Lowlife - Ryan Prows - If Robert Altman's Shortcuts were based on intersecting short stories by Matthew McBride rather than Raymond Carver it might resemble this multi-focal piece of absurdist crime fiction. The narrative strands that twist into a shared climax involve human trafficking, black market organ transplants, dirty cops, ruthless gangsters, ex-cons, bad parenting and a luchador bagman who suffers from small-man complex induced rage blackouts. The cast are mostly great with Nicki Micheaux and Ricardo Adam Zarate on the tier just below the standout performance of Mark Burnham whose Teddy 'Bear' Haynes is a monster terrifying and hilarious in equal measure. A couple minor quibbles probably keep it out of the year's best running, but it's a definite runner up with Prows landing squarely in the sign-me-up-for-whatever's-next camp.
Manhunt - John Woo - This plays so much like a hack homage to Woo's catalog with in-jokes (doves!) and call-backs to his previous films that I was surprised to learn it was actually a remake of Jun'ya Satô's 1976 film (both are based on the novel by Jukô Nishimura). Un-inspired convoluted story lines take precedent over inspired convoluted action set pieces, though a couple very brief bits of mayhem keep it from being an utter turd. This does not bode well for his announced remake of The Killer, but I'm sure I'll see that too.
Mute - Duncan Jones - Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a bartender looking for his disappeared girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) in this half-dazzling, half-chintzy futuristic Berlin. Leo's titular condition is the result of a childhood accident which his parents' anti-technology religious views kept him from having treated via an operation that could have restored his powers of speech. Adult Leo works in a sleazy nightclub and lives amongst the digital detritus of the city, and while he appears to have abandoned his religious upbringing he has not exactly embraced modernity. Amish among The Jetsons is kind of an intriguing premise, but it's not really explored. Instead we go to Paul Rudd's AWOL American marine medic staying off the grid and paying off the mob by performing the odd surgery or by torturing somebody who needs it. Rudd's also looking out for a girl - his daughter whom he leaves in the care of the prostitutes of a brothel run by his gangster employer while daddy goes to work. These disparate story lines criss and cross in a tantalizing manner, but the bad man with the power to heal and the good man in need of an operation never get together in the way you might expect them to. Jones made an impression with his modestly ambitious debut, Moon, and followed that up with the high-concept, mass-appeal thriller The Source Code, but the precision of those two films is nowhere to be found in this glorious mess of a science fiction crime flick. It's unfocused, half-baked and going in two or three too many directions to be satisfying. It's not good, but I was not bored. I was confounded and frustrated, but only because I was at first intrigued and titillated. As poor or non-existent as many of the payoffs are, I have to acknowledge that I'd had expectations in the first place. Not as scattered as Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, but that's not a bad comparison because I'm sure I'll be thinking about it and probably revisiting it in bits and pieces, if not as a whole, in the distant future, the year 2000.
The Outsider - Martin Zandvliet - Jared Leto plays an American G.I. in a Japanese prison who befriends his cell mate by playing a key role in his escape plan. When the gaijin gets out he finds his friend, a high ranking member of a yakuza gang, in his debt. What follows is pretty standard gangster shit, which I'm down for always, set apart by its uh, setting - occupied Japan. Looks good, has violence, sex and cool suits, but is about as filling as half a yawn. Kills a couple hours and like that (poof) it's gone.
Racer & the Jailbird - Michaël R. Roskam - Matthias Schoenaerts plays a bank robber whose cover involving car parts and inport/export of vehicles puts him in proximity of Adèle Exarchopoulos a competitive driver whom he falls instantly in love with. As their romance grows more intense his bullshit facade stands between them - he wants to quit the crime game and she just wants him to tell her the truth. After his one-last-job goes bad and he winds up in prison she doesn't leave him and instead makes plans and sets things in motion on the outside for their and/or his future. The way things work out (or don't) isn't predictable and that's the best thing about this odd duck of a romantic crime drama - I never knew where it was going. Afterward I'm not sure I'm satisfied, but I'm still thinking about it weeks later, which is a recommendation in its own right. No doubt the stars are attractive and the racing and heisting bits look great, but I also don't think they fully utilized their leads. For the sake of not spoiling the where-the-hell-is-this-going experience for some of you I won't go into exactly why I felt this way, but I do think there were a couple of big missed opportunities. Roskam directed The Drop, which I loved, as well as Bullhead which I was similarly frustrated by, but I know that other folks loved. He's interesting.
68 Kill - Trent Haaga - A hapless loser whose girlfriend may not be into him for his personality, or brain, or looks, or money, or status still manages to be blindsided by her dark ambitions and the lengths he will go to and depths to which he will sink in order to stay with her and stay alive. When her plot to steal a bunch of money turns into multiple homicide and a never-ending string of misfortunes and double-crosses he proves sweetly naive enough to continue being surprised at every turn. Based on the novel by Bryan Smith it succeeds in the face of budgetary limitations by sheer outrageous conceit and an uneven, if fully-game, cast. And yeah, that's Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - good eye, you.
Shot Caller - Ric Roman Waugh - Writer director Roman Waugh returns to the "non-criminal-type thrown in the deep end of the prison system and rising to prominence via violent means he never wanted to utilize, but y'know, you do what you gotta do to survive" sub-genre of prison movies, but with far better results than his debut Felon. This time Nikolaj Coster-Waldau puts on the muscles and tattoos and emerges on the streets transformed, a leader in an Aryan gang, forced into a life of crime by the organization with reach far beyond the walls of the institution. Gnarly violence and good performances from Jeffrey Donovan, Holt McCallany and Jon Bernthal help sell it.
Small Town Crime - Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms - John Hawkes plays a disgraced alcoholic former cop who comes late to the rescue of a young woman whose story he can't help himself from digging into. He thinks solving the mystery of her death might save his life and sobers up just enough to get around to poking his significant nose where it doesn't belong. The writing/directing duo apparently never met a cliche they couldn't use or abuse and probably spent a lot of time watching Shane Black movies. They make all these overly familiar elements work by being self-aware enough to know how far to push each element. They manage to make if funny, but not goofy, suspenseful, but not overly serious and cool without getting into douchebag territory. This is thanks in large part to the terrific cast - especially Jeremy Ratchford, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr. and Octavia Spencer.
Super Dark Times - Kevin Phillips - The spate of eighties nostalgia movies have finally caught up to Rivers' Edge-era with this story of nerdy kids who accidentally kill a frenemy and then try to cover it up and end up caught in a vortex of pride, guilt and madness. Decent, but your reception probably hinges on how hard you fall for or are repelled by the nostalgia factor.
Sweet Virginia - Jamie Dagg - Jon Bernthal plays an ex-rodeo rider who manages a motel and carries on an affair with Rosemarie DeWitt in small Alaskan town. Christopher Abbott plays a guest at the motel, a killer hired by Imogen Poots to get rid of her boorish husband, Jonathan Tucker. When the insurance company doesn't pay out and Poots can't pay off Abbott, he sticks around waiting for his payday and looking for opportunities to make other monies and intimidate locals. I liked Dagg's debut, River (starring the tallest Sutherland), but Virginia is a big step up in quality and control of tone - I never really knew where this one was headed and it had some solid and pleasingly unpleasant surprises along the way. Abbott is a standout in the cast and a scary screen presence.
Tragedy Girls - Tyler MacIntyre - Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp are best friend whose plans to become celebrated journalist media sensations by catching a real life masked slasher-movie-style killer are continually frustrated by the monotony of life as high school students in a dull midwestern town, their inability to successfully make social media hashtags catch on and the unexpectedly difficult task of carrying out most of the murders themselves. Part Ace in the Hole, part Heathers it eschews their cynicism for the simple misanthropic joys of holding life cheap and could have been pitched as "Scream with the killers as our protagonists!" There are plenty of good moments here (my favorite involves Chris Robinson lifting weights), but the feature length run time may prove too long a stretch of diminishing returns on the core joke of the film.
24 Hours to Live - Brian Smrz - Ethan Hawke plays an assassin stuck in a never-ending loop of being revived from death to kill yet another target before expiring again after his titular time runs out. It's a terrific sci-fi set up, but fails to become the horror allegory for late-stage capitalism it really could've been by settling for familiar focus on only occasionally interesting action.
Vengeance: A Love Story - Johnny Martin - Nicolas Cage is a cop who takes extra-legal measures to punish a bunch of rapists the legal system fails to. Just because it's a standard plotline without surprises doesn't mean the story has to be and I'd lay money on Joyce Carol Oates's source novel Rape: A Love Story having some insightful passages and maybe even a memorable treatment of the whole sordid affair, but this film is a dud with a handful of frustrating glimpses at interesting possibilities never capitalized upon.
You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).