The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973)


The Friends of Eddie Coyle displays a criminal world so fragile, so unassuming, it’s shocking when someone finally gets murdered. But this makes the film’s sideways universe of low-level robbers and arms dealers incredibly deceptive, a place where criminal professionalism is slowly becoming extinct and survival ranks supreme. Director Peter Yates carefully develops this space by tracking multiple players as they secretly angle for an edge. Robert Mitchum plays Eddie, an aging small time criminal who faces a 3-5 stretch in prison for a botched smuggling assignment, a job he filled in for Dillon (Peter Boyle), a shady bartender doing double-duty as a hit man and a FED stool pigeon. Yates keeps these characters apart for most of the film, connecting them through their separate interactions with Foley (Richard Jordan), a manipulative Treasury agent playing each for maximum leverage, while charting their involvement in a string of local bank robberies. Yates’ film has many moving parts, each scene playing like a unique dusty vignette of seventies crime cinema. No character stays in one place very long, and it’s this restlessness that comes to define the title’s tragic irony. In Yates’ vision, friendship is an illusion only the desperate and worried latch onto, while the impersonal and corrupt dealings of a younger generation eliminate the once sacred code of conduct between criminals. If there ever was one in the first place.

Two Lovers (Gray, 2009)

Joaquin Phoenix’s recent string of idiotic public appearances put James Gray’s beautiful Two Lovers secondary to his selfish antics. Even worse, Phoenix is brilliant as the film’s lead character Leonard, a broken man who internalizes every disappointment, every heartache, storing trauma like a boat taking on water.

In the stirring opening sequence, Leonard strolls along a pier at dusk, then jumps into the bay, sinking slowly until he hits bottom. Gray then intercuts a flashback of a woman who we later learn is Leonard’s ex-fiance, who’s left him due to urging of her parents because of a medical inconsistency. This recollection causes Leonard to change his mind, emerging from the water freezing and alone. The mere thought of his ex-love forces an electric impulse toward life, and this introduction shows a clash between self-hatred and hope that becomes a key theme throughout the film.

Leonard lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) while he recovers from a previous botched suicide post-breakup, so the family is understandably on edge. This situation influences Leonard’s relationships with two very different women – a sexy neighbor named Michelle (Gwyenth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful daughter of a family friend, and how both shape his life in vastly different ways. Sandra provides a lasting, safe fix, while Michelle proves to be the prized possession just out of reach.

Gray’s melodrama becomes an organic and rhythmic offshoot of Leonard’s conflicts, his fears, his desperation, and Phoenix instills a charming vulnerability in a man constantly doubting his place in the world. As with Gray’s other films, Two Lovers concerns itself with family – how they are created, destroyed, how we interact with those closest to us, and how we push them away in times of distress.

But unlike The Yards and We Own The Night, Two Lovers constructs a sublime relationship between character and mood, as Gray’s camera floats along with Leonard understanding every nuanced decision as he gracefully succumbs to the pressures of everyday life. Leonard’s great talent is his ability to fool the people closest to him into momentarily thinking he’s okay, and the final scene of Two Lovers captures the tragic moment when Leonard finally buys into the lie.

…no lies (Block, 1972)

– Posted for the June selection of The Film of the Month Club, Mitchell Block’s stunning short film …no lies.

As per Peter’s advice, I read nothing about Mitchell W. Block’s short film …no lies before viewing it, and I too initially thought it was non-fiction.  I wonder how anyone going into this film cold would doubt its validity as real life? …no lies creates such a strong, improvisational candor through its subject that the viewer feels as if they are witnessing something they shouldn’t, watching as a woman delves into a dark place she swore never to visit again.  Waves of emotion rush forward through the eyes of the Woman (played by Shelby Leverington in a master-class of method acting), dancing with the camera back and forth as if looking for some sort of lifeline. Does she find it? A troubling question, and this push pull relationship makes…no lies a fascinating experience.

At the beginning of …no lies, the Cameraman films the The Woman preparing for a date, gazing at her in the mirror as she puts on makeup. The Woman’s eyes focus on the task at hand, avoiding the gaze of the camera, even going so far as to say how uncomfortable the mechanism makes her feel. Then The Woman moves into her bedroom and the camera follows, as if calmly pestering her in the way a seasoned paparazzi would a tenured movie-starlet. She puts on earrings, tells of an uncomfortable meeting with her mother, and still avoids the camera, which films her via another larger mirror. When the woman tells the Cameraman about the rape, her tone stays the same, casually laughing and making light of the situation as if giving in to the pressure of the camera, possibly hoping it will now leave her alone. But of course, this confession only ups the ante, and the Cameraman keeps pushing the Woman into various stages of revelation and fear. During this progression, her eyes gradually begin to latch onto the camera, forcing the viewer to listen as the details of her experience unfold. By tracking the eyes of the Woman, we get a sense of the devastation deeply rooted inside. It’s no surprise the film ends on a close-up of the her eyes, tracks of tears ruining the makeup on her face, imbedded seemingly forever. 

Throughout …no lies, Block uses multiple long takes to situate the performance in a familiar reality, forcing the viewer to assume some sort of realism is being represented. But the impact comes from how Leverington’s eyes avoid this relationship between form and function, deconstructing the idea that everything the camera sees is undeniable and tangible. Her eyes create a performance outside of the film’s scope, something that reaches far beyond that apartment, into a subtext that tells a disturbing truth about our own expectation, something harrowing we can’t quite put our fingers on.  

– Thanks to Peter and Mr. Block for allowing us to discuss this film.

Revanche (Spielmann, 2008)


In Gotz Spielmann’s thrilling Revanche, the quiet moments of indecision and guilt bend each character to their breaking point, making the contained narrative burst with tension. The film begins in Vienna, where Alex (Johannes Krisch) works a low level security job at a brothel and carries on a secret relationship with Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute working for Alex’s sleazy boss Konecny (Hanno Pöschl). In a stunning scene, Konecny emasculates Alex while they drive through the deceptively still city, saying he acts tough on the surface but doesn’t have a stomach for the criminal world. The rest of the film hinges on this key observation as Spielmann’s hero seems to be tainted by his own lack of brutality. In an attempt to save Tamara, Alex botches a robbery, helplessly watching as the tragic consequences follow him into the countryside where he hides out with his grandfather. Here, Revanche ties Alex’s fate with that of a conflicted local policeman named Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), setting the stage for a brilliant finale ripe with underlining motives.

Spielmann finds his muse in the devastatingly serene Austrian countryside, where forests, fields of grass, and bodies of water force characters to internally reflect. Ambient sounds and environment converge to reveal back story and future motivation, as slow ripples across a glassy pond, the violent chopping of wood, and the melancholy song of an accordion all evoke a deeper subtext than their surface level implications. This approach makes Revanche a gripping meditation on the small traumas that add up over time, filling every corner of the mind with doubt and vengeance. Spielmann packs the film with deceiving tonal shifts, where casual conversations slowly turn tragic and minute decisions trickle down to change the outcome from inevitable to uncertain. In the early moments, disjointed editing produces a puzzle-like quality, but eventually shifts to a ponderous approach, allowing long passages of screen time to pass with characters in shadow, or partially visible around doorways. Spielmann creates double-edged characters struggling to fend off self-destruction and start anew, but combustion imminently threatens, their world never turning steady enough to ensure permanent safety.

Fight Club (Fincher, 1999)


The oversized burning smily face on the side of a corporate building, characters gazing at the camera with blood-soaked grins, and the overall kidding sensibility during each Norton/Pitt interaction, and suddenly it’s clear – Fight Club is a demented slapstick comedy. A decade on, the film doesn’t come across as masochistic or provocative as it once did, but David Fincher’s notorious mind-game still brashly confronts the viewer as few films do, painting a bleak world of numbing consumerism while laughing at everyone’s culpability in the act. The freeze frames of Edward Norton in distress are especially potent, marking Fincher’s obsession with characters who cannot comprehend the fractured world they live within. Fight Club also finds Fincher at his most playful, riotously moving characters through the frame toward uncertain ends, messing with point of view until the whole world hinges on the edge of oblivion. Fight Club revels in its mischievous antics and that’s part of the fun, but the end result still turns my stomach, since the material laughs a bit too genuinely at the end of Western civilization.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Scott, 2009)


The excruciating and infuriating Domino appears to be the apex of Tony Scott’s cinema of inanity, a striking critique against the director’s mind-numbing visual style and love for fast-pasted, fractured editing. Deja Vu finds Scott in a sort of toned-down visual purgatory, a place of maddening compression yet intriguing potential, where the hypnotic colors of New Orleans and the time-structured plot offer some semblance of purpose within the cinematic space. Sure, Scott still jams the frame with snazzy visual tricks and audio cues, but at least he’s attempting to construct a coherent narrative arc in the process. There’s tension rooted in the drama and it merges with Scott’s frantic image, at times providing an engaging window into the director’s vision of a modern disjointed world.

If Deja Vu offered some hope Scott was trying to use his style to compliment story and character, his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 dispenses that momentum quickly, leading the viewer into an anticlimactic cat and mouse game streamlined by his aforementioned auteurist tendencies. During the frenzied opening credit sequence, Scott swirls around NYC combining fast motion, slow motion, and endless variations in between as if his camera is being flushed down the preverbal toilet. This satellite inspired omniscient eye does nothing to advance the film in any way, except to nail home the fact that this is a Tony Scott film. As the tatted high-jacker (John Travolta) and  MTA dispatcher (Denzel Washington) battle out their way with words, Scott occasionally warps back into this visual framework, juggling the interiors of the train, tunnel, and even the command center of the MTA as if they were cavernous labyrinths of cinematic possibility. But as usual, it’s all for show, no substance, no mentality, no point. These characters exist primarily for Scott to manipulate the frame in the same tired way he’s be doing for going on a decade, and finding any entertainment, let alone subtext in this mashed world of hyper-kinetic movement is getting harder and harder.

The Shield: Season 7 (Ryan, 2008)


During the final season of The Shield, retribution comes in many forms. For some characters it’s death, while for others minor victories reveal themselves as lifelong triumphs. But for corrupt cop Vic Mackey there’s a special kind of comeuppance. This makes the excellent Series finale directed by Clark Johnson all the more involving, because Mackey finally sheds his false image of American hero and reveals himself to the viewer exactly how Dutch and Claudette have seen him the entire tenure of the show; as a lethal disease. Mackey infects everyone around him and Shane’s final note lyrically states that he “wishes he never met Vic”, a closing statement of great weight and honesty. Moments like these finally complete the disturbing mosaic The Strike Team has created over the years. Despite the arrests they’ve made, the drugs they’ve confiscated, or the innocents they’ve saved, it was all done with a plagued moral objective that favored vice over virtue. Series creator Shawn Ryan avoids tying up every loose end, even allowing Vic one last moment of antiauthoritarian rage. Cornered and alone, Vic retreats to his two instruments of power; his gun and his street smarts, succumbing to the reality that his fatal flaws are the only traits that have kept him alive this long. For all the many fascinating characters of The Shield, Season 7 ultimately shows the ties that bind family together and the moments that break them apart forever. It’s a thin red line between one or the other.