Thursday, June 21, 2018

Damage Done

I've got a new regular gig blathering about movie shows on the Do Some Damage podcast. Every couple of weeks I'll talk to host Steve Weddle about a couple of related films he's almost certainly never seen (he never sees any). I'll share space with Chris Holm talking about music and Holly West on TVs.
For my first segment I talked about Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here based on the novella by Jonathan Ames about an ex-soldier who makes a living finding trafficked children and killing their abductors with a hammer. It's stylish and super cool and could be the standard bearer for this type of gritty avenging angel fare for years to come. It's muscular and masculine, but it's a far cry from a lot of similarly concerned macho pulp. Props to Ames's fantastic book, but the hero who made a fucking amazing movie here is Ramsay.

So, for my second pick I wanted to highlight another film made by a woman in a male-dominated genre. I thought about looking at badass shit from Kathryn Bigelow or Ida Lupino, but chose instead to look at Elaine May's 1976 crime hangout-picture Mikey & Nicky starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as a couple of at-odds buddies spending a night in Philadelphia trying to avoid getting whacked by Ned Beatty.
Like You Were Never Really Here, Mikey & Nicky is concerned with masculinity - male friendships and conflict as well as their attitudes toward women and sex. It's a picture deserving the conversational company of peers like Husbands, Mean Streets or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

The first episode is available now and I'll be back in a couple weeks with thoughts on another pair of somehow-related crime pictures (one new, one older). If you tune in, I'll try to include information on where you can find my (older) picks streaming. Mikey & Nicky is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

This Monkey's Gone to Eleven (Plus One)

Hey nerds here's me on The Projection Booth podcast talking with Mike White and Tony Black (not the Tony Black usually name-dropped on this blog) about Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. I had a good time talking to those two and in preparation for the conversation did a lot of movie watching. Here's a quick list of films I used the upcoming podcast as an excuse to watch:
Hey nerds,

In the 'directed by Terry Gilliam' category

Time Bandits


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Fisher King

Twelve Monkeys

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


The Brothers Grimm

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Zero Theorem

plus assorted short films

in the 'written by David Webb Peoples' category

Blade Runner

The Blood of Heroes

Fatal Sky (aka Projekt: Alien)





Lost in La Mancha - Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's 2002 documentary about Gilliam's doomed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort - congrats to Gilliam and company for finally realizing that story starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce)

La Jetée Chris Marker's short film that inspired Twelve Monkeys

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo which influenced Gilliam and Peoples as well as Marker.

and Rian Johnson's Looper another time travel thriller only this time starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Bruce Willis because Twelve Monkeys Bruce is such a different performance than say Hudson Hawk Bruce I thought it'd be illuminating to watch somebody else point out all the mannerisms and tics that make him such a recognizable on screen presence. (Supposedly Gilliam gave Bruno a list of a dozen or so tics and crutches he was not allowed to use in Twelve Monkeys)

Finally, I checked out the first season of 12 Monkeys the TV show, but turned it off after only a couple of episodes because it clearly wasn't going to be anything like the film. I got the impression that it was a time-travel spec script somebody re-titled 12 Monkeys aaaaand I think that's probably exactly what happened. Probably a fine show on its own, but didn't suit my purposes - though I wish I'd seen the latter-season episode with a guest starring Madeleine Stowe.

On the episode Mike has a separate interview with Dahlia Schweitzer, author of Going Viral.

And check out Tony's X-Files podcast The X-Cast for more from him.

Thanks, Mike, for having me again on The Projection Booth - what a great show.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Small Crimes 2018 pt. 2

Lowlife - Ryan Prows - If Robert Altman's Shortcuts were based on intersecting short stories by Matthew McBride rather than Raymond Carver it might resemble this multi-focal piece of absurdist crime fiction. The narrative strands that twist into a shared climax involve human trafficking, black market organ transplants, dirty cops, ruthless gangsters, ex-cons, bad parenting and a luchador bagman who suffers from small-man complex induced rage blackouts. The cast are mostly great with Nicki Micheaux and Ricardo Adam Zarate on the tier just below the standout performance of Mark Burnham whose Teddy 'Bear' Haynes is a monster terrifying and hilarious in equal measure. A couple minor quibbles probably keep it out of the year's best running, but it's a definite runner up with Prows landing squarely in the sign-me-up-for-whatever's-next camp.

Manhunt - John Woo - This plays so much like a hack homage to Woo's catalog with in-jokes (doves!) and call-backs to his previous films that I was surprised to learn it was actually a remake of Jun'ya Satô's 1976 film (both are based on the novel by Jukô Nishimura). Un-inspired convoluted story lines take precedent over inspired convoluted action set pieces, though a couple very brief bits of mayhem keep it from being an utter turd. This does not bode well for his announced remake of The Killer, but I'm sure I'll see that too.

Mute - Duncan Jones - Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a bartender looking for his disappeared girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) in this half-dazzling, half-chintzy futuristic Berlin. Leo's titular condition is the result of a childhood accident which his parents' anti-technology religious views kept him from having treated via an operation that could have restored his powers of speech. Adult Leo works in a sleazy nightclub and lives amongst the digital detritus of the city, and while he appears to have abandoned his religious upbringing he has not exactly embraced modernity. Amish among The Jetsons is kind of an intriguing premise, but it's not really explored. Instead we go to Paul Rudd's AWOL American marine medic staying off the grid and paying off the mob by performing the odd surgery or by torturing somebody who needs it. Rudd's also looking out for a girl - his daughter whom he leaves in the care of the prostitutes of a brothel run by his gangster employer while daddy goes to work. These disparate story lines criss and cross in a tantalizing manner, but the bad man with the power to heal and the good man in need of an operation never get together in the way you might expect them to. Jones made an impression with his modestly ambitious debut, Moon, and followed that up with the high-concept, mass-appeal thriller The Source Code, but the precision of those two films is nowhere to be found in this glorious mess of a science fiction crime flick. It's unfocused, half-baked and going in two or three too many directions to be satisfying. It's not good, but I was not bored. I was confounded and frustrated, but only because I was at first intrigued and titillated. As poor or non-existent as many of the payoffs are, I have to acknowledge that I'd had expectations in the first place. Not as scattered as Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, but that's not a bad comparison because I'm sure I'll be thinking about it and probably revisiting it in bits and pieces, if not as a whole, in the distant future, the year 2000.

The Outsider - Martin Zandvliet - Jared Leto plays an American G.I. in a Japanese prison who befriends his cell mate by playing a key role in his escape plan. When the gaijin gets out he finds his friend, a high ranking member of a yakuza gang, in his debt. What follows is pretty standard gangster shit, which I'm down for always, set apart by its uh, setting - occupied Japan. Looks good, has violence, sex and cool suits, but is about as filling as half a yawn. Kills a couple hours and like that (poof) it's gone.

Racer & the Jailbird - Michaël R. Roskam - Matthias Schoenaerts plays a bank robber whose cover involving car parts and inport/export of vehicles puts him in proximity of Adèle Exarchopoulos a competitive driver whom he falls instantly in love with. As their romance grows more intense his bullshit facade stands between them - he wants to quit the crime game and she just wants him to tell her the truth. After his one-last-job goes bad and he winds up in prison she doesn't leave him and instead makes plans and sets things in motion on the outside for their and/or his future. The way things work out (or don't) isn't predictable and that's the best thing about this odd duck of a romantic crime drama - I never knew where it was going. Afterward I'm not sure I'm satisfied, but I'm still thinking about it weeks later, which is a recommendation in its own right. No doubt the stars are attractive and the racing and heisting bits look great, but I also don't think they fully utilized their leads. For the sake of not spoiling the where-the-hell-is-this-going experience for some of you I won't go into exactly why I felt this way, but I do think there were a couple of big missed opportunities. Roskam directed The Drop, which I loved, as well as Bullhead which I was similarly frustrated by, but I know that other folks loved. He's interesting.

68 Kill Trent Haaga - A hapless loser whose girlfriend may not be into him for his personality, or brain, or looks, or money, or status still manages to be blindsided by her dark ambitions and the lengths he will go to and depths to which he will sink in order to stay with her and stay alive. When her plot to steal a bunch of money turns into multiple homicide and a never-ending string of misfortunes and double-crosses he proves sweetly naive enough to continue being surprised at every turn. Based on the novel by Bryan Smith it succeeds in the face of budgetary limitations by sheer outrageous conceit and an uneven, if fully-game, cast. And yeah, that's Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - good eye, you.

Shot Caller - Ric Roman Waugh - Writer director Roman Waugh returns to the "non-criminal-type thrown in the deep end of the prison system and rising to prominence via violent means he never wanted to utilize, but y'know, you do what you gotta do to survive" sub-genre of prison movies, but with far better results than his debut Felon. This time Nikolaj Coster-Waldau puts on the muscles and tattoos and emerges on the streets transformed, a leader in an Aryan gang, forced into a life of crime by the organization with reach far beyond the walls of the institution. Gnarly violence and good performances from Jeffrey Donovan, Holt McCallany and Jon Bernthal help sell it.

Small Town Crime - Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms - John Hawkes plays a disgraced alcoholic former cop who comes late to the rescue of a young woman whose story he can't help himself from digging into. He thinks solving the mystery of her death might save his life and sobers up just enough to get around to poking his significant nose where it doesn't belong. The writing/directing duo apparently never met a cliche they couldn't use or abuse and probably spent a lot of time watching Shane Black movies. They make all these overly familiar elements work by being self-aware enough to know how far to push each element. They manage to make if funny, but not goofy, suspenseful, but not overly serious and cool without getting into douchebag territory. This is thanks in large part to the terrific cast - especially Jeremy Ratchford, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr. and Octavia Spencer.

Super Dark Times - Kevin Phillips - The spate of eighties nostalgia movies have finally caught up to Rivers' Edge-era with this story of nerdy kids who accidentally kill a frenemy and then try to cover it up and end up caught in a vortex of pride, guilt and madness. Decent, but your reception probably hinges on how hard you fall for or are repelled by the nostalgia factor.

Sweet Virginia - Jamie Dagg - Jon Bernthal plays an ex-rodeo rider who manages a motel and carries on an affair with Rosemarie DeWitt in small Alaskan town. Christopher Abbott plays a guest at the motel, a killer hired by Imogen Poots to get rid of her boorish husband, Jonathan Tucker. When the insurance company doesn't pay out and Poots can't pay off Abbott, he sticks around waiting for his payday and looking for opportunities to make other monies and intimidate locals. I liked Dagg's debut, River (starring the tallest Sutherland), but Virginia is a big step up in quality and control of tone - I never really knew where this one was headed and it had some solid and pleasingly unpleasant surprises along the way. Abbott is a standout in the cast and a scary screen presence.

Tragedy Girls - Tyler MacIntyre - Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp are best friend whose plans to become celebrated journalist media sensations by catching a real life masked slasher-movie-style killer are continually frustrated by the monotony of life as high school students in a dull midwestern town, their inability to successfully make social media hashtags catch on and the unexpectedly difficult task of carrying out most of the murders themselves. Part Ace in the Hole, part Heathers it eschews their cynicism for the simple misanthropic joys of holding life cheap and could have been pitched as "Scream with the killers as our protagonists!" There are plenty of good moments here (my favorite involves Chris Robinson lifting weights), but the feature length run time may prove too long a stretch of diminishing returns on the core joke of the film.

24 Hours to Live Brian Smrz - Ethan Hawke plays an assassin stuck in a never-ending loop of being revived from death to kill yet another target before expiring again after his titular time runs out. It's a terrific sci-fi set up, but fails to become the horror allegory for late-stage capitalism it really could've been by settling for familiar focus on only occasionally interesting action.

Vengeance: A Love Story - Johnny Martin - Nicolas Cage is a cop who takes extra-legal measures to punish a bunch of rapists the legal system fails to. Just because it's a standard plotline without surprises doesn't mean the story has to be and I'd lay money on Joyce Carol Oates's source novel Rape: A Love Story having some insightful passages and maybe even a memorable treatment of the whole sordid affair, but this film is a dud with a handful of frustrating glimpses at interesting possibilities never capitalized upon.

You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Small Crimes 2018 pt. 1

Asura: The City of Madness - Kim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage.

Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin. First contender for year's end honors at HBW. Can't wait to see what Baugh does next.

Bullet Head - Paul Solet - A trio of thieves hide out in a warehouse after a heist goes right and the getaway goes wrong. While the cops comb the city outside they find they're trapped inside with a more immediate threat. Turns out the warehouse has been used to host dog fights and a wounded, ferocious mastiff left to die has recovered and wants to eat them. There's a good movie or two trying to claw their way to the surface of the mess this one ultimately proves to be. If you pitched me Reservoir Dogs meets Cujo I'd, um, bite, but the overly elaborate and long chase/shootout climax is encumbered by bad CGI monsters, gunshots and an Antonio Banderas performance that might as well be too. There are a few weird and off-beat character moments early on that had me holding out hope for a better outcome that didn't show up. Starring Adrien Brody, John Malkovich and Rory Culkin.

Creep 2 - Patric Brice - The Duplass Brothers hit and miss along a surprisingly diverse spectrum of projects: drama, comedy, documentary, science fiction and horror films - all slightly ambitions and carried off by low-budget ingenuity and audacity. Serving as producers their Creep franchise handily tops their directorial effort Baghead in producing actual suspense and horror-ish thrills. The first Creep film was a found footage exercise in is-it/isn't-it horror/comedy discomfort with a two-person cast. The is-(co-writer/producer)-Mark Duplass-a-killer-or-just-a-weirdo question is answered by the end of the first film so the set-up of the second, though similar in size (again, a two-person main course with one extra cast member in the brief prologue), has very different dynamics on account of the audience already knowing that - yes, he is in fact a killer. He's also a weirdo or creep. We go a lot deeper into his story and character this time and are tickled by the dilemma of whether or not to call bullshit on his confession/revelations. On the one hand he is alarmingly honest, on the other he's undoubtedly manipulative - and honest about that too. I admire these films for proving you can engage and hold an audience with only solid writing and performance without being a self-important capital-A arteest. A bold choice or two doesn't hurt either.

Crocodile - John Hillcoat - Technically the third episode of the fourth season of the technology-based anthology TV series Black Mirror, I'm including this 60-minute short film because I won't be covering the not-necessarily-crime-centered show anywhere else. Yeah, a lot of the episodes include crime, but this one has a classic noir set up and fucking John Hillcoat directing. It's the story of a woman (Andrea Riseborough) with a crime in her past unwittingly drawn into an insurance investigation of an unrelated event she witnesses. The technology angle concerns a method of collecting memory from multiple witnesses to construct a more complete picture of the incident. Of course she's concerned that different memories will be accessed by the investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and a gauntlet of no-win situations present themselves. Sci-fi elements aside this could play with the brief nasties of classic film noir express trains to hell that I'm (and I suspect you) are so fond of.

Den of ThievesChristian Gudegast - Gerard Butler is the alpha cop leading a leatherdick task force and in Pablo Schreiber's gang of thieves there ain't no cucks allowed so fuckin strap in and strap on cuz everybody's strapped on these streets and... oh who am I kidding? I enjoyed the hell out of this silly best-scenes-of-your-favorite-macho-crime-movies-strung-together-for-maximum-ka-pow!-turned-up-to-eleven-testosterone-smoothie. Yeah, the posturing is abrasive at first, but this one actually improves as it goes and by the end I even had emotions and shit. Plus the final heist is pretty great - clever, but stops short of eye-roll-inducing - and the climactic chase/shootout is staged and executed well. No, Michael Mann shouldn't feel threatened, but David Ayer should probably check his rearview - I'd be happy to see more crime stuffs from Gudegast.

Detroit - Kathryn Bigelow - Totally get it if you don't want to sit through two hours of white cops torturing black folks - as a thriller it isn't a great premise and as a drama of social importance it feels constantly upstaged by same old shit every time you turn on the evening news - but as an immersive experience it's pretty potent (though the riots outside are where I'd rather have spent the run time). The period pops and Bigelow is great at generating and sustaining an atmosphere of impending violence and Anthony Mackie continues to make me wish he had a leading man vehicle that matched his potential.

Gemini - Aaron Katz - Slick looking, low-budget murder mystery serving as a tour of L.A. glitz and a rare movie about movie stardom that isn't off-putting in its treatment of celebrity culture. Solid cast includes Zoë Kravitz, John Cho, James Ransone, Michelle Forbes and Ricki Lake. Lola Kirke holds the center effortlessly and, while the low-grade thriller resolves and dissolves with a little less intriguing post-film brain itch than Katz's previous deconstructionist detective flick Cold Weather, I'd absolutely be down for a hangout picture with Kirke and Kravitz's characters.

Hangman - Johnny Martin - I watched the trailer for this serial-killer thriller starring Karl Urban and Al Pacino's hair and thought: was that their best effort to get me to watch the movie? Then I watched the movie. Joke's on me.

Hollow in the Land - Scooter Corkle - Dianna Agron plays the elder of two siblings from deadbeat, no-account parents who've disgraced the family's name and community standing before abandoning their offspring to fend for themselves in a small, dead-end industrial community where drugs are the only escape and violence the sole guarantee. Alison (Agron) works in a factory to support her wayward younger brother who's tempting many potential bad ends with his careless behavior and when he disappears after a violent encounter that the cops say is murder big sister takes it upon herself to find him before he's killed by the police or various criminal types he's managed to piss off. Surely pitched as a more-thrillery Winter's Bone it manages to work by its attention to detail and place and avoids the pitfalls of too many rural noirs that play up the outrageous aspects of small town life in an exploitative fashion (not that I'm not down with exploitation once in a while). There aren't any grotesques in the cast, neither are there lingering looks at squalor, and the lesbian sexuality isn't sensationalized. It's also refreshingly free of any sense of inherent nobility in blue collar life, but all these elements add credulity to Alison's outsider status and Agron's jaw is set for optimal resolute determination. It's a nicely executed, muted (but not dirge-like) tale of life in the margins and the director's name is Scooter.

Kills on Wheels - Attila Till - Two wheelchair bound boys find a mentor of sorts in a disabled gangster/hitman who takes them on as apprentices. It's a helluva premise and mostly works with utter nihilism not quite overtaking a healthy dose of teenaged fuck-the-world angst. The last ten minutes are a little disappointing, but make sense out of questions bothering me in the structure, and won't keep me from enjoying a revisit in the future.
Last Rampage - Dwight H. Little - True crime drama about Gary Tison's escape and murderous final days in Arizona. Robert Patrick is the second Bob to play Tison (Robert Mitchum had the role in 1983's A Killer in the Family) and during the opening escape sequence I was excited by the prospect of following him on a kill-crazy adventure, but the film quickly deteriorates into joyless melodrama and you get the sense that it's really kind of tedious having to kill everybody who crosses your path. Honestly I expect movies where fathers and sons consider murdering each other to be more fun. At Close Range this ain't.