Pulp Consumption : Brick

BRICK is a 2005 neo-noir film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a high school loner who ends up investigating the untimely murder of his ex-girlfriend, Emily. The action gets kicked off quickly enough. A phone call. A cry for help. The discovery of a body.

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What follows is an intricate web of deception, revenge, drugs, and rivalry all set against the backdrop of maneuvering through high school. None of the characters, not even Brendan, can be classified as completely innocent. Brendan holds to his own code of honor, not truly a criminal, but willing to act outside of the traditional bounds of morality to accomplish his goals. He’s also smart enough to know that it is isn’t the person who pulls the trigger that’s the real villain, but the person who makes sure that the victim is in front of the gun.

Some of what makes BRICK stand out is the slang the movie uses. Sure, it’s manufactured, but it is used in such a consistent manner and so well fits in with the story that’s being told, that it becomes an intricate part of the movie being told. Some viewers might be put off by the language, finding it a barrier to appreciating the rest of the film, but the way it is used it very nearly becomes its own character.

BRICK shows how the noir archetypes can be transported into different settings. You have the independent, driven private investigator in Brendan, the crime boss (who happens to live in his mother’s basement) in the Pin, the enforcer with an agenda of his own in Tugger, and the femme fatale (and arguably the true villain of the movie) in Laura. All of which is layered over the top of a high school setting with the cliques, clubs, and power struggles inherent to that setting. Sure, we never see anyone attend class, but, well, that’s not the point of the movie now, is it?

It is also refreshing to see a guile hero in the character of Brendan, someone who not only fights hard, but also fights smart. He fights dirty, he pits foes against each other, and in the end he’s… well, triumphant might be too strong of a word. But then, given that the girl is already dead and beyond saving, revenge is a close second to redemption.

In addition to a stand out performance by Gordon-Levitt, BRICK also features excellent performances from Noah Fleiss, Nora Zehtner, Lukas Haas, and a very special cameo from Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft).

BRICK also makes an excellent introduction to Rian Johnson who wrote and directed this film. If that name seems familiar, it’s because he is the director behind THE LAST JEDI as well as THE BROTHERS BLOOM and LOOPER. There are worse places to start.

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Pulp Appeal: Pulp Fiction

Pulp_Fiction_(1994)_posterTime to address the elephant in the room. It’s been quietly sitting in the corner for the last seven months, but today it is begging me for attention.

Say the words “Pulp Fiction” to most adults in America and they won’t think about Robert Howard, Tarzan, the Cthulhu Mythos, or The Maltese Falcon. For a large portion of the American consumer public “Pulp Fiction” means one thing – the 1994 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Hell, when you Google the phrase, the first three pages of results are about the film. It’s not until about halfway down the fourth page that something else[1] pops into the mix.

Pulp Fiction is not Tarantino’s entry into film, but it is the work that pushed him out into the public eye. The title begs the question: Is Pulp Fiction pulp fiction? Yes, most definitely. And why not? It’s an interlaced film of overlapping narratives that tell the stories of low-level hitmen, uncomfortable hunks of metal, down-and-out boxers, drug overdoses, and dead body storage and disposal. Tarantino has embraced the cheap paper stories of broken-down degenerate societies, murderers and conmen, gun molls and tawdry sex, and turned out a work that still has viewers asking “What’s in the suitcase?”

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PulpFiction_129PyxurzThe inability to definitively answer that question, it seems, bugs viewers as much as, or more than, the end of The Sopranos[2]. But the MacGuffin isn’t the point, any more than the Maltese Falcon is the point of its titular story. The point is that we get two complete narratives scattered among a smorgasbord of vignettes. In one a hitman decides to give up a life of murder-for-hire after miraculously surviving a shooting unscathed. In the other an old boxer fed up with throwing fights gets out of the fixed boxing game with a treasured heirloom and a girlfriend. All the rest of the film–the drug overdoses, the accidental shooting, the botched restaurant robbery, the weird sexual depravity–all serve as supporting notes to the two straight storylines. Broken out like that, the narratives are stories of redemption for unsavory characters, but since their tales are shown out of sequence, the overall effect doesn’t match that simplistic reading.

Tarantino has said that the film was his attempt to do a modern day version of an issue of Black Mask, the old detective serial magazine. He also wanted to pay homage to his numerous personal heroes and influences, people like Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Elmore Leonard, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roger Corman. Some of those influences are more obvious, such as in the snappy dialogue (Leonard), over-the-top action (Corman), action-tinged humor (Leone), and use of in-world music (Godard). He has continued to expand those homages over the years with follow-on films like Kill Bill, Grindhouse (Death Proof), and The Hateful Eight.

Pulp Fiction is rightly held up as a critical darling, including an Academy Award for screenplay and the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not my favorite film of his (that would be Reservoir Dogs[3]), but I can see why it still stands out for most people, even after Tarantino went on to produce the even higher grossing films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The richly complex, but strikingly simple, narrative mixed with uproariously funny bits of dialogue and some truly fantastic acting all gel together to make for an extraordinary film.

I’m sure I’m pretty much preaching to the choir in recommending Pulp Fiction to readers of pulp fiction, but if you somehow managed to skip past this film, you need to remedy that.


[1] Appropriately it’s a link to this essay on Vintage Library.

[2] For the record, I think Tony Soprano dies, and I don’t care at all what’s in the briefcase.

[3] Strangely, my two favorite Tarantino films, Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof, are his two lowest grossing movies (Not counting the short film compilation Four Rooms).

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Issue 3 Cover Reveal

Luke Spooner/Carrion House knocked it out of the park again! This cover illustrates the creepy pirate tale “Moss” by Will Bernardara, Jr.

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Need to catch up? Have no fear! Issue 1 and Issue 2 are still available to purchase.

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Pulp Consumption: Yojimbo

YOJIMBO, a 1961 jidai geki by Akira Kurosawa, in many ways defines the itinerant swordsman for me. Sanjuro, the titular yojimbo, or bodyguard, as played by Toshiro Mifune, is a scruffy, dirty ronin on his way to nowhere in particular. He is so adrift in the world, that he lets which way a stick falls determine which path he takes.

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His arbitrary decision leads him to a town under siege from two separate gangs. He decides to make it his mission to clean the town up, playing one side against the other to defeat both. Why? The motivation of the ronin, who gives his name was Sanjuro, is never made explicit, though he implies that he views it as an easy way to make some money. That said, greed is not Sanjuro’s sole motivator. Otherwise, why would he go out of his way to help a young couple, the wife being held captive by one of the gangs as payment for her husband’s gambling debts? In fact, his rescuing the wife is the single act of mercy that drives much of the plot, and causes the greatest amount of consternation to the protagonist.

The character of Sanjuro is one that can be found often in fantasy and science-fiction literature, and there is a definite appeal to the lone wanderer coming into a seedy location and clearing up the corruption. The danger of course, is that doing so can clearly lead to the hero getting in over his head, as is seen when Sanjuro is captured and beaten to within an inch of his life. Even more telling is when Sanjuro leaves the town at the end of the film, both gangs having been slaughtered and very little left of the town intact.

YOJIMBO would also have a sequel in 1962’s SANJURO which would reunite Mifune and Kurosawa, but in a much more light-hearted movie, and Sanjuro would face off against the blind swordsman ZATOICHI in the aptly named ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO.

The lasting appeal of YOJIMBO can be clearly seen in the number of other movies that have used it as a template. The most famous is probably A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first of the Man With No Name trilogy by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. It was again remade in 1996 with Bruce Willis as LAST MAN STANDING. YOJIMBO takes its inspiration from Dashiell Hammet’s novel RED HARVEST[1]. All the variations show how easy it is to take a basic plot, and reskin it for different audiences, as has been numerous times both for dramatic and comedic effect.

[1] Which would also be the inspiration for the 1990 movie MILLER’S CROSSING.

 

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Pulp Consumption: Into the Badlands

34b84932f790bf9094c27c763e782219--into-the-badlands-season-Calling Into the Badlands pulp may be pushing the boundaries of pulp too far for some people. I’ll even admit that it’s at the edge for me, but comic books are in many ways the inheritors of pulp, and Into the Badlands is nothing if not a visual comic book. Costuming, color schemes, sets, and camera points-of-view are all clearly inspired by the works of comic writers and artists like Frank Miller, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis. In fact, the show was created by veteran writer/developers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the producers of Smallville, another visual comic book. They were also the writers of the genre-bending film Shanghai Noon. Even a casual viewer will see some echoes of both of those products here in Into the Badlands.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future that mixes feudal barons, a strict caste system, and martial arts wuxia, the show follows a samurai/knight named Sunny who learns about a mythical place of peace and prosperity while protecting a young man who has become a pawn in the conflict between barons. Although the main character is a highly trained killer, he develops a sort of honor code and begins to rebel against the strict order of the feudal system, prompted in part both by discovering his girlfriend is illegally pregnant and also by his growing disillusionment with murdering people to line the pockets of his opium-growing baron.

I don’t think the show is anything spectacular or in any way great literature, but it is a fun romp filled with action and some kick-ass martial arts. It’s a story you’ve no doubt read or watched before, and it doesn’t do anything new or exciting to push the boundaries, but that’s not really the point, is it? Any fan of the Shaw Brothers movies or Jackie Chan knows that the plot is merely there to string together gorgeous fight scenes, and that’s also the case here. Into the Badlands plows some well-worn tropes and hits all the standard story beats, but it’s never boring. And maybe that’s why the critical ratings are justifiably right in the middle range.

Like I said, it’s not Earth-shatteringly good and you won’t come away with a changed outlook on life, but if you’re looking for the next action adventure show to watch on Netflix now that you’ve finished binge-watching Marvel’s Defenders, you could do a lot worse than Into the Badlands.

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Pulp Consumption: High Plains Drifter

If I had to pick one movie that captures the concept of Weird Western, that movie is the 1973 Clint Eastwood vehicle HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER[1]. The plot is enigmatic enough, a stranger without a name rides into the town of Lago. He kills, he rapes, he turns the town on its head… and all seemingly without any motive.

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Except the town folk were complicit in the murder of a federal marshal, having hired outlaws to beat him to death when he threatened to shut down the town’s primary source of income, a mine on federal land. The town folk than turned on the outlaws that murdered the marshal, and are now in fear of what will happen now that the outlaws are out of jail. And the three gunmen the stranger kills when he enters the town? Yeah, they were there to protect against the outlaws.

This movie also has one of the most iconic climaxes in movie history. The town is painted red, a sign declaring it Hell, the townsfolk cowering in the face of the outlaws they betrayed… and all for it to be set on fire at the end.

In many ways, this movie is one of the great vigilante movies. The Stranger acts as a force of divine retribution, sparing the few people he comes across who have nothing to do with the murder of the marshal (the Native American and his family, the Mexican laborers tasked with tearing down the barn to build Picnic tables, Mordecai), unflinching with his violence. The Stranger has no trouble extorting, killing, and raping the people of Lago.

The nature of the Stranger also lends credence to the idea that some questions are best left to the reader or viewer. Who is the Stranger? Is he the dead marshal’s brother? Is he a revenant? Or is he Death himself coming to Lago to deliver a final reckoning? Regardless of the answer, it’s definitely a worthwhile film to acquaint yourself with when it comes to the concept of the Weird Western.

[1] Yes, this does get referenced in Sandman Slim where zombies are frequently referred to as High Plains Drifters, or simply Drifters.

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Pulp Appeal: Drunken Angel

800px-Yoidore_tenshi_posterDrunken Angel is one of[1] my favorite films by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who is mainly known in the west for his samurai films, particularly Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Drunken Angel is an earlier film, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, probably one of the most widely known Japanese actors outside his home country. He went on to star in 15 other Kurosawa films, including both the classic Seven Samurai and Rashomon, the latter frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.[2]

drunken_angel_04Drunken Angel is the story of the broken-down, curmudgeonly Doctor Sanada, played by perennial Kurosawa compatriot Takashi Shimura,[3] and his ministrations to the poor in the slums of post-WWII Tokyo. The film’s plot begins with Toshiro Mifune, a low-ranking yakuza gangster named Matsunaga, seeking out the doctor to treat a gunshot wound. In the process, Sanada diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis. There’s a physical confrontation as the hot-blooded gangster doesn’t want to hear about his problems, but it’s clear to the viewer that it’s mostly bluster.

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The Tokyo portrayed in this film is a noir city through and through. The movie is set in a slum swimming with filth. In fact, the opening shot is of a literal toxic cesspool at the center of the neighborhood. This pool of filth is returned to several times throughout the film, which is anything but an understated metaphor. Around this cesspool shopkeepers and residents live their lives while preyed upon by the petty gangsters who exist on the margins of the slum. Doctor Sanada spends significant amounts of time chasing kids away from the edges of the cesspool, desperately trying to save them despite knowing they’ll just keep coming back.[4]

Through the course of the movie, Sanada attempts to steer Matsunaga onto the straight and narrow, away from cigarettes, womanizing, and booze, and for a time Matsunaga complies, mostly because the doctor seems to be as angry and belligerent as the gangster himself. There’s one iconic moment where the two of them are drinking, and the doctor says, “I’m not afraid of you. I’ve killed more people than you have.”

I won’t spoil any more of the details,[5] but, as in all good noir, the plot thickens with betrayals and backslides, stolen loves and stolen time. It’s not ultra-heavy on the action (though it is listed as PG-13, mostly because of a particularly memorable knife battle at the climax), but it’s definitely pulp noir of the stripe read in Detective Fiction Weekly or Black Mask.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be streaming on any of the major services, but it was repackaged in the Criterion Collection. The film was followed up the next year by Stray Dog, another noir film exploring the decadence of post-war Tokyo from the point of view of a rookie police officer, but that’s a “Pulp Appeal” for another day.

[1] I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite, but I’d probably go with Ikiru. I couldn’t swear to that under oath as I love almost every movie he made. The only exception I can think of is Kagemusha, and even that just drops from “love” to “really like.”

[2] I agree. As much as I like Drunken Angel, from a critical standpoint Rashomon is probably Kurosawa’s best film.

[3] Shimura is also one of the main stars of Gojira (Godzilla), and was a mainstay of Japanese film for decades. IMDb has 263 listings for him over a 50 year career.

[4] I would call this maybe a bit heavy-handed by modern standards, but then I think about crapfests like James Cameron’s Avatar and its “unobtanium” and I realize Drunken Angel is positively subtle by comparison.

[5] If you are interested in just reading the plot and having it spoiled, then here is one of the best summaries and examinations of the film I’ve come across: Kurosawa, In Order #7 – Drunken Angel.

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