Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lost Highway

I'm not a big reader of comics and graphic novels, though I've got several friends trying to turn me around on that point, but Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane came out of nowhere last year and knocked me on my ass. What caught my eye first were the gorgeous graphics, romantic renderings of nowhere middle America in all its muddy, Ichabodliness. The stories too, linked only by theme and tone, were alternately tragic and funny, grim only to the height of the low stakes, each exploring the endless nuance of ways to waste a life. And the writing itself was possessed of the remnants of Kerouac, Fante, Bukowski and other such chroniclers of the American dream's morning after. The sense of place was spot on too. Lane is a fellow St. Louisan and, though not integral to the reader's enjoyment of the stories and artwork, I got a kick out of the many references to local color and legend. The story of Stagger Lee, perhaps St. Louis's most famous murder, I'd caught serialized in the Riverfront Times, but blown up to book size, it's power and command of the page are remarkable. If Abandoned Cars creates an appetite for more barfly graphic work, I'd also recommend Rude Awakening, the Dennis McMillan published collaboration between Purnell Christian and Joe Servello, (adapted from Christian's short story collection Modern Physics and Other Tales). Visit Tim Lane at

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Take That Mensa

Between Nov. and the first of January, I get an annual reminder of my general lameness from many well meaning relatives and friends. I don't understand how I have managed to surround myself with such ambitious, smart, talented people. They send me these end of the year re-cap of last year's adventures and make me feel small. So, last year I decided to make a record of all the movies I watched and send it out as my own accomplishment list. In roughly alphabetical order, (with movies seen more than once in bold), here is my 2008 in movies.

2 Days in Paris, 24 Season 6, 30 Days of Night, 30 Rock Season 2, Adam's Apples, After the Wedding, Alpha Male, American Gangster, American Meth, The Apostle, Antibodies, Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, At Close Range, Atonement, Autumn, Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That, Attack of the Clones, Big Love Season 2, Batman Begins, Brothers Solomon, The Bridge, Boarding Gate, Babel, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Blast of Silence, Battlestar Galactica Season 3, Be Kind Rewind, Burn After Reading, Babe, Baby Mama, Bee Movie, Battlestar Galactica: Razor, Big Rig, Balls of Fury, Bourne Ultimatum, Crazy Love, Crosscut, Cars, Cloverfield, Charlie Wilson's War, Cache, Chrystal, Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys 2, Children of Men, Clone Wars Vol. 1, Clone Wars Vol. 2, Civilization of Maxwell Bright, Counterfeiters, Dragon Wars, Darjeeling Limited, Detour, Dan in Real Life, Disco Pigs, Devil and Daniel Johnston, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Dark Knight, Days of Heaven, Doomsday, Dexter Season 2, Down By Law, Le Deuxieme Souffle, Le Dolous, Death at a Funeral, Eagle Vs. Shark, The Ex, El Cortez, Eastern Promises, Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Empire Strikes Back, Entourage Season 4, Escape From New York, E.T., Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Fight Club, First Snow, Flight of the Conchords Season 1, Fido, Finding Nemo, Firefly, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny Games, Un Flic, Gangs of New York, Gone Baby Gone, Grand Inquisitor, Gosford Park, Girl Next Door, Great World of Sound, Hell Boy, Hell Boy 2: The Golden Army, Halloween 2007, Hit man, Hunting Party, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanemo Bay, Heckler, Heroes Season 2, Hulk, Hancock, Hoax, Hamlet 2, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 1, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 2, I Am Legend, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, In Bruges, Incredibles, Iron Man, Interview, In the Valley of Elah, Into the Wild, Incredible Hulk, Independent, John Adams, Jimmy and Judy, Juno, King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, Kill Point, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Keane, Kung Fu Panda, Lust Caution, Lars and the Real Girl, Land of the Dead, Long Good Friday, Last Man Standing, Last Starfighter, Little Oddessa, Legend of God's Gun, Lost Season 4, Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Woodcock, Michael Clayton, Mafioso, Margot at the Wedding, Mosquito Kingdom, The Mist, Mulholland Falls, Mad Men Season 1, Meet Bill, Married Life, A Man Escaped, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Meet the Robinsons, Mr. Untouchable, No Country For Old Men, The Orphanage, The Office Season 4, Old Boy, Persepolis, The Proposition, Pineapple Express, Pistoleros, Pigalle, The Prowler, Punk'd Season 1, Phantom Menace, Quills, Quid Pro Quo, The Riches Season 1, Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, Rendition, Rocket Science, Rescue Me Season 4, Rambo, Rambo III, Redbelt, Robots, Ratatouille, Rolling Stones: Shine a Light, Reign of Fire, Red, Shoot 'Em Up, Star Wars, Stroycsk, Snow Angels, Stink of Flesh, Silk, Southland Tales, Strange Wilderness, The Signal, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Shotgun Stories, Shop Girl, Shrek 2, Smokin' Aces, Spider Man 3, The Shield Season 7, Say Goodnight, Secret of the Furious Five, A Simple Plan, Six Shooter, Stop Loss, Shrek, Simpsons Movie, Shadow of Doubt, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Tron, Turistas, Transsiberean, Turn the River, There Will Be Blood, Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Visitor, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, War, We Own the Night, The Wire Season 5, What Would Jesus Buy?, The Walker, Weeds Season 3, Wall-E, You Me and Dupree, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Zoo.

Two things occur to me, looking at this list. 1 - I have kids. 2 - I don't watch as many movies as I used to.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flogging Bishop

I like an exploitation flick as much as the next guy. I say, bring on the vulgarity and gratuitous violence. Make it fast paced and cheap. Take out the dull bits and leave in all the flesh, fluids and effluvia you can. Please, please, please titillate, provoke and disgust me, but there's a level of, (dare I say), quality that I expect from my schlock and sometimes even my low standards are not met. The red band trailer for Hell Ride looked like an exploitation fan's wet dream. It was all guns and bikes and chicks with a pinch of drugs, a dash of rock 'n roll and a generous helping of no-redeeming-social-value. In the end though the trailer was more fun than the actual movie. Larry Bishop stole his single scene in Kill Bill Volume 2, as Michael Madsen's fed up boss and then he stole a couple of cast members - Madsen and David Carradine and borrowed Quentin Tarantino's reputation to get this biker picture made. It fits comfortably in to the mold of Tarantino's new wave of grindhouse fair, but it fails to deliver and it's hard to say exactly why. It looks great - (stylishly bad that is), it sounds good, (Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels provide punchy bookends to the film that also uses Neko Case's Blacklisted for a strip-tease - awesome), the actors have demonstrable charisma and the subject matter is salacious - rival biker gangs murder each other over buried money and murky secrets in between lap dances and "American Beer" - hell yeah. But somewhere between the endless flashbacks, lackluster action and Bishop bagging every broad in the southwestern U.S.A., it lost my interest. I didn't care that it didn't make much sense, or rather, I didn't care to make the effort to make it make sense, and I actually enjoyed the really, really bad dialogue - it takes a good writer to write that consistently badly, (ask Jack Pendarvis), and the lines these guys spit out were just awful and non stop, and the actors played it straight and that's commendable. Even the run time was an ADD friendly 80 minutes. I suppose it all came down to timing. The edits were wrong by just that much, the violence was over too quickly to enjoy and the actual biking scenes just kinda eh. With all that it had going for it, I'm tempted to think that these poorly executed elements were purposely bad and if that's the case, dammit that pisses me off. Like I said, I like some good ol' low brow fair, but if you're gonna make the ultimate joke on the audience you'd better earn that right, (Monty Python's Holy Grail, Funny Games, etc.). To deliver on all the superficial levels and drop the ball in the red zone is just unforgivable. The spirit of the thing is broken. I hope my suspicions are way off, I hope it was poorly executed in all sincerity. The genre thrives on sincerity actually - Death Proof was not insincere - you won't find an ironic frame in a Rob Zombie movie, and damn if The Devil's Rejects aint a haunting piece of movieness. Robert Rodriguez winks a lot, but has the guts to deliver the goods where they're truly needed and if he fails, it's honest and he'll probably have another movie or two out next year any way. C'mon Larry, I'll give you another shot, but if it turns out to be just another prick tease... Oh well, now that my appetite for some serious biker fun is whet, (whetted?...whet), I can begin, in earnest, to anticipate Hogdoggin', the biker themed, semi-follow-up to last year's Yellow Medicine from Anthony Neil Smith. All I know is that Billy Laffite is on the road, on the run and ANS is a sick bastard who brings the goods.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jules's Gems

The climax of Jules Dassin's 1947 prison drama, Brute Force, featuring Burt Lancaster as Joe Collins, a sympathetic prisoner, leading cell R-17 in a desperate escape attempt, contains some of the most fierce and savage imagery I've yet seen on film. It's so raw and angry, it's hard to believe that it came at the beginning of the Red Scare's second wave and not after Dassin himself was a victim. Dassin, who died last year at the age of 96, was subpoenaed by HUAC in 1952, based on testimony from one of the original Hollywood 10, Edward Dmytryk, (Murder My Sweet), and Frank Tuttle, (This Gun For Hire), and subsequently blacklisted. He left America for France in 1953 and though he was not fluent in french managed to continue making influential films, (most notably, Rififi which features the legendary silent heist sequence). Dassin followed up Brute Force with Naked City, Thieves' Highway and Night and the City before getting McCarthy's boot up his ass. Brute Force called it as he saw it, it's an allegory of common men victimized and marginalized by a cruel system, and exiled from their homes. (SPOILER ALERT) I hope that seeing Lancaster charging down a railroad track shielded by the body of a stool pigeon, machine gunning the guards and casting the sadistic warden from the flaming tower into the rioting mass of inmates, in his mind's eye, provided some catharsis for Dassin during the years of Hollywood exile. He did eventually return to the main stream and directed Peter Ustinov to an Oscar in Topkapi, (based on the Eric Ambler novel The Light of Day). Night and the City was remade in 1992 starring Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange with an adapted screenplay from Richard Price, btw.

Friday, January 9, 2009

X Change

Watched X-Files: I Want To Believe last night and found it to be worthy neither of its heritage nor the harsh reception it was given last summer. While any coda would be an improvement over the lazy "remember when?" final episode, (or for that matter final season... or two or three), I Want To Believe is such a non-event that fans and first timers alike will wonder, "Why Bother?" There are zero additions to the mythology, (other than a confirmation of what looked likely by the end of the show's run), and outside of a cameo from Skinner near the end, no beloved, (or beloathed), supporting characters make an appearance. The bones thrown die-hard fans are hardly worth chewing and the enticements for non-enthusiasts to delve into the back story on DVD are uh, there aren't any. But, that is part of what makes it a charming, if curious, X-File. Chris Carter has put a simple, confident thriller on screen without relying on special effects, structural trickery or a single CW cast member to hook you with. It's like a classic stand alone episode of the television series. The question is - what's it doing way the hell out here in 2008-9? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson look, (appropriately), tired. Mulder and Scully don't want to be doing this any more and apparently, they haven't been - she's gone back to being an M.D. and he's gone (barely) underground to avoid prosecution. There's an FBI agent whose gone missing and a defrocked priest, (Billy Connolly), has stepped forward with "visions" of the crime. Are they genuine? ASAC Dakota Whitney, (the always welcome Amanda Peet) is so stuck on that question that she puts out the FBI's white flag for Spooky Mulder to come in and advise. Somewhere in the next hour and a half, Mulder gets his mojo back, (again), Scully questions her faith, (again), and nothing seems to be happenning at all until... well, it does. So downbeat and joyless, so lacking a pulse is this film that when something finally does happen it's like the monster you thought was dead slowly erecting itself in the background of the frame, while the hero cluelessly kisses the girl. It's a great little climax, (if not ending - the movie's end is an unnecessary bit), providing exactly the kind of gooseflesh and jump moments that made the show a hit. Afterward, I wondered why make it an X-File movie at all? Why not make it a stand alone thriller without attatching the baggage of the main characters and making them spend most of the movie sifting listlessly through it? And then I thought, all that X-Files baggage and hype really saved this little movie. Had it not been marketed as the return of Mulder and Scully, it would have been marketed far worse, giving away plot points best saved the end and saddling it with leads we're not likely to care about anyway. Now that the event movie has come and gone, (and boy has it gone), we're free to enjoy it for what it is - a sleepy little mystery with a hot poker of an ending.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Melville's the Mann

I'm officially geeked out for Public Enemies, the John Dillinger picture set for a July release. First, the material is juicy and second, I'll check out anything Michael Mann is helming and boy is he due for a good one, (after the not as bad as it should have been Miami Vice and the atrocious Collateral). Recently, I've availed myself of the Criterion Collection editions of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxieme souffle and Le Doulos and found them to be right for what ails me. They're elegant criminal romances of perfect scale dealing with men, (almost exclusively), bound by codes more timeless than the law of the land, who go stoically to the small deaths and victories they suspect they're destined for. As in his major works, (Le Cercle rouge, Le Samourai, Bob le flambeur), Melville plays with classic themes of loyalty and betrayal, duty and honor, fate and choice with a light touch. He makes tragedies tarted up as cops and robbers popular entertainment, and perhaps that's why I've had such a taste for Michael Mann recently. Like Melville, Mann seems concerned primarily with men conscripted by causes indifferent to time and civilization. They move through their lives with a sixth sense for the society of others to which they belong and with little to no recognition of responsibility or tie to the rest of us. Even their mortal enemy is better known and more deeply connected to them than family or lovers. Both M&M have something on their minds or maybe even their hearts, but God bless 'em, they don't make mopey, self serious, unwatchable statement pictures. Rather, both keep to the cutting edge of their mediums as popular entertainers, making lush and robust movies Joe the Plumber could sink his teeth into. Do yourself a favor and check out Le Cercle rouge before Johnny To's remake, The Red Circle, (with Liam Neeson, Chow Yun-Fat and featuring frequent Melville collaborator Alain Delon) hits theaters, then put aside some time to properly digest Army of Shadows, his recently recovered French resistance masterpiece. And before Public Enemies conquers the world, revisit Mann's Thief, Manhunter and Heat, (the one he was working up to so long - he recycled the plot of his tv movie L.A. Takedown and scenes straight out of previous work - compare Al Pacino's performance of catching his wife cheating on him to Dennis Farina's in Crime Story). Then go read a book or something.s

Friday, January 2, 2009

Kiss My Ass 2008

2008 - Those of us who got out alive are not without our scars and we look with open distrust as 2009 extends its mangy paw. As if it weren't enough to take from us James Crumley, (creator of Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue), literary stepfather to a generation of two-fisted, noir/hardboiled authors like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, (who all claim The Last Good Kiss as the book that cemented their intentions to write what they do), Gregory McDonald, (Fletch), Robin Moore, (and fellow French Connection connection, Roy Scheider), Sydney Pollack, (when he was on he was on - They Shoot Horses Don't They, Three Days of the Condor, not to mention a great turn in the last season of The Sopranos), Charleton Heston, (Major Dundee), Paul Newman, (Harper, The Hustler) and Jules Dassin, (Rififi), 2008 in its last shot at Hardboiled Wonderland took Donald E. Westlake December 31. Westlake wrote something like a million books and screenplays in his 75 years, both under his own name and the iconic hardboiled Parker series, the first of which, The Hunter, was made into Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Payback with Mel Gibson, under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Of all the cheap shots. Westlake has never been out of the HBW conciousness, but with Richard Ardai's Hard Case Crime publications bringing classic Westlake titles like Somebody Owes Me Money, Lemons Never Lie, (a Stark/Parker), and March's edition - The Cutie, (originally published as The Mercenaries), back into print, IDW publishing the first four Parker books, (The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, The Mourner), as graphic novels adapted by Darwyn Cooke and the much underseen, but due for a cult audience Director's Cut of Payback - SEE IT - recently out, he's never been more vital. RIP Don. Kiss my ass, 2008.