Sunday, 30 September 2012

GOTHAM CENTRAL: BOOK FOUR


It is interesting that this fourth volume of Gotham Central is titled Corrigan, because in most of this collection of stories the corrupt Crime Scene investigator is a central figure, especially in the climatic one, but the actual main arc of the story is the partnership between Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen. Although Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker get joint billing as the writers, in reality, the bulk of the book is Rucka's and as we shall see the overall tone and final effect is most definitely his. And although he is the titular mainstay, Corrigan is, in effect, the catalyst for the conflicts which will challenge both the detectives. The biggest contrast is the sense that Allen, the family man, has something to fall back on, while Montoya, a lesbian who can't seem to come to grips with being loved by her girlfriend, doesn't. It is on this contrast that the stories flow together, and ultimately, give the climax its power.

The book starts with a short, 'Nature', written by Rucka and drawn by Steve Lieber, which is there to establish Corrigan's centrality as a villain. It is less successful than the rest of the book, mostly because it deals with the supernatural. The concept of Gotham Central is a police procedural in a city where super villains and super heroes, particularly the Batman, dominate. Thus is requires the reader's suspension of disbelief to credit that such beings exist, but also requires that the delineation be clear. Here that boundary is crossed and the story falls flat.

'Dead Robin' is a three-parter written by Rucka and Brubaker, in which Gotham has outlawed costumed heroes (a la Watchmen), and someone is killing young boys and dressing them as Robin. It's a kind of old fashioned parlour mystery, whose most interesting facet is the return of the Batman to close the case. The relationship of Romy Chandler, who shoots The Batman and loses her gun, with Nate Patton is put under strain, while the backstory to Allen and Montoya's partnership—that she had to compromise with Corrigan to save his career, is restated as a subplot. The art, by Kano and Stefano Guadiano is good, but oddly uneven, sometimes looking cartoony in the midst of otherwise dark images, as if it's been redrawn. This story sets up a coda, another short written by Rucka and drawn by Lieber, called 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', which hammers home the contrasts and the dependencies of Allen and Montoya, as Gotham goes into meltdown as part of DC's Infinite Crisis, and Allen tries to get across the city and back to his family. The story works well, and it's payoff is powerful, but it's not until you reach the end of the final chapters of the book that you get its full impact.

That story is 'Corrigan II', in which the police close in on Montoya's nemesis, and tragedy results. Rucka again scripts, and he's at his best when dealing with loss—something that won't surprise those who've read, for example, Whiteout. He doesn't need to bring everything to conclusion, and he knows that such conclusions are not simple, even though that has traditionally been the staple of the contained comic story. Apparently, this story also sets the stage for a different sort of sequel, which I won't give away, but it would not have to it for it to work on the series' own terms. Again there are moments when Kano and Guadiano's art seems slighter—sometimes reminding me of Guy Davis, more stylized and less norish than at other times. But overall, the effect is fine, and the softer touch suits Rucka's style: Brubaker might be more noirish in the sense of there being little hope, but Rucka, because he has the touch of sentimental faith, maybe even more effective when life, inevitably, deals from the bottom of the deck.

GOTHAM CENTRAL, Book Four: Corrigan
written by Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker
art by Kano, Stefano Guadiano, Steve Lieber
Titan/DC Comics £14.99 ISBN 9780857681898

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

NO NUDES IS GOOD NUDES: FAREWELL LINGERIE BOWL

Note: I wrote this piece in Tampa, February 2009, before broadcasting Super Bowl XL for the BBC. It surprised me that I couldn't sell it--maybe I was trying the wrong places--but I posted it on the other blog I'd created, called ...And Over Here which I'd intended to contain sports blogging. I soon came to realise that blogging was an extreme violation of Dr. Johnson's warning that the man who writes for anything but money is a fool, so I compromised with the Doc and cut my output down to this blog, whose frequency is inversely proportional to the amount of paying work I have. 

I'm posting it here now because the Lingerie Football League was back in the news briefly, and peripherally, in relation to the NFL's refereeing crisis. Turns out the resume of one of the scab refs included the LFL, where calls are easier and the distractions are more fun to cope with. So here it is, again: the sad story of the under-exposure of Lingerie Bowl VI. A couple of twitter followers asked to see it again, so any excuse....

NO NUDES IS GOOD NUDES: FAREWELL LINGERIE BOWL
 
The funniest, I mean saddest, news of Super Bowl week in Tampa was the shocker that Lingerie Bowl VI had to be cancelled, due to a dispute with the game's site, a Florida, uh, nudist colony.
If I were Peter King I would definitely write 'only in America!', except I'm not sure the XL SI pundit has ever used the phrase ironically.

The game was supposed to take place at the Caliente nudist resort in Land O Lakes, Florida...no relation to the sticks of Land O Lakes butter we grew up with, and which Marlon Brando could probably have thought of at least some uses for. But even Marlon might have been perplexed by the 'controversy' which caused the cancellation. Who would've thought lingerie would pose nudists a problem?

I say 'nudist resort', but being this is America, where stewardesses are flight attendants and the blind are sight impaired, Caliente is actually billed as a 'Luxury Clothing-Optional Resort'. Thus gridiron gladiators in their underwear posed no problem. According to Caliente's (which, after all, is Spanish for 'hot') spokes-nudist and former nude model Angye (yes, with a 'y') Fox (pictured left, and known to her friends as,of course, 'Foxy') 'we ran into conflicts with the Lingerie Football League wanting more areas of our resort restricted to clothing- required than we could accommodate.'

RESTRICTED TO CLOTHING-REQUIRED? What is this, the NFL? Yes folks, only in America could an event which parades women in little clothing (apart from football pads) playing a violent game for the benefit of ogling viewers of all sexes, be offended by a little nudity. Here's Lingerie Football League spokesman Stephon McMillen 'The league will not place our fans, players, staff nor partners in a less-than-comfortable environment that would ultimately jeopardize the mainstream perception and reputation of the brand that so many have worked diligently over these past five years to build.'

Let me stop laughing. Does anyone in the mainstream actually perceive of the LFL (pronounced 'laffle') as anything but a sleazy soft-core exploitation device? And its reputation? McMillen sounds suspiciously like a maiden aunt, or a Catholic schoolgirl on a first date. What will the boys at high school think?

Somehow, the Super Bowl managed to survive without LB VI. Since in America any publicity is good publicity, hopefully, people are already flocking to Caliente Luxury Clothing-Optional resort, maybe as an available room for the Super Bowl weekend. Sadly few of them would be the loyal followers of the LFF. When the Super Bowl reaches halftime, they will simply switch over to Bud Bowl, watch beer bottles battle, and sent out for another pizza. Angye will be disppointed.

Monday, 17 September 2012

GAETON FONZI: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Gaeton Fonzi, investigative reporter, researcher, and author of one of the very best books on the JFK assassination, is in today's Independent. I've reprinted it below because, sadly, there were two crucial typos in the piece as printed: the second counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was G. Robert Blakey, not Blakely as appears in the first reference, and 1979 was 15 years after the Warren Report', not 25. I feel incredibly embarrassed, and tried to get them corrected on the web page, but the 25 years remains.

Back where the stupid errors are corrected but the big ones stay, oddly enough, the New York Times obit of Fonzi, which insisted on repeatedly calling him an 'Ahab', used Blakey for its main quotes. This is odd because Blakey is the figure most heavily criticised in Fonzi's The Last Assassination, which is part research on the JFK assassination and part analysis of how and why the HSCA failed to do its job.

Fonzi's book might be thought of as the start of the 'second wave' of volumes about the assassinations--building on the research done by any number of writers, which showed clearly the flaws in the Warren Report, and the case for a conspiracy, but were usually vague about identifying who was behind it and how it actually worked.

But if you read Fonzi's book, John Newman's Oswald And The CIA, James Douglass' JFK And The Unspeakable (you can link to my essay on that book, which I wrote for Lobster magazine, here), and the LaFontaines' Oswald Talked, you get a very clear picture of the involvement of at least elements of various intelligence agencies, and the way in which the need to cover that involvement up would drive the institutions involve to collude after the fact to protect the actual plotters, even if they were not acting 'officially'.

Like many of the assassination researchers, Fonzi came to his belief in a conspiracy through disillusionment with the official story. Unlike many of them, he was a true professional, a dogged journalist who got his information the old fashioned way, with face to face digging. That his work with HSCA got largely buried was a tragedy, which his book, too easily dismissed by the mainstream who would reflexively gush over the Gerald Posners of that world, could not set right. But his work after its publication was indefatigable, and deserved straightforward praise.

GAETON FONZI: INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST
 
On 29 March 1979, nearly 15 years after the Warren Report was released, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) issued its own report, concluding President John Kennedy was 'probably' assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as part of a conspiracy. The committee's chief counsel, Robert Blakey, immediately announced, contrary to the report's own equivocations, 'the mob did it'. By accepting much of the flawed evidence of the Warren Report, and failing to reach any conclusions of its own, the HSCA report perpetuated the controversy that would not be addressed officially again until the public outcry arising from the Oliver Stone movie JFK.

Gaeton Fonzi, who has died aged, was a reporter hired as an investigator for HSCA, working primarily on connections between Cuban exile groups, and through them, American intelligence agencies, and the assassination. In 1993, in the wake of Stone's film and Gerald Posner's revisionist defence of the Warren Report, he published The Last Investigation, which combined trenchant analysis of the assassination itself with a revealing inside portrait of the machinations and politics behind the HSCA, which led to the failings of its report. It remains one of the very best works on the assassination, notable particularly for its restraint in making no assumptions and drawing no conclusions not backed by evidence. Its quality reflects Fonzi's undoubted skill as a journalist.

Fonzi's path to conspiracy theories grew from his background as an investigative reporter in Philadelphia, where he was born on 10 October 1935. He grew up in West New York, New Jersey, but returned to Philadelphia to study journalism and edit the daily paper at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his future wife Marie. After graduating he worked on the Delaware County Daily and served in the army, before joining Philadelphia Magazine in 1959 as a reporter and later editor. His most important work was a series, written with Greg Walter, exposing Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Harry Karafin, who extorted money from businessmen by threatening to write negative stories, claiming to be the 'hatchet man' of the Inquirer's powerful owner, Walter Annenberg. Annenberg's own use of the paper's power to advance Republican party candidates was later detailed in Fonzi's 1970 biography, Annenberg, but by the time it was published, Annenberg had already sold the Inquirer and been appointed by Richard Nixon as US Ambassador to Great Britain.

Fonzi originally accepted the conclusions of the Warren Report. But when Warren committee counsel Arlen Specter returned to Philadelphia to run for district attorney, he was a natural subject for interview. Fonzi came across an article by another Philadelphia lawyer, Vincent Salandria, who was among the first critics of the Warren Report, and in particular the 'single-bullet' or 'magic bullet' theory advanced by Specter. Fonzi studied the case, and then, shocked by Specter's inability to defend his findings convincingly, became a sceptic. In another piece for Philadelphia Magazine he called the Warren Report 'a deliberate lie.'

In 1972 he moved to Miami, where he edited Miami and Gold Coast magazines. In the wake of scandals surrounding the intelligence community, in 1975 the US Senate created what came to be known as the Church Committee, and Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker asked Fonzi to join as an investigator. It was a natural move two years later to HSCA, where he was hired by the committee's original counsel, yet another Philadelphia lawyer, Richard Sprague. As The Last Investigation details, Sprague's refusal to defer to the intelligence community, the CIA in particular, brought him into conflict with his committee heads, and he eventually resigned, to be replaced by Blakey.

The contacts between Oswald, purportedly a Castro supporter, and the violently anti-Castro Cuban exile community headquartered in Miami became a natural point of Fonzi's investigations. His crucial discovery was the testimony of Antonio Veciana, leader of the exile group Alpha 66. Veciana's CIA contact was a man he knew as 'Maurice Bishop', and in 1963, Veciana arrived in Dallas for a meeting with Bishop, to find him conferring with a man he later identified as Oswald. Fonzi was able to show Bishop was in reality David Atlee Phillips, who had also been the CIA's station chief in Mexico City when Oswald was purportedly filmed and recorded at the Soviet consulate there. Veciana would later survive an assassination attempt on him just at the time the HSCA report was released.

Fonzi's digging into the connections between Cuban exiles and their CIA handlers, as well as mob figures sometimes employed by the CIA, established beyond doubt a prima facie case for conspiracy, and with increasing likelihood, the reality that Oswald was indeed what he said he was, 'a patsy'. Frustrated by Blakey's failure to pursue these avenues, Fonzi wrote another scathing article for Philadelphia magazine in 1980, which formed the basis of his book, and became a leading figure in the assassination research community. He continued to write, for outlets as varied as the New York Times and Penthouse magazine, and served as a lecturer at a number of universities. His work was honoured by more than dozen awards, including the William Allen White, for investigative journalism, and the Mary Ferrell-JFK Lancer Pioneer award. He died 30 August 2012 at home in Satellite Beach, Florida, of complications from Parkinson's disease. He is survived by Marie and four children. At the end of The Last Investigation, he quotes Slyvia Odio, a key witness ignored and discredited by two government investigations. 'We lost,' she told him. 'We all lost'.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

CHARLES CUMMING'S FOREIGN COUNTRY

I had barely finished writing the following when the news came via Ali Karim that A Foreign Country has won the Bloody Scotland award for best crime novel. Congratulation to Charles. And now, rather than being a bit late in getting to it, Irresistible Targets proves timely in the extreme!

Amelia Levene is about to take over as the first female head of MI6 when she sneaks away for a quick vacation in France, and drops off the map. Thomas Kell, dismissed from the service because of his complicity in American tortures in the Middle East, is asked to investigate quietly, and discovers a secret which Levene wants to hide, but which leaves her dangerously vulnerable. Kell already is vulnerable, and desperate to get back in the game, so much so he forgets his marriage counselling session on his way out the door to track Amanda down.

It's a good set-up for Charles Cumming's thriller, and it remains intriguing as long as it is about deception, complicity, and ambiguity. Could Levene beset up by those within the service who don't want her ascension? Or are outside forces at work. Cumming keeps you guessing, although there is a murder which occurs early in the book, offstage, but which doesn't appear to send up red flags for anyone involved, and you would guess that, as the backstory becomes more clear, any experienced intelligence agent would jumpat those red flags (forgive the vagueness, but I do wish to avoid spoilers here!).

The set up has echoes of LeCarre,especially with the characters. Although Levene and Kell are both, on the surface, likeable, the deeper Cumming digs into their characters, theless likeable they become. They are professionals, and their own characters are subsumed beneath the job which is to be done. Likewise, the supporting cast from MI6 are often less than impressive—a real feature of LeCarre, who wanted you to know that most of spycraft is carried out by men and women you'd likely lean away from if they were in the seat next to you in a bar or on a plane.

This creates a real level of ambiguity which Le Carre would always exploit, and which Cumming does to an extent, which is where his novel works best. He's particularly good on conflicts within the service, and between services, though he suffers from a certain residual prejudice for British intelligence. Kell's own failings are ascribed to the influence of the Americans; basically he goes along with them, and pays the price, which is to suggest a kind of superior morality of which there doesn't appear to be much evidence. There is a requisite level of hypocrisy, though—and the idea of nominally allied services battling to establish or preserve areas of influence is a sub-theme that might well have received more space.

But once the set-up becomes clear, the book switches gears, and becomes basically a race-against-time thriller, and much less interesting as a result. The ambiguities of the shadowy plot are resolved by the SAS-like operation, and though we get hints of the lack of real resolution (beyond the immediate crisis) for everyone, especially Kell, one longs for something a bit less well-finished. Cumming is good enough to keep you riveted with the mundane; the bang-bang stuff may be done better by lesser writers. And maybe the best thing about the book is the lovely ambiguity of the title epigraph, from L.P. Hartley, because it's not just the past that is a foreign country.

A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Charles Cumming

Harper Collins £12.99 ISBN 9780007337873

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

ALL THE WORLD'S A STOOGE, AND THESE POOR PLAYERS

Let's start with the positives, the good stuff: The Three Stooges is laff out loud funny, more than any comedy I've seen in some time (and even moreso for my eight-year old son). If there's one thing the Farrelly Bros. do well (besides demure gross-out—actually the fart in the sinking car is one of the funniest moments of the film) it's slapstick, and the slapstick in this film is first-rate, brilliantly choreographed and executed. They understand that part of the joy of slapstick is the audience's seeing what's coming, the longer before it happens the better. As an aside, my guess is the audience with whom I saw the film needed it to be set-up at lot more clearly than an audience watching the original Stooges in the 1930s would; and an awful lot more clearly than me and my friends did watching them on TV in the 1960s.

So if I laughed so hard, why a week later does the film leave a sort bad taste in my mouth? It's not like I mind the 'plot', which is stitched together from a couple of hoary old chestnuts—'let's save the orphanage' and 'let's kill the husband'--being clunky, nor the progression of gags making no sense. That Curly and Larry sudden appear on a gold course with dozens of salmon, to set up their salmon farm, makes no logical sense, but it doesn't have to. It should, however, set up a gag, rather than being the gag itself. Though I do get the point when Kate Upton finally strips off to become The Leather Nun. Boy do I get it. A great sigh of relief from the dads who hadn't laughed, but another gag gone flat.And therein lies part of the rub.

The Farrellys don't really trust their audience to be able to follow long setups. Indeed, the best gags in the film are recycled from the original Stooges, and done better. But watch the originals, and see how restrained the shooting is, general views, middle-shots, few close-ups. Watch the modern version and everything is bright, and in closeup, which has the effect of making bad actors (especially the children) look worse. It looks two dimensional, moreso because everyone seems to be playing it for laughs. The Stooges' are funnier when everyone else is taking things seriously, and they are the element of chaos amongst the serious. When everyone else is hamming it up, aware they are part of the gag (if not gags themselves) it dilutes the impact of the anarchy. I suspect they may be trying to do something like what Frank Tashlin did with Jerry Lewis—create an almost two-dimensional equivalent of a live-action cartoon, but the Farrellys are not Tashlin and Lewis.

It's most obvious how little faith they have in their audience (and perhaps in their own film) when Moe splits from the others to become part of a reality show. Interestingly, the producers who watched his audition appear not to have noticed the other two Stooges, because they react to them later in the film as if they haven't, but like I said, we can't try to pick logical continuity errors in a film like this. But trying to get a rub from Snooky (not literally—I mean 'rub' in the wrestling sense of getting a boost by performing with someone who's a bigger star) is just insulting. Maybe they're trying to make a satiric point about Jersey Shore being dumber than the Stooges, or as violent, or less real...I don't know and frankly Snooky, I don't give a damn. The only interesting thing is that the Jersey crew are the only ones in the film who play it straight, and would be better straightmen for the Stooges than the professional actors are (with the notable exception of Craig Bierko's fall-guy Mac). I'm still waiting for the payoff on Larry David's Sister Mary Mengele too.

The new Stooges are OK, if not great. They benefit by being younger and fitter than the originals, which helps the slapstick. Sean Hayes tries hard as Larry, but lacks the sad sack futility. Will Sasso is surprisingly good as Curly, but has toned down his aggression considerably, and his woman-chasing. He's nicer; in fact it's as if they're trying to make them all 'people', instead of Stooges. That's even true for Chris Diamantopolis' Moe, though his performance is often mostly wig and voice, most of which appears to have been dubbed for effect; he still has to mug ridiculously, which Moe Howard never really needed to do. I get the feeling that liking the guys makes them less effective as comics—they are supposed to be forces of nature whom it is dangerous to like, the way children were thought to be by all figures of authority.

And speaking of children, although it's funny two glamour guys play the Farelleys at the film's end, it's odd that they do a 'kids don't try this at home' public service announcement, especially since one actor is flexing his chest the whole time, like a WWE wrestler. But everything I said about the dumbing down of the audience is brought home here, when they can't even trust their core viewers to realise what they are watching is the Stooges, not real life. The real Moe Larry and Curly never had to tell me that.

And finally, for virtually every mainstream review that claimed the film was full of 'nyuk nyuk nyuks', the reality is that for all the boffo laffs, which I appreciated, I didn't really hear a decent Curlyesque nyuk, nyuk nyuk anywhere in the film. Kinder, gentler stooges? 'I'll moiderlize ya'.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Michael Clarke Duncan is online at the Guardian's website (link here), and should be in the paper paper tomorrow. His massive heart attack last July, aged 54, was certainly unexpected--and ironically came just after he had proclaimed the benefits of his vegan diet to the world in a PETA commercial. It wasn't the place to speculate on whether he had used steroids or other body-building drugs which might have affected his heart, or indeed whether the massive weight gain (and subsequent loss) following Daredevil might have had adverse effects.

One bit lost from the piece as I wrote it was the crediting of his girlfriend, the ubiquitous 'reality' TV performer, the Reverend Omorosa Manigault, with having saved his life by performing CPR on Duncan when he suffered the heart attack. He had remained hospitalised since July. Interestingly, although Manigault was referred to as Duncan's 'fiancee' in the press release which announced his death, I could find no reference to an announcement of an engagement.

Duncan's role in The Green Mile plays on any number of cliches, not least racial, but to his credit he legitimately transcended them in a performance of some sensitivity. The film, one of three Stephen King adaptations directed by Frank Darabont, might be seen as an attempt to recapitulate the success of The Shawshank Redemption, but fails in the sense that, unlike its predecessor, it wears its heart on its sleeve from the start, in part because of the compelling nature of Duncan's character.

He was never really able to match that again, though his villainous Kingpin in Daredevil was far more compelling than, say, Colin Farrell's Bullseye. He didn't quite have the depth to play the Ving Rhames role in Pulp Fiction, for example, but given the Bruce Willis connection, he might well have had they hooked up earlier. What remains constant in Duncan's films is always the sense that he seems to be enjoying what he is doing, and not taking himself too seriously, and given his background that makes a lot of sense. It has to be said he had a certain awareness too: after his early billing as 'Big Mike' Duncan, the double-barrelled Michael Clarke Duncan suggests a 'serious' actor. I would have loved to hear him explain that. And I would have loved to hear his insider's perspective on Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. Finally, I do wonder if the Guardian was correct in billing (after I hadn't) Alan Rudolph's film of Breakfast of Champions as a comedy.