Has it really been two months since I posted here? Jeez, folks, I’m sorry. I have had a few things going on, like taking a break from crime fiction and breaking a collarbone, but still.
I’ll make up for it a little bit with this jumble of odds and ends, and I hope to get back to posting at least once a week sooner rather than later.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
I think Americans too often take our freedom for granted, since we’ve grown up in it. But it is not the natural state of human affairs. It took tremendous sacrifice to achieve it, and tremendous sacrifice to maintain it. I am always humbled when thinking of that, most especially today.
Getting to the crime stuff, I’ll start with the sad news that artist Glen Orbik has died of cancer too young at 52. Glen is best known to VWOP readers as the artist of many great covers for Hard Case Crime.
Charles Ardai, editor-in-chief of that amazing line, writes, “Glen was a shooting star, a miracle. Losing him is like losing Jim Henson, like losing Robin Williams. Such talent. Such a cruel fate.” Please read the post in full, and see some gorgeous artwork, at Killer Covers.
Starting on June 1, Turner Classic Movies is offering a free online course on film noir.
Summer is cooler in the shadows.
We invite movie fans from around the world to join us for a flexible, multimedia investigation and celebration of film noir.
In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir”—the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.
This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”
Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon—from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.
Mrs. VWOP, a film major, has agreed to take the course with me. (Things like this are why she became Mrs. VWOP.) If there are a few of you out there who would also like to take the course, let me know either in the comments or via e-mail. Maybe I’ll do a weekly discussion thread if there are enough folks to warrant it. If nothing else, it could get me posting regularly again.
Oh, and a friend of mine somehow misread this to mean that you had to watch 100 movies. Just in case you did as well, that’s not the case.
The missus and I have been watching the new Netflix Daredevil series. We have a few episodes left to go, so I won’t go into it too much as I may write a full review when we complete the season. Suffice it to say that it is very good and somewhat surprisingly very noir. I used to read the comic book on occasion in my misspent youth, and don’t recall the tone being anything like that, but it suits the character quite well. The acting, writing, and direction are for the most part superb. Anyone fan enough of crime fiction to be reading this post will likely enjoy it immensely.
Darwyn Cooke says he won’t be returning to Parker comics until 2016, but by the sound of it, I suspect it will be a longer wait than that. I get the sense that he feels he needs to recharge the batteries a bit before returning to the character. But if you like his work on Parker, you will almost certainly like his newly announced project.
Cooke’s upcoming Image Comics series “Revengeance” is a story he originally pitched to artist Tim Sale, but after five years of waiting for Sale to be available, “I told Tim, sorry, I’m taking this one for myself.”
On “Revengeance,” Cooke said, “I think the title indicates that I’m not taking it entirely seriously.” He compared it to the Mickey Spillane novel “I, the Jury,” with a “young, liberal, nonviolent sort of party guy” as the protagonist. “It’s incredibly dark. The ending of it is horribly dark. But on the way, I’d like to think there’s going to be a lot of hilarious stuff.”
The series is set in 1986 Toronto, where Cooke himself lived in his 20s. “There’s a lot of me in it,” he said. “I just kind of subtracted everything decent about me, and made everything bad about me twice as bad.”
No release date announced yet.
So that’s the latest! Again, apologies for the scant posting lately, but you regulars know that happens from time to time.
Let me know if you want to take that film noir course! It could be a lot of fun.
Gold Eagle, the division of Harlequin that published men’s adventure books including The Executioner/Mack Bolan, is being closed down after Harlequin’s acquisition by HarperCollins. I expect Mack will land on his feet somewhere, especially if the movie franchise tentatively starring Bradley Cooper gets off the ground.
The scan didn’t work so great, because the jacket is in a plastic wrapper. I got it from a dealer for the princely sum of $2, a score indeed. It’s in great shape, and appears to be unread. Curiously, it appears that a drop of blood fell on the upper edge of the pages.
One of Mr. Westlake’s non-crime books (although I’m sure there’s some crime in it) and one I have not yet read. Have any of you?
Here is the jacket text:
Jack Pine was born to be a Hollywood star. He has no morals, no scruples; he will not hesitate to do anything or love anyone if it might advance his career, get him the best roles, or project him evermore firmly into the spotlight.
And success does come, beyond the imagination of Jack’s agents and co-stars–even beyond the hopes of his boyhood friend Buddy Pal, a man who carries with him the dark secretes of Jack’s past.
Buddy stands apart, aloof: he alone truly benefits from Jack’s careening ambition and his artful, charming conniving. Others who depend on Jack may fall by the wayside, but how can the affable star be blamed?
In fact, Jack Pine can be excused anything–until he carries out the final sin, for which there can be no pardon…
I’ve been taking a needed break from crime fiction as of late–it’s about 90% of the fiction I’ve read since I revived this site a few years back, and I simply had to broaden my horizons a bit for awhile. It’s still my favorite, so don’t you worry–crime fiction coverage will resume.
I have been watching more movies lately, so I’ll cover some that may be of interest. So, read on, dear reader, if you are still reading the site at all after its spottiness lately, and jump into the open thread if you like.
John Wick (2014)
I didn’t see John Wick at the theater but it recently came out on video and streaming so I caught it last night.
John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the title character, an assassin who retired into the straight life after falling in love with a woman and one last very bloody job to extricate himself. A few years later, his now-wife falls ill and dies, leaving him devastated and aimless, going through a very-disciplined daily routine of meaningless rituals such as getting up at exactly 6:00 AM, going to bed at exactly 11:00 PM, and spending a great deal of time practicing high-performance driving in his beloved ’69 Mustang.
A surprise visit from a deliverywoman brings an adorable puppy accompanied by a note from his late wife, who had arranged this so that he would have something to love after she was gone.
A day or two later, while gassing up his Mustang, Wick has a chance encounter with some thuggish Russian fellows, one of whom wants to buy Wick’s car. Wick tells him that it’s not for sale. That night, the thugs come over to Wick’s house, catch him by surprise and beat him, kill his puppy, and steal his car.
You can imagine where it goes from there.
While I had heard good things about John Wick, I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the massive amount of gunplay visible in the trailer. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just a good revenge film, but a near-great one, possibly even nudging up into “great” territory.
Derek Kolstad’s excellent screenplay is likely underappreciated, so I’ll start with that. In a film without much dialog, Kolstad makes every line count. I imagine him taking his first draft and paring it down over and over again to reduce it to the absolute minimum necessary to advance the plot or get the desired reaction from the audience. It is also quite witty.
An aspect of Kolstad’s screenplay that I loved was the universe he created, a criminal underground with its own hotels, nightclubs, lingo, and even currency. It’s a universe worth exploring further, even beyond possible John Wick sequels or prequels.
Keanu Reeves does a great job as a man of few words and lots of action. He is either an impressive martial artist or made very convincingly to look like one (I believe the former). The supporting cast is also strong, portraying an often-quirky bunch of criminals (there are almost no straights in this movie) for Wick to engage with.
There is no shaky cam so you can actually tell what’s going on in the film’s many action scenes. The direction, by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch is visually impressive and well paced.
Good stuff, and highly recommended.
Maniac Cop (1988)
My formative years were in the days of the ’80s home-video boom, a wild time where all sorts of crazy stuff was coming out and I used to pick up anything with halfway-decent box art off the shelf of my small-town video store if it was in the horror or science fiction section. It was a fit of nostalgia for that era that prompted me to re-watch Maniac Cop the other night.
The film’s title is truth in advertising. A man dressed as a police officer is roaming New York City, slaughtering innocents and putting the citizens in a panic about their own police force. While detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) chases leads, officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is framed for the crime. Their quest for answers and for the real murderer will unearth some dark secrets.
Equal parts mystery, thriller, and slasher film, Maniac Cop isn’t a lost classic, but it’s better than the title might lead you to believe. It’s script is by Larry Cohen, the always-interesting low-budget auteur behind Black Caesar, It’s Alive!, and The Stuff, more recently known as the screenwriter for thrillers Phone Booth and Cellular. Cohen’s script for Maniac Cop is a bit lazy in spots, but it’s efficient and keeps the thrills coming.
One of Maniac Cop‘s appeals, that helps to elevate it above other most other slasher material, is its cast of exploitation veterans. In addition to Atkins and Campbell, it also features familiar faces Robert Z’Dar and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree.
That cast, a pretty good mystery, and occasionally inspired direction by William Lustig featuring some nice stuntwork at the end, make Maniac Cop an above-average slasher flick and a solid time-waster if you’ve got eighty minutes to kill.
PS: While nominally a crime film, I probably would not have written about Maniac Cop on the site if not for the presence of Sheree North, best known to Parker fans as Buck’s wife in a very memorable scene in the film adaptation of The Outfit. I got a good laugh when someone in the film described her character, when younger, as “Not much to look at.” Oh, really?
I’m not sure which I feel worse about–that I’ve been away for so long, or that this is my return to the site.
I put some thoughts down on the original Taken in this post. I wrote about how it’s one of my favorite action flicks, and express some fears about the future of the franchise based on the preview for Taken 2.
Oh, boy. Have those fears been realized.
My contention in the above-linked piece (and related comments) was that they could have taken Liam Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, from Taken and put him in situations beyond a cookie-cutter repeat of the first movie with extra sprinkles. There was the potential for some good stuff there.
But that’s not what they did. Taken 2 was the same movie as Taken, only with bigger explosions (sprinkles!) and a large dose of ridiculousness.
As much as I didn’t like it, one thing Taken 2 was not was boring. Alas, that’s not the case with Taken 3, which should kill this once-promising franchise for good.
What’s wrong with Taken 3? Everything. The camerawork in the action scenes is so awful that the friend I was watching it with said that they should have called it Shaken. I’m not sure the human eye can tell what is supposed to be going on in some of those scenes. There are key plot points that make no sense at all, even by the lax standards of action movie sequels. And it is boring. I never became remotely invested in any of the characters, any of the action, any of the anything.
And if you can’t figure out who the villain is in this “mystery” about ten minutes into this disaster, it’s not because you’re not bright, it’s because you’ve already fallen asleep.
About a year ago I saw a Taken ripoff called Stolen. At the time, I made the joke that Stolen starred Nicolas Cage as Liam Neeson and S, T, O, and L as the letters T, A, and K.
Not much news since the last of these–maybe stuff is out there, but I haven’t had a chance to look for it. A huge work project, football season, and lots of great concerts coming through Austin have kept me busy.
I need some help from someone who knows stuff about video files. I don’t know if it’s medium-level or advanced-level knowledge that I need, but it’s definitely above my no-knowledge level. I don’t want to say what I need the help for right at this moment, but if you contact me about it, I think you will jump on board the project about 1/4 of a second after you read about what it is. I also don’t think it will be that time consuming for someone who knows what he’s doing. If you contact me and I tell you about it and you aren’t interested (you will be), if it’s too big a project (I don’t think it will be), or the particular set of skills I’m looking for aren’t yours, don’t worry, I won’t be offended.
Update: Video issues resolved. More to follow.
Also, has anyone seen John Wick yet? The preview looked great, and the reviews are very strong.
I don’t understand why the title follows the baffling trend of naming the movie after the main character even though John Carter and Parker didn’t do well and Jack Reacher only did OK. What the hell, Hollywood? Who is or are the idiot or idiots who think this is a good idea? What’s a better title, James Bond or From Russia With Love,On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or The Spy Who Loved Me (to pick three favorites)?
Trent’s been rounding up links to reviews of Levi Stahl’s excellent Westlake nonfiction miscellany The Getaway Car—and if you haven’t grabbed yourself a copy of that fine tome yet, why not?—but I’ve come across a few additional bits and bobs in the wake of its publication last month which I reckon might be worth a moment of your time.
There’s a piece by William Kristol at the Wall Street Journal site (if you hit a paywall via that link, try Googling it and going in that way) titled “In Praise of Westlake,” in which Kristol, well, praises Westlake, and along the way praises Levi’s book too. It’s a nicely written article, a good primer for anyone coming to Westlake afresh, which I realize probably won’t include many people reading this post, but still—I enjoyed it.
Paul Westlake has posted a personal and heartfelt tribute to Levi’s book at DonaldWestlake.com, in which he reminisces about his dad “making a manual Smith-Corona sound like a machine gun with the hiccups” and reflects on how his father “had dry spells, he had bills, and kids, and more bills, and more kids. He had no backup plan. If he didn’t write, and get paid for writing, there was nothing else. The next line in that sequence is blank. His vocation was, and was always to be, writing. If the variety of his published works didn’t make that apparent, [The Getaway Car] surely will.” Paul also kindly nods to both The Violent World of Parker and Existential Ennui, and more importantly to a man who played a key role in the genesis of The Getaway Car, Ethan Iverson. Speaking of whom…
I’ve referenced Ethan’s excellent overview of Westlake’s oeuvre, “A Storyteller That Got the Details Right,” numerous time over the years; when I was first getting into Parker and Stark and Westlake five years ago, Ethan’s guide proved indispensable, and I still look it up on a regular basis. And just the other day when I was doing so again I realized Ethan had updated it, adding his blog post from April 2014 about what he and and Levi found rooting through Westlake’s attic, and further embellishing the piece here and there. Even if you’ve read Ethan’s essay before, I heartily recommend reacquainting yourself with it; almost every time I go to it I find something new—in this instance, literally.
As with the last one of these I posted asking for opinions of A Walk Among the Tombstones, this time I’m interested in your opinions of a couple of other recent crime flicks, The Equalizer and Gone Girl. The next few weeks are going to be busy for me, so I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to see either or both of them in the theater. Should I make an extra effort or will video be fine?
Thread is open to chat about this or anything else.
Michael Dirda at the Washington Post reviews Levi Stahl’s Westlake nonfiction compilation The Getaway Car: http://t.co/ns1JhI4c1L
A Walk Among the Tombstones, as many of you no doubt already know, is based on the novel by Lawrence Block, the tenth in his series about alcoholic/recovering alcoholic (depending on what book) private investigator Matthew Scudder. Scudder is unlicensed, occasionally doing “favors” for “friends” who sometimes give him “gifts” out of gratitude for his favors.
AWATT launches when Peter (Boyd Holbrook), who knows of Scudder (Liam Neeson) from Alcoholics Anonymous, asks him to come talk with his brother, Kenny.
Kenny’s wife Carrie has been kidnapped, then murdered despite him paying ransom. Despite this harrowing tale, Scudder at first refuses to help, in part because Kenny is a narcotics trafficker. Needless to say, Scudder does get involved, and away we go.
If you’ve read any of the Scudder novels, you know what a Scudder novel feels like–the atmosphere, the darkness, the general ugliness of the universe he inhabits. Director Scott Frank, shooting his own script, captures that ably. AWATT is a Matthew Scudder movie, not just a movie based on a Matthew Scudder novel (as, reportedly, Eight Million Ways to Die is). I have not yet read the novel (I’m reading them in order and not there yet), so I can’t say how close the script hews to the source material plot-wise, but it hews very closely to the spirit of the series*. That in itself, as exasperated Parker fans know, is quite an achievement.
The always excellent Neeson is perfectly cast as Matthew Scudder, and the supporting actors also do a fine job. A friendship between an older white man and a black youth has a high risk of corn (“You’re the man now, dog!“), but there isn’t a kernel of it in Scudder’s relationship with T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley).
Scott Frank’s script and direction are similarly top-notch, perfectly paced for the brooding thriller this is. The man knows how to do crime right, which may mean we missed out when the TV pilot he wrote and directed based on Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosely for FX did not get picked up. (Can we please see it, at least?)
Unfortunately, A Walk Among the Tombstones underperformed at the box office, possibly because it was wrongly perceived as Neeson doing Taken again without actually calling it Taken, meaning a sequel is unlikely. It also means it won’t be in theaters for much longer, so get out there and see it while you still can. And if you miss it, put it at the top of your TBW pile when it comes to video and streaming. It’s a film worthy of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, and that’s high praise indeed.
*There is one important change (and if you haven’t read the series or seen the movie, I promise this isn’t a spoiler). Scudder’s origin story is condensed and altered due to filming book ten of the series. In the novels, Scudder’s accidental killing of a seven-year-old girl leads to his descent into alcoholism, or at minimum takes him much deeper into it. Scudder does not give up booze until several entries into the series. In the movie, it is the child’s death that inspires him to kick.