Sunday, July 16, 2017

Where's the Brief?: The Robbery

The Robbery - d: Jim Cummings w: Jim Cummings, Dustin Hahn. A couple weeks back Brian Lindenmuth gave me the heads up on this crime short and watching it reminded me of reading Eryk Pruitt. Give it a looksee - Vimeo link here.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Welcome to The Rock

I'm no the most prolific fictioneer so I'm perhaps overly excited every time I see a new story in print, but I think I can claim a certain amount of objectivity when I say that Hard Sentences is the best book of crime fiction inspired by Alcatraz ever published.

Edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford, it also features contributions by N@B alum Glenn Gray, Matthew McBride and Les Edgerton plus Johnny Shaw, Gabino Iglesias, Max Booth III, Nik Korpon, Nick Mamatas, Rory Costello, Rob Hart, Mark Rapacz, Joshua Chaplinsky, Amber Sparks, Nick Kolakowski, Leah Rhyne, Michael Paul Gonzalez, Carrie Laben and Dino Parenti.

My contribution, Clean Shot, is a fictionalized account of the first escape attempt by the hapless Joseph Bowers, an inmate who sotle $16 from the U.S. Mail. I had a lot of fun researching the story and Alcatraz in general - a rich vein to mine for inspiration - and from the stories I've read so far (about half) it looks like everybody else did too. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

CriMemoir by Tony Knighton

I got to hang out with Philadelphia fireman and hardboiled crime writer Tony Knighton at Noir Con last year and soak up a lot of local flavor and history over a few too many at a number of bars and restaurants in Center City. Great stories, terrific details... damn fine noodles.

His just released novel Three Hours Past Midnight is a corker too. Reading it I couldn't help but wish Michael Mann had used it for the basis of a one-crazy-night movie (rather than ever having made Collateral). If you dig the genre of professional criminals just doing their job and having to improvise when it all goes to hell, this one is right up your alley. (Kindle available now - paperback soon).

I asked Tony for a CriMemoir piece and he sent this.

Thanks, man...

Jed has generously invited me to post an essay about a true crime. While I intend to document a specific event, I think more interesting is the effect it had on me. I work as a firefighter in Philadelphia, Pa., and have responded to physical assaults and sometimes to assist police operations but the crimes that have influenced me most directly are arsons, especially this.

September 7th, 1987, was Labor Day – I could smell charcoal from cookouts as I drove to work – and was warm and breezy. I remember my lieutenant having difficulty lighting a cigarette as some of us stood in front of the station and talked while it got dark.

At about 10:30 that night, Philadelphia Police responded to a disturbance at 5001 Walnut Street – a loud argument in an unlicensed boarding house. This was a huge three and a half story Victorian row-style corner property, sixty feet deep with twelve-foot ceilings, an enclosed front porch, and bay windows. The police separated the arguing tenants, two middle-aged women with histories of mental illness, and left them with a warning.

According to the Fire Marshal’s report, one woman, still unhappy with her neighbor, set fire to the polyester curtains on the enclosed front porch windows. The fire quickly ran the main stairway, cutting off the resident’s primary route of escape, involving the dwelling throughout, and extending to the neighboring homes.

It’s important here for the reader to understand that most structure fires are routinely controlled. The typical house fire usually involves one or two rooms, and, even when more serious, is extinguished in a workmanlike manner. Occasionally, though, a fire has advanced well beyond the capabilities of the first arriving companies – far too much to do, for far too few guys.

That night I responded with the first-in ladder company. As we approached, we saw the fronts of two of these massive dwellings engulfed in flame. The fire in the front extended upward from the first floor windows to beyond the main roofline – over fifty feet. I had two years on the job and while I’d been to many fires, I’d never seen anything like this. I couldn’t fathom how the fire had so quickly advanced – it was as though someone had doused the buildings with gasoline. This was a busy intersection during a holiday weekend; there were people on the sidewalks and cars were still traveling past, the drivers gawking. I found the contrast between the completely abnormal and something asmundane as auto traffic surreal.

Our driver pulled the truck across the intersection, and I jumped off and stood there for a moment, transfixed.  The fire grew even as I watched, pushed up the street by the wind. I wouldn’t have believed what I was seeing if I hadn’t also felt the heat on my face. As I fumbled my way into my mask, I recall wanting to grab one of the older guys and ask, “This isn’t supposed to happen, is it?”

Then I saw people jumping. They were coming out of the side windows from the second and third floors. I heard a man hit the ground.

My memories of those next few minutes are confused – the sights and sounds of companies stretching line and raising ladders, firemen yelling to be heard over the din of screaming civilians and sirens as more companies arrived, and the blackness and heat inside the burning building are all less than clear to me now, thirty years later – but I remember how it felt. I was frightened, but oddly, also elated, in a way that went beyond the easy explanation of adrenaline.

Firefighters don’t really talk about these phenomena. We use a sort of shorthand. While describing a fire to another who wasn’t there, one of us might say it was a “good job.” Should someone get hurt, it’s a “bad job.” I once heard an old-timer refer to a fire like this as “a rip-shitter!” The man was beaming when he said it, as though recounting the best moments of his life. As I’ve noted, this feeling is more than simply the result of adrenaline. Sky-diving or rock climbing can give someone a rush, but neither activity is necessary – they’re recreational. Fires have to be fought. On Walnut Street that night, we intervened in an extreme event. We were useful.

A few years ago, I went with some civilian friends to hear a band at a club, a few doors away from the site of a different but similar fire in another part of the city. I pointed to the empty lot and began to tell the others about it but realized I was failing – I was giving them descriptions of what I’d seen and what had happened but my friends couldn’t glean any significance from the story – none had ever had this sort of experience. I faltered, a bit embarrassed, and gave up.

At 5001 Walnut Street in 1987, two of the residents were killed. Neither was the intended target of the fire. Another half dozen or so residents were injured, as well as two firemen. Most in the house escaped or were rescued. The woman who set the fire was arrested and later convicted on multiple charges stemming from the incident, including two counts of second-degree murder.

There was a small piece of good luck: within seconds of our arrival, a friend was pulling line and heard a plop behind him in the street. A woman on the third floor had panicked and thrown her eighteen-month old son out a window. The child was released from the hospital the next morning, unscathed.

Thanks, Jed.

Tony Knighton is a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department, a thirty year veteran and the author of Three Hours Past Midnight as well as the novella and story collection Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties from Crime Wave Press. Follow him on Twitter @dinnertimedave

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Small Crimes July 2017

Half way through 2017 and I've got several picks I'm certain will end up on my best of the year list. But y'know I like to give due to the little guy at HBW so here're a few of the small crime flicks I've seen this year that you may not see coverage of otherwise....

Arsenal - Steven C. Miller - Not as sold on this one as I was last year's Marauders, but I am duly impressed by director Miller's skills to turn C-grade material into solid B-fare with proper attention to the little things that echo loudly. It's a good-looking film with a solid and or interesting cast. Nicolas Cage is dutifully off the leash while Johnathon Schaech is commendably restrained. John Cusack is alternately hilariously un-cast and daringly deadpan while Adrian Grenier holds the center firmly in place. In the end it's perhaps more aesthetically dude-bro than I'd usually care for, but I have to admit, the pick up trucks and baseball caps and suburban concerns of these blue-collar rooted characters ultimately ring true (truer even than some lauded material like last year's Hell or High Water - which can come off a tad patronizing). Ultimately I didn't give a shit, but for several sections there I almost did. High marks for the high gloss on the nasty violence. I think Miller may turn in a true masterpiece of gnarly crime shit one of these days.

Bastille Day (aka The Take) - James Watkins - A weird mix of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street and TV's 24, squeezed through the sensibilities of the Taken franchise and Olympus/London Has Fallen. I'm beginning to think Idris Elba may be the black Clive Owen - a performer whose on-screen presence I'm always happy to see, but whose projects rarely come close to deserving them. Head and shoulders above Taken and the ...Has Fallens, but dear Lord well short of the charisma on hand. Please, let's get Elba a good vehicle.

Detour - Christopher Smith - I'm a fan of Smith's horror outings Severance and especially Black Death, so news that he was turning to a life of crime gave me big goose bumps. And while Detour is admirably content with B-grade aspirations, it lacks the stylistic and surprisingly emotionally potent innovations that endeared him to me in the first place. What we get is a pretty standard low-brow (not an insult at all - I fucking love my crime fare low-brow) crime flick about flawed characters making bad choices for (relatively) low pay offs competently delivered.

Deuces - Jamal Hill - Not coming up with anything to recommend this one for. Urban-western crime color by numbers exercise lacking both the style and flair that made Belly such a highly-watchable spectacle and the grounded immediacy that turned Snow On Da Bluff into an emotionally-potent and visceral experience. Softball down the middle, but

DrifterChris von Hoffmann - The hardscrabble post-hard-decline-of-civilization setting that could be the same world as The Rover or The Road - we're not sure which - isn't terribly interesting and neither are the characters. The star of the show is the eye behind the lens which finds a way to turn the micro budget into a few arresting sets and shots which unfortunately don't add up to enough to recommend the movie. The characters bouncing off each other take turns being victims of the callous indifference of fate or worse subjects of cruelty for the entertainment of the others and do little to illicit sympathy or empathy from the audience. The pacing which feels like it's shooting for a stately Leone-esque beat to best frame its scenarios for maximum chewiness finds itself at odds with the script and editors - the end result being a tension-less thriller that manages to be simultaneously overly-talky and a vacuum begging to be filled. A few gnarly moments of nastiness are sparks that fail to generate more than smoke amongst the soggy tinder, but leave me interested in seeing further efforts from Hoffman - maybe the next one will be better.

Handsome - Jeff Garlin - Director/star/co-writer Garlin's shaggy dog comedic mystery featuring his titular detective solving an overly-gruesome murder in Los Angeles is taking lazy, good-natured swipes at the cardboard network and cable procedurals that remain the unassailable source for an apparently unquenchable thirst for killer-catching since television's inception. The targets are so obvious the jokes announce themselves so far in advance that that becomes a joke in and of itself when, in a nod to many made-for-TV-movies of the week of yore, Steven Weber introduces himself to the camera as the killer in tonight's mystery thereby deflating any tension before it can arise. The biggest pleasure comes from watching Garlin and Natasha Lyonne together on screen. Honestly, Lyonne's charisma could drag this entire movie behind it and make it watchable, but she's helped out by Garlin and the rest of the cast, as well as the script which, while far from sharp, is tonally consistent and doggedly committed to its premise.

Heist - Scott Mann - Finally blinked in my two-year game of chicken with this high concept entry in the latter-career Robert De Niro gets ten minutes genre. And... not good, but not as bad as I feared it might be. The best takeaways are Dave Bautista and Gina Carano making compelling arguments for case their film careers. Both are highly watchable and do more than their share of the lifting. In the end they're responsible for three-quarters of the points, Jeffrey Dean Morgan not blowing layups are the others. Wants to be both clever and gritty, but can't split the difference and ends up silly, but not the fun kind.

The Hollow Point - Gonzalo L√≥pez-Gallego - Amongst the glut of border-sploitation fare flooding theaters, Redbox and streaming services this one is not a glossy, Oscar-bait message movie, nor near as schlocky as the majority of the rest. It's a mostly solid crime film with a handful of moments that make it a recommendation. On the heels of his hugely appealing performance in Fargo's second season Patrick Wilson is accumulating a portfolio of leading roles in small budget crime films that could re-invent his image and John Leguizamo turns in a, for once, quietly menacing performance while Ian McShane shows up, but is handily upstaged by a surprisingly good James Belushi. What really works here are a few un-foreshadowed escalations of violence that help sustain interest when the plot gets a little muddy and minor inconsistencies threaten to distract.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore - Macon Blair - Melanie Lynsky holds the center of this slippery flick with such dexterity she directs the audience through each tonal shift and development so easily you'd be forgiven for missing how terrific she is. You'd know she was good, but that's not enough. She's really, really good. As is the script and deft directorial touch by Blair. Her apartment being robbed and the lack of motivation to do anything about it by the police are the last assaults her dignity can withstand before she's spurred to take action against the tide of rampant assholery she feels afloat in. She begins to recover some of her property and in the process runs afoul of the crew of scuzzy thieves that ripped her off. Things go from sad and funny to thrillingly dangerous to horrifically violent and right back around without ever misstepping and that is a miracle.

In a Valley of Violence - Ti West - Producing a western on a small budget means sacrificing horses for name actors, and a cast of actors for decent sets. As much as it seems the film was made on a whim  - hey, we got access to an old timey town and some costumes, anybody wanna make a western? - West manages to work a couple of surprises into the script and gets an unexpectedly engaged performance out of John Travolta. Ethan Hawke is solid and James Ransone is James Ransone. As much as it feels made on a whim, it has enough going for it not to feel like a shrug.

A Kind of Murder - Andy Goddard - The bones of the source material (Patricia Highsmith's novel The Blunderer) are barely discernible beneath the surface here, but it lacks any real emotional impact and is pretty dull. Not even the always-engaging Eddie Marsan can salvage it.

King Cobra - Justin Kelly - Pornography, murder, celebrity, money and next-level dumbfuckery are all part of the true story of under-age gay porn star Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton) and the contract dispute that led to the murder of film maker Bryan Kocis (called "Stephen" in the film and played by Christian Slater). The introduction of the killers, Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes as portrayed by Keegan Allen and James Franco respectively inject the proceedings with a welcome wild-card energy including the dream of producing a big budget gay porn and muscle cars series called The Fast & the Curious (haven't bothered googling that title to see if it's a thing or just a wonderful title made up for the film - I'd be just a touch heartbroken if that were a fictional flourish). Alternately creepy, funny and tragic. Solid work all around - here's hoping Kelly's J.T. Leroy project scores.

Let Me Make You a Martyr - John Swab, Corey Asraf - Atmospheric crime drama revolving around a backwood vice lord (Mark Boone Jr.) who hires a killer (Marilyn Manson) to dispose of his step children (Sam Quartin and Niko Nicotera) who are lovers and have ripped him off. For reasons I've been happy to report previously I wouldn't blame you for questioning my objectivity regarding this one, but kids I dug it. I dug the pungent feel, ethereal sound and serious approach to the material more commonly treated as pulp (and I'm fucking excited to have Asraf applying his sensibilities to Peckerwood), but don't take my word for it - check it out and lemme know what you thought.

Masterminds - Jared Hess - The 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery is a true event that undoubtedly will sometime have another film treatment, but however many it eventually gets, at least one of them being a broadly comic approach seems inevitable. I love Hess's affinity for weirdos and his treatment of them and this is a cast of characters he could sink his teeth in to. It's a cast of performers to die for too, but the assembled super team sometimes pull in directions at odds with Hess's singular voice. Small sacrifices in vision for laughs courtesy of a talented ensemble of improvisation pros is a call I'm happy enough to let go, but the place I think this film suffers is the score. Hess's identifiable musical choices are a through-line in his best and most personal films and for whatever reason all of his personality has been stripped from the soundscape of this film in favor of flavorless generic placeholding music (budgetary issues? studio overreach? or maybe it's just another layer of meta joke like the editing style of the Coen's Scott Brothers' style parody Burn After Reading? - I did laugh at it once or twice). Try and imagine a Wes Anderson movie with the score replaced by something lifted from an episode of Law & Order... Still, I laughed easily and often... I just wish we could get an alternate music cues cut of this one.

Mean Dreams - Nathan Morlando - The untimely death of Bill Paxton pushed this one high on my must get to list and as a final performance it's solid. He's menacing and nasty, yet still recognizably human and vulnerable when it comes to someone he loves. The film is a mostly solid small-scale crime tale about a kid who falls for the daughter of a dirty cop and rips off said potential father in law and hopes to use the funds to facilitate a new life with his young love far away from the oppressive dead-end situation he's grown up in. It's got a darker, more serious, less-stylized edge than some similar recent fare (like oh, say Bad Turn Worse) and for that I'm thankful. In the end what I thought elevated it above some other likewise straight-forward stuffs were a few transcendent moments of the original soundtrack from composer Ryan Lott.

Mercury PlainsCharles Burmeister - My very low expectations for this one were handily and delightfully surpassed about half way through the flick. Scott Eastwood plays a young man bereft of direction who hooks up with a band of thieves comprised of mostly white kids who march into the thick of the drug wars in Mexico and along the border posing as FBI agents under the leadership and influence of a murderous speechifying father figure called The Captain (Nick Chinlund). He feeds them nonsense about the justness of their fight, but nobody believes it - they're a straight up marauding band making big money through violent means. This premise is awesome. It's essentially a whole-cloth Blood Meridian rip-off/update with bits of All the Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men thrown in. This is some destitute man's Cormac McCarthy Redbox fare whose latent pleasures are numerous in the back half of the film. It's ridiculous and weird but straight-faced (seriously the balls on this thing) and never blinks. I laughed at it, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't really enjoy it.

Officer Downe - Shawn Crahan - Not having read the comics by Joe Casey and Chris Burnham and not knowing the music of (director Crahan's band) Slipknot I came to this material without any interests vested, but my time. The genre of undead policeman has Robocop resting comfortably at the pinnacle and is in no danger of being knocked off by this one. Kim Coates is game and gives the material and character a shot, but the concept's weirdness tastes canned. The intentional schlocky-ness undercuts the impact on every level. Some folks can pull that off. Not this time.

Shimmer Lake - Oren Uziel - The sheriff of a small town leads a manhunt for three bank robbers one of whom is his brother. Another Netflix original I went into blind and really enjoyed for three reasons. First, the tone. While it is dosed with plenty of humor, it isn't a comedy - the violent and tragic elements are given straightforward treatment and work just as well as the comedic bits. Second, the structure. The story is told in reverse over the course of three days and the decision to tell it that way pays off in numerous small ways without feeling like the ultimate revelation is gimmicky or a big let down - again, the tone is key here - it's a fairly unassuming picture unlike work by oh... Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan where you're looking hard for the key for the whole run time and the ultimate success of the film rests on the delivery of that final detail. Third, the cast. Solid ensemble, but holy shit I need Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston to make many, many more appearances as their B-team FBI agents.

Small Crimes - Evan Katz - Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a bent cop just out of prison for the attempted murder of a local prosecutor at the behest of the gangster in whose pocket he was quite comfortable before jail. Now out, he finds the world has moved on without him. His wife and kids have disappeared and want nothing to do with him, his parents let him sleep in their basement, but clearly do not trust him and keep civil faces stretched over deep wells of pain and resentment. The surviving victim of his attack is now horribly scarred and dead set on sending Joe back to prison for the rest of his life and there's no hiding in anonymity in the small community he's returned to - it seems everywhere he goes somebody openly hates him. Lastly, the gangster whose name he never spoke during his incarceration is on his deathbed and in sudden fear for the state of his immortal soul may be about to confess all of his sins including those that implicate Joe and another kept cop, the scene-stealing Gary Cole. To keep from going back to prison Joe's got to kill the gangster before he can confess while the hating eyes of the whole community are on him. If that sounds like a lot of plot to keep track of, don't worry, coming off his pitch perfect debut, Cheap Thrills, director Katz continues to demonstrate a deft touch with exposition, a knack for clearly defining character relationships and for maximizing the situational potential scene to scene. Of course the film is an adaptation of the excellent novel by Dave Zeltserman, so don't forget to check that one out too.

Take Me - Pat Healy - Director/star Healy plays an oddball entrepreneur with a bizarre specialty - providing simulated abduction experiences for his clients who get an emotional release, a psychological boost or sexual thrill from his services which include being snatched off the street, blindfolded and gagged in his van, tied to a chair in his basement and then... name your pleasure. Taylor Schilling plays Anna, a woman Healy believes is his next client who has paid for some extra special bonus features. Meanwhile Anna is reported missing and the police are looking for her and looking at Healy who is beginning to doubt the legitimacy of current gig. After a terrific opening fifteen minutes the tension begins to leak out of this one through some sizable gaps in logic and the premise runs out of steam well before the credits roll, but the onscreen appeal of Healy is enough to recommend spending some time with it when it's available on Netflix.

Young Offenders - Peter Foot - Two teenagers in Ireland steal bicycles to ride to the coast on a search for the kilos of cocaine that were washing up on the beaches in 2007. The film is pretty low-stakes as the pair figure they're not risking much - if they're caught they think they can't be sent to prison as they would fall into the category of juvenile offenders. The pair have crossed purposes with more serious criminals and their penchant for stealing bikes has them in the locked in the sites of a local policeman. Highly enjoyable, good natured light fare... for a change.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bite: CriMemoir by Elka Ray

Today Canadian crime writer Elka Ray, author of Saigon Dark, Hanoi Jane and What You Don't Know, brings us a story of street crime in Vietnam. Take a quick tour of her neighborhood and then be sure to check out her website and follow her on Twitter at @ElkaRay.

Bite: CriMemoir by Elka Ray

I'm sitting in the back of a battered taxi in Ho Chi Minh City's nascent backpacker ghetto in the mid '90s. The street caters to late night partiers and is just starting to wake up - an army of pretty young female street sweepers scraping their brooms through the gutters, guys dressed in boxer shorts dragging knee-high tables and stools onto the sidewalks.

It's about six a.m. but already hot. My taxi doesn't have aircon. All the windows are rolled right down. I've landed an assignment to write about the new luxury resorts popping up along Vietnam's coast. I'm headed to the beach and want to get going. I'm waiting for someone - I can't recall who - and they're late. I'm not a morning person and am pissed. There's a long drive ahead. Highway 1 is a goat track. I call them on my new mobile phone - a novelty in Vietnam. Up until recently I had a pager. I'm listening to an error message when a kid reaches through the window and grabs my phone. I keep hold of it with one hand and grip his wrist with the other. We both pull.

He's in his late teens or early twenties, not much younger than me. He's skinny but strong, with not an ounce of fat on him. We stare at each other, our faces about two feet apart. I'm a young blonde in a linen dress, trying to look older and more professional than I am. He's got dusty black hair and the flat black eyes of a junkie. Eyes without hope. I've seen those eyes on accident victims going into shock and in photos of people captured by the Khmer Rouge, just before they were beaten to death. Ghost eyes.

His mouth twists with hatred. So does mine. I know I should let go. It's just a phone. But this little shit is trying to rip me off at six a.m., before I've had coffee.

In terms of violent crime, Vietnam's pretty safe. It's got the world's strictest gun laws: any private citizen caught with a gun goes to jail. Sure, there's petty theft - B&Es, purse snatching, hookers shaking down guys too dumb or wasted to know better. Domestics. Human trafficking. Once in a while a gold store gets done - an entire family's throats slit, or a drunk goes beserk in a karaoke bar.

Those stories don't make the English-language papers. But lethal crime against foreigners? I've lived here 22 years and can only recall one deadly case: a young Dutch woman stabbed by a junkie in a busy Saigon market in 1997. Just shy of six months later, her killer faced a firing squad. Drownings, home and workplace fuckups and traffic accidents are another story. The WHO estimates 14,000 people die on Vietnam's roads every year. Per capita, it's among the 25 most dangerous countries in which to drive. Most people ride motorbikes and even those driving cars, buses or trucks still act like they're on their first BMX. My personal tally of traffic loss is one friend (major brain damage), one dead colleague, and two friends' dead kids. Nobody recovers from the kids.

Does any of this go through my head as I'm arm-wrestling Ghost-eyes for my shitty Motorola? Not really. Well, a little. I know he's got nothing to lose. He could have a knife. Or a syringe. I should let go.

His wrist is right in front of my face. I look at it, then back at him. We both realize at the exact same second: I'm going to bite him. I open my mouth. Those blank eyes click like a doll's. He lets go and darts across the street, dodging cyclos and bikes before ducking into an alley. I push the car door open and jump out, yelling. I'm mad enough to go after him but there's no point. I've got my phone. Plus it's a warren back there - a maze of meter-wide alleys like something from the Middle Ages.

Would I really have bitten him?

Looking back, it seems crazy. His wrist was filthy. I haven't thought about that kid in years. What happened to him? Nothing good, I'll bet.

Once the light in your eyes dies, I can't see it coming back. Over the years, I've met plenty of kids with hard luck. Street kids. Hustlers. Abused and abusive. A few made it out - they retained some hope and innocence. They met some kindness.

Some years back I lived near a supermarket. The security guards would post photos of shoplifters up near the till. All the photos looked alike: men and women with the same stunned, scared and guilty look disguised as defiance. The worst photo I saw was of a woman and two little boys, maybe seven and nine years old. The terror and humiliation in those kids' eyes. I wanted to rip the photo down. I wanted to find those kids, to tell them it wasn't their fault. And then what? Instead, I just looked away. If you want to see the world in black and white don't live in a poor country. Poverty and dirt turn everything grey.

Elka Ray is a Canadian author, editor and illustrator who lives in Vietnam. She writes for children and adults. Elka is the author of one light romantic mystery - Hanoi Jane; a suspense novel - Saigon Dark; and a collection of short crime stories - What You Don't Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia. When she's not writing, reading or drawing, Elka is in the ocean.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Let Me Make You a Peckerwood Movie

A couple years ago in one of the upcoming crime flick trailer roundups I posted the teaser for a movie called Let Make You a Martyr that had grabbed my attention. For a year and a half I checked in on the status of that one, I was intrigued the look and sound of the teaser.

It's finally out and available on DVD and streaming platforms, and I've got two bits of good news about that.

First. I've seen it and was super pleased with the delivered final product from first time feature co-writer/directors John Swab and Corey Asraf. It's a gothic-family-crime drama steeped in an atmosphere of doom and claustrophobic dread - a neat trick when a large portion of the visuals include lonely highways and wide open spaces.

Understandably grabbing the lion's share of the marketing attention for the ensemble cast is Marilyn Manson playing a killer for hire on the trail of our protagonists - Sam Quartin and Niko Nicotera as the star-crossed step-sibling lovers pitted against fate and the wrath of their backwood vice-lord father (the always on-point Mark Boone Jr.).

It's high-pulp tragedy shot and scored with art-house sensibilities and a seventies' vibe that I dug.

The other reason it's good news is that my novel Peckerwood has been optioned and the film version is in development with Let Me Make You a Martyr co-director Asraf set to direct. Scott Phillips and I have written a script we're pleased with and hope to see a kick-ass version of on screen soon.

Of course there are a million ways projects like this can go off the rails, but I'm super-psyched by the opportunity to work with Corey - an artist whose instincts and sensibilities seem to have a pretty fat nexus with mine - and I can't wait to see what he does with the material.

At the risk of predicting poultry a tad early - winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

One True Movie

The late eighties/early nineties VHS golden age of video stores was my window both to the wider world as well as the one within. I learned as much about the mysterious workings of my own gear box as I did exotic cultures near and far. The cable TV and direct to home video movie markets, (alongside the already operating arthouse / grindhouse independent film scenes) were exploding with content never intended for mass exposure and lavish marketing campaigns. Most of them weren't ever going to get (or go after) critical attention.

And while some B and C-list performers and directors became their own known off-brand of house of perhaps ill repute name (Sybil Danning, Jeff Wincott, Andy Sidaris) most were grist for the mill of disposable plop culture never to have a moment to themselves and quickly forgotten forever.

But as happens every time technology improves and becomes less expensive simultaneously some fringe visionaries sneak in and make a mark that remains. The pulps brought us Jim Thompson, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick and the cheapie movie market brought us John Dahl, Nick Gomez and Steven Soderbergh (who straddled the genre-grinder and high-art worlds, belonging in conversations with Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino as well as Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch).

Today S.A. Cosby is talking about one of the most precious gems to emerge from the era, Carl Franklin's Billy Bob Thornton scripted One False Move. If you've never seen it, give this piece a read and then correct that shit pronto.

by S.A. Cosby

I first watched One False Move as a high school senior in 1993. I was at our local video store and was spending another Friday night alone. I was torn between One False Move and a steaming pile of brain droppings called The Lawnmower Man.

“Definitely go with One False Move,” the video clerk suggested.

I'm so glad I did.

Made for just over 90k dollars OFM was the first script written by Billy Bob Thornton and his frequent collaborator Tom Epperson. Directed by Carl Franklin and starring the late, great Bill Paxton, Michael BeachCynda Williams and Billy Bob Thornton sporting possibly the most obnoxious pony tail in film history (Only rivaled by George Strait's faux pony tail in Pure Country). The film was marketed as a low-rate B movie action thriller. And it is that. But it so much more.

OFM is a movie that manages to talk about violence, race relations and class disparity all at the same time while still a tense and suspenseful crime drama. Opening with scenes of extreme violence the movie shifts gears halfway through as the action moves from the technicolor dreamscapes of LA to the pastoral and peaceful back roads of Arkansas.

Upon first viewing I was blown away by OFM and Billy Bob's incredible script. At the time it was released Carl Franklin's direction was justifiably praised. He would go on to direct a faithful adaptation of Walter Mosley’s masterpiece Devil in a Blue Dress but OFM is a film that succeeds mainly because of the complexity and nuance of it's script. The fact that Franklin has produced little of note sense Devil in a Blue Dress seems to validate that contention. Hell I could have directed this movie and it might have survived. Billy Bob, a country boy at heart, has an innate understanding of the sometimes strained relationships between blacks and whites in the rural south where the poor are poor regardless of the color of their skin. His script draws us in to those relationships that sometimes exist in the darkness of lonely country roads and the bed of rusty pick-up trucks. The interplay between Paxton's character and Cynda Williams “Fantasia” is searing.  Paxton plays these scenes with such palatable regret and wistfulness it makes me sad that we will not be blessed with any more performances from this master of his craft.

The script also tackles the gulf between urban and rural realities. The barely hidden contempt that oozes from the detectives from LA as they deal with Bill Paxton's over exuberant sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon says more about the disparity between the classes and their vastly different socioeconomic standing than an hour of talking heads yelling at each other on a cable news program.

You would think after writing such a masterful script Billy Bob would possibly mail in his performance as Ray, the incredibly sleazy drug dealer who is the epicenter for most of the carnage in the film. But he doesn't. He gives Ray such a desperate demeanor that you imagine he would come back in his next life as a harbor rat.

Michael Beach delivers a stand-out performance as Pluto a killer as cold as his namesake who prefers a knife to get the job done. At one point he holds a victim close puts a pillow case over their head and methodically stabs them slowly over and over again. A chilling scene made even more so by his natural charisma. You can imagine this character doing your books if he wasn't busy slinging weight and murdering people.

OFM is a movie that surprised me as the story wound it's way along those dusty back country roads. Just when I thought I knew where the action was headed I found myself astonished at the twists and turns both subtle and epic. As the film builds to its realistic and brutal finale you find yourself taken to places you never thought you would go in a cheap little crime flick. As the closing scene fades to black OFM forces you to ruminate on issues that are integral to our American psyche.

Whenever I sit in front of the computer to tell a story I'm always aiming for the high bar set by OFM. It's a classic depiction of rural crime that mines the same territory as films like Hell or High Water or Winter's Bone but with the added punch of confronting the four hundred year old elephant in the room of racial politics in a way that doesn't seem preachy or saccharine. Do yourself a favor and find this film. Sit back and sip on something that ain't water and enjoy this walk through the wild countryside.

S.A.Cosby is a writer from southeastern Virginia. He has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including Thuglit, Shakespeare Goes Punk and The Age of Rococco. His fantasy novel Brotherhood of the Blade was published by HCS Publishing. He recently completed his first full length crime novel My Darkest Prayer. Follow him on Twitter at @blacklionking73