Half way through 2017 and I've got several picks I'm certain will end up on my best of the year list. But y'know I like to give due to the little guy at HBW so here're a few of the small crime flicks I've seen this year that you may not see coverage of otherwise....
Arsenal - Steven C. Miller - Not as sold on this one as I was last year's Marauders, but I am duly impressed by director Miller's skills to turn C-grade material into solid B-fare with proper attention to the little things that echo loudly. It's a good-looking film with a solid and or interesting cast. Nicolas Cage is dutifully off the leash while Johnathon Schaech is commendably restrained. John Cusack is alternately hilariously un-cast and daringly deadpan while Adrian Grenier holds the center firmly in place. In the end it's perhaps more aesthetically dude-bro than I'd usually care for, but I have to admit, the pick up trucks and baseball caps and suburban concerns of these blue-collar rooted characters ultimately ring true (truer even than some lauded material like last year's Hell or High Water - which can come off a tad patronizing). Ultimately I didn't give a shit, but for several sections there I almost did. High marks for the high gloss on the nasty violence. I think Miller may turn in a true masterpiece of gnarly crime shit one of these days.
Bastille Day (aka The Take) - James Watkins - A weird mix of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street and TV's 24, squeezed through the sensibilities of the Taken franchise and Olympus/London Has Fallen. I'm beginning to think Idris Elba may be the black Clive Owen - a performer whose on-screen presence I'm always happy to see, but whose projects rarely come close to deserving them. Head and shoulders above Taken and the ...Has Fallens, but dear Lord well short of the charisma on hand. Please, let's get Elba a good vehicle.
Detour - Christopher Smith - I'm a fan of Smith's horror outings Severance and especially Black Death, so news that he was turning to a life of crime gave me big goose bumps. And while Detour is admirably content with B-grade aspirations, it lacks the stylistic and surprisingly emotionally potent innovations that endeared him to me in the first place. What we get is a pretty standard low-brow (not an insult at all - I fucking love my crime fare low-brow) crime flick about flawed characters making bad choices for (relatively) low pay offs competently delivered.
Deuces - Jamal Hill - Not coming up with anything to recommend this one for. Urban-western crime color by numbers exercise lacking both the style and flair that made Belly such a highly-watchable spectacle and the grounded immediacy that turned Snow On Da Bluff into an emotionally-potent and visceral experience. Softball down the middle, but
Drifter - Chris von Hoffmann - The hardscrabble post-hard-decline-of-civilization setting that could be the same world as The Rover or The Road - we're not sure which - isn't terribly interesting and neither are the characters. The star of the show is the eye behind the lens which finds a way to turn the micro budget into a few arresting sets and shots which unfortunately don't add up to enough to recommend the movie. The characters bouncing off each other take turns being victims of the callous indifference of fate or worse subjects of cruelty for the entertainment of the others and do little to illicit sympathy or empathy from the audience. The pacing which feels like it's shooting for a stately Leone-esque beat to best frame its scenarios for maximum chewiness finds itself at odds with the script and editors - the end result being a tension-less thriller that manages to be simultaneously overly-talky and a vacuum begging to be filled. A few gnarly moments of nastiness are sparks that fail to generate more than smoke amongst the soggy tinder, but leave me interested in seeing further efforts from Hoffman - maybe the next one will be better.
Handsome - Jeff Garlin - Director/star/co-writer Garlin's shaggy dog comedic mystery featuring his titular detective solving an overly-gruesome murder in Los Angeles is taking lazy, good-natured swipes at the cardboard network and cable procedurals that remain the unassailable source for an apparently unquenchable thirst for killer-catching since television's inception. The targets are so obvious the jokes announce themselves so far in advance that that becomes a joke in and of itself when, in a nod to many made-for-TV-movies of the week of yore, Steven Weber introduces himself to the camera as the killer in tonight's mystery thereby deflating any tension before it can arise. The biggest pleasure comes from watching Garlin and Natasha Lyonne together on screen. Honestly, Lyonne's charisma could drag this entire movie behind it and make it watchable, but she's helped out by Garlin and the rest of the cast, as well as the script which, while far from sharp, is tonally consistent and doggedly committed to its premise.
Heist - Scott Mann - Finally blinked in my two-year game of chicken with this high concept entry in the latter-career Robert De Niro gets ten minutes genre. And... not good, but not as bad as I feared it might be. The best takeaways are Dave Bautista and Gina Carano making compelling arguments for case their film careers. Both are highly watchable and do more than their share of the lifting. In the end they're responsible for three-quarters of the points, Jeffrey Dean Morgan not blowing layups are the others. Wants to be both clever and gritty, but can't split the difference and ends up silly, but not the fun kind.
The Hollow Point - Gonzalo López-Gallego - Amongst the glut of border-sploitation fare flooding theaters, Redbox and streaming services this one is not a glossy, Oscar-bait message movie, nor near as schlocky as the majority of the rest. It's a mostly solid crime film with a handful of moments that make it a recommendation. On the heels of his hugely appealing performance in Fargo's second season Patrick Wilson is accumulating a portfolio of leading roles in small budget crime films that could re-invent his image and John Leguizamo turns in a, for once, quietly menacing performance while Ian McShane shows up, but is handily upstaged by a surprisingly good James Belushi. What really works here are a few un-foreshadowed escalations of violence that help sustain interest when the plot gets a little muddy and minor inconsistencies threaten to distract.
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore - Macon Blair - Melanie Lynsky holds the center of this slippery flick with such dexterity she directs the audience through each tonal shift and development so easily you'd be forgiven for missing how terrific she is. You'd know she was good, but that's not enough. She's really, really good. As is the script and deft directorial touch by Blair. Her apartment being robbed and the lack of motivation to do anything about it by the police are the last assaults her dignity can withstand before she's spurred to take action against the tide of rampant assholery she feels afloat in. She begins to recover some of her property and in the process runs afoul of the crew of scuzzy thieves that ripped her off. Things go from sad and funny to thrillingly dangerous to horrifically violent and right back around without ever misstepping and that is a miracle.
In a Valley of Violence - Ti West - Producing a western on a small budget means sacrificing horses for name actors, and a cast of actors for decent sets. As much as it seems the film was made on a whim - hey, we got access to an old timey town and some costumes, anybody wanna make a western? - West manages to work a couple of surprises into the script and gets an unexpectedly engaged performance out of John Travolta. Ethan Hawke is solid and James Ransone is James Ransone. As much as it feels made on a whim, it has enough going for it not to feel like a shrug.
A Kind of Murder - Andy Goddard - The bones of the source material (Patricia Highsmith's novel The Blunderer) are barely discernible beneath the surface here, but it lacks any real emotional impact and is pretty dull. Not even the always-engaging Eddie Marsan can salvage it.
King Cobra - Justin Kelly - Pornography, murder, celebrity, money and next-level dumbfuckery are all part of the true story of under-age gay porn star Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton) and the contract dispute that led to the murder of film maker Bryan Kocis (called "Stephen" in the film and played by Christian Slater). The introduction of the killers, Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes as portrayed by Keegan Allen and James Franco respectively inject the proceedings with a welcome wild-card energy including the dream of producing a big budget gay porn and muscle cars series called The Fast & the Curious (haven't bothered googling that title to see if it's a thing or just a wonderful title made up for the film - I'd be just a touch heartbroken if that were a fictional flourish). Alternately creepy, funny and tragic. Solid work all around - here's hoping Kelly's J.T. Leroy project scores.
Let Me Make You a Martyr - John Swab, Corey Asraf - Atmospheric crime drama revolving around a backwood vice lord (Mark Boone Jr.) who hires a killer (Marilyn Manson) to dispose of his step children (Sam Quartin and Niko Nicotera) who are lovers and have ripped him off. For reasons I've been happy to report previously I wouldn't blame you for questioning my objectivity regarding this one, but kids I dug it. I dug the pungent feel, ethereal sound and serious approach to the material more commonly treated as pulp (and I'm fucking excited to have Asraf applying his sensibilities to Peckerwood), but don't take my word for it - check it out and lemme know what you thought.
Masterminds - Jared Hess - The 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery is a true event that undoubtedly will sometime have another film treatment, but however many it eventually gets, at least one of them being a broadly comic approach seems inevitable. I love Hess's affinity for weirdos and his treatment of them and this is a cast of characters he could sink his teeth in to. It's a cast of performers to die for too, but the assembled super team sometimes pull in directions at odds with Hess's singular voice. Small sacrifices in vision for laughs courtesy of a talented ensemble of improvisation pros is a call I'm happy enough to let go, but the place I think this film suffers is the score. Hess's identifiable musical choices are a through-line in his best and most personal films and for whatever reason all of his personality has been stripped from the soundscape of this film in favor of flavorless generic placeholding music (budgetary issues? studio overreach? or maybe it's just another layer of meta joke like the editing style of the Coen's Scott Brothers' style parody Burn After Reading? - I did laugh at it once or twice). Try and imagine a Wes Anderson movie with the score replaced by something lifted from an episode of Law & Order... Still, I laughed easily and often... I just wish we could get an alternate music cues cut of this one.
Mean Dreams - Nathan Morlando - The untimely death of Bill Paxton pushed this one high on my must get to list and as a final performance it's solid. He's menacing and nasty, yet still recognizably human and vulnerable when it comes to someone he loves. The film is a mostly solid small-scale crime tale about a kid who falls for the daughter of a dirty cop and rips off said potential father in law and hopes to use the funds to facilitate a new life with his young love far away from the oppressive dead-end situation he's grown up in. It's got a darker, more serious, less-stylized edge than some similar recent fare (like oh, say Bad Turn Worse) and for that I'm thankful. In the end what I thought elevated it above some other likewise straight-forward stuffs were a few transcendent moments of the original soundtrack from composer Ryan Lott.
Mercury Plains - Charles Burmeister - My very low expectations for this one were handily and delightfully surpassed about half way through the flick. Scott Eastwood plays a young man bereft of direction who hooks up with a band of thieves comprised of mostly white kids who march into the thick of the drug wars in Mexico and along the border posing as FBI agents under the leadership and influence of a murderous speechifying father figure called The Captain (Nick Chinlund). He feeds them nonsense about the justness of their fight, but nobody believes it - they're a straight up marauding band making big money through violent means. This premise is awesome. It's essentially a whole-cloth Blood Meridian rip-off/update with bits of All the Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men thrown in. This is some destitute man's Cormac McCarthy Redbox fare whose latent pleasures are numerous in the back half of the film. It's ridiculous and weird but straight-faced (seriouslythe balls on this thing) and never blinks. I laughed at it, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't really enjoy it.
Officer Downe - Shawn Crahan - Not having read the comics by Joe Casey and Chris Burnham and not knowing the music of (director Crahan's band) Slipknot I came to this material without any interests vested, but my time. The genre of undead policeman has Robocop resting comfortably at the pinnacle and is in no danger of being knocked off by this one. Kim Coates is game and gives the material and character a shot, but the concept's weirdness tastes canned. The intentional schlocky-ness undercuts the impact on every level. Some folks can pull that off. Not this time.
Shimmer Lake - Oren Uziel - The sheriff of a small town leads a manhunt for three bank robbers one of whom is his brother. Another Netflix original I went into blind and really enjoyed for three reasons. First, the tone. While it is dosed with plenty of humor, it isn't a comedy - the violent and tragic elements are given straightforward treatment and work just as well as the comedic bits. Second, the structure. The story is told in reverse over the course of three days and the decision to tell it that way pays off in numerous small ways without feeling like the ultimate revelation is gimmicky or a big let down - again, the tone is key here - it's a fairly unassuming picture unlike work by oh... Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan where you're looking hard for the key for the whole run time and the ultimate success of the film rests on the delivery of that final detail. Third, the cast. Solid ensemble, but holy shit I needRob Corddry and Ron Livingston to make many, many more appearances as their B-team FBI agents.
Small Crimes - Evan Katz - Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a bent cop just out of prison for the attempted murder of a local prosecutor at the behest of the gangster in whose pocket he was quite comfortable before jail. Now out, he finds the world has moved on without him. His wife and kids have disappeared and want nothing to do with him, his parents let him sleep in their basement, but clearly do not trust him and keep civil faces stretched over deep wells of pain and resentment. The surviving victim of his attack is now horribly scarred and dead set on sending Joe back to prison for the rest of his life and there's no hiding in anonymity in the small community he's returned to - it seems everywhere he goes somebody openly hates him. Lastly, the gangster whose name he never spoke during his incarceration is on his deathbed and in sudden fear for the state of his immortal soul may be about to confess all of his sins including those that implicate Joe and another kept cop, the scene-stealing Gary Cole. To keep from going back to prison Joe's got to kill the gangster before he can confess while the hating eyes of the whole community are on him. If that sounds like a lot of plot to keep track of, don't worry, coming off his pitch perfect debut, Cheap Thrills, director Katz continues to demonstrate a deft touch with exposition, a knack for clearly defining character relationships and for maximizing the situational potential scene to scene. Of course the film is an adaptation of the excellent novel by Dave Zeltserman, so don't forget to check that one out too.
Take Me - Pat Healy - Director/star Healy plays an oddball entrepreneur with a bizarre specialty - providing simulated abduction experiences for his clients who get an emotional release, a psychological boost or sexual thrill from his services which include being snatched off the street, blindfolded and gagged in his van, tied to a chair in his basement and then... name your pleasure. Taylor Schilling plays Anna, a woman Healy believes is his next client who has paid for some extra special bonus features. Meanwhile Anna is reported missing and the police are looking for her and looking at Healy who is beginning to doubt the legitimacy of current gig. After a terrific opening fifteen minutes the tension begins to leak out of this one through some sizable gaps in logic and the premise runs out of steam well before the credits roll, but the onscreen appeal of Healy is enough to recommend spending some time with it when it's available on Netflix.
Young Offenders - Peter Foot - Two teenagers in Ireland steal bicycles to ride to the coast on a search for the kilos of cocaine that were washing up on the beaches in 2007. The film is pretty low-stakes as the pair figure they're not risking much - if they're caught they think they can't be sent to prison as they would fall into the category of juvenile offenders. The pair have crossed purposes with more serious criminals and their penchant for stealing bikes has them in the locked in the sites of a local policeman. Highly enjoyable, good natured light fare... for a change.