Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2014 in Crime Flicks: December

American Muscle - Ravi Dhar - John Falcon (Nick Principe) gets out of prison after ten years for his part in a robbery turned massacre, and while he is most certainly guilty of the crime, for him, there's no getting around the fact that he was betrayed by his brother and his woman (two different people). Once out he does what any self-respecting hardass would do - find every single person who ever did him wrong and kill the shit out of them... except for his lady 'cause he still has, y'know feelings. It's a bad movie, but it's not a total waste - it's got an eye for action and an ear for dialogue that leave the viewer wishing that the film makers had a functioning pair of both, and a budget to match. It's fast, cheap fun for about ten minutes, but overstays its welcome shortly thereafter. Virtues include brevity and a goofy willingness to go to the outer limits of taste and good form and not stop. It's exploitation done by folks who might be capable of more, and better, but were either not interested or not budgeted for it. It's all the worst and most tedious bits of Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, Hell Ride, Baytown Outlaws and Boondock Saints jammed in a blender and set on recycle, but with just enough wit leaking out to tease that there's something better to come. Hope so. Best moment: the first time a beautiful woman is overcome with lust upon meeting Falcon and wants to know if he'd like her number - he replies something to the effect of I'm not going to be out long enough to use it. Was a good line.

Automata - Gabe Ibanez - Jacq (Antonio Banderas) an insurance investigator who looks into claims of a robotics corporation's products malfunctioning finds a troubling case of self-repairing/altering machines who are breaking their own operating protocols in this surprisingly rich picture that is a spiritual heir of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. The atmosphere is thick with existential dread and the effects are special enough to carry this one to levels your average straight to video Dylan McDermott robot movie don't achieve. Finally a movie shooting for the Blade Runner benchmark that isn't an embarrassment. Best moment: ladybot with a screwdriver.

Black Rain - Ridley Scott - Two American cops (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) burdened with the task of delivering an extradited Japanese prisoner home, promptly lose their charge upon arrival and take it personally and insist upon sticking around and making big, ugly American pains in the asses of themselves until they have the satisfaction that the baddy is visited by justice. Douglas as a cop really should be its own movie genre - always surly, always named Nick, or Vic or Rick, ridiculously coiffed and aftershave so strong you can smell it from the screen - but I guess I'd call them a guilty pleasure, 'cause when this one popped up on Netflix, I was powerless to stop watching it again. Still, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had as a teenager, so maybe that's progress. Scott can still make turds gleam, but he can't turn it in to The Yakuza of the 80s. Best moment: bring me the head of Andy Garcia.

Die Hard - John McTiernan - Armed men take 30 hostages on the upper floors of the still-under-construction Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles while a lone, barefoot, off-duty policeman fucks up their plans one rooftop, elevator shaft, air duct, C4 charge, and machine gun at a time ho-ho-ho. And you thought your holiday get togethers were difficult. There's many reasons this one is so beloved and resilient - no number of diminishing-returns-turned-franchise-theme-one-eighties-sequels can dim the pleasure of the original - not least the vulnerability Bruce Willis brings to the hero. In fact you could contrast Willis's self-doubt and confusion with Alan Rickman's psychotic focus and cocksureness (or for that matter, Willis's own psychotic focus and cocksureness in the latter films of the franchise) for a fun discussion of 20th century, first-world masculinity, but it's not necessary in order to enjoy the film. Glad this one didn't end up as a Frank Sinatra or Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Best moment: guess we're gonna need some more FBI guys.

El Infierno - Luis Estrada - Benny (Damian Alcazar) returns home to Mexico after years trying to establish a life for himself in the United States to find drug cartels violence has swallowed up everything he once knew including his younger brother who grew up to be a vicious, but celebrated killer. He takes the only job he can find following his brother's footsteps and becomes an enforcer for the local cartel, enjoying the notoriety and money even as he understands it can't end well. Several scenes of shocking violence that could have played so effectively for horror and tragedy are unfortunately emotionally blunted by a prevailing comedic dissonance - I'm not sure if the film isn't working or if I'm not getting what the goal is, but it felt like two competing films vying to own the screen... Also adding to that feeling, the epic running time. Still, had many memorable and effective sequences. Best moment: a tale of two brothers.

Life of Crime - Daniel Schechter - Two fellas kidnap a rich lady for ransom, but have the misfortune of their plan falling on the weekend over which the rich husband is leaving her. The rich husband is an asshole, but... how big an asshole? He's not willing to let his wife be killed just to avoid paying ransom and then alimony, is he? "Don't worry," says his foxy-smart mistress, "they won't kill her and you won't have to pay if we play this my way." Oh the tangled webs we weave. This is one of the most tonally precise adaptations of the work of Elmore Leonard yet (from his novel The Switch) where the criminals are bad guys, but not entirely unreasonable, the victims are thoughtful people and have their own ideas, nobody backs down and everybody throws curveballs at each other's heads. And it's funny, but it's not really a comedy. It's got a tension, but nobody'd call it a white-knuckle thriller. It's also a period piece (the late 70s) with great, small details that don't call attention to themselves, but add a lot of flavor - why is this the first non-western period adaptation of Leonard I can think of? - it works great. The casting of John Hawkes and Yasin Bey in the same roles inhabited by Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (from Leonard's Rum Punch) certainly invite physical and spiritual comparisons to the other work (and hell, Michael Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown role in Out of Sight seems to give the go-ahead nod to runners at second wishing to create a singular alternate universe of the man's work). The rest of the cast is just as good. Even the presence of Will Forte and the buffoonish antics of Mark Boone Junior don't tip the scales into broad comedy. This is a terrific semi-high stakes game of life and death and money that deserves your attention. Best moment: the kidnapping sequence - the staging is masterful, complex but never confusing, while the tone is dramatic and funny too. Captures the film maker's understanding of the essence of Leonard's work beautifully.

Out of Time - Carl Franklin - The semi-corrupt police chief of a quiet Key community (Denzel Washington) gets in way over his head on account of never having watched a crime movie before. I actually enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would (giving it another chance after enjoying the Franklin/Washington collaboration Devil in a Blue Dress last month and of course being a big fan of Franklin's One False Move) its laid-back approach to high tension paves an effectively slippery slope for its protagonist to find himself at the bottom of, but good night has the guy really never ever seen a potboiler before? The incident that fucks up his sweet gig is sooo painfully obviously a set up, the femme fatale's eye shadow is actually called foreshadow. Believe it or not that, along with one or two other elements that don't quite work, are nits I chose not to pick in favor of this low-stakes thriller with a surprisingly sharp script and deft direction. It's no Hitchcock throwback and it's no No Way Out, but what it is I'd be happy to have more of. Best moment: ah, the pleasures to be had watching two big-screen heavyweights (Washington and Dean Cain - heh) throwing carefully veiled threats at each other over beers.

Peaky Blinders Season 2 - Steven Knight - The Shelby family and its titular gang led by middle son Thomas (Cillian Murphy) fight to keep and expand upon their bloody-won legitimacy entering into dangerous partnerships with the likes of a Jewish gangster (Tom Hardy) the IRA and the loathsome agent of the crown Sam Neill. The second season barrels on on the head of steam built up by the first and the blackmail of Thomas by the copper is worked out in a particularly pleasing season-long game. Continuing to love this show - and with my current favorite flavor (Boardwalk Empire) running out, this is primed to be my new jam. And speaking of jams, the divisive score of the show kept me ever in its favor with a load of PJ Harvey keeping Nick Cave company. Best moment: Thomas smokes a cigarette in a field and lets loose with an uncharacteristic howl - I almost had it all. Given the circumstances, it's an effective moment of poignancy and avenue in for the audience.

The Retrieval - Chris Eska - Will, (Ashton Sanders) a young slave with a grim job - he's an integral member of a gang of bounty hunters seeking quarry (primarily runaway slaves) on the bleeding edges of the war between the states - is torn between survival instincts and moral choices. The plot and themes are familiar from every undercover agent movie ever, but feel fresh and particularly compelling with the innovation of the setting and inversion of the typical genre sympathies. This atmospheric period piece is pulled off swimmingly on its low budget by a good costume department, sharp cinematography and aces location shooting in the wild plus a well deployed supporting cast including Tishuan Scott, Keston John and Bill Oberst Jr. Looking forward to the next offering from Eska. Best moment: the opening scene of Will approaching a house at night with the low rumble and far off flashes of cannon fire setting the scene - it's beautifully effective mood setting.

The Sacrament - Ti West - Two video journalists from Vice magazine (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) travel to Africa to check out the commune that has so entranced one of their sisters. Inspired by the story of the Jonestown cult, menace hangs off the camera throughout the brief running time in one of the least-annoying uses of the found-footage style in recent memory. The slow boil that leads to the inevitable bloodbath is effective both at alternating tone and for avoiding plot beats too close to the Jim Jones story. Best moment: human torch.

Starred Up - David Mackenzie - Eric (Jack O'Connell) a violent young offender is graduated early to an adult maximum security prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. The tension between the interests of immediate survival and long-term life-planning carries the film through harrowing sequences that aren't all violent, but which swim in the immediacy of violent probability. This is damn good film making - a gritty flick that works the tag 'thriller' just as hard on the emotional stakes of the father/son dynamic as it does on the life-and-or-limb front of life among the condemned. This one absolutely belongs in conversation with A Prophet, the best prison film I've seen... ever? O'Connell delivers a startling performance and Mendelsohn cements his reputation as an invaluable presence to anchor your crime drama with. One of the decade's best. Fucking-a. Best moment: family therapy and fisticuffs.

True Grit - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - Mattie Ross sets off from Arkansas into Indian territory, either less vulnerable or less daunted by said vulnerability than you'd think, to find and kill the man who killed her father, dragging in her wake Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a crusty, cruel US Marshal and LaBouef (Matt Damon) a comically sincere Texas Ranger only ostensibly after the same thing. Taken from the source novel by Charles Portis, this version works in conversation with the first big screen adaptation starring John Wayne as much as the novel does with the popular myth of the American west. Alternately subversive and sincere the story is best viewed as straight up adventure that reinvents the rugged frontier hero as a 14 year old girl and invites you to decide her merit as you see fit. Hailee Steinfeld is terrific in the central role and the Coens, as usual, stock their pond with more fantastic supporting performances than your average bumper-crop of Oscar-bit hams including Barry Pepper, Josh Brolin, Dakin Matthews and even J.K. Simmons as the disembodied voice of just one more otherwise formidable male personality who recognizes they've met their match in Mattie Ross. Best moment: seeing a man about a horse.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Your comment about OUT OF TIME ("gets in way over his head on account of never having watched a crime movie before") would have made this blog worth reading all by itself. I saw the movie years ago, had forgotten about it, and remembered enough as soon as I read that. Well done, sir.

DIE HARD is still the gold standard for that kind of film, for the reasons you state: Willis's vulnerability, added to Rickman being the ultimate screen bad guy. This is one where, if I come across it late at night, I'll stay to the end, no mater where I picked it up.

I read TRUE GRIT after seeing the Coen Brothers' version, then finding the original (which I had managed to miss all those years). All three are good, and the Coens come closest to the book, but anyone who hasn't read it really ought to. It's a gem of a book.