Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: September

Battle of Algiers - Gillo Pontecorvo - Docudrama about the guerilla warfare in the Casbah in the 1950s, it's remarkable decades later how unsettling it still is to see the various urban gun battles and bombing campaigns enacted in this flick. Never untimely, this one can be revisited and re-experienced every few years with the benefit of another layer of history, another lens of contemporary context to refract it through. Chewy and still tense. Best moment: the Westernized ladies slip through.

Elephant - Gus Van Sant - A more or less real time unfolding of tragedy on the morning of a fictional school shooting, the film follows a host of high schoolers going about their various business on campus in the hour leading up to the event. As sensational as the subject matter is, the film is decidedly unflashy and you could be forgiven for not noticing how impressively staged it is. The longer the flick goes on, the more elaborate it reveals itself to be and it had me pretty stunned by the end. Some low-fi or at least un-showy De Palma shit going on here. The same scenes are experienced multiple times from multiple points of view and seamlessly placed into a tragic mosaic. In the end, that's about it. Can't say any character was particularly compelling or that the massacre was particularly stunning, horrific or emotionally resonant, but the picture is put together with enough skill and taste and subtlety to warrant repeat viewings. Best moment: the longest tracking shot following a student off the ball field and across campus right into a scene we've already witnessed. The choreography and sheer number of extras involved was quietly boggling.

Enemy - Denis Villeneuve - A history professor with a beautiful, blond girlfriend discovers there's another version of himself out there - a film actor with a beautiful, blond (and pregnant) wife - and his obsession with this alternate him derails his life. Make of it what you will, this is one of the most haunting pictures I've seen in a long damn time. There is an ill ease cast over the film like a shroud that filters out hope and draws every ounce of menace from of the atmosphere keeping it in an invisible bucket that is only dumped out when the director is good and ready. But you won't be. Nope. Huh-uh. No way. The final shot of the film just might be my favorite... ever? Did I say haunting? That's not quite right, 'cause the specter that followed me for weeks after viewing had something damn near physical properties. I'm not familiar with the source novel The Double by Jose Saramago, but I feel pretty safe saying that this is a better adaptation (let alone a better film) than Fernando Meirelles's Saragmago stab at the uber allegorical Blindness. I haven't been this electrically perplexed by a talky since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (though, I still prefer Lost Highway, baby). Which is not to say that I hold in the same regard... I'm not sure, but it's damn close and that's pretty special. Not a crime film, but noir at the core. Best moment: the final one.

Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine/Juve Against Fantomas - Louis Feuillade - Super criminal and Paris public frenemy #1, Fantomas takes what he wants and always stays a step ahead of his nemesis Inspector Juve. This serial was made more than one hundred years ago and I just don't have anything informed or interesting or clever to say about it. I'm nerd enough to have wanted to sit through it and plebeian enough to admit it was hard to. Best moment: Fantomas escapes police custody and dashes back to the restaurant he was arrested in to finish a meal.

Motel Life - Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky - The Lee brothers hit the road, a step ahead of the cops after Jerry (Stephen Dorff) accidentally kills a kid with his car. They stay at cheap motels, drink cheap booze and pine for other lives, particularly through impromptu stories told by Frank (Emile Hirsch) at his brothers' request. Based on the beautifully melancholic novel by Willy Vlautin, it's an achievement that the Polsky's have made neither the year's most depressing movie, nor the year's most hollowly optimistic one. The story is bleak, but there's warmth in Vlautin's prose and that's a trick to translate into cinematography. The stories are presented here as animated vignettes that, for once, enhance the words and perhaps even improve on those passages from the book, (though, overall, the book remains a more potent experience). Good as Hirsch is, it's Dorff who steals the show, chewed up, and shit out, not very smart, but not an idiot, guilty, but alive. The role requires a lot from him and he's never been this good (tho, c'mon, his Deacon Frost from Blade was pretty great) and his choice of projects continues to interest me (The Iceman, Public Enemies, Tomorrow You're Gone - from the Matthew F. Jones novel Boot Tracks, even rumored to have been attached to the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's Give Us a Kiss once upon a time). Supporting cast is uniformly good, even Kris Kristofferson opts not to phone in his couple of scenes and the real bravura sequence is the Best Moment: Hirsch with Joshua Leonard and Noah Harpster putting money down on the Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis fight. That is some blue-collar Scorsese shit right there.

Night Moves - Kelly Reichardt - A trio of aspiring eco-terrorists negotiate the dangerous space between idealism and survival. Shot like a heist procedural, (except the job isn't a robbery - they're blowing up a dam) where the gang comes together, executes the job and then, in the grand tradition, fall apart beneath the crushing weight of doubt and paranoia. Who's the weakest link and what defines that? What is too high a price, what's justified? All questions worth a movie and Reichardt delivers some solid suspense and tension, and while I'm pleased to see her exploring new territory as a film maker (this one's pretty bare bones, but compared to some of her other work, it's pomp and circumstance) I don't think this one quite measures up to her last couple of efforts, Meek's Cutoff and Wendy & Lucy respectively. Could be the handling of onscreen violence here - unfortunately feels a bit amateurish and lacks the emotional wallop that the (particular) moment deserves. If the moment were as visually disturbing as it should be, the whole film would resonate more deeply. Still, it's a much better offering than 90% of the thriller fare you're going to be offered this year, and I name Reichardt alongside names like Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green if asked to give hope for the next generation of American auteurs. Best moment: road block.

Paris Countdown - Edgar Marie - Two Paris nightclub owners get in over their heads with underworld types and end up in a baaaaaaad way in Mexico. Six years later, their friendship a thing of the past, the guy they crossed to save their skins comes back looking to make both of them dead. They don't want to be dead. Starts off amazingly strong, really for the first 10 minutes or so I was wondering how the hell people hadn't been beating me over the head with recommendations to watch this one right the hell now. It does bog down in the middle, but picks up enough at the end to remain a mild recommendation from me to you. Best moment: any time Reda Kateb is on screen. That guy is fantastic. He was my favorite part of Zero Dark Thirty and is even better here - in a non-starring role. Get him a lead role in something decent and toss a match at it. Gonna be a big damn fire.

The Rover - David Michod - In a near-future gone to hell Australia a man's car is stolen by a gang of criminals on the run from a botched robbery that left bodies on the ground - one of the bodies belongs to one of their own whom they presume to be dead. The film follows the vehicularly bereft Eric (Guy Pearce) on his relentless and savage quest to retrieve his property. Eric soon nabs the gang's abandoned half-dead half-wit Rey (Robert Pattinson) and forces the non-literally-sparkling film presence to lead him to his compadres and his own titular(?) favored mode of transport. The gang has made the same mistake that the audience is invited to - underestimating Eric and his resolve to recover his property. Maybe it's the cargo shorts. The viewer will quickly change their opinion of the man in the short pants as his moxy and ruthlessness are revealed in layers - each one peeled in a perfectly shocking moment. But Rey is his own onion-like creation, at first underestimated due to his physical injuries and later because of his mental limitations, but the relationship between the two develops into something akin to a man and his loyal dog and I found the finale fucking riveting unsure where loyalties could/would come down, especially for Rey. The third star of the movie is the world itself. I've heard it described as post-apocalyptic, but I don't think that's quite accurate. It's a reduced society for sure, the functioning of the economy is one of the most fascinating features and the population are well-armed and wary of everybody else, but there are still ideas of a more cosmopolitan civilization operating somewhere. We get glimpses of it: well equipped police/military/private militia pop up once in a while, but protect and serve nobody we ever see and in the film's most jarring moment, a glittery Top-40 pop song blares on the soundtrack and is revealed to be something that one character is listening to (and singing along with) on a radio broadcast - indicating that the characters have an understanding of a better life being lived somewhere by people not altogether unlike themselves, though their actions and attitudes make it clear that they never expect to be touched by the good life and do not consider themselves citizens of anything larger than their immediate partners or selves. It's a beguiling and intriguing film, fierce and rich in it's textures and nuances. I'm looking forward to revisiting soon. Best moment: I want to buy a gun.

Witness - Peter Weir - Philadelphia detective John Book's (Harrison Ford) investigation into the murder of a fellow policeman gets personally dangerous when the lone witness, a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas), identifies another cop as the killer. When Book's brethren move against him, he flees, wounded, to the home of the boy and his recently widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) among the Pennsylvania Amish. Book is given refuge while he recuperates, but it's only a matter of time before the killers track him down and come a shootin. One of my early favorite movies was the John Wayne vehicle Angel & the Bad Man which I caught on TV as a youngster and had probably seen two or three times before seeing this more or less updated, contemporized version and it subsequently blowing my mind. It's difficult to imagine my current tastes and interests ever evolving the way they have without the influence of Witness, and I revisited it with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it hold up or would I cringe and roll my eyes throughout? While I did cringe once or twice, I'm happy to report that it's a solid, better than average thriller that manages to be vaguely 'about something' without getting preachy. The non-violence practicing Amish and the worldly man whose currency and native tongue are bullets and fists (I'm hell at whacking), not to mention buttons!, make an interesting odd couple and just enough space is given for their philosophical tensions to mix and fizz and present the viewer with the germ of an idea before whisking her away to something juicier (sex! violence! carpentry!). Best moment: death by grain - somehow even more terrifying now.

The Yakuza - Sydney Pollack - An American business man (Brian Keith - who, frankly, acts Mitchum's mug off the screen every time they share a scene) has fucked up the deal he made with a Japanese organization and he can't hold up his end. In order to encourage him to try a little harder, they've abducted his daughter and are keeping her under wraps till he can cough up the d'oh. In the meantime he sends his pal Robert Mitchum to go over there and smooth feathers. Mitchum's an ex-GI whose tour included a lengthy chunk in occupied Japan and he still has connections and a little bit of pull over there. He's also got a long-pined-over love and a complicated relationship with her brother, a Japanese soldier whose life he saved. This one features a script by two of the biggest names in 1970s screenwriting, Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and it's a mixture of their sensibilities that goes down smoother at some times than others. There's an awful lot of clunky exposition in the first half of the film, but I can't deny that it's a good story and the plottiness certainly adds some gravity to the film's final act. I wonder if they'd gone for a 70s violent cinema scribe trifecta and given Walter Hill a re-write if it'd smoothed things out? Also working against it is another terrible Sydney Pollack-selected jazz score. That guy chose terrible fucking music to score more of his movies than anybody else I can think of. I've given up on more than one of his movies that otherwise looked swell to me, based solely on his awful, shitty taste in music. That tinkling jazz piano or saxophone or brush drums he went to over and over just cut the guts right out of any sense of tension his thrillers were trying to build. BUT, man, once the violence starts to happen regularly, it gets guuuuud. Shit. It gets really fucking good. Some really swell action close out the final third of the film and even Mitchum's phoned-in performance has a weighty closing scene. Best moment: suicide mission. I'd place it aside the reputation of Sam Peckinpah for operatic violence.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Price in Return: Brandon Daily - Narrative Music

A Murder Country is about to topple the TBR pile of a good many of you out there. If you regularly read this blog it was written just for your sensibilities. Rough-hewn and full of feels, the type of tome that makes explicit the relationship and hell the rhymy-ness betwixt dirty and perty. I asked author Brandon Daily for Narrative Music piece and was shocked not at all that he selected a Springsteen example. When you're done with this piece, check out Craig McDonald's Springsteen contribution and then what the hell, go pick up the Joe Clifford edited Trouble in the Heartland anthology to maximize your Bruce. But first, Brandon's bit...

A Price in Return: Bruce Springsteen’s Tale of Brothers, Loss, and Pain

There’s no doubt about it: Bruce Springsteen is The Boss. He has a sound so unique that you can’t help but stop and breathe it in; as a writer, I’m constantly inspired by his music. But Springsteen’s power as a song-writer and story-teller goes deeper than just having a good sound; his words are unparalleled, always focusing on the themes of the working man vs. the world and the importance (and, in some cases, the futility) of hope.

The American Dream is constantly at his songs’ cores, but that Dream is always marred by reality and life (“The River” offers a beautiful example of this theme). Springsteen speaks to the blue-collar worker, the fatherless child, the people working three jobs just to pay rent and afford deli meat. His voice is raw, graveled, and rough, but that’s what makes his songs ache of a universal truth.

In 1982, Springsteen released his brilliant, bare-bones album Nebraska. The record is littered with pain and heartache, despair and broken hopes. Look through the track listing and you see darkness followed by more darkness—they’re all narrative songs that speak of violence and loss. The title track (based off the real-life story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate—the same couple immortalized in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands) offers a first-person account of two teenage kids with nothing better to do than go out on a killing spree. It’s painful to sit through, but there’s something beautiful about the story of young love, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for a listener. Yet, while Nebraska, the album, is viewed as one of (if not the) crowning achievement for Springsteen as a story-teller, I must disagree. Instead, I say it is Springsteen’s 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad (TGoTJ) that truly is his magnum opus of pained characters and innocence lost.

The Ghost of Tom Joad takes its name from Steinbeck’s novel (The Grapes of Wrath is, in my opinion, The Great American Novel—the title of my first book comes from Grapes, so I am biased). Like Grapes of Wrath, TGoTJ is focused on laborers in the twentieth century. This album is full of beautiful and haunting tales of violence and regret; the tone is defeated, negative, just like Nebraska, though, unlike the latter album, TGoTJ doesn’t offer much hope—in TGoTJ, not “everything that dies someday comes back.” TGoTJ’s title track offers a retelling of Steinbeck’s novel, the stripped down “Youngstown” is a brilliant meditation of fame and wealth and eventual loss. Yet there is no other song on the album as raw and full of desperation as the fifth track: “Sinaloa Cowboys.”

In my opinion, “Sinaloa Cowboys” may be Springsteen’s most fully realized narrative song, and it is also one that very few people know—which is a shame. When listening to “Sinaloa Cowboys,” it’s hard not to be reminded of “Highway Patrolman” (off Nebraska). The structures, sounds, and themes are similar, as are the stories’ narrative focus on two brothers; though “Sinaloa Cowboys” does not give us that hopeful image of one brother watching the other drive to his freedom.

Sinaloa Cowboys” tells the tale of two Mexican brothers, Miguel (the older) and Louis Rosales, who cross the border illegally “at the river levee when Louis was just sixteen.” The kids make their way to the San Joaquin Valley in California where they find work in the farm fields there. They just want to make a better living for themselves, and what better place than America, the land of opportunity? Soon after they arrive, though, they hear word of work “deep in Fresno County.” (Just the geographical symbolism of the stark desert and dry heat there—a foreshadowing of Hell possibly??—plays into the stark realism of the narrative). The brothers take the job and find themselves working within a Meth lab in a “deserted chicken ranch.” Though this set-up is incredible, there is something so universal to this concept of finding yourself waist-deep in a situation you cannot escape from . . . a situation you endure because of the potential payout in the end.

The Rosales brothers are guided simply by hope. This setup also plays into one of Springsteen’s most oft-used themes of what someone will do to survive; we’re told that the two brothers “could spend a year in the orchards / Or make half as much in one ten-hour shift” in the Meth lab. Here, Springsteen is forcing us to confront the harsh reality that, at times, especially in the economic environment we live in, there becomes a necessity to do the wrong thing, the illegal thing, in order to survive.

Though, as with all opportunities, this new job is dangerous, and Springsteen foreshadows the violent end with his seemingly out-of-place description of “hydriodic acid . . . burn[ing] right through your skin,” and the fumes that can “leave you spittin’ up blood in the desert.” These dangers are laid out bluntly and jarringly to us, but Springsteen does this so we can see just how much Miguel and Louis are sacrificing in hopes of financial security and a good life.

Though told in retrospect at the end, we see that Miguel and Louis Rosales, instead of frivolously spending the money they make, are saving it, burying the cash in the earth within a “eucalyptus grove.” With this simple act, we come to sympathize with both of them, wanting them to succeed and make their dreams come true. Yet the American Dream is a lie, and for the Rosales brothers, tragedy marks that lie. In the final two verses, Springsteen tells us how Louis is killed when the Meth lab “exploded, lighting up the valley night.” The narrative is simple here, not gratuitous, as it could easily have been. Instead, Springsteen focuses on the brothers. Miguel (who survived the blast because he was outside the shack) carries the body of his younger brother “over his shoulder, down a swale / To the creekside,” where Louis eventually dies. Springsteen chooses not to give emotion to the characters, rather focusing on Miguel’s actions; we see how Miguel drives the body of his dead brother to the eucalyptus grove where the money they were saving—totaling ten thousand dollars at this point—is buried. In the beautiful and telling final image, Miguel kisses his brother goodbye and then buries Louis in the same “grave” as the saved-up ten thousand dollars once filled. And then there is nothing. No hope that Miguel will be alright. Hell, we aren’t even allowed the image of Miguel getting back in his truck and driving off into the distance, moving on, etc. No. We’re left in that eucalyptus grove, awaiting a progression to the story that will never come. It’s gut-wrenching and sad. Hopeless. The only sense we can make of it all is the haunting words of warning given earlier in the song by Miguel and Louis’s father: “‘My sons one thing you will learn / For everything the north gives it exacts a price in return.’

And, thus, we are challenged here: Is financial gain worth the possibility of pain and loss? We’d like to say No, never, but I think Springsteen is looking us square in the eyes and really asking us to examine our inner beings, forcing us to directly confront the demons of hope and the American Dream. Is money worth it?

Sinaloa Cowboys” offers a simple, straight-forward story. It has no chorus, only six verses, all of which are sung in Springsteen’s stripped and graveled voice, accompanied by a strumming guitar. It is interesting to note that when the Rosales brothers begin working at the Meth lab and their path toward eventual death and loss begins, another guitar—a Spanish guitar, specifically—and synthesizer (both instruments that add an aesthetic beauty to the song) begin to play. These latter instruments directly contrast the pain of the narrative and is done for a purpose: Maybe loss is a beautiful necessity of life? or something along those lines. Possibly. It’s hard to tell for sure. But what is clear with this song is that there is a narrative genius in Bruce Springsteen, one spawned from pain and loss and anguish, a genius that cannot be matched in story-telling.    

Brandon Daily was born and raised in Southern California. In 2012, he and his wife moved to Central Georgia, where he now teaches high school English and Literature. He holds an M.A. in American Literature and has worked as an adjunct professor and freelance editor. Brandon’s short fiction has been published in several online and print magazines, and his one act play “South of Salvation” was performed and won first prize in the CAST Players One Act Play Festival in 2012. A Murder Country (Knox Robinson, 2014) is his first novel, and tells the story of three violent men living in the late nineteenth century; each man is seeking an understanding of his life and his place within the larger realm of the world. The novel is inspired by Brandon’s fascination with the tension between nature and man as well as the power and fragility of belief and conviction within humans. Brandon is currently working on his second novel and several more short stories. Check him out on FB here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lit in the Lou and Elsewhere

Swell time at the Lit in the Lou festival yesterday and though I felt a bit out of my element on a suspense panel, my table mates Scott Miller, Kristy Makansi and N@B alum Jack Ryan saved my bacon and carried the day. Thanks folks. Both N@B alum Fred Venturini and Tim Lane had events happening at the same time as mine, so I didn't get to go enjoy them (I hope you did), but Fred, Jack and I had a couple pitchers' worth of quality time afterward to get lit in the lou together.

And I had a blast in Arkansas last week. Big thanks to Lisa Reynolds-Sharp, Nightbird Books, the Fayetteville Public Library and the True Lit Festival for having us. N@B at Nightbird was a lot of fun - I read from Peckerwood, Jake Hinkson gave us a taste of Saint Homicide, John Hornor Jacobs read a killer unpublished short story and Scott Phillips cleansed the event with a blaze out of Hop Alley. I also scored myself a UK paperback of Jacobs' The Incorruptibles featuring a heartwarming inscription suggesting my company the equivalent of a tug job at the movies. Thanks, man. You too. Go check out Booked Podcast's The Incorruptibles episode. And speaking of swell podcasts go check out Stephen Usery interviewing Smith Henderson at Mysterpod about his terrific debut novel Fourth of July Creek.

Taking a couple weeks off of book events before Noircon in Philadelphia where I look forward to pressing palms with the likes of Rusty Barnes, Andrew Nette and Michael Kazepis for the first time as well catching up with favorite folks like Christa Faust, Joe Samuel Starnes, Vicki Hendricks, Ed Pettit, Eddie Muller, Lou Boxer, Paul Oliver and David James Keaton. Plus - fuckin Stuart Neville reading as Ted Lewis before a screening of Get Carter? The fuck out. I'm so fucking there. Also, fuck Peter Rozovsky. You gonna be there Dennis Tafoya, Wallace Stroby, Duane Swierczynski, Kieran Shea, Megan Abbott, Anthony Neil Smith? I hope so.

Finally, it is Red October once again and the St. Louis Cardinals are playing the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. Seeing as how both cities have their own N@B chapters, N@B-STL and N@B-SF have a friendless wager going where by after each game, the 'winning city' gives away copies of their books on FB. Last night the Gnats got lucky and took game one. Today - Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts have to give away one of their books. To enter - leave a comment on THIS FB POST before game 2 begins tonight and they will scientifically determine a winner. After tonight's game look for another FB post from the winning city's N@B representative to enter to win another book. Last night was truly Trouble in the Heartland and if there's not enough Hustle tonight and the Giants can Piggyback another win... there will be Lamentation.

Had it been the Blue Jays playing the Cardinals this post season, I would've reached out to Rob Brunet for this little N@B kerfuffle, but he beat me to it and has reached out by way of setting up a signing in my home town tomorrow night at Subterranean Books. I'll be at work and not able to attend, so excuse me while I catch up with Rob on his day off. You're not off the hook tho. Everybody show up to Rob's Stinking Rich signing at Subterranean tomorrow night!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Anderson, Carnahan, Mann, McDonald - Yah Mo Be There

Inherent Vice - d: Paul Thomas Anderson, w: Thomas Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson

Stretch - w/d: Joe Carnahan

Blackhat - w/d: Michael Mann

Black Sea - d: Kevin McDonald w: Dennis Kelly

Monday, October 6, 2014

So, I Think I Need These

Prison Noir - Joyce Carol Oates (ed), hell for the Sin Soracco alone

Perfidia - James Ellroy -

Freight - Ed Kurtz -

Black Neon - Tony O'Neill -

Thursday, October 2, 2014

For Horsemen of the Apocalypse

October is here and that's always an invigorating thought for horsemen of the apocalypse. The air crisps up a bit, the trees begin to die and gatherings... the gatherings are thick in the land. The gatherings that will charge my batteries for the coming year continue tonight at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Are you here? For God's sake, come out and say hi. I'll be reading at Noir at the Bar at 8pm with Scott Phillips, John Hornor Jacobs and Jake Hinkson. It'll be great.

Speaking of Hinkson - his next book, The Big Ugly is coming soon from Beat to a Pulp Books and I can tell ya, it's great. And damn, it's only one of three that I know about that are coming soon from camp Hinks. Look for a short story collection of his from All Due Respect and a collection of essays from... wait, has it been announced? I guess I won't say 'till I'm sure, but holy crap am I excited about that.

Also saw that Tim L. Williams has a story collection coming soon as one of the first of the Jonathan Woods as publisher era of New Pulp Press. There's a lot of promise there. Tim's been a big part of the 2nd & 3rd versions of Plots With Guns (and perhaps there's a 4th we'll see soon-ish) and he knows from short stories - his contribution to Murdaland's 1st issue stuck with me forever. Speaking of PWG, the final chapter of the current version has just been published and look the fuck at that lineup. Rusty Barnes, Dennis Tafoya, Jason Stuart, Court Merrigan and on and on and... 16 stories? Go forth and checkerout.

And get over to Out of the Gutter and see a recent story from Grant Jerkins and... Ryan Sayles. Solid Dick, man.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: August

13 Sins - Daniel Stamm - Elliot is having a bad day - legit money problems, hard family situations, professional setbacks. Everything's going to shit when he receives a phone call from a mysterious source informing him that his life is being broadcast for the entertainment of a buncha bored, rich fucks who run the world and he can win a lot of money if he plays along with an escalating series of challenges. This one's an English language remake of Chookiat Sakveerakul's 2006 Thai language film 13: Game of Death, and I seem to be making a bad habit of catching the remakes first after last month's We Are What We Are viewing (tho, WAWWA wins handily in quality), but y'know what? It's actually the fierce, fresh energy of E.L. Katz's Cheap Thrills that made this one feel like warmed-over fare. Best moment: the opening limerick bit was fun, but the motorcycle ride wins.

Bastards - Claire Denis - The plot of Bastards is languidly revealed over the run time and concerns the fall out from the death of a man we never meet. The dead man's wife, daughter, brother in law, business partner and business partner's wife and young son all factor in, tho the construction of the film feels, at times, like a collection of disparate vignettes not going anywhere in any particular hurry. In the end, it earns its title and is... fuck. It's a little bleak. Though I enjoyed watching Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni look like an alternate yesteryear pairing of Bryan Brown and Susan Sarandon in a moody exercise in sexy doom, the payoff didn't quite justify the mental investment for me, and emotionally I'd been cut off fairly early. Best moment: answering the phone in front of the babysitter. Awkward.

Filth - Jon S. Baird - Right from the start we know something is off about Bruce, the monstrous homicide cop at the center of the action, in this adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel of the same name. As out of control as his behavior appears (copious drug use, ugly and impulsive sexual behavior, violent abuse of the power his job affords), control is precisely what he is in search of. His power games with paramours, co-workers and criminals come together to promote his particular agenda (a promotion he believes will win him back his family). The dual escalation of self-destructive behavior and Machiavellian manipulation of everything and everybody around him leaves Bruce a tad, um, unhinged. The cast is full of ringers - Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Shirley Henderson, and Kate Dickie, but man, this one made an overnight James McAvoy fan out of me. I'd never understood the effusive praise thrown after his (fine, but unremarkable, in my opinion) previous work by folks whose opinions I'm oft in alignment with, and when I saw he'd been cast in the lead role here, I was more than a little skeptical. But hoah shit, does he bring the energy, lechery and most importantly, the feels to this one. Yes, holy fuck! the feels! The final fifth the film pulls every string together for a surprisingly effective and emotionally complex finale that is punctuated by the Best moment: a superb animated end-credit sequence set to the Billy Ocean song Love Really Hurts Without You. Fucking wrecked me. Believe it.

Go For Sisters - John Sayles - Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is a parole officer whose work causes her path to recross with childhood friend Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), a parolee trying to put her life back together. When Bernice's son, a former soldier, goes missing (most likely kidnapped) in Mexico, she enlists her former friend's help in tracking him down. Along the way the duo hire a private detective (Edward James Olmos) and get in over their heads with dangerous people, but the bond between the women proves surprisingly strong and provides a very satisfying main course for the film. The actors ultimately rescue what could have been an exercise in trope subversion (I know - this time the detectives are black women, looking for a young boy who's disappeared) and elevate it to one of the best dramas, let alone crime films I've seen this year. And Sayles certainly deserves credit for that - I don't mean to suggest that he only wrote a cute send-up of the mystery genre - I'm sure he meant for it to be more than that - but without the great performances and chemistry between performers, that's all we'd have. Best moment: the opening scene of Bernice at work hearing stories from parolees is top notch scene setting and character building and both Hamilton and Ross are amazing to watch.

Ray Donovan Season 1 - Ann Biderman - Tough Southie family relocate to L.A. where eldest brother Ray (Liev Schreiber) is a Hollywood fixer, middle brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) runs a boxing gym, Bunchy (Dash Mihok) the fuck-up brother generally fucks up and Daryll (Pooch Hall) the surprise bastard is looking to join the family. Pop Donovan (Jon Voight) springs early from a prison sentence for murder and shows up in Los Angeles like an oedipal bomb ready to blow up the lives of his fairly fucked up family. This is all terrific material for a crime drama and the cast is generally solid, but goodness gracious the punches pulled throughout in order to preserve a character's life or (worse) their likability should be collected along with those yanked by oft-offenders like Sons of Anarchy and constructed into the most badass TV show ever. This one keeps sticking it's neck out in grand dramatic gestures only to have the status quo spared any real consequence and... ugh. Ray fucks around on his wife, but we're not sure if he's a serial philanderer or if it's a special occasion - the storyline is treated with importance until it's pretty abruptly over, Ray wants his father gone and preferably dead throughout the series, but hey, guess who's around for season 2? Ray has his half brother beaten up (by Steven Bauer in maybe his best role ever) which should royally fuck up Daryll's fight career or at least cause some ugly tensions between the siblings, buuuuut nope, it's all swept away and forgotten, Ray pulls a gun on a neighbor kid who hurts his teenaged daughter, but uh, um, yeah, nothing comes of it... it goes on and on and I don't want to get into spoiler territory, but the really egregious ones lie in that realm. I want to like it. I'll give season 2 a chance because a lot of my favorite shows have taken huge steps forward with their second seasons, but I dunno, I'm not too hopeful. Best moment: Voight gets a lot of great throwaway moments, but only one that really sticks the emotional landing - the ultimate fallout from a fumbled bit of psycho-sexual role-play with Rosanna Arquette.

The Samaritan - David Weaver - Ex-convict, ex-conman Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to put together a decent final act to his sad, wasted life upon his release from prison. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like Foley has ever seen a movie or read a book because he steps right into the plot of every ex-con/con plot ever and isn't even warned off by the way everybody talks like they're in a phonics-for-grifters production of how-to-tell-if-you're-"the mark" (hint: you are - you always are)... which is a pity, 'cause beneath the hack note-heavy production (you can pretty much see the studio notes imposed as subtitles in every scene: "More cool grifter slang") lies a decent story that could have, if handled like one of the exercises in genre deconstruction/execution somebody like Steven Soderbergh is want to do, delivered some solid lurid thrills and maybe even produced a feel or two. Best moment: Tom Wilkinson reaps an ice harvest.

Southcliffe - Sean Durkin - Long film/miniseries about the fallout from a shooting spree mass murder in a fictional small British market town. Following a cast of characters including the shooter, some survivors and a journalist covering the tragedy, it's a bit of an awkward balance of stories not quite forming a cohesive whole, but each containing nuggets of gold that I suspect could have been followed to a rich vein. Hard to say what doesn't quite gel here - the cast is strong (Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson as a couple for the second time this month, Boardwalk Empire's Anatol Yusef, Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris and Joe Dempsie all feel like they deserve their own film) the tone is appropriately dour and the subject matter compelling, but the parts are ultimately greater than the whole. It seems to lack a focus, a prime channel for our undoubtedly aroused feelings to funnel through, and instead of a good stream of emotion we end up with a sporadic drip from several ends of a colander. Or perhaps it's simply too long a time to invest in a single down-beat slog through grief, guilt and tragedy. Without enough warmth and light to remind us what we're missing, the overbearing cold and dark loses its impact after a couple of hours (did I mention this is a mini-series?). After the very effective and haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, where Durkin produced all of the emotional impact sought after here in half the time, Southcliffe feels like a well-intentioned mis-step that does nothing to dampen my interest in his next film. Best moment(s): the various scenes of communal emotional synchronization via popular music - whether at a party, a funeral, or a wedding - are all kind of wonderful and taken together might boil down the essence of the film(mini-series) into a potent bitter-sweet pill.

Le Trou - Jacques Becker - Four prisoners well on their way to executing their carefully constructed escape have their plans upset by the sudden arrival of a fifth cellmate. Can they trust the new guy? Do they have a choice? It's a simple and meaty enough question as any to build a half-dozen stories on, but I don't know if you'd ever get a better result than this masterful exercise in onscreen tension. Aside from the very literal pot in which the situation simmers and the nerve-jangling procedural aspect the film employs, the relationships between the men are explored naturally and satisfactorily in the (mostly) single room setting. Watching this one back to back with Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped might just crack your teeth. Best moment: the floor-smashing sequence is one of the most unbearably tense sequences I've ever seen on film. Unlike the silent heist scene in Rififi, this one is constant back and forth of loud, QUIET, loud, QUIET, loud, QUIET and not fed to us in a montage of edits, but done in real time with each character shuffling through their slot in line, doing their part, and becoming alternately physically exhausted spiritually elated to match the viewer's experience.