Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Point blank

Turner Classic Movies' ever-entertaining MovieMorlocks blog has called a Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon for today, the 20th anniversary of the actor's passing. I wouldn't dream of letting Morlock member Richard Harland Smith down on this occasion; we used to hang out at the Viand coffeeshop on E. 86th St. in Manhattan before he went Hollywood. (And no film writer should turn down an opportunity to write about Marvin, who was "central to the role of violence in the American cinema," wrote David Thomson.) But I can only half-fulfill one of his specific requests for this blog day.

Richard wanted to know more about two Marvin obscurities, the French film Canicule (Dog Day, released in 1984) and Richard Fleischer's The Spikes Gang (1974). I saw Dog Day, from crime film specialist Yves Boisset, on VHS many a dog day ago. An Internet Movie Database commentator calls it "weird French surrealism," which jibes with my recollection, as Marvin, on the lam with millions, plays cat-and-Miou Miou games with his co-star and a kid at a farmhouse. It's that rare film where the actor looks ill-at-ease, as if no one on set spoke English and could explain the storyline and its nuances to him. (Or maybe they chose not to say anything, to unsettle him.) That discomfort alone will make it worth a viewing for some, but I also recall it being a hard sit. (It went unreleased Stateside, but appears to be on DVD from a no-name label.)

Marvin was a large-and-in-charge kind of personality, and I prefer him that way, even when his characters are unmasked as buffoons or frauds. He was not ideally cast as Hickey in 1973's American Film Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh, but it is still a great Marvin performance, where he pulls out all the stops with little artifice. As patient Marvin fans know--and we are a forgiving lot--he could uplift a turkey by his mere presence. 1979's trouble-plagued Avalanche Express, which lost both director Mark Robson and co-star Robert Shaw during the production process, is worth sitting through simply to watch the actor strut his stuff in a ham-fisted spy vs. spy scenario (the avalanche, concocted by special effects ace John Dykstra, is also pretty good, and if you can't wait for it, it occurs 50 minutes in, for about seven minutes). But there is a difference between watching Marvin overcome miscasting or indifferent scripting, and seeing him belittled and cut down to size.

He is on terra firma in The Spikes Gang, and so am I. The United Artists release came and went in 1974, despite plum co-starring roles for Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith, fresh from George Lucas' smash American Graffiti, and Gary Grimes, who as the virginal Hermie got it on with Jennifer O'Neill in the equally successful loss-of-innocence tale Summer of 42 (1972) and its lower-libido 1974 sequel, Class of 44. Grimes had also saddled up for Dick Richards' unsung 1972 film The Culpepper Cattle Co., which, like The Spikes Gang, is a blood-soaked revisionist Western. Ignored in their day, both movies roam freely about cable stations, with the Fleischer film in active rotation on the Showtime channels.

I blogged a bit about Spikes on the Mobius Home Video Forum, as part of a long-running thread on cult movies. Here's a reprint of my entry (with redundancies removed):

"This Spain-shot Western, directed by the late Richard Fleischer, has no cult that I'm aware of, but based on a viewing earlier today maybe it should. It starts off as a somewhat larkish coming-of-age story, with Gary Grimes (whatever happened to?), and Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith as bored would-be cowboys who treat an injured outlaw (Lee Marvin, in a colorful, unsung portrayal). Encouraged by his bad example they up and leave their border homes for a life of banditry, eventually joined by Marvin when the cowchips hit the fan--but the life lessons they learn from him come at a lethal price. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., penned several anti-mythologizing Westerns (Hud, Hombre, and The Cowboys) but this adaptation of a Giles Tippette novel is by far their darkest, even more grim in the windup than The Culpepper Cattle Co. Fleischer doesn't quite bring out every contour but he keeps the blood pumping, and the final hotel room showdown between two of the characters is harrowing. Veteran Arthur Hunnicutt steals a scene and Noah Beery, Jr. turns up toward the very end. Leonard Maltin gives it *1/2 stars and comments "old-hat storyline has humor, and not much else" but why do I think he and/or his capsule writers have never actually seen it?"

If they had, they would see it for the quality piece it is. The Spikes Gang seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle with the other revisionist Westerns in release during the Vietnam Era, a genre worth disinterring in our own war-torn times. As I wrote, it's not top-tier; the prolific, underrated Fleischer, who was really cranking them out at this time in his career, was keeping his eye on the ball but the movie lacks that extra finesse that might really have put it over. Surprisingly, given how much they both worked on genre pictures, The Spikes Gang was only the second matchup for the director and Marvin, and the actor gives a seething, unpredictable performance as the untrustworthy Harry Spikes. You can see why a trio of farmhands, well-played by his co-stars, would want to emulate him; you can also see why they come to resist the lethal charm of his coercion.

But hell hath no fury like Lee Marvin. The Spikes Gang, worthy of reappraisal and a DVD release, would not be the same without him. Cinema itself is not the same without him.

RIP DVD Journal

The decade-old DVD Journal has announced that it's pressing the stop button on its operation. As site postings had slowed to a crawl in recent months I figured this was in the works, but I'll miss one of my favorite Monday morning stops. A lot of DVD review sites--and there are a lot of DVD review sites out there since the format emerged in 1997--are fannish and uninteresting, but The DVD Journal was consistently well-written by a group of West Coast film and TV buffs, who knew how to mix the techs-and-specs bric-a-brac with nuanced and thoughtful opinion. I trust their bylines will reemerge elsewhere.

The site's still up there, though, for browsing. While I'm on the subject, a shout-out to some of my other favorite DVD stops: the insanely detailed DVD Beaver, the wide-ranging DVD Talk, and, for hanging out, the Home Theater Forum.

It's said that DVD sales are slowing, and I would agree that the best way to approach the ludicrous format war in the high-definition niche of the market is to simply sit it out. But you wouldn't know it from my living-room cabinets, whose standard-format contents I'm having to rearrange as the shelves reach the boiling point with discs. If only it were all available over the net, in easy-to-file pixel rather than space-consuming hard disk form. I think, though, that the gain in convenience would be mitigated by the loss of community as everyone retreats to their computers to pick up the latest download.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Theater: Grease, and Greeks

Grease is the word again on Broadway, and Iphigenia gets an avant-gardish makeover, from Live Design magazine.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Superbad, better, and worse

Dispatches from the dog days of the cinema summer:

Superbad. Not supergood, only middling. It's hard to see how comedies, even more character-attuned ones, about teen horniness and pregnancy augur some sort of revolution or changing tide in the genre, as very generous critics have written. Still, co-writer and co-star Seth Rogen wins bravery points for making "Seth" (Jonah Hill), the porn- and penis-obsessed chubby kid, sexually ambiguous--are we to read Knocked Up as a "beard" movie, or is he just acknowledging a basic fact about unformed teenage sexuality that other filmmakers tip-toe around? Crystal-clear is that Rogen should have given his dumb-cop character less of a role; like Knocked Up, the overlong film plays like the extended edition DVD, with all the wisely deleted scenes retained. (You can bet that when it does hit DVD audiences who have already seen it will be zeroing in on the "good stuff," and leaving Rogen and his partner on the home cutting room floor.) And there is good stuff: Michael Cera, taller but basically, happily unchanged since Arrested Development, and Hill are appealing leads. YouTuber Christopher Mintz-Plasse, cast as "McLovin," is completely sui generis, and his initiation into many adult tribal rites over the course of the evening is one of the film's more interesting aspects (director Greg Mottola, returning to cinema after 1996's The Daytrippers, has an eye for unexpected talent). Hill's obsessive childhood drawings are hilarious (the credited artist should expect big sales). But the big deal I don't get.

Deep Water (opens tomorrow, IFC Films). An absorbing documentary, co-directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell. As America headed for the moon Britain was rapt as the first single-man attempt to circumnavigate the globe by boat, a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times, unfolded in 1968-1969. Struggling navigational aids salesman Donald Crowhurst, sailing his own self-made vessel, was the underdog in the race, but broke a world record. Then, prankishly submitting false daily mileage totals to further impress Fleet Street, in the hope that he would make up the differences, he fell far behind, a personal embarrassment that had catastrophic consequences as the loneliness of his near year-long voyage ate away at his mind and conscience. Tilda Swinton narrates, with Simon Russell Beale reading from Crowhurst's journals, a sobering account of disintegration and ruin augmented by his surviving family and friends, who continue to fathom his motives while mourning his passing. Of the many strong images that bring the 40-year-old story to life, the most eloquent is that of his abandoned craft, which languishes on a Caribbean atoll.

Death at a Funeral. The ads hopefully invoke Peter Sellers and Monty Python, but this is sub-A Fish Called Wanda hijinx at a memorial service in the English countryside, efficiently directed by farceur Frank Oz. The Yank contingent, a hysterically funny and oft-naked Alan Tudyk and a conniving Peter Dinklage, get the big laughs; the charm and workmanship, however, rest with its second-string Brits (like Rupert Graves, the ones not asked to make Harry Potter films). It was nice to see English rose Jane Asher as the wife of the deceased; the 60s-era muse of Paul McCartney has been "here, there, and everywhere" (a song she inspired) on the BBC but not in films, and she is still a smashing redhead at age 61.

Resurrecting the Champ (opens tomorrow, Yari Film Group). Samuel L. Jackson high-pitchedly wheezes his way through a scenario that ends up sentimentalizing identity theft. His homeless, punchdrunk ex-boxer claims to be a former world contender, which is catnip for a Denver reporter (Josh Hartnett), whose career is overshadowed by that of his sportscaster father. In the real world a reporter could easily Google or otherwise research Jackson's story; this being a film, however, the storyline ties itself into knots explaining how the fact-checking process failed as it all unravels in recriminations, hugs, and tears. Even if you can buy into its improbabilities this semi-true drama, from journalist-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie, fails the smell test. Hartnett, an iceberg of a performer, warms up a little as an annoyingly mannered Jackson emotes all over the place; worse is desperate housewife Teri Hatcher, who is simply incredible as a high-powered sports agent. Lurie, a middlebrow hack who ought to have known better, next threatens a kinder, gentler remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

Dedication (opens tomorrow, The Weinstein Group). Billy Crudup wants to make a romantic comedy, but can't commit. Last summer's Trust the Man was soiled by misogyny; this one, a first film from actor Justin Theroux, is even worse, a cringingly awful bag of tics and quirks with Crudup as an emotionally remote and distrustful children's book writer who is forced to surrender his baggage when he falls for the writer assigned to his latest project, played by Mandy Moore. She's cute but no match for Hurricane Billy as he showboats madly, not that I didn't applaud his championing of Gamera the giant flying turtle, one of his character's many pet obsessions. Crudup, whose girlfriend, Claire Danes, recently dumped him for his British twin, Hugh Dancy, is about as luckless in film roles as he is in love, and should I think break away from his New York comfort zone to find parts more suitable to his talent, which needn't announce itself so harshly. With Bob Balaban, who is, I think, some sort of new mythological creature, half man, half desk, in another part where he is mostly visible only from the mid-torso up.

The Invasion. The first Body Snatchers film, in 1956, is one of the tautest B-movies ever; the 1978 remake, effectively transposed and richly peopled. The 1993 version drifted towards cipher characterizations, a pod-personing now completed as shrink Nicole Kidman, clad in tight sweaters, races bustline-first from D.C. to Baltimore to save her son from the ranks of the zomboid infected. (Part of it was shot at my in-laws' Baltimore condo/hotel complex, a picaresque place, gloomily shot, that has been relocated to the center of town). The main problem (other than the fact that it's completely routine, like Kidman's other failed redos and remakes, and has that hip, silly flash-forward editing and a flat happy ending) is its insistence that our propensity toward war and hostility is what defines us as human, which it doesn't really refute. It makes being a pod (or, in this case, projectile-vomiting person, an unappealing substitute) seem like a good deal, and suggests that maybe "podding" (or "projectiling") is something we might aspire to, but that we're not yet good enough for. Is ending all war and giving peace a chance being a pod person? Stupid. But what I'd expect from nominal Euro-hack director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose films, like the Hitler bunker account Downfall, wallow in the shallows of human existence.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Games people play

Iraq, health care, and the environment make for meaningful, insightful documentaries, but sometimes you need a hit of something else. I'm not necessarily the target audience for Seth Gordon's The King of Kong, which Picturehouse opens tomorrow, Aug. 17. I've never made it past the first rung of Donkey Kong, its ostensible subject, and probably haven't picked up a joystick since it and Pac-Man were in vogue 25 years ago. My sister was more the gamer, hooking up the TV to Colecovision and Intellivision (what might those be worth on Ebay?), and I took my brother-in-law, who has carried the flame into the Xbox era, to the screening. But I have no hesitation calling this delightful film one of the best of the year.

Gordon, who spoke after the screening, said he got lucky, as he and his production crew ponged between locations on a budget summed up by the film's subtitle, A Fistful of Quarters. Their subject was Redmond, WA, resident Steve Wiebe, the Avis of old-wave gamers. Wiebe's whole life, his wife and friends explain, is a matter of trying harder and never quite hitting No. 1, not in football, and not in the workforce. Though a loving husband and father, and an earnest, likable person, he has disappointment etched in his manner. But during a spell of unemployment Wiebe, like Robert Redford in The Natural, found his calling, his own personal Wonderboy of wiring and circuitry: Donkey Kong. Playing on a machine he installed in his garage, he mastered its nuances, which are carefully explained. And then he went for the gold, setting a record score that in 2005 made him (briefly) more famous than favorite son Bill Gates and his wife Nicole, to her supportive embarrassment, "The First Lady of Donkey Kong."

It takes about two and a half hours of concentrated play to reach high-score status. As animated points and vectors overlaid images from the game, I realized I'd probably still never get off the ground floor. So far, so geeky. But more a two-minute TV segment than a movie. This is where it all gets interesting. Wiebe's accomplishment smoked out Billy Mitchell, who as a teen set the long-standing Donkey Kong record, all the way back in 1982. Mitchell, who hawks his family's barbecue sauce, cultivates an aloof, slightly satanic manner; he is the Hertz of vintage gamers and the player credited for putting it on the competitive map. A lot of what we learn about Mitchell, who has a Mephisto mustache to complement his period hairstyle, is through inference, in whispers that echo throughout the halls of Twin Galaxies, the organization that tallies gaming records. We enter its peculiar corridors of power, where the masters of QBert and Galaga go for affirmation, and where Wiebe makes his case for greatness at a tournament held at New Hampshire's hallowed video emporium, Funspot. But Mitchell, on whose fame Twin Galaxies was built, trumps him, not in person but via a suspicious videotape of his own new record-shattering score.

Wiebe, whose name no one at Twin Galaxies can properly pronounce, inherits the mantle of underdog, and a documentary that had been about middle-aged gaming deepens into a fascinating chronicle of sportsmanship, richly eccentric but never less than human as we meet the members of the subculture who will determine Wiebe's fate. The journey, accompanied by deserved audience cheering as Wiebe ascends to a new plane once the Guinness Book of World Records takes an interest, ends with a restoration of values and hard-won acceptance into the community that had me as misty-eyed as Wiebe...but I'm not spoiling anything. Hang on for another shattering twist, which occurred when Gordon thought he could head into the editing room.

On a scale of one to 10, The King of Kong scores one million. While Mitchell is set up--indeed, sets himself up--as the black hat to Wiebe's innocent, his wariness is understandable as his long-established record comes under fire. This open-hearted account, with its fallible, funny cast of quintessentially American oddballs, understands that everyone has a reason, and gives them their due. A feature film is planned, with Steve Carell attached to star, yet the real deal is more than worth a fistful of quarters to experience. As a bonus, we got to see Wiebe in action, at a Guinness event held at the Dave & Buster's adjacent to the Times Square theater. A man, his machine, and Mario, on their way to reaching the elusive final screen, for only the fourth time in public. And I was there.

Theater: On Absinthe and Arabs

Theater this week from the Live Design website. And an impeachable farce from the New York Theater News site.

As a Drama Desk nominator I see more theater than I necessarily need to blog on, but I would like to commend the creators of Seussical, a sad flop in the 2000-2001 Broadway season, for successfully two-thinking it into a more kid-friendly touring show. It's scheduled to depart Off Broadway's Lucille Lortel tomorrow, and is worth checking out with the small fry when it hits your Whoville.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Hour is near

An inconvenient truth about Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary is that it's not much of a movie; I made it through a cable airing only with several pauses, to return to the parts that made me dozy. The 11th Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio's contribution to the eco-doc genre, is slightly more cinematic and engaging, but not so much that I can recommend it anyone with a basic grounding in the subject, which amounts to, we're all toast if we don't shape up and take better care of our global village. Point taken; after a tornado thundered through Brooklyn last week, the sort of thing that happens when a supervillain is warming up in a spy or superhero movie like Our Man Flint, you damned well better believe I took better care in separating my trash, however tenuous the cause-and-effect of that and weather systems gone wild.

As a city resident who doesn't own a car and takes his life in his own hands every day by riding an increasingly dilapidated subway system, I think I already do enough to keep green; my boot is as off the planet as can be, if you looked at the heavy-handed (or -footed) poster art from the film. The value of The 11th Hour is that it suggests more ways that you can do more to help Mother Earth in her declining years, at least so far as sustaining human life. (Remember, folks, the planet is indifferent to our passing; goodbye and good riddance, I can hear the trees and chipmunks saying.) The drawback, however, is that velvet-gloved guilt-tripping isn't the best way to bring about change, causing as much resistance as transformation, and there are always smart alecks like me who say they already do enough, so reserve me a spot in the igloo when The Day After Tomorrow comes down.

Anyway...The 11th Hour, filled with talking heads and talking points, has some value as a primer on the subject, and is not at all hysterical but for the converted will be about as interesting as remembering to eat your greens and veggies at suppertime. DiCaprio is a concerned, congenial host, circumnavigating the globe like Waldo, and co-directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen do what they can can to maintain some sort of pace. Good intentions, however, don't make for good cinema, and the hep will probably absorb more from the environmentally barbed The Simpsons Movie. Warner Independent opens the film on August 17.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Everything you always wanted to know about...

Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, in a New York Times piece by Allen that answers the questions, Did they know each other, and what kind of relationship did they have? Bergman was of course a major, some might say unfortunate, influence on Allen, and this reminiscence/eulogy fills in some of the blanks. What I wanted to know was what Bergman felt about members of his stock company, like Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, and Ingrid Thulin, leaving the nest to appear in the Hollywood likes of the Lost Horizon musical, Flash Gordon, and The Cassandra Crossing, but given an affection for James Bond he probably just laughed as they unspooled on his projector on Faro Island.

Also, Martin Scorsese on Michelangelo Antonioni, a muse. It might have been more interesting to have had, say, Transformers director Michael Bay write about how Bergman transformed his life and art, but I doubt Bay could pen such a piece, and no one would believe it anyway.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Q&A on August 10 releases

Q: If I had to pick one new independent film to see this weekend, what would it be?

A: That would be Julie Delpy's frequently funny debut as director and writer, 2 Days in Paris (Samuel Goldwyn, pictured). She and ex-boyfriend Adam Goldberg are a winning team in a movie that strips away the romance from the city, while revealing the battered, but still beating, hearts of the two protagonists, who find themselves romantically adrift. Delpy's real-life actor parents, and her cat, make memorable impressions in a film that recalls prime Woody Allen.

Q: At the end of the screening of which film was it when a disgruntled audience member stood up and shouted, "This movie is shit. Shit. Shit. In French, merde!"?

A: That would be Christophe Honore's Dans Paris (IFC Films), which isn't shit, but I wouldn't want to step in it. It's an homage to the spirit of the French New Wave that indulges in the stylistic flourishes but forgets to add a compelling storyline, about two very different brothers, one irresponsible, the other suicidal, to go along with it. The hommes, Louis Garrel (The Dreamers) and Romain Duris (Moliere), are France's leading go-to guys for quirky introspection, and it was nice to see Other Side of Midnight star Marie-France Pisier again, still looking good as their disaffected mother. I wouldn't make a ruckus about it either way.

Q: Do you think it's a bad idea for independent film distributors to release two films with the word "Paris" in the title on the same day?

A: Yes, particularly when a third film with the city's name in lights, Paris Je'taime, is still playing. Note to filmgoers: If your arthouse is playing all three, and you can't remember which is which, ask for "the old one," "the good one," or "the shit (in French, merde) one."

Q: What was the other film, something about...high school? Debates? Err, uh...

A: That would be...err, uh...let me find my notes...oh, yeah, Rocket Science (Picturehouse), the feature debut of Spellbound documentarian director Jeffrey Blitz. I can't say I was spellbound this time, over the angst and antics of a stuttering high school debater. It has some nice things in it. But on balance it's one of those ever-so-slightly twee and annoying movies in the vein of Wes Anderson pictures or Garden State, which feel as refreshing as a barefoot walk through the grass, until you find later that your ankles are itching from insect bites. Demerits for taking place in New Jersey, but being filmed mostly in Maryland.

Q: Anything else to say?

A: Well, The Bourne Ultimatum didn't live up to the hype. It felt rote this time, with a wan wrap-up and bummer cliche dialogue I was speaking in my mind as Matt Damon and Joan Allen said it on screen. The setpieces, which hark back to the earlier films, are exciting without being particularly new or different. Not at all bad but there's no reason to make it a quartet. I did like The Simpsons Movie, which by all rights should be unnecessary or redundant but wasn't. I didn't feel rooked, as Homer said I would at the outset, and it was fun to watch Springfield unfold in widescreen.

Q: If I had to see one film this weekend, what would it be?

A: If not Delpy's, then one of the four-star holdovers--the lovely musical Once, which evokes the happy days of 80s independent filmmaking, the searing Iraq documentary No End in Sight, a step-by-step assessment of the manifest war and reconstruction planning failures, or the unexpectedly delightful Ratatouille, which arrived just as I thought Pixar might be succumbing to animation sclerosis. Its soft, painterly palette is as much a balm to the eyes as its insistence on excellence is a comfort to the soul. It is the Paris of your dreams.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

At the Movies online

Welcome news from the ill but perservering Roger Ebert: Selected reviews from his long-running At the Movies are now
online. I haven't watched the show, which became difficult to find on the dial over the years, since Gene Siskel passed on. Richard Roeper seems like a non-entity, and I can't imagine that he and Ebert duke it out like his former sparring partner, whose memorial Gene Siskel Film Center now occupies a nice patch of Chicago Loop real estate.

What I'd really like is to see At the Movies' PBS precursor, Sneak Previews, go online. (For all I know vintage episodes are on YouTube, but I don't browse that copyright charnelhouse that much.) TV film critics, some of them still clogging the New York airwaves in their senior years, were mostly a bunch of smart-alecky clowns, but Roger and Gene were a class act, and I must say they informed my own writing on the subject. I watched them faithfully from about 1978 on, and saw them in person at numerous Chicago film screenings when I wrote for The Daily Northwestern in the 1980s. Taking my cue from publicists, who were completely intimidated by them (and held one screening I attended for 45 minutes to accommodate their tardy arrivals), I never said hello, but wish I had. (I did chat with Dave Kehr, who went from The Chicago Reader into Siskel's daily slot, which he had to vacate when the show morphed into At the Movies, then onto his present berth at The New York Times.)

Siskel was reserved, but both seemed to wear the mantle of supreme thumbs up or down power in film criticism pretty lightly, and did some good with it. (After they made a few bad calls with their beloved "Dog of the Week" slot, they sensibly gave it up, though that had as much to do with the collapse of grindhouse culture that kenneled so many pups.) Ebert was quite vocal at screenings, and it was fun to watch him expostulate. I'll never forget him heckling the risibly fake snow during a scene in the Chicago-set Running Scared (1986)--"It looks like they spray-painted the trees and sidewalks!"--and the nearby publicist turning a deathly green, knowing that a two-star-at-best print review and a certain thumbs down was looming on the horizon. May his forked tongue recover.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Renko returns

As this site is now more mortuary than blog, onto more pleasant topics. One of the best things about a week away from the big city is the opportunity to read books, rather than the usual run of magazines, newspapers, and website that keep me up to date on the directorial departed. I've started John Berendt's Venice-set followup to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The City of Falling Angels. This after finishing Martin Cruz Smith's latest thriller spotlighting the indefatigable investigator ,Stalin's Ghost, which arrived on my birthday.

I've read most of Smith's novels since the late 1970s, when his New Mexico-set vampire bat spooker Nightwing flapped across my desk (an excellent novel that deserves a cinematic do-over; the 1979 film version, from lightweight director Arthur Hiller, is terrible.) Other books of his have dealt with Los Alamos and Pearl Harbor. But the cornerstone of his reputation are the six Renko novels, which commenced with the best-selling Gorky Park in 1981, which was made into a so-so 1983 movie with William Hurt. Detective thrillers are ideal for burrowing into cloistered societies, and Smith started writing them at an ideal moment, as the Soviet Union started its thaw back into Russia. The first sequel, Polar Star, took the disgraced Renko to Siberia; the next, Red Square, back to the Soviet Union in its dying days. Havana Bay was no day at the beach for the detective in sunny, corrupt Cuba. My favorite was the last one, 2004's Chernobyl-set Wolves Eat Dogs, which, with its radiation poisoning killings, eerily anticipates the recent Russia/Britain spy flap. Has no one noticed the connection?

In Stalin's Ghost, Renko, already struggling with a semi-adoptive son and a distant doctor girlfriend carried over from the last installment, grapples with soldiers from the Chechnya campaign who are regrouping as an American-advised political party in the new Russia. The great leader makes an appearance, metaphorically, as the novel deals with the creeping re-Stalinization of the country, where he is invoked as a martyr (Smith can only bring himself to use the name of Putin once), and literally: Renko's father was a general in his army, and there are flashbacks to their turbulent father-son relationship. There's a lot on Smith's plate this time, and the book moved quickly, and surely, as I sprinted toward the finish line. It's rare that series of books maintain such a high level of quality over a long period of time, and the author continues to do well by an inexhaustible subject he has made his own.

Note to PBS and the BBC: With Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison pensioned off, I suggest all the Renko books as more-than-suitable, and ever-topical, replacements for the mystery-starved.