Friday, April 17, 2015

Nightmares of My Choosing

Words to Die For from New Pulp press is the new book out by Lynn Kostoff - something I get to say far too infrequently. Last time this happened Late Rain was one of my favorites of the year. I've not yet read the new one, but here's a piece I wrote upon the release of Late Rain a few years back for another site...

I confess that I don’t often remember too much about the plots of books that I read. I’ll have some vague outline preserved usually, (started at point A and ended at point Z, the middle is a blur), but the fine points, the mechanics and details that, let’s face it, lots of mysteries turn on, don’t commonly stick with me. What I tend to retain are memorable characters. In critical essays and reviews I read the phrase “character driven” too often. I roll my eyes a lot because it sounds, to me, like code for “it’s okay to like this” as opposed to that lower form of literature, “plot driven.” I love plots. Books need them. Movies need them. I’ve read some awfully dull books and endured some terrible films that obviously disdained them, and I would prefer a solid, if cookie-cutter, procedural to dynamic prose that amounted to literary navel-gazing any day. But again, it’s the characters that tend to stay with me.

I’d like to use the term ‘character driven’ here, to recommend Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff, and before you roll your eyes, let me explain exactly what I mean. Things happen in this book. Lots of things. It’s packed with scheming, intimidation, betrayal, and murder, and it features an actual detective working an actual mystery. But rather than the players being stand-ins, whose sole function is to move along a convoluted story and amuse us with a one-liner now and then, the characters are so vividly rendered that throwing them together couldn’t help but produce circumstances and consequences similar to what we’re given.

The story involves three different stubborn old men who won’t do what everybody wants them to. Stanley Tedros wont sell off his soft-drink company, Sonny Gramm wont sell off his strip club and Jack Carson wont remember the physical description of a killer. Alright, Jack can’t help it, he’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimers, but Stanley and Sonny? They can be dealt with. And they are.

Late Rain is populated by one of the most colorful character casts this side of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But where Hiaasen gets the most from his creations by pushing them into cartoonishness, Kostoff has taken great care to keep his lunatics grounded in reality and the payoff is nice. I could have spent entire books with the sleazy lawyer Raychard Balen, he of the asymmetrical mustache, or Jaime, the low-rent criminal with big ideas and a bigger mouth. Even minor characters, like teenaged Paige Carson, or elderly Stanley Tedros, showed glimpses into deep wells of creepiness and self-congratulation that I’d like to have more time to explore.

But the most memorable passages were told through the eyes of a (autistic?) criminal named Croy Wendall who is constantly doing rhymes, numbers, and free association to soothe himself. He’s often derailed by these trains of thought in the middle of carrying out some job he’s been hired for, and we’re treated to an inside-out view of the crimes that add macabre humor, (especially to a particularly gruesome killing). He also appears to be named after the alias Linda Fiorentino’s character from The Last Seduction takes on, (Wendy Kroy—New York backwards). It’s a clue to the way Croy relates to the world, obsessively restructuring words and phrases, or alluding, off the cuff, to pop-culture landmarks; everything relates to everything else somehow.

And speaking of names, or aliases, one character’s previous moniker was April Rayne, the none-too-subtle missing element from the book’s title. As Mother Nature obstinately holds back the rain and the South Carolina spring heat goes unabated, wildfires ravage the countryside, (a natural consequence of the missing precipitation). Likewise, as the stubborn old men refuse to comply to the wishes of others, murder and mayhem ravage Magnolia Beach, (a natural consequence of not getting our way).

I’ve only just come to read Kostoff this year as his 1991 debut A Choice of Nightmares was reprinted by New Pulp Press, but based on the strength of these two offerings, I’ve added his name to my watch-for list. Better late than never.

*** end reprint ***

By the way, I heard from Lynn after that piece ran initially and he said that the whole Fiorentino connection was un-intentional. I don't care - it added something to my experience of the book... and helped me self-diagnose my own condition and get me some special drugs. You want to know more about Lynn? Check out this interview he did with Keith Rawson over at LitReactor.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Little Girl Cut Me: Bruce DeSilva, Narrative Music

Bruce DeSilva has been doing it longer than you. In that time he's picked up a thing or two. So, when I asked him for a Narrative Music piece, he came back with a damned tutorial. Got some well observed... observations about voice and tone and style and how they can all play the same story for wildly different effect. Pay attention, you might learn a thing or three (then go visit his website). You're welcome.

Ladies, germs, I give you Bruce DeSilva...

The languages of writing and music have many terms in common: tone, mood, pacing, style, movement, rhythm, voice... It is only natural, then, that music is central in my series of hard-boiled crime novels featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. Blues artists including Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Son Seals provide the soundtrack of his life.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when I teach prose writing in college and professional workshops, music is one of my most important tools.

Take voice, for example. Readers think they read with their eyes, but they really read with their ears. They hear the writer speaking to them from the page. The appeal of that voice has everything to do with whether they will finish a book or ever want to read anything else by that writer.

The late Robert B. Parker, one of the best-selling crime novelists of all time, once told me that readers enjoyed his books for the same reason they love certain songs. They like the way they sound. The same story can sound very different, depending on who is telling it. I like to make this point to writers by having them listen to the same song performed by different artists.

Consider Hound Dog, for example. Elvis Presley’s recording, the version people are most familiar with, tells the story of a guy who’s annoying him by sniffing around his girlfriend; but in his hands the tune is so goofy that it’s almost a novelty song. Big Mama Thornton’s earlier version, however, is deadline serious. She angry at some jerk who won’t leave her alone. Pots and pans-throwing angry. Now give a listen to what Koko Taylor does with it. She’s so furious that she’s ready to cut somebody.

Or consider Respect, a song most people associate with Aretha Franklin. In her version, she demands respect from her husband when he comes home from work, but he’s so thick-headed that she has to spell it for him: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. To a guy, the chorus provided by a platoon of background singers sounds like all the women in the world yelling at him.

But the song was written, and originally recorded, by Otis Redding. In his version, the word is not spelled out. Instead, it tells the story of a black man who doesn’t get much respect when he’s out there in the world trying to make a living. So when he comes home, by God he better get respect from his woman.

When Redding first heard Aretha’s version, he is said to have muttered, “The little girl cut me.”
This is what we want from musicians—individual interpretations only each of them can give us. It’s also what we want from writers.

I also use songs to illustrate how writers can develop characters and build story arcs—something the best song writers manage to achieve with very few words.

Not every song tells a story, of course. “Nah Nah Nah Nah, Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey, Goodbye”—not a story. But a lot of songs have perfect story arcs.

The one I use most often when I teach characterization and storytelling is Love at the Five & Dime. It was written by Nanci Griffith, although Kathy Mattea’s version probably sold more copies.

It begins when a guitar-player named Eddie meets a sixteen-year-old girl named Rita at the Five & Dime. When we are told that she “makes the Woolworth counter shine,” we know that means she does more than just polish it with a rag. And Eddie? He’s “a sweet romancer and a darned good dancer.”
That’s characterization.

But what’s the story? Rita’s parents don’t approve of Eddie, setting up an immediate conflict. So what do these two kids do? They run off and get married.

We’re rooting for them now, but in the second verse, there’s more trouble. 
They lose a baby, a tragedy that can put immense pressure on any marriage. Then, in the third verse, things get still worse. When one of the guys in Eddie’s band flirts with Rita, Eddie gets jealous and “runs off with the baseman’s wife.

But before long, he comes crawling back to Rita.

In the final verse, they’ve both grown old. Eddie’s arthritis “took his hands,” so he can’t play his steel guitar anymore. He sells insurance now. And Rita? She spends her days keeping house and reading dime-store novels.

But through it all, Eddie and Rita have remained together; and every evening, they dance, because “love’s for sale tonight at this Five & Dime.

That’s a perfect story arc about two characters the song writer made us care about, all of it told in just four lyrical verses.

This song always leaves me wanting more—just as any good song should.

You could tell the same story in a 400-page dime-store novel about Eddie and Rita. Who knows? Perhaps one day, some novelists will.

Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism award including the Pulitzer. His fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has just been published by Forge in hardcover and e-book editions.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

By the Number

A few weeks ago Brian Lindenmuth posted a picture on his FB page of books from his shelves with numbers in the title and asked for others to do the same. I've wasted many a Saturday afternoon compulsively combing my shelves to keep up with his challenges. Anyhow, when my pile was assembled (incomplete of course, but pictured above) I turned to movies... because apparently I've got some OCD issues.

Tried to make the crime flick list go to 100, but lost my way somewhere in the 60s. You can see that list I posted at Letterboxd right here. Please go visit it and tell me how fucking clever I am. I need that kind of validation.

I wanted to post something better about books than my stupid picture on Brian's page, but I ran out of steam to go beyond what I actually had at home. So below are a quick one-to-ten (a cut-off which keeps me from including stuff like Ed Kurtz's The Forty-Two and Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade - I'll leave that for a bigger nerd). Obviously there are plenty of titles that I could have included in the one-ten slots that I dig - Eric Beetner's Dig Two Graves, Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do, Grant Jerkins' The Ninth Step come to mind - but these stood out for some reason and that there's all there is.

One to Count Cadence - James Crumley - Been saving this one for a long time. I love several of his crime novels - The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear, The Wrong Case - and his short story collection Whores, but I've held off on reading his Viet Nam novel, not because I doubt the pleasure I'll take from it, for unknown reasons. Finally having read Kent Anderson's Sympathy For the Devil I think I'll probably dig into this one soon. Still, it's always comforting to look at your bookshelf and feel certain that you've got plenty of ammo for apocalyptic ice storm that knocks out power and keeps you from traveling, affording you no activity but reading and boardgames for a month.

The Two Faces of January - Patricia Highsmith - Highsmith's one of those names I pick up whatever I find by in the library sales, and I've had this one on stand by for a couple of years, but having very much enjoyed the recent film version from Hossein Amini, I've bumped this one to a higher spot on my TBR list.

3 Steps to Hell - Arnold Hano - I'd never heard of Hano (or his pseudonyms Mike Heller or Gil Dodge) before Stark House put out this omnibus. I read Flint and dug hell out of it. It's hardboiled and unsentimental and just cold as fuck yet manages to have a real, beating heart beneath its surface. Check it out.

Four Corners of Night - Craig Holden - Had this one on my shelf for years and still haven't got to it, though based on the recommendations from many sources I trust (Craig McDonald, Peter Dragovich, Brian Lindenmuth, Keith Rawson, Eric Beetner) I am pretty fucking sure I'm going to love it when I get there.

I-5 - Summer Brenner - Holy hell, I loved this one. Story of a Russian girl forced into sex work in the US, part of an underground hidden in plain sight. Bleak, yes, but tough too. Neither hand-wringing victim-exploitation, nor cartoonishly hardboiled, this is a survivor's tale with a human and enigmatic protagonist. Apparently a sequel coming soon. Fuck yes.

The Cold Six Thousand - James Ellroy - Middle chapter of the Underground USA trilogy. What? You haven't read it? Go away and come back when you've rectified that shit.

The List of 7 - Mark Frost - I picked this up after eating up Twin Peaks, the landmark television program Frost was co-creator of alongside David Lynch. I enjoyed it enough as a Sherlockian adventure mystery in the vein of Caleb Carr's The Alienist (which I'd read about the same time), but not enough to make me read the sequel. I'd like to revisit Frost's directorial effort, Storyville - adapted from the novel The Juryman by Frank Galbally & Robert Macklin. Seems I liked that one back in the early 90s.

Pop. 1280 - Jim Thompson - Stands alongside The Killer Inside Me at the top of the psycho law man genre that Thompson made his name synonymous with. Daniel Woodrell wrote the intro to the new reissue from Mulholland Books, so there's that. If you dig this kind of thing and haven't read Frank Wheeler Jr.'s The Wowzer or The Good Life, you really ought to. Pretty swell film adaptation of this one too - Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon.

Unknown Man No. 89 - Elmore Leonard - According to the author's intro, Neil Diamond was once interested in starring as Jack Ryan in the movie version. Hmmm. Couldn't have been worse than the Ryan O'Neal or Owen Wilson vehicles turned out to be. Could it?

The Tenth Man - Graham Greene - Not one of his best, but even this slight volume gives the reader some moral dilemma worth chewing on. I love Greene. Have I said that before? Movie version had Anthony Hopkins front and center. I haven't seen it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: February

The Americans Season 2 - Joe Weisberg - Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) continue their double life as Washington DC suburban parents and deep-cover Soviet agents living in Reagan's America through season 2, and things get delightfully worse and more complicated for everybody involved - including their children, co-workers and neighbors. The show improved, as all my favorites tend to in their second season, in part from the weight of time spent with the characters and from rubbing the audience's nose in their sympathies (wherever they may lie). It also benefited from the addition of a top-notch antagonist (Lee Tergesen as Andrew Larrick) whose presence elevated every aspect of the show from the suspense to the moral stakes to the grounding the whole affair in history. Best moment: Larrick and Elizabeth square off over another soviet agent.

Bad Turn Worse - Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins - A trio of Texas teens, soon to be parting ways after high school graduation, celebrate the end of their time together by blowing a bunch of money over a weekend that one of them ripped off of a local drug dealer. Said bad guy Giff (Mark Pellegrino) proves himself to be a ruthless bastard though and ambitious to boot, forcing the kids to pull a second heist that will tip the power balance of the region's vice business his direction. I enjoyed the film for its self-assured tone and sense of scale as well as the small town Texas vibe it gave off comfortably and believably, but I resisted some of the elements too: the dream girl who's both book smart (crime novel aficionado no less!) and a grease monkey - she's both boys' wet dream - or generally teenaged characters who think and behave like adults, plus the end has about two twists too many for its refreshingly straight-forward set up. Looking forward to more from the Hawkins brothers who have obvious talent and similar interests to me - call this one a promising start, let's hope not their masterpiece. Best moment: Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) tries to get help from the sheriff (Jon Gries). That's the, 'oh, they're really, truly fucked' moment and it's really nicely handled, especially by Gries.

Boardwalk Empire Season 5 - Terrence Winter - Very satisfying close to my favorite TV show. Left no circle unclosed, and even expanded the scope of the show (very slightly) going into Cuba and the past (and holy heck, the actors cast as young Nucky, Nolan Lyons and Marc Pickering, add dimension to the central character of a compelling ensemble cast and focus to the sprawling story). Sad to see the show go, but happy it went out so strong. Best moment: Chalky plays his final card.

The Brothers Bloom - Rian Johnson - A pair of confidence men ply their craft in a final elaborately staged drama before retiring. Initially I resisted the film crying too precious, too weightless, too bloodless to care about, but upon revisiting I realized that criticizing it for lack of substance is like complaining that a fizzy pop isn't black coffee. True, it's not my usual preferred fare, but it is effortlessly charming and c'mon Mark Ruffalo is highly watchable always. Third of three in Johnson's body of work to date, but not a black mark. Best moment: not sure, but I guarantee Ruffalo was on screen.

Felony - Matthew Saville - When an off duty detective (screenwriter Joel Edgerton) is involved in an auto accident, he reports the incident as a hit and run and pretends to be a witness, making a bad situation worse. The responding officers, a May/December pair (Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney), clash over the suspicions one has about his fellow officer's story and the need for solidarity, politics and the y'know brotherhood. Meanwhile, some kid is in a coma and der copper's soul is melting. The film makers took a pretty juicy premise and sucked all the bigness out of it - and that's not a complaint - leaving us with a downbeat, workaday drama more concerned with the long term cost than the short term thrills. This is my second exposure to Saville, and though it isn't as good as Noise, it takes a solid step toward defining his sensibilities in a damned attractive outline. It also firms up my estimation of Edgerton as a writer. I'd be happy to kick in to keep these guys making similar movies. Best moment: random sobriety test.

Jack Irish: Bad Debts - Jeffrey Walker - Guy Pearce plays Jack, a former attorney turned debt collector washout whose past
isn't finished with him. Adapted from the novels by Peter Temple, Jack Irish is part of the alarming trend of turning book series into television series - wait, that's not the alarming bit - with a 1/1 book to episode ratio. Gak! I'm afraid it's one and done for me. Man... I'm hoping the Bosch tvs from Michael Connelly's books cor-fucking-rects this trend by giving us a slower burn on plot and a heavier focus on tone and character, 'cause if there's a single disposable element to crime dramas on television it's the machinations of plot. Best moment: trying to watch something on VHS.

John Wick - Chad Stahelski - They killed the wrong motherfucker's dog. Scott Phillips and I developed the Bronson scale for rating movies while we were writing our own 'best Charles Bronson movie you never saw' and this film received 3&1/2 Bronsons from a trusted source, so hopes were high going in. I agree in spirit with my friend's Bronson rating, but disagree that it's a particularly good fit for Charlie mostly for the elements that I found most enjoyable here - the otherworldly ones. The deeper this flick crawls up its own ass, the weirder, sharper, funnier and more exciting it becomes. I understand there's a sequel coming and shit, I hope there's a trilogy, 'cause there's whole lotta goods to be harvested from this premise. Best moment: Wick shoots a priest.
Predestination - Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig - Ethan Hawke plays John, a cop who chases a terrorist through time and gets dizzy. Once you start to see where this one's heading (pretty early) it becomes a lot less about twists and more about architecture - or framing. How do you chose to tell this story? What kind of frame do you put around it? Where/when do you focus and upon whom? Whatever conclusions you come to, it's at least interesting to consider the construct the Spierig Brothers built to facilitate this adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's short story All You Zombies. It's a relief to realize Sarah Snook isn't attempting to Jaye Davidson us and once that's out of way (again - early), she's interesting to watch, but it's more choices like making half(?) the film be two actors in one conversation that make it feel like maybe you haven't really seen all of this before. Not sure I want to take the time to rewatch and consider it, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. Best moment: Hawke watches the lovers on the park bench.

Public Enemies - Michael Mann - John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis are the stuff of popular mythology and less than a character study or biopic about either this one really is like an artist's sincere and uncomplicated take on a standard ballad - one he assumes his audience is already very familiar with. Enjoyed it, but wasn't bowled over upon its release, but a few short years later, I'm happy to report that it's only gotten better. Love the Mann-ness of it all - the themes, the professionalism that masks the deeper dysfunctions, the gorgeous dirty clarity of his digital camera, the editing and the attentions to detail make this one highly rewatchable and, now I'll say it, a future classic waiting to be rediscovered. Best moment: Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Walter Dietrich (James Russo) almost make it.

The Purge: Anarchy - James DeMonaco - An annual 12 hours of de-criminalized criminality is a pretty simple and terrific set up for an exploitation film franchise and I'm happy to see the sequel jump from the Last House on the Left/Straw Dogs-esque home-invasion horror of the first to an Escape From New York/The Warriors urban jungle vibe. What could be next? Purge Tour Guides for rich fucks who want to kill the deadliest prey ala The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target/Surviving the Game? I'd show up. Best moment: that one where they're being chased.

Salvo - Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza - Salvo (Saleh Bakri), bodyguard and killer for a local crime boss (Mario Pupella) thwarts an attack on his employer, then hunts down the man responsible for it and in the process takes away his enemy's blind sister's only support. If you've ever seen a hitman movie before then you know that this means that he's now responsible for her life - especially if she's attractive - and Rita (Sara Serraiocco) most certainly is. Shit, this sounds exactly like John Woo's The Killer now that I type it out loud. Oh well, The Killer it ain't, but what it is is very worthwhile. A crime/action thriller with a strange, nearly supernatural twist, it is the work of film makers with their own sensibility and clearly having a story they wanted to tell (Salvo is an expansion on themes first explored in their 2009 short film Rita) and features one exceptional extended sequence, the Best moment: the botched hit, turned Salvo's reversal and Rita's experience of the attack. That was a stunning piece of movieness right there.

Two Faces of January - Hossein Amini - Opportunistic American ex-pats in Greece cross paths, purposes, hot blood and cold cash in this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Rejoice Highsmith fans, 'cause though I haven't read the source material, the film feels so very right, and by right, of course, I mean wrong. They brought out the venal, opportunistic and the striving of these characters. They brought the nasty and the desperation all around. And, more importantly, by doing all of that, they preserved the humanity of these characters. They are far more relatable and readily investable than your average Tom Ripley in film adaptations (save perhaps for Alain Delon in Purple Noon who brought us in very close) where most of the attention seems to be given to how skilled he is at getting things done. This trio (Colette, Chester and Rydal - Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac respectively) have mostly already done what got them into their situations and what we get to focus on is the cost of their choices. The results are pretty thrilling. (Side bar: how amazing has Mortensen's post-Lord of the Rings career been? Dude is consistently one of the most intriguing performers and choosers of projects out there and, to my mind, deserves a lot more credit  for both aspects that keep him a vital presence. After decades of bit parts in big movies, he lands the lead in the biggest ones, then has the freedom to make bold choices in little films - can't wait for Jauja). Best moment: Rydal and Chester's double date night is terrific. The two recognize themselves in the other, but do not disengage for intriguing tension.

The Wild Geese - Andrew McLaglen - A group of aging, beret-sporting mercenaries are pulled together to violently meddle in third world politics for the benefit of first world money men. It's a tale as old as time based on the novel by Daniel Carney and starring the original Expendables Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore doing what they do best - killing tersely and speaking eloquent-ish-ly - so what more do you need? As a piece of popular entertainment from a time gone by it's rife with chuckle/grimace bait and manages a few gems of tonal dissonance (how about the a-warring-we-will-go march that scores scenes of warm up to slaughtering blackies?), but it earns its slot in the lineup, batting cleanup after Zulu, Zulu Dawn and The Man Who Would Be King have loaded the bases. That is to say... I kinda loved it. Best moment: Witty (Kenneth Griffith), the medic and token homosexual, has some delightful last words.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Arkansas it Coming

I don't get jealous too often. Most of the time I walk around feeling like I just stole a Camero, crashed a gated community, broke into your dad's liquor cabinet and got a blow job from the head cheerleader while your mom made me pancakes.  Every single day that I don't wake up in jail is a sweet, scandalous mercy. All to say I don't think that I deserve good things. Maybe that's why I'm happy. All you poor fuckers out there who think you deserve to be happy... you ARE characters in your own personal noirs. But holy hell - I see pictures like this and get a little worked up. Sure that pic could've been taken at a St. Louis N@B event, but that there's N@B stars Benjamin Whitmer and Jake Hinkson appearing together on a book tour in fucking Paris, France - yeah, where the naked ladies dance.

The French have, I gotta say it, taste. Have you seen the lineup of my fucking pals they're currently eating up? Add to Hinks and Whitmer Jon Bassoff, Todd Robinson, Steve Weddle and Matthew McBride and... damn. I am boner-fide jealous. No offense to your mom's pancakes, but, believe it or not, that's the company I'd rather be keeping.

So I'll beat this tired-ass drum once more

Did you know that there's some kick ass, world-class art being made and published in your own back yard? Yes, yours. I don't care where you live. If you don't know who or what or where, do a little digging - it's out there. And if there's one thing the N@B community has taught me it's that if you build it - they will come... from like... Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois or Arkansas.

But... I lose focus.

I'm jealous. Jealous, I tell you. I look at that picture of Whitmer and Hinkson and think I've lived in Arkansas and Colorado. I want to go to France.

Let's hope this Brass Knuckle interview in Revolution John is my first step toward international notoriety. Thanks to Gabino Iglesias for shining a light on this dog's ass, and my sincerest fucking apologies to Rusty Barnes whose name I fucking wrecked in this interview while trying to point people toward his excellent book, Reckoning.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hardcore Heist Stories

Caught Julius Avery's fantastic debut feature Son of a Gun this week and Eddie Little's swan song Steel Toes last month. Loved both and whaddayaknow both were hardcore crime stories of criminal family dynamics that begin as prison dramas and proceed to heist stories and Son of a Gun pulled off the near impossible by thrilling me with a car chase - so, damn. That takes crazy skill. Tried to look up a post I'd done a few years ago for another site on heist material and it had disappeared from the web, so hopefully without repeating myself too badly, here are a few of my heist favorites...

The original post I'd done was upon the release of The Kings of Midnight by Wallace Stroby. His Crissa Stone books, which begin with Cold Shot to the Heart are well worth catching up with.

And hell, I mentioned Eddie Little already. If you haven't read his two novels Another Day in Paradise and Steel Toes, you've denied yourself long enough. They're not making 'em like that anymore.

But I first came to Little's work through the excellent film version of Another Day in Paradise from director Larry Clark and screenwriters Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin. It starred a pre-Mad Men Vincent Kartheiser and post-Lost Highway Natasha Gregson Wagner as young junkies in bliss and crime taken under the wing of older, savvier junkie thieves Melanie Griffith and James Woods. The flick is a terrific underbelly criminal Americana period piece, though I have to agree with fans of the novel, that it's a far cry from the power of the book. So, I'm going to go ahead and recommend you start with the film and move on to the books, so's you can enjoy both fully.

Another flick you should go out of your way to find is John Flynn's adaptation of Richard Stark's The Outfit. This one's got Robert Duvall in the Parker role (called Macklin in the movie) and Joe Don Baker demonstrating why he was a movie-fucking-star for a stretch. It's not got the one big heist plot so many do. Instead it's just business as usual, a caper at a time done with such no-flash common criminal sense  it makes the clever pictures look dumb.

Comic book artist and writer Darwyn Cooke has been creating some great graphic novel adaptations of the Parker books too. You wanna see Parker/Stark go big? Then check out The Score where Parker puts together a take down of an entire town in a case for what adequate brains and sheer ballsiness will can do for you.

Of course you've got to check out the Stark's Parker novels too. Start with the early ones like The Hunter and The Outfit or The Man With the Getaway Face where an armored car job early on sets the stage for the real challenge: surviving your partners.

Sticking with armored cars for a moment, Bruce Beresford's adaptation of Devon Minchin's The Money Movers is another swell Australian import, one that's been streaming on Netflix recently and has popped up in its entirety on Youtube as well.

Add Peter Yates' Robbery to your list of non-canonical hardboiled thievery flicks to watch out for. Stocked with great tough character actors doing their thing, a cold-opening heist with a top-notch getaway sequence and the capper caper The Great Train Robbery. My favorite of the film versions based on the real event.

Don't worry though. Some good recent and upcoming flicks to catch like the Swedish Easy Money trilogy based on the novels by Jens Lapidus, the final act Easy Money: Life Deluxe has got a great heist sequence.

As does Jim Taihuttu's Wolf imported from the Netherlands recently - and it's another armored car job to boot.

And the German film The Robber is a refreshingly simple take on the bank robbery genre following the exploits of Johann Kastenberger a marathon runner and thief who made his getaways covering long distances on foot. Adapted from the novel by Martin Prinz by writer/director Benjamin Heisenberg.

And if you think the yanks threw in the towel on hardnosed armed-robbery fare after Michael Mann's Heat, I'll remind you Ben Affleck made The Town a few years back and shit, let's hope Sarik Andreasyan's American Heist delivers the goods soon.