Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks

Black Mass - Scott Cooper - The story of the unholy alliance between south Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and the FBI through handler and all-grown-up-now southie kid agent John Connolly (who grew up idolizing Bulger as a neighborhood legend) is one so ripe with amazing elements, larger than life characters and too bizarre not to be true details, it could be told a half dozen ways with as many different focuses to make a compelling story. The direction taken here seems to be the focus of most of the criticism I've seen leveled at the film and each time seems to say more about the critic than the film as made. Yes it is a violent tale of violence and more violence violently shot for both shock and titillation the enjoyment of which clearly makes folks uncomfortable especially when considering the recent real events it's based upon - how many family members and those victims are still alive and hurting? Which... is a legitimate question of taste and decision making on the part of the film makers, but entirely beside the point when discussing the merits of the film making. Should we enjoy this movie seems to be the question at the heart of most reviews I've seen. What I'm going to say is - I enjoyed this movie whether I should have or not. Another prevalent criticism of the film is the lack of arc to (Johnny Depp as) Bulger's character - yeah, there's exactly none - which tempts us to treat Joel Edgerton's Agent Connolly as a tragic figure central character here and make it his movie. While equal screen time is given to the two characters the film is clearly Depp/Bulger's and the treatment is similar to that given John Dillinger in Public Enemies. Nope - no development in either, they're not biopics. They're also not thrillers per se. There's no tension in either film about the outcome or the fates of major characters, the films both just re-enact juicy moments from the story and invite you to bring your knowledge or ignorance of those events and characters with you. It's also not a cry of outrage about corruption and or incompetence in government - there's almost zero attention paid to Benedict Cumberbatch's other Bulger brother Billy and there is no Feeb leading a clean-up crusade (Corey Stoll gets a very minor bit). What it is... is more a horror flick than a noir with Depp as the monster at the center. It's also damned good-looking. Like Out of the Furnace, Cooper's last film, this one looks fantastic. Also like Furnace, this one has a top-notch cast - though, this time around I feel they're given more to do. Fucking Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi shines brightest and both Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks steal a scene or two, and Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson each get a memorable scene. Best moment: Bulger strangles an inconvenient woman while Flemmi watches helpless, horrified and heart-broken. I could have spent an entire film with Cochrane's tortured face.

Enemy of the State - Tony Scott - Will Smith's Robert Dean isn't exactly a Hitchcockian everyman ensnared in some fucked little government cover up - he's a fairly smart and ballsy guy already fighting the good fight as a lawyer against the bad guys in the form of Tom Sizemore's mobster at the beginning of the film - but he is randomly linked to the assassination of a congressman and as, a result, has his life systematically destroyed and eventually becomes a target for elimination from shadowy bad guy Jon Voight and his cabal of up and coming comedians (Jack Black, Seth Green, Jamie Kennedy) and famous person's offspring with crazy hair (Jake Busey, Scott Caan). He enlists the help of a shadow warrior straight out of an Andrew Vachss novel played by Gene Hackman in a nod to his role in The Conversation in order to survive and turn the tables on his antagonists. The movie feints at being about privacy in a surveillance state, but works best on its surface level as a tech-heavy chase movie. It's Scott working at the peak of his populist powers and aside from outdated technology and some of Smith's "funny lines", holds up pretty well as a North by Northwest-ish action flick. Hackman is always worth his salary and it's fun looking at how many faces are in this thing (the afore-mentiond plus Gabriel Byrne, Lisa Bonet, Regina King, Barry Pepper, Jason Lee, James Le Gros, Anna Gunn, Loren Dean). Best moment: probably the bloodier than remembered clusterfuck shootout finale. Scott must've figured nobody went to see True Romance and it was so much fun the first time around. It's not as good as the True Romance shootout - not by a long shot - but it was so satisfying to watch Busey and Caan catch theirs. I am just that small.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst Andrew Jarecki - Having seen Jarecki's dramatized narrative film of the same story (All Good Things with Ryan Gosling in the Durst-like role) I was not surprised by any of the remarkable twists the story takes - which is a shame because they're doozies and I imagine I'd have been even more invested in this documentary version had I not seen them coming. What the long-form six-part version had for me was more in-depth exploration of the story's many interesting facets and interviews with major players and of course the face to face between Durst and Jarecki. Fascinating figure. Great story. Best moment: the reveal of Durst's on the lam look.

Lila & Eve - Charles Stone III - Viola Davis plays Lila, a single mother of two boys doing her best. Her life begins to fall apart when the elder son is killed in a random act of street violence. She meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez) at a support group for parents of murdered children and the two mourning mothers develop a bond. Tired of perceived apathetic policing and ineffectual feelings-probing in the support group, Lila & Eve begin their own investigation into Lila's son's murder as a means of therapy. It leads immediately to violence that only increases with each new step the investigation prompts them to take. Before you know it's a vigilante flick with ever-escalating moral stakes and body count. Both Davis and Lopez give solid performances and are supported by the likes of Shea Whigham and Andre Royo. Unfortunately what begins as a compelling character piece with interesting conflict and motives all around takes a cheap and completely unnecessary left turn that squanders good will it earned early on. A mis-step in my estimation that could probably be fixed with a little clever editing when the masses demand a Ridley Scott-esque director's cut. Still, not nearly as bad as you think a low-budget Jennifer Lopez vehicle is going to be. Mild recommendation - mostly for the pleasure of Davis and Lopez's  early scenes. Best moment: every time it's Shea Whigham vs. Viola Davis on screen.

The Loveless - Kathryn Bigelow, Monty Montgomery Willem Dafoe plays Vance, an ex-con, grease-monkey cowboy riding his Harley Davidson across the face and into every orifice of 1950s America. When he and a bunch of other bikers making a pilgrimage to Daytona stop in a sleepy southern town you'd best believe their presence causes a stir. Everybody stares, everybody ogles, everybody envies and fears them in equal measure just as the gang resents and revels in their outsider status simultaneously. The film creates an uneasy, but electric atmosphere and is largely an exercise in sustained tone with fetishized attention to costumes and sets, props and music - the devil is in the details and eventually he will emerge. Their presence is a smoldering cigarette in the repressed gas-pump of a town and it's only a matter of time before shit combusts. Imagine Dafoe as William Holden in Picnic as much as Marlon Brando in The Wild One floating in the atmosphere of Rumble Fish and Blue Velvet by way of Scorpio Rising. It's hot. Best moment: the lights get low, the music gets loud and the clothes start to peel - the heat and humidity and pent-up carnality start to get scary.

Narcos Season 1 - Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, Doug Miro - The rise of cocaine empires through the 1980s from the perspectives of police, politicos, salesmen and soldiers. Its high body count, large cast and sprawling storyline make it a challenging sell, but imagine pitching this shit with the kicker "Oh yeah, and almost no white people! Aaand mostly not in English!" Good luck getting that shit made, pal. If I had a dream team to put it together it'd have to include Jose Padhila too. So guess what? I hear your complaints about Narcos, and they're legit, but there's too much for me to be exited about to write this show off. First: the material is so good, so ripe, so begging to be a long-form drama, but the ambition it took to condense it into a cohesive narrative and to take it in such big chunks is impressive. Second, how amazing is it that a production this big on this mainstream a platform has mostly non-white actors speaking Spanish? Third, Wagner Moura as fucking Pablo Escobar. Yeah. Fourth... well, mostly let's just go back to the first point in bold print. As for the drawbacks: first, that voiceover is pretty bad. I'm not a 'no voice-over ever' guy, and I do think it helps in a story this big, and I don't think it's entirely inexcusable here. They're nakedly grasping at a Goodfellas vibe, but yeah, the dude doing the voice over (Boyd Holbrook) is pretty bland, and he's your chief POV character. Which ties into drawback number two - the gringo cast is mostly oof just not great. The show'd have been better to cut out all scenes of domesticity between Holbrook and Joanna Christie who's given nothing to do (and I suspect these two couldn't make sparks with a quarry full of flint and dry gunpowder). Third, I don't know if it's the digital cameras or what, but so much of the set design and make up looks chintzy and cardboard and laughable - especially when compared to the terrific outdoor locations where half of the action takes place. I'm sure to do a production this size you've got to cut costs where you can, but ouch. The ping-ponging quality of the production and acting make for a little motion sickness and breaking of the willful suspension of disbelief, but again, I think the pros outweigh the cons. To end on a positive note - Pedro Pascal stands out in every scene he's paired with his blond partner and Luis Guzman is always worth having around, so hey, maybe this show course corrects in its second season and becomes something outstanding. Best moment: Escobar in parliament. 

Night & the City - Jules Dassin - Richard Widmark plays Harry, a small-time grifter who works hustling tourists for club in London who's tired of being small and jumps at what he sees is his golden opportunity to make himself a big deal in town. He goes around town from burnt bridge to bled-out stone rifling through his contacts looking for help with his grand plans. At each turn he's met by characters happy to see him dangle and twist and Widmark's task over the course of the picture is to win us over as well, something -remarkably- he does. His desperation is the driving force of the picture and it's an engine of uncommon power - he's doing the noir loser clutching at success as well as anybody. Dassin, possibly my favorite director of films noir, admitted that he never read the source novel by Gerald Kersh, and neither have I. Dassin's film is terrific and enduring and the source material sounds like my cup of tea... so I'm curious to see the Richard Price-penned, and presumably more faithful, 1992 adaptation starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange and find out for myself why it disappeared so completely. Best moment: the brawl.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For - Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller - Um. It really is impossible to care about anything happening in the story. It's convoluted, cliched and hypnotically dull. But it is not at all a waste. It is visually amazing. Every frame is a painting. It's sleek and stylish and not just doing the same tricks the first one did - Rodriguez and Miller have added some new moves to their playbook and I imagine I'll half-watch this one a few more times just for the pleasure of the images and editing. Don't ask me though, I have no idea what happened. Best moment: the Eva Green in the swimming pool bit is stunning.

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