Thursday, February 13, 2014

2014 in Flicks: January

Act of Killing - Joshua Oppenheimer - Don't do the crime if you can't do the time, eh fellas? The most disturbing (as in... disruptive to my sense of well-being... of reality... of humanity... of history) flick I've loved in a long time. In this chilling documentary, director Oppenheimer encourages the heroes of the Indonesian military coup of 1965 to re-enact their deeds (the murder of more than a million - hundreds killed by the film's central figure with his own hands - alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) on film in a variety of genres, which they are only too glad to stage and participate in. Fifty years after the events that elevated the small-time gangsters to death-squad leaders and finally celebrated cultural figures, the gang gets back together to re-live their glory days as ruthless young slaughter technicians and political MVPs, and holy shit do these guys have... vision. They go to fucking town creating these nightmare scenes that are just gutting. And fucking loopy as shit sometimes too (especially any time the fat guy is in drag). They're candid and deluded and somewhere near the end of the picture one of them has a pause where he considers his life's work from a new perspective. Best moment: the recreation of the slaughter of a village turns pretty fucking grim and things don't just stop when they camera quits rolling.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane - Jonathan Levine - Pretty straightforward slasher pic until it's not... which is at the end. As in, after you sat through the first 95% of the damn thing waiting for it to be amazing like you've been hearing it is. It's not. It's not bad, it's just not as special as you've perhaps been led to believe. It's a good-looking film, I'll give it that. Got a crisp, fresh look that's nice. But maybe I'm just cranky enough old guy that these kids and their concerns could not have produced less care from me... I don't think I was hoping anybody got out alive. Best moment: party at the pool comes to a screeching halt.

Billy Jack - Tom Loughlin - The Viet Nam war was some fucked up shit, and the shit going on back home in the late sixties and early seventies was scary too. What better time to introduce a new hero who fights for the defenseless (and often pacifist) against the tyranny of the system? I dunno, but good lord is this some dated hippy bullshit. With the recent passing of director/star Tom Loughlin I thought it was finally time to get around to watching Billy Jack. Unfortunately, I think I waited too long. There was probably a time much earlier in my life that I would have responded positively to the positivity on display here, but not any longer. No. By the time the progressive school for weirdos and the repressive, square city council have their confrontational meeting, I'm afraid I was mostly on the side of the council. Seriously, can everybody just sit down and be quiet, and get haircuts and learn some marketable job skills, please? I'd fucking appreciate it. Also, it turns out that I should have started with the original Billy Jack flick, The Born Losers, which I may give a shot - it doesn't look so flower-powery - but I'll confess my ignorance. I didn't know it existed. Best moment: good-humored city council members are game for some improv exercises. WTF kind of drugs am I on?

The Bling Ring - Sofia Coppolla - In 2008-09 a group of celebrity-obsessed teens in L.A. made a habit of breaking in to the homes of famous people just to kinda hang out, which turned to pilfering, which turned to grabbing as much as they could carry in order to support their burgeoning fashionista lifestyles. Then, y'know, they got caught and became a news sensation and made silly assholes of themselves and many adult-types in the media-circus that were their collective trials. Crimestyles of the young, over-privileged and over-indulged pictures don't come warmer-toned or better-natured, and that's not a bad thing. Usually I'm down for nasty, vacuous people getting the fluorescent lighting treatment, but damn if The Bling Ring don't treat its subjects with a degree of sweetness and generosity not strictly deserved, but oddly welcome. Not that these starfuckers get coddled exactly, but they're treated straight up. Judgement is reserved and in the vacuum of morality human moments sneak up and catch you unaware. They dissipate quickly and their number hardly equals an effervescence, but they were enough to make a difference for me. I think my favorite of these moments was watching Marc (Israel Broussard) the seemingly most guileless member of the titular group filming himself from his computer's camera as he listens to music, dances, tries on a few outfits and eats junkfood. And I enjoyed the comeuppance plenty. I enjoyed seeing it all go to shit, the way it usually does and I like. Best moment: hanging out in Paris Hilton's shrine to herself (filmed in Hilton's actual home).

Blood & Wine - Bob Rafelson - Jack Nicholson is Alex, a middle-aged man itching to make something more of the last half of his life. To that end, he's secured a beautiful young mistress (Jennifer Lopez) who'll run away with him, and a plan to rip off some rich fucks he does business with. On that front, he's got a proper villain (Michael Caine) whose expertise and connections he's enlisted. But, it all goes to shit for him when his wife (Judy Davis) stumbles onto the fact that he's cheating on her, a fight ensues and some hot merchandise ends up displaced. The rest of the flick concerns the various parties grasping for the goods and Alex losing, losing, losing. The long creative collaboration between writer/directer Rafelson and his star Nicholson produced some of my favorite Nicholson flicks: Five Easy Pieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The King of Marvin Gardens and Rafelson is clearly drawn to fare that I am too - among his non-Nicholson flicks are adaptations Dashiell Hammett (No Good Deed - with Samuel L. Jackson as The Continental Op no less) Raymond Chandler (Poodle Springs - from the posthumously published Marlowe novel finished by Robert B. Parker) and William Harrison (Mountains of the Moon from the novel Burton & Speke) - so how does this one stack up against the legacy? Eh... Really not bad, love the scale of it - just a straightforward crime story without any of the trappings. Not a lot of sex or violence or snappy dialogue. There's no big plot twists to keep you guessing and none of the characters or crimes are overly clever. Still, for the caliber of the performers and the director, it's a bit disappointing that it isn't a more memorable flick. I saw it when it came out in the late 90s, but shit if I remembered anything about it. Best moment: Nicholson and Caine fisticuffs.

Cook County - David Pomes - Bump (Anson Mount) is a small time meth cook getting by in east Texas, partying a lot, raising a young daughter in squalor and being the world's worst guardian to his only nephew. When his brother Sonny (Xander Berkeley) comes out of prison clean and determined to do right by his kid and his niece, but he's got conditions to his release that will complicate his half-assed plans. I've got a feeling about Mount, having watched him in two seasons of Hell on Wheels as well as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. He's got a highly watchable quality that's yet to be entirely realized by the material he's supporting or the film makers he's working with. Watch the first five minutes of this one as he gets super fucking high and wigs the hell out and you'll see a side of him convincingly contrary to Hell on Wheels. It's pretty great. Unfortunately it's about all he's given to do in the film and it's so (appropriately) irritating and intense I had to break the film up into several pieces to get through. Best moment: Sonny gets the kids into another home and they marvel at the oddities of an average life.

Dillinger - John Milius - I think I like the idea of John Milius more than the reality most of the time. Dude didn't know what a single or even a double was and bunting was a damned disgrace - cowardly, un-manly, cheap. He took/takes big, fearless swings for the fences each and every time out, so is it any wonder that he strikes out as often as he does? On the other hand when he connects, stand back. His is the kind of grand-scale, big-vision art that tends to be early and large influences on many people and that... that I can dig. The Dillinger story is pretty perfect fodder for Milius' themes and the juxtaposition of John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis is a canvas he was was clearly excited to make his mark upon. The result is one of his strongest pictures and at the time of its release had to have him widely considered for the mantle - heir to Sam Peckinpah. Indeed the themes, tone and the tableau right down to the casting of Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Harry Dean Stanton lend it to comparisons to Peck. And that's mighty high praise. Best moment: John and Melvin talk on the phone.

Drug War - Johnnie To - When an industrial scale methamphetamine manufacturer and distributor is apprehended in China, he agrees to help the cops take down a cartel in order to avoid the death penalty. As he works alongside the policeman who busted him, an interesting evolution occurs in their dynamic. They go from mortal enemies to uneasy allies and by the time they've each saved the other's bacon more than once the viewer isn't sure where their loyalty lies. And that's great. The end of the film is pretty fantastic and I don't want to let on anything about it or how we get there, but it was great. Best moment: a Mission Impossible style double sting operation that requires the stone-faced cop to shift gears hard to play the role of a flamboyant and gregarious smuggler. It's a jolt.

Hatfields & McCoys - Kevin Reynolds - Confession: other than their names, I know nothing about the most famous feud in American history, so don't expect me to point out where the mini-series did well or failed to depict history accurately. That said, I didn't have any problem buying the events depicted either dramatically or realistically. Two men, friends fight together for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but leave the struggle on different terms, and the seeds of resentment take root. One family's fortune feels disproportionate to their worth and when insult and injury are added to the mix, nobody even wants to back down. The escalation is epic, the devastation is tragic and the performances are mostly good. Best moment: Kevin Costner stops to make sure Bill Paxton's sons understand why he's about to execute them.

Justified Season 4 - Graham Yost - Enjoying it still, but beginning to think they'd better wrap this series up pretty quick. Season four had great turns for supporting cast like Jim Beaver, Raymond J. Barry and fuckin Patton Oswalt and the patter betwixt co-workers is pleasingly crisp, but... before the whole damn thing is on autopilot, I'd like to see shit get shaken up good and then brought to a halt. Best moment: Art eloquently delivers an expositional monologue concluding with 'Now that's some badass shit,' to which Raylan must reluctantly agree 'It's pretty badass.' And it is.

The Killing Season 3 - Veena Sud - Is there life after the Rosie Larson case? Yep. It was nice to see Linden and Holder in new circumstances and surrounded by new characters too. That said, shit did they waste the presence of Elias Koteas something awful. Best moment: Holder opens the trunk.

Mad Dog Morgan - Phillippe Mora - Biopic of the Australian bushranger Dan Morgan and like most biopics suffers from the task of covering such a long span of life (thus losing the power of small, character defining and growing, moments in favor of covering all the major action). Still, there are plenty of good to very good major bits to be covered and there is a raw and muscular quality to the film that makes up for some gaps in fluidity (and overall presentation - I'd like to see a restored version, the film stock has deteriorated). Make a hell of a double-bill with The Proposition. Best moment: the hostage sequence plays out well. The balance of menace and exhaustion, manners and real human civility is pretty sweet.

My Gun is Quick - Phil Victor, George White - Boil until hard and serve with black coffee and filterless cigarettes. Yeah, I've got a weak spot for cynical tough-guy shit, and I usually like to get absorbed into the black and whites of the mid-century for them... I dunno, my guard is down when it's from that era. So, despite my enjoying it, I've got a feeling this one wasn't all that great. As Mickey Spillane flicks go, it was no Kiss Me Deadly, but it was a damn sight better than I, the Jury. Best moment: if Mick was ace at any one thing, it was closing lines.

The Robber - Benjamin Heisenberg - Terrific crime drama based on the novel On the Run by Martin Prinz which was inspired by the exploits of Austrian desperado Johann Kastenberger who, pre-Point Break, robbed banks wearing a Ronald Reagan mask and sporting a shotgun... which is pretty badass. But there's more to it than that. The film wisely chooses not to get much into the character's past and, like him, focus on nothing but constantly moving forward. The fictionalized Johann (Andreas Lust) is in prison at the beginning of the film, about to be paroled. We watch him train obsessively in his cell and in the yard for marathon running. His parole officer asks him, what his plans are after his release and is concerned by the reply he gets - to run - noting that it's extremely difficult to make a living that way, but failing to understand that Johann will use his long-distance running as his preferred getaway mode on bank jobs. And he appears perfectly capable of making that work for him... but it's never really about the money for him and he pushes himself relentlessly toward disaster or glory. The fusion of an intelligent, crafty operator and a compulsive self-destructive personality makes for a great crime flick with solid drama and legit thrills. Best moment: two-fer chase sequence.

The Show Must Go On - Jae-rim Han - Kang In-goo is a mid-level gangster toiling under a boss he's loyal to and feuding with another lieutenant who happens to be the boss's brother. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter are slipping away from him by degrees and his efforts to hold his family and his career together begin as fertile soil for comic vignettes and become increasingly desperate, horrible and heartbreaking over the course of the movie. The unbelievably charismatic Kang-ho Song holds the center of this crime drama/family drama/comedy that goes in many directions, but works because that movie fucking star pulls everything toward himself. He's pretty amazing, kids. No, I didn't freak the fuck out over this one, like I have a lot of the Korean fare I've been checking out lately, but I did find it to be an engaging flick that kept me pretty off-balance the whole way through. I won't tell you how it ends, but it earns the reaction it gets. Best moment: I'm torn between the convenience store assassination attempt and the car chase... heh. You decide.

Snowman's Land - Tomasz Thomson - The Carpathians, land of dread, home of house Dracul, children of the night and such. What better place to set an isolation horror flick, or a claustrophobia-inducing crime thriller or jeez, a black comedy against the white snow. Take a sad-sack, tired out hit man and send him there for a mysterious task, shackle him with a dangerously fuck-up prone partner(?) target(?) and tell them to stay put in this scary fucking mansion in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dark woods inhabited by unseen menace until their dread-lord appears and tells them their mission. Of course, things have plenty of time to go badly before their boss shows up, and things are bound to get exponentially worse after he arrives and ooooh shit, they do. Love love love not being able to see around corners in a film and love even more when my expectations are exceeded like they were here. Really strongly recommend this one. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Best moment: what happens when they break out the uzis.

Wolf of Wall Street - Martin Scorsese - Is this a great movie? No. Has it got great moments? Yes, it does. Is it bloated, indulgent and overly-long? Yes. Is it hard to sit through? Not at all. Three hours fly by pretty quick when you're exploring horrendous fucking human behavior with a film maker like Scorsese. Outrageous scene follows outrageous scene until you've got a fuck-shit stack of salacious material. And honestly... what do you decide to cut out? Glad it wasn't my job. Best moment: the ludes finally kick in.

You're Next - Adam Wingard - Two slasher genre deconstruction attempts in the same post, wtf? Enjoyed this one more than Mandy Lane - funnier, livelier, didn't hate the characters, legitimately scary for a moment or two and the twists and subversions were stronger (especially the chick being pretty cool-headed and tough - without being cartoonish at all). Best moment: best blender kill since Gremlins.


Kent Gowran said...

I actually got out and went to the theater for You're Next. Enjoyed the hell out of it. The bit with the wire was also good. As was the whole thing in the basement. Ti West was pretty funny as the pretentious filmmaker getting his chops busted by the oafish brother. I don't know, for a slasher flick long after there's any reason to make a slasher flick, it's damn good.

Mandy Lane, I didn't like it. Tried too hard, or something. Too obvious.

Drug War was great. I think I would've ended it on the street scene, but that's me.

jedidiah ayres said...

That was a hell of a finale in Drug War... A lot of the cast members of You're Next are film makers it seems

Kent Gowran said...

They are. To my understanding, they all do work on each others' movies. Ti West's House Of The Devil is worth checking out, if you haven't already seen it.

jedidiah ayres said...

Yeah, I've seen House of the Devil as well as The Innkeepers. I liked both, but I'm waiting to be blown away by something.

Barry Graham said...

I think The Robber is a masterpiece. It should be much better known.

jedidiah ayres said...

Robber really surprised me. Couldn't believe it hadn't been shoved down my throat yet.

Kent Gowran said...

When it comes to horror movies, I think I'm well past the point where I can be blown away by anything. Though I can still enjoy a well done horror movie, though those are scarce.