Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: October

52 Pick-Up - John Frankenheimer - Harry, an L.A. businessman (Roy Scheider), is the target of a carefully calculated extortion plan. He's been stepping out on his wife (Ann-Margret) and there are pictures and such to prove it, but when Harry doesn't jump the direction his blackmailers expect him to, they step up their game, turning to kidnapping and murder to squeeze his philandering ass for everything he's got. Refreshing to go back to the pre-Get Shorty, very-serious take on Elmore Leonard material. Still there are the unusual angles genre beats are hit from, but gone are any self-aware smirky attitudes or irony-lacing to the dialogue. One of the chief pleasures of Leonard's thrillers is the non action-orientation of the climaxes (which appears to have frustrated the marketing department - check out that poster of Scheider with gun ready... that his character owns a gun is a pivotal plot point, but he never uses it and it's an itty bitty thing compared to that canon he's hoisting in the picture). Those climaxes, just as with every step on the way to them, they were tricky, slippy things that threw the reader off balance, surprising in turns by their directness or deft circumnavigation of genre expectations. The original score is, um... stuck in its time and does undercut some of the tension, but John Glover, Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor are great as the trio of pornographers turned extortionists and their world full of terrific details that steal the show. Best moment: Williams, Trebor and Glover making plans.

American Mary - Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska - Life is hard for medical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle). She may be brilliant but she's broke. Got a promising future as a surgeon if only she can lay off buying such fancy underwear and scale down the huge apartment she lives in. Her school money is evaporating. Looking for work in a sleazy mobbed-up strip club, her interview is interrupted by a flunkie with some nasty wounds and she's told if she can make the guy not die, they'll give her more money than she'd make in months. Repulsed, but flush with cash, Mary's life as an underground surgeon is off the ground. Soon she's the go-to artist for extreme body-modification and a murder suspect (things happen), but money is no longer a problem. Skating the crime/horror line, this one is stylishly icky and sleekly fun, just don't think about it too hard. Best moment: The reveal of her teacher's fate.

Cold in July - Jim Mickle - Michael C. Hall is Richard, a family man, in 1989 Texas, who shoots an intruder in his home in the middle of the night and feels good about defending his home and family for about fiiiive minutes before the father of the man he killed, (Sam Shepard) a baaad man just out of prison with nothing to lose, begins to terrorize Richard and his cozy little life falls apart. The fact that the film is based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale ought to give you some clue that the above plot description (and for once the trailer, thank God) do not ruin the myriad of surprises this one has in store and keep it from being a Tejas-set Cape Fear-exercise. For everything it's got going for it, including one of the best original scores I've heard in years (by Jeff Grace), low-key, but spot-on (and just the right amount of) period details for flavor and a very game cast, it's got a throwback sensibility to this vein of down and dirty thriller that skates the edges of exploitation, but retains enough real heart and brains (but mostly heart... or guts) to keep it out of the tough-guys with guns bargain bin rack quality-wise. The result is a lean, tough mystery thriller with a helluva climax. Strong contender for year's top honors around these parts. Best moment: father and son meet up.

Dom Hemingway - Richard Shepard - After a dozen years in prison safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is out and ready to reap the rewards of his silence from those he didn't rat out while inside. He's also got a score or two to settle, some family matters to see to and a little general catching up to do. Dom's a force of nature: unpredictable, volatile self-aggrandizing and self-destructive and his time inside certainly has not mellowed him. We follow Dom as he checks off his list of things to do and people to confront, never knowing what outcome is even desired never mind probable. And that is a big part of the appeal to this film. Yeah, like Dom, it's big and brash and outrageous, but it's also unclear where it's headed and that, in the hands of a solid film maker, is a huge thrill. This one goes toe to toe with the best of Shepard's other films The Matador and The Hunting Party and even punches outside its weight some. In fact, I think this one would make a terrific double feature with Sexy Beast. Tonally the two films are quite different, but it's not hard to imagine Law's Dom becoming Ben Kingsly's Don a few years down the line. Will that happen? Will Dom survive time, his enemies, his friends, himself? Will Dom's demise live up to the legend of his life that he creates and perpetuates seemingly more out of duty than desire, or will Dom take some serious critical inventory and set for himself new goals and new direction? Regardless, it's a helluvan entertaining film and one of the best performances of the year from Law, plus Richard Grant is, as always, fantastic. Best moment: the 'my cock' monologue that opens the film really sets the tone nicely.

The Drop - Michael R. Roskam - Bob and Marv run Cousin Marv's, a local mob drop-bar and are under an intense microscope after the place is robbed on collection night. Meanwhile Bob (Tom Hardy) rescues a pitbull with the help of Nadia a neighborhood girl (Noomi Rapace) and ends up the target of her psycho ex-boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts).
With this project Dennis Lehane goes into full Road to Perdition universe Max Allan Collins mode writing a novelization of his screenplay based on his own short story (Animal Rescue), but no matter the true origin of the source material, the film is fully-realized and fleshy draped on the sturdy skeletal structure provided by Hardy and James Gandolfini as Marv's performances. The two big lugs mope and scowl and bitch and wryly observe between themselves with an interpersonal dynamic not fully defined for the audience until the end of the film and it's pretty great to observe. Add to their chemistry the fine supporting cast including John Ortiz, James Frecheville plus the stellar-again Ann Dowd and you've got an atmosphere I love kicking around inside (if you see it and dig it too, do yourself a favor and check out Gravesend by William Boyle). The plot is pretty standard fare, but it doesn't need to be any more flashy because the band is hitting the beats like they mean it and I'm sold. Best moment: Gandolfini buys Schoenaerts a beer.

Easy Money: Life Deluxe - Jens Jonsson - If you're not up on the plot at this point in the series (this is the third and climactic chapter in a trilogy) then I'm not going to spoil it for you. Instead let me just say, holy crap, these films are all great and of a piece (they should be - they're based on a trilogy of books by Jens Lapidus) and they are collectively one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the year. These are future classics, kids and I hope they spawn some more serious-minded epic treatments of international criminal underground for the big screen. Best moment: the heist. Fantastic tension delivered via sticking with the thieves inside for visuals while hearing constant updates from the getaway driver about developments outside simultaneously. Fucking lovely.

God's Pocket - John Slattery - Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a semi-legit businessman and a low-level criminal whose stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is a royal fuckup. When Leon provokes an elderly and seemingly feeble black coworker to fight and ends up dead, nobody at the job site is too upset by the loss and they all follow the foreman's lead by sticking with the accident on the job story he comes up with in order to spare the poor, old-timer unnecessary grief from the white cops. Leon's mother (Christina Hendricks) however is convinced that there's a cover up of some kind and goads her husband and a local celebrity newsman (Richard Jenkins) to investigate the incident leading to tragi-comic results on every front. Can't for the life of me figure out why this one didn't get more play what with the great posthumous performance from Hoffman, the rest of the cast which includes Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Domenick Lombardozzi and Glenn Fleshler, the feature directorial debut of Slattery and the revered source material by Pete Dexter. In a very strong year, it's one of my favorite films and should pick up the following it deserves in years to come. After The Paperboy, it's nice to see so much of the feel of Dexter's voice and tone come through in an adaptation. Best moment: the mob muscles the foreman.

Noise - Matthew Saville - An Australian community is rocked by tragedy in the form of a massacre on a commuter train, and tensions remain high while citizens search for the gunman who presumably resides among them. In the midst of the mess, local constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell) is denied disability leave for his tinnitus and instead given light duty manning a temporary substation set up in a trailer outside a local bar. There he encounters locals - some with paranoid theories, some are drunks and some are community characters that alternately amuse him and try his patience with their peculiar behavior and/or obtuseness. As days pass without resolution, the tension in town escalates and Constable McGahan's tinnitus pushes his sanity further toward the brink. Noise was a recommendation out of left field - I'd never heard of it or Saville, - but after very much enjoying it, I'm anticipating his follow up Felony. Noise is a tense, measured and very human character study that deserves your attention. Best moment: Graham finds his hat.

Ocean's Eleven - Steven Soderbergh - Smooth criminal Daniel Ocean (George Clooney not Frank Sinatra) is paroled and goes to work immediately on his revenge/recovery of his lost love. He recruits a crack team of colorful crime tropes to help him pull off the heist of the century and has a hell of a good time doing it. Basically it's two hours of mugging. But honestly, the muggers are hella good at it. You probably already hate them. Or you love them before they're even introduced. No one will have their pre-loaded opinions changed by this film, but I'm behind Soderbergh and while it's no Out of Sight, I couldn't begrudge he and Clooney the chance to play again and make a whole lotta money. Best moment: it's all one moment.

Peaky Blinders Season 1 - Steven Knight - Soldiers from the frontlines of The Great War return to Birmingham, England and their titular criminal gang (named for the razorblades they keep in the brims of their soft caps for quick, dirty, street fighting) to re-establish their roles and set sights on new goals. The Peaky Blinders happen to be a family-based gang led by middle son Thomas (Cillian Murphy) of the gypsy Shelby clan and in the business of illegal off-track betting and has grand ambitions of achieving the goldest-ring of rackets, 'legit'. Over the course of six episodes the Blinders tackle rival gangs and dodge a brutal special investigator (Sam Neill) fresh from stand-out work crushing Irish dissidents and recruited by Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman) himself. Plot is chewed through at a good pace and attitude is game including the soundtrack which features Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand as the theme song, but doesn't stop there (as say Boardwalk Empire with the Brian Jonestown Massacre opening theme that gives way to period-appropriate music for the rest of the show). No, throughout each episode, we're treated to more modern songs (including several more from Cave) that add to the atmosphere and inform the context for the audience in audacious fashion that's... ballsy. It's a stylistic choice, and a bold one, 'cause you've got to be on your game all the time to keep folks in the scene with anachronistic music choices. But it worked really well for me. Bully for Knight and crew. And let's mention Knight 'cause he's the original attraction for me here. I love his London underground stuff (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Redemption) and Peaky Blinders seems the perfect vehicle for him to get his social history rocks off alongside some pretty stylish and badass genre shit. Sooo happy for this new addition to my must-watch TV especially as Boardwalk Empire takes its leave. Best moment: surprise wedding.

The Untouchables - Brian DePalma - In prohibition-era Chicago Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) rules the city by pleasing everybody who can be and killing everybody who can't. Y'know who can't be pleased? Fuckin' Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) that's who. Guy's a boy scout, incorruptible, unrealistic and dangerously naive. He's going to get a lot of people killed to enforce a silly law. Great historical atmosphere with about zero interest in telling what actually happened. Guess what? I don't fuckin care. It's tits. It's flashy. It's super glossy, ultra violence punctuated by dialogue self-consciously made to adorn iconic posters. So what sets it apart from similar smart-looking, violent junk food like Gangster Squad? For starters, David Mamet. For another, Ennio Morricone. Add conviction and commitment on the part of all involved and yeah, I'm gonna sit down and watch it every time I come across it. Best moment: Battleship Potemkin.

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