Friday, June 20, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: May

Art of the Steal - Jonathan Sobol - Upon his release from prison Crunch Calhoun's motorcycle daredevil gig is teetering atop his last aging legs and desperate to put something substantial together for his golden years he gets his rag-tag group of international art thieves get back together for a big score. What follows might taste like warmed over Ocean's 11 by way of Snatch, but it's got that thing right there in the middle that I'm a sucker for- Kurt Russell. It's a shell game of cons and double-reverses set in a universe populated with paper-thin stock characters that, never-the-less may just hold your attention for its modest running time. Fun, but I had to get drunk to do it, and I didn't particularly respect myself in the morning. Best moment: the look on Crunch's face as he makes the decision to take a fall.

The Aura - Fabian Bielinsky - Esteban lives deep inside his own head. He's either seeing to details that only he can appreciate in his day job as a taxidermist or he's meticulously planning heists in his hobby as a master criminal. Only Esteban is all intellect and zero follow through. He doesn't get his hands dirty, he only thinks up the way it ought to go - until... - Esteban ends up with a dead thief on his hands and decides to assume the man's place in a dodgy heist where things are bound to get a lot more bloody than he's used to. Oh, he's also an epileptic. This one is an exercise in mood and tone and texture, much more atmospheric and deliberately paced than Bielinsky's rollicking con-man pic Nine Queens, but lucky for me, it's an atmosphere I prefer to breathe. The tension is slow-building and not a hell of a lot happens before... well, before it all happens, but it's a pleasure getting there and Ricardo Darin has a pretty great face to tell stories with. Best moment: Making eye contact with the wolf - perfectly executed moment of Lynchian deep creeps.

Bad Country - Chris Brinker - Bud Carter, a Baton Rouge cop, stumbles onto the biggest arrest of his career when he nabs a mob contract killer named Jesse Weiland on an unrelated charge. After Weiland's family is threatened by his employers, he works with Carter to take down the syndication. Shit blows up. People die. Actually this flick, based on a true story and featuring the best mustaches since The Iceman and another strong Willem Dafoe performance after last year's Out of the Furnace, has a lot going for it: setting, performances from Dafoe and Matt Dillon up front and an appropriate sense of scale. It did itself absolutely no favors in marketing by reminding us that the director produced the awful Boondock Saints movies, and I was looking forward to Brinker having the chance to atone for that shit (which he halfway does here), but his long journey to redemption was cut short by his untimely death days before principle photography wrapped on this, his directorial debut. So, I'm not sure what to make of his vision. Alongside the solid aspects of the film, it also suffers from a few mis-steps: an over-actiony climax, a bizarre anachronism or two (the film takes place in the early 80s, so what's with the nu-metal on the radio?) and an unfortunate stray line of dialogue or three. Solid B-, but I'd like to have seen more fare in the same vein from Brinker - clearly he had some similar interests. Best moment: Bud buys diamonds.

Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier - Dwight, a homeless, but seemingly carefree beach bum has his world turned upside down when he receives news that a particular man is being released from prison - end of beach life. Suddenly, Dwight is a man of action and as each new scene reveals, he's a man with a plan that he's been patiently waiting out. He follows the newly released convict and his family a short ways away and clearly intends to do the newly freed harm, but after that... who knows? Dwight's plans don't seem to extend beyond the violent act itself and what's in store for the audience is a hell of an artfully delivered, white-knuckle thriller. Holy shit. Just kapow. Wham, bam and waaaaaait for it... waaaaaaaait for it... shazam. To knock this one out of the number one film of the year spot is going to take something fuuuuuuuuuucking special (but holy crap there's some gud shit due soon). My first reaction to this piece of bloody Americana was to shoe-horn it into a couple of complimentarily-intended comparisons, like it was some kind of derivation of greater works, I think I called it Blood Simple by way of Shotgun Stories, but I rather regret even saying that now, as the film is its own thing and deserves to be encountered on its own terms. And those terms can be located within the voice of a bold and ridiculously assured film maker just beginning to speak. Best moment: buying guns from an old high school pal.

Easy Money - Daniel Espinosa - A hustler chasing the good life in the world of high-stakes finance, a recently-rabbited convict and a hit man/single-father cross paths and purposes in this elegantly complex and admirably gritty thriller from the director of (one of my favorites from a couple years back, Safe House). It's the first in a trilogy of adaptations of the Snabba Cash novels by Jens Lapidus. and if it's any indication of the quality of the films to come, this is going to be a badass crime saga for the decade. Kinda like a James Ellroy criminal underworld going through a non-comedic version of Guy Ritchie debacle - everybody's got a plan, everybody's got a good reason for what they're doing, everybody's competent, but nobody's too cool or invincible and the deck is stacked against happy endings for any of them and the film is harsh enough to have you fearing the fates of a cast of well-drawn characters you're going to be switching up loyalties betwixt. Damn, I wish we could expect this level of treatment of crime flicks in the US, but sadly... no. Typically, those of us who get off on this type of adult fare have got to seek satisfaction from other parts of the world. Happily, it's more and more available these days. Best moment: confluence of criminality. Hell of a finale.

Freedomland - Joe Roth - Julianne Moore stumbles bloodied and hysterical into an emergency room saying that she's been attacked  and had her car stolen with her son asleep in the back seat. Samuel L. Jackson is the responding detective and finds himself in for a long fucking week. Turns out, the woman is sister to one of the top (white) cops on the other side of town, making the missing kid his nephew and the investigation his priority. Add to that the racial element. White kid disappears in a black neighborhood and the cops shut the projects down to comb the area - forcibly detaining residents and interrupting the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of citizens when black kids disappear all the time without anybody seeming to notice. Riots loom. Professional disaster looms. Personal integrity isn't popular. It's a hot pot of shit, but Jackson's Det. Council steps up to keep stirring it and keep it from boiling over. When Michael Winterbottom dropped off the project (with a screenplay by Richard Price and adapted from his own novel) it was up to the guy who directed Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise to stand in the gap and maybe just get out of the way for some damn fine work by Jackson and a great supporting cast including William Forsythe, Edie Falco, Clark Peters, Anthony Mackie and Ron Eldard. I recall noting the film's box office was disappointing and the critical reaction was pretty luke-warm, which dammit... I shouldn't be paying attention to - duh, but even though I dig Price (tho, I've not read his book) I'd somehow put this one off, and that's a damn shame. Particularly because this is as engaged as I've seen Sam Jackson in a long damn time. And as good as he is phoning it in, it's a whole other thing when he means it. Is it the great forgotten film of the decade? I don't think so, but it does a great job of heaping a bunch of plausible shit on the back of a man of his time and watching the way it sorts out. It's yeah, solid. Mostly, it left me wanting so hard a Sam Jackson, Will Forsythe cop drama on TV with a big dose of Edie Falco to boot. Yeah, that's the shit I want to see. Best moment: Council visits his son.

A Hijacking - Tobias Lindholm - A Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates and this film follows the lives of the hostage crew as well as the head of the company that employs them and owns the boat as they negotiate a resolution over the course of many weeks. It's pretty tense. Just a bunch of real people in a terrible, no-win situation. Am I selling you on this? It's quite good, but I dunno what else to say... It's a bit hard to watch at times, but not overdone, not a big manipulative climax orchestrated to wring a lotta tears or make you wanna break stuff, just steady, assured, observational film making that puts the viewer through some awfully effective tension. Best moment: everybody sings 'happy birthday'.

Lakeview Terrace - Neal LaBute - A racially mixed couple moves into the titular affluent L.A. suburb in 2008 and are harassed and intimidated by a neighbor who happens to be a cop and doesn't appreciate them parading their lifestyle in front of his impressionable children - he's worked hard to give them a proper upbringing and all. The twist? The cop is black. When you're going to chose a racially-charged provocative flick starring Samuel L. Jackson to spend an evening with, do you go with the one directed by the celebrated button-pushing playwright responsible for sucking the air out of the room with fare like In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty or maybe the guy who made Christmas With the Kranks? Friends... this time, go with the Kranks helmer Joe Roth's Freedomland, 'cause this one was cringe-inducing, but for all the wrong reasons. Best moment: is actually hilariously bad - when the couple meets with her father who advises them to sell their 'starter home' and move. Folks, it's a niiiice fucking house in L.A. with a pool and shit and perhaps that was intentionally in there to insult Jackson's cop character's life of hard work and dedication to his kids as a single father, that this couple's starter home was in the same neighborhood as the end of his rainbow, but... it felt more like a mis-step and a pretty tone-deaf one at that.

Let the Fire Burn - Jason Osder - Documentary about the brewing confrontation between the city of Philadelphia and the MOVE, er movement members and the tragic 1985 standoff that ended in a big body-count and devastating loss of a community as an entire neighborhood burns to the ground. The film is constructed entirely of original footage taken by news and police cameras as well as the original testimonies delivered in court by the survivors, participants and witnesses and if it doesn't get you worked up, perhaps the fact that, regardless your view of the way things were handled, a group of American citizens were publicly burned to death by government officials in the heart of a major metropolitan area only 30 years ago and this might be the first time you've even heard about it (I'd never heard of MOVE or this tragedy before), well that oughtta. A lot to chew on here. Clearly the MOVE folks had every reason to fear for their lives, and clearly the city of Philadelphia had a responsibility to address the group on behalf of their harassed citizens and certainly to look into the welfare of the children being raised on the compound, but what a fucking shame that it came to this, and how scary to watch and think... it would probably go down exactly the same way today. Best moment: Birdie's escape.

Pulp - Mike Hodges - Michael Caine is a very successful if not terribly respected writer of many genres of pulp fiction under a slew of hilarious pseudonyms. He's contracted by an anonymous celebrity (who turns out to be a flamboyant movie star with alleged ties to organized crime, played by Mickey Rooney) to ghost-write his biography. Upon accepting the vague, but lucrative, offer he goes to Malta to meet his mystery employer and after a case of mistaken identity, finds himself enmeshed in a plots sillier and seedier than anything he ever wrote under the name S. Odomy. Writer/director Hodges makes films to his very own very precise internal metronome and as much as I love Get Carter and enjoyed A Prayer for the Dying and Croupier, it's not unusual for me to feel a bit on the outside looking in at what certainly appears to be great party that I seem to have lost my invitation to. I think his films generally work even when I'm beguiled (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) or befuddled (Flash Gordon) by them... I just can't say why. Pulp is among his more interesting works and one I'd like to revisit, but even though I laughed at appropriate times, I was left with the distinct impression I was not in on a lot of the jokes and not in step with the rhythms of the film maker. Best moment: Al Lettieri exits the shower.

Revenge - Tony Scott - Hot shit Navy pilot Cochran (Kevin Costner) retires with no particular plans for his future other than hanging out on the Mexican ranch of a rich benefactor who's life he once saved. Said benefactor is a powerful criminal and married to a foxy lady, thirty years his junior. Hijinks ensue! Generic plot, sure, but there's an atmosphere of hazy, Scottian cool hovering over the whole thing. Add to that the Jim Harrison source material and the nicely small-scale of it all, and it's always been a picture I could disappear happily into. Been a long time since I'd watched it and frankly, it doesn't hold up quite as well as I wanted it to, but I still enjoy the second half of the picture, especially when James Gammon shows up. Best moment: Miguel Ferrer takes off his mask.

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