Cinequest: GOLDSTONE

Aaron Pederson and Jacki Weaver in GOLDSTONE
Aaron Pederson and Jacki Weaver in GOLDSTONE

The Australian crime drama Goldstone is writer-director Ivan Sen’s sequel of sorts to the 2014 Cinequest film Mystery Road. Both films feature Sen’s wholly original protagonist Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), an indigenous police investigator who must face racist locals and his own demons.  Pederson’s performances in both movies are very strong, bringing out the inner conflict within a guy who needed to leave his hometown and his marriage but is tormented by the consequences of those decisions. In Goldstone, Swan is still reeling from a family tragedy when he finds a dark personal tie to the latest crime scene. Alcohol doesn’t help.

In Goldstone, a missing persons case brings Detective Jay Swan to a remote mining outpost. There’s a young local cop of ambiguous motivation – will he obstruct Swan, compete with him or become an ally? The local cop is working a human trafficking case, and the two cops pursue their investigations on dueling separate tracks until they inevitably converge.

Once again, the great Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook) plays a peppy, ever-pleasant cutthroat as only she can.

The dialogue and most of the plot in Goldstone are pretty paint-by-the-numbers, but just as with Mystery Road, the character of Jay Swan and the performance by Aaron Pederson, along with the Outback setting, make Goldstone very watchable.

(Mystery Road is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and can be streamed from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.)

VIOLENT SATURDAY: desert noir in De Luxe color

VIOLENT SATURDAY
VIOLENT SATURDAY

Richard Fleischer is one of my favorite directors, but I was unfamiliar with his Violent Saturday (1955) until the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller programmed it for the 2017 Noir City film festival.  Unusual for 1950s noir, it’s filmed in glorious CinemaScope and De Luxe color on location in the bright desert of Bisbee, Warren and Lowell, Arizona.

Three hoods spend a few days casing a bank in a remote mining town.  The movie doesn’t center as much on the actual heist as on the characters of the robbers and the townspeople.  The smug leader of the gang is Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown in Winchester ’73).  The nasty, edgy guy who hates kids and uses an inhaler is played by Lee Marvin with inhaler.  J. Carroll Naish plays the no-nonsense crime veteran in the crew.

The townspeople are:

  • The sensitive mine manager (Victor Mature);
  • The self loathing alcoholic mining heir (Richard Egan), besotted with his straying wife (Margaret Hayes);
  • The timid bank manager and nighttime peeper (Tommy Noonan);
  • The town hottie (Virginia Leith);
  • The Amish farmer (Ernest Borgnine in full Amish beard!); and
  • The librarian with a practical approach to her money troubles (veteran Sylvia Sidney).

Unfortunately, the dialogue in Violent Saturday is pretty lame and often downright soapy: “I’ve been cheap and rotten but I’ve always loved you” and “please leave me alone for a while – I don’t want you to see me cry”.  And the ending ties everything up a little too neatly – including for the peeping tom.

But the cast did the best they could with the characters, especially McNally.  Virginia Leith is a silky and sensuous presence; her career died just a year after Violent Saturday when she wasn’t renewed by Fox (per IMDb); she’s now best known for playing the disembodied Jan in the Pan in the cult fave The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.

Violent Saturday was Richard Fleischer’s fourth film after his noir masterpiece, The Narrow Margin.  Indeed, the best thing about Violent Saturday is Fleischer’s expert direction. You can tell that this isn’t by-the-numbers directing when we see the shots of the robbers casing the bank, the dancing in the bar, when the hoods approach Amish with guns drawn and, especially, when the peeper edges past the hottie in the drug store.

[Here’s one thing that confused me about the title: the robbery takes place during regular business hours, and in the 1950s, banks were not open on Saturdays.  Maybe the robbery was on Friday and the final shootout is the next day?  Help me here somebody.]

Violent Saturday is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

THE SICILIAN CLAN: Gabin, Delon and Ventura

Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN
Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN

The 1969 French neo-noir The Sicilian Clan is an exemplar of noir’s Perfect Crime sub-genre – they’re going to get away with the elaborately planned big heist EXCEPT FOR ONE THING.  In this case, the one thing is Sicilian macho pride.

There’s an inventive jail break, an exciting boudoir escape and an impossibly brilliant heist plan. There’s also a great scene with a kid and his toy gun.  The suspense tightens even more when a minor character’s wife unexpectedly shows up and threatens to derail the heist again and again.

Most of all, director Henri Verneuil knew that he had three unbeatable cards to play, and he got the most from them:

  • Alain Delon –  Impossibly handsome and dashing, no one ever removed their sunglasses with more of a flourish than Delon.  Delon was in his early thirties, and at the peak of his string of crime movie vehicles, after Anybody Can Win and Le Samourai and before Le Cercle Rouge and The Gypsy.
  • Lino Ventura –  One of the most watchable French stars, Ventura’s bloodhound face had been reshaped by his earlier career as a professional wrestler.   Here, he’s the guy you’re drawn to whenever he’s on-screen.
  • Jean Gabin – Probably the greatest male French movie star ever, Gabin had dominated prewar French cinema with Pepe LeMoko, La Grande Illusion, Port of Shadows and Le Bete Humaine.  After the war, he aged into noir (Touchez Pas aux Grisbi) and, in the 1960s, into neo-noir.  Gabin oozed a seasoned cool (like Bogart) and imparted a stately gravitas to his noir and neo-noir characters.

In The Sicilian Clan, Delon plays the reckless hood in over his head.  Gabin plays the crime boss who is exploiting him.  And Ventura plays the cagey detective after them both.

Here’s a nice touch – the highly professional gang brings in an outsider who is a hopeless drunk.  What is his specialty and why do they need him?  When we find out during the final heist, it’s a stunner that no one could see coming.

The whistling and boings in the offbeat score tell us that it’s the work of Ennio Morricone in his Spaghetti Western period; I’m a Morricone fan, but this is not one of his best.

The Sicilian Clan is not a classic.  The dialogue is grossly clichéd.  There is not a single ordinary looking woman in the film.  An obligatory tryst is tiresomely predictable and made worse by the score’s wacky, clanging music.

But the plot, while contrived, is well-contrived.  And the combination of Delon, Ventura and Gabin will make almost anything work.  You can watch The Sicilian Clan at the Castro Theatre during Noir City 2017, or stream it from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

[Note: In our post 9/11 world, audiences will feel uneasy when a hijacked airplane flies low over the Manhattan skyscrapers.]

Lino Ventura and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN
Lino Ventura and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN

DVD/Stream of the Week: HELL OR HIGH WATER – you won’t see a better movie in 2016

Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER

For the second straight week, my DVD/Stream recommendation is the superb Hell or High Water.

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I have it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas). The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico). Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way. He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important. It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise. While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him. Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust. He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law. Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies, “It’s been difficult.” He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail. Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior. Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”. Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers. Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece. Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow. I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

Hell or High Water is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: HELL OR HIGH WATER – you won’t see a better movie in 2016

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I have it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas). The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico). Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way. He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important. It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers. Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise. While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him. Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust. He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law. Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies, “It’s been difficult.” He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail. Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior. Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”. Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers. Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece. Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow. I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

Hell or High Water is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

HELL OR HIGH WATER: best movie of the year so far

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

The character-driven crime drama Hell or High Water is remarkably atmospheric and gripping, and I’ll be putting it at the very top of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far.  As it begins, we think we’re watching a very well-made film about white trash losers on a crime spree, but eventually, as we understand how original the characters are and how intricate the plot is, we understand that we’re watching a triumph of the perfect crime genre – and with an embedded political point of view.  Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an actor who wrote last year’s Sicario, has proven that he is an artist of uncommon depth.

Director David Mackenzie imbues Hell or High Water with an astonishing sense of time (the present) and place (rural West Texas).  The story is set in the dusty flatlands between Lubbock and Wichita Falls (shot just over the border in eastern New Mexico).    Mackenzie employs Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography and the music, some composed by Nick Cave, to evoke an environment that is rich in horizons but, except in the bursts of occasional oil booms, dirt poor in every way.  He begins Hell or High Water with a 360 degree shot of a bank branch parking lot with a teller sneaking the last cigarette before her shift; the starkness and anonymity of the dying downtown immerses us right where Mackenzie wants us.

It’s a place where people know the difference between Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb – and it’s important.  It’s also a place where many civilians are gun-totin’, which adds a whole new element to the average bank robbery.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers.  Toby is the more complex – both poorly educated and wise.   While Toby takes personal responsibility for the bad choices of his youth that have ruined a marriage and left him unable to contribute to the future of his two sons, he appreciates that generational poverty and the economic system have stacked the odds against him.  Toby cared for his dying mother and is now committed to making things right for his sons and ex-wife; he is highly moral but he’s not about to follow rules that he sees as unjust.  He looks like another unemployed oilfield roughneck, but he’s surprisingly cagey and strategic.

Tanner is the classic lowlife psychopath, whose impulses have always led him into trouble with the law.  Asked “How have you stayed out of jail for a year?”, Tanner replies,  “It’s been difficult.”  He’s also a little smarter and lot more charming than he looks, but it’s clear that he is destined for a bad end.

Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aged Texas ranger who is three weeks from retirement, is on the brothers’ trail.  Marcus is an astute and unsentimental student of human behavior.  Marcus relishes a good whodunit, and the wheels in his mind are always turning. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) offers that, for a happy retirement “you’ll need someone to outsmart”.  Indeed, it’s from Marcus, not the brothers themselves, that we learn that the bank robbers are likely raising money for some cause, against some deadline

In Hell or High Water, the banks are the real robbers.  Marcus spots a bank manager with “Now this looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. In the world of Bonnie and Clyde, victims of the Depression lost farms to foreclosure, but many banks failed, too; that movie’s anti-heroes were misfits like Tanner. In the world of Hell or High Water, the game is fixed so that the banks can’t fail, and so banking is just legalized criminality.

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is exceptionally well-acted. This is the best work so far by Chris Pine (Kirk in Star Trek). Ben Foster, unsurprisingly, nails the Born To Lose character of Tanner. Gil Birmingham (Billy Black in the Twilight movies) is stellar as Marcus’ reflective and long-suffering partner Alberto. Jeff Bridges has matured into a master actor who delivers absolute perfection and makes it look effortless.

And the high quality performances just keep coming throughout Hell or High Water. The film opens with nice turns by Dale Dickey (unforgettable in Winter’s Bone) and veteran Buck Taylor. Marin Ireland is excellent as Toby’s ex-wife, and Margaret Bowman sparks a diner scene as the world’s most authoritarian waitress. Katy Mixon is Oscar-worthy in a role as a waitress who may long for companionship, but really, really needs to keep her tip; I just hope enough people see this movie and experience Mixon’s eyes narrowing and gleaming with resolve.

While Jeff Bridges is reason enough to see Hell or High Water, all of its elements add up to a masterpiece.  Not that Chris Pine needs a star-making breakthrough performance, but Hell or High Water certainly proves that he can carry a better movie than Hollywood franchises allow.  I’m going to see Hell or High Water again; then I’m going to line up to see Taylor Sheridan’s next film, whatever and whenever that will be.

THE LINEUP: cool killer, volcanic killer, careening thru San Francisco

THE LINEUP
THE LINEUP

The 1958 film noir The Lineup plays this Saturday, July 30, on Turner Classic Movies. The villains and the final chase scene are unforgettable, as are the movie’s iconic San Francisco locations.  It’s one of my Overlooked Noirs.

Two gangsters are smuggling heroin into San Francisco, hidden in the bags of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers. When a shipment isn’t where it’s supposed to be (in a girl’s doll), the gangsters take the doll’s owner (Cindy Calloway) and her mother (Mary LaRoche) hostage and then try to hunt down the contraband in San Francisco’s underground. Will the crooks find the junk? Will they harm the hostages? Will the cops find them first? The suspense builds until the man hunt turns into a spectacular chase through San Francisco.

Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP
Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP

The bad guys, Julian (Robert Keith) and Dancer (Eli Wallach), really set The Lineup apart from other crime dramas of the period.  Julian is ruthless, but always controlled and strategic.  One of the most self-aware villains in cinema history, Julian says things like, “Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He describes his partner Dancer as “a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.”

Robert Keith’s son, Brian Keith, became a much bigger star in the TV series Family Affair and a host of Disney productions.  But Robert Keith was himself a fine actor, especially as a PTSD-addled colonel in Men in War (1957).  The role of Julian, with its unusual combination of cool smarts and calculated malevolence, became one of Robert Keith’s finest performances.

Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP
Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP

Julian’s biggest challenge is operating with a psychotic partner (Wallach’s Dancer) who is ready to explode in violence at any moment.  Wallach was a great movie character actor who had the gift of packing maximum entertainment value into any role.  Movie fans will probably best remember him for two bandito bad guys – Cavela in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  But here he is, just three years after his feature film debut in Baby Doll, and Wallach is seething with intensity as he gives pychopathy an especially bad name.

To make their situation even edgier, Julian and Dancer have hired a local getaway driver  (the ever reliable character actor Richard Jaeckel) who is a raging alcoholic.

There isn’t any lineup of note in The Lineup, which was a theatrical feature seeking to exploit a police procedural TV series of the same name, hence the reference to “30 million fans” in the trailer.  Warner Anderson co-starred in the series and plays the cop in the movie.  The real juice in this movie, however, comes from the criminals that he is chasing.

The Lineup was brilliantly directed by the grievously underrated Don Siegel.  Siegel was a master of crime movies (and was the primary filmmaking mentor to Clint Eastwood).  I particularly love Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick, the guilty pleasure Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Wayne’s goodbye: The ShootistThe Lineup is right up there with Siegel’s best.

THE LINEUP
THE LINEUP

The biggest star of The Lineup, however, is the San Francisco of the late 1950s. The Lineup starts on the waterfront and ends in a chase that careens from the Cliff House all across the city to the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway (now itself torn down decades ago). The story also takes us to the old Embarcadero YMCA, the Golden Gate Bridge, War Memorial Opera House, US Custom House, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Legion of Honor, the old DeYoung Museum and the Mark Hopkins Hotel.  There’s even a critical scene in the Sutro Baths – which had become an ice skating rink when the movie was filmed.

Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP
Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP (the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in the background)
The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP
The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP

The Lineup (one of the few DVDs that I still own) plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

DVD/Stream of the Week: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES – see the real Oscar winner before the Hollywood version

Ricardo Darin in THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Ricardo Darin in THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES

The superb The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture. The Hollywood remake is coming out this weekend, but you should first see the original. The Secret in Their Eyes is a police procedural set in Argentina with two breathtaking plot twists, original characters, a mature romance and one forehead-slapping, “how did they do it?” shot. The story centers on a murder in Argentina’s politically turbulent 1970s, but most of the story takes place twenty years later when a retired cop revisits the murder.

Veteran Argentine actor Ricardo Darin shines once again in a Joe Mantegna-type role. Darin leads an excellent cast, including Guillermo Francella, who brings alive the character of Darin’s drunk assistant. Darin’s detective is a solitary guy who retracts into his lair to bang away at a novel. He has feelings for his boss, a tough judge played by Soledad Villamil. Her career and her personal life can’t wait for the detective to get his own stuff together. All three characters throw themselves into solving the murder and, when stymied, are all scarred by the lack of resolution.

The movie is titled after one element that I hadn’t seen before in a crime movie. And then there are the major plot twists. The final one is a jaw-dropper.

Director Juan Jose Campanella received justifiable praise for the amazing shot of a police search in a filled and frenzied soccer stadium. It ranks as one of the great single shots of extremely long duration, right up there with the opening sequence of Touch of Evil, the kitchen entrance in Goodfellas and the battle scene in Children of Men. This shot alone makes watching the movie worthwhile.

Filmmaker Billy Ray has remade the Argentine film as Secret in Their Eyes, to be released October 23 starring Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Chiwetelu Ejiofor. Ray is no hack – he’s adapted the screenplays for Shattered Glass (which he also directed), Captain Phillips and the first The Hunger Games. The plot has been turned into a story about thee US federal law enforcement officials and the murder of one of their children; unfortunately, the trailer looks more like a plot-driven Law & Order, with none of the characters as singular or as memorable as in the Argentine original. We shall see.

The Secret in Their Eyes is high on my Best Movies of 2010. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

BLACK MASS: psychopathy and ambition is a nasty combination

Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS

The excellent crime drama Black Mass tells the true life story of how gangster James “Whitey” Bulger built his Boston Irish gang into a major crime empire under the protection of the FBI.  As if we needed an illustrative example, Bulger is proof that psychopathy and ambition is a really nasty combination.  And, as Black Mass points out with the FBI characters, even ambition alone can prove to be a vulnerability.

Here’s what really happened:  Bulger (Johnny Depp), the ruthless leader of the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston was approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) for help in eradicating Boston’s Italian Mafia.   Connolly was as ambitious as Bulger, and the two men shared Southie  roots.  It was in Bulger’s interest to rid himself of the competition, and he parlayed Connolly’s career-climbing grasping into a de facto amnesty that allowed Bulger to expand his murderous enterprises throughout Boston and beyond – even to Florida jai alai and gun running to Northern Ireland.

It’s an amazing tale, and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) tells it very well, letting Depp and Edgerton drive the story by inhabiting a pair of characters that become a toxic mixture.  With an erect swagger and some of the coldest eyes in cinema history, Johnny Depp is superb as the feral Bulger.  The trailer below includes his life lesson to a small boy around the family breakfast table that shows his world view.  When the eyes go cold, Depp’s Bulger can terrorize with a touch, a word or even just a glance.

Joel Edgerton is equally effective as the corrupted FBI agent Connolly, who uses Southie bombast and bluster to escape the snares of office politics.  Alas,  it all finally catches up to him when a new prosecutor directs fresh eyes on Boston’s crime scene.  Until recently, I’ve known Edgerton as an Australian action star (he was the the Navy Seal team leader in Zero Dark Thirty and one of the thugs in Animal Kingdom). Edgerton recently wrote, directed and stared in the excellent psychological thriller The Gift, and his performance in Black mass reinforces that he’s a very talented and versatile filmmaker.

The cast is very deep and uniformly excellent, including Julianne Nicolson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris and House of Cards) and Dakota Johnson.  Besides Depp and Edgerton, three other actors popped off the screen for me:

  • Rory Cochrane plays Bulger’s partner Steve Flemmi.  Cochrane is a veteran actor whose most memorable role is probably as the pothead Slater in Dazed and Confused.  Now filled out in middle age, he plays a guy who is about half of Depp’s scenes, but says very, very little.  As they say, the best acting is reacting, and Cochrane just chews gum and observes, letting his eyes tell us what he is thinking and feeling.
  • David Harbour plays Connolly’s FBI partner, a guy who becomes entangled in a web not of his own doing.  One of the most riveting scenes in Black Mass, he becomes terrorized about, of all things, a recipe for a steak marinade.  Harbour is a reliable veteran, but this is among his very best work.
  • Peter Sarsgaard is always brilliant, and here he gets to become a tweaked out lowlife who involuntarily giggles when he thinks that getting handed a valise full of cash is a good thing when it’s not.

Black Mass is a top rate crime story very well-told.  No more and no less.

One more thing:  there is a string of up-close-and-personal murders depicted here, including two by strangulation and a host of gunshot executions.  It’s not particularly gruesome by the standards of modern crime movies, but DON’T TAKE YOUR 4-YEAR-OLD.  A couple at my screening did just that.  What are people thinking?

SICARIO: a dirty war against the narcos

Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO
Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO

In the dark crime thriller Sicario, Emily Blunt plays a fierce and skilled FBI SWAT team leader. She’s battling Mexican narcos in Phoenix when her superiors give her the chance to “volunteer” for a mysterious anti-narco detachment with a cheerfully amoral leader (Josh Brolin). It’s unclear precisely from where, in or out of the US government, this group operates, and it includes an even more shadowy figure (Benicio Del Toro).  She’s seen a lot of bad things, but, almost immediately, she is shocked at what her new team is doing.

Sicario’s premise is that the only way to make a difference in the Drug War is to shake up drug suppliers by decapitating the major drug gangs – by any means necessary.   The good guys are fighting a Dirty War themselves.  Del Toro plays one of the most hardass movie assassins in recent cinema.

Sicario is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also directed Incendies (my #1 movie of 2011), Enemy and Prisoners.  He has a gift for the plot-driven thriller.  While taut;y paced, the overall affect of Sicario is more brooding than frenetic, consumed by the inevitability of violence and death.

Sicario looks and sounds better than it is, having been photographed by Roger Deakins (12 Oscar nominations).  The desert borderland looks ominous as well as desolate.  And there’s a night vision scene that really pops.  The music by Jóhann Jóhannsson is unusually effective in enhancing the intense, dark and volatile mood.

I haven’t been thinking about Sicario afterwards, so it isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitively a well-made and effective crime drama.