Sunday, May 31, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: April

The Anderson Tapes - Sidney Lumet - Sean Connery plays the titular character a safe-cracker just out of prison and looking to put together a caper. He wants to knock over his girlfriend's entire upscale NYC apartment building for the high-end art, collectibles, antiques and cash caches. It's ambitious, ballsy, brazen, really and it's gonna take planning and most of all big front end money. Anderson hits up the local organized crime syndicate, in whose employ he he was caught and spent the next 10 years in prison, goading them into financing his score. Seems they've become like any other boring money making corporation and Anderson's enthusiasm and hutzpah are contagious - are we criminals or accountants? Adapted from the best selling novel by Lawrence Sanders it's not one of Lumet's most memorable NYC-centric crime flicks, but when you're up against Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, jeez, that's hardly a knock. It's a modest picture that succeeds and fails scene by scene. A solid cast, including the big screen debut of Christopher Walken, help the rough spots go down easy and keeps the whole thing a positive experience. Best moment: the tapes of the title are those on which Anderson and his team show up stumbling across multi-agency ongoing extra-legal domestic spying operations, and when you consider that the movie dropped into theaters before the Watergate scandal it makes for probably the most interesting touch of the whole she-bang. The final fate of said tapes elevates the picture to a slightly higher plane.

Cold Weather - Aaron Katz - When Doug (Cris Lankenau) a bright, white twenty-something moves back to Portland to live with his equally bright and white sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), after dropping out of college, he lands a promising overnight job at an ice factory where he strikes up an acquaintance with a co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) and they bond over shitty work and Sherlock Holmes novels. After Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) shows up unexpectedly and re-connects she just as abruptly drops off the map and the sibling and the co-worker look into her mysterious absence. I've heard this flick described as mumble-core noir which is pretty much right on the nose and a dis-service at the same time. It's a genre-deconstruction that addresses, among other things, the mindset needed to be a detective - you have to care a little bit and be tenacious and willing to look foolish - plus the fact that it helps if you've got nothing else really going on in your life and the economic freedom to pursue your whims. Doug is a bit like the anti- Bruce Wayne - not wealthy, per-se, but still privileged enough to not feel any particular urgency to generate income - which frees him up to abandon a job in order to play a hunch. The film doesn't take any stance on whether Doug's mindset or position are a strength or weakness, but acknowledges both view-points through other characters. The film meanders and takes a while to get to the investigation proper, but once there hits genre beats and delves into familiar tropes like stakeouts, pornographers, ridiculously complex coded messages and mysterious men in hats carrying briefcases, but Katz handles suspense and action sequences effectively bringing us into the heart of the scene and character's mindset regardless our opinion of or investment in the stakes of the big picture (it would make an interesting double feature with Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice which more or less does the exact same thing, but dissects the genre corpse from the other side)... begging the question - are mysteries as entertainment inherently silly or is there some root value in the act of and predilection for inquisition? Best moment: the final scene is pretty brilliant. I'd say divisive, but folks not on board with this flick's premise probably won't make it to the conclusion.

The Devil's Rejects - Rob Zombie - Remember that psycho redneck Firefly family who live in The House of 1,000 Corpses? They reminded you of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre clan only less pragmatically cannibalistic and merely single-mindedly sadistic? Well they're back engaging in more cruelty for pleasure and this time rather than being the monsters who ensnare a group of young travelers, they're the ones on the run from justice or at least the law - in the form of an equally sadistic police force headed up by Sheriff Wydell (the awesomely utilized William Forsythe). Zombie pulls off an insanely difficult stunt here by making the systematic dispatching of the worst human beings in imagination hurt just a little. You won't believe your feels when you choke up to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird climax or the way The Allman BrothersMidnight Rider puts you squarely in the corner of Otis and Baby (Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie respectively) as they make their escape. Set and costume design play a more important role in the characters' development than anything they say (some of the dialogue feels improvised in a detrimental way) and Zombie's southern hellscape is as fully realized, lived in and familiar yet exotic a setting as you could hope for. The sheer ugliness of the dudes and deeds presented here are the exquisitely rotten fruits of a lifetime's labor at tradecraft and meticulously cultivated taste and The Devil's Rejects will most likely be Zombie's masterpiece of exploitation cinema. As usual he's assembled a murderer's row of onscreen talent (many cameos) each one feeling like a statement (Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Ginger Lynn Allen, Tom Towles, Kane Hodder, Steve Railsback, Diamond Dallas Page, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes, Danny Trejo, Brian Posehn, Ken Foree, Tyler Mane and the late Matthew McGory - to whom the movie is dedicated). Tough to watch, over the top with blood and nudity, occasionally funny, sometimes groovy, and often flat-out unpleasant, it doesn't get more ghastly than this. Best moment: the aforementioned Free Bird scored climax is better than it deserves to be.

The Fast & the Furious - Rob Cohen - An officer of the law goes undercover into an underworld of extreme-sports to infiltrate a tight band of thrill-seeking thieves loyal to a charismatic cult-leader. So, basically it's Point Break. Just substitute street-racing-hijackers headed by Vin Diesel for surfer-bank-robbers led by Patrick Swayze and it's the exact same thing. Of course the series has outgrown its (Tapping the) Source material and evolved into its own over the top action franchise that's a little bit The A-Team and a little bit James Bond... it's like Diesel and Cohen got their XXX franchise after all - though the franchise didn't come into its own until Justin Lin got his hands on it. Still, I'm a fan of what its become and don't begrudge it its meager roots. Best moment: failed heist.

The Homesman - Tommy Lee Jones - Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy a tough and resourceful woman homesteader in the unforgiving west whose best qualities - those that allow her independence - are the same that keep her from finding a partner - her propositions of marriage to various men are repeatedly rebuffed on grounds that she is plain and bossy. In her small prairie community three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) have succumbed to madness due to harshness of their environs (natural and relational) and  need to be transported to a home where they can be looked after. Mary Bee is the only citizen with enough sand to take on the job, but she is outmatched by her task and takes on the reluctant help of a claim-jumper (director Jones) whose life she spares on the condition of his aid. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, Jones's sophomore directorial effort has more than just a little in common with his debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (but that's a good thing) and points tantalizingly at the future and timbre of his directorial voice. Like Three Burials it is a western of harsh beauty, full of poetry, grace and grim humor, seasoned with tragedy and stark violence served up in unexpected order, maximizing the impact of each ingredient. It is also measured in pace and quiet (until it is not) and is most assuredly best appreciated in a single sitting, so I'd recommend not starting it until you've cleared enough space and summoned enough energy to take it in one go. Amazing cast too, including John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Barry Corbin, Meryl Streep, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and Hailey Steinfeld. Best moment: Jones sets a fire.

The Hunted - William Friedkin - Tommy Lee Jones plays another variation on his gruff, federal man-hunter this time charged with tracking a soldier (Benicio Del Toro as someone he trained - of course) who's taken up hunting hunters in the wooded Pacific Northwest as a passtime. The leaps in logic and swiss cheese plot are ultimately, (but just barely) forgiven for cutting tedious corners to arrive at the climactic knife fight, which is implausible and silly, but doesn't skimp on the pain (stabbed through the armpit - damn). Best moment: the um climactic knife fight.

Maps to the Stars - David Cronenberg - A mysterious woman (Mia Wasikowska) who connects the dots between a slew of nefarious Hollywood characters returns home bringing with her justice, vengeance and karmic completion to a series of interlocking narratives and overlapping realities. Not crime per se, but noir as fuck. I swear you watch this one and Mulholland Drive and last year's Enemy back to back to back and you've got a humdinger of a thesis paper ready to be plucked. Written by Bruce Wagner it blends familiar satiric fare with murky logic for a retread of a remake of an impression of a dream you read about. Cast is solid, but no one more so than Julianne Moore and special recognition to Evan Bird whose character I've heard described as the worst among the bad by many, but honestly I found the most empathy for. Best moment: Moore and Wasikowska dance.

A Most Violent Year - J.C. Chandor - Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) a business man in NYC 1981 is fighting to save his heating oil company and secure his family's future by taking on an ambitious expansion that would give him a leg up in a hotly competitive business. As he puts his fortune and future on the line he becomes the target of violent intimidation tactics and must scramble to keep ahead of his creditors, his competition and a sweeping corruption investigation into his industry. As his name rather heavy-handedly suggests, he is both an able and moral man and not going to take shortcuts or resort to violence to settle his problems. Terrific looking period production, a nicely measured pace and a solid supporting cast including Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Allesandro Nivola, Glenn Fleshler, Ben Rosenfield and a stand out turn from David  Oyelowo make it not a bad way to pass a couple of hours, but ultimately can't elevate the picture to the next level. A lot of hand-wringing and built-up tension never explodes and instead dissipates gradually leaving little impression. Classy, just not instant classic. Best moment: the second hijacking sequence that ends in a shootout and chase is handled very well. I loved the stairway exchange between parties fleeing the police.

Natural Born Killers - Oliver Stone - Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are thrill-killers tearing up the American southwest on a murder spree and enjoying an international spotlight, spinning their story while various elements attempt to use the deadly duo to promote their own legends - Robert Downy Jr.'s sleazy television journalist Wayne Gale, Tommy Lee Jones's prison warden Dwight McClusky and Tom Sizemore's hotshot cop Jack Scagnetti who wants to write a book about how he brought the Knox's down. Stone is still in his acid-editing phase and, compared to what's followed in the last couple of decades, the flick now looks like it was cut with a dull cleaver. That doesn't completely kill the impact of certain sequences - Micky & Mallory in their car as if on a private house of horrors ride, the mixing of animation is potent and the I Love Mallory sitcom bits are still pretty brilliant and effective. This is high-gloss, A-List grindhouse fare that gets a little confused when it takes aim at satire and social commentary, but rocks the hell out of a handful of key notes. It's fun at times, but the intended bite doesn't leave any marks. It's still a nod and a wink. Compare this to something like Rob ZombiesThe Devil's Rejects and it's easy to separate the real thing from the homage. Best moment: Wayne goes nuts during the prison riot.

Terriers - Ted Griffin - I've covered this one before, but this is probably the first time I've ever gone back and rewatched an entire season of television. It's that good. It's that missed. It's that unique that there wasn't anything else I could find to scratch my itch. That comes down to the writing and the chemistry between Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as the ex cop and ex con private investigations duo. And jeez lookit some of the directing talent here: John Dahl, Craig Brewer, Rian Johnson, Clark Johnson, Guy Ferland and Adam Arkin - great mix of feature auteurs and television craftsmen. I should also note that though it was serialized TV that left plenty of space for future seasons of story, it is a rather perfectly contained single storyline season with a terrific ending.

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