Immortal characters: Screen figures who shine just outside the spotlight

* Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review. 

The recent death of renowned character actor (and genuine character) Rip Torn has got me thinking about those movie stars that shine brightest just outside the spotlight.

Not the icons or the poster fixtures, their accolades are readily available elsewhere, their immortality assured. No, I’m talking about the gritty, cool, kooky, sultry, colorful characters who appear here and there, in this scene and that, throughout careers that often span many decades and include some of the most memorable performances of all. The mortar that holds Tinseltown’s ivory towers together.

Some occasionally break on through to mainstream recognition (Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton, Karen Black and John Cazale leap to mind), but most toil on insufficiently celebrated.

No more, says I.

Here are six particular stars who deserve to be better known and the roles I recommend as perfect introductions. Some checked out tragically early, others are still hard at work, but all are worth a closer look.

* Spoilers ahead.

1. Len Cariou (b. 1939)

For being the guy who pioneered the role of Sweeney Todd in the original 1979 production (for which he won a Tony Award), Cariou is weirdly underappreciated. Though he has been more in the public eye of late (he plays Tom Selleck’s dad on CBS’ “Blue Bloods”) it is toward two very different portrayals that I direct those curious to see more of the man’s incredible skill, an almost uncanny ability to channel a captivating combo of alternating warmth and menace.

“Lady in White” (1988) would not be the last horror movie Cariou appeared in, but it is the one in which he is scariest. An unusual, distinctive flick about nostalgia, perception and threats both otherworldly and all-too-human alike, it sees him playing an on-the-surface warm and supportive uncle-type to the movie’s main child protagonist. He is genuinely likable in a realistic non-saccharine way, which only makes the unveiling of his true nature all the more terrifying. The moment he realizes the boy is on to him, while they’re alone in the woods target shooting with bows and arrows, is truly unnerving.

Also, he’s wonderful as secret agent Michael Hagarty in all seven of the character’s appearances on “Murder, She Wrote.” Angela Lansbury had many would-be suitors throughout the show’s decade-plus run, but Cariou’s roguish MI5 bad boy seemed to hold her interest longer than most.

2. Laird Cregar (1913-1944)

A giant in more ways than one, Cregar, who rarely weighed less than 300 pounds, was on the way up when he became obsessed with chiseling himself down into a more traditional leading man. An amphetamine-fueled crash diet ended his life at 31, but not before he cemented his place in film history with about a dozen memorable roles in movies that ran the gamut from screwball comedy to noir to horror.

Though probably most famous for playing “Mr. Slade” in 1944’s “The Lodger,” I recommend the curious investigate two other entries in the man’s tragically short filmography.

“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) sees Cregar give a dynamic performance as an obsessive homicide detective determined to pin the murder of a beautiful woman on a young promoter who’d been boosting her acting career — never mind the guy is innocent.

One scene in particular, in which Cregar chats amiably with the man he’s looking to railroad while absently tying a noose with a long bit of twine, is mesmerizing.

Also, give “Hangover Square” (1945) a chance. It was his last role, but Cregar is again on top of his game as a troubled composer prone to blackouts who meets a conniving dame determined to manipulate him.

3. Ted Levine (b. 1957)

For better or worse, the guy is forever cemented in the public mind as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs.” That was a one-of-a-kind performance worthy of immortalization, but he’s so much more.

When he’s reigned in, Levine brings a fascinating type of stalwart gravitas to a role, the kind of tough but honest guy you want on your side. And when he isn’t, well, he’s in orbit.

How about one of each?

For the former, I recommend his portrayal of Captain Leland Stottlemeyer in the comedy-drama mystery series “Monk,” the final partner and perpetually loyal champion of the titular defective detective.

For the latter, I have to go with “Bullet” (1996). This nasty gem of a movie sees Mickey Rourke get out of prison and right back into a criminal feud with Tupac Shakur, who plays a drug kingpin nurturing an understandable grudge after Rourke stabbed him in the eye years before.

Levine plays Rourke’s older brother, a delusional Vietnam vet, who lives with their parents and organizes the neighborhood kids into a guerrilla squad in his spare time, when he’s not screaming nonsense philosophy or begging his mother to buy him paramilitary gear.

All that, plus keep an eye out for Donnie Wahlberg, Adrien Brody and Peter Dinklage — it’s worth seeking out.

4. Lori Petty (b. 1963)

Equally at home as tough cool surfer chick Tyler Endicott in “Point Break” (1991), and paranoid delusional prisoner Lolly Whitehill in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” Petty is an authentic presence who adds sincere depth to everything she’s in.

To celebrate her properly I recommend two vastly different movies (and no, good as she was in “Free Willy,” it didn’t quite make the cut): “A League of Their Own” in 1992, and 1995’s “Tank Girl.”

In the former she’s Kit Keller, pitcher and little sister of Geena Davis’ Dottie Hinson, whose bitter resentment at being so often in her more skilled sister’s shadow at last boils over in the movie’s final game.

Based on the British post-apocalyptic comic series of the same name, “Tank Girl” sees Petty as the star heroine who, along with Jet Girl (played by Naomi Watts) fight Water & Power, an oppressive corporation led by Malcolm McDowell, in a drought-ravaged Australia years after a massive asteroid crashes into Earth.

It’s a crazy movie and Petty apparently got the job, according to the director, because “she is crazy in her own life and [the film] needed somebody like that.” Despite being a critical and commercial failure upon release, “Tank Girl,” like its star, has a cult following, and Petty’s character remains popular at cosplay events even today.

The BBC included the film in a 2015 list of the “ten weirdest superhero films,” a now-booming genre of which it was a kind of pioneer, and one critic said, “Chief among its strong points is Lori Petty, a buzz-cut fashion plate in a Prozac necklace, who brings the necessary gusto to Tank Girl’s flippancy.”

5. Joe Spinell (1936-1989)

Though you’ll spot him in several legit masterpieces (in the employ of the Corleone family, as Rocky’s “cheap second-rate loanshark” of a boss, giving Travis Bickle the namesake gig in “Taxi Driver”) it is for a couple of bravura turns in cult scary movies that Joe Spinell is most renowned.

“Maniac” (1980) remains one of the greatest cinematic depictions of madness ever. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a deranged serial killer attempting to form a normal relationship with a pretty photographer while trying, unsuccessfully, to quell his bloody urges. Rife with violence, gore and disturbing imagery, the movie remains highly controversial, though Spinnel’s sweaty, twitching, wide-eyed performance is typically offered at least begrudging respect even by otherwise dismissive critics. The man is palpably dangerous.

In “The Last Horror Film” (1982), Spinell is New York City cabbie Vinny Durand, an aspiring filmmaker obsessed with an international cult actress. Unbelievably, the movie was actually shot on location at the Cannes Film Festival, where Vinny goes in an attempt to meet the woman and convince her to appear in his directorial debut. Nothing is going his way, and there’s a killer stalking the festival besides, so he decides kidnapping is the best way to charm/protect her. In one particularly memorable scene, Spinell actually climbed up the side of a hotel, champagne bottle in hand.

Sadly, his own end was bloody as his most iconic movies. Spinell was known to heavily abuse drugs and alcohol throughout his life, which greatly exacerbated his hemophilia. At the age of 52, he died in his apartment in Queens after slipping in the tub, having cut himself badly on his glass shower door. He took a nap instead of calling for help and bled to death.

6. Tura Satana (1938-2011)

That Tura Satana did not go on to a butt-kicking, Pam Grier-type of career is a tragedy on par with the sinking of the Titanic.

OK, maybe not.

But it is a cinematic crime that ranks up there with some of M. Night Shyamalan’s lesser offerings. Harsh but true.

Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi was a Japanese American actress, cabaret star, exotic dancer (and by all accounts, force of nature) best known for starring in Russ Meyer’s masterpiece (sorry, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” in 1965.

She plays Varla, leader of a crazed trio of go-go dancers who take off across the California desert in cool sports cars looking for fun and trouble — not necessarily in that order.

The film is a beloved cult object known for its violence, provocative depiction of reversed gender roles (it has been embraced by many feminists as an important movie), eminently quotable dialogue — and also the powerhouse performance of Satana.

Besides the infamously sexy costume, which she designed, she did all of her own stunts and fight scenes, which becomes even more impressive when you consider the film was shot on location in the desert outside Los Angeles, when the temperature topped 100 degrees during the day and plummeted past freezing at night. She even supposedly came up with many of the film’s best lines.

Unfortunately, it was definitely a high-water mark for her career-wise.

She made some lesser films (appearing three times in the schlocky “Astro-Zombies” series) and survived a tumultous personal life, but never again got a true chance to shine. The world just wasn’t ready for her. Maybe we still aren’t.

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Summer of McGee Marathon — 10: ‘The Long Lavender Look’ is well worth, well, a long look

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Seedy tropical climate? Check.
Colorful supporting characters — including a despicable but not unrealistic villain (or two)? Check.
A complicated plot that at times threatens to buck the reader but ultimately comes to a satisfying conclusion? Check.
Meyer? Please, Lord, tell me it’s got a healthy dose of everyone’s favorite sidekick economist.
Eh, kind of.

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Aside from a skimpy dose of McGee’s best buddy, though, “The Long Lavender Look” has quickly risen into the top tier of series installments for my money, jostling shoulders with personal faves “Blue,” “Gold,” “Orange” and “Indigo,” vying for the top spot in my imminent list of The Best of McGee.

Published in 1970, the 12th novel in the series, “Lavender” bares some similarities to “Brown” in that it is set in a small, seemingly nice enough Florida town that is of course actually simmering with secrets. You know, McGee’s natural milieu.

He and Meyer are hauling ass home from a wedding down south, driving very fast on a deserted Florida highway late at night (like you do), when an of course beautiful young woman, barefoot and of course wearing nothing more than a look of surprise, dashes across the road just in front of the car.
McGee of course is able to swerve and just barely miss her, but his choice custom Rolls-Royce, Miss Agnes, goes off the road and sinks in 10 feet of water tepid Florid swamp water.

The girl of course vanishes, and, after dragging themselves out the muck, the plot of course thickens when McGee and Meyer are shot at by some guy in a pickup truck.
They of course evade him and make their way to a service station, but are then shocked when, rather quickly, they are arrested and charged with the murder of a local scumbag they never even met.
The sheriff is of course a hard case determined to pin the crime on two shady outsiders.
There is of course a gorgeous lonely waitress who knows all the hot gossip and falls for McGee.
There is of course a crooked deputy who may or may not be involved.
And of course there is a huge pile of ill-gotten cash hanging around someplace, the spoils of a long-unsolved heist from years before.

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This is no doubt sounding rather implausible and convoluted, but it clips along with MacDonald’s usual wonderfully spare style and fluidity — and I was absolutely down for the ride from page one.

What I find especially interesting here, however, is MacDonald’s (intentional? accidental?) exploration of his most famous creation’s boundless capacity for self-delusion. This, ultimately, is a story about lies — the ones we tell each other and ourselves.

See, having long since found the world insufficiently satisfying, McGee galavants about safely cloaked in the delusion that he is some kind of hero, a beach-bum Robin Hood, a knight in tarnished armor tilting at the windmills of malice, unfairness, corruption, et al.
And though he admits the ridiculous nature of this fantasy (he does none of this for free, after all) and often even mocks himself for it, he simultaneously can’t give it up. That’s perhaps understandable, because what is he without it? A nicer-than-average mercenary? Just another aging adventurer doomed to die alone? An over-the-hill solider of fortune?
Someday, he knows, his reflexes will slow and he won’t be able to live this way anymore. He’ll be killed or, at best, forced to retire (like for-real retire, not his usual piecemeal “retirement” ) and what then? Who is Travis McGee if not the world’s greatest salvage consultant?

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None of this is stated outright in “Lavender,” of course, but MacDonald brings it to mind nonetheless by allowing McGee the immediate and laser-intense ability to see through other people’s ideas of themselves. He’s a harsh — but not inaccurate — judge of what he observes and we, the reader, see him just as clearly.

Example: Meyer is beaten pretty badly by the aforementioned crooked deputy, and though the Sheriff (who turns out to be a pretty fair, if somewhat compromised, guy) fires him immediately, McGee sets about searching him out for a bit of retribution upon his own conditional release from the clink.

McGee freely admits Meyer is the most peaceful guy in the world and wouldn’t want any more violence to be done, especially not in his name, but he needs a victim to avenge.
The more he goes on and on about how great a guy Meyer is as he looks for this dirty cop, the more it comes to sound like he’s just trying to work himself up. He needs a crusade. Meyer doesn’t want revenge and McGee knows it — but he also can’t help himself from taking personally every injury and slight that comes down the pike.

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Example: The gorgeous lonely waitress, Betsy, is the subject of much inner-admonishing by McGee for being overly romantic and gullible. He accuses her of living in a fairy tale and behaving as if her whole life was one ridiculous romantic melodrama, while also pumping her for information, allowing her to cook for him, and being begrudgingly somehow forced to go to bed with her.
He’s right, of course. She is all of those things — and downright annoying at times — but she’s also a decent person who deserves better than she gets after taking up with McGee.

Doesn’t matter, though, because she is (spoiler alert) way more important to Trav bereft of a pulse than she ever could have been alive and doing her own cheesy, cliched (but earnest) best to please him.
Alive she was a dumb, sweet, bland girl who acted as lover/informant/cook/maid as needed — you know, basically McGee’s own domestic worst nightmare.
But dead?
Well, no sooner is she snuffed than McGee starts to think ol’ Betsy was a saint, a beautiful selfless creature whose untimely demise ranks as a tragedy up there with the attack on Pearl Harbor — a wrong he must at all costs avenge.
Seems the well-endowed waitress (her breasts merit repeat mention by several characters, so you know they were impressive) was actually the only sort of woman McGee could ever truly love all along: a victim.

Boy, that lance must be getting heavy, Trav.

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If any of that seems snarky on my part it absolutely wasn’t mean to. I really enjoyed this book and I’m a fan of the Travis McGee character. The fact that he is a complicated, irrational, sometimes downright unpleasant guy driven by semiconscious predilections he doesn’t totally understand (or even always recognize) is all part of the truly impressive work done by MaDonald. He has created a real person in McGee. And somehow, even when you don’t like him, you’re rooting for him. I am, anyway.

Special note: We get another repeat character here, and not just a reference to her like in the previous book.
The woman Travis took up with in “Yellow” comes back at the end of this one to nursemaid him after he’s laid low by one of the more severe beatings he has taken so far in the series.

I enjoy recurring characters, as it adds a kind of continuity to the series which otherwise (by design, admittedly) is sometimes overly episodic. Very little damage, physical or emotional, tends to carry over from one to the next.
Again, I understand that was the intent, as the books were meant to be read in pretty much any order, picked up randomly from a bus station or supermarket rack based on the presence of MacDonald’s name, the character’s name, or just a sexy cover image, but it’s still nice to see this great writer expanding and elaborating the world he created.

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Up next … “A Tan and Sandy Silence.”

 

 

Summer of McGee Marathon — 9: ‘Dress Her in Indigo’ sees Trav and Meyer on a crazy ‘vacation’ south of the border

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Here in the middle of the series, John D. MacDonald was on a bit of a streak. 

“Dress Her in Indigo,” the 11th Travis McGee novel, is another solid upper-shelf entry in the saga, the perfect followup to the highly enjoyable outings of “Gray” and “Brown” after the back-to-back slump of “Amber” and “Yellow.” 

Though I couldn’t find exactly when in 1969 the book was published, I feel like it must have been later in the year, as the book is steeped in a very “What’s with these crazy hippie kids today?”-type vibe. A Puritanical certainty that all them damn long-hairs are drugged out and violent, which I can only imagine was at least partially inspired by the Manson Family murders, which took place from July to August. 

Or maybe not. Maybe that was just in the air at the time (dig this wild Pan Books cover below!) Either way, it sometimes reads like the way a man who lived through the depression would imagine all hippies live and think (and MacDonald was born in 1916, just saying).

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Regardless, it’s a fun ride. McGee, as a favor, accompanies Meyer down to Mexico to investigate the “accidental” death of Meyer’s friend’s wild daughter, who had taken off and fallen in with a rough crowd, a roving band of drug-and-sex-loving hippies. 

The scenes of tourists/locals/expatriates mingling in Mexico are brilliantly written, a kind of sordid, dangerous melting pot that made me think of Casablanca or Mos Eisley. As Kirkus said, “the predatory decadence of this scene has quite a hook.”

Indeed it does. A review for Pornokitsch.com said the book may be the best so far. Though I’m not sure about all that — my own fave is still either “Orange” or “Gold” — I’d certainly agree it’s one of the best.

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It’s a more meditative installment, though, with less overt action than many. That might turn some off. 

But, of course, any book that features so much Meyer gets bonus points from me. The soulful economist has quickly become one of my favorite aspects of the series. MacDonald himself must have agreed, too, as Meyer quickly became a markedly bigger piece of the picture and much more involved and essential to the plot of many installments since his introduction. 

My favorite part of “Indigo,” however, is the cornucopia of colorful characters, almost all of whom are at least mildly sympathetic (with one cartoonishly evil exception).

Overall, it’s a story about escape and people trying to get away from something or someone, usually themselves. Some are fleeing into the history, art and archeology of Mexico. Others dive recklessly into drugs and alcohol. Still others smother their sadness and insecurity in sex and violence. And McGee? His escape remains the same as always: the thrill of the hunt. Facing off against the windmill. Stepping up to every single fight that comes along.

Oh, and women. The man sees plenty of action in this one. Rest assured.

Isolation, too, is a theme. People seeking it, using money to ensure it, and the grim humor inside the revelation of how ironic it is that ultimately nobody can truly live all on their own. How even those few precious contacts the most cautious people allow themselves can result in terrible, even lethal, damage — a lesson McGee himself struggles with quite often. 

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Side note: I thought it odd as I read, but then promptly forgot, the scene in which McGee breezily recounts his previously assisting Hollywood starlet Lysa Dean (in “The Quick Red Fox”) with an embarrassing blackmail situation at a party to people he did not know and who seemed less than trustworthy. It was a bit too cavalier for the typically tight-mouthed, too-cool-for-school salvage consultant. The aforementioned Pornokitsch review reminded me of the strange moment, claiming it perhaps foreshadows some “unfinished business” between McGee and the silver screen siren.

I’m all in on that idea! “Red” was terrific and Dean a standout character who I would absolutely not mind seeing return to complicate Trav’s life later down the road.

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This book wrapped up the ‘60s, the tumultuous decade in which the series debuted five years (and 10 books!) ago. It was the end of an era and a turning point for the country. Nothing would ever be the same.

I think the McGee books are especially fascinating to me for all the ways MacDonald’s worldview is simultaneously shockingly progressive (environmental and economic concerns, a healthy skepticism about technology, government and pop culture, frank depictions of sexuality and female empowerment and race relations) and tragically of-his-time (errant doses of casual racism and misogyny, a deep and abiding distrust of most young people, unfortunate depictions of homosexuals of both genders, and a general father-knows-best ‘60s swagger behind all McGee’s decisions — something especially evident in the finale of this particular novel). 

Now, would I say that those (would you even call them flaws?) aspects limit my enjoyment of the series? No, not at all. In fact, I think there’s something to be said for a complicated, sometimes uncomfortable protagonist (“NYPD Blue” is one of my all-time favorite shows and Dennis Franz’s portrayal of Andy Sipowicz is a big part of that).

But, perhaps sadly, I don’t think McGee would be allowed star in a series by today’s rampant culture police, even one set in the ‘60s. We’re in a very different moment now, for better or worse, and Travis McGee (maybe even MacDonald himself, to a degree) is an especially important case study because he is an incredibly intelligent and sensitive character both very much ahead of, and tragically mired in, his own era.

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But, then again, aren’t most of us?

What objectively acceptable traits do current fictional heroes (or us real people, for that matter) manifest that will be, in 50 years, considered “unfortunate?”

Yeah, I liked the story well enough but the protagonist was always driving around in this gasoline-powered car, which I found really troubling. 

I get that she’s supposed to be like a complicated anti-heroine and all, but she eats meat like four times in the book and I mean, really? It’s problematic. 

It’s a fine story for what it is, but why all those depictions of people reading stuff printed on actual paper was necessary I do not know. 

I’m serious! People — like just any two random adults — were having kids willy-nilly with no government permit or anything! It was kind of triggering for me.

Myself? I’m with McGee. 

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‘Strike from the Gutter’ – my latest story is up now on YouTube

 

“Strike from the Gutter” – my latest published piece of short fiction – is now on YouTube, as read by the brilliant Jason Hill.

It’s a fun new take on the vampire-vs-slayer scenario, set against the backdrop of pro bowling.

Chilling Tales does great work and Jason is magnificent as always, so I highly recommend checking it out when you can.

Thanks for reading, all. Promise to be back soon with my latest Travis McGee review. Things have been busy around here, trying to cram the most into our brief sunny summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Take care of yourselves and be safe.

The natural choice: My picks for flicks that creatively capture the great (?) outdoors

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review. 

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With summertime at last upon us in earnest and the good weather’s siren song luring us away from offices, shops and — ugh! — jobs, not to mention the imminent birthday of OG nature boy Henry David Thoreau (he’d been 202 this year, if he hadn’t kicked off at 44 from a crazily effective one-two punch of TB and bronchitis, the latter he reportedly contracted during a late-night excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rainstorm) it’s the perfect time to consider the wilder side of life.

Cinematically, of course, there’s no need to get all dirty or anything.

And if you too prefer a comfy couch and cool drink to what Thoreau called, “the infinite leisure and repose of nature,” but still want that special feeling that comes only from communing with Mother Earth, then I offer up these movies as a happy medium.

Some are a tad sentimental, and others depict nature as harsh and her minions indifferent, if not hostile, to we soft modern people. But all are masterful achievements and well worth your time.

So, as my own dear mother was wont to say: “Go outside and play!”

Or, you know, don’t.

1. ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ (2007)

For a very different sort of nature that what we’ve got going on around here, I recommend Werner Herzog’s doc about the wild and strange region of Antarctica — and the even wilder and stranger breed of human who chooses to live and work there.

Herzog talks with McMurdo Station service workers, an iceberg geologist, a zoologist studying seals, and a research diver, but the real star here is the stark, surreal landscape itself. This is a haunting place, and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger shoots captivating images of ice tunnels, ice mountains, ice-covered plateaus — basically, lots of snow and ice beneath endless blue skies, all accompanied by Herzog’s distinctive philosophical narration.

I was surprised to find myself moved by one now-infamous scene wherein, despite promising at the outset “I would not come up with another film about penguins,” Herzog (and thus we the audience) watches a lost penguin confidently marching in the wrong direction. Believing itself bound for the sea, the furry little bird strides toward a certain death in the barren interior of the continent, in a kind of mirror of all those lost explorers so sure they would conquer the land, as Herzog’s appropriately chilly monologue asks, “Is there such a thing as insanity in a penguin?”

2. ‘Wild’ (2014)

This Jean-Marc Vallée-helmed adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” at first did not appeal to me. Oh, I thought, yeah: Divorced woman finds self while hiking. No thanks.

I was so wrong.

This flick racked up a ton of accolades and impressed bunches of critics (including this one) and, I understand, got a whole lot of people out hiking. Also: Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, people. So what’s not to like?

It follows Strayed (Witherspoon), a divorced, recovering drug addict who, despite having almost no outdoor skills or experience, leaves Minneapolis, Minnesota, to hike 1,100 miles of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother (Dern) having recently died, a trauma that sent her into a deep depression that she tried to numb with heroin and anonymous sex, which of course destroyed her marriage.

Filmed on location in Oregon and California, the movie does a great job of seesawing between intense beauty and the harsh realities of being out in nature. Are the rewards worth the risk? They were for Strayed. Watch and see for yourself.

3. ‘The Hunter’ (2011)

Like Reese Witherspoon in the previous outing, this flick also sees our protagonist (Willem Dafoe) enter the wildness looking for something. No, not self-discovery and healing. This guy is a professional hunter hired by a shadowy military biotech company to travel to Tasmania and bring back the world’s only remaining Tasmanian tiger — a near-mythic beast thought to be extinct since the 1930s — if it exists at all, that is.

Filmed entirely in Tasmania, the film boasts “staggeringly beautiful landscapes,” in the words of Variety. I agree, knowing little to nothing about Tasmania before watching this I have to say it’s apparently a rugged, beautiful and harsh place.

Dafoe gives a typically wonderful performance and Sam “He can’t see us if we don’t move” Neill is excellent in a strong supporting role.

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To see a man trek into the wild for a very different reason, consider this little-remembered drama, an adaptation of writer/environmentalist Farley Mowat’s 1963 autobiography about his time spent observing wolves in subarctic Canada.

It stars Charles Martin Smith as a government biologist sent into the wilderness to study the caribou population, whose decline is believed to be caused by hungry wolves even though no one has seen a wolf kill a caribou. It also features Brian “He drew first blood” Dennehy, so there’s a win.

Cool aside: It was reportedly the first Disney film to be released under the then-new Walt Disney Pictures label.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised the film’s visuals — “The scenery is often spectacularly beautiful” — while adding that “Perhaps the best thing about the film is that the wolves are never made to seem like strange but cuddly dogs. They look like wolves, not especially threatening but still remote and complete unto themselves.”

Just like nature itself.

5. ‘K2’ (1991)

Probably my favorite mountain-set movie of all time, loosely based on the true story of Jim Wickwire and Louis Reichardt, the first Americans to summit the eponymous peak, this action-drama was shot on stunning location in Kashmir, Pakistan and British Columbia.

Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn stars, alongside Matt Craven, as two longtime buddies who escape their white-collar corporate gigs by climbing mountains on weekends. During one such excursion, they meet a famed billionaire adventurer and his climbing team testing new gear, obviously preparing for a big excursion. They ultimately prove themselves to the guy and thus finagle their way onto his team, which plans to attempt K2, the second highest peak in the world.

Though it was not a commercial hit, the film’s visuals are stunning and the ever-present danger on the mountain is palpable.

6. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1954)

An oldie but a goodie, I much prefer this Luis Buñuel-helmed take on the classic Daniel Defoe novel to watching Tom Hanks chat with a volleyball for a million hours.

Daniel O’Herlihy is the titular castaway, stuck on a remote island for about 30 years with only his talking parrot, pet dog, and a tame goat for company until he assists an escaped prisoner, one of the cannibalistic Carib people who occasionally pass by, who becomes his friend/assistant/hostage.

It has some unfortunate for-it’s-time stuff going on in the race relations department, but the performances are great and the landscape lusciously depicted. The movie was primarily shot in Mexico by a crew of only 60 people, which no doubt contributed to the authentic feeling of isolation that permeates this movie.

A lot of the danger was real, too.

From Wikipedia: “The crew took daily doses of Diodoquin and aralen to guard against dysentery and malaria, respectively. A security squad of local Manzanillas kept snakes, wild boar, and other dangerous animals at bay with guns and machetes.”

 

Summer of McGee Marathon — 8: ‘The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper’ is deceptively complicated

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A letter from a deceased lover sends Travis McGee to a small town to investigate the seemingly unexplainable psychosis that is gripping the dead woman’s daughter, a strange condition that is driving her to attempt suicide and leaves her memory full of more holes than a slice of swiss cheese at a buffet for mice in this, the tenth novel in John D. MacDonald’s thriller/mystery series. 

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Published in 1968, I found “Brown” to be another solid upper-shelf outing, much like the previous installment. 

Even as the grown daughter of McGee’s deceased paramour seems determined to die (but unable to remember why, or even attempting to shuffle herself off the coil), intrigue and murder surrounds the situation. In the words of Kirkus, “There are others who precede her (a doctor, a nurse) and while the story seems overly complicated and diffused this time, ho [sic] one can knock its flushed allure since McGee’s powers to persuade or seduce seem more puissant than ever.”

I’ll agree with the overly complicated criticism. Much like in “Gray” the plot sometimes ties itself in knots this reader found un-undoable. But once more we see how a master of pace and dialogue like MacDonald can whisk you away on a tidal wave of momentum so powerful you barely care if everything is making total sense and simply trust things will shake out and that McGee will explain all in time (to another confused character, if not you directly). Trust in Trav, says I. 

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This novel is especially noteworthy as it shows McGee, whose aloof cynicism can at times come close to actual psychopathology, capable of quick and sincere relationships, too. Though it’s the request of a dead love that brings him to the sinister little Florida burb in question, and he does harbor a genuine humane-type of investment in what happens to the deceased woman’s obviously sick daughter, it is the sudden, violent death of a nurse who he’s only just met but has become taken with that primarily drives our favorite salvage consultant to get the bottom of things in this one. 

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Mild spoiler alert: Once again the villain at the heart of the horrors is … (drum roll, please) … a shady land developer! Oh, how MacDonald hates him some shady land developers. 

Actually, easy as it is to knock the author’s go-to bad guy, it’s important to remember he was talking about these things even years before this, in the early ‘60s. The man was so far out in front he was blazing a road nobody even yet knew we’d have to take it someday.

From Wikipedia: “MacDonald is credited with being one of the earliest to write on the effect of real estate booms on the environment, and his novel ‘A Flash Of Green’ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) is a good example of this. Many later Florida crime, detective and mystery writers, such as Paul Levine, Randy Wayne White, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.”

I haven’t read “A Flash of Green,” but I have read 10 McGee books and the bad guys are more often than not shady real estate goons. And, reading the McGee books one after another, without a break between, it can become a bit much, the anti-development harping. But when you consider the time and the place, and how few other authors — let alone authors talking about Florida; it’s not like he was on some save-the-ancient-Redwoods or pro-Amazon kick here — were addressing the issue, it’s hard to hate. 

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Looking at the big picture, this book is the second published in 1968, the last time more than one McGee novel would be put out in a single year, and it’s the penultimate book of the ‘60s, the decade in which the series began just four short years (and 10 books!) ago. MacDonald’s skill is only surpassed by his productivity, it seems. 

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He was 52-years-old at the time, just four years away from winning the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor — the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement and consistent quality — and less than 20 years away from the grave (he died at 70, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin).

Ironically, he neither died nor was born in Florida (he was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania), that state which so captivated and inspired him and was the home of (and, for my money, most effective setting for) Travis McGee, his greatest literary creation. 

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At the time, the most recent non-McGee novel he’d released was ’77’s “Condominium,” which many consider to be one of his greatest even to this day. And though he had only a few more standalone novels in him by now, we McGee fans are fortunate enough to have 11 more (and one more film) still ahead of us.

Summer of McGee Marathon — 7: ‘Pale Gray for Guilt’ is just plain good fun

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The ninth of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books is solid upper-shelf fun. I would not count it among true top-shelf Trav (Blue, Gold, Orange), but neither is it no-brand happy hour swill McGee either (Pink, Yellow, Amber).

No, Gray (published in 1968) rests among those other deservedly revered titles in the series which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to anyone even slightly more than casually interested in the character: Purple and Red.

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This is one of the more personal cases McGee’s become involved in (in the best possible way, in that regard it reminded me of Gold).

A friend and former football pal of McGee’s is having business trouble, trouble which seems to get inordinately worse the more adamantly he refuses to sell his mid-sized marina business to a group of shady property developers (oh, how MacDonald hates those shady property developers).

Quickly, things get out of hand and the guy (the wonderfully named Tush Bannon) not only goes bankrupt, but also he gets evicted and soon ends up dead under mysterious circumstances. Of course, McGee leaps into action to prove his friend was murdered and make as much trouble as possible for the guilty.

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Meyer features heavily in this one, which is always good for bonus points in my scorebook. And although there were times when I didn’t totally understand the whole “stock market fraud” subplot, it comes together well enough to make the exact details irrelevant. 

Also of note regarding this title is the introduction of (the also wonderfully named) Puss Killian, who I am given to understand will be, much like Chookie, a returning woman in McGee’s life — though one with supposedly much greater personal significance. 

Indeed, everybody’s favorite salvage consultant seemed pretty hung up on Puss. A nice touch of genuine pathos from a main character who can come across as a bit too removed and detached at times, in my opinion. 

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Yes, overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable installment and one I highly recommend. 

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Now, on to “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper” as this Summer of McGee Marathon continues…

Summer of McGee Marathon — 6: ‘Amber’ and ‘Yellow’ do not mix (for me)

Two perfectly passable entries in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, neither “Darker than Amber” nor “One Fearful Yellow Eye” (the seventh and eighth installments, respectively) made especially great impressions on me. 

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Perhaps it’s just because they come on the heels of my two so-far favorites (besides the first book, of course, which is perfect), “A Deadly Shade of Gold” and “Bright Orange for the Shroud,” that they seem lesser in comparison, but I found both of these books to be simply fun enough to not put them down.

Though perfectly adequate crime/mystery tales, and swift reads to be sure, already, just days after finishing the second of them, they’re blurring and fading in my mind.

Ironically, “Amber” has a crackajack opening and then devolves into simplicity while “Yellow” drags from page one but then quickly explodes in a hellacious finale. Between those respective enjoyable bookends, though, is a lot of passable plot.

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To be clear: MacDonald is a master. So even when the story isn’t really grabbing me I find his dialogue and the powerful momentum of his plot enjoyable. Like I wrote before, it’s somehow easier to keep reading even if you’re a little lost, or maybe less interested, than it is to put the book down, an achievement which I do not think another author that I’ve encountered has ever managed. Even when he slumps, he soars. 

There are nice moments of insight into the character of McGee in both of these books, something which MacDonald is adroit at dolling out just enough of to keep his main character somehow familiar and mysterious over the course of the series.

Also, he works in supporting characters that have long storied histories with McGee in amazingly effective but incredibly brief ways, telling you everything you need to know about the person (and more about McGee) and how they know each other, but never taking you out of the story for more than a few sentences at most. It’s a remarkable skill on display here, I can’t stress it enough.

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Also, “Amber” is important because it’s one of just two McGee books ever filmed (the first; the second came in 1983, but more on that later).

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The 1970 adaptation was directed by Robert Clouse (who also directed “Enter the Dragon”) and stars, for some inexplicable reason, Rod Taylor (pansy mama’s boy Mitch Brenner in “The Birds”) as McGee. According to Wikipedia: “Critical reception was positive, but the film was not a financial success.”

It’s available for free on YouTube, and can be found on DVD fairly easily, for those curious. I watched the first 30-40 minutes, and it, much like the original book, was to me simply OK.

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In the book, McGee and Meyer are fishing when a woman is thrown, bound and tied to a cement block, off a nearby bridge. McGee dives down deep and saves her, and the two ultimately find she is a participant in an ongoing murder/robbery scheme which sees beautiful babes seduce wealthy-ish (never rich enough to draw suspicion) old men and then get the smitten geriatrics to take them on a  cruise, where one of their male accomplices promptly murders the hapless paramour, takes their traveling cash and dumps them overboard.

It’s a handy, effective plan that’s been going OK for some time, but now this girl has had a bit of a falling out with the gang and so they tried to off her. She draws McGee and Meyer into a plan to assist her in recovering her stashed share of the loot, but then promptly turns up dead. So the boys decide to do what they can to get the money themselves — and make some trouble for this ghoulish gang of murdering thieves along the way. 

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I can see why they picked it for the first film adaptation, as much of the action takes place at a single location, onboard a cruise ship. Here the point is driven home again, with full force: McGee is a sucker for ladies in distress, even objectively villainous ones. He has a real wounded-bird complex, that Trav McGee.

It’s an interesting read, and a fun cinematic artifact, but strictly for completists only. 

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“Yellow” sees McGee trek to snowbound Chicago at Christmastime to assist a friend, the young widow of a recently deceased famous surgeon, in locating the dead guy’s missing money.

Before he shuffled off, the good doctor apparently liquidated almost all of his assets and they’re gone without a trace. Now, everybody thinks the hot young wife has made off with the goods, but McGee, who once upon a time saved her life down in Florida, knows her well enough to know better.

The subsequent investigation sees him question the doctor’s terrible grownup children, including the daughter’s horrible ex-husband, a colleague or two, and the fiercely loyal housekeeper, all while grumpily donning more layers of clothing than he likes and steeling his bronze bod against the c-c-c-cold.

It’s a bit of a slog, both for McGee and the reader, but one that pays off with a great final showdown (back in a warmer climate, it should be noted) that somehow involves escaped old fogey Nazis! Who doesn’t love that? 

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There’s just something about McGee that doesn’t work as well in colder climes. He does OK when he goes to Mexico or California, or even the mountainous West, but be it New York (in “Pink”) or Chicago (here), everybody’s favorite philosopher/salvage consultant does not travel North well. This one, also, is for completists only. 

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Summer of McGee Marathon — 5: Wrap yourself up in ‘Bright Orange for the Shroud’

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And a new high-water mark was set.

“Bright Orange for the Shroud,” the sixth book in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, has officially replaced the first as my own personal favorite. 

Published in 1965, this one has all the essential elements of a good McGee story – seedy tropical locales, a semi-complicated criminal conspiracy, colorful supporting characters, a vile but realistic villain, clear and exciting action scenes – and they are flawlessly executed. 

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It easily replaces the previous entry, “A Deadly Shade of Gold” (though still one of the strongest in the series), as my first choice for a film adaptation, too. It would perfectly introduce McGee as a character, his typical escapades, and provide ample juicy side roles for many great performers (barely any trace of Meyer, though, which I don’t care for).

I especially love the aging con man in charge of the central scam, a career criminal grown excessively cautious as he has gotten older and wealthier.

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Plot-wise, it’s fairly straightforward: An acquaintance returns to the Busted Flush busted and asks McGee for help. 

Arthur ran in McGee’s social crowd of semi-permanent beach people for a time about two years ago, but left when he married a saucy blond, who also hung around with the same crowd for a bit (something about her never sat right with McGee, though). She ultimately lured the amiable sap into a phony land development scheme and he has lost all of his considerable inheritance. He is practically on death’s doorstep health-wise when he stumbles back into McGee’s life seeking help. 

Assisting Arthur reclaim what he can of his moolah will take McGee into the shadowy underbelly of Florida, from posh cityscapes to dirt-floor Everglades poverty. 

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The dancer Chookie makes a reappearance here, which is awesome. She was one of my favorite characters and also one of the most developed females of the series, so it’s great to see her again. 

Also, in the course of the investigation McGee meets my favorite villain of the series yet: Boone “Boo” Waxwell, a backwoods psychopath who proves McGee’s shadowy double in many ways – and his equal in a brawl. 

Waxwell has much in common with Junior Allen, the bad guy in the first McGee book, and Max Cady from “The Executioners.” MacDonald obviously had a real distaste for a certain type of hillbilly macho man, the type who are intelligent enough to rise above their circumstances and contribute something to the world, but instead choose to wallow, who seem to enjoy making beasts of themselves. Waxwell is greedy, sadistic and cunning, and makes a great adversary.

True, there are some of-it’s-time gender stuff going on here, especially in the Chookie/Arthur relationship, but a bit of that has pervaded every McGee book so far and I don’t think any of it goes so far as to be “problematic” when considered in context.

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Something I’m liking about this series very much is the reassuring theme that the world is generally a bad place but specifically a wonderful place. 

McGee has a clear pragmatic view of life and takes joy in simple pleasures. He understands he can’t win every time and he also knows that even if he did the world as a whole would still be going (to his mind) in a decidedly bad direction. But still he tries, and he often tries hardest for those who need a champion most. He takes his share of the spoils, mostly, but he’s not greedy or overly mercenary about it. Mostly, he works to make enough money so that he can be left alone. Who can’t relate to that?

I like the idea that one good person doing their best can make a world of difference for one other person at least, and that maybe if we all do that then the big problems will sort themselves out. 

Or maybe not. 

In the end, maybe it doesn’t even mater. Because our time here is short and because, as McGee teaches us, there is always a beautiful sunset to enjoy, honest love to make, fish to catch, booze to drink and countless other pleasures to be found in simply being alive if you are wise enough to enjoy them.

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This is a great crime/mystery tale and I highly recommend it, even if you are not interested in reading any other titles in the series. 

A summer of series reading: My picks for literary sagas worth slipping into

*Originally published in The Bainbridge Island Review. 

Summer is traditionally the time of the “beach read” — breezy, dynamic books that entertain, ask little of us, and provide the one intrinsic reward of any good vacation endeavor: pleasure.

So, as you set about deciding what books deserve a bit of your precious suitcase space, which ones will be the best distractions during your travels, or what to read while you enjoy some seasonal relaxation at home, consider diving into a series.

There is a reason nearly all of the most popular books of the last few decades (or at least those that have most impacted the broader culture) have grown into series: “A Song of Ice and Fire” (that’s “Game of Thrones” to you non-readers out there), the Harry Potter books, “Twilight,” the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, the “Dexter” series, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series … I could go on.

The joys of the novel series, following the exploits of a continuous cast of characters through the trials and tribulations of several books, getting to know them and their world, and really inhabiting the author’s mindset for a time, is a rare delight. And one the comparative down time of summer annually allows us.

Here then are my five picks for series summer reading for those looking for some serious escapist lit.

Read the rest here.