Sunday, July 19, 2020

1010 pt 2

More of my favorite first-time watches by decade from the first half of 2020, the year that just won't fucking die.


Hana-Bi - Takeshi Kitano - Kitano plays an ex-cop who goes into debt with a loan shark in order to care for his ailing wife and another ex-policeman whose disabling injury he feels responsible for. When the gangster's muscle start to squeeze him he robs a bank to pay back the loan. Now he's got cops on his trail as well as the loan shark who puts together how he was able to get the money so quickly leading to some tense posturing and an inevitable bloody showdown. Before the fireworks there are some remarkably tender passages of Kitano and his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) as they make the most of their dwindling time together as well as separate scenes of Ren Osugi's wheelchair bound ex-cop battling suicidal depression through painting. An unusually emotionally affecting outing from Kitano whose hardboiled humor is more often the counterpoint to the bursts of stylized violence that punctuate his pictures. Kitano makes some capital-C choices here including the non-linear narrative framing, and the inclusion of the lovely painting sequences scored so distinctly by Joe Hisaishi. I love how aware Kitano is of his own strengths as a performer, choosing to silently absorb all the dialogue his co-stars feed him and react slowly with a slight shift in his amazing face or with decisive physicality alternating his body between a vehicle for violence or slapstick humor. I tend to find his films potent to the point of thinking "a little bit goes a long way" and not particularly wanting to watch another any time soon, but I reacted differently to Hana-Bi and I might go for another very soon.

A Perfect World - Clint Eastwood - Kevin Costner plays an escaped convict who take a young boy (T.J. Lowther) hostage during his getaway while Clint Eastwood's Texas ranger and Laura Dern's criminologist employ a mix of good-old-boy gutsiness and keen highly-educated insight to apprehend their quarry and rescue the boy. Not really sure how I let this one go so long unwatched. It sits unassumingly between Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County in Eastwood's directorial body of work at the very end of Costner's run as the biggest bankable movie-star and upon initial release I certainly had some young-man's resistance to both figures even, and probably especially because, I felt such an undeniable attraction to their projects (it wan't them, it was me), but still nearly thirty years is a long time to put it off. I appreciated the low-key approach to the whole affair - it wasn't a high-octane thriller and it wasn't an entirely sappy dysfunctional family surrogate father figures melodrama, but it had big helpings of both in there. There are some harrowing bits like Costner interrupting a sexual assault on Lowther's mother, or Lowther intervening in a hostage situation doomed to end in murder by Costner, while the Eastwood/Dern half of the narrative casts him as the irritated and gruffly competent, but grudgingly acknowledging the importance of progress authority figure while Dern has to bide her time and bite her tongue and deftly navigate the unjust impediments to her rise to respect and equality. The bond that forms between Costner and the kid is the heart of the movie. We like Costner because he's smart and not as bad as another con whom he breaks out with, but also because he does what he wants and he has some genuine affection for the kid who has grown up without a father in a strictly religious home. The boy is magnetically drawn to him (fascinated and frightened too) and in the space of a couple short days learns to read the dangerous new terrain he's navigating (circumstantial and relational). The Eastwood/Dern storyline is the harmony to Costner's melody with The older surrogate paternal figure being on the learning end of relationship. Costner and Eastwood are both problematic father figures who try hard, but in the end find that the best thing they can do is get out of the way of the future.

Hand Gun - Whitney Ransick - Treat Williams and Paul Schulze are semi-estranged brothers, small time criminals of strikingly different styles - one is a strong-arm and the other a weasel-y conman - who must work together to recover the small fortune their father (Seymour Cassel) died making on his final score. I'd never heard of Ransick, but his style lands somewhere between early 90s east-coast indy filmmaker contemporaries like Nick Gomez and Hal Hartley and features a cast (to die for) you'd expect from that scene as well: Michael Rappaport, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, John Ventimiglia, Toby Huss, Anna Thomson, Zoë Lund, Paul Calderon, Luis Guzmán and Vincent Pastore (about half the cast of The Sopranos). Surrendering neither to hardboiled self-seriousness nor cartoonish humor, the film takes the fate of its characters to heart, but presents them as doomed fuckups and nowhere men inviting the audience to care for and laugh at its subjects. As far as I can tell Ransick was a one and done for narrative features (though a fair amount of TV work), which is a shame, 'cause I'd be happy to find a few more like this one.

La Cucaracha - Jack Perez - Eric Roberts is a down and out writer whose bragging about fictional dirty deeds gets him hired by a representative of Joaquin de Almeida's wealthiest man in town to kill a man who wronged his family. Roberts is no soulless killer though, he's troubled by the proposition and even more by his own willingness to consider it, but soon finds that he's put himself in a kill or be killed situation and takes the job. A simple noir set up, but what sets this one apart from so many is the follow through. It's a satisfyingly grimy telling of a familiar crime fable (watch for an early appearance from Michael Peña). I'm really surprised I'd never heard of it before. I checked Perez's filmography afterward and had only seen one (the Kevin Corrigan starring weirdo comic noir Some Guy Who Kills People), but will try some more - maybe Wild Things 2, The Big Empty or Where's Roman?

Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip GirlKatsuhito Ishii - This story of thievery, sexual perversity, hitmen and yakuza families is based on a manga of the same name and it's a big ol' mess of story elements strung together in vignettes which vary wildly in quality. The whole affair is held together by a playful energy that reflects the best (and worst) of the decade's attitudes and innovations. The action rarely thrills, but there are laughs throughout and the extremely stylized nature of the project means there's always something to be watching even when the plot gets away from you. Features one of my favorite cinematic shootouts of the year.


King of the Ants - Stuart Gordon - When Gordon died earlier this year I took the opportunity to watch whatever was available on streaming platforms and this one stood out. Best known as a horror film maker this one is a crime film that gets more horrific than most are willing to. Another down and out man hired to kill someone, double-cross and revenge saga (this would pair well with La Cucaracha for +a double feature), it's remarkable for the commitment to sticking the noir landing... and breaking it off. Felt like discovering an un-published Allan Guthrie novel (that's a very strong recommendation).

City of ViolenceRyoo Seung-wan - A group of childhood friends are reunited on the occasion of one of their group's murder twenty years later. One is now a policeman another is a gangster and no one is particularly satisfied with the official story of how their friend met his end. Not really a strong example of the Korean flavor of crime films I've enjoyed so much this century, this one leans awfully hard on Hong-Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s and it's not really great... until the climax. The final action show-piece really is a stunner akin to and probably even directly influenced by The House of Blue Leaves chapter of Kill Bill vol. 1 (I'm not knowledgeable enough of Tarantino's influences to say what he's paying homage to in that sequence). Regardless, I found the climax worth the sit and have rewatched it a couple of times since.

Where the Money IsMarek Kanievska - Linda Fiorentino is a caretaker at the nursing home Paul Newman's catatonic elderly bank robber is released from prison into the custody of and she begins to suspect the geezer is playing dumb and planning an escape and, if she's lucky, another heist that she can horn in on to escape the drudgery she feels her life has become. I avoided it despite it being a crime film starring Fiorentino and Newman for 20 years because it was rated PG and I figured that meant 'lame.' I'm glad I finally gave it a go, it was fun. Sucks that neither of them are making movies any longer.

Harry Brown - Daniel Barber - Michael Caine is the titular character, a old man who turns to vigilantism after his friend is murdered. Seems the housing development they shared has become a real shit hole overrun by violent youth with no respect for their elders. Blah-blah-blah, and murder. It's definitely a kick to watch Caine's geezer go to war with the likes of Sean Harris, Ben Drew and Jack O'Connell and it holds its mud with some particularly nasty bits. Emily Mortimer and Iain Glen are cops on Caine's case alternately impressed and repulsed by his work.

The Butcher - Jesse V. Johnson - Eric Roberts (again!) is a middling criminal on a long decline and a gambler with outsized debt who pulls it together for one last stab at fat city. Before Johnson became king of the DTV action movie he made a handful of these low budget gangster flicks with mixed results. They're kinda stuck in the unenviable position of comparison to Guy Ritchie, while undeniably conscious that their own funding owes an awful lot to the success of his films. They're not really going for the same thing Ritchie's were, but they're also not as good. They manage to be too stiff and too hammy at the same time, but they also hit some nice notes often thanks to their veteran casts and this one has a honey of a that-guy lineup including Keith David, Bookeem Woodbine, Michael Ironside, Geoffrey Lewis, Robert Davi, Jeremy Trimble, Timothy V. Murphy, Guillermo Diaz and Nils Allen Stewart. There's perhaps too much plot as well, but this one (also Johnson's Charlie Valentine starring Raymond J. Barry) held me in pleasant suspense about what the ultimate fates of their heroes would be.

2010s (that won't be eligible for 2020 year-end picks)

Tramps - Adam Leon - This low stakes romantic shaggy-dog of a crime oddyssey through New York City stars Callum Turner as a reluctant participant in a criminal transaction of an unknown nature. He's trying to do his incarcerated brother a solid by taking a package and delivering it to someone else, but things go wrong pretty quick and he finds himself partnered with  Grace Van Patten chasing the misplaced goods around the city. There's a series of unanticipated complications and crises that test their wits and guts and the bonds of their new relationship. I was charmed and disarmed by this one that plays like a rom-com version of the Safdie Brothers' Good Time.

Mayhem - Joe Lynch - Steven Yuen is a mid-level cog in a big machine watching his soul slip away in pursuit of a corner office and a retirement plan working for a monstrous legal firm. On the same day that he becomes a scape-goat for his nervous overlords their high rise corporate office is locked down due to contamination by a highly contagious virus that causes the infected to lose all inhibitions and act out their basest impulses. Seizing the opportunity to blow off twenty years' worth of pent up frustration and seething anger he fights his way to the penthouse where the board members run their evil empire determined to give them a piece of his mind. It's a white-collar splatter movie with infectious energy for fans of Greg McLean's The Belko Experiment or Duane Swiercyznski's Severance Package.

The Foreigner - Martin Campbell - Jackie Chan is the titular character intent on getting justice for his daughter killed in a terrorist bombing in London. Frustrated by the lack of progress the Scotland Yard investigation is making, he takes it upon himself to find the Irish Nationalist group who've claimed responsibility and exact his revenge. Pierce Brosnan plays a politician and outspoken former IRA member who may be linked to the group. Both Brosnan's and Chan's characters' pasts are going to catch up to them. Based on Stephen Leather's novel The Chinaman I remember when this one came out thinking that grim Jackie Chan wasn't really a thing I was interested in, but it popped up on Netflix and I'm so glad I gave it a go. I'd recommend you do too.

Revenge For Jolly! - Chad Harbold - Brian Petsos plays Harry, a deadbeat criminal who indulges in one last night of blackout drinking with his cousin Cecil (Oscar Isaac) before leaving town in lieu of paying with broken bones a debt he can't cover in cash. It was one bad choice too many though and he returns home to collect his dog Jolly before hitting the road only to find that his pet has been killed by people looking for him. Harry and Cecil then embark on an investigation and quest for justice that leaves many, many people of varying degrees of culpability equally fucking murdered in this darkly comic and deadpan revenge story that predates both films, but feels like John Wick by way of The Greasy Strangler. I really, really enjoyed it. Killer cast includes Kristen Wiig, Elijah Wood, Adam Brody, Ryan Phillippe, Garret Dillahunt, Amy Seimetz, Kevin Corrigan, Gillian Jacobs, Jayne Atkinson and Bobby Moynihan.

Once Upon a Time in Venice - Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen - Bruce Willis comes out of his coma to play a Venice Beach private detective trying to get his dog back from gangsters who've stolen him for reasons. This is ultra-light-weight, breezy tough-guy stuff that has plenty of room for the groans to be lost among the laughs. It's dumb, so, so very dumb, but a lot of fun and Willis is a big part of the fun - bedding women a third of his age, skateboarding naked, pratfalling, one-liner-ing and smirking like he used to. It won't fill that Terriers-was-cancelled-sized hole in your heart, but it feels like it's trying to. Supporting cast includes Jason Momoa, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Röhm, Adam Goldberg, Wood Harris, Emily Robinson and Kal Penn.

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