In Books: Richard Price’s ‘The Whites’

The Whites-coverEven though The Whites was technically published under Richard Price’s genre pen name Harry Brandt, the publisher didn’t even bother leaving his real name off the thing. It might be a crime novel instead of straight realist fiction and a couple hundred pages shorter than his usual. But the style is unmistakably that of the writer who brought such lived-in detail to novels like The Wanderers and Lush Life and his scripts for The Wire. This time, it’s just a little tighter, more razored. So in short: great stuff.

My review of The Whites is at PopMatters:

Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side…

You can read the full first chapter here.

On the Media: ‘The Jinx’ and Confessions

thejinx-posterCuriously enough, there is actually a precedent for the news that broke over the weekend with a blockbuster HBO documentary playing an outsized role in an ongoing media sensation of a criminal case.

Decades before Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx played a (as yet not fully clear) role in the arrest of the perennial murder suspect and troubled millionaire Robert Durst, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s true-crime classic Paradise Lost (about the West Memphis Three) bumped up against the realities of an ongoing criminal investigation. While filming the proceedings, Berlinger was given a bloody knife that was similar to the murder weapon:

Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.

He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.

It’s not entirely clear what responsibilities the filmmakers of The Jinx had when confronted with potential evidence of Durst’s culpability some time ago. But the fact that Durst wasn’t arrested until just the day before the miniseries’ last episode on Sunday is being seen by some as a media-manipulated event.

I reviewed the first couple episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst for PopMatters here.

 

New in Books: ‘Ghettoside’ and the Murder Plague

ghettoside-coverOne of the most surprising entries on the nonfiction bestseller lists now, in between all the diet and self-help and comedy tell-alls and breathless Bill O’Reilly assassination tomes, is Jill Leovy’s gritty Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. It’s a true-crime potboiler and an X-Ray of a dysfunctioning city and a cry for help all at once. Her writing is sharp, her reporting true.

Ghettoside is on sale now and is very worth your seeking out. My review is at PopMatters:

As the Los Angeles Timereporter who created the newspaper’s blog, The Homicide Report, Jill Leovy understands all too well the numbing cycle of violence that typifies most poor minority neighborhoods in America. The Homicide Report was simple in concept but gargantuan in practice: Cover every murder in Los Angeles. That meant finding out who was killed, who they were, how it happened, and if possible why. By the time the blog started in 2007, the country’s early-‘90s homicide peak had passed, but the murders kept coming. Each one was a story; another human life gone, and a space that couldn’t be filled left behind…

On TV: ‘The Jinx’

'The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)
‘The Jinx’: Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

Tonight, HBO is premiering the first episode in its six-part true-crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. It’s a stranger-than-fiction tale from director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) who first tried to tackle the curious case of Durst with 2010’s fictional film All Good Things, where Ryan Gosling played Durst, heir to a massive Manhattan real-estate fortune, who was accused of killing his first wife Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.

thejinx-posterMy review of the first two episodes is at PopMatters:

There’s no straight line through Robert Durst’s story. Instead, there is a curlicue leading from a privileged Manhattan childhood to Dynasty-style power struggles, a lengthy stretch of cross-dressing, and potential connections to three murders. The baffling particulars of Durst’s case and his resolute odd-man-out nature come with the added coating of unreality provided by a life of extreme wealth. It’s a captivating story, and a difficult one to tackle without succumbing to its and his Sphinxian spell. Fittingly, the first two episodes of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, don’t reveal whether or not it will succumb…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: In ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ the Director Tells How He Became a Bank Robber

Bad decisions in 'Evolution of a Criminal' (Independent Lens)
Bad decisions in ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ (Independent Lens)

Darius Clarke Monroe was a straight-A student from a tight-knit family in Houston; the last kid anybody would have picked to become a criminal. But nevertheless, he and two friends left high school one day to rob a bank. Evolution of a Criminal is Monroe’s confident, morally astute documentary about what led up to and followed that life-changing decision.

Evolution of a Criminal is opening this week in very limited release and will be broadcast on PBS in the near future.

My review is at Film Journal International:

As in Night of the Gun, where journalist David Carr reported his past history as a violent drug addict as though he were covering any other story, Monroe approaches the bank robbery that changed his life with a similar degree of distance. The background he paints through closed-framed, emotional interviews shows a vibrantly family-filled childhood in a quiet Houston neighborhood. His mother and father and other relatives describe a bifurcated existence, where his lively confidence was shadowed by worry about the family’s severe financial problems. After a robbery leaves the family devastated—the thieves actually broke through his bedroom ceiling—Monroe’s jokes to his mother Sigrid about robbing a bank to help her out take on a more insistent edge. Like just about everybody else Monroe talks to, she can’t believe that her friendly, outgoing, well-behaved boy would ever do anything of the sort….

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘The Drop’

Tom Hardy, faithful dog, and Noomi Rapace in 'The Drop' (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Tom Hardy, faithful dog, and Noomi Rapace in ‘The Drop’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

With a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (Mystic RiverShutter Island), an Oscar-nominated director (Michaël R. Roskam, for Bullhead), and an Oscar-worthy turn by Tom Hardy, The Drop would seem to have plenty of ability to overcome its status as a run-of-the-mill crime drama about a mob-linked bar in Brooklyn. Whether it does or doesn’t is up for debate; the genius of Hardy’s performance shouldn’t be.

The Drop is playing in most markets around the country now. My review is at PopMatters:

The response of your average cineaste, upon hearing the words “In Brooklyn…” in a film’s opening narration, is to look for the nearest exit. What follows is too frequently more mythologizing than storytelling. The borough is transformed from specific place to psychic landscape, full of tribal loyalties and tight bonds, where the begrimed and as-yet ungentrified street scene indicates bootstrapping and self-policing pride. Cops not needed here.

However, if you follow your instincts and bolt at the start of Michael R. Roskam’s sturdy and bleak noir The Drop, you miss Tom Hardy creating a thing of beauty yet again…

You can see the trailer here:

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Crime Time

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littlegirllost1One of the more interesting panel discussions at the Dublin Writers Festival was titled “The State of Crime”. In it, crime novelists Arne Dahl, Sinead Crowley, and Brian McGilloway held forth on everything from the state of Swedish society to whether or not they did any research with the police before writing their first books.

My writeup is at PopMatters:

As with many events at the Festival, the talk turned to writing mechanics. Moderator [Declan] Burke suggested that aspiring writers not try to put everything into a first draft. He preferred just banging it all out once, messy or not, and then going back and fixing anything from plot to characterizations on multiple later passes. Dahl suggested writing one short story a year in addition to novels, since the compressed space “sharpens your pen”. He also thought it helpful, and possibly even necessary, for crime writers to read Macbeth once a year…

New in Theaters: ‘The Iceman’

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Michael Shannon plays ‘The Iceman’

iceman_posterRichard Kuklinski was a hitman for a branch of the New Jersey mob up through the 1980s, though he also had a sideline in killing for his own pursuits or just plain kicks. In one of the more obvious casting choices ever, Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski as a stone-faced monolith in The Iceman, a film that might be based on true events but feels as false as a dozen other mob flick knockoffs (complete with energetic but wasted Ray Liotta performance) from the past couple decades.

The Iceman is playing now, here and there. My review is at Film Racket.

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: ‘My Brother the Devil’

My Brother the Devil

mybrother-posterSally El Hosaini’s debut film My Brother the Devil  is a drama about two brothers in an Egyptian immigrant family living in a hardscrabble part of London who have to fight everything from homophobia to the gangs on the street to each other.

My review is at Film Journal International:

As older brothers go, Rashid (James Floyd) is not so bad. Although he’s given to arbitrarily punching and berating his younger teenage brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), as would be expected, he also keeps an eye out for the kid and doesn’t want him to follow in his footsteps. The streets outside their small high-rise flat in Hackney are filled with temptations that have already lured Rashid far astray by the time the film begins.  Although the conflict that this sets up for the brothers is hardly new territory, Hosaini’s take on it veers into some unexpected complications that keep the drama crackling…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages’ is a Middling Mess

Oliver Stone’s Savages sets up some fascinating possibilities, few of which it fulfills. Set mostly in an idyllic swath of California beach paradise, the film follows the fortunes of a tightly run and immensely profitable pot operation that gets in the way of a rapidly expanding Baja cartel, which initiates a predictable fight over turf and reputation. Savages might have been a story of innocence lost, the corrosiveness of drug money, the endlessly looping violence of wars abroad and wars at home. Instead, what we got is a lurid revenge melodrama in which killers indulge in bloody excess and everybody does the best they can with some of the year’s worst dialogue…

Savages opened in theaters yesterday. You can read my full review at PopMatters.