Thursday, February 15, 2018

2017 in the Aughts pt. 2

A History of Violence David Cronenberg - The first of three collaborations between Cronenberg and leading man Viggo Mortensen came at a critical point in both careers. Cronenberg, having take a harder art-house leaning in the 90s and early part of the new century, this was a juicy return to violent pulp fiction that was still a departure of sorts - no sci-fi elements - the horror elements more psychological and grounded in a recognizable reality. This was also the time Mortensen was king of the world if he wanted to be. After twenty years as a supporting player in big movies he had the heroic lead in the Lord of the Rings films and seemed a probable bankable action hero who could've easily parlayed that prominence into a latter career's worth of big movie-star vehicles, but God bless him, he's still using that bankability to get small, (often foreign language) pictures financed. Neither gave us what we thought we wanted, but have consistently given us what we needed. Don't get me wrong - they gave us a bloody thriller and a hero picture, but was it any studio exec's wet dream? I think not. It's downbeat and not in a romantic standing over the grave of a loved one in the rain way. It's got a a palatable revenge climax, but it ain't really sexy and nobody gets out of the situation redeemed. Plenty of small moments reward multiple viewings. Extra credit if watched on VHS. Notable cast includes Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Greg Bryk. Biggest takeaway may be wanting to always order coffee like Stephen McHattie though.

The Horseman Steven Kastrissios - Dad-revenge flick of impressively awful violence. Well-trod territory and not exactly necessary, but hoo-eee did it make me squirm. Took me two tries to get through it in fact. Nasty stuff.

Inside Man - Spike Lee - Denzel Washington's cop squares off against Clive Owen's bank robber for a tricksy game of hostage negotiation. Motives ulterior and positions interior set this one apart from the average smash and grab thriller. Y'know what? Liked this better the second time I saw it. First time I spotted the trick immediately and the title bugged me, as did Jodie Foster's accent, but repeat viewing - it's a fun heist picture that stays out of its own way just enough to work.

Kill Bill vol. 1 - Quentin Tarantino - The superior.

Kill Bill vol. 2 Quentin Tarantino - Still worthwhile, but that 'emotional core of the story' that QT promised Vol. 2 would deliver - doesn't really resonate on any level worth comparing to the thrills Vol. 1's Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves sequence did. Daryl Hannah's Elle Driver gets a hell of a great pair of scenes that are easily the highlight of this half.

Killshot - John Madden - Not anywhere near the top of the heap of adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, but nowhere near the bottom either. This plays it straight like the Leonard films of yore and I suspect its reputation may improve in time as it will be included in lists of not-terrible-movies-of-latter-career-Mickey Rourke or

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang - Shane Black - I pretty much have the following exchange in the back of my mind all the time.,,

Well, maybe you should try to get in touch with him. I got 5 bucks says you could still get him.

Really? That's funny. I got a 10 says pass the pepper. I got two quarters sing harmony on "Moonlight in Vermont".


Talking money.

A talking monkey?

A talking monkey, yeah, yeah. Came here from the future. Ugly sucker. Only says "ficus".

Last Great Wilderness - David McKenzie - Caught up with this one on the strength of Starred Up, Young Adam and Hell or High Water and it's not really in the same league as his best work, but it is pleasingly strange and unpredictable. A slow burn I thought was worthwhile. We can still be friends if you don't.

The Lookout - Scott Frank - Similar to the way Reservoir Dogs sparked a slew of lesser imitations in the 90s, Memento inspired a string of crime flicks with weird plot gimmicks. This one even has a protagonist with memory/cognitive function problems who writes himself notes he relies upon to get through his daily life. It's not bad though. I mean, you ought to give it a chance based on Scott Frank's name alone, but upon re-watch it held my interest better than I feared it would. Jeff Daniels should've had more opportunities to do crime flicks is my main takeaway and for the involved talent's standing against Elmore Leonard adaptations I'd say for Joseph Gordon Levitt: The Lookout > Killshot , Scott Frank: Out of Sight > Get Shorty > The Lookout > Karen SiscoIsla Fisher: Life of Crime > The LookoutCarla Gugino: Justified > The Lookout > Karen Sisco.

Miami Vice - Michael Mann - I'm at the point where I pretty much watch this one once a year and it gets better every time. By now it's just one of my favorite American crime movies of the decade. As with Heat this one is basically a remake of another Michael Mann property with plot, characters and scenes lifted whole-cloth out of previous material (with Heat see L.A. Takedown and the Dennis Farina TV show Crime Story). Yeah, I'm not even talking about the Miami Vice TV show either. Nope - Robbery Homicide Division. Watch Miami Vice and then episode eight of RHD's one and only season and tell me he wasn't just warming up. It's okay by me though - obviously the dude has stories stuck in his head that he needs to get out and keeps telling 'em 'till he's satisfied.

Narc - Joe Carnahan - How Ray Liotta didn't wind up with a best supporting actor nomination for his turn as Henry Oak, the most Ellroy-esque non-Ellroy cop ever on screen is beyond me. This is a towering performance without ever going over the top, he's got your attention without having to shout and hey, Jason Patric you gave your career best here too, but Liotta's presence fucking made this picture. He just kept layering the character till your loyalties were nice 'n mixed. Ever so slightly came undone in the sequence involving Busta Rhymes, but totally forgiven for the rest of the picture.

No Country For Old Men - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - The story of a man who thinks he can take the money, run and hold onto his soul - knowing he's tainted just by association. It's a terrific companion piece to Ridley Scott's The Counselor - about a man taking a slightly more pro-active, but equally cautious toe-dip into iniquitous waters and paying an awful price. Hasn't lost a step.

Novocaine - David Atkins - For years I wondered why this little domestic noir wasn't more talked about - Steve Martin plays a dentist who begins cheating on his fiance (Laura Dern) with a patient he knows is scamming him for drugs (Helena Bonham Carter). He just can't help himself. When her unbalanced brother (or is he really her lover?Scott Caan shows up causing trouble and threatening violence he's further sure his little tryst is going to ruin him, but again - he can't help himself. And when he becomes a murder suspect he knows it's too late to help himself. It's a classic noir set up and it's fun to see Martin in this kind or role, but on revisit I realized it's just not very ambitious and that's both why I enjoy it so much and why it's not better remembered - just a plain ol' crime flick not trying to re-invent anything, just giving the genre fans what they want.

Ocean's Twelve Steven Soderbergh - Gleefully dumb. Surprisingly pleasant re-watch though. Soderbergh is at his best when he's just screwing around and this, while hardly his best, has just enough of that 'fuck it' spirit to enjoy.

Ocean's Thirteen - Steven Soderbergh - Not nearly as stupid as Twelve, so less reason to enjoy. Barely worth getting off the couch for.

Open Range Kevin Costner - I'd be perfectly happy for Costner to spend the rest of his career on projects like this. Nothing subversive or tricky going on, just a straight-forward, handsomely shot, violent western.
Oxford Murders - Alex de la Iglesia - Outside of some nifty overlapping, long tracking shots, there's nothing exciting on the level I'd expect from the dude who made Perdita Durango, The Last Circus, Witching and Bitching etc. on display here. I dunno how the project came together, but I hope Iglesia gets the opportunity to make another English-language project that shows off his nutso energy and chops.

Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant - A teenager who hangs out in a notorious skate park tries to cover up his involvement in the death of a security guard. Once in a while an older director has a proven track record with "youth culture" movies and casting young and inexperienced actors that they have no real business nailing so well - Penelope Spheeris, Larry Clark, Harmony Korine and Andrea Arnold come to mind... whether they make anything narratively engaging out of their access is another question, but with Elephant and Paranoid Park, I'd say Van Sant has found his niche... unless he turns out to be a real pervert I'd say he oughtta keep mining this vein.

Pride & Glory - Gavin O'Connor - Talented cast, a script by Joe Carnahan, my sweet spot type of subject matter and a director with the ability to coax honest and engaging performances out of performers even in silly fare (have you seen Warrior?) still don't quite make this one a winner. I'm sure I'll revisit it again, but for now I just wish it'd been a James Gray movie. Check out the cast though: Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, John Voight, Noah Emmerich, Shea Wiggham, Lake Bell, John Ortiz... shit, I feel like giving it another go right now.

Public Enemies Michael Mann - I stand by this one as my pick for Mann's best of the decade. I don't care if you hate Johnny Depp - it's a beautiful picture - just terrifically shot with that appropriately pixelated digital photography that makes a period-piece feel immediate and vital, which of course wouldn't work if it weren't a Mann picture with the attention to detail given before cameras rolled. Not the character piece that John Milius's Dillinger was, not quite the procedural wonder of Thief or Heat, but an awfully effective portrait of an important time and snapshot of the characters involved in creating the future of big business crime and federal law enforcement. I don't get tired of revisiting this one.

Red Riding: 1974 - Julian Jarrold - Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Michelle Dockery, Eddie Marsan, Peter Mullan, Sean Harris and Sean Bean lead the cast in this Michael Winterbottom produced and Tony Grisoni written adaptation of three novels by David Peace based on the a series of  child murders and political cover up and institutional corruption. Holy shit, is it grim stuff, but I loved this revisit (watched all three films in a day rather than a week) so much I'm sure I'll continue to come back around.

Red Riding: 1980 - James Marsh - Paddy Considine takes center stage this time. Fucking hell.

Red Riding: 1983 - Anand Tucker - If you really wanna see the conclusion, and if you've come this far you really should, this final chapter will fuck you up proper.

Monday, February 12, 2018

2017 in the Aughts pt. 1

American Gangster - Ridley Scott - I'm not really sure what the upside of Denzel Washington as Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas splitting more or less equal screen time with Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts was in the pitch meetings - I mean Washington's return to center frame as a bigger than life crime flick villain after his Training Day Oscar nab sounds like more than enough to bankroll a movie on, and who knows how the all-Frank version of the movie would've turned out, but what we ended up with is really pretty good. Richie's stuff is the lesser half, it's no The French Connection, but still it works (and could work as its own feature). Not sure why this one isn't better remembered - I, for one, would love to see Scott spend the rest of his career on this kind of crime fare - as a fast-working technician he's peerless and certainly doesn't seem to have trouble attracting top-shelf talent - and frankly he can and does get away with making some ballsy calls on big budget stories (I mean who else could've pulled off grim-ass shit like The Counselor on the level he did?). Cast includes Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, RZA, Ted Levine, Carla Gugino, Ruby Dee, John Ortiz, Armand Assante, Common, T.I., Kevin Corrigan, Jon Polito, Norman Reedus, Clarence Williams III, Roger Guenveur Smith and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes. Holy shit.

The Bank Job - Roger Donaldson - Before he was Mr.-all-badass-action-all-the-time, Jason Statham made this odd-duck of a heist picture that managed to be many things at once and none of them at the same time. Far more than the sum of it's parts. Not really sure why it worked as well as it did. Not a show-stopping heist flick, not a particularly street-wise gangster epic, not a kick-ass action spectacular and not a richly-detailed dramatic period piece either. Smarter and funnier too than I had any expectations for - a marketing snafu or puzzle, I suspect. Somehow, less than the top of any of it's respective genres, it managed to be competent at each and fill an unlikely void in the flavor spectrum. Not a hard way to spend an afternoon at all.

Black Dahlia Brian De Palma - The novel The Black Dahlia marked a significant step forward for James Ellroy's craft. At the time, it was his most personal work and his second stab at writing, in a parallel fashion, about the murder of his own mother (Clandestine features a very similar killing). The pairing of Ellroy's psycho-sexual obsessiveness and period pinache with De Palma's track record of kindred material sounded like a match made in Aphrodite's asshole, but yeah, no. Nope. David Fincher was supposedly sniffing 'round this project for a long time with an eye toward turning it into a realllllly long (five plus hour?) feature digging into the dark corners of Dahlia-lore as well as Ellroy's own dark places in an unflinching X or NC-17 rating and while I understand that peoples with monies to invest in film like to see it come back to them, in retrospect it seems petty and small not to have had the balls to follow through with that vision (Fincher moved on to Zodiac when it fell through). A cable mini-series (or shit, web-series now, why the hell not?) has long seemed the natural fit for Ellroy's rich and dense material, but perhaps feeling lightening could strike twice Dahlia was green-lit as a standard approximately two hour feature. No Rollo Tomassi this time. Instead we end up handing Fiona Shaw the thankless job of delivering the gun-wielding, 'here's how I did it and why' speech like the unenthusiastic third money shot in a tired-ass gang-bang. After that unforgivable sin, the list of comparably lesser transgressions include the Eraserhead-esque dinner scene that serves as an introduction to the Linscott family, changing Lee's death into a De Palma set piece and not making it Michael Caine in drag coming out of the shadows and never letting us feel anybody's obsession. It's not without it's virtues though. It looks fantastic - so good, it might make an interesting silent film. Really, write a new script and post it over the visuals... (I'd love to do something similar with De Palma's Femme Fatale - re-dub the dialogue in Spanish or French and subtitle that fucker - it would be a more intriguing mess, I suspect). The shootout-discovery of the body sequence is classic De Palma, and I'm always in favor of casting Mia Kirshner. When I heard she was going to be Elizabeth Short I was very pleased. Really, why she's not a huge star is beyond me. Like many lesser De Palma efforts I enjoy it more with repeat viewings - getting over my old expectations and settling in for what it actually is.

Blow - Ted Demme - Older brother Jonathan Demme gets most of the attention, but I think we lost a real talent way too young when Ted died at 38. Blow was his last dramatic feature, but The Ref and Monument Ave. were early indications of his sensibilities and promise. Both Monument Ave. and Blow fall into the faux-Sese sub-genre, but shit, it's a sub-genre I like. It's pretty standard rise, fall, rise, fall of an ambitious capitalist botanist that follows familiar plot points around, but the real joys are Ray Liotta's wide open big-hearted performance and seeing 21 Jumpstreet, Pee Wee's Playhouse and Police Academy doing coke together when Johnny Depp, Paul Reubens and Bobcat Goldthwait share time onscreen.

Body of Lies - Ridley Scott - Leonardo DiCaprio, the spy, and Russell Crowe, his handler, have ostensibly the same mission - to catch an enemy - but trust between the duo runs thin when methods and priorities differ. Once again I like Scott in this mode and think despite this one disappearing from the public consciousness as soon as the credits rolled, it's bound to be better remembered later. The visuals and editing are top tier, there are several exciting action/chase/violent sequences, the cast are equally workmanlike professionals and even William Monohan's script keeps to the point and stays within the lines (adapting from the novel by David Ignatius). As with the military and intelligence personnel at the center of the story, being employed on a Ridley Scott film usually means you've been through some kind of specialized training and you're part of a team - everybody shows up, does their job and moves on trusting that the job is worth doing and when Scott sticks to this kind of genre picture I think it is.
Brick - Rian Johnson - In 2005 writer/director Johnson turned heads with this ultra-stylized hardboiled detective story set in a high school and concerned only with teenaged characters. Perhaps pitched as John Hughes meets John Huston, it's an exercise in style that transcends mere homage or pastiche and is infinitely more adult than say Bugsy Malone. At the time star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also making a break from his the-next-Chachi image (just to keep making Scott Baio references) with prominent roles in darker material like Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin than his most recognizable calling card of the time as adorable Tommy Solomon on Third Rock From the Sun. In the next few years he'd go on to appear in more crime fare like Scott Frank's directorial debut, The Lookout (as a character named Chris Pratt no less), John Madden's Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot and the titular role in Spencer Susser's Hesher as heavy-metal Mary Poppins before re-teaming with Johnson for 2012's even better Looper as the improbably convincing young Bruce Willis.

Brooklyn's Finest - Antoine Fuqua - Fuqua's David Ayer-penned Training Day was clearly Ellroy informed - even sharing lines of dialogue straight out of Ayer's touch up of Ellroy's original script Dark Blue, but I think Brooklyn's Finest, though it takes the cop action out of L.A. is actually more Ellroy-esque. Consider the three cop structure - Don Cheadle's burning out undercover, Ethan Hawke's desperate family man willing to make a play for dirty street cash and Richard Gere's retiring coward don't share a lot of screen time, but converge with some damned tragic results. While the tone isn't as cynical as I tend to think of Ellroy's (probably only feints at being), it gets to that vulnerable, obscured heart on its sleeve and big romantic gestures that I do often respond to (and acknowledge Ellroy's characters are prone to).

Bully - Larry Clark - Based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze about a group of affluenza-afflicted teens in Florida who decide to murder an asshole. Screenplay by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis. Harrowing and bleakly hilarious. We lost Brad Renfro way too early.

Carlito's Way: Rise to Power - Michael Scott Bregman - Based on the parts of the books Carlito's Way and After Hours by  Edwin Torres that were not covered in the 1993 Brian De Palma film - so set years before Carlito Brigante (Jay Hernandez in the role most associated with Al Pacino) goes to prison - this one, as the title suggests, chronicles his ascendancy on the streets navigating disputes and threats from rival ethnic gangs and police crooked and straight. What it doesn't have in its' predecessor's visual flare department it tries a little too hard to make up for with eagerness, but thankfully those high-ambition jitters seem to work themselves out of the performances and costume design after about half an hour and the film actually grows into something more than a little worthwhile. The cast is a mixed bag of talent Chuck Zito and Luis Guzmán as the only returning members (Luis playing Nacho - not Pachanga - this time) joined by Mario Van Peebles, Sean Combs, Michael Kelly, Giancarlo Esposito and Burt Young. If you're as big a fan of the 1993 film as I am (and holy shit, am I... I am - big fan), you were probably as skeptical of this production as I was, and likely to be disappointed by the way things start out, but stick with it, I think it makes an admirable case for its own existence by the end and it made me wish there were more offering of this level of quality and budget being made.

Chopper Andrew Dominik - Eric Bana burst onto the international stage with his portrayal of Mark Brandon Read the notorious Australian gangster turned best selling illiterate author and he's never quite matched this first impression again. Maybe he's just never had such a meaty role to sink his er, metal teeth into, maybe he's not been working with a Dominik-level visionary and maybe he dropped the weight packed on for this larger than life role and became another handsome leading man type, but holy crap is he great here. Immediately comparable to fare like Nicolas Winding Refn's notorious prisoner biopic Bronson featuring another burst of 'ere I am from Tom Hardy, but as much as I dig Bronson and Hardy's performance, outside of outsized theatricality, I'd give Chopper the edge in every category. It's more frightening, inspires more empathy, is more human and is funnier too. I watch it again every few years and return visits always illuminate more to admire rather than diminishing returns.

City of Ghosts - Matt Dillon - Dillon plays an American conman whose insurance scam is prematurely exposed by a hurricane and he leaves the country one step ahead of the FBI. He's on his way to Thailand to catch up with his partner and mentor, James Caan, who is in the middle of a real estate deal with some scary, sketchy local politicians and military figures. Dillon is instructed to wait for his share of money he has coming alongside the increasingly nervous (and almost always under-appreciated) Stellan Skarsgård. He cools his heels at a run-down hotel run by Gérard Depardieu and populated by western ex-pats, drunks and opium smokers as well as the occasional monkey or python. A lot of the charm of the film is in the scenes in the hotel bar among the odd and broken down white folk managing to still feel superior to the locals. Set pieces including trips to a brothel, a rave and a karaoke bar highlight the beauty of the place, as well as the garish blight the foreigners take with them around the world and the languid unease of the atmosphere is masterfully controlled so that scenes are balanced between wide-eyed wonder, uneasy humor, suspense and sudden violence. Co-writing credits to Dillon and Barry Gifford. Thus far the only feature directed by Dillon and that's too bad. If he permanently retired from directing he'd go out batting 1000. I love, love, love this film for its setting, its themes, its textures and vibrations.

Crank: High Voltage Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor - At the end of Crank Jason Statham's hitman with a heart of mold that will stop if his pulse drops below tachycardia, fell out of a helicopter and landed on the hard concrete jungle of Los Angeles finally, mercifully dead after surviving a day of outrunning rival assassins and assholes. So, sequel obviously. Apparently deciding the outrageous conceit and explosion of gross that was the original was too tame by miles they upped the ante and dropped the panties for a second round with more crass, more ass and way less class. A lowdown follow up so over the top it should be beneath me, but in actuality so up my alley I nearly choked - reminding me that as far as taste is concerned the anus is really just the back of the tongue. I love it.
Death Sentence - James Wan Kevin Bacon's life is turned upside down by a random act of gang violence and takes on a vigilante mission traveling the well-worn path of vengeance, retaliation, escalation, decimation - last nub of humanity standing "wins". Inspired by the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield written (possibly) as a response to the popular reaction to the film version of his earlier novel Death Wish. As with pretty much any kind of vigilante fare it can be read multiple ways and your reaction to it will say more about your current emotional/psychic space than the quality of the project. Is it pulpy fun or disgusting cynicism? Does it represent the best or worst in human character/civil society? Wan creates some visually interesting sequences and the film is stylish and certainly reflects the time but the irrefutable truth this time through: John Goodman is a national treasure.

Domino - Tony Scott - Ridiculous? Over the top? Juuuuust a bit, but holy hell, it's a lot of fun. The opening scene of the trailer park assault and severed limb and shit? Love it. By the end, this one's a mess (a Richard Kelly script, y'know), but it always errs in favor of entertainment value. Going for it: Mickey RourkeEdgar Ramirez, true-ish story of Laurence Harvey's daughter - model-turned-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey - Tom Waits, Christopher Walken, Delroy Lindo and the best use of Three Dog Night's Mama Told Me (Not to Come) ever.

Down Terrace Ben Wheatley - Yeah, Kill List is great and Wheatley's shit gets weirder and weirder, but Down Terrace is the one that first freaked us the fuck out with its weird half-comic, pathetic, heartless tone. Is it a crime flick? A comedy? A horror movie? Do you laugh? Cry? Scream? Yes. Holy fuck, yes. My gawsh it were a muck-up of a crime flick. Just a cluster-fuck of emotions, at once hilarious and horrifying in a mix I still marvel at after multiple re-watches. Excited to see his take on Wages of Fear.

Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg - Naomi Watts plays a London nurse who takes it upon herself to track down the family of a the Christmas baby born to a teenager who didn't survive to meet her child. For clues she uses the girl's diary, but its written in Russian and she seeks out the help of local restaurateur Armin Mueller-Stahl to translate. Turns out the girl was a prostitute imported from Russian and working for him (he's a gangster, we all knew it, but Watts didn't) and her diary includes testimony and evidence that could put him in prison. He's careful how much he accurately translates for Watts while instructing his thugs to keep tabs on her. Vincent Cassel is the hothead son of the godfather, a fuckup desperate for respect, and Viggo Mortensen is his highly competent and much smarter right hand man. The middle and my favorite chapter in screenwriter Steven Knight's London immigrant underground trilogy (bookended by Dirty Pretty Things and Hummingbird), this one is not only the best Cronenberg of the twenty-first century it's one of the best gangster pictures of the last twenty years.

Felon - Ric Roman Waugh - Stepehn Dorff is a working class dude who ends up on the wrong side of a special case of movie-magic-circumstantial-shit tsunami and incarcerated in a maximum security dump where Harold Perrineau runs a secret fight club juuust this side of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and manages not to scream 'Walt!' even once Dorff's cellie is a surprisingly engaged Val Kilmer, a lifer who teaches the nube how to jail. Caught this one cause I was interested in Waugh's Shot Caller - also a prison drama and it somewhat cooled my interest in the latter. Not a waste, but not particularly inspired... I'm not holding my breath, but I think Dorff is going to bang one outta the park one of these days - he's consistently picking projects that interest me.
The Flock - Andrew Lau - Richard Gere is burnt out from decades spent keeping tabs on registered sex offenders for the state. One last thing to do before retiring - train his replacement, Claire Danes. Oh, and follow up on a hunch regarding a missing girl and a member of his flock. Two. Two things to do before retirement. Lau got to make an english language film with western movie stars after his Infernal Affairs was remade as The Departed by Martin Scorsese, but this one wasn't going to make anybody's career. Too dark and glum to be a hit, too dull to make me care. One stand out sequence in a creepy underground sex club though.

Gone Baby Gone - Ben Affleck - Couple months back somebody asked what the modern equivalents to the gritty PI movies of the seventies we loved. This is the one that jumped immediately to mind.

Good German - Steven Soderbergh - Fuckin Soderbergh man. Guy works and makes things work on so many levels. I love this promptly forgotten film so hard. It disappeared from public consciousness quicker than the office holiday party they probably went to rather than tucking into a dark theater for a black and white arty-farty exercise in throwback. Yeah, the gimmick of using time-appropriate tech to create the feeling you were watching an actual forgotten 50s flick got all the press, but missing from the reports was the great news that the succeeded in crafting an engaging, romantic suspense picture set in post-war Potsdam to scratch that Third Man itch. And even more remarkably - Sods got a no-shit great performance out of Tobey Maguire. Cast includes George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Robin Weigert, Beau Bridges and a blink and you'll miss it appearance from Matt Damon (I imagine the pitch for the uncredited role went something like this: I'm looking for a volunteer to break Spider-Man's arm. Any takers?).
Good Shepherd Robert De Niro - Another unheralded, un-remembered prestige picture that I really love. This one about the early days of the CIA is a measured-pace, stately-production that probably reeked of Oscar-bait safe betting at its most cynically perfected, but I forgive all of that for a finale that never fails to sneak up on me and land a heavy emotional blow. Perhaps its failure to rack up nominations and golden trophies for all involved serves to help it stick the landing a modest success rather than an overly-praised disappointment. Dig the cast - De Niro, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, Lee Pace and Eddie Redmayne.

The Hard Word Scott Roberts - Nothing flashy here, no high concept, just good old fashioned criminality from the colony that became a continent. Guy Pearce, Damien Richardson and Joel Edgerton play brothers, partners in armed robbery, are released from prison on a deal brokered by their lawyer in order to hit another payload for the folks pulling the strings - a bit like The Getaway - and like Jim Thompson's book, the wife (Rachel Griffiths) of lead brother (Pearce), has been diligently applying herself to working the lawyer (pre-Longmire Robert Taylor) for her husband... or is it the other way around? Anyway, there're double-crosses and revenge plans on the way. Y'know what I like about fare like this? It's not about the best, the toughest or the most clever thieves, it's just daily-stakes and if those aren't high enough for you, you're not awake.

Heist - David Mamet - Nuts 'n bolts con-man, heist crew procedural featuring the best lines delivered by probably the all-around best performing cast of Mamet's career: Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay, Sam Rockwell, Patti LuPone and the absolute best role ever for Rebecca Pidgeon. You (I) really don't need anything more. Love it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

There Will Be Blood and Almost Certainly Bone Snapping and Maybe Cannibalism: An Interview with S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler may not be a household name yet, but if you've paid any kind of attention to online film talk - especially of the brutally bloody variety (and if you haven't, why are you even here?) - chances are you've heard of his films Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. The former is a stripped down horror/western with Kurt Russell's mustache out in front of a terrific cast of character actors.

The latter is a brutal crime/prison flick featuring a freshly-shorn and never more physically imposing Vince Vaughn. He wrote the nasty and funny Asylum Blackout (2011) and look for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, penned by Zahler, later this year. His next effort as writer/director is the awesomely titled Dragged Across Concrete featuring Vaughn and Mel Gibson as disgraced cops off the chain and out to settle scores.

He's done grungy cop-fare before in the novel Mean Business on North Ganson Street. It's set in a fictitious rust-belt city in Missouri, and as a St. Louis resident, I spotted enough regionally-specific nods and colloquialisms to imagine it an actual nearby locale, but, as with his films, it starts out pretty grounded in a familiar reality only to gradually roll back the curtains on a hell-scape as vicious and rotten as anything John Carpenter (who shot a lot of Escape From New York in St. Louis) or Walter Hill (whose treasure hunting in an urban warzone adventure flick Trespass is set just across the river in not-quite-real East St. Louis) might imagine.

He describes his next crime novel, The Slanted Gutter (not yet with a publisher)as an intricately plotted psychological warfare crime piece with horror elements that made him uncomfortable to write.

As with many of my favorite authors who sometimes write 'crime' (folks like Tom Piccirrilli, Duane Swierczynski or Joe R. Lansdale), his imagination is unable to be fenced in by the rules of the genres he's clearly a fan of. As a novelist his work cover sensibilities from western and horror, to crime and science-fiction, while his latest book, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child is a Dickensian gothic. Even his work as a musician with outfits like Binary Reptile, Charnel Valley and most appropriately, Realmbuilder, seems concerned with narrative and, um, world-constructing. 

One of the things that first draws me to his projects are the titles. They conjure images visceral and specific, so when I spoke to him on the phone in January I asked - do your projects start with a title?

S. Craig Zahler: I have a rule of thumb when I title a piece: the title needs to be unique to that piece and should put in your mind some kind of image. Often the first thing you learn about something is the title. I don't like these watered down, lowest common denominator titles where they maybe add an article - The Hero - or make it plural - The Heroes - to me it just seems like this was the least objectionable title that twenty suits in a room agreed upon rather than something distinct to the piece. Most of the fiction I read, most of the heavy metal and prog-rock I listen to is distinctly titled. I think the most important thing other than the thing itself is the title. So I spend a lot of time with that.

In some cases the title was there before I wrote the piece and other times the title changes as I'm writing because it no longer fits. The original title for A Congregation of Jackals was The Wedding Marshal and I just felt it was a little light after I finished the book. Wraiths of the Broken Land had a different title - at one point it was called The Buried Phonograph which I thought was a cool image, but didn't quite put Wraiths of the Broken Land into your mind.

Dragged Across Concrete was always Dragged Across Concrete, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 was originally Three-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99... the titular brawl does not last three days. I briefly toyed with the idea Two-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99, but to me that sounded weak. I actually do think Three-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a better title than Brawl in Cell Block 99, but it's no longer accurate.

Bone Tomahawk was always Bone Tomahawk and Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child believe it or not was always that title even when it was first conceived by me 21 years ago. That piece has been alive for me in different incarnations for a very long time.

JA: Is it your white whale? Have you been chasing it the longest?

SCZ: It's not so much that I've been chasing it as the character has been alive for me for a very long time. I started writing a novel when I was 23 - a time when, I shouldn't say I was less disciplined - but I was focused on being a cinematographer, learning how to play drums and writing theater pieces. The idea of writing a novel isn't what I was prioritizing.

Around 2005/2006 when I began making a living as a writer when my western script The Brigands of Rattleborge landed me a three-picture deal at Warner Brothers I thought I'd revisit the Hug Chickenpenny character - I thought there was something different about the character that let me explore different creative impulses and world-building than I do in my pieces of... dudes being mean to each other. Albeit in a book where people are mean to a child.

I wrote a script version about a decade ago and the script had chapters so it was already a hybrid a book first - started in '97, but unfinished. Right after Bone Tomahawk I revisited it as a book and about a year and a half ago I cleaned it up and it became the version it is today. It's nice to have it out there in this incarnation - clearly I plan on visiting it as a movie as well. It's a story that has a lot of depth for me and the approach I would take as a film maker is a little different from the book stylistically, though the content will be very similar.

JA: When you've got a story to tell how do you decide whether it's a book or a film?

SCZ: Some of that is determined by the simple question: How can I take this to completion? After the Bone Tomahawk experience I knew that movies of a certain size I could take to completion. I have some enormous science fiction pieces that would likely be gigantic studio movies and I'm not interested in the process of having a lot of people involved creatively in my work with all the compromises that would mean. So the giant science fiction or fantasy pieces are things I'd be more likely to write as a novel unless I could interest someone in it who would give me the proper amount of control.

A lot of it comes from the standpoint of: How can I finish this? As a novel I can finish anything. Movies of a certain size I think I can take to completion, but if I want to let my imagination go anywhere and not be concerned about how I can make it happen on screen such as an enormous horse-slaughtering scene or a three-hour standoff both of which occur in Wraiths of the Broken Land. I wrote that as a novel, but now it's at Fox with Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard. We'll see if they actually make it, but those are people who can get it done because they have all the resources to do it.

For me creative control is far more important than financial resources. I'm okay to live in the house that my creative control has built.

Zahler's modest-scale directorial efforts to date have managed to snag terrific casts of that-guy faces from the highly recognizable mugs of Don Johnson and Richard Jenkins to cult favorites Udo Kier and Sid Haig, as well as future indispensables like Fred Malemed (who's three for three appearing in Zahler's films). And when folks like Michael Paré, Sean Young and James Tolkan show up for tiny parts like a roll-call of representatives from all my favorite films from the 80s, I know I'm watching the work of a film maker to whom detail is key.

JA: You've got a real gift for casting. The collection of faces you put together in your films are terrific - I mean Sid Haig was nowhere in the promotional material I saw for Bone Tomahawk, but he jumps right of the screen in the opening scenes - right down to James Tolkan in that tiny role.

SCZ: I think that was his last role. He was such a sweet man. He was great to work with. It was enjoyable and the thing is once a project starts gaining a certain momentum I'm putting together a cast from all different types of material. With Udo Kier and Sid Haig you're clearly appealing to a certain group of people, and obviously I am one of those people, and then you get a group like Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn and Matthew Fox and everybody knows who they are. I'm just trying to get performers I like who I think are good for the part. It's all different types coming in to these.

Two years ago nobody said I'm gonna go see that movie where Vince Vaughn has a showdown with Udo Kier, but I love bringing them together and seeing the interesting magic that happens bringing together these disparate personalities and just watching them go. It's a lot of fun working with both of them - and they're both in my new movie.

JA: Oh man, I can't wait for Dragged Across Concrete. I love saying the title... With your reputation for loving attention to gory violence (deserving favorable comparison to Cronenberg) that title just... gives me a boner.

SCZ: I suspect you'll like it. One thing I'll say about Dragged Across Concrete, although the title is certainly the most violent of the three, it's the first of my films to get a major release and I'm not needing to tone it down and it will most likely land an 'R' - it certainly has its violent moments - but what's different about this piece is the plotting is more intricate by comparison. This and some of the some of crime stuff I've written recently is more intricately plotted. Sometimes I want a piece where the plot is really simple and just the road upon which the character's journey happens. Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both like that and I wrote those in 2011 and that's what I was doing then.

I wrote Dragged Across Concrete in 2016 in between film productions and it's more of an ensemble piece, kind of like Bone Tomahawk with multiple leads. It's a bit of a different thing. You will certainly recognized the attention to detail with the characterization and lack of a score, but for a site called Hardboiled Wonderland it will be the 'down-the-middle' fit. It's a crime piece that's plotted in that style with little surprises, clues and some detective work.

JA: If you wrote it after working with Kurt Russell on Bone Tomahawk - I remember you saying Dark Blue was a favorite among his performances - will Dragged Across Concrete (ahem) cover similar ground?

SCZ: It's big. It'll be quite a bit longer than the other two. I'm a big L.A. Confidential fan and I enjoy Dark Blue... it can hang out it that sort of camp. Going into I was thinking about Dog Day Afternoon and probably Prince of the City more than most pictures.

Any time I'm writing crime I look up to the picture that's kind of the pinnacle of that sort for me, Sweet Smell of Success which has probably the best screen play ever written. All of that stuff is in there - strange stuff - the thing that it will most feel like is my other two movies, but where the plot is more intricate and kind of core element of the piece with a lot more things in play throughout. The longer running time reflects all the time I'll spend on characterization that I did in the other films.

JA: Certainly your reputation for violence is merited, but there's definitely a character sensibility and sensitivity you apply - I love that conversation between Vaughn's and Jennifer Carpenter's characters at the beginning of Brawl - it really signals that there's more going on than a straight up exploitation movie. The nuance is nice.

Vaughn's character is a familiar type (American flag waiving, straight shooting, jeans and T-shirt) that is often played for a laugh in your average Michael Bay picture or as the whole cast in Logan Lucky - but Brawl took him seriously and portrayed him in a sincere and straightforward manner. Was that a challenge you set for yourself, to take on this character type, that people tend to make jokes about, in a straight forward way?

SCZ: When I'm writing something no matter the medium I'm trying to represent the mindset of that character. I'm not writing to put forth any kind of political agenda. Being pretty much the middle of the road politically and not that politically interested frees me up to write people who are far right, far left, have opinions similar to mine, much different than mine, from a place of empathy and getting in their mindset.

This, to me, is a pretty universal situation where you feel like your place in the world is lost a little bit. I wrote this in 2011 and certainly political elections run on this idea. For me it was a logical motivating thing for this character who's trying to figure out his place - an inherently good guy, but like most people, perhaps everyone, has a degree of hypocrisy in their life. The conflict for him is being uncomfortable with some of the decisions he has to make, but looks at the greater good - and looking at the greater good is the reason countries engage in warfare - the things he's doing may not be nice, but they may be necessary to achieve his objective... it didn't come from a place of 'it's going to be novel to write this character who you're not seeing in Hollywood unless as a buffoon stereotype' it came from a place of 'why would someone who has this moral code get involved in a line of work he doesn't feel he should be involved in?' It's more that than trying to do something iconoclastic. Though I can be seen as somewhat iconoclastic or contrarian, I think if you're consistently doing that stuff, you're setting your creative choices in just supposing what's out there. Where I'm just coming from a place of writing stuff where I understand what the characters are doing and, like all of us, these characters are flawed and make mistakes - they may be terrible mistakes and some of those may be small mistakes. Being almost politically neutral helps me write anybody anywhere and be comfortable with it.

JA: I've heard you respond to questions about 'realism vs. imagination' questions about your work with the statement "It's more important that you ask the question than that I answer it" and somehow that doesn't come off as a dodge. It sounds like you've got something about storytelling that you're onto. Would you expand on that?

SCZ: I say it's more important that you ask that question than I answer it because I have a bottom-line philosophy - and it's a problem I have with all of the agenda movies whether I agree with what they're saying or not (and I agree with plenty of them - so this doesn't come from a place of not agreeing with the point or not being behind the point): I don't want to be lectured to when I'm reading a book or watch a movie. Once something starts getting didactic, and certainly the line between didactic and pedantic is pretty thin, I just feel that the world of the piece starts to dissolve and I just see the author of the piece giving me his or her views and it's just an experience I don't like.

The bottom line with all the stuff I do is first and foremost I want to be entertaining and if it isn't entertaining who cares about the other shit? A lot of people come from a different place where the piece is to make a point, to make a statement about society - to change people's viewpoints or expose a certain community.

I mean... at this point how many people do you think are having their movie nights and talking about the movies they love and they're bringing up Philadelphia? Okay, at the time it was different to see these stars playing gay characters, but it was such a bland, vanilla, no-personality, nothing-going-on piece that it's hard for me to imagine anybody is returning to that movie actually thinking that it's good. Already at the time you were dealing with really good theater that had homosexual characters  dealing with AIDS. Angels in America predates it, so that stuff was out there, but it's something where people felt it was important and it got celebrated, but man, it's impossible for me to imagine that groups of cinephiles are getting together for movie night and saying 'let's watch Philadelphia.'

It existed at a point in time it where people thought it was 'important,' but as a movie I would choose to watch for entertainment it's an empty experience. You can put a message in a movie - there's a subtle way to do it.

So my answer that it's more important for you to ask the question than for me to answer it get to one of the things to me that's important about good art no matter what it is: that the world it creates seems larger than the thing itself. I saw people online the other day talking about Brawl in Cell Block 99 where they were saying "I think before the movie opens this happened or these characters probably have this relationship at this time". To me it's a success if they're thinking about these people and this imagined world and piece of fiction as living breathing things that exist and have their own rules. If it lives on outside the edges of the piece, I consider it a success.

If I explain, as I did to the actors who played the Troglodytes, the origins of the Troglodytes and how they work and how their society functions - the clues are in there, just like there are clues about what happens after Brawl in Cell Block 99 ends, so people can find them or not - it's not like there's a right or wrong answer, it's just what you take from it. If you're still wondering about it, if it's still alive in your imagination that's a level of success beyond just being entertaining for the period of time that you're watching it.

I suspect I'll be bringing Zahler's name up more in the future. Some more of my thoughts on Brawl in Cell Block 99 are here. You can keep up with his various projects at his website. His latest book is Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child. Look for it wherever books are sold.