Thursday, March 22, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: SMALL TOWN CRIME (2018) and LIES WE TELL (2018)

(US - 2018)

Another entry in the new wave of gritty noirs that's given us acclaimed films like COLD IN JULY, BLUE RUIN, BAD TURN WORSE, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE, and the similarly-titled SMALL CRIMES, SMALL TOWN CRIME is a terrific thriller that also owes a debt to BLOOD SIMPLE-era Coen Bros. Despite the obvious influences, the sibling writing/directing team of Esham & Ian Nelms (WAFFLE STREET) throw in enough unpredictable twists and turns and interesting characters that SMALL TOWN CRIME manages to find its own voice and place in the subgenre. Character Actor Hall of Famer John Hawkes stars as Mike Kendall, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-cop booted off the force after a traffic stop went bad, resulting in his partner getting shot in the head by the driver, a psycho who had a kidnapped girl in the trunk who was accidentally shot dead by Kendall, who was shitfaced on the job in the police cruiser and just started randomly firing when his partner went down. Unable to get a job and getting so blackout drunk every night that it's not uncommon for him to wake up in a field 100 yards away from his old-school Nova littered with empties on the dashboard, Mike is driving home on one such morning after when he spots a bloodied and barely-breathing young woman lying on the side of the road. He drives her to the hospital, but she dies shortly after. He finds her phone under his passenger seat and has a testy conversation with criminal lowlife Mood (Clifton Collins Jr), who keeps calling the girl's phone incessantly. After being threatened by Mood, Mike draws three conclusions: the dead girl was a prostitute, Mood was her pimp, and he obviously doesn't know she's dead. Even though he's in a drunken blur most of the time, this awakens his long-dormant cop instincts and he's unable to let it go, even after being told to back off by homicide detectives Crawford (Michael Vartan) and Whitman (Daniel Sunjata), both of whom know and, more so with Whitman, still resent him over his exit from the department.

In a plot development more suited for a wacky comedy but pulled off with total straight-faced seriousness, broke-ass Mike pretends to be a private investigator and is hired to the tune of $2500 a week by the dead girl's wealthy grandfather Steve Yendel (Robert Forster who, oddly enough, was also in SMALL CRIMES), who's fed up with the slow pace of the police investigation. Another dead hooker is found, and this leads Mike on the trail of all manner of sleazy criminal activity including, but not limited to, another prostitute (Caity Lotz) who knew the dead girl; a low-rent brothel being run out of a shithole bar owned by Mike's buddy Randy (Don Harvey); two psycho hit men (James Lafferty and Jeremy Ratchford, the latter looking like he got the role because Mark Boone Junior was busy) who start following Mike around and harassing his brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson), which doesn't sit well with his sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer, also an executive producer), whose family adopted Mike when he was a kid rescued from junkie parents; and a sex tape involving three rich douchebag real estate developers. After Teddy is kidnapped by the hit men, Mike forms an unholy alliance with Mood, the two setting aside their differences and joining forces with a shotgun-toting Yendel to settle this their own way. You really haven't lived until you've seen a scowling Forster as Yendel, already pissed-off and forced to ride shotgun in Mood's rebuilt purple Impala low-rider with serious hydraulics action. Despite the grim subject matter, there's quite a bit of dark humor throughout ("Sometimes, you're just a shitheel, ya know?" a bar waitress tells Mike). Mike's arc is obviously a redemptive one but the Nelmses don't allow everything to wrap up all neat and tidy, especially when it comes to Teddy and Kelly, though the film somehow manages to end on a crowd-pleasing note (I would love seeing Hawkes, Collins, and Forster revisit these characters and team up for another mystery). Released straight to DirecTV and VOD, SMALL TOWN CRIME is genuine sleeper gem that's going to find a solid word-of-mouth cult following once it hits streaming services, and it's a real shame something this entertaining barely got any theatrical exposure. Check this one out. (R, 92 mins)

(UK - 2018)

British-Pakistani double-glazed window magnate Mitu Misra had never even been on a movie set before making his self-financed debut film LIES WE TELL. Based in Bradford in West Derbyshire, an area that's home to a large Pakistani population, LIES WE TELL tries to be both a culture-clash soap opera and a seedy crime thriller, with a central relationship that recalls Neil Jordan's MONA LISA (1986) and a finale that straight-up steals a major moment from Brian De Palma's CARLITO'S WAY (1993), Other than a positively Ed Wood-ian sight of a camera drone hovering over a traffic jam and quickly exiting the frame, obviously not meant to be in the shot, Misra doesn't humiliate himself but he doesn't accomplish much either, relying on the presence of a few seasoned pros who were probably happy to jump aboard once Misra's checks cleared. Melancholy Donald (Gabriel Byrne) is the loyal, longtime driver for wealthy Greek businessman Demi Lampros (Harvey Keitel). Lampros dies suddenly (Keitel checks out less than five minutes in), and in the event of his passing, left Donald specific instructions to keep his family from discovering his indiscretions and clear out his secret apartment where he regularly met Amber (Sibyllla Deen), his 20-something Muslim mistress who's going through law school on his dime. Liberal in her beliefs and the object of scorn by her strict, fundamentalist family, Amber is still under the thumb of KD (Jan Uddin), her cousin and a sketchy Bradford crime lord to whom she was nearly forced into an arranged marriage when they were both 16. Now, nearly a decade later, Amber's parents are forcing her younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson) into an identical arrangement with the abusive KD. Out of loyalty to his late employer, Donald is drawn into Amber's troubled life and ends up helping her get Miriam out of a bad situation that's made worse when Lampros' weasally, asshole son Nathan (Reece Ritchie) discovers a sex tape on his father's phone.

That leads to an attempt by Nathan to blackmail Amber into a similar sugar daddy situation, but the phone's memory card is swiped by an enraged KD, who threatens to show Amber's parents unless she backs off and quits trying to stop the wedding. Mark Addy also periodically appears as Donald's slovenly brother-in-law and roommate, but doesn't really serve a purpose. There's also a barely-explored subplot about Donald's estranged wife (Gina McKee) and their dead daughter, and though he pumps the brakes at shirtless, thus sparing us the familiar sight of the full Bad Lieutenant in the sex tape footage, the whole film seems like an elaborate excuse for 78-year-old Harvey Keitel to disrobe onscreen yet again. LIES WE TELL is dull and dreary, though Byrne and Deen manage to occasionally lift the uninspired material just with their professionalism and natural acting talent. McKee and Addy are pros given nothing to work with, and there's no way Keitel worked on this for more than a day. Other than that ridiculous, bush-league fuck-up with the camera drone, Misra's intentions are sincere, and while this isn't a good movie at all, it's likely the best one you'll see by a West Derbyshire-based double-glazed window magnate by default, so that's gotta count for something. Right? (Unrated, 110 mins)

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