Undercover Blues

Undercover Blues is about as light, breezy and fluffed out as a film can get, to its own detriment in fact. I love a good lighthearted comedy but unfortunately this one tries to be so carefree and leisurely that it comes across as… well just that, something that feels like it’s trying too hard to achieve it’s vibe instead of just naturally arriving there. Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play former spies who are on vacation in New Orleans, trying to escape the espionage life for awhile so they can raise their baby. When a chance encounter with a hopeless mugger named ‘Muerte’ (Stanley Tucci in a performance that has to be seen to be believed) puts them in the spotlight of their former boss (Richard Jenkins) they are tasked with finding and taking down an easily distracted Euro-trash villainess (Fiona Shaw) who is selling plutonium rods to terrorists.. that’s the loose version anyways, the film doesn’t really have much of a grasp on the reins of its own plot. Pretty soon two dogged detectives are after them, played by Obba Babatunde and the always scene stealing Larry Miller who is doing a voice/accent here that is so bizarre he sounds like he walked out of the looney toons. There really isn’t too much romantic chemistry between Quaid and Turner save for one brief scene and for all their cavalier swashbuckling and attempts at charisma they seem curiously lifeless. Tucci is anything but though as this ridiculous petty criminal, barking out childish threats with a priceless Spanish accent and spicing up the proceedings with his coked up manic energy. Watch for familiar faces including Tom Arnold, Jan Triska, Marshall Bell, Dennis Lipscomb, Saul Rubinek, Chris Ellis, Olek Krupa and a very young Dave Chapelle. I wish I liked this more but it just didn’t have substance or anything to grab ahold of. It’s fine to have easy breezy, fluffy action comedies but there’s still gotta be an interesting story, strong character dynamics and a genuine sense of danger or I’ll just lose interest. This was a great big meh. If you want to see how an effective lighthearted New Orleans caper with Quaid is done, check out The Big Easy with him and Ellen Barkin, an absolutely wonderful romance cop flick that feels genuinely laidback without having to try SO damn hard to convince us it is, like this pot of watered down gumbo.

-Nate Hill

Brad Furman’s City Of Lies

Question for you: did the LAPD use propagandist maneuvers and media manipulation in the 90’s to fictitiously outline an ongoing east coast/west coast gang war that never even existed and then, using covert tactics and unstable deep cover operatives, deliberately and unlawfully orchestrate behind the scenes murders of influential rappers Christopher ‘Notorious BIG’ Wallace and Tupac Shakur? This film certainly seems to think so, and the fact that it was suspiciously buried in distribution hell for three plus years following its production and snuck unceremoniously into release just this year has me thinking so as well. City Of Lies, based on the documentarian book LAbyrinth, is a fascinating, paranoia laced, very well written procedural thriller starring Johnny Depp as real life LAPD detective Russell Poole who never stopped trying to find out who really shot Biggie and Forest Whitaker as a reporter interested in the case who spends some time with him trying to get to the truth. The film is centralized around 2015 when the final chapter of Russell’s almost career-long investigation arrives at a conclusion but it leaps all over the 90’s for stylish, eerie, memory laden flashbacks that evoke everything from Tony Scott to Bourne movies and the filmmaking aesthetics, score, soundtrack and performances are all exemplary. Depp has had the misfortune of being dealt a few shitty hands lately which I won’t go into too much, but a mystifying scandal was whipped around this film itself to scapegoat him when it appears the real reason this film was buried was… well, just look at the subject matter. He gives a pained, haunted, understated, against type and altogether gripping performance here that hopefully is the start of a surge of roles that sees his phoenix ascent upwards from the quagmire of bullshit he’s been put through. Whitaker is fantastic as well and quite soulful in the third act and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) assembles an unbelievable supporting cast just packed with character actor talent including Michael Paré, Toby Huss, Xander Berkeley, Rockmund Dunbar, Laurence Mason, Louis Herthum, Shea Wigham, Dayton Callie, Biggie’s real life mother Voletta Wallace playing herself, Obba Babatundé, Kevin Chapman, Glenn Plummer and the great Peter Greene as a particularly acid tongued LAPD commander. The film has a way of swerving just south of every question asked and a knack for making you feel like this story is open ended and unsolved. Unsolved is different than unproved though, and if everything that Depp’s Russell Poole cataloged and uncovered is for real then it’s no wonder this film never saw a major release and was held up for so long. Whatever really happened back then, this is one finely crafted thriller with a galaxy of terrific performances, a taut, engaging narrative and an incentive to shed light on those who abuse power, should know better, and need someone to call them out on it. Who better than a good cop like Poole, and who better to bring his story to life than an actor like Depp, who can pretty much do anything but tries something we’re not used to seeing from him everyday: play a regular guy just trying to do the right thing in the face of absolute corruption.

-Nate Hill

Ted Demme’s Life

Ted Demme’s Life is a hard one to classify or box into genres, which may have been why it didn’t do all that great at the box office and subsequently slipped through the cracks, a result that often befalls ambitious, unique films that people aren’t ready to surrender to. Part comedy, part tragedy, all drama infused with just a bit of whimsy, it’s a brilliant piece and one of the most underrated outings from both of it’s high profile stars, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It seems fitting that the two lively, cartoonish cowboys of comedy should share the screen, and it’s lucky they got such a wicked script. In the roaring twenties, Murphy is smooth talking petty thief Ray, Lawrence is hapless, hot blooded bank teller Claude, and the pair couldn’t be more suited or dysfunctional towards each other. Brought together for an ill fated moonshine run bankrolled by a nasty NYC Gangster (Rick James), things go wrong in the most auspicious of places a black man could find himself during that time: Mississippi. Framed for the murder of a local conman (Clarence Williams III) by a psychotic, corrupt Sheriff (Ned Vaughn), they’re given life in prison by the judge, and this is where their peculiar adventure really begins. Put under the supervision of a violent but oddly sympathetic corrections officer played awesomely by Nick Cassavetes, the two wrongfully convicted, hard-luck fellows spend their entire adult life and most of the twentieth century incarcerated… and that’s the film. Squabbling year by year, making a whole host of friends out of their fellow convicts and never losing their sense of humour, it’s the one of the strangest narratives I’ve seen, and somehow works wonders in keeping us glued to the screen. Supporting the two leads is a legendary ensemble including Ned Beatty as warm hearted superintendent, Anthony Anderson, Bernie Mac, Bokeem Woodbine, Barry Shabaka Henley, Heavy D, Don Harvey, Noah Emmerich, Obba Babatundé, Sanaa Latham, R. Lee Ermey and more. Murphy and Lawrence have never been better, shining through Rick Baker’s wicked old age makeup in the latter portion of the film, and letting the organic outrage and frustration towards their situation pepper the many instances of humour, accenting everything with their friendship, which is the core element really. The film’s title, simple as it, has a few meanings, at least for me. Life as in ‘life in prison’, in it’s most literal and outright sense. Life as in ‘well tough shit, that’s life and it ain’t always pretty,’ another reality shared with us by the story. But really it’s something more oblique, the closest form of explanation I can give being ‘life happens.’ There’s no real social issues explored here, no heavy handed agenda (had the film been released in this day and age, that would have almost certainly been a different story), no real message, we just see these events befall the two men. They roll with each new development, they adapt and adjust, they learn, they live. In a medium that’s always being plumbed and mined for deeper meanings, subtext and allegories, it’s nice to see a picture that serves up the human condition without all those lofty bells and whistles. Their story is random, awkward, unpredictable, never short on irony, seldom fair, often tragic, and ever forward moving. That’s Life.

-Nate Hill