Tag Archives: Crime

Danny Cannon’s Phoenix

Phoenix is a half forgotten, neat little Arizona neo-noir noir that isn’t about much altogether, but contains a hell of a lot of heated drama, character study and hard boiled charisma anyways, which in the land of the crime genre, often is an acceptable substitute for a strong plot. Plus, a cast like this could hang around the water cooler for two hours and the results would still be engaging. Ray Liotta is terrific here in a mid-career lead role as an a police detective with a nasty temper, huge gambling problem and just an all round penchant for trouble. He’s joined by his three partners in both crime and crime fighting, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven and Anthony Lapaglia. There’s no central conflict, no over arching murder subplot and no orchestrated twist or payoff, it’s simply these four sleazy cops just existing out their in the desert on their best, and it’s a lot of sunbaked, emotionally turbulent fun. Liotta vies for the attentions of a weary older woman (Anjelica Huston, excellent) while he’s pursued by her slutty wayward teen daughter (Brittany Murphy) at the same time. He’s also hounded by eccentric loan shark Chicago (Tom Noonan with a ray ally funny lisp) and trying to close countless open cases in his book. Piven and hothead Lapaglia fight over Piven’s foxy wife (Kari Wuhrur) too, and so the subplots go. The supporting cast is a petting zoo of distinctive character acting talent including Glenn Moreshower, Royce D. Applegate, Giovanni Ribisi, Xander Berkeley, Al Sapienza, Giancarlo Esposito and more. I like this constant and obnoxious energy the film has though, like there’s something in that Arizona sun that just drives peoples tempers off the map and causes wanton hostility, a great setting for any flick to belt out its story. Good fun.

-Nate Hill

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Amy Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields

Whenever people say there isn’t enough gritty, messed up modern neo-noir (which there’s some truth to, but that’s another article) I like to dig up ones like Texas Killing Fields, an unforgivably overlooked crime drama from some years back that went by mostly unnoticed. Directed by Amy Canaan Mann, who is none other than Michael Mann’s daughter, and starring a talent trio of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington and Chloe Grace Moretz, it’s a dark-boned, nihilistic murder mystery set in the deepest south and populated by the kind of folks you’d actively avoid entire sections of the barroom to get away from. There’s a killer loose in the low income doldrums of Texas, as if they didn’t have it bad enough in life, and two scarily mismatched cops are on the case. Intrepid idealist Morgan sees the light in darkest corners, while faithless misanthrope Worthington adopts a hopeless, devil may cry attitude. Caught between them is a wayward teen girl (Moretz), a homeless sitting duck who wanders the byways, a prime target and unfortunate default bait for this monster to come skulking out of the shadows. This is a downbeat, chilling flick with scant rays of humanity here and there, but bleakness takes over the screen like the portentous clouds in the storm-swept skies of the rural Americas, bringing danger and decay in their wake. The suspect list is a mile long because of how many wicked character actors there are in the supporting cast, but the culprit is oddly obvious from the get go. This isn’t to say the narrative is weak or they failed at a whodunit, as one can scarcely say that was there intention at all. It’s less of a whodunit and more of a ‘dunit’, as every character has some evil to hide or stain on their soul, and when the killer is revealed, they’re just another in a long line of wayward beings out there. Sheryl ‘Laura Palmer’ Lee is great as Moretz’s destitute, promiscuous mother, Jason Clarke roars in for a terrifying cameo as a violent pimp with an otherworldly blond dye job, Stephen Graham is dangerously quiet as a psychopathic local yokel, Annabeth Gosh has a brief role and Jessica Chastain gives an early star-making turn as an out of state cop who reluctantly aids Jeffrey and Sam. Dread is the word that seems to be on both Mann and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s mind, as every shot is composed primarily of darkness, shadows and claustrophobic grain, giving the fields and flatlands of Texas a hellish, oppressive lacquer. Darkness is explored both literally and thematically, and more fervently than most mainstream films care to get, which may be one reason the film wasn’t well received at all, or at least by most. It knowingly plunges headlong into the eye of the hurricane surrounding the hopeless heart of humanity, without much light on the other side or any to guide it, but there’s a bravery in that that I respect. One of the best crime dramas in recent history, a film that should be brought up more in discussion and a treatise on how to make a lasting impression in a genre that sees entries fall through the cracks on the daily. Brilliant, searing stuff.

-Nate Hill

The Nelms Brother’s Small Town Crime

Looking for your annual rural crime/drama/black comedy/character study fix? Well, Three Billboards, which I reviewed the other day, provides that with something more illusory and profound. If you’re after one that’s a bit more old school and straightforward, check out the Nelms Brother’s Small Town Crime, a brutal, breezy thriller starring John Hawkes, an actor I remember from the fringes of the 90’s who seems to have gone newly platinum these days thanks to an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Winter’s Bone. He’s hilariously sympathetic here as a raging alcoholic ex-cop who stumbles right into the middle of a murder ring with the crosshairs latched onto a group of local underage prostitutes. Never one to back down once he gets a few cold ones in him before noon, he’s on the case between sessions at the dive bar and inebriated joyrides in his souped up muscle car. There’s a slightly off kilter, surreal quality to his story and that of those around him, a coming and going sense that these are a cartoonish series of events that aren’t really happening, when one looks at the supporting characters. Robert Forster has never been more deadpan or watchable as the tycoon grandfather of one of the slain hookers, a hands-on gent who isn’t afraid to dust off his giant scoped rifle to help out. He’s joined by outlandish Latino pimp Mood (Clifton Collins Jr., who needs way more roles), both of them assisting Hawkes in his crusade. Even the psychotic hitman (Jeremy Ratchford) dispatched to kill everyone in sight has a distinctly ‘out there’, roadrunner vibe. But Hawkes anchors the whole deal with the mopey, sad-sack realism of his character, a loser who’s dead-end existence has been given a new lease on legacy. His best buddy Anthony Anderson and wife Octavia Spencer give the plot some gravity too, a neat seesaw effect that sits opposite Forster and Collins exaggerated antics. The film has a funny way of both ambling along at it’s own pace and jumping out at you with warp speed jump cuts and brazen, bloody violence. The dialogue is pure poetry in areas and knowing camp in others, neatly balanced. Don Harvey and veteran tough gal Dale Dickey have great bits as salty bartenders, while Daniel Sunjata and haggard looking ex-pretty boy (remember him in Monster In Law with Jane Fonda and J-Lo?) Michael Vartan play two local detectives who are always frustrated to be a step behind Hawkes, who plays off the grid and close to the chest. Small Town Crime is a small time film, but the craft gone into bringing it to our screens couldn’t be bigger or more commendable from all angles. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice


Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a lot of things. Hypnotic, sedated mood piece. Thrumming, rhythmic action picture. Deeply romantic. More going on underneath it’s surface than what you see onscreen. Masterful crime piece. Showcase for digitally shot film. Restless, nocturnal urban dream. One thing it is decidedly not, however, is anything similar to the bright ‘n sunny, pastel suited 80’s cable TV show of the same name, also pioneered by Mann, at a more constricted and likely very different point in his career. A lot can be said for the show though, it’s instantly iconic and was one among a stable of crimeprimetime™ (The Equalizer and Crime Story did their part as well) to give many actors their break, actors who we take for granted as stars today. Mann’s film version is a different beast entirely, a likely reason for the uneasy audience reception. Let’s be clear: it’s one of the best films of the last few decades. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx make a deliberately moodier, more dangerous Ricardo and Tubbs, and their high stakes undercover work is set against an austerely fatalistic Miami that bares little resemblance to travel brochures, let alone the tv show many were used to. Their story starts one of two ways, depending on whether or not you view the extended director’s cut, which is the version I’d choose as it sets up tone before throwing you into a hectic nightclub sting operation they’ve got going, which is hastily interrupted by the exposure of a CI snitch (John Hawkes in a haunting cameo). This sets them on course to take down a powerful Cuban drug syndicate run by a scarily calm Luis Tosar and hotheaded maverick John Ortiz. Farrell gets involved with a girl from their fold, of course (Gong Li is a vision), a romance that has grown on me over the years, while Foxx is involved with beautiful fellow cop Naomie Harris, yielding heart wrenching moments in the final act. Darting in and out of the story as well are Tom Towles, Justin Theroux, Isaach De Bánkole, Eddie Marsan, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tony Curran and Ciaran Hinds, all vital cogs in a well oiled, momentous machine that doesn’t drop it’s pulse for a second. Composer John Murphy piles on the mood with his mournful score, highlighting evening boat-rides, shadowy shoot outs and outdoor nightclubs with a top tier soundscape, while cinematographer Dion Beebe works tirelessly to get shot after shot looking mint, not an easy task with a film this energetic and particularly lit. From start to finish it’s to the point as well, Mann has no interest in useless exposition, mapped out play by plays or cheesy moments. Everything careens along at a realistic pace and you’re on your own if you can’t keep up or make sense of the off the cuff cop jargon. There’s stillness too though, in a torn up Farrell watching his love disappear on the horizon, Foxx looking on from beside a hospital bed or simply either of them glowering out at the skyline from a rooftop pulpit before things Heat up. Like I said, do the extended version and you’ll get that terrific opener to set you up, instead of being thrown in the deep end right off the bat. Either way though, Miami Vice is one for the ages. 

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight


No one does the breezy, goodnatured crime drama like Steven Soderbergh, and after rewatching his 1998 romantic caper Out Of Sight, I’ve realized it’s my favourite of his films by a mile. The easygoing love story between George Clooney’s hapless career criminal Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez’s feisty federal Marshall Karen Sisco is a pairing for the ages, and the two not only smoulder up the screen with their obvious presence, but have effortless chemistry in spades and know how to sell the romance until you feel that tug on the ol’ heartstrings when the stakes are raised. It doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Elliott Davis beautifully frames each encounter with them, the best being a gorgeous airport dinner where the two croon out Elmore Leonard’s savoury, measured dialogue against a snow laden Tarmac outside, the perfect romantic ambience. Foley is a trouble magnet, embroiled in scheme after scheme with his older, wiser partner Buddy (Ving Rhames). After their dipshit pal Glen (a stoned Steve Zahn) gets them mixed up in a plot to rob a pompous Wall Street millionaire (Albert Brooks) via some truly nasty jailbird thugs from their collective past (Don Cheadle provides the film’s only true dose of menace amongst the charm), all hell breaks loose and against odds, Jack and Karen find themselves falling in love. Elmore Leonard’s scripts always seem to find their way to great directors (Barry Sonnenfield made magic with Get Shorty), richly varied casts (Jackie Brown is an ensemble for the time capsule) and end up as films that are simply timeless. Dennis Farina mellows out as Karen’s concerned ex-cop father, Luis Guzman does his grimy cholo rat shtick, and watch for Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Isiaah Washington, Paul Calderon, Viola Davis, an uncredited Michael Keaton playing none other than his Jackie Brown character (an Elmore Leonard cinematic universe!) and a surprise cameo right at the end that I won’t spoil except to say it sets up any potential sequels nicely. The whole deal rests on Lopez and Clooney’s shoulders though, and they’re nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s a rag tale romance, classy but down to earth, two beautiful souls from very opposite sides of the tracks who generate sparks and circle each other like cosmic magnets. Stuck together in the trunk of a speeding car, they discuss life, love and films, reminding us that no romance is alike to another and the best way to start off something like that is perhaps on the wrong foot and in the least imagined circumstances possible. Like any love story it knows that a pinch of sadness is necessary to balance the bittersweet recipe and tweak our emotions just right. A career best for George, Jennifer and Steven and a film worthy of classic status. 

-Nate Hill

Encore’s The Take 


If you’re like me and were a fan of Tom Hardy before he blew up on the front page of Hollywood (I’ll willingly don the hipster mantle for certain areas of film), you’ll know about The Take, a brutal British produced miniseries chronicling the fall from grace of a severely dysfunctional London crime family. Hardy is Freddie, a sociopathic freak fresh out of the joint and ready to wreck havoc whilst the clan’s nasty patriarch (Brian Cox, never not a scene stealer) remains locked up. Freddie’s younger, more timid brother Jimmy (Shaun Evans) gears up to seize the reins of the ol’ family business, but the biggest obstacle in his path is Freddie, who seems intent on soaring down a violent path of self destructive, damaging behaviour, lashing out at friends, enemies and even family until the whole deal resembles some Macbeth-esque family showdown. Their two respective wives (Charlotte Riley and Kiersten Wareing are pure dynamite) get caught up on this unholy mess and it soon becomes clear that no one will make it out on top. It’s a nihilistic piece that exists seemingly as a dark, misanthropic soap opera or an instruction manual on how to fuck up everything in one’s life, and in that luridness it succeeds brilliantly. Hardy showed continuous sparks of budding talent early in his career, and his work here rivals even that of his heralded turns these days, his Freddie is truly a rotten bastard and a sadistic no good monster who brings death to all around him. A beatdown and a half of a watch, but worth it for lovers of tough, thoroughly downbeat crime television. 

-Nate Hill

Miami Blues 


Miami Blues is a crime film full of loose ends, incompetence, wanton violence and meandering characters who seem lost within their own story, and I mean all that in the best way possible. Some pulp affairs are sharp, succinctly plotted creatures, every cog in the machine placed to serve the momentum of plot and character, while other efforts have messily dropped the cogs all over the floor for an untethered, ‘wing it’ type approach in which story and character are like aimless leaves blowing about in a restless pond. Isn’t life like that though? There’s no narrative structure to a lot of what we do, and as such there’s little to be found in the tale of highly self destructive, psychotic criminal Alec Baldwin, who has barely left the airport upon arriving in Miami before he’s already got a serious warrant out for his arrest. He’s a violent sociopath who takes what he wants when he wants and, most aggressively, how he wants. He’s also very smart, which is a dangerous mix in anyone whose moral compass has flatlined. His anarchic crime spree gains the attention of an aloof older detective (Fred Ward) whose badge he steals for some good old law enforcement impersonation, leading the poor weary cop on a darkly comical mad goose chase all over town. He also picks up an endearing dumb blonde (Jennifer Jason Leigh, excellent) who’s infatuated with him and blatantly tunes out any and all red flags, of which there are…many. That’s pretty much all there is to it, but with these three actors it’s pure gold. The knowingly audacious arch criminal, the Betty Boop wannabe wifey sidekick and the exasperated, constantly outsmarted copper, a trio of archetypes augmented slightly in favour of each performer’s stellar work. Never takes itself too seriously, knows full well how heinous the turn of events within it’s frames are, yet firmly refuses to not have fun, a cheeky, sexy, sweaty and altogether terrific little venture. 

-Nate Hill