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Phuket Gazette: Book and film review

PHUKET: Oliver Stone’s new movie is Savages, a thriller about the drug trade in Laguna Beach, California.

Starring a roll call of Hollywood A-listers – Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta – the film is based on a crime novel by Don Winslow.

A former Private Investigator in real life, Winslow has written 15 novels and is suddenly being hailed by the likes of James Ellroy, Stephen King and Joseph Wambaugh as the great new master of crime fiction. This would make him the successor to Elmore Leonard who is in his 80s now.

In time for the premiere of the film Savages, Winslow has published a prequel, The Kings of Cool, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012, 322pp) to take advantage of the new surge in sales.

The novel opens in Laguna Beach, 2006, and stars two lifelong friends, adept at surfing and beach volleyball, who are total opposites. Ben is the son of Jewish liberals, hippies from the 1960s, owners of a peace and love bookstore. Chon is a Navy Seal, veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, son of a drug dealer and ex-con. Ben doesn’t believe in violence; Chon revels in it.

Chon brought a super-powerful marijuana seed from Afghanistan; Ben developed it. Together they manage a series of grow houses and distributorships that hawk the finest hydroponic buds in the nation.

Ben and Chon are linked by another childhood friend, O (for Orphelia). Petite, blond, beautiful, rich and not particularly bright, she is in love with the both of them and no hard feelings all around.

Now a vicious Mexican cartel wants to muscle in on their action. There lies the nub of the tale. What is extraordinary is how the tale is told: an exuberant, familiar, button-holing narrative voice that make Elmore Leonard seem positively reticent.

The author openly mocks conventional objective third person narration, intruding his own hip, fast-talking voice in extravagant descriptions and rat-a-tat dialogue. Sometimes the story is told in film script fashion, other times in poetic stanzas as:

“Few people ever have to find out what they would do when their whole life has been based on one thing and then they’re offered the other.”

And sometimes there are erratic sputtering rants that are wildly entertaining, as: “Chon thinks that neo-hippies are grungy, pasty-faced-from-vegan diets, patchouli-oil-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing, clogging up sidewalks playing hacky sack, leaning their crappy single-gear bikes against the doors of Starbucks, where they order Tazo green, sitting there for hours and never leave a freaking tip, doing semi-naked yoga in parks so other people have to look at their pale, emaciated bodies, parasites.”

The effect of this jangling, juiced up narrative voice is exhilarating. Don Winslow is
telling a story in a wholly new, original way. Even when you’ve got a thriller set piece when the Navy Seal Chon beats up four guys, it’s told with wit and verve.

The reader is always off balance, especially as the story jumps back and forth from 2006 to 1967, 1976, 1981, 1991. We see how the parents of our current day love trip were laid low by greed, corruption and paranoia. We see how they try to navigate a dangerous world.

Also at play now are lowlife thugs and lawyers, a corrupt DEA agent, a murderous Mexican enforcer and his drug cartel boss, a beautiful and ruthless widow who has survived the murders of nearly all the male members of her family and is poised now for an invasion of California.

While Chon is off in Iraq, Ben fends off the invasion through guile and treachery, explained in another poem:
“The power of no is absolute
Ben has always believed.
A refusal to participate
In wrong,
In evil,
In injustice.
You don’t have to do it.
You just say no.”

Though it’s a relief when Chon returns wounded from Iraq and the bodies begin piling up.

In the end Ben and Chon wind up buying protection from the corrupt DEA agent who tells them: “What I wouldn’t give to be you. You have your youth, money, the cool clothes, the girls. You have it all. You’re kings.”

I slapped the covers shut and immediately picked up Savages.

The book is available in hardback from amazon.com or by ordering through all good bookshops in Phuket.

Film review: The extinct versus the stale
The Dinosaur Project
Starring: Natasha Loring, Matt Kane, Richard Dillane
Director: Sid Bennett
Genre: Adventure
Phuket Release: 23 August

It is a little sad that, only 13 years since The Blair Witch Project, the found footage format for thriller/action movie is already running out of steam. The Dinosaur Project attempts to revive the format but hardly manages to resurrect the titular reptilians.

A team of explorers take off into the Congo in search of the African version of the Loch Ness Monster. After (for no apparent reason other than exceptionally poor piloting) their flight is downed by a bad case of Pterosaurs, the British adventurers must flee for their lives from ever more contrived dinosaur attacks. Thank goodness the leader’s tech-savvy 14-year old son has stowed away, or no one would have had to put up with this nonsense.

You may have missed it, but, yes, that did say British. The Dinosaur Project is a British movie release. Director Sid Bennett appears to have been given the mandate to take every annoying cliché from every blockbuster Hollywood movie of the past two decades and sew them together with a batch of young Brit actors. It would have been great if the Brits had played it for humor:
(“I’m terribly sorry, Carruthers. But a dinosaur appears to be eating my leg.”
“The devil you say, Charmers. How terribly uncouth of him.”)

But they didn’t. So The Dinosaur Project ends up with – a’la Hollywood – the impassioned screaming of people’s names; an annoying kid character; an even more annoying Jar Jar-esque pet dinosaur; and thoroughly disturbing camera shake.

With so much camera jiggle you’d be likely to mistake a delicate shrub for a stegosaurus, the CGI still manages to make the actual monsters look, er… fake.
What is going on with British cinema? In the past five years we have had a rash of terrible attempts by British film-makers to cash in on the Hollywood action plan. Both Flood and Doomsday were notable for trying it the “Hollywood Way”, but both failed to live up to either’s ethos.

Why? When British film-makers are allowed to do it their way, we get excellent comedies, romances, gangster flicks and, yes, even, action adventure movies – look at Attack the Block for instance.

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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