Sunday, March 29, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Arkansas it Coming

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

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

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

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

But... I lose focus.

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

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hardcore Heist Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Voluntary Terror

Thanks to Erik Arneson and the Word Crimes podcast you can experience the magic and stickiness of NoirCon from the comfort of your own toilet (or wherever you listen to podcasts). Joe Samuel Starnes set up an event last Halloween in Philadelphia that challenged an audience to sit through more than twenty authors read their own material which is a terrifying prospect (except Wallace Stroby who read a spooky poem - classy) and now Word Crimes has released the audio experience in two episodes. I read in the first section in absolutely the worst slot anybody could hold - you know what I mean, following David James Keaton reading from The Last Projector on its release day, no less. Participation was not a total loss tho. Afterward Stuart Neville told me he liked my creative use of swear words. Am I still blushing? Yep, still. So here's episode one if you're so inclined. It also features Anthony Neil Smith and Patricia Abbott, so there's that. Episode two features that Stroby-poem, plus Nik Korpon and Rob Hart. Now it's just like we were all there together.

I'm working on a few new short stories now that I hope to find good homes for. Have heard about Florida Man, the anthology Joe Clifford and Craig T. McNeely are putting together for Gutter Books? That there's a juicy concept. I'd like to get in on that action... Aaand maybe I will. (Also check out Mr. McNeely's interview over at Dead End Follies about his new venture Double Life Books). You want to get into the spirit of this thing, I suggest reading some books like Kick Ass by Carl Hiaasen, Paper Trails by Pete Dexter (Low Gear and Minus are just exactly what I wanted Terry and Cal to feel like) and of course anything by Vicki Hendricks.
And good news on that front. New Pulp Press has just brought Vicki's Voluntary Madness back into print and if you've never read Ms. Hendricks, this would be a fine place to start. The following is a reprint of something I wrote when her wildly excellent and auspiciously wild collection of short stories Florida Gothic Stories was released:

…bound by wild desire—I fell into a ring of fire.”

You could pick any random line from the June Carter song Ring of Fire and have a great title for a Vicki Hendricks story. She spins tales of desperate souls who know not half measures. Their hopes and dreams may seem small, (a Tom Waits line comes to mind—“There’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix”), but the sincerity and fervor with which those dreams are chased render void all snide attitudes or pious remove we may bring to the reading.

When I’m referring to Vicki Hendricks and I describe her writing as provocative, I don’t intend for you to conjure yourself, the reader, lost in enriching contemplation at the close of one of her stories. I want for you to imagine the words on the page prickly—hurting you—the literary equivalent of sharp sticks jabbing at your fingers and eyes as you turn the pages. But there you go, picking it up again, going back for more. Just can’t help yourself, can you?

Neither can I.

In Hendricks’ land ANYTHING can happen. Reader beware. You are NOT safe. You ARE stimulated, titillated, invigorated, repulsed and obsessed right alongside her characters. Afterward, when you’ve had yourself a good cup of chamomile, a long shower, and some legal drugs to take the edge off, you’re still a long way from satisfied. You need more.

While Vicki’s novels (particularly Miami Purity and Cruel Poetry) are good places to start, the best introduction, I believe, to her world are her short stories. The reason is partly the nature of her material—extremes. The characters voices telling their own tales are going to wear you out. They are going to demand from you what life is demanding from them and frankly, sometimes a novel is exhausting.

So rejoice, finally there’s a collection of many of her best shorts—Florida Gothic Stories.

Read in a string, the intensely personal nature of her work becomes apparent. Nobody really quite goes for it, like Vicki. No one else really hangs it out there the way she does and as you read story after story of bad luck and worse timing, no matter how much manipulation, sexual mis-adventure, greed or violence is engaged in by the protagonists, it will not, simply can not quench the fire of their earnestly yearning hearts that endear them to us immediately and irrevocably.

It’s fitting perhaps that in the only state of the union where the further north you travel, the more southern you get, that the shorter the piece in this collection that features the Sunshine State in the title, the more potent its emotional core. Hendricks wastes no time investing us in the all or nothing schemes and dreams of her characters and spares us no sorrow or momentary joy along the way.

The collection is bookended by essays from a couple of her biggest fans. From the Introduction by Megan Abbott: “These stories – they’re raw and beautiful creations…While the doomfulness of noir snakes through every story here, it’s not the heart beating at the center… Who are we to judge these damaged souls, who rise higher than we do because, in the end, they care more, need more, grasp for it, because for them everything matters so much?” And from the afterward by Michael Connelly: “Her words weren’t written for me but they get to me. Right up under the rib cage.”

Me too.
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Hanging out with heroes of mine, like Vicki (pictured above with Kieran Shea, Neil Smith, myself, Keaton, Korpon and Scott Adlerberg), is the real thrill and pleasure of attending events like NoirCon. So, enjoy if you like the podcasted reading, but next time be there in person, it's a lot more enjoyable.

Also, check the hell out of these blurbs on Vicki's Miami Purity. I love these:

"An instant classic: so gruesome and funny and deadpan outlandish that you wind up baying at the moon like a Florida coondog." - James Ellroy

"A cracked hymn to American trash culture... Ms. Hendricks proposes a world in which the first thought after murder is sex and the second is inheriting the victim's car." - Robert Polito 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Six Hours of My Future Predicted

Killers - d: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto w: Takuji Ushiyama, Timo Tjahjanto

Kill Me Three Times - d: Kriv Stenders w: James McFarland

Man From Reno - d: Dave Boyle w: Dave Boyle, Joel Clark, Michael Lerman