DARE ME (2012/2019)

It’s no secret that Megan Abbott is my favorite living author. QUEENPIN was absolutely foundational for me in the current phase of my life. She completely hones in on the physicality, wants and needs of folks, in many expert ways.

With her novel DARE ME, she focuses on cheerleading and bodily control and power.

Granted, I’ve never been a cheerleader, much less a teenage girl, but goddamn — as someone who was a former amateur gymnast — I love to throw myself around and be thrown around. It is absolutely thrilling. My body just wants hands on them, which kind of sucks and has managed to get me into more trouble than I’d like. However, I can’t help it, and there’s power and command that comes with that physicality, and Abbott absolutely nails that facet with DARE ME.

The show she helmed is dreamier and more heightened than even I expected from the source material, but it is glorious however sadly short-lived. It was exquisitely drawn for multiple seasons, but barely survived for one, but what a season.

“In the end, I couldn’t stop it.”


(Peacock) LEOPARD SKIN is an eight episode limited series from Sebastian Gutierrez, perhaps best known for the recent neo-noir series JETT or for the cult comedy ELEKTRA LUXX or a little joke of a film named SNAKES ON A PLANE, depending on the kind of person you are. (I fall in the first camp.)

JETT was known for its supremely hyper-stylized lighting and framing patchwork — segmenting the action to heighten tension as well as to just look cool. As you might imagine, it owes a great deal of debt to Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s OUT OF SIGHT with a dash of WILD THINGS. Tellingly, Gutierrez also wrote an episode of the short-lived Karen Sisco spin-off of the film where THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE’s Carla Gugino played Sisco. (It’s worth noting that Gugino and Gutierrez have been entangled for quite some time.)

At first blush, LEOPARD SKIN appears to be a conventional heist-goes-wrong: three ruthless strangers are blackmailed into stealing millions of dollars worth of diamonds by a corrupt judge (an isolated Jeffrey Dean Morgan). They get the diamonds but shit goes sideways, their driver gets shot during the getaway, and they end up at the doorstep of a mansion occupied by an ex (Gugino) and a widow (Gaite Jansen), and the ex just happens to have footage of the widow killing her ex and then blackmails her by requesting that she becomes subservient to her every want.

In other words, it’s all about knowledge, power and sex.

While JETT was dreamlike, LEOPARD SKIN comes across as Lynchian in fashion commercial mode: overly visual and sumptuous, but often also stilted and performative in all the best ways. This is a show that should not exist, and the fact that it’s only available to stream via Peacock is even more mind-boggling, especially since it’s clear that this was not their intended network as the show is not paced for ad-breaks but yet has some of the most disjointed and abrupt ad-breaks, lending an even more surreal atmosphere to the show.

The always-brilliant Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya succinctly stated that “Carla Gugino and Gaite Jansen manage to bring nuance and velocity to a story that doesn’t ever seem to know what it’s doing or why.” LEOPARD SKIN feels groundless but is more interesting for being so. It’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle and is so confounding that you’ll either fall completely in love with it or you’ll find it to be pretentious softcore twaddle. Hopefully, like me, you’ll find it to be the former, but buyer beware.


(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:


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.



(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


(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.


(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.


(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!


(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.