KILLING PAPARAZZI (2003)

(This was originally penned July 6th, 2021 for a platform other than this website.)

A writer friend recommended Robert M. Eversz’s KILLING PAPARAZZI to me, knowing I have a taste for noir and detective fiction, especially if it’s lurid and moves like a freight train, and KILLING PARAZZI does not disappoint. It’s my favorite neo-noir I’ve read since Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN — my favorite neo-noir novel ever — one that I found to be a revelation, but that’s a story for another time.

First things first: my friend did not note that this was the second novel in Eversz’s NINA ZERO series, so it took a bit before I could really get a bead on exactly what the protagonist had done to be incarcerated. The events of the first novel are doled out in a trickle, but you eventually get the whole picture (and the following paragraph will help you along without major spoilers, just in case).

KILLING PAPARAZZI features Nina Zero — née Mary Alice Baker — as she’s getting out of prison in the early aughts for killing several men and accidentally blowing up part of LAX. One of the first things she does upon parole? A green card wedding to an unknown Englishman named Gabe. They have a fun night in Vegas, but she realizes she could fall for him and also realizes he could fall for her, so she darts back to her home city, Los Angeles, buys a used Cadillac and a camera, and starts using her streetsmarts to work the paparazzi beat.

A week later, she happens upon the scene of her husband’s murder, floating in LA’s finest drinking water, and finds herself wanting revenge.

It’s pulpy; it’s penned with a clipped terseness that I can’t help but adore; it traffics in L.A. lore; Nina’s an angry misfit, smart, funny, resourceful, and down for more than you might initially expect. It’s absolute catnip for me, and an enthralling read.

FALLEN ANGELS – Murder, Obliquely (S01E05, 1993)

FALLEN ANGELS was a mid-90s neo-noir anthology on SHOWTIME that I only recently heard of, but the fifth episode of the first season, entitled Murder, Obliquely, features Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Diane Lane, was co-written by Amanda Silver (THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and a number of the new PLANET OF THE APES films) and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (CHILDREN OF MEN, ROMA). That’s a stellar team right there.

Murder, Obliquely is also based on the Cornell Woolrich short story of the same name. Woolrich wrote the source material for REAR WINDOW among loads of other very successful works, but by others accounts he had a very unhappy life: he married a woman in 1930 while knowing he was gay; the marriage was annulled three years later; despite being a prolific and successful writer, he was also a self-destructive alcoholic, living with his mother in shithole apartments until she died; then he spiraled out completely and became a recluse until he died.

I mention this because this adaptation of Murder, Obliquely very clearly leans into this background, if you read between the lines. (I’ll note that I have yet to read the short it’s based on.) It’s a Sirkian noir of infatuation — Annie (Laura Dern) becomes obsessed with inherited-millionaire Dwight Billings (Alan Rickman) but he can’t get over his ex, the recently-married Bernette Stone (Diane Lane). The story ends with everyone miserable, as noirs do.

Despite having the gauzy veneer of 90s cable television, it’s remarkable stylish with its costuming and art design — especially Dwight’s art deco home — as well as the dialogue, which manages to be distinct without feeling too broad. If you have thirty minutes to spare, it’s a great way to spend some time.

I don’t think anyone will mind a direct link to a fan rip in this case:

THE TURNOUT (2021)

I have not been shy about boosting Megan Abbott over the years; QUEENPIN — her third novel — was a foundational text for me. Upon initially reading it, I asked myself the same question that I’ve asked myself upon consuming other transformative works: “You can get away with this?”

QUEENPIN is a lurid and lusty piece of neo-noir about a smart but young woman who falls in doing accounting work for questionable people, and matters quickly escalate into a very combative piece about two willful women butting heads and committing increasingly terrible acts.

That’s Abbott’s oeuvre in a nutshell. She’s all about the power dynamics of female relationships, appetites, and those who take advantage of the those facets. Perfect material for neo-noir but — as Abbott quickly sussed out — also well-suited for young adult novels, of which she penned a handful of (including the cheerleading YA-noir DARE ME, which she adapted into a canceled too soon USA TV show).

THE TURNOUT is the first book of hers in some time to feature an adult protagonist and players. Granted, it still focuses on extraordinarily physical youth-centric endeavors — this time ballet — and has a number of teen flashbacks, but the endgame here is all about the adults and living with the wreckage of their youth.

It’s a tale of two sisters — Dara, a flinty ice queen, and Marie, mercurial and immature — who run their dead mother’s ballet studio. For years, Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband Charlie, also an ex-dancer who grew up alongside them, lived under their dead parents’ roof. Marie decides to move out, opting to live in the attic of the studio, which used to be their mother’s private space.

A fire breaks out in the studio and they enlist Derek — a smooth-talking contractor — to repair the space while they prepare for their annual NUTCRACKER slate of performances, and matters spiral from there.

Abbott’s prose and internal monologues have traditionally been her strengths, but THE TURNOUT has a lot of repetitive dialogue between characters, a number of redundant explanations, and the plotting also feels a little too neat, a little too exacting.

However, this is still an Abbott book, and those are nitpicks. It is vividly enthralling, with rich and complex characters about an under-examined artistic and physical medium, there’s more than a bit of du Maurier regarding how Abbott treats the dilapidated house and studio, and she definitely sticks the landing. It’s well-worth your time if you’re into off-beat thrillers and personas.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/611535/the-turnout-by-megan-abbott/

DETECTIVE PIKACHU (2019)

(VOD) Now wait, hear me out:

  • It’s a visual marvel that WAS SHOT ON FILM on because Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson wanted it to look like BLADE RUNNER, and I’d argue that he succeeded
  • It reminds me of Jim Henson’s DOG CITY — a childhood favorite of mine — in that it’s family-friendly noir, but still damn smart. (That said: not nearly as much of a spoof, but very close to one.)
  • It’s darker than you’d expect and has better character development than necessary
  • I have only played POKEMON SNAP and had no proper pre-existing knowledge of the characters or the world and I still loved it
  • It’s worth watching just for the closing reveal
  • I’m short on time today, hence these bullet points

SELAH AND THE SPADES (2020)

(Prime) Tayarisha Poe’s debut SELAH AND THE SPADES can be described as DEAR WHITE PEOPLE meets BRICK and, while I can’t argue with that — it’s full of teens scheming in a neo-noir underworld of their very own making — it’s more than a mashup of those two, partially because it focuses predominantly on girls and power. Also, while it’s Jomo Fray’s first feature as a cinematographer, his experience with short films is wisely executed, providing a strikingly visual film while still keeping a steady hand on SELAH’s framing.

THE KID DETECTIVE (2020)

(Starz/VOD) I have a hard time believing this film wasn’t pitched as ‘gritty adult Encyclopedia Brown’ (and then whomever was being pitched probably replied ‘Encyclo-what?’) but even if it wasn’t, it works as a pretty succinct summary.

As I grew up reading ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN and TWO-MINUTE MYSTERIES, and love Chandler-esque detective fiction in general, I was already on this film’s side. While it’s much more subdued, quiet, and cynical than I thought it’d be, debut feature writer/director Evan Morgan clearly loves the genre and is surprisingly unwilling to poke fun at it, or even to modernize it. (For a film that takes place in modern day, it’s surprisingly reliant on landline phones.)

While some may be turned off by the dourness of the film — there are cutting remarks and laughs to be had, but the film is soaked in melancholy — it’s a welcome surprise to see a neo-noir that isn’t peppered with flippancy.

BREATHLESS (1983)

(hoopla/kanopy) I last watched Jim McBride’s (DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE) remake of BREATHLESS many moons ago, back when I could walk down the street to my cult video store and rent a VHS copy. Despite not thinking much of it at the time, I have vivid memories of the film’s neon spills, as well as one terrible joke:

“You know Frank Lloyd Wright? This is Frank Lloyd Wrong.”

Watching it recently, after years of scrutinizing adaptations, I realized I was far too tough on it.

Structurally, McBride’s film is the same as Godard’s, he just inverts the locale and the protagonists’ countries of origin; instead of taking place in France with a French cad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and American love interest (Jean Seberg), it’s an American cad (Richard Gere) with a French love interest (Valérie Kaprisky).

McBride, and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSCRE 2 -and- PARIS, TEXAS) are aware that trying to recreate the verve of 60’s BREATHLESS would be futile, so they ramp matters up a bit. Their BREATHLESS is a sleek, neon-soaked affair that wants nothing to do with jump cuts. Gere’s no longer an admirer of Bogart, but instead idolizes Jerry Lee Lewis. He doesn’t have the cool collected air of Belmondo, but instead is a ball of energy, constantly moving. As opposed to the erotic tête-à-tête between Belmondo & Seberg, they lean into full-blown sex scenes.

Is it a good film? Arguably, yes, it’s a gripping erotic thriller. Is it on par with Godard’s BREATHLESS? Oh, no, please. Godard’s BREATHLESS is a genre masterpiece, stitched together by sheer reactionary inventiveness and the vibrant performances from the leads. McBride’s BREATHLESS is a fascinating flip side, shining a spotlight on American appetites that falters mostly because both Gere and Kaprisky, and American culture in general, lack the enigmatic allure that makes the original film work.

One last note: BREATHLESS (1983) leaves Hulu on February 28th!

BLOOD ON HER NAME (2020)

(hoopla/Prime/tubi/VOD) This is one hell of a neo-noir thriller. In the wrong hands, this story of mother accidentally murdering a man could have been Lifetime movie, but director/writer Matthew Pope, along with lead Bethany Anne Lind, shape it into a wickedly ruthless tale, then punctuate it with a gut-punch of an ending.

ANDY BARKER, P.I. (2007)

(VOD/DVD) A comedic neo-noir from Jonathan Groff (LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN, SCRUBS, HAPPY ENDINGS) where most of the major players are fools, out-of-touch with reality, or a combination of both.

Andy (Andy Richter) is a wide-eyed suburban accountant who, within five minutes of opening his private practice in a mall court, is duped into the world of investigating underground crime. Joining him is Simon (perfectly annoyingly played by Tony Hale) as Andy’s partner/video store owner whose store resides a floor under Andy’s practice, Wally (Marshall Manesh), as the tech guy/the middle-eastern restauranteur in the same mall court, and grizzled ex-private investigator Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), who often drags Andy into as many cases as he drags him out of.

While it pokes fun at the genre (it was naming each episode after a noir film a decade before RIVERDALE was), it’s shot with the luster of a Barry Sonnefeld film, and the plotting is as tight as a drum. While the show is silly, the jokes are either sneakily smart, or the stupidity of them are so well-crafted that you don’t care. Also, it never goes as broad as say other genre parodies, like POLICE STORY! or ANGIE TRIBECA.

The series was unceremonious cancelled after four episodes — despite only having a six-ep order — which I’m oddly okay with. While I’m sure they could have sustained this level of quality for another six episodes, what we have here is more than enough.

One caveat: while the pilot is about as perfect of an initial episode of a comedy — this show hit the ground running — the second episode, despite being co-written by BUFFY alum Jane Espenson, leans far too heavily on the premise that folks can find a larger person attractive. I don’t mean there are a few jokes here and there — the episode starts with them and fires off about one or two gags a minute until the ep closes with one more joke. Maybe circle back to it, because it’s one of the rare misfires for the show.

A few out-of-context jokes for you:

“The man’s crazy! He’s throwing babies at us!”

“Gene Kelly’s 50th was a big night. Buddy Hackett took off his pants and sat down on the cake! That was comedy back then: it wasn’t funny, but they committed.”

“Someone’s moving in! I wonder who… said the owl.”

“What do you known about the chicken business?” “Oh, that’s bad news. Like the pork business without the conscience.”

(I swear, the show’s better than this trailer makes it look.)

JOHN FROM CINCINNATI (2007)

(HBO MAX) Sadly, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI has been mired in controversy due to many DEADWOOD fans blaming it for their favorite show being canceled, as DEADWOOD creator David Milch put it on pause to pursue this oddity, and then HBO canceled both shows. While they’re probably not wrong — it’s complicated — JOHN FROM CINCINNATI deserves a better legacy than that.

JOHN was the creation of David Milch and renowned ‘surf noir’ author Kem Nunn, and I believe it’s best described as a quintessentially American spiritual surf journey. It’s focused around a being who speaks in riddles, who inserts himself into a surfing dynasty family (Mitch, Cissy, Butchie, and Shaun Yost), and the quirky characters drawn into the family’s orbit.

Milch retains his standard ‘every episode encapsulates a day’ structure and leans even more heavily into his lyrical prose, often in an intentionally obtuse way that can either delight or frustrate. Here’s an excerpt of a lengthy monologue delivered by John from a scene near the end of the sixth episode:

“If my words are yours, can you hear my father? Can Bill know my father keeping his eye on me? Can I bone Kai and Butchie know my father instead? My father’s shy doing his business. Kai helps my father dump out. Bill takes a shot! Shaunie is much improved. Joe is a doubting Thomas. Joe will not say Aleman. Joe will bring his buddies home. This is how Freddie relaxes. Cup of joe and Winchell’s variety dozen. Mitch catches a good wave. Mitch wipes out. Mitch wipes out Cissy. Cissy shows Butchie how to do that. Cissy wipes Butchie out. Butchie hurts Barry’s hand. Mr. Rollins comes in Barry’s face. My father runs the Mega Millions.”*

If you rolled your eyes at the exposition-dump above, this is not the show for you. It’s an incredibly idiosyncratic, overly theatrical, dark but not bleak show about people struggling to find hope, or at least that’s my read on it. I hesitate to say this, since it seems obvious, but the closest parallel is TWIN PEAKS, although it doesn’t lean so much on heightened melodrama and lacks a lot of PEAKS’ humor, but it’s just as thoughtful and a rich mine, if you’re willing to dig into it.

The cast is a murderers’ row of Hollywood talent and long-lasting character actors: Rebecca De Mornay, Bruce Greenwood, Luis Guzmán, Ed O’Neill (doing some MVP work acting alongside a number of birds), Garret Dillahunt, Jim Beaver, Stephen Tobolowsky, Dayton Callie — the list goes on.

Yes, DEADWOOD is a fucking masterpiece, but if you’re not afraid of some strange, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI will reward you.

  • There’s behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of that scene, which is a rare glimpse into Milch’s directing style:

There’s also a music video shaped from the monologue, which is actually not nearly as weird as the closing scenes themselves.