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Crime/Mystery

As close to a musical as you can get without anyone actually singing, Edgar Wright’s (The Cornetto Trilogy) crime joyride is a mixed bag, but what is good is very good. Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a virtuoso wheelman who appears to be just under the drinking age, owes his respectable but lethal crime boss (Kevin Spacey) services for a prior boost of Spacey’s merchandise.  There is a semi father-son relationship going on here, but Spacey is a harsh father, forcing Baby to drive with increasingly erratic and dangerous robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, Jon Bernthal, and, inevitably, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  Baby, of course, just wants out, and his desires increase when he meets just the most adorable diner waitress you’ll ever come across (Lily James).  Things, however, go terribly wrong.

Did I say musical?  Baby suffers from tinnitus, which is tempered by his ear buds, which are always inserted, providing him  – and the audience –the soundtrack to his life.  For the most part, this gambit works, and is particularly effective during the driving scenes.  Other times, it’s overstretched.  Baby is a bit of a cipher, and it adds little to his meager backstory to have him Astaire his way to get coffee.

This is mostly a crisp, canny flick, but it still falls a little short, and after the initial euphoria of viewing, it dropped from a 4.5, settling in at this score. Wright has abandoned his comic glee for a foray into Tarantino Land, and he produced a pretty good facsimile.  Still, I miss the unbridled fun of the Cornetto Trilogy.

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An unsettling and very smart film, writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) autopsies the relationship of Susan and Tony (Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal) while recounting a murder story.  The former is seen in flashback, as Adams, a successful, chic but deeply unhappy art dealer, is presented with her ex-husband’s novel as a prelude to their meeting after a long separation.  That relationship blooms as most do – with fire, unwavering support and the feel of having found a soulmate.  It is eventually undercut by Gyllenhaal’s lack of sophistication, emotional instability and the fact that, as Adams’ patrician mother (Laura Linney) wickedly tells her, “he’s too weak for you.”  As Linney deliciously explains, “Come on, Susan. I know you think that we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeois things, as you so like to call them, are going to be very important to you, and Edward’s not going to be able to give them to you. He has no money, he’s not driven, he’s not ambitious. And I can promise you, if you marry Edward, your father’s not going to give them to you either.”  As Adams sits in her classy LA house, a living embodiment of her mother’s prediction, she awaits her reconnection with Tony and starts to read his book, an engrossing tale which ends in a chilling act of brutality that seems directed right at Adams.

The performances are astounding. Since Zodiac and through Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal exudes a compelling mix of sincerity and if not menace, danger, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.  Adams is properly fragile and haunted, with a lacquered face that evokes a cracking shell.  Linney’s one-scene turn is for the ages, and the contributions of Michael Shannon as a taciturn Texas lawman and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his frightening quarry are riveting.

Ford has crafted an original, intricate form of noir that is unnerving and unmannered.  Likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t remember a film I’ve concentrated on as much as this one for some time.  It was one of the best from last year.

This review was written by an old friend and sparring partner under the nom de plume “Pincher Martin” from a chat room I have contributed to for nearly 20 years.  It is an accurate reflection of my feelings on the film and a great write-up of an overlooked and underrated picture.

“Over thirty years ago, I was living in LA and found myself one day in the San Fernando Valley, lining up to see a movie in one of those mall cineplexes that were common at the time. I forget what made me drive over to San Fernando from Westwood, where I was a student living in an apartment, but whatever it was, I know it didn’t have anything to do with the movie I ended up seeing.

I had heard nothing about Manhunter. I’d read no reviews of the film. I’d seen no ads for it. It wasn’t considered a big film at the time. I knew nothing about Michael Mann, the film’s director, who was just some guy known for his work on the new TV series Miami Vice, a show I didn’t watch. I also knew nothing about William Peterson, the star of the film. While several of Peterson’s co-stars in Manhunter would later become familiar to movie-goers (Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephan Lang), I knew nothing about any of them when I walked into the theater that day. The movie had a cast of unknowns to me.

But it wasn’t uncommon for me at the time to go see a movie on the spur of the moment whenever I had a couple of free hours, and so it must have been some serendipitous event that allowed me to see that day what I now consider to be one of the best films of the nineteen-eighties and one of the best cop films I’ve ever seen.

I loved the movie immediately, and I’ve not changed my mind about it over the last thirty years. I was transfixed by the story I saw on the screen that afternoon. The small movie theater was almost empty (a scene which must’ve been replicated all over the country, since the movie did poorly at the box office), but I didn’t care. Certain scenes in the film made such an impression on my young mind that I could still remember them in detail years later, although I did not have a chance to watch the movie a second time until many years later. Even scenes that were not particularly important in advancing the plot left an impact on me that afternoon because of their aesthetic appeal

I still remember, for example, the blue tint used in an early scene showing Kim Greist and William Peterson as they lay in bed at night with the black-blue ocean behind them. It’s simply breathtaking.

Manhunter was based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who would later become famous for writing The Silence of the Lambs, which became the way most people were introduced to the character Hannibal Lector, either through the novel or the film.

But Manhunter was my introduction to Hannibal Lector, and it was an intro which later made me lukewarm about Anthony Hopkin’s more celebrated portrayal of the character. Brian Cox’s Hannibal was very different from Anthony Hopkins’s. In his short stint as the character, Cox played Lector with more believable directness, suaveness, and quickness of mind, and with none of Hopkin’s annoying affectations.

Manhunter has perhaps the best scene I’ve ever seen of what I’ll call a realization by the protagonist.

This scene never fails to astound me. It’s one of the few times in a Hollywood action flick that you can see a character thinking through a problem and coming to a realization in a way that seems almost believable. (L.A. Confidential is one of the few other films with this feature which comes to mind.)

The scene, which unfortunately is cut in some versions of Manhunter available today, lasts over seven minutes and involves just two characters – Will Graham played by William Peterson and Jack Crawford played by Dennis Farina. Listen to how the music gradually and quietly enters the film’s soundtrack at about the five-minute twenty-second mark on the youtube video, building up to enhance the tension of the moment when Graham realizes how Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer named “The Tooth Fairy,” is picking his victims.

Manhunter has several remarkable scenes showing FBI agents at work. They’re seriously done, following Thomas Harris’s careful research for his novel. Mann, however, is too obsessed with his own visual style to hew too close to reality. He dresses his agents up more as if he’s thinking of letting them put in appearances on Miami Vice than he does for the real work of the 1980s’ FBI. But it works.

Some critics claim that Manhunter was a precursor of the TV series CSI, which also starred William Peterson, and later branched into a franchise of similar TV shows. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s probably true the movie must’ve helped Peterson more than a decade later when he won the starring role in the first CSI TV show. The movie and the TV series had a similar way of looking at evidence.

Whatever its influence, the movie’s reputation has skyrocketed over the last three decades. After bombing at the box office in 1986, the movie is something of a cult classic today ( 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most likely, this had to do with the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, which came out five years after Manhunter. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film, but in many ways I prefer Manhunter.

Brett Ratner would later release his own cinematic version of the novel Red Dragon in 2002 with a more faithful rendering of the original story. I think it was a mistake.

Manhunter is the superior film in almost every respect. It deviates from the novel in ways which improve the story for film; the acting is better; the soundtrack/music is better. Only in the editing of the final scenes and a few other details is it inferior to Ratner’s fim.

The plot in the novel Red Dragon is too complex for a feature film. Mann in Manhunter wisely chose to focus on the chase – without the need for the complex twist at the end. But Ratner’s Red Dragon made the mistake of trying to emulate the complexities of the novel rather than streamline the story for film.

As far as the acting, Red Dragon has the more acclaimed cast. At least on paper. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise-Parker are all celebrated in their profession, with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards and nominations from their peers.

But Ratner didn’t get much from these names. Hopkins was too old. Fiennes and Norton were miscast. Ratner chose to play Mary Louise-Parker like she’s smart trailer trash. Watson was not bad in the blind role, but Joan Allen was better. And Stephen Lang is better than the soporific Hoffman as Freddie Lounds.

Anthony Hopkins is a superb actor, but he was a glassy-eyed 65-year-old actor in 2002 when Red Dragon came out. He had lost the menace he possessed more than decade earlier when The Silence of the Lambs was released.

Brain Cox, on the other hand, was excellent in his short stint as Hannibal Lector. He underplayed the menace with more believable suaveness and quickness of mind. Perhaps that’s because Cox was only forty-years-old when he played the role and so much more alert-looking than Hopkins, who sometimes seemed like he was battling astigmatism whenever he glanced in the direction of the camera.

Mann gets so much more out of all his actors. Peterson is more convincing as Graham than is Norton, who sometimes comes across more as if he’s a depressed professor rather than a haunted cop.

Tom Noonan was a revelation as Francis Dolarhyde. That character requires a large, strong, ugly man to play the role, whereas the somewhat effete, handsome Fiennes is simply not believable in it. His voice is too affected, even when he damps it down for the role. (This is an excellent example of how a classically-trained Brit actor can’t fit into just any role an American actor can do.) Noonan is a huge man who looks like he could be a serial killer.

One can’t compare the two movies without mentioning the soundtrack of Manhunter. It’s one of the best soundtracks in a feature film I’ve ever heard. I bought it and listen to it on some of my playlists. And yet the music was criticized by movie critics as too synthetic when the movie was first released. (Go to Youtube to listen to the soundtrack. It’s stupendous.)

Manhunter has become a cult classic for a reason. The movie was unfairly neglected by movie-going audiences and maligned by movie critics when it was first released in the theaters. (For what it’s worth, the novel was also unfairly neglected by book readers when it was first published.) But the success of The Silence of the Lambs got Manhunter another look from both critics and audiences, and that second viewing has allowed the film to be reevaluated to its proper stature.

13 Things You Never Knew About ‘Manhunter,’ the First Hannibal Lecter Movie

2) For the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham, the filmmakers considered Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann ultimately went with Petersen, after seeing him play a relentless sleuth in 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”

3) For the part of Hannibal Lecktor (yep, that’s how it was spelled in the script), the producers thought of John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Brian Dennehy. It was Dennehy, however, who recommended Cox.

Mandy Patinkin as Hannibal Lector?  Interesting choice.

Read items #8, #9, and #10 to see just how tight the budget was on the movie. They explain why the end of Manhunter was so poorly edited.

Isabelle Huppert (nominated for best actress) is a successful video game designer who is, in the film’s first scene, brutally raped. The twist is that she is already so cynically wired and self-loathing that the act does not have the consequences one might expect.  In short, she’s a tough-as-nails cookie, central to the maintenance of her successful business, dolt of a son, needy ex-husband and outrageously libertine mother.  She is also brazenly selfish, carrying on an affair with the husband of her best friend, with whom she has an almost romantic relationship.

So, when her rapist begins to text her and even break into her house to leave “mementos”, she is as much intrigued as terrified.  The result is, at its best, a Hitchcockian sexual thriller and sly comedy of manners, and, when the mystery is solved, at worst, a smugly self-satisfied weirdo tale.  All in all, a solid film by Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, Robocop), who has made a career sticking his thumb in the eyes of traditional sexual mores, usually with a taste for the violent.  Huppert is nothing less than commanding.

The politics of the film are also interesting. It has been dubbed by many critics as a “rape revenge” movie, but it is really a great deal more complicated than that.  I am guessing the moniker was affixed to ward off much of the picture’s untidy political incorrectness (as one progressive reviewer unsurprisingly notes, this is a “male filmmaker’s lurid, repeated depiction of violence against a female character, one who is defined, almost entirely, by her relationship with men, shown in nightmarish detail”).  If someone brought this baby on to an modern American campus, the viewers would likely be institutionalized and those responsible tarred and feathered.

A very smart, evocative crime spree flick, elevated by a high-minded motive, a feel for the rich texture and other-worldliness of Midwest Texas, soulful performances by lawman Jeff Bridges and dead-ender cowboy Ben Foster, and a subversive sense of humor/political streak.  People screw these films up in any number of ways; by over-elegizing the working man, slicking up the action, or emphasizing quirk over heart.

Writer Taylor Sheridan avoids all the tropes and also draws beautiful relationships between Foster and his sweeter brother (Chris Pine), Bridges and his long-time, beleaguered partner (Gil Birmingham, whose fixed resolve to not allow Bridges to get a rise out of him is one of many pleasures of the script), and all the characters and the milieu.  Director David MacKenzie’s handle is restrained and assured.

One of the best of the year.

Now available at Red Box or Netflix DVD.

 

So hellbent on being tough and gritty, it doesn’t realize how ridiculous it presents.  Dirty cops, ex-vets, drug addicts, hard asses, double dealers, all on the mean streets of Atlanta.  When these men commiserate, well, shit gets real, and words like “family” and “brother” and “trust” are bandied about.  because, “Out here, there is no good and there is no bad. To survive out here, you’ve got to out monster the monster. Can you do that?”

Yeesh.

Add a hilarious Kate Winslet as a Russian mobster  with hair from Married to the Mob, a lazy crazy Woody Harrelson phoning in his standard quirky drunk cop with a nose for the perps, a cheezy industrial score, a bunch of young actors testing out their hard stares (Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus), and a boring end that I suppose was meant to be anti-climactic, and you get this poser of a crime flick.

Plot-wise, the entire caper rests on having an innocent cop shot in the darkest and dankest housing project so his dirty cop partner can call in a “999”, whereupon, at least in Atlanta, every cop in the city’s 3300 square miles drives like a bat out of hell to the scene, and thus, we have a diversion, so other dirty cops can steal a case for the Russians that just happens to be housed in the Atlanta office of the Department of Homeland Security.

Got that?

This idiocy is made even more noticeable because when the “999” is called in, indeed, every cop lights out for the scene, Woody Harrelson leads the charge and almost kills dozens of civilians in the process in what is meant to be a bravura car chase scene.  But it is not a chase scene.  It is a race to get to a destination, a race made dumber by the fact that Harrelson is screaming at his partner “Do you know who was shot?” (Affleck was on scene and he is Harrelson’s kin).  And for what?  When Harrelson gets to the locale, there are already dozens of cops on the scene drinking coffee and showing vacation pics to each other, and Affleck looks relaxed, like he just had a backrub from Atlanta’s newest Tactical Massage Unit.  And why didn’t Harrelson’s partner call any of the dozens of cops on scene to ask who was shot?

Also, why do these jamokes actually have to kill an innocent cop instead of shooting some rounds and getting on the radio and just saying “999”?  Then, when every cop bugs out for the location, the dirty cop can just say, “My bad.  I thought he was shot.”   Hell, have the cholo in the housing projects who was contracted by the dirty cops to shoot the innocent cop and instigate the “999” just bonk the innocent cop on the head, shoot a round in the air, and then the dirty cop can call on his radio, “Hey, 999”, as the cop is, technically, down.  Or just have a shootout and get on the radio and have the cops screaming, “we are getting shot up in here.”  Will all of the cops in Atlanta just keep playing Candy Crush because they didn’t hear “999” but instead , “Shots fired.  At me!!!!”

And what is with this stupid “999”, anyway?  Is “999” the equivalent of “Candyman” and if you say that word three times in a mirror, cops jump in their cars and go berserk like bees to the queen?

Besides, Homeland Security ended up having its own SWAT team, who, apparently, were taking a collective bath when the caper began.

And of all the cops to shoot, why choose Affleck, who has previously demonstrated he’s bad-ass in a gunfight?

Not only is Affleck bad-ass, he’s also the Sherlock Holmes of the A.T.L.  He cracks the case because he checks the wallet of the cholo contracted to shoot him and Ay Caramba!  It has the address and time of the shooting (8th and Washington, 4 pm).  What is it with Latino gang members and a) their inability to remember a few easy things and b) their predilection for semi-cursive?  Affleck then goes to the dead cholo’s  neighborhood and asks the first Latino kid he sees what’s what, and wouldn’t you know, that kid just gives it out like candy.

Director John Hillcoats’ The Proposition and Lawless were similarly moody and slow, but I don’t recall them being stupid.  That distinction must be laid at the feet of first time writer Matt Cook.

It sounds silly to say, but I’m compelled – they just don’t make movies like this anymore.  Shane Black’s (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3) noir-ish 70s buddy crime comedy pays homage to the genre by faithfully adhering to many of its precepts while updating the form in ways that are progressively more clever.  It’s late 70s LA.  Russell Crowe is a burnt out “enforcer” making his dough in the protection racket with brass knuckles and dogged determination.  Ryan Gosling is a private investigator rip-off artist with a drinking problem, a mouthy (but not precocious) pre-teen daughter, and an air of intelligence, if not actual smarts.  Crowe is hired to beat up the person or persons (one of whom is Gosling) looking for a young femme fatale, and the two team up as the semi-serious, but not really serious plot – which melds porno and corporate skullduggery – thickens.

The banter is first rate, the look primo, and the tone just right.  Black writes cynical yet hopeful, and while he makes all his station stops on time, the rides in between are a gas, made even more enjoyable by his crackling script and brilliant physical comedy.  Gosling is particularly adept at slapstick, giving Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in The Wolf of Wall Street a run for its money.

The chemistry between Crowe and Gosling is so strong that I hope the broad hint of a sequel at the end of the film is genuine.  I was reminded of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours , Alan Arkin and James Caan in Freebie and the Bean, and Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.  These guys are having a blast together

Yet, Black never fully commits to the “buddy pic” requirements.  When Crowe, in a moment of reflection, reveals his tender side or Gosling seemingly rises to the occasion by exhibiting theretofore hidden mental gifts, the payoffs are unexpected and laugh out loud funny.  A dream sequence is inserted that is truly ingenious, and there are more than a few other moments when Black’s detours enhance the humor.   One of the best films this year.