Sunday, March 1, 2015

DIDN'T GET THE MEMO


Regular readers of this blog will recall that I've often made the joke that when the words "lyrical, poetic" are used in a review of a film those are code words for "has no plot."

Imagine my surprise when I read a review of DESCENT by Tim Johnston in today's AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN. Reviewer Patrick Anderson of THE WASHINGTON POST says "It's literary because Johnston's prose is lyrical, even poetic, to a degree rarely found in fiction, literary or otherwise."

I think I'm entitled to a royalty check. Oh, and guess what book I won't be reading.

 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

THE GREAT RAID

"Nothing in our lives will ever be as important as this."

I watched THE GREAT RAID (2005) for the second time yesterday. I remember seeing this one in the theaters when it was first released and I revisited it thanks to a 99 cents DVD thrift store score.

The film tells the amazing true story of the raid on the Cabanatuan prisoner of war camp on the island of Luzon in the Philippines in January, 1945. 500 Americans were held prisoners by the Imperial Japanese for over three years. General Douglas MacArthur was leading American armed forces back into the Philippines in a campaign to liberate the country from the Japanese. The Japanese, who were willing to commit mass suicide rather than surrender to the Americans, plan to execute all of the prisoners before American troops can reach them.

With only a matter of days in which to act, a team of 120 U.S. Army Rangers, who had never before been in combat, was trained for a daring rescue mission behind enemy lines. These raw, green young men were tasked with traveling through the jungle for miles to reach the camp, which sat in the midst of a huge open field. The Rangers then had to belly crawl a mile to reach their objective. The Rangers were not alone in their efforts. They had the help of a band of Filipino guerrillas who were given the assignment of destroying a vital bridge near the camp.

All of the planning and execution of the raid is seen through the eyes of two main characters, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco). Meanwhile, within the camp, Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) fights a desperate battle with malaria while the love of his life, Margaret Utinsky( Connie Nielsen) works with the Filipino  underground to get vitally needed food and medicine into the camp.

THE GREAT RAID is based on two books about the Raid on Cabanatuan, THE GREAT RAID ON CABANATUAN by William Breuer and GHOST SOLDIERS by Hampton Sides. I've got a copy of GHOST SOLDIERS on my WWII bookshelf but I have yet to read it. Maybe I'll get around to it sometime this year.

The film is capably directed by John Dahl, who made the brilliant neo-noir THE LAST SEDUCTION (1994). The movie features a voice-over narration by Franco and is bookended by actual b&w footage of WWII with the end sequence showing the liberated prisoners and images of the real Mucci, Prince and Utinsky. Incredibly enough, only two American soldiers were killed in the raid while only one of the prisoners died shortly after being freed. 

Peter Menzies Jr.'s cinematography uses a washed out color palette to good effect while Trevor Rabin's score is appropriately stirring and heroic. THE GREAT RAID pays a respectful tribute to the men, both prisoners and their liberators, who were part of the largest rescue ever staged in American military history. It's an incredible true story and the film is well made, earnest and sincere. I enjoyed it as much the second time around as I did when I first saw it. THE GREAT RAID didn't do well at the box office and received less than stellar reviews. I think it's an underrated WWII film that's well worth seeing. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DEAD LOW TIDE


If John D. MacDonald's early crime novel, DEAD LOW TIDE (1953) had originally been published as a 1950s horror comic book, it would most likely show up in the current Overstreet Price Guide with the notation: "injury to throat motif". That's because not one, not two, but three people meet their ends in the course of the story by having sharp instruments applied with force to their throats. One murder weapon is a spear fishing gun, another a pair of clipping scissors, the third, well, you'll have to read the book to find out.

I know I read this one long ago, back in the 1980s when I went through my original spree of reading almost everything ever written by the late, great John D. MacDonald. I went through his books at a staggering pace, like a drunken sailor in a women's prison with a fistful of pardons, consuming all of the Travis McGee adventures and most of his stand-alone crime novels in the space of a couple of years. But it's now been long enough for me to have forgotten the particulars of any given MacDonald yarn so that reading one again is like reading it for the first time.

Case in point, DEAD LOW TIDE, which was reprinted last year in a handsome trade paperback edition by Random House. I finished re-reading it last night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good, early story about a young man who finds himself framed and set up to take the fall for the murder of his boss, who owns a construction company in Florida. The man was killed with a weapon belonging to our hero but he is, of course innocent. The story is routine stuff with our hero showing remarkable detective skills for a young man who works in a construction company office. There's a signature MacDonald villain, a sick and twisted psychopath who's a real doozy and there's a major plot twist in the third act that  I didn't see coming (or had forgotten, take your pick).

The pleasure in reading DEAD LOW TIDE (or any book by MacDonald), is in "hearing" his narrative voice. Sure, he has good characters, a strong sense of place (the Florida Gulf Coast), nice dialogue and well constructed plots. But it's the way he puts all of this together that is so damn addictive. DEAD LOW TIDE is, really, a fairly average crime novel. It's not MacDonald's best work (he got better, much better) but even this early effort shows a major writing talent developing his chops and putting narrative muscle on a skeletal frame of a plot.

I recall reading once, years ago (and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote this) that MacDonald's writing was like the work of a fine carpenter, a master craftsman. Every piece is finely turned, every piece fits with no visible joins or welds and the whole thing works with remarkably smooth precision. I'll second that.

DEAD LOW TIDE. Recommended.

Monday, February 16, 2015

EASY DEATH


I finished reading EASY DEATH last night. Published in 2014 by Hard Case Crime (my favorite publisher!), EASY DEATH is the first crime novel by Daniel Boyd, the pseudonym of a veteran police office who served for nearly thirty years in a department in central Ohio, including four years as Chief of Police. His previous novel, NADA, was nominated for the Spur Award by the Western Writers of America.

For a first time effort, EASY DEATH is one helluva good read. It's a caper novel about an armored car robbery that takes place a few days before Christmas, 1951. The setting is a small Midwestern town and the players include the armored car guards, the robbers, the mastermind behind the crime and a couple of park rangers, one a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, the other, a lady ranger who's a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, yeah, she's also Richard Nixon's cousin (!)

As in all good caper novels, things go wrong in a deadly way. That's a given in this genre. But what nails the pages of EASY DEATH to the reader's hands is Boyd's storytelling. He fractures the narrative in both time and space by moving back and forth between various characters both before and after the robbery during the first act. The second act is an excruciatingly suspenseful fight to the death in a national park in which Boyd pulls off a literary sleight of hand trick that I never saw coming. It's a pure writer's device that could never work in a film but on paper, it's genius. The third act finds the robbers executing a skillful recovery of the stolen money and a clean getaway. Boyd puts our sympathies squarely with the bad guys here by making the two robbers, Walter and Eddie, the main characters in the book. You find yourself pulling for them to succeed against all odds.

Throughout the book, the action is accompanied by the sounds of various Christmas songs played on car radios, radios in stores and offices and on jukeboxes. Think AMERICAN GRAFFITI with Christmas music rather than rock 'n roll. It's a nice touch that adds greatly to the atmosphere of the book and helps to bring the time and place to vivid life.

My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that things wrap up a bit too quickly and cleanly at the end of the novel. There are some questions left unanswered and a couple of loose threads that aren't entirely tied up. Still, EASY DEATH is the kind of crime novel I love. Gritty, tough, realistic and suspenseful. It would make one terrific movie. Are you listening Hollywood?

Highly recommended.

 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

JUNGLELAND


"Adults, unlike children, are guided by memories, driven by them until they figure out how to contain them, live with them."

The comparisons to Indiana Jones are, of course, inevitable when discussing JUNGLELAND: A MYSTERIOUS LOST CITY, A WWII SPY, AND A TRUE STORY OF DEADLY ADVENTURE by Christopher S. Stewart. I finished reading this crackerjack true adventure story (published in 2013) yesterday and the entire time I was reading it, two thoughts kept going through my head.

The first was, you can't make up a story like this. Well, you could, but it wouldn't be nearly as fascinating as this one which involves the search for a lost city in the jungles of Honduras, an explorer who later became an OSS operative during World War II and a modern day search by the author to find the city and by extension, himself.  There are pirates, bandits, revolutionaries, natives (some peaceful, some not), mysterious monkey gods, wild, deadly animals, the threat of disease, rivers, rapids, meager food, a Geo Prizm and the constant, ever present, suffocating atmosphere of the green hell of the jungle.

The second thought in my mind at all times while reading this absolutely terrific book was that, yeah, this is definitely the stuff of pulp adventure stories. Indiana Jones, of course but also the great Doc Savage who had more than one adventure involving lost cities and impenetrable jungles. There's also a slight men's adventure magazine vibe to the proceedings. I can see a vintage issue, circa nineteen fifty something with a cover blurb: "I Found the Lost City of the Monkey Gods!"

Author Christopher Stewart divides his narrative into two parts. The first is the expedition by Theodore Morde in 1940 to find the legendary Ciudad Blanca, or White City, supposedly hidden somewhere in the jungles of Honduras. The second is Stewart's own expedition to retrace Morde's steps in present day to see if he too can find the city that Morde claimed to have found.

Stewart alternates his chapters between Morde in the past and his own experiences in the present and they're remarkably similar. Morde was a wanderer and explorer who went on to serve as an agent for the wartime OSS (later the CIA) in Europe during WWII. Morde, who took his own life in the 1950s, left behind notes, journals and maps that document his discovery of the ruins of the city deep in the jungle.

Stewart, a freelance writer by trade and rookie explorer with a wife and young daughter back home in Brooklyn, enlisted the aid of a veteran, Chris Begley, to assist him on his quest.

Both Morde and Stewart discovered what appear to be the same ruins of a city in the jungle but the real White City remains just out of reach. At the end of Stewart's journey, Chris Begley reveals to him his theory about what the White City really is and it makes perfect sense.

The White City is not a physical place, not a location on a map. Instead, it's a place within our collective memories of where we came from, our home towns, the houses we grew up in. For the natives in Honduras, it's a sacred place, a recollection of the way life used to be prior to the arrival of the white man.

For Stewart, it's the realization that his White City is where his wife and daughter are but in order to truly know that, he first had to risk his life on an extraordinary journey. It's like the old saying, in order to truly find yourself you must first get lost.

JUNGLELAND is a page-turner par excellence. It's a vivid, thrilling adventure story about external and internal discoveries. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

KISS KISS BANG BANG


I watched KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) for the first time yesterday and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A better title for the film might just be WINK WINK NUDGE NUDGE as this comedy/mystery film is incredibly self-referential. The movie knows it's a movie, and a genre film at that. Director Shane Black plays with the structure and format of the film in several places. He has the film literally stop mid-frame a couple of times to allow Robert Downey Jr., who narrates the action, to comment on what's going on and fill us in on stuff we need to know.

KISS KISS BANG BANG is a valentine to a certain type of hard-boiled crime story. Story chapters are named using the titles of Raymond Chandler novels and L.A. is drenched in primary colors (day and night). Sure there are dead bodies (several of them). There's gun play, violence and a pretzel of a plot but KKBB is no film noir. Its' tongue is planted too firmly within its' cheek to ask us to take any of this glorious, goofy fun seriously

Downey stars as Harry, a small time thief in New York City who stumbles into an audition for a crime film while on the lam from the cops at the beginning of the story. His reading of the material is good enough to win him the part in the film and before you know it, he's in Los Angeles. The producers of the film assign Perry, a gay private detective (Val Kilmer) to give Downey some on-the-job training in the detective business to help him prepare for the film. Kilmer, puffy faced and slightly pudgy is hysterical and even though Downey is the star, Kilmer almost steals the film out from under him.

As fate would have it (fate, hell, it's a narrative contrivance, pure and simple), the first night Harry's in LA he runs into Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), his old flame from their childhood in Indiana (we see them at the very beginning of the film performing a magic trick at a church fair). Harmony is an "actress" with one beer commercial to her credit but she's Harry's one, true love and he's determined to win her over. Even if he has to lie to her and tell her he's a detective.

Harry and Perry and Harmony soon get involved in a complicated murder case involving three dead women (one of whom is Harmony's sister) and before you know it, they're all down a rabbit hole of mayhem including a severed finger that won't stay sewn on, torture, dead bodies in shower stalls and a derringer concealed in a crotch holster.

The glue holding all of this insanity together is a series of cheap paperback mysteries starring private detective Johnny Gossamer. They have clever titles and feature painted covers with voluptuous females and tough guy private eyes. The killer has a complete collection of these novels and a Johnny Gossamer film was shot in Indiana when Harry and Harmony were young. That's an important clue folks. Harry and Harmony have read enough of the books to know that there are always two cases in one of his books, two cases that, while appearing to be separate, eventually dovetail into one case in which everything is connected. Which is what happens here.

The Johnny Gossamer books (which are seen onscreen several times), are a playful nod to the paperback mysteries written by Bret Halliday starring private eye Mike Shayne. In fact, the screenplay of KKBB (also by Black), is loosely based on this novel:



I've read some of these books and I have a few on my shelf that I haven't gotten around to yet. They're great fun and while it would be cool to see a straight forward, faithful film based on a Shayne/Halliday novel, KKBB is the next best thing.

Trivia: MR. KISS KISS BANG BANG is the name of a song written to be used as the title track for the James Bond film THUNDERBALL. The song, written by John Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, was recorded twice. First by Dionne Warwick, the second time by Shirley Bassey. In the end, the producers went with "Thunderball" sung by Tom Jones. The title Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is allegedly one given to Bond by Japanese moviegoers.

When you get right down to it, KISS KISS BANG BANG is a perfect title for this film. It perfectly describes the action that starts with a kiss and ends with a bang. Highly recommended.


 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

THE MILLION DOLLAR WOUND


I finished reading THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND by Max Allan Collins the other day. It's the third Nate Heller historical crime novel by Collins and it was originally written and published in 1986. The edition I read (pictured above) is a trade paperback published by Amazon Encore in 2011.

THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND is an ambitious, epic crime story with a fractured narrative line that moves back and forth in time. The novel begins with Heller in a military hospital in 1942, suffering from battle fatigue, shock and amnesia, or what we would now refer to as post traumatic stress disorder. Then the action flashes back to Heller's exploits as a Marine on Guadalcanal and the horror that he experienced in a foxhole on that island. It's gripping, first rate storytelling. Then we move back to the hospital where Heller is deemed "cured" and released back into civilian life.

Then the story moves back to 1939, before the war, where Heller investigates an attempt by the Chicago mob (run by Frank Nitti, Al Capone's right-hand man) to infiltrate the Hollywood labor unions. Heller, as always in these books, rubs shoulders with many real life characters including Nitti, Sally Rand, Elliot Ness, Barney Ross, actor Robert Montgomery, Chicago business E. J. O'Hare and other real cops and crooks.


The third act of the book returns to 1943, where Heller, still suffering from combat fatigue, finds that players from his investigation in 1939 are still active and quite deadly. There's a brutal murder of one of Heller's lovers, a fierce gun battle between two killers and Heller in his office and a final showdown with Frank Nitti. Along the way, Heller finds out what really happened in that foxhole on Guadalcanal and tries to finally put the war behind him and get on with life.

THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND covers a lot of ground and a time span of four years. There's a colorful cast of characters, most of whom were real people with others being composites or completely fictional. Heller gets involved in some intricate criminal schemes and the mystery/crime material is capably handled by Collins, as usual.

But it's the war stuff that really stands out. I'd read an entire novel about combat in WWII by Collins should he ever decide to write one. The effects of battle, the stress and fatigue, the horror, the sleepless nights, the physical and mental damage that combat inflicts on men is all vividly portrayed here. Collins is keenly aware that the best post war crime novels and films noir are all informed either explicitly or implicitly by WWII. Many of the men who fought that war came home to walk the mean streets of America where they did battle with the forces of darkness in the form of bad guys and femme fatales while struggling with the demons of their minds. That pretty much defines Heller in this novel. 

THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND is a terrific crime novel. If you like crime/mystery, if you like history, if you like a good story well told, check it out. Recommended.