Life of Crime(2013)
Written & Directed by Daniel Schechter, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard
After the remarkable roll in the latter half of the 90’s, the adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s books have been pretty much a whimper on the cinema screens. “Get Shorty(1995)”, “Jackie Brown(1997)” and “Out of Sight(1998)” were some damn entertaining pictures. Pretty much perfectly adapted, by some great filmmakers. But after those, the best reviewed Leonard-adaptation has probably been the FX television series “Justified”, which just ended it’s run. On the big screen, there has been the likes of “Be Cool(2005)” – the sequel to “Get Shorty” – which was a giant bore, “Killshot(2009)”, which only had some test screening and was then shelved for several years before going straight to DVD – I kinda liked that one though… “Freaky Deaky(2012)” – haven’t seen that one – suffered the same fate a few years later. So – not the best of luck in the silver screen. Not by a long shot. The one I’m going to look at now; “Life of Crime”, actually WAS released in theaters after a few festival screenings. But did not do much business($1,2 million box-office with a $12 million budget). Nevertheless – it has something of an interesting hook, for me at least: it’s a prequel to “Jackie Brown”, based on Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch”, focusing on the shenanigans of the younger versions of Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, the characters so memorably portrayed in “Jackie Brown” by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro. For that reason alone I figured it might be worth checking out, after finding a DVD in a bargain bin. So, the basic plot is:
Detroit, 1978. Ordell Robbie(Mos Def, here credited by the name “yaslin bey”, strangely enough) and Louis Gara(John Hawkes) are small-time criminals. Ordell has hatched up a scheme to get some serious money; they are to kidnap the socialite wife of a real-estate schemer Frank Dawson(Tim Robbins), Mickey(Jennifer Aniston), while Frank is out of town on business. Ordell has learned through his contacts that gool old Frank has been stacking off the books-money from his real-estates to his offshore account in Freeport for years, and as he has now travelled there, they mean to extort him $1 million for his wife. The kidnapping goes awry from the start, as a fellow businessman, Marshall(Will Forte) – who is terribly smitten by Mickey – arrives to the house, attempting to seduce her right as the kidnap is in progress. He get knocked out and locked into a closet(which has a door made from like balsa wood, so it definitely doesn’t hold him for long). The problems continue, as Frank in fact has a younger girlfriend living in his Freeport apartment – Melanie(Isla Fisher). And Frank has actually filed for a divorce right before he left the country. So Frank has actually zero interest in getting his wife back. Ordell has to come up with a plan to unfuck the whole situation, while Louis seems to develop feelings towards thair hostage, who is also waking some weird urges in their third co-conspirator, the neo-nazi nutjob Richard(Mark Boone Junior). Meanwhile the hapless Marshall is desparately trying to cover his tracks, now wanting his wife – or anyone else to know he was ever in the house during the kidnapping.
Okay – the plot is fairly Leonard-ish. I have to say right at the start, that I have only read three books by Leonard; “Get Shorty”, “Rum punch”(which became “Jackie Brown”) and “Out of Sight” – so I’m not even going to pretend that I have much knowledge about his books. I’m gonna just look at this movie as is. And the fact is: it’s dull. It lacks tension. And it tries it’s damnest to capture some of those vibes that those three movies in the late 90’s gave. And while doing so, it completely lacks it’s own identity. I can’t but help to think that this might’ve worked sooo much better in the hands of ANY of those three directors who helmed those films(even Sonnenfeld, who has severely devolved in the recent years). Daniel Schechter on the other hand, as I look at his previous work from the IMDB, shows absolutely no vision of his own here. The pacing is too slow(when compared to the razor sharp editing of Soderbergh for example), there’s no tension as I said(Tarantino fared much better in his film) and the trademark snappy Leonard-dialogue sounds awfully flat(on the opposite end, Barry Sonnenfeld’s ‘Get Shorty’ absolutely nailed that). So in all the three aspects, Schechter’s attempts to do the same fall absolutely flat. The photography looks very good, so the DoP Eric Alan Edwards gets a pass here. The 70’s period is created very well, but in this the film falls for the classic pratfall again; the visuals give out the period already – we don’t need to completely fill the audio channels with every possible period song imaginable, which practically scream: “HEY!!!!!! THIS IS THE 70’S, IN CASE YOU MISSED IT!!!!!. Less is more, man. And the score? Well – The Newton Brothers’ score falls into the same pit as the director; they are trying SO hard to mimic the John Lurie score for “Get Shorty” as well as David Holmes’ score for “Out of Sight”, that I suspect those two were abundantly used as a temp track.
Acting-wise, Mos Def and John Hawkes are actually pretty good as Ordell and Louis – they have clearly been studying the characteristics that Jackson and De Niro gave those persons. Jennifer Aniston fares well – I’ve always found her more interesting when she’s not in her “rom com”-mode. Although she could’ve possibly been a bit more edgy with her portrayal here. She seems a bit too calm, considering her situation. I guess the best work in the movie actually comes from Mark Boone Junior as the overweight, paranoid, perverted neo-nazi Richard. He’s an absolute riot here, and the film definitely comes to life whenever he’s in a scene. Will Forte’s entire subplot in the movie is absolutely pointless – I dunno if it was a larger part of the book, but his character and the scenes he’s in bring absolutely nothing to the movie and shoulda been excised completely. I guess Isla Fisher’s Melanie is supposed to be the same character as in “Jackie Brown”, but does not come across as such. Tim Robbins is really not so much in the movie that he’d even make an impression – the character SHOULD be portrayed as a douchebag or just a lot darker, but Robbins seems just bored. He CAN do dark stuff if he wants to – just watch “Arlington Road” to see what I mean.
I’d say that this movie is….for Elmore Leonard-completists only. And maybe just for them to pick it apart even more than me, as I’m not familiar with the source material. Boring, poorly paced, desperately trying to appear like the previous successful adaptations but ending up like a carbon copy, says I.
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Gary Hawkins, based on a novel by Larry Brown
So – here we have a match-up of two very different individuals; we have director David Gordon Green, who made several VERY low-budget independent dramas in the beginning of his career(“George Washington”, “All the Real Girls”, “Undertow” & “Snow Angels”). Now – those films won the critics hearts, as well as getting a bunch of nominations and awards in the indie festival-circuit. But then, in 2008, he made a switch into comedy as he got in the Seth Rogen & Judd Apatow-business with “Pineapple Express”; a massive success. In that film he of course met Danny McBride and proceeded to serve as a consulting producer and an occasional director on McBride’s HBO show “Eastbound & Down”, as well as directing McBride’s sword & sorcery-parody “Your Highness”. In the other corner we have Nicholas Cage; Academy Award winner, once celebrated character-actor who got some flak in the mid-90’s for turning himself into an action hero, getting into some financial troubles in the last decade that have pretty much forced him to take any – and every – job that gets offered to him – often with some hilariously hammy end results. Now these two have joined forces for a small, independent backwoods drama, “Joe”. So – what is “Joe”?
Gary(Tye Sheridan) is 15 years old. His family are drifters, just taking boards off the windows of some abandoned house and settling in where ever location they end up. He has a mother, a mute sister Dorothy and a father Wade(Gary Poulter). Wade is, for a lack of a better word, a monster; an abusive alcoholic sociopath, who is not above beating another drifter to death with a piece of steel for a bottle of wine and pennies, as we learn a bit later on in the film. Gary meets Joe, a foreman for a tree-removal crew. Joe is a man with a chequered past; he’s been to jail, he has problems with authorities and he has a temper. Because of this temper he lives mostly in isolation, even though most of the townsfolk have no problem with him – except the town bully Willie(Ronnie Gene Blevins) who has had several violent clashes with Joe in the past. In fact they have been at it for so long, that neither even remembers from where it all began in the first place. Joe hires Gary to his crew and the boy proves to be a hard worker. He even agrees to hire Wade, but this soon backfires for his laziness and total lack of work ethic, which gets himself swiftly fired – and nearly his son too. But Joe has warmed up to the boy, and despite all his own issues he becomes a much better father figure to Gary than his deadbeat dad could ever be. But a storm is coming – as Gary beat Willie up earlier after some altercation and the vicious bully wants some revenge and is using Wade to get payback on his son – by using his sister. A violent clash is eventual.
Damn. Say what you want about Nick Cage’s role picking in the last 10 years – every once in a while he continues to surprise us. For every “Wicker Man”, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or “Left Behind” we still get performances out of him that reminds just how damn good he can be. And he’s DAMN good here. The best way to describe Joe is that he’s like a water boiler that’s overheating and is just looking for an excuse to explode. But he tries his damnest to keep himself in control. It becomes apparent from a line he says to a bartender right after one altercation with Willie: “You better call the police before someone’s gonna die here…”. Tye Sheridan – who starred in the previous year in quite a similarly-toned film “Mud” and has since been confirmed to play Cyclops in “X-Men: Apocalypse” – is gonna skyrocket in the following years. I’d be willing to bet some serious money on that – if I had any. The movie may be titled “Joe”, but the lead character is definitely Gary. It’s his coming of age story. Or a salvation story. You see, Gary is growing up to become very much like the character of Joe – and Joe knows it. And as much as Joe hates to get involved – in anything, as he says in the movie – setting this young boy’s life on the right path might be the last chance he ever has of doing anything worth a damn – because of the way his temper clashes, it’s only a matter of time when he winds back into jail – maybe for good this time. The scenes of Joe and Gary bonding together feel natural, spontaneous. Avoiding all the typical tropes that plague these types of movies(Joe, for instance, does really not become a better human in the course of this – he’s pretty much the same in the end as he was in the beginning).
I gotta give credit to Gary Poulter, too – Wade is one of the most disgusting human beings I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. I’d say that proves there’s some fine acting involved, when you truly hate this vile creature while you’re watching him. Poulter was a real life homeless man, who got cast in the part at location. He sadly passed away soon after the filming was wrapped.
It’s definitely not a glossy Hollywood fare, this film. It’s an ugly world, with hopeless people who are just trying to survive the ongoing day. It’s a world that smells of beer, cigarettes, cheap whiskey and damp, rotting houses. I guess you might call it “southern gothic”. Director Green returns to his independent roots and crafts a fine tale that stays in your head – for a looong time after you’ve seen it. It’s not pretty – but there is a glimmer of hope at the end of this. And I guess that’s all you can hope for in real life, too.