Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: January

Calvary - John Michael McDonagh - An irish priest hears the confession of a man who says he was a victim of sexual abuse by a long-dead clergy member as a child and who plans to return in a week's time to kill the 'good' priest (Brendan Gleeson) as an act of vengeance/protest. Thankfully that's about it for plot - the priest spends no screen time pondering the sanctity of the confessional and his duty to keep secret the identity of the confessor (ala A Prayer For the Dying) - instead the soul of the film is the priest wrestling with his sacred duty regarding the well-being of the man who has promised to do him harm. As each day of his potentially final week passes, his faith and character is tested by each of his parishioners in their own fashion and as I steeled myself for the easy and obvious path the, up till then, compelling was surely about to take, I was constantly surprised by its refusal to go for anything trite. Gleeson is a film-making asset of boundless potential and the McDonaghs are proving themselves the most adept at using him for maximum impact. Supporting cast is strong as well. Best moment: Gleeson talks with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) about her recent suicide attempt.

Child of God - James Franco - Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) is about as off-putting a human being as you (or Cormac McCarthy) could dream up. Add up the fucks he gives about personal hygiene, decorum, public decency, private decency or articulate diction all the way to zero and then subtract for poverty, general mental capacity and medieval dentistry and you've got yourself a grade-A social outcast. Lester knows a thing or two about survival and he's just self-conscious enough to understand that he's unlovely, but how long can he live in the woods outside town pilfering the occasional items like chickens and dead folks before the decent folk have had enough and shoot him? It's a peculiarly un-ambitious feeling picture for the stature of the source material, but it's also oddly satisfying in particular moments, though somehow less than cinematic throughout. Franco's directorial style is very similar here to his adaptation of As I Lay Dying - where he let the internal monologues be read directly into the camera to get you into the headspace of each character - only this time it's only Lester all by his lonesome and that, friends is a lot of time to spend with the guy. The film feels most alive when Ballard has other characters to interact with (case in point: the scene where Tim Blake Nelson tries to reason with Lester and gives voice to many of the misgivings the audience feels, when Lester responds he suddenly seems a touch admirable instead of just admirably touched) and if you stick around for the the final fifteen minutes, you'll have some well-earned pay off, though I wouldn't blame you a bit for bailing early. Best moment: all dressed up for a shooting. Doesn't really matter how far away you see it coming, the visual impact is... startling and unnerving.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - George Clooney - Chuck Barris wrote a hit pop-song, created hit television programs and, if his titular memoir is to be believed, a hit-man for the CIA. Director Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman adapt his story from his perspective - none of this maybe he was, maybe he wasn't pussy-footing around the more audacious claims. Nope, every outrageous element is treated with the same gravity as The Gong Show. For his directorial debut, Clooney aimed high with the script, the style - so much great stagecraft and practical effects for fluid one-takes and non-split-screens etc. - and the tone which is comic, absurd, sweet, paranoid, even heartfelt. Damned if it doesn't fire on all cylinders there. At the center of it all is Sam Rockwell as Barris, a goofy hang-dog, horn-dog with the common touch and an uncommon appetite for killing, and the fact that the film holds together at all is a testament to the man's talent and charisma. Plus, shit, the rest of the cast includes Rutger Hauer and the perfect use of Drew Barrymore - man, the scene in the restaurant where she tells the philandering Chuck that she's giving him just one more chance, she's hitting so many notes at once, it's/she's amazing. I love this movie on so many levels. Best moment: East German prisoner exchange.

The Guest - Adam Wingard - The Petersons are an average suburban family mourning the loss of the oldest son, a soldier KIA, when they are visited by the recently discharged David (Dan Stevens) a platoon buddy just passing through. David soon insinuates himself into every aspect of their lives with unclear motivations and shit starts to get weird. It's a fucking shame the trailer gives away as much as it does about the directions this one goes, 'cause your destination is best arrived at cold. As goofy and slight as the picture ends up being, I enjoyed it all the way through mostly for Stevens's presence (he's clearly relishing the opportunity to shake the Downton Abbey stuffiness out of his system) and the script by Simon Barrett which is having as much fun as it hopes you are. Add great little production design touches and a kick-ass, throw-back horror score and you've got a decent way to kill an evening. Best moment: fit hits the shan.

Hard Time Season 1 - National Geographic - A reality show following prisoners and corrections officers doing their day to day in Georgia. Some good color and details` to pick up, but doesn't stand out from a bunch of other television prison and crime documentaries... this one however is narrated by Thurston Moore... so there's that. Best moment: the manhunt.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Kenneth Branagh - Gak! My middle-favorite, middle-brow, middling fictional CIA analyst just shrugged another smidge toward watered-down milquetoastian action hero with half-baked, luke-warm, non-fat, no-foam results! A fairly convincing display of competence without the weight of excitement! If you like your oatmeal flavor straight up in aerosol form, you'll never remember you saw it! Best moment: Yes, there is one - Branagh's baddy's introduction.

The Mule  - Tony Mahoney, Angus Sampson - A first time drug mule is stopped at customs in Melbourne returning from Thailand with twenty condoms full of dope in his guts. He refuses an x-ray and the authorities have the latitude to hold him without charges for seven days. Now he is under house arrest in a hotel room with 24/7 police chaperone and a shitload of will power not to take a crap. Unfortunately his criminal team mates (some of whom are also his football team mates who he was with in Bangkok for a game) are plotzing all over the place, not betting on their man inside or their man's insides - they're offing each other and making plans to off him to cover their asses should he evacuate his. But they should know better. He's the titular character after all, not only a body cavity smuggler, but also possessed of the stubbornness oft attributed to the equidae-family member beast of burden. Wikipedia says of the mule It has been claimed that mules are "more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses" which pretty much sums up Ray (co-writer/director Sampson). The film opens with Ray receiving an award from his team, sort of a MVP thing with the acknowledgement that he's far from the top of the roster - in fact he may not even make the cut next season - but he holds the record for showing up and digging in for the most consecutive games. In other words, kid's got heart. And so does the movie. For as much as the plot description sounds like it precedes a broad comedy, this is a drama with (ahem) guts and a captial-T Thriller with terrific turns from each cast member including Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie and John Noble. It's o-fucking-fficial now, Australian crime flick exports are a better product than the domestic selection overall. Best moment: Ray's mother tries to do what's best for her son.

November Man - Roger Donaldson - International spy and expert killer (Pierce Brosnan) with a tragic past is brought back into the game for one last job, one with a personal element... or two... or more... or, oh hell, it's a fucking big-budget shoot-em-up with movie stars and exotic locale helmed by a journeyman with chops, you know exactly what you're getting into here. Question is, do you care? If you're in the right mood, this one fits the bill nicely. If you're looking for something new, move along. Less a script than a string of proven audience-baiting/pleasing cliches with good looking people in good looking places putting the R-rated violence to each other. Sounds good today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe so again the day after. Side note: the Point Break remake's Johnny Utah, Luke Bracey, is apparently not Sean Bean's son, but he sure could pass for it. Best moment: the splosion.

Out For Justice - John Flynn - Steven Seagal as the least Italian, least cop-like, least giving a shit how the future will judge him (future: like the very next week) so-go-the-fuck-ahead-and-wear-the-oily-pony-tail-with-the-beret-and-the-cut-off-sleeves-and-track-suit-with-your-badge-on-a-lanyard tough guy in a wise-guy's neighborhood would be all five of director Flynn's Five Obstructions if a time-travelling Lars Von Trier had challenged him to make a credible hard-nosed crime flick on par with earlier accomplishments like The Outfit or Rolling Thunder and Flynn, God-bless-him, would take him up on it. Or at least take the money and give it his honest to goodness best shot. The results are every bit as cringeworthy as you'd guess though somehow highly watchable and in the scenes without the star feel like discovering the truth behind the rumors about a forgotten favorite hardboiled urban crime thriller and I enjoyed picturing somebody like Harry Dean Stanton or Robert Duvall or Walter Matthau in the lead as the film played and y'know what? That would've been a pretty decent flick. Best moment: William Forsythe has road rage.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani - A man returns from his travels to find his wife has disappeared from their Paris apartment and he suspects harm has befallen her. That's exactly as far as I'm going to go into the plot because it spirals in several directions at once in a dizzyingly byzantine mythology that springs up around the building itself and what has happened to other tenants. After a while, I just didn't care, frankly, but I'm going to give this one a big fat recommendation if you're up to buy the ticket and take the ride. This is a sumptuously shot trip through psychological horror, erotic suspense and artful trash. It's like somebody gave the film makers a decent budget an abundance of talent, confidence and the charge to make an old-fashioned Brian De Palma/Dario Argento sex thriller. It's gorgeous and creepy and so overwhelmingly rich you'll probably not absorb anything past the first half hour. Which is fine. You'll enjoy the hell out of it in pieces. Best moment: not even gonna try.

Sweetwater - Logan Miller, Noah Miller - A New Mexican homesteading couple (January Jones and Eduardo Noriega) run afoul of a religious cult fronted by Jason Isaacs who is set to take over the territory if he can dodge the blame for a couple of murders that Ed Harris is investigating. I'll give the film this: its heart is in the right place. This flick is out there, a grotesque, weird-western mix of sex, violence and religious psychopathy that could've been great... but wasn't. And the cast is game. Especially Harris, whose long hair somehow is more believable than Isaac's beard and Jones who it seems just jumped at the wrong project to establish a new popular identity after Betty Draper. The problems are in the tone and pacing and atmosphere which just don't hold together, though a handful of moments stand out as testament to what coulda/woulda/shoulda been including the Best moment: Harris carving up Isaac's dinner table.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - David Lynch - Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is doomed to die as anyone who's seen the TV show the film is a cap and prequel to can tell you. The series opens with the discovery of her body famously "Dead. Wrapped in plastic." But knowing the inevitable end of the film and even the how and who and why of it all doesn't make the experience any less effective as a horror film - it only serves to drive home the tragedy. Most importantly though, the film serves as Laura's chance to speak for herself and what she says is... yeah, it's heartbreaking. Nobody should watch frame one of this film unless they've watched the entirety of the the show's approximately 30 episode run (that is until Twin Peaks returns to television next year on Showtime!) because... well, just because. It won't make any sense. It won't make any fans. It won't mean a thing to you. However, having watched the show's entire run multiple times, this film just wrecks me every time out. It's hard to watch and harder to take your eyes off of. I hope Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) returns in 2016. Oh, I hope. Let's Rock! Best moment: the painting on the wall dream sequence.

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Scott Frank - Ex-cop, ex-drunk and current unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) takes on a job for a drug trafficker to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife. Screenwriter/director Frank is the go-to guy for adapting tonally challenging writers (he's had varying degrees of success working from source material by James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick and Charles Willeford) and this one is the best all-around screen representation of material by Lawrence Block yet (the second time Scudder's been seen after Jeff Bridges had the role in 8 Million Ways to Die), but the material remains tricky, slipping traditional movie structures and beats like it doesn't give a fuck. And I suspect it doesn't. Bully for it. What emerges then feels odd at times - the pov switches occasionally and comes back to Scudder's when it feels like it - but only if you think of it as by-the-numbers blockbuster fare. Plus, it's a moody fucker. It's dark. Darker and less action-packed than the type of hardboiled histrionics Neeson's been lending his visage to of late anyhow. It feels like the role he's been looking for, three grades above and a sidestep away from what he's been making his tough guy bones doing. This is the series that should get three installments, guys... not fucking Taken. Best moment: Scudder's job interview. His no-bullshit acknowledgement of corruption is hard-learned from years in AA.

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