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Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The Thief, the Liar, and the Lovers: Korea’s Complex Crime Film, The Handmaiden

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At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.

The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.

The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.

Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new  bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, and Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki, The Handmaiden ©

Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.

Kim Tae-ri as Handmaiden Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.

Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.

Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”

The Handmaiden is in Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Available for rent from Amazon ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD, free for Prime Members), YouTube ($4.99), and iTunes ($14.99 purchase).

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You’ll never leave Harlan alive: The Final Season of FX’s JUSTIFIED

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It all started with US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and a Miami gangster. Oh, Raylan warned the bad guy first, and even gave him 24 hours to get out of town. The gangster (Peter Greene) called Raylan’s bluff.

And that’s how one of the finest crime dramas in cable television history began.

After his ill-fated encounter with the Miami gangster, Raylan Givens was transferred back to his home state of Kentucky, specifically to Harlan County, where he donned his iconic cowboy hat and boots with an panache rarely seen even on working cowboys in the American West.

justified_612x380

Based on characters from the short story “Fire in the Hole” and from two novels by the iconic master of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard — who died last year at age 87 and who was a producer and writer of the show, and who will receive posthumous producer credit for the final season — the pilot episode had the major criminal, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, below) die, as he does in the story on which the pilot was based.

walton gogins boyd crowder

That is, Boyd died until the initial screening audiences let their outrage be known, apparently insisting that it was a humongous mistake to kill one of the most interesting characters in the show. The pilot was rewritten; Boyd lived — after shouting “Fire in the hole” just before he blew up a black church with a missile launcher — and Justified became an instant classic. Favored by critics and viewers alike, Justified has consistently been nominated for, and won, major industry awards.

From the season’s premiere, in 2010, Marshal Raylan Givens has had a bad habit of shooting first and being unable to ask questions later. His world-weary boss, Chief US Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy, below) has just wanted to make it to retirement without getting shot himself (as he did last season) and without excessive paperwork caused by Raylan’s trigger finger.

nick searcy chief deputy us marshal art mullen

But the most engaging conflict of the first year, which has periodically returned despite the series’ “Villain of the Season” approach, has been the conflict between Harlan County-born & bred, coal-mining childhood pals Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). While Raylan became a crime-fighter, Boyd became a criminal extraordinaire.

In the initial season, in addition to fighting each other, Raylan and Boyd were also competing for the affections of Boyd’s former sister-in-law, Ava (Joelle Carter, below), who’d shot her abusive husband — Boyd’s brother — dead, after he beat up on her one too many times.

joelle carter ava crowder

Ava eventually chose Boyd over Raylan, became involved in criminal activities herself, including murder, and spent all of season 5 in prison. After she believed that Boyd had abandoned her by not cooperating with Raylan in order to secure her release from prison, Ava secured her own “release.”

In the season 5 final scene (below), it was revealed that Ava got out of jail by agreeing to help Raylan find the evidence he needs to put Boyd away forever.

That situation seemed to be setting up the final season (6) as a return to the major — and most intriguing — conflict of Justified: that between Raylan and Boyd.

The teaser-trailers that FX has been releasing also intimate that Justified‘s final season will concentrate on the ongoing conflict between Raylan and Boyd.

In the Hat Trick trailer, the conflict seems clearly focused on Raylan and Boyd, emphasizing their ambiguous relationship due to their having grown up together and having once been friends. Also, though they are on opposite sides of the law, the two men have many personality traits in common, further explaining their former friendship, their grudging respect, and the determination of each to eliminate the other in this Raylan-Boyd, Marshal-criminal duo.

In the Three on a Match teaser-trailer, however, it looks like Ava herself may have a reason to mistrust and even hate Raylan and Boyd, both of whom have betrayed her in the past — at least in her opinion — and it looks like it’s going to be a Burning Bed scenario among these three in the final season.

There will still be some “Guest Villains” in the final season of Justified, including Mary Steenburgen, who appeared briefly in season 5, Sam Elliott as her lover, and Deadwood‘s fantastic chameleon actor Garrett Dillahunt (who first played Jack McCall, Wild Bill Hickock’s murderer, in Deadwood, and, in the subsequent season, played Francis Wolcott, a serial killer preying on prostitutes who was also a surveying geologist for George Hearst).

But more exciting for the final season of Justified is the recurrence of Dixie Mafioso Wynn Duffy (Jere Burn, below), who’s been connected to, or hunted by, many of the previous seasons’ Guest Villains.

jere burns wynn duffy

Apparently, during this ultimate season, Boyd is going to get into robbing banks — with the encouragement of the Dixie Mafioso — in his attempt to get out of Harlan “alive” and to take Ava with him.

Boyd’s cousin Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman, below, as Dewey) who is, without a doubt, one of the most hysterically incompetent and endearing criminals ever created, will be out of jail, attempting to reunite with Boyd while avoiding their nemesis, Raylan.

damon herriman dewey crowe

Of course, we don’t know how it will all play out, but the most faithful viewers of the show are hoping that the final season will concentrate on the relationship between Boyd and Raylan, as the initial season did. Though the Guest Villain seasons have been wonderful, none has ever reached the brilliance of that first season, where Walton Goggins, as Boyd, and Timothy Olyphant, as Raylan — who improvise many of their scenes together — shone brighter and fiercer than any other characters.

Furthermore, since the finale of each season of Justified has ended with a different artist singing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” and both Raylan and Boyd are determined to finally make it out of Harlan for good — Raylan to join his ex-wife and baby daughter in Florida, and Boyd to take Ava and move to a more prestigious, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Kentucky — the rumor mills are swirling with fan fears that Raylan or Boyd or both will be killed in the Justified‘s series finale.

After all, the song at the finale of each season clearly says that You’ll never leave Harlan alive. (My favorite is Patty Loveless’ version, from season 5.)

The final season of FX’s award-winning crime drama Justified airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, and premieres Tuesday 20 January 2015. Additional info and videos — both trailers for season 6 and flashbacks from previous seasons — are on the official site.

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