Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Film Pairing – What Am I? Chopped Liver?

Sometimes it’s all right to head over to Burger King for their Big Fish Filet with cheese, and some fries.  I am rarely disappointed in those moments because it was what I craved, and it’s really hard to screw up in the kitchen.  However, it really can’t match that fantastic seafood restaurant where the fresh catch of the day is expertly prepared with just the right sauce and the perfect wine, where dinner is all it could possibly be.  Maybe more.

Here are two films representative of this opening paragraph.

Tommy LeeJones and Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy
Double Jeopardy — A conventional thriller for an escapist evening.  Ashley Judd, Bruce Greenwood, and Tommy Lee Jones do what’s expected to keep even an exhausted mind on the plot.  The question quickly becomes did Judd’s husband feign death in order to disappear or did she kill him? And if it’s the former, what is she going to do about it? This is Judd’s film, and she handles the action lead very well. While there is some question about the legitimacy of the premise in a situation like this, suspending disbelief should be easy enough. The scenery is great. The film, directed by Bruce Beresford, was released in 1999 and was a financial success.

Margaret — Now, for something completely different. This was a film that nearly didn't get made, was edited, and re-edited, rewritten and came in originally at five hours.  Then, for all practical purposes, went nowhere.  The version I saw was the Netflix DVD, which was two and a half hours of genius. I suspect you haven’t seen it because it has had limited showings, and despite its powerful cast you might know nothing about it.

Matt Damon and Anna Pacquin in Margaret
A young college student, Lisa tries to get the attention of a bus driver on his Manhattan route.  Perhaps taking it as a flirtation, the driver pays too much attention to the distraction, probably runs a red light and kills a pedestrian.  The woman dies in the arms of the college student.  Initially everyone was content to write all of this off as a horrible accident. But Lisa can’t move on.  She will let no one else move on either, including us. This is a serious morality tale filmed in stark reality.  All good deeds are punished.  All attempts at fairness and justice are compromised by greed or bureaucracy or both. Even so, right and wrong are not so easily discernible as Lisa learns.

I want to see more by cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski. It is possible for New York settings to end up as a cliché. Not here. Fresh, busy, elegant and sometimes scary.   The film was released in 2011 and was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Anna Pacquin played Lisa. She was superb as was the rest of the cast:  J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, and Allison Janney. Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon provided brief but essential support.

Though Margaret is only marginally a “crime” film, crimes have been committed.  However both films are rare in the sense that as crime films they are not dominated by male characters.

To accompany the films, why not some beer and a pizza for the first?  Or chopped liver.  Perhaps some wine with the second. But go slow. Margaret will have you rethinking what’s right and wrong or at least questioning the moral compromises you’ve made.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Notes — On Writing And Reading And Making Films

My morning ritual includes coffee with blogs – Bill Crider’s, Ed Gorman’s and The Rap Sheet. A couple of days ago each reported the news that the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men) might turn Ross Macdonald’s Black Money into a movie. The combination of MacDonald and the brothers makes both the book and the potential film irresistible. I’ll have to wait for the movie, but not the book.

Ross Macdonald
I’m embarrassed to say that despite the fact that nearly every crime fiction aficionado rates Macdonald right up there with Hammett and Chandler, I’ve never read him. It’s inexcusable, I know. The only thing I can say is that Macdonald died shortly before my interest in mystery writing seriously began.  And as is the fate of many great writers and artists, there is often a brief dip in their popularity or notoriety after they die and before they are “rediscovered.” To my discredit, I simply was not aware of this giant until midway through my own career.

The blessing is that there are likely enough of his novels to keep me pleasantly engaged during the rest of my existence. Actually, there are plenty of mysteries by great writers of the recent past, living legends like Crider and Gorman, not to mention books by those just coming into their own.  I will run out time before I run out of books.

Meanwhile, back to Black Money: There are novels that can be textbooks for people who want to understand the history of the genre, or who are beginning to write or looking for a refresher course.  This is one.  Here is an excerpt:

She looked around the room, at the worn carpet, the faded flowers in the wallpaper, the bedside lamp with the scorched paper shade, as I if she were considering her relationship to it.  Externally she didn’t belong here at all.   She had the kind of style that could be bought, but not suddenly at Bullocks or I. Magnin; the brown pouch on the bed with the gold tassels looked like Paris.  But she belonged internally to the room, the way a prisoner belongs to his cell.  She had done time in rooms like this and it was settling in again.

What Macdonald did here was create a vivid narrative that established the setting while simultaneously revealing character and mood.

Though I had not read Ross Macdonald before, I’m partial to writers who do what he does. I want things to move quickly but I also want to see the writer’s painting. I want my senses to be worked. I want to feel, even in my impatience, what there is to be felt.

When I stopped at the Bagshaw mailbox, I could see the ocean below, hung on the horizon like unevenly blued washing.  I had climbed a few hundred feet but I could feel the change in temperature, as if I had moved nearer to the noon sun.

Macdonald has verbal takes that are very much his own, personal and delightful quirks, as well as strange, offbeat humor that mingles with stark, straightforward prose and then poetry.

The question took him by surprise.  For a moment his face was trying on attitudes.  It settled on a kind of false boredom behind which his intelligence sat and watched me.


But she went on answering unspoken questions painfully, and obsessively as if the past had stirred and was talking through her in its sleep.

The movie, or proposed movie:  After the news broke, subsequent reports suggest the brothers have only signed on to write the screenplay. I have often been disappointed with what Hollywood does to perfectly fine books.  Here we have relatively short novel, about movie length.  The time period is clearly defined, as are the characters. The dialogue is very clearly in place. There is very little internal narrative.  It’s all on the page.  It is detailed and specific, deceptively so because Macdonald’s writing is so very simple and direct. Why waste the Coen brothers’ talents? It’s the overall direction, keeping the mood that’s needed not the dialogue or the plot.

The Coen Brothers are among my favorite directors.  I’d go see anything they make. I love movies. Perhaps more than books. When I read any book, it’s very much like a movie running through my brain. With most books, I can fathom the idea that there could be more than my own interpretation. But most books leave more to interpretation than Black Money. It is often necessary for a director or screenwriter to fill in or add nuance. Not here, I repeat.  This is a matter of casting and cinematography. The brothers should direct not rewrite.

If someone wants something other than the book, why bother with the book?  Write an original screenplay.

However getting back to what writers can gain from his work. To me, whether you like Macdonald type books or not, a writer should strive to be able write a book that could be filmed as is, a book that a smart director would not tamper with. That’s the art.

What do the brothers do here? Is it possible that Hollywood will see that most of the work is done? Are the brothers rebellious enough to simply put the book on film, bringing visual truth to the word?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Film Pairing – Mystery Writers Writing About Mystery Writers

There are two Sleuths, one with Lawrence Olivier as a sophisticated and revered best-selling thriller writer and Michael Caine as…as…well we don’t quite know as the games begin.  Hair stylist.  In the second Sleuth, it is Michael Caine who is the older and well-practiced game player. To keep things complicated (we’ll sort them out), Caine again plays a once-revered writer – this time a playwright in Deathtrap. I’m partial to movies portraying writers because writers tend to view themselves as sophisticated elegant, witty, and wise. Of course we are.

These are three films that seem, two intentionally, to be from the same seed:  Sleuth1972, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and written by Anthony Shaffer; Deathtrap 1982, written by Ira Levin and directed by Sidney Lumet; and Sleuth 2007 directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Harold Pinter. Unfortunately Olivier’ 1972 version isn’t available, so I’ll simply take the overwhelming number of positive reviews and its ample number of Academy Awards as a recommendation.  Unfortunately, the 1972 version is for another night.  For tonight there’s just the two:

Reeve & Caine In Deathtrap
Deathtrap (1982) — A long-running Broadway play, Deathtrap is an enjoyable way to spend an evening. It’s talky, of course and small, perfect for a TV screen. In addition to Michael Caine, we are reminded of Christopher Reeve’s good looks and acting skills.  Also, his daring.  One of the first on-screen male-to-male kisses (between Caine and Reeve] was the scandal of the times and purportedly cost the studio  $10 million in lost revenue. This is almost a “how-to” create a mystery plot with twists, surprises, misdirection and reverses, while also making fun of mystery conventions in general. At one point Reeve’s character claims to be writing a more “important’ novel than the thriller, which he claims is all plot with two-dimensional characters.

Sleuth (2007) — At one point in the more conventional Deathtrap, we see a deceitfully worshipful Christopher Reeve enter the aging playwright’s rustic cabin.  He says, “Wow, it’s beautiful. Michael Caine, the playwright, is obviously bored. He says he would prefer something more high-tech. In Sleuth we find another aging writer, this time Caine as a worldly mystery novelist, in his very high tech home about to engage in another game, this time with what first appears to be an innocent Jude Law.

Law & Caine In Sleuth
Much like the fencing match between Reeve and Caine, here we have a more abstract fencing match between Law and Caine.  And while Caine has no problem filling the frame in any movie he makes, Law chews the scenery in this one.   He does a masterful if not conspicuous job of changing character, from tough, boorishly masculine to flirtatiously bitchy. Law goes for broke and one can’t not watch him.  There are really only three characters here.  Caine, Law and the house, all of them showing off, keeping us riveted to a mystery that isn’t, a crime that never happens.  That, in itself, is fascinating.

In sleuth Caine drinks lots of Vodka and Law lots of Scotch, though a highly disturbed Law eventually guzzles Caine’s Vodka. Do what you will in the privacy of your own home.  As I’ve mentioned before a glass of ice with lemon and tonic can create a sense of behaving badly without behaving badly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Last of the Shanahans

I expected Bullet Beach to be the last book in the Shanahan series.  It was to be a quiet good bye to the old P.I. with a gathering of some of the regulars at the bar after the last mysterious thread of Shanahan’s life had been tied up.  The end would reflect the romance that brought and kept Shanahan and Maureen together all those years. Ten books. A nice, round number
Through all the adventures, I played up age – old age to be specific – as a major aspect of Shanahan’s character. It was one of the qualities that made him distinctive.  The other thing I did, sometimes well, sometimes not, was deal with a social issue against which the fabric of the mystery took place.  Shanahan didn't preach. The story had to carry the burden of any moral or philosophic theme. Having some social relevance was important to me as was recording slices of time in Indianapolis history. I wanted my stories to have a sense of place and time.
Then a couple of things happened. Perhaps the one with the most personal impact was that the parity between my good health and Shanahan’s changed drastically and suddenly. Many have had it worse, but I hit a brick wall at 70. A string of health problems changed the way I lived. One of the truths that came from those experiences was the realization I had not taken Shanahan very far into old age.  Or, at minimum, I had not given him the challenges that many people his age face. I wrote a novella that put a mystery against the fabric of age and disability as I had done with social issues in previous books. It worked. It’s not a bad novella.  Maybe some day it will be published. However there were other issues gnawing at me, and I felt I had only made a light-hearted story of it — a mere costume change in Shanahan’s life, rather than an examination of what it meant to suddenly loose a significant number of faculties and still deal with living. And still, there were issues beyond his own that needed tending.  
Killing Frost, the unintended 11th book, came out of this re-examination. And, from a personal, writing perspective, it exploded on the page. I couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with my thoughts.  The fact that typing itself was a physical challenge didn't help, but couldn’t stop me.

I’m pretty sure that my publisher, Severn House, thought Bullet Beach was the last Shanahan as well, though no one announced it. Thank goodness.  I felt strongly about this new book and, as it happened, a reasonable publishing date put it at the series’ 25th anniversary.  It seemed to me that it was meant to be. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Film Pairing – Young, Clueless And In Over Their Heads

These are two fine movies though perhaps for different reasons.  Bad Turn Worse is clever crime fiction. Common is a call for justice.  Both focus on the young and foolish and a single decision that will change their lives forever.
Bad Turn Worse  — While intimate in mood, a twisted sexually charged, little story plays out. Because it looks easy, B.J., a charming, but cocky young man steals a chunk of money from his boss, a small-time gangster.  B.J., his girl, and his best friend spend it all on a weekend getaway. There are problems.  It wasn’t the small-time gangster’s money after all, but a big-time gangster’s. And the charming cocky kid’s girlfriend is really in love with the best friend. They are having an affair. All these secrets slowly surface requiring payback in various forms. The drama unfolds in outback Texas, a popular locale for sleazy rural noir.  Well-acted by MacKenzie Davis, Logan Huffman, Jeremy Allen White, William Devane and Mark Pellegrino, it is directed by the Hawkins brothers. Zeke and Simon and released in 2013.

Common — This is an important film with a message; but its importance and its almost documentary presentation doesn’t undermine its drama and suspense.  In the slightly more civilized world of  JohnJo O’Shea who lives in a small town in England, it is the law that is the villain of the piece.  Apparently, there is an enforcement interpretation in their legal system called “joint enterprise.”  In the case of murder, anyone however tangentially involved, is as guilty as the person who actually does the deed. On the surface, the idea may not seem problematical. However, this film points up a serious defect in the justice of it all.  

The film is designed to indict the joint enterprise practice, and director, David Blair, has taken an almost documentary approach to the project.  It works.  We feel as if we are eavesdropping on a family victimized by the prosecutorial practice.  Johnjo believes he is driving three of his brother’s friends to pick up a pizza. The others know that the purpose of the pizza parlor visit is to harass one of is patrons. Instead one member of the makeshift gang kills an innocent bystander —an incident unrelated to the intended bullying. Yet all of them must stand trial for murder, including JohnJo. This is a great piece of drama and journalism.  The entire cast is stellar. It is important to note that there are those who defend “joint enterprise” as an essential tool for the prosecution.  Watch the 2014, 90-minute film and decide.

The cracked clay of the first film might leave your throat dry.  Certainly, Mexican beer — Pacifico, Superior, Corona — would be appropriate, though you should probably be older than most of the cast to buy it.  A switch to something heartier for the second might be best for the film set in a chilly Great Britain. Maybe some fish & chips too.