Saturday, April 30, 2016

Film Pairings — Primers: Something to Watch Before The Primaries

Gore Vidal
This is a political posting. I’ve committed the blog to primarily talk about crime books and crime films. I see no real distinction between crime and the politics practiced today, perhaps the way they have been practiced all along.  The Citizens United Decision legalized the bribery that has been going on since the Union was founded.  Our presidential nominees lie to us constantly.  This year we have one probable nominee who boasts of buying politicians and promises he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his goals. He’s at least telling us he will screw us over. Another suggests he would replace the Constitution with The Bible.  Still another receives tons of money from Wall Street while promising she will come down hard on those evil bankers.  When will we learn? Here are a couple of reminders as we approach the last days of the primaries.

 The United States of Amnesia — Ostensibly a film biography of writer Gore Vidal, we are exposed to an insider’s insights into the political machine.  We are spared details of his emotional entanglements largely because he spared himself.  Instead we have informed and passionate political thought on our country from someone deeply disappointed in it.  He was an idealist scorned.  Scrapbook photographs, television footage and interviews wrap up a life of a writer whose best works were essays, or at least commentary, on how well the U.S. does when judged by its stated most cherished values.  We don’t do well.  The oil wars.  The rich on welfare while the poor go bankrupt paying for medical emergency. The fiction of Camelot. Bush-Cheney and the stolen presidency.

The film was directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall and released in 2013.In addition to Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Tim Robbins, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sting, David Mamet, William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, and Dick Cavett are also in the documentary

Christian Bale
The Big Short — We know the story, sort of. And it’s the “sort of” that is the problem.  It’s banking, accounting. The director of the movie let’s you know up front, your eyes might glaze over as the story unfolds.  The truth is this complicated sub-prime problem that nearly destroyed the U.S. and world economies is damned hard to follow, so hard in fact that the fraud perpetrators not only walked free, they received bonuses as the victims families were thrown out of their homes. No one went to jail.  The Big Short admirably tells a complex tale exposing greed until, at last, the sole principled player takes the payoff.

Last year’s critical success was directed by Adam McKay based on the book by Michael Lewis. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt flesh out a solid cast.

Both of these films are not mainstream in their approaches to the subjects. However, they do ask us to evaluate our participation in the established system. You be the judge on the level of corruption and how they might affect your vote in the primaries and in November.

To provide libations for the evening, it seems we might rely on the good old USA.  Maybe we should find a beer from a microbrewery not owned by a major corporation or a little carton of Bernie and Jerry’s ice cream.  Sorry, make that Ben and Jerry’s. Cherry Garcia Fro Yo is my addiction.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Film Pairings – A Night With Ian Fleming


Ian Fleming only wrote 12 James Bond novels, but sold more than 100 million copies. All of his Bond novels have been made into films, some more than once. There are also been Bond novels written by others, some of them well regarded by the literary world.  Moreover, Bond movies continue to be made using the Bond character long after Fleming’s death at 57. Seven actors have played Bond over the years including Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.  But what about the creator?

The Man Who Would Be James Bond — Spoiled, privileged and much tougher on the women in his life than his male adversaries, Ian Fleming lived the life he would eventually write about. Watch this four-part, BBC-produced bio drama to get a glimpse of a mama’s boy who made good largely, in my opinion, because he understood the nature of drama – life, death, power, and romance as shallowly, coldly and clearly as he observed it in his own life.

Biopic Of Fleming's Early Years
I’ve read and enjoyed every one of his books and I’ve watched and enjoyed most if not all of the James Bond films. They are potboilers, but nearly perfect ones.  Let’s not worry about nuance, or the why of things. Let’s not be subtle. Let’s create this wonderful travelogue. Throw in some sex, skiing, sailing and flying. Let’s do it all elegantly, expensively and  let’s eliminate the increasingly despicable bad guys who without James Bond’s last minute magic, would destroy the world.

Dominic Cooper plays Fleming in his active “Intelligence” agent days for the British Royal Navy, where he presumably gathered the material for his fiction. In those days young Ian played second fiddle to his brother Peter ((played by Rupert Evans) who was already a successfully published author. This series offers an introduction to one of the most successful film franchises of all time. Hints of the movies that would follow are subtly rendered in the music that underlies some pretty decent cinematography.

Bond's Latest Film Adventure With Daniel Craig
Spectre   Bond’s most recent celluloid adventures star craggy Dennis Craig.  Once again Bond comes up against arch villain Blofeld, a megalomaniac who seeks to control the world.  We travel from Mexico City to Rome and eventually back to London in an attempt to keep Blofeld from having complete control over all intelligence operations on earth. There’s no question that his is action-packed adventure appeals to all of us who like action-packed adventures.

Ralph Fiennes plays M, and Judy Dench, (former M, now deceased) is reprieved on video.   Chris Waltz plays Blofeld.  My favorite is Chris Wishaw who plays Q, who designs Bond’s deadly gadgetry that saves Bond’s life when the plot won’t. Sam Mendes again directs the standard, but altogether enjoyable offering.

While watching, we must have a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred, or perhaps some fresh lemons squeezed into some fizzy water.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Notes: Nakamura — Stark Staccato versus Fluid and Poetic

Most writers have to get in the minds of people unlike themselves.  Certainly males write about females. Whites write about Blacks. Old people write about the young. Honest people write about dishonest people. And lots of vice versas. To steal the phrasing of the Geico ads:  We’re writers. It’s what we do.
However, it seems a pretty brave undertaking for a male writer to jump into the soul of a female so intimately — in the first person, no less — as Fuminori Nakamura has in his about-to be-released English translation of The Kingdom.  Then again Nakamura was born in 1977. Fortunately, for younger artists the lines of differentiation, with regard to gender and color are fading, opening new ways of seeing and thinking. But that doesn’t mean the vision can’t be dark.

Here, in The Kingdom, the author takes us back to his underworld of Tokyo.  Unlike TheThief and The Gun, the narrator here, Yurika, a fake prostitute who steals money or information, is unabashedly emotive, oddly about her lack of emotion. We are engaged in feeling rather than cold observation. The usual, simple, direct sentences are more expansive, nuanced in The Kingdom. The narrative reads like dreams.  Yet, the theme of control, whether that means a character has a difficult time holding onto it or is trying to escape it, remains central.
Easily tied to universal symbolism, Nakamura brings in the sun and the moon not just as metaphors, but also as sources of control beyond anyone’s ability to resist perhaps, and adds these forces to the earthbound monster he creates. In this novel in particular, the author appears to be adding a bit of smoky, fluid poetry to his usually stark, high contrast, staccato reality.

I’m a fan, though I’d be dishonest if I didn't admit to a little disappointment — being such an admirer of the minimalist style of his previous novels. This doesn’t diminish the thrill factor.  However thick his narrative can be, we must turn the pages. Yurika learns her destiny may have been designed very early in her life by the same man who holds that same life in his hands years later. 

It might appear the award-winning Japanese author is writing a book a week, judging from the frequency of recent releases. But what is likely happening is that his popularity here is so great publisher SOHO Crime appears to be stepping up the speed of translations available here. If you read Japanese, you could easily be well ahead of the rest of us.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Rant — The Bullies Among Us

I could promote one of my books or I could go off on a rant.  Rant it is. The subject is the police.   Now I’m going to put in all the appropriate, honest and heartfelt words before the word, “but.”

I think cops, firefighters and emergency room staff are heroes. These are people who, all day long, deal with humanity’s most dire circumstances. Today, speaking of cops in particular, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to deal with not just the worst of us on our worst days but with the violence, heartbreak and always-imminent danger. I’m not unselfish enough to have taken on that challenge and, perhaps, because of this I should be cautious about my criticism.  I believe I am.

But there are some seriously bad cops out there. And because they are cops they, unlike any other professional, should police their own.  In too many cases they are not doing a thorough enough job of it. And in too many cases, they protect their own. This is nothing new.  But as we find some of the current presidential party nominees wanting to replace the constitution with the Bible, profile neighborhoods based on religion or ethnicity, deny rights based on sexual orientation, or have this immigrant nation round up immigrants and, without due process, send them back to what may be a deathtrap, it is clear that authorities, including police, are taking advantage of their power to support their personal prejudices while some police are required to enforce illegal (read unconstitutional) policies set up by small minded governors, state legislators and mayors.  North Carolina and Mississippi are prime examples. So is my home state, Indiana, whose governor, Mike Pence, has taken his personal and bigoted opinions and signed or tried to sign them into law.

Recently, an Indiana state trooper (after a couple of lawsuits) was finally fired for stopping motorists for legitimate traffic infractions, asking the drivers if they accepted Jesus Christ as their savior and what church they belong to. Reading this reminded me of an incident in 1970 when I was stopped in Carmel Indiana, a ritzy suburb of Indianapolis, for having a peace symbol decal on my Karmann Ghia.  I was told to peel it off or face the consequences. The Carmel cop wore what seemed to me to be a pretty big gun on his belt. Sitting beside me was my lover, who was fearless and who, when pissed off, became angry in a stereotypically, intentionally queenish way, sometimes with a "snap" at the end of his tirade. I begged him to remain silent while I, losing any shred of dignity I might have possessed, scraped off the peace symbol.  My thinking was if a decal made this cop belligerent, what would two gay guys do to his tiny reptilian brain. I didn't’ tell the cop I was a veteran, including a stint in Vietnam and as well as being constitutionally entitled to my opinion. He had already appointed himself sole arbiter of what rights he thought I should have and no doubt any other “hippies” who crossed his path. One of my regrets is not doing something about this. I can only tell you it was 1970, and I wasn’t as brave as some cops who put their lives on the line to protect us no matter who we are or what we believe. I wasn’t as brave as those drag queens at Stonewall in 1969, demanding equal rights in the face of armed opposition. Had I made a row, I would likely have lost my job and our home. It was a battle I didn’t think I could win. I was cowardly but pragmatic. Even with my small humiliation, I dreamt of ways to get back at the cop. To get revenge, even if it made me an outlaw.

Yes, this is all minor compared to the inordinate number of deaths that un-armed African Americans endure at the hands of police in various parts of the U.S., the number of African Americans who are stopped, searched and questioned without probable cause, or the percentage of African Americans who populate our prisons.

However, if we tolerate police officers who feel empowered to enact their prejudices or turn a blind eye to those police among them who do, we have a society that perpetuates inequality and its offspring – bitterness and violence.  It is how abuse of the law by those who are supposed to enforce it fairly can create criminals and terrorists.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Film Pairings –– Of Terror And Immigrants

With blazing Republican primary election campaigns focusing on terrorism and immigration, it might be a good idea to see these subjects in perspective and to understand that this is more than a simple game of good guys and bad guys.

Milla Jovovich
Survivor is an entertaining, but formulaic thriller.  It is nonetheless a preferable substitute for most TV cop shows.  We watch as a savvy, sinister Wall Street investor sets up an attack in Times Square on New Years Eve that will appear to be a terrorist attack that will, in the end, net him billions. Milla Jovovich plays an agent responsible for checking suspicious visa applications, She discovers something is wrong with a few approvals. Though ordered to ignore the irregularities, she pursues answers. Unfortunately her investigation makes her a suspect.  Is she in cahoots  (yes, cahoots) with the terrorists?  Suddenly everyone is after her.

The fun here, for me, were two of the actors.

While Jovovich plays the lead deftly and realistically, I found myself drawn to the screen when the smart, sane and empathetic character played by Frances de la Tour appeared, Her calm, but heartfelt guidance to the troubled heroine was riveting. Pierce Brosnan was also magnetic. Though officially Irish, he was trained as an actor in London.  So let me reinforce the well-trained English actor stereotype: the older Brosnan gets, the better he is. He shows off his range here, providing a wonderfully subtle portrayal of pure evil. Dylan McDermott and Robert Forster also have significant roles. The film was directed by James McTeague and released last year. I don’t believe it made it to your local cinema.

Charlotte Rampling
Cleanskin, by far, is a more serious and more in-depth story of contemporary terrorism.   Less action, more nuanced plot, more to think about. We get glimpses into how the young are “radicalized.” We get schooled on the meaning of “collateral damage,” depending on our perspective. We are shown what stokes the hatred that leads to brutality. We are reminded that what we see and what we are told by the officials — let’s say our officials — may not be what is. Four years after its release in 2002, the film seems as it were made today. Little has changed, except for unbridled political rhetoric encouraging radicalization on both sides.  A secret agent, played by Sean Bean leads the first half of the us-and-them team, and Ahbin Galeya represents the “them,” (as seen from the West). Charlotte Rampling, one of my favorites, has a small but meaty role.  Hadi Hajaig directed this British production, and Ian Howes was responsible for the splendid cinematography. While we are talking movies here, truth is sometimes better conveyed by fiction. It would seem that a couple of our presidential nominees could expand their tiny minds simply by watching this film.

Both films have a London flavor.  If you’ve some driving to do after the double feature, perhaps a cup of tea will do the trick. Otherwise, why not a hearty ale?