Thursday, January 28, 2016

The First Hustle is the Sweetest: CriMemoir by Gabino Iglesias

I read Gabino Iglesias's latest Zero Saints in two short bursts, but the book was probably made to last a single dark rabbit hole trip - takes place over a very compact timeline (a couple of days) and piles fresh horror atop not yet cold body on the floor with a protestant work ethic fueled by Catholic guilt and black magik power - just bam, bam, bam. Nice, man. You should get you some of that. Gabino hooked me up with a funnier and far-less harrowing entry to the CriMemoir series than last time and I couldn't be happier to share that shit with you now...

The First Hustle is the Sweetest
by Gabino Iglesias

The funny thing about petty crime and small-time hustles is that sometimes you end up involved in them without realizing what you’re doing. Or maybe I’m just the kind of person who falls into criminal activities naturally. In any case, when I was eighteen, I ran around with two different crowds. The first was a bunch of stoners who lived for the beach and music. The second was a ragtag group of misinformed Goths who loved metal, vampires, black clothes, and calling each other things like Wolf and Shadow. They called me Gypsy. It’s not the worst thing I’ve been called. I liked both groups for different reasons, but dug the second group a little more when it came to going out and getting into trouble.

Happened to the tunes?
You see, this second group religiously went to Old San Juan every day of the weekend, and our weekends started on Thursday. More than lounging around and smoking weed, they liked to show up at bars/clubs and intimidate people. Most of them knew that the rough aesthetic required a reputation to go with it, and they were willing to do whatever it took to prove they were tough. One of the things we did was go into juke joints and take over the pool tables and jukebox (get the fuck outta here with your Bon Jovi and Aerosmith). It was an easy thing to do when drunken gringos and clean-cut college kids populated the joint. When real badasses were present, they story was different. The trick was to accurately place everyone in the right category. If you failed, the odds of getting your ass handed to you increased exponentially, and that went against building the kind of rep that would make people switch sidewalks when you were walking down Old San Juan’s crowded streets.

One night, a guy dressed like us showed up. His thick arms were covered in garage-quality tattoos and he had the kind of long, greasy hair that spoke of skipped showers and flophouse living. He walked up to the bar and asked for a beer. We went back to whatever we were doing. A while later, he came up and introduced himself. He was somewhere north of the six-feet mark and had shoulders and arms that, unlike his bloated gut, spoke of time pushing weights around. After a few minutes, he asked me if I was into weightlifting. When I said yes, he came closer and asked me I wanted to help him make some money. If I did, beers would be on him. The macho bullshit in my head told me to push him away, but he was too damn big, so I asked him what he had in mind.

Half an hour later, the crowd had changed a bit and my new friend, whose name was Ricky, was acting like a drunken asshole at the bar. Then, he walked over to an empty table near the pool table, slammed a twenty on it, sat down, and asked if anyone wanted to arm wrestle with him. No one said anything. I stepped up, put my own twenty on the table (which he had given me), and proceeded to win the match and pocket the money. He exploded in drunken anger and threw another bill on the table. This time, a guy with the kind of haircut you get by pointing to a picture on the wall at the mall sat down. Ricky almost broke his arm. Two hours later, we did the whole thing again.

Ricky was, literally, a weekend warrior: he got in the ring for money all around the island on Saturdays and Sundays. His fighting name was Riquísimo Delicioso (Richly Delicious). He played a bad guy. Apparently he was good at it. As with most folks you meet at a bar, Ricky talked a lot about his wrestling and what he wanted to do with his wrestling career, but never said anything about his past or how he had ended up hustling people in small bars with a bunch of kids. For us, it was fun, and his presence made our crew look about 97% tougher.

I don’t know how many free drinks we swallowed in the following weeks. I do remember that summer came to and end and one day Ricky stopped showing up. Between trying to keep all of our teeth in our mouths while dancing with trouble, a few friends getting pregnant, and some folks moving to Florida, we had enough on our hands and quickly forgot about Ricky and the arm wrestling hustle. Years later, he came up in conversation. Google had nothing on him. Did he get shot outside a bar because someone got smart and then got very pissed? Maybe. Or maybe not. It could just as well be that he moved on to bigger and better things. Or worse things. The point is that he had shown us how to hustle, and despite the fact that many hustles have come and gone since then, none have tasted as sweet as those drinks Ricky illegally bought for us with money we conned out of those suckers.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and Zero Saints, which was just released by Broken River Books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, Entropy, Electric Literature, and a other print and online venues.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 in Crime Flicks: Honorable Mentions

'71Yann Demange - A young British soldier is separated from his squad and spends a harrowing night hunted on the streets of Belfast in the year of Our Lord 1971. Jack O'Connell follows up his electrifying turn in last year's Starred Up with another emotionally rich performance at the center of an exhaustingly tense film. And Demange has crafted the rare movie that works as a thriller and as the machine that generates empathy. He hasn't stripped politics from the story entirely, but has chosen rather to focus on the human beings living in the tension of the day to day reality policy makers can afford to ponder from a comfortable remove. Something like a cross between Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, this one is a contender for year's end honors, solidified my admiration for O'Connell and given me a new name to get fucking excited over in Demange. Best moment: the riot is terrifying.

Black MassScott Cooper - The story of the unholy alliance between south Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and the FBI through handler and all-grown-up-now southie kid agent John Connolly (who grew up idolizing Bulger as a neighborhood legend) is one so ripe with amazing elements, larger than life characters and too bizarre not to be true details, it could be told a half dozen ways with as many different focuses to make a compelling story. The direction taken here seems to be the focus of most of the criticism I've seen leveled at the film and each time seems to say more about the critic than the film as made. Yes it is a violent tale of violence and more violence violently shot for both shock and titillation the enjoyment of which clearly makes folks uncomfortable especially when considering the recent real events it's based upon - how many family members and those victims are still alive and hurting? Which... is a legitimate question of taste and decision making on the part of the film makers, but entirely beside the point when discussing the merits of the film making. Should we enjoy this movie seems to be the question at the heart of most reviews I've seen. What I'm going to say is - I enjoyed this movie whether I should have or not. Another prevalent criticism of the film is the lack of arc to (Johnny Depp as) Bulger's character - yeah, there's exactly none - which tempts us to treat Joel Edgerton's Agent Connolly as a tragic figure central character here and make it his movie. While equal screen time is given to the two characters the film is clearly Depp/Bulger's and the treatment is similar to that given John Dillinger in Public Enemies. Nope - no development in either, they're not biopics. They're also not thrillers per se. There's no tension in either film about the outcome or the fates of major characters, the films both just re-enact juicy moments from the story and invite you to bring your knowledge or ignorance of those events and characters with you. It's also not a cry of outrage about corruption and or incompetence in government - there's almost zero attention paid to Benedict Cumberbatch's other Bulger brother Billy and there is no Feeb leading a clean-up crusade (Corey Stoll gets a very minor bit). What it is... is more a horror flick than a noir with Depp as the monster at the center. It's also damned good-looking. Like Out of the Furnace, Cooper's last film, this one looks fantastic. Also like Furnace, this one has a top-notch cast - though, this time around I feel they're given more to do. Fucking Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi shines brightest and both Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks steal a scene or two, and Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson each get a memorable scene. Best moment: Bulger strangles an inconvenient woman while Flemmi watches helpless, horrified and heart-broken. I could have spent an entire film with Cochrane's tortured face.

Black Sea - Kevin McDonald - What ever happened to the adventure movie? Why don't we see more fare like this? A dirty dozen of out of work sailors put together a crew in a hurry to recover Nazi gold from the bottom of the ocean under the nose of various world governments. It's a dangerous, dirty job, but the recovery is the least of their problems - once recovered, can they survive each other? Damn, this one was a breath of fresh air. Great cast - Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy and Michael Smiley and a crew of 'that guy' faces. Great premise. Great looking small-scale, large-scale adventure/thriller. I want more. Best moment: just the shot of the whole crew riding a bus on the way to the job - everybody lost in silent contemplation of their lot or goal or absolutely nothing - they got me. Probably haven't responded to a sequence like that since I saw Reservoir Dogs as a teenager.

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

The Connection - Cedric Jimenez - While Popeye Doyle was pontificating upon a plethora of perps' penchants for Poughkeepsie toe-picking, his Parisian counterpart Pierre (Jean Dujardin) applied pressure a'plenty to persons protecting the proverbial heroin pyramid's pointy pinnacle (Gilles Lellouche). Nothing particularly innovative or new in this sweeping procedural - just gorgeous film making that feels (to borrow an Andrew Nette-ism) like noir comfort food. Best moment: Dujardin and Lellouche get their De Niro/Pacino roadside confrontation.

The Gift - Joel Edgerton - Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play a couple starting a new life in L.A. when they run into Gordo (writer/director Edgerton), an awkward and unwelcome reminder of their past. The beats are sometimes predictable, but play well and solidly carrying the viewer effortlessly toward an unpleasant end. The psycho stalker genre doesn't get an overhaul, but it does have a potent new entry that satisfies by going big and surprises by treating its subject matter and characters seriously. The pleasure of this one is in the skillful way sympathies are traded and betrayed among the cast throughout and Bateman especially deserves a nod for bringing new shades to his onscreen persona. The ending is satisfying on several levels and leaves room for many interpretations as to who 'won' without being frustratingly ambiguous (everybody loses is probably the best way to put it).  Best moment: the final shot - it's a rare pleasure that a swell set-up sticks the landing and keeps it nasty. I was afraid it was going to over do it actually, but the look on Bateman's face grounds what could have been an over the top moment and the character's existential despair is delicious.
A Hard Day - Seong-hoon Kim - Terrific entry in the worst-day-of-your-life genre from South Korea. Sun-kyun Lee plays Go, a dirty cop, who must scramble to cover his tracks and salvage everything he can as his career and life in general take the express train to shit-town. Best moment: Go kills a man on the way to his mother's funeral and has to hide the body in the coffin with mom. It's the movie in a nutshell - fast-paced, inventive, absurdly funny and a solid thriller all around.

Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson - When his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up out of the blue to enlist his help, hippie detective Doc Sportellow (Joaquin Phoenix) puts every ounce of his will and cunning into the case. Unfortunately Doc's will and cunning are both measured in ounces and keep him running smooth and aloof and slightly untethered from reality. The purple haze that envelops Doc blows him around 1970 L.A. into all the best bits of paranoid conspiracy tales - sex, drugs, celebrity and smuggling. The sooner you ditch the plot the more you'll enjoy the ride. It's so ridiculously Byzantine and looped through its own asshole, you'll get whiplash if you hold on too tight. Deconstruction or parody? Easy target or easy viewing? Not sure I understand its place in Anderson's ouevre and pretty sure I don't care. The cast is so damn much fun I look forward to many subsequent viewings. Phoenix plays off each insanity embodied by a character actor like he's the silver sphere in a pinball machine and never worse for the ware. Course you can't escape comparisons to other genre deconstructions like The Big Lebowski and I'd throw Cold Weather in there as well, but Vice is more ethereal and less weighty than either and evaporates off your brainpan super quick. Best moment: Doc and Bigfoot bullshit. Special consideration goes to Josh Brolin for standing out this far in such a stellar cast. He is the funny.

Maps to the Stars - David Cronenberg - A mysterious woman (Mia Wasikowska) who connects the dots between a slew of nefarious Hollywood characters returns home bringing with her justice, vengeance and karmic completion to a series of interlocking narratives and overlapping realities. Not crime per se, but noir as fuck. I swear you watch this one and Mulholland Drive and last year's Enemy back to back to back and you've got a humdinger of a thesis paper ready to be plucked. Written by Bruce Wagner it blends familiar satiric fare with murky logic for a retread of a remake of an impression of a dream you read about. Cast is solid, but no one more so than Julianne Moore and special recognition to Evan Bird whose character I've heard described as the worst among the bad by many, but honestly I found the most empathy for. Best moment: Moore and Wasikowska dance.

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2015

Alleluia - Fabrice Du Welz - When a struggling single mother named Gloria (Lola Duenas) finds she's been scammed by a gigolo named Michel (Laurent Lucas) she hunts him down and, in the greatest new twist on a lonely hearts killer story, becomes so much more than his accomplice, she becomes his tormentor. Oh man, the slow realization on his face as he watches her inner psycho bloom and he realizes he's snagged a shark with his fishing pole is one of the most deliciously chilling moments on film in the last decade. This flick escalates from sad to suspenseful to scary as hell and ought to influence as many future horror as crime film makers. Best moment: Michel and Gloria dance around the fire.

Buzzard - Joel Potrykus - Joshua Burge plays Marty, a misanthropic temp worker at a bank, who skates by on as little effort as possible and whose only ambition in life seems to be ripping off the low-hanging fruit of societal systems and institutions. In the opening scene he takes advantage of a loophole in the bank's checking account promotion like he's in a Seinfeld episode or he's Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love filling his grocery cart with pudding, but he doesn't give a shit about how he's perceived by the incredulous teller who stresses how bad it looks that Marty works for the bank. Marty answers matter-of-factly "It doesn't matter... it's irrelevant." It's as close to a moral stance as Marty ever takes - actually, I take that back. There are a couple other times Marty is genuinely morally outraged: when he discovers that another con artist has ripped him off, and Marty fails to find any sense of shame on the part of his victimizer with his reasoned appeals and twice when he's caught in a criminal action and the marks refuse to let him off the hook - that's when we get glimpses of all the scary potential within him. But Marty's criminality expands to every area of his life. He owes nothing -certainly not decency, or consideration- to co-workers, family or even those who are trying to help him. Marty's serial-victim is his co-worker Derek (writer/director Potrykus) who is nicely juxtaposed to Marty. Derek's another lonely guy without any perceivable ambition who is content to coast through life simply doing his cushy job and living in his parent's basement, but he desperately wants a friend and finds nothing but contempt from Marty - who could have an anonymous easy life if he didn't hate everybody and everything so much that he's driven to rail so pathetically against it at every opportunity. The idea that Marty is lazy is unfounded - he works hard at pet projects - he's just not that bright. We get the feeling that if he survives long enough he may blossom into a very dangerous man. This film is funny as hell, but unnerving too as the extremities of Marty's commitment to anarchy and self-preservation run up against his absolute refusal or inability to imagine consequences for his actions or lack thereof. Office Space meets Taxi Driver? Clerks by way of Nightcrawler? It's a portrait of a uniquely American strain of sociopath (correct usage? I think so) and while on the surface may seem an outlier for discussion on a crime film blog, I think it's the best example of pure criminality on the list. Best moment: the Party-Zone sequence is as funny and sad as anything I saw last year.

Cop Car - Jon Watts - Two young boys running away from home stumble across an un-attended cop car in the middle of nowhere and take it for a joyride, only to later discover a bound and beaten man in the trunk. Meanwhile the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) comes back to the from digging an unmarked grave to find his car and intended grave-deposit missing - sending him on a desperate search for his car and quarry, sans y'know car. That's it. That's all the story you get. Why are the kids running away? 'Cause they're ten years old and that's what they do (I did). Who's the guy in the trunk? Well, you're in luck 'cause he's Shea Whigam and that's always a good thing. Guess what else is in cop cars... guns! Lots of guns! Kids + guns + dude in trunk + homicidal cop X wide open spaces a minus time to spare = great fuckin movie. The whole cast is solid and the director's tone-management is amazing. Balancing the boys' innocent fun and their inevitable collision course with grim menace without losing the pleasures of either takes serious fucking chops. The whole thing ends just as badly and excitingly as you're hoping it has the guts to and hoping that it spares you at the same time and I'm down for Watts' next effort right now. Best moment: the final one.

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

Son of a Gun - Julius Avery - A bright young kid in prison (Brenton Thwaites) is taken under the wing of a professional thief (Ewan McGregor) who protects him on the inside in exchange for the kid executing a plan to break his mentor out once his brief sentence is over. Once everybody's outside it becomes a heist flick and a double-cross-a-thon. Sure it's not new territory, but it is fertile, if not hallowed, ground and covered with competence, conviction and a minimum of bullshit. Hard edged and nasty, but not overly hardboiled or cartoonish, this picture has prison fights, shootouts and armed robbery, but has chops enough to make each fresh and intense - wait, lemme put it this way: this film has a genuinely thrilling car chase. I just said car chase and thrilling in the same sentence. In a non automobile-centric film that's damned impressive. It's because the action is integral to the story and a natural part of the characters' lives which we're invested in and not (only) because it's so well executed. Adding tremendously to the atmosphere are supporting turns from Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo, Sam Hutchin, Tom Budge, Jacek Koman and Damon Herriman in full Dewey Crowe drag, but feeling dangerously unbalanced rather than pathetic. The soundtrack, the photography and the unforced atmosphere that manages to simultaneously hold excitement and dread, cold-bloodedness and tenderness point to a sure hand's crafting. No idea if Avery's interest lies in crime specifically, but here's hoping. It's a kick ass debut. Best moment: Sterlo (Nable) gives the kid life advice.

Suburra - Stefano Sollima - Progress and big business, political heft and street muscle, religion and skullfuckduggery collide in the most intoxicatingly brutiful gangster movie I've enjoyed in a long time. For seriouses I think this one wins the decade for gangster flicks. Its pitch black corruption and pitiless violence staged within beautiful compositions give me a painfully rigid erection at the prospect of an original series springing from and continuing on with the same material. Netflix has its first masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. Best moment: the seventh day for Number 8.
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). 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.

Two Step - Alex R. Johnson - A desperate con man just out of jail takes aim on the fortune of a previous mark recently left to her grandson. In a year full of promising near misses (Bad Turn Worse, Cut Bank), Two Step emerges the year's clear champion of small-time Americana noir thanks to its human warmth and cold blood. James and Dot (Skyy Moore and Beth Broderick), the spring/autumn newly minted neighbors mourning a loss provide the warmth while Jason Douglas brings the ice and James Landry Hebert's hapless, friendless, clueless Webb emerges as the true protagonist at the center of this film. Hebert delivers a performance that ought to launch him to movie star status. Jewel of a flick in the tradition of Blood Simple, Red Rock West and One False Move. Best moment: Webb and Amy (Ashley Spillers) come full circle.

Wolf - Jim Taihuttu - A first generation immigrant to Denmark fights for his place in the world through petty crime and kickboxing. But damn. It plays better than that. Just... trust me. It does. Love the black and white photography, the familiar/exotic urban setting, and the assurance that the character's struggles are universal. For Majid (Marwan Kenzari) the biggest obstacle to his own happiness and success is himself. He's stronger in character, smarter, more level headed and patient than his friend Adil (Chems Eddine Amar) who wants everything he believes comes easily to Majid, but Majid is a dumb fuck to most of the world - hotheaded, ignorant and brutish. The balance of perspectives is well handled and Majid's confusion in the world and horror at his own self-destructive actions are shared by the audience. Every opportunity looks very different from the base and the summit, as does every price and consequence. Kind of an anti-RockyBest moment: the armored truck heist is pretty great - ballsy, tense, sloppy, brutal.

Young Ones - Jake Paltrow - A community of hardy and resilient, if desperate, folks eke out a hardscrabble existence in a drought-plagued near future. Among them, Ernest (Michael Shannon) who runs a mobile mercantile with which he supplies the government workers who divert the water supply to more populated areas, Flem (Nicholas Hoult) an ambitious farmer with a vision to make the land fertile again and Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) the son of Ernest, torn between his father's and Flem's ideas and ideals. The film's structure gives each character their own chapter in a more or less linear narrative that adds up to something resembling a novel more than a film, but holy crap, what a movie. Couldn't believe I'd not heard of this one at all before it popped up on Netflix, but I gave it a blind try and watched it in a single sitting - more and more rare, kids. Afterward I looked for reviews and was puzzled by the tepid to cool critical response I found online. Sounded like folks were disappointed that it didn't do more large-scale Hunger Games-style dystopia world-building - something the film clearly has no interest in doing. Did they see the same film I did? Maybe it's just the onslaught of YA-future-scape pictures souring their appetite for anything not set in the here and now, but I'd say this has far more in common with say John Steinbeck than Suzanne Collins. It's a small-scale, lived-in, neo-dustbowl sci-fi/western family saga full of great visual touches, wide-open spaces and dark implications. Do yourself a favor and get on this one pronto. Best moment: Ernest and Flem speak plainly.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Noir Lives Matter

I'm frankly not one to typically notice the imbalance of recognition people of color tend to be on the wrong end of in the arts. It's a blindspot of privilege I've been fairly comfortable operating behind, but even I arched an eyebrow, whistled nervously and wanted to back away slowly when reading the just announced Academy Award nominees. Don't look directly at them you might go blind from the dazzling white glare.

So hey, on MLK Day can I pander just a little to highlight some crime films and books that cross the white lines and have meant something to me?

Snow on tha Bluff - Damon Russell - I caught up with this one over the weekend based on the recommendation of Eryk Pruitt and man it was terrific. Slice of life, found footage/mock-doc about an Atlanta drug dealer (and drug dealer robbing) Curtis Snow who plays a version of himself in the film. Naturalistic, unselfconscious performances all around help blur lines of reality and fiction for maximum emotional engagement.

Uptight - Jules Dassin - A brilliant update of The Informer based on Liam O'Flaherty's Troubles novel set in Detroit and opening on the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. It chronicles the struggle of revolutionaries and blue-collar workers just trying to get by alike as they capitalize on and react in fear and anger over the assassination. Who-ee it's an intense atmosphere and a heartbreaking film which, in the great noir tradition, focuses not on the heroes or antiheroes of the moment, but rather on the ratfinks and Judases and small-time opportunists trying to make their way by unseemly means. Dassin made some of my favorite and angriest films noir of all time (Brute Force, Thieves' Highway, The Naked City) before being blacklisted and having to leave the country to find work (he made perhaps his best known film as a non-French-speaking American ex-pat - Rififi) before returning home years later to finish his career making other types of pictures. Uptight stands out among his later work as an angry, but mostly sad, and very humane film about the times.

Viva Riva! - Djo Munga - No grand statements here, just a particularly vibrant and sensuous setting (Kinshasa) for a rise and fall of a gangster picture. Great chemistry too between Patsha Bay and Manie Malone. The energy, the urgency and the Congo locale - all rubble and glamour - make it a highly enjoyable flick I'll want to revisit again soon.

Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema - Ralph Ziman - Another location-centric appealing film about a young hustler who grows into a man of the people stripe of criminal toeing the line of legitimacy in post-freed-Mandela South Africa.

City of God - Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund - Aaaand to make the exotic-locale picks a trio I'll bring this Rio de Janeiro flick to the fore and ask: is there anyone left who has not seen this movie? If not, get the fuck on it, pronto. This... this is the thing, the one, the holy-shit, did you see that? flick here with its mix of groovy and gritty, funky and frightening, hip and horrifying I've not seen anything remotely like it since its release in 2002. And to be frank Meirelles hasn't done near as much for me since either - I liked The Constant Gardener fine, but it's not got anything near the impact of a dozen different high-voltage scenes and sequences from CoG.
Menace II Society - Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes - I saw Boyz n the Hood as a teenager and felt like I was missing something (which I'm sure I was - haven't seen it since), but the Hughes brothers' debut felt like the proper emotional curb stomping I'd been expecting from the other. Challenged my sheltered sensibilities too.

Brooklyn's Finest - Antoine Fuqua - Okay, sure it's an ensemble and the white guys are bigger in the posters, but it's the relationship between Don Cheadle's undercover cop and Wesley Snipes's back on the block criminal pal Cheads is charged with sending back to prison that really drives the drama.

aaaand a few more..
Blue Collar - Paul Schrader 

Go For Sisters - John Sayles

Clockers - Spike Lee 

and books - do some reading

The Dying Ground - Nichelle D. Tramble

Love is a Racket - John Ridley

A Negro and an Ofay - Danny Gardner

Warlord of Willow Ridge - Gary Phillips

anything by Chester Himes

Or check out Gar Anthony Haywood, Scott Adlerberg, Walter Moseley or Donald Goines and some of my favorite whiteys write black characters in their best work: Roger Smith, George Pelecanos, Richard Price... Shit, I missed MLK day deadline, but there you go.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Post-Apocalypse Now

Happy New Year, kids. Try not to be disappointed we're not living Back to the Future II yet. I'm just glad it's not quite Blade Runner and it's hard to believe Escape From New York was supposed to have happened 20 years ago. While we get the sweet mashup of capital-A artistry and B-material once in a while, I tend to get hungry between projects from Paul Verhoeven, David Cronenberg or John Carpenter, or the increasingly rare, satisfying glossy treatment from Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Ridley Scott.

Lately I've been digging the eighties/nineties, OMGeddon, cyber-punk, and c-grade action flicks that came out in the early stages of straight-to-video market. Their mix of high-ideas, cheap-but-innovative practical effects, Armani suits, pony tails, trenchcoats, enthusiastically-bad acting and the occasional true virtuoso camera move, plus a good dose of "what the hell were they thinking?" make them successfully entertaining if not always on the intended level. 

Hardware - Richard Stanley's breakout that he followed up with Dust Devil and was paving the road to The Island of Dr. Moreau and madness (check out the documentary Lost Soul for that story). This one has Stacey Travis, Dylan McDermott, John Lynch and cameos from Iggy Pop and the recently lost Lemmy. Check out the trailer here

Dust Devil - And yeah, DD is certainly worth seeking out - in its many existing cuts. (final) Trailer here.

Blood of Heroes - Rutger Hauer and Joan Chen are athletes wandering the wasteland playing the violent sport Jugger. What more do you need? Directed by David Peoples (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, Leviathan, Twelve Monkeys, Unforgiven, Soldier - that David Peoples) in his lone fiction feature at the helm. Trailer here.

Trancers - The indispensable Tim Thomerson plays a time-traveling bounty hunter named Jack Deth. I rest my case. How come you don't know it? Maybe 'cause of the other time-traveling hunter flick of the same year that James Cameron made. Trailer here

Wild Palms - Oliver Stone produced, Phil Joanou, Keith Gordon, Peter Hewitt and Kathryn Bigelow directed and the cast included James Belushi, Kim Cattrall, Robert Loggia, Angie Dickenson, Ernie Hudson and James Ellroy's muse Dana Delaney, so not exactly a cheapo production, but as a network TV mini-series it was also an odd-duck of a product. This kind of fare has far more opportunity platform-wise now, but its blend of William Gibson and David Lynch/Twin Peaks sensibilities to me seems a forerunner to stuff like Black MirrorTrailer here

Nemesis - Not quite anything it aspires to be, but a fun mix of its influences. Not Blade Runner, but it's got Brion James, not Philip K. Dick, but y'know, Dickish, not quite Cronenberg, but has some really gnarly make up effects and Olivier Gruner ain't JCVD, but he's got the same acting range, accent and spin-kick propensity. Supporting cast includes Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Yuji Okumoto, Nicholas Guest the aforementioned James, Tim Thomerson and look for an early turn by Thomas Jane in this one too. And if you think there ain't enough stop motion fights in action movie these days, you're right and there's a nice one in here. Trailer here.

Cyborg - Another one from director Albert Pyun, this one actually has Jean-Claude Van Damme and feels like the same world as Nemesis. After Pyun made Nemesis 2, 3 and 4, IMDb promises Cyborg Nemesis is coming soon and starring Steven Seagal. I am more excited than you are for that one. Trailer here.

Johnny Mnemonic - This one actually is based on William Gibson source material and it features one hell of a fun cast - Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Takeshi Kitano, Udo Kier, Dina Meyer - but what the actual fuck is going on with the production is beyond me to grasp. Whatever it is, I want more. It's bananas. Messy, day-glo bananas. Unfortunately, director Robert Longo went away to movie jail after this one flopped hard and no one's heard from him since. Trailer here.

Steel Dawn - Part Road Warrior, part Conan the Barbarian, pre-Roadhouse all Swayze. Trailer here, amigos.


Gabino Iglesias has chastised me for not including Tony Maylam's Split Second starring Rutger Hauer. It's one I've never seen though I was certainly aware of it at the time. Hauer is one of those guys who was a genre unto himself (and one of my favorite ones to boot) so I'm not sure why I never got around to it. Trailer here.