Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Posthumous Man: Reviews Are In

My new book, THE POSTHUMOUS MAN, has been out for about a month now and I thought I'd link to a couple of full-length reviews.

Mike Parker over at Crime Fiction Lover says "This is a quick read, but so much is packed in." Connecting the book to my previous novel, HELL ON CHURCH STREET, he notes, "Once again, religious questions predominate..." a point he explores by focusing on the relationship between the protagonist Elliot Stilling and his chief tormenter, and grand inquisitor, Stan the Man. Read what Parker has to say about the book in his five star review here.

At Spinetingler Magazine the Nerd Of Noir writes "Jake Hinkson follows up his head turning debut...with THE POSTHUMOUS MAN, another tightly written piece of nasty Southern noir that's dripping with old-time religion and blood." Read the rest of the review here.

In addition to these reviews, I've gotten some really nice reviews over at the book's Amazon page.

All in all, it's been a pretty good month for my nasty-ass little book. 
 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Films of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li



In the 1990s I was fairly obsessed with the work of director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li. Their collaboration began with the adultery dramas RED SORGHUM (1987) and JU DOU (1990) but I didn’t become aware of their work until the breakout hit RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), which garnered international attention. Zhang was greeted as the great artistic find of the so-called Chinese “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers (the first generation of filmmakers to emerge in China since the Cultural Revolution), and Gong became the biggest star in Chinese cinema. (The two also made a little seen 1989 thriller called CODENAME COUGAR—which, in addition to sounding like a bad porno, seems to have been disowned at one time or another by everyone involved.) 

Their working relationship went on to include the films THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992), TO LIVE (1994), and SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995). After that the two went their separate ways—professionally and personally. Gong enjoys the life of an international superstar (including some roles in American films) and Zhang has moved on to other projects, mostly of the large-scale epic variety. 

Although the two reunited briefly for the costume epic CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that their legend rests largely on the amazing work they did in the 1990s. It was an amazingly creative period for the duo, resulting in a body of work that ranks up there with von Sternberg and Dietrich. 

It’s all worth seeing, but perhaps the best place to start is their most famous film RAISE THE RED LANTERN. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of a young woman (Gong) married off as a concubine to a rich older man. She’s the Fourth Mistress, a situation she’s none too happy with. This sets up a battle of wills between the young woman and her fellow wives and, eventually, with the entire system.


RAISE THE RED LANTERN isn’t so much a historical drama (there’s a lot of doubt about how accurate a picture it paints of its time period) but rather a chamber drama about how one woman attempts to survive in a world that seems to be closing in on her. It’s a full on visual masterpiece—a triumph of cinematography and art direction—but it’s also a deeply moving filming, owing much to the beautiful performance of Gong. 

From there, I suggest going to a much different film, but the one that I would argue represents the greatest achievement of Zhang and Gong, 1994’s TO LIVE. It tells the story of one married couple (Gong and the wonderful actor You Ge) in China from the 1940s to the 1960s. In doing so, it shows how ordinary people endured the massive changes that swept across that country from the fall of the Nationalists to the Rise of Maoism to the terrifying purges of the Cultural Revolution. What works brilliantly here is that the film never misplaces its focus. It never preaches, never needlessly underlines. It stays centered on Gong and You and their children as they attempt to negotiate political winds that are as random as they are deadly. It works, first and foremost, as a drama. The last few scenes—which I will not reveal—are shattering. 

Its political statement may be implicit—seen in the progress of time through the film, the way the bright red murals of Mao fade and chip as the years limp by—but it’s also unmistakable (not surprising considering that Zhang was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, having been pulled out of school and sent to work as a farm laborer for three years after he was deemed in need of re-education). The film was banned in China, and Zhang was forbidden to make films for two years. Today, however, TO LIVE can be seen as one of the truly great movies of Chinese cinema, an essential document of the country in flux through years of revolution and hardship. 

Zhang is widely seen as a feminist filmmaker, which owes something to his preference for female protagonists (even after his association with Gong ended). RED SORGHUM and JU DOU are both dramas about a young woman (Gong in both cases) married to an older man, having an affair with a younger man. These have distinct echoes of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (particularly JU DOU) and owing to the racy subject matter both were both banned for a time in China. These are gorgeous works, with JU DOU in particular being a work of stunning color cinematography—famously, the film was shot with a color process far richer than any one currently used in America, and the colors fit a story of large passions writ large. 

That’s an impressive run of films. TO LIVE and RAISE THE RED LANTERN I’d submit, are two of the truly essential films of the 1990s (up there with PULP FICTION and Kieslowski’s Colors Trilogy). RED SORGHUM and JU DOU are excellent. 

If you want to finish things out, then check out THE STORY OF QIU JU—the smallest, quietest film they made—about a poor pregnant woman trying to navigate an endless bureaucracy in her attempt to punish the low-level government employee who kicked her husband in the balls. It’s an odd film, a comedy of manners that subtly indicts a system that seems almost to have been designed to deny real justice. 

Their last film of the nineties was the neo-noir SHANGHAI TRIAD. While by no means a bad film, it’s still their least substantial work, a film that is beautifully shot and well acted (and Gong looks amazing) but that nevertheless pales in comparison. It seemed obvious that the duo had done their best work.


I suppose Zhang and Gong could be criticized for selling out. (I’m certain this criticism has been leveled.) He decided he’d rather produce action movies and big events like the opening of Beijing Olympics and she decided she’d rather be a rich international movie star. But their work since the 90s hasn’t been without its interest. In addition to his epics, which are fun, he made small lovely films like NOT ONE LESS and the sweet romance THE ROAD HOME, featuring a winning performance by Ziyi Zhang. And Gong has mixed her work in big budget films with work with Wong Kar Wai (the freaky 2046) and Chen Kaige (the wonderful epic THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN). More to the point, Zhang and Gong put in their time together making art films in the 1990s. Those films work not just as explorations of China’s past but, perhaps more importantly (and, in a sense, more genuinely) as documents of the time in which they were made.    

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eddie Muller Hosts A NIGHT IN NOIR CITY on TCM

Film Noir Foundation president, author of many great books (including a couple of great noir novels and my favorite overview of film noir) and all around cool dude Eddie Muller is hosting and programming A NIGHT IN NOIR CITY this Thursday on TCM. Muller knows more about film noir than most of us will ever know about anything, so he makes an excellent guide though a night of great movies.

Here's what Eddie's got in store (with some thoughts on the selection):

CRY DANGER (1951)-topflight thriller starring Dick Powell  (who was also producing behind the scenes) that also serves as a beautiful document of LA in early fifties. Lots of wonderful location footage and probably Powell's best turn as a tough guy.

99 RIVER STREET (1953)-if you can only tune in for one film in this program, make it this one. Easily one of my five favorite noirs. Great cast, great director, great cinematography. I'm in love with movie. If you've never seen it, do not miss this opportunity.  Read my full review of the film here.

TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951)-the best film from the underrated Felix E. Feist (who I wrote about for Film Noir: The Directors). Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman are lovers on the run. Sweet and dark. What could be better?

THE BREAKING POINT (1950)-One of the most underrated films I've ever seen. Should be interesting to hear Muller talk about why this masterpiece has been so overlooked for for long. Star John Garfield's best movie. If you only get to see two films in the program, make this the other one.

More about the program here. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Booked.

There's a fun review of HELL ON CHURCH STREET up at the podacast Booked. Co-hosts Livius Nedin and Robb Olson discuss the book at length. Well-worth a listen, and it may well make you a fan of the podcast itself. Past topics (and/or interviews) have included hard hitters like Matthew McBride, John Honor Jacobs, Benjamin Whitmer, and more.

Check it out at Booked.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Coming in 2013

Below is a list of what I'm looking forward to seeing at the movies this year. I put this together by going to IMDB and looking at its slate of upcoming releases. There will be, I'm sure, a whole heap of films released this year which I haven't heard of yet. I'm absolutely certain that there will be many smaller indie flicks, foreign films, and classics shown in retrospectives that will turn out to be the highlights of my moviegoing year (at least that's usually the case--but, hell, 2013 could be different). 

With all that said, here's the bigger budget, bigger hyped stuff that I'm interested in seeing for one reason or another.   

1. GANGSTER SQUAD: (1-11) The cast is great, it's set in the 50s, and it involves the Mickey Cohen's war against the LAPD. The trailer looks iffy, though. I got a 50/50 feeling about this one.
 
2.  BROKEN CITY: (1-18) Neo-noir with Wahlberg and Crowe.

3. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD: (2-15) I kinda hated the last two Die Hards, but my affection for the first two remains undimmed. I don't expect greatness, but I'm hoping for a decent action flick.

4. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: (3-29). Ryan Gosling in a neo-noir directed by Derek Cianfrance (BLUE VALENTINE). I have high hopes for this one.

5. TO THE WONDER: (4-12). Terrence Malick gettin' all Terrence Malick on Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams.

6. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: (5-17). What? I like Star Trek. Sue me.

7. MAN OF STEEL: 6-14. I'm not a big comic movie guy, but I suspect this one is going to do something interesting with the Superman mythology.

8. THIS IS THE END: 6-14. Saw the red band trailer for this a few weeks ago and laughed and laughed.

9. ELYSIUM: (8-9). There's going to be a rash of end-of-the-earth sci-fi thrillers next year. This one stars Matt Damon so it's the one I want to see.

10. SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR: (10-4). I can't say I've stayed a big Frank Miller fan over the years, but I'm certainly up for a return to Sin City. 

11. OLDBOY: (11-11) Spike Lee.

12. THE MONUMENTS MEN: (12-20) Clooney.

13. JACK RYAN: (12-27) Reboot of the Clancy series stars Chris Pine as Ryan and Kevin Costner as his mentor.          

And a couple of release dates that I'm not sure about:

14. BEFORE MIDNIGHT: Hawke, Delpy and Linklater are back for the third installment of their Jesse/Celine films. They sprung this one as a surprise on the world (a few months ago no one even knew that they were making it). A nice surprise for those of us who love the whole idea of a series of films, shot about every nine years or so, about two people just walking around talking to each other--about life, desire, politics, hopes, fears, and, of course, love. Cannot wait for this one.

15. MUD: Matthew McConaughey stars in this little indie about a couple of boys who befriend an escaped convict. Looks damn good, and I hope it continues the run of fine performances that McConaughey started rolling last year. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My 2012 At The Movies



Let me start 2013 with a final look back at the 2012 I had at the movies.

I saw 44 films in the theater. Four of those films (DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, BERNIE, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, KILLING THEM SOFTLY) I saw twice. As is usually the case, I liked most of what I saw. This isn't because I have unusually low standards, but because I'm not a professional movie critic and no one is paying me to see movies I don't want to see. With one exception this year (THE HOBBIT--an obligation viewing with family) I only saw movies I wanted to see. Some far exceeded my expectations, some let me down, and most were about what I expected. I went to the movies more than most people, but not as often as I would have liked. 

But, hey, this is a new year.

A look back on 2012:

My Favorites Of The Year (let's do a top five)

1.  ARBITRAGE-A full on neo-noir about a hedge fund genius whose world of wealth and privilege is endangered when an accident sends him hurtling headlong into an existential crisis. A great film from Nicholas Jarecki with a career-best performance by Richard Gere. This movie basically sums up my feelings about Wall Street-centered capitalism.

2. BERNIE-Jack Black stars as a small town funeral director in Richard Linklater's tricky-to-summarize-without-giving-away-the-big-twist comedy/drama. I love this movie because a) it brilliantly captures the Texas I know b) it's laugh out loud hilarious, and c) it has profound empathy for a deeply flawed main character. Let me say, I've never been a Jack Black fan, but he is a revelation here--funny, charming, and, in the end, strangely moving.

3. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS-Whit Stillman's oddball comedy stars Greta Gerwig as the leader of a group of college students trying to elevate the culture of their campus. DAMSELS is a movie with an incredibly specific tone--dry and fanciful in equal measure--and I have every reason to think that it's strictly an either you get it or you don't kind of proposition. After deadpan jokes about suicide, the damn thing even closes with a song and dance number just for the hell of it. I have a deep affection for a movie that creates a world I've never seen before and then infuses it with so much wit and joy.

4. KILLING THEM SOFTLY-Well, if you want to keep your self-respect you need to love at least one movie per year that everyone else hated. For me it was this one. Andrew Dominik directed Brad Pitt in a bleak adaptation of George V. Higgins's novel COGAN'S TRADE. A lotta folks found it slow-moving, unfocused, overly violent, and/or nihilistic. I thought it was pretty damn great with wonderful performances from an impressive cast (with standout work by Pitt and James Gandolfini) and a beautifully realized script.

5. SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD-Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley create my favorite couple of the year in this wonderful film from writer/director Lorene Scafaria. The movie was a flop at the box office, but I thought it was just gorgeous. Two lonely people meet a couple of days before an asteroid destroys the earth. I understand that the previous sentence does not sound like a set-up to a sweet and funny romance, but, trust me, it is. It finds a deep core of truth in the realization that all love is doomed. The asteroid is coming for all of us. This doesn't render love meaningless. It is the very thing that gives love meaning.

Biggest Letdowns

1. MOONRISE KINGDOM-I don't know. I just didn't care about this movie. Two minutes after it started, I had this sinking feeling that we were in for the Wes Anderson of DARJEELING LIMITED rather than the Wes Anderson of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and that's pretty much how it turned out. It was a big hit for him, though, so good for him. I just...didn't care about it.

2. TO ROME WITH LOVE-One of those Bad Woody Allen movies where you can see all the usual parts moving but feel none of the intended effects. In that way, it reminded me of MOONRISE KINGDOM. Both were made by filmmakers I value, doing that thing they do that has worked so incredibly well for me in the past, bereft that final magic.

3. DJANGO UNCHAINED-QT's blaxploitation spaghetti western is a fascinating failure. Despite an excellent cast and several entertaining sequences, the film is the first movie Tarantino has made that lacks his trademark as a director--a pure joy of moviemaking. The reason for this, I would venture, is that at its core the film has an irresolvable tension between the let's-keep-the-party-going cinemaphile instinct of its director and the heavy subject matter of the story. In INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, QT avoided the Holocaust. He gave us one brief sequence at the beginning (devoid of extended visions of sadism) and then cut right to the crowd pleasing. In DJANGO, he and his story get buried under the weight of slavery and its enduring injustices. The extended scenes of sadism in the film are the first scenes of the director's career that serve a pedagogical purpose rather than a story purpose. The film seems split between its desire to show the terrors of slavery and its instinct to offer up a Saturday night thrill ride. (This might account, possibly, for why the film wastes Kerry Washington--the rare instance of Tarantino failing to utilize a talented and charismatic performer.) DJANGO is a flawed movie, no doubt, but it is one to ponder.
4. THE MASTER-I need to see this movie again to see why I’m having trouble formulating a response to it. It seemed to disappoint a lot of people, while others felt it was a masterpiece. I admired it, but I didn’t have a strong reaction to it one way or another. It’s probably a good sign that I want to see it again, though.

I saw SKYFALL, THE AVENGERS and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. All three were good and were more or less what I expected. I don't have much to say beyond that point. 

Except to note that Anne Hathaway was the best thing about both THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and LES MISERABLES. She brought spark and humor to the former and real passion and heart to the second. (On a side note: I really enjoyed LES MIS, but Hugh Jackman's voice seemed miscast.)

Oddest Movie I Saw This Year: KILLER JOE. I don't know if I loved or hated this movie. Both?

Movies That Came Out This Year That I Missed In The Theater But Caught At Home: 

RAMPART and THE SAMARITAN were a couple of neo-noirs that are well worth finding. The first stars Woody Harrelson as a corrupt cop and was written by James Elroy, and the second stars Samuel L. Jackson as an ex-con pulled into a complicated con job. MAGIC MIKE was perfectly enjoyable, and featured one of three(!) really good Matthew McConaughey performances I saw this year. I always said he could act. TAKE THIS WALTZ was further proof that Michelle Williams is probably the best actress we have working right now. She was good in MY WEEKEND WITH MARIYLN, but she's simply excellent here as young woman contemplating cheating on her husband. 

That should about wrap it up. There a number of interesting movies that I could talk about (END OF WATCH, CLOUD ATLAS), but I think I'll stop it there. It's getting late, and the new year has already begun.