Monday, August 22, 2016

High Water Mark

Went to the movie shows twice this weekend after staying away from them all summer. Seriously, this was just the first time I'd been compelled to go since Shane Black's The Nice Guys in May. The year started off so strong, but man, this summer blew. Anyway, I saw David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water Thursday night, and I liked it. Quite a bit.

Maybe too much.


It went down so smooth, so easy, so clearly made to please me that it made me suspicious. I keep asking myself what I missed and my guess is - nothing. I think... I think I got it all.

Is that a complaint?

It's not, but it's left me with the uneasy feeling that perhaps it was just a (very) well-executed bank-robbing thriller with a solid cast and better (much better) than average aesthetic choices, and that I'll be forgetting it soon.

Like I said - I liked it. But I wanted to love it. And one crucial piece of my loving a movie typically has to do with its jagged edges, its extra-crunchy or surprisingly chewy bits that I'm left gnawing on or (maybe not even completely) digesting for a good while to come. Hell, I wouldn't say I loved it, but I am still working on David Ayer's Sabotage two years later - that thing was prickly and messy and a welcome surprise and I want to revisit it often to see how my feelings and thoughts change.

An apt comparison might be Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace - another movie about blue collar brothers neck-deep in a pool of circumstantial and behaviorally-earned shit that I wanted to love, but only liked. The plot, the amazing cast and how beautifully everything was assembled on screen were all perfect for my sensibilities, but the film was pretty much forgotten as soon as I left the theater.

Hell or High Water is better than Out of the Funace, but I think both may have suffered some for the seriousness with which they're presented. In the end both are pretty stock thriller material, but are presented burdened by a leaden atmosphere in lieu of emotional weight - as if apologizing for the inherent excitement of the material (or worse, though I don't think this is really the case with either film, chastising the audience for looking for thrills in the atmosphere of violence).

The opening scene of the film is a perfect example - the heist is appropriately tense, expertly frustrating and thrilling and the getaway features terrific camera work with a propulsive energy set to kick this motherfucker off, but the film backpedals awfully fast into a somberness seemingly intent on killing your boner and insisting that what we're in for is not meant to be fun.

Which... c'mon, this is a piece of "Fuck the banks" porn, which I am whole-heartedly behind, and it is appropriately complicated by characters we can neither 100% support nor condemn, but that doesn't mean that we can't 100% enjoy the ride. Can a film be tragic and kick ass at the same time? I think Sam Peckinpah proved it so, and I wouldn't be surprised if Mackenzie or screenwriter Tyler Sheridan cited Peck as a major inspiration, but it seems to me that the real way to make a memorably complex experience is to balls-out the action and slip that sour flavor in beneath so that it's only experienced as an aftertaste that recontextualizes the whole thing.

I think that was probably the film maker's intentions and from the critical response I'd say they were mostly successful (again - I liked this movie) - the best example being the mountain top showdown - but if I were to take a stab at saying why it wasn't more successful for me my first guess would be the soundtrack.

Holy shit, what am I saying? First off, I fucking love Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's work - hell their score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the all time greats, but that is an entirely different type of picture - ethereal atmosphere that you marinate in rather than a ticking clock thriller. And the other cuts by artists like Gillian Welch, whom I enjoy, just seem out of place (by being too on the nose). Aside from a well-utilized Scott H. Biram drop, the film's best music cue is the trashy metal blasting from the obnoxious green car driven by the asshole at the gas station - that was perfect.

What could have worked better?

Here's where I'd advocate going the Michael Mann/Thief route where he nixed the original idea of authentic Chicago blues for juxtaposing the blue collar workaday thieves with possibly up its own ass electronic stylings of Tangerine Dream. Yeah, a fucking techno score or even shitty pop-country music probably would have complimented the movie better than the potentially self-congratulatory picks that reaffirm the audience's good taste rather than seem a believable soundtrack for the exploits of these ground into the dust motherfuckers (kinda like that argument about the kid in Stranger Things having an Evil Dead poster on his wall in 1983 middle-America).

Maybe I should stop picking nits and back off it though, because Hell or High Water is very good work from everyone involved - Ben Foster and Chris Pine have a believable brotherly dynamic, Foster not getting over the top and Pine never feeling the need to posture more macho than he ought. Jeff Bridges teeters toward self-parody, but lands a handful of high-quality moments that make his paycheck worth it and the supporting cast are the rising tide that elevates the whole affair - most especially Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Kevin Rankin and Dale Dickey. This flick ain't setting the box office on fire and despite my bitching here I think that's a fucking shame because this is exactly the kind of smart with heart populist fare that we need to inoculate ourselves against the pandering pablum it feels we're drowning in.

Next up, Saturday I caught Jean-Francois Richet's adaptation of Peter Craig's novel of the same name, Blood Father, and in juxtaposition to Hell or High Water, this one achieves a weight beneath its pulpy surface through a transcendent lead performance going all Jimi Hendrix on top of an AC/DC-like dedication to delivering the gnarly genre goods (how's that for yanking it out my ass?).

Font and center is Mel Gibson cast knowingly as a bad guy who's less repentant than realistic about his situation and his actions and culpability in the wreck his life has become. When his runaway daughter contacts him out of the blue for some run-money, he wants to help and may be angry with her, but is the last person to judge for stupid mistakes.

Turns out she's on the run from some very bad people and has a drug dependency to boot. It's another he's no good, but he's good at bad not quite redemption movie full of clearly going for thrills action and a not-quite metatextual penance performance from its star (the opening lines of the movie are Gibson staring at the camera and confessing he's a bad guy who pissed away his life on alcohol and hurt people - the camera pulling back to reveal he's at an AA meeting).

The difference between the two films for me is that Blood Father embraces its pulpiness and becomes something (slightly) more while Hell or High Water strives for more and (sometimes) succeeds. I have a feeling I'll be returning more often to Blood Father - I'll be looking at the crazy-eyed guy playing a crazy-eyed guy and thinking damn if this is his audition for the titular role in an adaptation of Benjamin Whitmer's Pike - it's fucking his.

Blood Father too is bolstered by supporting turns from Michael Parks, William H. Macy and again Dale Dickey.

Both films are worth your time and struggling to find an audience. Go forth.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Four Reasons I am Broke

Brannew Boo & Junior title Rough Trade is in the world legit now, and I, for one, would suggest you buy that thing. Fuckin Todd Robinson, man. I enjoyed the hell out of B&J #1 The Hard Bounce, but even more in retrospect - meaning, I mentally revisit it more than most books - especially after hearing him read from it at N@B-NYC... "morbidly rubenesque" indeed. Here's hoping that with the burden of editing and publishing Thuglit no longer grinding on him we get a little more original output from the dude.

Y'know what else I'm fuckin stoked for? Drain Land by Iain Ryan. His first novel Four Days was like streamlined, pre-addreall and alliteration Ellroy - nasty world, smooth prose, epic in scope, but intimate in devastation. And if you too dug it, he's also got a Kindle-only sequel novella Two Days that I'ma pick up.

Another dude who lay down the crime-zine editing gig to concentrate on his own work is Bryon Quertermous. His Demolition magazine was one of my favorite destinations for reading the hardest new crime fiction once upon a time, now he's got time to write books. Whole books. Good news too, 'cause his latest, Riot Load is the novel treatment of my favorite of his short stories (don't remember if it was in Demolition or Thuglit or Plots With Guns or Beat to a Pulp) about a bank heist gone sticky. A um, sperm bank heist.

Another title I'm pinching pennies for is the debut novel of Chris Orlet, In the Pines (New Pulp Press). This is one I've had in my peripheral for about a year and now it's in the world and I'm gonna pounce. Expect for Chris to cut his teeth reading at N@B sometime soon.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Killer on the Road

Been some excellent poolside reading this summer with a host of unlikely summer feel-gooders like Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels and Rusty Barnes' Ridgerunner, to the endless bummers that were Ray Banks' Angels of the North and Grant Jerkins' The Abnormal Man. A few big no-brainers yet to get to like Megan Abbott's You Will Know Me, Duane Swierczynski's Revolver and Donald Ray Pollock's The Heavenly Table.

How excited am I for new Pollock? A little twitchy, truth be told. His short story collection Knockemstiff came out around the same time I was starting this here blog and he was even one of the first authors who agreed to be interviewed here - an honor for me. Since then his first novel, The Devil All the Time, burnt the hair off my palms and put whatever he did next in a permanent spot at the top of my TBR list.

Haven't got there yet, but in anticipation I figured I'd post this older piece originally published on another site - my reaction to the mid-year release of The Devil All the Time....

Before I begin, I’d like to just take a moment and apologize to the authors of all the good and wonderful books coming out this summer and later in the year as well as to those preceding this post that really are so very worth your time, because I’m afraid that we’ve now arrived at the book that I’m going to be hitting everyone over the head with for the foreseeable future. I just can’t see anything coming to eclipse Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time – without a doubt the finest book I’ve read this year.

It’s also the scariest and most bizarre, funniest and most harrowing, singe-off-your-body-hair-and-then-make-it-grow-back, clear-up-your-glaucoma-before-poking-out-your-eyes, raise-the-dead-and-smite-them-again horrorscape of big-A Americana I’ve seen in ages. Not for the timid or faint, but if ever there were a reason to be bold, if ever a pay-off for a stout heart and robust sense of adventure in reading this, brothers and sisters, has got to be it.

The book follows a host of characters rooted in southern Ohio from the end of WWII through the 1960s and it’s as rich and memorable a cast as you’re going to find anywhere. Even as the decades pile up and the narrative strains remain largely independent, it is testament to the merit of each that none clamor louder than the others for our attention. There is not a single limp thread trailing through this tapestry of crime, from the revival preacher and his wheel-chair-bound, guitar-playing sidekick to the road-trip-taking husband and wife spree-murdering team to the devout, but na├»ve Lenora whose devotion to a flim-flam pastor will break your heart.

The killers that populate The Devil All the Time come in stripes like psychotic or hired, and right on through categories like corrupt, deluded, righteous-revenging, exultant and guilt-ridden, and though the spectacle is bloody, pitiless and terrifying, the read is always engaging and humane in its portraiture of these lost and wandering souls, and it's no exaggeration to suggest that even the minor characters here deserve their very own book.

With his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, Pollock, (a high school drop-out who didn’t begin writing seriously till he was nearly fifty and now holds an MFA from Ohio State University) seemed to emerge fully formed as a gravelly veteran, matured, battle-conditioned and ready to slay the hordes of wincing, tepid wordsmiths too pleased with their own cleverness and ever threatening to wrest the legacy of American letters from the calloused, pioneer hands and spirit that begat them. His fiction is harsh – physically and psychologically - but his tone is warm, even compassionate, and never to the right or the left of honest. Without a hint of apology or irony it demands to have its measure taken and then it holds its own. Which is not to say he owes no one. Pollock’s lineage is chock-full of recognizable strains, from Larry Brown to Flannery O’Connor, but his voice is distinctly his own and I predict the near-future universality of the term ‘DR. Pollockian’ that will hang on the emergent legion of bare-knuckled writers poised now on the brink of discovering their greatest inspiration.

Whatever foul, hairy-warted terrors stalked young Donald’s dreams have shaped a kaleidoscopic vision of life and death running along Ohio’s rugged hollers and highways that grown-up Donald has brought to the page in this towering work of opulent, gothic, heartland noir. Pick it up now.