Bring Out the Gimp

Musings on pop culture by freelance journalist Shawn Conner

Archive for the tag “reviews”

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

52 books—The Best American Short Stories 2011

Best American Short Stories 2011 book cover image

There was a time I was a regular reader of this anthology series, as well another annual short story collection, the O. Henry Prize. I stopped somewhere in the last five or six or even more years, for no particular reason. I was reading other things, partly and also because, as handsome as these editions are, I’ve run out of space. And hence no point in buying them.

But I grabbed this one from the discount table at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle a few months back. As part of my losing battle to read books I already have rather than buy new books,  I determined to finally pick it up.

One good thing about BASS 2011 was that I’d already read three of the selections: George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead” and Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (both were in the New Yorker) as well as Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body” (actually an excerpt from her book A Visit From the Goon Squad, and therefore kind of a cheat, though it did appear in the magazine Tin House).

I reread all three as part of the collection—it’s interesting to see short stories in a different context, as part of a larger whole; also because I’d largely forgotten two of them and loved the third (“Escape from Spiderhead”) when I’d first read it.

Anyway, to get to the meat of the matter: I always find reading these collections to be satisfying and filling, like a Las Vegas buffet in a higher-end casino. Looking back over the table of contents, I can pick out the stories that really hit home, those that came close and others that left me cold. I’ll give a brief one- or two-sentence rundown of my favourites.

“Housewifely Arts” by Megan Mayhew Bergman—I loved the idea behind this one; a woman tries to find her dead mom’s parrot. The parrot does an uncanny imitation of the woman’s mom and she wants to hear her voice one last time.

“Gurov in Manhattan” by Ehud Havazelet—A middle-aged man, in the company of a constipated wolfhound, looks back on his life. Hit a little too close to home.

“The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte—I’m a fan of Lipsyte, at least his novel Home Land which I thought was very funny (and not to be confused with the also funny, if unintentionally, TV series Homeland). In this one, the anti-social title character takes it upon himself to teach his fellow gamers about life.

“Property” by Elizabeth McCracken—A man moves into a house that’s not all it was cracked up to be. I liked this story’s moral, or at least the lesson learned by the main character about looking at things from a different perspective. The way grief—the man is freshly widowed—runs through this story makes it more powerful.

“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers—The history of a reader and the life of the book she discovers at an impressionable age. Readers everywhere I think will be able to relate to this one. I liked these lines: “Overnight, the World Wide Web weaves tightly around you. A novelty at first, then invaluable, then live support, then heroin.”

“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders—Already mentioned. George Saunders is getting lots of love for his new collection (which includes this story), Tenth of December. I’m a fan, so I enjoyed reading this story, about pharmaceuticals run amok, a second time.

What I didn’t like: it seemed like an inordinate number of these 22 stories featured, somewhere in their pages, a conveniently off-camera dead child. And there were a few stories I didn’t like at all, including two that struck me as very forced parables (“Phantoms” by Steven Millhauser and “The Sleep” by Caitlin Horrocks). All in all though a very enjoyable read (and I always like reading the Contributors’ Notes at the end, especially the more generous contributors who explain how and why a story developed).

Next up: either The Music of Chance (a favourite novel) by Paul Auster or Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (a favourite author).

A forgotten gem of a movie from 1981!

All the Marbles movie image

The best female rasslin’ flick ever?

I love this movie. TCM recently aired it; I hadn’t seen since probably renting the videocassette in the ’80s.

Review coming soon.



Why I hated The Amazing Spider-Man

Emma Stone Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man movie image

They’re teenagers. No, really.

It’s two days after the advance screening of The Amazing Spider-Man, and I’m still angry.

I went in actually expecting it to be good, or at least decent. What I got was over two hours of flaccid storytelling, cynical casting, and video-game action scenes.

I know, I know, it’s my own fault for thinking it would be anything other than a sticky-fingered ploy to dip into our wallets. The odds were against it from the beginning – Sony Pictures decided to tell the same old boring story about how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, so already your brain is halfway out the door before the movie even begins.

But there is just something so stupid about casting Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as teenagers – why not make the story interesting, and have them play characters closer to their own ages (29 and 24, respectively) who have to deal with all the spider-nonsense?

The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t even really begin as a movie until an hour into it, but director Marc Webb and whatever lawyers made all the decisions fumble the ball in the last half, too.

In the comics, The Lizard is a well-meaning scientist who injects himself with a serum and, well, turns into a lizard-man. He’s human-sized, though, and in a nice if ridiculous touch wears a lab coat.

The Amazing Spider-Man comic book issue 6 cover

One of the first early issues of Spider-Man I ever bought!

Now, I can understand how modern movie audiences might snicker at a lizard-man wearing a lab coat, which is fine. But instead of a human-size bad guy, The Amazing Spider-Man‘s lizard is this huge CGI monster, as big as the Hulk but without the personality (and that’s saying something). This gives the action sequences about as much heft as a video game fight. (I would post an image of the movie Lizard but can’t find a good one.)

It all wraps up in an epic battle atop a very tall building; it’s the same phallic denouement as The Avengers, actually, down to the rippling-sky effects. But one thing The Avengers accomplished that The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t; at the end of the screening I saw of that movie, people actually applauded. At the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, we breathed a collective sigh of relief that it was over.

Well, there’s one more epic superhero blockbuster to come this summer (and many, many more in summers to come, if The Avengers‘ box-office take has any influence on Hollywood decision-making): The Dark Knight Rises. I’m one of the few who actually doesn’t think that much of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman movies (as with Tim Burton, the vision is much better than the story), but The Amazing Spider-Man lowers the bar considerably. Dark Knight Rises can’t be worse, even if it ends in an epic fight atop a big building.

(I wrote about the movie some more on The Snipe News, in a post that envisions a perhaps-fictional meeting of studio executives planning The Amazing Spider-Man reboot)

Just read – Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years

Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years hardcover jacket

The hardcover jacket for Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years by George V. Higgins.

George V. Higgins’ Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years

The cover of this 1988 paperback quotes the New York Times Book Review: “Very readable, often hilarious.” I don’t know about “hilarious”, but it is very readable – although it can be pretty slow going at times as well.

For those unfamiliar with the author, George V. Higgins, he’s a crime writer best known for his book The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a 1970 novel that was made into a 1973 movie starring Robert Mitchum. As well, I think crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard has cited Higgins – a former attorney-turned-novelist – as an influence.

You can see the influence on Leonard in Higgins’ use of dialogue – in fact, Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years is almost all dialogue. This takes some getting used to, and the downside is that some characters’ voices are more interesting than others.

But I liked Higgins people, from businessmen to lawyers to hairdressers to chauffeurs, and the all-dialogue format makes parsing the actual plotline (something to do with Boston politics) a challenge, but that’s part of the fun. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is how Higgins introduces an AIDS subplot – but though this dates the book it doesn’t make the book dated, if you know what I mean.

Although I suspect this isn’t the best introduction to Higgins – it’s 400 pages and dense; for crime fiction fans, it’s only peripherally about a crime – it’s a worthwhile read. The gold-embossed cover on the secondhand paperback edition I  picked up is a nice bonus, and harks back to the days when even a more literary work like this could get the mass-market bestseller “airport book” treatment.

Wonderful Years Wonderful Years paperback book cover

Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988) by George V. Higgins.

I reviewed this: Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.

Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.

Aubrey Plaza can’t save weak script

I really wanted to like this movie, but it lost me in the first ten minutes with a totally absurd magazine editorial meeting followed by scenes of characters behaving like no one with a lick of sense would behave.

Somehow, though, Safety Not Guaranteed is getting positive reviews even with a script so riddled with indie romantic comedy clichés that it seems like something out of actress Ellen Page‘s “reject” pile. I think critics are letting themselves get hoodwinked because they are so desperate for a movie that doesn’t assault them with explosions and Liam Neeson for two hours.

I did like a couple of things about the movie, though. Here’s my full Safety Not Guaranteed movie review.

I reviewed this: The Moon Moth

Moon Moth graphic novel book cover

Got sent a package of graphic novels for review last week. Vancouver’s own Raincoast Books distributes a number of publishers, so once in awhile I’ll get lucky with a shipment of nice new books.

Among the latest batch was this curiosity – a thin, wonderfully coloured (by Hilary Sycamore) and drawn (by Humayoun Ibrahim) graphic adaptation of a short story by Golden Age science fiction author Jack Vance. I was unfamiliar with Vance’s work but after reading this little beauty I’ll be seeking out more, for sure.

I thought this adaptation, along with a reprinted (from the New York Times Magazine) profile of Jack Vance by Carlo Rotella, was an ideal intro to the work of this almost-forgotten (though not by Michael Chabon, to name one well-known fan) author. Highly recommended; you can read more of my thoughts on this book in my The Moon Moth graphic novel review on The Snipe News.

Have you read any Jack Vance? Which novels or short stories would you recommend?

Review: Five Little Bitches

Five Little Bitches by Teresa McWhirter (Anvil Press) book cover

My review of a new novel by Teresa McWhirter is in this week’s Georgia Straight. Set, for the most part, in Vancouver, Five Little Bitches chronicles the story of a fictional all-female punk band.

Unfortunately, it trades in just about every cliche you might expect from the premise. Plus, it’s a bit of a mess – it even seems unsure of which era it’s set in.

I felt bad for giving it a negative review, since the author is local (in fact, we live in the same neighbourhood  – according to her bio, McWhirter makes her home in East Van) and I know people at the publishing house, Vancouver’s Anvil Press.

However, the more I read the book, the angrier I became. I started out wanting to like it – hey, East Van punk rock chicks on the road and slinging tampons – but by the end, actually probably the half-way point, had stopped caring what happened.

To be fair, it’s tough to write a convincing novel about a fictional rock band. I’ve read, or tried to, quite a few, and most fall short. But what really bugged me about McWhirter’s novel is that Five Little Bitches seems so lazy, as if the author couldn’t even bother to do some research.

Anyway, you can read my Straight review here. It’s a condensed version – I was only allowed 300+ words – so here’s the original version, which I think explains my opinion a little better.

Book review – Five Little Bitches by Teresa McWhirter (Anvil Press)

– by Shawn Conner

Woe to the novelist trying to depict a fictional rock band. Even heavy-hitters like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Lethem couldn’t quite pull off a believable fictitious pop act in Great Jones Street (1973) and You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007), respectively. Perhaps Michael Turner has come as close as anyone in Hard Core Logo; in that 1993 book, the Vancouver author created a more or less believable portrait of a punk band through letters, interviews, and other (fictional) ephemera.

Five Little Bitches (Anvil Press, softcover, 296 pps, $20) is no Hardcore Logo. The fourth novel by East Vancouver writer Teresa McWhirter, Bitches uses a few borrowed techniques – a shopping list, an interview with two of the band members – but it tells a mostly linear story about Wet Leather, a quartet of Vancouver punk rock chicks who find each other, start a band, and spend the rest of their brief career fighting amongst themselves.

I suppose this is one of the ironies of the novel, or at least the marketing of it. The book’s back cover calls the saga “full-throttle grit-lit from a psychologically charged feminist perspective.” But anyone reading this book will come away with all their worst suspicions about a band full of women – that they spend all their time bitching at each other, talking about boys and their periods – confirmed.

The book’s problems go beyond stereotypes though. Five Little Bitches seems confused even about what era it’s set in. Thanks to Derek von Essen’s graphics, both inside and out, it looks like it’s a novel about the early days of punk. However, in the description of Wet Leather’s sound as well as people’s reaction to the band – one (male) DJ even asks what it’s like to be in an all-girl group, something that is, arguably, pretty rare these days, even at the most backwards, Nickelback-playing radio station – Wet Leather seems to be an L7-type of group circa 1992.

But McWhirter also mentions a band website and a “heavily downloaded” video clip, which anchors the story in present-day; the disconnect makes it hard to buy anything else about Five Little Bitches. And, I’m sorry, but I’ve been to hundreds of gigs and I’m not sure which era an audience member might yell (as happens towards the end of the book) something even approximating “You look like ya got a nice CUNT!” Obviously McWhirter and I have been going to very different shows.

I didn’t want to mention this but the raw language is an issue. I’m sure the steady streams of obscenities from McWhirters’ characters’ mouths are meant to show us that women can be as horny and juvenile as men. Hey, thanks for the newsflash.

Yet I will give the book this; a raw, punk energy courses through it like bad heroin in the veins of a junkie on Hastings Street on a Friday night (sorry, slipped into some Five Little Bitches patois there). This isn’t always a good thing, though, as the book could have used some editing. Following a rehearsal, McWhirter tells us “each girl has different thoughts.” Well, yes. Some lines have an appealing, probably accidental, absurdity, however, including head-scratchers like “When the chef wasn’t working he shopped for women shopping for vegetables” and (my personal favourite), “Her feelings for him are more than just scrambled porn.” Does that come with hash browns?

There are some good lines too, though; “Over time, she learned it was not in her best interest to be kind” has a nice, understated elegance. Then again, the term “turd holster” does not – but thanks for introducing it to my lexicon.

If the book had had a more thorough editorial going-over, and if McWhirter had done a little more research and chosen an era and said, “I’m going to write about an L7-type band and what it must have been like to be an all-girl band in 1992” or asked “what’s it like to be in an all-girl band in 2012?” Five Little Bitches might have had something to say. As it is, the story is mundane and the characters aren’t much more than names on paper, with bad boyfriends. And “Wet Leather”? Come on. I think I’d much rather read a book about a band called Turd Holster.

Revisited: Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates

Rickie Lee Jones Pirates album cover image

Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates (1981).

I couldn’t believe I no longer had this record.

I had a sudden hankering this past week to hear “We Belong Together”, the album’s opener, but was mortified to find Pirates missing from my collection – I must’ve got rid of it when I sold a whole whack of vinyl a couple of years ago before moving. Strange, since the record was such a huge part of my adolescence.

Growing up, I loved this album; listening to it today, I find it just as beautiful, wise and mysterious as I did as a teenager. Jones released it in 1981, two years after her debut; I think I might have bought Pirates because Rolling Stone gave it five stars (I was an inveterate Rolling Stone reader in those days). For a 16-year-old who was into the Clash and Elvis Costello, Jones’ sophomore record was pretty heady stuff. Then again I loved Steely Dan (couldn’t get enough of Greatest Hits) as well, and they’re a big influence on the record (Donald Fageneven plays synth), particularly in the penultimate track, the eight-minute jazz odyssey “Traces of the Western Slopes”.

Rickie Lee Jones Rolling Stone magazine cover

I think I had this!

But it’s the album’s street poetry that I responded to most – Jones’ visions of bohemia on songs like the title track, “We Belong Together”, and “Living It Up”. So many lines from this 30-year-old record have become part of my pop-culture hard-drive: “How could a Natalie Wood not get sucked/Into a scene so custom-tucked/Now look who shows up/” (“We Belong Together”); “Cleveland forgot/Memphis forgot/Where they were coming from” (“Woody and Dutch on a Slow Train”); “Oh my sad-eyed Sinatras” (“Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”).

There are other things I love about this record. “We Belong Together” starts out like a forlorn, night-time New York piano ballad – but then, suddenly, midway through, it starts to swing! – but only briefly; but then, it swings again at the end. I love the moods of this record, how varied it is, from the street-poetry one-two punch of “We Belong Together” and “Living It Up”, which is followed by the brief, tragic “Skeletons” and the finger-snapping street-party mood of “Woody and Dutch On a Slow Train to Peking”. Jones opens Side 2 with “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”, which sounds to me now like her version of Bruce Springsteen‘s “10th Avenue Freeze-Out”, and ends with a perfect whisp of a song, “The Returns”.

Rickie Lee Jones photo

So cool… Rickie Lee Jones circa 1980… I think.

Also on Side 2, “A Lucky Guy”, is probably the clearest thing the album has to a pop song; it reached #64 on the Billboard charts (“Chuck E.’s in Love”, from Jones’ debut, went to #4). I would imagine Pirates must have surprised people hoping for a repeat of her debut’s more traditional pop song approach. The album has never quite got its proper due, but I’m not the only one who thinks it’s one of the best records he’s ever heard.

Jones has released quite a few albums since, and many are notable, including the follow-up EP Girl At Her Volcano (which, I have to admit, I did not get at the time at all); The Magazine (which features one of my all-time favourite Jones songs, “It Must Be Love”); Flying Cowboys (which features another of my all-time favourite RLJ tracks, “Rodeo Girl”); GhOsTYhead (I think it’s the title track where she sings about doing Ecstasy); The Evening of My Best Day (“It Takes You There”); and 2007’s The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.

I recall liking that last record, though I can’t remember a song; I listened to it while preparing for an interview with Miss Jones for one of the papers I was writing for at the time. I think I asked her about Olympia, Washington, where she spent some of her teens, and of course the record she was promoting. But I don’t think I asked anything about Pirates, which is a shame; today I would probably grill her about it. Then again, everything you need to know is there in the grooves.

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