Sunday, October 13, 2013

2013 in Flicks: September

Breaking Bad season 6 - Vince Gilligan - Love to see a great show finish well, and the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad did everything they should have: they didn't pussy-foot about with the Hank vs. Walter thread (and it carried more weight for me than the Walt and Jesse conflict - so bully), most of the conflict was kept in-house and they saw to business admirably. Not a flinch, but a bit of a surprise, the combination of Walt's finale conclusions, reflections and actions - again, not a flinch exactly, but - the level of Walt's self-awareness was a surprise. I'd say the series finale falls short of The Shield's pitiless devastation, but trumps The Wire's poetic, if uncharacteristically neatly-wrapped, final chapter. Here's hoping that True Detective (or what about Low Winter Sun - anyone?) can fill a portion of the yawning void in crime-television excellence that Breaking Bad leaves behind. Best moment: Walter Jr. pulls a knife.
Bullitt - Peter Yates - Aside from the iconically cool Steve McQueen taking up center-screen and the big damn car chase, I'd forgotten how stylish this flick was. But it's there. Right from the opening credits, a cool so deep you'll hardly notice that you're not following the plot. I've seen this movie several times and I honestly couldn't tell you what's going on. Witness protection... set up... cop killed... car chase... Airport... But it's pretty damn cool. I remember that. And I recall digging how non-descript the hitter is. Yates had quite a little run there with this one, Robbery and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Best moment: yeah, you think I'm gonna say the car chase, but just to make you re-watch this cool as shit movie I'm gonna say the foot chase through the airport at the end is better.

Charley Varrick - Don Siegel - One of the best Parker movies that isn't a Parker movie. Really, stack this one next to Point Blank and The Outfit and have yourself a terrific little triple feature of hardboiled workaday thievery vs. the slick money machine mafia. Like Parker, Charley is a smarter than the average professional thief and an independent operator, but unlike Parker, when he finds out that he and his crew knocked over a mobbed up bank, Charley wants to give the money back because it's not worth the hassle to have those assholes on your back the rest of your life. But, the mob has no sense of humor and call in a sadistic hit man (Joe Don Baker) to do his thing, and once the team start to get picked off, Charley changes his priorities (you can tell a bad guy is a reallllly bad guy, like fucked-in-the-head-bad in movies when they have a physical repulsion to prostitutes and loose women - there's a thesis paper in there people, you're welcome). Walter Matthau is an oddly compelling action hero. I'm just so geared to laugh while watching him in pictures that when he goes serious and dramatic, I'm completely disarmed. This one, like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, gave me such an appetite for that side of Matthau's chops, made him such an appealing action hero, such a shlub, such a hard ass shlub... I just wish I knew of more titles to check out. Help me out if you know more. Best moment: Charley finds Joe Don Baker in his trailer. Something about this sequence reminded me so much of Kill Bill Vol. 2, I'd be curious to know if Tarantino's ever sited Charley Varrick as an influence.

Coastlines - Victor Nunez - Man, I dug this one so much, I had to write about it right away - so, to save time, I'm reprinting what I had to say here... Just watched Victor Nunez's terrific small-town crime drama Coastlines (check out this cast: Timothy Olyphant, Josh Brolin, Scott Wilson, William Forsythe, Josh Lucas, Angela Bettis, Robert Wisdom, Sarah Wynter, Daniel von Bargen), and realized that it was exactly the kind of movie I've been trying to wrangle into a screenplay for ten years now. Yes, it's a crime story - it's got criminals and cops, betrayal and revenge - but it is about lower-case 'c' crime (relational transgressions and other not-necessarily-prosecutable offenses) at least as much about the capital 'C' variety, and doesn't boil down to the biggest badass, the most clever or the most ruthless character coming out on top. It's about human-fucking-beings who live together in a small community, and no matter what they get up to when the sun goes down, have to get up again in the morning and see each other. People leave the community through two chief channels: they join the military or go to prison. Any relational bridge they burn, they will be confronted with every day for the rest of their lives - there's no disappearing into a different social scene or starting over with a clean slate on the other side of town. And that factors into their actions much more than in typical thriller fare. That also makes it more thrilling. Because these are recognizable people. They could be you or me much more easily than any stoic tough-guy, mustache-twirling mastermind or sexed-up femme fatale. Their decisions are not predetermined by trope and come with real consequences. They will surprise you and please you. And they will hurt you... I went on to name a few other flicks I'd name alongside it to help define the genre I think it belongs in, and you can read those picks right here (and I'd add one more to that list that I just caught streaming on Netflix, Brian Jun's Joint Body - which I'll discuss a bit more with the October batch). The plot concerns Sonny (Olyphant), and all the shit his unexpected early release from prison stirs up in his home town. His relationships are complex and dangerous for loves and enemies alike, and the tension in the atmosphere could tune a piano. It's a slow simmer of a thriller, but you'll feel the dramatic pull toward confrontation and decisive action from the opening moments tickling you deep in your private places. Best moment: Brolin finds survivors in his boat.

Cop Hater - William Berke - An early adaptation of one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels starring Robert Loggia as a cop investigating the shootings of his buddies on the street. It's a street-level procedural with some terrific cop-talk and sense of place to help you get over the feeling that this is more standard TV rather than movie-fare. On the plus side, it's like a particularly hardboiled episode of Barney Miller, which sounds kinda awesome. Best moment: street hood Mumzer (a very young Jerry Orbach) gets dressed down in the station and then says his peace and blinks a lot.

Flesh & Bone - Steve Kloves - Saw this one when it came out twenty years ago and remembered liking it, but something must've happened to my taste in the last couple decades because I damn near loved it this time around. Dennis Quaid owns a shitload of vending machines that he spends his life driving around the long, lonely stretches of Texas highway on a route to restock them. I loved every detail of his life from the type of machines he has to the places he has them, the motels that he frequents and the people he sees every few weeks on his rounds. Drop a troubled young woman (Meg Ryan) in to his path and watch his whole tightly-wound existence/routine go to hell. It's another thriller that thrills with character and... acting. Takes its time, but never drags, gives us melodrama levels of shit to process without ever letting the acting go over the top, and creates an atmosphere of deep sadness and dread out of wide open spaces. Best moment: Ryan's entrance to the picture is wonderful.

The Hard Word - Scott Roberts - Nothing flashy here, no high concept, just good old fashioned criminality from the colony that became a continent. Three brothers, partners in armed robbery, are released from prison on a deal brokered by their lawyer in order to hit another payload for the folks pulling the strings - a bit like The Getaway - and like Jim Thompson's book, the wife (Rachel Griffiths) of lead brother (Guy Pearce), has been diligently applying herself to working the lawyer (pre-Longmire Robert Taylor) for her husband... or is it the other way around? Anyway, there're double-crosses and revenge plans on the way. Y'know what I like about fare like this? It's not about the best, the toughest or the most clever thieves, it's just daily-stakes and if those aren't high enough for you, you're not awake. Best moment: birthday in prison.

Harper - Jack Smight - This adaptation of Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target is so self-concsious about its place in the private investigator film tradition that it's become trapped in time, almost out Austin Powering Austin Powers in its absolute sixties-ish-ness. On some levels its unintentionally humorous, in others distracting, but ultimately Paul Newman's charm is irresistible and, by the end, the gravity of the story and the toll on the character is honestly moving (for more rambling thoughts on Harper's legacy click here). The plot is standard-issue PI stuff: Lew Harper is dealing with a missing person who's a cheating husband and a shady millionaire, who's got a vixen daughter, various hangers-on and a religious nut-job in his gravity field, plus the hero has an ex-wife stuck in his craw. I prefer the Harper films (this one, The Drowning Pool and Twilight - again, click here for my thoughts on why that belongs on the list) over MacDonald's books for Newman's willingness to be a dick as opposed to MacDonald's Archer's boy-scoutishness. Best moment: the final scene between Lew and his best friend is absolutely perfect. That ending frame is one of the best buttons a film's ever gone out on and it serves to cement the film's and character's proper and distinctive place in the PI-genre better than any of the more obvious and in-organic cues early on.

Hell on Wheels Season 2 - Joe Gayton, Tony Gayton - I'll say this for AMC's western-expansion/revenge drama: it's none-too-precious with sparing characters. By the end of its second season it had killed off several series main-stays (which is almost always a good thing) and gone into bleaker territory, but there was a considerable mid-season lag dealing with affairs of the heart that tried my patience a bit. The fact that some members of the romantic complications did not survive (and not necessarily the one's you'd have put money on) gives me hope for the future. Unfortunately my two most favoritest characters also appear to have perished (one for certain, another for most-likely) and that, obviously, gives me less reason to expect great things from the future run of the show. Still, I'll tune in and give it a go. Best moment: the striking workers brawl with the trainload of scabs.

The Iceman - Ariel Vromen - How difficult is it to deliver an effective two-hour biopic that gives a singular thrust to its subject's entire life? Very difficult. Simpler when the subject is best known for the dozens (if not over a hundred) people he killed (mostly for money) with an astounding variety of method and a signature titular quality of remorse. Still, this film provides some worthwhile juxtaposition to the chill in Richard Kuklinski's blood by giving him some scenes of real vulnerability and large-hearted tenderness with his family. The film can't quite hold together for singular impact, but does offer numerous very worthwhile scenes that survive as short-films unto themselves deserving preservation: Kuklinski's first ordered hit, Ray Liotta deals with David Schwimmer, Chris Evans sells murder and ice cream, James Franco says a prayer, Michael Shannon reads a poem. The horror, heartbreak and absolute real-world weirdness of the elements of the story make it a worthwhile film (certainly infinitely better than the awful Carl Panzram biopic Killer: A Journal of Murder) if not a great one. I'll be interested to revisit this one in a few years and see if and how my opinion will have shifted. Plus, the film deserves recognition for the greatest, bushiest collection of porno-mustaches ever assembled. Best moment: work interferes with a family birthday.

The Missing Person - Noah Buschel - Absolutely as self-aware as a genre picture as Jack Smight's Harper (reviewed above), but far less concerned with establishing a new paradigm for detective pictures. This one is an unassuming, low-key and deftly-handled transcendence of genre-tropes that is, at turns, humorous, odd and, in its most subversive move, less cynical than its heritage. Michael Shannon plays an alcoholic, ex-cop turned private-eye, hired by a law firm to tail a man, with a child in tow, across the country and into Mexico. He (and we) are given little by way of context and the film has fun teasing our sense of trope, and managing to please and surprise us in a completely disarming manner (you smile and be drawn in deeper rather than grimace and resist it as a sucker-punching flick). Lots of great small turns here by the supporting cast, including Amy Ryan, John Vintimiglia, Paul Sparks and Merritt Wever. Best moment: Shannon's blind-sided detective wakes up in the office of scary Mexican gangster Yul Vazquez.

On the Yard - Raphael D. Silver - Prison movies live and die less by the flavor of hell they offer than by the mix of characters they put through it (that said, I'm still looking forward to Escape Plan, and you are too, don't deny it).  Thankfully, this one's got character to spare. Chilly (Thomas G. Waites) is the white man to see for contraband inside. He runs his enterprise without much drama or competition, tho early on we're given reason enough not to fuck with him, but a new screw on the block is determined to shut him down and make an example of him. Suddenly Chilly is feeling heat from previously amicable relationships, and shrinking in the spotlight while rivals and upstarts take advantage of the shift in fortune's winds. To remain on top, he's got to avoid trouble with the guards while maintaining a healthy fear of his reach among the inmates. Enter newbie Juleson (John Heard) who purchases a carton of cigarettes from Chilly and finds himself unexpectedly short of funds to repay his debt. Complicate the situation with Juleson's ethics and resistance to doing favors and interest compounds at a frightening pace. But, that's making it sound like a thriller when it's really an ensemble drama about character in captivity, the cost of enforcing laws (federal or personal codes) and of course escape. The source novel by Malcolm Braly has been on my list since Peter Farris named it as an influence on his writing in an interview. Impossible to judge a book by its movie, but I'm more eager to read it after the film. So, there's that. Best moment: escape attempt by hot air balloon.

Outlaw Country - Randall Parker - Assuming this is an abandoned television pilot for numerous un-complimentary reasons. The most glaring of these is the trail of loose ends following the 'film' like a shaggy mop-head. Then there's TV-ish faults like the incessant soundtrack that grates in its insistence to inform your emotional engagement, undermining the acting and otherwise intruding as jarringly and unnecessarily as any commercial break. The plot concerns small-time thug/good ol' boy badass/sensitive country musician/gentleman/shy of 25 years-old heartthrob Eli Larkin (Luke Grimes) as he tries to live the dream of taking care of his much younger brother and sister, woo tender young poon, pour his passion into pretty, stripped-down ballads he's too young to sing, and support himself by any means other than a square job. Luckily, he's got a best friend Feron (Travis Fimmel) whose prone to pulling a pistol out of his pants to solve problems and who seems willing to follow Eli's lead for inexplicable reasons, enabling Eli to fancy himself a gentleman outlaw (because trade school is apparently beneath him). Trouble arises when other beneath-him things intruded into his life such as corporate country music (Mary Steenburgen and Haley Bennett) and organized crime (John Hawkes). Nah. Oh hell-nah, Eli may not wanna work a service job, but he's not gonna tarnish his soul with real-money options that mean playing by somebody else's rules either. Nope, he's gonna half-ass everything, dammit. In fairness, a long-form television show could have explored interesting territory only nodded at briefly here, but existing, as it does, as a complete work, it's terrible. Rather than seeing things through in the development of Eli's character we leave him half-baked and wildly inconsistent rather than complex. And I do weep for what we may have missed out on in giving Hawkes' Tarzen (yep, his name is Tarzen and that's admittedly bad ass), more room to grow into a real force of menace and evil. Best moment: Tarzen's act of generosity and altruism followed by the command "Give me a hug."

Plunkett & Macleane - Jake Scott - I remember this one being marketed along the lines of 'Trainspotting as a costume drama,' as its two stars Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle made up half of the fierce foursome of Danny Boyle's break out hit from a couple years earlier, and the soundtrack choices reflected an England of the 1990s rather than the depicted 18th century, and it's not a terrible strategy, but the film deserves better than to live in the shadow of another. Plunkett and Macleane are unlikely compatriots who escalate their fugitive status to public enemies one and one and a half by increasingly bold and theatrical robberies of the rich and aristocratic. As the authorities employ escalating brutality to subdue them, their fame and folk-hero status grows exponentially to the point where even their victims claim personal victimhood as a status symbol. No Robin Hood shit going on here though - there's no giving back to the people (except possibly, accidentally as symbols and public figures of resistance) and the thrill of plunder and publicity is a major motivator for at least half the partnership. The camera, soundtrack and performances do add some blood to a notoriously stuffy tradition of period piece and make it fun enough even if, at the end of the day, it's just an otherwise by the numbers class warfare crime flick. Best moment: the public execution is really effective. The sheer height of the gallows, and violence of ascendency give the proceedings a proper sense of theatricality for corporeal punishment.

The Rundown - Peter Berg - The best of the PG-13 restriction placed on Dwayne Johnson's early post-WWF career is this wildly uneven mix of comedy and action captured by the frustratingly talented Peter Berg (couldn't this guy make a serious and personal crime flick, please?). At its best, it highlights Johnson's comic chops and delivers crisp action scenes, beautifully photographed and snappily cut. At its worst it strays (often) into slapstick too broad (including the action climax) and is a forgettable silly mess. Trying to be something like Midnight Run meets Romancing the Stone, it didn't hit the mark, but on DVD or streaming on Netflix there is plenty to skip around and enjoy, including the Best moment: a Rock walks into a bar.

A Single Shot - David M. Rosenthal - There is so much to root for in Sam Rockwell's protagonist John Moon, his earnestness and vulnerability, his self-reliance and personal integrity, but the movie being the movie and the world being the world, it's best not to get your hopes up too high for a happy ending. Moon is a man living in obscurity deep into the margins of society, surviving off the land and part time odd-jobs. The problem is, his wife can no longer handle the hand almost to mouth style of existence and has left him, taking their infant son with her. Moon is determined to win her back and is willing to make some compromises, even perhaps a steady soul-killing job, if she'll reconsider. Fortune intervenes in awful fashion by placing a young woman in the path of one of Moon's bullets intended for deer (which he poaches to survive). Among the young woman's personal affects he finds a shit load of cash money, and he makes the decision to choke down the guilt, hide the body in the woods and take the money. If you've ever seen a movie (or read the source novel by Matthew F. Jones - which you certainly should) than you're a half-mile ahead of Moon down the track. Other people are looking for that girl and for the money, and once he starts trying to funnel it to his estranged family, he's painted a big day-glo target on his ass. This is a beautifully shot, immersively atmospheric tragedy in a pond stocked with great characters and terrific performances (including highly watchable turns by William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly and Joe Anderson - plus appearances by Ted Levine, Jason Isaacs and W. Earl Brown are never a bad thing). Best moment: Moon checks on the babysitter.

Tomorrow You're Gone - David Jacobson - Falling securely in the middle of the pack of Matthew F. Jones adaptations (behind A Single Shot, but well in front of Deepwater - Tomorrow You're Gone is adapted from the Jones novel Boot Tracks) this is much better than your average straight to video Stephen Dorff vehicle (gotta give Dorff some credit for the material he's gone after tho). Charlie may have been released from prison, but he's still shackled to The Buddha (Willem Dafoe), a dangerous criminal whom he owes, and settling that account may save his life and cost his soul. Dorff's Charlie is confused and adrift in his person, morality and mind to the point where we question his perceptions of The Buddha as well as a woman (Michelle Monaghan) he takes up with. The result is a dream-like state that you're either going to go with or not, and it was mostly successful for me. Mostly. Best moment: Charlie gets a room by dropping The Buddha's name.

1 comment:

Kieran Shea said...

Matthau was bitter and cynical as Professor Groeteschele in FAIL SAFE, but that could've been because of the film's grave subject matter. The scene where he slaps a woman who tries to seduce him...pretty damn cold.