Tag Archives: Crime

B Movie Glory: Baja

Baja is one of those dusty, hazy B movies that seems to serve no other purpose other than to fill the 90 minute cable slot between 2am and 3:30 on TBS Superstation (yes I still remember that). But these flicks have their niche in the cinematic zeitgeist, and there’s a spot in my insanely busy schedule for each and every one, when time allows. This one is a lonely little piece of hard boiled desert pulp starring Molly Ringwald and Lance Henriksen, concerning drug deals gone wrong, betrayal, a hitman, a crime boss (Corbin Bernsen, whatever happened to him?) who chases his meds with hard-bar, lots of sand and washed out sun-bleach colour, some Cessna action and a hazy vibe that’s best attained by skulling a few brews before you settle in. Ringwald and Donal Logue play a couple trying to broker a deal out there near the Salton Sea, a deal that goes horribly wrong and ends up with eccentric contract killer Burns (Henriksen) being dispatched to find and kill them, or something vague like that. He spends less time actually being proactive though and instead wanders around, gets drunk, bitches about his wife, searches for hookers and basically does everything but the job he was hired to do. It’s hilarious watching Lance chew scenery and have a sand blast with his performance, seemingly a dude that wandered in dazed and heavily confused from a Coen Brothers flick. It all just kind of meanders past without a lot of fanfare until the final few frames when Henriksen hires a drunken bush pilot (Jack Conley) and flies off in his rickety plane out of the film, leaving us in the dust trying to decipher what is a fairly convoluted, strange little story. It’s fun for what it is though, has gorgeous scenery of rural California and Lance’s central performance is fun. Good luck ever finding it though, I snagged a battered old VHS tape in some forgotten store on Vancouver Island years ago.

-Nate Hill

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Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York might simultaneously be Christopher Walken’s scariest, most intense and also withdrawn and detached performance, so idiosyncratically does he a draw his portrait of Frank White, a dangerous career criminal fresh out of the pen with high ambitions on ruling the NYC urban jungle, take no prisoners. It’s one of the moodiest, most dour crime films set in the big apple, but it finds a dark heart of bloody poetry, frighteningly funny menace and an ultimate resolution that has you undecided on whether crime really does pay. Walken’s Frank is a strange man, surprisingly introverted for a guy who commands an army and takes on rival gangsters for the control of city blocks, but it’s in the quiet, dangerous charm that he finds his effectiveness, and as crazy as he still is here, it’s a fascinating far cry from some of his more manic, well over the top turns. There’s three would-be hero cops out to get him by any means they can, cocky hotshot David Caruso (before his talents fell from grace with god awful CSI Miami), Ferrara veteran Victor Argo and a coked up Wesley Snipes. They go so far over the line trying to nail him that the only thing separating them from the crime element is a badge, which seems to amuse Frank as he eludes them at every turn. Walken’s merry band of assholes is an armada of gangbangers and drug chemists which include the likes of Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Calderon, Roger Smith and a fearsome Laurence Fishburne as his first mate, young and rambunctious before his acting style gelled into something decidedly more cucumber cool (hello Morpheus). The violence and threat thereof is palpable, as Ferrara whips up a frenzy of boiling conflict that makes the epicentre of Hell’s Kitchen feel like the eye of a very angry hurricane, while still keeping the mood to a laid back thrum, it’s stylistic and tonal bliss the whole way through. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli shoots the city with an oblong, lived in, hazed out and very un-cinematic feel, throwing us right into the dirty digs with this troupe of miscreants and crooked cops, while composer Joe Delia makes gloomy, haunted work out of the score, especially in Frank’s darkly poetic final scene. As for Walken, the man is a dynamo and this may be his best work to date. He makes Frank a harrowing demon with humanity that catches you off guard when it breaches the surface of his opaque, unreadable persona, a suave, psychotic spectre of the NYC streets who won’t go out unless it’s with a bang, and won’t ever back down on his way there.

A crime classic.

-Nate Hill

Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead

The 90’s was a heyday of hard boiled, ultraviolent film noir, a ripple effect that can undeniably be traced back to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, however it’s silly to say that they all are derived from that film, because plenty of them have their own distinct groove and flavour. One such flick is Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a mouthful of a title that serves as harbinger to one of the most idiosyncratic, verbally flamboyant scripts Hollywood ever produced, penned by Scott Rosenberg. They scored the cast to back it up too, for a beautifully melodramatic neo-noir pulp opus that should be as legendary as any of the household name films to come out of that era. Andy Garcia is the definition of slick as Jimmy The Saint, an ex mobster on the straight and narrow who’s pulled back into the game by The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken) his former employer and the most dangerous crime boss in all the land. Hired to scare the piss-ant boyfriend who stole Walken’s son’s girl, Jimmy rounds up a crew that shouldn’t be trusted to watch a junkyard. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd, brilliant) is a diseased old porn shop owner, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), tough guy with a heart of gold Big Bear Franchise (William Forsythe) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams) the psychopathic wild card who uses his day job at a mortuary as an anger outlet by pummelling the corpses like punching bags. Of course they royally fuck up the job, and Walken places scary, symbolic ‘hits’ on each of them. The clock ticks as they all try to either leave town or face the music, but Jimmy is the one with something to lose as he’s fallen in love with elegant, posh rich girl Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). The script could have easily gone for just colourful carnage and glib posturing, but there’s real, palpable gravitas to the character relations, especially between Jimmy and Walken, who’s history is hinted at and brought to complex life by the two pros. This is Walken at his weirdest and wildest, confined to a spooky wheelchair and locked up in a guarded, dimly lit estate like Count Dracula. There’s a touching subplot involving wayward hooker Lucinda (Fairuza Balk, always terrific) that brings out the dormant humanity in hardened Jimmy. The cast here really is a marvel, and includes Don Cheadle and Glenn Plummer as a couple of loudmouth criminals, Jack Warden, Jenny McCarthy, Tiny Lister, Marshall Bell, Bill Cobbs, Michael Nicolosi, and Steve Buscemi as a freaky hitman named Mr. Shhhh, because he shoots first and doesn’t ask any questions at all. The dialogue is unique and flows from the actors like urban Shakespeare, it’s one of the coolest scripts ever written, and serves not just to be slick for the sake of it, but use jive and jargon to bring forth character naturally, and effortlessly provide buoyancy to the story. One of the great hidden gems out there. Boat Drinks.

Michael Mann’s Collateral

I love Michael Mann’s Collateral so much. Few other films evoke the detached, hypnotic atmosphere of a metropolitan city, the thrum of a single night passing by, the hard bitten nature of a city whose main brand of social interaction is usually crime. Mann has a way with restless urban nocturnes and the weary, resolute characters who drift through them, personified here by Jamie Foxx’s shy, plucky cab driver Max and Tom Cruise’s lupine, charismatic hitman Vincent. They’re on odd pair to spend a murky, digitally shot Los Angeles night with, but the two actors make it a clash, confrontation and ironic companionship for the ages. Max is veering close to being a career cabbie, his dreams of entrepreneur enterprising fading fast in the rear view. He’s meek and soft spoken but we get the sense that somewhere in there is the capacity for violence and unpredictability, if prompted by the right catalyst. Speak of the devil with Vincent, a whip smart apex predator who hijacks Max into helping him make several high profile stops before a 6am flight out of LAX, each one leaving a cadaver in its wake, all related to an interwoven criminal syndicate that DA is trying to bring down. It’s high concept done on slow burn, with action taking a backseat beside Vincent, while story, character and brilliant dialogue command the forefront, a technique rarely employed in the big budget Hollywood blockbuster, but always a surefire way to success. Mann captures the pulse of LA almost better than he did with Heat, albeit to a smaller scale and constricted to one night, a nervous time-sensitive mood-scape that gives the proceedings a haunted aura. Cruise has never been better, sporting a silver fox get-up and enough scary micro-mannerisms to more than make us believe he’s an expert at his profession, until jaggedly unravelled by Foxx’s presence, who goes from unassuming hostage to razor sharp thorn in the side real quick. Jada Pinkett Smith is brilliant as a lawyer who Max picks up in the opening scene, their extended conversation set against the dreamy LA backdrop serving as a neat, Elmore Leonard-esque way to set up shop. The supporting cast are like easter eggs hidden throughout, they’re never obvious or given key monologues, but exist in harmonious flow to the chamber piece unfolding mostly in the taxi. Mark Ruffalo shows up in his coolest role to date as a detective who gets wise to Cruise uncannily quick, Javier Bardem has a showcase scene as an angry mob boss, and watch for Bruce McGill, Debi Mazar, Wade Williams, Klea Scott, Paul Adelstein, Peter Berg, Irma P. Hall, Emilio Riveria, Jason Statham, Richard T. Jones and the always excellent Barry Shabaka Henley as a jazz club owner with a few skeletons in his closet. My favourite scene is a wordless one, in which Vincent and Max see a lone coyote loping across the freeway in the hazy night. Each of them reacts, the sight of the beast meaning something different to them, internally, they share the moment, and move on. Taken out of context it could mean anything, stand on its own as a fifteen second short film, or be injected into a crime drama masterpiece like this to make it all the more atmospheric and special. It’s moments like this, along with a few other key scenes, one set on a subway train and the initial conversation between Foxx and Jada, that inject a surface level genre film with something intangible, something elemental. Mann gets this, every frame of his urban crime epics are filled with that kind of energy, and this stands as one of his best.

-Nate Hill

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

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