Thursday, February 25, 2016

FFB: Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia from 2014 is too new to be a forgotten book, so I will just call it a not to be forgotten book.

This big, 700-page novel is another rocket ride through the mean streets of old Los Angeles. James Ellroy calls it the first book of his second Los Angeles Quartet.

His first quartet was made up of the novels The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.

Like them, Perfidia is about crime, crooked cops, celebrities and wannabes. Also like his previous novels, this one’s intricately plotted story follows several characters as they weave their way in and out of each other's lives. At the center of the story is the murder of a Japanese-American family on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Set in December, 1941, Perfidia is a prequel to the first set of L.A. novels.

The sneak attack so inflames Los Angeles, according to Ellroy, that all the rules go out the window. Danger is everywhere and the police do anything they want to solve crimes, catch spies and punish anyone in their way.

Dudley Smith, of the Police Department (a key character in L.A. Confidential), Kay Lake (who appeared in The Black Dalhia), and Hideo Ashida, a Japanese-American scientist working for the LAPD, and many others cross paths in Perfidia as they become involved in the murder case. The investigation widens out to include hate mongers, gangsters, dope addicts, and upstanding citizens ruthlessly buying up and developing Los Angeles County. No one is a hero in an Ellroy book. No one has clean hands. Some try to wash away their sins. Most use their personal crimes as stepping stones to what they want.

Told in his usual punchy style of short sentences, Ellroy paints a vivid, if very ugly picture of L.A. at a particular moment in history. His writing is a snappy, jazzy shorthand that is part Damon Runyun, part Walter Winchell, part Louis Armstrong. The effect is a fast, wicked and brutal police procedural.

Reviewers of the book compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and I agree with them. McCarthy’s book was the darkest western I had ever read. Ellroy’s is the darkest noir.

Perfidia is so dark that noir seems an inappropriate term, recalling the lush L.A. of Raymond Chandler. Ellroy’s version of noir is pitch black and the only light is from the fires of a riot or the bowl of an opium pipe.

(For more forgotten, or not to be forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Movies: Southpaw & the Problem with Hollywood

Watching a boxing film is, in a way, like watching boxing itself. There is only so much that can be done in a roughly 20-foot by 20-foot square area bounded by ropes, but it is the characters in the ring and the surprising things they do, or don’t do, that keeps everyone watching.

“Southpaw,” a boxing picture which came and went during the summer of 2015, is a pretty good sports movie and a very good melodrama.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, an angry mug with no style or grace who somehow made it to the top. His wife, played by the beautiful Rachel McAdams, is the brains of the family and manages Billy’s career. One night, Billy lets his uncontrollable anger get the best of him and he loses his career, his money, and his family, including his little daughter.

Billy hits bottom and then works like hell to pull himself back up. He does this with the help of a gruff coach, played by Forest Whitaker, who owns a gym in a rough neighborhood.

As he did in “End of Watch,” Gyllenhaal pumped up and trained to a convincing physical level. The boxing sequences are well staged by director Antione Fuqua, but the heart of the story is outside the ring and Billy’s struggle is compelling.

The story is similar to every boxing film made in the last 80 years, but it is the participants – Gyllenhaal, McAdams, Whitaker, along with 50 Cent in a very good turn as a two-faced fight promoter and Oona Laurence as Gyllenhaal’s daughter – that keep everyone watching.

After viewing “Southpaw” on video, I was also thinking about this year’s Oscars. “Southpaw” is a well-made film directed by Antoine Fuqua, who is one of the few black film directors working in Hollywood. He, like all minority talent in 2015, was ignored by the academy voters who nominate films and film people for awards. True, the critics were not kind to “Southpaw,” but is “Mad Max: Fury Road” really a better movie?

Forest Whitaker was excellent in “Southpaw," better than I have ever seen him. Whitaker was ignored, too.

The rapper, 50 Cent, who has appeared in quite a few films and was very good here, could have been recognized with a nomination in a supporting category, but was also ignored.

Consider the other talents who did outstanding work last year:

Michael B. Jordan, the young star of “Creed” – ignored;

Ryan Coogler, the director of “Creed” – ignored;

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawking, Jason Mitchell, and most of the cast of “Straight Outta Compton” – ignored;

F. Gary Gray, the director of “Straight Outta Compton” – ignored;

Will Smith in “Concussion” ” – ignored.

This was just off the top of my head. There are plenty of others who were not recognized.

The people protesting the Oscars this year for the lack of diversity in the nominees may have a valid point. They might just be right when they say Hollywood has a problem.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

FFB: Unintended Consequences by Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods has been a favorite writer of mine since reading his first novel Chiefs.

Other Woods novels, while nicely done mysteries, were light reading and really did not live up to the promise of Chiefs.

That said, Unintended Consequences is a thoroughly enjoyable outing with his series character Stone Barrington.

The book kicks off with an intriguing mystery. Stone wakes up in the U.S. Embassy in Paris and has no idea how he got there, how he got to France, or what happened to him over the previous four days. The last thing Stone remembers is being at a party in New York, his home town.

Stone is a lawyer who became fabulously wealthy. But he was not always rich. After law school, he joined the New York Police Department. Later, he left the department and joined the law firm of a classmate. In the meantime, Stone's former police partner and good friend, Dino Bacchetti, rose through the ranks of the NYPD and during this story is named Chief of Detectives.

In Paris, Stone discovers he has some kind of business to conduct with a man named Marcel duBois, who is described as the Warren Buffett of France. Marcel owns hotels and companies and his latest venture is the development of a ridiculously expensive sports car that sounds a bit like the DeLorean.

Some Russian gangsters are after Marcel and Stone gets caught in the violence.

The plot twists and turns and takes Stone from Paris to New York and to his mansion in rural Connecticut with his group that includes Marcel, Dino, a statuesque Swedish beauty, and others, all trying to elude the baddies.

The pace is swift, but this 2013 novel feels oddly retro. The sex is a throwback to the freewheeling, no-consequences 1970s, and the conspicuous consumption (sports cars, fine suits, vintage wines) feels like the 1980s.

But for a fun read, Unintended Consequences is a smooth ride.

(For more reviews and forgotten books, please go to Patti Abbott's blog.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: ‘71

The 2014 film, “’71,” had a limited release in the U.S. and never came to a theater near me. I caught up with it on video.

It is a thriller about a young British soldier, Gary, played by Jack O’Connell, sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1971, a time when violence there was at a peak. While out on patrol, Gary gets separated from his unit during a clash between residents, soldiers and police, and finds himself alone and without his weapon, in a hostile city. Militants, who killed a fellow soldier, know Gary is somewhere in the neighborhood and are hunting him down.

Director Yann Demange does an excellent job of recreating the era and blurring the political lines. He thrusts Gary into a situation the soldier does not completely understand and into the mean streets where Gary, and the audience, cannot figure out who is friend and who is foe. This all makes for a tension-filled 99 minutes.

Demange further complicates the situation, going way beyond the usual simplified, Catholics vs. Protestants explanation that the news often used. Each side had groups, some sympathetic, some brutally violent.

The director also found people for his cast who seem not to be actors and who speak in the accents of the area. Some of the accents are quite heavy, but the intention is clear, and the voices lend an authenticity to this movie that at times has the look and feel of a documentary.

This is a very well done picture that at times plays like a fast-paced chase film and at other times slows down and moves like a scary slasher film.

“’71” and other films worth checking out are on a list posted at Noir Worth Watching.

For more overlooked films, visit Todd Mason’s site.