Sunday, July 22, 2018

All Things Being Equal

This week on the Do Some Damage podcast I followed this line of thinking: The Equalizer 2 opens this weekend marking the fourth time Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua have worked together. Since their first collaboration, Training Day, won Washington his first Best Actor Oscar and was also the first unqualified success for Fuqua (whose feature film debut, The Replacement Killers, I really enjoyed, but find myself in an apparent minority) as well as a hell of a reputation maker for screenwriter David Ayer, and seeing as Fuqua and Ayer have gone on to have big if uneven careers, I used my seven minutes to talk about another film from both of them.

First I talked about my favorite Fuqua; 2009's Brooklyn's Finest. Follows what I like to think of a classic James Ellroy structure; three very different cops with different problems and motivations end up crossing paths with terrible results.

First we have Don Cheadle's quickly burning-out undercover whose handler (Will Patton) has promised him a major promotion and an end to undercover work if he betrays his best friend (a pretty engaged Wesley Snipes). Along the way he'll lose his soul.

Second - Ethan Hawke's hard-pressed officer who steals desperately needed money from a drug bust to help get his at-risk-pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) and kids out of their black mold infested shitbox row house into a place the air and water won't literally poison them. Along the way he'll lose his life and create some terrible collateral damage.

Third is Richard Gere's cowardly cop just trying to finish his time before retiring alive. He avoids confrontation at all cost and ignores some super shady shit before his latent conscience gets the better of him. Along the way he'll lose his skin.

It's a pretty great tragic drama without heroes and only shades of grey and it's free on Prime now.

Training Day wasn't Ayer's only 2001 credit - he also wrote the Point Break riff about an undercover cop infiltrating a ring gear-heads, The Fast & the Furious; which has spawned a franchise that's moved on from being concerned with stealing CD players to saving the fucking world one nitrous infusion at a time. And if you thought the he borrowed liberally from the surfer movie, you should hold up the script for Training Day next to James Ellroy's original screenplay, Dark Blue. Maaaaaybe a line or three of dialogue appear in both.

Dark Blue is a non-sports-themed Ron Shelton flick based on an Ellroy script re-written by Ayer starring Kurt Russell as a dirty cop about to face a reckoning. Set in L.A. in 1992, the country holding its collective breath awaiting the jury's verdict in the trial of the police officers caught on camera beating holy hell out of a pedestrian named Rodney King. We all know what's about to happen and it makes for a hell of a ticking clock device while Russell attempts both to solve some brutal murders and use the chaos to cover up some of his own dirt.

I'm not sure why this movie didn't get more love when it came out. My guess is that it was mostly a victim of poor timing - arriving so shortly on the heels of Joe Carnahan's similar and superior indie darling Narc - but if you've never seen it it's a solid adult crime flick with some great writing (a few groaner lines aside) and a terrific performance from Russell who is more than just a hair-do.

There are a few flimsy bits and Scott Speedman's rock star locks don't really lend him street cred, but the cast also includes Brendan Gleeson, Lolita Davidovich, Jonathan Banks and Ving Rhames so don't hesitate to give it a look - available to rent or purchase on Amazon.

All this talk of Ellroy influences got me pissed off all over again at the news that we wouldn't be getting to see Jordan Harper's James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential on TV or any streaming service after all after this fuckin article came along to rub tabasco in my wounds. Shit shit shit.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

It's a Noir World After All

You know what's nice? Listening to smart and insightful people talk about things that fascinate you. Reading them too. That's also nice. As I can't be around everywhere these discussions and lectures and all are going on I'm in need of reading material these days.

Enter Alain Silver and James Ursini to feed my need for smart, topical engagement. The editors of many illuminating books on film including the Film Noir Reader (vols 1-4) have been doing it more than twenty years, and their latest, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement offers essays on the origins of film noir from Robert Porfirio, Julie Grossman, Homer B. Petty, Tom Ryall, Richard Edwards, James V. D'Arc and Todd Erickson that will stimulate the enthusiast in film and noir aficionados everywhere. Good shit - check 'em out.

Also a bunch of swell pieces to link to today.

Is it me or is Megan Abbott just everywhere these days? Last week I linked to her piece on our need for and attraction to True Crime, then there's this interview in Vanity Fair with Gillian Flynn on writing prickly female characters that piss people off and I just read another piece by her examining her relationship with Raymond Chandler and especially Philip Marlowe in the #MeToo era.

Woody Haut reminds us that it's a Noir World after all and always has been, but holy shit is it in your face in the age of Trump.

Not a new piece, but David Joy writing about gun culture in the New York Times was a good one.

Another not new, but perennially worthwhile read is Kim Morgan's essay on Warren Oates which I was reminded of as this week coincided with Oates's birthday.

One week from tonight I'll be at Left Bank Books reading with N@B alum Fred Venturini and Josh Woods plus Kea Wilson, author of We Eat Our Own - check out Max Booth III's review at LitReactor. Then join Max, myself, Scott Phillips, Amanda Gowin,Tawny Pike, Jen Egan and Chris Orlet for N@B at Meshuggah on July 28.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Itsa Me, Sicario!

This week on the Do Some Damage podcast I cover Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the unlikely sequel to the unwieldy would-be 2015 blockbuster, Sicario. Like many people I know I had mixed reactions to the first film which had undeniably great cinematography and sound design and editing and a swell cast working with good dialogue from a script that...

What the fuck exactly did that script think it was doing?

It was advertised as an issue-movie; a serious dramatic examination of the war on violence and corruption of big narco business inching its way under the panty-line of the all-mighty, innocent complicity of American (I mean US) policy, but instead delivered a thriller that also worked as a horror film of tooth-grindingly effective suspense sequences only to be hi-jacked in the final act by a long-lost macho revenge pulp of yore.

The inarguable competence and even excellence of every other area of the production spoke to this not being a fluke - way too dark to be the product of studio notes derailing a project to make it more commercially digestible - so this... this was the plan the whole time. I needed to watch it again (and again) to chew on the choices.

Sicario under-performed at the domestic box office so it was a big surprise when a sequel was green-lit. I was very curious and full of anticipatory butterflies. I had questions man. Instead of rolling my eyes and immediately demoting the status of the original, the idea of a sequel was so puzzlingly juicy because I had absolutely no idea what it would be. The switcheroo that was so divisive in the first could never be undone nor repeated - who would the main character be? That question alone was worth the whole thing to me - finally, a sequel that would actually help me decide how I felt about the original.

So... Day of the Soldado begins with a couple of sequences that plays like FOX News jerk-off material tying drug cartels to international Islamic terrorism and giving the suits all the excuse they need to get super awful. They enlist Josh Brolin's ever committed to comfortable footwear spook to "get dirty." Brolin is first seen using missile strikes against civilians and private residences as leverage against a detainee he's questioning - a threat he makes good on, by the way. And the prisoner? Isn't a jihadist or even a cartel gangster. He's a pirate, a smuggler (he's Han Solo in the movie of his life) and it's clear that we are the fucking evil empire in this situation. The state department's strategy is to get the cartels so embroiled in fighting each other that the last ones standing are relatively easy pickings for the alphabet soup of US agencies to control. "Winning" isn't the goal. The goal is stability.

Brolin's plan? Kidnap the teenaged daughter of one of the cartel leaders and make it look like it was done by a rival cartel. True, this was all written and shot before the 'wait, are we really comfortable with being the country who uses the threat of separating brown children from their families as leverage to deter immigrant hopefuls and asylum seekers from coming here?' conversation was so hotly and publicly discussed, but holy shit - this is super dark.

Later, when the operation goes pear-shaped and Brolin bro Benicio Del Toro is out on his own with the abducted girl, the word comes down to abort and wipe it all down - kill Del Toro and the girl and cover up anything that could lead back to US involvement in her disappearance.

At this point we're invited to treat Brolin and Del Toro as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid type anti-heroes: folks we've been happy to be entertained by watching their criminal adventures who then see the only strand of moral code thus far unbroken tested. That being their personal bond.

And understanding their utter insignificance in the big picture and slavish attitudes toward their empirical vocations, the two stoically agree to become enemies.

And all of that I've no problem with. I don't need morally admirable characters to follow in order to be entertained and invested. I really appreciate in fact the treatment of the US government as just one more gang set against the others in a power struggle. It's just a gangster movie set on an international scale and I'm down for that.

But I was awfully tripped up by Del Toro's character's decision to die on the hill of 'protecting the child of my mortal enemy' when he was plenty happy to slaughter the innocent young children of his enemies just to be cruel in the first film...

Where Sicario didn't scream first in a franchise Day of the Soldado ends in a clear we're not finished with these characters epilogue and... I'd be happy to see more if we can keep any idea of good guys and heroes out of it. I mean, these are sharp-looking war/gangster pictures with good casts and no shortage of real events to challenge the fictional antics of our mercenary characters.

Both films were written by go-to crime/western scribe Taylor Sheridan who's been on a roll with Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and his directorial effort Wind River (2017) leading up to Day of the Soldado. His films have their detractors, but all have been the cause of invested conversation among crime fans like myself - and those conversations make him as exciting a figure to make a splash this decade.

Jury's still out as far as I'm concerned. I'll not argue that he's talented - even when I'm not in love with his pictures, I'm at least entertained for the run time. With the benefit of hindsight I may one day say he's really amazing, but I don't know. At this point I think he's a pretty solid writer who's had the good fortune to find high-caliber collaborators.

This week on Do Some Damage I suggest you check out the other films made by three very talented directors just prior to them working from Sheridan scripts.

Before 2015's Sicario, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve directed Enemy (2013), an adaptation of José Saramago's novel The Double, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor whose life is derailed by his growing obsession with a movie star who is his exact physical double. Not a crime movie per se, but noir as fuck. And stylish and hellish and nightmarish enough to be memorable for ages. Villeneuve is another talent I'm unsure what to think of. No doubt he's a gifted creator and sustainer of atmosphere and manipulator of audiences, but I'm not entirely sure of his instincts - what will he do with those superpowers he possesses? Regardless, I'm following his career with great interest for now and I have zero qualms about calling Enemy a masterpiece of intriguing (and most importantly, entertaining) what the fuckery. Enemy is available to rent or buy on Amazon.

Hell or High Water was a best picture Oscar nominee in 2016, but Scot film maker David Mackenzie made an even better crime flick in 2013, Starred Up with Jack O'Connell as a juvenile offender prematurely graduated to an adult maximum security facility for his violent unmanageable tendencies. When we meet him we're as scared for him as we are of him and we're further torn up over his predicament and the very real dual possibilities of rehabilitation and permanent institutionalization when we meet his father, a never better Ben Mendelsohn, a lifer with a father's desire to protect his son at immediate and perilous odds with every survival instinct he has. Yes, he may keep the kid alive inside, but he will likely fuck up any chance Junior has of ever leaving prison in the process. Top notch performances make this an intense prison film and a heartbreaking father/son movie to boot. I'm mixed on Mackenzie's output, but he's capable of great work. Starred Up is available to rent on Amazon.

Hollywood has a long tradition of bringing international talents who've made distinct films elsewhere over here to helm heavily studio-controlled franchise flicks and remakes (sometimes of their very own foreign language films). Often the big American machinery takes unique talents and dilutes those voices to the point of irrelevance, but at least Stefano Sollima's first English-language film (Sicario; Day of the Soldado) seems like a good fit for the director whose previous feature film was 2014's Suburra. An adaptation of the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo de Cataldo it is the story gang warfare in Rome with the Catholic church and Italian government as two more powerful forces invested in the struggle to make that fuckin money. I think it's probably the best gangster movie since Goodfellas - it's beautiful, brutal, bleak, sexy and Sollima weaves a large cast and multi-stranded narrative into a clear and cohesive epic of corruption. Most of Sollima's work is in similar fare for Italian television in Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah most notably. As with Gomorrah, a TV show with an excellent feature film already based on the same book, Suburra now has a TV version and I'd like to stress the superiority of the movie. Please for fuck's sake see the film first. If you want to do the series afterward that's up to you. Hopefully English speaking audiences will get a chance to see Sollima's earlier feature All Cops Are Bastards soon. Suburra is available to stream on Netflix.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Where the Truth Lies

The long wait for The Long Dance podcast is finally over. Documenting Drew Adamek and Eryk Pruitt's investigation into the murder of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane in Durham, North Carolina, I've been waiting for it for a year and a half now, but considering the friends and loved ones of the victims have waited over 45 years I suppose I have nothing to complain about. Give it a listen here or subscribe on iTunes or where ever you get your podcasts.

I'm a fan of crime fictions. I can go brutal and twisted and dark, but man, I've a very different reaction to true accounts of crime. I'm affected in a different way by them. I get different things out of true stories than fictions.

Megan Abbott wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times about our collective fascination and need for true crime narratives. Good shit.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pressing Flesh

Hey, I'll be out around town doing a couple of events in July. If you've got the opportunity to come out and say hey, please do.

First up I'll be at Left Bank Books on July 19 for A Midsummer Night's Creep along with Fred Venturini, Kea Wilson and Josh Woods. If you've attended N@B events before you know what you're signing up for with Fred & Josh and as I've been at all of them that kinda makes me intimidated by Kea. Anyhow, I'll be doing my best to showcase my worst through the actions of my characters.

And then!

Only about a week later I'll be reading at the return of N@B-St. Louis also featuring Max Booth III, Jen Egan, Amanda Gowin, Chris Orlet, Scott Phillips and Tawny Pike. At at least one of these events I'll be reading from a brand new short story (Little White Lines) appearing in the anthology Blood & Gasoline edited by Mario Acevedo. If you're a follower of news in St. Louis you may recognize the return of my antagonist from Have You Seen Me? which appeared in St. Louis Noir a couple years ago. If you're a reader who tracks down all my shit and makes connections between the stories you may want to get a new hobby, but you'll probably pick up on the main character being the same as the narrator of The Plot which appeared in Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked and Loaded (Both Barrels vol. 3).

Can't wait to see you there.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Damage Done

I've got a new regular gig blathering about movie shows on the Do Some Damage podcast. Every couple of weeks I'll talk to host Steve Weddle about a couple of related films he's almost certainly never seen (he never sees any). I'll share space with Chris Holm talking about music and Holly West on TVs.
For my first segment I talked about Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here based on the novella by Jonathan Ames about an ex-soldier who makes a living finding trafficked children and killing their abductors with a hammer. It's stylish and super cool and could be the standard bearer for this type of gritty avenging angel fare for years to come. It's muscular and masculine, but it's a far cry from a lot of similarly concerned macho pulp. Props to Ames's fantastic book, but the hero who made a fucking amazing movie here is Ramsay.

So, for my second pick I wanted to highlight another film made by a woman in a male-dominated genre. I thought about looking at badass shit from Kathryn Bigelow or Ida Lupino, but chose instead to look at Elaine May's 1976 crime hangout-picture Mikey & Nicky starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as a couple of at-odds buddies spending a night in Philadelphia trying to avoid getting whacked by Ned Beatty.
Like You Were Never Really Here, Mikey & Nicky is concerned with masculinity - male friendships and conflict as well as their attitudes toward women and sex. It's a picture deserving the conversational company of peers like Husbands, Mean Streets or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

The first episode is available now and I'll be back in a couple weeks with thoughts on another pair of somehow-related crime pictures (one new, one older). If you tune in, I'll try to include information on where you can find my (older) picks streaming. Mikey & Nicky is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

This Monkey's Gone to Eleven (Plus One)

Hey nerds here's me on The Projection Booth podcast talking with Mike White and Tony Black (not the Tony Black usually name-dropped on this blog) about Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. I had a good time talking to those two and in preparation for the conversation did a lot of movie watching. Here's a quick list of films I used the upcoming podcast as an excuse to watch:
Hey nerds,

In the 'directed by Terry Gilliam' category

Time Bandits


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Fisher King

Twelve Monkeys

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


The Brothers Grimm

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Zero Theorem

plus assorted short films

in the 'written by David Webb Peoples' category

Blade Runner

The Blood of Heroes

Fatal Sky (aka Projekt: Alien)





Lost in La Mancha - Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's 2002 documentary about Gilliam's doomed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort - congrats to Gilliam and company for finally realizing that story starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce)

La Jetée Chris Marker's short film that inspired Twelve Monkeys

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo which influenced Gilliam and Peoples as well as Marker.

and Rian Johnson's Looper another time travel thriller only this time starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Bruce Willis because Twelve Monkeys Bruce is such a different performance than say Hudson Hawk Bruce I thought it'd be illuminating to watch somebody else point out all the mannerisms and tics that make him such a recognizable on screen presence. (Supposedly Gilliam gave Bruno a list of a dozen or so tics and crutches he was not allowed to use in Twelve Monkeys)

Finally, I checked out the first season of 12 Monkeys the TV show, but turned it off after only a couple of episodes because it clearly wasn't going to be anything like the film. I got the impression that it was a time-travel spec script somebody re-titled 12 Monkeys aaaaand I think that's probably exactly what happened. Probably a fine show on its own, but didn't suit my purposes - though I wish I'd seen the latter-season episode with a guest starring Madeleine Stowe.

On the episode Mike has a separate interview with Dahlia Schweitzer, author of Going Viral.

And check out Tony's X-Files podcast The X-Cast for more from him.

Thanks, Mike, for having me again on The Projection Booth - what a great show.