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The Way of the Gun is one of my favorite smaller, less heralded crime pictures, and this opening scene is a master class in getting your attention while introducing protagonists. I stumbled on it recently and thought I’d re-post or write some reviews on some of my favorite small crime flicks. The criteria necessarily rules out epics like The Godfathers, Goodfellas and Casino, or any of the Hitchcock pictures, as well as anything from Tarantino, whose first two pictures were the gold standard of crime pics. His notoriety, however, makes a recommendation of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction a waste of typeface. I want to focus on pictures that may have gone unnoticed.

With The Way of the Gun, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie assuredly expended the juice he’d earned writing The Usual Suspects to helm this noir-ish tale of a couple of fuck-ups (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe) who engineer a kidnapping with slapdash bravado and brutality. They have no idea the forces at play, and the greatest joy in the flick is their dogged aplomb as shit just gets worse and worse. These two losers are decent in the moment, but as exemplified in the movie’s best exchange, not exactly master planners:


Scenes like this one exemplify McQuarrie’s insistence on rejecting the cool in favor of the absurd. But that doesn’t mean he can’t direct an action sequence, and the final shootout is one for the ages. The film is also aided by Joe Kraemer’s moody, understated and anticipatory soundtrack (one of his firsts).

COMING UP FOR CAPSULE REVIEW OR RE-POSTING OF UPDATED REVIEWS
Layer Cake
One False Move
Hell or High Water
Point Blank
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
The Long Good Friday
To Live and Die in LA
Internal Affairs
Menace II Society
City of Industry
The General
The Limey
A History of Violence
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Eastern Promises
In Bruges
Blue Ruin
The Long Goodbye

In America (2002) directed by Jim Sheridan • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Ireland week continues in the Filmvetter household. Tuesday was Philomena. Last night, In America. Between them, I’ve crammed enough emotion in the pit of my stomach to fashion a golf-ball-sized tumor.

At least with Philomena, there were respites, where I could alleviate my welling up with some levity between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Not so last night. I’ve seen many movies with incredibly poignant scenes and heartbreakingly rendered familial dynamics. There are scenes in Terms of Endearment that still create a lump in my throat. A friend, without warning, once recommended a Kevin Kline film, Life as a House, that I don’t know whether it was good or bad, but I do know it shattered me. And he knew my particular vulnerabilities. He knew I cried at Cocoon. He knew I cried harder at the Star Trek movie where Spock died, such that my wife was reduced to soothingly (no doubt, eyes rolling, as they should have been) imparting, “It’s alright. He comes back in the sequel.” But no warning was given, and Kevin Kline loses his job and gets a cancer diagnosis in the first 10 minutes, whereafter he reunites with his wayward son, and they build a house and Kline dies. Brutal. I hold the recommendation against him to this day.

I digress.

Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot) portrays an Irish family escaping a tragedy to come to New York City in 1980. The parents, Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, each deal with the loss in their own way; he shuts it off and turns inward, she insists the tragedy in no way hurt her daughters. They land at a run-down tenement where the drug addicts inhabit the stoop and an artist neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) screams and pounds the wall, plagued by his own tragedy. Given their innocence, their assimilation is nerve-wracking (the most harrowing scene being the playing of a carnival game) and uplifting, as they integrate into a community that is alternatively welcoming and hostile. It ends as an unforgettable fable, which allows for acceptance.

It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. I know I had seen it before, but I didn’t remember much of it, which seems impossible. I now assume it was so heart wrenching and piercing the first time that I probably wept uncontrollably and then did everything I could to ban it from my consciousness. Sheridan wrote it with his two daughters after his own personal tragedy, and their pain and tribute is stitched in the film’s marrow.

The performances are flawless (Morton and Hounsou were Oscar-nominated). The two girls who play the daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) give the most natural turns I’ve ever seen.

A gem.

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This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts.  This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.

His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“

Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.  

Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who  goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“

This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.

Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.

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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

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Anyone who watches movies knows that some of the greatest offerings of falsity come in the package of authenticity, and this is never more so than when a filmmaker takes his shot at rural or back home America. The pitfalls are many, and invariably, films about the small town succumb to oppressive nostalgia (Hoosiers), salt-of-the-earth worship (Promised Land), the presence of an impossibly attractive lead as he or she slums (Mel Gibson in The River, George Clooney in The Perfect Storm), cutesy “we’re jes’ folks” condescension (Passion Fish), amped up mythology (Out of the Furnace) or just plain old moronic messages, like money doesn’t buy happiness or home is where the heart is or safe sex is the best sex.

There are exceptions (Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), but they are rare and they are not current. In Mud, Take Shelter, and this film, a story about two modern Arkansas families drawn into a violent confrontation upon the death of their shared patriarch, writer-director Jeff Nichols cements that he can translate the patterns, pace and feel of the small town like no other. The actors portraying the family members are natural and unburdened by archetype, and the town itself is not presented to you as a metaphor or cautionary tale, just a town.

What Nichols does with actors and setting he achieves with tone. The families are seemingly in as safe a place as you can be, but when their animosities surface, their very environment becomes foreboding, and the pressure mounts accordingly. As the calamities befall them, there are no revelations or Hollywood speeches or screenwriter dot-connecting. Nichols is content to let you be the judge of what it all means.

This was Echol’s first film, and that may explain its brevity (about 90 minutes). The result is some backstory that is a tad rushed, but nonetheless, this is a gripping, thoughtful picture.

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In the vein of “awful people who became awful because they suffered childhood trauma” family drama movies, this one is not half bad. That’s mainly due to Adam Scott, who is one of the more versatile and under-appreciated actors working today.  Scott plays the damaged, stuck in the hometown older brother who picks up his younger brother and the brother’s girlfriend from college and proceeds to fall in love with the latter. Scott is a depressive, an alternately cruel and then apologetic anti-hero, who maligns the girlfriend as a whore who will hurt his naive little brother. The problem is that she succumbs to his damaged entreaties, thus partially cementing his earlier uncharitable appraisal.

There is the obligatory childhood trauma and the big reveal, and it could all be so pat, except for Scott’s ability to communicate real suffering and writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s insistence on taking these characters seriously instead of using them as charming archetypes to condescend to the audience. More to the credit, there is no wrap-up or deeper understanding. It starts messy and ends up hopeful but still messy, which is commendable.

There are problems.  The hometown is overpopulated by distinctive characters, the father (J.K. Simmons) is too seminal to be so underdeveloped and the hipster soundtrack is now so obligatory it borders on self-parody.  Still, a worthwhile watch on a rainy Saturday.  Thanks, Xmastime.

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A significant portion of Love & Mercy is devoted to Brian Wilson’s production of The Beach Boys record “Pet Sounds.” Wilson enlists a room full of session musicians rather than the Beach Boys, who are utilized solely for vocals. The studio players were known as The Wrecking Crew, and it was from this group that the band found its replacement for Wilson on the road, Glen Campbell.

Denny Tedesco, the son of session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, has written and directed a fascinating documentary that chronicles the heyday of The Wrecking Crew, who played the music on a seemingly exhaustive list of pop records in the the 60s and 70s. Working from interviews of the players and the acts they backed, as well as home movies of his father, Tedesco provides great insight into the times as well as the life of a working musician.

The interviews are particularly fun. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, who had been a session player himself, had to break it to the band that the rest of them wouldn’t be playing on their hit single “Mr. Tambourine Man” which didn’t go over well. As McGuinn recalls, The Byrds produced two tracks in three hours during the “Mr. Tambourine Man” session, while it took 77 takes to produce “Turn, Turn, Turn” which the band insisted on playing.

Tommy Tedesco tells the story of The Gary Lewis and the Playboys guitarist who confessed he could never play what Tedesco had played in studio on tour and always felt embarrassed when fans complimented his playing on the records.  Peter Tork of The Monkees tells a poignant story of the disappointment he felt when he was invited to come to the studio for the production of a Monkees tune only to learn that the invitation was solely as an observer.  On an up note, Mickey Dolenz reveals that the studio musicians taught him how to play the drums in preparation for his Monkees tour.

Obviously, the days of a small crew of players backing most of the pop radio play (and film and televisions tracks and radio and TV commercials) coming out of LA couldn’t last, but this is a blast of a documentary that also serves as a loving remembrance of the filmmaker for his father.

I caught this the other night and of the mockumentary films written and/or directed by Christopher Guest – This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration – this is my favorite.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the sweetest on its subjects, an assortment of purebread dog owners who are competing at The Mayflower Kennel Club Show.  Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy stand out as the impoverished Florida couple who, unfortunately for Levy, run into O’Hara’s old lovers on their way north, but Jane Lynch shines as a driven, lesbian handler who has found a Sugar Mommy (Jennifer Coolidge) to fund her efforts, as well as the magazine American Bitch (“it’s a focus on the issues of the lesbian pure bred dog owner”).

But Fred Willard, as the disinterested but garrulous TV announcer, and Jim Piddick, who has to suffer him, steal the picture.

A film that got away from me, perhaps because it gave off such an air of discomfort, I watched There Will Be Blood this weekend. The movie is very good, but my instincts were correct.  It is a very difficult movie to endure.

Daniel Day Lewis plays a Charles Foster Kane-esque Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of an oil man who rose from a single claim prospector to a wealthy oil magnate through sheer will and a ruthless brutality that destroyed everything in its wake. Whereas Welles’ Kane, obsessed though he was, could enjoy the taste of his success and the fruits of his labor, Plainview cannot. He is a tortured, singular man, made dangerously distrustful the moment he gets close to anyone for fear of what that person will take. Worse, he cannot abide a slight, and when a young preacher (Paul Dano) fences with Plainview, forcing him to endure a humiliating baptism in exchange for the rights to a critical tract of land, the incident burns in Plainview. As played by the spellbinding Day Lewis, it damn near appears to eat his insides out.  Anderson’s representation of California – be it the barren oilfields or the lonely mansion Plainview inhabits at the end of the movie – becomes more forbidding and cruel as Plainview descends into madness.

All well and good, especially near flawlessly rendered, and yet, this is a cold, one-note film, devoted near completely to a terrible, monochromatic character. What is Anderson telling us about ourselves, or, is he telling us anything? Many cite the picture as an evocation of the American experience, a “portrait of a young nation struggling to find itself, torn between religious and business values” or “a harrowing cautionary warning to a country with oil pumping through its veins, clouding its judgment and coarsening its soul.”

If only. Anderson’s vision is too personal and too specific to Plainview, and it is a testament to the director’s gifts and Day Lewis’s skill that such a narrow focus remains compelling. The result is a lot of blood and guts but no real heart, which keeps it from being great.

Currently available on Netflix streaming, this almost 3 hour documentary essay presents as both art exhibit and graduate course (it is written and narrated by the sleepy-voiced Thom Anderson, a filmmaker and film theory and history teacher at the California Institute of the Arts).  Los Angeles Plays Itself is textually interesting, the visuals of the city’s depiction in film are always entertaining, and accompanied by Anderson’s incisive narration, often illuminating.

Anderson can also be very funny, in a dry “this is Carlton, your doorman” way. On a scene from Michael Mann’s Heat:  

 [In Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is briefing two members of his gang. He tells them, “Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge, that’s escape route number one.“]  Vincent Thomas was San Pedro’s representative in the state assembly for many years, but he hasn’t been canonized yet, not even in Pedro.

And on the perpetual destruction of LA in the movies:

Mike Davis has claimed that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles, a guilty pleasure shared by most of its audience. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault. …In Independence Day, who could identify with the caricatured mob…dancing in idiot ecstasy…to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of ‘good riddance’ when kooks like these are vaporized by the earth’s latest ill-mannered guests.  But to me the casual sacrifice of Paris in Armageddon seems even crasser. Are the French being singled out for punishment because they admire Jerry Lewis too much? Or because they have resisted Hollywood’s cultural imperialism too fervently?

Of course, if you let an academic talk long enough without interruption or query, he’ll eventually meander into overstatement and grandiosity, and as Anderson moves from LA’s history, architecture, sprawl and patterns in film to politics, race and class, we get poetic broadsides, against the cops and the modern Noah Crosses and skyscrapers. This is all part of the condescension of most any “true” city dweller who presumes to know the authentic heart that beats in his city, and for the most part, that’s part of Anderson’s charm.  Anderson has a grievance, as he concedes at the outset:  That’s another presumption of the movies: that everyone in Los Angeles is part of their industry or wants to be. Actually, only one in forty residents of Los Angeles County works in the entertainment industry. But the rest of us simply don’t exist.  We might wonder if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles.

But doleful mouthfuls like “White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population, rendered superfluous by immigrant labor power, so black film-makers responded by emphasizing families and children” are waiting at the end, so you have been warned.

Though it limps a little at the finish, I really dug this movie, and it is a must-see for any film buff.