Books »City Primeval

By Elmore Leonard (1980)

It’s always a good idea to pepper your reading list with a few Elmore Leonard novels. His snappy crime sagas are always entertaining, always satisfying.

In City Primeval, he takes us to Detroit, where handsome detective Raymond Cruz is on the trail of the seriously dangerous “Oklahoma Wildman” Clement Mansell. Cruz suspects Mansell is responsible for a random double killing and is determined to get justice after Mansell walked away from an air tight murder case based on a technicality. He’s not afraid to go beyond the law to see him pay either.

Throw in a larger than life and corrupt judge, a sexy lawyer, and a bunch of really angry Albanians and you get the kind of thriller we know to expect from Leonard. It’s smart, it’s tense, it’s funny, it’s a perfect quick read.

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Posted on February 11, 2012

Books »A Rage in Harlem

by Chester Himes (1957)

It’s a shame that the name Chester Himes  is not as well know as Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. His colorful mix of humor, poetic despair, violence, and action put him on par with the best noir writers. A Rage in Harlem is my first Himes read but definitely won’t be my last.

It concerns a gullible square named Jackson who’s been had by some no good swindlers and a dame. In a half brained frenzy to put things right, he only spirals into deeper and deeper trouble leading him to seek help from his doped up street smart brother Goldy who makes his way by impersonating a nun and selling tickets to heaven.

The book is packed with wild, intriguing characters like Goldy ( including two hard ass cops named Grave Digger and Coffin Ed) but Harlem itself plays the biggest role.

Vivid and taut, this book is both gruesome and absurdly funny. While reading, I kept thinking what a great movie it would make and was surprised to learn there already is one from the early 90’s starring Forrest Whittaker. It’s said to be pretty good so I look forward to watching it.

PS – the book as also released under the name For Love of Imabelle and I’d love to get my hands on those photo cover Panther editions!

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Posted on October 13, 2011

TV Shows »5 Second Review: Prime Suspect

Thumbs Ask Where Helen Mirren Is

Why didn’t they just call this “Tough Lady Cop”?

While I like that Lynda La Plante is getting paid, naming Prime Suspect after her groundbreaking series is an insult to all of us that loved it.

To be fair though, I had expected Bello’s performance with that god awful hat to have all the subtlety of a one woman play (picture woman thumbing her nose, sittin’ on a chair backwards and saying “ya know whaddimean?” in a New Yawk accent) and she was better than that.

But come on, they didn’t even learn the lesson from original – that actual, frustrating and realistic police work is far more interesting than tidy crimes that get wrapped up in 40 minutes.

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Posted on October 4, 2011

TV Shows »5 Second Review: Unforgettable

Thumbs Bored

It’s probably not fair to dismiss a show because I don’t like the way the lady purses her lips.

But here we are.

Have you seen a cop drama with a “strong” female lead haunted by her past? What about one where she and another cop used to bang? What about one where she goes to a warehouse alone to catch the real killer only to be saved by said cop? You have? Then you’ve pretty much seen Unforgettable.

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Posted on September 25, 2011

TV Shows »Breakout Kings

on A&E

I’m always open to finding the next dumb TV guilty pleasure, and I am kind of hoping Breakout Kings works out to fill that Bones-like spot. The highly unbelievable concept – of quirky, likable convicts getting temporarily released to catch evil, not so likable convicts who have escaped could be a winning idiotic one.

With a show like this, however, so much of the success has to do with the cast dynamics and Breakout only got some of it right.

To the show’s credit – Herc from The Wire, Brooke Nevin and Malcolm Goodwin are good and their characters could grow to be more compelling, but the show really belongs to the creepy and charming Jimmi Simpson playing the only really interesting character as well as offering much appreciated comic relief.

On the other hand, Laz Alonzo has all the depth of a hunky background guy from a Toni Braxton video (which Alonzo was earlier in his career) and is just boring to watch on screen. If he’s meant to be the straight man to Herc’s loose cannon, he should at least learn a second facial expression besides “stoic scowl”.

Ugh, and then there’s the new lady with the made for Skinemax name, Serinda Swan, who replaced the more charming Philly character who was awkwardly dropped after the pilot episode. She’d do best to let her eyebrows take center stage, as they are the most interesting thing about her, though clearly from the posters of her strutting around in a tight tank, A&E was hoping we’d find her boobs as fascinating. Alas.

It’s only a matter of time before we see if this is a show that flourishes by finding it’s own voice, eccentricities, and character chemistry or if the flounders under generic blandness. I think the odds are stacked against them but at the very least, once it’s cancelled, Simpson will probably have a better time finding a good show to star in. But for whatever reason, I am optimistic that they might pull this one off.

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Posted on March 20, 2011

Movies »Femme Fatale

directed by Brian De Palma (2002)

While I have to admit on second viewing, Femme Fatale is far less clever and more cheesy than I remember, it’s still a great noirish guilty pleasure that marked Brian De Palma’s return to over the top form – mirroring some of my favorites of his career: the Hitchcock inspired Sisters, Blow Out, and the best, Body Double.

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for a film that opens with an epic heist set to classical music involving a bra made of diamonds and lesbian bathroom stall groping. Or maybe not… It was a box office bomb and most people seem to hate this movie.

But despite porny dialogue, bad acting (Romijn playing French speaking English, whew!), and a ludacris, off the rails plot about fate and a paparazzo – or maybe because of all that, I have loads of fun watching.

Just don’t take it too seriously or have lofty expectations.

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Posted on February 21, 2011

Movies »Coup de Torchon

directed by Bertrand Tavernier (1981)

If nihilists believed in heroes then Lucien, the small town sheriff in Coup de Torchon could be the man for them. He comes by way of Jim Thompson, darkest noirest extraordinaire and his novel, Pop. 1280. That book is set in 1917 Texas but the movie is cleverly moved to 1930s West French Africa, Senegal.

I haven’t read the book to compare it to (though it’s definitely making my list), but I think director Bertrand Tavernier has captured the weird, almost surreal darkness of Thompson’s work most effectively on film. (P.S. – other notable adaptations: Serie Noir, After Dark My Sweet).

To say Lucien is disrespected is an understatement. He’s called ass licker and turd more than by name, he is kicked by other policemen, pushed around by the local pimps, mocked by his own wife – and for good reason. As a policemen he never arrests anyone and ignores crime as much as possible, even when own mistress is being abused publicly.

He seems to initially be a gentle and simple sort who detests violence and has more respect for natives than most. Which is why you are almost on his side when he begins to take action against the “trash” of the city by committing righteous murder.

But, as the film progresses and his motives become less about justice than his selfishness, any semblance of morality is blown. Played with just right amount of pathos and underlying insanity by Philippe Noiret, the sheriff, if I had to imagine him cast today, could be pulled off by a bitter little Patton Oswald and his unassuming baby face.

Scrounging around in the mud of human depravity with him are his scheming wife played by the always amazing Stephane Audran, her “brother”/secret lover – a half witted brute (I’d cast John C Rielly in my remake), his mistress, Rose, a piece of amoral work with a naive lust for violence and chaos played by the also always amazing Isabelle Huppert.

The cast is astounding, turning almost cartoonish physical comedy into something dimensional. Not that it’s cartoonish due to sloppy film making, quite the opposite, Tavernier manages the tough balance of darkest comedy only to reveal something very sinister.

The totally bizarre alternate ending, featuring dancing man apes, is worth a look on the Criterion Collection release. The only way this low profile masterpiece could have better is if it had stayed in.

Click here for the rest of Coup de Torchon

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Posted on February 12, 2011

Movies »Violette

directed by Claude Chabrol (1978)

Violette opens with Isabelle Huppert dressed in black with thick eyeliner, red lips looking every bit the femme fatale. In a bar, she teases young men with intense stares, long cigarettes and indecent proposals. Soon, however, we see young Violette at home, where she is clean faced, seemingly obedient, looking years younger, eye battingly sweet and a pathological lair. She suddenly, in the skillful hands of Huppert, becomes more complex; recognizable as one of those sociopath teenage girls who longs for something more than her common, strict home life – a 1930s echo of all the girls that walk out of their houses in modest clothes and a lie about spending the night with a friend only to have a stash of makeup, revealing tube tops and mini skirts in her backpack for a tour of the mall. Except, of course, that this one has murder on her mind.

Based on a true story, Violette is a conniving teen – deeply passionate underneath a shockingly emotionless exterior. The murder, once it is revealed, is as mundane as it is disturbing. Her life outside the home is daring and dangerous. She meets with many older men, is a blackmailer, and even keeps a hotel room for her many trysts. Her parents, a struggling but happy train conductor and a gorgeous woman with a secret past – played by Chabrol’s wife and muse Stephane Audran, are poor (but never has close quarter apartment living looked so cozily French – save for 400 Blows maybe). They try their best to assure better for their daughter and the relationship and dynamics are tackled with subtly and the artful patience Chabrol is known for. This is not a fast paced film but a quietly fascinating one – partially for the cinematic beauty and partially for Huppert’s captivating performance.

Director Claude Chabrol passed away last week and was one of the most important forerunners of the New Wave movement in France. His career is vast and sadly less known than many of his contemporaries. His last work, Bellamy, comes to theaters this Fall.

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Posted on September 26, 2010

TV Shows »Bones

Corpses and Comedy

This is certainly not the most proud declaration I’ve made about us, but we have been Bones crazy for the last few months!! With a spacey mind and an early bedtime a la pregnancy, I’ve been in the mood for nothing but easy, junky TV and the four seasons of the often gruesome, quirky procedural buddy show available on netflix instant has fit the bill perfectly.

Not to negate the show entirely with my unnecessary shame, one has to admit that they’ve mastered the balance of humor and who done it incredibly well. Deschanel and Boreanaz have great chemistry and making a mindless show as watchable as this is much harder than you might think. Trust me, I’ve been trying the new Fall season of television and barely make it through an episode. While the show is marred by off set perversions – both Boreanez and the totally icky Ryan Neal have been the focus of recent scandals, I am looking forward to the day the season 5 comes to instant and will probably be recoding the new season with guilty pleasure.

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Posted on September 18, 2010

TV Shows »Breaking Bad

on AMC

Many television shows lately are called “hard hitting” and “relentless” but Breaking Bad, which is far from the Weeds-like drug dealing comedy one might expect truly deserves these descriptors. I am shocked then, that no one really talks about how, well, crazy this show is. I’ve heard it’s good, but without a mention of melting human bodies and an extremely depressing subplot about dying from cancer.

That all the severe tension and heavy stuff mixed with totally gruesome events can result in anything called entertainment is impressive, but Breaking Bad does one better and offers high quality entertainment due in no small part to the cast and the writing. It took me a couple episodes to be on board, but it’s strangely compelling once you’re into it.

You know I love Bryan Cranston and even more so now with his demented adventures and bald head. I am also glad to see he is type cast as an extremely horny man with plenty of sex scenes with his wife who is played by the uptight school teaching wife of Bullock on Deadwood (her name). Also stolen from Deadwood? the nearly identical theme song making the short lived foul mouthed show possibly the least watched by viewers and most revered by casting agents and producers.

I’ve only seen the first season and look forward to the rest, which fans say only get better.

Click here for the rest of Breaking Bad

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Posted on July 25, 2010

Books »Clockers

by Richard Price (1992)

If you need a Wire fix, and have already read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as I’ve recommended, Richard Price’s Clockers should be next on your list. The novel was a huge inspiration on the television show and Price was even brought in to write for it as the shows creators were such fans. It was adapted by Spike Lee, but I’ve yet to see the resulting movie. I can say that the novel is as well written and realistically engaging as I’ve come to expect from Price and it’s more focused narrative is more satisfying even than his recent hit Lush Life.

Set on the streets of a fictional New Jersey county, Clockers follows Strike, a mid level drug dealer and Rocco, a homicide detective bent on solving a murder that he’s positive Strike is behind. Problem is, even with all signs pointing to his guilt, his hard working brother confessed.

A streetwise young kid named Tyrone, the dangerous drug boss, Rodney, Rocco’s even headed partner, a vain actor trying to get real by hanging out with detectives, and Strike’s struggling, sympathetic brother Victor fill out this character study that is sometimes dark and heavy, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous, and always entertaining.

Price is becoming one of my go to writers when I want a book that’s sure to deliver (along side TC Boyle and Jack Vance).

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Posted on May 23, 2010

Books »The Fig Eater

by Jody Shields (2000)

The Fig Eater, set in Vienna in early 1900’s, is less about the hideous crime at its center and more about creating a moody atmosphere, revealing the subtle relationships between friends and husband and wife while delving into the detective practices as well as the Gypsy superstitions of the time.

The historic detective novel is a genre made most famous by the Alienist and in the Fig Eater it works well as a framework for quite a brooding portrait of a time and place. The crime it follows is the murder of Dora, a victim based on a famous patient of Dr. Freud, who had unusual relationships with the older men in her life.

Both the unnamed Investigator and his Hungarian wife, Erzibet finds themselves desperate to unlock the mysteries of the girl’s death. He through the latest in criminalist technology and a devotion to the Enzyclopddie der Kriminalistik, the first psychological approach to crime while Erzibet follows and discovers clues through Gypsy rituals and intuitions.

In the right hands, this could be a beautiful and haunting film that in some ways could be even more effective than the book which, while nicely written and interesting, feels a tad distant.

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Posted on April 4, 2010

Movies »Red Riding Trilogy

directed by Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker

Film critic David Thomson brazenly proclaimed The Red Riding Trilogy (three films directed by three different filmmakers) to be “a tragic achievement that surpasses that of ‘The Godfather'”. While I can’t quite agree with Thomson’s assertion, I’m thrilled his hyperbole has sparked so much international interest in the three films (now playing at IFC theater on 6th Avenue and On Demand) and the four David Peace novels on which they are based (the first of which I recommended a few weeks back), no matter how flawed the films themselves are.

The trilogy, which chronicles a decade of brutality (though the screen adaptation is not nearly as brutal as the book), anti-hero protagonists, sickening police corruption, torture, murder, and – not one but two – serial killers stalking the north of England, is a grim one. It’s rife with cliches while strangely remaining almost surreally confounding… After watching all three films (and I strongly believe you have to watch all three to absorb the complete feel of the work), I was both intrigued – though always kept at an arm’s length – and somewhat unsatisfied.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the experience which was at times rather demanding (in no small part due to to its splintered narrative, thick northern accents and relentless violence) while at the same time almost laughably trite in its chronic overuse of rote serial-killer-drama conventions. I say ‘almost’ because in the piss soaked, knuckle-beaten, nuclear power plant dotted landscape of the films, there is no room for laughter, or even a smile. The “heroes” are almost as corrupted as the villains and the only ray of decency shines from the films’ pathetic victims and few female characters played with heartbreaking humanity by the lovely Rebecca Hall (as a grief stricken mother) and Maxine Peak (as a decent detective amongst wolves).

It’s certainly not perfect and it’s anything but pretty (although there is some lyricism to the cinematography, particularly the first installment shot on 16mm) but it’s definitely worth a look. By the way, reading the books won’t entirely spoil anything – the film adaptations vary drastically at times and even omit the second book (1978) of Peace’s tetralogy completely.

Click here for the rest of Red Riding Trilogy

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Posted on February 14, 2010

Movies »The Friends of Eddie Coyle

the friends of eddie coyleThe definitive message behind the enthralling but dreary The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which stars an aged Robert Mitchum as a career small-time criminal, is that crime does not pay.

Far from the usual glamorized Hollywood image of criminals, everyone here is a snitch, a backstabber, a thief or about to go down with barely a penny to their name. It's a tough, unsentimental look at the world of crime, the shots are somewhat bleak and harshly lit, and even the action sequences, while still tense, are non-stylized.

Mitchum, who I adore in anything, is superb as the weary and desperate Coyle. Director Peter Yates, whose resume is uneven (he helmed the iconic Bullitt, the weird Mother, Juggs and Speed and Krull but later served time on a sentimental D.B. Sweeney vehicle), is also at his best.

The film is based on a best selling novel by George V Huggins, who was a major influence on James Ellroy.

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Posted on September 21, 2009

Books »Lush Life

richard price lush lifeRichard Price is known for his ear for dialog and realistic portrayals of complex people and communities. In Lush Life, his highly praised eighth novel, he turns his sharp focus on the Lower East Side of the past couple of years, a neighborhood in transition. Price says:

?here are about five worlds down there, and they're oblivious of each other. Well, every once in a while these worlds collide, and when they do it is usually on a street corner at four in the morning. The kids from the projects know that the kids inland have money – put a gun in their face, you can usually score enough cash to buy some Chinese takeout. But the kid whose face you're putting the gun in thinks he's in a movie, he's got his load on, he does the wrong thing – and BOOM, headlines for five days. Then everybody goes back to normal.”

The BOOM incident in this case is a robbery gone bad that echos the LES murder of actress Nicole DuFresne. The subsequent investigation and turmoil that follows fills the pages of this page turning novel. And while I've heard some complaints about the slower second half of the book, which are fair, it's slower parts are still more intriguing than most books out there.

Price was a huge inspiration and later a collaborator on The Wire, and for fans of that show Lush Life will be addition to the pantheon of intelligent crime sagas. For us New Yorkers, it's an intriguing look at our surroundings chock full of recognizable locations (Schiller's Liquor Bar and Milk and Honey,?for example). It's completely deserving of all the praise it's received, and with Price adapting (slowly) his own work for the big screen, this is one of the few page to screen adaptations I'm looking forward to.

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Posted on May 25, 2009