Friday, May 20, 2016

Shane Black's THE NICE GUYS

You know, the real key to The Nice Guys, underneath the sleaze and the booze and the porn and 70's disco and funk (not unexpected but cool tracks all the same line much of the film when it's not John Ottman's typical 70's mystery score) and the two leads (who I'll get to momentary), is the role of Holly and Angourie Rice's performance.  I'm not familiar with this actress, but she really holds up as a bright spot of this movie, as something that may be necessary at times - the heart to contrast with the continuous, bile-like sarcasm from Gosling's character (Holly's dad) - and yet she's also at times solving the case or coming up with clues when the other two guys are smashing heads or falling off ledges.

It may seem like a cliche to have the younger, more industrious and clever(er) character, but it would be much more cliche if she was a young damsel in distress or a plot contrivance.  She's actually part of the narrative and takes an active role in it; if there's ever a sequel to this, I'd like to see her part of her dad's detective business, and I think Rice would still fit well as an actress who seems sharp and smart in this kind of role (also as the conscience of the film).

But on to the rest of the movie: this is a lot of fun.  It's not too much more or less than that, though it occasionally makes passing motions for the former.  A number of reviews can't help but compare it to other windy LA mystery-detective yarns (or what I would call especially in this case a Shaggy Dog story, of which Big Lebowski was the shaggiest), especially Inherent Vice and Chinatown. 

The former I can see because of the decade similarity and the sleazy overtones (or just what is uncovered) and the obtuse dealings and conspiratorial things of Chinatown.  But Black, even more than those other films and their directors, could give a rat's ass about the plot.  It's there and there are lots of twists and turns and u-turns and un-broken K-turns into WTF territory (and often it involves some cartoonish - or actual heavy - violence, at least of the 'movie' kind where you can have some distance usually). 

This is most of all a character piece, and a showcase for the actors, and if there's things to uncover in the story it's mostly as a means to have more things for Crowe and Gosling to react to in their deadpan/wild-wisecracky ways.  And for what Black asks of his two leads there's real inspired comic reactions and chemistry, mostly because it's two characters who start off with one beating up the other for information.  How they end up together makes it more tumultuous than the typical 'buddy-cop' scenario since the Private-Eye-And-Beat-Em-Up-Thug combo is more unpredictable - or, it IS predictable, but in some entertaining occurances (i.e. that scene where they ask the bartender for information, you know Crowe's going to slam the guy's head into the wood, and then his remark is thus: "We can do this the easy way, or... actually, that *is* the easy way").

Crowe hasn't been this on spot as a comic presence in a long time (hell, when was the last time he was funny in a movie - Virtuosity in 1995?  Someone help me with that).  And it's not the usual tough guy shtick all the time, in fact it feels like he took the part so he could send it up just a bit, while still walking that line between doing bad-ass things.  It's LA Confidential too (Kim Basinger is Noah Cross basically, I'm serious, and it f***ing works!) while you also have Gosling there as the real punching bag, the "Worst Detective in the World" as he gets dubbed by his non-plussed daughter. 

Gosling and Crowe are on a level playing field so there's no choosing really who's *better*, though I feel like Gosling is sharper at the little comic beats, adding in little moments that give us cues to the fact that he's maybe brighter or more on top than he lets on - or, on the flip-side, is even more worse off than we think from all the booze.  Even the level of alcohol intake is a hilarious send up of countless P.I. flicks and books where it seems like liquor gets knocked back like water.  Here, when Gosling just has one too many drinks (as if, as usual in a movie like the porno party they go to with all the inspired wackiness and women as mermaids in see-through pools and people used as living-bent-over statues), it shows and he suffers for it.

If there's any major issue it's that by the time Black has to wrap up his story in the final fifteen minutes - this coming after a rather intense shoot-out that nears over the top territory with the unbreakable thug "Dr. Malick" (sounds like someone from a Bond flick) - then it gets into over-drive and, even with everything that's happened, becomes a little too much as far as what to do with the MacGuffin of the piece (and it IS an extremely clever MacGuffin, but almost too jokey if that makes sense).  And a particular character shows up for just a couple of scenes, the Emilia that our (anti)heroes are after for the majority, and that was the one actor I didn't buy or wasn't convincing, or it may have been her dialog as well, but the actress (Qualley) only marginally sells it.  But, again, who cares about plot when you have such rich dialog to play around with?

 In that sense Black has a success with a grimier, trying-to-be-punchier Big Sleep, and I mean the Hawks movie more than the book; it's less about how to get from A to B to F to Z in the story than it is how Crowe gives Gosling a particular look, or the reaction everyone has in the room when Holly tries to out-smart a thug and it luck has it that she is successful at her out-smarting.  As far as nasty, hard-R rated romps through 1977 underworld LA, it's a big fat adult comic book that loves stylized moviemaking that pauses a little to question its tough-guy conventions (though maybe not enough to be totally great).

PS: This guy is in the movie, and even as he's playing a hired thug... it's Keith fuckin David. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Madadayo, Used DVD's! #15: Marvel's PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)

Hoo, boy.  Now that I've seen all three adaptations of the Marvel comic book character and series THE PUNISHER (one with Dolph Lundgren in 1989, in 2004 with Thomas Jane, and this, a stand-alone-kinda-not-really-sequel with Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle), it seems like a MIRACLE that Marvel and Netflix got it right with Jon Bernthal on Daredevil, season 2.  No, sorry, that's not enough emphasis.  I mean a MOTHERFUCKING HOLY SHIT GODDAMN COCKSUCKING MIRACLE!  Does this mean I didn't like this movie?  Well, let's see... yes and no.

Why such emphasis?  The last time Frank Castle got any kind of cinematic treatment, in this case the Gale Anne Heard production of Lexi Alexander's film (women filmmaking power! sure why not?) it was... schizophrenic.  There are really two movies going on here: one involves a stone cold killer, though coming from a place of deep pain, as Castle lost his wife and two kids to gangsters and has in the four/five years since then been wiping out all of the crime families.  At the start of the movie he takes out almost all of the big Italian crime family... except for the, uh, 'enfant terrible' we could call him, Billy (Dominic West). 

The other movie comes with Billy's character, or rather what happens when he becomes (no joke) "The JIGSAW".  Why?  This come after he is dropped into a vat of chemicals, uh, I mean, glass, right glass, and a doctor does the best possible work that he can do to fix the face when it's all mangled to pieces but we at first can't see him.  So he smashes a mirror, and we get a look at him and when he's called 'Billy' he then says "Billy is dead, you can call me... JIGSAW."  Sadly, the part where he says "and as you can see, I'm a lot piece-ier!" is left off.

In other words, the villain here is a goddamn Batman 89 rip-off.  This might not be so bad if the tone of the writing for this character, or for his brother, James (no, wait, what, isn't that uh, "LOONY BIN JIM"?)  But this entire part of the film feels sort of disconnected tonally from the rest of the movie; while there's certainly some laughable lines and moments in the more 'serious' storyline, where Castle has to contend, aside from this 'Jigsaw' (no relation of course to the other Lions Gate property), with the widow and daughter of an FBI guy who was undercover in Billy's mob that he accidentally killed, as well as the cops (sort of) on Castle's trail, it's still a part of the film that is grounded by Stevenson's performance which is, thankfully, unflappable.  When it goes back to Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, it turns into the most wacked out, 90's Image over-the-top ultra-violent cartoon you'd never think to see on a big screen. 

And yet, with this shall we say *major* inconsistency of tone, I mostly had a lot of fun watching Punisher: War Zone.  It's not that it can really be taken too seriously, despite Stevenson's performance, but because from the start the director, her crew and cast embrace much as they can the gonzo-mega-violent carnage that I guess is also a staple of the comics. 

Case in bloody point
And by gonzo-mega-violent I mean that this is closer to shit you get in Japanese hardcore exploitation cinema (maybe a step below Tokyo Gore Police, but not far below): heads explode, bodies explode (well, one of them, in a memorably hilarious beat as a thug explodes as he is about to jump from one building to another), heads are ripped in two, wounds gush blood, and the body count is surely over a hundred.  And don't get me started on how characters tend to live past even the more reasonable tolerant notions of how the human body... FUNCTIONS after being broken into what should be a thousand pieces (i.e. the bathroom fight between Castle and Jim, which seems more like one of those scenes in a James Bond movie where he has to fight the #2 bad guy only on 10000000000000x of steroids).

The tonal inconsistency also comes from the performances; maybe it was a little difficult to make things, shall one say, 'subtle' with a character like Jigsaw - again, the Batman comparisons don't help matters, and that handled its tone of hero-and-villain far better than this, you would agree - but Dominic West is so laughably bad in this.  It's so fucking unsettling after seeing that he surely does know how to do a good American accent (i.e. The Wire, even the recent Money Monster), and somehow he loses that to play the kind of ridiculous HEAVY-duty accent that would just barely pass muster in a Dick Tracy movie.  And Hutchinson, who maybe is having the time of his life, is equally outrageously over-done approach to a character who for some stupid reason is first introduced as seeming catatonic in a "Loony Bin", get it (and then he loses it as soon as Billy walks in to the mental hospital he drops that like a bad habit).

I mean come on, seriously?
Maybe they were directed that way, or maybe they just decided to not give a flying fuck and Alexander decided to go for it since, well, it's a "COMIC BOOK MOVIE", doncha know?  While Stevenson and an okay (not bad, not great) Julie Benz are acting on one side, the most cartoonishly violent villains I can ever think of are on another.  And YET... it sort of worked for me.  Almost.  Not quite, but it was almost there. 

If I take this material as being just completely pulpy trash with a reckless regard for human life, then it works, sort of.  If I try to take it much seriously as any moral investigation of revenge and payback, it falls apart like a badly designed house.  And for all of the things I can say about it it's not poorly directed (aside from the disregard, or over-regard, for the performances), and it mostly comes down to writing that is both hackey and illogical - the wife and daughter in peril, characters with guns to their heads, why back-up isn't called in certain situations MUCH SOONER than actually happens - and... I don't know, man.

The point is, it's what Ebert or Siskel might have given a thumbs down to, but admired in a lot of strange ways, in a far-out way as if it's two ladies who decided to make a barbaric, raw, take-no-prisoners *satire* of the kind of mindless action that Stallone's been doing for the better part of his career (The Expendables is like this only much, much weaker and less self-knowing).  I'd say make sure you have the right group of friends - Wire fans, preferably - and get some beers and have a fun night with an anti-hero whop doesn't give a fuck (mostly) and a couple of villains who *really* don't give a fuck (intensely).