Friday, November 21, 2014

What Say You?

Son of a Gun - d: Julius Avery w: Julius Avery, John Collee

Captive - d: Atom Egoyan, w: Atom Egoyan, David Fraser

A Most Violent Year - w/d: J.C. Chandor

The Gambler - d: Rupert Wyatt w: William Monahan

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Swollen, Red Peckerwood Does Not Grow Back

Where is the place to be Thusday, November 20? The Maplewood Public Library (7550 Lohmeyer Ave, Maplewood, Missouri 63143) at 6pm. I'll be there with Matthew McBride and Fred Venturini to come clean about dirty words. Expect red faces, blue content and purple nurples as well as false starts, awkward pauses and completely reactionary fuddled beef.
And speaking of non-sequiturs: Books! Three of the most... um, two of the best books of the last year will be at the event for defacing by the scribes and you can get copies. They make great passive aggressive gifts for your frenemies. What better way to say 'hey, you strike me as barely literate' than with books of this caliber? So, be there, huh?

What's that? You can't get out of Chicago for the event? Sit tight then, and let me suggest that you show up for N@B-Chicago's event at Quenchers on Tuesday, December 9. You can check out N@B favorites Kent Gowran, Kevin Lynn Helmick, Jake Hinkson, Frank Wheeler Jr. plus Sam Reaves beginning at 6pm. Skip your commute home and unwind with these degenerates. Rumor has it the Livius and the Robb from the Booked podcast will be onhand to make offhand remarks and pimp their shit... which deserves to be pimped. Have you been keeping up with the Booked? Here's a quick rundown of 'recent' highlights:

Guest and N@B irregular David James Keaton helps review his own book, The Last Projector.

The guys discuss what might've happened if Biggus Dickus' empire reached the new world in a rousing review of N@B's official horror scribe John Hornor Jacobs' The Incorruptibles.

The Rain King, a wild 'n wolly western of N@B cowboy Kevin Lynn Helmick gets an unruly lasso about it's slim waist and guess who gets the better of that situation. Here's a hint: the horse.

Methland, Missouri loves company and the guys hang out amongst the grim gangsters of Gasconade in A Swollen, Red Sun, alongside N@B's very own Virgil, Matthew McBride.

And N@B's man on fire, Richard Thomas has his co-edited collection Burnt Tongues given the Booked anthology treatment (they cherry pick stories and review them individually). N@B favorite son Fred Venturini also has a story in this collection and his novel The Heart Does Not Grow Back is the subject of the next episode of Booked, so stay the fuck tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Piles

NoirCon has come and gone and I hardly left any skin behind this time. Maybe I'm all growed up. Did have a swell time in Philly, though. Especially enjoyed hanging with folks like Anthony Neil Smith, Christa Faust, Scott Adlerberg, Tom Wickersham, Vicki Hendricks, Andrew Nette, David James Keaton, Amy Leuck, Nik Korpon, Rob Hart, Adam Cesare and Eric Campbell. I only got to see Kieran Shea for about five minutes, but I'd have made the trip just for that chance.

Also had quick run-ins with Dennis Tafoya, Ed Pettit, Eddie Muller, Wallace Stroby, Megan Abbott, Jen Conley, Jon McGoran, Joe Samuel Starnes, Erik Arneson, Chuck Barksdale, Lou Boxer, Jonathan Woods, Paul Oliver, Juliet Grames, Bronwen Hruska, Kenneth Wishnia and Stuart Neville, plus a chance to apologize to Sean O'Kane for past harassments and press flesh with Gonzalo Baeza, Kevin Catalano and Fuminori Nakamura. Plus, y'know what? I got to say 'Fuck Peter Rozovsky' right to the man's face.

And I can't tell you how warm it made my heart substitute to hear he'd kicked off the NoirCon N@B edition with 'Fuck Jedidiah Ayres'. Fuck you forever, Pete.

 Last week's book haul was pretty high quality too. Among others, I picked up the Stark House Malcom Braly omnibus featuring Shake Him Till He Rattles and It's Cold Out There, Ron Hansen's Desperadoes, Jay Stringer's Old Gold, Garry Disher's Hell to Pay, Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss and signed copies of Tribesmen by Adam Cesare and Jungle Horses by Scott Adlerberg. Also happy to have received copies of a couple swell books featuring blurbs from me -

Flash Blood by Joseph Hirsch: Flash Blood, much like its main character, is competent, methodical and dogged in pursuing its goal. Unfortunately, that goal is to freak you the hell out. Fortunately it's a lot of fun getting there. The Arklow books rank alongside Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt series as the best weirdest thing going in PI fiction today. Joseph Hirsch is scary good.

and

The Last Projector by David James Keaton: That thing called 'voice' authors are said to have? Keaton's are legion. That 'Tap, tap, tap' you may hear issuing from this book? I wouldn't open it up without a quick 'Klaatu barada nikto' for good measure.


Very pleased to publicly endorse both of these books and both of these writers represent the best of post-genre fiction's future. Particularly honored to have been there for The Last Projector's release party which consisted of me and Keaton in twin beds trying to sync up our simultaneous Netflix streams of John Badham's The Hard Way on our laptops... which is perhaps the most perfectly Keatonian experience I've ever had.



During my travel time I enjoyed knocking Adam Cesare's The First One You Expect, Steve Lowe's King of the Perverts and Ray Banks's Matador off of my TBR pile. Of course when you're surrounded by so much talent and knowledge for even a short time that TBR pile is gonna get outta hand. 

I think my most pressing concern from the weekend is gonna be one of many film recommendations I picked up from Nette: Jules Dassin's Uptight. How the hell had I never heard of this one? I love Dassin - maybe the most palpably angry of the black-list era directors - and the idea of him coming back to the states for a remake(?) of John Ford's The Informers (this time the IRA are black revolutionaries) is just toooooo great to pass up. Of course I can't find it. Of course. Anybody with a connection for this flick, please hit me up. 

So... that's my week. How've you been?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Can't Stop Thinking Big: CriMemoir - Trey R. Barker


Spent some time lately with the good crew at Down & Out Books - a St. Louis visits with Rob Brunet and Sandi Loper (whom it was great to catch up with again at N@B at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas) and then over the weekend caught up with Keith Gilman and Eric Campbell. (Not to mention they just published The Genuine Imitation Plastic Kidnapping by N@B alum Les Edgerton.) Sandi and Eric keep dropping the name Trey R. Barker on me, so I reached out to the man and hit him up for a guest piece. Immediately he shot me a half dozen ideas for the CriMemoir series. He selected one to write about and damned if it ain't a corker. I'm sure you'll want to check up on Trey after reading it, and you can do so right here, but first...

Can’t Stop Thinking Big by Trey R. Barker

1

It was tall – at least relative to that moment – and it looked impossibly heavy.

“…what are you doing?”

The place was, I thought at the time, a motel. There was an open reception area with a wraparound desk, dingy walls, and dirty light, all surrounded by rooms that emptied into the reception area. I know now it was a lawyer’s office. In fact, the cops called him Lawyer Jones with both a good bit of west Texas racism and dismissiveness; after all, he obviously wasn’t important enough for the cops to learn his real name.

He was the attorney for a man named James Oliver Green.

“…no.  Can we just go?”

James Oliver Green was, on that warm evening in the middle of May, 1976, employed at Global Wholesale Pottery. He was a warehouse grunt who spent his days cleaning the warehouse, unpacking pottery, making deliveries. I’d been at the warehouse that day because Mom was the bookkeeper and often brought me along. I dug the place which meant there were no babysitting charges for any day I hung out at the warehouse.

For reasons lost to the vagaries of memory, James gave me a ride home that day. Maybe Mom was working late, or I was anxious to get home, or I was being a pain in the ass. Regardless, James and I were in a car together when we first saw her walking along the railroad tracks.

“…no, I don’t want to….”

She was beautiful…at least to this young boy’s eyes. Dark hair, dark eyes. Jeans tight around curvy hips, breasts shyly asking for notice. She seemed much older than me and had an air of sophistication. I assumed she was a world traveler who had been everywhere and seen everything. I was smitten, as much as a 9-year old boy can be, and when James stopped and asked if she needed a ride, when she said yes, when she came to our car, I couldn’t breathe as I happily gave up my shotgun seat and climbed in the back.

“…damnit, stop.   Just let me go, okay?”

I’d never heard a voice sound like that and even now I remember the splash of fear that landed hard in my gut, which now suddenly hurt, and spread in angry concentric rings throughout my body. My head pounded, my breath came fast and hard. My skin was alive with heat, my head with panic.

What the fuck was I supposed to do? Standing in that room, where James had dropped me while he and the woman – the girl – went elsewhere, with that bed and television on a rickety TV cart, the sunlight cantering sideways through what I remember as tattered curtains and spilling weakly on the floor like an old man spilling tired seed, what in the holy hell was I supposed to do?

“…stop it, goddamnit.  Let go of me, asshole.”

“James?”

James didn’t answer me.

What I didn’t know in that moment, but at the same time absolutely knew in that moment, was that he was trying to rape her. He was trying to get into this girl and it scared me as completely and thoroughly as any moment in my life up until the night in 2014 when I faced a drunk, angry cop larger and by far stronger than me who told me, in a stone dead affect, that he could get my gun and put bullets in my head before I blinked.

“James?”

I was utterly helpless. Defenseless and helpless. To the point that I wanted to cry because there was simply nothing else I could do.

That was when I saw it.

It was tall, at least relative to a 9-year old. It was heavy when I tried to pick it up. A pitted and rusty double barrel, two triggers, the wooden stock old and stained. But for all that, it was something that was going to help, this thing I’d never even held, much less fired. It was going to make me less defenseless.  If I could lift it….  If I could fire it….  If it was even loaded and I didn’t manage to kill myself first.

But James took the choice out of my hands.

For whatever reason, he stopped. God knows why, but he listened to her pleading and begging.  Somewhere down the road, he gave her a few dollars, let her out, and took me home.

I told no one until the two detectives, one of them the father of a school chum, came to see me at school a few days later. Then I lied. Then I told them everything.

But regardless of the words that spilled outta my mouth, I still felt defenseless.

2

When I was growing up, Mom’s boyfriend was a cop. A hulking mountain of a man, both scary and comforting.  He was there for huge swaths of my childhood. When I ran away, he was there. When I began to notice girls in a more serious way than the 9-year old boy had, he was there.

And when I heard Mom getting beaten up, he was there.

It was all familiar: the taste of fear in the back of my throat, the burning heat on my skin, the ache in my guts, the hyper awareness that I could do absolutely nothing for her.

The man was huge.  He was drunk.  He was violent.

That entire night, with two exceptions, are gone from my memory. The first is that I remember Mom calling someone, a lady I believe, and saying, “He’s already beat me up twice.”

The second exception is the heater. We had a wall unit that stuck out about six inches from the wall. It was dark gray and old and directly across a very narrow hallway from the bathroom. The next day, when the violence was over and he was sleeping it off, I stared at that huge dent in the panel. That was where Mom’s shoulder had gone.

As with James and his attempting to rape what turned out to be a 15-year old girl, I was defenseless.
But also humiliated because I couldn’t even find the balls to call out to Mom, to at least try to put the brakes on the violence.

I laid there in bed, listening to her crying, listening to him bitch about whatever had crawled beneath his angry skin, and couldn’t do anything.  I’m sure I cried, though I don’t remember it.  I’m sure I cussed him, though I don’t remember that, either.

But I know I questioned all of it. Why had she let this happen? Why couldn’t she do anything to stop it?  Why had he chosen her to do this to? Why was someone this monstrous even in our lives?

What the fuck did I know? I was a scared kid hearing his mommy get hurt. I had no idea about the dynamics of relationships. I had no idea about the dynamics of violence or his cowardice. I had no idea that later in that relationship, Mom would toe right up to him and dare him to hit her again. I had no idea that the violence and drinking was a symptom of something else.

And if I had known? Fuck it. I wouldn’t have given a shit. I wasn’t interested in interpersonal relationship dynamics. I wanted to stop her hurt. In that moment, she was as defenseless as me and I wanted to stop the hurt.

But more to the point…I wanted to hurt him back.

3

Later, I don’t know when exactly, she wasn’t defenseless.

Later, she was the defender.

I don’t know the woman’s name. I don’t know how Mom knew her. All I knew for sure was that one Sunday morning, a lady was at our house. She was crying. She was hurt. She’d been beaten.

She was where my mother had been.

But Mom was not.

Mom was in the living room, almost daring her asswipe of a husband to come in, toeing up to him as she had her boyfriend.

Mom was also carrying a steak knife.

I got up and went to her side, finding just enough balls.  I saw the knife and said, “That won’t do anything.”

She looked at me, her eyes full of determination rather than anger, though I suspect she was quite angry, and said, “Sure as hell will if I stick it in his gut.”

I’ll remember that as long as I live.

What I understood at that moment was that the defenseless are not always defenseless.  Sometimes, the defenseless are just as capable of defending themselves as are the biggest and meanest amongst us.

Both of those things, the defenseless and the momentarily defenseless, have worked their way through my life and literature in surprising ways.  I discovered, when I became a deputy sheriff late in life, that part of what drove me was to protect the defenseless, however that might be defined: the young, the elderly, those who suffered mental disorders, those who fought emotional disorders, the politically disconnected, the socially disaffected.

In law enforcement, that usually means someone is getting over on someone else, either by force or force of will. Be it battery or fraud, it leaves victims in its wake, as angry and humiliated as it did the kid version of me.

In my writing, this drive comes through a fractal lens and ends up in all kinds of places to one degree or another. It’s most obvious in my short story Accomplice, originally published in Blue Murder and later in my collection Remembrance and Regrets.

In that story, a defenseless child saves his own life by killing the one person who had, repeatedly, gotten over on him; who had used him as a tool for her own ends. The story was as simple and complicated as that. At the end, I dedicated the story to ‘Batman,’ aka Andrew Vachss. A dear friend of mine, writer Ed Bryant, had once wondered to me if Vachss ever thought of himself as Batman, a superhero for children. Everything of Vachss, his law practice that represents exclusively children, his writing, his speeches and presentations, his very essence, has gone into protecting children and I am, and always will be, in awe of what he’s done.

To ‘Batman,’ because sometimes the children are their own best protectors.

In Hostage, a brand new short novel, I allow the grown up child to protect herself from her own past.  In doing so, she gets over on the man against whom she felt defenseless…and as an added, nasty bonus, takes along two other children the same man has molested, and allows them to get over on him, too.

What I’m doing, I think, is rewriting how it worked out with James and Mom. Maybe trying to create better endings to those incidents so that I don’t feel humiliated or defenseless or that something bigger is running me down. And just maybe I’m trying to emulate my mother on the day of the knife. There’s a great line in a recent Rush song, “In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big.” In the song, thinking big is about a boy’s dreams of the outside world. In my fiction, it’s about dreaming that you are bigger than whoever is hurting you.

Yeah, all that sounds pompous as hell, but I do realize I can only change my tiny part of the world, both in reality and in fiction. That’s good enough.  If I can change that tiny part, then I can slip outta my mortal coil, in another twenty or thirty years, and be perfectly happy.

Well, mostly perfectly happy because, after all…this is me we’re talking about and have I ever been perfectly happy?

Hah! Hell, no.

Trey R. Barker's newest novel, Slow Bleed, has just been published by Five Star and begins the journey of Jace Salome, a female deputy at the beginning of her career. Barker is also the author of 2,000 Miles To Open Road, Exit Blood, Remembrance and Regrets, The Cancer Chronicles, as well as hundreds of short stories and thousands of non-fiction pieces. The third book in his Barefield series, Death Is Not Forever, will be published this winter. He is a deputy sheriff in Illinois and a member of the Illinois Attorney General's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, as well as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal assigned to the Quad Cities Cyber Crimes Federal Working Group.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

NoirCon Homework

I'm gone to NoirCon. I'm off to Philly. The check's in the mail. Move along. What? You aren't gonna see me there? Well, shit. How bout you check out these crime flicks with a Philly tie?

God's Pocket - directed by John Slattery, adapted from Philly favorite son Pete Dexter's novel of the same name. After The Paper Boy, I'm happy to see a good dose of Dexter feel creeping into an adaptation.

McCanick - Josh C. Waller directs this drama about a Philadelphia detective who's having a really bad day. Fuckin David Morse, man. What else do you need?

Witness - Peter Weir's answer to what to do when the people at your day job try to kill you: go hide among the good, simple people in the country.

A History of Violence - But then David Cronenberg shoots that option down with this story of a Philadelphia bad man, retired to a new life in a small town, whose past is about to... you know. You fuckin know. You've seen a movie or two, right?

At Close Range - James Foley's super great crime flick set in rural Pennsylvania suggests that the small towns don't need big city ex-pats to lower the morality bar.

Blow Out - Discussions of Brian De Palma's good ol' days have to include this spin on Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup as a highlight. Grungy, pretty, sleazy, elegant exploitation with boobs and blood and John Lithgow in one of his best psycho roles.

Or you wanna maybe read a book? Here are a few from Philly folk that rocked.

The Wheelman - Duane Swierczynski exercises rather than exorcising the ghost hand of Richard Stark hovering over his keyboards with this tale of a bad, bloody, day where that Bruce Springsteen song is set.

Dope Thief - Dennis Tafoya debut is just one of the best, most emotionally effective (brutal and beautiful) crime novels of the last decade and you'd be a fucking idiot not to find this shit and read it. You would be. A fucking idiot. You. Would be.

The Burgler - David Goodis is the reason NoirCon exists (aside from Lou Boxer). Hell the con was originally called Goodis Con. You wanna get right to the dark heart of what the nerds call noir? Goodis is a great place to start.

See you in Philly.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Three Arrests: Mike Monson CriMemoir

Mike Monson's plate is effing full. Dude is an associate editor at All Due Respect books and his own body of work is growing at an alarming rate. How does one man accumulate so much material for crime stories? He lives it. Sorta. This is Mike's second entry in the CriMemoir series (you can read his first here) and I'm beginning to think this guy is a golden egg laying goose for anecdotal short-ladder criminality. Mike's latest novel is Tussinland. Take comfort, Mike, confession is good for the soul...

My Three Arrests by Mike Monson

I’ve been jailed three times in my life. So far. Each time was back in the 1970s while I was in my early twenties. And, each time, my basic transgression was being a stupid fuck-up.

The first arrest happened very late one Saturday night. I was hitchhiking on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. I needed to get to San Juan Capistrano, where I slept on my sister’s couch. That’s right, I had no car and no place of my own. I was unemployed. I’d also recently lost my glasses and one of my contact lenses, and I had no insurance or money to use to replace them.

Earlier in the evening I’d somehow managed to convince a young woman I was sexually obsessed with to use her car to take us to the drive-in movies. It was one of those deals where I was in lust and she was in love and when we each found out the truth in the front seat of her car, we lost interest in each other immediately. I guess she must’ve dropped me off on the highway, but I really have no memory of how I ended up there.

After about five minutes with my thumb out, a policeman stopped to write me a ticket. One of my feet was in the gutter, which is considered an illegal hitchhiking technique in Corona del Mar. Per routine, he ran my license and found out to my surprise that there was a warrant out for my arrest. He put me in cuffs and took me to the county jail. Turns out I hadn’t paid a speeding ticket several years before so the arrest was for ‘failure to appear.’

I called my sister to come bail me out. She refused. Some kind of tough love thing, I’m not sure. Since my parents were living in Louisiana, she was my only chance, so I spent the night in jail. I appeared before the judge the next day. He let me go and I was given a new deadline to pay the ticket. Luckily, my sister did come pick me up.

At that time I didn’t know enough to be frightened of the other prisoners. It was the jailers who scared me. I was in a cell with about ten other men. We ignored each other. There are three things I remember vividly about that night and half a day: not having the nerve to use the very public toilet in the middle of the cell; desperately needing a cigarette; and, being convinced that once I was behind bars the jailers would lose my paperwork and if I dared to ask them to check on my status (even after days or weeks) they’d just laugh in my face or beat me. Oh, and the breakfast tasted awful, of course.

The next arrest was about a year later. My parents had moved back to Southern California and I was now staying in their very nice house in Irvine. I even got my own room. I also had a baby blue 1963 Dodge Dart that my grandfather had given me to make up for the fact that he was an abusive drunken asshole when I was a kid.

I was pulled over by an Orange County Sheriff while I drove south on the Garden Grove Freeway. He said I’d made an illegal lane change. He ran my license and found that there was a warrant for my arrest. Failure to appear—I still hadn’t paid that speeding ticket from the last arrest.

It was a Friday night just before New Years and the jail was packed. There were about 50 men ahead of me in the line to be processed. I was wearing brand-new desert boots and a wonderful swede jacket my mother had recently bought me. I looked like what I was: a middle-class suburban white boy. Everyone else in the line looked like real criminals.

When I finally got to the front of the line, the jailer behind the desk gave me a big smile. He was even whiter than me, and he resembled Opie from The Andy Griffin Show. He looked like the guys I’d gone to high school with. He looked at me, he looked at my paperwork, and he looked at all the hard asses surrounding me.

“Mr. Monson,” he said. “How is it that a hardened criminal like you wound up with all these good citizens?” He thought that was pretty funny. I didn’t laugh.

Again, I spent the night without smoking, without taking a leak or a dump, and while totally convinced I’d be forgotten and rot in the cell. And, again, I was let out on my ‘own recognizance,’ after an awful breakfast of dehydrated scrambled eggs and rancid orange juice. I was given another chance to pay that original ticket.

The third time was after about another year. I had a good job finally and was trying to take care of all my debts and responsibilities. I was trying to grow up, I guess. I went down to the courthouse to pay that fine. They took my money for the old speeding ticket and then arrested me—failure to appear.

I’d never gotten around to paying the ticket for the illegal lane change on the Garden Grove Freeway. Oops.

Mike Monson is the author of The Scent of New Death, Criminal Love, and What Happens in Reno. His latest novel is Tussinland. Mike is also associate editor of the quarterly crime journal All Due Respect. Check in with him here.

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.