Thursday, January 2, 2020

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 251-300

Automata - Gabe Ibanez - Jacq (Antonio Banderas) an insurance investigator who looks into claims of a robotics corporation's products malfunctioning finds a troubling case of self-repairing/altering machines who are breaking their own operating protocols in this surprisingly rich picture that is a spiritual heir of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. The atmosphere is thick with existential dread and the effects are special enough to carry this one to levels your average straight to video Dylan McDermott robot movie don't achieve. Finally a movie shooting for the Blade Runner benchmark that isn't an embarrassment. Best moment: ladybot with a screwdriver.

Breathless - Jesse Baget - Do you like trailer noir with a lot of camp? Fair enough if not, but the cast caught my eye and then fucking Val Kilmer sealed the deal right away as the unkempt, fat, mustachioed deadbeat husband tied to a chair after being brained (was it with a frying pan?) by his wife (Gina Gershon). It's a small roll, but he puts more wattage into the performance than I've seen from him in a long damn time and he's a lot of fun. The rest of the cast is having fun too and so are the special effects folks. By the end of this ridiculous movie the trailer's interior has been coated with gore from a number of bodies and some good cheap laughs were had. Did someone ask for an even lower-rent Killer Joe? I, for one, would love to see a high-school stage production of this one. Dear Theater/Drama Departement Head: You.Will. Be. Legend.

Bullet to the Head - Walter Hill - Checked this one out for Hill. Not sure what is says about your movie when Sylvester Stallone is consistently the best actor on screen, but you could go ahead and say it about this one. Is Stallone great? Not quite, but this is arguably his best role since Cop Land - but then this one is also a big ol' softball pitched to his sweet spot. Or could you say that Sung Kang is terrible as the sidekick here? Absolutely, the worst. But is that because he has no presence or because his character has no purpose outside of using a smart phone every once in a while (where we get perhaps the most awful and flat-out funny delivery of expositional dialogue in the history of film - or the decade anyway). There is a terrific energy to the fight sequences (including an axe battle with Jason Momoa - come on!) and the picture barely pauses to listen to your objections. The subtitle could've been It Came From the Eighties... and I'd be fine with that. Best moment: the bath house brawl - it's no Eastern Promises, but then what is?

Drive Angry - Patrick Lussier - Nicolas Cage cast as a bad man who breaks out of literal hell to kick ass in tremendous and wild fashion is in retrospect a pretty good metaphor for the film that really kicked off Cage's decade of digging his way out of debt by kicking ass on screen in an unending onslaught of outrageously flimsy projects. Both in the film and in the films he never loses focus and brings everything he's got to the fight. I fucking love Nicolas Cage and Drive Angry remains one of his more successful overall pictures of the last decade largely because of the rest of the cast and it's stomp on the gas and break off the brakes spirit.

The Fanatic - Fred Durst - If John Travolta is trying to break into character actor hall of fame, this is his best effort yet. I, for one would love to see him keep pushing his performance further and harder and yes more recklessly. This one came under attack for insensitivity and inaccuracy in its portrayal of... what exactly? Mental illness? Developmental disability? It's never explained. Which is good, I think. It allows Travolta to just go fucking nuts and be entertaining which - he just was. If the film had simply called it toxic nerdiosity or "Star Wars Level Obsessive" maybe there wouldn't have been the kind of backlash it got. Rather than the late-career work of Bruce Willis or John Cusack who make more and more films giving less and less to each performance I'd love to see Travolta go the way of the other major star turned direct to video king Nicolas Cage by leaving it all on the screen and never being lazy. I know some folks found the movie ugly - yes - irresponsible - maybe - insensitive - Fred fucking Durst, come on, what did you expect? - boring -  hard no. I was uncomfortable and just dying to see what bad places and bad actions this movie would go to and through and they're bad. They're terrible. They're great. Also, hats off to Durst for giving giving Devon Sawa the task of getting down to Limp Bizkit on screen. Yeah, it's that tasteless and unapologetic. Good work from Sawa too.

Faster - George Tillman Jr. - Dumb fun. Mostly works, but even the stuff that doesn't has a fun idea behind it (Oliver Jackson-Cohen's Killer always looking for another hobby to invest in). Billy Bob Thornton isn't asleep. Refreshing to see Dwayne Johnson in R-rated stuff again - he just kinda radiates PG-13 these days (as well as before Faster came out) and I appreciate the slightly nastier edge.

A Gang Story - Olivier Marchal - Dual-timeline story about a gypsy gang in France - the rise storyline shows them come together from hardscrabble poverty and consolidate power through a series of brazen heists and the decline storyline shows the surviving members rich and sad and realizing one of their own has betrayed them. I get the impression it wasn't well-received in France, but I quite enjoyed the cast, the period setting and production values (not quite The Connection-level stuff, but if you enjoyed that one, give this a shot). Marchal is also the creator of the TV show Braquo, which has been on my radar for a few years.

Gone Girl - David Fincher - The Dunnes (Rosamund Pike & Ben Affleck) have a model marriage - not in the sense that it's one folks should model their own upon, but in the same sense that some people have model airplanes. Theirs is a replica. Something a collector might appreciate. Looks good and accurate from all the outside angles, but does not function like the thing it apes. When she disappears one day, his life falls apart in a very public way. First he's under pressure then suspicion and finally the thumb... only... whose? As the details of their rather sordid inner lives are exposed to the viewer, our sympathies never solidly latch on to either character - one is a sick pup and the other might have coming what they get (or at least you don't feel too awfully bad for em when it comes) - and pulling that off while pulling us in? That's a neat trick and I kinda hate that it automatically qualifies it as ballsy for a tent-pole release from a major studio, but it is. Does it work? Sure. Yeah. I think so. Though, it's essentially a '90s straight to video sex thriller with A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I happen to like sex thrillers from the 90s. I'm just saying... if it were Joanne Whalley and Michael Madsen in a flick directed by John Dahl (still based on the novel by Gillian Flynn)... I might've been a lot more excited by the results. Still - damn, what a cast. Solid lead performances and top-notch supporting turns from Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes and Tyler Perry (no, really). Best moment: probably the only NPH sex scene outside of another Harold & Kumar flick I'll ever need.

Graceland - Ron Morales - Ugh. Jeez, this was unpleasant. A great thriller set-up: trying to kidnap the daughter of a politician, the abductors accidentally nab the pol's chauffeur's little girl and now the driver is caught in between his boss, the police, his wife and the kidnappers - keeping a different secret for a different reason from each party pulling at him. Only this one is Grim, capital-G Grim, and the more the focus pulls back to reveal the larger picture, the less you're on anybody's side. The pacing is tight and the structure solid, but there's just so much awful contained in this unfortunate combination of social-awareness campaign and thriller that there is no happiness in the end, regardless of outcome (a less-cheery Miss Bala, perhaps). Kudos to Morales for sticking to his guns. I'd be interested in seeing another of his projects, but please not this one again. Anything but that. Best moment: the abduction really fuckin takes no prisoners - or, only takes one prisoner. It's a brutal moment that really sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

The Guest - Adam Wingard - The Petersons are an average suburban family mourning the loss of the oldest son, a soldier KIA, when they are visited by the recently discharged David (Dan Stevens) a platoon buddy just passing through. David soon insinuates himself into every aspect of their lives with unclear motivations and shit starts to get weird. It's a fucking shame the trailer gives away as much as it does about the directions this one goes, 'cause your destination is best arrived at cold. As goofy and slight as the picture ends up being, I enjoyed it all the way through mostly for Stevens's presence (he's clearly relishing the opportunity to shake the Downton Abbey stuffiness out of his system) and the script by Simon Barrett which is having as much fun as it hopes you are. Add great little production design touches and a kick-ass, throw-back horror score and you've got a decent way to kill an evening. Best moment: fit hits the shan.

Headshot - Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto - Before Timo Tjahjanto's solo directorial effort The Night Comes For Us fuckin blew my hair back he partnered directorial duties with Kimo Stamboel as The Mo Brothers on Macabre (2009), Killers (2014) and this one which is my favorite of the bunch. Iko Uwais does his thing and... that's all I need to hear.

The Highwaymen - John Lee Hancock - This take on the manhunt for Bonnie & Clyde is about as gritty and morally nuanced as you might expect from the director of inspirational feel-good stuffs like The Blind Side and The Alamo. Which is to say I'd love to see Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play the roles in a Sam Peckinpah treatment of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault with considerably more attention paid to their character deficiencies and moral complexities (not to completely dismiss Hancock - he also gave us the prestige nastiness of The Founder). But I don't want to throw everything out the window here. What's we're left with is essentially a heroic-western about the hardened cowboys who have to do society's dirty work and it's pretty solid straight-arrow stuff. Much like Once Upon a Time ...in Hollywood's treatment of Charles Manson this one is at least committed to not glamorizing the exploits of the celebrity murderers - if only it had gone a few extra steps toward not glamorizing the cops (a couple nods toward the dubious methods frequently employed in doing 'the hard work' didn't satisfy me and instead only highlighted the film's own faults).

Hollow in the Land - Scooter Corkle - Dianna Agron plays the elder of two siblings from deadbeat, no-account parents who've disgraced the family's name and community standing before abandoning their offspring to fend for themselves in a small, dead-end industrial community where drugs are the only escape and violence the sole guarantee. Alison (Agron) works in a factory to support her wayward younger brother who's tempting many potential bad ends with his careless behavior and when he disappears after a violent encounter that the cops say is murder big sister takes it upon herself to find him before he's killed by the police or various criminal types he's managed to piss off. Surely pitched as a more-thrillery Winter's Bone it manages to work by its attention to detail and place and avoids the pitfalls of too many rural noirs that play up the outrageous aspects of small town life in an exploitative fashion (not that I'm not down with exploitation once in a while). There aren't any grotesques in the cast, neither are there lingering looks at squalor, and the lesbian sexuality isn't sensationalized. It's also refreshingly free of any sense of inherent nobility in blue collar life, but all these elements add credulity to Alison's outsider status and Agron's jaw is set for optimal resolute determination. It's a nicely executed, muted (but not dirge-like) tale of life in the margins and the director's name is Scooter.

The Hollow PointGonzalo López-Gallego - Amongst the glut of border-sploitation fare flooding theaters, Redbox and streaming services this one is not a glossy, Oscar-bait message movie, nor near as schlocky as the majority of the rest. It's a mostly solid crime film with a handful of moments that make it a recommendation. On the heels of his hugely appealing performance in Fargo's second season Patrick Wilson is accumulating a portfolio of leading roles in small budget crime films that could re-invent his image and John Leguizamo turns in a, for once, quietly menacing performance while Ian McShane shows up, but is handily upstaged by a surprisingly good James Belushi. What really works here are a few un-foreshadowed escalations of violence that help sustain interest when the plot gets a little muddy and minor inconsistencies threaten to distract.

The Homesman - Tommy Lee Jones Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy a tough and resourceful woman homesteader in the unforgiving west whose best qualities - those that allow her independence - are the same that keep her from finding a partner - her propositions of marriage to various men are repeatedly rebuffed on grounds that she is plain and bossy. In her small prairie community three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) have succumbed to madness due to harshness of their environs (natural and relational) and need to be transported to a home where they can be looked after. Mary Bee is the only citizen with enough sand to take on the job, but she is outmatched by her task and takes on the reluctant help of a claim-jumper (director Jones) whose life she spares on the condition of his aid. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, Jones's sophomore directorial effort has more than just a little in common with his debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (but that's a good thing) and points tantalizingly at the future and timbre of his directorial voice. Like Three Burials it is a western of harsh beauty, full of poetry, grace and grim humor, seasoned with tragedy and stark violence served up in unexpected order, maximizing the impact of each ingredient. It is also measured in pace and quiet (until it is not) and is most assuredly best appreciated in a single sitting, so I'd recommend not starting it until you've cleared enough space and summoned enough energy to take it in one go. Amazing cast too, including John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Barry Corbin, Meryl Streep, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and Hailey Steinfeld.

Iceman - Ariel Vroman - How difficult is it to deliver an effective two-hour biopic that gives a singular thrust to its subject's entire life? Very difficult. Simpler when the subject is best known for the dozens (if not over a hundred) people he killed (mostly for money) with an astounding variety of method and a signature titular quality of remorse. Still, this film provides some worthwhile juxtaposition to the chill in Richard Kuklinski's blood by giving him some scenes of real vulnerability and large-hearted tenderness with his family. The film can't quite hold together for singular impact, but does offer numerous very worthwhile scenes that survive as short-films unto themselves deserving preservation: Kuklinski's first ordered hit, Ray Liotta deals with David Schwimmer, Chris Evans sells murder and ice cream, James Franco says a prayer, Michael Shannon reads a poem. The horror, heartbreak and absolute real-world weirdness of the elements of the story make it a worthwhile film (certainly infinitely better than the awful Carl Panzram biopic Killer: A Journal of Murder) if not a great one. I'll be interested to revisit this one in a few years and see if and how my opinion will have shifted. Plus, the film deserves recognition for the greatest, bushiest collection of porno-mustaches ever assembled. Best moment: work interferes with a family birthday.

El Infierno - Luis Estrada - Benny (Damian Alcazar) returns home to Mexico after years trying to establish a life for himself in the United States to find drug cartels violence has swallowed up everything he once knew including his younger brother who grew up to be a vicious, but celebrated killer. He takes the only job he can find following his brother's footsteps and becomes an enforcer for the local cartel, enjoying the notoriety and money even as he understands it can't end well. Several scenes of shocking violence that could have played so effectively for horror and tragedy are unfortunately emotionally blunted by a prevailing comedic dissonance - I'm not sure if the film isn't working or if I'm not getting what the goal is, but it felt like two competing films vying to own the screen... Also adding to that feeling, the epic running time. Still, had many memorable and effective sequences.

Joint Body - Brian Jun - Netflix recommended this one to me because I watched Coastlines and The Missing Person, and because, yeah, I had, and um, really liked both, I gave it a shot and found myself immediately drawn in to this unassuming, melancholy crime-inflected drama. A pitch-perfect Mark Pellegrino plays Nick, a parolee trying to make a new life for himself when he's cut off from his wife and child. He's working a menial job and living in a shitty apartment (or hotel?) where he's just reached out to a possible kindred soul - a woman (Alicia Witt) stringing her life along night to night dancing in a sleazy joint and trying to retain her own soul by taking care of her infirm neighbors. One night she's attacked by an unstable and fixated former acquaintance and Nick intervenes with tragic results. He wakes up in the hospital wounded and most likely heading back to prison unless she'll stick her neck out for him. The rest of the film is these two very damaged people circling each other warily deciding exactly how much weight they can lean on the other. Two people crossing a frozen lake metaphor together, gingerly, sometimes aggressively, obviously in need of the other, but heartbreakingly and convincingly unwilling to completely trust the other. It's like a Tom Waits song on screen or maybe a Charles Bukowski story from the sweeter pole of his work. Not perfect - the tone warbles a bit and a scene or two wander out onto flimsy limbs - but, like Coastlines and The Missing Person, an under-exposed crime flick deserving of a much larger audience. This is exactly the kind of adult fare I wish were more prevalent today.

The Lady in the Car With the Glasses and a Gun - Joann Sfar - This second adaptation of the novel Sébastien Japrisot is a little sexy, kind of mysterious and has just surreally weird enough of an itchy Lynchian/DePalmian/Hitchcockian vibe to keep you thinking about it later. Deservedly or not.

Last Stand - Kim Jee-woon - International baddy narco-trafficker Gabriel Cortez has rather spectacularly slipped the shackles of his US custodians and is fleeing toward Mexico via an unconventional route (as in - he's erecting a big ramp to jump over the Rio Grande) that will take him straight thru a small town shepherded by an old coot named Ahnold. Warned that the desperado may be headed their way, the kooky, unimpressed citizens support their local sheriff in blowing shit up to thwart the villain. After the admirable if tough to take I Saw the Devil it was nice to see Jee-Woon return to a purely fun action movie, and while not on the same level as his far-superior The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Last Stand manages to have a good time most of the time and to make Arnold Schwarzenegger a welcome movie presence again. The supporting cast features good turns from Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, Peter Storemare and Harry Dean Stanton, though it's difficult to understand how somebody as effortlessly charming and charismatic and gol-damned funny in his Jackass schtick as Johnny Knoxville can fall flat so consistently in all of his other roles - including here as a po-American-boy's version of Kang-ho Song. Note: any breakout that features giant magnets and zip lines is worth a look. It's slick little sequence.

The Legend of Barney Thompson - Robert Carlyle's debut as a feature director is an adaptation of The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay, a grisly comedy about a hapless barber who accidentally kills his boss and is relieved to find the murder mistakenly attributed to a serial killer currently working in Glasgow and then horrified to learn that he is suspected of being said serial killer. Carlyle shows an eye for detail that make Glasgow and its inhabitants pop off the screen and seem an alternately dismal and charming locale, and the cast, including Carlyle, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen and Brian Pettifer are fun, but it's Emma Thompson playing the barber's overbearing, alcoholic mother whom I charge with grand theft motion picture. She goes big and owns every scene she barrels through - couldn't get enough of her. Special notice to the props department for the lovingly detailed severed limbs and sundry liberated anatomical pieces that show up throughout - they add a good deal of punch to the goings on.

Live By Night - Ben Affleck - Split awfully hard on this one. Good story - the Dennis Lehane roots are recognizable maybe too much of it though. For the run-time the various plot lines feel too streamlined to have much emotional impact and instead each distracts from the others competing for our attention rather than complimenting a theme. The strong ensemble cast is upstaged by a woefully miscast Affleck in the fore who can't even manage to just stand there and be handsome in the terrific costumes thanks to his overly inflated Bat-frame and apparent plastic surgeries (and, are those hair plugs?) playing tricks with a face that ought to feel familiar to us by now. But shit, there is some amazing set design and cinematography in wonderful locales and some of the violent bits are astonishingly good. I predict I will come back to this one repeatedly for the stronger elements - whether repeated viewings make the whole better or worse remains to be seen

Logan Lucky - Steven Soderbergh - The idea of Soderbergh coming out of feature film retirement to make another heist picture is even a joke in the script - the local news stations covering the caper dub it Ocean's 7-11 - but hey, I'll take it. To call the film slight would be accurate, but to make that a knock would be a mistake. The seeming effortless quality to the film making, and the entire on-screen enterprise itself, requires a seasoned team of professionals, but to make it breezy and enjoyable takes a lot of skill. Yeah, I wondered at points if I should be insulted by the accents and mannerisms of its cast, but ultimately though the takes on southern culture and mindsets are broad, they seem good-natured - we're supposed to get behind the heroes and enjoy the come-uppance of the bad guys - this coloring box does not come with a gray crayon. The best bits belong to Dwight Yoakam and David Denman (whose wardrobe is so spot-on it deserves Oscar consideration). And Katherine Waterston manages to make an intriguing question mark of her brief time on screen - perhaps the one character with more to reveal after the credits role.

London Boulevard - William Monohan - Adapted from the Ken Bruen novel of the same name (which was inspired by the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Blvd. in turn). I think I read Bruen's book while I was binging on his stuff nearly ten years ago and frankly - I don't recall much of the plot, so I'm not going to get into the things I did notice that don't mirror the book (cause the movie is the movie is the movie and must stand or fall on its own), but I will only comment on the fact that Bruen is such a prose powerhouse that nothing on film is going to quite feel like his books read. Monahan idn't no slouch with the talkies neither. He's best known for writing Martin Scorsese's The Departed (itself an occidentalization of Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs) which was hardly tight - slack and bloated were the script, but me-thinks the blame for that falls on Marty for letting Jack Nicholson have whatever he wanted and not on Billy's shoulders - but tight or not, it was always... fun, or at least amusing. Monahan also scripted the adaptation of David Ignatius's Body of Lies which was forgotten as soon as it hit screens, but is one of my favorite Ridley Scott flicks of the last fifteen years, easily. London Boulevard was a long way from knocking my socks off, but it was a well executed genre film that I suspect will be looked upon more betterer in the futures. Great supporting cast including fine work from Colin Farrell, Ben Chaplin, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, Anna Friel, Stephen Graham and the always begging to be nearer the center of the picture Ray Winstone. It's way better than Mojave anyhow, brother.

Machete / Machete Kills - Robert Rodriguez - In the Machete movies, Danny Trejo's titular baddest ass is given missions by the President of the United States (the amazing Charlie Sheen / Carlos Estevez) and takes them on with all the gusto a 70 year old action hero is capable of (and then some). In the process he'll kill an impressive amount of people, some of them more than once, uncover multiple levels of corruption and conspiracy and still fuck around a bit with all the sexy ladies drawn to his ultra-masculine vibe. It can take a lot out of a body. Love him or hate him, you've got to give Rodriguez his due for making fast and frugal films with more imagination per frame than... most. His Hollywood outsider status is bonafide and his body of work is impressively Corman-esque. I fall on the love-him end of the spectrum, tho I'd forgive you for being weary of his schtick. He does hit the same notes over and over, and his flicks are so slight they'd float away on a stiff breeze if you didn't hold them down with something heavy. His films are very meta too. Each as much a deconstruction of genre as solid entry in said tradition. Mostly though, they're just fucking fun. Fucking hell, what more do you want?

Marauders - Steven C. Miller - Miller, king of Redbox fare starring Bruce Willis for 10 minutes, has put together a hell of a lot of these movies over the last few years and I've sat through most of them. Marauders was the first I gave a shot to and walked away with high hopes I'd found a new indy-champ who'd someday make a great crime movie. Amigos, it's been fucking dire since. I enjoyed Arsenal just enough (Nicolas Cage making it an unlikely sequel to 1992's Deadfall was probably the highlight), but it's been a hard-run race to the bland heart of mediocrity since. I haven't revisited Marauders, but I'm leaving my initial response in place and trying not to be too bitter about what's happened in between. The plot involving dirty cops, bank robberies and corruption and wartime shenanigans is twistier than it needs to be, but the pace is steady and it's full of attention grabbing sequences including a drone shot over Cincinnati that appears to drop through the roof of an SUV full of heavily-armed thieves as it's pulling up outside a bank - the camera then goes 360 degrees and out of the vehicle staying with the heist crew as they move in formation through the bank. Cool little touches to the heist scenes - pre-recorded instructions for tellers rather than speaking during the robberies and when it's time to get bloody, Miller doesn't hold back. Solid cast too. Christopher Meloni does his TV schtick, Dave Bautista gets to have fun as a hulking FBI agent with hand tattoos, Adrian Grenier stays out of his own way and the surprise is how effective Johnathon Schaech is because the poor guy's had to prove himself to me each time out since I first got to know him during the 90s in those Gregg Araki movies that I hated... I kept giving Araki another chance, but I'd written Schaech off. Sorry, John.

MastermindsJared Hess - The 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery is a true event that undoubtedly will sometime have another film treatment, but however many it eventually gets, at least one of them being a broadly comic approach seemed inevitable. I love Hess's affinity for weirdos and his treatment of them and this is a cast of characters he could sink his teeth in to. It's a cast of performers to die for too, but the assembled super team sometimes pull in directions at odds with Hess's singular voice. Small sacrifices in vision for laughs courtesy of a talented ensemble of improvisation pros is a call I'm happy enough to let go, but the place I think this film suffers is the score. Hess's identifiable musical choices are a through-line in his best and most personal films and for whatever reason all of his personality has been stripped from the soundscape of this film in favor of flavorless generic placeholding music (budgetary issues? studio overreach? or maybe it's just another layer of meta joke like the editing style of the Coen's Scott Brothers' style parody Burn After Reading? - I did laugh at it once or twice). Try and imagine a Wes Anderson movie with the score replaced by something lifted from an episode of Law & Order... Still, I laughed easily and often... I just wish we could get an alternate music cues cut of this one.

Mexican Gangster (aka Mexico's Most Wanted) - José Manuel Cravioto - This unwieldy film based on the true larger than life figure Alfredo Ríos Galeana, a bank-robbing cop who moonlit as a luchador-mask-wearing mariachi going by the name Charro Misterioso, is full of enough what the actual fuckery to compensate for its sometimes shaggy-dog script and obtuse structure. I'd never heard of Galeana before and looked him up immediately after finishing the film. Turns out writer/director Cravioto deserved more credit than I'd initially given him in getting the story onscreen in a more or less cohesive package. If the narrative had been presented chronologically it would have required a much longer running time to give proper attention to each element in the unbelievable story. As presented -like a blender full of incongruous liquified ingredients- it makes for a head-scratching take on an otherwise standard criminal bio-pic, but honestly, what was left out was even weirder and I think it showed great restraint on Cravioto's part not to even bother.

A Most Wanted Man - Anton Corbijn - When a precision stylist like Corbijn is running the ship all you have to decide is whether it's a trip you want to take. Rest assured he'll get you to the advertised destination smoothly and often beautifully. With this cast and source material by John le Carré it's easily a destination I'd like to visit, it only ranks relatively low on my list (these are all recommendations though - I think you ought to check them out) because it's not any kind of high-octane anything and it's not a gritty extreme close up of some exotic unexamined life or corner of the world. This kind of international crime and intrigue and espionage has been covered and covered again and has changed perceptively little since the "end" of the Cold War. In fact, now that the goodies and baddies are just the home and visiting teams anymore this type of fare has only become appropriately more cynical. The fate of the world matters seems to matter less and less to which super-power it's tethered. Which isn't to say there are no stakes. As the powers of the wealthiest nations, corporations and individuals increasingly boggle comprehension in their vastness the stakes turn inward and become about the individual souls (not lives or even deaths) of the cast. How will they handle the power they're custodians of? How much security (and for whom) is worth how much tarnishing? It's got an emotional core too and its condition is best tracked in Philip Seymour Hoffman's face and body language.

Outrage Takeshi Kitano - Beat Takeshi's yakuza films are kinda the modern Japanese equivalent of 60s/70s/80s Clint Eastwood westerns. They're more or less interchangeable, elaborately stylized set-ups to hardboiled jokes with grim/funny punchlines and lots of pondering of the mute and iconic grizzled star's faces. Lots of squinting and grimacing. And that's not a bad thing. It's also not a great thing. It's a thing. If it's your thing, then awesome. If it's not particularly, than a little bit goes a long way. Outrage is no exception. Essentially it's a comedy of manners with lots of blood, and having seen several Takeshi yakuza pics beforehand, I spent the first half hour looking at all the regal looking Japanese gentlemen in their immaculate suits and imagining what horrors would be visited upon each of them by the film's end. Aaaaand, most of my expectations were met if not exceeded. Takeshi films are like a particularly sharp cheese that I'd not like to eat all the time, but every once in a while it's exactly what I want. That's right, cheese. Best moment: a group of yakuza tease and berate a hot-head into chopping off his finger. It's an undoubtedly funny sequence that also serves to ratchet tension for the rest of the movie by establishing two things: what an idiot he/they is/are and how dangerous too.

Point Blank - Joe Lynch - You may hear it described as "a Netflix original," but it's a remake of Fred Cavayé's French language film of the same name (no, it's not a remake of John Boorman's 1967 classic). Lynch is a film maker of juvenile strengths - his movies are gonna be crude, irreverent, ultra-violent, gross and over the top wherever possible - and that works for him (and me) more often than not (I really enjoyed Everly and Knights of Badassdom is a lot of fun too). It's one of the reasons this English-language remake is worth having. Outside of plot this remake's not much like the original. This is a Joe Lynch flick and his stamp is all over it. It may or may not be your thing though. Loads of good in-jokes for movie fans too - for instance you'll find throughout references to other remakes that made their own way out of the shadow of their predecessors. Notably, William Friedkin's Sorcerer based on French novelist Georges Arnaud's book Wages of Fear which was originally adapted for the screen in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot (as well as in 1958 by Howard W. Koch as Violent Road) and might appear again soon directed by Ben Wheatley, Brian De Palma's Scarface, an unofficial cocaine wars update of Howard Hawks' prohibition-era gangster movie based on the Armitage Trail novel inspired by Al Capone, and John Carpenter'Assault on Precinct 13, another Hawks' remake, this time of his western Rio Bravo starring John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, this time updated to a 20th century urban wasteland in (if you wanna be really super nerdy, the Carpenter version was then remade in 2005 by French director Jean-François Richet starring Lawrence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke making this nod a Hawke remake of a Hawks remake) and Hawks gets two nods Friedkin gets a second reference with To Live & Die in L.A. getting a shout as well - a movie I've heard some argue eclipses its own source material; Gerald Petievich's novel of the same name). All that's from a single casual viewing, so I'm probably missing a bunch of other nerdy nods. Anyway, it's fun on a few levels.

Prisoners - Denis Villeneuve - The young daughters of two families disappear while the families celebrate Thanksgiving and the only lead the police have is the vehicle of a strange man spotted in the neighborhood at the time. As days drag by with no sign of the missing girls one of the fathers takes drastic and illegal action to find them, frustrated by perceived ineffectiveness of the police. What follows is a fairly suffocating morality thriller that probably has good points to make, but lost me somewhere in the heaviness of hand. I dunno, maybe it was just my mood that day. Not without merit though - both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal give good performances, though if I go the rest of my life without seeing Paul Dano in another role like this, I'll consider myself lucky. Best moment: probably somewhere in Jackman's guilty, angry red-rimmed eyes.

The Retrieval - Chris Eska - Will, (Ashton Sanders) a young slave with a grim job - he's an integral member of a gang of bounty hunters seeking quarry (primarily runaway slaves) on the bleeding edges of the war between the states - is torn between survival instincts and moral choices. The plot and themes are familiar from every undercover agent movie ever, but feel fresh and particularly compelling with the innovation of the setting and inversion of the typical genre sympathies. This atmospheric period piece is pulled off swimmingly on its low budget by a good costume department, sharp cinematography and aces location shooting in the wild plus a well deployed supporting cast including Tishuan Scott, Keston John and Bill Oberst Jr. Looking forward to the next offering from Eska.

Riddick - David Twohy - Vin Diesel is fascinating. His obsession with making franchises for himself out of unlikely first offerings coupled with a strict adherence to the rules out of a self-published book probably called 'You Too Can Become an Action Movie Icon'  (be invincible, never be bested in any fucking way, never be the butt of a joke, no tricky dialogue, muscles muscles muscles!) have led to endless and evolving editions of The Fast & the Furious and xXx, but The Riddick Chronicles really take the passion project cake. The Riddick character which he first embodied in Twohy's lovely low-scale Carpenter-esque space monster movie Pitch Black was then over-developed as the central figure in a ridiculously detailed mythology. Pitch Black's follow up, the waaaaay overbaked The Chronicles of Riddick, is an excellent cautionary tale and an almost singular example of over-reach - but it didn't end there! Nope, after the epic excesses of Chronicles, Twohy and Diesel followed up with another refreshingly scaled-back Riddick tale. This time out he's a fugitive and a castaway. There are three movies in three acts and a weird structural rhythm to it that I dug. Survival movie, fugitive movie, prison break movie. I like all these things, plus I'll kill you with my teacup is a pretty badass line and I wouldn't hate you for making me a T-shirt.

Savages - Oliver Stone - Expectations working against it a little bit. Because the book, man. Don Winslow's book really is so much better than the movie, it's hard not to be disappointed. Still, Savages is a good crime flick - going unexpected places and ringing the big obvious bells with gusto (man, those cartel torture sequences are horrific).  Had a couple of really terrific set pieces too - the convoy heist is tits, and the Benicio Del Toro and Shea Whigham's scene is great. It also has one of the worst bits in recent memory - those last few minutes are a big wet blanket tossed on my (not so) happy ending boner.

Shangri-La Suite - Eddie O'Keefe - Mental ward escapees and lovers on the run Jack and Karen (Luke Grimes and Emily Browning) have a mission - or at least Jack does - to kill Elvis Presley. Narrated by Burt Reynolds and shot on an ultra-stylized shoestring it makes the most of its stars' good looks and attitude to produce something at once familiar and fresh. Particularly revelatory here is Ron Livingston as Elvis - washed up and hungry to be reborn performing spirituals in the sequin jumpsuited, mutton-chopped Las Vegas version of the former king of rock 'n roll. I could've watched an hour of outtakes of Livingston/Presley and it was particularly nice to see Grimes in something worthwhile - seems like he's got charisma to burn, but is always the sacrifice on a shitty altar. O'Keefe's got my attention - what's next?

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Guy Ritchie - Man, I fucking wish Ritchie could keep cranking out the fun little pictures he ascended on and here's hoping The Gentlemen is a fun return, but still, if he's gonna be doing big studio pictures these Sherlock Holmes ones are a lot of fun. Especially because of the odd-couple buddy charisma of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Sightseers - Ben Wheatley - Chris and Tina (co-writers and co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) just want to take a nice vacation. We like them immediately for their big, goofy open-faced affection for each other, their stagnant places in life and their mutual recognition of the other as their best bet for moving on to the next stage of their latent adulthoods. They leave Tina's home pulling a camper trailer, which they may decide to pull over and have noisy roadside sex in the back of, in the morning and pull into a slot at the first stop on their tour that evening where they commence an odd and awkwardly escalating confrontation with another vacationing couple. Wheatley, whose previous two pictures really blew me away - the off-balance comic crime drama Down Terrace and the domestic drama turned hit man thriller turned nightfuckingmare Kill List - loaded this one with flashes of inspired humor and violence and while it doesn't particularly stand out against those first couple of pictures, it is a different thing entirely from A Field in England and High Rise with Free Fire marking a return of sorts to his horrifically comic crime picture roots. He's one of my favorite working film makers.

The Sisters Brothers - Jacques Audiard - Audiard made one of my absolute favorites of the previous decade (A Prophet) and has yet to make another picture of that caliber. This adaptation of Patrick DeWitt's whimsical existentially comic western is grounded nicely by the unlikely onscreen sibling pairing of John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. Their bickering and badgering and exploitative working relationship and familial bond (cemented perfectly by Carol Kane as mom) is a pleasure to watch and sit with. Less compelling is the pairing of Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal, but when all four are onscreen all is forgiven. If you're a huge fan of the book, I imagine the film will disappoint, but if you like the movie I recommend giving the novel a go.

68 Kill -  Trent Haaga - A hapless loser whose girlfriend may not be into him for his personality, or brain, or looks, or money, or status still manages to be blindsided by her dark ambitions and the lengths he will go to and depths to which he will sink in order to stay with her and stay alive. When her plot to steal a bunch of money turns into multiple homicide and a never-ending string of misfortunes and double-crosses he proves sweetly naive enough to continue being surprised at every turn. Based on the novel by Bryan Smith it succeeds in the face of budgetary limitations by sheer outrageous conceit and an uneven, if fully-game, cast. And yeah, that's Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - good eye, you.

Snow on tha Bluff Damon Russell - Slice of life, found footage/mock-doc about an Atlanta drug dealer (and drug dealer robbing) Curtis Snow who plays a version of himself in the film. Naturalistic, unselfconscious performances all around help blur lines of reality and fiction for maximum emotional engagement. Funny, scary, fascinating details. Look for them when you spot the Devil.

Snowtown Murders - Justin Kurzel - Fuuuuuuuck me. When your movie starts off with child molestation and then gets darker that's saying something. Based on the true story of John Bunting and the ragtag crew of neighborhood watch vigilantes he turned into serial killing fucks this raw, unblinking dramatization of the descent is ugly and horrifying and potent shit. Naturally Kurzel's next gig was the Michael Fassbender video game adaptation Assassin's Creed. Of course. I don't necessarily want him to return to anything this hellishly dark, but I would love to see his obvious skills employed for more criminal fare.

Stoker - Park Chan-wook - For his first english-language effort Chan-wook switches up from gritty urban revenge flicks to stately gothic atmospherics from a script by Wentworth Miller and seemingly inspired in part by Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. This time Uncle Charlie is played by Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska is his niece - Nicole Kidman rounds out the creepy family. Chan-wook returned to South Korea for his next picture - the lush period revenge/romance The Handmaiden. Who knows if he'll ever come west again, but I take Stoker and The Handmaiden as encouraging evidence that he escaped un-tainted by Hollywood.

Stretch - Joe Carnahan - A limo driver working off a gambling debt and a broken heart learns he's got one night to settle everything, but it's either going to be a hell of a bad night or a waste of time as the subject for a film. Could it be both? I dunno, the studio seemed to think so - dumping it unceremoniously to streaming services without a hint of publicity or promotion. I prefer to think of this one as a low-budget lark, Carnahan just having fun, rather than a failed commercial comeback vehicle for the man behind more high-profile derailed projects of promise than I know (whatever happened to his adaptation of Mark Bowden's  Killing Pablo w/Benicio Del Toro as Pablo Escobar - that was a thing, right? - or his adaptation of James Ellroy's White Jazz w/George Clooney as Dave Klein, or his adaptation of Lawrence Block's A Walk Among the Tombstones w/Harrison Ford as Matt Scudder, or his Mission Impossible 3 or???). Whatever frame the picture is in, it's the picture itself that should be considered and what we've got here is a star-studded, half-smart-assed thriller that doesn't pull everything together in the end, but has plenty to enjoy on the way there. Patrick Wilson is used particularly well here and I enjoy the way Carnahan continues to choose to cast Chris Pine's roles - though he had more fun in Smokin' Aces. Slight, but not completely without charm or wit. I'd rather see more like this than another A-Team movie.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Tomas Alfredson - See pretty much everything I said about A Most Wanted Man here - With this cast and source material by John le Carré it's easily a destination I'd like to visit, it only ranks relatively low on my list (these are all recommendations though - I think you ought to check them out) because it's not any kind of high-octane anything and it's not a gritty extreme close up of some exotic unexamined life or corner of the world. This kind of international crime and intrigue and espionage has been covered and covered again and has changed perceptively little since the "end" of the Cold War. In fact, now that the goodies and baddies are just the home and visiting teams anymore this type of fare has only become appropriately more cynical. The fate of the world matters seems to matter less and less to which super-power it's tethered. Which isn't to say there are no stakes. As the powers of the wealthiest nations, corporations and individuals increasingly boggle comprehension in their vastness the stakes turn inward and become about the individual souls (not lives or even deaths) of the cast - only place this one at the height of the cold war and adjust from there. These films are stately and solid and good get-to-know-you stuffs for introducing your latest romantic partner to your fascination with crime movies.

Ugly Anurag Kashyup - A celebrity's daughter is abducted from his parked car during his portion of split custody and he scrambles to find her while his ex-wife, the police and everybody else treat him with suspicion. Even through the barriers of culture and language some of the black humor shows and by the time the whole sordid affair has concluded - people are dead, nobody's in a better place - we have the sense of having witnessed tragedy the full dimensions of which are just beyond our grasp (and we're grateful for that). Satirical celebrity thriller with gritzy locale and atmosphere and a climax that lands like William Gay's The Paperhanger - oof. Kashyup is a force to be reckoned with.

Veve - Simon Mukali - Part crime and corruption picture, part revenge thriller and part social drama, this Kenyan picture paints vivid portraits of marginalized people in a marginalized corner of the world attempting to rise up. The climb is never pretty, not often noble and always complicated by the nexus of ideals and experience. Why isn't anyone talking about this one? I want more like this from every global locale plus another from Mukali. C'mon financiers, step up. Let's put more of the globe on display - the day to day details in here are gold.


War Dogs - Todd Phillips - Joker and all the fuckin baggage  may bring him notoriety, but Todd The Hangover/Old School Phillips won't be pigeon-holed as a frat-comedy fucker. He's seen Scorese and shit. More thoughts on Joker later - War Dogs is a pretty successful marriage of frat-dude sensibilities and more serious-minded global-political shit. Maybe it's Jonah Hill, but after The Wolf of Wall Street this motherfucker's got the absolute greatest cocaine stare since Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas. Bros with rich kid connections and zero moral compass making a killing in global capital/colonialism is an important movie to be making and making it fun with a sour ending might be good enough to get the conversation started in places it's never been a rumor. Or... maybe it's just obnoxious fun. Faux-sese with the best of 'em. Also, he's Todd Hated: G.G. Allin the Murder Junkies Phillips if you please.

Wheelman -  Jeremy Rush - When Frank Grillo, the titular driver for a heist gone bad, realizes he's been double crossed he spends a frantic night trying to set things right. Ambitious concept shooting the entirety of the picture within or within sight of the car it allows for creative action staging as well as fresh perspective to familiar action sequences and provides a believable way to keep the budget manageable by staying with Grillo in almost real-time. It's not Locke though - there are supporting players including Shea Whigham, Garret Dillahunt and Slaine peppered throughout to keep things lively.

Zero Dark Thirty - Kathryn Bigelow - Nuts and bolts espionage procedural that's... well crafted, if not terribly entertaining. I did appreciate a lot of the choices made (imagine how awful that climactic siege sequence would've been in the hands of a Michael Bay schooled film maker), but the nailing of Osama Bin Laden was never a goal the film ever got me to care about much. Each character is (intentionally) soley defined by their role in the manhunt to the point that the person we end up knowing the most about is the interrogated subject in the film's opening chapter. In fact, if the entire film had been Jason Clarke and Jessica Chastain going duo e mano with Reda Kateb, I would have found it much easier to invest in. But in the end, it's not a film about people, but ideas and ideals and what we'll exchange for an equilibrium.

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 201-250

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade 151-200

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 101-150

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 51-100

Crime Flick Picks of the Decade: 1-50

5 comments:

E. Ellis said...

Have you seen Into The Ashes? You may have written about it and I missed it (you write about so much good stuff!).

Saw it last night on Hulu and was really surprised. Tale of a man in Alabama with a past that comes back to haunt him. Some good actors (Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Robert (Longmire) Taylor, James Badge Dale) and great sound mixing.

David Lawrence said...

Looking forward to sitting down and devouring this. By the time you've finished, this is going to feel so comprehensive that I'll be fascinated to know what you cut and, in all seriousness, you'll have written something that could have been released as a book.

jedidiah ayres said...

Had not seen INTO THE ASHES - thanks for the heads up. I'll definitely give it a look.

A book for six people in the whole world! Thanks, though. Good to know there are five more of us out there.

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