Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Assassination of Gianni Versace by the Coward Andrew Cunanan

Watched The Assassination of Gianni Versace and after 2 seasons of being sucked into true crime dramas based on stories I didn't think I had any interest in I'm ready to call American Crime Story on FX something special.
Noticed the Versace season was written by Tom Rob Smith which makes two TV mini series from him I've enjoyed (also London Spy). Nice to see a novelist I dug (the Leo Demidov trilogy - Child 44, The Secret Speech, Agent 6) make a successful medium swap and have a distinct voice that's different from the one I enjoyed in their books.

The Versace family have the big names in casting - Edgar Ramirez (whom I'm still waiting for a really great English language role from - after Carlos I was sure he was gonna be huge), Penelope Cruz and Ricky Martin (who knew? I didn't. Was halfway through the season before I looked up who that guy was).

But the real standout performances are in the killer's story line.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan comes across like a cross between Patrick Bateman and Tom Ripley a social climber smart enough and smooth enough to get places, but hounded so fiercely by vanity, jealousy and insecurity never to stay put or leave good enough alone. He's a monster, but there's just enough real pain in his life that the waste of it is human tragedy.

The structure of the season allows for dimension to be added to him slowly for maximum emotional payoff - a payoff frankly I didn't think they could pull off. I'm not sure if Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors (the basis of the season) follows a similar structure, but I doubt the televised version would be half as effective if presented in strict chronological order.

If he'd not killed Gianni Versace nobody would care about Cunanan's other victims and that's where the real heart of the story lay for me. The human wreckage is well-observed in the latter episodes and I'm happy I had the opportunity to watch the season in a week rather than over the course of a couple of months through appointment viewing.

In particular Jeff Trail (played by Finn Wittrock) emerged as a character of real interest. I don't know how accurate any of the portrayals are (you can investigate if you like - I looked at this piece on TooFab which includes the CBS interview with Trail about gays in the military during the era of Don't Ask Don't Tell) - but jeez, what a heartbreak of a story his was.

What will season 3 focus on? Don't care. At this point I'm tuning in (or y'know going to watch it when it's on Netflix) because it's clear the producers have way different instincts for crime stories than I do - especially the glitz and glamour of high-profile stories - but also the skill to tell those stories in ways I find compelling. Maybe I'm a sucker.

Friday, January 11, 2019

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2018

The following represent my favorite new crime flicks I saw in 2018 (in alphabetical order). Since there's no way I can get to everything the year it comes out, I leave some wiggle room in eligibility for little films and foreign language offerings that sometimes take longer to surface and find an audience.

Asura: City of Madness Kim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage. There's plenty of tension along the way, but holy fuck the final showdown is full of the kind of hatchet-wielding, brutal gang-fighting that comes frequently and not near often enough out of wildly exciting Korean cinema these days.

Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin.Can't wait to see what Baugh does next.

The Crew - Julien Leclercq - Yanis Zeri plays Sami, the leader of a Parisian heist crew taking down carefully planned scores with a level of precision teamwork that takes a lot of discipline and years of work to achieve. The film opens as they are filling a new slot on the team and the heat coming off their anxiety level is elevated even as the action remains cool. The job goes well until it doesn't and the team immediately breaks into individuals having to make very quick decisions about the rest of their lives. Stakes are high, but not cartoonish and combine personal and professional in a pleasing ratio and the on-screen action and violence are effective without ever becoming the reason for the film. The most pleasantest out of the blue surprise of the year for me - never heard about it, saw advertising, read a thing - just stumbled across it on Netflix and was knocked on my ass. This is exactly the kind of no-hooks, no-frills armed robbery picture I always want more of. No mugging for the camera, no embarrassing macho dialogue (this is the movie I wish Den of Thieves had been - not that I didn't enjoy that one, but sheeeeeit did it hit both of those shortcomings super hard), just workaday thievery complete with straight jobs and just enough family life to seem like human peoples instead of soulless hardboiled cliches.

The House That Jack Built - Lars Von Trier - Matt Dillon delivers one of the funniest performances of his career as Jack a frustrated architect/engineer who spent twelve years as a serial killer in the 70s and 80s. The film is narrated by Jack telling his story to Bruno Ganz's Virgil as the latter escorts him through the afterlife. Along the tour of heaven and hell the duo talk to pass the time - Jack finding it refreshing to speak frankly about his hobby with someone he cannot shock - and viewers are subjected to episodes from Jack's life as he murders (mostly women) in increasingly elaborately staged scenarios. We witness Jack bloom as his once crippling OCD eases and his muse dares to go bigger as consequence and punishment fail to find him. Nobody more surprised than myself to have an LVT pick in my top ten this year. I've been pissed at him since all that terrible Dogme '95 horseshit derailed a career I was very interested in up to that point. I've watched several of his films and skipped just as many over the last 20-some years, but while most of the ones I've seen have let slip flashes of brilliance - just terrific moments that make it clear he's a film maker of considerable talent - most of them have committed the unforgivable sin of boring me. The House That Jack Built did not. I know this one caused some outrage at its festival premier and that what I saw was a 'compromised' R-rated cut. I can't say whether my views on the film would change seeing the unrated cut, but to say that LVT's career has courted controversy I think gives him too much credit. Mostly I've found his provocations to feel juvenile and likewise those who are outraged by them, who constantly take the bait, to sound just about as juvenile in their outcries. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo spouted by Jack weighs nothing and did not engage me at all. If it engages (and enrages) you or not may be the litmus test for audience response to the movie - much the same way the degree to which you listen closely to the monologues the characters on True Detective will decide your appreciation of that show. In both cases I think they're perhaps overly elaborate reveals of character's self-perception, but the meat is what happens on screen and there's a lot of meat - or at least a lot to chew on. Even someone as unaware as I am about Von Trier off-screen can see Jack as a stand-in for the film maker constantly frustrated when he tries to make something beautiful and only successful when he does terrible things - his freezer slowly filling up with rotting-corpses/ideas that he takes out once in a while to try again to make more satisfying pictures of in silly poses. Upon reaching the end of the tour of hell - when Virgil shows him the absolute depths and then disappoints Jack by saying "that's not where you're going, I just thought you'd like to see it" it plays as a wink at Von Trier's tendency to self-aggrandize that his stand-in decides to push through deepest hell for an impossible chance out of the pit rather than be obscure and abandoned in a less hellish level. The episodic structure allows the film to play sometimes like a suspense thriller, other times like a horror film, a fantasy and probably most effectively as a comedy. There is a chapter early on that is probably the most effective prolonged sequence of comedic suspense I saw this year. This may or may not be for you. Did it shock me? I definitely audibly engaged once or twice, but it's difficult to be shocked when it is clearly what the provocateur wants to do. Entertained though? Yeah, I enjoyed wondering what the hell was about to happen next.

Mandy - Panos Cosmatos - When micro cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) spies Andrea Riseborough's Mandy through the window of his rapey van on a rustic backroad in the woody northwest he springs a stiffy as true as anything he's yet experienced (not a high bar) and summons his underlings to blow the Horn of Abraxas in order to summon spiky-leather-clad, acid-blasted bikers to bring her hither forthwith. And once Mandy sits before him doped to the gills and primed for a lil' of the ol' in-out, in-out she does the incomprehensible and turns him down. Laughs at him to boot. Aaaaand then he kills her in a horrific manner. Out of spite. Out of a need to feed the pain of embarrassment through an amplifier till that thing bucks and hums and feeds back all over the world. Then he and his crew including the spiky-gimp-suit acid freaks catch the reverb rebound in the form of Mandy's husband Red (Nicolas Cage) and ride that wave of mutilation till it dashes them against the furthest shore. Plot-wise that's it. Simple revenge story without any twists or complications, but the presentation is everything here. This is a heavy metal album cover come to life. It's an overwhelming sensory experience with visuals and sound design pushed to eleven and through the glass ceiling of good taste and responsible film making. We get hints that Red may be a grubby, flannel-wearing John Wick - a man of past violent potentials who's lived in peace and sobriety with his wife, and who lets loose a terrible reckoning when that tranquility is shattered (there's a great cycle of substances ingested: vodka, cocaine, acid, cigarettes, fueling escalating violence) - but it's never really spelled out. Cosmatos constructs pictures of such ticklish possibility they continue living beyond the frames and giving rise to new imaginings long after the run time is finished and it's the second, third and beyond lives the movie inspires that are the ultimate testament to the film's power and worth.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Christopher McQuarrie - Ethan Hunt's Impossible Mission Force is back for a sixth film and all the same things keep happening: betrayals, disavowed statuses, failures of sci-fi technology, reckless compromise of national/world stability and a series of heroic efforts resulting in jet-setting breathless chases, narrow margins of victory and me wondering just how the hell this series continues to improve and thrill me. This is the first series entry I'm including on this list and I'm not even sure it's the best entry in the franchise. It is remarkable for a single stand-out reason though and that is star Tom Cruise's commitment to upping the physical stakes for himself as a performer. In fact the onscreen shenanigans are so ridiculous a casual observer will probably assume that they represent quantum leaps in CGI sophistication rather than noticing that they really did all that shit in camera. Holy shit. I suspect the deepening pleasures of this film (and the others in the series) will be careful rewatches - not to parse plot points - but to study how exactly the thrills are constructed. Of course franchise first time returning writer/director McQuarrie has a fair amount to do with it too. In fact his work with Cruise on the last couple of M:I pictures is strong enough to get me to theaters for the Top Gun sequel (I have no love for the first), and I suppose I'll revisit Jack Reacher as well.

The Night Comes For UsTimo Tjahjanto - Plot concerns a bad man who just can't bring himself to bad that much any more and so gets the ruthless and well-oiled machinery of smuggling, trafficking, vice and murder for hire criminality in and around Jakarta and the South Pacific all a-twist in on itself and bursts the levee holding back blood and only the quickest, toughest most ridiculously badass motherfuckers will survive rising tide of entrails and brain matter and severed limbs the whole world is covered in by the end of this breathless, groovy as shit movie that gives Gareth Evans' The Raid franchise a worthy competitor for the kung-fu-ck-u film making throne. Having enjoyed director Tjahjanto's previous efforts (the pscycho/sicko thriller Killers and chop-socky lip smacker Headshot) just enough to keep tuning in I was nevertheless comfuckingpletely unprepared for the level of magic he was capable of. Nothing in those other films even hinted at latent potential a fraction of these heights. Here's hoping Netflix gives him the go-ahead on his proposed Six-Seas trilogy with The Night Comes For Us serving as chapter one. Further, let's hope there's an excuse to bring back the entire cast - in different roles where need be - especially Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid and Dian Sastrowardoyo.

Widows - Steve McQueen - When a tightly knit heist crew is taken down in a shootout with Chicago police their widows are left holding their debts to banks, politicians and gangsters. The women come from disparate backgrounds and have no connection to each other outside of varying degrees of and reasons for desperation and decide to use the blueprints left behind for their late husbands' next score to settle scores and free themselves for deciding their own futures. The talent assembled on and behind the camera is considerable, but there is no one more in command of the proceedings than Viola Davis whose natural born leadership is apparent and solid enough to carry the production. Based on the novel by Lynda La Plante which already inspired a mini-series thirty years ago, it's easy to see how the story could support many more hours of onscreen exploration and it's easy to forgive McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn for indulging story lines that don't keep the focus squarely on the central crew, still, I wanted more time with the women as they evolved as a unit. The opening five minutes is a testimony to the power of sharp production values and terrific editing to make an intense short feature as emotionally moving as anything that follows. Looking forward to revisiting this one in years to come and appreciating that Davis and especially Michelle Rodriguez got their chance to flex their chops in a project of this caliber.

The World is Yours - Romain Gavras - This story of a dreamer (Karim Leklou) who just wants to open a franchise of frozen desert shops along the African Mediterranean coast and is committed enough to realizing that dream that he will engage in dangerous criminal activities to achieve it sounds stupid on the surface. And it is. Stupid. Utterly stupid. Stupid enough to feel real. Populated by a cast of none too bright characters all looking for shortcuts to their dream lives that they will recklessly plunge into dangerous waters and find that the very thickness of their wits and their inability to imagine outcomes that don't favor them are nearly super powers, this works equally and simultaneously as a thriller and a comedy whose twists and turns aren't entirely seen coming nor are they anything different than the numerous crime movies the characters have apparently seen and treated as tutorials for the way crime really works. This one deserves favorable comparison to Michael Bay's Pain and Gain or Guy Ritchie's comic caper pictures. Please seek it out.
You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay - Joaquin Phoenix is Joe a man whose existence revolves around taking care of his elderly mother and who makes a living as an off-the-books operative specializing in finding lost children caught up in sex-trafficking and dispensing brutal violence upon their captors. He's a man exposed to violence and physical/psychic trauma all of his life, as seen in flashback fragments from abuse at the hands of his father to the horrors of war, and it's taken a toll on Joe whose mind is broken in ways that remain unclear. His frequent suicidal fantasies throw some doubt upon the accuracy of onscreen events and the film never clarifies them - instead Ramsay places us within Joe's mind and leaves us to sort out chronology and the facts while giving us an often jarring, frequently surreal and beautiful sensory experience. A couple of significant changes to the plot of Jonathan Ames's (much more straightforward, but holy crap razor sharp) source novella work very well for film and there are moments made here that ought to guarantee its place as the origin of many future crime movie tropes (probably the most immediately recognizable stylistic influence-r since Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - also based on a sharp novella... hmmm).

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Get Thee to a Nerdery, Post-Heist

Did you notice that the Do Some Damage podcast took a break over the holidays? Well, it did and it looks like I never even linked to the last episode we recorded. So here you go, me talking about Steve McQueen's Widows. What did we do with our time off? Steve Weddle finished his fucking follow up to Country Hardball novel Broken Prayer, Chris Holmes and Holly West? Who the fuck knows?


As 2018 wound down I squeezed in a couple more podcast appearances I've yet to let you know about. First, I was honored to jump on The Projection Booth once again with Mike White and my former (unbeknownst to me) neighbor Heather Drain to discuss John Huston's Fat City starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell. If you've never seen it, check it out before listening to the episode because we go right through spoilers.

It's based on the novel of the same name by Leonard Gardner and I finally read the book myself a couple months back. It's a great example of the American beautiful loser genre and the film works well as an example of the cinematic version. In the episode Heather points out that the film has a Charles Bukowski flavor and says she'd have liked the opportunity to see Tyrell's Oma share a story with Henry Chinaski and I think that'd be a great fit. Read the book or see the film if you like John Fante, William Kennedy or... Willy Vlautin.

Also - Mike scored an interview with motherfucking Stacy Keach himself. You need this episode. Trust me.

Second, I'd like to thank Kent Gowran for turning me on to Blake Howard's One Heat Minute podcast, a show dedicated to picking apart and blowing up Michael Mann's greatest hits movie Heat one on-screen minute at a time. The fuck you say? The fuck I said. Each episode discusses a single minute of screen time in glorious nerdy detail and it's a pretty great discussion each time out.

How could that be?

Well, the guests he gets are a big part of it. One dude would almost certainly run out of steam on a 170 episode run about a single film, but each time somebody new jumps on there's a chance for more perspective and fresh takes. Recent guests have included Jordan Harper, Joe Lynch, Jon Abrams, Bill Duke and cinematographer Dante Spinotti.

Even recenter guests include me. Fuck yeah, I got to get my nerd on big time and geek about one of my all-time favorite films and the minute I was assigned is a doozy - minute 107 which features Robert De Niro's crew post-heist/pre-escape and Al Pacino's team closing in. The whole minute has very little dialogue, but tons of tension built in thanks, in large part, to Brian Eno's driving soundtrack cut Force Marker.

How'd it go?

Give it a listen and let me know.

Also - this picture of Renee Asher Pickup on holiday in France holding just purchased copies of Les FĂ©roces and Todd Robinson's Cassandra (The Hard Bounce) made my New Year. If it don't warm your cockles they might be broke.