Friday, August 22, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: July

The Detective - Gordon Douglas - Frank Sinatra plays Joe Leland, the titular policeman investigating the savage murder of the son of a powerful citizen in the 1960s. Said fortunate son was a homosexual and likely killed by a lover which makes the case sensational enough to illicit giggles and blanching from the most seasoned of NYC's finest. Except Leland. Leland is the man without a country here - generally respected, but an aggravation as often as an asset to the department interested in quoing the precious status 24-7, and in his personal life, loved, but rarely understood, by Karen (Lee Remick) the educated, conscientious lefty whom Leland has set his affections on. And to be fair, Leland can be kind of a prick. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Roderick Thorp, it's a bit of a time-capsule piece of shifting social mores and anxieties, but doesn't offer much for those looking for a ripping mystery... which is okay, because its intentions are pretty clearly favoring social drama and character study. Does it succeed on either intention? With mixed results. Leland is occasionally compelling when juxtaposed with other cops (Robert Duvall among them) or Karen's alarmed friends who can't understand why she'd be interested in a fascist, but it never quite cracks his shell either and I dunno how interested I was in the end in getting beneath. It's a little strange to think of this one as a precursor to Die Hard (which is based on the Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever and featuring Leland - John McClane in the movie) too, tho that flick also serves as something of a time capsule examination of masculinity and subverted the very tropes the franchise has gone on to perpetuate. Hmmm. Best moment: Sinatra breaks down a suspect with a little understanding. The mix of empathy and manipulation was not as harshly funny as a similar scene featuring Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, but in the same sport.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson - Story within a story, within a story, within a... but mostly concerned with Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) the concierge of the grand hotel and Zero (Tony Revolori) his lobby boy and protege. The film follows the duo as they allude police and a killer thug (Willem Dafoe is so perfect) after Gustave is framed for the murder of one of his wealthy clients (Tilda Swinton - add this one to Snowpiercer in Swinton's recent trend of hilariously grotesque plays on her image). The cast is impressive, the performances specific and of a piece, and the music combined with the mind-boggling level of attention to detail, synonymous with Anderson's name, create an alternate reality so appealing, I frankly never wanted the picture to end. And yes, it's a fucking crime movie. Shut up. There's lots of crimes the film is concerned with - murders and thievery and prison escapes - so shut your smug face. Fiennes positively sparkles (shut the fuck up) as Gustave, and he and Zero are typical Anderson characters: master and mentor enamored of formality and the proper way things are done - including (and perhaps most especially) resistance to and rebellion against tyranny. I know it's not particularly cool to be a fan of Anderson's - twee being the derogatory adjective most often flung at his sensibility, but I don't think that charge sticks here. As his characters are, Anderson is a student of and believer in form and formal mentor ship, and his padowan relationship to past masters has never been more plainly on display, but just as his characters find freedom for self-discovery and expression rather than restriction within the bounds of social contracts and formalities, Anderson seems peculiarly free and unfettered by the rigors of propriety within his discipline and has wrought perhaps his most potent and personally revealing work to date. No emotion or human current is untapped or unworthy here - rather everything has its clearly defined place - and tell me you don't respond to notions of love and nobility here or that the violence in this one isn't more visceral than your average serial killer movie. And I'll be damned if Anderson didn't out-De Palma anything Brian De Palma's done lately for one particular murder sequence. Fucking-A plus. Best moment: F. Murray Abraham's epilogue rings such a true note that doesn't exactly re-contextualize the story, but re-enforces and grounds the dramatic stakes.

The Immigrant - James Gray - Ewa, a polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard), is detained at Ellis Island with her sick sister, who is quarantined, and slated for deportation when a mysterious benefactor, Bruno (Joaquine Phoenix), steps in and offers the woman a shot at a life in the new world and a chance to save her sister from being shipped across the ocean. Suspicious, but desperate, Ewa chooses to accept a post as a housekeeper which leads to dance hall performer and prostitute where best money is. Ewa's story is not a victim's, but a survivor's and whether it's ultimately despairing or hopeful is the audience's litmus test. Along the way she experiences betrayal and devotion, exploitation and benevolence, but nothing alters her course or deters her intent to liberate her sister. Gray is a film maker I've always found compelling - his aesthetic sense is hugely appealing, and his interest in the small details and decisions create intriguing tensions for his characters to exist within. This one's probably as close to sweeping as he'll get (what with the ambitious and excellently executed historic setting and themes), but the feel remains close, intimate and immediate and the ultimate resolution of the central relationship between Cotillard and Phoenix is as thorny and imprecise as it should be. Ewa is the steadfast character here, whose purpose is always clear regardless of circumstance or means, but it's Bruno, whose intent is always suspect, who is most compelling. Ever torn (or is he?) between self-service and more noble impulses, every layer revealed adds complexity if not to who he is than at least to our perspective on him and we get the sense that he's at least as genuinely confused about his own identity (the character, not the performer - an important distinction) as the viewer is. And by the time the cops brutally shake Bruno down, his response surprises him as much as it does Ewa without clearly defining his motive to anyone. Looking forward to watching this one again sometime. It should be said that the supporting cast, especially Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee and Elena Solovey are uniformly excellent, providing more dimension and production value to the flick than any (necessary) trick of lighting or CGI. Best moment: a family meal at the pub. Everything is on display here, Bruno's complexity, Ewa's consciousness and complicity, and the community of women among the wolves.

Joe - David Gordon Green - Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con just trying to live and let live encounters a host of obstacles along the straight and narrow. Joe has his own small business and employs a youngster named Gary (Ty Sheridan) who supports his family as best he can until his abusive, shit-for-worth father (Gary Poulter) eventually fucks things up so bad they have to leave yet another small town and move on. Arrrrrgh, this pisses Joe off. Gary's a good kid and his old man is real bad news. Joe's known very few Garys in his time and all too many alcoholic assholes bent on snuffing out the Garys of the world. Hell, he's maybe been one himself. Joe's tryin to stay upright, but he tilts haaaard at self-destruction... perhaps... maybe... just maybe he can make his imminent personal downfall count for something worthwhile. I think I just reduced a swell flick to a cliche-ridden sound bite. So, don't read this. See the movie. Or, if you've gotta read something, read the source material by Larry Brown. Either of those options are swell. Some folks have called this a return to form for Green, the director of George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, (tho, I'll argue the virtues of Your Highness any day, friend), but it is certainly a reminder how how damn good Cage can be when he's got a script and a director. He stands placid and anchored at the center of a vortex of violence and dead-end living until his own suicidal energy spills over. Splish, splash, here comes Tazmanian Nicolas Cage! Except... there's a glint in his eyes, but this is the furthest thing from Drive Angry Cagian havoc. What are these, these... feelings? Flick will make you feel shit. And Cage will too. Not to mention Sheridan and Poulter (in his sole screen credit - he died before he had the chance to make any more celluloid impressions, and judging from his presence in this picture, that's a notable loss - dammit). Best moment: the opening sequence of Joe's day to day with his crew, on the job, in his pickup, coffee, alcohol, shootin the shit with the convenience store guy - just first class world building. You know this guy afterward.

McCanick - Josh C. Waller - Detective Eugene McCanick (David Morse) is having a bad day. It's his birthday, which for him is just another reminder that he's growing old alone. He's trying to reach his slightly estranged son on the phone and plan a birthday dinner through the course of the single-day's span that the film covers, meanwhile as is want in cop flicks, bad shit is going on with his partner and worst of all a punk street hustler he once put away is unexpectedly back on the street and this is commanding his attention. Morse has been a favorite of mine since The Indian Runner and I've wondered for twenty years why the guy didn't have a leading man career. This guy should be huge. There's more character in his left eye than in the Ryan Reynolds' entire six pack. Well, the launch of Morse's leading man career is here finally, and it's a gritty little crime flick utilizing the guy in all the right ways. We've seen him play salt of and scum of the earth often enough, we're not sure which camp his detective McCanick belongs to. He's a grizzled veteran Philadelphia cop whose body is scar tissue over creaky bones with a thousand life-times of pain stored up in those soulful eyes of his. I'm not sure if the pay off worked for me - I'll have to revisit it - but I had a good time getting there. Best moment: the opening sequence is marvelous character building with Morse's physicality and the costume and set designer's eye for detail - that glued together #1 Dad coffee mug just says so much.

The Raid 2: Berandal - Gareth Evans - Not gonna bother with a single plot description except to say that this one differs from The Raid: Redemption in that it's not set in a single locale or in a limited time - it's more of a sprawler. That said, it is very much the same kind of kick to your brain balls the first one was. Just HO-LEE-SHIT action with amazing visual style. So much in fact that it might be best experienced in several short visits, 'cause you may become desensitized and unable to absorb another single mind-blowing sequence. Best moment: I dug the preparation scene in the prison toilet as Rama (Iko Uwais) focuses and prepares to take on the mob of psychos beating down the stall door.

Robocop - Jose Padilha - The recent Paul Verhoeven remakes succeed on the basic level of watchable sci-fi action flicks, but both suffer from comparison to the original pictures (though I'm sure Len Wiseman and the folks behind Total Recall would say they were adapting a Philip K. Dick story and not the Verhoeven movie) for the important reason that the originals were the work of a balls-out cinematic artist whose blockbusters were satires of the very genres the were succeeding in and whose flops were such gigantic turds people can't stop critically reconsidering them certain they'd missed something. Verhoeven's career fixation with fascism, as well as other thematic through-lines, are distinctive artistic thumbprints that bolster his work - elevating the lesser attempts by inclusion in the body, and for that reason at least his versions/visions are more resonant and memorable than their contemporary cash ins... Buuut hold on. While I don't see much to recommend Wiseman's career trajectory beyond slick action pulp (and there's nothing wrong with that), Padilha's history is another matter entirely. Consider that his Robocop follows three pictures also concerned with rampant crime, corruption, violence and fascist solutions (only in his home of Rio de Janero) Bus 174, Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (and I recommend checking all of them out). Now Robocop seems like a far more interesting choice for a foreign film maker with something to say (like Verehoeven was) when given his chance to make a big American franchise movie. There are some bold stylistic choices made here too: the first-person shooter action scenes work on several levels, the disassembled Roboman looked like a nightmare out of a David Cronenberg classic, the open-faced robo-suit is a questionable call but as Michael Keaton's corporate bad guy says straight through the fourth wall, "People don't know what they want until you show them." Strong supporting cast here (including Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael K. Williams and Jay Baruchel), but nobody steals the movie quite like Jackie Earle Haley who just walks away with the damn thing every time he's on screen. Really terrific work, guy. In fact he gets the Best Moment: the warehouse combat testing scene.

We Are What We Are - Jim Mickle - The Parkers are a close knit family in a small rural community who are about to have their bond tested by the death of their wife/mother and a particularly soggy, rainy week during which they practice a secret religious ritual that their neighbors know nothing about. With her mother's passing, the brunt of the preparation duties fall to the oldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers) while father Frank (Bill Sage) deals with his grief and some irritating questions from the local doctor (Michael Parks). It probably won't take you long to piece together the mystery of the missing town folk, and the Parker's ritual, but I won't spoil anything here as Mickle sets such a pleasing atmosphere to hang out in. Of course the best trick up Mickle's sleeve is fantastic work by his actors, specifically Sage and Parks, (but everybody is good) and hats off to Kelly McGillis for showing up in several good dark indy flicks lately). I confess I didn't know this one was a remake of a Mexican import from Jorge Michel Grau a couple years earlier till after watching it. Having seen this one, I'm not sure I'm interested in going back to the original, but it probably deserves a shout out. Best moment: the finale did actually make me feel physically ill and that's an achievement, kids.

Welcome to the Punch - Eran Creevy - Super thief Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) is forced to come out of hiding/retirement and return to London to spring his criminal son who's fallen into the clutches of the cops. When the kid's identity is discovered, former supercop Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) who has a history with Sternwood senses a shot at redeeming his career or maybe exacting revenge. A decent enough setup for what is ultimately a frustrating film, caught as it is between the sensibilities of gritty, character-driven crime flick and slick, cool, action-driven crime flick. That said, it's got a few good moments for each type of picture. Best moment: Andrea Riseborough in the punch.

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