Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 in Flicks: March

Boardwalk Empire season 4 - Terence Winter - Fifth and final season up next... Damn, I'll hate to see this one go, but an approaching end does make my sphincter spas a bit in anticipation of a last bloody clash of ambitious American small businessmen. The fourth season tests Nucky's ideas of family obligation and ideals of familial legacy. Another major exploration of the season is Nucky and Chalky's relationship and whether there's more to it (and to life) than business - this is especially on Nucky's mind after the third season's climax and the revelations about Eddie's personal life - mostly that he had one. But themes and plot aside, this is simply the most purely pleasurable show on TV for my money. Gorgeous, ugly, funny as hell, harsh but in a way that makes me want to live, cynical but with just enough heart to break every time it must... and it must... every time. Plus the cast, c'mon. And the writing? Add to the always stellar ensemble amazing turns from Jeffrey Wright, Brian Geraghty, Margot Bingham and perhaps my favorite never-saw-it-coming addition Patricia Arquette. Holy shit, how much am I loving Patricia Arquette on this show? A lot. A whole lot of holy shits-worth. I'll confess a couple season's worth of waning interest in Gretchen Mol's story line (though, her work on this show is the best of her career and I'd love to see her get the chance to play more characters like Gillian Darmody), but otherwise it's firing on all dramatic cylinders. And, as always, some fond farewells to beloved characters whom I wont reveal here, but rest assured, a memorable exit is probably more important than a whole lot of screen time for assuring iconic status. Should I throw out a little prediction? No, but I will anyway... Thinking Michael Shannon's Van Alden/what's-his-nuts may be the muscle what fucks up the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. How'd that be for a Capone story-line wrap? Eh... I shouldn'a said anything. Now I feel silly. Best moment: the hit on Chalky.

Convoy - Sam Peckinpah - An outlaw trucker crosses the wrong man with a badge and goes on the run with a parade of mobile weirdos backing him up. As they roll across the American Southwest very visible and unstoppable, they become a lightning rod for various politicians, hippies and law and order blowhards to attach waaaay too much significance to. Affably gruff and not giving two shits about any of it, Kris Kristofferson is the man steering the movable freaks toward... probably not a happy ending. Toward the end of his life, Peck made some silly movies. Perhaps it's best for his legacy that he didn't continue making movies another 10-20 years. Still there's something I like about his twilight productions from the bow and arrow usage in The Osterman Weekend, to the ninja battle in Killer Elite and yeah, the bridge standoff between Rubber Duck and Dirty Lyle... anytime a mustachioed Ernest Borgnine wants to man a machine gun in a cowboy hat is fine with me. The themes of Peck's best stuff are here, tho stripped of any artful ruse they blare rather than infect and become better punchlines than points to ponder. Best moment: jailbreak.

Coup de Torchon - Bertrand Tavernier - The local policeman of a small village in French-colonial West-Africa of the 1930s gets by doing as little as possible believing the power of his position most potent when underestimated. He spends the film getting over on rivals, pimps, government officials and his cheating wife, reveling in public scorn and savoring intimate moments of comeuppance. I love it when a a film maker gets an author's world right onscreen. Jim Thompson has been abused several times in films, but every once in a while somebody gets the tone right and it's magic. Sure the details have changed (it's Africa not Texas, it's the 30s not the 60s), but man, I'd know the mind and means of a Thompson lawman regardless the language. Lucien Cordier (Nick Corey in Pop. 1280, Thompson's source novel) stands right next to Lou Ford as the most iconic of Thompson's characters and if you've never seen this one, seek it out. Philippe Noiret delivers a fantastically, evil, comic performance well worth your time investment. Best moment: Cordier gets help moving the body.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within - Jose Padilha - A career policeman with a background in special tactical units now entering politics, the social activist who married his ex-wife and raises his teenage son and a dirty cop turned entrepreneur/crime lord of the slums of Rio de Janeiro are on a collision course of Ellroy-esque proportions in this sequel to the original terribly-titled movie (seriously, don't let the titles put you off, these are kick-ass crime flicks). It's all corruption layered like a J.J. Connolly metaphor and characters with some pretty fucking good cross purposes working alternately with and against each other. Plus pretty hardcore violence. Yeah, I recommend this one, though I'm not sure if there's some subtlety lost in the translation or if the dialogue (or voice over anyway) really is as un-nuanced as it comes across, but I really am grateful that I don't have to listen to lines about 'taking on the system' delivered to my earholes. Subtitles cushion some of the impact of lines that sound like they were intended for Sylvester Stallone to mutter in his most macho-ly disturbed moments. But do, please do check it out. Best moment: on set with the dude with the political TV show - always hilarious.

Johnny Mnemonic - Robert Longo - Johnny's got a secret and less than a day to tell it or his brain will melt. Problems arise - namely he can't access the secret without a key that he only possesses one half of, and he's being pursued by various parties interested in his secret who are perfectly happy to simply remove his head to get it. Poor Johnny seems to have placed himself at the center of an epic shitstorm and left his umbrella at home. Do you remember the future of the mid-80s to mid-90s filled with dudes sporting ponytails and wide-shouldered Armani suits - rain-washed urban sleekery, rain-washed urban scuzzery, with plenty of neon, torn fishnets, random rags as accessories and not a few trenchcoats and fedoras around? This is about the height of that particular futuristic vision and written by William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk himself. Upon original release my summation as well as general consensus was that it was a giant waste of everybody's time. Aaaaaand pretty much, it is. It's an expensive flick that looks very cheap, but there's a charm to that. Its colorful cast alone, which includes Takeshi Kitanom, Dolph Lundgren, Ice-T, Henry Rollins and Udo Kier, ought to raise its regard to cult curiosity - but I don't think it has yet (20 years later). As ham-handed as the directing and the acting is, there is still a pretty good story (and script) by Gibson (how long will we be denied a Gibson/David Cronenberg collaboration?) that's easy to lose amid the trappings of the very dated and awkward production designs and dramatic stylings. I think it'd make for an entertaining triple-feature with Tank Girl and Barb Wire each of them a hell of a lot more entertaining than Aeon Flux (the movie). Best moment: the cyberspace climax replete with Tron style animation, sentient computer programs and psychic dolphins, as well as the immortal dialogue of Ice-T "oh shit, it's the yakuza."

Machete Kills - Robert Rodriguez - Machete is given a new suicide mission by the President of the United States (the amazing Charlie Shee/Carlos Estevez) and takes it on with all the gusto a 70 year old action hero is capable of (and then some). In the process he'll kill an impressive amount of people, some of them more than once, uncover multiple levels of corruption and conspiracy and still fuck around a bit with all the sexy ladies drawn to his ultra-masculine vibe. It can take a lot out of a body. Love him or hate him, you've got to give Rodriguez his due for making fast and frugal films with more imagination per frame than... most. His Hollywood outsider status is bonafide and his body of work is impressively Corman-esque. I fall on the love-him end of the spectrum, tho I'd forgive you for being weary of his schtick. He does hit the same notes over and over, and his flicks are so slight they'd float away on a stiff breeze if you didn't hold them down with something heavy. His films are very meta too. Each as much a deconstruction of genre as solid entry in said tradition. For those who found the political-satire too extreme to stomach in the original Machete, know that Machete Kills spreads it around a little more evenly, and is pretty much a fucking blast for its entire 107 minute running time. This is in no small part to the host of supporting players who gamely inhabit the world for their few moments. This time around that includes Sheen/Estevez, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson, Amber Heard, Demian Bichir and motherfuckin Tom Savini. I'm all for completing Machete Kills Again In Space as long as Rodriguez does whatever the hell he wants to cheaply and without being beholden to money people. Best moment: Helicopter/harpoon kill. No wait - landspeeder tour. No wait - the Machete Kills Again in Space trailer. No wait -

Memories of Murder - Joon-ho Bong - In 1986, a killer of young women is on the loose operating in the mostly rural South Korean region of Gyunggi. Two local detectives treat the case as any other and go about intimidating and torturing confessions out of a string of suspects, until each is shot down by circumstance or the big-city detective sent to join the investigation. The slick city cop with his science and the rough country cops with their instincts can't quite work together. The disparity of methods nevertheless yield similar results and leave all the cops and the public increasingly frustrated and desperate. Interesting that I happened to watch this one a couple weeks after finishing the first season of True Detective as they're awfully similar. Both are procedurals about cops obsessed with the serial killing of young women and treat the procedural as if it weren't a done-to-death form managing along the way to inject a little hard evidence in their thesis. Kang-ho San once again proves to be the most watchable and welcome presence in anyfuckingthing he appears in and is up to the challenge of humanizing this not-particularly-bright and violent cop (as well as performing one of the most disarming onscreen stunts I've ever seen - there's a bit where he drives up on a situation that the audience knows is harmless, but he believes to be a woman being assaulted, gets out of his car and executes a leaping kick at the would-be attacker and then begins punching him repeatedly in the face and torso - the whole thing is done in a single take with no lead up and is so athletically demanding of its actor I had to rewind it immediately and watch it again several times before finishing the flick - that particular moment was done so gracefully, unexpectedly and efficiently it gave as much insight to the character as any monologue about a troubled past could hope to). Best moment: the final scenes - this is where it edges out True Detective in the gutsy, haunting area. The investigation's climax and the epilogue really, really stick with you. Neither as strong without the other.

Source Code - Duncan Jones - A man wakes up on a commuter train sitting across from a pretty stranger engaging him in conversation. 8 minutes later the train blows up. Then he does it again. It takes a couple times through the experience for the protagonist, an Army pilot, to get the gist of his mission which boils down to this - he is re-living the last moments of a man who died in a train bombing this morning, don't worry about saving anybody you see - they're already dead - instead he should focus on discovering who detonated the bomb as this will theoretically help stop similar impending attacks. It's an awfully big pill for an audience to swallow and it's one that swells up inside you once you've got it down, but the plot ought not to be entirely confused for the point here (especially when one views it in relation to director Jones' only other feature film to date, Moon - about a man isolated by strange and fantastic technology suffering a moment's pause to consider the murky objectives of his own mission). There's a chewy philosophical center beneath the brightly colored (sci-fi mystery) shell that leaves a faintly tart aftertaste. It's still candy. Candy good. Best moment: Vera Farmiga tells Jake Gyllenhaal (only, she's really talking to the audience) to stop thinking and just go with it. Sound advice.

Thief - Michael Mann - A professional thief takes down scores while trying to remain an independent operator in an increasingly corporatized world. James Caan in the role of his career (not to mention Jim Belushi - or hell, Chicago). Seems like I watch this one every couple of years and always, always, always feel like I'm learning something new. Mann has been circling this subject matter and toying with it, for decades. It's an obsession with him - whether he's trying to get it just right or play with all the individual intonations when he strikes it from a slightly different angle, for my money he'll not improve on the original (though I'm thrilled for him to continue trying). Best moment: first date with Tuesday Weld. Always wanted to be able to lay it on the line like that.

This Gun For Hire - Frank Tuttle - A double-crossed hired-killer seeks payback while avoiding a manhunt in this adaptation of Graham Greene's novel (partially penned by W.R. Burnett). If you're going to hire a suave-ass shooter like Alan Ladd to do your dirty work, for shit's sake hold up your end, that is unless you want you diabolical scheme to come crashing down on top of you. Shit, ain't these guys ever seen a hit man movie? To be fair, they possibly had not - at least not one that would be so strong an influence on the future of the genre (for instance, I imagine Alain Delon's killer in Le Samourai watched this film obsessively and got his own outfit in an attempt to look like his role model). What? You dig Jean-Pierre Melville, Carol Reed and Jules Dassin, but you've never caught this one? Catch the fuck up already. Best moment: foggy night on a train.

True Detective Season1 - Nic Pizzalatto, Cary Fukunaga - Two detectives deep in Louisiana work through their tumultuous personal lives and partnership to uncover a cover up of an ongoing series of killings over the course of twenty years. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are well matched and at the top of their games as the professional agents of order each with their own fucked up practical applications of chaos-regulation philosophies. One's an embittered nihilist with a moral center he can't explain, the other a believer in a moral universe with half-assed exceptions for his own perceived role within it. The non-linear structure jumps seamlessly through three different timelines and the illuminations and point of view shifts are very well executed. A self-contained mini-series that serves as the first season of what's apparently going to be an anthology series with a single writer and a single director (per season), True Detective is being scrutinized for perhaps more than the sum of its parts. It's a terrific example of what's possible for a procedural drama - great writing, acting, atmosphere and enough space to tell a story without the traps of wrapping it up in an hour or saving something for next year - but that's about it. What else does it really need to be? All I can say is that rolling it out in weekly installments gave space for some pretty wild speculation about the nature of the show that probably revealed more about the audience than the creators' intentions. Comparisons to shows with supernatural elements like Lost or Twin Peaks seem pretty silly now, and folks conditioned for pretzel twists up to the last second by bad thrillers, shitty weekly procedurals and cheap books may have felt let down by the relative straight-forwardness of the conclusion - which leads to a more appropriate discussion about contemporary mass media: Is it better to format long-form programming like TD as a weekly serial or take the Netflix originals approach and dump a whole season on us at once? Regardless your answer, I'd bet the reception of TD's first season would have been a lot different without the waiting week to week. That's all. Discuss. Best moment: the raid/robbery done in a single unbroken take at the end of episode four really was amazing. Great dramatic tension and excellent visionary execution.


Shayne Youngblood said...

Great post, Jed. Elite Squad is my favorite here. Unfortunately, this is what really happens in Rio and the movie should be seen more as a 'documentary' than an action flick. Sad but true.

jedidiah ayres said...

Shoot me some more Rio crime flick picks when you get the chance