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All Things Thriller

A celebration of thrillers, noire and black comedy in film and literature by Pamela Lowe Saldana

Good Me Bad Me, a novel by Ali Land; Flatiron Books, New York, 2017; Psychological Thriller

 

Some parents live vicariously through their children. They are enlivened by their accomplishments. They are invigorated by their potential.

With some families, the children are encouraged to carry on the familial occupation passed down one generation to the next. Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher, perhaps. Police officer. Nurse.

That’s what Annie’s mother was. A nurse.

Annie knows a lot for a fifteen-year-old girl. Some stuff she picked up from her mother (like all children she was a sponge, soaking it all up) other things she learned from experience. Things like how to position an arm so that a broken collar bone won’t hurt so bad, how to slow bleeding and calm an upset stomach. She knows how to relieve the symptoms of shock and how to soothe a terrified child.

While Annie feels more secure in her new foster home, (she has a new name too, it’s Milly) these things–these skills–still come in handy from time to time even though her foster father, Mike, is really nice. He’s a psychologist. Her psychologist, in fact.

Her foster mother, Saskia, is okay too, but she’s not the most stable person. She has a drug and drinking problem.

And then there’s Phoebe, the couples daughter. She has it in for Ann…Milly. And she’s got  a mean streak about three miles long. Still, Milly can’t help admiring her. Phoebe is as beautiful as she is cruel. She’s also conniving and calculating. She reminds Milly a lot of her mother. The nurse. The serial killer of children. The Peter Pan Killer.

In Good Me Bad Me, author–and former psychological nurse–Ali Land wades into the murky waters of the nurture vs nature debate. Consequently Land is from Great Britain and her book is set in a posh neighborhood in the outskirts of London where, currently, the debate, due to it’s linkage to immigration, rages (as it does in the United States also.) With her debut novel, she narrows the scope of the argument to the family unit.

Land draws us into Milly’s world, gently. She doesn’t belabor gruesome details. She titillates us instead. Expertly. She knows her subject.

In an interview with the Huffington Post Land reveals the inspiration for the character Milly was one of her patients who was “trapped in a devastating and escalating pattern of self harm.” Land goes further in the interview, disclosing the reason her patient hated herself  to the point of trying to take her own life: she feared she was too much like her mother who had been involved in horrific acts of child abuse.

Though Milly’s mother has subjected her daughter to terrible emotional, physical and sexual abuse, she never tolerated an “outsider” tormenting her child, with out her approval. Now Milly must contend with a jealous and resentful Phoebe and her private school sycophants alone. But, of course, Milly is never really alone. Her mother’s influence, her imprint, is always there advising and accessing the situation.

Still, for the most part, Milly is able to fight her malignant impulses and resist being aroused by them. The question is: how long can she continue to do so?

In recent years there has been an influx of psychological thrillers. At first I was happy to over indulge in my favorite sub genre. Now it seems that every thriller that comes down the pike is of the psychological bent and I have become weary with the slow burn teasing and toying; the very staples of the psychological thriller formula. The will she or won’t she?

Yes, of course, we know she will…Okay then when will she do it? Well…At the end of the book, naturally…

And then there’s this, the most important harbinger…How will she do it? Very smartly. Intricately. With a rueful twist of fate perhaps.

The climax rarely lives up to all the foreshadowing. It seems the formula would, more often than not, be better suited with a short story or novella. Good Me Bad Me is no exception to this trend. Yes, it is well written. Yes, the dialogue is fine; the characters are believable. It’s just that everyone of consequence is predictably damaged.

This is what I have come to expect from a psychological thriller. All the boxes are checked.

What differentiates Good Me Bad Me from just about every other psychological thriller since The Girl On the Train is the acumen of the author. Her real life experience, her expertise on the subject matters of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of psychopathy and it’s variants ring painfully true. This is the ingredient that elevates her material and enables her to create such a vivid protagonist.

Take for instance the passage where Milly learns that Mike–her psychologist and foster father–is writing a book about her. Though she is relatively upset by this development, she accepts it as an exchange for her having a safe place to lay her head.

For me, that was the most unsettling, most heart breaking thing in all its three hundred or so pages. Though it was just one of a continuum of events that from Milly’s perspective could be considered a betrayal, I couldn’t help but wonder about the teenage girl that the character was based on. What happened to her? Is she all right?

And what does she think of her ex-therapist’s book?

 

The Secret In Their Eyes, A Film Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, 2009; Foreign, Argentine-Spanish; Crime Drama/Romance

 

Okay, so this is for the film people. Movie people? You have to leave the room.

Now movie people, don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m not saying that you’re not sophisticated enough. I’m certainly not saying that you’re not smart enough. Not at all. What I am saying is…

If you stick around and read the rest of this post you’re going to laugh your butt off and I’m going to be embarrassed. Okay?

Besides, it’s a foreign film. And there are sub titles.

That said…

My next post will be on Kiss Me Deadly, or maybe even Die Hard, so adios movie people. No hard feelings. Okay? Hope you drop by later.

Alright. Glad we got that cleared up.

Ahem…

Every once in a while a film will come along and you know that it is a good film of course, even a great film, but not necessarily the best film you’ve ever seen, or even your favorite film, and yet it speaks to you so profoundly, so earnestly that it becomes your friend. That’s what Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes is to me.

(Now before we go any further, let me clarify–this is the original The Secret In Their Eyes, NOT the remake. The remake is…Well, it’s bad. I’ll just leave it at that.)

The film opens up with what at first appears to be a dream sequence. The scene is airy and disorientated, washed out in descending hues of gray to white. We see a man and a women in a train station. An attractive couple. The man is ruggedly handsome. The woman is simply beautiful.

The man boards the train. He watches the woman through the window as the train begins to embark. As distance grows between them, the woman suddenly begins to run after the train. She catches up to it and reaches out, placing her open palm on the window. The man does the same with his palm so that they are touching, if not for the window between them…And the scene evaporates.

Now we are alone with the man. He is older; there are wrinkles. His hair is salt and pepper. His surroundings are modest, but comfortable. He is writing, the old fashioned way with pen and paper. Frustrated, he wads up the piece of paper and begins to write anew.

Suddenly we are plopped down into another sequence. This time the hues are gold and yellow. Violent and terrible. A young woman is being brutally beat and raped in her bedroom. She pleads with her attacker. He is unmoved and undeterred. The assault is appropriately graphic but not gratuitous. It is rape after all. It is ugly. She is not the woman at train station.

The man wads up another sheet of paper, disrupting the sequence. Still he is anguished. He scribbles “I Fear” on a scrap of paper. Then he goes to bed.

The next morning we see him again at his former workplace. His name is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin). He is a retired Argentine lawyer, a distinct attorney of sorts. Walking through the ornate halls of a courthouse, blatantly flirting with much younger women, he is cocky in a gentle, somewhat, self effacing way. But once he gets to the doorway of his ex boss, he isn’t so sure of himself. He takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders before he knocks.

As soon as he opens the door the color palette changes, not dramatically, but not subtlety either. The room is aglow with warmth and wealth, lots of polished mahogany and red– not the likes of crimson, but maroon and cherry. His ex boss wears the color of garnet. She is the women at the train station. Well heeled and naturally articulate, she is as stunning as the young woman years before–perhaps more so. Her name is Irene Menedez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). She is a judge.

There is palpable chemistry between these two. There is also longing and regret, though it doesn’t interfere with their mutual fondness. They joke and kid. They are getting older. Much older. It has been a long time. Too long.

Benjamin tells Irene he is writing a book about a murder case they worked together, some twenty years earlier. He wants her to look through his rough drafts and give him her opinion. She is not happy about his request. It is clear that the case is the catalyst of the complex tangle of emotions between them. Even so, she complies. This is the unveiling of the window to their world.

Director Juan Jose Campanella works magic with color, texture and lighting in The Secret in Their Eyes, The Academy Award winning Best Foreign Language Film of 2010. It is visually beautiful. A graduate of NYU film school and prolific television director (directing seventeen episodes of the Law and Order: SVU television franchise alone), he combines the intimacy of romance and the epic sweep of Romanticism, capturing these often clashing concepts and confining them largely within four walls. It’s a maverick move.

However this is no bedroom drama. Take, for instance, the much-ballyhooed soccer stadium chase scene. Here Campanella uses the stadium and the roaring crowd as his “nature” motif. It is monumental, exhilarating and like no other action sequence I have ever seen.

Set in the director’s native Buenos Aires, Argentina, The Secret In Their Eyes employs a nonlinear narrative, straddling the mid-seventies past, with the late nineties present. There is political intrigue, conspiracy and mass corruption consistent with Argentina’s turbulent, violent past. Benjamin, Irene and their loyal, but alcoholic colleague Sandoval (Guillermo Francello) swim in a cesspool of hired killers and moral ambiguity while trying to dole out justice.

And then there is the brutal murder of the beautiful twenty-three year old teacher and newlywed that Benjamin is writing about. Every cop or lawyer has as a case they cannot shake, at least in movies–excuse me–in films they do. For Benjamin, this is that case.

At the murder scene, he sees photographs of the  victim–Liliana Coloto is her name–where she and her husband are happily smiling. And while he is haunted by the vicious murder, it’s the look of love in the couple’s eyes that he cannot escape. He recognizes it, having seen it in Irene’s eyes when she looks at him and yet he cannot, will not act upon it. Why?

Benjamin feels a special kinship with Liliana’s husband, Ricardo (Pablo Rago); they are both caught in a chasm of lost love, his unrequited and the widower’s cruelly interrupted. Ricardo confides that there will never be anyone else for him and Benjamin understands.He fears they are both doomed to an unfulfilled existence. How can a person live without passion?

While looking through Liliana’s photo albums, Benjamin sees something unexpected and disturbing. Furtive, indiscernible to the undiscriminating eye, it glares at him from a photograph of Liliana and several of her friends. He recognizes this look too, but it is not an expression of love. It is the look obsession. Weary of questions he fears may never be answered, he points to the man with the hunger in his eyes and asks Ricardo,

“Who is this?”

Blaze, a novel by Richard Bachman a.k.a. Stephen King; Tragedy/Noir/Psychological Thriller; Simon & Shuster, Inc., 2007

 

Okay, a heads up is in order. I’m not a big Stephen King fan. Oh, there’s some of his stuff I like–Cujo, Misery, Christine and, yes, The Green Mile and Different Seasons–but over all? No.

Now before your eyes roll back in your head, I’m no pretend book snob. Hardly. I’ve read a lot more Johnathan Kellerman than John Steinbeck. So there’s that.

Anyway, my deal with King is a matter of tenor. For instance he must have a thing for string beans with undershot chins because one has shown up in just about every novel of his I’ve read. His characters are too classically established “with a twist of caricature” for me. Just sayin’.

Be that as it may, I greatly admire his prolificacy and over the top imagination. King is wicked smart and creative and I would never stoop so low to deny his obvious talent. I’m just more of a James Herbert fan (sans his predilection for graphic sex scenes. Ick.)

Now that I have cleared all of that up, on to Blaze.

King calls Blaze a trunk novel (an early work, sometimes incomplete, that the author stores away and  then “rediscovers” after achieving success.) He published Blaze under the pseudonym Richard Bachman because he says he wrote it during the time he was most productive as the alias. In fact King wrote the novel in 1973 before he started using the pseudonym and then rewrote in around 2006, publishing it in 2007.

As far as I–the occasional Stephen King reader–am concerned, that’s neither here nor there. I picked up Blaze at Walgreen’s, read the back cover, thumbed through it and was intrigued. I read it and liked it. Then onto the bookshelf it went. The other day I was going through my paperbacks and ran onto it. Read it again. Liked it even better.

It made me cry.

“In the schoolyard he was everyone’s bear. He sometimes rode as many as three first-graders on his shoulders at once…swaying, swaying, usually grinning, his dented face turned up to the sky…”

With Blaze, King articulates some of his familiar archetypes in a relatively unfamiliar context–tragedy mired in hope. Here George is the string bean with the undershot chin and the protagonist, Clayton “Blaze” Blasdell is the lumbering, misunderstood behemoth, i.e., the Lenny Small character in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Consequently George is based on the George character of said Steinbeck novel.

The twist is that George and Blaze are small time criminals and–this is more like a twister a.k.a. tornado–George is dead. He exists as a hologram of the mind, inside Blaze’s dented head.

Tragically, it didn’t have to be that way for Blaze. Yes he was injured, ergo the dented head, (forehead to be exact) but this was no accident. His father threw him down the stairs as punishment for eating Apple Jack’s in the living room. Then when the boy wouldn’t bounce right back up, the evil bastard slammed him down on his head again and, yet, again for good measure.

The attempted homicide left him an imbecile. And if that isn’t bad enough, before being pulled into the auger of fate, Blaze had a trifecta of potential. He was big. And strong. And at least smart, if not intellectually gifted. Now he’s just big and strong.

Due to the abuse and his mental challenges Blaze is made a ward of the state where he comes of age and, from time to time, meets some good people that are able to look beyond his hulking size, disfigured brow and disabilities, seeing him for who he is: a gentle stray who longs to belong to someone kind. A few of these folks even try to offer a helping hand but are thwarted in one Dickensian way or another. Predictably, realistically, though, most of the people Blaze encounters concoct cruel ways to mistreat him for their own twisted amusement or devise criminal ways to use his almost super human strength and size to their advantage.

This is where George comes in. George is a scrawny, hyper active psychopath with no appetite for “unnecessary” violence and no heft to employ it should he need to. He thinks of Blaze as an especially sharp arrow in his quiver of skulduggery; the “just in case” muscle. Plus he kind of likes the lug in spite of his misanthropic tendencies.

George’s specialty is the short con, but he’s bitter about the money. He thinks he deserves better. Even though it’s out of his wheel house, he aspires to kidnap the baby of a wealthy couple so that he and Blaze can take up residence on easy street. To this end, he takes Blaze under his malignant wing schooling him on the details of his scheme as well the basics of personal hygiene, table manners and grammar.

George is boss. Blaze obeys, for the most part, unquestioningly. When he does balk, George sets him straight.

But George has an especially vile, smart-alecky mouth that gets him into trouble and eventually gets him killed in a dice game, leaving Blaze on his own and without the means to care for himself–again. That’s when Blaze’s fractured psyche splinters and he begins to hear and see George’s doppelganger. And George’s doppelganger is substantially more malevolent than the “real” George.

This becomes especially problematic when a desperate, cold and hungry Blaze carries out the kidnapping of baby Joey at the doppelganger’s behest. While Blaze is basically kind and has a soft spot for children, babies are a handful–they cry all the time and pretty much require around the clock attention–and “George” who was always high strung and short tempered, isn’t as patient as he used to be.

Okay. I know. I know. You know where this is going. Only the worst of the worst would harm a child, doppelganger or no doppelganger. Very well. Just keep this in mind: we’re talkin’ Stephen King here. All bets are off.

And then there’s that Of Mice and Men thing that I alluded to earlier in the post. Remember Blaze represents the Lenny character. And we all remember what happened to him…And why.

Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese

This is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read. It ranks up there with work of Roger Ebert and Peter Travers.

Twenty Four Frames

Mean_Streets_poster

Every serious film lover sees a film that once in awhile affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about, this is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it does not have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply.

Robert-DeNiro_Mean_l   The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was “Who That Knocking at My Door” back in September 1969 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie theater located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. At the…

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film directed by Robert Altman, 1971; Revisionist Western

Recently I read an inspired post/review by my friend John Greco on his favorite movie, Mean Streets. John is a great writer and his passion moved me inasmuch as he put into words–simply, beautifully–what a cherished film means to those of us who revere the medium. More than entertainment, more than an enjoyable means to whittle away spare time, favorite movies connect with our humanity so profoundly that–for me, anyway–it is an almost spiritual experience. John exposed his film buff’s fire–and by extension, mine as well–unabashedly. He poured his heart into it, and it was perfect.

I hope to do something similar with this post, though I acknowledge mine won’t be as good; writing is what I do best, but I don’t do it perfectly. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my favorite movie.

Director Robert Altman opens his picture with this: A quasi-out of place-gent rides into a makeshift town alone. Enveloped in an ostentatious fur coat that reaches below his knees, he mumbles and slumps in the saddle as his horse plods along. Though the scenery is plush and beautiful, it is also cold and muddy.

Could this be Oregon? Montana? Washington, perhaps? Wherever it is, moisture hangs in the air and the skies are a swath of perpetual grey. Shoddy construction runs rampant here, gleaming pine planks mingle with rotting ones. Functional but unfinished. Interupted. The town is called Presbyterian Church.

McCabe (Warren Beatty in his early thirties) is beautiful too, and clumsy, though he is unaware of his awkward tics. His clothing is expensive, dandified and dusty. He wears a bowler hat and a gun belt, which, for the most part, he keeps obscured.

A ne’er-do-well gambler, he surveys the townspeople skittishly, hungrily like a fox. McCabe is smarter, more sophisticated than they are, but by inches instead of miles. Upon entering a saloon he takes control, initiating a poker game immediately. The scruffy men are impressed. The stranger handles cards deftly, but calculation is not his strong suit.

Someone recognizes the name McCabe. There are murmurs of murder; the killing of an infamous gunslinger. Could this be that McCabe? The men squint in the dim light. No. Surely not this guy.

Enter Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). She is everything McCabe is not–down-to-earth, straight to the point, unimpressed with her own good looks and sharp as a tack. Conversely, she is also everything that he is–illegitimate and itinerant. She’s a prostitute, no ifs ands or buts about it.

After a lot of hem-hawing around by McCabe (and his pitiful attempt at lone wolf pimping results in the death of a john) they agree to form a partnership. He will finance the operation and she will run it. And thanks to Mrs. Miller’s business acumen and a shortage of women in the town they’re a big success.

From the git-go McCabe is smitten with Mrs. Miller, though she is nonpulssed with him. So when we find out that they are sleeping together it comes as a bit of a surprise. Then we see him put money on the nightstand and we chuckle. A stammering, stuttering McCabe is perplexed by her insistence that he pay but we aren’t.

Then later, there they are again, it’s the same arrangement, only this time she’s smiling at him coquettishly, pulling the covers up to her neck shyly and we understand his confusion. What’s going on here? This isn’t like Mrs. Miller at all; and it’s no hooker’s play acting either, we can tell. Could there be a kink in Mrs. Miller’s armor? Yes, indeed. Opium, we find out. She’s a high functioning addict, so McCabe has no idea. But she does care. Mrs. Miller would never act this way with anyone else, opium or no opium.

It is dangerous to be merely rich instead of really rich, especially in a boom town like Presbyterian Church. Moneyed men get wind of McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s success. They make McCabe an offer and he refuses, playing the big shot and the bluff. The men make another offer and still McCabe bluffs. It’s a stalemate. He tells them to sleep on it. There are plans to meet for breakfast.

Back at Mrs. Miller’s he is giddy. He talks of leaving town and there is an unspoken invitation for her to come with him that hangs heavy in the air. Mrs. Miller indulges in just a sliver of hope, we can see it, as brief as the flash of a firefly and so can McCabe, but she is worried. She’s seen this scenario play out before and she knows McCabe’s limitations. If only she could be the one to negotiate, things would be all right. “Just you rest easy, little lady,” he tries to assure her, “everything’s going to be fine.”

The next morning he heads to the saloon for the meeting but finds the men have gone. When Mrs. Miller finds out she is devastated. She knows what this means even as McCabe thinks he can still negotiate. Hired killers are coming.

With McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman upends the traditional Western. He films straightforwardly, blunting and muting so that we are drawn into a monogamous relationship with the characters and their circumstances. The camera is the proverbial fly on the wall and the audio sounds like someone has bugged the shoot. Hues of charcoal, gray and brown prevail so that when there is a blizzard, the brilliance of the snow disorientates us. Altman is a master of ultra realism. His minimalist style stings like cold air to gasping lungs.

Likewise Leonard Cohen’s original soundtrack is harmoniously stark and gorgeously mournful. Unobtrusively, it narrates McCabe’s and Mrs. Miller’s story.

Warren Beatty wallows in the irregularities of McCabe. He is brilliant here. His hesitant, self conscious gait overrides a condescending grandiosity. It is a tightrope of complexity and he dances on it.

As good as Beatty is, Julie Christie is better. The scene where she and McCabe discuss business for the first time over eggs and cigars is a treasure. Christie devours the eggs ravenously, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. She has no patience for niceties or for McCabe’s ridiculous attempts at them. She doesn’t toy with McCabe. She let’s him know right off the bat that she’s way smarter. Still he’s enchanted with her…And, tragically, so are we.

 

The Midnight Assassin, by Skip Hollandsworth, 2015, Henry Holt and Company; Creative Nonfiction/Historical True Crime

The butchery began out of the blue and, fittingly, in a freezing rain storm called a Blue Norther, that swept across the Texas hill country on New Years Eve, 1884. That evening an African American laborer by the name of Walter Spencer staggered across the yard from his servant’s shack and pounded on the door of the main house. Seriously injured, bleeding profusely from deep gashes to the head, he pleaded to be let in. The occupant of the house reluctantly complied.

Once inside, Spencer frantically spilled out a nightmarish series of events: he and his girlfriend, the cook and maid of the main house, Mollie Smith, had been attacked while sleeping in their bed.  When Spencer came to, Mollie was nowhere to be found. He had searched the yard and street to no avail.

The man of the house listened but was unmoved. He told Spencer he’d better bandage his head before he bled to death. Then he unceremoniously showed him the door.

Despite a compelling premise, The Midnight Assassin is an underwhelming investigation into a little known nineteenth century serial murder case and it’s marginalized victims.  Texas Monthly executive editor, Skip Hollandsworth pushes the BS meter into the red right off the bat with the assertion that his subject is America’s first serial killer. Not true. Before the Midnight Assassin–or the Servant Girl Annihilator as he was also called–there were many other U.S. serial killers. A cluster of them, curiously, were from Massachusetts, e.g., Cambridge serial poisoner, Sarah Jane Robinson (1881); Boston child murderer and rapist, Thomas W. Piper (1871) and Chelsea child murderer, Jesse Pomeroy (1874). But American serial killers go back even further than that, yes, all the way back to infamous cousins, Micajah and Wiley Harpe (1798-1799) who killed at least twenty-five people in Kentucky and Tennessee.

None the less, The Midnight Assassin offers some compelling details of serial murder before the term was coined, just twenty years after the Civil War, when people commuted by horse and carriage, before DNA, criminal data bases and geographical profiling existed. Even then there were telephones, incandescent light bulbs and the precursor of the criminal profiler, called alienists. Hollandsworth introduces them to us and educates us sufficiently about the era.

The murders, spanning a year, are particularly gruesome and Hollandsworth is restrained with his account of the horrific facts. The killer used an ax or a hatchet, for the most part, cleaving heads in two. Even more chilling, he rammed sharpened steel rods through several of his victims ears. Those victims, with the exception of the last two–seven women and one man–were African American. Though there were blood trails and foot prints left behind, as well as eye witnesses (the killer brazenly attacked women while they slept with their boyfriends or children) the Midnight Assassin was never caught.

The locale of the crimes is Austin Texas of the late 1800s. Hollansworth describes it as a rambunctious boom town, stretching its cattle and cotton confines with mass construction, specifically that of the University of Texas and the huge, ornate Texas State Capital. The main streets bustle with opulent restaurants and a opera house. Even more cosmopolitan is the integration of Whites, Blacks and Latinos so soon after Reconstruction. But there is virulent racism that hinders the investigation and as Hollansworth points out, the killings become a tragic catalyst to the regression of race relations. He doesn’t probe these issues enough though. Nor does he make nineteenth century Austin–this burgeoning, ambitious little metropolis–a bonafide character in the saga. It’s an opportunity that is sorely missed.

The Midnight Assassin flirts with some intriguing ideas and themes but fails to flesh them out. I would have liked more exploration into the psychology of the killer per alienists and modern criminal profilers. Likewise it would have been interesting to have a more focused rundown of viable suspects, because there were some and a few are particularly intriguing, but Hollansworth brushes them off and goes in the direction of connecting the murders to Jack the Ripper. And though he ends up, wisely, discarding that theory, it is not soon enough for me.

Those who are looking to be captivated by a story–albeit a true one–are prone to be disappointed. The Midnight Assassin reads like a text book on Prozac which is especially perplexing since Hollandsworth co-wrote the terrific script to the deservedly highly acclaimed 2011 motion picture Bernie. My advice–skip The Midnight Assassin and watch Bernie instead. It’s true too. And it happened in Texas.

 

 

 

Angel Baby, A Novel by Richard Lange, 2013; Neo-Noir/Thriller; Little, Brown/Mulholland

There’s a lot of running in Richard Lange’s brash thriller, Angel Baby. A vengeful husband chases his liberated wife. A dead end drunk flees from his past. A stone cold killer tries to outrun his worst fear. And a crooked cop ducks out on his gambling debts.

Then there’s Luz. She’s running the hardest. That’s because she’s a mother who left her little girl behind. Now she’s got her head on straight; now she’s determined to backtrack and make up for lost time despite the miles of greed, perversion and murder–not to mention her own guilt–that lies between the two of them.

Rolando, a.k.a. El Principe (The Prince), is a narco who traffics for the Tijuana cartel. A fiendish control freak, he keeps his beautiful wife, Luz, under his thumb by keeping her sweet, i.e., under the influence. Or so he thinks. Luz executes a daring escape from the mansion that is her prison, absconding with bundles of The Prince’s cash, his custom silver-plated .45 and, more ominously, gobs of his pride. On her way out, she has no choice but to shoot and kill two of his most trusted compatriots. She will do what ever it takes to make it across the border to Los Angeles where her four year-old daughter, Isabel, awaits.

To get there she hires Malone, a driver with the DT’s, a death wish and a simmering conscience. In Luz, Malone sees glimpses of redemption but a ruthless hit man with his own seething vendetta is hot on their heels. Even worse a corrupt, perverted boarder patrol agent has gotten wind of the pretty “chica” with a backpack full of money trying to cross.

And then there’s The Prince. He doesn’t want Luz dead just yet; he has visions of torture running through his head. He will do anything to make her suffer.

Angel Baby is Richard Lange’s second novel and it is an unashamedly old fashioned page turner. The characters are believably fleshed out, the dialogue is bracingly genuine and while the plot stretches the bounds of credibility at times–especially toward the end–it has enough grit and realism to keep aficionados on the line. Coming in at around three hundred pages it’s a great rainy day read. But make no mistake, this is dark, under belly stuff. There’s so much evil and desperation, so much running, that some thriller enthusiasts–especially those who favor the more “sophisticated” psychological variety–may find this outing too exhausting. Those who enjoy the hardcore classic noir of Jim Thompson or the contemporary noir of Nik Pizzolatto should be sufficiently conditioned for the journey.

Lange’s most recent offering, 2017’s The Smack, is available on line but I’d rather not wait. I’m running down to Books A Million now.

Ten Killer Thriller Needle Drops and Soundtracks (5-1)

Once upon a time movies were silent and a pianist or organist would play popular songs of the day or improvise as an accompaniment to the film. In major metropolitan areas an entire orchestra would sometimes play.

Then in 1927 The Jazz Singer became the first feature length, commercially viable film to break the sound barrier by using a synchronized recorded musical score that also contained segments of speech and singing to which the actors lip-synced. Hence the “soundtrack” was born. Some ten years later, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first soundtrack to be marketed and sold.

There have been many groundbreaking soundtracks since with original scores that are engraved into our popular culture. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, Psycho and Blade Runner are just a few such examples off the top of my head. These are the caviar of soundtracks. (Don’t worry, this is my one and only culinary metaphor per this post.)

The following examples are hardly that fru fru. (Not that fru fru is a bad thing. That’s what I named my Pomeranian/Blue Heeler mix.) In fact, the following are not scores at all (original music composed for a specific movie) but what are called “needle drops”–pop tunes used in the soundtrack to enhance a dramatic sequence.

And yes, Easy Rider should definitely be here–it is the father of the modern area pop/rock infused soundtrack–but I have a personal bias against the film, i.e., I just don’t like it. Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction should represent as well, for these films contain needle drops that are truly the best of the best and, consequently, are on everybody’s list. That’s precisely the reason I’ve omitted them (but mad props, just the same.) So now, with much ado and hubris, my top five needle drops from thriller complimentary genres:

5. Jackie Brown – 1997

My favorite Tarantino film. Intimate, engaging, at times even lush,  it is chock full of killer needle drops like when Melanie (Bridget Fonda should have won an Oscar for this) is riding Louis (Robert De Niro) hard about being a little on the slow side. They pull into a parking lot and Louis turns off the key and with it the great golden oldie from The Grass Roots, Midnight Confessions. They go about their business and return to the parking lot. Melanie’s still goin’ at it. The way she hisses his name–Lou-issss–mocking his manhood and his criminal bonafides, ratcheting up the tension until he can’t stand it anymore; until he pulls out a handgun and drops her like a hot brick. Then he gets back in the VW bus and fires it up. Midnight Confessions kicks back in picking up where he and Melanie left off mid jam, only without Melanie of course.

4.Blackboard Jungle – 1955

An earthshaking feature film with aftershocks that reverberated around the world, Blackboard Jungle was the first film to use a rock song in it’s soundtrack. The song–Bill Haley and the Comets Rock around the Clock with exclusive sound score drum soloplayed during the opening credits, graphics flashing  upon a blackboard–drew in hordes of teenagers who’d never heard anything like it. And what a song. The count off–one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock—the jaw dropping guitar hammer-on solo and the raucous, rockabilly beat soaked in rhythm and blues, inspired dancing in the isles and rioting in theaters where Blackboard Jungle played across the U.S. and Europe. The birth of rock and roll rebellion. The actual movie’s pretty good too.

3. Apocalypse Now – 1979

There are several iconic needle drops in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, most notably the helicopter fleet assault on a Vietcong village to Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner. But for me the seminal sequence is the USO stage show. Once again there is a helicopter. It hovers over a grandiose floating stage while hundreds of  inebriated soldiers cheer uproariously. The helicopter lands and a slick promoter hops out onto the stage.  He grabs a mic and starts working the crowd. A band lays down a woozy, heavy on the reverb cover version of Dale Hawkins’ Susie Q as scantily clad playmates disembark from the helicopter. The playmates  bump and grind wantonly, clumsily to the thudding bass. They straddle and hump M16 rifles in an uninspired display of sensuality. They leer and dangle their wares as far downstage as they can get without falling off. The starving, indiscriminate troops teeter on the brink mobocracy while desensitized villagers stare at the spectacle through a chain linked fence. And then a soldier jumps on stage.

2. Mean Streets – 1973

In terms of landmark significance and the elevation of the needle drop to an art form, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets should rank number one; here (yes I’m going there and I’m not asking for permission) or on any such list. The opening scene is unquestionably brilliant. In roughly two and half minutes, the length of The Ronettes Be My Baby which thunders as the buoyant theme to a grainy, self aggrandizing home movie, the story of Charlie–a young, aspiring wiseguy–is told as the opening credits roll. In this scene we see him (Harvey Kitel) nattily dressed with perfectly coiffed hair, making his neighborhood rounds, glad-handing men of questionable means and character, kissing babies and elderly women and posing on the church steps with his priest. All is as happy and perfect as the Ronettes lyrical song. And as fleeting.

1. Boogie Nights – 1997

With music from artist such as ELO, The Emotions, Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and War, the Boogie Nights soundtrack represents a curious window of time, late 70s through early 80s, when everybody was doing it in every conceivable way; when cocaine was thought to be relatively harmless despite enormous evidence to the contrary and, yet, there was still a pervasive, wide-eyed innocence that could be exploited to the max. These are the times of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a well endowed porn star straight out of high school who, through a series of mishaps, winds up on the couch of a coke crazed millionaire in bikini briefs and a wide open silk robe. Now this guy loves (and I do mean loves) mix tapes. While he hits the freebase pipe, his mix tape blares–dun dun dun–Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. As the crescendo builds he air drums manically, passionatelyNormally this would just be lame, but here it is unsettling because Dirk and a couple of his buddies have conspired to sell the dude a large plastic bag of baking powder despite his–Rahad’s his name (Alfred Molina)–bandying about a huge revolver, albeit playfully. Even more disturbing, a weird teenage boy unceremoniously lights firecrackers and then throws them onto the carpeted floor, over and over again. Those of us who partied hearty in the 80s pretty much agree–no good can come of this.

 

 

 

Ten Killer Thriller Needle Drops and Soundtracks (10 – 6)

We all have our favorite cinematic moments where the music swells and our feelings soar with joy, sorrow, terror or humor. When (and where) the film director uses pre-recorded  music to inspire emotion it’s called a needle drop. Case in point, the scene depicted in the above image from Reservoir Dogs, a scene so iconic that I need not describe the circumstances–it is grafted into our cinematic bone marrow. But I will recall the reaction the scene evoked: unease, humor, shock, terror and repulsion.

Yes, chances are, we were all on the same roller-coaster when Mr. Blonde did his weird little cha cha to the fantastic early 70s pop/rock ditty from Stealers Wheel, Stuck In The Middle With You. And if you’re like me, the experience has altered the way you hear the song even now.

The following are some of my favorite needle drops. I’ve limited them to thriller complementary genres and though not all are necessarily the best of the best representations, (you won’t find Derek and the Dominos Layla from Goodfellas here, it’s just too obvious) most will spark a memory and an emotion or two. Hope so anyway.

 

10. Layer Cake – 2005 

An understated and underrated British gangster movie with a lean, not so mean and very hot Daniel Craig, before he blew up into a superstar. The soundtrack is on the reserved side as well–in a good way–with music from The Cult, The Source, Duran Duran and the like. The selections capture a time and a place and a certain hip coldness that makes us feel a tad bit removed but still worried. Joe Cocker’s mournful, haunting cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood during closing credits resonates longing and regret. It’s a shot through the heart.

9. Natural Born Killers – 1994

A very polarizing film–you either love it or hate it. There’s no denying the soundtrack though. As music director, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sutures a music montage that is close to perfect. Patti Smith, Daune Eddy, L7 and Patsy Cline are some of the artists that narrate a rainbow nightmare love story. The scene where the Cowboy Junkies’ Sweet Jane plays softly while Juliette Lewis gets carried away in sentiment and philosophy may bring a tear to your eye–or not.

8. Sid & Nancy – 1986

This is one of my favorite movies. It’s bleak and nihilistic. Chloe Webb and Gary Oldman  wolf down scenery like, ahem, wolves and there’s so much whining, drinking and drugging I had a panic attack the first time I saw it. And the soundtrack? It’s awesome though it contains no Sex Pistols songs. Worth having just for Gary Oldman’s absurd and totally punk cover of My Way. Drop the needle moment: Sid has just made bail and he’s walking through a Escape from New York cityscape where he encounters some kids with a boom box. He jams with them to–drum roll— KC & the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight. Charming. And I’m not kidding.

7. The Big Lebowski – 1998

There are so many great pop infused moments here that it’s really hard to narrow them down for the sake of one relatively tight paragraph. So:

(a.) The the opening credits scroll to Western singing group The Sons of the Pioneers gently crooning Tumbling Tumbleweeds in a salute to The Dude’s laid-back id as well as the film’s groovy So-Cal locale.

(b.) Dude gets down to Creedence’s Lookin’ Out My Backdoor when his mellow gets harshed by a roach drop and he wrecks his Torino–again.

(c.) The Dude’s White Russian gets roofied and he slips into an eye-popping  bowling pins/scissors/phallic symbol surrealistic sequence to The First Editions Just Dropped In (to see what condition my condition was in.) Um…it’s critical.

6. Repo Man – 1984

Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop and Emilio Estevez sporting an 80s flattop and a dangling cross earring; what’s not to like? The part where a bummed out Otto (Estevez) sings Black Flag’s TV Party after being orally rejected brings about a smile or a frown, depending on one’s perspective.

 

 

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