Monday, February 12, 2018

2017 in the Aughts pt. 1

American Gangster - Ridley Scott - I'm not really sure what the upside of Denzel Washington as Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas splitting more or less equal screen time with Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts was in the pitch meetings - I mean Washington's return to center frame as a bigger than life crime flick villain after his Training Day Oscar nab sounds like more than enough to bankroll a movie on, and who knows how the all-Frank version of the movie would've turned out, but what we ended up with is really pretty good. Richie's stuff is the lesser half, it's no The French Connection, but still it works (and could work as its own feature). Not sure why this one isn't better remembered - I, for one, would love to see Scott spend the rest of his career on this kind of crime fare - as a fast-working technician he's peerless and certainly doesn't seem to have trouble attracting top-shelf talent - and frankly he can and does get away with making some ballsy calls on big budget stories (I mean who else could've pulled off grim-ass shit like The Counselor on the level he did?). Cast includes Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, RZA, Ted Levine, Carla Gugino, Ruby Dee, John Ortiz, Armand Assante, Common, T.I., Kevin Corrigan, Jon Polito, Norman Reedus, Clarence Williams III, Roger Guenveur Smith and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes. Holy shit.

The Bank Job - Roger Donaldson - Before he was Mr.-all-badass-action-all-the-time, Jason Statham made this odd-duck of a heist picture that managed to be many things at once and none of them at the same time. Far more than the sum of it's parts. Not really sure why it worked as well as it did. Not a show-stopping heist flick, not a particularly street-wise gangster epic, not a kick-ass action spectacular and not a richly-detailed dramatic period piece either. Smarter and funnier too than I had any expectations for - a marketing snafu or puzzle, I suspect. Somehow, less than the top of any of it's respective genres, it managed to be competent at each and fill an unlikely void in the flavor spectrum. Not a hard way to spend an afternoon at all.

Black Dahlia Brian De Palma - The novel The Black Dahlia marked a significant step forward for James Ellroy's craft. At the time, it was his most personal work and his second stab at writing, in a parallel fashion, about the murder of his own mother (Clandestine features a very similar killing). The pairing of Ellroy's psycho-sexual obsessiveness and period pinache with De Palma's track record of kindred material sounded like a match made in Aphrodite's asshole, but yeah, no. Nope. David Fincher was supposedly sniffing 'round this project for a long time with an eye toward turning it into a realllllly long (five plus hour?) feature digging into the dark corners of Dahlia-lore as well as Ellroy's own dark places in an unflinching X or NC-17 rating and while I understand that peoples with monies to invest in film like to see it come back to them, in retrospect it seems petty and small not to have had the balls to follow through with that vision (Fincher moved on to Zodiac when it fell through). A cable mini-series (or shit, web-series now, why the hell not?) has long seemed the natural fit for Ellroy's rich and dense material, but perhaps feeling lightening could strike twice Dahlia was green-lit as a standard approximately two hour feature. No Rollo Tomassi this time. Instead we end up handing Fiona Shaw the thankless job of delivering the gun-wielding, 'here's how I did it and why' speech like the unenthusiastic third money shot in a tired-ass gang-bang. After that unforgivable sin, the list of comparably lesser transgressions include the Eraserhead-esque dinner scene that serves as an introduction to the Linscott family, changing Lee's death into a De Palma set piece and not making it Michael Caine in drag coming out of the shadows and never letting us feel anybody's obsession. It's not without it's virtues though. It looks fantastic - so good, it might make an interesting silent film. Really, write a new script and post it over the visuals... (I'd love to do something similar with De Palma's Femme Fatale - re-dub the dialogue in Spanish or French and subtitle that fucker - it would be a more intriguing mess, I suspect). The shootout-discovery of the body sequence is classic De Palma, and I'm always in favor of casting Mia Kirshner. When I heard she was going to be Elizabeth Short I was very pleased. Really, why she's not a huge star is beyond me. Like many lesser De Palma efforts I enjoy it more with repeat viewings - getting over my old expectations and settling in for what it actually is.

Blow - Ted Demme - Older brother Jonathan Demme gets most of the attention, but I think we lost a real talent way too young when Ted died at 38. Blow was his last dramatic feature, but The Ref and Monument Ave. were early indications of his sensibilities and promise. Both Monument Ave. and Blow fall into the faux-Sese sub-genre, but shit, it's a sub-genre I like. It's pretty standard rise, fall, rise, fall of an ambitious capitalist botanist that follows familiar plot points around, but the real joys are Ray Liotta's wide open big-hearted performance and seeing 21 Jumpstreet, Pee Wee's Playhouse and Police Academy doing coke together when Johnny Depp, Paul Reubens and Bobcat Goldthwait share time onscreen.

Body of Lies - Ridley Scott - Leonardo DiCaprio, the spy, and Russell Crowe, his handler, have ostensibly the same mission - to catch an enemy - but trust between the duo runs thin when methods and priorities differ. Once again I like Scott in this mode and think despite this one disappearing from the public consciousness as soon as the credits rolled, it's bound to be better remembered later. The visuals and editing are top tier, there are several exciting action/chase/violent sequences, the cast are equally workmanlike professionals and even William Monohan's script keeps to the point and stays within the lines (adapting from the novel by David Ignatius). As with the military and intelligence personnel at the center of the story, being employed on a Ridley Scott film usually means you've been through some kind of specialized training and you're part of a team - everybody shows up, does their job and moves on trusting that the job is worth doing and when Scott sticks to this kind of genre picture I think it is.
Brick - Rian Johnson - In 2005 writer/director Johnson turned heads with this ultra-stylized hardboiled detective story set in a high school and concerned only with teenaged characters. Perhaps pitched as John Hughes meets John Huston, it's an exercise in style that transcends mere homage or pastiche and is infinitely more adult than say Bugsy Malone. At the time star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also making a break from his the-next-Chachi image (just to keep making Scott Baio references) with prominent roles in darker material like Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin than his most recognizable calling card of the time as adorable Tommy Solomon on Third Rock From the Sun. In the next few years he'd go on to appear in more crime fare like Scott Frank's directorial debut, The Lookout (as a character named Chris Pratt no less), John Madden's Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot and the titular role in Spencer Susser's Hesher as heavy-metal Mary Poppins before re-teaming with Johnson for 2012's even better Looper as the improbably convincing young Bruce Willis.

Brooklyn's Finest - Antoine Fuqua - Fuqua's David Ayer-penned Training Day was clearly Ellroy informed - even sharing lines of dialogue straight out of Ayer's touch up of Ellroy's original script Dark Blue, but I think Brooklyn's Finest, though it takes the cop action out of L.A. is actually more Ellroy-esque. Consider the three cop structure - Don Cheadle's burning out undercover, Ethan Hawke's desperate family man willing to make a play for dirty street cash and Richard Gere's retiring coward don't share a lot of screen time, but converge with some damned tragic results. While the tone isn't as cynical as I tend to think of Ellroy's (probably only feints at being), it gets to that vulnerable, obscured heart on its sleeve and big romantic gestures that I do often respond to (and acknowledge Ellroy's characters are prone to).

Bully - Larry Clark - Based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze about a group of affluenza-afflicted teens in Florida who decide to murder an asshole. Screenplay by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis. Harrowing and bleakly hilarious. We lost Brad Renfro way too early.

Carlito's Way: Rise to Power - Michael Scott Bregman - Based on the parts of the books Carlito's Way and After Hours by  Edwin Torres that were not covered in the 1993 Brian De Palma film - so set years before Carlito Brigante (Jay Hernandez in the role most associated with Al Pacino) goes to prison - this one, as the title suggests, chronicles his ascendancy on the streets navigating disputes and threats from rival ethnic gangs and police crooked and straight. What it doesn't have in its' predecessor's visual flare department it tries a little too hard to make up for with eagerness, but thankfully those high-ambition jitters seem to work themselves out of the performances and costume design after about half an hour and the film actually grows into something more than a little worthwhile. The cast is a mixed bag of talent Chuck Zito and Luis Guzmán as the only returning members (Luis playing Nacho - not Pachanga - this time) joined by Mario Van Peebles, Sean Combs, Michael Kelly, Giancarlo Esposito and Burt Young. If you're as big a fan of the 1993 film as I am (and holy shit, am I... I am - big fan), you were probably as skeptical of this production as I was, and likely to be disappointed by the way things start out, but stick with it, I think it makes an admirable case for its own existence by the end and it made me wish there were more offering of this level of quality and budget being made.

Chopper Andrew Dominik - Eric Bana burst onto the international stage with his portrayal of Mark Brandon Read the notorious Australian gangster turned best selling illiterate author and he's never quite matched this first impression again. Maybe he's just never had such a meaty role to sink his er, metal teeth into, maybe he's not been working with a Dominik-level visionary and maybe he dropped the weight packed on for this larger than life role and became another handsome leading man type, but holy crap is he great here. Immediately comparable to fare like Nicolas Winding Refn's notorious prisoner biopic Bronson featuring another burst of 'ere I am from Tom Hardy, but as much as I dig Bronson and Hardy's performance, outside of outsized theatricality, I'd give Chopper the edge in every category. It's more frightening, inspires more empathy, is more human and is funnier too. I watch it again every few years and return visits always illuminate more to admire rather than diminishing returns.

City of Ghosts - Matt Dillon - Dillon plays an American conman whose insurance scam is prematurely exposed by a hurricane and he leaves the country one step ahead of the FBI. He's on his way to Thailand to catch up with his partner and mentor, James Caan, who is in the middle of a real estate deal with some scary, sketchy local politicians and military figures. Dillon is instructed to wait for his share of money he has coming alongside the increasingly nervous (and almost always under-appreciated) Stellan Skarsgård. He cools his heels at a run-down hotel run by Gérard Depardieu and populated by western ex-pats, drunks and opium smokers as well as the occasional monkey or python. A lot of the charm of the film is in the scenes in the hotel bar among the odd and broken down white folk managing to still feel superior to the locals. Set pieces including trips to a brothel, a rave and a karaoke bar highlight the beauty of the place, as well as the garish blight the foreigners take with them around the world and the languid unease of the atmosphere is masterfully controlled so that scenes are balanced between wide-eyed wonder, uneasy humor, suspense and sudden violence. Co-writing credits to Dillon and Barry Gifford. Thus far the only feature directed by Dillon and that's too bad. If he permanently retired from directing he'd go out batting 1000. I love, love, love this film for its setting, its themes, its textures and vibrations.

Crank: High Voltage Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor - At the end of Crank Jason Statham's hitman with a heart of mold that will stop if his pulse drops below tachycardia, fell out of a helicopter and landed on the hard concrete jungle of Los Angeles finally, mercifully dead after surviving a day of outrunning rival assassins and assholes. So, sequel obviously. Apparently deciding the outrageous conceit and explosion of gross that was the original was too tame by miles they upped the ante and dropped the panties for a second round with more crass, more ass and way less class. A lowdown follow up so over the top it should be beneath me, but in actuality so up my alley I nearly choked - reminding me that as far as taste is concerned the anus is really just the back of the tongue. I love it.
Death Sentence - James Wan Kevin Bacon's life is turned upside down by a random act of gang violence and takes on a vigilante mission traveling the well-worn path of vengeance, retaliation, escalation, decimation - last nub of humanity standing "wins". Inspired by the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield written (possibly) as a response to the popular reaction to the film version of his earlier novel Death Wish. As with pretty much any kind of vigilante fare it can be read multiple ways and your reaction to it will say more about your current emotional/psychic space than the quality of the project. Is it pulpy fun or disgusting cynicism? Does it represent the best or worst in human character/civil society? Wan creates some visually interesting sequences and the film is stylish and certainly reflects the time but the irrefutable truth this time through: John Goodman is a national treasure.

Domino - Tony Scott - Ridiculous? Over the top? Juuuuust a bit, but holy hell, it's a lot of fun. The opening scene of the trailer park assault and severed limb and shit? Love it. By the end, this one's a mess (a Richard Kelly script, y'know), but it always errs in favor of entertainment value. Going for it: Mickey RourkeEdgar Ramirez, true-ish story of Laurence Harvey's daughter - model-turned-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey - Tom Waits, Christopher Walken, Delroy Lindo and the best use of Three Dog Night's Mama Told Me (Not to Come) ever.

Down Terrace Ben Wheatley - Yeah, Kill List is great and Wheatley's shit gets weirder and weirder, but Down Terrace is the one that first freaked us the fuck out with its weird half-comic, pathetic, heartless tone. Is it a crime flick? A comedy? A horror movie? Do you laugh? Cry? Scream? Yes. Holy fuck, yes. My gawsh it were a muck-up of a crime flick. Just a cluster-fuck of emotions, at once hilarious and horrifying in a mix I still marvel at after multiple re-watches. Excited to see his take on Wages of Fear.

Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg - Naomi Watts plays a London nurse who takes it upon herself to track down the family of a the Christmas baby born to a teenager who didn't survive to meet her child. For clues she uses the girl's diary, but its written in Russian and she seeks out the help of local restaurateur Armin Mueller-Stahl to translate. Turns out the girl was a prostitute imported from Russian and working for him (he's a gangster, we all knew it, but Watts didn't) and her diary includes testimony and evidence that could put him in prison. He's careful how much he accurately translates for Watts while instructing his thugs to keep tabs on her. Vincent Cassel is the hothead son of the godfather, a fuckup desperate for respect, and Viggo Mortensen is his highly competent and much smarter right hand man. The middle and my favorite chapter in screenwriter Steven Knight's London immigrant underground trilogy (bookended by Dirty Pretty Things and Hummingbird), this one is not only the best Cronenberg of the twenty-first century it's one of the best gangster pictures of the last twenty years.

Felon - Ric Roman Waugh - Stepehn Dorff is a working class dude who ends up on the wrong side of a special case of movie-magic-circumstantial-shit tsunami and incarcerated in a maximum security dump where Harold Perrineau runs a secret fight club juuust this side of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and manages not to scream 'Walt!' even once Dorff's cellie is a surprisingly engaged Val Kilmer, a lifer who teaches the nube how to jail. Caught this one cause I was interested in Waugh's Shot Caller - also a prison drama and it somewhat cooled my interest in the latter. Not a waste, but not particularly inspired... I'm not holding my breath, but I think Dorff is going to bang one outta the park one of these days - he's consistently picking projects that interest me.
The Flock - Andrew Lau - Richard Gere is burnt out from decades spent keeping tabs on registered sex offenders for the state. One last thing to do before retiring - train his replacement, Claire Danes. Oh, and follow up on a hunch regarding a missing girl and a member of his flock. Two. Two things to do before retirement. Lau got to make an english language film with western movie stars after his Infernal Affairs was remade as The Departed by Martin Scorsese, but this one wasn't going to make anybody's career. Too dark and glum to be a hit, too dull to make me care. One stand out sequence in a creepy underground sex club though.

Gone Baby Gone - Ben Affleck - Couple months back somebody asked what the modern equivalents to the gritty PI movies of the seventies we loved. This is the one that jumped immediately to mind.

Good German - Steven Soderbergh - Fuckin Soderbergh man. Guy works and makes things work on so many levels. I love this promptly forgotten film so hard. It disappeared from public consciousness quicker than the office holiday party they probably went to rather than tucking into a dark theater for a black and white arty-farty exercise in throwback. Yeah, the gimmick of using time-appropriate tech to create the feeling you were watching an actual forgotten 50s flick got all the press, but missing from the reports was the great news that the succeeded in crafting an engaging, romantic suspense picture set in post-war Potsdam to scratch that Third Man itch. And even more remarkably - Sods got a no-shit great performance out of Tobey Maguire. Cast includes George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Robin Weigert, Beau Bridges and a blink and you'll miss it appearance from Matt Damon (I imagine the pitch for the uncredited role went something like this: I'm looking for a volunteer to break Spider-Man's arm. Any takers?).
Good Shepherd Robert De Niro - Another unheralded, un-remembered prestige picture that I really love. This one about the early days of the CIA is a measured-pace, stately-production that probably reeked of Oscar-bait safe betting at its most cynically perfected, but I forgive all of that for a finale that never fails to sneak up on me and land a heavy emotional blow. Perhaps its failure to rack up nominations and golden trophies for all involved serves to help it stick the landing a modest success rather than an overly-praised disappointment. Dig the cast - De Niro, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, Lee Pace and Eddie Redmayne.

The Hard Word Scott Roberts - Nothing flashy here, no high concept, just good old fashioned criminality from the colony that became a continent. Guy Pearce, Damien Richardson and Joel Edgerton play brothers, partners in armed robbery, are released from prison on a deal brokered by their lawyer in order to hit another payload for the folks pulling the strings - a bit like The Getaway - and like Jim Thompson's book, the wife (Rachel Griffiths) of lead brother (Pearce), has been diligently applying herself to working the lawyer (pre-Longmire Robert Taylor) for her husband... or is it the other way around? Anyway, there're double-crosses and revenge plans on the way. Y'know what I like about fare like this? It's not about the best, the toughest or the most clever thieves, it's just daily-stakes and if those aren't high enough for you, you're not awake.

Heist - David Mamet - Nuts 'n bolts con-man, heist crew procedural featuring the best lines delivered by probably the all-around best performing cast of Mamet's career: Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay, Sam Rockwell, Patti LuPone and the absolute best role ever for Rebecca Pidgeon. You (I) really don't need anything more. Love it.

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