Blue Hill Avenue - Craig Ross Jr. - After Belly left me in a daze earlier in the year, I thought I'd give this 90s little crime flick that fell through the cracks a go. Unfortunately I found all the cliche without the dazzling wtf? factor of the other here. By the books low-budget urban crime drama with all the trappings of the decade - most welcome trope? - trenchcoats. Best moment: trenchcoat pose/shoot out.
Child 44 - Daniel Espinosa - Based on a novel of the same name that I really dug by Tom Rob Smith, adapted by Richard Price, directed by the guy who made Easy Money and Safe House and starring Tom Hardy, Vincent Cassel and Gary Oldman, why wasn't this a huge hit or even a year-end favorite of mine? As far as the huge commercial appeal goes, I think the subject matter is just too bleak, but as to why it wasn't more exciting to me personally, I'm not entirely sure. Visually it's striking - I loved all the creative license taken with cold war reproductions - and I really appreciated that the script minimized certain elements of the book that I thought were weak spots. The cast is capable and game and the tone is aptly drab, but it did not translate to an experience at all similar to the strange blend of emotionally wrecking, conscience-shredding excitement I was hoping for... which isn't to say it was a waste. It's a solid picture, one that might even grow on me with time and a repeat viewing or two. Best moment: Noomi Rapace tells her side of the love story - that was the closest the film came to recreating the dread of the book.
Cop Land - James Mangold - Probably my favorite collection of onscreen cop-body dumpiness. Holy crap, the bad haircuts and mustaches, the coked-out eyeballs and rumpled clothes - I love them all. And man, whatever happened to the Sylvester Stallone we were promised with this flick? Here he plays Freddy, a small town New Jersey sheriff whose dreams of being a big-city cop were dashed years ago when he damaged his hearing while saving a drowning woman (Annabella Sciorra) he's carried a torch for ever since. What has she done with her life? She went and married an asshole big city cop (Peter Berg) who doesn't appreciate her. Her husband is part of Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel's) crew of comfortably corrupt entrepreneurs who wear badges across the bridge. This crew includes Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick and Michael Rappaport who accidentally kills some dudes in a high speed pursuit while drunk off his ass. The ensuing bureaucratic clusterfuck looks like IAD investigator Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro's) big chance to nail Ray's crooked crew. All he needs is a little backbone from long-gone-to-seed Freddy to make his case. Stallone delivers a terrific performance at the center of an amazing ensemble lineup that also includes Noah Emmerich, Janeane Garofalo, Frank Vincent, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, John Ventimiglia, Tony Sirico and a whole bunch more 'that guys', but maybe the better question than 'why didn't we get more like this from Stallone' is WTF James Mangold? What else in his filmography stacks up to this? I mean to say he made the best Wolverine movie is faint praise. Best moment: Ray Liotta gives Harvey Keitel a piece of his sweaty, coked out mind.
Miller's Crossing - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - Homage, pastiche, genre-slumming - throw whatever cinematic snobbery term you like at The Coens, and specifically this masterpiece, and it slides off the no-stick coating in seconds and leaves not even a grease trail behind after minutes. This is the handsomest, most elegant gangster film ever. Of course it borrows and steals from decades of like-minded fare - from The Godfather and This Gun For Hire to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit and probably a dozen other films and books, but what it never does is beg. It simply takes the best bits and owns them, arranges them for optimal impact - building a monument to what all the potential inherent in the material. Between Carter Burwell's lovely and evocative score, Barry Sonnenfeld's opulent wide-lens photography, sharp set and costume design, the always spot-on casting and the dialogue that sounds simultaneously wholly familiar and unique, it's a perfect film - gorgeously violent, surprisingly funny and romantically sad. I re-watched it recently intending to pop it in for five minutes to clear away the funk I was in, but blinked and had watched the whole thing. Not the first time that's happened either. It's good for what ails you. Best moment: John Turturro begs for his life, "Look in your heart!"
Pickup on South Street - Samuel Fuller - Richard Widmark plays Skip, a professional thief and two-time loser picks the wrong pocket and ends up in the possession of a highly sensitive strip of film and under the microscope of a Russian spy as well as the United States federal government. Uncle Sam has to stop taking swipes at him if they want his cooperation in a sting operation to nail the spy and Skip plays all the angles to come out of the affair with his skin and then some. The underworld atmosphere is seedy and cool and the biggest pleasure of the picture. Widmark's an A-1 bastard who treats Jean Peters plenty rough and whose sense of patriotism isn't a high percentage angle to play. Will he choose to play for himself or throw in for his country's best interests? It's actually a great tension to play with and the time's red scare vs. today's climate of rampant patriotic paranoia makes it especially potent. Widmark seems he really could go either way and that's an invaluable quality. Best moment: Thelma Ritter's Moe gets pulled in and questioned by the cops. She's the most vibrant underworld personality in the film and pure pleasure every moment on screen.
The Salton Sea - D.J. Caruso - Self-conscious modern 'noir' often suffers from style rather than embodying Czar of Noir - Eddie Muller's line that noir is suffering in style. That said, few films of the last 20 years have managed to pack in so much style and end up with anything remotely watchable or affecting. The whole produced-in-a-can vibe is worked here to admirable effect and Caruso gives the actors just enough space to make some memorable moments and not just of the over the top variety Vincent D'Onofrio, Adam Goldberg and B.D. Wong deliver. Val Kilmer has a few priceless what-the-actual-fuck? reactions behind his glazed-over eyes that make you wonder whatever happened to that guy and the cast includes Peter Sarsgaard, Luis Guzman, Anthony Lapaglia, Deborah Kara Unger, R. Lee Ermey, Meat Loaf, Danny Trejo and the dude from Buckcherry, so there's usually something good to look at in any particular scene. The script is a bit too contrived and it feels like there are more than a couple sequences that could be dropped entirely without losing the story (the Bob Hope's stool-sample heist for example, the pigeon JFK assassination re-enactment for another), but most of those add something tonally or at least throw your concentration off enough to forgive the next bit of voice-over. All in all, I like this movie. It's messy, but not sloppy, and equal parts groovy and goofy, but there's nothing else remotely like it that succeeds as often as it does. Best moment: Sarsgaard's tattoo reveal is perhaps the truest emotional note in the whole silly picture.
The Salvation - Kristian Levring - It's a man of few words and just enough bullets revenge story you could anticipate the beats to in your sleep. Just another spaghetti western in a can. But it's a handsome can, no doubt. It's got that processed and packaged atmosphere that works swell when it works and distracts plenty when it doesn't. Luckily this one works most of the way through, atmospherically. It's limited instead by it's ambitions, or lack thereof. Nothing new here except that beautiful artifice and the beautiful people posing within. Best moment: the coach ride with Michael Raymond-James. Maybe because I'd recently re-watched Terriers, but man, I couldn't get enough of him on screen.
Slow West - John Maclean - The other western in this bunch (alongside The Salvation) is no less canned and processed, but manages a very fresh flavor and plenty of welcome surprises. After stirring up trouble back home, a Scot with a major heart-on for a wee lass makes his way across the wild, wooly west to find her. He is accompanied on his quest by a mysterious stranger whose motivations are unclear - is he a protector or just another cold-blooded bounty hunter hoping the boy leads him to his quarry? Along the way their trail is picked up by more bounty hunters without ambiguity to their aims and things get plenty messy at quest's end. The flourishes of color and poetry are juxtaposed with appropriate touches of blindsiding violence and terror. Both make lingering impressions in this beautifully rendered piece of cinema whose tone is clear and resonant after the last gunshots have rung. Best moment: getting stoned around the campfire.
White Heat - Raoul Walsh - After a long break from the fare that made him a big fucking deal, James Cagney returned to the gangster picture determined to remake an impression with this go-for-broke flick. Cagney plays Cody Jarrett a psychotic too enamored of his mother, who leads a crew who leave behind no witnesses. After he lands in prison the movie makes room for Edmond O'Brien's Treasury man to go undercover and attempt to infiltrate Cody's gang. Once Jarrett makes his inevitable escape and puts his string back together O'Brien means to take down the whole crew. The heist to hideout to prison to heist structure leaves no room for a dull moment and the ferocity in Cagney's eyes adds a palpable urgency to this desperado tale. Best moment: the entire chemical plant heist is a great example of thriller filmmaking - all the opposing agendas are played expertly off each other all leading of course to the top of the world.