Saturday, December 31, 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.

2011:

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.