Sunday, May 27, 2018

Small Crimes 2018 pt. 2

Lowlife - Ryan Prows - If Robert Altman's Shortcuts were based on intersecting short stories by Matthew McBride rather than Raymond Carver it might resemble this multi-focal piece of absurdist crime fiction. The narrative strands that twist into a shared climax involve human trafficking, black market organ transplants, dirty cops, ruthless gangsters, ex-cons, bad parenting and a luchador bagman who suffers from small-man complex induced rage blackouts. The cast are mostly great with Nicki Micheaux and Ricardo Adam Zarate on the tier just below the standout performance of Mark Burnham whose Teddy 'Bear' Haynes is a monster terrifying and hilarious in equal measure. A couple minor quibbles probably keep it out of the year's best running, but it's a definite runner up with Prows landing squarely in the sign-me-up-for-whatever's-next camp.

Manhunt - John Woo - This plays so much like a hack homage to Woo's catalog with in-jokes (doves!) and call-backs to his previous films that I was surprised to learn it was actually a remake of Jun'ya Satô's 1976 film (both are based on the novel by Jukô Nishimura). Un-inspired convoluted story lines take precedent over inspired convoluted action set pieces, though a couple very brief bits of mayhem keep it from being an utter turd. This does not bode well for his announced remake of The Killer, but I'm sure I'll see that too.

Mute - Duncan Jones - Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a bartender looking for his disappeared girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) in this half-dazzling, half-chintzy futuristic Berlin. Leo's titular condition is the result of a childhood accident which his parents' anti-technology religious views kept him from having treated via an operation that could have restored his powers of speech. Adult Leo works in a sleazy nightclub and lives amongst the digital detritus of the city, and while he appears to have abandoned his religious upbringing he has not exactly embraced modernity. Amish among The Jetsons is kind of an intriguing premise, but it's not really explored. Instead we go to Paul Rudd's AWOL American marine medic staying off the grid and paying off the mob by performing the odd surgery or by torturing somebody who needs it. Rudd's also looking out for a girl - his daughter whom he leaves in the care of the prostitutes of a brothel run by his gangster employer while daddy goes to work. These disparate story lines criss and cross in a tantalizing manner, but the bad man with the power to heal and the good man in need of an operation never get together in the way you might expect them to. Jones made an impression with his modestly ambitious debut, Moon, and followed that up with the high-concept, mass-appeal thriller The Source Code, but the precision of those two films is nowhere to be found in this glorious mess of a science fiction crime flick. It's unfocused, half-baked and going in two or three too many directions to be satisfying. It's not good, but I was not bored. I was confounded and frustrated, but only because I was at first intrigued and titillated. As poor or non-existent as many of the payoffs are, I have to acknowledge that I'd had expectations in the first place. Not as scattered as Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, but that's not a bad comparison because I'm sure I'll be thinking about it and probably revisiting it in bits and pieces, if not as a whole, in the distant future, the year 2000.

The Outsider - Martin Zandvliet - Jared Leto plays an American G.I. in a Japanese prison who befriends his cell mate by playing a key role in his escape plan. When the gaijin gets out he finds his friend, a high ranking member of a yakuza gang, in his debt. What follows is pretty standard gangster shit, which I'm down for always, set apart by its uh, setting - occupied Japan. Looks good, has violence, sex and cool suits, but is about as filling as half a yawn. Kills a couple hours and like that (poof) it's gone.

Racer & the Jailbird - Michaël R. Roskam - Matthias Schoenaerts plays a bank robber whose cover involving car parts and inport/export of vehicles puts him in proximity of Adèle Exarchopoulos a competitive driver whom he falls instantly in love with. As their romance grows more intense his bullshit facade stands between them - he wants to quit the crime game and she just wants him to tell her the truth. After his one-last-job goes bad and he winds up in prison she doesn't leave him and instead makes plans and sets things in motion on the outside for their and/or his future. The way things work out (or don't) isn't predictable and that's the best thing about this odd duck of a romantic crime drama - I never knew where it was going. Afterward I'm not sure I'm satisfied, but I'm still thinking about it weeks later, which is a recommendation in its own right. No doubt the stars are attractive and the racing and heisting bits look great, but I also don't think they fully utilized their leads. For the sake of not spoiling the where-the-hell-is-this-going experience for some of you I won't go into exactly why I felt this way, but I do think there were a couple of big missed opportunities. Roskam directed The Drop, which I loved, as well as Bullhead which I was similarly frustrated by, but I know that other folks loved. He's interesting.

68 Kill Trent Haaga - A hapless loser whose girlfriend may not be into him for his personality, or brain, or looks, or money, or status still manages to be blindsided by her dark ambitions and the lengths he will go to and depths to which he will sink in order to stay with her and stay alive. When her plot to steal a bunch of money turns into multiple homicide and a never-ending string of misfortunes and double-crosses he proves sweetly naive enough to continue being surprised at every turn. Based on the novel by Bryan Smith it succeeds in the face of budgetary limitations by sheer outrageous conceit and an uneven, if fully-game, cast. And yeah, that's Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - good eye, you.

Shot Caller - Ric Roman Waugh - Writer director Roman Waugh returns to the "non-criminal-type thrown in the deep end of the prison system and rising to prominence via violent means he never wanted to utilize, but y'know, you do what you gotta do to survive" sub-genre of prison movies, but with far better results than his debut Felon. This time Nikolaj Coster-Waldau puts on the muscles and tattoos and emerges on the streets transformed, a leader in an Aryan gang, forced into a life of crime by the organization with reach far beyond the walls of the institution. Gnarly violence and good performances from Jeffrey Donovan, Holt McCallany and Jon Bernthal help sell it.

Small Town Crime - Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms - John Hawkes plays a disgraced alcoholic former cop who comes late to the rescue of a young woman whose story he can't help himself from digging into. He thinks solving the mystery of her death might save his life and sobers up just enough to get around to poking his significant nose where it doesn't belong. The writing/directing duo apparently never met a cliche they couldn't use or abuse and probably spent a lot of time watching Shane Black movies. They make all these overly familiar elements work by being self-aware enough to know how far to push each element. They manage to make if funny, but not goofy, suspenseful, but not overly serious and cool without getting into douchebag territory. This is thanks in large part to the terrific cast - especially Jeremy Ratchford, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr. and Octavia Spencer.

Super Dark Times - Kevin Phillips - The spate of eighties nostalgia movies have finally caught up to Rivers' Edge-era with this story of nerdy kids who accidentally kill a frenemy and then try to cover it up and end up caught in a vortex of pride, guilt and madness. Decent, but your reception probably hinges on how hard you fall for or are repelled by the nostalgia factor.

Sweet Virginia - Jamie Dagg - Jon Bernthal plays an ex-rodeo rider who manages a motel and carries on an affair with Rosemarie DeWitt in small Alaskan town. Christopher Abbott plays a guest at the motel, a killer hired by Imogen Poots to get rid of her boorish husband, Jonathan Tucker. When the insurance company doesn't pay out and Poots can't pay off Abbott, he sticks around waiting for his payday and looking for opportunities to make other monies and intimidate locals. I liked Dagg's debut, River (starring the tallest Sutherland), but Virginia is a big step up in quality and control of tone - I never really knew where this one was headed and it had some solid and pleasingly unpleasant surprises along the way. Abbott is a standout in the cast and a scary screen presence.

Tragedy Girls - Tyler MacIntyre - Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp are best friend whose plans to become celebrated journalist media sensations by catching a real life masked slasher-movie-style killer are continually frustrated by the monotony of life as high school students in a dull midwestern town, their inability to successfully make social media hashtags catch on and the unexpectedly difficult task of carrying out most of the murders themselves. Part Ace in the Hole, part Heathers it eschews their cynicism for the simple misanthropic joys of holding life cheap and could have been pitched as "Scream with the killers as our protagonists!" There are plenty of good moments here (my favorite involves Chris Robinson lifting weights), but the feature length run time may prove too long a stretch of diminishing returns on the core joke of the film.

24 Hours to Live Brian Smrz - Ethan Hawke plays an assassin stuck in a never-ending loop of being revived from death to kill yet another target before expiring again after his titular time runs out. It's a terrific sci-fi set up, but fails to become the horror allegory for late-stage capitalism it really could've been by settling for familiar focus on only occasionally interesting action.

Vengeance: A Love Story - Johnny Martin - Nicolas Cage is a cop who takes extra-legal measures to punish a bunch of rapists the legal system fails to. Just because it's a standard plotline without surprises doesn't mean the story has to be and I'd lay money on Joyce Carol Oates's source novel Rape: A Love Story having some insightful passages and maybe even a memorable treatment of the whole sordid affair, but this film is a dud with a handful of frustrating glimpses at interesting possibilities never capitalized upon.

You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Small Crimes 2018 pt. 1

Asura: The City of Madness - Kim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage.

Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin. First contender for year's end honors at HBW. Can't wait to see what Baugh does next.

Bullet Head - Paul Solet - A trio of thieves hide out in a warehouse after a heist goes right and the getaway goes wrong. While the cops comb the city outside they find they're trapped inside with a more immediate threat. Turns out the warehouse has been used to host dog fights and a wounded, ferocious mastiff left to die has recovered and wants to eat them. There's a good movie or two trying to claw their way to the surface of the mess this one ultimately proves to be. If you pitched me Reservoir Dogs meets Cujo I'd, um, bite, but the overly elaborate and long chase/shootout climax is encumbered by bad CGI monsters, gunshots and an Antonio Banderas performance that might as well be too. There are a few weird and off-beat character moments early on that had me holding out hope for a better outcome that didn't show up. Starring Adrien Brody, John Malkovich and Rory Culkin.

Creep 2 - Patric Brice - The Duplass Brothers hit and miss along a surprisingly diverse spectrum of projects: drama, comedy, documentary, science fiction and horror films - all slightly ambitions and carried off by low-budget ingenuity and audacity. Serving as producers their Creep franchise handily tops their directorial effort Baghead in producing actual suspense and horror-ish thrills. The first Creep film was a found footage exercise in is-it/isn't-it horror/comedy discomfort with a two-person cast. The is-(co-writer/producer)-Mark Duplass-a-killer-or-just-a-weirdo question is answered by the end of the first film so the set-up of the second, though similar in size (again, a two-person main course with one extra cast member in the brief prologue), has very different dynamics on account of the audience already knowing that - yes, he is in fact a killer. He's also a weirdo or creep. We go a lot deeper into his story and character this time and are tickled by the dilemma of whether or not to call bullshit on his confession/revelations. On the one hand he is alarmingly honest, on the other he's undoubtedly manipulative - and honest about that too. I admire these films for proving you can engage and hold an audience with only solid writing and performance without being a self-important capital-A arteest. A bold choice or two doesn't hurt either.

Crocodile - John Hillcoat - Technically the third episode of the fourth season of the technology-based anthology TV series Black Mirror, I'm including this 60-minute short film because I won't be covering the not-necessarily-crime-centered show anywhere else. Yeah, a lot of the episodes include crime, but this one has a classic noir set up and fucking John Hillcoat directing. It's the story of a woman (Andrea Riseborough) with a crime in her past unwittingly drawn into an insurance investigation of an unrelated event she witnesses. The technology angle concerns a method of collecting memory from multiple witnesses to construct a more complete picture of the incident. Of course she's concerned that different memories will be accessed by the investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and a gauntlet of no-win situations present themselves. Sci-fi elements aside this could play with the brief nasties of classic film noir express trains to hell that I'm (and I suspect you) are so fond of.

Den of ThievesChristian Gudegast - Gerard Butler is the alpha cop leading a leatherdick task force and in Pablo Schreiber's gang of thieves there ain't no cucks allowed so fuckin strap in and strap on cuz everybody's strapped on these streets and... oh who am I kidding? I enjoyed the hell out of this silly best-scenes-of-your-favorite-macho-crime-movies-strung-together-for-maximum-ka-pow!-turned-up-to-eleven-testosterone-smoothie. Yeah, the posturing is abrasive at first, but this one actually improves as it goes and by the end I even had emotions and shit. Plus the final heist is pretty great - clever, but stops short of eye-roll-inducing - and the climactic chase/shootout is staged and executed well. No, Michael Mann shouldn't feel threatened, but David Ayer should probably check his rearview - I'd be happy to see more crime stuffs from Gudegast.

Detroit - Kathryn Bigelow - Totally get it if you don't want to sit through two hours of white cops torturing black folks - as a thriller it isn't a great premise and as a drama of social importance it feels constantly upstaged by same old shit every time you turn on the evening news - but as an immersive experience it's pretty potent (though the riots outside are where I'd rather have spent the run time). The period pops and Bigelow is great at generating and sustaining an atmosphere of impending violence and Anthony Mackie continues to make me wish he had a leading man vehicle that matched his potential.

Gemini - Aaron Katz - Slick looking, low-budget murder mystery serving as a tour of L.A. glitz and a rare movie about movie stardom that isn't off-putting in its treatment of celebrity culture. Solid cast includes Zoë Kravitz, John Cho, James Ransone, Michelle Forbes and Ricki Lake. Lola Kirke holds the center effortlessly and, while the low-grade thriller resolves and dissolves with a little less intriguing post-film brain itch than Katz's previous deconstructionist detective flick Cold Weather, I'd absolutely be down for a hangout picture with Kirke and Kravitz's characters.

Hangman - Johnny Martin - I watched the trailer for this serial-killer thriller starring Karl Urban and Al Pacino's hair and thought: was that their best effort to get me to watch the movie? Then I watched the movie. Joke's on me.

Hollow in the Land - Scooter Corkle - Dianna Agron plays the elder of two siblings from deadbeat, no-account parents who've disgraced the family's name and community standing before abandoning their offspring to fend for themselves in a small, dead-end industrial community where drugs are the only escape and violence the sole guarantee. Alison (Agron) works in a factory to support her wayward younger brother who's tempting many potential bad ends with his careless behavior and when he disappears after a violent encounter that the cops say is murder big sister takes it upon herself to find him before he's killed by the police or various criminal types he's managed to piss off. Surely pitched as a more-thrillery Winter's Bone it manages to work by its attention to detail and place and avoids the pitfalls of too many rural noirs that play up the outrageous aspects of small town life in an exploitative fashion (not that I'm not down with exploitation once in a while). There aren't any grotesques in the cast, neither are there lingering looks at squalor, and the lesbian sexuality isn't sensationalized. It's also refreshingly free of any sense of inherent nobility in blue collar life, but all these elements add credulity to Alison's outsider status and Agron's jaw is set for optimal resolute determination. It's a nicely executed, muted (but not dirge-like) tale of life in the margins and the director's name is Scooter.

Kills on Wheels - Attila Till - Two wheelchair bound boys find a mentor of sorts in a disabled gangster/hitman who takes them on as apprentices. It's a helluva premise and mostly works with utter nihilism not quite overtaking a healthy dose of teenaged fuck-the-world angst. The last ten minutes are a little disappointing, but make sense out of questions bothering me in the structure, and won't keep me from enjoying a revisit in the future.
Last Rampage - Dwight H. Little - True crime drama about Gary Tison's escape and murderous final days in Arizona. Robert Patrick is the second Bob to play Tison (Robert Mitchum had the role in 1983's A Killer in the Family) and during the opening escape sequence I was excited by the prospect of following him on a kill-crazy adventure, but the film quickly deteriorates into joyless melodrama and you get the sense that it's really kind of tedious having to kill everybody who crosses your path. Honestly I expect movies where fathers and sons consider murdering each other to be more fun. At Close Range this ain't.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Getting Dicked

It's been a good year for Eryk Pruitt. His novel What We Reckon is nominated for an Anthony Award, his first two books, Dirtbags and Hashtag are back in print and his first collection of short fiction, Townies, will be available later this year from Polis Books. Plus the investigation into the 1971 Valentines Day murder of a North Carolina couple that he helped re-open and work on is quickly reaching a possible resolution and his true crime podcast documenting that story, The Long Dance, will (hopefully) be released this summer.

Never mind the accolades and lesser accomplishments though, as far as I'm concerned, outmaneuvering the Chene-gang on a quest to get a copy of D*CKED signed by the Haliburton Hawk hisself is some heroic shit deserving Homeric retellings.

Here's his account...

Recently I flew to my hometown of Dallas, Texas, so that I could attend the George W. Bush Leadership Forum being held at the George W. Bush Institute on the SMU campus. Mind you, I’ve never fancied myself a fan of Mr. Bush, but I chose to attend for two solid reasons: First, the Bush family posthumously honored my mother, Jan Pruitt, with the first Trailblazer Citation Award for her lifelong fight against hunger as head of the North Texas Food Bank. Second, I wanted Dick Cheney to autograph my copy of D*CKED: Dark Fiction Inspired by Dick Cheney.

Going into it, I knew this would be no easy task. For one, security at the GWB Institute was pretty tight, on account of W’s constant presence. Despite the recent passing of his mother, he attended every meal, forum, panel, and lecture, and could often be seen walking the halls and shaking hands. Every entrance was manned by secret service personnel and metal detectors. Knowing contraband such as D*CKED might bar my entry, I was left with only one option. I won’t go into detail how I smuggled the book into the event, but let’s just say my dedication knows no bounds.

Also, Cheney was known for being particularly persnickety. The event had to be rescheduled three times, due to Cheney’s avoidance of a full moon. The menu had been altered so that no garlic could be served in his presence. A recent rash of children at local orphanages had gone missing, which could only mean that his arrival was imminent.

After a private audience with W and Mrs. Bush, my family and I took our assigned seats in the middle of the ballroom. No expense had been spared and, although I felt somewhat guilty enjoying such opulence, I remembered that summer when gasoline was over four dollars per gallon and reckoned I’d already paid my fair share. While it was overwhelming to be eating dinner in attendance with folks like pop singer turned activist Bono, or Karl Rove, Condi Rice, the Bush family, and dozens of other whos-its, I was only there for the former Vice President and his chair still remained empty by the time we took our seats.

However, no sooner had the first course—lobster salad—been served, than did the security staff erupt in immediate frenzy. They rushed from every corner to cover mirrors and reflective surfaces with table linens. The fiddle player quit her upbeat rendition of Where the Streets Have No Names and eschewed it for a slow, meandering dirge. Condi wept.

Dick Cheney had arrived.

He did not enter through a door, but rather with great cacophony, through a window. His tuxedo in tatters and freshly sprayed with broken branches, leaves, straw, and other detritus from the forest floor. His lips smacked of grease and blood, still fresh from a recent kill, and it took four Presidential handlers to wrest him to the floor so that he might be cleaned for dinner.

Heckuva entrance, Dick!” called the former President.

As luck would have it, Cheney's keepers positioned him to a table directly over my shoulder. I could hardly focus on my entrée of Herb-Crusted Lamb Loin. I fidgeted the entire time Laura Bush presented my mother's award to my sister, Natalie. I could barely contain myself throughout the hour long discussion between Bono and President Bush. Finally, when the festivities drew to a close, I made my move. I removed my copy of D*CKED from its hiding place and approached the man at his table.

"Mr. Cheney," I said with a shaking voice, "would you please autograph my—"

Then, it happened. One of the table linens fell from yonder mirror and Cheney caught sight of his own reflection. At first, it seemed as if little incident would pass. He considered it with only a glance. However, once his eyes fixed on his own visage, he let fly a terrible howl. Across the ballroom, wine glasses shattered. China splintered. Cheney leapt atop his table then to the President's table next to him. Before the Secret Service could make their move, he'd jumped to the next table, then the next, until finally, in a mad clamor, Cheney quit the room.

The silence that followed could have swallowed us all whole, but I was not to suffer it long. I was thrown to the ground immediately by security and whisked from the room. Whatever happened to my copy of D*CKED, I may never know.

Fortunate for us all, I was quickly forgiven. In this particular circle, Cheney was known to overact. Besides, my mother's memory had been so revered that evening, I had been given a pass. (Thanks again, Mom) My dad led me from the ballroom by the ear and, once safely inside the Uber, proceeded to lecture me just as he did when I was a child.

But the entire evening would not all suffer a loss.

For, once I reached inside the pocket of my tuxedo, I found quite the surprise:

Keep up with Eryk at his website and read his books. And buy D*CKED while you're at it.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Afflictions of Outlaw Author Roy Harper

Someone said to me once, 'even if you managed to escape and remain free you couldn't work because someone might recognize you, so how would you make a living?' Well, I'm not sure, but these words of wisdom my dear Mom once told me are always in the back of my mind: "As long as you remember these three words you'll always have money in your pocket - stick 'em up!" - Roy Harper

When Henry Roi first told me about Roy Harper and Tool's Law I was intrigued because crime fiction written by folks with first-hand experience is often extra potent, gnarly, authentic or unflinching. The following piece was written by Roi about Harper's experience writing the Tool's Law novels and does not focus on his crimes or multiple escapes. You can learn more about those elsewhere.

The Afflictions of Outlaw Author Roy Harper
(Previously published as Tribulations of an Author Convict)

by Henry Roi
PR Manager, Crime Wave Press 
Tool's Law was written in a hostile environment, a Mississippi Supermax, where the strongest of minds deteriorated from incessant chaos, government oppression, and inhumane treatment condoned by local culture.

Roy Harper has been many things in his life. A thief, bank robber, carjacker, kidnapper, an escaped armed and dangerous fugitive. He doesn't brag about these things, but neither does he apologize. He accomplished his proudest endeavors as a convict, spending over a decade advocating prisoner rights and was instrumental in the civil suits that ultimately closed down Unit 32 Supermax, starting a ripple-effect that changed correctional philosophy around the country.

In 2004 Roy wrote a novel. Money was the original motivator for penning Tool's Law, though as the process developed, it became an outlet, an escape from a harsh reality. Far more than just a way to make money; the project became a source of pride and the first legitimate hard work Roy had ever embarked on without grinding his teeth in reluctance.

No computers, word processors or typewriters were available. Paper was hard to get, and because of the high-security environment "regular" ink pens were banned. 1,162 pages handwritten multiple times to render a final clean draft  with a "flex-pen" (a plastic ink cartridge with a soft, flexible rubber shroud). It took years to complete.

Unit 32 was filled with the worst-behaved prisoners in the state. Mentally ill or terribly disruptive, the psychotic, violent and juvenile actions pervaded the buildings without interruption, exacerbated by policies and staff that offered no incentives for good behavior – no T.V., radio, fans, or even shoes.  They acted like animals because they were treated as such.

High Risk inmates like Roy can expect weekly shakedowns as well as movement to different cells. Officers routinely trash property, out of spite or under orders, and do not care about the perceived value of a prisoner’s property. Family photos, artwork, cherished letters from loved ones, legal work, poems, and manuscripts like Roy’s were commonly destroyed or taken during these movements and shakedowns.

It takes several days to get mentally adjusted to a new cell, with new neighbors, noises, smells, critters, floods, fires, and fears of being scalded, stabbed, or assaulted with excrement. After acclimating to a new cell, Roy worked on Tool’s Law during lulls in the chaos.

In 2006, the ACLU took interest in several lawsuits filed about inhumane treatment in Unit 32. Roy worked closely with the Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, Miss Margaret Winter, who used a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling filed by Roy in previous years to supplement the class-action that eventually closed down Unit 32.

A federal judge ordered MDOC to provide Long-Term Segregation inmates, including High-Risk, incentive programs that allowed well-behaved prisoners a chance to earn more privileges and freedom of movement.

In 2008, Deputy Commission E.L. Sparkman created the High-Risk Incentive Program. Roy was the poster-man Mr. Sparkman used to promote the program, “selling” it to other states and even the federal system. Mr. Sparkman’s change of correctional philosophy – from take everything and lock ‘em down to providing them incentives for good behavior – was a national success, and the Supermax facilities around the country began closing as other states took note.

Out of appreciation for Roy’s help and good behavior during the development of the High-Risk Incentive Programs, Mr. Sparkman helped Roy with Tool’s Law, appointing a deputy warden to have the manuscript scanned and burned onto DVDs.

In 2012  RAW TV producer Jenny Evans contacted Roy to interview him for a feature in National Geographic’s Breakout! series. RAW TV wanted to do a documentary about Roy’s May, 2000, escape from Unit 32 Supermax. Miss Evans could not pay Roy for the story, but offered to help with Tool’s Law. It was her idea to use Facebook for recruiting friends to help type it up, and over the next six months the entire manuscript was typed by more than a dozen awesome, caring people Roy had never met and would never know.

Three more years went by before any more progress was made. The handwritten pages were typed, but they needed to be edited, proofread, and submitted to publishers. The Incentive Program had more privileges, but Internet access was off-limits.  And Roy had no help on the outside… but he had help on the inside.

His friend, Chris Roy (Shocking Circumstances, Her Name is Mercie) had access to the Internet via a contraband Galaxy Android smartphone. Chris had no experience with writing apps, but learned quickly, working with Roy to edit and proofread Tool’s Law. Roy drew his own cover art, which Chris took pictures of and used image-editing apps to create the book covers. They published Tool’s Law in a four-book series on a self-publishing service.

After only selling a handful of books in a matter of months they changed their strategy and began submitting to publishing houses around the world.

As escape risks housed in maximum security they operated under constant fear of the phone being discovered. The Incentive Program did not lessen the frequency of shakedowns. Their manuscripts, queries, sample chapters – every file created for submitting to publishers and agents – was at stake.

The phone was eventually discovered and confiscated, but not before Tool's Law had found a home at Crime Wave Press. With Tom Vater's editing the first two volumes of Tool's Law were released in 2016 (Shank in May, Heist in November). Roy has completed a prequel to the Tool’s Law series and fans have another Roy Harper crime thriller to look forward to in the near future.

Listen to Roy speak with Greg Barth on Noir on the Radio

Watch Breakout - Escape From Supermax about Roy at National Geographic.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Spit Take

Just saw that Jules Dassin's Uptight is streaming on Filmstruck and it feels like a perfect moment to revisit the movie about racial tensions and a traitor who sells out his friend to the cops and loses his soul during the boiling over unrest immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It belongs in conversation with Dassin's other great noirs with Julian Mayfield's character as desperate and haunted as Richard Widmark's at the end of Night and the City, footage as raw and viscerally dangerous as the riot in Brute Force and certainly as socially conscious as Thieves' Highway. A retelling of Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer (also the basis of John Ford's film) it concerns members of a black radical group rather than the Irish Republican Army and opens with actual footage of Dr. King's funeral.

The specter of King haunts the film and the feeling of urgency in the characters is contagious, stirring and ultimately sad knowing that none of the actions they're so desperately weighing will bring about the change they want and need in their lifetimes... but that's also part of why it's so great. If you've got Filmstruck check out the introduction from Barry Jenkins and dig the whole cast - Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera and a really terrific turn by Roscoe Lee Browne - everybody's just doing great work.

Few days ago I was talking about Uptight thanks in part to this Catapult piece by Michael Gonzales on Uptight star Mayfield's novel The Long Night. It's out of print, but I found a reasonably priced one and purchased it.
If I dig it I'm looking for The Hit next. Had no idea these existed.

Another interesting race-relations book I read this week: I Spit On Your Graves by Boris Vian - a particularly nasty novel of sexual taboo and racial animus. It's the story of a southern black man who passes for white and is seeking revenge for the lynching of his younger brother who dared keep company with a white girl.

There's a lot to admire about the writing. With clean, un-fussy prose the twisted first-person account of someone bent on murder enjoying tormenting and debasing his prey is unperturbed and unflinchingly frank about ghastly deeds... like really, really gross stuff - so awful and unapologetic it was a huge bestseller upon initial publication in France.

Vian was a French novelist who wrote the book in two weeks after declaring he could and would write a best-seller. He published the book claiming to have translated it for an African American author named Vernon Sullivan who couldn't get it published in the States. After the book was banned and suits brought against the publisher Vian admitted that he was the author.

The book outsold all of his other titles including more race-baiting stuff under the Sullivan name, and in a twist too Hollywood for the movie studios, he died of a heart attack in his seat at a preview screening of the film version of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes after publicly disowning the movie and interrupting the proceedings in 1959 at the age of 39.

The English translation I have includes a note from the French "translator' Vian talking about American 'author' Sullivan's clear debts to James M. Cain and James Hadley Chase - it's a weird little note. Thanks to Kieran Shea for bringing the book to my attention. James Sallis wrote the introduction of the volume I read, but this piece by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads sums up the weirdness of the thing pretty succinctly:

“'These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!' Perfect last words for a white Frenchman who pretended to be a black American writing about a country he’d never visited, upset that the actors portraying his characters didn’t seem real enough."