Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 In Review

I had a good year at the movies. Not as good as last year perhaps, but we can't really blame that on 2011. After all, I spent most of 2010 in Washington DC which thanks to various moviegoing venues including the AFI Silver in Silver Spring and the E Street Cinema downtown is a great movie town. In 2010, I went to the movies 53 times. That year was also notable because a) I got to go to an Orson Welles retrospective, and b) I fell in love with the Natalie Portman flick BLACK SWAN so hard I saw it three times.

So, okay, 2011 can't live up to all that. I 'only' went to the movies 29 times (or 2.4 times a month). I did not have a breakout movie experience like BLACK SWAN nor a once-in-a-lifetime experience like the Welles revue.

But 2011 was still a pretty good year. Herewith I present a brief overview of what I saw and what I thought, with links to longer pieces on selected films. One note before we start: since no one is paying me to see movies I am fairly certain not to like (TRANSFORMERS, et al) I don't see many movies I totally hate. I see lots of movies that disappoint me in one way or another, but this list is largely positive in large part because I only go see the movies I want to see.


1. PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE: Documentary on the ill-fated folk singer. An interesting look at a brave, talented man tormented by the consequences of his convictions and the limits of his own gift. He wanted to be Bob Dylan, but lacked Dylan's ruthless careerism. He also lacked Dylan's genius.

2. BLUE VALENTINE: Came out in late 2010 but I didn't see it until January. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams might be our two best actors and here they perform a heartbreaking duet about falling out of love. Odd that movies so rarely tackle one of the most profound/common human experiences: meeting someone, realizing you are in love with them, and then waking up years later to find that the love slipped away somewhere in the past. A triumph for writer/director Derek Cianfrance.

3. THE KING'S SPEECH: Another 2010 holdover. You know what it's about already, an English guy with a stutter. Everyone is good here, but really, honestly, who cares? I suspect this is the kind of prestige drama that will be largely forgotten in ten years.

4. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU: Not much to say here either. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt chased by angels with hats. It's entertaining in its set-up and then quickly loses momentum and guts. The ending is so watered down it's spongy. One bright spot: Damon and Blunt have real chemistry. Look at the scene of them meeting for the first time. Someone should put these two in a real movie.

5. DOLLY PARTON, MA MERE, ET MOI-Saw this movie in Montreal in a theater that showed everything in French without English subtitles. I don't speak French. The movie is about a girl who thinks Dolly Parton might be her mom. Did I mention I don't speak French? Still, this movie experience made for an interesting point of comparison with the new silent film THE ARTIST. While I undoubtedly missed certain nuances conveyed in the French dialog, I still followed this film remarkably well and found it moving and funny. A fun experiment in filmgoing.

6. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert fight and flirt and fall in love and talk really, really fast. In some ways, this is the romantic comedy by which all others are judged. Seeing it on the big screen, it's clear why. With this film Capra basically created the cinematic template that people are still ripping off. Plus, it holds up obscenely well.

7. JANE EYRE: I loved Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of the overdone Bronte novel. The whole thing is a joy but the secret weapons are the fine performances by Michael Fassbender and, especially, the luminous, fragile, powerful Mia Wasikowska.

8. and 9. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: Saw this one twice. And why not? After last year's soul-deadening YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, Woody Allen came waltzing back with this paper-light confection of joy. Owen Wilson stumbles into a portal in time that sends him back to Paris in the twenties to hang out with the Lost Generation. Plays like one of Allen's short New Yorker pieces. How can you not love that? Also has Rachel McAdams being mean, which is topped in sexiness only by Marion Cotillard being sad and sweet. If you like Woody Allen, then this is hard to resist.

10. THE TREE OF LIFE: Poetry in motion. Read my full review.

11. and 12. GREEN LANTERN and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Comic book adaptations of two comic books I loved as a kid. The first is okay, the second is very good. Read my full review.

13. BRIDESMAIDS: Kristen Wiig cowrote and stars in this comedy, so it's interesting to notice how screwed up, lonely, almost pathetic her character is in it. The genius of the film--besides just being hilarious at an impressively constant clip--is that it locates its comedy in the tension between good emotions (friendship, love, devotion) and bad emotions (self-pity, resentment, anger) without shortchanging either.

14. BEGINNERS: This might have been my favorite movie of the year. It's certainly one of the most delightful. Odd then that it's about both death and the feeling of parental abandonment. Christopher Plummer plays an elderly widower who makes the self-realization late in life that he is gay. Ewan McGregor plays his son, a man who loves his father but is resentful that he grew up in a sterile home, a home where he had to watch his mother spend her life in a passionless marriage. Witty and tragic, this is the kind of movie that stuns you with how smartly it handles the tricky subject of the various kinds of pain caused by love.

15. THE FUTURE: I said I don't go see many movies that I hate, but here's the closest I came this year. After making a stunningly good first film with YOU ME AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, writer/director/star Miranda July makes a stunningly bad second film. Forced whimsy in an arranged marriage with grating melancholia. Blah.

16. DRIVE: The year of Gosling continues with this postmodern crime gem. See my full review.

17. HIGHER GROUND: Flawed but heartfelt look at the "Jesus Freak" movement in the 1970s. See my full review.

18. MONEYBALL: Brad Pitt spends millions of dollars to hire guys to hit and catch and throw baseballs. But not as many millions as other guys do. Not too sure what the message is here, or why we should really care, but this is a pretty entertaining movie nevertheless. Snappy script by Aaron Sorkin helps.

19. THE IDES OF MARCH: Gosling again, this time with George Clooney in a backroom political drama. Not a great film despite the presence of a lot of great talent, due in part to the script's predicable twists and rather pedestrian revelations about the corrupting power of politics.

20. WEEKEND: Two guys meet, hook up, spend a couple days hanging out and having sex and maybe sorta falling in love before they part ways. Sweet, sexy, observant take on the ways we drift briefly through the lives of other people via romance.

21. TAKE SHELTER: Of any movie on this list, I think this is the one I'm most eager to see again. Michael Shannon gives what might be my favorite performance of the year as a man haunted by dreams of a coming storm. Writer/director Jeff Nichols puts his finger on a certain strain of religiously-suffused American paranoia. This one stays with you.

22. J. EDGAR: Clint and Leo take on the most famous bureaucrat in history. See my full review.

23. MARGIN CALL: A big cast take on the financial crisis in this drama from J.C. Chandor. Despite good performances and tight direction, this has Stanley Kramer's Disease--that built-in "topical movie" feel that you sometimes get from films that want to make statements about big issues of the day.

24. THE DESCENDANTS: George Clooney navigates family life in this Alexander Payne drama. Read my full review.

25. MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN: I said earlier that Michelle Williams is one of our best actors. She proves it again with her sad and sweet performance as Marilyn Monroe, everyone's favorite doomed beauty. The movie itself is lightweight, reminding me a little of those old Movie Of Week flicks about the private sufferings of rich, famous people. But something in Williams' performance sticks around and, perhaps more importantly, makes you want to revisit the real Monroe.

26. YOUNG ADULT: Gotta love a romantic comedy about love turning to shit and life falling apart. Actually, this movie isn't a romantic comedy at all, but it works like an acid-spewing critique of those movies. (I like those movies, btw, but I also like acid-spewing critiques.) Luckily, everyone here gets what kind of movie they're making, from the biting script of Diablo Cody and synced-up direction of Jason Reitman, to the fearless performances of Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.

27. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE--GHOST PROTOCOL: Lots of fights and shit blowing up. Which is what I wanted. Saw this one at the IMAX where Tom Cruise's now legendary real life scaling of the tallest building in the world pretty much stopped the show. The show keeps going after that scene, though, which makes the last half of the movie a little tedious.

28. SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS: If you liked the first movie, which I did, you will probably like this movie. It is more of the same, which is both its virtue and chief flaw. The first film reinvented Holmes as a big budget superhero. This one recycles that invention for a sequel.

29. THE ARTIST: This is a silent film from the French director Michel Hazanavicius and it is a full-on triumph of black and white cinematography, choreography, acting, and directing. It tells the story of a big silent film star (played with dash and dazzle by the charismatic Jean Dujardin) who is waylaid by the invention of movie sound right about the time that his beautiful discovery (the effervescent Berenice Bejo) shoots to stardom in talkies. What a mad invention this movie is, a silent film that is both a tribute to a now archaic art and a vivid, hilarious, swooning reminder that silent moving images are still the foundation of the art form known as cinema. An excellent way to round out my year at the movies.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hard Bite & Other Stories by Anonymous-9

Everyone knows we're living through seismic changes in the world of book publishing. As someone who is coming into the business at this uncertain time, I'm fascinated to watch as the business itself keeps morphing in front of my eyes. The internet and the subsequent rise of Amazon have fundamentally altered an industry that a generation ago seemed rock solid.

Now look at us. In the last twenty years, book buying has become more and more of an electronic process. This is even more the case for short stories. In the old days, stories were a bread and butter operation. "Serious" writers like Faulkner and Hemingway wrote stories for magazines because that work paid more (and paid at a steadier clip) than writing dense modernist novels. Pulp writers also pounded out stories for magazines at an astounding clip to help pay the bills.

Those days are all but gone. The number of print venues for short fiction, overtly literary or straight pulp, shrinks every year. Fewer short story collections are published every year.

But what about online? In some ways, getting published has never been easier. Amazon makes self-publishing e-books a simple matter. The Kindle and other e-readers make the purchase of cheap, short fiction more accessible than it has ever been before.

Where is all this change taking us? That's the billion dollar question that writers, readers and publishers are eager to see answered. For now, it is interesting to stop and notice how the internet is altering the way some voices are coming through the ether.

Take Anonymous-9. Here's a writer I've been conscious of for a while now. She's one of those people who keeps popping up as you travel through the world of online crime fiction. Her writing is always lean and hard and a little weird. Or a lot weird. This is a writer whose most well known story (and winner of Spinetingler's Best Short Story on the web 2008 award) is an oddly touching story about a killer monkey.

Anonymous-9's first collection of stories is a e-book called Hard Bite & Other Stories. This collection of noir, horror, and dark humor stories is exactly the kind of thing that might take a while (or forever) to make its way through the usual print publishing channels. A9 is heroically unwilling to tell the same story twice. (Hell, she even seems a little resistant to the idea of working in the same genre twice.) Yet a distinctive voice comes out of this oddball assemblage of crackpots, broken souls, zombies, cannibals, and monkeys.

At the heart of almost all her work is A9's empathy for her characters. When you read her, you know you're in the hands of someone who has done the hard dramatic work of imagining her way into another life. My favorite story in the collection is a moving piece of neo-noir called "Tequila Spike" about a lonely convenience store clerk named Bebbie who becomes obsessed with a couple of regular customers, a druggie mother with a cute kid. The key here--as it is in many of these stories--is A9's control of the voice of her narrators. Listen as Bebbie evaluates herself: "I'm glad men don't notice me. Mousey brown hair, tied back...My store apron doesn't help my figure much. It bunches up and cuts me in two, like a bed pillow tied in the middle. But...they didn't hire me for looks. I make the cash work out, end of every day."

Or listen to Bebbie explain why she prays for the kid: "I pray at night, even though I don’t really believe in it. Please help me come up with something. Please, please don’t let the kid get hurt. You have to understand; I never had a kid in my life before. I hear prayers get answered sometimes, and I figure it’s probably like playing the lottery. If you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win. So I pray anyway, for Chloe."

You hear a lot in that voice, the voice of a woman who has subsumed her feminine identity and replaced it with wage-slave exhaustion until she meets a kid who sparks her maternal instincts. Once Bebbie decides the kid's worthless mother needs to go, you know you're in Noirville.

A9's imaginative empathy goes beyond a bone-tired heroine like Bebbie. In "Claw Marks" she tackles one of the most hackneyed devices in short fiction--the story told by an animal--and makes it seem fresh. Most stories of this kind save the narrator's identity for the final paragraph (Surprise, I'm a Yorkie!) but 9 tells a story of a bar cat witnessing an act of violence, and damn if the thing doesn't read like it was transcribing the cat's perceptions.

Anonymous-9 is the nom de plume of Elaine Ashe, the former editor of Beat To A Pulp. She's currently selling Hard Bite & Other Stories at Amazon for the looooow price of 99 cents. That's one buck for the book I just described. That's a great deal. It's also, perhaps, a vision of where smart, interesting pulp is headed in the digital age.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Church Street Reviewed at Criminal Element

December 20 on the Advent calendar is apparently Hell On Church Street day. I got quite the treat today when I read Eric Beetner's rave review of the book. Beetner is a writer I admire, and his good opinion means a lot to me. Moreover, he seems to have put his finger on exactly the kind of book I tried to write. Check out his review at Criminal Element.

Above is one of the alternative cover ideas we worked with.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hell On Church Street update

Above is the final cover of my novel Hell On Church Street, complete with a great blurb by one of my neo-noir heroes, Jason Starr. I don't know Starr, but I've been a fan of his for years now (his book Twisted City is one of the best crime novels I've ever read). It is a huge thrill that he would even read my book. Much less like it. Much less like it so much he'd blurb it. And compare me favorably to two of my other heroes.

I've been incredibly lucky in the blurb department on this book. The great Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest), Hilary Davidson (The Damage Done), and David Cranmer (editor and publisher of Beat To A Pulp) all were gracious enough to give me some props for HOCS. These folks are all so incredibly smart and talented it's humbling. As is, while I'm at it, the shout out I got from Eric Beetner (Dig Two Graves) who included me on his best of 2011 list over at Guilty Conscience. Not bad for a book that hasn't officially been released yet.

Speaking of which...

Here's the update on Hell On Church Street. The book's official pub date is January 5th. Having said that, people have been telling me that while the Amazon page isn't fully up yet (nothing set up for Kindles, no blurbs, ect.) it is actually functioning already. And some folks are already ordering and receiving copies. So don't let me stop you from going over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and ordering a copy. Or two.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lizabeth Scott Talks!

Check out this fascinating video interview with Lizabeth Scott, the Queen of Noir, shot at Janet Leigh's house in 1996. The multi-part talk ranges over many subjects. What a lady. She's as smart, classy, charming, and witty as one could hope. Best of all, at 74, she still sounds like Liz Scott. The interview starts here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Television and The New American Noir

I have a new essay up at Criminal Element. "Breaking Mad" is a look at the new epicenter of American noir: the cable television series. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Film Noir This December

above: Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST

If, like me, you need to gird yourself against all the holiday cheer this time of year, be of good heart. Turner Classic Movies and Fox Movie Channel are both going to be offering up passels of dark goodness in the form of classic and neo-noir throughout December.

TCM will be showing established classics like OUT OF THE PAST, ANGEL FACE, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, THE MALTESE FALCON and much more. They'll also be showing hard-to-find titles like the Edward Dmytryk directed OBSESSION and King Vidor's LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE.

FMC, meanwhile, has essential classic flicks like KISS OF DEATH and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Their schedule will also feature more obscure fare like Nicholas Ray's trippy BIGGER THAN LIFE and the late-career heist flick from the underrated director Henry Hathaway and star Edward G. Robinson.

The fine folks at the Film Noir Foundation have compiled a full list of titles, dates, and showtimes. Check it out here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

We all do it when someone dies. We talk nicely about them, we ignore or excuse their faults. In many cases, we rewrite history to make the person look better, which is another way of saying that we lie about them to simplify our own feelings. We create a plaster saint to which we can then pay homage and move on.

But the truth lingers, doesn't it? And the truth is that other people are a mystery. All that's really left when someone dies is the mystery. Alexander Payne's new film THE DESCENDANTS (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, with a screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash) knows this brutal reality very well. This is a film about grieving. How do we confront the passing of someone we love but with whom we have unresolved issues? This, of course, is only more true the more you love someone. They pass on, but the issues remain.

In the film, George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife Elizabeth is lying in a coma dying after a boating accident. King has two daughters, a precocious 10-year old named Scottie and a surly teenaged daughter named Alexandra. The girls are dealing with their mother's accident in different ways. Scottie is morbidly obsessed with the idea of death and creates a photo album of her mother hooked to a ventilator while Alexandra is furious and getting drunk with a goofball boy named Sid.

Even before the accident, King had a lot to worry about. He and his wife were on the skids and he was thinking that maybe they should "have a talk." He's also managing the eminent sale of a large chunk of his family's land holdings in Hawaii, a sale worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That's all before Alexandra drops the bombshell that her mother was having an affair with a local real estate agent.

Alexander Payne is the logical director for this kind of material, and this film seems of a piece with his Jack Nicholson film ABOUT SCHMIDT. Both films are about men who lose their wives and then regain some sense of themselves in the process of grieving. (What this says about Payne's opinion of marriage is anyone's guess.) This is not to say that what Clooney is doing here is playing the same character. Poor Schmidt was a man who bought into a certain life only to find himself spat out on the other end of it with nothing to show. ABOUT SCHMIDT has a tender ending, but it's a tragedy, THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN with a comic streak.

THE DESCENDANTS, on the other hand, is a story about reconnection. Matt King has enough time to find a place for himself in the lives of his daughters. He is able to make Alexandra an ally in this process, and this film, more than anything else, is really about how father and daughter get to know each other.

The movie has its flaws (the land sale subplot never rises above the level of metaphor), but the film contains some scenes of startling emotional clarity, especially when the family gathers around Elizabeth. These are not the usual scenes of plaster saint homage. These are scenes of anger and frustration. The troubled marriage of the Kings, and its impact on their daughters, did not end when Elizabeth was injured, nor does it end as she lays dying.

This is an interesting role for George Clooney, not the first actor one would think of for this material. Of course, he long ago demonstrated that he was able and willing to complicate his leading man image either by playing against type (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, THE AMERICAN) or by playing to type but revealing hidden weaknesses in the character (UP IN THE AIR, THE IDES OF MARCH). Still, this may well be his least heroic turn. Clooney is excellent at playing men in charge, men in the know. Here he is convincing as, of all things, a normal man thrown off course by life.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but especially Shailene Woodley as Alexandra. The film is largely a duet between Woodley and Clooney, daughter and father circling each other warily as they attempt to navigate the new terrain of their lives. It is up to these two actors to create the emotional core of the family, to create the space left by the absent wife and mother, to fill it with anger and recrimination. And, maybe, redemption.

On a side note here: Clooney may well win some awards for this role. Good for him. It's a fine performance. But sometimes movie stars have to play against what makes them great before some people are willing to give them awards. This is a bullshit process that once again reveals how utterly meaningless awards are. Such has always been the case (Bogart winning for THE AFRICAN QUEEN for "proving" he could act--as if a trained chimp could have starred in CASABLANCA).
The most obvious recent example is Denzel Washington winning an Oscar for playing a bad guy in TRAINING DAY when MALCOLM X and CRIMSON TIDE had already proved Washington was a great actor and screen presence. If Clooney wins awards for THE DESCENDANTS it will "prove" nothing. His work in OUT OF SIGHT and THREE KINGS wasn't simply the result of sprinkling movie star dust on a handsome face, it was great acting.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Revenge in the Noonday Sun

I have a couple of new essays on the theme of revenge up at Criminal Element.

"Revenge In Black And White" takes a look at revenge-fueled classic noirs including Zinnemann's ACT OF VIOLENCE, LANG'S THE BIG HEAT, and Thompson's CAPE FEAR.

"He Had It Comin'" deals with vengeance western style. It looks at Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, Ford's THE SEARCHERS, and Mann's THE FURIES.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

The most gripping portrait of J. Edgar Hoover that I know of unfolds over the three volumes of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy's Hoover is a bureaucratic Iago, an all-seeing all-knowing master manipulator. Like Satan--at least the Protestant idea of Satan to which Ellroy likely owes some debt--his gift is that he knows every man's weakness, every man's secret, every man's breaking point.

The irony, of course, is that Ellroy is a novelist and his J. Edgar Hoover is a work of fiction. Perhaps it is fitting, though. After all, who really knew Hoover? He was a colossal figure in American life for four decades, but this man who knew the darkest secrets of Presidents, judges, legislators, and civic leaders was himself largely a fictional creation of his own design. Hoover the crusading crime buster was in actuality an effete, squat little man who sat behind a desk. This icon of American virtue disdained the company of regular people and spent much of his time locked in a private office in the heart of Washington DC assembling blackmail recordings of politicians and civil rights leaders.

Of course, these days Hoover's reputation has been sullied by revelations about his attempts to bring down the Civil Rights movement--and in particular Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover thought that by taping King's extramarital liaisons he'd uncovered a fatal flaw. History has rendered a different judgment. King was a great man, but he was a man, unfaithful to his wife but instrumental in leading the most successful social revolution in our nation's history. His greatness only seems enhanced by the knowledge of his all too human limitations. Meanwhile, Hoover, the petty government official who tried to destroy a people's march for equality is remembered as a fossil of an earlier time. When he died, he passed on the mantle of reactionary paranoia to Richard Nixon, ensuring that the history of America during this time would continue to be written on scratchy reel-to-reel.

What drove Hoover? What combination of influences made the man? Director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and star Leonardo DiCaprio have taken up the task of answering these questions. For years, rumors floated through Washington about Hoover's 'unusual' relationship with his handsome second-in-command Clyde Tolson (played winningly in the film by Armie Hammer). The two men, both lifelong bachelors, were inseparable, ate every meal together, vacationed together at lavish hotels in the summers, and dressed in matching suits. When Hoover died, he left his estate to Tolson, and Tolson received the flag off Hoover's casket and moved into his home. These facts, naturally, gave rise to speculation. Could J. Edgar Hoover, the master of secrets, the tormentor of any number of homosexual left-wingers (indeed, it might well have been Hoover more than anyone else who helped to foster the idea that homosexuality and Communism went had in hand)--could this man have lived a double life?

Naturally, this mystery has led to some outlandish treatments (most notoriously in 1977's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Happily, Eastwood and company are uninterested in the sordid details of unsubstantiated rumors. Instead, J. EDGAR tells two stories. One story is of Hoover's lifelong consolidation of power. This is a story well worth telling. After all, Hoover was an unelected official who probably exerted more power in Washington DC than any one person over the course of forty tumultuous years. His private obsessions--with Communism, with Civil Rights, with the Kennedy brothers--unquestionably shaped American life. In Eastwood's film, Hoover is a man always peering suspiciously out on a dangerous world. DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who runs all incoming data--be it political or personal, monumental or insignificant--through his own private ethical equation. His one real passion is for power, a passion that springs from a deep need for control.

The other story is his unconsummated love affair with Tolson. Here the film treads lightly, as perhaps it should. In the end, we really don't know what relationship these two men had. (The problem here is believing that J. Edgar Hoover would have ever felt safe enough to think of himself as gay, much less to actually have sex. This is a guy who had all of America under surveillance.) Eastwood's handling of Black's script on this point is, of all things, surprisingly moving. Hoover in this film is a man who cannot begin to approach the center of himself. He's helplessly in love with Tolson, but he's also devoid of any means of expressing it. The most passionate moment between the two men comes on one of their holidays together when a conversation turns to an argument and then leads to a fight which then leads to a kiss. The kiss itself--more full of fear and frustration than love--is the only one they share. Later in the film there's a tender scene where an aging Hoover gently kisses an ailing Tolson on the forehead. Only in anger or in old age, the film implies, could Hoover bring himself to admit his feelings for Tolson, however obliquely. He was a true closet case, a man unknown to himself.

Eastwood is an interesting director. He is, in many ways, wildly uneven.
He's made movies that are excellent (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, A PERFECT WORLD), including one film (UNFORGIVEN) that is a masterpiece. He's made films that have been vastly overrated (such as MILLION-DOLLAR BABY which, despite Hilary Swank's genuinely wonderful performance is a shallow treatment of serious issues). And he's made films of thudding banality (INVICTUS, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) which resemble nothing more than tired hackwork. His tendency toward oversimplifying conflicts means that if ambiguity does not exist in his antagonists at the script level, he rarely sees fit to inject it into the film.

One admirable aspect of J. EDGAR, however, is that it doesn't have any villains, not even the man himself. This will likely incense audience members who want to see Hoover burned in effigy. The sound of a gently tinkling piano beneath the moment of tenderness between the elderly Hoover and Tolson will perhaps strike some folks as sentimental. But the strength of Eastwood's film, and one assumes of the script by Black, is that it makes an honest attempt to conceive of Hoover as a human being. A deeply flawed human being, one who might have done evil things, but a man nevertheless. Hoover doubtless would have hated this movie and tried to crush the lives of everyone involved in its making, but it nevertheless turns the rough facts and central mystery of his life into a engrossing two hours at the movies.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lew Archer Back On The Big Screen

Laura K. Curtis has a piece up over at Criminal Element about the recent news that Warner Bothers has bought the rights to Ross Macdonald's classic PI Lew Archer. There's no word yet on director or stars, but Joel Silver is producing--which means this project could go either way. Let's hope Archer stays Archer and doesn't morph into Martin Riggs. That's not to crack on Riggs, you understand, just to say that the Archer novels are about psychology rather than pyrotechnics.

This news, of course, makes one think of the two Archer movies--HARPER and THE DROWNING POOL--that Paul Newman made in 1966 and 1975, respectively. Both films are neo-noir well worth seeing, and HARPER in particular is one of Newman's best films. He takes the classic PI and updated him, situating him in the roiling California of counterculture kooks and old fashioned greed and lies. I've never been a fan of Altman's deconstruction of the private eye movie, his adaptation of the Marlowe novel THE LONG GOODBYE, in part because I always thought HARPER was a more interesting way of dealing with the PI in a modern context.

Speaking of Philip Marlowe, this Lew Archer news also brought to mind the rumors a year or so ago that Clive Owen was gearing up to play Marlowe in a film to be directed by Frank Miller. Nothing ever came of that, but it is interesting to note that classic characters like Marlowe and Archer still have some social capital in Hollywood. Here's hoping something productive comes of this new Archer project.

For more on the history of the private dick flick, check out my post Gumshoe In Abeyance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Trips Through Hell

I have a new essay up over at Criminal Element. Quick Trips Through Hell is an introduction to super-short noir, those tiny gems of B-movie nastiness that barely crack an hour. DETOUR, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, and more!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talus, Or Scree

I sat down for an interview with Patrick Culliton and Jay Varner, the gents behind the web-phenom Talus, Or Scree. After a little curtain raising with Varner's visit to Civil War battlefield, the podcast proper starts. We have a pretty good talk about film noir, Hell On Church Street, and Encyclopedia Brown.

(Warning: this podcast explains explicit language. And cackling jackassery.)

Go check it out and give it a listen here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Higher Ground (2011)

Growing up in the Ozarks, I spent a lot of time at a religious campground run by my aunt and uncle. It was a 68-acre compound sprawled over the side of a mountain, and my family--my parents, brothers, and me--moved there for a brief period in 1989. I roamed over those hills and prayed among the trees, trying to get up early enough to read my Bible as the sun broke over the waterfall near our cabin. This period of piety and devotion did not last very long. I liked sleeping in too much. I also found that I liked reading Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker more than I liked reading the Bible. Within a year, my parents moved us into a house in a (relatively) nearby town--apparently I wasn't the only one who wasn't cut out to be a full-time missionary--but all through high school I still spent a lot of time out at the camp. In the summers, I was sent to their Boys Work Camp--a getaway for Christian boys that replaced water sports and pubescent sexual exploration with the edifying effects of labor and Bible Study. So while I never copped a feel at a summer camp, I did build a rock wall and read all four Gospels (I'm kind of a Gospel of Mark man, I think). The name of the camp, incidentally, was Higher Ground.

I was reminded of my time at the camp as I watched Vera Farmiga's new film HIGHER GROUND. Adapted from the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn S. Biggs, the film tells the story of Corine (played by Farmiga) a quirky young woman coming of age in the seventies who gives her life to Jesus after a near fatal accident. Together with her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) she joins an unnamed Protestant church run by Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) and his steely faced wife, Sister Deborah (Barbara Tuttle). For a while, the church seems to have every answer worth having to every question worth asking. As the years roll on, however, Corine begins to feel stifled, hemmed in by the patriarchal condescension of Pastor Bill and suffocated by the The-Lord-Wants-Me-To-Tell-You-How-Awful-You-Are helpfulness of Sister Deborah. Ethan, nice guy and devoted Christian husband that he is, can't figure out why Corine grows more and more distant. He tries to understand, but the only answer for Corine's unhappiness seems to be that God isn't good enough for her. She wants books and art and worldly friends. She wants more. But how can you want more than God?

Because HIGHER GROUND is a film about a woman's loss of faith (if 'loss' is quite the right word), it will strike many believers as something of an attack on that faith. I don't really think it is, though. It certainly judges the male-centric view of the faith and finds the church lacking in intellectual rigor, but it also plays fair with the congregation's sense of community and the way in which a belief in God's love can be as real as the love of one's own family.

The church in this film seems patterned after the Jesus Movement churches that sprung up in the later 60's and early 70's as an outgrowth of the hippie scene on the west coast. The great strength of Christianity, of course, has always been its malleability. This was the genius of the Apostle Paul, who foresaw (or, depending on how you look at such things, was granted the vision) that the story of Jesus would reach across the globe and translate well to different cultures. The Hippie Jesus that came out of the 60's was only the latest incarnation of the Son of God at the time. It's always worth remembering that black civil rights workers in the 50's who cited the words of Jesus as inspiration were opposed by racist white preachers doing the same. Or to use a different example, I once attended an exhibition at the National Gallery showing religious paintings and sculptures from Spain during the 17th century. Odd, I noticed, how much the Jesus in this art looked like a Conquistador from the 16th century. Every culture in every era remakes Jesus in its own image. Farmiga's film does a good job of showing a side of the Jesus Movement that most people are unfamiliar with, at least outside of the lyrics to "Spirit In The Sky." This film is a Jesus Freak version of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

As a debut, HIGHER GROUND shows Farmiga to be talented director.
This is a smart, often funny, very moving film. It's also a fairly flawed film, unfortunately. Major plot strands are left dangling. Corine's relationship with an earthy fellow believer (played by a luminous Dagmara Dominczyk) becomes the heart of the film's middle section but then, after a devastating development, is more or less abandoned. Likewise, the relationship between Corine's parents (played wonderfully by John Hawkes and Donna Murphey) feels like it's either too much or too little. Ditto Corine's relationship with her heathen sister. I'm not suggesting that every little storyline has to be tidied up, but the film is episodic and disjointed to such an extent that the overall power of the story is diminished.

Despite these flaws, HIGHER GROUND is still an impressive piece of work,
the rare film that addresses matters of faith head on. It reminds us how influenced we are by the rooms we find ourselves in, how quickly and easily our perception of the world is shaped by the people who surround us. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name" Jesus told his disciples "there I am in the midst of them." That statement, Corine learns, is one she does not have the faith to accept.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive (2011)

James Sallis's 2005 novella DRIVE is a stripped down, minimalist story about a stunt driver who acts as a freelance wheelman for crews pulling heists in and around Los Angeles. Sallis's clipped prose is not simply as sharp and polished as a switchblade, it's also working in the service of a narrative that is nonlinear and elliptical. This is not minimalism in the vein of Cain or Carver; it feels more like a hardboiled narrative poem written by someone with too much caffeine in his system. It's easy to understand why the book was such a hit in Europe, especially in France where noir appreciation was born.

Which brings us to Nicolas Winding Refn's new adaptation of DRIVE starring Ryan Gosling as the unnamed driver (simply called Driver in the book). Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini have changed a lot, streamlining the story by condensing the action while also adding supporting characters to flesh things out. This film is, in fact, a very loose adaptation of the novel. What the filmmakers have kept and captured perfectly from Sallis is the central character's isolation and self-possession (captured perfectly by Gosling, an actor whose aura of autonomy is his defining characteristic). Driver is a man of large silences punctuated only by brief bursts of utilitarian dialog. "If I drive for you," he informs a would-be partner "you give me a time and a place. I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes I'm yours no matter what."

We're introduced to his skills in a breathless opening scene in which Driver ferries two stick-up men away from a robbery while outrunning--and outwitting--a police dragnet. It's a fantastic set piece that establishes this man at the height of his power in the only arena he knows. A smart and exciting way to set up the film, it's also something of a high-speed lament for the general decline we've seen in the quality of chase scenes over the last fifteen years or so. Refn understands that a great chase scene is part race and part chess match.

Into Driver's isolated world comes a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) with a sweet son named Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Issac) is in jail, and she and the boy are obviously lonely. She and Driver start to see each other--if not romantically, then emotionally intimate at least. It's hard to say what passes between them because they say so little to each other. In her sweet faced way, Irene is as quiet as Driver. The most touching scene in the film comes after Irene has put Benicio to bed. She and Driver say goodnight and their eyes lock and stay locked and they both smile at the warmth they generate together.

Then Standard comes home from the joint. He's better than we might expect. There is a tense moment when he first meets Driver and suspects, without ever quite saying anything, that something might have happened between his wife and this man, but he makes a kind of tentative piece with it, even inviting Driver over of dinner. Besides, Standard has bigger problems to worry about. There some guys from prison who want some money he owes them. They're willing to let him work it off pulling a heist. Driver, instantly and correctly, sizes up Standard for the heist and finds him lacking. Fearing for Irene and the boy, he offers his services for free.

This being noir, things turn to shit but quick. Of the plot complications from here on out, the less said the better. It will do to say that the last hour of the film grows increasingly violent as Driver navigates a maze of lowlifes and gangsters, battling would-be assassins and sniffing out double-crosses, all in an effort to protect Irene and Benicio.

The film is an odd mix of styles. On one hand, it maintains the less-said-the-better approach of the book. Our two main characters spend most of the film acting with their eyes. Since Gosling and Mulligan are two of our best and most expressive actors (no one in movies right now has a better smile than Carey Mulligan), the film can allow its center to be still and quiet. On the margins, however, it gives us a rich supporting gallery of verbose blowhards like Driver's mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and the shady businessman Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his even shadier partner Nino (Ron Perlman). These guys never shut up, unreeling long profanity-rich speeches. And while the film itself feels in some ways like a seventies-era Steve McQueen car flick, it is scored like an early eighties Michael Mann movie (and the titles are MIAMI VICE pastel pink).

Spiritually, if not stylistically, it is a brother to Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN (released this time last year) which starred George Clooney as a near-silent assassin living in Europe. Both films take American genre pieces (the hitman flick and the heist flick), peel them of their genre trappings, and reinterpret them through a sensibility that places the character at the forefront. One can't help but think of something like BOB LE FLAMBEUR. Jean-Pierre Melville would, I think, have been proud to make a movie like DRIVE.

Ultimately, however, DRIVE is its own film. It's neither ashamed of nor beholden to its genre roots, but neither does it seem awed by any arthouse predecessor. It's an original creation, brooding and fast, hyper-violent and touchingly romantic. It's a hell of a movie.

*One quibble: after you see the film, please explain to me why Driver dons the weird movie mask when he goes to take care of Nino. It's a great visual, but logically it doesn't make any sense to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mickey Rooney Goes To Hell

In the forties, Mickey Rooney was the biggest (albeit the shortest) movie star in America. His massive success as MGM's perky All-American teenager Andy Hardy financed a decade of booze, racehorses, and beautiful women.

Then the fifties hit him like a bomb. His films tanked and his life fell apart. Where's a guy to turn when his luck runs out? Well, film noir, of course.

Read my essay on the surprisingly impressive--and largely unknown--noir career of Mickey Rooney, excerpted in its entirety here from the new issue of NOIR CITY.

After you read it, check out the website of the Film Noir Foundation and think about joining the fight to save lost noirs.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Condemned by Jo Pagano (1947)

To understand THE CONDEMNED, Jo Pagano’s strange hybrid of social commentary novel and gritty pulp, a little background is in order. Born in 1906, Pagano was the youngest son of Italian immigrants who came to Colorado at the turn of the century so Pagano’s father could work as a miner. Jo quickly figured out that writing stories beat the hell out of swinging a pickax, and by the thirties he had started selling stories to magazines like THE ATLANTIC, SCRIBNERS, READER’S DIGEST, and YALE REVIEW. He moved to Hollywood, and by the late thirties, he was working at RKO Pictures.

Around this time Pagano became friends with the novelist William Faulkner. The great writer was in Hollywood doing script rewrites for Howard Hawks, but he spent most of his days chasing girls and getting shitfaced with other scribblers. At the time, Faulkner’s work was little read outside highbrow literary circles, but Pagano was already a devoted fan. Because Pagano could match the Mississippian drink for drink, the two men became fast friends. Faulkner became Pagano’s literary mentor and took special care to warn him about the hazards of selling out to Hollywood. Talent, Faulkner believed, couldn’t survive the compromises one had to make with the studios. He told Pagano simply, “Jo, you have got to get out of this town.”

In the midst of this tutelage with Faulkner, Pagano published his third book, THE CONDEMNED, in 1947. The novel was based on the true story of Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes, who in 1933 had abducted and murdered a wealthy man named Brooke Hart. After the killers were apprehended and confessed to the crime, thousands of angry people descended on the Santa Clara County jail in San Jose, dragged the men from their cells, and hanged them from two trees across the street.

Pagano changed the names and turned the story into a serious crime drama. The central conflict is that of Howard Tyler, an everyman living in postwar California. He can’t find work to support his family, so he takes a job as getaway driver for a small time crook, and big time psycho, named Jerry Slocum. This decision turns out to be a catastrophic mistake because soon Jerry has decided that he and Howard need to move up the criminal ladder to kidnapping.

Neither of Pagano’s previous books—both of which were affectionate evocations of family life among Italian Americans—would have prepared a reader for THE CONDEMNED. This novel is a serious literary attempt to deal with Hart’s murder and the subsequent lynching of Thurmond and Holmes. As such, it marks a sharp departure from his previous books in terms of both focus and tone. It is also something of a swing for the fences in terms of style. It bears unmistakable Faulknerian touches such as shifting perspectives, shocking violence, and buried psychosexual motivations, but it also owes a debt to Steinbeck’s social consciousness. It was Pagano’s attempt to write a great, important novel. After its initial printing in hardback failed to bring literary glory, however, the book was radically abridged and repackaged as pulp (a process that would continue for years: Zenith Books re-released the book in 1958 under the title DIE SCREAMING).

The book isn’t entirely successful. Pagano’s weakness as a writer was preachiness. He gives us the character of Dr. Simone, an Italian professor who functions as the film’s moral and intellectual color commentator. This character mouths all of the appropriate leftist horror at the American financial and judicial systems. Moralizing in noir usually comes in the form of boring authoritarians espousing a rightwing point of view, but Dr. Simone’s sermons prove that preaching doesn’t work any better when it comes from the left. In many ways, the abridgement makes for a better read. It focuses more on the central story of the killers—in particular on Howard Tyler’s terrible guilt. After all, the key tension in the story is Howard’s gnawing sense of his own culpability, the tortured humanity of a normal man who fumbles into theft and murder and then watches in horror as his life falls apart.

Soon, Pagano accepted the job of adapting the book into a screenplay for producer Robert Stillman. The resulting film that Pagano and director Cy Endfield delivered, THE SOUND OF FURY, was a masterpiece, a dark and serious look at American society in the post-war era. Endfield rightly seized on Pagano’s strongest material and brought it to the front of the film. He also kept Pagano’s strong supporting cast of characters: crazy homme fatale Jerry Slocum, the careless newspaperman Gil Stanton, and Hazel, the odd young woman who exposes Howard to the police.

The film met with great opposition, with theater managers across the country catching flack for running such an “anti-American” picture at the outset of the Korean War. The film was re-titled TRY AND GET ME! and peddled around as a genre piece (much as the book had been), but it quickly sank into obscurity.

Stubbornly, the film lived on, and as film geeks rediscovered it, its reputation grew. It is now in line for a major restoration by the Film Noir Foundation. Pagano’s novel doesn’t have the same reputation that film the does, but this strange and beguiling work is well worth seeking out.