Sunday 30 April 2017

The Crossroads by John D. MacDonald

Well, this 1959 novel from John D. MacDonald sees one of my favourite writers near the top of his game. It's a human drama which rapidly develops into a crime thriller. By human drama, I guess I'm talking about what would more pejoratively be called a soap opera.

Indeed, British readers will be amused to know that the Crossroads of the title is a motel. Because Crossroads was also the title of a long running (1964-88) and low-rent British TV serial about a motel. Now that really was a soap opera. 

But this is very different territory. John D. MacDonald makes the working of his motel operation entirely fascinating and he peoples it with complex, troubled and appealing characters.  The book is utterly addictive and tremendously riveting and, as I've indicated elsewhere and at length, this guy can really write.

MacDonald memorably evokes the setting of the motel with the "pulsing insistence" of its endless passing traffic, and the big parked trucks outside the diner are "patient as elephants" in the floodlights. And he is bracingly cynical about America's automotive culture and the consequences of frail human beings in their hurtling cars in that endless traffic stream: "Of all the young families a remarkably small percentage, statistically speaking, were crunched into bloody ruin."

Small, random details constantly bring the narrative to life — a woman wears a "cinnamon cardigan" as she sits in her tiny apartment, "with the wind whining outside and intermittent gusts of sleet rattling against a window." A man stands in the bathroom of a cheap motel — not the one of the title, belonging to our heroes — under the "drizzling shower."  Elsewhere, outside, it's a "thunderous Sunday, a day of storms."

Internal landscapes are evoked just as vividly, like the hallucinating alcoholic who commits suicide to escape "the imaginary monsters who sat tall around his bed, staring at him." Or a woman, also destroyed by alcohol, with the "slow thoughts moving in her head."

The book concerns a robbery, and the tense buildup to it. It has some interesting resemblances to MacDonald's The Last One Left (1967). Here again is the use of sexual manipulation to set up a fallguy for the heist, though in The Crossroads it's a male psychopath who is the puppet master, and the fallguy is a hardened young thug rather than an innocent teenager.

As with The Last One Left, the cops turn up very late in the story — inevitably, I guess, since it's not a procedural and the viewpoint characters are not police. And once more the killer is faked out so as to get them to confess. But I think the police are more authentically depicted in The Crossroads. They talk about who they "like" for the crime, and MacDonald unforgettably describes the "pure delicious triumph" the cops feel when they nail the bad guy.

The suspense in this book is considerable; you dread what's going to happen and can hardly bear to go on, but nothing could induce me to stop reading — and after I was finished I immediately wanted more.

(Image credits: The Robert McGinnis cover with all those lovely green trees is from EbookBike. The Pan cover is from Pinterest. The Crest Book original is from another Pinterest page. The Inner Sanctum Mystery hardcover is from AntiqBook. The Fawcett Gold Medal second paperback issue is from Good Reads.)

Sunday 23 April 2017

Free Fire by Wheatley and Jump

Sometimes I regard this blog as a forum for public-health style warnings, so it's somewhat in that spirit that I'm writing about Free Fire, the latest feature film directed by British wunderkind Ben Wheatley and written by his long time partner (writing and otherwise) Amy Jump.

It's regrettable that I'm going out of my way to advise you to dodge this movie. At one time — after the release of Kill List — Wheatley appeared to be a film maker of impressive talent and originality. But Free Fire is an abjectly feeble and very dull film. It's sub-Quentin Tarantino and sub-sub-sub Martin Scorsese (unbelievably, Scorsese is a producer on it).

Free Fire tells the simple (far too simple) tale of an arms deal gone wrong. Some IRA men (played by Cillian Murphy, late of Peaky Blinders, and Michael Smiley) are in the States, in Boston, in 1979  to buy automatic rifles from American crooks. 

The transaction is taking place in the abandoned factory beloved of film makers and, when it goes sour, the movie spends the rest of its duration in there with the characters shooting at each other.

The cast is strong, featuring such wonderful actors as the South African Sharlto Copley, who has portrayed memorable heavies in Old Boy and Elysium; Armie Hammer — The Social Network and Man from UNCLE; Brie Larson, who was magnificent in Room; and Sam Riley from SS GB

Hammer and Larson are among the few Americans in a cast which is either explicitly foreign or British actors passing. And one of the impressive aspects of this movie is that the whole thing is passing as American — it was actually shot in Britain, but I never would have guessed.

But that's about all I can say in favour of Free Fire. It's desperately boring and, at 90 minutes, feels more like three hours. Once we realise we're stuck in this abandoned factory for the rest of the film, our hearts just sink. 

Yes, these characters are shooting guns at each other, but since we care nothing about any of them, and nothing is at stake, none of it really matters. And it's a long, long slog to the end titles.

In a perceptive review in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Tony Rayns points out that one reason for the utter lack of suspense in Free Fire is that it's devoid of establishing shots. We don't know where the protagonists are in relation to each other and so we don't understand the overall situation. But unlike Tony Rayns, I don't think this is daring artistry. I think it's a fatal mistake.

Rayns also says "Wheatley obviously risks boring his audience stiff" and asks "So what keeps us watching?" To which I can only reply that Wheatley doesn't just risk it, he succeeds: and I wish I hadn't kept watching, but rather had walked out instead of losing an hour and a half of my life which I'll never get back.

However, to be scrupulously fair, there were people in the cinema who were chuckling at the dialogue, so maybe this film will appeal to some. Personally I'd advise you to steer well clear and spend 90 minutes doing something else.

And, although I have yet to see Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, I have seen his movies Sightseers and High Rise and, as far as I'm concerned, Free Fire represents his third strike. Regrettably I think this young British director is out.

(Image credits: Unbelievably, there's 28 posters for this slight film at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 16 April 2017

One for the Dog: Scandal by Shonda Rhimes

There used to be a joke about the god of Christianity: "And she's black." In a white male world this was considered unthinkable, and at one time the notion of a female African American television showrunner would have been equally extraordinary. But now Shonda Rhimes is one of the most potent and brilliant talents working in US TV.

Rhimes created Grey's Anatomy, which was a huge hit, and which I followed myself for a year or so before finally concluding that it was the My Little Pony of medical dramas. It's still a considerable success, in its 13th season (seven seasons are usually the maximum).

More importantly, Shonda Rhimes went on to develop other hit TV shows, and currently has four on the air: Grey's Anatomy, The Catch, How to Get Away with Murder...

And Scandal. I have to thank my friend Celeste for turning me on to Scandal. It was the double punch of Celeste's praise and the discovery a cheap boxed set of the first three seasons that got me watching this show after a long period of neglecting American television dramas.

Scandal is simply amazing. Essentially it's the story of a fixer — a lawyer who solves problems and makes deals, generally operating behind the scenes, rather than practising standard case law and going into court.

If you want a quick — and brilliant — introduction into the way a fixer operates, then watch the wonderful film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney and written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Scandal bears a fleeting resemblance to Michael Clayton, but rapidly moves into even darker and more troubled territory.

It has a Washington setting and politics are its meat and drink — both of them often poisoned. The central emotional engine of the series (so far; I'm still watching Season 2) is the fact that Olivia Pope (our fixer-in-chief, played by Kerry Washington) has had an affair with the new Republican president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and they are still deeply involved with each other.

Pope's firm is the usual crew of interesting and diverse characters — or at least, it first seems that way. But then it rapidly becomes clear that there's nothing "usual" about resident hacker and computer nerd Huck (Guillermo Díaz). He is ex-CIA black ops, and is the show's device for getting us into some extraordinary, and disturbing stories.

In short, Scandal is less like The West Wing and more like the Manchurian Candidate. I'm finding it riveting drama and I commend it to you. It starts off looking like a glossy, frothy soap (making great use of popular songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the Staples Singers) but soon turns out to be amazingly hard-hitting and daringly extreme.

Oh and in case there's any confusion about the title for this post, it quotes a memorable piece of dialogue from Series 2, listing how many bullets one of our heroes is going to put into an adversary, and why.

(Image credits: Good old Imp Awards. It turns out they do TV posters, too.)

Sunday 9 April 2017

The Last One Left by John D. MacDonald

I've mentioned elsewhere how much I admire John D. MacDonald. Indeed, he is probably my favourite crime writer. And considering my bookshelf is jam packed with the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Charles Willeford and Thomas Harris that's no small accolade. (Interestingly, I believe Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, was fruitfully influenced by John D. MacDonald.)

MacDonald is most famous for the creation of Travis McGee, self styled 'salvage consultant', a fresh and intriguing variation on the classic private eye. But the book I'd like to tell you about is not one of the McGee novels — although it is dedicated to him. (MacDonald also dedicated a book to his cats; a man after my own heart.)
The Last One Left is a powerful standalone novel about murder for profit. The cold blooded killings take place in the Caribbean and are carried out by Staniker, the hired captain of a pleasure boat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Crissy Harkinson, the ice-hearted femme fatale who set the crime in motion, waits for her cut of the proceeds.

MacDonald writes strikingly about the "tumbling blue indifference" of the sea, and effortlessly conjures up mood and atmosphere, as when he evokes the "silence and emptiness of Sunday afternoon." The brilliance of his descriptions extends to everyday objects an audio tape on fast forward sounds like a "nest of agitated mice."

Most powerfully, in this book, is the way he conveys the horror of the murders and their terrible psychological toll on the killer, who has to live with what he's done. After the crime Staniker is alone on the boat with the bodies of those he's killed. "They were all — making a silence," he tells his accomplice later.

In this regard MacDonald's writing is suggestive of the great French realistic novelists like Guy de Maupassant or Emile Zola (check out Zola's classic tale of murder, Thérèse Raquin)... This connection is natural enough, since the French writers influenced the likes of James M. Cain and the whole American school of hardboiled crime fiction.

Heartbreakingly, John D. MacDonald brings his various characters vividly to life before the murders so the reader feels their tragedy of their loss all the more keenly. And his gift for characterisation is of a very high order. 

For example, MacDonald delves into the childhood of Crissy Harkinson in a brilliant sequence, and we learn where the book's title comes from — a childhood game, where the winner takes all — and we get an insight into what has made her the selfish killer we see today.

MacDonald has his faults, too. His British aristos in Nassau talk in phoney limey clichés ("Rather a fool then, what?") and one set of characters he keeps returning to, in this multi-viewpoint novel, really get up my nose as we limeys say. 

This is the Cuban couple Cristy Harkinson's maid and her journalist boyfriend, plucky little Raoul who fought heroically against Castro at the Bay of Pigs and is busy trying to single handedly expose the evil communists' attempts to take over Latin America.

MacDonald's efforts at espionage stories have always struck me as terribly phony — his one full-on spy novel Area of Suspicion is my least favourite of his books. On the other hand, The Last One Left was written around 1966 and the Cuban Missile Crisis would have still been painfully fresh in the author's memory. So maybe we should cut him some slack. 

And in contrast to Raoul, one of the other major characters, Corpo, a brain damaged war vet is touching, expertly wrought, and simultaneously scary and delightful. In fact he's sort of a Bizarro World Travis McGee.

And there is one sequence which was so masterful it had me in awe. MacDonald stages a confrontation between Oliver, a teenage kid whom Cristy has seduced and is busy manipulating, and his mother. 

Now, the mother is basically a narrow-minded, bible thumping bigot, so I found myself siding with the sulky Oliver against her... I was thinking, "Shut up, you sanctimonious old bat" — but then I suddenly realised, shit... she's absolutely right. "She's callous and vicious. She's just using you," says the mother about Cristy, and she couldn't be more correct.

In fact, it's tragic, because Cristy's plan involves cold-bloodedly killing Oliver, and throwing the blame for another murder on him. Which she does, hardly batting an eyelash. So this scene shows just how subtle and profound MacDonald's writing can be.

The book has other flaws, though. In the end Crissy is ultimately entrapped with the cooperation of her own lawyer in a manoeuvre which is arguably more evil than the crimes she'll be punished for.

And when I learned that the victims of Staniker's killing spree had been previously hunting dolphins — Jesus, did people do that? — suddenly their brutal murder didn't seem such a crime.

On the whole, though, if you can filter out the Cuban spy subplot, I still think this is something of a masterpiece. And it ends on a savage vignette of ecological disaster that makes me forgive any of the book's inadequacies.

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads, except for the Fawcett with the white cover and green circle which is from the useful and informative John D. MacDonald Covers, the British Companion Book Club edition which is also from there, and the Doubleday hardcover which is from Amazon. Isn't the original British hardcover beautiful, with its Barbara Walton art of the girl's face against the deep blue background?)

Sunday 2 April 2017

Get Out by Jordan Peele

Examinations of race, class and poverty in America are rare in mainstream cinema. Admittedly, we've recently had a series of lauded pictures dealing with such such subjects — Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences were all acknowledged at the Oscars this year.

But for my money, the boldest and most powerful treatment of these issues is in exploitation movies — notably the horror/action Purge series. And now we have Get Out, a superb horror film (one of the best of the year) and an incredibly dark and sophisticated comedy.

Essentially Get Out tells the story of what happens when talented young African American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to accompany his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a weekend visit to her parents. Chris's best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) forecasts that no good can come of this... and, my word, is he right.

The combination of sophisticated (non-supernatural) horror and black comedy here is reminiscent of another recent film — A Cure for Wellness. And both pictures are similar in that they share a definite kind of Roman Polanski vibe. But while A Cure for Wellness was effective and impressive in its oddball way, Get Out is hugely superior. It was made on a vastly lower budget, and it really has something to say. 
The writer and director of Get Out is Jordan Peele. This is his directing debut, but he previously worked on the script of Keanu, a movie which I will have to see now — not least because it's about a kitten.

Peele does an absolutely masterful job of manipulating our expectations in Get Out. The movie is often hilariously funny. But it is also deeply disturbing and very suspenseful. And it makes amazing use of small, telling moments to generate enormous drama and fear, as when Chris discovers a box of photographs.

The picture loses the plot a bit at the end when it veers into total science fiction mode. But the final cathartic burst of violence is very satisfying.The use of music is brilliant, and mention must be made of an outstanding performance by Bradley Whitford as Rose's dad.

If you enjoy horror or suspense films at all — or you're intrigued to see a savage dissertation on race in contemporary America, don't miss Get Out.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)