movie: Jackie Brown (1997)

jackie brown
You know I’m a Tarantino fan, but I stumbled on this one, friends.

Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who’s been busted smuggling cash over international borders for Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell. The cops don’t want her in prison: they want her to inform on him. Ordell bails her out with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who feels decades more dated than the rest of the film), so he can kill her; but she thwarts him. Jackie plays the cops (chiefly an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton) against Ordell against Cherry, who falls for her; adding to the star-studded staff is Ordell’s old friend fresh out of jail, played by Robert De Niro, one of his kept women played by Bridget Fonda, and a brief role by Chris Tucker.

In Tarantino fashion, the plot is many-twisted: Jackie tells everybody a different story of herself and her plans, so watch closely for where she’s really headed and who’s really holding the bag. The script is heavy on clever monologues that are not strictly realistic but are great fun to listen to nonetheless. (These are the great strengths of Pulp Fiction, I think.) I hadn’t known that this movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch), but it makes sense now.

On the other hand, where I think the extensive use of the n-word in Django Unchained was fairly well justified and pointed, it grated here. There were many references to race that felt gratuitous rather than purposeful. I felt uncomfortable. I know this movie is supposed to reference a tradition of “blaxploitation” movies that I missed out on: maybe I’m just lacking the reference point to appreciate Tarantino’s edginess. But that’s my reaction: it was a little too unjustifiably race-conscious for me.

I did like the vintage feel to the movie. Anthony Lee Collins or somebody else with the relevant expertise will have to help me out here: I know there’s something about the cinematography, maybe the type of film used (?), that makes Jackie Brown feel older than it is. I can’t put my finger on it but Robert Forster’s character felt out of another time, even within the context of the film. And then there’s the text used in certain sections, like in the Kill Bill movies, that felt like it referenced something older, too.

So, a mixed review. I liked the plot twists, and the acting was excellent, and Tarantino’s monologues continue to crack me up. But the n-word got to me this time around.


Rating: 5 shopping bags.

Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.

screenplay

Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 toasters.

The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

This collection of Raymond Chandler’s reflections and witticisms, edited into themed chapters, will equally satisfy his fans and readers unfamiliar with the noir master.

chandler

Though born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler was raised in England, so when he returned to the United States at age 24 he felt rather foreign. He had to study and learn what he called the “American” language, but conquered it in writing The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye and many short stories in the noir style–a style he helped perfect. He created the famous Philip Marlowe (an archetypal hard-boiled private investigator who has trouble with the ladies) and wrote screenplays for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train. When he died in 1959, he left a variety of written works behind, and many are respected as classics today. In The World of Raymond Chandler, editor Barry Day (The Noël Coward Reader) compiles Chandler’s published and epistolary writing to form a picture of the man behind Marlowe.

The voice of this book is as much Day’s as his subject’s. Rather than a memoir by Chandler or, as the subtitle might suggest, a narrative told in his words, this is a collection of quotations. Beginning with an excellent brief introduction, Day sketches the major events and publications in Chandler’s life, largely avoiding a standard biography. Selecting from letters and articles, but more often from Chandler’s fiction, Day patches these fragments together with commentary into chapters on themes or common topics of Chandler’s work: cops, dames, Los Angeles, Hollywood. We see Chandler invent the strong sense of place that helps define such writers as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke today. Day makes the argument fairly successfully that Marlowe’s voice represents Chandler’s, particularly in their later years, as both softened (but not, Chandler insists, mellowed) until Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was “as hollow as the spaces between the stars.”

Chandler fans will be tickled by a great many pithy aphorisms that both describe and exemplify his distinctive style. “To justify… certain experiments in dramatic dialogue… I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either.” About his preference for small casts, he wrote, “If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.” And what Day calls the master’s “ground rules” (Chandler labeled them “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel”) are treasures, including “The mystery must elude a reasonably intelligent reader” and (sadly) “The perfect mystery cannot be written.” At the end of this admiring collection, Day’s reader is left wondering if Chandler came closest.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 disconnected quotations.

Teaser Tuesdays: Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

screenplay

Allow me to introduce you to a strange and dreamy novel originally published in the year of my birth, which recalls somewhat The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and (most pointedly) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For your teaser today, please enjoy our narrator-protagonist on his mother:

To me she behaved exactly as she did to the rest of her friends; she was affectionate without sentiment, she confided every intimate thought that came to her without hesitating, she often asked my advice on things, and when I came home at the end of the day she embraced me as she did her other friends, male and female, as was the custom in their set – in the French manner, a quick hug and a touch of the lips on both cheeks.

The oddness is only just beginning, I assure you. Stay tuned; I think it’s a good one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

gretel

As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

chandler

Yes, it’s true, I just recently did a book beginning; but Chandler is just so quotable (thus this whole book, of course). I couldn’t let this one pass us by.

I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t, always in the morning or the early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don’t stand up.

That first sentence is unclear: which condition happens always in the morning or the early part of the day? the can, or the can’t? I choose to believe that it is the can; many respected writers (ahem Hemingway) do or did their best work in the mornings. I am certainly a morning person myself. And I like this idea that our nighttime ideas are “gaudy”; I think that’s perfect. I get ideas at night, but they never stand up to sunlit scrutiny. What about you?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

chandler

I love the Chandler quotation that opens the lovely introduction to this collection of his writings in little snippets. I had to share.

I’m just a fellow who jacked up a few pulp novelettes into book form… All I’m looking for is an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue. To justify them I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either. All I really care about is what Errol Flynn calls “the music,” the lines he has to speak.

I think that is a fine way to note what sets Chandler aside, which is in many ways the quintessential gruff wit of hard-boiled, pulpy dialog. (Or dialogue.) I love it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

gretel

This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

cormorantThis is the third in a series, preceded by Blackbirds and Mockingbird, which I enjoyed.

Miriam Black is back, in disjointed chronology, still battling her demons and the curse of her “gift” of seeing how and when people die. She has moved on from stealing from the dead, and trying to prevent deaths through various means, to the only way she’s found that works: she can prevent deaths only when she kills the killer. She has broken with Lou, good old Lou from books 1 and 2, and has been on something of a mission. When the book opens, she’s being held in a room by two… possible FBI agents, but possibly something else. The split chronology takes us backward in time, explaining how she got there. I’ll use the present tense for this past, as the book does.

Miriam receives an offer: $5000 to tell a guy how he dies. She has tried to sell this talent before, but this is the biggest number she’s seen, and comes just as she’s evicted from a bad living situation; so Miriam buys a cheap car and heads for Florida. She carries three phone numbers with her there: that of the man hiring her, Lou’s, and her mother’s. These are the three folks she knows (so to speak) in Florida.

But when she appears at the man’s house and touches him, the death scene she sees involves her – is a message for her, in fact. A threat from her past resurfaces; and suddenly everyone she’s come in contact with is in danger, and Miriam is set on a path again.

Miriam is still a great character: foul-mouthed and tough, yet vulnerable and even, occasionally, compassionate. I love her personality; and she has another …maybe love interest is the wrong term, but she has another encounter in this book which keeps things interesting. I like the bird theme, too; look out for the powers of the gannet as well as the cormorant here.

Wendig’s unique writing style continues to amuse. He’s almost over-the-top with his odd metaphors:

Those things taste like cough syrup that’s been fermenting in the mouth of a dead goat, but shit, they work.

Eventually, her bladder is like a yippy terrier that wants to go out.

But I like it. Remember you can always get your daily fix (more or less) at his blog, too.

The nice people in Wendig’s books are a nice touch, and a realistic one. You can sense his descriptions approaching a world that is all evil – but he holds back, and I applaud him for it. The evil bits are all the more poignant when we get to see that there are good people in Miriam’s world, too. Sometimes she’s even one of them.

I continue to look out for the next Miriam Black novel, which is to be titled Thunderbird. Still recommended.


Rating: 7 gold watches.
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