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All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

The Face of a Stranger

Historians, anthropologists and theologians, whether secular or believer, tell us that the flesh and blood Jesus Christ, looked nothing like the image most of us have of him. Unlike the familiar European depictions, Jesus’ hair was not long (Galilean Jewish men wore short hair; it was mandated) and he was not blonde.

So it is logical to  presume that Jesus was dark skinned and dark eyed if he looked anything liked the men of his culture and time–and, according to the Bible, he did. The Bible tells us that he blended in so much that his betrayer, Judas, had to point him out to the soldiers that came to arrest him because he was with his disciples. In other words he looked like they did.

And who were they? Predominately fishermen and laborers.

Jesus Christ was not handsome. The Bible tells us “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Isaiah 53

He was a carpenter and a wanderer. He walked many, many miles in a harsh, barren environment.

Jesus was poor. The Bible tells us that he was often homeless.

He was a rugged man. A strong man. He carried his own cross after being beaten so savagely that the flesh of his back–what was left of it–hung in grotesque, bloody shreds. It was called scourging, and it was so brutal that many people died during it. Jesus carried his cross until he collapsed. Then an African man was forced to carry it the to the top of the hill Golgotha where Jesus was executed.

Jesus said this regarding the stranger, the immigrant, the alien; those who, like he was, are poor and hungry, who are often sick and imprisoned, who are mistreated and discarded; those who, ironically, look like he did:

 

Mirgant.jpg

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.” Matthew 25

How’d He Get This way? (A Profile in Narcissism) The Serial

“Don’t get him riled up,” he heard her say.

He wasn’t supposed to hear, but he did. It was one of the things he both did and didn’t like about her. Her voice carried.

“He’s in a foul mood today,” she went on in her whisper voice that wasn’t a whisper at all. And then there were muffled voices…Words he couldn’t understand…Laughter…

Nonsense. He didn’t have time for it.

Easy for them to scoff. Easy for them to ridicule. What did they know about pressure? Every word he uttered was scrutinized. Every gesture, grimace and smile picked apart.

Vultures. 99.9% of them.

They acted like he wanted to feel this way, to act this way. Like he enjoyed it.

The truth was he hated getting bristled. Bristling wasn’t a good look for him. It made his jaw clench and his lips purse. It caused him puff out his chest and for that nasty film of sweat to form where his mustache would be, if he had one.

His dad had a mustache. It was a despicable thing. A food trap. A bacteria trap…

Bristling made him hot.

His mother had incorrectly called it getting your cockles up. “Don’t get your cockles up,” she’d say…And they would laugh.

He got flushed when he bristled. And flushing was especially unbecoming to him. Flushing made his face look more mottled. It didn’t matter that he tanned his skin to the color of a terracotta pot.

He heard her say that too. It pissed him off, but he had to admit it was funny.

So, he let things roll off him when he could.

His butler brought him a diet coke. He watched the man’s movements, slyly, with his excellent peripheral vision.

So precise. So fluid. So careful.

He admired the military crispness of the uniform, the faint clean smell of soap and water on the skin, the jolt of peppermint on the breath. He envied the butler’s grace even as it repelled him.

“Is there anything else…”

He waved the butler off mid sentence. And turned up the television.

The butler bowed, not deeply but noticeably and left the room.

He wasn’t always so short with the man. Sometimes he shared a few words with him. Sometimes he said thank you. Sometimes he even joked around. Today he simply wasn’t in the mood.

To him there was no nobility in servitude, no honor. The thought of it irked him.  Servitude was for the low class.

Waiters. Hairstylists. Nurses. Chauffeurs. Losers…Pilots too. They were just chauffeurs in the sky.

That’s what his dad said about them when his brother said he wanted to be one. His brother–the alcoholic. His brother–the nice guy.

Servitude reminded him of his mother, who’d been a maid, before she hit the lottery and married a rich man. Before she became a snob. If there was anything–anyone–that he couldn’t abide it was an unqualified snob.

The nouveau riche.

Most of them didn’t even know how to properly use a knife and fork…

He could spot them a mile away.

Always too much jewelry.

The thought of his mother made his head hurt. He messaged his temples.

At least she had regal features. Good straight, even features. Unremarkable Scandinavian features.

But her hair. That long winding, sculpted monstrosity piled on her head. The gallons of hairspray. The smell… One time he had tried to touch her hair when he was a child.

She slapped his hand away.

To be continued…

Sunburn, a novel by Laura Lippman, (2018) William Morrow; Noir

I like to read. That rates a zero on the surprise scale, of course. Just about every single person who blogs likes to read. It’s pretty much a requirement.

That said, I’m not a snobby reader. I am finicky though. I only read crime novels.

Consequently I read a lot of thrillers. And less then half of them are any good. I’ve often blamed the genre for that, but that’s not fair. Especially since I follow some excellent book review blogs and like everybody else, I’ve got apps for that.

I could be, should be, knee deep in top of the line thrillers.

The problem is I’m a compulsive person. As such, I routinely get an overwhelming urge to buy a paperback whenever I pass the book rack in Walgreen’s or Publix. (Not to mention my problem passing up sushi and guacamole.)

Now I love Walgreen’s and Publix. I can’t imagine shopping for groceries, greeting cards and hair color anyplace else, but neither mercantile is very good for buying books. Unless you like romance, James Patterson and Stephen King.

And westerns.

In other words the selection sucks. (Come on paperback rack jobbers. You can do better.)

Normally I would have been skeptical as I delved into Sunburn, a 2018 bestseller noir from author Laura Lippman. Number one: I’ve never read a Lippman novel. Number two: I bought it at Publix.

But I remembered reading about Sunburn, that it was supposed to be good. And so I had, if not high hopes, moderately high ones that this book would be among the exceptions.

Plus, Sunburn is not a thriller; it’s a noir. Noirs are generally shorter than thrillers. Therefore if you don’t like the first chapter of a noir, chances are you’re not going to like it period. So there’s not a big investment in time. You can bail out and absolve yourself of disappointment with no more than a shrug.

And that’s a bit sardonic because that’s exactly what Lippman’s lead character Polly Costello does from from the git-go. She walks out on her husband and their three year old daughter while they are vacationing on the Delaware coast.

She’s not impressed with the accommodations–they are blocks away from the beach and the towels are scratchy–and less impressed with her husband’s ambition. He’s content to get by with a middling job and periodic handouts from his mother.

Polly jumps on a bus to put as many miles as possible between her and her obligations only to disembark a mere seventy or so miles down the road. The town is of the one horse variety, the kind you breeze through on the way to the beach without much thought. She walks into the local watering hole, makes small talk with the bartender and walks out with a job as a waitress.

It becomes rapidly obvious that Polly is fleeing more than an unhappy marriage and inconvenient motherhood. That she is, of course, running from her past–and with good reason. Polly is a murderer. She is also, of course, a bonafide femme fatale with all the necessary features, e.g., a good figure, stand offish persona, billowing red hair and the propensity to use sex as a weapon.

Enter Adam. He’s a traveling salesman of some sort with a lot of free time on his hands and a broke down truck.

And he’s handsome. Extremely handsome.

And that amuses me.

While Polly is an attractive protagonist, she is not beautiful. She’s alluring. Sexy in a way that Adam can’t quite put his finger on (aside from her near perfect figure, of course.)

Conversely–and I am not speculating on this--trust me–if Sunburn was written by…oh, I don’t know…Larry Lippman, Polly would have been drop dead gorgeous and Adam would have been a scruffy everyman with a mysterious sex appeal.

It is important that genre literature strokes us. That it soothes us. That it affirms us.

Us. We. Them.

But I digress.

Prospective paramour, Adam, decides to stick around the one horse town and takes a job as cook at the watering hole, where Polly waitresses. Slowly, but surely, he begins a relationship with her, finding out some of her secrets; namely that her murder victim was her first husband with whom she had a disabled child, also abandoned by her.

As their relationship progresses Adam finds out more. He discovers that Polly’s first husband was a sadistically abusive cop, up to his eyeballs in murder, and that some of his unscrupulous cohorts are trying to hunt her down. He discovers the details of her crime, that she ran a butcher’s knife through her husband’s heart as he slept.

Yet, despite his knowledge, Adam is so disabled by Polly’s sensuality that he stays. Even though he doesn’t like one horse towns and has a fashionable apartment in Baltimore– he stays. Even though he has the means to fix his truck and skedaddle–he stays. Even though he is so gorgeous that he could have his pick of equally gorgeous women with considerably less spine crushing baggage–he stays.

Even though he becomes more wary of the woman he shares his bed with and for his own safety. He stays.

Consider their–how shall we say it?–intimacy:

She drifts toward their bedroom, pale and cold as a ghost. Within five minutes, the set clicks off and he is in bed with her. They both play it savage tonight. She pulls his hair, bites him hard.

Really? Yikes…Funny.

And there’s this:

He picks her up and carries her to the bed. She fights him, bites him and scratches. It’s shaming how much he likes this. They haven’t even kissed yet, and she’s drawn blood on him.

Geez? What’s the matter with this guy? A glutton for punishment perhaps?…

Or could it be that he is just a guy (albeit an extremely good looking guy) who seeks absolution from a woman who is qualified to give it to him?

If so, now we’re talking sexy..

Indeed. But what about the children? Her children? She abandoned them.

That’s not sexy…Not sexy at all.

Nope. That’s bad. Really bad. That’s despicable. What kind of a woman does that?…

Exactly. What kind of woman?

Sunburn has been out for over a year now, but it’s just now showing up on the paperback racks at Publix and Walgreen’s.

 

 

 

 

Playing Roulette With the Mob: The Death of a Rock Star and the Case For Murder, Part V

Initially, Loraine Fuller was flooded with relief when she looked out the window of the luxury apartment she shared with her sons. Her car was there. In her parking space.

She had been looking for it for hours.

Well, actually, it wasn’t so much the car, that she was looking for. It was her son, Bobby. He had left, in her car, early that morning, July 18, 1966, around 2:30 a.m.

Of course at twenty-three years old Bobby was a grown man, so there was nothing she could do about him getting up and leaving abruptly at all hours of the night, or morning, as it were. So she did all she could do. She stayed at the apartment by the phone. And she worried.

She had reason to.

Bobby was having problems. He was unhappy. Even though he had a big hit record and was making good money, he wasn’t making the kind of money that he should be making and he knew it. She knew it.

Still, it wasn’t just the money situation that was bothering Bobby. In fact, money wasn’t the main priority with her son. For Bobby, it was all about music. Music was his life. He was gifted, that way. All of her children were. They came by it naturally, she was a very good pianist and her husband was a decent singer and could play the violin.

But Bobby was special. He was a prodigy. He needed a lot of freedom to do what suited him musically. He was a perfectionist. And that put him on a collision course with his record label. Lately he had been butting heads with his producer and his producer’s partner.

As a matter of fact, he had just gotten back from San Francisco. They had some club gigs booked, but when Bobby found out that the record label hadn’t put any money into promoting the gigs, he told the band to pack up their stuff and they came back to Los Angeles.

Lorraine didn’t blame him. But now there were more people upset with Bobby and she knew, better than most–yes, thank God, better than most–that there are some very bad people out there. God help you if you had something they wanted and they didn’t like you…If they were jealous of you…

None of that mattered now. Bobby was back. He was safe and she had been needlessly worried. She was so relieved that right then and there, while in the swell of euphoria, she felt the sting of anger. She was going to let him have it for making her worry…After she hugged him. Yes–thank God!–first she would hug him so hard…To show him she meant business.

She rushed down the steps toward her car.

Rick Stone could have used another thirty minutes of sleep that morning before he was awakened by Mrs. Fuller. She said that she was worried about Bobby, that he had left early and hadn’t come back.

Stone wasn’t the least bit worried, but he got up and looked out the window anyway. Yep. The parking space was empty.

He checked the garage, too, as a show of concern for Mrs. Fuller’s sake.

Nope. No blue Oldsmobile.

He shrugged it off, Bobby was probably sleeping it off somewhere. They had all been partying a lot lately. Stone knew of a meeting at Del-Fi Records, that Bobby was supposed to attend at 9:30 a.m. Bobby had asked him to be there too, so he showered and got ready.

He tried to assure Mrs. Fuller that every thing was fine.

At 9:30 Rick Stone was in the lobby of Del-Fi with Randy Fuller. Bobby never showed. They rescheduled for three o’clock and Stone went off on his own errands. He made note of the situation, but he still wasn’t worried.

That changed when Bobby didn’t show up for the three o’clock appointment. Stone decided to drive over to Bobby’s apartment to see what was up. He turned the corner hoping to see Mrs. Fuller’s car in her parking spot. Instead he had to slam on his breaks. Cop cars were everywhere, blocking the entryway to the complex.

Stone threw his car into park and got out, making a beeline toward the throng of police. Mrs. Fuller’s car was there, in its parking space with lots of police milling around it.

“Where do you think you’re going?” a cop bellowed at him, blocking his way. Stone told him he was a member of the family and the cop let him through.

He approached the car tentatively, bracing himself for what he was about to see.

The driver’s door of the Oldsmobile was open and Bobby was in the front seat slumped over, reeking of gasoline, with chemical burns, scrapes and bruising on his exposed skin. There was blood on his shirt and gas soaked rag in his mouth. A gas can was in the floor board. He was in full rigor mortis.

Rick Stone’s head began to swim. He bent over and began to breath deeply to keep from passing out.

There are a myriad of theories about Bobby Fuller’s death, though most people believe he was murdered. I’m not going into a great deal of detail here, but just to give you an idea, one theory features Frank Sinatra. Another one, Charles Manson.

To be fair, these names weren’t pulled out of thin air. Frank Sinatra’s mob connections are well known. The FBI ran a forty year dossier on him and those connections. Bobby Fuller associated briefly with Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. That’s the extent of the connection.

The Charles Manson connection, excuse me, connections are decidedly creepier. Take, for instance, Jay Sebring. He was the ex-boyfriend and hairstylist of Sharon Tate. Sebring was murdered along with her by some Manson acolytes. Jay Sebring, the hair stylist of the stars, cut and styled Bobby Fuller’s hair.

And speaking of Sharon Tate, she went to high school in El Paso. Bobby Fuller was from El Paso, attending high school there also, though not the same school as Sharon Tate. Not only that, Charles Manson, who knew Bobby from the club PJ’s, asked Bobby to give him guitar lessons. Bobby refused.

See what I mean? Creepy.

But ask any seasoned investigator and he or she will tell you that these odd coincidences come up in any case. They will tell you that you can go down a labyrinth rabbit’s hole with coincidences that morph into conspiracy theories, that you can be overwhelmed by them.

One such theory is particularly cruel. It names Randy Fuller as the killer of his brother.

The motive? Envy.

And to that I say, “So?

About the motive, that is.

Randy Fuller was envious of his brother. And while envy is never good, it’s perfectly understandable within the perimeters of the sibling dynamic. Particularly this sibling dynamic. It’s hard to be in a band with your brother; especially hard if your brother is a musical prodigy.

Then there’s the name thing. Back in El Paso, the band was called The Fanatics, but record label managemendecided on The Bobby Fuller Four instead. Randy, admittedly hated being regulated to the “Four.”

They were a band. And it was his idea to do I Fought the Law

So, yes, fratricide is within the realm of possibility. Stranger things have happened. They do happen. But trust me, there is not one iota of evidence that implicates Randy Fuller in his brother’s death.

Zero. Nada.

That being so, let’s examine the suicide theory.

Though there is some discrepancy, it is generally accepted that Bobby had been irritable and moody over the last few months of his life. What nobody disputes, however, is that Bobby was upset with the direction of his career and on the verge of walking out on his contract.

And then there were the drugs.

Yes, Bobby indulged. Nothing hugely concerning, a little pot and some LSD…Okay. LSD raises eyebrows. No doubt. But you have to remember the era–LSD was actually legal at the time–and the circle in which Bobby ran. He partied. He wasn’t a drug fiend. Good grief, the guy was living with his mother at the time of his death.

Well then, Did Bobby Fuller commit suicide by huffing gasoline?

Extremely unlikely. None of the family believes it. Nobody who was close to Bobby believes it. Apparently the medical examiner was skeptical too, because he checked both the suicide and accidental death box and then put a question mark by each.

And that leads to the next question: If not suicide, was it an accidental death?

Now this is where we get into the weeds. According to the corner’s report, when the medical examiner opened the body, the organs smelled of gasoline. That’s consistent with death by asphyxiation from inhaling gasoline, which is congruent with accidental death.

Paradoxically, though, Randy huffed gas when he was a  teenager and Bobby caught him in the act. “Don’t ever do that again,” he warned his brother. “That stuff’s got lead in it. It’ll kill you.” 

Randy’s indiscretion is consistent with the data regarding the abuse of inhalants. Most people who use inhalants are teenage boys. Adults rarely abuse them, especially adults of means with access to “cleaner” drugs. Bobby was twenty-three at the time of his death. He was about to pay cash for a new Corvette.

However, it is the eye witness accounts of the events on July 18, 1966 that cast the most doubt on the accidental death theory.

Lorraine Fuller had worried about her son since she heard him leave in her car around 2:30 a.m. Roughly, from that time on, she checked the designated parking spot for the car every thirty minutes before it suddenly appeared around 5 p.m.

If that seems excessive, consider what had happened to Lorraine Fuller’s oldest son Jack.

Five years before, Mrs. Fuller sat straight up in her bed crying hysterically. She had awoke from a nightmare in which Jack’s spirit had appeared at the foot of her bed. “Mom, I’ve been hit in the head. It killed me,” Jack’s spirit said.

Mrs. Fuller had spent the previous afternoon and evening frantically worrying about her son. He hadn’t shown up for Sunday dinner and he hadn’t called to explain why. Though Jack had always been a bit wild it wasn’t like him to make his mother worry so.

Even so, Bobby and Randy weren’t worried. “He’s probably just gone over to Juarez and got drunk or something,” was their consensus. But Mr. Fuller was more circumspect. “I’ve had a strange feeling all day that something bad was going to happen,” he confided to his sons.

Days passed with no word from or about Jack. The family contacted the police.

Three weeks later the cops arrested a young man driving Jacks prized ’57 Chevy in Lubbock Texas. He confessed to murdering Jack–shooting him in his head– for the car and a wad of money stuck in the visor that turned out to be play money.

So when Mrs. Fuller said she was worried and that she checked the parking every thirty minutes, I believe she did just that. She earned her paranoia and her credibility at terrible cost.

Therefore, if Mrs. Fuller was telling the truth, it is impossible that Bobby Fuller’s death was an accident. Even in intense tropical heat, it takes at least an hour for rigor mortis to set in. And while it should be noted that Los Angeles was in the midst of a heatwave, Bobby’s body was in an advanced stage of rigor when he was found. For the death to be an accident, the car, with Bobby’s body in it, would have had to have been in the parking space longer than an hour.

Although Rick Stone, Mrs. Fuller and two other witnesses, friends from El Paso, all insisted that Bobby had been beaten, that there was scrapes and bruising on his skin and blood on his lip, his shirt and the front seat of the car, the medical examiner disputed that, claiming the bruises and scrapes where really chaffing and maceration from exposure to gasoline and heat.

But perhaps most ominous clue to what really happened to Bobby was the condition of the house shoes he was wearing. According to Stone they were dirty and scuffed as if Bobby had been dragged. This also suggest that Bobby left the apartment in a hurry.

The house shoes he wore were his mother’s.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

A Shoutout To Some of My Favorite Bloggers Vol. 2

Those in the know tell us that memories usually begin about age three. Most of us don’t remember anything before that. It’s called infantile amnesia.

Sounds reasonable, as it seems consistent with my own memory.

For instance, I remember this vividly: Riding in my mother’s car–the song 1,2,3 Red Light playing on the radio as I sat on the console behind the gear shift, pretending to drive, mesmerized by her hand shifting gears…

“Don’t touch that,” my mother warned about the gear shift. “If you do we might wreck and you’ll have to visit the doctor.”

That was that. And from then on, that’s where I would perch when my mother and I would run errands in her little red car. That would have been about 1968, I guess.

Then later, this was probably ’70, ’71’, I remember sharing a room with my brother–he was one. He had what they thought was colic, but I think it was a deep inner ear infection undetected by the pediatrician. He’s practically deaf now .

I digress…My brother had to sleep with the radio on to soothe him and that terrible song, D.O.A, would play twice every hour. Terrifying. I would scoot under the covers and plug my ears with my fingers.

So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Fair question.

I’m establishing a thread. I’m trying to convey that music is an important component in the memory process and a tie than binds the human experience. That thread extends to, and thru, this post. (Yeah, I know, thematically I’m stretching the boundaries. It’s what I do best.)

And speaking of that, this is the second post in a series. So if you don’t see your name mentioned here…And should you have the inclination to feel a little offended (not that any of you would)…The list is in no particular order…And, finally…I can’t use up all my material. Then it wouldn’t be a series.

Just sayin. Ahem…

Power Pop – Max likes a lot of music, but mainly rock. And just what does that mean in today’s finely splintered music terminology? It means everything from The Clash to The Allman Brothers, to The Kinks to David Bowie. And he really likes Badfinger. Max is like what AOR rock radio used to be the 80s. Diverse. (True, I’ve never read anything on his site about hip hop and I don’t think he likes hair metal…But that’s okay. Everybody’s got their faults.) Max is from Nashville. He’s not big into southern rock.

On Power Pop you can debate with him on stuff like: Who’s the best guitarist ever? Best drummer? Most talented Beatle? Are The Allman Brothers really southern rock? Informational and statistical nuggets that a lot of us who can’t spell theorem hypothesize like they are, nonetheless.

MelissaMcLaughlin- Truthful Grace – Melissa is an accomplished, published author of inspirational, Christian literature from the feminine perspective. She’s uplifting. She’s principled. She has been gifted by God with the ability to tread lightly on the rhythm of words. If that sounds like dancing, it’s because it is.

The Immortal Jukebox – My gosh, can this man can write! He is scary good. Here’s what he does…

Thom takes a theme or a concept and then he weaves music into it. Only, you don’t hear the music, but you feel it–through his words. So powerful is his ability to write that even if you were deaf, you’d be able to perceive the notations he describes.

His blog is a tapestry of music history. Of theory. Of wit and cultural milestones. Of songs in the style of Americana, rock and alternative. Of jazz. This is a literary blog. It is an entertaining blog. Most of all, it is a musical blog.

The Brokedown Pamphlet –  Mark gets three short paragraphs because that’s the way I perceive his style. He is concise. I envy that.

With Mark less is more. Congruently, he invokes the power of a word lovingly chosen. A brilliant writer of existentialism select.

His wife and blogging partner, Christine, is equal in talent. Her photographs capture the beautifully remote.

Last, but not least, is Wolfmans Cult Film Club . I love this site. It’s as wonderfully idiosyncratic as is its author, Mikey Wolf. (Now, could it be that Mikey’s last name is really Wolf? Or Wolfe? If so, very cool…)

Regardless, Mikey’s branding is all wolf. Werewolf. In other words, his site’s mascot is: 

Mikey dressed as a werewolf!

Ha! I love that! It’s funny. It’s Irreverent. It’s bold. It’s very Creature From the Black Lagoon. And speaking of the aforementioned film…it’s exactly the kind of film Mikey reveres. Glorious B movies of substance and verve. He turned me on to Jack Sholder’s brilliant The Hidden for which I’m forever grateful.

You know what else? All of those superlatives I threw out there like irreverent, bold and funny? They also describe Mikey’s writing style. Bravissimo! Mikey!

So there they are, in all their eclectic glory.

Indulge as you see fit.

And here’s a link to 1,2,3 Red Light by 1910 Fruitgum Company

And to D.O.A by Bloodrock. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WQptxygSM8

Oh…And one more thing… (I swear.)…You can never get enough Billie Holiday.

Just sayin.

 

One To Watch: Actor, Logan Marshall-Green with an Introductory Shout Out to Inner Circle

So I’m going to begin this post with a shout out to my friend and fellow blogger Michael over at moonknight65.wordpress.com. Michael is a very good writer, a knowledgeable film buff and connoisseur of retro television. He also knows music and–if I’m not mistaken-has worked in the music industry.

Michael likes the band X, which makes him very cool in my book.

That being so–Michael has very questionable movie watching habits…

Okay. I’m just going to come out with it:

He’ll watch almost anything. I’m not kidding…He is the most indiscernible, educated film watcher I’ve ever known. He confounds me. And confuses me. That’s one of the reasons we get along.

Here’s a for instance: Michael watches Hallmark movies. Okay, I’ve seen a couple myself. Literally two. Michael watches them frequently. Then he’ll turn around and watch Midnight Meat Train. I’m serious. He is an independent film fanatic and a proponent of the micro movie. He savors the avant garde.

At the same time he’s very hip to the classics. Same thing with his reading material. It’s all over the place. Eclectic. Smart.

Michael is a searcher for the diamond in the rough, the unexpected; the little movie that could. He’s always mining for gold. Sometimes he finds it.

He inspired this this post. After all, Midnight Meat Train is early Bradley Cooper.

See… There’s that diamond in the rough I’m talking about.

Cheers, Michael.

Actor Logan Marshall-Green is a very handsome man. He has an interesting aura; it’s different. Quirky, yes. But not condescendingly so. More distinct than quirky, I think.

Like Mark Ruffalo. And Ryan Gosling.

Greene’s aura–presence, what ever you want to call it–is probably the most sincere and serene of the aforementioned. His eyes are kind.

Sometimes that can be distracting, like when he plays Mac Conway, a Vietnam Vet recently returned home from the war. Out of sorts. Jaded. Newly ambiguous. Conway becomes a paid assassin navigating the wiles of the Dixie Mafia circa 1972.

The series is Quarry. Stuck on Cinemax, where it can still be accessed, it survived only eight episodes. September 2016- May 2017.

Quarry is both interesting and uneven, potential follows it around like a lost dog. The acting rates a solid B–and that’s because the actors are trying too hard. They seem intimidated by the pervasive theme of 70s grit glam. As such, Quarry is interesting–to look at.

Set primarily in Memphis, Director, Greg Yaitanes is clearly taken with the ambiance, i.e., everybody sweats a lot as they perform their tasks–extraordinary and mundane–in buckskin and flared denim, with pecks and cleavage exposed. Oh, yeah…The hair…It’s greasy.

Everybody’s hair is greasy in Quarry.  And everybody looks like they haven’t bathed in two days.

See what I mean? Grit glam.

Too bad it doesn’t pass the smell test. At least, not to those of us who are actually from the South. We barely recognize the accents as they are on the end of the spectrum at extreme. Still, it’s worth a look–especially if you don’t know any better.

Logan Marshall-Green is better cast as Will, in Karyn Kusama’s brilliant and startling psychological horror film, The Invitation (2015). Set in the affluent, new age otherworldliness of Hollywood Hills, we are introduced to Will and his girlfriend, Kia (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as they are driving up the steep and winding incline of an estate. They are accompanied by dread. Kia urges Will to make the best of it.

The estate turns out to be Will’s former home and the woman of the house is Will’s former wife. Her name is Eden (Tammy Blanchard). She’s rich and she’s weird.

Dressed in a figure hugging floor length frock, Eden glides along like an an early forties ballerina on oxys. She radiates Stepford Wives. Her new husband, David, (Michiel Huisman) is too polite–too polished–in a too cool guy, kind of way. He flashes the glint of a control freak.

Inside the rambling Richard Neutra inspired house, there are more guests–all mutual friends of Will and Eden with the exception of  a clearly mentally ill, child-like, twenty’s something house guest, Sadie, who likes to walk around naked from the waist down. (I know, I’m exhausted too, but the sentence stays in the post.) She’s a friend of David’s.

Then there’s the backstory of Will and Eden’s relationship that comes crashing to the forefront, like an animal that leaps into your windshield on a road less traveled. They once had a son. Their son was murdered.

Will deals with his grief in a tragic, yet, normal way–he experiences anxiety attacks, hopelessness and cynicism. In other words, he experiences pain. He allows himself to feel it.

On the other hand, Eden is determined to escape pain. And she is so selfless and empathetic that she doesn’t want anyone else to experience pain either–especially those she loves–because the little pain that she has allowed herself to feel is just–well frankly– it’s too painful. (That’s Eden in a nutshell. You wouldn’t want to be trapped inside a car or a house with her, Richard Neutra or not.)

If you think you know where this is headed–you’d be right…And wrong. And that’s the  existential grey zone that Will finds himself wandering in for three quarters of the film. When that barrier is broken, all hell breaks loose and it’s brutal–and at that point it switches genre to thriller. I liked that flourish, you may not.

And that brings me to Leigh Whannel’s ambitious Sci Fi, body horror, thriller Upgrade, (2018.) This a superb film from start to finish. It achieves all of it’s objectives, e.g., an atmospheric cyberpunk current that binds up loose ends, special effects that hold up, (despite a paltry three million dollar budget) a mesmerizing color palate and soundtrack–and, this above all, a sexy everyman lead, (Logan Marshall-Green) that every man, woman and child can root for. Theoretically, of course.

I’m not going to delve into plot here, I’ll just reveal that it’s my favorite of the three exercises in Logan Marshall-Green. I’d be willing to bet that if you like action and can at least tolerate cyberpunk…If you like your violence with a dash conscience and and a smattering of humor…If a touch of medical espionage and body horror doesn’t turn you off…Upgrade is for you.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed One To Watch. And don’t forget to checkout Michael at http://moonknight65.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing Roulette With The Mob, Part IV: The Hitman

The guy was obviously scared out of his wits watching them destroy the duplicating equipment with bats. Most likely, he didn’t know about their MO; that they acted like marauders mainly for show, smashing the stuff to bits–cursing up a storm while they did it.

Moishe could imagine how the guy felt…Even cheap vinyl cutters cost an arm and a legPlus, powerlessness is a terrifying thing.

He was and expert on this because he had run away from home when he was thirteen years old. He lived on the streets of New York in the last two years of the Great Depression, in the days of breadlines a mile long and soup kitchen lines even longer.

People starved back then...Well, they didn’t really starve, but they got skinnyAt least poor people got that way...Poor people who lose everything always have it worse than rich people who lose everything…He knew this too, from experience, since he had been both.

It got so bad, during the depression, that he rode freight trains, so bad that he walked for miles and miles. It got so bad that he hitchhiked all the way to Florida to escape it…There were groves and groves of orange trees in Florida. Lemon trees grew in people’s yards there…

On the way he ran into some very bad people. He ran into some stand-up people, too. Yes, even some nice peopleBut mostly he just ran into suckers.

He became meaner. He learned to use his large, meaty fists better. He became more proficient with a knife. And he learned, this, the most important lesson of all: You have to have friends. Without friends, you’re toast.

By the time he was old enough to join the Navy, the country was smack dab in the middle WWII. But he was prepared…

Big Nate, Moishe’s bodyguard, doused the bootleg records with gas. The records were strewn all around the guy’s feet. The guy was tied to a chair. He was crying. Nate struck a wooden kitchen match.

“Whose paying you?” Moishe asked, evenly.

“Nobody!” The guy cried.

“Don’t lie to me.” Moishe said, raising his voice just a little. “Whose equipment is this?”

“Nobody’s paying me!” the guy cried louder. “All the equipment is mine.”

Then he told them how he was new in town. That his baby was sick and in the hospital. That his baby needed an operation.

Moishe nodded to Nate. Nate extinguished the match with his fingertips.

“You’d better not be lying to me,” Moishe warned, jabbing the guy’s chest with his wide, stubby fingers.

Then they untied the guy and hustled him into Nate’s Cadillac. They drove him to the hospital…The guy wasn’t lying…Moishe paid for the baby’s operation.

The first time Tommy James got wind that something might be wrong was early in his  relationship with Morris Levy. Very early. It was 1966. He was in New York, promoting his record Hanky Panky, which was selling like hotcakes in his hometown of Pittsburgh. To his pleasant surprise, he got a few nibbles from some of the big record companies immediately.

But the independent label just down the street from the hotel he was staying at, Roulette Records, was less interested. They weren’t rude or anything–it was more of a don’t call us, we’ll call you vibe.

The next morning, when James showed up for his appointments, the same record executives who had been interested the day before, suddenly no longer were. They couldn’t get him out the door fast enough. “You belong to Roulette. You’re Moishe’s boy,” one of them blurted out.

By the time he circled back to Roulette, he had been roundly rejected. Morris Levy was waiting for him. The Brahman bull of a man was all smiles and back slaps. “Welcome to Roulette,” he said. Then he showed James around the offices and introduced him to the family.

Of course James was skeptical, but he wasn’t stupid either. And he was hungry. So he signed a contract with Levy and Roulette.

Thus began Tommy James and the Shondells years long association with the hitman… Well, the press actually labeled him the godfather of the record business, but James thought the former moniker fit him better. That’s because Morris just cared about hits and hits only. Albums were of little consequence to him.

And there was a reason for Levy’s penchant for the single that, at the time, James couldn’t fathom..And Tommy James was a pretty smart operator…

Yes, there was the cutout business that Levy had engineered with his own labels and with K-Tel records, (cutouts were hit compilation albums of old, previously released catalog material) but James got hip to that quick…

See, what Tommy James may have never known–In fact, what few people even know today–is the deal Levy had with International Tape Cartridge Corporation. ITCC they called it. Their CEO, Larry Finley, was at the forefront of the 8-track tape revolution.

That’s right. Clunky, clumsy 8-track tape, of all things, plays a big role in this thing.

In 1966, Ford motor company introduced the 8-track player in the Mustang, the Thunderbird and the Lincoln. The 8-track was an ideal medium for hit single compilations, just what Finley speculated that people wanted to listen to while they were driving. And Morris Levy owned catalogs and catalogs of hits.

Under the agreement, ITCC would supply the 8-track tape cartridges and Levy would supply the hits. By 1967, virtually every car on the streets would have an 8-track tape option…You do the math.

But back to Tommy James…In spite of a shady reputation and all of the even shadier characters that congregated from time to time at Roulette, (characters like Genovese crime family boss, Tommy Eboli and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, who headed the DeCalvacantes, the New Jersey faction of the Genovese family) Tommy actually got along very well with Morris Levy.

That is, until the former would work up the nerve and ask the latter for some of his own money. Morris would get very surly then.

Cut Tommy a check for ten thousand,” he would yell to his secretary, finally, after exhausting the singer with questions, badgering him with expenditures and stressing him out with thinly veiled threats. “You want royalties, go to England,” was another favorite Moishe saying.

Even more disturbing were the things Tommy James personally witnessed at Roulette. Like the ritual that would happen when Moishe got a call from his music industry friends (the big boys at CBS, Capital, RCA) complaining about record bootleggers:

Morris would call his bodyguard and business partner into his office where there were always baseball bats leaning against the wall. The same wall with the plaque that blasphemously read “Oh Lord, Give me a Bastard with Talent.”

“Let’s go,” Morris would say to Big Nate (the Korean War vet who ran Calla Records, a Roulette subsidiary) and off they’d go with baseball bats in hand. Tommy saw this with his own eyes…

And then there were the stories Tommy heard (some from Levy himself) about what happened to people who crossed him…And to people who badgered him about their royalties… And about the copyrights to their songs…People like Jimmie Rodgers…

No. Not the yodeling, Jimmie Rodgers. The other one. The rockabilly Jimmie Rodgers who did that terrible song Honeycomb…Yes, that Jimmie Rodgers. He got his head caved in by a crooked cop that Morris allegedly hired…Yeah, Jimmie F. Rodgers. He survived but was never the same. Brain damage…

Then there was Lloyd Price’s manager, Harold Logan…Lloyd Price did that song Personality. And he did Stagger Lee…Anyway, Harold Logan was involved with the mob. The scuttlebutt is that he owed Moishe a lot of money…He turned up dead. Shot to death…

And James Sheppard, of Shep and the Limelites…Shep riled up some of the younger artists–especially some of the younger Black artists–at Roulette. He spoke out, warning musicians to stay away…Shep got shot, too…Dead.

But, perhaps most significantly, there was this: Morris was good friends with Allen Klein. They were such good friends that he gave Klein’s son just about the most extravagant bar mitzvah gift anyone had ever heard of…Israeli bonds.

That’s right. Before Allen Klein ripped off The Rolling Stones and broke up The Beatles, he was the former business manager of Sam Cooke…

Guess who ended up with Sam Cooke’s catalog?..

No. Not Morris Levy. He was a small fish compared to Allen Klein. Klein bought the Cooke catalog from Barbara Campbell, Sam’s wife, for a hundred thousand dollars. That was his first huge acquisition.

Anyway, Tommy James knew virtually nothing about these things in 1966 when he was just starting out with Roulette. He had a number one record. (But it was really more of a novelty tune.) Levy was happy but he was pushing James hard on the road, where they toured in a stinky station wagon and in the studio where he pressured James for a quick follow up hit to Hanky Panky.

That’s when whispers, when rumors, began to circulate around Roulette about stuff going on in Los Angeles…About what really happened to Sam Cooke…And Bobby Fuller…

To be continued…

Playing Roulette with the Mob, Part III: The Bobby Fuller Four

You remember that kid? What was his name? The one from El Paso? Cocky, but quiet…Had an air about him. Not so much a strut but an attitude.

You know who I’m talking about…Cute. Played the guitar. Could sing too. Sounded a lot  like Buddy HollyYeah! That’s who I’m talkin’ about. He played at PJ’s…Packed the house and broke Dick Dale’s record. Pissed Dale off…

He did that song… 

Yeah! ‘I Fought the Law.’ That’s it! The Bobby Fuller Four! It came out about ’65 or ’66. That song was boss! Just good old rock and roll. Mia Farrow used to do the The Jerk to it…Yeah. She was a go-go dancer at PJ’s back then. Remember?…That’s where she met Sinatra. Everybody hung out there…Sam Cooke…

Too bad what happened to him…No…Well, yeah him too, but I’m talking about Bobby Fuller. Remember? They said it was an accident, but nobody believed it…

A kid like that huffing gas? Are you kidding? No way. He was murdered. Just like Sam Cooke…The boys got him. The M-A-F-I-A…

I heard it was about copyrights. Royalties…And he was so young. Twenty-one, twenty-two…So sad.

If nothing else, Bob Keane had an eye for talent. He spotted Sam Cooke when the singer was strictly gospel and signed him to his own label–Keen Records.

The song You Send Me?  He put that out. It sold well over a million copies. But he didn’t see a dime from it. His business partner (the Greek, they called him) John Siamas and Siamas’ brother, Alex, screwed him. Royally. So what if they financed the label? All three of them were partners. He found the talent; they put up the money. They had a verbal agreement. Shook hands on it. A lot of good that did.

At least that was Keane’s version of it.

But he rebounded from that. He found another investor and rounded up some more talent–did pretty good too. Well enough that he was able to buy out the investor and, once again, financed his own label. Del-Fi Records.

Then lighting struck again and he discovered another talent of a lifetime. The Chicano rockabilly star and fellow Angeleno Richie Valens. Keane loved that kid. He really did. He nurtured Valens’ career, acting as both manager and producer. Even got him to change his name; it was Valenzuela.

Things were going really well for him and Valens. They were making lots of money and putting out legacy making hits like Donna, Come on let’s Go and La Bamba. Then tragedy struck. Richie went down in a plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

Keane was devastated–in fact, he never got over it–but undeterred. He put his nose to the grindstone, plugging away with Del-Fi and subsidiary labels Donna, Bronco and Mustang Records where he had success with some R&B acts and surf/hot rod bands. He developed a reputation as a creative producer with an open door policy. His motto: I’ll listen to anybody. If they can’t walk, bring ’em in on a stretcher.

That’s how he met Bobby Fuller. The guy just waltzed in off the street and played him some demos. Keane’s ears perked up. Boy could this kid wring the heck out of that Stratocaster. Could sing too. The band was tight.

Now this could be special, he thought.

And Keane was right. Bobby Fuller was special. He was an musical genius, able to read and write music, capable of playing any instrument from the moment he picked it up. Fuller produced his own records too, in a studio that he piecemealed together in the basement of his parents home in nowheresville El Paso where he was the biggest thing since sliced bread.

And this, perhaps the most important thing: Bobby Fuller was naive.

Important, because on the surface Keane was a successful recording industry impresario, possessing all the obligatory accouterments: expensive clothes, exotic sports car and money clip stuffed with C notes. He was on a first name basis with the staff at PJ’s, the mobbed up nightclub that catered to everybody that was anybody in Hollywood, and women–especially young, impressionable women–thought him quite attractive. But underneath the facade his personal life and finances were spiraling out of control. His marriage was on the skids and he was up to his neck in the triple D’s–debauchery, drugs and debt.

Even worse, because of the triple D’s, he was on the bad end of a bust out. Now he was little more than a figurehead of the record label he founded and his “silent” partners were very demanding. He needed a hit from a gullible, compliant artist. And he needed it fast.

Some people called Bobby Fuller arrogant. He wasn’t. He was sure of himself.

Some said he was stuck up. Not so. He was introverted.

So what if he was a bit of a contrarian? He was a rugged individualist who’d rather get run over by a bandwagon than jump on it.

Take that cross that glinted outside his collared shirts. The one that some people called a Nazi cross…

“It’s not a Nazi cross,” he assured his worried mother who had moved to Los Angeles to watch over her sons. “It’s a surfer’s cross.” 

Some of the guys in his favorite surf bands like The Chantays, The Ventures and The Surfaris wore them. They wore the cross for the same reason he did–as a symbol of solidarity among American musicians against the British invasion in general and The Beatles in particular.

Ah, yes…The Beatles. They were a sore spot with Bobby. He waged his own personal war against them–not that it did any good. By 1966, less than two years from their debut, The Beatles recorded an astonishing seventeen top ten hits–ten of them going all the way to number one. Turn on the radio in the mid 60s and it was pretty much all you heard. All Beatles, all of the time.

Despite this–probably because of this–Bobby soldiered on, insisting that The Beatles were overrated, complaining to anyone who’d listen that all their songs sounded the same. He got into lots of arguments about it.

“I don’t get it,” he’d say. “What’s the big deal?”

But he didn’t mean it. He was a musician extraordinaire. As such, he knew better than most just how special The Beatles were.

What he didn’t like–what he hated, as a matter of fact–was how everybody said they were the saviors of rock and roll.

The saviors of rock and roll?…Just what did rock and roll need to be saved from?

Ray Charles?…Link Wray?…Roy Orbison?

And then there was the way that just about every band in the world copied them. And how all the record labels wanted British invasion stuff and only British invasion stuff.

That really got on his nerves.

So yeah, despite what he said and how he acted, he liked The Beatles. How could he not?It was just that he liked Buddy Holly more. A lot more. Buddy Holly was his idol. That’s why he recorded I Fought the Law even though it was a cover.

I Fought the Law was written for Buddy Holly by his long time friend Sonny Curtis, who took over as singer and lead guitar of The Crickets after the superstar was killed. The Crickets, fronted by Curtis, recorded it in 1960 but the song and album went nowhere.

Bobby loved the album, especially I Fought the Law. His younger brother, Randy, the bassist of The Bobby Fuller Four, convinced him to record it in his El Paso recording studio. It took off and became a regional hit, even causing riots in some of the West Texas ballrooms they played in. When Bob Keane heard the recording he immediately signed them.

At first Bobby was happy with Keane. After all, he had discovered Richie Valens and The Surfaris. But it wasn’t long before the two began to clash.

Like most producers and A&R men, Keane had his nose in the charts. Bobby understood that. He also understood that Keane wanted hits. Shoot, he wanted them too, but not so badly that he would allow novelty song gimmicks in his music. No siree Bob Keane. He  fanatically rejected any technique that came  even remotely close to that.

Case in point, Phil Spector (yes, that Phil Spector) loved Bobby Fuller. He even sat in with the BF4, sometimes playing keyboard with them at the Ambassador Lounge and at PJ’s, where they routinely packed the house.

Spector talked with Bobby about producing him, with or without the BF4 and encouraged him to leave Del-Fi. Of course Bobby was flattered, but Spector’s style was just too different from his own. That whole wall of sound stuff went against his grain. He refused to do anything in the studio that he couldn’t duplicate live on the stage.

And if Bobby wouldn’t work with Phil Spector, he wasn’t about to follow any here today gone tomorrow music fads—and that’s just what Bob Keane wanted. He wanted the BF4 to do Motown sounding stuff.

What’s more Del-Fi records was in turmoil. Bob Keane was having trouble keeping people in the front office and the staff that stayed walked around on eggshells with worried faces. But nobody said anything. It was like they were afraid to talk.

Bobby and his brother suspected that had something to do with a record executive from Roulette Records that had been snooping around Del-Fi. Ron Roessler was his name. He was real chummy with Keane’s “silent” partner Larry Nunes.

Everybody in the music business knew about Roulette. It was owned by Morris Levy. And Morris Levy was a very dangerous man. He was mobbed up. Big time. Rumor had it that Levy had bodies on him. Yet Bob Keane kept assuring Bobby and the band that everything was groovy when it obviously wasn’t–which made it decidedly un-groovy. Which made it absurd.

Still, on March 12, 1966, I Fought the Law by The Bobby Fuller Four, on Mustang Records, reached number nine on the Top 40 charts. It was just what Bob Keane wanted, what he had to have–a big, glorious top ten hit setting right up there, on the same charts, with Nowhere Man by the The Beatles. But more importantly–at least to the finicky, ultra-talented purist from El Paso Texas–it was something to be proud of.

Though I Fought the Law would climb no further on the charts, it would sell well over a million records. Nowhere Man would stall out at number three.

And while The Beatles would chalk up fourteen more top ten hits before they disbanded four years later, Bobby Fuller would never hit the top ten again. Even so, I Fought the Law would become an anthem of rebellion to both rock and punk rock devotees. It would be covered by many bands, most notably The Clash. But it would be The Bobby Fuller Four version that would become iconic, ranked as one of the greatest songs ever recorded by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Tragically Bobby would never know those accolades. In fact, he wouldn’t even get a whiff of them. That’s because less than six months after I Fought the Law charted, Bobby would be found dead in his mother’s Oldsmobile. His death was ruled a suicide and then, later, an accidental death–though nobody really believed that. 

Bobby Fuller was twenty-three at the time.

To be continued… 

 

 

Sicario, a Film Directed by Denis Villenevue (2015);Crime Drama

There are some police officers who become cops because they want to protect and to serve. Probably not too many, but there are a few. I’ve never, personally, known a cop like that, but I’ve heard of them. On the news.

And I’ve read about them…

I knew a cop, once…Well, I knew him before he became a cop. We went to school together. A nice guy. We were “sort of” friends. We didn’t hang out, but he was in my Senior English class.

Anyway, he didn’t get along with his dad. His dad slapped his mom around. Never any blood. Never a clenched fist. But there was pushing. And yelling. And slapping.

That’s why he wanted to become a cop. He didn’t tell me that, but I knew.

I ran into him, a few years later, at an Aerosmith concert. We talked. He was working undercover, perusing the floor crowd. I knew immediately that he was a cop. That made me sad. Not his chosen profession. I don’t have anything against cops, per se. They have a job to do. Otherwise…Well, you know…Anarchy.

I was sad because he’d changed.

In Denis Villeneuve’s  crime drama, Sicario, we don’t know why Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) became a cop–there is no declaration over beers or reflective pillow talk explaining. There’s just Kate. Unadorned. Steady. Earnest.

She’s not an adrenaline junkie. We know because the first time we see her, we see her scared. Even so she’s the consummate pro. She subdues her fear. She’s under control.

Plus she’s wearing FBI tactical gear. The FBI doesn’t invest in scrubs. Or the mentally unstable.

Her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is equally earnest. He is protective of Kate even though she out ranks him. He’s not condescending. He’s a friend, nothing more, who worries that Kate’s honesty might hobble her when her cunning matters most.

We are introduced to them when Kate leads a raid on a stash house owned by a wealthy Sonora Cartel lieutenant. There they stumble upon an unexpected cache—about fifty corpses entombed in the walls.

The camera doesn’t linger over the brutality. The violence is realistically hum drum. And horrible.

One body’s head is encased in plastic. Very little can be distinguished about the body. From the clothing, it is most likely male. Medium height. The face is obstructed by a hemorrhage of blood. The pressure of the plastic against bodily fluid and decaying flesh has left a big brown smudge. It has blotted out identity. The camera, reflecting images through Kate’s eyes, returns to this body–one among the many–again…And again.

During the raid, Kate performs with distinction and kills a cartel underling in the line of duty. The stash house it booby-trapped. There is an explosion. A FBI agent’s arm is torn off. He dies. It’s a big story. So big that it attracts the Department of Justice. Various federal big wigs convene and tap Kate to be involved in a multi departmental task force–about fifteen men, she is the only woman– designed to take down the man responsible for the plethora of immigrant corpses on American soil.

The feds don’t want Reggie. Kate does. She won’t go without him. She gets her way.

One of the lead feds is a guy named Matt, an oily character…Yeah, I know. You’re shocked. It helps that he is played by the magnetic Josh Brolin…

Anyway, this Matt guy is obviously CIA. How so? He wears flip flops. Apparently Reggie has seen other oily guys like him in Iraq where he was both soldier and lawyer; guys who brandish badges, the latest “it guns”, and dollar store shower shoes like ironic badges of honor. Matt’s character is a lighthouse beacon flashing Sicaro’s theme:

Here, things are twisted. It has always been this way. It is worse now. 

The here is the Sisters International, more commonly know as the El Paso/Juarez border. Matt and his ambiguous Mexican partner, Alejandro (Benicio del Turo), straddle the desert wasteland with steely cool and blatant impunity, escaping into each others country as the situation dictates. They come and go freely but not easily–especially on Mexico’s side. The government is cooperating, it seems, but the Sonora Cartel hierarchy are understandably upset. They arrange an ambush at a check point resulting in a bloody shootout.

The task force survives unscathed, annihilating the sicarios–Spanish for hitmen. They react like the lethal team of special ops that they are. But their ruthless efficiency unnerves Kate and Reggie. Something bigger than dragging a cartel lieutenant to justice is obviously afoot. Reggie wants them to bail out, but Kate keeps stumbling forward as if she is drawn to the mission against her will–as if she must see for herself evidence that they are real.

“You’re spooks,” she yells at Matt and Alejandro. “Watch and learn,” they say.

Along the way she forms an unexpected bond with Alejandro. It’s not romantic. It’s not even particularly friendly, but there is empathy. Though they prefer their own company, both are comfortable in each others presence. There are a few words shared now and then during cigarette breaks.

“Who are you?” she asks him.

“A prosecutor from Mexico,” he tells her.

“Where do you come from?”

“Columbia,” he says.

The fate of the task force hangs by a thread of legality. Kate is that thread. Her participation ensures the CIA’s jurisdiction is legit. She has been carefully chosen: a decorated, decent female agent, the perfect proxy to hide behind–and to sacrifice if need be for the sake of the real mission. Regime change.

Like Columbia two decades before Mexico has become a narco state. The Sonora Cartel has murdered and tortured it’s way to the top. Even so, it’s members of the board have no idea how to govern. They are too ruthless, even by cartel standards, and when they sanction a series of horrific crimes on the American side it incurs the wrath of the US government.

The government sends black ops into Juarez to assassinate the number three Sonora chieftain and make way for a new US sanctioned cartel to take over. And who is the new boss? The same as the old boss, i.e., the Colombians.

The plan is for the Colombians to resume the control they had in the old days, when they supplied the drugs and the Mexicans distributed them into the United States. In those days, Alejandro was a high ranking Mexican official. When the US disrupted the Medellin Cartel it created a vacuum in which the Mexican cartels were able to become both supplier and distributor. But they became too powerful too quickly–and there was too much competition. Consequently Juarez became the epicenter of unspeakable brutality that threatened to spill over into United States. Alejandro’s wife and daughter became pawns in that brutality and though he was able to escape into Columbia they were left behind to a terrible fate.

Now all that stands between Alejandro and revenge is Kate and her earnest resolve to do the right thing no matter the cost. And Kate can afford the cost because she is an island unto herself. How she became that way we do not know, but she shares the isolation with Alejandro. And the hollowness.

Some critics felt Sicario too laden to be a thriller and they were right. It’s not one. Nor is it an action film. Sicario is a crime drama with some high powered, brilliantly choreographed action sequences. The shoot out at the check point thirty minutes in is an exercise in white knuckles and coronary palpitations. Be that as it may, Director Denis Villeneuve is more interested in a twisted psyche than he is with plot twists and explosions.

Sicario seeks to make you think as it haunts you with ghosts made of flesh and memory. Mission accomplished.

 

 

 

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