Sunday, August 23, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: A History of Violence (2005); Underworld, U.S.A. (1960); Sonatine (1994)

A History of Violence (2005)

Director: David Cronenberg

A phenomenal movie that pulls off the unique feat of thematic, effective self-criticism.

The two homicidal maniacs on left have no idea what's lurking under the
humdrum exterior of Nick Stall. The peeling back of that exterior is an
exercise in intelligent, chilling filmmaking.
The basic story seems to be a straightforward tale of bad guys getting their comeuppance after messing with the wrong man. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) lives in a sleepy little Indiana town, where he runs a quaint diner and has a loving relationship with his wife, teenage son, and young daughter. When a pair of homicidal thieves attempts to rob Stall's diner and rape one of the employees, Stall kills the invaders with astounding efficacy. This tale of the small-town hero draws the attention of the national press. Soon after, a trio of extremely grim men arrive and approach Stall, claiming that Tom is really a man named "Crazy" Joey Cusack, a former wildman thug associated with an organized crime syndicate in Philadelphia. Stall must begin going to more and more extreme measures to protect his life and family.

While this may all seem like a familiar story of satisfying, righteous justice, trust me that it is far more. Early in the movie, it becomes clear that the story, guided by David Cronenberg's brilliant direction, is displaying the deeper, scarier nature of violence, its effects on humans, and its place in society. Tom's teenage son, Jack, is the victim of bullying at school. Jack follows his father's noble guidance by not fighting back and defusing many situations with his wit and humor. After he sees the praise his father receives for killing the two would-be murderers in his diner, though, Jack abandons his passive approach and pummels his tormentor at school. We viewers gain that base level of satisfaction at seeing this; however, when Jack's father later tells him that this is not the way to solve problems, we feel conflicted again. Certainly, non-violence is the lofty and ideal way to answer aggression, but we can't deny the primal thrill of physically punishing those who threaten us. This is just one of several very mature and intelligent themes and scenes in the film that add unprecedented depth to what could have been a more run-of-the-mill precursor to Taken.

The story carries the movie well enough, but Cronenberg's direction enhances it every step of the way. This is one of the most efficient movies you are ever likely to see. In an exceptionally tight 95 minutes, there are moments of brooding tension that bridge the violent action. It all has an almost hypnotic rhythm which carries you through, with virtually no wasted shots, scenes, or lines.

An easy technique to overlook is one that I particularly love about Cronenberg - his approach to film violence. When he portrays violence on screen, Cronenberg never glamorizes. There are no slow-motion shots. No triumphant music scores. No one-liners. Killing and maiming are horrible, brutal acts, and this is exactly how Cronenberg gives them to us. In A History of Violence, the deaths are ugly, gut-wrenching affairs, even when they are happening to villains who may have had it coming. This is a point for which I admire Cronenberg - the point that one should never get comfortable watching realistic violence.

I thoroughly enjoyed this rewatch (my fourth viewing, I believe), and I'll continue going back to this movie every few years in the foreseeable future.

Underworld, U.S.A. (1960)

Director: Samuel Fuller

Not the most polished film you'll ever see, but one loaded with admirable energy and conviction.

I've seen a handful of Samuel Fuller films - The Steel Helmet, Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss. I find them all to be the product of a man with a bold approach to the types of stories that he told in film, though without the resources that would make the film more widely appealing. Underworld, U.S.A. falls right into the same category.

You probably wouldn't trust a guy who looks like him, but
watching Devlin exact a brutal vendetta against a bunch of
repugnant criminals is crime movie gold.
The story is that of Tolly Devlin - a street thug who sees his low-rent criminal father killed by a quartet of goons associated with local organized crime. Devlin swears revenge. Over the next decade, he becomes an expert safe-cracker. Eventually, he sees his chance to exact vengeance on his father's killers, though it will be no small task. Three of the four men are extremely powerful lieutenants in a massive crime syndicate. This doesn't deter Devlin, though, as his sense of purpose brooks no flinching at the task he set himself from the moment he saw his father murdered.

The tale is a solid revenge story, though it doesn't take the path that you may predict. Fuller, who wrote the script, gave us something that I can't recall seeing in other crime/revenge stories. While the overall arc follows typical lines, the path that Devlin takes is novel enough to keep things interesting. He cozies up to unexpected figures, including a prostitute, a police lieutenant, and even the ruthless murderers whom he hopes to assassinate. He is a true rogue whose only allegiance is to his own vendetta, and such characters are almost always intriguing.

The movie has a certain raw feel to it, as do all Fuller movies which I've seen. He was willing to go places, in terms of human vice and violence, that kept him from mainstream success. His treatment of these things was never gratuitous, though. In Underworld, we see an innocent young girl ruthlessly run down by a hitman. Such an act is shown not for mere shock value, but rather to exemplify the hitman's utter lack of empathy or compassion. The movie has several other hard-hitting scenes, and they set Fuller movies apart from their contemporaries.

Even when in the middle of a lethal firefight, Aniki (far right) shows a
disturbing amount of impassiveness. It eventually becomes clear that this is
not done merely to make him seem "cool."
Sonatine (1994)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

A quirky, enigmatic film with a powerful final punch.

Anyone who has seen a Kitano film knows that he has an unusual style. Sonatine is no different. It follows Japanese yakuza strongman Aniki Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano, who also directed). Though very powerful and successful on his turf in Tokyo, Aniki gets orders from a superior to take a small contingent of soldiers to Okinawa, where they need to settle a turf war between locals. Once there, Aniki and his mostly inexperienced crew find things becoming unexpectedly complicated. Several men on both sides are killed, and Aniki and his remaining soldiers retreat to a secluded house on the beach. While there, the men while away the time by drinking and clowning around. Aniki has some fun with them, but he also begins to quietly ponder the meaning of his life of crime.

I must admit that I found the movie somewhat difficult to follow. This is partially because of the number of characters involved, each being part of one of four or more factions in the disputes. (And no, it's not because I think all Japanese guys look the same - I spent two years living and working in Japan, and I never confused people). A larger reason, though, is that the plot is vague. This is by design, as Aniki's confusion over the killings around him is what spurs his existential crisis. For all the value Aniki and his men give to killing their opponents, they might as well all be the same. Adding to my confusion was the quirky detachment that nearly all of the characters exhibit. I'm all for using deadpan as a device, and it is sometimes effective in Sonatine, but it was amazing how it obfuscated people's intentions and motivations much of the time.

Though I discovered afterwards that I had clearly missed and misunderstood certain plot points in the movie, this did not make the ending any less powerful. The closing sequences expose Aniki's deepest, darkest feelings in ways that I had never seen. These alone set this movie apart from any other gangster film that I have seen thus far.

Those unfamiliar with modern Japanese cinema might find the tone and performances off-putting in their stoicism or strangeness. However, if you are willing to put in some work and make it to the end, there is a rather profound payoff waiting. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Orphan Black, Season 1 (2013)

After many a recommendation from friends, my wife and I have finally begun watching Orphan Black. The first season certainly shows why this BBC Canada series quickly garnered a dedicated fanbase.

Orphan Black begins in Ontario, Canada, where a young aimless woman named Sarah Manning waits for a train. She is stunned to see a woman who looks exactly like her walk along the platform, methodically put down her belongings, take off her shoes, and then jump in front of an oncoming train. Sarah, ever the opportunist, shakes off her shock enough to grab the suicide's belongings in the hopes of finding any valuables and flees the scene. And so begins a tale that, with every episode, grows more complex and intense.

The 10-part first season moves at a breakneck pace. Each 43-minute episode contains so many plot elements and turns that one can hardly miss a single minute without becoming a little lost. Yet the show never feels rushed. By the fifth episode, we have already been given over a half-dozen clones, some of those clones pretending to be other clones, several grisly deaths, hints at larger conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, a couple of police cases involving mysterious murders, and a handful of spats between Sarah and her foster family. On paper, it seems like a dizzying amount to keep up with, but the pace is compelling rather than frustrating.

As with so many other epic science fiction tales of modern times, Sarah's story begins on a very intimate, small scale and grows to include frighteningly large and powerful conspiracies. Whereas weaker science fiction will often portray such shadowy, powerful groups as either "good" or "bad," things are not quite so clear-cut in Orphan Black. Also, there is some legitimate intelligence and creativity behind the speculation and fiction of the show, involving eugenics, biological purity, and religious fanaticism. It is highly tempting to give far more detail, but a great deal of the show's power comes from the ongoing revelations that we make along with Sarah.

Actress Tatiana Maslany's abilities as a chameleon go well
beyond different clothing and hairstyles. Even if they were in
gray uniforms and were bald, you would be able to tell each
character from the other solely from her performances.
The themes and even the sometimes-graphic violence can be quite dark, but this does not mean that the show is without levity. There is plenty of humor to keep things from becoming overly oppressive. Sarah's foster brother, Felix, is a constant bright spot, and one of Sarah's fellow clones, the ultimate suburban soccer mom Alison, provides more than a few hilarious moments. This balance is welcome, as the show wanders through plenty of dark and disturbing territory much of the time.

One can't write or talk about this show without lauding the incredible performance of lead actress Tatiana Maslany. Through the course of the ten episodes in the first season, Maslany plays no fewer than six clones, each one from a different part of the world, and each with distinctive modes of speech and movement. Maslany's ability to completely sell the idea that each clone truly is a different person is nothing short of amazing.

Anyone who appreciates taut, compelling science fiction, suspense, and/or action movies or TV shows is almost certain to enjoy Orphan Black. The squeamish may need to close their eyes once or twice every few episodes, but the story, characters, and performances are bound to carry you through any distasteful elements. I'm already well into the second season, and I'm still completely enthralled.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Before I Die #551: The Killers (1948)

The Killers (1946)

This is the 551st of the 1,160 movies on the "Before You Die" list which I am working my way through. 

Director: Robert Siodmak

A solid entry into the catalogue of classic noir movies, even if it doesn't beat out a few of my absolute favorite noir films.

The Killers is based on a (very) short story by Ernest Hemingway. In the original tale, a few assassins show up in a smalltown diner and prepare to execute a local man known as "Swede" (Burt Lancaster). After tormenting the owner, cook, and a patron of the diner, the killers learn that Swede won't be coming in that night, so they leave to seek him out. The patron, Nick Adams, races to beat the two executioners to Swede. Oddly though, when Nick does reach the Swede and warns him, he finds him oddly resigned and impassive. The Swede's only comment is "I did something once." Shortly after this enigmatic and fatalistic utterance, the killers arrive and quickly dispatch Swede. This is where Hemingway's tale ends.

The 1946 film uses roughly its first 15 minutes to tell Hemingway's original story. It then continues to fill in Swede's back story, using many elements and techniques very familiar to viewers of early noir crime movies. It's all done in a mostly satisfying way, never relying too heavily on already-beaten paths.

Once Swede is killed, we follow Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien), an insurance agent who senses something strange and extremely curious about the Swede's death, which resulted in a $2,500.00 life insurance policy being issued to an elderly woman who had barely known him. As Reardon starts digging into Swede's past, he discovers a sad and sordid tale of love and crime. Swede's real name was Ole Anderson, a former prizefighter who became involved in low-level crimes and associated himself with noted mobster "Big Jim" Colfax. Swede even gets briefly involved with Colfax's lady friend, the beautiful but greedy Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Eventually, Swede, Colfax, and a few other criminals pull a stunning payroll heist; however, it soon becomes clear that someone in the crew is trying to double-cross the others. Colfax decides that Swede is to blame, sending Swede on the lam for years to follow. That is, until the killers show up to find the weary Swede ready to embrace death.

Like all leading men in noir movies, Swede's end is all but
certain after he falls for a dame. I guess if you have to buy it,
it might as well be for Ava Gardner. 
Of course, the story is actually more complicated in the telling, and there are more than a few twists and turns. True to noir-style narration, there are multiple flashbacks, incomplete pictures, and questions which go unanswered right until the very end. The question of who exactly betrayed whom and why is well-plotted and spun out deftly. While characters such such as Kitty Collins and Big Jim Colfax are fairly stereotypical of noir, being the femme fatale and looming arch villain, Swede is a bit unusual. Unlike the intelligent and capable protagonists of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past, Swede is simply not very bright. He actually never stands a chance against Kitty's wiles or Colfax's power and cunning. In contrast to typical noir protagonists, it is the dark tale which surrounds Swede that propels the movie.

Director Robert Siodmak clearly had a very firm grasp of noir film techniques. There are shadows and cigarette smoke aplenty, which all set a satisfyingly sordid atmosphere. The acting, as you might imagine from seeing the cast list, is outstanding. In fact, this is the film that thrust Burt Lancaster into "star" status, a status he retained for the rest of his long acting career.

Though it doesn't top Double Indemnity or Out of the Past in my view, The Killers was a great entry into a rich and uniquely American film style.

Fun Fact: Highly influential Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky did a film adaptation of the Hemingway short story when he was in film school. It's available on the Criterion Collection DVD set, and it's well worth watching (just be ready to cringe when you see a young Russian man in blackface, playing the role of the African-American cook in the diner).

That's 551 films down. Only 609 to go before I can die...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Little Odessa (1995); Key Largo (1948); Dillinger (1973)

Few crime movies feel so authentic. Or so
numbingly grim.
Little Odessa (1995)

Director: James Gray

Hard and real, but faded around the edges.

Little Odessa follows a bleak few days in the bleak life of a young Long Island, New York hitman, Josh (Tim Roth), who is descended from Russian Jewish immigrants. Josh is told by his boss to return to his old neighborhood, Little Odessa, to perform a hit. Though reluctant to return for reasons not totally clear to us viewers, Josh does so all the same. As he hunkers down and prepares for the assassination, Josh attempts to reconnect with a few people, including his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and his former girlfriend, Alla. These things are not so easy, as he not only needs to keep a low profile, but he must also deal with a mother stricken with a brain tumor, as well as a stern father who has long since disowned him.

The movie has one of the grittiest, nastiest feels of any crime movie I've seen. Any glamor that one finds in most gangster movies is completely stripped away. There are certainly gunfights and killings, but they are presented with cold, disturbing realism. The matter-of-fact manner with which Josh goes about his business is unsettling, to say the least. Yet the juxtaposition with his attempts to rekindle some sort of connection with Reuben and his mother gives depth to this otherwise detached character. He's fiendish and heartless in most ways, but his interactions with these two hints at a person who may just have been redeemable at some time in the past. As the story unfolds, though, it becomes clear that Josh is truly beyond saving.

The film is written and shot with the same starkness as the themes and characters. The Little Odessa where the story takes place is all faded grays and browns, and speckled with urban blight. Everything happens in the cold, bitter wintertime, adding a greater chill to the grim proceedings. There are a few brief moments of gallows levity, but this is not a film that one "enjoys" as much as sees through with determination and a hope for some form of reconciliation.

It is a good movie, no doubt. Director James Gray, who would later do the much glossier We Own the Night, executed a very clear vision, despite having limited resources (this was his very first film). The dialogue feels very authentic, and the performances are excellent. Still, the entire tale is far too tragic and depressing to even border on "entertaining." Rather, it has the feel of a dramatization of all-too real events. It's worth seeing one time, especially for crime movie aficionadoes, but one time should suffice for most people.

A stand-off between Bogart and Robinson should have been
epic. As it was, I found Robinson's cigar-munching,
scenery-chewing Johnny Rocco a rather dull character.
Key Largo (1948)

: John Huston

I can see why this movie has been labeled a classic, though I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

The story begins with World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) arriving on the titular island, where he hopes to visit the father and sister of one of his fallen comrades. He finds the father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and sister Nora (Lauren Bacall) as the proprieters of a little hotel on the island, but not before running into several tough-looking individuals who are staying at the hotel. It isn't long before Frank and the Temples learn that the men are henchmen for Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a formerly powerful Chicago ganglord who had fallen from power after the repeal of Prohibition (Al Capone, anyone?). Rocco is staying at the hotel in order to meet with former associates and transact some illegal deal which will give Rocco a foothold back in the criminal world.

Virtually the entire film takes place inside the hotel lobby, where Rocco and his men hold the Temples and McCloud hostage while they wait for Rocco's associates to arrive. To complicate things, a hurricane is bearing down on Key Largo. Things become more and more claustrophic as Rocco repeatedly bullies the Temples, McCloud, and even his own boozy girlfriend, in a effort to demonstrate his strength. McCloud is the biggest enigma, as he seems to be a man of principles and heroism, but he passes up more than one opportunity to stand up to Rocco. Things culminate after the hurricane passes and McCloud is forced to pilot Rocco's boat, with Rocco and goons aboard, to Cuba for their escape.

There is certainly enough in Key Largo to carry a viewer's attention. Bogart is always magnetic, especially when playing a morally ambiguous character such as McCloud. The movie also features great performances by some of the all-time greats such as Bacall and Robinson. Still, I found myself disappointed in much of the dialogue. Rocco and his thugs spout off the same, tired tough guy gangster lines that I've heard in dozens of other such films from the era. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone tagged a statement with "...see?!" These, along with far too many instances of Rocco exclaiming that "Rocco will be back on top!" became dull before very long. It bordered on unintentional self-parody.

Still, the finale was strong enough to redeem most of the weaknesses. The boat ride to Cuba has a nice amount of tension and suspense, making for a memorable finish. It also provides welcome closure to the most intriguing thread to the story - just what kind of man Frank McCloud is.

Key Largo is definitely not your typical gangster movie, as it feels far more like a stage play. With some tighter, more imaginative dialogue, it likely would have become one of my favorite films. As it is, though, it is a great idea somewhat dulled by imperfect execution.

Dillinger (1973)

: George Milius

If there's a movie that should be watched in conjunction with Bonnie and Clyde, this is the one.

Warren Oates is great as the title criminal, but it is Ben
Johnson as "G-Man" Melvin Pruvis (seen here, with
Tommy gun) who steals the show.
Clearly taking his cue from that 1967 Arthur Penn masterpiece, director George Milius decided to meld a polished, Hollywood sheen with a violent, nasty presentation of the other infamous bank robbers of the Depression Era. As the title makes clear, the movie depicts the felonious acts of John Dillinger, the very first "Public Enemy Number One," as he robs and shoots his way across the Mid-West U.S. during the early 1930s. Dillinger was, along with a few others such as Bonnie and Clyde, among the very first "celebrity" criminals the country had seen. He was handsome and charismatic enough to build a rather strong following among many in the public. Like his fellow bank robbers, the support for him stemmed much from the public's emnity towards a banking industry viewed as the culprit of the country's desperate economic situation.

Though the movie does show Dillinger's charisma, it doesn't shy away from showing how brutal, ruthless, and irascible he was. Penn's Bonnie and Clyde conveniently left out several very sordid details about how the pair had killed several innocent people during their crime spree. Milius does not shy away from showing Dillinger for what he was: a greedy, selfish, and self-absorbed punk who cared very little for any collateral victims caught in his wake. Though Dillinger was only ever charged with one murder - that of a police officer - his open gun battles showed little concern for anything but his own escape.

The cast is excellent. Imagine my surprise when seeing Sergeant Hulka from Stripes, Warren Oates, playing the title criminal masterfully. He plays Dillinger's impishness, petulence, and arrogance all with equal skill. The other infamous robbers in his crew - the homicidal "Baby Face" Nelson and charming "Pretty Boy" Floyd - are also done extremely well by a very young Richard Dreyfus and Steve Kanaly, respectively. The most pleasant surprise came from an actor and character I knew nothing of. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis - the stern F.B.I. man in charge of tracking down many of the infamous bank robbers of the day. Johnson's performance is magnetic, as he gives Purvis an icy, calculated toughness that draws the eye in every scene in which he appears.

Dillinger was definitely one of the stronger movies on the list from which I've been pulling these gangster films. Though it was clearly aping much of the style of Bonnie and Clyde, it did include just enough alterations and additions not to be seen as a straight ripoff of that earlier classic.