Friday, January 17, 2014

2013 in Flicks: December

Ain't Them Bodies Saints - David Lowery - Bob and Ruth are young lovers and partners in crime, and that's no new channel for crime flicks, but unlike Bonnie & Clyde or Badlands, Ain't Them Bodies Saints begins where those stories end, with the two being apprehended in a violent confrontation with police that leaves one of their gang dead and one of the cops shot up. The story picks up four years later with Bob (Casey Affleck) escaping from prison and Ruth (Rooney Mara) receiving the news with some mixed feelings. She's been raising their child, whom she was pregnant with when Bob went to prison, on her own, still living in the same small town looked after somewhat by a friend named Skeritt (Keith Carradine) and watched with growing interest by the same cop (Ben Foster) who got the shit shot out of him when Bob went down. The narrative unfolds in a dreamy Terrence Mallick-esque style hinting at a world of untold stories informing the creases in the character's contemplative brows and that quality, that leaving it unsaid - or rather said, but not explained (or is it the other way around? - is both the best and most frustrating thing about the film. It's the reason the film was marketed as art-house fare (which it is) instead of as a thriller (which it most certainly is). I came out on the very, very pro-side of writer/director Lowery's aesthetic, but would understand if you were left wanting a bit more of the visceral genre stuff to feed your monkey - cause I was too. I so wanted a deeper, closer look at the dynamics of the Skeritt/Bob & Ruth gang. I so, so would have been on board for more explicitness in pretty much any aspect of the world of this film, but I can't help wondering if that's because I was so successfully and artfully enticed, rather than cruelly teased? Looking forward to revisiting this one in the near future and for whatever's next from Lowery. Best moment: Skeritt and Bob talk straight.

American Hustle - David O. Russell - There's a scene two-thirds through this one that will violate your mother so well, she'll most likely come back for more. It's a sequence so perfectly constructed and fluidly executed that I'm tempted to believe the whole film was designed just to facilitate it (which would be worth it). And I'll be honest... it kinda pisses me off how fucking good that scene is. A more cynical man might assume it was designed by some bullshit screenwriting how-to-algebra, but me... I am not that man. I'm choosing to just enjoy it and the rest of the movie for all that it delivered - great performances (I was nervous because of all the bad hair and fashion-out front imagery, but it turns out the costumes and dos aren't the performances themselves), swell use of soundtrack and yeah, the whole shaggy-doggedness of it is pretty charming in the end. It's not a tight thriller, it's not even a period drama, it's a standout collection of memorable moments strung together with industrial strength double-sided tape. Best moment: You mean, other than that sequence I was talking about? How about Bradley Cooper laughing at the expense of Louis C. K.? That was pretty great.

Atlantic City - Louis Malle - Lou (Burt Lancaster) is an old timer living in an apartment building in AC taking care of an elderly woman (about his own age) who treats him like the hired help. His only true pleasure seems to be regularly spying on his young neighbor Sally (Susan Sarandon) while she bathes. Sally is working a shit restaurant job while she takes courses to become a casino blackjack dealer. Things aren't great for her, but she seems capable and determined to make things work. Things fall apart for her when her estranged husband and knocked up sister (a couple now) show up looking to crash with her while he unloads drugs he stole from some gangsters in Philadelphia. Lou, it turns out, used to be a low-level tough guy and when he ends up with the stolen drugs in his possession, he thinks he knows exactly what to do with them. Suddenly, he's alive. He's a bad man again. He's dangerous and desirable to women and when those Philly cheesesteaks come looking for their loot, they're going to rue the day they crossed his path. This is like an early Tom Waits song set to film - losers and hard-luck cases washing up on the New Jersey shore, a shell of its former self. The downbeats are laced with wry humor and punctuated with preposterous flashes of optimism that bring out the deeper ache just for a moment. It's a swell piece of melancholia... Made me want to watch The King of Marvin Gardens again. Best moment: Sally gets Lou off the bus. The double whammy of his betrayal and her ability to humiliate him pretty much sums of the movie.

Fast & Furious - Justin Lin - Say what you will about the F&F franchise, it never backs down. I'm no gearhead (I can barely change the battery in my 1993 whatever, the windows are taped shut from the outside, the passenger side back door hasn't had a handle in six years and that's all okay with me), but apparently you don't have to be to enjoy these flicks. After the first was a surprise hit (Point Break with cars, who knew?) and the second failed to retain Vin Diesel (who joined director Rob Cohen for another one and done stab at a franchise xXx). The third lost Paul Walker, but gained young hired gun Lin who, it turned out was up for the challenge of reinventing the wheel or at least making them do wicked donuts in parking lots all over the world. They got the whole team together for a trilogy within a franchise that would push it real good to new heights (or lows if you like, but when you're on a rollercoaster it's sometimes hard to tell up from down). This one is a revenge story that brings lawman and outlaw together with a common goal. But who the hell cares, it's just groovy, bumpy, gnarly action scene after action scene and complete nonsense, but please take that in the best possible way. Best moment: the drug run.

Fast & Furious 6 - Justin Lin - With the passing of Paul Walker, the F&F franchise may come to a close with episode Seething 7 in 2015. Frankly, I don't know how they're going to even try and top Furious 6. Regardless, I'm going to go ahead and call it my favorite pulp action franchise still kicking. They're willingness to go big brings tears to my eyes. Best moment: tank chase.
The Killing: Season 1 - Veena Sud - Saw somewhere that David Lynch may be returning to Twin Peaks, the original single-case long-form Pacific Northwest procedural about a murdered high school girl, but if you prefer your it-takes-a-village ensembles conspicuously short on giants, dwarves and demons you can go ahead and give AMC's The Killing a shot. Adapted from a Danish series, this one puts Big Love's (excellent) Mireille Enos front and center as Sarah Linden the Seattle homicide detective unlucky enough to catch the big case on her last day on the job (before moving with her son and fiance to sunnier climes). She's got a single day to show her replacement Holder (Joel Kinnaman) the ropes but ends up with just enough to hang herself. Linden, like all the best detectives, is a walking ball of neurosis and hurt that peels off of her in layers, and whose unsuitability for anything else (like human relationships) makes her all the better at her job. She is in turns obsessive, driven, arrogant, badass, empathetic and too pig-fucking-stubborn to let go of the thing when she should. Enos is great to watch and she shares an interesting chemistry with Kinnaman, but the ensemble swells to include political intrigue and drama with the victim's family and the parade of suspects too. And here's a tricky thing, one that Twin Peaks never quite nailed, that balance of expanding the scope of the series beyond the single case so that there's something left when that story-line concludes or fades away. What in the end will the show be about? The case? The character? The community? The fact that it is not a case of the week procedural makes it damn near automatically more interesting to me - but that also comes with its own problems... such as knowing that all early-on most likely looking suspects will not be the one and that there is always, always another twist coming. It gets old after a while. Will The Killing find a way to circumvent those obstacles? You're gonna have to wait for season 2. Best moment: Stan Larson (the standout Brent Sexton) gives the teacher a ride.

The Killing: Season 2 - Veena Sud - Did you really think the Rosie Larson murder was gonna be solved in the season 1 finale? The best thing to say for the first season's irresolution of that case is the further exploration of the badass duo of casino heavies Chief Jackson and Roberta Drays (Claudia Ferri & Patti Kim) whom I truly hope get story lines beyond this season. Without revealing further spoilers I will let you know that the Larson murder investigation is wrapped up by the conclusion of the second season for those of you willing to go a couple seasons for resolution. And that's a good thing. The Larson family's drama is pretty played out, as is the fucking mayoral election, but the Linden/Holder dynamic is solidifying and I could go a bit further with them. Very curious to see what they'd do with a third season. Best moment: Holder gets a warm Wapi Eagle welcome.

King Kelly - Andrew Neel - Put this one in the 'almost gave up on it, but glad I stuck with it' category. It is... abrasive. The opening moments depict the titular character plying her trade - masturbating on webcam for her adoring public - while live viewers leave her comments and prompts on the screen. She flirts with them and they fight among themselves for her affections by leaving her tips and savaging each other. Things hardly improve after that. We follow Kelly through her suburban New Jersey existence as she endlessly documents the mundanity of her life creating drama at every opportunity with her long-suffering family and her hanging-on and/or fed-up friends. Kelly is such a grotesque and insufferable personality you'd be forgiven for bailing early rather than subjecting yourself to her a moment longer, buuuut slowly a plot emerges about the whereabouts of some drugs Kelly muled and misplaced in the trunk of a 'stolen' car and the increasing agitation of the people for whom the pharmaceuticals were intended and the urgency that they are largely failing to impress upon her to recover them. And there's the joke in a nutshell: Kelly, who exaggerates every minor bump in her self-centered agenda into a virtual Kilimanjaro of persecution can hardly be bothered by the only legitimate problem her day has presented her. At least until it's just about too late. We wonder if she's truly clueless about reality or strategically oblivious and more wily than she'd let on, but by the end of the film it wont matter. Actions will have been taken, some consequences will have been ducked others not and the devastation, where it lands in such a consequence-free existence, is the sweet heart of this tough, prickly fruit. Best moment: Poo Bare to the rescue.

The Last Stand - Kim Jee-Woon - International baddy narco-trafficker Gabriel Cortez has rather spectacularly slipped the shackles of his US custodians and is fleeing toward Mexico via an unconventional route (as in - he's erecting a big ramp to jump over the Rio Grande) that will take him straight thru a small town shepherded by an old coot named Ahnold. Warned that the desperado may be headed their way, the kooky, unimpressed citizens support their local sheriff in blowing shit up to thwart the villain. After the admirable if tough to take I Saw the Devil it was nice to see Jee-Woon return to a purely fun action movie, and while not on the same level as his far-superior The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Last Stand manages to have a good time most of the time and to make Arnold Scwarzenegger a welcome movie presence again. The supporting cast features good turns from Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, Peter Storemare and Harry Dean Stanton, though it's difficult to understand how somebody as effortlessly charming and charismatic and gol-damned funny in his Jackass schtick as Johnny Knoxville can fall flat so consistently in all of his other roles - including here as a po-American-boy's version of Kang-ho Song. Best moment: any breakout that features giant magnets and zip lines is worth a look. It's slick little sequence.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - John Ford - Senator Ransom Stoddard has returned to the small town he's the biggest thing to emerge from for the funeral of a man nobody remembers and is convinced to tell his story to the local newspaper. Flashback to younger James Stewart, an idealistic tenderfoot lawyer with nothing but smarts to fuel him and armed only with integrity against the lawless frontier embodied by a shootist named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Good thing he's made a pal out of the only man Valance might be afraid of, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne). Good thing too that Duke's around to save Stewart's bacon every time Valance and his gang show up. And how does Ransom repay Tom's heroic badassery? By stealing away the heart and mind of the girl Tom's gonna marry, that's how. What can I say, it's a classic. Best moment: Marvin spills Wayne's dinner.

Money Movers - Bruce Beresford - A gang of thieves hit an armored car and make off with a honey of a score and the reputation of the security company. Now the whole company is under the gun... mostly because the caper had to have been an inside job and whoever pulled it off messed up either their plans to do the same or to make lotsa money playing the 'straight' end of the business. The story follows an ensemble of characters with intersecting and opposing goals: a group of security men having to alter the plan for their own heist, company security men investigating thefts past and future, gangsters, crooked cops and at least one undercover policeman working bad security men and bent brothers. Based on the novel by Devon Minchin and directed by Beresford (who's done solid work - Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, as well as crap like Double Jeopardy and Silent Fall... I see he's also behind the Bonnie & Clyde mini-series) it's a tight little heist flick in the vein of Peter Yates' Robbery or say Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal graphic novels that's infused with a ticky, nervous energy that's a beaut when it all unravels. It also had one of the best poster tag lines I've ever seen: the lucky ones only lose their toes. Best moment: the final job.

Out of the Furnace - Scott Cooper - Two good-hearted brothers from a blue collar neighborhood go down separate tragic paths - the older and more responsible (goatee mode Christian Bale) works at the same steel mill his father did. He loves his dying pop and his smoking hot girlfriend, but flushes his life down the tubes and ends up in prison for his part in a terrible traffic accident. The younger, restless brother (cracked voice Casey Affleck) fucked himself by joining the armed forces and fighting in the middle east and has come home ill-suited for anything except prize fighting in underground scraps organized by a local gangster (the refreshingly good Willem Dafoe). When younger brother gets in over his head with money issues he presses for a fight with some particularly nasty out of town rednecks - a fight he never comes back from. The police can't do much to find him so the older brother and their uncle (Sam Shepard) go sniffing around some dark corners of Appalachia and things point toward the menacing figure of Woody Harrelson (pretty menacing believe it or not). Which is all to say - I've seen this movie before. A hundred times. It's nothing new... What makes this one stand out is the cast - I mean damn, I haven't even mentioned Forest Whitaker or Tom Bower yet. Unfortunately nobody gave em a script of any note (it feels like something Sylvester Stallone never got around to making 30 years ago). It does look good and many of the aesthetics seem tailored to my preferences, but at the end of the day, I really was hoping for more from this one. Best moment: Dafoe and Affleck go meet Harrelson.

Sightseers - Ben Wheatley - Chris and Tina (co-writers and co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) just want to take a nice vacation. We like them immediately for their big, goofy open-faced affection for each other, their stagnant places in life and their mutual recognition of the other as their best bet for moving on to the next stage of their latent adulthoods. They leave Tina's home pulling a camper trailer, which they may decide to pull over and have noisy roadside sex in the back of, in the morning and pull into a slot at the first stop on their tour that evening where they commence an odd and awkwardly escalating confrontation with another vacationing couple. Wheatley, whose previous two pictures really blew me away - the off-balance comic crime drama Down Terrace and the domestic drama turned hit man thriller turned nightfuckingmare Kill List - loads this one with flashes of inspired humor and violence, but it doesn't stand out against his earlier flicks. Best moment: Chris and Tina invite themselves in.

This is Martin Bonner - Chad Hartigan - Alright, everybody, take a deep breath and stretch. Strrrretch. Touch your toes. Do some splits. Feeling limber? Good. Now you're ready to read about This is Martin Bonner on a crime fiction/film blog. It is perhaps the stretchiest stretch of the definition of a crime film I've yet made, dealing only tangentially with the issue of crime as it is about two men - the titular Martin (Paul Eenhoorn) a case worker with a rehabilitation ministry and Travis (Richmond Arquette) a newly paroled convict in Las Vegas - trying to make choices with limited options about the next rest of their lives. That said, it is easily one of the best films I've seen this year. And how did it win me over without the lurid appeals of my typical criminal fare? With heart and soul and two quiet and amazing performances. Both Eenhoorn and Arquette deliver a fuckload of humanity in the simplest dialogue and facial expressions and writer/director Hartigan is so in control of the tone and pace of this shit that the climactic scene involving three characters ordering lunch at a diner is nearly as nerve-wracking as the silent heist sequence in Rififi. So, indulge me. This is a great little flick. Best moment: the diner scene.

Wish You Were Here - Kieran Darcy-Smith - Two Australian couples vacation in Cambodia and only one pair returns home intact. Dave and Alice (Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price) come home to take care of their family and try to get on with their lives while Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) stays behind not wanting to abandon hope after the disappearance of her boyfriend. Dave seems particularly haunted and maybe even paranoid... is that car following me? When Steph finally comes back the revelations start and guess what - none of them are pleasant. It's a good film. I really wanted it to be great though. Best moment: Dave might start a riot.

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