Friday, October 28, 2016

Film Pairings — The Laundry Business, From Colombia To Russia

Money from ill-gotten gains is no good unless you can spend it. So tonight is an examination of the money-laundering business. One of the two films is based on a true story about the days of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. The other is a current classic British spy film soaked in Russian intrigue. These two films, released earlier this year, are not action oriented — though there is some of that. Even so they qualify as thrillers.

Our Kind of Traitor —If you like John le Carré, chances are you’ll like this understated film based on his novel starring a mature and impressive Ewan McGregor as well as scene-stealer Stellan Skarsgãrd.  The cinematography stars as well, with powerful imagery by Anthony Dod Mantle.  McGregor portrays an innocent professor who, believing he was merely doing a minor good deed, accidentally involves himself and his wife played by Naomie Harris in international intrigue, billions of dollars and the Russian mafia.  Directed by Susanna White, the film also features Damian Lewis, Alicia von Rittberg and Velibor Topic. This isn’t a naturally panoramic story, but it is played out in a big way, cinematically. It is also very much a story about the value of character.

The Infiltrator — Perhaps a bit less cinematic in scope, but with more grit. Bryan Cranston plays an aging (his last case?) special agent for the U.S. Custom Service. Based on agent Robert Mazur’s true-life novel, we visit Florida and the 1980s when there wasn’t enough room to store all of the drug war’s corpses until they could be disposed of.  Cranston, incredibly believable as Mazur, reveals the ugliness of the “good guys” as they attempt to contain evil while the plan to go against Escobar and his brutal Colombian cartel escalates in an increasingly deadly fashion. Among the film’s strengths are Cranston’s costars: John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger, Amy Ryan and Said Tghmaoui. Directed by Brad Furman, the film certainly has some tense and gruesome moments.

Well of course, what we sip during these two movies changes during intermission. No drinker would argue against vodka with the first. We have a chilly environment. Frilly drinks won’t work. However we make a drastic change when we arrive in Florida. Though there is nothing Cuban about the film,  we can cheat and try some of that new Cuban rum arriving on our shores.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Off-Speed – Random Thoughts On Baseball, Loyalty And Nostalgia

I don’t spend much time on sports.  My weakness is baseball. All the years I lived in Indianapolis, probably because I could get WGN on TV, I became a Cubs fan. Frustrated not only by their failures, but also by the owners willingness to sell off some of their best players as the team began to threaten to break from their bad reputation. This was a team that had Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Andre Dawson and such star pitchers as Greg Maddox and the infuriating Rick Sutcliffe, who had the pitching pace of a turtle. They also had the incredible Lee Smith as a closer.
Lee Smith

I liked the Cubs enough to make them a staple in my Shanahan mystery series. They were constantly on TV at Delaney’s bar on Tenth Street in Indianapolis and continued to dominate the place when Shanahan’s pal, Harry bought the bar. Shanahan often sat at the bar with a bottle of “The Champagne of Bottled Beer” and a shot of J.W. Dant Bourbon with crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd in the background. I watched a lot of games too.

I have to confess that I lost touch with Cubs, mostly because I moved to San Francisco and got caught up with Giants, but also the Cubs weren’t the Cubs I knew anyway. I hate the lack of loyalty, or perhaps continuity, when players don’t play out their career with one team.  One thinks of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. I could never come to terms with Greg Maddox playing for Atlanta.

Ryne Sandberg
This year I rooted for the Giants when they were the wild card and were pitted against the Cubs. But now that this is decided, it’s time to make a nostalgic move and root for the Cubs in the World Series. Maybe I’ll haul out my first Shanahan book, TheStone Veil, published in 1989, when the Cubs also had a great team, but just couldn’t pull it all together.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Book Notes — The Whites, A Misleading Title Given The Times, A Powerful Piece of Literature

I’m currently reading The Whites, a highly praised cop/crime novel by Richard Price.  And I’m having trouble.  Good trouble, I suspect; though I can’t be sure. His words send me off on trips unrelated to the narrative.  One detour is that I find myself not reading but wondering, paragraph after paragraph, how he gets it so seemingly right.  I understand how someone like Michael Connelly creates the reality of his acclaimed books.  He spent years as a reporter covering the police and the criminal court beat. But how does Price do it? Some of the great crime writers have been reporters, or cops, or criminal attorneys. Some of them have even done a stint as private eyes.  They rely on what they observed over the years.  It is a mix of imagination, recall and command of the language. Few, I think, achieve this level of realism or grit.
Richard Price

Has Price actually lived this cop life enough to know it so well that he can take me there? I tried to find out. He was one of the writers on the TV series, “The Wire.”  He was a screenwriter for one of my favorite movies — Sea of Love. But then movies and projects like “The Wire” are different. Unlike a novel, they are collective efforts. Yet, it is not a big jump from the highly joint effort “The Wire” to The Whites, an only marginally a collective effort.  Yet the grittiness comes through. And the word perhaps too popular now, “authenticity” rings loudly. I shake my head.  Surely he does not live there.

In an interview in TheParis Review, he said he spent a lot of time researching and hanging out with the police, including ride-alongs in instances where he is not left alone in the backseat while the cops tend to business.  He did (does) his homework. Much like a good reporter or photojournalist, there is a sense of courage and a willingness to impolitely intrude if need be.

So he extends himself, does whatever is necessary for his art. I’m impressed. He brings both journalism of sorts together with the art of literature. I can follow journalism without being taken in unexpected directions.  I can read a straight-forward story, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett and the rest.  I like interesting, informing, even puzzle-solving entertainment.  But novels that pick you up and toss you around so much you have to fight your way back to the page is another story.

I’ll not tell you about the plot. That’s available elsewhere and I’m still in the midst of reading it. What I want to talk about is the dilemma a thought-provoking book provides — provoked thought. Sorry.  I needed to emphasize the meaning of the cliché.  Maybe I’m limited by my overall intelligence (stop smirking) or possibly age has shortened my attention span or I’m far too easily distracted. Strange and embarrassing.   Most of the writers I read I don’t wonder how they do what they do. I may appreciate the artistry, even wish I could achieve it, but I’m not usually baffled by them.

So far in this book, one sentence may send me off into some abstract, often unrelated thought.  Instead of going back to the book, I’m forced to leave the book to sort things out.
However, one very selfish question started to dominate my mind as I approached mid-book. Given what he is able to do, plunging deeply into both sides – cop and criminal, I have to ask myself, as a crime writer, what are my qualifications? I have no such courage. My rudeness is rarely constructive. I have not immersed myself in the extreme divide between cop and killer, so divided they are more like each other than they are the folks who are neither.

I console myself with the observation that however passive it might be, I write about the world I know, that I limit my expression to my experiences and that I write honestly about what would be therefore comparatively bland.  I read a criticism once about someone tired of reading John Updike, saying he long ago stopped caring about middle class angst.  While it may not be angst exactly or even all the way up to middle class, my Shanahan series takes place in a more civil, more settled world rather than the tough streets of Baltimore, let’s say. 

I do have a hint at Price’s preparation.  Only a hint.  In Good to the Last Kiss, I ventured out. I did research the personally unlikely topic of serial killers.  I not only spent time with the police in homicide, I spent days reading and listening to tapes of psychological research about this type of crime, as well as the sometimes horrific ramblings of serial killers talking about themselves, their lives and their crimes. I was depressed for weeks, maybe months. But I had ventured out, however briefly.

This is what Richard Price does regularly, it seems.  In fact, this is what his main characters in The Whites do.  After writing my grimmest novel, I kept my distance from the darkest reaches of the soul and spent more time working on books with less sensational crimes and more seductive plots, all in my comfort zone. I still connect my stories to social issues, but less intensely.  And I stay with a reality well within my own experience, enhanced I hope by, a creative imagination. But I cannot regularly go where Richard Price goes.  Maybe it’s the very real darkness he witnesses and translates that sends me away from his writing.

The result is that reading these kind of books has become more exhausting than writing books of lesser intensity. At least writing my own stories, I can adjust the light on reality for my own comfort while admiring a much braver soul in theory.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Film Pairing — Year Of The Con

Seems as if 2016 is the “Year of the Con,” with the election and all these candidates for public office pretending to be honest and competent, if not pious and brilliant. Let me recommend two films that pick up on the theme though in slightly different ways.  The first is light jazz. The second is visceral.  The first will make you smile.  The second will make you wince. Both are blessed with extreme talent. Both garnered film awards and considerable critical acclaim.  Both are based on true stories. The odd observation here is that the actors are pretending to be someone pretending to be someone they are not. Only actors and politicians are allowed to do that.

 Catch Me If You Can — This is the moment, I think, we catch Leonardo DiCaprio make his transition from vulnerable child star to adult without missing a step as a highly talented actor.  Here he portrays Frank Abagnale, upon whose book and life, the film is based. Young Frank grows up admiring his father, a man who despite his talent as a loving parent couldn’t quite make it as a provider despite or because of his con artist ways.  Frank, who occasionally participated in his father’s antics and wanting to impress his dad, took con artistry to a new level of fraud. With fake identities, he scammed millions eventually attracting a bland but determined pursuer, played exquisitely by Tom Hanks. Rounding out the supersized cast are Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, James Brolin and Amy Adams.  The film, released in 2002, was directed by Steven Spielberg.

American Hustle — This is a considerably more down-to-earth film. While Catch Me If You Can has some serious undertones, it is a funny film. In American Hustle, the humor is there, certainly, but it is much, much darker.  Two con artists agree to scam an Arab sheik for a casino development in Atlantic City. An ambitious FBI agent catches on, and will throw them both in jail unless they help him bring down some dishonest politicians who would be caught with their hands in the till thereby helping the FBI agent make his bones at the Agency. If only humans didn’t have human failings. If only good was good and bad was bad and never the twain should met. Damn those gray areas. Damn that we should fall in love with stupid people who think they’re helping us but screw up our lives. Can’t I do a little wrong if the result is a greater good? Lots of questions. But answers?  Who is responsible for the answers?  Not the filmmakers. Based on the famous ABSCAM scandals of the ‘80s and directed by David O. Russell, the film was released in 2013. The gritty film is populated by incredibly fine actors giving fine performances at every level.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and Louis CK are featured. Robert De Niro makes a brief but powerful appearance.

Something to quench your thirst while you watch a couple of hours of disingenuous behavior? Champagne for the first. Light and bubbly, but with an ultimately calming effect.  For the second, you’ll have to get serious. Bourbon with no more than two ice cubes.  Or do what I do these days — some ice, tonic water, and a twist of lime or lemon. No alcohol.  People will think gin and tonic and you’ve pulled of a little scam of your own.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Memories From Third Grade

I had a tough childhood. No kindergarten for me. First grade. Cold turkey.   No practice napping. No half-day classes to get used to what it’s like to be inside the big house.

My first grade teacher was Miss Hoover, a pretty young lady who served graham crackers and milk and begged for silence.  My second grade teacher was Mrs. Sparks, a no-nonsense high-breasted woman who was not particularly electric. She wore printed cotton dresses and looked through eyeglasses that had Coke bottle lenses. She could have been my grandmother’s sister. She was sane and diligently, if not enthusiastically, went about the boring daily business of math and spelling.

Miss Miller was a round, low-breasted woman who always wore a black cotton dress, perhaps the same one every day.  Her black hair was pinched into a tight, little a bun.  Like Mrs. Sparks and unlike Miss Hoover, Miss Miller never smiled.  She kept a yardstick or pointer in her right hand and a Bible in her left. She used them both.  She was a dark presence. Armed and dangerous.

Now I’ve talked with Catholic kids and heard story after story about those ferocious nuns.  Sorry, they couldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in the ring with Miss Miller. Sure the standard crack on the knuckles.  Yes, the ear was not only there for listening, it was also a handle by which Miss Miller could extract you from the classroom.  That’s just the physical stuff. There was a lot more to Miss Miller than the mere threat of, or actual, physical violence.

Every morning, after the pledge of allegiance and a prayer as long as a three-act play in the original Greek, she would read us something from the black book, usually something harsh and bitter showing the vengeful side of God’s nature.  I’ll admit that’s when I began to develop a dim view of the Creator. That and what he did to Moses put me off.  Of course I said nothing at the time. She had a Stalinesque hold on the third-graders. The smart-aleck seeds of my personality had not yet bloomed. The unfortunate thing is that most folks can read my face.

The Bible reading was followed by a moral tale.  One of those stories told to us 64 years ago survives to this day, albeit in tattered form.  I was eight at the time. Seems as if a frail little boy committed a sin, stealing perhaps.  He was caught and found guilty.  He was to be paddled (another weapon in Miss Miller’s arsenal).  “But he was so small and so weak,” Miss Miller said. “Surely there must be a better alternative.”  She looked around the classroom.  No one spoke. “All was lost, it seemed,” continued Miss Miller, “until one boy, a big, strapping child, raised his hand and volunteered to take the beating.” Miss Miller may have actually smiled, having conveyed what in her mind was an important moral lesson.

I think the reason I remember this story is that it never made sense to me. I’ve been trying to figure this out since I was eight. There seemed to be, even then, a simpler solution.

At 3:15 — the end of the day in Miss Miller’s third grade class, she would stand at the door as we all filed through and left for home.

That afternoon, as usual and being the polite child my parents taught me to be, I said to her: “Goodbye, Miss Miller, see you tomorrow.”

Without blinking, she replied, “If there is a tomorrow.”