Saturday, December 22, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: KILLER JOE (2012) and STOLEN (2012)

(US - 2012)

It's hard to believe that in a career now in its sixth decade and including such classics as THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), THE EXORCIST (1973), and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985), 77-year-old William Friedkin has just now unleashed what might be his most boldly audacious film yet.  Reteaming with playwright Tracy Letts (the pair previously worked on 2006's BUG), Friedkin's KILLER JOE is at various times intense, terrifying, darkly hilarious, sick, twisted, shocking, and flat-out horrifying, anchored by a chilling, career-best performance by Matthew McConaughey.  It's a white trash, trailer park noir populated mostly by loathsome, self-serving shitbags, with Chris (Emile Hirsch) owing $6000 to a local mobster and unable to come up with the cash.  He devises an ill-conceived scheme with his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) to hire Dallas detective "Killer Joe" Cooper (McConaughey), who has a murder-for-hire side business, to off his mom--Ansel's ex-wife--for a $50,000 life insurance policy for which Chris' dim-witted younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary.  Killer Joe requires his $25,000 payment up front but since Chris doesn't have the money, he agrees to a retainer:  Dottie.  Killer Joe romances and seduces the naive, virginal Dottie and soon ingratiates himself into the family.  And of course, no murder-for-insurance plot ever goes according to plan and this one goes into some dark, disturbing, stomach-turning places.

On just 75 screens at its widest release and initially sporting an NC-17 rating (since surrendered; the film is currently unrated) because of the controversial, oft-mentioned but rarely explicitly-discussed "K-Fried-C" scene--it's one of those things where once you've seen it, it's impossible to unsee it--KILLER JOE features several fearless performances, Gershon most notably, for reasons that become brutally clear by the end of the film.  But it's McConaughey, in a truly revelatory, career-reinventing year, who establishes some major bona fides as an actor who's grown up and is ready to be taken seriously.  His interpretation of Killer Joe is an unforgettable cinematic monster, and McConaughey's controlled, committed performance is Oscar-caliber work.  Part of the brilliance of KILLER JOE's execution is that it's that rare film where anything can happen at any moment.  You never know what to expect and you won't believe it when you see it, and Friedkin, as he's done so masterfully so many times in his career, lets the suspense build from sequence to sequence, piling it on, escalating, and finally exploding in a nerve-wracking, excruciating, exhausting, and thoroughly demented finale that's a masterpiece of claustrophobic tension.  Every scene, every line of dialogue, every movement and nuance by the cast are vital ingredients to what make the film work as well as it does.  KILLER JOE is often grueling and unpleasant, but it's one of the best and ballsiest films of 2012.  (Unrated, 103 mins).

(US - 2012)

Just six months after SEEKING JUSTICE, Nicolas Cage is back with another barely-released New Orleans-shot thriller that opened on just a handful of screens before being dumped on DVD.  The not-bad-at-all STOLEN reunites him with CON AIR director Simon West and if it had been made 10-12 years ago, it probably would've been the #1 movie for a couple of weeks.  Cage leads a crew of bank robbers who rip off $10 million from a vault but when his cohorts get away, he burns the money when cornered by FBI agent Danny Huston.  Cage gets sent to prison for eight years, and when he gets out, his teenage daughter (Sami Gayle) is kidnapped by his presumed-dead psycho partner Josh Lucas, who will stop at nothing to get his share of the money and refuses to believe that Cage destroyed it.  Cage can't convince Huston (what serious FBI agent wears a porkpie hat on the clock?) that Lucas is alive and holding his daughter hostage, so what else can Cage do but team up with another of his old crew (Malin Akerman) to stage an impromptu complicated heist of some gold reserves from the same vault with no planning whatsoever, to somehow get Lucas the money he's demanding?

STOLEN is a competent B thriller most of the way, but David Guggenheim's (SAFE HOUSE) script really starts to fall apart when Cage and Akerman get into a bank vault in the middle of the day with no preparation, just confidently (and apparently, correctly) assuming that nothing's changed about the layout or the security system in eight years. Back in Cage's heyday, STOLEN would've been a popular popcorn thriller and even today, while not some unsung gem, it didn't deserve to get on just 140 screens to the tune of $300,000 (with a $35 million budget) to land in 38th place for its opening weekend. With all the WICKER MANs and BANGKOK DANGEROUSes littering his IMDb page over the last decade, Cage really has no one but himself to blame for this commercial downfall, and with all of these interchangeable, generic race-against-the-clock thrillers he does, it's only a matter of time before he realizes the glory days are gone and this comfortable familiarity prompts someone at CBS to propose CSI: NEW ORLEANS to him (admit it...you'd watch that).  In the grand scheme of things, STOLEN is one of his better movies of recent years (and it's not at all the TAKEN ripoff that the trailer made it appear), he's wearing one of his non-hilarious hairpieces (the Cage equivalent to Burt Reynolds' "serious toupee"*), and he keeps his histrionics to a minimum. The wild-eyed overacting is left mostly to a methy-looking Lucas, in his second film titled STOLEN since 2010. STOLEN's probably not worth a $10 movie ticket, but as a check-your-brain-at-the-door Netflix pick on a slow night after a long day, you could do a lot worse. (R, 95 mins)

* - "Burt Reynolds' serious toupee" © Marty McKee

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