Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 in Crime Flicks: Honorable Mentions

'71Yann Demange - A young British soldier is separated from his squad and spends a harrowing night hunted on the streets of Belfast in the year of Our Lord 1971. Jack O'Connell follows up his electrifying turn in last year's Starred Up with another emotionally rich performance at the center of an exhaustingly tense film. And Demange has crafted the rare movie that works as a thriller and as the machine that generates empathy. He hasn't stripped politics from the story entirely, but has chosen rather to focus on the human beings living in the tension of the day to day reality policy makers can afford to ponder from a comfortable remove. Something like a cross between Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, this one is a contender for year's end honors, solidified my admiration for O'Connell and given me a new name to get fucking excited over in Demange. Best moment: the riot is terrifying.

Black MassScott 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.

Black Sea - Kevin McDonald - What ever happened to the adventure movie? Why don't we see more fare like this? A dirty dozen of out of work sailors put together a crew in a hurry to recover Nazi gold from the bottom of the ocean under the nose of various world governments. It's a dangerous, dirty job, but the recovery is the least of their problems - once recovered, can they survive each other? Damn, this one was a breath of fresh air. Great cast - Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy and Michael Smiley and a crew of 'that guy' faces. Great premise. Great looking small-scale, large-scale adventure/thriller. I want more. Best moment: just the shot of the whole crew riding a bus on the way to the job - everybody lost in silent contemplation of their lot or goal or absolutely nothing - they got me. Probably haven't responded to a sequence like that since I saw Reservoir Dogs as a teenager.

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 film 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.

The Connection - Cedric Jimenez - While Popeye Doyle was pontificating upon a plethora of perps' penchants for Poughkeepsie toe-picking, his Parisian counterpart Pierre (Jean Dujardin) applied pressure a'plenty to persons protecting the proverbial heroin pyramid's pointy pinnacle (Gilles Lellouche). Nothing particularly innovative or new in this sweeping procedural - just gorgeous film making that feels (to borrow an Andrew Nette-ism) like noir comfort food. Best moment: Dujardin and Lellouche get their De Niro/Pacino roadside confrontation.

The Gift - Joel Edgerton - Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play a couple starting a new life in L.A. when they run into Gordo (writer/director Edgerton), an awkward and unwelcome reminder of their past. The beats are sometimes predictable, but play well and solidly carrying the viewer effortlessly toward an unpleasant end. The psycho stalker genre doesn't get an overhaul, but it does have a potent new entry that satisfies by going big and surprises by treating its subject matter and characters seriously. The pleasure of this one is in the skillful way sympathies are traded and betrayed among the cast throughout and Bateman especially deserves a nod for bringing new shades to his onscreen persona. The ending is satisfying on several levels and leaves room for many interpretations as to who 'won' without being frustratingly ambiguous (everybody loses is probably the best way to put it).  Best moment: the final shot - it's a rare pleasure that a swell set-up sticks the landing and keeps it nasty. I was afraid it was going to over do it actually, but the look on Bateman's face grounds what could have been an over the top moment and the character's existential despair is delicious.
A Hard Day - Seong-hoon Kim - Terrific entry in the worst-day-of-your-life genre from South Korea. Sun-kyun Lee plays Go, a dirty cop, who must scramble to cover his tracks and salvage everything he can as his career and life in general take the express train to shit-town. Best moment: Go kills a man on the way to his mother's funeral and has to hide the body in the coffin with mom. It's the movie in a nutshell - fast-paced, inventive, absurdly funny and a solid thriller all around.

Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson - When his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up out of the blue to enlist his help, hippie detective Doc Sportellow (Joaquin Phoenix) puts every ounce of his will and cunning into the case. Unfortunately Doc's will and cunning are both measured in ounces and keep him running smooth and aloof and slightly untethered from reality. The purple haze that envelops Doc blows him around 1970 L.A. into all the best bits of paranoid conspiracy tales - sex, drugs, celebrity and smuggling. The sooner you ditch the plot the more you'll enjoy the ride. It's so ridiculously Byzantine and looped through its own asshole, you'll get whiplash if you hold on too tight. Deconstruction or parody? Easy target or easy viewing? Not sure I understand its place in Anderson's ouevre and pretty sure I don't care. The cast is so damn much fun I look forward to many subsequent viewings. Phoenix plays off each insanity embodied by a character actor like he's the silver sphere in a pinball machine and never worse for the ware. Course you can't escape comparisons to other genre deconstructions like The Big Lebowski and I'd throw Cold Weather in there as well, but Vice is more ethereal and less weighty than either and evaporates off your brainpan super quick. Best moment: Doc and Bigfoot bullshit. Special consideration goes to Josh Brolin for standing out this far in such a stellar cast. He is the funny.

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.

The Strange Taste 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.

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