Friday, October 30, 2015

Obscure Lives, Quiet Deaths, and Noir’s Forgotten Men of Tepid Conscience

Jonathan Ashley is guest blogger at the HBW today. He is the author of two books available from 280 Steps: The Cost of Doing Business - which upon perusal is colored with shades of Willefordian deadpan, and his latest Out of Mercy is a bleakly funny dark western that's drawn praise from Scott Phillips, Benjamin Whitmer, James Reason and fucking Jerry Stahl. No small accomplishment. If you're a reader of HBW you'll recognize a kindred spirit in Ashley's voice.

Obscure Lives, Quiet Deaths, and Noir’s Forgotten Men of Tepid Conscience
by Jonathan Ashley

William Faulkner, violent drunk and consummate man of prose, once observed, “I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is amoral.” Perhaps none but early pulp fiction’s unheralded tragedies better understood this sentiment. David Goodis, the poet of the common criminal, psychic train wreck and hopeless mama’s boy, lived most of his life in Philadelphia where the best of his short novels were set. He signed a screenplay deal after the success of Dark Passage, adapted into what is now considered a brilliant example of film noir featuring a hangdog Bogey opposite a rather tumescent and irascible Lauren Bacall.

After Passage hit the big screen and wowed audiences worldwide, Goodis moved out to Hollywood to complete his contract. His strange, transient hophead behavior - sleeping on couches without the owner’s consent, refusing respectful amenities with the likes of Bogart and Bacall, behaving like a general asshole – won him a severed contract and a ticket back to Philly where, I’m of the studied opinion, he then went on to his best work. In his ramshackle career as a scriptwriter, Goodis only penned one work alone. Some lifeless suit insisted the Philadelphian endure the input and edits of Hollywood yes-men intent on rendering the work softer and palatable to viewers accustomed to formula, hopeful endings, and themes of lesser depth.

The sole manuscript to slide uncut past the studio chopping block was based on the early Goodis novel The Burglar. It was shot on site in Philadelphia and featured, as extras, natives of the same working class neighborhoods Goodis wrote about. The film was shot long after Goodis accepted his long goodbye to Hollywood, and got comfortable telling the truth about the world in which he lived and suffered. Like the screen adaptation, the movie examines the parallels between the common criminal and, say, the upwardly mobile corporate climber that forced Goodis to dilute his own conscience enough to soften his thematic blows:

No law, Gerald would say, could ever erase the
practice of taking. According to Gerald, the basic
and primary moves in life amounted to nothing more
than this business of taking, to take it and get away
with it…. Among the gorillas, the clever thief became
the king of the tribe. Among men, Gerald would say,
the princes and kings and tycoons were the successful
thieves, either big strong thieves or suave soft-spoken
thieves who moved in from the rear. All thieves…

The protagonist’s felonious mentor goes on to point out that the very country that exiled burglars and thieves from society’s mercy was founded by criminals of a moral bankruptcy the depths to which Gerald could not even aspire, moguls and tycoons and politicians who simply wrote laws to justify their plunder and pillage and the spoils that would become the United States, the verdant, lush acres they’d claimed from the Indians. Startlingly, the universe described by David Goodis, Charles Willeford, and various other writers dubbed “nihilistic” in their recurring themes is not all that dissimilar to the world of Donald Trump and Steve Jobs, a cut throat horrorscape where the biggest toy is always granted to the Nietzche-superman willing to wade further into the waters of moral turpitude than his opponents.

Willeford in The Black Mass of Brother Springer, his irreverent study in the detriments of both disbelief and protestant fundamentalism, presents, in Springer, a character who views the world from the same vantage as Goodis’ burglars. And like Harbin and Gerald, Willeford’s anti-hero does not stop with theorizing: he applies his doctrine of rigid skepticism toward every decision he makes, casting himself from the domestic tranquility of a middle class suburb to the rural Florida bottomlands, impersonating a crusading holy man leading a flock of poor blacks fighting for equal rights. Unlike his congregation, the charlatan cares not whether society ever accepts the equality of different ethnicities, whether true Christian love and charity prevails in the end:

I had better play God safe, just like everybody else.
I lifted my eyes above the people… “Thanks God,”
I whispered, “for nothing.”

It’s an ending drenched in pathos and an irony that would’ve impressed O’ Henry and it bespeaks something cruel and cold about the world in which the con man operates, an America in which the only safe passage to success includes chicanery and where a man can’t think of anything to be grateful for even when he breathes free air after breaking every law in Florida.

While these authors seem to ask us to go easy on their flawed protagonists who, after all, are only following the ideals of their society, Willeford and Goodis also point out the ultimate banality of American values. At some point in the stories, both Harbin and Springer essentially forsake true love, or at least the possibility, in exchange for a chance at fortune. And, while both characters realize their mistake and both attempt to rectify, it is too late. One dies. One watches the woman he hoped to betroth walking into the sunset with another man. And both, like the ideals and the moral character and the collective conscience of this allegedly great nation, are lost, perhaps forever.

Jonathan Ashley is the author of The Cost of Doing Business and Out of Mercy. His work has appeared in Crime Factory, A Twist of Noir, LEO Weekly, Kentucky Magazine and Yellow Mama.

He lives in Lexington, KY.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 in Books

The Fever - Megan Abbott - Abbott continues the suburban sprawl leg of her books that began with The End of Everything (though, I suppose you could say it really started with Die a Little) exploring the profound unease and deceptively serene exteriors of the little boxes made of ticky tacky. Maybe though it's more the teenaged protagonist phase of her career that The Fever finds itself most obviously defined by. This time it's paranoia, hysteria and mean girls... and not so mean girls, and boys and sex and iridescent water that probably shouldn't be. Not as quietly disturbing as The End of Everything nor as irresistibly aggressive as Dare Me, The Fever keeps you in an uneasy stasis till it gets tired of playing with you and then the shit really happens.

Flat White - Bob Truluck - This. This a hundred times. Such a terrific and singular voice inside the worn out conventions of the private detective novel. No boy-scout, no hero, not particularly smart either, but too stubborn to lie down and too loyal to his pal to cut and run (but not loyal enough to not screw around with his best friend's wife). This one brings the trouble to your door and refuses to go away when you call the cops. It's got attitude and style to burn and is taking big ol' swings at the plate. Pulp fiction, but far from hack-writing. Get some.

The Guards - Ken Bruen - Ex-garda Jack Taylor funds his drinking by "finding things" and doesn't know it yet, but he's not even to the halfway point of his life's troubles. As the series progresses Jack takes more and more punishment, dips in and out of substance abuse, self abuse and pretty much every other kind. He's not even close to losing the few folks who matter to him and his already tattered faith in the church, the country and himself are yet to be put to any real test. So... a revisit to where it all begins for Jack was a good reminder of the disservice bland TV and  endless sequels can be to a true original. My first reading of The Guards (15? years ago) knocked me on my ass - and it was the fourth or fifth Bruen book I'd read. It broke my heart the way the Brant books did not and I still hold it as a high water mark for crime fiction of the new century... but I think I read too far into the series. This revisit had me marveling at many of the lines, but their impact didn't drop lower than my cranium packing anything stronger than a love pat - they felt too familiar. Which may mean a few things... a) Bruen is so amazing that it doesn't matter what book amongst the Jack Taylor chronicles you start with - that first pass is going to be one of the greatest experiences of your reading career - your eyes will be open to new ways of writing, your heart to new depths of tenderness and your dick to new grades of granite, and everything else is faint echoes and diminishing returns, the lightening got comfortable in the bottle and hung around for too many sequels, b) his influence is already pervasive enough (as it deserves to be) that the style feels familiar, c) it was an overrated experience the first time around or d) it's me who's changed over the last decade. Even lower shelf Bruen is worth a read - they guy's so damn good the peanuts in his crap are fresher and tastier than straight outta most writer's gardens, and The Guards is fucking top-shelf Bruen, so I reject option c right off. I'm inclined to believe it's a combination of the other three options. There's no going back to innocence and certainly the quality of his voice is one to aspire to and has launched a hundred lesser scribes (shit, I'm among them), and he helped raise my bar high enough I now dismiss outright plenty I'd have let slide before. So - if you've not read The Guards, for fuck's sake get to it. But maybe cool out on the sequels - read the first one or two or three, but... for the sake of preserving the power of the first, you may want to quit before you're jaded. And shit - read the hell out of his stand-alones - I command thee.

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton - An undercover policeman infiltrates a secret society bent on world domination and moral corruption. Read this on the suggestion of a friend and while it's not my usual cup of tea, I enjoyed the hell out of the first third (up through the election) - it's full of humor and insight - that combination I'd call captial-W wit - but the allegory got heavy and wore thin once the council began to meet properly in the second third and then the final act got delightfully weird and surreal. Glad I read it - a good palate cleanser, but never going to be my favorite kind of thing.

Nearly Nowhere Summer Brenner - A New Mexico mountain community is rocked by violence and scandal when Ruby, a teenaged girl, shoots her mother's ne'er do well boyfriend, without killing him, and runs away with some stolen money that will definitely be missed. Every bit as unpredictable in the moment as her excellent I-5, Nearly Nowhere is also a fast read, a dark and light portrait of characters living with the immediacy of crime and consequence where people aren't neatly divided into groups like criminal and square, but more easily sorted into survivor and opportunist with a couple salt of the earth types and dark-hearted scumbags around to keep it spicy.

No Brass, No Ammo - John L. Sheppard - This is a downbeat, funny and touching crime novel about absurdities and redundancies in the peacetime army. Imagine if Richard Russo wrote about career soldiers rather than academics and you'd be on the right track. No Brass, No Ammo does have a crime and espionage story that carries the anecdotal passages gently along until things get suddenly fucking crazy. Every sensational moment is earned and leavened by the very human characters, warm prose and real heart. It's funny, sad and one of the best things I've read this year.

Rust & Bone - Craig Davidson - Razor-sharp prose put some punch to brutal character pieces revolving around themes of fathers, sons, fighters, drunks and every stripe of broken down, busted masculinity. It's a thing I like. A lot.
Sensation - Nick Mamatas - I'm trying to imagine Morpheus's speech to Neo in The Matrix set in the world of Sensation where humanity are more or less cattle in the ongoing battle for planetary supremacy between spiders and wasps. The action mostly concerns Julia Hernandez, a woman with a marriage and steady job whose sudden transformation to assassin, international fugitive and revolutionary is perplexing to her husband and to those who knew her best. Some neato structural and narrative voice tricks that sound more sensational and attention grabbing in their description than they actually are - or I should say, Mamatas's employment of writerly pyrotechnics are so smooth and controlled you might trick yourself into thinking you could use them too. You couldn't. Go ahead, try it at home, just don't publish it. For all its far out elements it's a fairly muted tone - I mean, this sounds like it could be a Duane Swierczynski set up, but the tone is makes this a much different book than the Sweerz version.

Sex Criminals: Two Worlds, One Cop - Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky - Holy shit. I love this series.

Shotgun Honey Presents Locked & Loaded: Both Barrells Volume 3 - Chris Irvin, Jen Conley, Erik Arneson, Ron Earl Phillps (ed.) - This one features The Plot, my first published short story in four years? It also features names like Kent Gowran, Keith Rawson, Patricia Abbott, Owen Laukanen, Chris Rhatigan, Alan Orloff and Travis Richardson. A couple of stand-out stories from this collection are Bracken MacLeod's Looking For the Death TrickTwenty to Life by Frank Byrns, and Love at First Fight, a warm up to Angel Louis Colon's novella The Fury of Blacky Jaguar.

Steel Toes - Eddie Little - So pissed that there will be no more books from Little. This sequel to Another Day in Paradise is just as unpredictable and hardcore as the first one. This one starts as a prison novel, then becomes an escape and fugitive odyssey, a weird-ass laying low potboiler, a caper tale and a bit of revenge thrown in. The single wrong step is the immersion into the punk rock scene of the late seventies/early eighties (risks becoming a Forrest Gump-esque 'oh, shit he was at that show too!' alt-history that distracts slightly from the meat of the book). I wish that material had been saved for the memoir we never got. Eddie Little was a hardboiled poet whose junkie thief stories are worth a hundred thousand serial killers, private eyes and hitmen. Bonerjam.

Union Station - Ande Parks, Ray Barretto - The Kansas City Massacre at Union Station in 1933 where armed gunmen (Pretty Boy Floyd among them?) shot the shit out of Jelly Nash's Feeb escort on their way to Leavenworth freeing said gangster from the clutches of the law. A landmark in national crime important for its brazenness and the effect it almost certainly had in getting the FBI more funding and leverage to go after their quarry... Anyway, it's an ambitious, multi-faceted story to tell, and there's a lot names to keep track of, but Parks and Barretto have fashioned the action into a cohesive narrative and rendered it in stark black and white graphics. Beauty of a graphic novel.

Winterswim - Ryan W. Bradley - Beauty and terror in the natural world. Religious nuts. Psycho killers. Damaged children, the next generation. This is a handsome and slim novella that ought to weigh more than it does. Must be something in the prose. I think we read from the same sources.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Carpe Noctem

October again. Time to creep up the reading/watching. Spookify the crime and or noir - or just cross right over into horror.

Here's what I'm about right now. N@B badass Laura Benedict has followed up last year's gothic Bliss House with a sequel, Charlotte's Story (and I'm gonna be at Left Bank Books this Wednesday night to see her - you should swing by if you can). Laura's body of work is full of spooky goodness that you should check out (my personal favorite is Devil's Oven - it's got one of the creepiest opening chapters I've ever been snared by).

Seize the Night is an anthology of vampire tales edited by Christopher Golden and features crime writers like Scott Smith, Michael Koryta and Dana Cameron, horror names to watch Laird Barron, Brian Keene and Sherilyn Kenyon - plus bigtime bloodsucker names like Charlaine Harris whose name is synonymous with southern lilting vampires from her Sookie Stackhouse novels (or True Blood, the HBO series based upon them) and John Ajvide Lindqvist whose book Let the Right One In has become two critically-acclaimed films I can recommend. My biggest attraction to this collection is Dan Chaon whose previous short story collections Among the Missing and Stay Awake are filled with the kind of un-ease inspiring tales that have cost me sleep many times. In this collection he shares story credit with graphic novelist and playwright Lynda Barry on Mrs. Popkin. Sink your teeth into this collection with caution, it'll bite back.

Penny Dreadful - I ran through the first season hiding my eyes occasionally and found myself carried through by the high concept, beautiful look and strong cast, plus a resonant and noteworthy depth of darkness particularly in the Timothy Dalton story line. Season 2 is now available on DVD, and I'm looking forward to checking it out - I particularly want to see what story lines open up with Billie Piper's Bride of Frankenstein and Josh Hartnett's hairy predicament. But c'mon you'd watch it just for Eva Green, like I would.

And I'm looking forward to the completion of the film based on Jeremy Robert Johnson's short story When Susurrus Stirs (from the collection We Live Inside You). The film just reached its funding goal and I'm eager for the finished product, but I'm enjoying watching this teaser - looks promising. More body horror favorites: David Cronenberg, Glenn Gray and Caleb J. Ross - go.

Gabino Iglesias's Zero Saints is available now through the Broken River Books subscription option, but will be available widely super soon. I've heard nothing about the story and content, but the combination of author, publisher and some seriously itchy-skin-making skinny-lady cover art by Matthew Revert have got me primed for Noirvember.

If I were to guess at the flavor of Zero Saints it's giving me vibes similar to Fabrice Du Welz's Alleluia - crime as horror has rarely been this potent . It's a rocker, a shocker a bone-suit boot-knocker chock-full of blood, sugar and sex-magik. Next I'm diving into Du Welz's Calvaire and Vinyan. If they're half as potent as Alleluia they're twice as strong as what you're watching.

Jon Bassoff's wheelhouse was built on an old bone yard, next door to a nuthouse by slave labour subjugated by fire water to house a mind sick with incestuous lust and driven by a fever to out-psycho noir Jim Thompson and out-damnation and brimstone Flannery O'Connor. So, yeah, I'm inclined to get at his brand new one The Incurables when it's released.

Friday, October 23, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks

'71 - Yann 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 performance 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.

The Equalizer - Antoine Fuqua - A mysterious vigilante disassembles the Russian mob in Los Angeles with more than a little panache, but still less than John Wick employed. In an alternate universe Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington will Red Dawn the shit out of their respective criminal US-landscapes and meet in the middle where Dolph Lundgren will be waiting to go all Red Scorpion on em. No, it's fun. Stupid and fun. Best moment: the hardware store First Blood finale is hall of fame stupid fun.

Kill Me Three Times - Kriv Stenders - The Everybody's-an-Asshole-Murder-Comedy is a difficult genre to completely succeed in. The Coen Brothers pull it off with remarkable consistency, but even in their immaculate oeuvre there's gulf betwixt Blood Simple and The Ladykillers. Still, I'm excited when somebody takes a big ol' swing at the genre. Hell, I'll defend efforts like Drowning Mona and Horrible Bosses so yeah, I'm invested in this working out. All to say Kill Me Three Times succeeds across the board and that's a damned rare thing. Which isn't to say it's a perfect film or even one of my favorites of the year - it isn't either - but it's solid and consistent. It's got an impressively large cast with complex inner-connectedness with Simon Pegg at the center as the professional killer hired by one character after another to solve their problems. It's got an appealingly cold heart and true love is no bullet proof defense here which I appreciate. Still, it's not as funny as it wants to be, neither is it as thrilling as it could be. The two elements don't undercut each other as they're want to in most offerings in this genre, they exist in balance, they're just not all-out great either way. If this is your kind of thing, I think you'll dig it like I did, maybe even more. And here's hoping Sullivan Stapleton gets more and better work. After intriguing a presence as he is in small roles in Animal Kingdom and The Hunter and as compelling as he looks in Cut Snake, I believe he's got something to offer. Best moment: Bryan Brown chewing scenery is always welcome.

Los Bastardos - Amat Escalante - The none-too-subtly named dual protagonists Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) and Fausto (Ruben Sosa) are a couple of undocumented day laborers in Los Angeles faced with a life changing choice. The film's main focus is on the grind of their day to day existence and is strongest when it puts us on the street with them - walking forever across the cityscape to hang out for hours bullshitting with other work-hopefuls, waiting for a gig that may or may not come and if it does may or may not pay. But that's a shotgun in the bag they're carrying around and there's off-hand mentions of a special job they've supposedly been hired to do and they could obviously use some extra cash. The opening shot of the film is an excruciatingly long take of slow approaching figures and it sets the tone well. That awful climax we can see coming from a long way away is coming as sure as the sun... but there's some time to kill until it gets here. This one isn't for everybody - it's not a passively entertaining film and it's gonna take some movie-watching muscles to get there, but for those who reach the climax it will leave an impression. On a side note, it's probably got my very favorite cunnilingus scene of all time and a solid performance from Nina ZavarinBest moment: the end. Yeah, no arguing the strength of that ending.

Miami Vice - Michael Mann - I think I finally got it. Third time through and I managed to scrape off every layer of resistance I'd approached the film with the first couple of times. I can finally say this here is some classic Mann. 2nd tier, sure, but solid in an unassuming and unapologetic way. Mann continues to follow his fascination with alpha-males (dudes who do stuff and are good at it and enjoy doing it and can be pricks about it sometimes) and digital film making without frills -except when frills are expressly the point (go-fast boats, haircuts, sweet-ass hardware, mojitos)- and delivers a piece of slick, project your own qualities on the stock characters, grade-a populist fare. If this one were a Melville joint, in French, or just straight up silent, I think it'd help underline how special Mann is and what exactly he's after here (and every time out - who knows maybe Blackhat will take a couple more viewings to get up there). Best moment: the warehouse heist - Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx look like they know what they're doing and I could watch the ski mask reveal Farrell's mustache and pony tail as he tosses grenades on a loop.
Point Break - Kathryn Bigelow - Disguised as a square going radical, radical gone square special agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) infiltrates the So-Cal surfing scene to nab some bank robbers. Instead he accidentally gets radicalized beyond previous athletic exploits by modern savage, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Disguised as a day-glo jock-rock stadium tour turd Bigelow manages to slip some amazing imagery into this flick. If you take nothing else away, sear the picture of tuxedoed Ronald Reagan with a gas-pump flame-thrower gleefully torching the American auto industry -or whatever- into your brain. It's a startlingly boss sequence that's only one among many. Exuberantly macho and over the top, it's easy to see why Point Break spawned so many knock-offs, but even the best of the lesser-thans (from Drop Zone to The Fast & the Furious) only take the undercover cop in extreme sports framework and leave out all the... okay, maybe that is the best part. But nobody does it with the style, the R-rated violence or the absolute commitment to every potentially silly and terrible corner of the canvas that Bigs does. The power-bottom status Utah achieves in the film's central relationship (every time Utah's got the upper hand, he is literally on his back "beneath" Bodhi - Bodhi will express dominance and Utah will makes his choice... Bodhi stares him down and Utah submits and fires his gun, eh shoots his wad, into the air, Bodhi chooses to let the both of them die rather than pull the cord and Utah drops his gun saves both of them by pulling the chute, and in their final tangle, Utah lets Bodhi take him under the waves and finally gets the best for both of them by slipping on the handcuffs when Bodhi is confident he's won) is perhaps akin to that Bigelow held in hollywood thanks to the flick's success (I hate being crass enough to point out the remark ability of a woman helming the biggest balls-out, most enduring, dudliest dude movie of its moment, but there I go - hey, if I really wanted to pander, I'd say something about (vagina-having) Nancy Dowd writing the best, dudliest dude sports movie of all time, Slap Shot, but I'm classy... and I have black friends too... and some gays - I'm not that white guy, okay? Except... I am exactly that white guy that this movie was marketed at, a teenager at the time of its release, and over the summer I showed it to my own boys because I thought they needed this version to be what stuck with them after the (even sillier looking- how is that possible?) remake comes out in December. Best moment: Reeves and Swayze consummate their thing. Overheard in the heat of pasion: "Pull it!", "No, you pull it! If you use your other hand what are you going to hold on with?" Then a rough landing, a literal roll in the tangled sheet and a satisfied "Johnny, goddamn, you are one radical son of a bitch." Sorry, Brokeback Mountain, this is all the cowboy love story I'll ever need.

Rectify Season 2 - Ray McKinnon - Season two of the Southern-man-out-of-prison drama seems to have a slightly better grasp on its identity than the first season did - not uncommon among many of my favorite TV shows (The Shield, The Sopranos, Justified). But it could also be me coming to terms with what it actually is instead of what I thought it might become. What it is: at times scorching, character-driven meditation on life, death, transgression, consequence, forgiveness and grace. Occasionally achingly beautiful, once in a while morally terrifying and punctuated by the odd bit of dead-on humor. What it is not: concerned with getting anywhere in a hurry, willing to leave any detail of a character's emotional rationale un-pondered, giving a fuck what you want it to be. What this means: it's a singular work of long-form television with a lot on its mind and a rare determination to say it exactly as it intends to. It's alternately electrifying and frustrating, riveting and dull, and I haven't decided whether I'll tune in for the third season yet. Aden Young's central performance gains intensity and focus in the second season. J.D. Evermore's Sheriff Daggett has the most potentially interesting role of round two, but doesn't get to take many steps down his path, while Adelaide Clemens and Abigale Spencer's roles feel like they've declined in purpose and interest as well as my standout performer from season 1, Clayne Crawford - all three are given less and less of interest to me to do in season 2. The always and everywhere great Sean Bridgers has a juicy episode that is probably the season's standout, but the Best Moment: goes to Young and Johnny Ray Gill walking through the orchard. It's a transcendent moment of beauty that is worth everything else to get to.

Run All Night - Jaume Collett-Serra - Liam Neeson is a bad guy. His son is a good guy. Ed Harris is a bad guy. His son is a bad guy. Liam Neeson's son kills Ed Harris's son and Ed Harris sets out to kill Liam Neeson's son. Liam Neeson tells Ed Harris not to kill his son and that he's sorry about Ed Harris's son being killed even though everybody knows Ed Harris's son was a bad guy... and that Liam Neeson's son is a good guy. Ed Harris (a bad guy) hires Common (an uncommonly good bad guy killer) to kill Liam Neeson's son (a good guy). I'm not sure why I just sounded so snarky. I actually enjoyed this movie on some significant levels: 1) It's set in a grungy workaday criminal underworld, not  so different from a grungy blue-collar neighborhood - which I gravitate to far harder than say a tale of upper-echelon mafiosos running empires from mansions and shit. 2) It's cast primarily with actors who look like they could've lived the lives they're supposed to have as opposed to have instead of a bunch of twenty-three year muscle/tattoo guys with expensive haircuts who supposedly run a city. 3) It's small-scale stuff. Yeah, the reach of Harris's fingers into the power structure - cops on his payroll, killers on his speed-dial - are plausible and he doesn't feel like he's got bottomless pockets - it very much feels like he's breaking the bank to kill Joel Kinnaman and he's broken up enough to ruin himself over it. 4) The cinematic quality consistently outmatches the material - which lends more weight to all the aforementioned reasons for succumbing to it because to me it suggests the director had a budget, and chose these slums (material, characters and setting) because it's what he's drawn to as well. Fuck it, I'm in your corner, buddy. But the film does have some significant drawbacks: 1) The silly notion that somebody fighting for their life has their humanity irreparably tainted for responding with lethal force - to the point where Batman won't use a gun or, in this case, Neeson will make stupid (and worse - impractical) decisions just to keep his grown-ass-man son from taking a life. It's an overly-romantic notion that clashes with the more grungy, grounded elements and world of the film. 2) Common's hit man is just a little too much the ultimate boogie man badass that again - clashes with the more realistic elements. 3) The action climax - again, you've set up this fairly believable world that I want to hang out in, but you start getting all action-heroey on me and I'm checking out. I like crime movies and I like action movies - but they're two different things and don't often mix in successful ways. So, hey, it's a qualified thumbs up for the first half of the movie and some beautifully shot scenes. Best moment: the cop car chase sequence rides the fine crime film/action movie line most successfully.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Future Movie Nights with the Kids

Triple 9 - d: John Hillcoat w: Matt Cook

Two Step - w/d: Alex R. Johnson

The Boy - d: Craig William Macneill w: Clay McLeod Chapman, Craig William Macneill 

Cut Snake - d: Tony Ayres w: Blake Ayshford

Lost in the Sun - w/d: Trey Nelson

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fargo and the American Tundra of Murder

Fargo season 2 is upon us. Time to find out if the second go-round of the arguably the greatest single season of TV this decade can repeat itself. Viewing the trailers, I'm betting it can. But I'm not waiting. Re-visiting some of my favorite bloody ice and snow crime thrillers to get me in the mood.

You mean like Fargo the movie? Fuck yeah, I do. For those of you who haven't jumped on the Fargo the TV show wagon for the sake of your relationship to the film of the same name and universe, stop holding back. You know the plot and characters don't overlap, right? Tone and a handful of brilliant landmarks tie the film and show together, but that's it. Somewhere a 90s network TV-exec is complaining that the Fargo TV-show he pitched -with an ever-pregnant Marge Gunderson solving a crime every week- has been stolen from him. Fuck off, buddy. Instead of tainting the original, Fargo TV now makes Fargo the feature look like season 0.5 and I can always go for another viewing.

Remember when Sam Raimi's career looked like it might be heading in an interesting direction? Before it got side-swiped by Spider-Man, Evil Dead retreads and other 80s horror remakes? He made a couple of crime films nearly back to back and while I appreciated bits of the Cate Blanchett southern gothic vehicle The Gift, I've got fucking no complaints about A Simple Plan. It's a simple story of good people realizing the 'good' scrapes off that moniker pretty damn fast and they'll straight up murder a motherfucker or three for a little money. It's nasty business.

Of course it's based on Scott Smith's book of the same name and  while his other novel, The Ruins, seemed a far more natural match for Raimi's sensibilities, I think the way it shook out was swell. But I don't have to tell you the book is superior, do I? If you've got the inclination, even after seeing the fine film, dig deeper into the story's dark heart with this one.

Or how about Scott Phillips's debut The Ice Harvest? Never nice to begin with, the small time sleaziness of the characters in this book glistens beneath the frozen surface and when a little heat's applied it all boils over in a gleefully, murdery fount.

Of course this one too was made into a film and while the not-as-good-as-the-book thing applies here as well, it's a pretty solid picture. I remember watching the first season of Fargo and thinking they had to be nodding somewhat toward The Ice Harvest with the frozen heartland setting, the humorous horror and the casting of Oliver Platt and Billy Bob Thornton... right? It's an elegant little film though. Worthy of a shiver in its own right.

If you've not seen Courtney Hunt's Frozen River you've got a no-brainer movie night ahead of you. If you hate the moral condescension of crime fare that goes out of its way to justify this one time an otherwise good person is forced to behave like a criminal then you'll find this tale of honestly come by desperation and crime without apology a refreshing break. Plus, shit-howdy, Melissa Leo operating at the peak of her powers as a single mother who turns to smuggling to keep her family together.

A group of strangers waylaid mid-plot (each with their own) by a storm is a classic setup. Switch out the hurricane of Key Largo for the frozen unpassable roads of John Rector's The Cold Kiss for a hot time in a cold hell. A young couple running away to start a life together wind up catching death in the form of a hitchhiker who hires them to take him across the bleak landscape and dies on them in possession of a whole lotta mullah somebody has just got to be looking for. If they can survive the storm holed up in a lonely highway motel, they just might have a happily ever after. Heh. Not so much.

Feeling Minnesota after being scrapped from a Gulf Coast police force for helping a fella get dead during hurricane Katrina, Billy Laffite is pissing away his last chance at a decent life, using his badge for small time graft and too young pussy, when he finds himself at the bottom of the shit well in Anthony Neil Smith's Yellow Medicine. Like imagine he's the guy in the grain silo in Witness except it's shit raining down on him and it's a metaphor. Bad cop in hell in the cold. I fucking love this book.

Dropping down a tier or two in quality here for sure, but I've got a soft spot for John Frankenheimer's casino heist flick Reindeer Games. It's got a lot of elements I dig - a man out of prison, a skeazy romance, a heist, Charlize Theron in a swimming pool, Gary Sinese with a crossbow and Dennis Farina being Dennis Farina, plus Clarence Williams III, Donal Logue, Danny Trejo and a cold weather setting that I just respond to. Now, what it does with these elements ain't prestigious or even memorable, but I can think of worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

And while we're dwelling on this lower rung I might get over my initial disappointment with Stefan Ruzowitsky's Deadfall and concentrate on the things I did like there, and try to ignore the squandered possibilities of that cast (Eric Bana, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara and Treat Williams fur phuck's ache). Another casino heist, a manhunt, a home invasion, shit it's even got a kick ass snow mobile chase... these are elements I can check out of my head and into a film for.

All your negative reaction to True Detective's second season hasn't cooled my interest - that's how much I enjoyed the first season - but even season one was second place to Fargo last year and I'm so damned happy it's back.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bouchercon '15: N@B, Negroes, Ofays, Bike-Effers and Nacho-Gate

Kicked off Bouchercon with some swell folks doing N@B Thursday night. Eryk Pruitt put on a monster event and emcee Tracey Coppedge handled the surly crew with aplomb. I'd like to see you try to keep Les Edgerton from starting a riot. Check out the cherub-faced gang in the photo. Not pictured above is Tom Pitts whose story put me off shooting up in public restrooms for a couple weeks at least. Ed Kurtz is the handsome fella with his hands clasped in front of him in the front row. He read the story Buffalo Squeeze from the second Shotgun Honey antho - Reloaded. His delivery was fucking awesome too - one of my favorite epiphanies of the weekend was somebody referring to his performance style as "Dirty Johnny Cash." On either side of Ed's head you can spot me on the left and Johnny Shaw on the right. I'm willing to concede a certain physical resemblance - similar height, complexion, and beards - but the number of times I was congratulated by folks on my (his) horse masturbating story read at the event... to which I said, 'Thanks,' while autographing their ARCs of Floodgate - I lost count of.

However, one woman seemed to think I was Joe Clifford? She was deep into libations... Anyhow, I picked up several of these get out of jail free cards that I'd dispense to strangers whenever I'd said anything egregiously obnoxious and say, "I hope you voted for me."

Some of my favorite episodes of the weekend:

N@B - Loved everybody's readings and getting to press flesh with family and friends too long unseen including St. Louis to Raleigh transplant Shaw Coney (St. Louis Noir - Akashic 2016), as well as meet peoples brought together by the pleasures of wrong-headed words. I didn't get nearly enough time with Joe Bass, Sam Montgomery-Blinn, Lana Pierce, Abby Jordan, Lael Hobbs, Sarah Fuller or Taylor Stevens whose life story I want to read in memoir form (incidentally, add Taylor to my list of friends to be judicious when Google image searching for - along with Holly West). BTW - anybody there looking for the rest of the piece I read from, it was an excerpt from a story called The Whole Buffalo which was featured in Needle magazine's very first issue. Soon it will also be available in my reissued collection of short fiction from Broken River Books.

Trying to out-racially-charge book titles with Danny Gardner. Looking very much forward to reading A Negro and an Ofay and the following escapades of Elliot Caprice whose titles escalate beyond the powers of the author of Peckerwood to keep up with.

Sharing somebody else's nachos with Rob Hart. This man can write a book, make a baby and adheres to a shared no-nacho-left-behind code. Just when I thought I couldn't want to cuddle with him any more. I will be reading City of Rose in bed with a large plate of BBQ nachos and thinking of you, buddy.

Swapping awkward fan-boy/girl stories with Steve Weddle and (Absolutely!) Kate Pilarcik. Apologies to Kathy Reichs, Alafair Burke and Lawrence Block, but we regret nothing. BTW - congratulations to senor Weddle on getting a story in Playboy (check the November 2015 issue for his story South of Bradley - further fallout from the events of Country Hardball. I can't be the only one looking at their recent fiction pages - Scott Wolven, Don Winslow, T.C. Boyle, E.L. Doctorow, Chuck Palahniuk, George Pelecanos, Chris Offutt, Robert Coover - and thinking quality like this has something to do with Playboy's recent decision to quit publishing nude photographs next year, can I?) Also telling winding up John Rector and/or Anthony Neil Smith stories with Jay Stringer, Helen Smith and Johnny Shaw. Sometimes it's too easy.

Listening to The Fury of Blacky Jaguar author Angel Luis Colon tell Winnie the Sham Pooh stories. Table mates Soledad Medrano, Ed Kurtz, S.W. Lauden, Scott Adlerberg, Dennis Tafoya, Eryk Pruitt, Nik Korpon, Mike McCrary and Rob Hart were treated to a few stories from inside the folds of the technicolor dream coat. If I hadn't been so on the nod at the time, I'd have spit-taken through the whole meal.

Making a handshake deal with super-mensch Eric Campbell. More on that later, but hey, big congrats to Down & Out Books on all their success, solid work and bright future. Good as always to hang a bit with Sandi Loper and finally meet Trey R. Barker.

Talking to Allan Guthrie. The fuck else do I need to say? Knowing he'd be there was the only reason I really needed to show up. But shit, throw special honors at more personal heroes like Tom Franklin and Sean Doolittle just to twist my arm further. I had no choice, but to cross the country. Plus holy-hell I got introduced to Laura Lippman by Beth Ann Fennelly. That right there is a sentence I've been waiting to write for years.

Stona Fitch sharing a flask with me (and Rory Flynn). It was a special moment, kids.

The conception of Bike Fucker... stay tuned, and brace yourself for the dark corners of the minds of Christa Faust, Mike McCrary, J. David Osborne, Johnny Shaw and probably Stuart Neville, right? Also looking forward to Christa's memoir Human Slippers.

Regrets? I have a few...

Not playing basketball with Scott Adlerberg and J. David Osborne.

Not correcting that lady who thought Seth Harwood was Chris F. Holm.

Not getting Tom Pitts to Fire Wok with me.

Not having one more round with everybody who wanted to.