Sunday, November 25, 2007

No movie for cockeyed optimists

I've had a hard time figuring out what to say about No Country For Old Men, the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's bleak novel of the same name. My first reaction on coming out of the theater Friday night: I liked it a lot -- right up until the abrupt ending. One guy in the theater actually cried out, "What the hell?" From what I could see, It was a reaction widely shared.

Having read the book, I wasn't expecting Home Alone. But the novel's nihilism was leavened somewhat by some reflective passages toward the end that left you with the feeling that the story had been told; that if morality is meaningless, at least it helps you sleep at night. The movie tries to do the same thing with a single short soliloquy and a cut to black, and I don't think it works.

Still, anybody who appreciates the craft of movie-making should see it, because there's so much to admire. Start with the casting: It's hard now to see how anyone but Javier Bardem could play the role of Anton Chigurh, and it's amazing how that dopey haircut seems to magnify his menace -- kind of like the leisure suit and VW Beetle did for M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple. Tommy Lee Jones was the obvious choice to play Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, with a face as weathered as the Texas landscape, but he doesn't just phone it in. This is a nuanced portrayal of a small-town lawman who thinks he's seen it all, then comes to realize he hasn't seen the half of it. Woody Harrelson doesn't get a lot of screen time, but one scene, where he cannot quite remain cool in the most dire of circumstances, is the best work of his career.

Also, I believe the Coen Brothers are at the height of their power as directors. No Country is perfectly paced, devoid of gimmickry, and there is no scene during which you will want to slip out for your free refill on the jumbo popcorn. There are a number of scenes where I defy you to eat popcorn at all.

The Coens are also credited as screenwriters, although their strict adherence to McCarthy's scenes and dialog makes me wonder how much additional writing was involved. It's here, I think, that it might have been possible to make the ending more comprehensible -- without, of course, grafting a Die Hard-style ending onto it.

Not that I'm a big fan of nihilism, which I consider philosophy for dummies. In No Country for Old Men, the Texas desert is indifferent to good and evil. Life and death are determined by the random collision of objects and men. Fair enough. The problem I have is that in such a world, evil men enjoy an edge because they don't expect any better. Good men do, and must suffer more when they discover that all of life is the toss of a coin, that virtue is no reward at all. If we consider that the purpose of fiction is to impose meaning on human experience, nihilism -- the utter lack of meaning -- is probably not the best desk from which to work.

Does that make sense? I don't know. It did while I was writing it. My bottom line won't make sense either: Dave Bob says four stars out of five, but doesn't necessarily recommend that any depressed or really upbeat persons see it. If you do though, let's do a couple hits of Lexapro and talk about it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Murder takes a holiday. Sort of.

My staff here at the warehouse has departed early for the Thanksgiving weekend, disregarding my explicit instructions to make sure the Big Box O' Blog Ideas was full before leaving. Also, someone appears to have raided the petty cash drawer. It's so hard to get reliable help these days.

Anyway, once again I'm going to have to pull something out of my ... well, let's just say I'll have to make something up. Since I've read no books, seen no movies and watched no television in the past couple of days, this is harder than it looks. Hmmm. Perhaps something with a Thanksgiving theme?

So when's the last time you read a mystery where Thanksgiving, the holiday, was a prominent element in the story? I can name a dozen Christmas-themed crime novels just off the top of my head, and probably as many set around Halloween. Several for the Fourth of July, even one or two for Valentine's Day. But Thanksgiving doesn't seem a great inspiration for mystery writers. It's a mostly benign holiday, involving only one of the seven deadly sins. And to me, gluttony is not particularly conducive to dark deeds. Maybe it's all that triptophan.

Still, Google exists to remind me that I know far less than I think I do. A search turned up dozens of crime novels apparently having something to do with Thanksgiving, including at least one author I've heard of: Michael Dibdin, whose Thanksgiving is billed as "a moving portrait of the profound effects of love when all that seems to remain is loss and grief." Um, OK. Whether it has anything to do with the American holiday, I don't know. Any other memorable titles worthy of mention?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Books, yo; what is they good fo'?

Here's the kind of report guaranteed to make a curmudgeon's head explode: The National Endowment for the Arts has discovered that on average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

Seven minutes? That much? I'm trying to think of the last time I saw someone 15 to 24 reading a book or a newspaper. Maybe they only do it one minute at a time, at different times of the day, so it's hard to catch them at it.

The predictable reaction, of course, is to lament the decline of literacy and prophesy doom for America. But really, does it matter? If so few young people are reading these days, maybe it's because it doesn't matter. People have to eat to survive, and endlessly fiddle with their iPods, but they don't have to read. So why should they bother? Presumably, there will always be a small subset of humanity capable of reading something to them, should the need arise. I hereby offer my services -- as long as the money is right and I still have my health.

Another interesting report was one the Associated Press did in August, which found that the typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all. Ever.

Amusingly, among "avid" readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. I don't know what I'd call someone who read a book every six to 10 weeks, but "avid" seems a slight exaggeration.

One other reading statistic: Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market in the U.S., Britain and Canada. Some researchers speculate the women's mirror neurons are somehow more sensitive, which enables them to better empathize with fictional characters. Maybe. But I'll lay odds that Oprah has more to do with it. And I suspect she's getting more people to buy books than actually read them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Is the Kindle right for you?

You've probably heard of Amazon's Kindle. It's like a book, only it costs $399 -- just like every other electronic gadget now on the market. Notice how everything costs $399? When I was a boy, everything cost $1.98. Except for DC comics, which, at the beginning of my Superman period, would fetch anywhere from 10 to 12 cents.

I mocked the concept of an e-reader back in September, but now that Amazon has rolled out the Kindle, I've prepared a guide to help decide if there should be one under your Family Tree this Holiday Season.

1. Do you like to read more than one book at once? If so, you'll want the Kindle, because it will store 200 of them. And they won't be just any books, but selected titles from publishers that have inked a deal with Amazon, so freshness is guaranteed. Imagine that: carrying around a big bag full of books in a package about the size of a Stephen King novel, though hopefully not as heavy. Click a few buttons, accidentally shut it off and turn it back on, click a few more, curse a few times and presto! -- You're not reading The Secret anymore, but just starting on chapter three of the latest Nicholas Sparks novel (The Bottle to Remember). Let's hope Nick's people have straightened out the DRM issues by Monday.

2. Do you prefer that people not see what it is you're reading? Me too, and that's why the Kindle is such a breakthrough. You could have James Patterson for Dummies on there, and as far as anyone else knows, you're reading War and Peace. It'll be our little secret.

3. Have you ever accidentally left a book on the plane when you're getting off? That nuisance will be a thing of the past, since you'd be crazy to leave a $399 piece of hardware stuffed in with the safety instructions where anybody could grab it. Thanks, Kindle!

4. Will the Kindle interface with your TiVo? You know what they say: If you have to ask, the answer is no. But really, think about it: Why would Amazon or the publishing houses want their works readily viewable on Hi-Def televisions? Pretty soon, everybody would be reading their books on TV, which might then lead some to watch reruns of Dog the Bounty Hunter instead.

5. Is it important to save money on your book purchases? If so, you'll want the Kindle, since electronic books might one day cost as much as 10 or 15 percent less than the paper versions. That's a significant savings -- not a whole lot less than the typical Border's coupon you could find blowing down the street. Once you amortize the cost of the e-reader and the occasional books lost to synching problems and static electricity, it's all gravy!

I was ambivalent about picking up an e-book reader, but after weighing the benefits I've actually convinced myself. They don't go on sale until Monday, but the line starts now. And right here.

Revisiting the real best film of 2006

I haven't yet read P.D. James' 1992 novel The Children of Men, and after seeing the movie a second time, I'm not sure I want to. This is a departure for me, but the movie's such a cinematic tour de force I can't see how the book would not pale in comparison. It may be one of the rare cases (Blade Runner is another) where the screen adaptation outperforms the source material by a large margin.

I saw Children of Men on the big screen just after Christmas last year. At the time, I was blown away by three long single-shot sequences that appeared almost impossibly complex to choreograph. I've since discovered that a bit of editing was involved in each, but those scenes delivered such a visceral punch that I was determined to see them again. So thanks to my friends at Netflix, I watched the movie a second time last night, this time on the small screen.

Bottom line: This is still the best film of 2006, and I'm still incredulous that it earned no Oscars (it was nominated for three, including best adapted screenplay). Even on my aging 27-inch Akai, the brisk pacing and taut documentary style seem undiminished. Because it's set in 2027, it's fair to call this science-fiction, but it's more than that -- it's also a political thriller and a road movie with a social consciousness. Its vision of a fortress state where horrific deeds are committed in the name of "homeland security" remains all too resonant. I liked The Departed too (which did win best picture), but Children of Men is a much more significant work.

I know the film is based only loosely on P.D. James' book, but here's a question for those who have experienced both: Which is the better story? And why?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ken Follett takes a bite out of crime

I'm taking a short break from reading crime fiction. One reason for this is that I haven't seen my brother Mike in awhile, and I always rely on him to load me up with boxes of paperbacks, which he consumes like popcorn. Then I'm still working on the novel, a project that proceeds at a glacial pace despite the impetus of getting a new computer to write it on. Finally, I think it's a good idea for any writer to stray outside the genre once in awhile.

Which is why I recently bought Ken Follett's World Without End. Many years ago (about 17, I guess) I picked up his Pillars of the Earth expecting to be bored silly and found that I couldn't put it down. Set in 12th-century England during the construction of the fictional Knightsbridge cathedral, it's one of those sweeping old-school historical novels that spans decades. World Without End is the sequel. This will sound churlish, but I should mention that I discovered it quite on my own, without Oprah Winfrey's announcement today that Pillars of the Earth is her latest book club selection. Damn it, that woman is everywhere.

Anyway, I've barely started this 1,000-page tome, so it's too soon to say whether I like it or not. But I'm wondering if so much time spent with crime fiction hasn't spoiled my appreciation for broader, more sedately-paced works. I'm used to being grabbed by the jugular in the first few sentences; here, a sort of ho-hum beginning requires a leap of faith to stick with it. Also, any novel described as "sweeping" is going to have a lot of characters, and I'm already having a problem keeping the names straight. After 40 pages, I count 18 major characters. No doubt they'll have room to breathe in the chapters to come, but it's getting kind of crowded here at the front entrance.

Now I'm asking myself: Did Pillars of the Earth start out this way? I'll have to look. If so, maybe I've changed more than Ken Follett has. I do know that I've long admired him as a writer of popular fiction; his Eye of the Needle remains one of the best thrillers ever written. (The movie wasn't bad either, inspiring a decades-long infatuation with Kate Nelligan.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tell me you hate this

HBO has the best show on TV with The Wire, so it's probably fair to point out that it also has the worst: the bleak and tedious Tell Me You Love Me.

Because of the buzz about the explicit sex scenes, I caught portions of this overly-earnest angstfest during its first season. But I had never forced myself to sit through a full episode -- a precaution I unwisely cast aside for the season finale. It's an hour of my life I will never get back. The show is not only as bad as my initial impression -- it's far worse.

How do I hate this show? Let me count the ways:

The casting: All white couples, all pretty much the same age, all with the same acting coach. Two of these women and two of the men are indistinguishable from each other. The men all remind you of Darren on Bewitched, except they never smile. The women, I think, must be sisters. One is tortured by the lack of sex and one is tortured by not being able to have a baby. All three are tortured by general dissatisfaction, and we all know what a rich lode of drama that is: "Why are you so unhappy?" "I don't know; I just am." Speaking of which ...

The writing: Remember the last time you got in a fight with your spouse or girlfriend and it just kind of went on through the evening and into the next day? That's what the dialog is like: "This is not about you or me; it's about us." That sort of crap. It just never ends. Then all the couples go to the wise therapist, a suburban Yoda played by Jane Alexander, who changes the pronouns around and feeds the same dopey dialog right back to them. If I was paying $200 an hour for that kind of insight, I'd rather drop the dough at that tribal casino down in Oklahoma.

The sex: This was the reason I had even mild curiosity about this show, all the buzz about its unflinching portrayal of makin' whoopie. Yeah, right. I've never felt so ... so violated. Yes, the scenes are graphic enough, but you feel like you're watching a National Geographic special about really depressed lemurs. I guess that's the point, to demystify this whole business of intercourse between married couples, but did they have to make it so wince-inducing? What Deadwood did for profanity, Tell Me You Love Me is doing for sex: desensitizing the audience and completely taking the fun out of it.

The geezers: If I see wise, gentle Jane Alexander mount her wise, gentle husband one more time, that's it. I'm out of here. Yes, seniors can have active sex lives; we get it. But it's one of those things that we don't particularly care to watch, even in soft focus and very muted lighting.

The humor: What I mean by that is, the total lack of it. If anybody cracks a smile on this show, it's the sad, doomed smile of someone who finally realizes the futility of all human endeavor. So earnest is this series, so convinced of its importance, that the writers must go through each script three or four times to make sure there's nothing funny in there. I mean, we don't need The Bob Newhart Show here, but life with even these miserable people cannot be without a laugh or two.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sleuths are only as good as their sidekicks

I recently read the much-lauded Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands, by French author Fred Vargas, and like many others found it quirky and engaging. Her deft writing left me happy to have found another series character to follow: Commissaire Adamsberg. But that's not what this post is about. I've decided that others do a lot better job with reviews than I do, and I hate laboring over my shallow insights only to find later that I've echoed what everybody else said a long time before. (And yes, I can hear you saying: "But that's never stopped you before." True enough. Nor will it now.)

So, short version: Wash This Blood is a good book. Buy it. But for all the talk about it being "eccentric" or even "kooky," it does share one key device with nearly all other detective fiction: the sidekick. Adamsberg's reliance on gut instinct and intuition is sharply defined by the hard-nosed, scientific approach of his second in command, Capitaine Adrien Danglard. You can see why. Without Danglard as a foil, Adamsberg might become nothing more than an oddball talking to himself.

But it has always been thus, hasn't it? Beginning with Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, the sidekick has proven indispensable as a plot device, fulfilling so many functions that it's hard to imagine, even all these years later, a successful detective story without one.

Plot exposition is the first of these functions: Through repartee with the often dim and always questioning sidekick, key facts of the case are established and key clues are planted. Think if Conan Doyle had been forced to show Holmes' leaps of logic as interior monologue only. I've tried something like that, and it isn't pretty. So my own series character has a sidekick too.

Just as important, I think, is the way in which a sidekick helps define character. Would Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe have been so memorable without Archie Goodwin to reflect his preening, petulant ways? Similarly, Hercule Poirot's vanity and obsession with neatness come across nicely through the amused observations of his friend Captain Hastings. In a more recent example, lawless boozer Clete Purcell clearly defines the moral struggle that is so central to James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux.

Finally, there's comic relief. Robicheaux's grim soul-searching would get pretty tedious without the occasional outrageous antics of Purcell.

The list is as vast as the genre: Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles had Nora; Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason had Della Street. Today, there's Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Siobhan Clark. Even Lawrence Block's loner assassin Keller has a sidekick of sorts in Dot, his laconic agent. But of course if we tried to list them all, we'd be here all night.

Maybe it would be more fun to think of a fictional detective who doesn't have a recurring sidekick. Do any come to mind?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Now accepting friends on Facebook

Recently, at the invitation of my oldest daughter, I created a profile on Facebook. It's not much of a profile: the same stupid picture I use here, a brief mention of my interests, the sort of music I listen to, favorite books and movies and so forth. So far, I have gathered together an elite cadre of three friends. That includes the daughter. (Not sure who that doofus is in the picture; wonder if he'd like to be my friend).

Friends are the currency of Facebook; like dollars, you can never have too many. The first thing you must do, after listing a few zany personal details, is start inviting everybody you can think of to be your friend. Everybody, no exceptions. I haven't gotten around to that yet, but when I do, I expect to have so many friends that Facebook will have to add another server just to accommodate them all. Good friends. Then, when my page displays all the avatars, it will slow the Internet to a crawl.

Until then, I'm making do with just the three. We've been having great fun comparing our Pet Peeves, and favorite movies, and knowledge of U.S. geography, and who among us is most likely to be a lesbian (it was me, by the way). However, I'm not sure what I should do next. I keep looking at my Facebook page, but it rarely changes. Much like my blog. I suppose it comes back to the friend question.

It's not as though there is a shortage of things to do, of course. You can "poke" someone, or "super poke" them. I haven't done that yet because it seems, well, unseemly. You can dispatch a vampire to bite a friend. You can send a hug (not a real hug, that technology is still in its infancy); or you can send them a gift (not a real gift, that would be cost-prohibitive). In short, we're talking about range of actions that will soon render all face-to-face contact superfluous. Or at least quite a bit less convenient.

Anyway, if you don't already have a Facebook profile, I urge you to create one now. And be my friend. Social networks like Facebook and MySpace are truly the wave of the future, allowing drunken teens to foreclose career options quicker than ever before, and hackers new methods of pissing off Alicia Keys. They also are helping to close the gap between the haves here and the have-nots in Nigeria. You'll want to get on this train before it leaves the station.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A psychic detective in '70s Laos

Somewhere in the last few months, I came across a discussion of the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction. I can't recall any novel that uses them so overtly, and so well, as The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill.

In this story of an aging Lao doctor pressed into running the country's only morgue following the Communist takeover of 1975, the supernatural consists not just of the odd hunch and prescient dream, but is an integral part of the story itself. Dr. Siri Paiboun has little equipment and even less training in forensic science, so the aid he receives from the spirit world is fortuitous. Think how it might help the CSI: Miami crew if the ghosts of crime victims were available to offer tips during the autopsy.

Fortunately, Cotterill has created a memorable and amusing character in whom such paranormal phenomena do not seem too convenient, and do not obviate the need for conventional sleuthing. When a dog begins behaving oddly, for example, or the mark of a wet bottle appears on a dry table, it's still just a clue. In Siri's world, the physical and the spiritual are all part of the same frequently absurd world.

Fellow blogger Maxine Clarke did a fine review of The Coroner's Lunch, to which I have little to add. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders thought it a little too cozy for his taste, but I thought it worked pretty well, particularly given the humor that pervades the book. Like Maxine, I was reminded a little of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but the milieu Cotterill has chosen is not quite so benign. That's a good thing. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

'American Gangster': It's not crappy at all

I can't be bothered to properly review the movies I see. It takes too much time and too much thought, and if I go on for more than three or four paragraphs, it becomes painfully evident that I'm no Pauline Kael. Then again, I always need something to blog about. So here are a few thoughts on American Gangster, which I saw last night in the company of the brunette, a bottle of wine and a platter of hors d'oeuvres, ensconced in a luxurious balcony loveseat at the 13th Street Warren Theatre here in Wichita. Let me tell you, even crappy movies are good under those optimal conditions.

Fortunately, American Gangster is not a crappy movie. (I hereby grant Universal permission to use the preceding sentence in promotional materials.) Denzel Washington plays real-life heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, who created his drug empire the American way: by eliminating the middle man. Lucas personally met growers in Thailand and arranged to have 100 percent pure heroin shipped back to the states on military flights returning from Vietnam. Russell Crowe plays the incorruptible NYC cop who ultimately brings Lucas down.

Both these guys deliver the sort of nuanced, bravura performances you'd expect, and you'll be hearing their names come Oscar time. But Washington owns this movie. He'd be watchable in a Depends commercial; here, the character seems one he was born to play: an utterly ruthless man convinced of his own integrity, heedless of the ravages his business wreaks on his community and, ultimately, his family.

I'm guessing Ridley Scott will be nominated for his direction, too. He creates a shabby, '70s New York City that is just as much a character in the film as the two stars. From the grimy streets to the massive Detroit sedans that plied them, New York hasn't looked so authentically seedy since Taxi Driver. (That applies to the hairstyles and the clothes, too.) This is not an overly violent film, given the subject matter, but one explosive set piece toward the end of the film is just stunning. Believe me, you'll know it when you see it.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give American Gangster is this: It's close to three hours long, but it feels like about 90 minutes. I was actually sorry when it ended. I've grown tired of overlong movies, but I never once looked at my watch and still can't think of a scene I'd want cut.

Bottom line, then: Four stars out of four, five out of five. Best seen from the balcony. Goes well with red wine, sipped at a moderate pace. Make sure you hit the restroom before taking your seat. You won't want to get up during the movie.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A last word of praise for 'The Wire'

It's taken about four months, but thanks to my good friends at Netflix I'm finally through the first three seasons of The Wire. A pair of clueless cats roused me about four this morning, and since I couldn't get back to sleep I watched the last two episodes on my laptop.

I'm now willing to concede that my son and mother-in-law are right: This show really is better than The Sopranos, that other HBO series I've wasted too many hours on. While not perfect, I've come to admire the writing and plotting above all else. David Chase knew how to craft memorable characters and conflicts; The Wire's David Simon and company know how tell stories, and -- more importantly -- how to conclude them. Each season of The Wire unfolds like a 12-part novel, with a genuine beginning, middle and end. Story arcs never really seemed to matter with The Sopranos -- a point that became maddeningly clear in the finale, when Chase simply jerked out the plug and mocked those who expected better.

I suppose that's what happens when the audience gives you too much love: you begin to have contempt for them. That hasn't been a problem with The Wire, which has struggled in the ratings despite great critical success. This is a show where the individual episodes seldom work as well as the individual Sopranos episodes, but viewed as a season they are far more satisfying.

Maybe one reason for that is that the characters -- cops and criminals both -- actually seem to grow and change as the story progresses. It's easy to take the show's moral ambiguity for cynicism, but there's nothing cynical in the way each character is also imbued with motives more complex, and sometimes more noble, than simply selling dope, or catching bad guys, or acquiring power. For those who have seen the show, my favorite character, Omar Little, is a good example.

Viewed in retrospect, each character in The Sopranos -- the few who survived -- went out pretty much the same people as when they started. Nobody learned a thing. As Chase was fond of saying, that's how life is. Maybe. But it doesn't make for great fiction. Neither do dopey dream sequences, which Chase employed far too often.

Season Four of The Wire isn't yet available on Netflix, but I have it in the queue. I'm told shooting has started on Season Five, which will be the last one. Sounds good to me. All stories must end. I've never seen an episode when it actually aired, and I think I'll keep it that way. Viewing two or three episodes at a time on DVD really seems like the best way to do it, at least with this show.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rowling wrings another gasp out of Harry

It's no sign of my blogging prowess that roughly eight out of 10 of my posts concern J.K. Rowling, but here goes another one. The creator of gay icon Dumbledore has finished her first work since closing out the Potter series: The Tales of Beedle the Bard. It's about the failure of the U.S. intelligence apparatus in the run-up to the Iraq War.

No, really it's a collection of fairy stories, and the title comes from a book mentioned in Deathly Hallows as a gift from Dumbledore to Hermione. Yes, somebody could have fun with the book description, but it won't be me.

In case you're thinking of being first in line at Barnes & Noble, you'll be waiting a long time. Only seven copies of Beedle the Bard will be in print. It's ironic that the pinnacle of success puts Rowling on the same level as me, when it comes to readership. Seven turns out to be the same number of people who read my latest short story. Maybe we can do lunch sometime.