Friday, 19 September 2014 01:09

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A Walk Among the Tombstones
shows that maybe, just maybe, filmmakers finally understand Lawrence Block’s novels.

Based on Block’s 10th novel with elements from A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and The Sins of the Fathers, A Walk Among the Tombstones captures the spirit of the Matt Scudder novels, especially the nuances of character, while also giving a brisk, action-packed plot packed with creepy villains who are chillingly real.

And Liam Neeson, who has fashioned himself into a not-to-be-messed-with action hero, proves himself to be the perfect Scudder, the former NYPD cop turned unlicensed private investigator.

Is he the Scudder I envisioned when reading the novels? Now that I think about it, yeah, he is.

Hollywood has never been as kind to the prolific Block as it has to the late Elmore Leonard or, more recently, to Dennis Lehane.

Films such as Get Shorty and Jackie Brown and the FX series Justified have captured Leonard’s combination of serious plot, wry wit and pitch-perfect dialogue. Lehane’s novels such as Mystic River and The Drop, which opened last week and we reviewed, not only have captured the spirit of his books, but have embraced and enhanced his vivid vision.

Not so Block.

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While several screen treatments are attributed to Block (you can look up imdb.com, too), there have been only two major movies based on his novels, and neither did his books proud. The 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges as Block’s perennial antihero Matt Scudder was just all right, though good luck trying to correlate the film with the 1982 novel. Then there was the what on earth were they thinking Burglar released in 1987 and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Block’s “gentleman burglar” Bernie Rhodenbarr. The less said about that film, the better.

And now we have A Walk Among the Tombstones, the film that Block fans have been waiting for, well, since the series began in 1976 with The Sins of the Father.

In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Scudder reluctantly agrees to help heroin trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) find the men who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. Scudder has little use for Kenny the drug dealer but he relates to the man’s grief over his wife. As he investigates, Scudder soon realizes that this is not the first time that the loved ones of drug dealers have been targeted.

As Scudder prowls the backstreets and marginal neighborhoods of New York City, he is aided by Kenny’s addict brother Kenny (Boyd Holbrook) and the homeless teenager TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a character who first appeared in Block’s 1991's A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, the vicious murderers Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) have targeted another victim.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is fairly faithful to the essential plot of Block’s novel. The action and the hunt for the murderers are spot-on.

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Gone is Scudder’s relationship with Elaine, a wise move; while it works well in the books, it would have muddied the film’s plot. The screenplay carefully doles out what prompted Scudder to leave the NYPD; if viewers aren’t familiar with the books they will think they know why in the first half hour, but there is more to come.

The violence level in A Walk Among the Tombstones is high, but no higher than your typical thriller and the violence is not gratuitous. But be prepared.

Neeson’s Scudder is how Block has shaped this character—world weary, resigned to a lifetime of guilt. He has seen too much of the seedy side of life, yet still believes in justice. A man of violence who now abhors violence, Scudder is, nonetheless, prepared to do what he has to do. We want more Scudder movies and with Neeson as the private investigator.

Although a trivia question at the film’s preview asked which PBS series Dan Stevens starred in, the people behind us still didn’t believe that this steely-eyed, dark-haired drug trafficker was the same actor who also had played the aristocratic (and blond) Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. Stevens is virtually unrecognizable in A Walk Among the Tombstones and his transformation again shows what an intense, skillful actor he is. Steven’s Kenny Kristo would never be mistaken for Crawley, the would-be heir to Downton Abbey who is Lord Grantham's third cousin once removed. Stevens also is starring in the new thriller The Guest, which also is a long way from a dapper British aristocrat.

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The supporting cast also works well to give life to the film. Adam David Thompson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and David Harbour (Elliot Hirsch on The Newsroom, Reed Akley on Manhattan) embrace the chilling criminals and their odd relationship. Boyd Holbrook (Milk, The Big C, Hatfields & McCoys) takes the typical drug addict character and imbues him with a complexity. Brian “Astro” Bradley (Earth to Echo) shows the survival mentality of this intelligent kid of the streets. And if you are wondering where you saw Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays the groundskeeper; he played the groundskeeper in True Detective.

Director Scott Frank, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the plot moving at a fast clip, while lingering over the seedy sides of New York City during the 1990s where the film is set. Frank is best known as a screenwriter for films such as The Wolverine, Marley and Me and Minority Report.

There never seems to be a definitive answer to the number of books attributed to Block, a four-time Edgar Award winner, among other awards, including being named Grand Master in 1994 by the Mystery Writers of America. He began his writing career in the mid-1950s, in a variety of genres, and has written under several pseudonyms. It has been said that he has written anywhere from 150 to 200 novels and that number actually seems low to me.

No matter the exact number, Block has been on the ground floor of the mystery genre’s transformation. His Matt Scudder novels went from an old-school basic sleuth to one whose interior motivation was as important as the crimes he helped solved while, at the same time, never veering from the tenets that what makes a good detective. Scudder has never stayed in one place emotionally, but has evolved through the approximately 17 novels and various short stories that Block has written about him.

Scudder also was one of the first mystery fiction characters to acknowledge his alcoholism and try to get a handle on it. Scudder’s AA meetings are an important part of the novels and his understanding of the 12 Steps and how these relate to him and his quest for redemption and justice are a major part of the series. The film A Walk Among the Tombstones shows Scudder’s struggles with his addiction and how the meetings are, for a long time, his only lifeline to people.

Now that Matt Scudder has been well represented on film—and, please, give us another with Neeson—it’s time to think of another Block character I always thought would make a good film. Keller, a lonely, wistful hitman, was the subject of Block’s four episodic novels, starting with Hit Man, 1998, and one full-length novel, Hit and Run, 2008.

Just a suggestion.


Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity, 114 minutes

 

Photos: Top and second photo: Liam Neeson; third photo: Dan Stevens; fourth photo: Liam Neeson with Brian “Astro” Bradley. Photos courtesy Universal Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures

 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014 03:09

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Although Ben Winters is ending his popular, award-winning Last Policeman series, the author will be back with a new series.

Winters, whose profile graces the current issue of Mystery Scene, has sold a new novel, called Underground Airlines, to Josh Kendall at Mulholland Books.

Underground Airlines is described as an “epic contemporary detective story,” according to Publishers Weekly, set in an alternate world in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists in the American South. The novel follows an undercover agent trying to capture an escaped slave.

On his website, Winters says that "the hero of Underground Airlines is seriously about as different from Detective Palace as you can imagine, both as a person and as a type of hero. And while the Policeman series was about the end of the world, about death and how we live with death, this book is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery (and in particular the Constitutional nightmare of the Fugitive Slave Law), and it’s about compromise."

Sounds intriguing.

Publication is planned for spring 2016, Winters told me in an email

Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy about a pre-apocalyptic planet brought him a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List, critical acclaim, a solid readership, and awards.

Winters’ first in the series, The Last Policeman, earned the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original from the Mystery Writers of America, was named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate, and was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Mystery by Mystery Readers International. The second in the trilogy, Countdown City, won the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished original science fiction paperback and was named an NPR Best Book of 2013. The final novel in the series, World of Trouble, hit bookstores and reading devices this past July

Winters, who has written titles for adults and children, also is the author of the bestselling Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Friday, 12 September 2014 08:09

 

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At the heart of the crime drama The Drop—based almost faithfully on Dennis Lehane’s novella—is a story of a man and his dog and how this abandoned, abused pit bull puppy with lots of affection to give rescues the man who rescues him.

Make no mistake, The Drop is not a touchy-feely sentimental tale—we are talking about Lehane here. The Drop is a gripping, atmospheric crime story full of mobsters, severed limbs, and violence, though not as much as in most films in this genre.

But there is this man and there is this dog and they form the crux of what turns into an intense character study of people on the edge, disenfranchised from themselves, people who must learn to care about something before they can care about themselves.

And yes, it is a crime drama, and gritty as they come.

It also is the last movie that the actor James Gandolfini made before he died in June 2013, and his performance in The Drop makes his loss even more acute.

British actor Tom Hardy (Inception, Meadowlands) stars as Bob Saginowski, a lonely guy who tries to mind his own business; he has pretty much withdrawn from life. He works at a Brooklyn tavern called Cousin Marv’s, which happens to be owned by his own cousin, Marv (Gandolfini). There he keeps the regular customers happy, talks with Marv, and goes home alone, never giving much of himself to anyone. He attends Mass daily at the old neighborhood parish church, but never takes Communion.

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On his way home one night, he hears a puppy whimpering inside a garbage can in front of a house. As he fishes out the bloodied and abused puppy, the woman who lives in the house wants to know what he’s doing. Nadia (Noomi Rapace, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), is more than a little leery of this guy who is going through her trash can until she spots the puppy. But before even talking with Bob, she insists on taking a photograph of his driver’s license, which she will email to four friends.

In her house, the two clean up the dog, who, despite his ordeal, is a friendly, tag-wagging bundle of energy. Tom thinks it’s a boxer but Nadia knows it’s a pit bull.

“That’s a dangerous dog,” says Tom, pulling back.

Nadia, who used to work at an animal shelter, acknowledges that pit bulls can be dangerous but only if the owners let them. “Not this little guy,” she says. “He’s sweet.”

Tom knows all about danger. Years before, he used to run with a “crew” that did some nasty things; he knows that friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood have “disappeared;” and he works for Marv, whose bar is a “drop,” or collection point for unmarked envelopes filled with money that belongs to the Chechen gangsters who rule the streets. And Marv doesn’t really own the bar either—years before, Marv lost it to those same Chechen gangsters. Marv only pretends to own it to make the laundry scheme seem more plausible.

Dozens of envelopes filled with cash are hard to resist. One night after closing, two brothers rob the place. The drops have all been collected by the gangsters but Marv’s profits don’t belong to him. And the gangsters want back the $5,000 that was stolen, from either Marv or those amateur robbers.

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It doesn’t take long for it to be revealed that Marv set up the robbery, hoping to recoup some of the money that goes to his “partners” and also regain a bit of pride from the days when he and his crew ran the neighborhood.

“We had a crew back in the day,” Bob explains to Nadia. “Marv, he thought he was a tough guy. Then the neighborhood changed. It wasn't enough to be tough anymore. You had to be mean.”

And Bob’s life suddenly becomes quite complicated, and it may be just what he needs to shock him back to the living. He takes the dog—was there ever any doubt?—and names him Rocco, after St. Rocco, a patron saint of dogs and falsely accused people. He and Nadia are attracted to each other, bound by their mutual concern for the dog, yet keep at arm’s length because of past hurts. The hunt for the robbers intensifies and turns violent. And Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the dog’s original owner and Nadia’s abusive ex-boyfriend, re-enters the picture. He wants both Rocco and her back. Deeds is known in the neighborhood for his violence and is believed to be responsible for the death of one of Bob’s friends.

As the viewer learns, everyone in The Drop is haunted by his or her secrets and a past that rears its head almost daily. Only little Rocco is the most innocent of all.

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The acting is first-rate. Hardy’s expressions move almost imperceptibly as he clearly shows a range of emotion and even rage. Hardy’s Bob is a character who should not be underestimated, and the actor illustrates this time and again. Hardy will play the role of Leo Demidov in the upcoming Child 44, which also will reunite him with Rapace. The two have a believable chemistry in The Drop and that should serve them well in Child 44, based on Tom Rob Smith’s novel.

Gandolfini is so perfect in The Drop that he immediately makes us forget about the proud, powerful Tony Soprano that he inhabited all those years. Marv is light years away from Tony. Marv is a sad sack of a man, trying to grab back that one piece of glory he had back in the day, yet knowing his own flaws caused him to lose everything he once had. Marv’s father is on life support, yet he refuses to consider that it may be time to make a decision on this. He lives with his sister, Dottie, who wants a better life, even a trip to Europe, anything to get out of the neighborhood. “That’s what I’ve become, kinda guy goes to Europe with his sister,” laments Marv.

Hollywood has been good to LehaneGone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island—and The Drop continues those high standards. The Drop is the first English-language film by Belgian director Michaël Roskam, an Academy Award-nominee for Bullhead. Roskam understands the deliberate pacing that is necessary to make a good crime drama that depends on characters driving the plot. The Drop doesn’t have car chases or gun battles, but it does have great pacing, a solid plot, and believable characters who come alive through the superior acting. The violence is measured out so that when it occurs it is shocking. The cinematography perfectly captures a down-at-its-heels neighborhood, a corner bar, streets with broken sidewalks and trash carelessly thrown.

It also benefits from having Lehane write the screenplay. The Drop started as the short story Animal Rescue, which was published in the anthology Boston Noir, which Lehane also edited. Lehane had been working on an adaptation of Animal Rescue when the screen rights were bought by Chernin Entertainment, the production company founded by former president and chief operating officer of News Corporation Peter Chernin. Lehane also moved the setting from Boston to a blue-collar neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Then Lehane’s publisher wanted him to turn his story into a novel to expand on the characters. The trade paperback version of The Drop also is now available.

Captions: top, Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini; second photo: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and Rocco; third photo: James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.

Photos courtesy FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.

Rated R. Running time: 107 minutes.