Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: June

Across 110th Street - Harry Shear - Dressed as cops, a trio of thieves rip off a mob operation and when the job goes bad, kill several gangsters and a couple of actual cops before hitting the streets wearing the $300,000 targets they'll have for the remainder of their short lives. The film follows the frustrated investigating cops led by racially-clashing Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn as well as the pissed off mobsters who're also feeling friction along racial lines in Anthony Franciosa and Richard Ward, on their separate quests for justice and money and all factions trying to claim supremacy of the streets. But the heart of the film is in following the folks stuck in the middle between the gods and kings of the urban jungle, the people driven to the extreme measures of defying their overlords and upsetting the corrupt partnership between them that keep the status quo, by inviting death by deity when they steal all that money. The hapless trio are hunted down one by one bringing zero satisfaction to those who are looking for justice and small measures of restitution to the ones with damaged images. The scenes between Paul Benjamin and Norma Donaldson are all terrific, but for the Best moment: I'm going with Ward facing off with Quinn and Kotto in the middle.

Blood Ties - Guillaume Canut - A remake of the 2008 French film Le liens du sang (Rivals) based on the novel by Michel & Bruno Papet and directed by the original film's star, this is a family drama with James Caan as the dying (single father) patriarch with two sons - Clive Owen as the older, street criminal brother just out of prison and Billy Crudup as the younger, who is a cop. The brothers alternately look out for each other and ruin the other's lives with their actions, tying the family's fate together while ripping at the more organic fabric that they can't escape. Owen's Chris reconnects with his ex (Marion Cotillard), a prostitute whom he has two children with, setting her up as the madam of the brothel he's opening (funded through armed robbery), while concentrating his woos on a girl (Mila Kunis) guaranteed to put them in the running for awkward romantic screen-pairing of the year... maybe the decade. Meanwhile Crudup's Frank busts a blue-collar career criminal family man (Matthias Schoenaerts) back to prison and zeroes in on the attentions of the con's wife (Zoe Saldana) with his heat-seeking boner while taking shit from his cop buddies for letting his un-repentent criminal brother live with him, and feeling very much and very accurately like second favorite to dad. If this sounds like a great, tangled, messy family-drama (let alone crime story) plot - it is. If it sounds like an awful lot to make room for in a two-hour movie - it didn't have to be, but it was. Not sure what elements I would have sacrificed to focus on others, but somehow this felt like too much of a good thing. The cast is impressive (I haven't even mentioned the solid supporting work from Noah Emmerich, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Ventimiglia or the woefully under-used Lili Taylor), the look of the film and its soundtrack are small-scale Scorsese-esque and immense pleasures, and the crime elements are satisfying, but the material is so dense that what should have been a far-more emotionally-invested viewing experience turned out to be one that I was conscious of rooting for and holding out for it all to come together... which I think it did - I liked this movie - but it required me to hang on and hang in more than a masterful take on the material would have. Best moment: armored car heist.

Cheap Thrills - E.L. Katz - On the day that a new father, about to see his family evicted from their small, L.A. apartment, loses his auto-mechanic job, he stops by a bar for a quick, steeling drink before heading home to figure out his life. At the bar he runs into his dodgy high-school pal and agrees to commiserate for one more drink. The two are then drawn into the orbit of an obnoxiously rich couple who throw cash around indiscriminately for the pleasure of its affect on the two pals. Soon, one drink turns into a night of partying that rides the exhilarating/terrifying edge toward riches or doom for the hapless duo. This is one electrifying, sick picture that demands and collects everything from its cast. Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton and the revelatory David Koechner draw our empathy, admiration and repulsion one beat to the next in a razor-sharp allegory for global economic exploitation. Buuuut, don't let the myriad one-to-one metaphoric parallels distract you from the immediate pleasures of this aptly titled morality conundrum because they are many, sweet and tart. The control that first time feature director Katz demonstrates is some veteran-level shit. Watch him squeeze a single scene in three different emotional directions and tease the hell out of your expectations with a sly edit, an unexpected texture, a tonal shift unexpected - yet organic - you only realize later it was swelling beneath surface from the beginning. Fucking loved this movie. Best moment: Healy underbids Embry.

Devil's Knot - Atom Egoyan - As if the 1993 murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas weren't tragedy enough, the town compounded the horror by railroading three slightly older boys into life-sentences in prison and one death sentence. Over the last twenty years The West Memphis Three have been the subject of several documentaries and books, but this is, as far as I know, the first dramatic treatment. Who better to look at this semi-rural crime story involving school children than the director of The Sweet Herafter? I dunno, but... as loaded for emotional impact as the raw materials are, I was happy to have somebody like Egoyan, who never makes loud movies, at the helm. What'd I want? I wasn't looking for a trial procedural or a thriller, but something more interested in the impact that the events had on an entire community. Unfortunately, the film seems to fall somewhere between the two and undercuts the strengths of both types of film. There are some solid performances and the cast is mostly good including Reese Witherspoon and Alessandro Nivola and features some of my favorite character actors working today - Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas and Mireille Enos - but right at the fore of this bunch is Colin Firth doing a mayonnaise flavor of dull acting, as a private investigator with a conscience. I can't lay this all on Firth - the script drove him into a bad neighborhood and then kicked him out of the car armed with nothing but an assortment of constipated looks to throw at the camera - but I will say that seeing him cast in the lead (of any movie) gave me great pause. Dunno how much is his presence and how much is his choice of pictures, but damn... I'm hoping he can take the William Hurt school for bland actors cure and start throwing some curves at us (and I hope Hurt does too - stick to the small, weird shit for a while - play against type). No more liberal crusader pictures more concerned with highlighting an injustice and what a modern day knight might look like than the on-the-ground day-to-day reality that this kind of event levels on the vulnerable, please. Best moment: discovery of the first body - sucks the air out of the room. Wish the rest of the picture had followed suit.

Easy Money: Hard to Kill - Babak Najafi - At the end of Easy Money, the disparate trio of criminals we'd been following had collided pretty spectacularly and with tragic results. The sequel picks up years later as JW (Joel Kinnaman) is being granted leave from his prison stretch to take an important business meeting with his legit partner on the outside, Jorge (Matias Varela) is prospering as an international drug-runner and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) has made some kind of peace with his life wheelchair bound and imprisoned, working toward an eventual release and reunion with his daughter. But all upward trajectories end right there. Where the first film was a sprawling several-months-long story of the slow intertwining of their destinies, the terribly-titled sequel (hey, let's make everybody think it's a Rodney Dangerfield, Stephen Seagal buddy cop flick!) takes place in a considerably compacted time line and delivers just holy shit an amazing second chapter to what will be a trilogy (look for Easy Money: Life Deluxe to hit English language outlets soon) based on the series of books by Swedish author Jens Lapidus. This is the kind of flick I just can't get enough of - complex circuses of criminality, character and consequence. Best moment: Jorge goes out the window.

Escape From Tomorrow - Randy Moore - A man undergoing the needlessly stressful rite of a family vacation to Disney Land gets a phone call on the last day of his trip informing him that he's been fired from his job. Keeping it a secret so as not to spoil the fun, his day goes wrong in a series of escalating and possibly connected ways. Is he losing his mind, or is there an underage prostitution being run under the noses of the tourists featuring the park's princess employees? Is he being followed by mysterious young women or is he magnetically attracted to them and ready to jettison his family for a fling? Is 'cat flu' something he should be concerned about? Is the picture a paranoid conspiracy thriller or a psychological unraveling set in the happiest place on earth? Whatever the answer, the main reason you'll want to watch this one is for the thrill of the story of its making. This one has such a legend that it overshadows any emotional impact the art achieves (that it was shot at the Disney theme parks without permission with the cast and crew posing as tourists, ducking security and shooting clandestinely - the fact that the film has been distributed at all is quite an achievement). Is that a bad thing? Not really. I love to watch daring flicks that can energize me with their ballsy moves and succeed by simply pulling off a watchable piece of cinema (see Mike Figgis's Time Code, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi or -maybe- Lars Von Trier's Dogville). Best moment: the 'Small World' ride. Man, I didn't even notice that they weren't using the real song. The original music is just swell and spooky for the scene too.

Fargo: Season 1 - Matt Hawley - Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) begins his journey from hapless schmuck to alpha-male
when he vents to a stranger in the emergency room about wishing he could have a go at the life-long bully whose behavior had necessitated the hospital visit. The stranger turns out to be evil incarnate (Billy Bob Thornton), a killer for hire who works for an organized crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota. The killer takes Lester at his word, tracks down Lester's tormentor and buries a hunting knife in the asshole's head. This is equal parts horrifying and exhilarating to Lester who begins to fumble forward along a path of self-actualization that goes to dark and evil places startlingly quickly. Not since Walter White's demon emerged from behind his mask of middle-class white-guy blandness, has a monster been created so convincingly out of more surprising raw materials. It helps of course that Freeman is playing against fifteen years of type-casting as guileless sweethearts who come through every once in a while with quiet moments of courage from Tim on The Office to Bilbo friggin Baggins in The Hobbit. It helps too that this is a TV event based on source material from The Coen Brothers and not just the namesake film. Yes, the show is set in the Northern Plains, features funny accents and contains some slight nods to the 1996 flick (including one super-awesome-sweet one involving the source of Oliver Platt's fortune), but it seems like the entire Coen oeuvre is being drawn from - ooh, ooh just like in Blood Simple! No Country For Old Men! Burn After Reading! Raising Arizona! and on and on. It might even be leveled as a critique against the show that there are so many nods and in-jokes here, but the world created for 10 episodes (will this be an on-going show like True Detective or American Horror Story with a completely separate second season, or will this simply be a kick-ass mini-series?) is one worth immersing yourself in. The characters go to surprising places and will unexpectedly please and horrify you - for instance, Bob Odenkirk's police chief I was sure would be a one-note joke, but damn if he didn't have a couple amazing character reveals - and the plot never follows the beat blueprints we've been conditioned to expect. Best thing I've seen on TV this year and best ensemble cast since... DeadwoodBest moment: so many... perhaps the blood shower, or the brothers shooting each other with crossbows, Key & Peele bickering through the massacre, ice-hole body disposal, Lester fucking the widow or lending his coat to his wife... or the African refugee story... I can't decide. Every episode has moment of sublime perfection and I can't wait to watch them all again.

Great Train Robbery - Chris Chibnall - A band of career criminals in a bit of a slump determine to turn things around with a ballsy move that pays off far greater than they imagined and will make history. This two-part miniseries was a great idea for true-crime drama - part one follows the criminals planning and executing the heist and part two follows the police investigation and manhunt. The whole thing is pulled off in a very no-frills fashion which is a mostly admirable approach, but I'll confess I ended up craving a bit more cinematic thrill-factor (like part one's opening moments - nice, stylish heist shit) instead of what felt more like a well above average dramatic re-enactment from inside a much longer documentary film. In the end, the most memorable and impressive thing from the whole venture were Jim Broadbent's dead, cold, cop eyes. Even as a villain, he's got a twinkle. Not here, boyo. Hard as granite.  Best moment: Train-driving practice.

The Rock - Michael Bay - The government has been doing bad things - specifically, to its own soldiers - and one life long GI Joe (Ed Harris) has had enough. He's had so much, in fact, that he's stolen some seriously awful naval biological weaponry and is holding the city of San Francisco hostage, from the nearby Alcatraz island, until the gubment forks over the pre-Iraq-invasion astronomical-sounding amount of $100 million - 83% of which is to be given to the families of soldiers whose deaths were covered up. Hyperbole flies - You know the president's stance on terrorism - I am not a terrorist, I'm a patriot - Gen. Hummel is an honorable man - and we're told in a dozen different grave tones that this is a fucking terrible day and the only way to stop the rogue soldiers is to send a SEAL team to the bowels of the former prison with an FBI chemist who can disarm the missiles. The final piece of the solution is a man the government erased from official existence thirty years earlier - the only man ever to successfully escape from Alcatraz to lead the aqua-team-hunger-force through the byzantine sewer system beneath the titular island. Long-defended as the 'good' movie Bay made before he became ridiculous, as well as one of the only good Nicolas Cage action flicks ever, I revisited this one for the first time since the last century and found that... holy shit, it has not aged well. From frame one it's a fire sale on Bay-cliches: the flag-porn and man of honor crap that may've caused an eye-roll or two pre-9-11, but quickly became a fucking frighteningly frequent montage of nationalism used to sell pick-ups and Toby Keith records is... especially hard to take now. And it's big and stupid. The movie, that is. Which I don't mind, but the coat of hard candy ick required to chomp through to get to the goofy chewy fun center was a little more than I was willing to any more. Best moment: Melty-face.

The Yards - James Gray - Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is just out of prison for stealing cars and hooked up by his best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) with a job working for Frank (James Caan) who contracts with the city for repairs to the subway cars. Willie's certainly come up in the world while Leo was inside and tho he wants to get serious, grow up and stay straight, Leo also wants to be making some decent scratch and goes along with Willie on one of the illegal nocturnal drumming up of business runs that Willie's crew go out on wherein they vandalize subway cars in the shipping yards. There's anti-corruption hoo-ha happening due to the elections and the guard who usually looks the other way for a fee unexpectedly does his job and ends up dead, leading to police investigations into Frank's crew. Who will end up on the suspect short-list? Who will remain loyal to his friends? The chief pleasure of James Gray films is the atmosphere - the majestic decay of the city, the warmth of the character's relationships especially when expressed in community gatherings (the welcome home party here, the wedding in We Own the Night, the dinner in Two Lovers, the bath house in The Immigrant) and the somber daily working out of criminal pursuits including the very workmanlike executions of those jobs, and The Yards has all that, if not much else, going for it. Like a lot of my favorite film noirs, it's a flick that I enjoy getting lost in from time to time, but have only watched all the way through twice. His films are full of details I'll remember - almost none of them concerning plot. Best moment: the welcome home party. Tip for film making magic: make Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway the family matrons and just step back.


reverenderyk said...

The netflix queue has now been re-loaded. Watched NIGHT MOVES last night. If you haven't seen that one, whoa buddy...

jedidiah ayres said...

Love the Arthur Penn movie... really really eager to see the Kelly Reichardt flick.

I even like the Bob Seeger song