We present the new two entries in our video blog series 100 CRIME FILMS: Body Heat (1981) and The Killing (1956).
Picture of the Week: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
At the beginning of this movie, in what I believe is one shot, a sexy woman performs a psychology session with a room full of inmates when prisoner Eli Kotch (played by James Coburn) tells an offbeat story about his mother. This is the perfect set up for what turns out to be one of the oddest and most entertaining crime films I’ve seen in a while.
Until a couple years ago, I had only heard of the film because of its connection to Harrison Ford: his first on-screen role in a minute scene. But the movie directed by Bernard Girard deserved more attention than that.
Following Coburn and then a group of thieves which includes Aldo Ray, the story revolved around his plan to rob an airport bank while the Russian premiere is arriving. But the robbery is not all that interesting compared to how Coburn gets there.
He pulls many accents and personalities out of his hat through the course of the film in order to get what he wants. Coburn is terrific, especially in the way that he manipulates women. He plays (and seems to have much fun playing) a master of charm and deception.
These moments provide for smiles, not laughs, in what (at it’s best) is a low-key, relaxed crime film. Even recent heist efforts such as Ocean’s Eleven do not capture the ease that Girard gets: the hard balance of telling a story quickly with a smooth pace. In fact, this is one of those films that although flawed should be watched more by filmmakers attempting to tackle the genre.
Unfortunately, the movie loses much of its charm (at least for me) in the last half when the robbery starts. The details and action prove boring compared to Coburns’ ordinary mischief but still Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round remains a fun movie.
I have started a series of video blogs for YouTube in which I highlight 100 Crime Films. This is a step in a different direction for both Cinema Station and our production company Running Wild Films. Watch the first one, about Scarface (1932) below.
Finding Tommy Riley (2004)
This is one of those deceptive films that for the first 15 minutes or so gives you the déjà vu impression that you’ve seen this story before. “Been there, done that” so why bother? The over arching plot we’ve seen dramatized a dozen or more times before. A young somewhat talented but troubled boxer who once had Olympic ambitions encounters an old trainer and former boxer who has left the profession and is currently working as an English teacher with little or no enthusiasm. He sees the kid working out in the ring and is sufficiently impressed by his abilities that he decides to train him and hopefully turn him into a championship caliber fighter. Sound familiar? But then just as we get settled into thinking that we know where this film is going is when it fools us because in spite of the plot’s familiar touchstones that’s not what this picture is about at all. It’s about people and their connection to each other, which is sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual and other times practical. Specifically it is about the relationship between the boxer (Tommy Riley) and the trainer (Marty Goldberg), their similarities and their differences. But then the story goes beyond that, it explores the dark and sometimes forbidden aspects of their characters as well. And between the acting, the writing and the direction the film gets so close to these characters needs and desires that it sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. At least it did so with me. Like the sight of the proverbial bad accident I didn’t want to look at but I absolutely had to. But I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give away any of its surprises.
This is a character driven piece that effectively focuses primarily on two individuals. The trainer Marty Goldberg played by Eddie Jones an actor I’ve known since the late 1960s when we worked together as waiters in a popular restaurant in New York City. Over the years I’ve seen him on stage and on screen many, many times and watched his talent grow until he has become one of the most reliable and most assured character actors in the business. But in all that time I’ve never seen him tackle a character as varied and contradictory as this. And in doing so Eddie doesn’t miss a beat. He gives a performance that (to me) is the most masterful of his career thus far… Keeping pace as well as matching Eddie beat for beat is the actor JP Davis who plays Tommy. Because this is so much a two -character story both actors had to be equal to each other in execution or the film would’ve come off as unbalanced. It doesn’t and it’s a tribute to their abilities. There are other excellent performers in the film but its success depends on the two primary actors. And they carry it so well that I can’t imagine any other actors in those roles doing it any better. In addition to that JP Davis also wrote the insightful and poignant screenplay. Eddie O’ Flaherty is a director I hadn’t heard of before. But based on the sensitivity and restraint with which he directed this delicate screenplay, I’m sure I’ll be hearing more about him.
This is a boxing story so there are many big boxing moments, which are skillfully crafted for maximum impact and suspense. But it is in the quiet moments where the individuals simply talk to each other about seemingly mundane things that the story becomes more dimensional, more recognizable and more human. This too I think is due to the director’s handling of the material that allowed its subtler points to surface in unexpected ways.
When the film was shown at various festivals it was met with a host of enthusiastic critical response. I think it even won a few awards. I was certain that it would at least have a life in the movie theatres that catered to discerning audiences. In other words “the art houses”. But I was wrong. As far as I know the film hardly played in any theatres at all and then simply disappeared. So once again we have a film that could’ve been a contender but didn’t get a shot. Who knows why? It’s just one of the unfair quirks of the industry. And that’s a shame. A real crying shame because if any film deserves to be seen and appreciated for its many virtues, this is it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absolute masterpiece but it is a hell of a lot better than ninety percent of the stuff that’s out there and deserves a second chance and a first look if you haven’t seen it.
Picture of the Week
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
I stumbled upon the second of Jose Padilha’s Brazilian cop thrillers first. The more available of the two (on Netflix instant watch) the film caught my immediate interest and left me stunned. A month later I tracked down a copy of the first film and completed in reverse order a pair of films that some might compare to having the relationship and power of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
However, Padilha’s films are more reminiscent of two sources: Scorsese gangster films (Goodfellas and Casino) and because of its setting, subject matter and shooting style (City of God). The film uses a narrator like all three of those and is told in a broken up structure. Nevertheless, the Elite Squad movies stand on their own as relentless and effective works of cinema.
The story follows a cop Nascimento (played by actor Wagner Moura) as he moves up in the ranks of Brazil’s toughest/meanest police division BOPE (the elite squad of the title). They wage war against the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro. In both films the protagonist struggles with the temptation to leave the force (based on pressures from his wife) or to stay in the fight, surrounded by corruption even in his own squad. He tries to find an adequate replacement who can take on the almost Batman-like justice he serves upon the city, which introduces various police officers including actor Andre Ramiro (who crosses over in both films).
Nascimento is one of the most intriguing characters I have seen on time in a while. At once stern and stoic, Wagner Moura gives him moments of emotional vulnerability, frustration and compassion which add up to a complex (I hate to use the term) anti-hero. Some might call him a fascist (with his Wyatt Earp brand of killing justice), his torture techniques and his merciless attitude towards drug dealers and corrupt cops, but in the end he is only a man caught in the middle of a terrible situation doing his best to make his country better. He’s Serpico with the madness of Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker character and like Renner, Wagner Moura is one of the most exciting actors working today. He is also wonderful in the film V.I.Ps and will soon play Italian director Federico Fellini in a film. Here he creates a character who resonates far past the confines of the film’s running time and holds his place in film history.
What Padilha (who actually considers this a trilogy with his debut documentary Bus 174) has created with these films is a crime epic on the level of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novels. It is ambitious, spanning corruption from the streets to the police departments to the press and politicians. I am impressed by how relentless the film is, unapologetic about its portrayal of a situation with no easy answers.
The second Elite Squad was the most successful film to ever be released in Brazil, beating out Avatar‘s gross in that country. Since then its director has made the move to America and will direct the remake of Robocop. Though that story provides him the opportunity to flex his muscles in similar subject matter, I cannot help but worry about the direction of his career and wish he had stayed in Brazil like many other foreign directors who lost something in their move to Hollywood: Peter Weir, Paul Verhoeven, Roman Polanski, etc.
One can only hope that regardless of the money Padilha continues to make good films.