Thursday, February 26, 2015

Country Death Song: Narrative Music by Michael Peck

I asked Michael Peck, the author of The Last Orchard in America, for a Narrative Music piece and he dug up this cozy little murder ballad from the 1980s about a crime from the 1860s. Is it redundant to call it grim? 'Cause it's... grim. So, I'm just gonna leave this here and go take a shower.

Hey, did I mention Michael wrote a book? Is it grim too? Like what you see here? Go pick up The Last Orchard in America. Take it away, Michael...

Country Death Song by Michael Peck

The Violent Femmes’ follow-up to their self-titled debut, Hallowed Ground (1984) is a mashup of Gordon Gano’s ironically un-ironic christianity (Jesus Walking on the Water) and avant-garde gospel (Sweet Misery Blues, It’s Gonna Rain). Song to song, it flits from wonky to bluesy to rebellious to religousy, with a mainly sardonic edge. But Country Death Song puts sarcasm aside. Placed as the first track on Hallowed Ground, it’s a nightmare about an unhinged farmer during the American Civil War. Told from the perp’s perspective in Gano’s screeching folksy vocals, it’s a doom-soaked murder ballad and a darker-than-dark punk hoedown all in one.

Gano sketched out the lyrics in high school, inspired by an 1862 newspaper article telling of the deed. “I started making plans to kill my own kind,” Gano wails, channeling the impoverished farmer whose tale this is, curtailed now and then with the Deliverance-like vibe of a strummed banjo. The farmer, who “had me a wife/had me some daughters”, tricks one of the latter into accompanying him “out to the mountains”, but dispatches her instead into “a hole, a deep black well”, with the advice to “remember that God saves”. In the penultimate stanza, the murderer is heard relating the story, asking his listeners if they “…want to know how to take a short trip to hell?” Finding no way to atone, he heads for the barn “to hang myself in shame”.

A creepy gothic snapshot, Country Death Song is Old Testament-style unnerving, a folk song that should come with its own palmful of frigid water to toss in your face. There are zero hints of vindication — it’s just a tired psychopath’s terse soliloquy of his horrific deeds and where they’ve led him. Tamper a little with Gano’s narrative and Country Death Song could have been done into at least a three-act shitstorm by Sophocles or Christopher Marlowe.

Similar to the later A Good Man is Hard to Find by Sufjan Stevens (which reiterates Flannery O’Connor’s tale from the Misfit’s point-of-view) Country Death Song has deep sorrow behind the grisliness, an unbearable moral aloneness  caught by the frontman with alarming sincerity. But who, in the end, are the “boys” the farmer’s telling about his crime? The sort of disembodied musical extras you’d find listening from the inside of a Springsteen or a Billy Joel song? A couple weirdos at a saloon the farmer frequents? His own demonic nobodies? Us? In any event, these listeners give him the voice of a strange oratorical troubadour, some child-sacrificing dude laying out his guilt so he can go unburden the world of his life. Whatever The Violent Femmes do or do not imply, the fact lingers that this all happens to be true. If somebody asked me if there’s such a thing as homesteader noir, I would have probably chuckled. And then I’d listen to Country Death Song, and stop chuckling right away.

Michael Peck's work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Juked, Pank and elsewhere. His first novel, The Last Orchard in America, is available from THE2NDHAND. He lives in Oregon City, where he deals in rare books.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: January

Calvary - John Michael McDonagh - An irish priest hears the confession of a man who says he was a victim of sexual abuse by a long-dead clergy member as a child and who plans to return in a week's time to kill the 'good' priest (Brendan Gleeson) as an act of vengeance/protest. Thankfully that's about it for plot - the priest spends no screen time pondering the sanctity of the confessional and his duty to keep secret the identity of the confessor (ala A Prayer For the Dying) - instead the soul of the film is the priest wrestling with his sacred duty regarding the well-being of the man who has promised to do him harm. As each day of his potentially final week passes, his faith and character is tested by each of his parishioners in their own fashion and as I steeled myself for the easy and obvious path the, up till then, compelling was surely about to take, I was constantly surprised by its refusal to go for anything trite. Gleeson is a film-making asset of boundless potential and the McDonaghs are proving themselves the most adept at using him for maximum impact. Supporting cast is strong as well. Best moment: Gleeson talks with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) about her recent suicide attempt.

Child of God - James Franco - Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) is about as off-putting a human being as you (or Cormac McCarthy) could dream up. Add up the fucks he gives about personal hygiene, decorum, public decency, private decency or articulate diction all the way to zero and then subtract for poverty, general mental capacity and medieval dentistry and you've got yourself a grade-A social outcast. Lester knows a thing or two about survival and he's just self-conscious enough to understand that he's unlovely, but how long can he live in the woods outside town pilfering the occasional items like chickens and dead folks before the decent folk have had enough and shoot him? It's a peculiarly un-ambitious feeling picture for the stature of the source material, but it's also oddly satisfying in particular moments, though somehow less than cinematic throughout. Franco's directorial style is very similar here to his adaptation of As I Lay Dying - where he let the internal monologues be read directly into the camera to get you into the headspace of each character - only this time it's only Lester all by his lonesome and that, friends is a lot of time to spend with the guy. The film feels most alive when Ballard has other characters to interact with (case in point: the scene where Tim Blake Nelson tries to reason with Lester and gives voice to many of the misgivings the audience feels, when Lester responds he suddenly seems a touch admirable instead of just admirably touched) and if you stick around for the the final fifteen minutes, you'll have some well-earned pay off, though I wouldn't blame you a bit for bailing early. Best moment: all dressed up for a shooting. Doesn't really matter how far away you see it coming, the visual impact is... startling and unnerving.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - George Clooney - Chuck Barris wrote a hit pop-song, created hit television programs and, if his titular memoir is to be believed, a hit-man for the CIA. Director Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman adapt his story from his perspective - none of this maybe he was, maybe he wasn't pussy-footing around the more audacious claims. Nope, every outrageous element is treated with the same gravity as The Gong Show. For his directorial debut, Clooney aimed high with the script, the style - so much great stagecraft and practical effects for fluid one-takes and non-split-screens etc. - and the tone which is comic, absurd, sweet, paranoid, even heartfelt. Damned if it doesn't fire on all cylinders there. At the center of it all is Sam Rockwell as Barris, a goofy hang-dog, horn-dog with the common touch and an uncommon appetite for killing, and the fact that the film holds together at all is a testament to the man's talent and charisma. Plus, shit, the rest of the cast includes Rutger Hauer and the perfect use of Drew Barrymore - man, the scene in the restaurant where she tells the philandering Chuck that she's giving him just one more chance, she's hitting so many notes at once, it's/she's amazing. I love this movie on so many levels. Best moment: East German prisoner exchange.

The Guest - Adam Wingard - The Petersons are an average suburban family mourning the loss of the oldest son, a soldier KIA, when they are visited by the recently discharged David (Dan Stevens) a platoon buddy just passing through. David soon insinuates himself into every aspect of their lives with unclear motivations and shit starts to get weird. It's a fucking shame the trailer gives away as much as it does about the directions this one goes, 'cause your destination is best arrived at cold. As goofy and slight as the picture ends up being, I enjoyed it all the way through mostly for Stevens's presence (he's clearly relishing the opportunity to shake the Downton Abbey stuffiness out of his system) and the script by Simon Barrett which is having as much fun as it hopes you are. Add great little production design touches and a kick-ass, throw-back horror score and you've got a decent way to kill an evening. Best moment: fit hits the shan.

Hard Time Season 1 - National Geographic - A reality show following prisoners and corrections officers doing their day to day in Georgia. Some good color and details` to pick up, but doesn't stand out from a bunch of other television prison and crime documentaries... this one however is narrated by Thurston Moore... so there's that. Best moment: the manhunt.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Kenneth Branagh - Gak! My middle-favorite, middle-brow, middling fictional CIA analyst just shrugged another smidge toward watered-down milquetoastian action hero with half-baked, luke-warm, non-fat, no-foam results! A fairly convincing display of competence without the weight of excitement! If you like your oatmeal flavor straight up in aerosol form, you'll never remember you saw it! Best moment: Yes, there is one - Branagh's baddy's introduction.

The Mule  - Tony Mahoney, Angus Sampson - A first time drug mule is stopped at customs in Melbourne returning from Thailand with twenty condoms full of dope in his guts. He refuses an x-ray and the authorities have the latitude to hold him without charges for seven days. Now he is under house arrest in a hotel room with 24/7 police chaperone and a shitload of will power not to take a crap. Unfortunately his criminal team mates (some of whom are also his football team mates who he was with in Bangkok for a game) are plotzing all over the place, not betting on their man inside or their man's insides - they're offing each other and making plans to off him to cover their asses should he evacuate his. But they should know better. He's the titular character after all, not only a body cavity smuggler, but also possessed of the stubbornness oft attributed to the equidae-family member beast of burden. Wikipedia says of the mule It has been claimed that mules are "more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses" which pretty much sums up Ray (co-writer/director Sampson). The film opens with Ray receiving an award from his team, sort of a MVP thing with the acknowledgement that he's far from the top of the roster - in fact he may not even make the cut next season - but he holds the record for showing up and digging in for the most consecutive games. In other words, kid's got heart. And so does the movie. For as much as the plot description sounds like it precedes a broad comedy, this is a drama with (ahem) guts and a captial-T Thriller with terrific turns from each cast member including Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie and John Noble. It's o-fucking-fficial now, Australian crime flick exports are a better product than the domestic selection overall. Best moment: Ray's mother tries to do what's best for her son.

November Man - Roger Donaldson - International spy and expert killer (Pierce Brosnan) with a tragic past is brought back into the game for one last job, one with a personal element... or two... or more... or, oh hell, it's a fucking big-budget shoot-em-up with movie stars and exotic locale helmed by a journeyman with chops, you know exactly what you're getting into here. Question is, do you care? If you're in the right mood, this one fits the bill nicely. If you're looking for something new, move along. Less a script than a string of proven audience-baiting/pleasing cliches with good looking people in good looking places putting the R-rated violence to each other. Sounds good today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe so again the day after. Side note: the Point Break remake's Johnny Utah, Luke Bracey, is apparently not Sean Bean's son, but he sure could pass for it. Best moment: the splosion.

Out For Justice - John Flynn - Steven Seagal as the least Italian, least cop-like, least giving a shit how the future will judge him (future: like the very next week) so-go-the-fuck-ahead-and-wear-the-oily-pony-tail-with-the-beret-and-the-cut-off-sleeves-and-track-suit-with-your-badge-on-a-lanyard tough guy in a wise-guy's neighborhood would be all five of director Flynn's Five Obstructions if a time-travelling Lars Von Trier had challenged him to make a credible hard-nosed crime flick on par with earlier accomplishments like The Outfit or Rolling Thunder and Flynn, God-bless-him, would take him up on it. Or at least take the money and give it his honest to goodness best shot. The results are every bit as cringeworthy as you'd guess though somehow highly watchable and in the scenes without the star feel like discovering the truth behind the rumors about a forgotten favorite hardboiled urban crime thriller and I enjoyed picturing somebody like Harry Dean Stanton or Robert Duvall or Walter Matthau in the lead as the film played and y'know what? That would've been a pretty decent flick. Best moment: William Forsythe has road rage.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani - A man returns from his travels to find his wife has disappeared from their Paris apartment and he suspects harm has befallen her. That's exactly as far as I'm going to go into the plot because it spirals in several directions at once in a dizzyingly byzantine mythology that springs up around the building itself and what has happened to other tenants. After a while, I just didn't care, frankly, but I'm going to give this one a big fat recommendation if you're up to buy the ticket and take the ride. This is a sumptuously shot trip through psychological horror, erotic suspense and artful trash. It's like somebody gave the film makers a decent budget an abundance of talent, confidence and the charge to make an old-fashioned Brian De Palma/Dario Argento sex thriller. It's gorgeous and creepy and so overwhelmingly rich you'll probably not absorb anything past the first half hour. Which is fine. You'll enjoy the hell out of it in pieces. Best moment: not even gonna try.

Sweetwater - Logan Miller, Noah Miller - A New Mexican homesteading couple (January Jones and Eduardo Noriega) run afoul of a religious cult fronted by Jason Isaacs who is set to take over the territory if he can dodge the blame for a couple of murders that Ed Harris is investigating. I'll give the film this: its heart is in the right place. This flick is out there, a grotesque, weird-western mix of sex, violence and religious psychopathy that could've been great... but wasn't. And the cast is game. Especially Harris, whose long hair somehow is more believable than Isaac's beard and Jones who it seems just jumped at the wrong project to establish a new popular identity after Betty Draper. The problems are in the tone and pacing and atmosphere which just don't hold together, though a handful of moments stand out as testament to what coulda/woulda/shoulda been including the Best moment: Harris carving up Isaac's dinner table.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - David Lynch - Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is doomed to die as anyone who's seen the TV show the film is a cap and prequel to can tell you. The series opens with the discovery of her body famously "Dead. Wrapped in plastic." But knowing the inevitable end of the film and even the how and who and why of it all doesn't make the experience any less effective as a horror film - it only serves to drive home the tragedy. Most importantly though, the film serves as Laura's chance to speak for herself and what she says is... yeah, it's heartbreaking. Nobody should watch frame one of this film unless they've watched the entirety of the the show's approximately 30 episode run (that is until Twin Peaks returns to television next year on Showtime!) because... well, just because. It won't make any sense. It won't make any fans. It won't mean a thing to you. However, having watched the show's entire run multiple times, this film just wrecks me every time out. It's hard to watch and harder to take your eyes off of. I hope Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) returns in 2016. Oh, I hope. Let's Rock! Best moment: the painting on the wall dream sequence.

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Scott Frank - Ex-cop, ex-drunk and current unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) takes on a job for a drug trafficker to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife. Screenwriter/director Frank is the go-to guy for adapting tonally challenging writers (he's had varying degrees of success working from source material by James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick and Charles Willeford) and this one is the best all-around screen representation of material by Lawrence Block yet (the second time Scudder's been seen after Jeff Bridges had the role in 8 Million Ways to Die), but the material remains tricky, slipping traditional movie structures and beats like it doesn't give a fuck. And I suspect it doesn't. Bully for it. What emerges then feels odd at times - the pov switches occasionally and comes back to Scudder's when it feels like it - but only if you think of it as by-the-numbers blockbuster fare. Plus, it's a moody fucker. It's dark. Darker and less action-packed than the type of hardboiled histrionics Neeson's been lending his visage to of late anyhow. It feels like the role he's been looking for, three grades above and a sidestep away from what he's been making his tough guy bones doing. This is the series that should get three installments, guys... not fucking Taken. Best moment: Scudder's job interview. His no-bullshit acknowledgement of corruption is hard-learned from years in AA.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Get Some

Cut Bank - d: Matt Shankman w: Roberto Patino

'71 - d: Yann Demange w: Gregory Burke

Young Ones - w/d: Jake Paltrow

The Mule - d: Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson w: Jamie Browne, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

Wolf - w/d: Jim Taihuttu

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Porno-Koolaid-Acid-Western Test

Hat tip to William Boyle for pointing out both of these pieces to me, but really, they're too good not to share. Couple of great biographical essays by or about some favorite writers of mine.

First up: Chris Offutt writing about his father Andrew Offutt, the pulp writer, artist... pornographer in this New York Times piece My Dad, the Pornographer

Next up is this Vice magazine piece on Rudolph Wurlitzer king of the acid western and screenwriter of films like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Alex Cox's Walker by Jonathan Dixon. I once spent a great post N@B event evening with Cort McMeel, David James Keaton and Scott Phillips expressing our enthusiasm for Wurlitzer and wanting to do an Acid Western project which Cort pictured as a Murdaland/N@B co-publication... 

Alas, that never happened. We spent a year emailing ideas back and forth and cracking each other up with titles and concepts, and his death marked the official end of that project. However, there are two children (to date) of that night you can read... Scott's Hop Alley was mostly written and previously abandoned before that night. A follow through (rather than a follow up) to his excellent novel Cottonwood - or as it's been called Little Whorehouse on the Prairie - it's decidedly weird and hallucinatory at parts and shit howdy would've made for a memorable film in the hands of an artist like Peckinpah.

Upcoming is Keaton's Pig Iron which I haven't read, but being very much a fan of Keat's and having been present at the conception, I feel an altogether unwarranted parental pride and affection for this soon to be published piece of work. My own contribution to the proposed book is languishing betwixt concept and execution and I've heard the odd update from Matthew McBride about his, but at the very least - two tangible results. Thanks, Cort. 

The Vice piece also talks up the connection between Wurlitzer's excellent The Drop Edge of Yonder and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man which somehow I'd never put together before. Damn. Worth reading for that if you're a fan of either.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Price is Right

A fella clearly bereft of his reason, but well-endowed with generosity, if mis-placed, paid me the compliment of speaking about me in the same conversation with a certain crime writing giant recently. Said crime-writing giant has recently crime-written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt and I'm keen to read the new venture and wish a long and fruitful career to Mr. Brandt. It's only just 2015, but this has already been coming since 2010 (or before) as evidenced by the following piece I wrote about it back then. Time for another reprint from another site. Note that the Brandt name doesn't appear in the piece - originally he was Morris...

Richard Price apparently doesn’t write crime novels. I guess Clockers, The Wanderers, Samaritan and Lush Life get to have their cake and eat it too. They get to feature crackling slang heavy dialogue, inner city crime, (drugs, gang violence, kidnapping), large and small scale corruption and heroism, nail-biting passages,  memorable and colorful characters casts that include dealers, hustlers, junkies and cops, they get to be turned into big movies that are marketed as crime-thrillers, (Clockers, Freedomland), without the taint of genre ever being applied to them. They also land their creator in the writing room of the most heralded crime TV show of the… maybe ever, (The Wire), time will tell. If anyone deserves this privileged position, it’s him, but let’s be clear, Richard Price does not write crime novels.

Jay Morris, on the other hand, does. Or will. Following in the footsteps of “literary fiction” writer John Banville, who adopted a “transparent pseudonym” (Benjamin Black), under which he publishes wildly successful and acclaimed mysteries, Price has signed a deal to write a series of detective novels under the name Jay Morris for Henry Holt beginning in 2011.

Why is this necessary? 

I don’t know, but I’ve got no problem with the concept. Pseudonyms provide artists an outlet to try a different voice without risking the hard-won reputation and branding of their primary identity. I think it can be a very positive thing. A secondary identity doesn’t have to be laden with connotations of second-rate, bastard child, black sheep, hack toss-off.

What will it mean?

Here’s what I’m hoping. Greater output. Faster turnaround. Shooting from the hip. I hope that the cover Jay Morris provides accompanies risk taking and gusto. I hope it’s not four years between books. I hope he can have fun and go places his respectable self can’t.

And most of all—I hope it’s infectious. I’d love to see more highbrow writers take a whack at the crime novel/mystery form. I’d love to see a Russell Banks heist novel, a Don DeLillo psycho-noir, a Richard Russo procedural or a Toni Morrison serial. Hey, how about Thomas McGuane, Pete Dexter, Jerry Stahl, Darren DeFrain, Ron Hanson or Katherine Dunn?  I’d go there. In an instant.

If it takes a new name, so be it, but let’s get loose and see what happens, huh?

And then let’s honor the artists already doing important literary work within genre without the comfort of a safety net. They deserve it. (Check out this great short essay from Ken Bruen about writing “pot-boilers.”)
.......................end re-post.......................

But y'know, there's some motherfuckers out there in genre-land I'd like to see a serious book of fucking non-fiction from - looking at you, Dennis Tafoya, Gary Phillips, Christa Faust, Johnny Shaw, Wallace Stroby. Thank God we've got Jake Hinkson's The Blind Alley to look forward to soon and Megan Abbott's The Street Was Mine, Barry Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Michael Connelly's Crime Beat, James Ellroy's My Dark PlacesEddie Muller's Dark City Dames, Duane Swierczynski's This Here's a Stick Up and Barry Graham's Why I Watch People Die to chew on before we get (if we ever do) Donald Ray Pollock's Earl Thompson biography. Just sayin' all you folks who write the novels that the serious-lit kids turn their noses up at, you've got things to say on topics you're passionate about and damn it, I like to hear you say them, so hey, a collection of essays, true crime tales, film reviews or biographical anecdotes can create more intriguing collections than you perhaps believe. 

In other news, Mr. Steve Weddle -editor and publisher of the venerable Needle magazine and author of Country Hardball has published a peek at his next novel in the latest issue of All Due Respect magazine. I had the honor of interviewing him in the same issue and believe that between his contribution and those of Keith Rawson, Gabino Iglesias, Garnett Elliott, Paul D. Brazill, Angel Luis Colon and J.J. Sinisi it's worth your time and or coupla bucks

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Year in Crime Flicks: Honorable Mentions

As always, the top 10 had their rock-solid 6 or 7 with a bit of a mushy, less sharply defined lower few, so I like to give a bonus ten, several of which might have made the top 10 list on another day. There's also room for a few interestingly flawed pictures in this group... I'd like to spend more time talking about it, but I think we'll have to call David Ayer's Sabotage number 21... a very flawed film, but one that I still think about and want to watch again for a third time. Hit me up in the comments or somewhere's if you've got thoughts.
The Drop Michael R. Roskam - Bob and Marv run Cousin Marv's, a local mob drop-bar and are under an intense microscope after the place is robbed on collection night. Meanwhile Bob (Tom Hardy) rescues a pitbull with the help of Nadia a neighborhood girl (Noomi Rapace) and ends up the target of her psycho ex-boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts). With this project Dennis Lehane goes into full Road to Perdition-universe Max Allan Collins mode writing a novelization of his screenplay based on his own short story (Animal Rescue), but no matter the true origin of the source material, the film is fully-realized and fleshy draped on the sturdy skeletal structure provided by Hardy and James Gandolfini as Marv's performances. The two big lugs mope and scowl and bitch and wryly observe between themselves with an interpersonal dynamic not fully defined for the audience until the end of the film and it's pretty great to observe. Add to their chemistry the fine supporting cast including John Ortiz, James Frecheville plus the stellar-again Ann Dowd and you've got an atmosphere I love kicking around inside (if you see it and dig it too, do yourself a favor and check out the novel Gravesend by William Boyle). The plot is pretty standard fare, but it doesn't need to be any more flashy because the band is hitting the beats like they mean it and I'm sold.

Drug War - Johnnie To - When an industrial scale methamphetamine manufacturer and distributor is apprehended in China, he agrees to help the cops take down a cartel in order to avoid the death penalty. As he works alongside the policeman who busted him, an interesting evolution occurs in their dynamic. They go from mortal enemies to uneasy allies and by the time they've each saved the other's bacon more than once the viewer isn't sure where their loyalty lies. And that's great. The end of the film is pretty fantastic and I don't want to let on anything about it or how we get there, but it was great. Best moment: a Mission Impossible-style double sting operation that requires the stone-faced cop to shift gears hard to play the role of a flamboyant and gregarious smuggler. It's a jolt.

Filth - Jon S. Baird - Right from the start we know something is off about Bruce, the monstrous homicide cop at the center of the action, in this adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel of the same name. As out of control as his behavior appears (copious drug use, ugly and impulsive sexual behavior, violent abuse of the power his job affords), control is precisely what he is in search of. His power games with paramours, co-workers and criminals come together to promote his particular agenda (a promotion he believes will win him back his family). The dual escalation of self-destructive behavior and Machiavellian manipulation of everything and everybody around him leaves Bruce a tad, um, unhinged. The cast is full of ringers - Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Shirley Henderson, and Kate Dickie, but man, this one made an overnight James McAvoy fan out of me. I'd never understood the effusive praise thrown after his (fine, but unremarkable, in my opinion) previous work by folks whose opinions I'm oft in alignment with, and when I saw he'd been cast in the lead role here, I was more than a little skeptical. But hoah shit, does he bring the energy, lechery and most importantly, the feels to this one. Yes, holy fuck! the feels! The final fifth the film pulls every string together for a surprisingly effective and emotionally complex finale that is punctuated by the Best moment: a superb animated end-credit sequence set to the Billy Ocean song Love Really Hurts Without You. Fucking wrecked me. Believe it.

Go For Sisters - John Sayles - Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is a parole officer whose work causes her path to recross with childhood friend Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), a parolee trying to put her life back together. When Bernice's son, a former soldier, goes missing (most likely kidnapped) in Mexico, she enlists her former friend's help in tracking him down. Along the way the duo hire a private detective (Edward James Olmos) and get in over their heads with dangerous people, but the bond between the women proves surprisingly strong and provides a very satisfying main course for the film. The actors ultimately rescue what could have been an exercise in trope subversion (I know - this time the detectives are black women, looking for a young boy who's disappeared) and elevate it to one of the best dramas, let alone crime films I've seen this year. And Sayles certainly deserves credit for that - I don't mean to suggest that he only wrote a cute send-up of the mystery genre - I'm sure he meant for it to be more than that - but without the great performances and chemistry between performers, that's all we'd have. Best moment: the opening scene of Bernice at work hearing stories from parolees is top notch scene setting and character building and both Hamilton and Ross are amazing to watch.

God's Pocket - John Slattery - Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a semi-legit businessman and a low-level criminal whose stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is a royal fuckup. When Leon provokes an elderly and seemingly feeble black coworker to fight and ends up dead, nobody at the job site is too upset by the loss and they all follow the foreman's lead by sticking with the accident on the job story he comes up with in order to spare the poor, old-timer unnecessary grief from the white cops. Leon's mother (Christina Hendricks) however is convinced that there's a cover up of some kind and goads her husband and a local celebrity newsman (Richard Jenkins) to investigate the incident leading to tragi-comic results on every front. Can't for the life of me figure out why this one didn't get more play what with the great posthumous performance from Hoffman, the rest of the cast which includes Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Domenick Lombardozzi and Glenn Fleshler, the feature directorial debut of Slattery and the revered source material by Pete Dexter. In a very strong year, it's one of my favorite films and should pick up the following it deserves in years to come. After The Paperboy, it's nice to see so much of the feel of Dexter's voice and tone come through in an adaptation.

The Immigrant - James Gray - Ewa, a polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard), is detained at Ellis Island with her sick sister, who is quarantined, and slated for deportation when a mysterious benefactor, Bruno (Joaquine Phoenix), steps in and offers the woman a shot at a life in the new world and a chance to save her sister from being shipped across the ocean. Suspicious, but desperate, Ewa chooses to accept a post as a housekeeper which leads to dance hall performer and prostitute where best money is. Ewa's story is not a victim's, but a survivor's and whether it's ultimately despairing or hopeful is the audience's litmus test. Along the way she experiences betrayal and devotion, exploitation and benevolence, but nothing alters her course or deters her intent to liberate her sister. Gray is a film maker I've always found compelling - his aesthetic sense is hugely appealing, and his interest in the small details and decisions create intriguing tensions for his characters to exist within. This one's probably as close to sweeping as he'll get (what with the ambitious and excellently executed historic setting and themes), but the feel remains close, intimate and immediate and the ultimate resolution of the central relationship between Cotillard and Phoenix is as thorny and imprecise as it should be. Ewa is the steadfast character here, whose purpose is always clear regardless of circumstance or means, but it's Bruno, whose intent is always suspect, who is most compelling. Ever torn (or is he?) between self-service and more noble impulses, every layer revealed adds complexity if not to who he is than at least to our perspective on him and we get the sense that he's at least as genuinely confused about his own identity (the character, not the performer - an important distinction) as the viewer is. And by the time the cops brutally shake Bruno down, his response surprises him as much as it does Ewa without clearly defining his motive to anyone. Looking forward to watching this one again sometime. It should be said that the supporting cast, especially Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee and Elena Solovey are uniformly excellent, providing more dimension and production value to the flick than any (necessary) trick of lighting or CGI.

Joe - David Gordon Green - Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con just trying to live and let live encounters a host of obstacles along the straight and narrow. Joe has his own small business and employs a youngster named Gary (Ty Sheridan) who supports his family as best he can until his abusive, shit-for-worth father (Gary Poulter) eventually fucks things up so bad they have to leave yet another small town and move on. Arrrrrgh, this pisses Joe off. Gary's a good kid and his old man is real bad news. Joe's known very few Garys in his time and all too many alcoholic assholes bent on snuffing out the Garys of the world. Hell, he's maybe been one himself. Joe's tryin to stay upright, but he tilts haaaard at self-destruction... perhaps... maybe... just maybe he can make his imminent personal downfall count for something worthwhile. I think I just reduced a swell flick to a cliche-ridden sound bite. So, don't read this. See the movie. Or, if you've gotta read something, read the source material by Larry Brown. Either of those options are swell. Some folks have called this a return to form for Green, the director of George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, (tho, I'll argue the virtues of Your Highness any day, friend), but it is certainly a reminder how how damn good Cage can be when he's got a script and a director. He stands placid and anchored at the center of a vortex of violence and dead-end living until his own suicidal energy spills over. Splish, splash, here comes Tazmanian Nicolas Cage! Except... there's a glint in his eyes, but this is the furthest thing from Drive Angry Cagian havoc. What are these, these... feelings? Flick will make you feel shit. And Cage will too. Not to mention Sheridan and Poulter (in his sole screen credit - he died before he had the chance to make any more celluloid impressions, and judging from his presence in this picture, that's a notable loss - dammit). Best moment: the opening sequence of Joe's day to day with his crew, on the job, in his pickup, coffee, alcohol, shootin the shit with the convenience store guy - just first class world building. You know this guy afterward.

Life of Crime - Daniel Schechter - Two fellas kidnap a rich lady for ransom, but have the misfortune of their plan falling on the weekend over which the rich husband is leaving her. The rich husband is an asshole, but... how big an asshole? He's not willing to let his wife be killed just to avoid paying ransom and then alimony, is he? "Don't worry," says his foxy-smart mistress, "they won't kill her and you won't have to pay if we play this my way." Oh the tangled webs we weave. This is one of the most tonally precise adaptations of the work of Elmore Leonard yet (from his novel The Switch) where the criminals are bad guys, but not entirely unreasonable, the victims are thoughtful people and have their own ideas, nobody backs down and everybody throws curveballs at each other's heads. And it's funny, but it's not really a comedy. It's got a tension, but nobody'd call it a white-knuckle thriller. It's also a period piece (the late 70s) with great, small details that don't call attention to themselves, but add a lot of flavor - why is this the first non-western period adaptation of Leonard I can think of? - it works great. The casting of John Hawkes and Yasin Bey in the same roles inhabited by Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (from Leonard's Rum Punch) certainly invite physical and spiritual comparisons to the other work (and hell, Michael Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown role in Out of Sight seems to give the go-ahead nod to runners at second wishing to create a singular alternate universe of the man's work). The rest of the cast is just as good. Even the presence of Will Forte and the buffoonish antics of Mark Boone Junior don't tip the scales into broad comedy. This is a terrific semi-high stakes game of life and death and money that deserves your attention. Best moment: the kidnapping sequence - the staging is masterful, complex but never confusing, while the tone is dramatic and funny too. Captures the film maker's understanding of the essence of Leonard's work beautifully.

Metro Manila - Sean Ellis - Oscar (Jake Macapagal) is a rice farmer who moves his family to the big city when he is no longer able to support them working the fields. The urban jungle is no kinder to them, but both parents are desperate enough to work dangerous and demeaning jobs to support themselves and their family, she as a topless dancer in a sleazy club where prostitution is pretty much a job requirement and he as a driver in an armored car service where he'll be a target for criminals with nothing left to lose and who don't mind shooting it out for a chance at the cash and valuables he's moving them from point-a to point-b (and if you've ever seen another movie, it'll come as no surprise that he faces just as much or more danger from his co-workers who want that money just as much as anybody else). After digging the Filipino export On the Job so hard earlier this year, I was ready to dive into another crime flick from the hard heart of the city and this one delivers, even if it swerves a little hard into the innocents forced to do bad things genre at times. Beautiful and gritty and emotionally engaging - highly recommended.

Night Moves - Kelly Reichardt - A trio of aspiring eco-terrorists negotiate the dangerous space between idealism and survival. Shot like a heist procedural, (except the job isn't a robbery - they're blowing up a dam) where the gang comes together, executes the job and then, in the grand tradition, fall apart beneath the crushing weight of doubt and paranoia. Who's the weakest link and what defines that? What is too high a price, what's justified? All questions worth a movie and Reichardt delivers some solid suspense and tension, and while I'm pleased to see her exploring new territory as a film maker (this one's pretty bare bones, but compared to some of her other work, it's pomp and circumstance) I don't think this one quite measures up to her last couple of efforts, Meek's Cutoff and Wendy & Lucy respectively. Could be the handling of onscreen violence here - unfortunately feels a bit amateurish and lacks the emotional wallop that the (particular) moment deserves. If the moment were as visually disturbing as it should be, the whole film would resonate more deeply. Still, it's a much better offering than 90% of the thriller fare you're going to be offered this year, and I name Reichardt alongside names like Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green if asked to give hope for the next generation of American auteurs.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2014

These be my favorite of the recent flicks I saw last year, not necessarily films released in 2014, in alphabetical order, nerds. These also be the comments from the original Year in Flicks posts the selected films appeared in... 'cause I'm lazy.

Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier - Dwight, a homeless, but seemingly carefree beach bum has his world turned upside down when he receives news that a particular man is being released from prison - end of beach life. Suddenly, Dwight is a man of action and as each new scene reveals, he's a man with a plan that he's been patiently waiting out. He follows the newly released convict and his family a short way away and clearly intends to do the newly freed harm, but after that... who knows? Dwight's plans don't seem to extend beyond the violent act itself and what's in store for the audience is a hell of an artfully delivered, white-knuckle thriller. Holy shit. Just kapow. Wham, bam and waaaaaait for it... waaaaaaaait for it... shazam. To knock this one out of the number one film of the year spot is going to take something fuuuuuuuuuucking special (but holy crap there's some gud shit due soon). My first reaction to this piece of bloody Americana was to shoe-horn it into a couple of complimentary-intended comparisons, like it was some kind of derivation of greater works, I think I called it Blood Simple by way of Shotgun Stories, but I rather regret even saying that now, as the film is its own thing and deserves to be encountered on its own terms. And those terms can be located within the voice of a bold and ridiculously assured film maker just beginning to speak.

Cheap ThrillsE.L. Katz - On the day that a new father, about to see his family evicted from their small, L.A. apartment, loses his auto-mechanic job, he stops by a bar for a quick, steeling drink before heading home to figure out his life. At the bar he runs into his dodgy high-school pal and agrees to commiserate for one more drink. The two are then drawn into the orbit of an obnoxiously rich couple who throw cash around indiscriminately for the pleasure of its affect on the two pals. Soon, one drink turns into a night of partying that rides the exhilarating/terrifying edge toward riches or doom for the hapless duo. This is one electrifying, sick picture that demands and collects everything from its cast. Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton and the revelatory David Koechner draw our empathy, admiration and repulsion one beat to the next in a razor-sharp allegory for global economic exploitation. Buuuut, don't let the myriad one-to-one metaphoric parallels distract you from the immediate pleasures of this aptly titled morality conundrum because they are many, sweet and tart. The control that first time feature director Katz demonstrates is some veteran-level shit. Watch him squeeze a single scene in three different emotional directions and tease the hell out of your expectations with a sly edit, an unexpected texture, a tonal shift unexpected - yet organic - you only realize later it was swelling beneath surface from the beginning. Fucking loved this movie.

Cold in JulyJim Mickle - Michael C. Hall is Richard, a family man, in 1989 Texas, who shoots an intruder in his home in the middle of the night and feels good about defending his home and family for about fiiiive minutes before the father of the man he killed, (Sam Shepard) a baaad man just out of prison with nothing to lose, begins to terrorize Richard and his cozy little life falls apart. The fact that the film is based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale ought to give you some clue that the above plot description (and for once the trailer, thank God) do not ruin the myriad of surprises this one has in store and keep it from being a Tejas-set Cape Fear-exercise. For everything it's got going for it, including one of the best original scores I've heard in years (by Jeff Grace), low-key, but spot-on (and just the right amount of) period details for flavor and a very game cast, it's got a throwback sensibility to this vein of down and dirty thriller that skates the edges of exploitation, but retains enough real heart and brains (but mostly heart... or guts) to keep it out of the tough-guys with guns bargain bin rack quality-wise. The result is a lean, tough mystery thriller with a helluva climax. Strong contender for year's top honors around these parts.

Dom HemingwayRichard Shepard - After a dozen years in prison safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is out and ready to reap the rewards of his silence from those he didn't rat out while inside. He's also got a score or two to settle, some family matters to see to and a little general catching up to do. Dom's a force of nature: unpredictable, volatile self-aggrandizing and self-destructive and his time inside certainly has not mellowed him. We follow Dom as he checks off his list of things to do and people to confront, never knowing what outcome is even desired never mind probable. And that is a big part of the appeal to this film. Yeah, like Dom, it's big and brash and outrageous, but it's also unclear where it's headed and that, in the hands of a solid film maker, is a huge thrill. This one goes toe to toe with the best of Shepard's other films The Matador and The Hunting Party and even punches outside its weight some. In fact, I think this one would make a terrific double feature with Sexy Beast. Tonally the two films are quite different, but it's not hard to imagine Law's Dom becoming Ben Kingsly's Don a few years down the line. Will that happen? Will Dom survive time, his enemies, his friends, himself? Will Dom's demise live up to the legend of his life that he creates and perpetuates seemingly more out of duty than desire, or will Dom take some serious critical inventory and set for himself new goals and new direction? Regardless, it's a helluvan entertaining film and one of the best performances of the year from Law, plus Richard Grant is, as always, fantastic.

Easy Money: Life Deluxe - Jens Jonsson - If you're not up on the plot at this point in the series (this is the third and climactic chapter in a trilogy) then I'm not going to spoil it for you. Instead let me just say, holy crap, these films are all great and of a piece (they should be - they're based on a trilogy of books by Jens Lapidus) and they are collectively one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the year. These are future classics, kids and I hope they spawn some more serious-minded epic treatments of international criminal underground for the big screen. Best moment: the heist. Fantastic tension delivered via sticking with the thieves inside for visuals while hearing constant updates from the getaway driver about developments outside simultaneously. Fucking lovely.

Enemy - Denis Villeneuve - A history professor with a beautiful, blond girlfriend discovers there's another version of himself out there - a film actor with a beautiful, blond (and pregnant) wife - and his obsession with this alternate him derails his life. Make of it what you will, this is one of the most haunting pictures I've seen in a long damn time. There is an ill ease cast over the film like a shroud that filters out hope and draws every ounce of menace from of the atmosphere keeping it in an invisible bucket that is only dumped out when the director is good and ready. But you won't be. Nope. Huh-uh. No way. The final shot of the film just might be my favorite... ever? Did I say haunting? That's not quite right, 'cause the specter that followed me for weeks after viewing had something damn near physical properties. I'm not familiar with the source novel The Double by Jose Saramago, but I feel pretty safe saying that this is a better adaptation (let alone a better film) than Fernando Meirelles's Saragmago stab at the uber allegorical Blindness. I haven't been this electrically perplexed by a talky since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (though, I still prefer Lost Highway, baby). Which is not to say that I hold in the same regard... I'm not sure, but it's damn close and that's pretty special. Not a crime film, but noir at the core.

Nightcrawler - Dan Gilroy - Louis Bloom, a petty thief and sociopath finds a chance to realize his outsized ambitions as a freelance crime journalist, which is a plot line that has been used in plenty of films special and unremarkable ones alike. So what makes this one stand out? A sharp script and an electrically-charged lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. In fact Gyllenhaal is so damn good in the role, I'd seriously consider going to a motivational conference led by him as Lou. Hell, I want a book on tape from him almost as much as I want one by Kenny Powers. It works best/most as a character study and less as the media satire I've been a little puzzled to hear it interpreted as being. Many smarter and more eloquent types than me have heaped praise on this one, so I won't bother adding to the hubbub, but it's a serious contender for top honors over here.

On the JobErik Matti - A Filipino crime flick about inmates clandestinely released onto the streets to carry out assassinations and then smuggled back into prison with iron-clad alibis, On the Job is the first film of the year that I can't imagine not being one of the year's very best when it's all said and done. Holy shit, this was fantastic. It's simple and brilliant, and brutal and complex, and human and tragic, and thrilling and haunting. I think that covers it. Tackled from multiple angles - from the inmate/assassins, the cops, the politicians who are usually involved on the hiring or the killing end of these operations - it's a multi-faceted portrait of modern corruption in the clothes of an action thriller and satisfies on many different levels. Just go watch this shit. Now. Best moment: the betrayal/assassination - manhunt - finishing the job sequence in the middle of the picture is masterful action and suspense film making, as well as a feat of screenwriting and editing. Holy crap.

The RoverDavid Michod - In a near-future gone to hell Australia a man's car is stolen by a gang of criminals on the run from a botched robbery that left bodies on the ground - one of the bodies belongs to one of their own whom they presume to be dead. The film follows the vehicularly bereft Eric (Guy Pearce) on his relentless and savage quest to retrieve his property. Eric soon nabs the gang's abandoned half-dead half-wit Rey (Robert Pattinson) and forces the non-literally-sparkling film presence to lead him to his compadres and his own titular(?) favored mode of transport. The gang has made the same mistake that the audience is invited to - underestimating Eric and his resolve to recover his property. Maybe it's the cargo shorts. The viewer will quickly change their opinion of the man in the short pants as his moxy and ruthlessness are revealed in layers - each one peeled in a perfectly shocking moment. But Rey is his own onion-like creation, at first underestimated due to his physical injuries and later because of his mental limitations, but the relationship between the two develops into something akin to a man and his loyal dog and I found the finale fucking riveting unsure where loyalties could/would come down, especially for Rey. The third star of the movie is the world itself. I've heard it described as post-apocalyptic, but I don't think that's quite accurate. It's a reduced society for sure, the functioning of the economy is one of the most fascinating features and the population are well-armed and wary of everybody else, but there are still ideas of a more cosmopolitan civilization operating somewhere. We get glimpses of it: well equipped police/military/private militia pop up once in a while, but protect and serve nobody we ever see and in the film's most jarring moment, a glittery Top-40 pop song blares on the soundtrack and is revealed to be something that one character is listening to (and singing along with) on a radio broadcast - indicating that the characters have an understanding of a better life being lived somewhere by people not altogether unlike themselves, though their actions and attitudes make it clear that they never expect to be touched by the good life and do not consider themselves citizens of anything larger than their immediate partners or selves. It's a beguiling and intriguing film, fierce and rich in it's textures and nuances. I'm looking forward to revisiting soon.

Starred Up - David Mackenzie - Eric (Jack O'Connell) a violent young offender is graduated early to an adult maximum security prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. The tension between the interests of immediate survival and long-term life-planning carries the film through harrowing sequences that aren't all violent, but which swim in the immediacy of violent probability. This is damn good film making - a gritty flick that works the tag 'thriller' just as hard on the emotional stakes of the father/son dynamic as it does on the life-and-or-limb front of life among the condemned. This one absolutely belongs in conversation with A Prophet, the best prison film I've seen... ever? O'Connell delivers a startling performance and Mendelsohn cements his reputation as an invaluable presence to anchor your crime drama with. One of the decade's best. Fucking-a.