On my father’s bookshelf, novels by Ross Thomas were never far from those of Elmore Leonard. I’ve read a lot of my father’s Leonard but none of his Thomas, and Thomas isn’t talked about in the same revered tones, but they’re clearly similar authors, writing about cops and crims and cons and creeps with dialect-driven humour, often in the more exotic and lawless areas of the US.
There have been many Leonard adaptations, some very good – Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Justified – and some, not so. I can’t recall seeing a Thomas adaptation before, but Briarpatch, on SBS On Demand, seems a perfect introduction to the man and his work. The characters and milieu are indeed colourful unsavoury types in one of the USA’s least savoury places: Texas. And the style suits the subject: colourful, bordering on cartoonish, neo-noir, wearing Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino influences proudly (and obviously). Heaps of very familiar, rough-hewn character faces support a fine central performance from Rosario Dawson. Fun, familiar, not violent, and comfortable: classic Dad-lit fare.
* * *
I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything else recently like Lucky Grandma (in cinemas now). Tsai Chin gives one of the performances of the year as Grandma Wong, a widow in Manhattan’s Chinatown who, through not particularly innocent means, ends up with a bag of cash belonging to a member of one of Chinatown’s gangs. She hires a massive young bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, even as they dig themselves into a deeper, messier hole with the local villains.
The film’s bouncy, neo-noir, jazzy, colourful aesthetic clearly demonstrates Coen Brothers, Soderbergh and Tarantino influences (in this respect, it’s not stylistically dissimilar, at all, to Briarpatch) but it’s the milieu, and Chin’s performance, that really sets the film apart. We’ve been to Chinatown (and Chinatowns) in many movies, but often accompanying an outsider (and often a white cop at that). Here, the whole story takes place within not only the place but the culture, and there are tremendously fascinating details in constant revelation, from how elders are addressed (everyone calls Grandma Grandma, even if she’s not, you know, their Grandma) to specific cultural rituals performed at the local bank branch. It’s fascinating and funny, and Chin – playing a very prickly person – will steal your heart.