Monday, October 25, 2010

RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009) - Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker

After devoting roughly five hours of my weekend to this three-part UK television serial-killer-cum-police-corruption crime procedural, I feel like I should have more to say about it. But I'm going to take a cue from the old Yorkshire PD and remain relatively tight-lipped.

This series is a study in obfuscation. Obfuscation on the part of a complicit, corrupt provincial police force that builds an impenetrable wall of silence around a decade-long serial killer case. But it's also a study in narrative obfuscation on the part of the writer/directors, at times a very frustrating one. Like the Yorkshire PD, the creators withhold facts, evidence and plot revelations so long that it began to tax my interest. I knew from the first few frames that the police are somehow complicit in these heinous crimes. I knew they were corrupt -- that is no surprise. I even had a good idea who did it. What I'm interested in is HOW they are corrupt, the details of HOW they managed to obfuscate three to four different investigations for a decade, and in that respect Red Riding is a bit of a letdown.

There is a fine art to films and television series knowing when and how to divulge information to the viewer without "spoiling" the climax. Though a handsomely mounted and photographed production, Red Riding seems a little too manipulative on the narrative front for a full recommendation. Give the first part, "1974," a go, and if you're really hooked proceed from there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (2009) - Corneliu Porumboiu

Police, Adjective is a Euro cop procedural done up in Romanian realist style. In other words, not very much happens, and what doesn't happen generally happens in very long takes with very little dialogue. For most cop movie aficionados, the operative adjective in Police, Adjective will be "boring." But for cop movie fans who are beard-scratchers and pseudo-intellectuals (doubly guilty as charged) the adjective might be kinder and in need a modifying adverb -- "ponderously intriguing."

Police, Adj. revolves around the world's most uneventful stakeout. A young Romanian cop lurks around a schoolyard spying on a teenager who occasionally meets up with friends and takes a few hits of hashish before tossing it. And THAT'S IT. The brass wants the young cop to bust the kid in a schoolyard sting operation as a potential supplier and be done, but the cop has no evidence to believe the kid supplies to anyone other than himself. He finds himself in a moral quandary. Is he willing to ruin this kid's life for a few tokes of hash just because the current law says so? A law which will likely be changed in a year or so when Romania goes fully Euro?

As evidenced in the title, Police, Adj. is really more about dialectics than police work. It's not about shoot-outs or stake-outs so much as the words and symbols that stand-in for big ideas like "conscience" and "law" and the way bureaucracies and individual cops flail about trying to interpret them into action. You know you're in a different kind of cop movie when the climactic showdown of the film takes place not in a gun runner's warehouse but in the police chief's office as he flips through the pages of the Romanian Language Dictionary.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai

Director Johnnie To (with protege Wai Ka-Fai) continues to wow me, spicing up what could have been another bland police procedural with some schizophrenic Sriracha sauce by taking the point of view of an off-his-meds loony ex-detective to dizzyingly audacious heights.

Detective Bun (pictured above) has a thing for re-enacting crime scenes, sometimes to the point of lopping off his own ear Van Gogh style and presenting it to the chief of police. It's his way of deciphering the details of a crime for which he was not present. He claims he can see a suspect's inner personality (often played by a different actor than the first). But the latest suspect he's been called back from retirement to help investigate is a veritable Sybil of inner souls. We're talking seven or eight other personalities, some male, some female. Soon, things start to get Christopher Nolan level tricky. But instead of keeping tabs on the dream levels you're falling through (ala Inception), you're tracking the multiple personalities of the various suspects and various old girlfriends. Is the Mad Detective onto something, or is it all just in his bandaged, bungled head?

If you're new to Johnnie To, I'd suggest starting with his superior Election/Triad Election series before this one. Maybe even Exiled.

BAD LIEUTENANT (1992) - Abel Ferrara

For better or worse, the sick, depraved scuzzbucket masterpiece that is the original Bad Lieutenant will always hold a place near and dear to my darkest of hearts. For one, it's New York as I first came to know it, a dirty, dangerous place in a time when the Lower East Side still had more crackhouses than Crunch Gyms, before Times Square was wholly owned by Mickey Mouse and when the closest thing to Disney were the freaks in cages dancing to bad techno and worse Ecstasy at Peter Gatien's Limelight. Also, it's one of the last movies I ever had the balls to sneak into in New York -- a free midnight show at the Angelika courtesy of a wide open exit door. But, believe me, my bad ain't got nuthin' on the old Lieutenant's.

I've heard people toss around the term "gritty" to describe movies a million times. I'm sorry, but The Usual Suspects is not gritty. Ghost Rider is most certainly not gritty (seriously Netflix?). Even the pseudo-sequel to this, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I would never call gritty (goofy and game, perhaps). A Schoolly D beat following strung-out cop Harvey Keitel through shit-smeared tenement hallways and Korean delis looking to score crack, heroin, whatever substance he can get his hands on and then make a few more bets on a baseball game when he should be solving the case of raped nun? Yes, that will forever be the definition of "gritty" to me.

You don't have to be a Catholic, or even very religious, to appreciate the skewed morality that Ferrara's pushing in this film though. It DOES help tremendously if you are or have ever been a New Yorker. Or, at least, a New York sports fan. For all the many, many "sins" that Keitel commits in this film (smoking crack, chasing the dragon, jerking it to Jersey girls on the West Side Highway, calling the manifestation of Christ a "rat-fuck" to his face), the one he pays most dearly for when all is said and done is betting against the Mets.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MANIAC COP (1988) & MANIAC COP 2 (1990) - William Lustig

Surprisingly well-plotted copsploitation fare with a Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees twist. Plus, some fine turns by B-Movie stalwarts Bruce Campbell, Richard Roundtree, Robert Davi, Michael Lerner and Leo Rossi.

The first Maniac Cop manages to pack a lot of set-up and characters into its breezy 85 minute run-time. It's basically the origin story of a once-good cop sent to the slammer by corrupt politicians only to be brutally gutted in a prison shower and later resurrected as an avenging undead officer in uniform. The second installment is more fun, with most of the back-story out of the way. It boasts better stunts, more "that guy!" actors than the first and a novel twist on the cop genre. You've seen buddy cops before, but how about buddy serial killers!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE GAUNTLET (1977) - Clint Eastwood

Detective Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) speaking to a prison guard about the prostitute witness he must transfer from Las Vegas to Phoenix: "On a scale of ten, I'd have to give her a two. And that's only because I've never seen a one before."

Well, you could say the very same thing about this dunderheaded, bullet-brained, completely implausible everyone's-corrupt-but-Clint cop movie. I'd give it a two.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

THE CHOIRBOYS (1977) - Robert Aldrich

The Choirboys wants to be the M*A*S*H of cop movies. Instead, it's just mush, little more than a series of vignettes of cops pulling dumb pranks on each other while getting loaded on Olympia Beer in MacArthur Park. I'm guessing the filmmakers would have us believe that this is the blue boys' way of blowing off steam after rough and dangerous days working the L.A. streets. Except we never really see them bust anything rougher than the occasional showgirl/prostitute (pictured above) or break-up the odd black-Hispanic fist fight. M*A*S*H had the Korean War as context and backdrop for all of Hawkeye and the gang's goofing around. The Choirboys has a brief flashback to the Vietnam War and that's it, the narrative equivalent of unpaid parking tickets.

It's a shame because the movie boasts some major league talent-- James Woods, Louis Gossett, Jr., Charles Durning, Randy Quaid, Don Stroud and Burt Young. The director is Robert Aldrich, who gave us such classics as Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen. The film is based on a novel by cop-author Joseph Wambaugh who penned the fine New Centurions a few years prior.

More shameful is the rampant homophobia that runs as an undercurrent throughout the film. Most of it is put in the mouth of a blatantly bigoted cop character named Roscoe Rules, and this is fine as it's in character and true to the time and, sadly, the vocation. But when a young gay teenager who's been innocently cruising MacArthur Park looking for date gets accidentally shot by one of the Boys, the movie itself seems to turn its head and shrug-- ah, no big deal. It moves on to more pranks and dick jokes.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

James William Guercio

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is also littered with desolate desert speed traps and bored-off-their-ass motorcycle cops with nothing better to do than roust passing hippies.

Diminutive patrolman John Wintergreen (a pre-Baretta Robert Blake) is one such little man in blue with the pint-size Napolean complex to match. Lately, he's growing weary of coasting through Monument Valley on his Electra Glide Harley. He doesn't get the same kick pulling over tie-dyed VWs as his comic book lovin' partner Zipper (an always welcome Billy 'Green' Bush, aka "Elton" from Five Easy Pieces). Wintergreen wants to transfer to Homicide where he can tackle the big murder cases and add a few inches to his stunted stature with a detective-grade ten gallon hat. When a local recluse dies in an apparent suicide that Wintergreen fingers for murder, it looks like he might just get his chance.

Problem is, Wintergreen is not a very good cop. That's not to say he's a bad man. In comparison to the hayseed Dirty Harrys in his precinct, he's actually pretty decent. About the worst thing Wintergreen does in Electra Glide is take pot-shots at a poster of Easy Rider in the station firing range. His intentions are mostly pure, but his luck and timing are atrocious.

Electra Glide in Blue is an odd little relic from the early '70s. It's directed by a guy more known for producing Chicago albums (this is the only film he directed) than shooting film. It's the flip-side of Easy Rider done from the policeman's perspective. Riding the line between dark comedy, character study and Shakespearean tragedy on a micro scale, it's a movie about a small man who maybe thinks too big.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Richard Fleischer

The L.A. beat cops of The New Centurions aren't bad guys, per se. Other than the odd bottle of scotch hidden in call-boxes around the city or the occasional vice squad assignment "busting fruits" for cruising in MacArthur Park, these boys in blue are mainly just underpaid, under-appreciated civil servants clocking their hours till retirement. They're not the "pigs" everyone says they are. These are the guys that no one wants to see until the shit hits the fan, and then they're suddenly your best friend. They're the guys who can't keep their marriages together. The guys who can't quite finish that last college course in Crim Pro to become a lawyer. The guys who can't shake that cheap high they get workin' the streets for a regular 9 to 5. They're the modern-day answer to ancient Rome's unloved foot soldiers. Except, instead of togas and swords they're packing, it's tacos and Smith and Wesson's.

Yes, all the cop movie cliches are on full display in The New Centurions. The idealistic rookie cop fresh out of the academy (Stacy Keach) who's in for a rude awakening. The grisled veteran with his own set of rules who's on the verge of retirement (a fine George C. Scott). You won't be that surprised when Keach's marriage to a school teacher falls apart or when Scott gets a little more than nostalgic for street action post-retirement. But Centurions rises above the norm by keeping its nose close to the beat, following the boys on an episodic series of busts or would-be busts rather than imposing an over-busy corruption plot on the proceedings. It's all in the details, the little touches that surprise you. Just when you think the old school veteran Scott is going to get Tea Party belligerent on an apartment full of "wetbacks" for shacking up ten to a room, he flips the script and beats down the landlord, chastising the opportunistic slum-runner for gouging the poor laborers for rent at $50 a head.

Thanks to cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh's credible slice-of-life book and the Stirling Silliphant script, The New Centurions is better than your average men-in-blue apologist fare. Consider it the training manual for the much more hyperbolic Training Day.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Michael Winterbottom

West Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford delights in regaling the local townsfolk with sugar-coated bromides when he's not pummeling prostitutes near death with his bare hands. His badge serves as a nifty cover for these deep-set murderous impulses (a "sickness" he's had since childhood), as does the polite smile, the tip of a ten-gallon that he employs to greater effect than any service revolver. Watch out when Lou is chatting you up about the scorcher of a day it is outside -- he's likely plotting your death behind that wide toothy smile.

Or, at least, that's how it went in the novel. Michael Winterbottom's adaption of the classic Jim Thompson pulper takes a more distanced "European" approach and proves less effective for it. The fantastic first-person narration of the book which brings you so uncomfortably close to the workings of Ford's deranged mind is mostly lost in the film version apart from a smattering of voice-over employed during the down times between plot points. Admittedly, the first-person confessional is harder to pull off on film unless you're willing go wall-to-wall voice-over ala Taxi Driver or Fight Club or set a camera on the protagonist's shoulder and go full-tilt first person ala Lady in the Lake or Gaspar Noe's recent Enter the Void. Either of these approaches may have benefited the film, which instead of playing like a Deep South version of Crime and Punishment or Notes from the Underground, now plays like a duller southern-fried episode of Dexter. You don't judge Ford or yourself so much for rubber-necking these brutal killings as you do Winterbottom for filming Jessica Alba's face getting pummeled repeatedly with blank detachment.

The casting doesn't help matters. Although Casey Affleck delivers a perfectly credible performance and fine corn-pone accent as Lou Ford, he's lacking something in the charisma department that made the novel version Ford such a worrisome charmer. The casting of the lady folk is a bit more misguided. Alba's distinctly modern beauty and gym-fit body type just didn't jibe with the Joyce in the book or the 50s decade,  she gives the dark material an admirable college try. Kate Hudson, on the other hand, is just plain bad as Lou's virginal girl-next-door fiance. You begin to wonder if she read the script, much less the book.

There are some good scenes with the always reliable Elias Koteas who plays a union delegate who's onto Ford. There's a nifty old country soundtrack and some appropriately parched West Texas cinematography. I hate to be one of those "the-book-is-better-than-the-movie" blow-hards. But, yeah, in the case of The Killer Inside Me, you might want to drop the Winterbottom version from your Netflix queue, pop the Thompson paperback on your Kindle instead.