Thursday, January 4, 2018

2017 Honorable Mentions

Last post I talked up my favorite ten crime flicks from 2017 and, like every year, it included a lot of obvious choices, but I like to follow up with the 11-20 slots 'cause hisotically that's where I can get into a few that may've slipped through the cracks. This year a bunch of big budget mainstream fare ended up here, but hey, that's no complaint. Again, not all are 2016 releases, but all of these are recent small or foreign flicks and they were all first-viewed last year. In alphabetical order.

Age of ShadowsKim Jee-woon- Gorgeous Korean resistance period drama that would make a swell companion to Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows or even Ang Lee's Lust Caution. Don't go into it looking for the type of bonkers action we've been getting from the gangster pictures though this one does have a pretty stunning action set-piece in the middle, instead settle in for a damned handsome picture with measured pace and terrible consequences.

Atomic BlondeDavid Leitch - All style. Not a complaint. Holy crap is this a gorgeous picture. To quibble over confusing or possibly nonsensical plot elements is to have missed the point entirely. As a mere impeccable assemblage of aesthetic choices it's admirable, but as an achievement in execution it is often breathtaking.

Baby Driver Edgar Wright - Surprisingly straight-forward crime flick from Wright who's made a career out of genre tinkering and trope subversion, but I ain't complaining. Of course it is hyper-stylized and ridiculous, but its commitment to having a good time all the time trumps any potential picked nits. If all crime flicks were this glossy and bubble-gum sticky/sweet I'd be sick of it pretty quick, but executed on this high a level, I'm more than happy to indulge in as overtly a fantasy of a crime picture as this one is today.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 -  S. Craig Zahler - After the amazing job Zahler did creating a low-budget high-intensity horror/western in Bone Tomahawk and the wonderfully nutso vibe of the trailer for his crime flick follow-up featured shorn-headed Vince Vaughn beating up a car with his bare hands I was primed for something unhinged. Happy to report that just like Bone Tomahawk this one features some absolutely jaw-dropping violence - just nasty, snapping, crushing, crunching, slicy, spicy action that elicited many a delighted/horrified squeal from my blood-lusty self. The tone is a tricky one and I mostly enjoyed being a little off-balance, but it goes from blue-collar family drama to B-crime movie straight on into some super-gnarly exploitation prison fare (which, I believe, is where its heart truly lies) and not all of them fully succeed. The film opens with Vaughn's character being laid off a job he really needs, then coming home early to find his wife Jennifer Carpenter is cheating on him. Dude is pissed and the rising violence percolating beneath his surface makes us nervous for his co-workers and especially his wife when he angrily tells her to go inside the house and wait for him. Then comes the car beating scene and what follows is the first hint that Zahler is up to more than your average exploitation movie-making. Vaughn and Carpenter's post-cheating revelation conversation is some unexpected character shit that points to promising things both for writer Zahler and actor Vaughn. Unfortunately the real payoff, if it comes, will probably be in other projects because while an interesting pause beat in the drama, it's not really followed through with by exploring the interesting relationship further (it doesn't have to, I just hoped it would). It does lead to more upending of audience expectations of Vaughn's character though - and I fuckin appreciate that (the other best example is when he switches sides in the middle of a fight). We progress from there into my least-favorite element of the film - the crime movie. Least favorite because in every other situation Vaughn's character proves himself an independent operator with an interesting moral code and superior level of competence. Why this guy would work for the boss he works for as a criminal just boggles my mind. Vaughn is clearly the more intelligent, level-headed and respectable, yet finds his life utterly fucked (and therefore his budding family's too - the supposed reason he's demeaning himself with a life of crime in the first place) because of his boss's short-sightedness and greed. Then, late in the game he makes a play in cooperation with the same shit-bag crime boss and the dynamic seems much more like neighborhood bros forever than stand-up guy calling in a fraction of the chit he's owed by a sheltered, privileged scumbag whose life goes on uninterrupted and doesn't appear the least bit cowed by the consequences of his actions heaped upon his best guy's family. It rang false or at the very least extremely frustrating to me. With all the other bold and strong choices made by Zahler and Vaughn, whose performance is overly mannered and stilted to the exact degree that his character would be (the more I sit with it, the more I like what he was doing here), I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they did exactly what they wanted to do rather than believe it was a mistake or mis-calculation or simple under-executed piece of the overall vision. I'm sure I will revisit this film repeatedly and it may smooth out or vex me further. Thankfully, then we move on to the meatiest part of the film - the prison bit. We start with a pretty straight up hard time picture, but very early switch gears into fucking extreme exploitation action movie gnarliness with the always welcome Udo Kier introducing us to a plotline John Carpenter would've made one of his greatest movies out of in the early eighties - Vaughn's pregnant wife has been abducted and will suffer an ugly as hell fate if Vince doesn't get himself transferred to a specific super-max facility and murder another inmate who is kept within a secret prison within a prison run by the sadistic always leather-gloved Don Johnson and he's got to do it super quick. From here the movie is pure fucking pleasure as he starts and finishes prison fight after prison fight escalating the awful like he's in a video game until he is dishing out just outrageously awesomely gross physical damage to body after body inside a high-pulp torture factory with floors of broken glass and vests that deliver random incapacitating electric shocks. By the time he's decapitating some motherfucker on the jagged edge of a literal shit hole it's reached a level of go-for-broke gross out violence that few American made action pictures with movie stars ever get to. And that, friends, makes spending time with this sorta unsufferable character way worthwhile. Zahler and Vaughn give the character the sort of irritating national pride and self-righteousness most likely born of having a father or uncle who went to 'Nam, that's common in say your average Michael Bay leading man, but make you sit with him in such an uncomfortable proximity, his mostly terrible taste and personal aesthetic that would be an endearing punchline for a handful of scenes in a more mainstream movie, is instead presented without irony and believably similar to the way I appreciate Steven C. Miller's suburban dude bro characters with their shiny black pick up trucks and crisp ball caps over some of the overly earnest feints at "authenticity" in your average art house rural plight drama. We have every reason to believe he's got a Nickelback tune on repeat in his head while pumping himself up for the coming violence - mercifully, we're spared enduring it.

Free Fire - Ben Wheatley - The pitch - a group of ne'er do wells of various stripe converge in an awesomely non-descript industrial harbor warehouse to do an arms deal. Predictably within this assemblage of egos some are more volatile/fragile than others and by the time a spark lands in the gasoline swamp of toxic masculinity even the splinter cells disintegrate and it's everybody for themselves with nothing but a big pile of money in the middle of a giant cache of weapons. It's a free for all. The shootout starts less than half an hour into the movie and takes up the rest of the run time and it manages to continue with plot reveal and dialogue as everybody is shot, stabbed and throttled for the rest of their lives. Remarkably, the most up-front violent premise of Wheatley's body of work features his most polished, easily digestible onscreen violence. Thankfully, it's all funny as hell with Armie Hammer and Brie Larson emerging as the MVPs out of a cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor and Patrick Bergin. You may find the non-stop gunshots and cursing monotonous and you'd be forgiven for that - it's kind of the point - but I loved the de-evolution of the cast into crawling, limping bags of blood and shit becoming increasingly petty and vicious absolute pleasure. The longer the action drags out, the more stubborn and entrenched the actors become the harder and deeper I laughed. I especially enjoyed the slow speed chase of Taylor pursuing Larson - both crawling on their elbows and shooting indiscriminately at the other for...ever. Maybe my favorite chase sequence of the year.

In Order of DisappearanceHans Petter Moland - When Norwegian snowplow driver Stellan Skarsgård's son dies of a drug overdose his parental spidey-sense tingles as he can't recall his boy ever being particularly in to heroin. Since nobody else will he takes it upon himself to dig deeper into the death and by the time he's found the criminals who killed his son he's enmeshed himself in a multi-national gang war and will prove to be an unexpectedly resilient and persistent fly in the ointment in this comedic bloodbath. Particularly enjoyable amidst the snow and carnage is the slow-burn frustration of Pål Sverre Hagen's vegan crime boss The Count as his business goes to shit and the infidelity to his strict plans for his young son's immaculate, organic existance demonstrated by every subordinate and ex-wife. Kristofer Hivju and Bruno Ganz are the most recognizable faces among the doomed cast and the title refers to the mounting body count.

John Wick Chapter 2Chad Stahelski - This sequel dives deeper into the most intriguing elements of the original, exponentially expanding the weird underworld and going overboard on arresting visuals, long-take fight scenes and the literal spray of blood on the walls of an art museum - yeah, we get it and can't get enough of it, this is capital-A mainstream art. The murder montages escalate and vary in style, bouncing off each other like luridly painted billiard balls on a mirrored surface. It's trippy and drippy and good for what ails ya.

No Tears For the Dead - Lee Jeong-beom - East meets west in this Korean action pic that fuses sensibilities with mixed results. Yeah, the introduction of guns to the mix (and the plot - it's about American black market weapons finding their way across the world) pays off in some great shootouts, but also limits some of what has been so distinctly other about K-crime flicks this century - the lack of guns on the street meaning the gangsters have to hack each other to pieces with knives and hatchets. Also the introduction of English-speaking actors underlines what a B-production/premise it is (something often effectively masked by having to read subtitles), but holy crap there are still at least three very satisfying action sequences to love here and I hope Jeong-boom's next effort, Bad Police, reveal him to be a talent to watch.

Raman Raghav 2.0Anurag Kashyap - The connection between a compromised policeman and the killer he is chasing is slowly revealed in the neon-grunge of Mumbai. The enigmatic performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman, a modern day killer who takes inspiration from a real serial murderer from the 1960s whose first name he shares, is the most compelling reason to watch this one, but the atmosphere generated and sustained by Kashyap's camera and excellent locales sure help.

Shimmer LakeOren Uziel - The sheriff of a small town leads a manhunt for three bank robbers one of whom is his brother. Another Netflix original I went into blind and really enjoyed for three reasons. First, the tone. While it is dosed with plenty of humor, it isn't a comedy - the violent and tragic elements are given straightforward treatment and work just as well as the comedic bits. Second, the structure. The story is told in reverse over the course of three days and the decision to tell it that way pays off in numerous small ways without feeling like the ultimate revelation is gimmicky or a big let down - again, the tone is key here - it's a fairly unassuming picture unlike work by oh... Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan where you're looking hard for the key for the whole run time and the ultimate success of the film rests on the delivery of that final detail. Third, the cast. Solid ensemble, but holy shit I need Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston to make many, many more appearances as their B-team FBI agents.

1 comment:

mtm said...