Monday, November 11, 2013

2013 in Flicks: October

Boardwalk Empire Season 3 - Terence Winter - The body count in the third season of Boardwalk Empire is staggering. If your favorite characters survived the second season, I offer you zero guarantee they'll still be around at the beginning of the fourth (which, no, I haven't seen, so don't spoil it for me). Let 'em talk about Game of Thrones for it's violence and willingness to dispose of cast (for which, I mean, God bless George R.R. Martin), for my money it's the prohibition gangster drama that's hitting me harder, and without Breaking Bad around any longer, it's not got any serious challengers for the title 'my favorite crime show'. First - it's gorgeous, just cry-making beautifully designed and shot with sweeping cinematic style. Every fucking time somebody walks down the boardwalk, I have to conceal a raging hard-on that comes on so fast, I get light-headed. Second, it's great writing, acting and story-telling. I loved the addition of Stephen Root's fox-sly, silver-tounged Gaston Means and Bobby Cannavale's super-touchy psycho Gyp Rosetti to the volatile mix of egos, already crowding the gates of hell with fistfuls of money and balls inflated with ambition. I dug the development of characters like Richard Harrow (I'd put my money on Jack Huston in a badass-off against any cast member of Sons of Anarchy), Gillian Darmody and Eli Thompson. The arc of Nelson Van Alden grew even stranger and I expect great things from his pre-destined path. On the other hand, there was a Chalky-sized hole in my experience. I greatly missed Michael K. Williams' presence for a good deal of the season, but it looks like the fourth is set to be mighty White. Now, if Paz de la Huerta and William Forsythe could do a project together while we wait for Michael Pitt's performance as Jack Black in the Robinson Devor directed, Barry Gifford (partially) scripted adaptation of You Can't Win, I'd be pleased. So fucking many standout moments in this season - Bugsy Siegel's hit on the Rosetti crew, Nucky and Eddie's hotel standoff and escape, Chalky and Dunn shake down Eddie Cantor, Gillian picks up a soldier, Michael Shannon loses his shit, Nucky's late-nite special delivery, Richie Harrow's rampage... it goes on, but the Best Moment: Nucky and Owen finally catch up to the tough and resourceful kid who's been ripping them off and before they can kill him, the three of them have to hide from an army of bloodthirsty pro-hees raiding the house.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - The fuck? Been seeing a lotta shit flung at this flick based on an original screen play by Cormac McCarthy, and it confounds me if it doesn't exactly surprise me. This is easily the best thing Scott has made since... Blade Runner? But I get it - it's not a typical slick action thriller. Nope, it's a morality tale spun of bloody thread spooling from the pit of iniquity the United States has dug along its southern border and enjoys a staggering general ignorance of. But it's neither our collective, complicit innocence nor the horror of the ultimate free-market capitalism that are the real focus of the flick. Michael Fassbender plays the titular Texas lawyer looking to invest a considerable sum of money in an illegal, but highly profitable enterprise - just once. The first half of the film consists more or less of a series of characters trying to talk him out of his decision, and the second half concerns the fallout from his folly. Fassbender's counselor knows his way around, in and out of national legalities, but he's completely unprepared for the taint and infection of moral rot. It's not structured like a thriller, but it's far more thrilling than even good, slick, action fare like The Raid as far as I'm concerned. It's talky. Sure, but so the hell is everything Quentin Tarantino's ever made (or David Mamet or adaptations of George V. Higgins or uh, Shakespeare or friggin Richard Linklater) - when the talking is this well done, we sit back and appreciate it, right? Similar in plot to McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, it's closer to Traffic in feel and despite (or probably because of the) explicitness of the foreshadowing, the downward spiral of the characters is riveting and just fucking electrically sad. Plus, everything's a metaphor! There's the one between your legs, the one between our countries.... Diamonds! Sex! Sin! um, Cheetahs! Which is not to say it's a flawless film. I'm not going to throw any stones at Cameron Diaz, but her scene in the confessional seemed indulgent and unnecessary (not to mention its greater sin - completely wasting Edgar Ramirez's presence in this film), Fassbender's on and off again accent is a bit forced and it'd be nice to have a transcript of all of Javier Bardem's lines 'cause I'm sure they're biutiful. That said, the action sequences we do get employ Scott's considerable talents to high purpose. I'd like to take a moment to consider the emergent path of Brad Pitt too. This dude is quietly stacking up a Bounty-strong portfolio of serious-minded, sincerely thrilling crime pictures (add to this one The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly - neither one of those particularly critically adored either). Alongside Casey Affleck, Ryan Gosling and Matthew McConaughey (gulp) I'm finding myself surprised to be anticipating their forthcoming choice of projects. WTF? Best Moment: The final hit of the movie is as precisely staged, dreadfully anticipated and horrifically paid off as any damn thing The Godfather gave us.

Joint Body - Brian Jun - Netflix recommended this one to me because I watched Coastlines and The Missing Person, and because, yeah, I had, and um, really liked both, I gave it a shot and found myself immediately drawn in to this unassuming, melancholy crime-inflected drama. A pitch-perfect Mark Pellegrino plays Nick, a parolee trying to make a new life for himself when he's cut off from his wife and child. He's working a menial job and living in a shitty apartment (or hotel?) where he's just reached out to a possible kindred soul - a woman (Alicia Witt) stringing her life along night to night dancing in a sleazy joint and trying to retain her own soul by taking care of her infirm neighbors. One night she's attacked by an unstable and fixated former acquaintance and Nick intervenes with tragic results. He wakes up in the hospital wounded and most likely heading back to prison unless she'll stick her neck out for him. The rest of the film is these two very damaged people circling each other warily deciding exactly how much weight they can lean on the other. Two people crossing a frozen lake metaphor together, gingerly, sometimes aggressively, obviously in need of the other, but heartbreakingly and convincingly unwilling to completely trust the other. It's like a Tom Waits song on screen or maybe a Charles Bukowski story from the sweeter pole of his work. Not perfect - the tone warbles a bit and a scene or two wander out onto flimsy limbs - but, like Coastlines and The Missing Person, an under-exposed crime flick deserving of a much larger audience. This is exactly the kind of adult fare I wish were more prevalent today. Best Moment: Nick and Michelle show up unexpectedly at his brother's home.

Molly Maguires - Martin Ritt - Sean Connery and Richard Harris in a good old fashioned mustache-off is all the pitch needed to sell me on watching this terrific period flick about an undercover cop infiltrating an un-sanctioned arm of a labor union working the coal mines of Pennsylvania and given to blowing shit up. Told with the laconic assuredness of a film-maker holding the goods, it's a pleasure to sit and absorb the rich details and dreamy eyes of the whole damn cast while a proper scaffold is built and enough rope doled out to hang us all. By the time the narrative plays out we've earned our heartbreak and anger alike and can sink into a bottle, a melancholia or a rousing ballad or bar song with satisfactory conviction. Best Moment: the gorgeous, languid, all-encompassing tracking shots of work in the mine tell a hundred smaller stories, but the final scene between Harris and Connery was a true emotional climax.

Redemption - Steven Knight - How big a fan am I of Knight's previous work in London's immigrant-underground and crime world, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises? Huge fan, if you haven't been reading this blog long. Huge. So, when news of Knight's directorial debut set in that familiar milieu arrived, I near crapped myself in anticipation. When news of Jason Statham's casting in said project arrived, I cooled slightly - not because I don't like Statham, but because he's one of those actors whose gravity tends to dominate a film and could easily overwhelm the spin of a delicate solar system, not necessarily designed for his typical flavor of pic (see Blitz, see Parker). Did that happen here or was Knight able to employ some kinda judo move to use the considerable propulsion of Statham's asteroid to his own ends? Both and neither. Those attracted to this flick by trailers featuring Statham beating the crap out of some dudes in the street will probably be disappointed by the relative flash-less violence of this drama and those looking for the quiet moral gravity of Chiwetel Ejiofor or Viggo Mortensen to anchor the story will probably find it slight and actiony. The result is both the least successful of Knight's crime trio and the most successful side-step from action hero status of Statham's post-Transporter career. Statham plays Joey, a psychologically damaged soldier hiding out on the streets of London, abusing his body with substances in order to numb the abuse his mind is heaping on his soul with guilt, regret and fear. As must happen in these types of the hero's potential/nobility is awakened by the plight of the downtrodden and he dishes out some brief brutality in support of the wretched he's been living among. Then, anonymity blown, he runs for his life until he literally stumbles into someone else's. He hides out in the flat of a high-end and in-demand photographer out of the country for a few months (a fact conveniently revealed by a fairly irresponsible answering machine message). He cleans himself up, dresses sharp, and gets a job in a kitchen. One night when the mob-run restaurant has some rowdy guests, his soldier's training kicks in and he brutalizes the troublemakers. Duly impressed, the gangster/restaurateur puts his skills to use as an enforcer and collector and Joey begins to make some good money. Money that he immediately begins shoveling toward the homeless he lived among before in the form of better food in the soup-lines and financial aid for Cristina, the nun (Agata Buzek) who ministers to them. The violence in his bones producing mercy on the street is a bit heavily-handled, and the not-quite romance and important conversations between Joey and Cristina is awkward, but these elements don't quite outweigh the reservoir of good-will the film is drawing from. Statham, for his part, seems eager to and capable of moving into weightier fare and sends his macho image to deflation taking on the disguise of gay-lover of the photographer - he walks around the apartment surrounded by photos of nude photos of muscular men and even attends an art opening of masculine-erotic material with the nun and apologizes "I'm sorry, I didn't realize there would be so many penises" - a line he manages to find humor in (and reveal character with) without becoming the rim-shot at the end of a crass joke (though, he doesn't quite dodge a similar pratfall required by the script when an attractive woman inquires whether he's quite sure he's not bi-sexual, "I think I might have a thing for nuns" or something along those lines). And there are some moments of righteous violence. That's a good thing. Best Moment: people in a box.

Reykjavik-Rotterdam - Oskar Jonasson - Kristofer (Baltasar Kromakur - the director of this year's 2 Guns btw) is an honest man finally. A little stretch in the cooler'll do that for a guy with family aspirations. He used to be a damn good smuggler, but got his ass caught and now that he's out is just concentrating on paying the bills like any old square in order to keep his wife and kids fed and with him. But when his deadbeat brother in law gets in over his head with some dangerous gangsters, Kristofer must once again join the crew of a ship and smuggle drugs! The captain of the ship doesn't want him on board, the crew are excited as hell, his wife doesn't know what's going on and his best friend is trying to steal his family from him while he's away. He's fucked. Or is he? Don't forget kids, just because he's been retired doesn't mean he's not a wiley pro. Of course, shit doesn't go smooth at all and he's going to need a helluva lotta things to go right to balance out everything that goes wrong. About twenty minutes into this one, I had the feeling I'd seen it before, but I hadn't. What I had watched was the English-language remake, Contraband from 2012 (one of the annual January crime flicks featuring Mark Wahlberg). "Oh, good," I thought, "the original is going to fix the problems the Hollywood remake had." Only... nope. It's still got sky-high willing suspension of disbelief issues and some logic shit near the end that bugs me. Buuuut, it's got... something. I dunno. I dig the soggy, Icelandic vibe. I love the hell out of the shipping setting and the cast has got appeal. Still, you gotta hand it to Hollywood when making just-go-with-it kinetic, escapist fare and Contraband prolly has the edge here - it felt like the best elements of 24 on the big screen (even though it blew its chance at being really memorable in the third act - as does the original version, though, not quite as annoyingly as the American version). Best Moment: Iris locks the door.
Shadow Dancer - James Marsh - Collette (Andrea Riseborough), a young woman in Ireland whose family has suffered the ravages of the troubles, plants a bomb in a London subway station and is immediately arrested by MI5. Mac (Clive Owen) is the intelligence agent who uses her young son as leverage to turn her into an informant (chiefly against her radicalized brothers Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson - yeah, from that lineage). After helming heavy-hitting shit like The King and Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 you think there was any chance I was going to pass up this offering from director Marsh? Well, I wasn't. And tho, not as devastating as either the other pictures, it is a nice exercise in tension and pacing, even if slight in comparison. Best Moment: Connor gets questioned.

Sons of Anarchy season 5 - Kurt Sutter - Soooo, I see that my earlier prediction/prescription for the terminus of this series will definitely not be coming to pass. That said, season five continues season four's upward trajectory for the quality of the show. These guys are shitty, shitty human beings and it feels like that elephant has finally been addressed. Now, if we're all done pulling punches to artificially extend the life of this show, let the pure nastiness begin, please. Great start with the vengeance Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau) levels on Tig and the Sons for the death of his daughter in season 4. Go on to the willingness to sacrifice crucial characters' lives for the sake of upping the ante... oh wait. Kinda pulled a punch, there didn't you? Aaaand, you did it again. Well, shit. Ah hell, there's still enough wild ass stuff going on to keep me tuning in, and each season they seem to add guest stars to the cast mix that add a lot. Season five's newbies include Jimmy Smits and Donal Logue - who's been set up to be the chief antagonist of season six (which gives me hope - though, I have the feeling I'm going to be rooting for him against SAMCRO). Best Moment: Walton Goggins makes a memorable cameo as a tranny hooker.

Steel City - Brian Jun - Even less a traditional crime flick than writer/director Jun's Joint Body, but still in the sweet spot of punishment and crime that I'm sensitive to, Steel City is another moody drama about a family with its share of guilt and dysfunction and a young son (Thomas Guiry - yeah, that kid from The Sandlot) at a critical juncture of his life. His father is on the verge of being sent to prison for several years for a drunk driving incident that took a woman's life. He can't seem to hold down even the shittiest of service jobs. His girlfriend is not only heavier than he'd like her to be, she's also Mexican. The house he shared with his father is being repossessed. His brother is flushing his family down the toilet. His mother's new husband won't lend him money, but just might be able to help him get onto the police force. And his uncle is a real piece of work. Watching Guiry at the center of the picture being tossed about by the forces of life, it's clear that he has not decided who he wants to be, and our investment in his precarious position is largely up to the supporting cast to color him in and help us see him the way that they do. Which is good, because the supporting cast is particularly strong. John Heard, America Ferrera, Clayne Crawford, Laurie Metcalf and especially Raymond J. Barry all give form to the formless and color to the canvas left desperate but empty in the middle. Best Moment: Vic puts PJ in his place.

Wake in Fright - Ted Kotcheff - Gary Bond plays John Grant, a public school teacher held hostage by his government to a post way the hell out in the middle of nowhere is taking a much needed holiday and stays overnight in a small town that seems to be populated entirely by miners and assorted roughnecks looking to blow off steam... forever. At first he feels a little disgust at their lifestyle and after a few drinks decides they're rather amusing and after a few more that they're really possibly onto something and then... Each day dawns harsher than the last as he loses all of his money, his senses and his soul to the hellish hedonism of the place and the skid row philosophizing of an educated man Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) who's spell he is increasingly under. A harrowing trip to the edge of the planet and sanity. Self discovery... ain't all it's cracked up to be. Best Moment: the kangaroo slaughter.

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