Sunday, December 15, 2013

2013 in Flicks: November

All is Bright - Phil Morrison - The day Dennis (Paul Giamatti) gets out of prison, he walks along cold, Canadian highways for hours before arriving home just after dark. He pauses before ringing the bell to watch his young daughter engrossed in play through the front window of his small home that looks warm on the inside before knocking on the door and introducing himself to his daughter whom he hasn't seen since she was a baby. Only, he doesn't get to knock because his wife has seen him and warns him off. She explains in written notes that she holds up to the glass for him to read that she long ago told their daughter that her father was dead. He's not welcome home, she's divorcing him and going to marry his best friend (as soon as that friend divorces his wife). It's about as perfect an opening sequence as I've seen for setting tone, establishing character and conflict with economy and grace. Giamatti's mug and posture are exactly what I want from my hang-dog fare and brother, do I want my hang-dog fare (got me all excited to see Giamatti as Hoke Moseley soon). And so, broke, on parole and without home or employment, after a much deserved punch in the nose, Dennis civilly suggests that his best friend, and former partner in crime, Rene (Paul Rudd), having taken all of his options away, perhaps owes him. Reluctantly, Rene brings Dennis in on his latest money-making venture, selling Christmas trees to New Yorkers, and we spend the rest of the movie and the better part of a month sitting in a vacant lot with these two frenemies and their sad lives. It's a great set-up and mostly pays off - excepting a handful of tonal miscues across the line either into straight-up comedy (they mostly feel like Rudd's considerable comedic improv skills indulged, or Sally Hawkins' accent running away with things) or sappy (oh man, I nearly had to mute the movie when an on-the-nose sincere song was allowed to go uncut and on and on over a montage sequence). The pair struggle with their relationship(s) and mid-life about-faces with just enough backslide to make resolution a legitimate dramatic tension. Barely qualifies really for consideration on this blog - not hardboiled, borderline comedy, only tangentially concerned with crime, but I dug it enough to mention. Best moment: That opening sequence really is masterful. Almost everything you'll need to know about the character and complexity of the conflict is there at least in seed form.

Cockfighter - Monte Hellman - Frank Mansfield, as played by Warren Oates is not a man of few words, he's a man of no words. He goes about his life as a dedicated, crafty bloodsportsman who once made a (possibly drunken, probably spontaneous and not well considered) vow of silence until he should win the coveted Cockfighter of the Year award. Along the way to that goal he'll lose everything, boil it down and start over again more than once, and every time we begin to have some admiration for the stubborn son of a bitch, he pulls something reprehensible and cruel (with a chicken, with a woman). Still, it's his determination and warped idea of honor that bring us back to his corner again and again. He thinks he loves his chickens, like he thinks he might love another human being, but it's all the same manipulation to Frank, a man for whom to win is not as important as to make every game run according to his rules.  Roger Corman famously claimed this one to be the only picture he ever produced that lost money, and I can just picture Charles Willeford (who plays a small role in the film and wrote the screenplay based upon his own novel) smiling and bragging about a statement like that. It's a dubious honor - perhaps like Cockfighter of the Year - but one that the author, like Frank, would probably use to trump every conversation he had the rest of his life. The book benefited from being narrated by our 'mute' protagonist so that we were never outside of his head, and the way that Oates communicates non-verbally in every scene is more jarring to the audience, but also more effective in driving home Frank's commitment to his lifestyle, and when you've got Oates at the center holding the screen with of Willeford and Harry Dean Stanton simultaneously, you have, my friend, a freeze frame worth uh, framing. Shit, I'd put my money on those three motherfuckers against the Expendables any day. It's funny, downbeat and downright odd, but wholly 70s-Americana the ilk I wish I could find more of. Best moment: settling a dispute, like gentlemen, about the legality of sticking one's finger up a chicken's ass.

A Company Man - Sang-yoon Lim - Remember those old Looney Tunes episodes with the dog and the wolf checking in at work, punching their time cards before assuming their assigned role as protector and predator? This flick is about the closest I've found to using that setup in a 'real-world' setup. Hyeong-do (Ji-seob So) leads a fairly ordinary existence working for a metal manufacturing company in South Korea. He wears a suit and tie, answers to a soulless bottom-line-obsessed, corporate schmuck and attends silly team meetings and luncheons with the folks in the office. Only, when he is working, he's killing people, and when the corporate suck machine wants the last of his soul, he decides he'd rather not continue down this career path. Have you ever seen a hit man movie? Then you know the plot. Killer decides not to kill, then must kill all the other killers. It's a cautious recommendation I'll give this flick because it does many things well (including the action sequences), but it's very uneven tonally - the gears grind and lurch between tragedy and comedy, realism and the fantastic - and as a whole is not terribly satisfying. Best moment: Hyeong-do tenders his resignation in person.

Graceland - Ron Morales - Ugh. Jeez, this was unpleasant. A great thriller set-up: trying to kidnap the daughter of a politician, the abductors accidentally nab the pol's chauffeur's little girl and now the driver is caught in between his boss, the police, his wife and the kidnappers - keeping a different secret for a different reason from each party pulling at him. Only this one is Grim, capital-G Grim, and the more the focus pulls back to reveal the larger picture, the less you're on anybody's side. The pacing is tight and the structure solid, but there's just so much awful contained in this unfortunate combination of social-awareness campaign and thriller that there is no happiness in the end, regardless of outcome (a less-cheery Miss Bala, perhaps). Kudos to Morales for sticking to his guns. I'd be interested in seeing another of his projects, but please not this one again. Anything but that. Best moment: the abduction really fuckin takes no prisoners - or, only takes one prisoner. It's a brutal moment that really sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

New World - Hoon-jung Park - An undercover cop working for years inside a Korean crime syndicate sees the end of his mission approach with the the filling of the power vacuum after the death of the syndicate's head. His mission is to influence the 'election' of the new head. So, the setup is kind of a mash up of gangster pictures from The Godfather to The Departed, but remember, this is contemporary Korean crime cinema - so kindly take your expectations and stick em in your ear. It's no non-stop thriller like The Chaser or The Yellow Sea and it's not the twisty-De Palma-esque fare of Oldboy or Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, but it is distinctly other from its Hollywood counterparts. It is solid. It is brutal. It is - holy shit, did you see that? - remember what I'd said about the uniqueness of Korean crime flicks and the general absence of guns? Well, that absence pays off beautifully, amazingly, stunningly, in the climactic confrontation. It is the Best moment: The hit sequence. Holee shit. The elevator fight at the end of said hit sequence. Amazeballs.

Olympus Has Fallen - Antoine Fuqua - The USA is caught wanking in the shower during an assault on the White House and the President and his staff are held hostage by the evil other du jour while a man, a damaged man, a tortured man, a self-reliant man who loves his country, a man with a special skill set, a man with a gun roams the halls and heating ducts of Casa Blanca picking off baddies one accent at a time while the rest of the world tries to come up with a plan of action. I'm almost positive that this is an amazingly stupid movie, but I hesitate to say so outright because of this niggling suspicion in the darkest, most neglected corner of my consciousness that it might actually be a brilliant farce. The gung-ho American hero, the jingoism and paranoia, the pointless opening twenty minutes and the terrible CGI national-monument destruction, the black cases of super-duper secret weapons labled 'Advanced Top-Secret Weapons' (or some such just as hilarious horse shit) lying around in the White House attic, the plot points of Die Hard being ticked off one by one, the way the villains get the secret codes one by one every twenty minutes rather than all at once (because, y'know, drama), the mantra-like repetition of phrases like 'They'll kill the president' until the meaning has completely inverted from 'That's the absolute worst thing that could ever happen' to 'Would that really be such a large price to pay to put an end to this?', the answer given by the American turn-coat for why he'd sell-out his country - "because... globalization! ... Wall Street!" - it all just screams "this is a joke, this is a joke, this is a joke!" Surely it must be. Yeah? Here's an experiment I would reallllllly like to see: keep EVERYTHING the same in this movie, but replace Gerard Butler's ultra-sincere baddass inflections with Will Ferrell's ultra-sincere badass inflections and keep him playing it straight for the duration... I truly believe we might have the comedy hit of the decade. Best Moment: Melissa Leo recites the pledge of allegiance.

Outrage - Takeshi Kitano - Beat Takeshi's yakuza films are kinda the modern Japanese equivalent of 60s/70s/80s Clint Eastwood westerns. They're more or less interchangeable, elaborately stylized set-ups to hardboiled jokes with grim/funny punchlines and lots of pondering of the mute and iconic grizzled star's faces. Lots of squinting and grimacing. And that's not a bad thing. It's also not a great thing. It's a thing. If it's your thing, then awesome. If it's not particularly, than a little bit goes a long way. Outrage is no exception. Essentially it's a comedy of manners with lots of blood, and having seen several Takeshi yakuza pics beforehand, I spent the first half hour looking at all the regal looking Japanese gentlemen in their immaculate suits and imagining what horrors would be visited upon each of them by the film's end. Aaaaand, most of my expectations were met if not exceeded. Takeshi films are like a particularly sharp cheese that I'd not like to eat all the time, but every once in a while it's exactly what I want. That's right, cheese. Best moment: a group of yakuza tease and berate a hot-head into chopping off his finger. It's an undoubtedly funny sequence that also serves to ratchet tension for the rest of the movie by establishing two things: what an idiot he/they is/are and how dangerous too.

Pain & Gain - Michael Bay - A trio of over-muscled, dim-witted body builders hatch and unfortunately execute an illll-conceived kidnapping and extortion plan that leads to murder and (worse) betrayal and (worse yet) maybe not believing in themselves. Did you see what just happened there? While we weren't looking, Michael fucking Bay made one of my favorite crime flicks of the year, and he hid it in plain sight beneath the pumped-uppedness of Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson and the over-long, bloated tradition of his Transformers and Bad Boys franchises. No, this is not a perfect film. It is too long, and in love with itself, and it does get pulled in a half-dozen too many directions, but the meat is well worth the fat surrounding it, and mercifully, unlike a more uh, arty? treatment of the material, P&G keeps it funny and resists a pull toward third act preachiness that so many treatments of this type of fare tend toward. The cast is mostly great including Wahlberg in full Dirk Diggler dimbulb mode (so many great lines delivered via voiceover - revealing the character's bottomless well of stupid as well as his con-man's gift for sincerity - I'd buy a car from him), Tony Shalhoub in fourth asshole gear and Johnson who showed me his most complex and nuanced performance yet as a verrrrry dumb, but totally sincere ex-con with a jailhouse Christian conversion, desperate for acceptance, guilt-ridden over his trespasses and walking the line between sobriety and coke-addled with about as much success as you'd guess. This flick is funny, smart and even satirical in its excess. It ain't Fargo, but it's probably a lot closer than you'd guess. Best moment: Johnson has to kill a man he's kidnapped and whom he's befriended over weeks of captivity and bonded with over their sobriety and Jesus. I'd really like to go on about how the scene goes on and on, piling indignity upon cruelty and reaches a climax so emotionally complex and over the top awful, it may be the greatest snuff sequence of the year... taking on, The Counselor.

Pieta - Kim Ki-duk - A pitiless debt collector's work begins to suffer when his long-lost mother unexpectedly returns to his life and begs his forgiveness. The movie begins with some examples of just how awful this dude is - crippling machinists in order to collect on their insurance policies - and takes quite a while for the cracks to appear in his cold-bloodedness, but by the film's end, the relentless pursuit of his mother, this woman who subjects herself to his cruelest imagination to earn his forgiveness, has completely broken his ability to be ruthless and compromised his future. This one is almost straight-up Greek tragedy, and while pretty unpleasant for the most part, does have a hell of a climax. Best moment: the climax, which I won't spoil here.

R.I.P.D. - Robert Schwentke - Half-assedly dirty cop Nick (Ryan Reynolds) is murdered by his didn't see that coming partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon). Rather than finding himself in heaven or in hell, he's assigned to a purgatorial position in afterlife law enforcement for a hundred and fifty years and assigned to a new partner Roy (Jeff Bridges still playing Rooster Cogburn). Pretty much a one-joke mash-up of Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice and Men in Black, this is a marginally entertaining luke-warm, chemistry-free, unspecial effect-driven buddy cop movie. That said, it's still better than Thor: the Dark World and Ender's Game (all three of these I watched with my kids). Best moment: Anytime James Hong is on screen, especially running down the street clutching a banana.

Rumble Fish - Francis Ford Coppola - Rusty James (Matt Dillon) has some mighty big shoes to fill as leader of his high school gang. The legend of his older brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) looms over the streets of Tulsa and he longs to prove himself in streetfighting in order to emerge from his brother's shadow and live up to his un-formed masculine ideals. That's pretty much it. Y'know when critics say 'style over substance' like it's a bad thing? Well, usually it is, but Rumble Fish is a glaring exception to that rule (in fact Coppola's Dracula may be as well... hell, maybe Apocalypse Now belongs on this list too). Back in 83 Coppola made two adaptations of S.E. Hinton novels, and while The Outsiders was the bigger hit, it's Rumble Fish that bears endless re-watching so well. It's all mood. The gorgeous black and white photography and gorgeous cast help, but the mood (the film) lives inside the the sounds - the incessant voice over and the feverish score by Stewart Copeland cast a spell to compete with anything Terrence Malick could conjure. It's a flick I revisit periodically and enjoy more with each return. Best moment: the opening scene with Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Chris Penn and Nicolas Cage in a diner discussing whether or not they're going to show up for a fight that night.

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