Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cloak, dagger, other

There have been a lot of spies at the movies lately, and the pictures have varied from cartoony (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) to brainy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) to artsy (Haywire) to crappy (This Means War), but none have scratched the itch that the “Bourne” series did.

Now, finally, the trailer for a new “Bourne” film has arrived. What took so long? The last film, The Bourne Ultimatum, in its final shots, showed the way to the next, particularly given that Matt Damon would choose to leave the series: There was Julia Stiles, waiting in the wings, her character also part of all three films and now as much a liability to their agency as Matt Damon’s, alone and on the run in some grayish Eastern European city. Why not? I’d say Stiles looks as formidable as Kate Beckinsale or Milla Jovovich, and they’ve both anchored money-making action series; in any event, the “Bourne” editing manual could make me or my aunt look like a feasible close-combat killer.

And there’s this: The really important attribute Damon brought to the enterprise was his still-boyish face. It was pretty awful to watch this forty-something thirteen-year-old choke a man to death, and Bourne didn’t enjoy it either. That’s something Stiles could have sold too.

Instead, after a five-year layoff, we get Jeremy Renner in the lead of the new film, and Julia Stiles is not listed in the cast. Renner is an intense actor, and I don’t see any trace of thirteen-year-old when I look at him. It’s hard to picture him spending the bulk of a movie running away from his pursuers, or having some kind of a normal life as his goal -- as Damon did, as Stiles could have. The final scenes of Renner’s best movie thus far saw him walking away from a normal life and toward an unexploded bomb. He sold that easily.


Renner turns up in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol but he has nothing to do, because he’s not Tom Cruise.

Starting some time ago, all Tom Cruise movies address, in story, Tom’s renown as a closeted gay man. This practice, uncanny at first, is now canny, and growing tiresome. Ghost Protocol is more of the same. It begins with Tom locked up in a Russian prison, on an undercover assignment that, we are told, he requested. A female agent arrives, to break him out of his cell, but he refuses to go with her without his new friend, a fellow he met there in the prison. Etcetera, etcetera.

A trailer for his next film, Rock of Ages, arrived in theaters last weekend. Tom is a rock star. A fan, a young blond woman, runs up to him backstage for an autograph, baring her breasts; Tom snaps his fingers for a marker and obliges her…without a single glance in her direction.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has too much story for its running time. It also has too much dandruff, bad weather, nicotine-stained white hair, bad fashion, bad teeth, and far too few women, but mostly it has too much story.

Enthusiasts say this simply means you have to see it twice.

Let’s get something straight: “You have to see it twice” is terrible advocacy for any film, but particularly terrible for a film based on a thirty-eight-year-old novel that’s never been out of print.

No one seems to feel it in their best interest to admit you’d be better off staying home reading the book…but isn’t it kind of obvious?


I thought last year’s mostly-terrific Contagion meant Steven Soderbergh had gotten over his weird aversion to delivering the goods, and I looked forward to Haywire, but he’s back to his worst habits again.

The movie begins, for reasons only Soderbergh could explain, with the only scene in the film played out of sequence, setting up a framing device which manages the neat trick of being the least consequential and the most ludicrous framing device I can remember. (If anyone knows what the kid with the car is doing in the movie, let me know. Who is he? In life, I mean. A producer’s nephew?)

Soderbergh’s next miscalculation was to assemble the fight scenes with as few edits as possible, and no music. On paper, this is unobjectionable: the star of the movie, Gina Carano, is an undefeated MMA fighter; she doesn’t need an editor to make it look like she knows what she’s doing. In practice, the lack of cutting leaves plenty of time to notice that Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum are petite little flowers; you wonder why it’s taking Carano so long to finish them off.

Haywire is what you get when there are no craftsmen left, and it falls to the artistes to make thrillers.


It’s hard to guess what a contemporary American might mean by “guilty pleasure.”

I’m reminded of the character in the Charles Portis novel The Dog of the South who “would always say – boast, the way those people do – that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.”

Is someone out there setting down The Bostonians for the evening, drawing the blinds, and flipping on “Swamp People”? Setting out from the house on date night, tickets to Chekhov in hand, only to wind up at This Means War?

Stop saying guilty pleasure. Just say you like crap.


As a vertigo-suffering myopic, I feel I owe a special thanks to the makers of The Grey for the sequence in which Dermot Mulroney, playing a guy scared of heights, dangles by his knees and elbows from a worn rope tied across a snowy void…as his eyeglasses slip from his face and tumble into the mist

Honestly, fellas, was there no way to work a vagina dentata into that scene? I’m still drawing breath here.


Chronicle is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in a long time. Go see it Sunday night, during the Oscar broadcast. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Two weeks ago, January 17th, was the laydown date for Elmore Leonard’s 45th novel, Raylan.

I wish I had a personal anecdote from the day to share that matched this one from George Will in his introduction to Dutch Treat, an omnibus of three Leonard books from the mid-‘70s:

Recently, while eating lunch where I work (at home), I read a newspaper story reporting the publication of a new Leonard novel. I put down my sandwich and drove directly to a bookstore.

That’s from 1985, but it’s still a good representation of the feeling I get at the news that Elmore Leonard is back, that Elmore Leonard is still around.


Here’s what happened two weeks ago: I did not go directly to a bookstore. I made plans to attend a discussion and signing with Elmore and his son Peter at the public library near the man’s home in Bloomfield Hills on the 19th, two days later, figuring I’d purchase a copy there and, hopefully, get it signed.

I missed the event, of course; as noted previously, I recently skipped a concert by Elmore’s contemporary Sonny Rollins, so why not? It was a cold night; I’ll catch him next time. His next book is probably halfway finished by now.

I bought Raylan today. They had a display of some of his other books up at the cash register, in new QP editions from Harper; I prefer the Harper Torch mass markets these are replacing, they are my favorite Leonard editions. These new QPs have a print-on-demand quality to them. I bought a few of them anyway, because I couldn’t stop myself.


I started reading Elmore Leonard in 1983 or 1984; I read a Detroit Free Press article about him, the Detroit novelist hitting the big time, and a few days later I bought Unknown Man No. 89 at a used book store. A few days after that, with 30 pages to go in that book, I ran back to the same store and bought Fifty-Two Pickup, because I knew I’d want to start another book by him the second I finished this first one.

And then I stopped buying his books used, because I wanted him to have my money.


As of today, I have forty Elmore Leonard books on my shelf. I’ve read thirty-three of his novels, and one short story collection (When The Women Come Out To Dance). I’ve re-read a number of his books, and there’s at least one I’ve read three times (Cat Chaser). I’ve not read his young-adult novel, or the two books I thought might feel overfamiliar since I’ve seen the movie adaptations more than once (Out of Sight and Rum Punch, but I bought Rum Punch today); I’ve read only three of the Western novels and none of the Western short story collections.

Still, that number – 34 – feels low. What other author can anyone possibly say that about? Off the top of my head, Balzac, Trollope, John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, and Donald Westlake are in the realm of the possible, but I wouldn’t care to read 50-odd books, or even 34, by any of them. (And I’m a pretty big fan of Westlake.)


For years, beginning in the mid-‘90s, most of the commentary about Leonard revolved around whether he was a genre writer, a literary writer, or a genre writer who “transcended genre,” in the unfortunate phrase still batted around whenever some highbrow finds himself enjoying a book sold in airports. Some people just can’t help themselves. Martin Amis even attempted a novel after the Leonard style, which he much admired; it was, before he turned his attention to the evils of Stalin and, um, Islam, much the worst thing he had written.

Lately, more distressingly, the commentary revolves around whether Leonard, in his eighth decade, has lost a step. Fair enough: I’d say his books are now only better than 95% of what’s out there, down from 98%. The question might be fairer still if he was spewing hatred like VS Naipaul, or Helen Thomas.


Leonard has his worthy antecedents (George V. Higgins, Ross Thomas) and pretenders to his throne (Carl Hiassen, George Pelecanos). I’ve actually had younger readers tell me that they prefer Hiassen and/or Pelecanos to Leonard – the Hiassen fans are easy to dismiss, but I understand the attraction of Pelecanos, with his self-indulgent music references and his social crusading. Still, he’s a talented writer, and I’ve enjoyed several of his books. But to mention him in the same breath as Elmore Leonard? It’s like hearing someone say, “Don’t get me wrong: I like Django Reinhardt, but he’s not my favorite two-fingered Gypsy guitarist…Let me tell you about my guy.”


One more George Will-style Elmore Leonard anecdote: when Get Shorty came out in paperback, in 1991, I had a job making deliveries, and I stopped at a bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, leaving the company van idling curbside in the store’s front window. I grabbed a copy of the book and decided to read a few pages before making my purchase. I stood (there were no chairs in bookstores back then) and read and didn’t look up until the shop owner, behind the front counter, cleared his throat.

I was on Page 63.