Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.

Disappointment on Screen and on the Page

Bang, gun

photo: Kenneth Lu, creative commons license

If you’ve read a few of my book and movie reviews, you’ll have noticed I generally praise these creative efforts. Maybe you’ve thought I’m not very critical (my family members will gladly disabuse you of this notion). No, I end up reviewing mostly good stuff, because I don’t read a book or go to a movie that promises not to be pretty darn good. Life is short. In the past week, though, I’ve had two disappointments—one book and one movie that defied expectations.

The Scarpetta Factor

Patricia Cornwell’s forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta has many devoted fans. Somehow, I’d never read one of these books and scooped up this one at a book exchange. I won’t read another, even though I suspect this was a sub-par entry in the long-running series.

First of all, it was almost 500 pages long. To demand that much commitment of precious reading time, a book has to meet a high bar. Second, it could have been 300 pages, or anyway, 350. Sooo much tedious backstory clumsily dropped in that I kept thinking, can’t we get back to this story? Annoying repetition, repeatedly, over and over, as if the author tried three different ways of saying something, planning to go back in the editing process and eliminate the two weakest. Then didn’t.

Naming three characters Berger, Bonnell, and Benton was an invitation to reader confusion, which I accepted, most ungraciously. I never could get them straight. Did I mention plot holes? Hundreds of pages in, the story is building to a climax that was more like a gun that shoots a message saying “bang.” So much else had gone on, I had no interest at all in her villain (show, don’t tell his perfidies).

So, if you’re tempted to read one of Cornwell’s thrillers, check online reviews carefully—“not one of her best” is a giveaway—and maybe try one of the early ones. This was number 17 in the Scarpetta series, and perhaps she’d run out of steam.

P.S. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d remembered that she’s the author who keeps trying to prove the cockamamie theory that Jack the Ripper was the English painter Walter Sickert.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke, First ReformedWriter-director Paul Schrader’s new film about an upstate New York Dutch Reformed minister’s apostasy can’t be faulted for the acting (trailer). Ethan Hawke as the desperately unhappy Reverend Ernst Toller (Earnest, get it?) is spectacular, as always. He’s a drinker and, believe it or not, that doesn’t help. Perhaps that’s why his character can’t see trouble coming every time he encounters his pregnant congregant with the heavily symbolic name, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. I especially liked Cedric Kyles, as the head of the local megachurch, Abundant Life.

The polar opposite of Abundant Life, Toller’s tiny First Reformed congregation is merely an archaic satellite of the larger church, kept alive more for historical value—its 250th anniversary approaches—than for its contribution to the spirit and economics of the parent enterprise.

The problem for me was the plot. Where is this story going? Is it an exercise in consciousness-raising about the environment? Is it about one man’s spiritual journey? The point must have flown by on wings of song (the singing is good), and I missed it. Perhaps it all boils down to the theme first expressed by Mary’s husband, a depressed environmental activist—“Will God forgive us?” And maybe that question applies equally to Rev. Toller’s personal quest as well as to our worldwide environmental depredations. Plus, the ending is strange, with two different interpretations in our household. (See the movie and tell me your, please.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 95%; audiences: 72%.

Austin’s Plant-Based Attractions

Not counting an early morning trip to my cousin’s impressive community garden in Austin, Texas, where we picked tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes, as well as peppers, onions, and eggplant, most of our touristy activities in the capital of the Lone Star State involved plants.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

It was hot, yeah, but the walkways through this lovely 284-acre facility are abundantly shaded. The center is the botanic garden for the University of Texas at Austin, and its educational mission is evident, but it’s not just for students. Homeowners go there to learn about the conservation of native plants and creating back yard environments compatible with local conditions. It was great to see little kids enjoying the water features, a sandy play area, and the animal sculptures. The grounds are planted with more than 800 native Texas species that, over the seasons, display successive waves of color. Naturally, the one plant that didn’t have a label was the one that fascinated us (woolly ironweed, above, which looked like fireworks), but the volunteers and staff were quick to sort us out! A lovely facility and nice gift shop too.

Zilker Park, Austin, waterfall

photo (cropped): Glen Pope, creative commons license

Zilker Botanical Garden

Located on 26 hilly acres in the heart of Austin, this is another shady retreat, with a lovely waterlily pond out front. Its Japanese garden has a small pavilion and a meandering stream stocked with koi that runs under a classically arched wooden bridge.

We walked the Woodland Faerie Trail, where organizations and families have constructed tiny scenes in which fairies might live. Those that used natural materials were the most charming. Minimal gift shop with excellent air conditioning! The facility includes many specialty and seasonal gardens, including a vigorously blooming rose garden. Alluring, but in full sun, no.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

photo: Lanie, creative commons license

Charles Umlauf (1911-1994) was a widely-collected American sculptor, born in Michigan, and a long-time art professor at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. He donated his home, studio, and the surrounding lands to the city of Austin, along with some 168 sculptures. The grounds are now an outdoor sculpture garden displaying mostly his works, and an indoor pavilion houses temporary or more weather-susceptible exhibitions. Many of his bronze and stone sculptures on display here have classical or biblical themes, and he went for stylized facial features. Although his artistic style is not my favorite, it’s a pleasure to see his work in such a beautiful setting.

Books to toss in your suitcase

Paper Ghosts – by Julia Heaberlin, a young woman’s Texas road trip with a possible serial killer in her passenger seat

Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food and Art – we ate at this beautiful restaurant. You can drool over the cookbook while you’re there, and recreate awesome Mexican food on your return home

Texas Two-Step – new crime novel by Michael Pool. Two Colorado stoners plan to sell their last marijuana crop in rural east Texas and become embroiled in bigger problems, with a Texas Ranger and Austin police detective on their tails.

The Rider

The RiderThe movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.

He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.

In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.

Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.

When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.

Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.

And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 80%.