Bring Out the Gimp

Musings on pop culture by freelance journalist Shawn Conner

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Dr. Strange art by Frank Brunner

10 Days of Leonard: Get Shorty

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

In honour of the passing of Elmore Leonard last week, I’ve embarked on a mission to watch 10 movies based on the writer’s books. In the first entry, I reviewed 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret. In the second: Killshot (2008) and Jackie Brown (1997). Now, here’s my take on 1995′s Get Shorty

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

John Travolta and Rene Russo make an attractive pair.

Here’s another one I saw when it was first released, and recall enjoying. However, unlike Jackie Brown, which has gotten better with age, Get Shorty is a depressingly unfunny Leonard pastiche that gets everything wrong.

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

A pre-Sopranos James Gandolfino as a ponytail-wearing stuntman.

Which is funny, a little, since 1995 movie is regarded as one of the best in the pantheon of Elmore Leonard novels adapted for the big screen.

Looking back on it now, however, the movie is obviously little more than a vehicle for John Travolta to strut the new cool he sported in the previous year’s Pulp Fiction. However, Travolta is the best thing about the movie, which is so broadly humorous that it thinks the height of hilarity is Gene Hackman‘s producer character going to the Ivy (a fancy Hollywood hang) in a neck brace and two arm casts. In another scene, a mobster (Dennis Farina) is shown sitting on the toilet. There’s no real reason for him to be taking a dump in the scene, except maybe director Barry Sonnenfeld thought it would be funny. (It’s not.)

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

If you think Gene Hackman in a neck brace and two casts is the height of hilarity, then Get Shorty might be the movie for you.

The end result is a movie that tries hard to be funny without having really anything funny to say, beyond the idea of a loan-shark successfully navigating Hollywood. But that’s a joke that, like everything else in Get Shorty, is hammered home again and again by crap artist Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Wild Wild West) and screenwriter Scott Frank (who also wrote the screenplay for 1998′s Out of Sight, another Leonard movie). And, besides missing the dry humour of Leonard’s writing, Get Shorty also fails to capture the menace.

For those new to Leonard’s writing, Get Shorty is a fairly harmless entry-point. For admirers, it’s not much better than the “Slime Creatures” movies Hackman’s Harry Zimm produces.

10 Days of Leonard: Killshot and Jackie Brown

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

In honour of the passing of Elmore Leonard, I’ve embarked on a mission to watch 10 movies based on the writer’s books. In the first entry, I reviewed 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret. Today I’m reviewing Killshot (2008) and Jackie Brown (1997). 

I’d already seen Killshot, but it was no less pleasurable a second time – it might even have been better. There’s nary a false move in John Madden‘s direction and Hossein Amini‘s screenplay captures Leonard’s spare, drily humorous tone.  (Amini also wrote the screenplay for the ridiculous Drive, but I’ll try not to hold that against him.)

Killshot features some stock Leonard types, including a well-meaning but ultimately disposable doxie (Rosie Perez; see also Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown, below) and a not-at-all-well-meaning wannabe career (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who teams with a much cooler and scarier customer, a Native American hitman named Blackbird (Mickey Rourke). Diane Lane and Thomas Jane play the salt-of-the-earth (she’s a real estate agent, he’s a beer-drinking steel worker and hunter) American couple forced to go up against the two serious criminals.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

Diane Lane and Thomas Jane are in it.

What I love about Killshot can be summed up at the point in the movie where any sane viewer will be going, “Where are the police in all this?” and then not just the police but the FBI show up. And then Leonard (and the movie) pulls a neat trick – he (and it) asks, Well, the next logical thing for this couple, who by the way are in the midst of a divorce, is to go into witness protection. And that’s what happens.

Killshot elmore leonard movies

So’s this guy.

Of course, the movie doesn’t end there, and it’s a pure pleasure to see how the plot develops. And to watch Rourke.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

And we can’t forget Mickey.

His Blackbird is not only cool and menacing but also sympathetic – he brings a depth to the role it’s hard to imagine any other actor bringing.  Jane and Lane are fine as a couple going through hard times that just got much harder; even Levitt seems to get it. The result is one of those rare adaptations where you can tell that everyone involved wanted to do right by the source material, and succeeds.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

And Rosie Perez.

So, too does Jackie Brown – to my surprise.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

I’d last seen it when if first came out, in 1997, and remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied. This wasn’t the case upon a second viewing, though.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

Never cuter than when she was in Jackie Brown.

At two-and-a-half hours it’s typically Tarantino indulgent, with long scenes of colourful but inconsequential dialogue. (Leonard’s dialogue almost always servers a purpose.) But there’s little evidence of the flakey filmmaking the director would later foist upon us, and for the most part Quentin Tarantino (writing the screenplay based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch as well as directing) captures the source material.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

What a face.

Especially surprising is the deft touch he brings to the romance that turns out to be at the heart of Jackie Brown. Wildly entertaining, Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s best movie. It’s hard to believe it’s by the same director gave us Django.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

The queen.

Next: Get Shorty

10 Days of Leonard: 52 Pick-Up

Elmore Leonard movies

Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret in 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 movie based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.

It was with great sadness I learned of Elmore Leonard‘s passing yesterday. In honour of my favourite crime writer (at least, among the ones I’ve read, including Hammett, Chandler and Highsmith), I watched the 1986 adaptation of his novel 52 Pick-Up last night. I’m going to try to watch nine more Leonard movies over the next couple of weeks, though I may be challenged to find some of the more obscure ones (Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, and Hombre, with Paul Newman, are at the top of my list).

I wasn’t really expecting much from 52 Pickup, simply because I hadn’t heard much about the John Frankenheimer-directed film. But it features a screenplay co-written by Leonard and some awesome performance, not just from the leads (Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret) but also the supporting cast. John Glover is magnificent and scary as one of the bad guys, while Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad) turns in a stellar performance as a killer. And Robert Trebor, as the weak link in the trio of creeps trying to blackmail Scheider’s character, is terrific in a scene where he breaks down in front of his supposed victim. Even Vanity (yes, that Vanity!) shines in a scene in which she fears for her life.

Elmore Leonard movies

John Glover in 52 Pick-Up.

The script is tight and unpredictable, Scheider is a great proto-Leonard-protagonist (cool but not too cool), and the suspense builds steadily into a satisfying conclusion. And there’s lots of ’80s-style nudity (titties!), including a scene featuring a bunch of ’80s porn stars (Ron Jeremy of course, but also Amber Lynn and Sharon Mitchell) for an extra touch of sleaze. This is one of the best adaptations of Leonard’s work I’ve seen and strongly recommended.

Elmore Leonard movies 52 Pick-Up movie poster

Don’t be fooled – Scheider hardly uses a gun. He doesn’t need to.

 

The Listener – graphic novel review

The ListenerThe Listener by David Lester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hitler’s rise to power is one aspect of the Holocaust that I was pretty ignorant of. The Listener illuminates this part of the story while still putting characters – a present-day sculptor from Vancouver, a couple who lived in Germany during the ’30s – first. Although I found the theme of the role of the artist to be a bit unnecessary – and to get in the way at times – overall The Listener is a fascinating read. I liked Lester’s art, too – though his angled figures and the ink washes take some getting used to, he finds very creative ways to tell his story. Bonus for Vancouverites: there’s a brief sequence where the protagonist describes East Van.

View all my reviews

Canadian Music Comics # 2: The Sugar Shoppe

Sugar Shoppe comic

The Sugar Shoppe 1967-1970, by Shawn Conner.

Click on image for full, almost readable, size. Thanks!

Vacation reading: Rabbit at Rest, Slammerkin

Rabbit at Rest John Updike book cover

Books taken:

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
John Updike, Rabbit at Rest
Emma Donaghue, Slammerkin
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
Don Winslow, The Winter of Frankie Machine

The selection of vacation reading material is a task that this reader takes seriously. When planning for my first Momcation (just me and my mom, at a resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic), I knew I wanted some light reading (for around the pool) as well as some heavier stuff.

Falling in the “light” category, Gillian Flynn‘s Sharp Objects was the first book I started reading, on the plane trip south.

What a piece of crap.

I know Flynn is currently a critical darling for Gone Girl, which I’d read one chapter of and kind of liked but not enough to buy. However I decided to check out this earlier effort. After about 50 or 60 pages, when I realized what Flynn was up to – that Sharp Objects would basically be about 200 pages of red herrings and development of uninteresting (to me) characters, I decided to just skim it for the plot points and to see how the author resolves the tale of two dead girls. I’m glad I didn’t spend any more time on Sharp Objects than I did; this is one of those psychological thrillers where the psychology is all just a bunch of scenery-chewing thrown in to stall for time before the resolution.

I couldn’t even get through 50 pages of Don Winslow‘s The Winter of Frankie Machine. I liked Winslow’s Savages (which Oliver Stone turned into a movie last year) but this one did absolutely nothing for me. Winslow spends the first part of the book describing the main character’s near-perfect life to the point where I just wanted someone to shoot the son of a bitch.  When this didn’t happen – when, in fact, nothing really happened for the first 40 pages, which is definitely a no-no in a crime thriller unless you’re Patricia Highsmith (and Winslow is no Highsmith) – I was jonesing for some Elmore Leonard.

Then again, not too many crime thrillers could compete with Rabbit at Rest. I’d read all of Updike’s Rabbit series way back in the ’80s, when I was a mere lad, and loved them. I had a hankering to go back and the one I chose was the last in the series (although, in 2000, Updike published short story that picks up some of the series’ characters).

This was one of those great reading experiences – the perfect book at the perfect time in the perfect place. I started it on the plane and read 590-page tome every day of my vacation, usually around the pool, from late morning to mid-afternoon, by which time the rum had usually kicked in.

In Rabbit at Rest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is 55 and retired, spending part of the year in Florida when he’s not back home in Pennsylvania. There is so much to love about this book I don’t know where to begin, but a few things struck me. One was how concerned Rabbit – and Updike – is about his (American) diet.

Rabbit at Rest was published in 1990, and though fast and processed food was already being blamed for health issues back then, it wasn’t nearly the topic of conversation that it is today, especially with the recent publication of Michael Moss‘s Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. But it’s on nearly every page of this book as Rabbit grapples with his increasingly poor health.

Another of Rabbit’s concerns is terrorism. The 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie air tragedy took place while Updike was writing the book and his protagonist spends a lot of time thinking and worrying about terrorism. Not exactly prescient, perhaps, since it was on a lot of people’s minds because of Lockerbie, but still a little eerie in light of what was to come.

One other thing I want to mention before going onto the next book: there is a scene in the first chunk of Rabbit at Rest that, for nail-biting suspense, is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Which just goes to show, I guess, that sometimes you find what you’re looking for – page-turning suspence, in this case – in unexpected places.

Stompin’ Tom Connors – A Proud Canadian

My first completed Canadian music comic strip!

StompinTomComic resized

Click on image to see full size.

52 books—Going Clear

Going Clear book cover

It’s a sad state of affairs when I feel I have to second-guess everything I write. But, as Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear (Knopf, 448 pps) makes clear, the people heading Scientology are nothing if not aggressive in the church’s defense. Its hounding of anyone who goes up against the, ahem, religion is well-documented, not just in Going Clear but elsewhere.

So what can I say about this book (or Scientology, for that matter) that won’t get my phone hacked or Tom Cruise jumping on my couch? Well, not a whole heck of a lot. (I know one person who uses asterisks whenever he writes about Sc*******y.) It makes me wonder if this – a fear of reprisal – is why Paul Thomas Anderson chickened out in The Master. (Anderson never actually names the church, although “the master” of the title is apparently based on Hubbard.)

The Master movie image

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.

First, why did I want to read Going Clear? I guess I find the subject of Scientology fascinating in a weird, twisted way. When I was but a wee lad of 19 or so, a friend of mine and I sauntered into Scientology headquarters in Winnipeg one evening. I recall taking the church’s patented personality test (oddly, not mentioned in Going Clear) the questions of which are so open-ended that no matter how you answer will reveal at least one flaw – a “ruin” in Scientology bafflegab, according to Wright’s book – that Scientology can fix.

It’s a numbers racket; we didn’t go back, but how many people take the test, and do?

Numbers racket or not, it still seems totally bizarre to me that something that is a well-documented product of the imagination of a sci-fi pulp writer (L. Ron Hubbard) could be taken seriously. Helloooo, people, he’s a science fiction writer! Science fiction. All he does is make shit up!

Scientology also has a weird patina of glamour about it. How many people know of it in the first place solely because of its celebrity adherents? And yes, there’s plenty of juicy Tom Cruise (and John Travolta) tidbits in Going Clear, including an incident where the church “apparently” pimped for the Mission: Impossible actor. Or should I say, set him up on a blind date?

Probably the main impetus for Going Clear was the defection and subsequent confession, if it can be called that, of Canadian-gone-Hollywood director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Casino Royale). Haggis joined at an early age and quickly moved up in the Hollywood hierarchy, thanks in part to the church. (One of the interesting facets of the Scientology phenomenon is Hubbard’s genius in targeting Hollywood from the beginning.) Haggis’s story frames Going Clear.

Another thing I find fascinating about Scientology is how it’s managed to survive this long, and if it can continue to do so. The church, it seems, has survived because it’s been able to keep many of its practices and beliefs, not to mention allegations of abuse, secret or at least hidden. Notwithstanding the fact that the church has pockets deep enough that it can buy airtime during the Superbowl, and that millions more will see the commercial than will read this book, it’s all there on the Internet.

Then again, Haggis could’ve found out just about any of this stuff at any time. If he’d bothered to look.

Vancouver content: a lot of early Scientology activity happened in Oregon, and Hubbard lived for a time in Washington state. The only direct Vancouver reference I found however was on page 91: “Dr. Stephen Wiseman, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, who has been a prominent critic of Scientology, speculated that a possible diagnosis of Hubbard’s personality would be ‘malignant narcissism,’ which he characterizes as ‘a highly insecure individual protecting himself with aggressive grandiosity, disavowal of any and every need from others, antisocial orientation, and a heady and toxic mix of rage/anger/aggression/violence and paranoia.’”

 

52 books—Hefner

Hefner by Frank Brady book cover

Who thought this was a good idea for a book cover?

That was my first thought on coming upon this paperback in a Powell River used book store last summer.

(The cover folds out, btw, to reveal even more Hugh Hefner and fluffy-tailed cherubs.)

I bought it on a whim; I’d never heard of this particular volume, although I knew (if I’d thought about it) there had to be at least one or two biographies of the king of the Playboy empire.

Anyway, last week I finally pulled it down from the Shelf of Books Bought and Which I’ve Been Meaning to Read (which is actually several shelves). It was a quick read – I burned through its 250 pages lickety-split, in three days.

The first half is low on titillation and heavy on Hefner’s Early Days of Struggle, his resourcefulness  and the 1950s publishing industry. As a wannabe publisher myself,  I found this part of the book fascinating. I especially appreciated the portrait of Hefner as a publisher; he didn’t set out to put together what would become the world’s best-known girly magazine, at least at first. His prime directive was to become a publisher, period. That he ended up buying that famous nude Marilyn Monroe calendar photo (the first brick in the making of Playboy) was just the result of a series of (happy?) accidents.

The second half of Hefner is a little less interesting. The author, Frank Brady, was a Playboy magazine editor and had access to Hefner, the Playboy offices and the Chicago mansion, it seems, but is obviously constrained by some remaining loyalties as well as timing. When this book was published, in 1974, Playboy was still more or less in its infancy – reality TV, Pamela Anderson and so much more still in its future — or at least, adolescence.

In this section, Brady’s description of the mansion, and how Hefner squirreled himself away in a publisher’s equivalent of a panic room (i.e. a luxuriously appointed one) for nearly a decade, reads like something out of every introspective teenage boy’s dream – imagine a room you never had to leave, where every want and desire is fulfilled and you control an empire from your bed.

However, the stuff about Playboy’s legal battles and former Playboy employees’ sour grapes is just not all that compelling. I guess there’s only so much you can do when the story you set out to tell is nowhere near complete. Hefner was published in 1974, while the magazine was still good, Jimmy Carter wasn’t yet in the White House and Hefner had just moved to his Los Angeles mansion.

It’s never clear, either, just how much of the quotes Brady uses are from interviews he conducted with Hefner, or were overheard in other contexts. Some notes about sources would definitely go towards the book’s credibility. (Coincidentally, or not, I also recently had problems about the lack of credible sources in Teresa Carpenter‘s wretched piece of yellow journalism about murdered Vancouver Playmate Dorothy Stratten, which I touch on here.)

Also it’s never quite clear, outside of the money (which may have been substantial), why Brady wrote the book. It’s neither a hagiography or a hatchet-job. The author seems mostly fair to his subject, although he does slip into a slightly hectoring and judgmental tone now and then. His feelings about his (former) boss are obviously a complicated mix of admiration, envy, loyalty, and a desire to distance himself from the whole thing.

Hefner is by no means the last word on its subject. But, with its mid-70s insider’s perspective into an unparalleled publishing phenomenon, it’s a start.

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