Brimstone - Martin Koolhoven - Dakota Fanning is a mute woman alarmed by the arrival of traveling preacher Guy Pearce in her town while her neighbors are drawn to his brand of fiery, vengeful religiosity. She's got good reason to be - she just hasn't told anybody about it yet. Has all the elements of an epic spiritual western, but feels like a picture made on the cheap. Still, I admire its ambition enough to give it a recommendation.
Cartel Land - Matthew Heineman - Documentary about a citizen militias trying to take back power from drug cartels on both sides of the US/Mexican border that features some pretty great footage of gunfights etc. Surprise surprise - following the citizen soldiers in Mexico feels muuuuuch different than creeping along the borderlands with armed Americans in combat drag trying to catch migrants. Late in the film questions about the nobility of José Manuel Mireles the charismatic doctor taking back towns from cartel control emerge and it kinda sucks all the goodwill energy out of the first half's documenting of the progress of his citizen uprising movement.
Dying of the Light - Paul Schrader - I'll revisit this one if Schrader ever gets to release his cut (the director as well as producer Nicolas Winding Refn and stars Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin refused to promote the picture after control was taken away from Schrader, but I don't get the feeling we're missing out on a masterpiece. I like the idea of Cage as an aging (dying) agent - and this is probably the best performance by his hair I've seen in a while - looks dignified, thinning and gray, but it's not enough to pull a recommendation out of me. I like this stage in both Cage and Schrader's career - past giving a fuck about their reputations and I'm fine ground-outs like this one happen because their next at-bat was the electrifying Dog Eat Dog. I see how it works.
El Camino Christmas - David E. Talbert - This is a movie that I watched. Tim Allen was in it.
Elle - Paul Verhoeven - I don't have anything interesting to add to the conversation about Elle. I'm just happy to see Verhoeven making movies again... still.
Everly - Joe Lynch - First time I tried watching it I quit less than five minutes in - had some preconceived notion of what it was that it was not, but something made me take another look and hoo-ee am I glad I did. This movie's a blast. Just a sicko exploitation action movie blast. Yeah, it's a bummer that so much CGI is required to make blood these days - but this one really brings something special in the sadism department and Salma Hayek is really good. Happily revisit soon.
The Fear- Richard Cottan - Things going for this BBC mini-series - Brighton setting, Peter Mullan as a gangster, promising premise (a gangster gone mostly legit having to fight for his fortune, family and reputation whilst losing his edge and his mid to dementia) and Richard E. Grant. Somehow I didn't love it. Didn't trust the crime stuff to be interesting enough on its own and leaned too hard into the debilitating disease for dramatic heft - something I pretty much always dislike... but maybe that's just me.
For the Emperor - Park Sang-Joon - A baseball player caught up in the middle of a fixing scandal finds himself suddenly without a livelihood and up to his ears in gambling debt works it off as a debt collector and enforcer for the gangster he owes. Some really great gang fights with bats and knives, but virtually weightless emotionally.
A Gang Story - Olivier Marchal - Dual-timeline story about a gypsy gang in France - the rise storyline shows them come together from hardscrabble poverty and consolidate power through a series of brazen heists and the decline storyline shows the surviving members rich and sad and realizing one of their own has betrayed them. I get the impression it wasn't well-received in France, but I quite enjoyed the cast, the period setting and production values (not quite The Connection-level stuff, but if you enjoyed that one, give this a shot). Marchal is also the creator of the TV show Braquo, which has been on my radar for a few years.
Headshot - Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto - Iko Uwais of The Raid franchise gets the opportunity to bust heads again in this riff on the badass amnesiac genre - a genre that suits the action here just fine as I am fuzzy on the plot, but recall enjoying plenty of over the top violence. If you've watched The Raid movies and Kill Zone 2 and need another distraction - this one's down the quality ladder from those, but recommended.
Knock Knock - Eli Roth - A remake of Peter Traynor's 1977 film Death Game about a family man seduced and then terrorized by young women. Seems fitting that film maker Roth taken under the wing of Tarantino whose brand is regurgitating the films and cultural detritus that snagged in his brain pan as an indiscriminate youthful consumer and fashioning repurposed and hypercontexualized collage movies out of them would just go straight to remaking them like he's grindhouse J.J. Abrams. Kinda wish I could peek into the future and look at Roth's body of work... I'm curious about it more than I am interested in the films - I'm sure I'll see Death Wish at some point, I watched Green Inferno, and I dug the Hostel movies and chuckled a couple times during Cabin Fever. I pick up that people love to dump on him and I'm not quite sure (or interested enough to investigate) why. I didn't really like Knock Knock, but I did enjoy several scenes - mostly toward the end of the film. I enjoyed the opportunity to see Keanu Reeves, a huge movie star, doing things I've never really seen him do - generally losing his shit. He's built a career out of knowing his range and mostly sticking to it, so watching him emote like a desperate motherfucker at the end tickled me. The film invites so many interpretations and seems packaged to court controversy around the fear of unrestrained feminine sexuality (if it starred Michael Douglas that's the lens I'd have seen it through too), but I think it works most as a generation-X anxiety over the rise of millenials picture. We're middle-aged now. We are the establishment. Who do these young punks think they are and why aren't they interested in my opinions and values? I dunno, maybe it work better as a double feature with While We're Young.
Line of Duty season 1 - Jed Mercurio - Because I like crime shit people assume I'm going to love whatever cop fare is on prime time these days, but it's rare that I connect with those shows because solving crimes is not really the appeal for me. Might as well watch a show about plumbers solving problems - investigations and puzzles are only interesting for a little while. What's interesting about cops is the seamy environments they work in (in other words, the criminals and victims of crime) and the unique position they're put in authorized by society to use their judgment in enforce law including the use of lethal force and the complications that come from human shortcoming. So cop shows about interesting characters who happen to be cops - that's when you've got potential. This one is that. Concerning IA investigating a top cop - no heroes or villains, just interesting opposing forces with interesting goals and motives.
London Spy - Tom Rob Smith - Mini-series with Ben Whishaw as a London club-scene hedonist approaching midlife and drug addiction who falls for a strange man he passes jogging the street as he's drunkenly stumbling out of a club one night/morning. The two men are an unlikely match, but the connection is powerful enough that when his boyfriend disappears under suspicious circumstances Whishaw doggedly searches to find out why and finds himself rubbing shoulders with shadowy intelligence underworld types who may kill him. Plays kinda like the flipside of a John le Carré story (which may've been the pitch). I gave it a chance because of Smith's name (being a fan of his books Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6) and I'm glad I stuck with it though it's more a love story than an espionage thriller - the climax is effective and affecting and Jim Broadbent is always worthwhile.
1922 - Zak Hilditch - The novella about a farmer who convinces his young son to help him murder his wife (the child's mother) to keep her from selling the farm is easily my favorite Stephen King anything, and while the adaptation is nowhere near as powerful it is also not at all embarrassing (as many King adaptations can be). Thomas Jane gives a solid and sometimes surprising lead performance - looking appropriately haunted, withered and hardened and Molly Parker is somebody I'm always happy to see. The film's understated, unforced tone and pacing is both what keeps it from greatness and from ruin - the emotions and the horror are kept submerged and interior. Is the resulting haunting literal or an acute and latent attack of conscience or a disintegrating mind? Doesn't matter - it's unsettling, but (Jane's) Wilfred James made his play and is going to live and die with the consequences. And they are terrible. Curious how it impacts viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
OJ: Made in America - Ezra Edelman - This multi-part documentary is where more of the love fell for long-form TV tellings of The Juice's story last year and certainly it told the longer story - the Simpson story, the rise and fall - where the dramatic version concentrated on the trial and all the supporting cast, and it is interesting, but I'm going to come down in favor of the FX American Crime season - preferring the supporting cast and dynamics of the moment over the individual's story fascinating as it is.
Oklahoma City - Barak Goodman - Timelier than ever documentary on the elements at play in the deadly domestic terror attack.
Our Kind of Traitor - Susanna White - Stellan Skarsgård is a Russian mafia figure whose hail mary move to get out of the life that's about to catch up with him violently is slipping a disc to vacationing Brits Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris who turn it over to Damian Lewis and MI6. A cat and cat and cat and mouse game of trust and defection plays out with a workman-like film-making efficiency, but never really reaches the humanity of the best le Carré adaptations.
The Purge - James DeManoco - For a near future schlock action/horror exploitation premise The Purge franchise sure punches above its weight in the satire department. The initial outing saves its budget by staging eighty percent of the run time inside a single location while all the night's mayhem rages outside the walls of the gated community Ethan Hawke's family lives in. The home-invasion thrills are fine, but it's the prickly premise begging to be explored further that leads to the better pay-offs in subsequent installments.
The Purge: Election Year - James DeManoco - The third installment of my current favorite splatter satirical franchise explores the idea of violence as America's most lucrative domestic product with its own tourism economy made up primarily of affluent, young, white Europeans eager to travel to the U.S. for their chance to participate in some divinely appointed righteous bloodshed. The integration of religious elements here are just another example of how on-the-nose and awful the whole series should seem, but which DeManoco manages to spin into exploitation gold. I'm way on board for the next installment: The First Purge.
Rattle the Cage - Majid Al Ansari - A man arrested for a fight with his ex-wife's new fella finds he's picked the wrong cell to sleep off his hangover in when a strange policeman arrives and begins killing everybody. This is a tight thriller with a simple premise revealed in satisfactory fashion and just enough explanation to keep plausibility intact. Just missed my top picks of the year - check it out, I was pleasantly surprised by it.
Rectify season 4 - Ray McKinnon - I finished it mostly 'cause I'm a completest. Honestly, I felt it'd run out of steam about a season earlier, but I was pleased by many character moments and a few surprises along the way. Any time Sean Bridgers is onscreen is gold. I admire McKinnon and company for making exactly what they wanted to and something unlike anything else on TV, but I do feel like it took its time not getting anywhere.
RED - Robert Schwentke - Mediocre, but not a complete waste. The best bits all involve Malkovich, but if you want to rate it against other action, crime comedies from: Bruce Willis - not as good as The Whole Nine Yards John Malkovich - not as good as Burn After Reading Helen Mirren - not as good as The Fate of the Furious Mary Louise Parker - better than R.I.P.D. Morgan Freeman - better than Lucky Number Slevin.
Philip Kerr died last week. It's hard to measure exactly how much his work meant to me. I read his Bernie Gunther books - specifically the first three; March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, collected in the omnibus Berlin Noir before I'd written anything I would put my name on. They made a huge impact.
I read those books just about the time the United States fucked up George Miller's plans for Mad Max: Fury Road by invading Iraq and they scared the shit out of me. I felt like Bernie - an ex-policeman in pre-war Berlin blithely 'Heil Hitler'ing as an everyday greeting, almost unconsciously standing for patriotic songs sung in every pub by citizenry whipped into a nationalistic fervor (or at least feeling the need to posture like they were). Nevermind the interior eye-rolling - in order to get along you just did it.
I plowed through them after I saw my buddy Mark reading the omnibus at a bar one night. That cover photo called out to me and what I found inside disturbed me. Terrified me actually. When I put them down all the yellow ribbon bumper stickers on SUVs in my daily commute and the Stars 'n Stripes flags - often more than one - flying from every front porch jumped out at me and I had a real "are we the baddies?" moment - one that landed with a bigger, more resounding thud than previous tepid knocks at conscience's door.
The slow awakening of the character over the course of three books - two pre-war and the haunting post-war coda A German Requiem - the realization that he's been a cog in a terrible machine no matter how hard he tried to be a man of conscience and do the right thing and the pervading national depression, guilt and shame - and the mad scramble to justify personal actions of the recent past, but still not being able to make eye contact with neighbors... oh man, I felt that.
I read his science fiction crime novel A Philosophical Investigation, I bought the Kennedy assassination thriller The Shot and then decided not to read it for fear it would pale next to American Tabloid (which I'd just read) and decided to save it for later. I kept my eyes peeled for more intriguing titles from Kerr - The Grid, Esau, Hitler's Peace and the hard to find, out of print Russian mafia title Dead Meat all piqued my interest and hovered on the periphery of my consciousness for years until the unthinkable happened...
In 2006, after a fifteen year hiatus, another Bernie Gunther title emerged. The One From the Other found Bernie picking himself up from the ashes of his burnt down world and moving forward. The book set in 1949 found him enmeshed as the world was in sorting out the criminal responsibilities of the survivors among his countrymen and it went into his time in the SS on the Russian front during the war (giving us further insight to A German Requiem). The series went further and broader into the future and the world - as an accused Nazi and Nazi hunter in South America - a terrific and an appropriate course for the character and series... but I never read past the fourth entry for fear of diminishing returns and the dilution of the pleasure I took in the early books (as I am wont to with all long-running series).
It's comforting to know that there are eight more Bernie titles I am free to explore as well as other titles I've not yet enjoyed. I got to meet Kerr a couple years back when he came to St. Louis and spoke to a small, nervous crowd on a tornado-ridden spring night in the midwest. My buddy Mark, who first introduced me to Kerr's work, went with me and we got our books signed and still talk about him and his work when we get together.
The night after learning of Kerr's death I finished the German television Netflix import Babylon Berlin based on the Gereon Rath books by Volker Kutscher. Set in between apocalypses in 1929 (so far, there are six Rath titles climbing into the mid 1930s) it's tempting to look for Bernie in the halls of justice... (I recommend the show - haven't read the books).
The only other books I've had a similar reaction to are Tom Rob Smith's Leo Demidov trilogy - Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6 - about a policeman under Stalin having a slow, unpleasant awakening to his part in the awful - yeah, all the trappings of a thriller are there, but the heart of it is a heavy one. An earned and authentic weight that the character can never get out from under, but which drives him toward a probably unattainable redemption.
Let me know when somebody writes the 21st century American equivalent of these novels because fiction is the lens we often need to see things clearly.
So long, Philip Kerr, and thanks for all the books.
In the last eight days I watched a measly three movies with my family (on a car ride) and zero film or TV by myself during our trip to Colorado. Believe it or not I didn't even get the video sweats. Because I had books. These books.
Lemons Never Lie - Richard Stark - This is the first non-Parker (Donald Westlake's pseudonym) Stark book I've read and it won't be the last. It's a Grofield book and apparently I picked the fourth and final Grofield book to begin, but clearly it didn't matter for enjoyment purposes. Grofield is a sometime collaborator of Parker's - another professional thief - who has a strict set of rules he lives his dual lives by. He steals to finance his artistic ambitions as a stage actor with his own company - he's so artistically pure he won't demean his craft by doing commercials or anything involving a camera - he and his wife live in their theater, sleeping on sets, cooking on a hotplate in the kitchen set. He calculates exactly how far every potential score will carry his non-money making passion (people in Indiana don't go to many plays). He's not as ruthless as Parker, but he's pretty cold when weighing the value of lives against his own interests. Oky doke - I'll read the others.
Trouble's Braids - Ray Banks - Pulled my Kindle out for this one. I like to read paper books for the most part, but I do love to travel with my Kindle because I've got a couple hundred books to choose from in my pocket when I finish the paperback I brought. And damn, if you want to read Banks - and you fucking should - you've got to have a Kindle because it's the only way this one's available. It's a damn shame too because this is easily my favorite Banks title since the first Farrell & Cobb novel Wolf Tickets (which I have in paperback because it originally appeared in print serialized in Needle magazine). I read and dug the amnesiac killer kindle serial Matador and the rather dour and depressing Angels of the North, but Trouble's Braids is everything I like best about Banks all the way through - the (alternating by chapter first-person narration between Farrell and Cobbs) voices are sharp and distinct, the humor is rooted in character and doesn't undercut the impact of the violence which is brutal, un-glamorous and plentiful and the whole thing is fun. I checked on Amazon and this book has disappeared - you should fucking read it - you should get obnoxious telling people to read Ray Banks - this is your chance to be on the right side of history - Ray Banks is the shit.
Shakedown - Charlie Stella - Rolling right along with my Kindle selections and dove into one-a Stella's gangland tales about an ex-mob accountant getting squeezed by the old crew after one of their own flips for the feds. As former associates are being coldly dispatched and others are coming around to extort money they're sure he must've skimmed when he worked for them he puts into action a plan to get out for good... aaaaaand I dropped my damned electronic reader and it broke halfway through this one. Good thing I have the paperback waiting for me at home. I'll finish it - cuz I love me some Stella.
Florida Frenzy - Harry Crews - After breaking the electric gizmo I found a bookstore walking distance from where I was staying and spent a desperate hour combing through for something to read. I found this collection of essays and short stories by Crews perfect for my bouts of vacation insomnia. It was admittedly refreshing to read a voice so pure and unconcerned with popular opinion from a pre-social media period - not because I'm sympathetic to every opinion or life choice made by the author but - because there are zero fucks given to my delicate sensibilities and what emerges is an unfiltered look back at a recent past sensibility and a particularly sharp eye for journalistic detail chronicling a passion for wild life and bloodsport of various stripe. Mostly true tales of car racing, cockfights, dogfights, academia, swamp living and sexual misadventure made for a super-quick read. So I had to go looking for more books.
Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! - Joe Bob Briggs - Found this one from Briggs whose turn as the slow-witted, over-polite and politically-connected slot machine manager Robert De Niro orchestrates his own downfall by firing in Martin Scorse's Casino had cracked me up all over again the week before and when I spotted this one on the shelf it called out to me. Great coverage of films in chronological order from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on through to David Cronenberg's Crash with sexual, political, violent and surreal content that rocked their time periods and hit or flop shaped film and societal attitudes for decades to come. The history, the productions, the reception and legacies of each picture are described with heaps of nerdy love and I couldn't get enough. I purchased it and then began to flip through idly and ended up devouring it whole-cloth in a day. Damn it, onto the next book store.
Tapping the Source - Kem Nunn - For the return trip I was excited to find a copy of Nunn's essential surf noir and I guess this is the place where I own up to never having actually read it before. I was super aware of it and have read other Nunn books as well as enjoyed his TV contributions (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati, Sons of Anarchy, Chance). I've also enjoyed Don Winslow's surf titles - California Fire & Life, The Dawn Patrol, The Gentlemen's Hour - and knew that Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break was not the only pop culture bastard this book had spawned, but I'd never actually um tapped the source. Who-ee am I glad I have now and very pleased to be afforded the opportunity to do it in a single sitting. It's a thing of beauty and takes it to the limit - reminding me of other classic crime novels from the post-Viet Nam era from Newton Thornburg, James Crumley and Kent Anderson and while several scenes, scenarios and themes from the book would go on to appear in slightly altered form in Point Break, I was relieved to find enough differences in plot and texture to continue enjoying the film without thinking of it as a direct rip off. Whew.
A Taste of Shotgun - Chris Orlet - Orlet's first novel Among the Pines was published by New Pulp Press during the ignominious post-Bassoff period (as were a handful of otherwise worthy titles), but his second novel appears to have found a proper home at Down & Out who are mopping up the orphans of many small crime presses with gusto. Classic noir story of a small-time scofflaw with debts no honest man can pay. He's juggling a failing family business, a barely hanging on to parole brother, an extra marital situation and a pair of psychotics blackmailing him over a killing from way back. This one is set right across the river from my St. Louis home in Belleville, IL. and had the added pleasure of recognizable settings and regional issues. It's not out yet - coming soon from Down & Out - but after the car ride was too dark for print I read this thing off my computer screen. Did I mention the kindle is caput?
Arrived home to my paperback of Shakedown armed also with my other Colorado purchase Russell Banks' Trailerpark as well as some special orders that didn't arrive in time to travel with me - Tightrope on Fire by Chris D. and Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta so I'm good for a little while.
Pleased to announce I've got a new story, Little White Lines, appearing in the anthology Blood & Gasoline edited by Mario Acevedo arriving May 1. They's even a pre-order link for that shit here. If my story isn't enough to getcha interested then check out my partners in crime: Les Edgerton, Gary Phillips, Jon Bassoff, Gabino Iglesias, James R. Tuck, Manuel Ramos, Carter Wilson, Catherine Dilts, Angie Hodapp, Jeanne C. Stein, Warren Hammond, Merit Clark, Travis Heermann, Robert Jeschonek, Quincy Allen, Joshua Viola and Sean Eads. If you're a big nerd who reads all my stories it may be of interest to you that Little White Lines connects two previous stories - The Plot and Have You Seen Me? from Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked & Loaded (Both Barrels vol. 3)and St. Louis Noirrespectively.
Fierce Bitches is now officially and completely out of print - as in you can't even get that shit on Kindle anymore. The last set of paperbacks made their way from Australia and I've got a few I can sell directly to you via Paypal if you're interested. The french translation Les Féroces is coming in November from Editions les Arènes' EquinoX line. I saw its first mention in this interview with EquinoX publisher Aurélien Masson and was amused by the claim that I am the son of a Texan pastor. Not to split Ayres, but while it's true I'm a p-k my father pastored churches in Kansas and Arkansas (never Texas I'm afraid).
Fierce Bitches/Les Féroces comes right out of being a pastor's kid. I've said it before, but besides being allegorical it's also a riff on certain old testament stories - a writing habit I continue to use. I talked a little bit about that in an interview this week at Digital Media Ghost. Will Viharo posed the questions and I was happy to say things I may later regret. Thanks, Will. Also - check out that sweet ass author photo taken by Scott Phillips.
Dropping this week from ABC Group is Grant Jerkins' razor sharp story collection A Scholar of Pain which I was honored to give a blurb to (and here it is)..."A Scholar of Pain hits that literary sweet spot: Could be crime fiction, might be southern gothic - or even horror. The stories are funny as hell, too. And compassionate. In fact Jerkins' voice is amongst the most compassionate I've heard, because he extends it to some hideous wretches in a way that underscores the humanity I share with them. I heartily recommend Grant Jerkins." It's available to order now.