Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors

I've known John Joseph Ryan for a few years - anybody living in St. Louis with a noir-bent crime fiction habit is bound to eventually find the similarly afflicted to enable their lifestyle - and every time we talk I leave the encounter enriched with a little more insight and bothered by a deeper itch for devouring the literature and film John and I share an attraction to.

John is the author of A Bullet Apiece and you may know his name from short fiction at Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder or The Flash Fiction Offensive. Even though it wasn't written for the series I'm adding this piece to the Picture Books line because it's about both Nathanael West's book and John Schlesinger's film adaptation of The Day of the Locust and you know how much I dig those conversations.


Give it a read and if you like what you see check out his fiction.

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors
by John Joseph Ryan

My dad first introduced me to The Day of the Locust in one of his many points of reference to art I had yet to experience. He recalled either the book or the film. (I’m not sure which.) What made an impression upon me was a grown man stomping an obnoxious child to death. I was a child myself. (I can’t remember how old.) As was pretty typical for my Jesuit-trained father, he did not screen me from much about the world. (He was Jesuit trained in two senses: both a graduate of SLUH and a novice with six years of training for the priesthood before departing their incipient ranks and meeting my mother not too long after.) I can remember imagining the scene as my dad described it—I had not seen the film nor read the book yet. I can also remember understanding both sides: there were some kids in my grade I wouldn’t mind seeing stomped upon by an adult; on the other hand, I felt empathy for the stomped boy and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be crushed repeatedly until dead. It sounded terrible.

I might have seen some of the film with him. I know I have seen the whole thing, but it has been at least twenty (if not more) years ago. I remember the Mexican, Miguel, atop Faye in a sweaty bed scene. I remember Donald Sutherland. And I remember the scene of him stomping, bug-eyed, upon the boy. I think in the film they might have given Faye’s song, Jeepers Creepers, to the kid in order to enhance his annoying qualities. I remember Sutherland’s terrific, crazed, bug-eyed stare as he stomped remorselessly. I connect that look in his eyes in my dim mind’s eye with the final scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which a curly-coiffured Sutherland turns to the camera with those same buggy eyes, opens his mouth, points, and makes a guttural animal croak; he’s been snatched, too.

The image, whether in print or film, of Homer Simpson stomping Adore Loomis is what makes the Grotesque so savagely attractive. Oh, we shouldn’t laugh at that. Is anyone looking? No? Oh, good. Oh, God, that is so fucking funny. That is so dark. That is perfect.

I must have read The Day of the Locust for the first time fifteen or so years ago. I remember picking it up because an older colleague used it in his American Literature class at the high school where I teach, and I had some aspirations to model at least some of my approaches to American Lit on his. The edition of the novel was bundled with Miss Lonelyhearts, so I read them both. I devoured them both, actually. I remember them as being particularly hard-boiled in a mid-twentieth-century way.

The Day of the Locust is certainly hard-boiled. With its cast of misfits, there is not really anyone you can point to and call moral in any conventional sense. Tod Hackett spends a fair part of the book entertaining fantasies of raping Faye Greener and composing his magnum opus, The Burning of Los Angeles. Homer Simpson is a timid, self-loathing time bomb, and when he commits his atrocious act against young Loomis, it is only the target of his violence that is the surprise, not the act of violence itself, coming as it does from such a pent-up palooka as he.

Faye Greener is a femme fatale without the complexities of the classic ones from film noir and the novels of Chandler and Hammett. But God is she alluring, and it is no wonder she has a host of saps doting on her and vying with and bruising each other in order for the opportunity to bed her. That Miguel succeeds is a twist of a punchline, one which her late father, Harry, would have appreciated as a vaudevillian. The cowboy Earle, the bon vivant Claude, the tough dwarf Abe Kusich, are all from central casting, yet each is unique enough to make his the base of his stereotype wobble: Earle really is able to live off the land, but he is unfit for the fast-paced schemers of L.A.; Claude may have a house imitative of an antebellum mansion, but he is a dessicated man, not a Big Daddy, and he can’t handle the reality of cock fighting and true sex-induced violence; Abe, the bookie, displays such tenderness for his wounded red rooster that the cock fight scene’s deplorable violence lingers even longer for his solicitude and care for a bird he has refused to bet upon. It’s the grey, after all, that makes noir compelling, not the black and white.

But The Day of the Locust is so much more. Rereading it now, I cannot help but see the influence of Scott Fitzgerald (who was an early admirer of West’s work); additionally, I realize that West’s novel must have inspired other writers whose own forays into the Grotesque and the Absurd bear, I now realize, a resemblance to Locust.

The novel has two imbedded set pieces, one near the beginning, the other near the end, each a kind of matte cut to fit inside the larger frame of the studio lot in motion and the later riot. The first imbedded seat piece is almost a Great Gatsby knockoff with Tod Hackett going to a house party with Claude, replete with drinking and zooming around in roadsters. Tod behaves like a guileless Nick Carraway in this chapter, making observations and generally staying out of the way. The second imbedded set piece also recollects Gatsby, only this time it is Faye Greener (not Daisy Buchanan, nee Faye, interestingly enough) who is the center of attention; in this chapter, set in the hapless Homer’s house, Faye deploys her sexual energy to a terrifying level that Daisy Buchanan could only pretend to possess with her pose of cynicism. Also like Fitzgerald, West was a hell of a stylist, and one could fill a notebook with his great turns of phrase.

A second literary antecedent might be Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, not only for that novel’s deployment of the Grotesque, but also specifically for its character Wing Biddlebaum—who cannot control his hands—and his connection to Homer, who also cannot control his hands and painfully admits to an annoyed Tod that “ ‘I can’t help it, Tod. I have to do it three times’ ” (chapter 22). In other instances throughout Locust, Tod is analogous to young newspaper editor George Willard in Winesburg, observing the behavior of his outlandish townsfolk and writing about them (while Tod has his sketches of L.A.’s oddballs).

But West’s novel is truly his own, and its unique marriage of the Grotesque and the hard-boiled seems to prefigure some of the later Southern Gothic writers, particularly Flannery O’Connor. In Wise Blood, we have a similar cast of characters. Homer Simpson is a combination of the obtuse (and later murderous) Hazel Motes and the gullible and friendless Enoch Emory. Harry Greener is not unlike the preacher Asa Hawks, whose daughter, Sabbath Lily, becomes a source of attraction for Hazel (as Faye does for Homer). Faye doubles as the prostitute, Leora Watts, who teases and belittles Hazel just as Faye does to Homer (and Tod, in a way, by making him pay for dinner while she smooches Earle in front of him). In both novels, the dark humor becomes laugh-out-loud funny at times, but the seriousness of their discoveries about humanity’s isolation and violence prevent their being mere farce.

Filmmakers have also borrowed from West. I can’t imagine Paper Moon could have existed without Day of the Locust. Sweet and Low Down, Woody Allen’s sentimental flick about a jazz guitarist who falls in love with a mute woman, is the title of a film in production at the studio where Tod works (chapter 15). Perhaps Larry McMurtry had characters such as Earle in mind when he wrote The Last Picture Show. (And if not, the producers of the film version surely did.) Raymond Carver’s short stories, at least those which formed the basis for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, also puncture the myths of southern California and reveal the cynical, deadly side of Hollywood in a manner at least as grotesque as West’s. Finally, of course, where else could The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson have come from? It is too odd a name to be coincidental. Tod even addresses Homer as “Homie” (Marge Simpson’s pet name for her thick husband) in a scene where Homer realizes he has lost control of his own home (chapter 22).

The Day of the Locust may be specific to the disenchantment of Hollywood glamour, and it certainly succeeds there. But is much more. All of America could fall under its indictment. Few native Angelenos populate the book. Harry and Faye are from the East, as is Tod. Homer is from Iowa. Maybelle Loomis proudly proclaims that she is “an old settler” in California, having been there just six years (chapter 19). It may be where Americans go “to die,” as Tod oft proclaims throughout the book. In the novel’s apocalyptic finale, he seems to know. As he returns to his vision of The Burning of Los Angeles, he imagines embellishing the flames he has painted in with the mob he is presently crushed within. In a chilling condemnation, he observes that they are “poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence” (chapter 27). Nearly eighty years after The Day of the Locust’s publication, the United States beset by a charlatan who is not a head of studio but head of the most powerful nation on earth stirring the masses with “the promise of miracles,” surely the violence of this epoch is just starting.

John Joseph Ryan writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder series, Out of the Gutter Flash Fiction Offensive, the Noir Riot anthology, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and elsewhere.  His debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, was published by Blank Slate Press in 2015. John is currently working on a new novel featuring a woman who may or may not have a killing habit.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gaijin Like Me

Took my family to see Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs a couple weeks ago and loved it. Loved the story, the voice acting and the impeccably gorgeous doll-house aesthetic Anderson excels at creating - this time using real dolls instead of getting humans to act like them (no slight intended, I love his live action flicks and the performances within, but they're... mannered - it's a neat trick drawing real human emotions from unrealistic representations of humanity). After enjoying the film I thought I'd take a look at the chatter it was generating and found that it had drawn the ire of some critics and activists for racism/colonialism/Orientalism...

...which is something that didn't once cross my mind while watching it, but as popular a point of critique as it is seemed worth checking out. Skipped a lot of screamy, outraged click-bait headlines before settling on this thoughtful piece by Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed.

Willmore unpacks the film and its place in a long tradition of western film makers making a mess of eastern cultures even when trying to honor them and makes many good points regarding the general mindset of film makers and audiences as decades pass and things stay the same in regards to the western gaze. A really well-written piece that manages to invite discussion and thought rather than provoke knee-jerk reactions of the "shut up and let me enjoy what I enjoy" variety.

That the movie is not mean-spirited should be pointed out, but one criticism specifically leveled at Anderson is that he is not at all interested in addressing these tendencies in his work which... I'm actually pleased to hear because I think there's a big difference between film makers like Anderson and say hired guns who take on big studio projects that will happen with or without them. Nobody else is going to make Isle of Dogs (or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the last thing I want film makers as distinct and personal as Anderson doing is letting their right hand know what the left is up to.

In any medium I want distinct voices as un-self-conscious as possible, free to create without knowing why they want to keep doing that thing they keep wanting to do. I want the art made and released - and then the critics and the audience can unpack it. An artist's sharp edges, shortcomings or pig-stubborn blind spots are often what keep their work compelling, tricky, not easily digestible and fascinating for years to come. I would not be thinking about and interested in discussing the issues put forth in Willmore's article if Anderson had made a different film.

Another sin mentioned in the piece, (which opens up the discussion beyond Isle of Dogs), is relentless use of the trope of white people immersing themselves in another culture and discovering their true nature as they ascend to the top of said cultural ladder until they finally prove to be the best example of its potential. It's... a thing. A thing not limited to white folk, but certainly most commonly represented in films seen around the world. A timeless trope that maybe needs a time out (or at least a tweak) when it comes to big studio film making.
 
The latest example used in the piece is Martin Zandvliet's The Outsider, a Netflix original I watched a few weeks ago starring Jared Leto as an American G.I. who befriends a yakuza member in prison and once outside joins the gang. By the film's end he's a pinky-chopping, back-tattoed, blue-eyed badass among a group of gangsters witnessing the crumbling of their organization and way of life due to weakened principles and corruption, but he stands as a bastion of honor looking toward the future. It's a sharp-looking, but silly-feeling movie that I'll probably watch again sometime for my violent entertainment needs.

The same night I watched The Outsider I revisited one of my favorite flicks that uses the trope - Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza with Robert Mitchum as the American G.I. enmeshed in matters of honor and betrayal between east/west business interests illicit and straight. He remains an outsider, but learns enough to make a key gesture of respect when the time comes... he and his Japanese counterpart are not so different after all. Written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and shot with balls left on the walls action bits, I dig it hard.

And Quentin Tarantino has more or less made a career out of embodying the trope - immersing himself in genre after genre and using its conventions and techniques to make his own bestest version of an Australian hotrod flick, Italian western, samurai revenge saga etc.

Another one of my current favorite film makers best left unconscious is Nicolas Winding Refn whose own yakuza flick seems to have been abandoned or postponed, but who, with Only God Forgives, inverted the trope by casting Ryan Gosling as an ugly American who owns a kickboxing gym in Bangkok - when he's pitted against the real deal though... let's just say it's not a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture. Refn, whose films are often obtuse in a Lynchian fashion, made perhaps my favorite statement about his artistic process and purpose in an interview with The Guardian: "I'm a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it..."

Yeah, nailed it as far as I'm concerned. Like his Danish counterpart Lars Von Trier he's an audacious and talented artist whose work is divisive and an invitation to peer, nay leer, at all the psychic wiring he's exposing and as much as I don't like many of Von Trier's flicks, I hope he keeps making them so that I can further understand why I reject his worldview and sharpen my own.

I wouldn't have wanted Kubrick, Peckinpah or Milius nor do I want David Lynch, Jane Campion or the Coen Brothers over-burdened with commercial viability, or critical adulation either. The more free they are to just do what they do - the richer the conversations I'll be enjoying in the future.

If you're interested in Japanese film makers doing their own thing, but feel over your head as a gaijin like me... check out Chris D.'s Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 and Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film full of terrific introductions, insights and interviews from the source.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

EZ Streets: A Hidden Gem in a Sea of Mediocrity

I've gotten to know (Shawn) S.A. Cosby online through discussions of films and books and through third party accounts of his readings at N@B events and am looking forward to meeting him in person. He brings up films I haven't thought about in a long time or have never heard of and I always take note. A few months back he asked if I'd ever seen EZ Streets and when he described it I knew he had me pegged - it sounded made for me. Since he sent me this piece I've watched the series on YouTube and concur - it's a shame it was cancelled after the first season, Shawn Ryan's The Shield owes it a debt of stage setting and too many programs that attempt to dramatize police fail to follow the examples set forth here in their approach (and then become big prime time hits). 


I'm comfortable saying EZ Streets is both good as it is and a huge missed opportunity for what it could have become.

Today S.A. Cosby is writing about EZ Streets at HBW.

EZ Streets: A Hidden Gem in a Sea of Mediocrity
by S. A. Cosby

When someone bestows the designation hidden gem on a creative work whether it be a movie, a book or in this case a television show what they are really saying is:

This was so far ahead of it’s time and you sheep couldn’t recognize it.

Well maybe not everyone. But that’s what I’m saying.

EZ Streets is a hidden gem. Created by Paul Haggis the man behind dozens of films and television shows of varying quality. Two of his scripts have won Academy Awards but he also created Walker: Texas Ranger.

Nobody’s perfect.

EZ Streets was a crime drama set in an unnamed city so decrepit and disenfranchised it was nearly post-apocalyptic. The grim production values mirrored the fatalistic tone of the show. Ken Olin starred as Det. Cameron Quinn. A good dirty cop who watched his even dirtier partner die in the first episode. Olin was fresh off his stint on Thirtysomething as the emotionally neutered Michael “No my last name really is" Steadman. EZ Streets was a 180 for him and he had never ever been better in any role. This includes his stint as a sexy priest on Falcon Crest.

Joe Pantoliano co-starred as Irish crime boss Jimmy Murtha. After EZ Streets Pantoliano would go on to give incredible supporting performances in numerous films and television shows like The Matrix, Memento and fan of role playing Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos. Pantoliano is magnetic as Murtha. Alternately menacing, moribund and hilarious.

Jason Gedrick portrayed ex-con Danny Rooney. A former associate of Murtha’s at the start of the show he is fresh out of prison after doing three years for a crime Murtha committed. Danny is a quintessential “good guy” in a bad situation. Torn between his loyalty to his wife and daughter and his bond with the fellows from the neighborhood.

R.D. Call plays crime boss and rival to Jimmy Murtha Michael “Fivers” Dugan. He is nicknamed “Fivers” for his penchant for paying off cops with small bills. Call plays the role like a human shark. Cold dead eyes that never seem to flinch. Even when he’s driving a nail into someone’s hand. Familiar face Mike Starr plays Murtha’s right-hand man. Mickey. He serves as the comic relief in most scenes. A nice juxtaposition with his hulking presence.

EZ Streets was in many ways a cinematic television show. It embraced an intertextuality with many big screen crime dramas from the Seventies like Serpico, The French Connection and The Friends of Eddie Coyle while carving out its own unique style. The cinematography was impeccable. The fluid morality of the characters was illustrated with a pallet of cool grays, blues and blacks. Scenes in EZ Streets looked as bleak as they felt. The shot selection as well played like a movie instead of a TV show. Characters were framed in wide shots that gave the impression of sweeping long takes. Overhead shots were used regularly but not ad nauseum. The City was as much of a character as some of the actors.

The dialogue on EZ Streets was razor sharp. No long soliloquies or proselytizing speeches. There were no needless words. Paul Haggis and his brother Ted wrote many of the scripts themselves. Each script had a simple rhythm. Dramatic scene, dramatic scene humorous scene dramatic scene. EZ Streets scripts were like a punk song that only used a few chords. Hard, fast and effective.

In 2018 “inclusion” is a fancy buzzword some hipster likes to throw around to indicate his or her level of “wokeness.” EZ Streets first aired in 1996 with a plethora of women and minorities in prime roles. And these weren’t simple magical people of color roles or hookers with hearts of gold. The mayor on EZ Streets was a troubled complex character with noble intentions and all too human failings. He was a challenging character brought to life by Carl Lumbly in a nuanced and vulnerable performance. Deborah Farentino played Jimmy Murtha’s lawyer and lover. Theresa Conners is the smartest person in the room whether it’s the boardroom or the bedroom. She is a deeply damaged woman who knows what she likes and doesn’t apologize to anyone for it.

So incredible scripts. Amazing production design. Fantastic cast many of them doing the best work of their careers and a moody melodic soundtrack that went down like honeyed whiskey. With all this going for it why did it fail?

Tricky question but I have a few ideas.

1.Believe me I hate this term as much as you do but … EZ Streets was ahead of it’s time. There had been realistic cop shows before - Hill Street Blues comes to mind - but there had never been such a realistic show about corrupt cops before. The central conceit of EZ Streets was that everyone was guilty. There were just different degrees of guilt. There were no good guys. The show starts with Cameron Quinn taking money out of an evidence locker without permission for an undercover operation that goes south when his partner is killed. By the end of the episode we find out Quinn and his partner kept some of the money. Quinn has been sending his partner’s widow $200 a week in anonymous envelopes.

Like I said. Complex characters.

2. EZ Streets inhabited a world of unrelenting realistic violence. While tame by today’s standards EZ Streets still has about two violent acts every five minutes in a show that was sixty minutes long. In the first episode alone, we see a cop murdered, the mayor gets the nail driven into his hand, a man is stuffed in an oil barrel and drowned, a police van is firebombed, and the owner of a diner is pummeled like a government mule. Network television audiences weren’t ready to see such bloody fare as they sat down to enjoy a nice Hot Pocket.

In a post The Shield / The Sopranos / Sons of Anarchy television landscape a show like EZ Streets would be a sure hit. But we, the viewing public, were too fickle and feckless to appreciate what we had the first time around. EZ Streets is that girlfriend you dumped for NYPD Blue because you liked Dennis Franz’s ass. EZ Streets was the one that got away.

A series that has the cojones to kill Rod Steiger in the first episode doesn’t deserve the ignominious treatment it received. In preparation for writing this article I re-watched the entire first season on YouTube. The show is still as lyrical and moving and mesmerizing as it was when I would watch it after I came home from night school. A crime story that crammed more emotional character complexity into an hour than most movies can articulate in a trilogy.

A deeply layered multifaceted feat of storytelling that we tossed aside in favor of the vapid denizens of the Central Perk on Friends.

And Dennis Franz’s ass.

S.A. Cosby is a writer from southern Virginia. His short fiction has appeard in numerous anthologies and magazines including Thuglit, Fast Women and Neon Nights and Crime Syndicate magazine among others. History Slant-Six received an honorable mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. His first published crime novel My Darkest Prayer will be published by Intrigue Publishing this fall.

Monday, April 2, 2018

2017 in the Teens pt. 4


Remember - Atom Egoyan - Very deliberately paced and maybe a hard sell - Christopher Plummer as a dementia-stricken widower on a revenge mission against an Auschwitz guard Martin Landau helped him track down online - but if you can stick with it for a slow first half this thing really simmers and then scalds at the end. Watch for it to seriously pick up about the time Dean Norris shows up. Best thing Egoyan's turned out in a while.


Rhymes For Young Ghouls - Jeff Barnaby - Fuckin sharp crime coming of age story about an Indian girl on a Canadian reservation in 1976 who deals drugs and lives with her uncle after losing her entire family to tragic events. When her father returns from a long stretch in prison and her money is stolen by a corrupt Indian agent she finds herself reconsidering her life while plotting revenge and engaging in efforts to recover her money. Familiar plot elements feel fresh because of the context and the period setting. I could've kept going with this one a long way. Would love to see more of this type and quality level set in this world.

Ruby Ridge Barak Goodman - Featuring a lot of the same footage used in Goodman's Oklahoma City doc this one feels almost like a side-note to the other that became a rabbit-hole too engrossing to keep. And really, I think it's the more interesting of the two (though a third one on Waco would make for a terrific trilogy, sir). I grew up around folks who could easily have been the Weavers - devout and sincerely religious, but not trusting of Christian or governmental authorities - and their tragedy speaks to me on a deep level. Fucking timely doc about paranoid people inviting their doom and the rise of authoritarianism and bumble-fuck bureaucracy. Compelling, terrifying stuff.

The Runaway - David Richards - Based on the novel by Martina Cole this miniseries spans several years of the 60s and 70s in London's SoHo district. Jack O'Connell and Joanna Vanderham play sibling lovers torn apart and brought back together by violent circumstances. Alan Cumming gets to perform in drag.
Shangri-La Suite - Eddie O'Keefe - Mental ward escapees and lovers on the run Jack and Karen (Luke Grimes and Emily Browning) have a mission - or at least Jack does - to kill Elvis Presley. Narrated by Burt Reynolds and shot on an ultra-stylized shoestring it makes the most of its stars' good looks and attitude to produce something at once familiar and fresh. Particularly revelatory here is Ron Livingston as Elvis - washed up and hungry to be reborn performing spirituals in the sequin jumpsuited, mutton-chopped Las Vegas version of the former king of rock 'n roll. I could've watched an hour of outtakes of Livingston/Presley and it was particularly nice to see Grimes in something worthwhile - seems like he's got charisma to burn, but is always the sacrifice on a shitty altar. O'Keefe's got my attention - what's next?


A Siberian Education -  Gabriele Salvatores - Jeez, I haven't been so mixed on a movie in a long time. The story and setting are terrific, but just about every bit of storytelling - from the performances to the screenplay to the mostly bad musical cues - is pretty poor... or tone deaf is maybe a better word. Once in a while a transcendent moment occurs, but generally it's a slog which is a shame because there's a lot of potential in the material. I'd be all for a remake this time.
+
Sleepless - Baran bo Odar - As english-language remakes of foreign films go, this one isn't really terrible, but it still suffers from coming from a superior source (Sleepless Night). Jamie Foxx as a dirty cop in Las Vegas whose kidnapped son is being held in a casino by a gangster whose cocaine Foxx and his partner just ripped off. The action takes place over the course of a single night as Michelle Monohan's IA cop is just one more variable added to the mix of elements. Supporting cast includes Scoot McNairy, Dermot Mulroney and T.I. Odar also directed The Silence and his Netflix original import Dark is on my radar.

Stoker - Park Chan-wook - For his first english-language effort Chan-wook switches up from gritty urban revenge flicks to stately gothic atmospherics from a script by Wentworth Miller and seemingly inspired in part by Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. This time Uncle Charlie is played by Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska is his niece - Nicole Kidman rounds out the creepy family. Chan-wook returned to South Korea for his next picture - the lush period revenge/romance The Handmaiden. Who knows if he'll ever come west again, but I take Stoker and The Handmaiden as encouraging evidence that he escaped un-tainted by Hollywood.

Suburbicon - George Clooney - Rewritten to some degree by director Clooney and Grant Heslov from an original script by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen it plays a little like Noah Hawley's Fargo TV show - like the entire body of Coen work thrown in a blender and then repurposed for an homage - only far less successful. Roughly two-thirds of the movie concern Matt Damon as a man in debt to organized crime figures who conspires with his sister in law (Julian Moore) to murder his wife (also Moore) for the insurance money while the remaining screen time concerns Damon's new neighbors (Kamirah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), the only black family to live in the 1959 idyll of Suburbicon who face relentless and increasingly hostile pressure from their white neighbors to leave. The two parts never quite combine into a cohesive whole and the murder plotline is the one that interests me for this blog and the one I most enjoyed. It's nastier than I thought I was in for, and it's perversely funny too - especially the supporting players. Alex Hassell and Glen Fleshler as the thugs, Gary Basaraba as the Catholic brother in law, Oscar Isaac as the insurance investigator and Ellen Crawford as Damon's secretary are all worth their paychecks. Unfortunately the film isn't strong enough to recommend right out, in fact it's a head-scratcher of a failure in several ways, but if you're a Coen completist you'll probably enjoy spotting bits of Fargo, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and No Country For Old Men in there. Probably worth seeing for Fleshler's final scene alone.

Taboo - Chips Hardy, Tom Hardy, Steven Knight - Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Easter Promises and creator of Peaky Blinders teams with Blinders co-star Hardy (as well as Hardy Jr.'s father) to bring another historical seamy London underworld tale with a lot of familiar elements in a bold new mix. Hardy plays James Delaney a prodigal son, believed long dead, who returns to London when his father dies and upends the lives of his everyone who was counting on controlling the fortune and assets left by the deceased. What follows is a revenge tale, with elements of espionage, black magic, cannibalism and incest/romance. I'll be checking out season 2.

Tell - J.M.R. Luna - In an alternate reality Jason Lee became a big star and nobody thought it was weird. In this one he has to occasionally show up in cheapies like this one to remind us we don't live in an alternate reality where he's a big star. Milo Ventimiglia is handsome and unable to do much with the material and Katee Sackhoff deserves better.

Three - Johnnie To - During a police raid a criminal shoots himself forcing the cops to hospitalize rather than jail him in an attempt to stall for time and give his gang time to set up a rescue. In the emergency room tensions between hospital staff and police run high while the gangster plays them off of each other. It's a bit of a drag setting this one up, but the climactic rescue/shoot out are fucking stylish as hell and while not quite making up for having to sit through the first two-thirds of the run time goes a long way toward galvanizing To's reputation as the most stylish Hong Kong mayhem maestro since John Woo.


Tickled - David Farrier, Dylan Reeve - The fact that I'm talking about this documentary about a journalist trying to cover the 'sport' of competitive endurance tickling on a crime blog is probably more spoiler than I'd want to give you, but holy crap, please watch this doc without Googling anything about it. Save that shit for afterward. You'll want to. Pretty twisted and twisty story.

Top of the Lake: China Girl - Jane Campion, Gerard Lee - Top of the Lake was first screened at festivals as a long feature film and then released as a miniseries on Sundance which accounted for some of the awkward pacing/cutting into episodes, but the second season/sequel is more tailored for episodic TV. It features everything there was to dig about the original (minus, of course, some outstanding characters who didn't survive). The relentless parade of men demonstrating horrendous sexual behavior on the show might seem cartoonish were it not merely an echo of the daily headlines from the most 'respectable' levels of society today. Yeesh. Kudos to David Dencik for bringing the creep big this time around.

Tower - Keith Maitland - An animated documentary about the 1966 tower shootings on the University of Texas in Austin campus. Probably a case of expectations set too high after the heaps of critical praise this one got last year, but... outside of an undeniably cool aesthetic I didn't think this one had much to offer. Probably could've been a kick-ass 30 minute film, but my human connection to the story was lost somewhere in after that mark.

Trainspotting 2 - Danny Boyle - Getting the Trainspotting gang back together without getting much more than a nudge from Irvine Welsh's novel sequel Porno was a dubious proposition, but perhaps fitting to the attitude of the characters to take sudden sideways jumps away from the clutches of expectations. Unfortunately what they ended up in was a film about growing up and taking responsibility for their wayward lives. The best moments are all in the opening twenty minutes including Robert Carlyle escaping from prison and Ewan McGregor interrupting Ewan Bremmer's suicide. Choosing neither to glamorize the lifestyles of junkies nor entirely embrace the general rottenness of the characters so appealing (to watch) in their youth, T2 emerges a somewhat commercially cynical Gen-X Big Chill. IT's fun to see the piss taken out of them, but rather than revealing that piss was all there ever was, we're asked to imagine the possibility of good ends.

Twin Peaks: The Return - David Lynch, Mark Frost - Twenty five years after Cooper was trapped in the Black Lodge his earthly doppleganger senses his time is about up and makes moves to evade the mysterious powers that balance the universe and consolidate the power he's accrued through criminal enterprise during the interim quarter century. Coop ends up returned to the world, but seemingly in another body belonging to Dougie - a corporate drone with a family, a regular hooker and ties to Las Vegas underworld figures. The two Coopers move in concentric circles toward confrontation and Coop/Dougie finds a Laura Palmer lookalike he intends to rescue while killer Bob's nuclear roots are explored - seems to be suggested that atomic bomb testing in the American southwest opened a gateway between dimensions kicking off the whole Twin Peaks saga... or at least that's my months later summation of 18 hours of delightfully, confoundingly obtuse medium-busting audio-visual art from Lynch and Frost. There's plenty here to review and dig into, but I'd be plenty happy to keep going all the same. Doesn't really feel anything like the original TV series - much more similar to the feature film Fire Walk With Me, but perhaps best considered as a collection of vignettes and experiments where questions are far more important than answers.

Ugly - Anurag Kashyup - A celebrity's daughter is abducted from his parked car during his portion of custody and he scrambles to find her while his ex-wife, the police and everybody else treat him with suspicion. Even through the barriers of culture and language some of the black humor shows and by the time the whole sordid affair has concluded - people are dead, nobody's in a better place - we have the sense of having witnessed tragedy the full dimensions of which are just beyond our grasp (and we're grateful for that). Satirical celebrity thriller with gritzly locale and atmosphere and a climax that lands like William Gay's The Paperhanger - oof. Kashyup is a force to be reckoned with.

Very Big Shot - Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya - In Lebanon a drug dealer uses a bakery and then a movie production to launder and facilitate his real business. The mix of gritty crime thriller and show-business comedy doesn't always succeed, but the exotic setting and local color make for a highly watchable film.

Wheelman - Jeremy Rush Frank Grillo is the titular driver for heist gone bad realizes he's been double crossed and spends a frantic night trying to set things right. Ambitious concept shooting the entirety of the picture within or within sight of the car it allows for creative action staging as well as fresh perspective to familiar action sequences and provides a believable way to keep the budget manageable by staying with Grillo in almost real-time. It's not Locke though - there are supporting players including Shea Whigham, Garret Dillahunt and Slaine peppered throughout to keep things lively. That this one finishes fourth in Netflix original crime films of the year speaks to the strength of the argument that Netflix is the destination for the kind of low and mid-budget crime fare that I'm partial to.

Wild Bill - Dexter Fletcher - Bill is just out of prison and looking to leave behind his hard drinking, violence-prone reputation. He wants to be left alone, but finds he's saddled with children who've never really known him and former criminal cohorts who don't want to leave him be. Can he pull it together and pull through without resorting to the roots of his reputation? Probably not. Checked this one out after Adam Howe wrote about it for the Man Out of Prison series and damn, am I glad I did. It's got real heart beneath the marketing angle that seems to make it out to be a slick Guy Ritchie knock off.
Wild Card - Simon West - Nobody really knows what else to do with Jason Statham outside of ridiculous action flicks or comedies that play up his super tough image... but God bless him, he keeps trying to find another angle. This has got to be one of the weirdest attempts to do something else with his bullet-head though. An adaptation of William Goldman's novel Heat (which was adapted once before with Burt Reynolds in the role) about a compulsive gambler who can't stay out of debt and who rents himself out as muscle for hire. It's funny, it's not so funny. It's got action set pieces, it wants to be a loser character study. It mostly doesn't work, but there are flashes of potential here and there that hint at better possibilities and make me want to watch it again just to see imagine what it could have been or what Statham or hell even Simon (Con Air, The Expendables, The Mechanic) West might really be itching to do. Supporting cast includes Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Jason Alexander, Milo Ventimiglia, Sofia Vergara and Max Cassella.

Wind River - Taylor Sheridan - Appropriately moody and invested in its victims, but not really a noir... unless you take into account its fatalism about the populace of the titular Wyoming Indian reserve and treat it as a tour of life in the margins. It's a fine procedural that pulls one of the more hotly contentious moves Sheridan's script for Sicario also did, though this time it doesn't feel as jarring due to establishing Jeremy Renner as the main character early on.