family and friends and other people who are major players in our lives.  I am amazed, however, at the mechanism that puts them together in some sort of narrative. I often enjoy the experience even when the stories are surreal and often try to make sense of what the subconscious stitched together. Is there a way to interpret dreams to provide meaning or gain insight into our lives? Unfortunately, the ephemeral little stories easily slip from my grasp.

I also love those moments when I spend time with my dog Casey, though he’s been gone now quite a few years.  It’s always a pleasant visit. My old Karmann Ghia returns regularly. And sometimes the theater is mind blowing in an — excuse me – awesome way. Blockbuster dreams, with special effects that seem to defy the laws of physics.

On the other hand I am completely mystified by the appearance of people in these nighttime dramas whom I’ve never met, yet they have full-blown personalities and we somehow interact in places I’ve never been.

We are likely unaware of the many messages our brains receive while we are doing something else.  I suspect we take in scents, fleeting peripheral images, the brief breeze on our skin and bites of sound that go directly to the subconscious. These too must be processed and quite likely they are stored in some fashion.  Maybe they too are retrieved and thrown into the mix when the Brain Studio composes and releases its nightly productions.

As a fiction writer I’ve consciously made up people and places and events. While I may have, from time to time, borrowed traits from existing humans and certainly real-life settings, I seem to make others up out of whole cloth or at least I thought I did.  Flattering myself now, I’ve done so at least somewhat convincingly at times.  So, why is it a stretch to accept these appearances of previously unknown characters in my dreams? Perhaps they come from the collection of those inadvertent, consciously unrecorded sensations.

I suppose because my mind is writing books somewhat consciously, the ego says, “I did it.” But, while we dream, the brain creates the characters, fixes the time, determines the setting and puts the events in motion without my conscious intervention. In a sense, “I didn’t do it. My brain did it.”

If it can do that, what else can it do on its own or without my so-called conscious direction? This says we are not solely our conscious selves, the self we know.  We are also someone whom, to a greater or lesser extent, we don’t know.

Obviously, this other mind, sub mind, alter ego – call it what you will – is capable of making choices, perhaps piecing together snippets of sensations we weren’t aware we were experiencing and, in turn, creating a world that not only seems foreign to us, but is.  Is it possible, then, for that other (alter, sub) to take over?

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, also known as multiple personality) is not new and it is controversial. Many respected researchers and academics discredit DID as a legitimate mental illness. For those who do accept it, the diagnosis is often reserved for those who have experienced childhood abuse or who have been victims of other extreme circumstances in which disassociation is an act of self-preservation.  My little commentary isn’t meant to jump into this particular fray, though fiction (mystery, thriller, horror) writers have found fertile ground here.

Instead, my comments are meant to help me flesh out a fictional character in a book I’m working on. This has been an exercise in purposefully tapping my subconscious and trying to figure out why he may have the doubts he has about about who or what is controlling his actions. Writers might ask this question about his or her work. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Pairings – Living And Dying By The Code

We are our minds and captives of our lands, our culture and the stories we are told — at least those we believe.  Deadly Code (also released as Siberian Education), and The Drop show humans who cannot get beyond the limits of the code of the culture that shaped them. One film is set in the foreign country of Siberia, the other in a foreign place known as Brooklyn.

If author Dennis Lehane didn’t like The Drop, he would have no one to blame but himself.  He wrote the short story on which it was based, wrote the screenplay for the film and then a novel by the same name based on the movie. He squeezed every drop from the plot, as well he should. The Drop is flawless.  It is dark, moody, surprisingly twisty with correspondingly top-notch acting and cinematography. Tom Hardy portrays an easy-to-forget bartender in a tough part of Brooklyn. He is seemingly under the control of failed gangster boss James Gandolfini in what unfortunately turned out to be the actor’s last role. Naomi Rapaceis is a woman trying to survive abuse. Michaël R. Roskam directed this tough, expertly crafted crime film released last year.

While The Drop inhabits the insular culture of Brooklyn, The Deadly Code takes us to a place far more foreign, but also bound by the code of its culture. This is a bleak look at an occupied people seeking to hold on to their identity in the midst of the clash.  It is a story that epitomizes the constant clash of cultures throughout the world — all little tribes, separated by their own stories of the truth. Fear and hate cause endless victimization and retaliation. Though there seems to be some debate about the specific truth of this particular story, there appears to be a larger truth that unsurprisingly the film, though thought-provoking as it is, doesn’t or can’t express) and certainly can’t solve. John Malkovich does a masterful job of being keeper of the moral principles and storyteller for the oppressed culture.  Gabriele Salvatores directed the film released in 2013 based on an unpublished novel by Nicolai Linin. The Deadly Code is a good film on every level and provides a glimpse into a world we rarely see.

To accompany the films, there’s no need for anything high-end.  I’m tempted to suggest you blend the endless down & out bar scenes of The Drop with the snowy Siberian weather and ramshackle villages of Deadly Code by suggesting stale popcorn and Vodka.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Notes — Killing Frost Released Today, Reviews Coming In

Blatant Self-Promotion:  Today is Launch Day.  This is the official release date for Killing Frost, Indianapolis P.I. Deets Shanahan’s last case. I apologize in advance for posting the news everywhere I can today. Some of you may get this more than once; but I promise to contain myself once the day is over.

The goal here is to sell books.  On the other hand, hardback prices are steep. Remember, your local library is your friend.  Let them know and they will get it for their collection and you can borrow it. If you’d like to purchase a copy and want to support your local, independent bookstore and it’s not on the shelf, they can order it for you. It’s also available through regular on-line booksellers as well.

In 1990, Stone Veil, my first Deets Shanahan mystery novel was nominated for a Shamus Award. Since then, there have been ten more novels in the series with positive nods along the way from The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Deadly Pleasures Magazine, The Houston Post, The Indianapolis Star, Mystery News, Thrilling Detective and The Library Journal.

Killing Frost celebrates Shanahan’s 11th mystery and caps the series in its 25th year.

Killing Frost — Synopsis

At seventy-two, Deets Shanahan, still reeling from brain surgery is ready to check out.’  But fate has other plans. As he waits for the arrival of a mysterious, unwanted, yet insistent new client, he spies a car pull in his driveway.  From his window, he sees a woman head toward his front door. This is the first time he sees her and the last time he sees her alive.
Her death leaves too many questions. What did she want with Shanahan? Why was she killed? And what can he, in his condition, do about it? Shanahan’s obsessive search for answers will uncover a disturbing trail of greed, lies, ambition, sibling rivalry and police corruption.
Twenty-five years ago Shanahan embarked on his first case. Killing Frost is likely his last, a touching story of age, infirmity — and love.

Killing Frost — Early Reviews

“The real prize here is the tone, which Tierney keeps expertly hovering between compassionate valediction and civic outrage.”  — Kirkus Reviews

“This entry is a tribute to human decency and one man’s refusal to give up in the face of age and inevitable physical deterioration.”  — Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

An Indianapolis native, I now live in San Francisco, the setting for a second P.I. series — the Paladino-Lang mysteries and for a new mystery novella, Blue Dragon, which will be released this fall. For more information visit www.ronaldtierney.com.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Writing — A Few Thoughts On Solving Crime The Old Fashioned Way

NCIS — Top-Rated Crime TV

It appears that every popular TV show dealing with crime has the same ingredients.  There is a team, with a tough curmudgeonly leader who has a tragic past, a couple of younger, attractive action members, a colorful eccentric medical examiner and a funny, lovable, quirky computer geek or two who, with just a couple of quick taps on the keyboard, can come up with whatever is needed precisely when it is needed. Crime solved.

I appreciate the modern approach.  Even though actual crime solving lags behind its TV counterparts technologically, pursuit of criminals through DNA, digital tracking devices, cell phone towers and computer hacking is real and increasingly common.

However, because I am of a certain age – the age of uncertainty, I suspect – the only challenge for the modern writer is not so much the ability to deliver a clever plot, but a hungry technological mind. When all else fails, the computer will match an overlooked hair with the DNA on a computer match. This puts readers, who haven’t the high-tech background, at a great disadvantage when attempting to solve the crime along with the on-screen protagonists.  Colombo’s brilliant villains don’t stand a chance.  And Perry Mason loses his cases before the trial even begins.

What I miss most in contemporary crime fiction (movies, books and TV) is character development — not just of the protagonists, but also of other characters important or who should be important to the story. The underlying theme of a really good story is about the depth of as well as the failure or survival of character itself.  I believe the reason books like The Maltese Falcon or L.A. Confidential suggests that readers rightfully want a tight mystery with a well-developed motive for the crime, we also want there to be something larger at stake.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Confessions — Writing On Steroids

I’m not a sports fanatic, but I do follow baseball. I was a Cubs fan while I lived in Indianapolis and a Giants and A’s fan soon after I moved to San Francisco. I followed and admired Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.  When the accusations came down that both power hitters had burnished and tarnished their records by taking steroids, I had to think about what that meant.

People alter their minds and bodies all the time. Botox. Body lotions. Blueberries.  Even if that record-breaking left fielder isn’t taking hormones, he is probably on a special diet and is trained in a special way to maximize his performance. In a similar reach-for-the-stars situation, did the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd drop some acid to reach new heights in music? There wouldn’t even be some forms of music without drugs. Has it made a difference in how we regard those who excelled?

In the case of Bonds, there had to be some excellent, inherent skill and a tremendous amount of devotion and work to achieve what he achieved with or without chemicals. Does it matter if he took a growth hormone?  Is a work of art a work of art if the artist was on mescaline?  Is a prize rose disqualified because the grower used a certain fertilizer? And what about those champion pumpkins? All that we do involves chemicals. Our bodies and minds interact with chemicals all the time — food, some call it. Models and sumo wrestlers go on special diets.  More protein, more carbs. At what point is messing around with your body immoral? I don’t wish to sit in judgment, though, these days I prefer it to standing.

Now, my confession:  I write on steroids.  My just released book was written while I was on steroids. I’m on steroids right now.  My writing used to be fueled by caffeine and nicotine and, by the end of the day, more than a couple of glasses of wine.  Many of the great writers couldn’t function without whiskey or marijuana or both. Burroughs and Ginsburg and Hunter Thompson wouldn’t have dillydallied with something as lightweight as wine and cigarettes. The legendary writers and artists who spent time in Paris treated themselves to wormwood — Absinthe. None of this was good for the consumer.  But we’ve decided to indict our sports stars for doing whatever it took to achieve the highest form of their art while we romanticize the use of drugs by artists as an exciting and incredible part of the way they lived. A sacrifice for their art? I don’t know.  How are we supposed to measure these things?
Before the arcs descend, I should explain. I spent a good portion of 2011 and 2012 recovering from surgeries — one lung surgery and two brain surgeries, the latter leaving me with a condition called persistent radiation necrosis — swelling and inflammation of the brain. During most of that time I wrote in fits and starts.  I rode the ups and downs caused by attempts to control the condition by medical professionals experimenting with various levels of various steroids.  Sometimes I sat and stared at the wall. This was the zombie-in-the-chair phase. 

Then there was the steroid bat-out-of–hell phase.  Despite motor nerve impairment of my left side, I would suddenly have more energy than I knew what to do with. My mind raced. I didn’t have the presence of that mind to think through a new novel, but I worked. I self-published e-book and trade paperback versions of four previously published early novels and a new novella I had completed before my extended medical entanglements. I also started this blog and completed the first and very rough draft of an autobiography using the extra punch of the otherwise unpleasant drug. A veritable whirlwind was I.

All this was without the use of my left hand. Typing was and is a clown act. The fingers on the left flail about while the fingers on the right do precisely what they’re told and then correct the missteps of the left. Typos reign because of this half-assed dance, but also multiply because of the strange blind spots in my left eye. Proof reading has never been my strong suit, but this is ridiculous.

Though the overall brain condition persists, the steroids work well enough and they are likely an on-going part of my life to keep the swelling at a minimum.  Possibly, the appropriate sustaining dosage has been found. Now I sleep a lot, nod off, nap. But when I’m awake I am or seem to be surprisingly clear-headed. And I write.  And I write and I write.  I am compelled as if by a mild madness to do so.

I am certainly no Barry Bonds, no major league all-star of the writing world. I’m still on a farm team.  But how am I to weigh the effects of the steroids on what I create? However good or bad they are, are my accomplishments valued less because I’m taking steroids? I don’t ask this to get reassurance or sympathy. I’m fine with things as they are. In fact, dealing with some of the weird effects of my condition is fascinating. In many cases I must consciously engineer movement when dealing with things on the left side.  New worlds have opened. Getting out of a chair at a restaurant requires serious forethought. It is a feat of engineering. I must consciously use the hinges that are elbows, knees and and ankles and bones as levers and braces, switching from a wayward left set of machinery to a predicable, intuitive right.  The fact that I am unaware of my blind spot even though I know I have one and even know roughly where it is remains puzzling. I would have expected there to be darkness where I could not see.  It is not the case. I think I see everything that’s there; but I don’t. That notion has broader ramifications. I see the world differently. This isn’t a bad thing for a writer.

So aside from the extra pounds and a round face I can happily blame on steroid side effects rather than my lack of discipline, all is well. Life is fine. But I remain curious. What I’d like is an answer to the question I originally asked.  Put the official baseball rules aside for a moment. There are no such rules for artists, dancers, musicians and writers.  In the overall scheme of things, even if he took steroids, did Barry Bonds really cheat? What about athletes who have personal trainers and nutritionists? What about psychoactive drugs — anti-depression and anti-anxiety prescriptions? I could see how anti-anxiety medication could help a shortstop.  Might such pills be considered performance enhancers as well? What about so-called natural supplements as if anything in this world isn’t natural? Deadly maybe, but not unnatural.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Pairings — The Oddness Of Other People

Around Christmas each year my parents would force (yes “force”) my brother and I to visit their old friends and their families, bringing with us a tin of mother’s oatmeal cookies. The older folks (25 or so) would talk of old times while we kids who did not know each other, would stare at each other with controlled disdain. I remember how odd it all was.  I remember other people’s houses had their own smells and the furniture was, in my mind, depressing. The cookies they served were just wrong. How could people live like this?  Strange places, strange kids, strange parents. I was always glad when this awkward holiday tradition was over and we were home where things weren’t always good, but where they were comfortable.

Thank goodness, I’m over that particular childhood peculiarity. Generally I love the diversity that exists in the human species.  But watching these two movies I revisited this sense of unease, prompted by the oddness of others, especially others in an eternal state of disconnection. This double feature is an odd pairing, two films inhabited by people who live in bubbles that glance each other in passing.

Foxcatcher validates the cliché, “truth is stranger than fiction.”  John du Pont, ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist as well as having a wrestling obsession is a member of the du Pont dynasty,  probably America’s richest family at the time. As John Steve Carrel) provides a portrait of a convincingly strange and needy, gun-toting loser whose mother had to buy him a friend when he was young.  Nothing much changed as he grew older. Only now he could buy his own friend.  He sought out, manipulated and essentially bought a young and vulnerable Olympic wrestler ostensibly to groom for the Olympics. The motive is iffy and subject to interpretation.  The new protégé, (Channing Tatum), has self-worth problems of his own.  He grew up in the shadow of his more talented older brother (Mark Ruffalo) and welcomed du Pont’s attention.  The new emotionally wounded friends were destined to destroy each other. Vanessa Redgrave played the cold, wealthy matriarch who could barely tolerate being in the same room as her son.  Bennett Miller directed this critically hailed film. The cast is flawless.

American Beauty validates another cliché, that truth is often found in fiction. Away from the chilled and rarefied air of the the upper class in Foxcatcher, we descend into the middle class, its hunger for conformity, its silly materially measured success and its great capacity for and encouragement of insincerity. Kevin Spacey plays a man bored with his own mediocrity and the values of the living dead who surround him.  He wants out. While his current life has left its share of collateral damage, getting out isn’t without wreckage. He has a neurotic daughter, a disconnected wife and damaged neighbors. With help from a solid cast  Annette Bening, Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley among them — the film reminds us that even with salvation, we don’t get out alive.  Sam Mendes directed the multiple award-winning 1999 classic.

Both films provide a smooth but far from simple glimpse into the complicated lives of their inhabitants. There are no simple answers.  Right and wrong are not self-evident. As crime films of a sort, guilt and innocence are nonetheless hard to parse. Both are movies you might like to savor or discuss. Both, it seems to me, take us to unpleasant worlds, its inhabitants bumping into each other blindly.  Perhaps you should sip your wine until the credits role.