8 Million Ways to Die - Hal Ashby - The final film by Ashby (whose body of work included The Last Detail, Being There, Harold and Maude) is the adaptation of Lawrence Block's novel featuring his best known character Matthew Scudder (Jeff Bridges was also, at one time, attached to play Block's hit man Keller - dunno why that fizzled... as did Harrison Ford as Scudder in a Joe Carnahan adaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones - but never fear, we'll instead get Liam Neeson directed by Scott Frank on that project - apparently Whoopi Goldberg was not available). Even though I never really bought his recovering alcoholic bit, Bridges is so effortlessly watchable, I could have gone for another hour of him stumbling around drunk or squaring off against Andy Garcia. Best moment: The warehouse exchange is top-notch, really excellently written, staged and edited. So much yelling, so much tension. If the whole movie had been this caliber, there'd have been a hit franchise.
10 to Midnight - J. Lee Thompson - A psycho/slasher is stalking the women of Los Angeles and one cop knows who the killer is. He has the monster in his crosshairs, only one thing stands in his way - the motherfucking constitution. Best moment: the stark nekkid killer chasing a stark nekkid lady through the woods.
Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred & Vengeance - John Borowski - A documentary on the notorious criminal that contains probably all you'll ever want to know about the man. The treatment of his claims is deferential and the retroactive psychological evaluations pretty slight and unnecessary. Also, the dramatized bits are flimsy. Still, there's no denying the power of his recorded words - which continue to bait, provoke and horrify eighty years later. Recommended infinitely more than the narrative film Killer: A Journal of Murder also covered in this post. Best moment: interview footage of his guard and only friend Henry Lesser giving his first-hand accounts.
Deadfall - Stefan Ruzowitzky - Dammit. Just... dammit. This one had so much going for it - cool setting (snowpocalyptic no man's land near the Canadian border) great set-up (a brother and sister who just robbed a casino split up after a car accident and make their separate, desperate ways toward that invisible line in the snow while a manhunt ensues - on snowmobiles!) and a cast with promise (Eric Bana, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, Treat Williams, Kate Mara, Olivia Wilde and un-Jax hisself Charlie Hunnam). Confined, wound-tight action with a solid cast - this should have been Desperate Hours meets No Country For Old Men, but instead was... not. Felt like three or four good movies buried in the complexities of the cast's relationships, but they crowd each other here and end up feeling half-baked. Too much ham and coincidence too. Really nice look to it, though. I'll give it that. Can we have a re-do? Best moment: end of the snowmobile chase.
Double Indemnity - Billy Wilder - Been a while since I'd seen this one. Damn fine film. Hasn't changed. What can I possibly say about this one that hasn't already been said a hundred times? If you've never seen it, just... just do. Best moment: Walter makes a pass. The dialogue Dietrichson and Neff said. Nuff said.
Essential Killing - Jerzy Skolimowski - Jerry Lewis in The Bellboy, Holly Hunter in The Piano and now Vincent Gallo in Essential Killing, 'cause if you've not got something perfect to say, be perfectly silent. This is a terrific idea for an adventure flick. The setup is simplicity itself and the urgency of the action never lets up. A detainee of the US, captured in Afghanistan, survives an auto accident en-route from one hell-hole to another somewhere in mountainous Europe (France?Germany? Austria? I dunno - as I'm sure he doesn't) and manages to slip away into the forest amid the chaos. The rest of the film is a series of survival vignettes that require Gallo's character to commit crimes (trespassing, thieving, killing, even a pseudo-sexual assault) in order to stay alive. Best moment: Gallo's Mohammed suffers hallucinations from the pretty red berries he's been munching.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird - Jee-woon Kim - Just another example of the insane level of creativity and energy pumping out of Korean cinema these days. This one is no Chaser, I Saw the Devil, Oldboy or The Yellow Sea - It's light-weight all the way, but this is some amazing action-spectacle motion-picture stuff. And funny? Shit, Kang-ho Song is as comically amazing in this action movie as a Jackie Chan, Kurt Russell or Eddie Murphy might be at their best. Best moment: Gonna have to go with the balls-to-the-fourth-walls desert chase sequence near the end. Just builds and builds. Over the top audacious, gorgeous picture poetry there - worthy of its predecessors Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior.
House of Cards: Season 1 - Beau Willimon - If the syrupy sound of Kevin Spacey's southern affectation is too much for you, look elsewhere for tonight's viewing. And if you want some token focus on policy in your political dramas this ain't the place after all. But, if you're a bit chilly on human nature, if you're a wee bit jaded on the democratic process, or if you've just got a thing for sophisticated, muted nastiness this is worth checking out. Good supporting cast too - I'd really like to see Michael Kelly get a much-deserved spotlight out of this series. Best moment: probably the post-coital speech Spacey delivers while zipping up, "Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power."
Jack Taylor: The Guards - Stuart Orme - Sigh... It'd be great if Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books got some new readership out of this series of TV movies (one movie per book - the first three The Guards, The Pikemen and The Magdalen Martyrs are now available in the States), but I doubt these films will satisfy anybody who comes to them through the books. Iain Glen makes a fine Jack, but the episodes themselves drop all the wrong aspects of the books and instead focus on the half-there (and frankly, silly-feeling without all the heart and soul the books are really about) mystery story lines. In fact, just about the only plot point I recall from The Guards (making it the most striking and well, worth remembering) is dropped here. To soften the impact, or just to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding what makes the source material so worthy, I'm not sure. Do yourself a favor and read the fuckers first. Best moment: just giving a little visual detail to the Galway streets to fill out some of Bruen's spare descriptions is, admittedly, mostly, nice.
Justified: Season 3 - Graham Yost - After taking such a quantum leap forward in quality from season one to season two, I held my breath for the third outing for Raylan Givens and Harlan County's most colorful residents. So, no Margo Martindale in season three. Her absence is notable, and hardly made up for by the additions of Mykeltie Williamson and Neal McDonaugh, though each prove to have their own merits (a revelation for McDonaugh who is too square-jawed to play a straight hero - instead, they made him a very polished sadist and it mostly worked), but Jeremy Davies continues to be a welcome presence, as did Jere Burns, Raymond J. Berry, David Muenier, Kevin Rankin, Damon Herriman and Jim Beaver. Hell, even Michael Ironside showed up. There was an odd shift back to a more quasi-episodic quality in season three, but I enjoyed the central story. Oxy War Money Hunt shoulda gone on the poster. No season two, but I'm still way on board. Best moment: Raylan provokes Wynn Duffy, who spends most of the season sniveling and cowering, to a brilliant flash of his previous unhinged scariness.
Killer: A Journal of Murder - Tim Metcalfe - You wanna terrify me with anticipation? Just tell me you've lined up fucking James Woods to portray Carl Panzram in a biopic. I couldn't believe I'd never heard of this flick, and I was really prepared to shit myself in fright - not at all sure I wanted to experience the film, but positive that I had to give it a shot. I really thought I might turn it off in disgust - simply not able to handle it - and I nearly did, though that is not at all a testament to the considerable skill of Mr. Woods, but rather the significant lack of guts on the part of the film makers. A less satisfying film about Panzram is impossible to imagine. Just saying his name makes me queasy, but this flick seems determined to castrate the memory of the remarkable thief, murder and serial rapist. The power of his name over me is due to the potency of his words, scribbled on paper smuggled in and out of his cell by his compassionate guard Henry Lesser, in which he tells the story of his life - a chronicle of brutalities committed against him and by him in turn. The film calls the accuracy of his autobiography into question without ever really delving into the content - for example: in his book, Panzram claims to have raped over a thousand men and boys, a claim never mentioned in the film and only hinted at in a tastefully vague aside. In fact, the only rape dealt with at all is of a woman, in circumstances that, had the act not occurred, we're led to believe, could have led to a fulfilling romantic relationship. Another problem is that the movie never decides whether it wants to be Panzram's story or Lesser's and I can't imagine either of the actual men being less displeased with the outcome than I am. Clearly the film wants to humanize the man who portrayed himself as a goblin - evil personified - but never taking his claims head-on, and focusing instead on the murder he committed inside prison (of an abusive guard), and his subsequent trial and execution is to entirely miss the point of the man's significance - the words he left behind - the simultaneous evidence of his depravity, intelligence and humanity. They shake us because there is clearly a human being beneath the seething hatred (whether it's exaggerated or not) and distilled animosity the man seemed to excrete. They shake us because they indict us both for being part of the machination that created the monster and for our shared capability to become monstrous. And certainly a compelling film could be made about Lesser, but this one treats him as a cardboard liberal saint and the relationship between he and Panzram as ham-handed as an after-school special on prison reform. The final head-shakingly bizarre beat, just before the closing credits role, we're informed that the film is dedicated to Sam Peckinpah? Gah! Weak tea. Best moment: a quick anecdote about Panzram being the flag-bearer for the prison marching band.
Skyfall - Sam Mendes -'Sometimes the old ways are the best' may as well have been the title. The line itself was spoken at least twice, but visually echoed the whole damn time. Old vs. New, big vs. little, personal vs. political - it's strange to watch a Bond film and get distracted by thematic conversation the film is having with you. Shit starts blowing up and the movie is tapping you on the shoulder pssst, hey, watch what we do right here. It should be annoying as hell, but somehow it wasn't. It opens with an over-the-top action set-piece and closes in a home invasion. In fact, the climax is like Patriot Games invading Straw Dogs (I really expected Daniel Craig to start boiling water). Best moment: the back-lit, single-shot hand to hand fight scene in the tall building - a reply to the critics of the frenetic editing style of action movies that feels like part concession and part middle finger.
Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine - Spring break, that moment of carefree sexual abandon and privileged libidinous innocence before the onslaught of college finals, is now a rite of passage - almost a microcosm of the entire collegiate experience before the onset of adult responsibility - so generationally recognized, that for four friends trapped in the duldrums of midwestern small-town life, it is owed to them and they feel entitled to claim their slice of the American Dream by any means necessary. In their case, it's a goal they have been saving for all year, but have come up woefully short of being able to afford. So, forced by fate to become desperadoes, the girls rob a restaurant to finance their lifestyle (hey, the stockbrokers do it). Once on the beach, the ends have clearly justified the means - schlong and thong abound, titties bounce and wits are trounced as oblivion beckons unburden yourself... Until things get a bit too loud one night and the girls end up arrested for disturbing the peace. They cool their heels in a jail cell until they're bailed out by a complete strangest - Alien, the great white (hip)-hop (the transcendent James Franco) - who recognizes kindred spirits when he sees them. He whisks them away from the institutionalized and contained middle-class debauchery they think they want and introduces them to 'Spring Break Forever' - the 24-7 lifestyle that comes with the secret ingredient they didn't know they'd been missing - rage. These (ahem) fierce bitches find their calling knocking over tourists - mostly college kids like they used to be before they went pro - and engaging in gun battles over turf with a rival drug dealer's crew. It's a trashily beautiful film (shot in an almost Terence Malick style - lush visuals with voice-over from fragmented, non-linear scenes laid out in an impressionistic, mosaic), and is in conversation with many others - especially the old beach movies of the 60's like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini or Beach Blanket Bingo, that also starred ex-Disney ingenues (Annette Funicello in the past, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens today). The beach movies of the 60's were exploitation flicks so square and confoundedly innocent unless you think of them as 'your dad's exploitation movies,' they seem to have been made much more for adult audiences looking to revel in a little young, buoyant flesh and teeter near the wild-side without ever going over the edge. The edge seems to have moved a bit further over since then, but it's clearly recognizable when our protagonists cross it. Which brings us to another film Spring Breakers is borrowing context from. The timing of the release of Sam Raimi's Oz the Great & Powerful, with Franco as the titular wizard, is a benefit to Alien's role as the shyster leading our midwestern heroines over the rainbow. Best moment: Alien leads a sing-along around the piano. Seriously, if nobody in Britney Spears camp cuts a video to this footage, the ball has been dropped big time.
Terriers - Ted Griffin - How many fucking seasons of Bones has there now been? Or Castle? What about The Closer, The Mentalist and all the CSIs, SVUs and NCISs? You gonna tell me we can't have one fucking non-forensic, non-OCD, non-profiler, non-genius, non-best-of-the-best-of-the-best detective show? Come on, this thing was a winner - great cast with amazing chemistry, great dialogue, real heart and humor. It was episodic, but had an engaging over-arching storyline that had consequence and relevance. It was deceptively breezy, smart, comfortable working with tropes and working within a tradition, honoring what came before with the broad strokes, while subverting expectations in all the details. This was fucking Rockford Files and Midnight Run's very legitimate child. So, of course, it's cancelled in the first season. Fuckers. I want to watch it again. Best moment: right after the first episode when you realize there are eleven more to go.