Thursday, June 18, 2020

30 Days Has Noirvember: Jon Abrams

As far as anybody knows me by rep, they probably associate me with horror movies, maybe even Westerns. But noir films are a major interest of mine. I went almost half my life without any appreciation for the genre, but I was lucky enough to be prompted to study them at Wesleyan University, where I had access to explore these amazing films, before streaming services or even Blu-Ray existed. More importantly, every time my uncle and I get together, this is what we watch. It might not be my go-to field of expertise, but I love to be educated.

So here’s my list of five – I spent a lot of time deliberating over what to include before realizing that it’s such a rich genre that I could pick almost any five and not go wrong. So I just hurried up and picked a handful at random. With these five, trust me, you won’t go wrong.

The Big Steal (1949)

Most noir experts call Out Of The Past (1947) one of the finest films in the entire history of the genre, and I surely agree. It’s literally a perfect movie. The Big Steal doesn’t reach those heights, mainly because few movies can. But it’s worth revisiting if only because it reunites the stars of Out Of The Past, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum. That’s a gigantic “if only.” Like Out Of The Past, The Big Steal was written by Daniel Mainwaring, this time adapting someone else’s source material rather than his own. Instead of Jacques Tourneur as director, we have Don Siegel, whose skill set is different but no less estimable. He’s more of a straight shooter, so to me, The Big Steal feels a mite more conventional than Out Of The Past, not as lyrical or romantic. Still a better-than-average example of a movie genre with more than its share of better-than-average.

House Of Bamboo (1955)

Lee Marvin aside, there’s no studio-era leading-man-slash-character-actor I love harder than Robert Ryan. In life he was a good man, but on screen he had a tremendous capacity for viciousness. What fascinates me about Ryan is how even when playing vicious men, his eyes suggested an inner torment, either causing or caused by the deeds his characters committed. It just wasn’t in him to play one-note villains. House Of Bamboo, directed by the master Sam Fuller, is a potent example of Cinemascope color-noir. It was shot by Joseph MacDonald, who also shot My Darling Clementine, itself a striking film visually since it beautifully and surprisingly wedded noir aesthetics to the expanses of the John Ford Western. If only for the look of it, and for the location photography of Japan, House Of Bamboo is an under-discussed gem, but Robert Ryan is what makes it essential. Robert Ryan is what makes American movies essential, really.

The Lineup (1958)

If up above I suggested Don Siegel was in any way a step down from Jacques Tourneur, I hope to make it clear, that wasn’t the aim. He’s one of my favorite directors and on a list limited to five, I’m naming another one of his films. This one works largely as a showcase for a single actor. The great and probably still underrated Eli Wallach plays a real nasty character called Dancer, who commits certain acts of violence in this movie that are truly shocking – I mean, the kind that’ll make you say “Oh shit!” out loud, and that’s even by the hardened standards of a modern moviegoer like myself who’s been on the receiving end of movie-maniac cruelty as depicted by practitioners as varied as Wes Craven and John Woo. Not sure anybody thinks of Eli Wallach immediately when asked to name the most unforgettable villains in American film, but go see The Lineup and get back to me.

Macao (1952)

Though I’m sure there’s plenty that can (rightly) be said about the appropriations and likely inaccuracies of Hollywood studio pictures depicting foreign locales and locals without ever leaving the soundstages of Los Angeles, there’s still something fascinating to me about them, the same way “spaghetti” Westerns are so enthralling to me. There’s a cultural dissonance to movies like that which feels weird to me and almost a little otherworldly. As these movies go, I feel like director Josef Von Sternberg’s earlier Far East noir The Shanghai Gesture is probably more, as the youths say, “problematic” when looked at with modern-day eyes. As art, Macao is probably slighter and maybe even more fun. It’s a trade-off maybe. Either way, this one has Gloria Grahame, from In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat, one of the absolute greatest noir actors there ever was. Seek her out!

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

If the game is picking underrated movies, Thieves’ Highway might not qualify; after all, it’s in the Criterion Collection. In the context of director Jules Dassin’s career, though, it’s definitely underrated – the two movies he made before this one were Brute Force and The Naked City, two of the greatest noirs, period, and the two movies he made after it were Night And The City and Rififi, which are also two of the greatest noirs, period. Thieves’ Highway stars noir stalwart Richard Conte, best known to most of us as Barzini from The Godfather, and it’s a vengeance-fueled crime story about truckers, which is low-key one of my favorite subgenres. Jules Dassin is one of the great directors of all time, surely highly qualified to be called “underrated,” although I hope more people continue to discover and appreciate and learn from his wonderful films.

Jon Abrams is the Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse. He is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___

Saturday, June 6, 2020

May Daze

A few things from the last month or so

First I've watched some TeeVees - more than I have been lately - and highlights include:

ZeroZeroZero - miniseries about international crime as big business that splits the narrative three ways - the buyers (Italians), sellers (Mexicans) and brokers (Americans) in a mind-blowingly huge cocaine deal. I watched it because Stefano Sollima and Roberto Saviano were collaborators and fu-uck, it scratched my itch. Big, brutal, business. Bleak. On Prime. 

Damnation - After ZZZ I had to wash the corrosive taste of hyper-capitalism out of my system and this pulpy, operatic ultraviolent labor-wars drama did the job nicely. Too bad Tony Tost didn't get to tell a multi-season story, but the single season we got packed in plenty of plot, colorful characters and cathartic scenes of anti-authoritarian bloodshed. I swear some days I think about Logan Marshall-Green casually shooting oblivious cops for sport from a moving train and it's succor to get me through these trying times. On Netflix.

Movie (Series!)

The following are my final rulings on the rankings of a couple of franchises I finished in May.

First Blood > Rambo > Rambo: Last Blood > Rambo: First Blood Part II > Rambo III

Rambo: Last Blood got dumped on pretty hard last year. When I first heard about the it going into production Rambo vs. The Zetas (or whatever) sounded fucking perfect, but then when it turned out to be about the less specifically-Mexican issue of sex trafficking I got the same 'ah-shit' creeping dread that we were in for a border-fear-stoking shit-show, but I'm so happy to report that what we actually ended up with was about forty-five minutes of clunky set up followed by a couple of lovely beatdowns and topped off with the most fist-pumpingly gruesome and fucking mean finale I've seen in a minute set to The Doors' Five to One. Holy shit. As someone who didn't grow up watching the films and for whom the character doesn't hold any special place in my heart, I realize I might be in the tiniest minority in enjoying the way this closes the franchise, but... here I go again on my own. 

Death Wish > Death Sentence > Death Wish 4: The Crackdown > Death Wish V: The Face of Death > Death Wish II > Death Wish 3 > Death Wish (2018)

Yeah I still haven't read Brian Garfield's novels (Death Wish and Death Sentence), so I can't compare the original film with the source material, but even the first movie stands waaay apart from the sequels and seems like a sober-minded meditation on the price of violence - righteous or not - on your soul than the extreme stand your ground porn the franchise quickly descended (some would say transcended) into. For my money the best of the rest is James Wan's Death Sentence which combined gnarly violence with budding auteur-shit set pieces and visuals, but after Michael Winner's goofy grindhouse sequels (II & 3), 4 & 5 kept the ridiculosity of the violent confrontations, but took the plot in some new (though, hardly original) directions which elevate them slightly over the urban hellscape cleaning up the neighborhood retreads. I'm not sure when it became the thing to dunk on Eli Roth (I don't know anything about him outside of his movies), so I took the dismissal of his (Joe Carnahan penned) remake starring Bruce Willis with a grain of salt. Turns out you guys were right about it not being worthwhile. Limp and uninspired, but worst of all boring.

Brand new movies

Come to Daddy - Ant Timpson - Elijah Wood responds to an unexpected letter from his father who left him when he was a kid. It's an awkward reunion and full of unexpected dangers. This one jumps sideways pretty hard in a way that makes talking about it at length tricky, but the tone is darkly, uncomfortably funny and surprisingly gnarly when it gets down to the onscreen violence. It's also kinda sweet. Good shit (now on Prime).

Debt Collectors - Jesse V. Johnson - An unexpected sequel to 2018's Debt Collector which ends with the heroes French (Scott Adkins) and Sue (Louis Mandylor) pretty certainly dead from getting shot to fuck by Tony Todd's goons. Admittedly, the ending is a significant part of why I loved Debt Collector (now on Netflix) and giving the odd couple a new lease on life does kinda cheapen the original film... but it was already a cheap film, what the hell. Debt Collectors finds French and Sue as surprised as their audience that they're alive and even gives us an awkward scene of the two of them hashing over how puzzled they are the other survived (hard to say exactly how long after the events of the first film the sequel takes place - long enough for everybody to have healed from their significant injuries, yet not long enough for curiosity to have gotten the better of either buddy to the point that they did an online obituary search - it's a wonky world) and it's one of a handful of so below the bar nods to movie-make-believe that end up making the sequel work. Following the blueprint of buddy action comedies this one gives the dysfunctional duo a new set of situations to punch through, as well as a few new character wrinkles (ranging from laughably dumb to surprisingly affecting) in an effort to keep things fresh. Despite nothing about the franchise being fresh, I'd not call it a wasted effort because the effort shows and is charming at its best and good-naturedly owning its goofiness at its most clumsily mis-calculated. Yes, a lesser film than the first, but an onscreen team I would happy to spend another installment or two with. Now on Hoopla.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find - Abner Pastoll - Sarah Bolger is terrific as a recent widow and mother of two young children at the ragged edge of not getting by. She desperately needs help, but every bit of assistance offered (from family, from neighbors, from government representatives) comes loaded with barely concealed contempt, patronizing advice or a debasement clause that only adds to her burden. When a local dirtbag makes her an accomplice in his criminality she takes the money and keeps her mouth shut because she's out of options, but her (in)actions put her in the crosshairs of the police and rival drug dealers and it all escalates to a series of very satisfying confrontations that include the weaponization of dildos and the absolute best hiding place for a handgun. Also: electronic score, neon lights and hammers as weapons are officially tropes now.

Les Misérables - Ladj Ly - Ever timely drama about policing the over-policed. Damien Bonnard is the new cop on the block getting a tour of his new beat by a pair of detectives (Alexis Manenti's prick with a stick and Djibril Zonga's slightly more carrot-prone counterpart). Over the course of the day he'll be put through hazing rituals, meet the population and then put out a series of small fires threatening to consume the whole neighborhood. Police brutality caught on video, highly combustible racial tensions and rioting in case you're not getting enough of that right at home. Now on prime.

VFW - Joe Begos - This is the version of The Expendables I've been waiting for. A siege movie set inside a rundown VFW hall full of brokedown soldiers commiserating on their place in the world that's left them behind. Gnarly violence, kickass pacing and a cast of character actors to die for (Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, William Sadler, Martin Kove, David Patrick Kelly and George Wendt finally back at the end of the bar). Definite John Carpenter two-fer vibe to the whole affair (like Assault on Precinct 13 set in the urban wasteland of Escape From New York). Available to stream on Hoopla.

Couple micro-budget mentions

Empathy Inc. - Yedidya Gorsetman - Cool little sci-fi crime/horror thriller with a social message way out front and honestly a little in the way... at first. But hang with this one and see if it doesn't deliver some legit thrills in the back half. Kinda like a mumblecore version of Strange Days. Check it out on Prime.

Thieves - Bryan C. Winn - Put the scripts to Heat, Thief, To Live & Die in L.A., Drive, The Killing and Narc in a blender, add a pinch of Points Blank and Break and I bet after five or six tries you'd arrive at this exact shooting script. Before you rush off to watch it lemme be clear, it's not a 'good' movie, it's amateur-hour everything, but if your tastes line up exactly right it might be a good time - kinda like those kids who made a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark - you're rooting for Winn and company and they do pull off an homage not really worth your time, but I bet they had a blast making it. And hey, more power to them. About five minutes in I thought it might make a fun drinking game - calling out the name of the movie that line came straight out of - but I cannot in good conscience recommend anybody do that... it would probably be lethal. Find it on prime.