A refreshing addition to the contract killer biopic genre, Ariel Vromen’s Friedkinesque dramatization of Richard Kuklinski’s rise and fall, via three decades of heinous crimes, is a doozy. Informed by Jim Thebaut’s HBO documentary series “The Iceman Interviews” — witness the “The Iceman’s” recreated bookend sequences — the film’s accomplishment rests squarely on Michael Shannon’s keen portrayal of Kuklinski as a pathologically divided individual. One-half devoted family man and one-half ruthless assassin; Richard Kuklinski occurs as a gift-wrapped bipolar subject for true-crime cinema. A qualified novice director and co-writer, Ariel Vromen tracks the film’s stylistic period references across generational shifts while keeping focus on Kuklinski's Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. Essential details of costume and production design fall neatly into place.
During the late ‘50s Kuklinski works a barroom pool table not far from his day (and night) job pirating pornographic tapes. He’s a pool shark with no patience for sore losers. An offended dupe who puts up a fuss after being defeated, gets his throat cut from ear to ear as he prepares to drive away in his car. For Kuklinski, the kill is a quick, quiet, and efficient way to reconcile his well-defended ego. He’s a walking definition of “paranoid personality disorder.”
An uncomfortable visit by the Gambino-connected Mafia kingpin Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to Kuklinski’s porn lab makes a lasting impression on DeMeo. When one of his lackeys tries to pistol-whip Kuklinski, the hulking brute fights back and stands his ground in the face of probable death in the guise of the pistol pointed at his face. Fear evidently is not in his constitution. DeMeo takes note. The next day DeMeo gives Kuklinski a chance to earn his trust by knocking off a bum in broad daylight. DeMeo insures Kuklinski’s loyalty by holding on to the pistol with the “Polack’s” fingerprints forever stuck on it.
Having charmed Deborah (wonderfully played the underrated Winona Ryder), a self-effacing waitress at a New Jersey diner, Richard Kuklinski sets up house with his adoring wife. Whether or not Deborah believes him when he tells her he dubs voices for “Disney” cartoons is beside the point. Kuklinski plays the gentleman around her. She knows better than to ask questions. Years pass before Deborah gets a glimpse of her devoted husband’s other side.
A dramatically layered car-chase, with Deborah and the couple’s two daughters in the back seat, reveals Richard’s hair-trigger temper after he distractedly runs into a car in traffic. The suspense-laden episode unmasks cracks in the couple’s marriage, fissures that Richard Kuklinski soon fills in with enormous amounts of cash when he goes into a thriving partnership with Mr. Freezy (played by an unrecognizable Chris Evans). Freezy is a fellow contract killer with his own arsenal of tricks for offing people and disposing of corpses. He conceals his activities by operating an ice cream truck whose freezer makes for a convenient hold to deposit fresh kills. Freezy introduces Kuklinski to using powered cyanide as a covert method for delivering death, and to his preferred practice of freezing bodies for several years before disposing of them as though they were wrapped-up leftovers. Scenes of chainsaw-enabled dismemberment are graphic, and yet kept in check by the film’s dramatic tone, lighting, and tightly edited compositions.
Tempting though it might seem, the filmmakers manage to avoid stepping into the trap of exploitation genre. The subject is horrifying, but “The Iceman” is not a horror movie. The film’s character-study aspect takes up most of the narrative space. A terse prison scene between Richard and his incarcerated brother — who raped a 12-year-old girl — affords a wealth of backstory in a resourceful way. The scriptural language is dense but clear.
With so many substantial performances under his belt, it’s not accurate to term Michael Shannon’s exemplary work here as a “breakthrough performance.” It is nonetheless Oscar-worthy. Michael Shannon would have made a much more book-accurate version of Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise. Here, he creates a credible version of a serial killer credited with murdering somewhere between 100 and 250 men, many of whom were never found or identified. The effect is chilling.
Rated R. 93 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Walter Hill’s vibrant 1979 adaptation of Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel — based loosely on an ancient Greek story called “Anabasis” — is a classic cinematic record of New York City circa 1979. It arrived during the era when Mayor Ed Koch declared a political war on unions and minorities.
The film’s hip nighttime opening sequence compares Coney Island’s landmark neon-lit Wonder Wheel to the lights of an approaching graffiti-covered subway train. Clips of expositional dialogue by the Coney Island gang named in the film’s title are intercut with a front-car-view of a subway train penetrating its stations. Excitement builds under pulsing music orchestrated to allow for the intermittent segments of conversation. Brilliant. Other gangs of uniquely uniformed urban soldiers arrive at subway locations to travel to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where a public assembly of unarmed gang delegates from New York’s boroughs gathers for a midnight conference.
Cyrus (Roger Hill), “the president of the biggest gang in the city” — the Riffs — speaks to the crowded congregation of young thugs. On the underground stage of political theater, Cyrus calls for a truce between all of New York City’s gangs. Cyrus proposes consolidating New York’s 60,000 gang members into one unified gang capable of ruling a city overseen by a mere 20,000 police officers. As in American politics, unifiers are not really desired. The truce is cut short by a gang agitator’s pistol when Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rogues, shoots Cyrus dead before framing a member of the Warriors as the shooter.
Dressed in their burgundy American-Indian-styled pleather vests, the Warriors become an easily recognizable target for every other gang in New York, cops included. An African-American female radio DJ (Lynne Thigpen) announces a hit on the Warriors, as demanded by the leader of the Riffs. The filmmaker only shows the DJ’s lips in relation to the microphone. Style and tone blend into actionable energy.
Picking up on the wake of S. E. Hinton’s idealized fantasy novel of ‘60s-era American gang culture (“The Outsiders”), “The Warriors” takes a less censored stance in equating the ostensibly heroic Warriors gang with their weakest links. When Swan (Michael Beck) steps up to lead his team back to “Coney” as “War Chief,” Ajax (James Remar) takes umbrage. The gang splits up. Easily distracted by the promise of sexual conquest, Ajax learns the hard way how not to treat a lady seated on a park bench when he tries to rape an undercover cop. The Warriors’ herd gets thinned. New York City police contribute to the gang’s lessening number when a cop shoves a Warrior onto the subway tracks in the path of an oncoming train.
Gritty and peppered with the us-against-them lingo of the era, “The Warriors” is a cult movie that pushes its cartoonish elements into a desperate realm where fantasy melts away in a wash of brutal reality.
Rated R. 93 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Clearly inspired by the television show “The Wire,” newbie writer-director Sheldon Candis stumbles through crime drama clichés in a prosaic coming-of-age crime drama that fails to connect on any level. Common gets caught acting as Vincent, the recently released ex-con uncle to his 11-year-old nephew Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.). After catching Woody in a lie regarding the boy’s shyness around girls his age, Vincent takes the unlikely lad on a 24-hour crash-course through the demands of being a man on the make in urban Baltimore. With far less plot sophistication than that of its small-screen inspiration, the story dips through Vincent’s attempts at raising enough money to jumpstart his plan for a legitimate business. Vincent barely takes notice of the detectives that momentarily shadow he and Woody on their rounds through the mean streets of Baltimore. Vincent takes a chance on pulling off a big-pay drug deal that goes south minutes after he’s taught Woody how to shoot a gun — once. One of the film’s most ludicrous moments occurs when Vincent berates the boy for not shooting the gun during a violent situation. Responsible parenting is not on the menu here. The worst aspect of “Luv” is the way it squanders the gifts of its most talented actors — Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, and Charles D. Dutton. Needles to say, the film’s title has little to do with anything that transpires on-screen. The message here is, When I say I'm in love you best believe I don't give a fuck about you — L - U - V.
Rated R. 94 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
As an old-fashioned gangster picture tempered with noir overtones “Gangster Squad” is feast for the eyes. Based on Paul Lieberman’s true-crime pulp novel, the ‘40s era postwar story hinges on Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a war vet Los Angeles police detective assigned by Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to put his badge down long enough to bring down egomaniacal kingpin Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn).
Brolin’s square-jawed intensity sits right at home in the gangster fantasy at hand. An ex-boxer, Penn’s scene-chewing Mickey Cohen is on the brink of a vast book-making operation that will make his rivals in Chicago and New York jealous. O’Mara’s pregnant wife Connie (well played by Mireille Enos) puts her woman’s intuition to use in hand picking four of the five men who make up her husband’s elite squad of crime-busters. Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, and Robert Patrick all give memorable performances as men of integrity and resourcefulness. Emma Stone is a divine treat as Mickey’s mol Grace Faraday. Dazzling in a slinky red dress, Stone exudes a sex appeal that simmers in her scenes opposite Gosling’s romantically attentive Sgt. Jerry Wooters. Screen chemistry like this is too good to pass up.
Comic book elements contribute to the film’s strength as a mood piece that doesn’t attempt to make too keen connections to modern day corruption — political or otherwise. The movie makes its mark in the heightened level of brutality on display. An opening sequence in the Hollywood hills establishes the ruthlessness of Penn’s character when Cohen commands a crook chained between two cars, be pulled apart. Things will get ugly.
“Gangster Squad” revels in style. Los Angeles art deco architecture serves as an ideal backdrop for the film’s gifted costume and production designers to let their skills rip. There’s plenty of dynamic visceral and visual energy that pops from the screen from start to finish. Cinematographer Dion Beebe’s hungry camera captures a wealth of movement, light, and color in every composition. There’s still something be said about a good old-fashioned gangster movie.
Rated R. 110 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Stand Up Guys
“Stand Up Guys” is a respectable compact crime drama comedy about camaraderie among a passing generation of retired wiseguys. There’s still some honor among thieves. Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin play the film’s three mildly flamboyant leading characters with a tacit admission that the tongue-in-cheek movie at hand reflects the disappearance of their own group of iconic actors. Each player riffs on his own well-worn acting tics as if taking one last gulping spree from the fountain of youth. It’s easy to wax poetic about the pure cinematic joy of watching Arkin (78), Pacino (72), and Walken (69) poking fun at themselves on the big screen. These guys are national treasures. Seriousness also plays a part, but director Fisher Stevens keeps the tone light even if a bittersweet sense of melancholy moors the stream-of-consciousness action.
Val (Pacino) gets released from the big house after serving a 28-year sentence for a murder that occurred during a shootout. He steps lightly into the loving arms of his old buddy Doc (Walken). Val never ratted out any of his cohorts, but the local kingpin doesn’t want him around — it was his son that died in the shootout. Doc’s pressing assignment is to kill his pal. Val senses what’s coming. However, Val and Doc have much business to tend to first. They’re not about to let a little thing like the looming sword of Damocles prevent them from celebrating the time they have together. Besides, Doc has to figure out exactly how and when to take out Val. The clock ticks. Strains of Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (which starred Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) play across the narrative. There’s a refreshing earthiness to the urban drama that resonates with the ‘70s era movie environment where Arkin, Walken, and Pacino ruled the Hollywood roost. Remember “Freebie and the Bean” or “The Deer Hunter”? Classics.
The episodic story transpires over a 24-hour-period. A visit to the old local cathouse is a top priority. Lucy Punch gets in a few comic digs as Wendy, the madam of the house. Drinks and pills are on the menu. Slapstick humor pops when Val suffers the symptoms of a Viagra overdose that sends him to the hospital where the daughter of his old getaway driver pal Hirsh (Arkin) works. Al Pacino’s knack for comic timing pushes through — so to speak.
Newbie scriptwriter Noah Haidle struggles at times with tempo. He also doesn’t dig deeply enough into the dramatic potential of some scenes. Still, there’s an upside to the bare-bones script that gives its talented ensemble room to groove. A car chase sequence with Hirsh behind the wheel, surges with a euphoric sense of youthful joy among old guys who are still just boys at heart. Fisher Stevens’s direction is solid, even if it doesn’t arrive with most inspired execution considering the quality of talent in front of the camera.
An emotional-hook subplot involving a waitress at the diner Val and Doc keep coming back to, gives Walken and Pacino a chance to spill a few drops of passion without resorting to sappiness.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
In Cold Blood — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Screenwriter-director Richard Brooks’s faithful adaptation of Truman Capote’s innovative 1966 “non-fiction novel,” about a 1959 multiple homicide in Holcomb, Kansas, transcends the sensationalist source material. Brooks muted the story’s lurid aspects in order to advance an anti-capital punishment theme utilizing authentic elements such as the actual house where the murders took place.
The film offers an in-depth character study of the two romantically compelled ex-convict killers — Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith. Dick believes a prison-cell rumor about a wealthy farmer named Herbert Clutter in Kansas who reputedly keeps $10,000 inside a safe in his home. Convinced that Perry is capable of murder — based on a story Perry tells about “killing a kid in Vegas with a chain” — Dick obsesses over his partner’s capacity to kill the home’s inhabitants, thus leaving “no witnesses” behind when the time comes to commit the robbery. As with the book, the film delays showing the brutal events of the break-in until after Dick and Perry have been captured. Truman Capote’s gift for inverting form pays off for the viewer in a nuanced way.
Casting relatively unknown actors — Scott Wilson and Robert Blake — enabled the filmmakers to delve further into the ambiguities of the men’s archetypal dominant-submissive relationship. The openly bisexual Dick constantly calls Perry “honey” or “baby” even as he refers to potential female conquests as “chicken.” Sexual tension between the men chafes as they discuss their flawed dreams of a life together in Mexico. Perry has a treasure map to an ocean-buried fortune. He wants to get scuba gear and retrieve the gold. The men’s successful escape south of the border only exposes their incompatibility and their latent desire to be caught and punished for their terrible crime.
The home-invasion robbery and murder of the home’s Clutter family represents a surrogate sex act wherein personal demons are exorcised. It demonstrates the men’s physical and psychological commitment to one another — however tenuous that bond proves to be.
Vivid flashback sequences supply clues about Perry’s childhood of abuse that contributes to his propensity for violence. The joy of watching his rodeo champion mother perform when he was a boy is quashed by his father’s vicious behavior toward him after she goes lost to alcohol and prostitution.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall’s use of black-and-white film stock encloses the narrative in a time capsule that resonates with the period of the crime. The film’s most celebrated scene arrives moments before Perry is to be hung. Robert Blake’s troubled character gives a tragic monologue about his father to the jailhouse priest in the moments before he is to be hanged. A hard rain pours against the adjacent window allowing for a watery reflection on the left side of Perry’s face where sheets of tears seem to fall down. Quincy Jones’s boldly original musical score tempers the mood with an incalculable amount of emotional energy.
Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s One-Movie Revolution Comes Calling
One of the ten best films of 2012, Andrew Dominik’s cold-blooded satire of American corporate-political-capitalism cuts through its subject like a freshly sharpened guillotine blade. Fortunately someone still wants retribution for the $7.77 trillion that Bush and Obama handed out to criminal banksters while ordinary Americans sank into poverty. Justice, however, has to wait. Until then: allegory.
The New Zealand auteur responsible for the magnificent neo-western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” manipulates the crime drama genre with an irrefutable cinematic panache. Economic metaphors big and small fill the narrative about gangster vengeance set in 2008. Dominik based the script on a George V. Higgins novel — see Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
Every greasy hoodlum character here represents a stratum of economic influence. Lowlife Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) brings home the nothing-to-lose emigrant faction. When Russell’s fellow immoral pal Frankie (Scoot McNairy) tries to land a card-game hold-up job from a slimy smalltime kingpin named Johnny Amato — a.k.a. Squirrel — Russell is quick to set his would-be boss man straight as to just who is doing whom a favor. Speaking truth to power comes with a thick dose of irreverent irony. The fact that Russell is a junkie with not much more on his mind than where his next fix or lay is coming from is beside the point. Russell is on the lowest rung of society’s ladder but that doesn’t prevent him from maintaining self-respect along with his hedonistic priorities.
The successful heist that follows requires a visit from a corporate-minded honcho known only as the Driver (Richard Jenkins). From his mobile office the Driver hires professional hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to settle the score. The men who orchestrated and executed the heist have to pay. No crime goes unpaid. If you’ve ever wondered about what it would look like for the banker bastards who ruined America’s economy to have to make penance with their own flesh, the filmmakers deliver a beautifully brutal vision of such a comeuppance.
The film’s evocative title stretches across the narrative like a transparent satin sheet. Brad Pitt’s character is methodical and cynical, yet he’s fully aware of the emotional burden of his deadly occupation. He says of his profession that he likes to kill from a distance; predator drones come to mind. Jackie goes so far as to ask for the assistance of a hit man he worked with several years earlier. James Gandolfini’s Mickey isn’t as together as he used to be. He’s turned into a raging alcoholic with an addiction to prostitutes. If Jackie represents a self-protective mercenary, Mickey is a cautionary vision of where Jackie could be headed if he isn’t careful. Everyone gets corrupted. It’s just a matter of time and opportunity.
“Killing Them Softly” is a stylish crime drama made up of piercing monologues and canny dialogue that reverberates with social implications. Nothing is wasted. People and places are appropriately ugly. Every performance is spot-on. That the film so effectively lashes out at economic hypocrisy in America is truly rewarding. Here is a one-movie revolution against all of the corporate-controlled two-party bullshit that has turned America into a third-world dictatorship. Brilliant is too soft a word to describe it.
Rated R. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
End of Watch
“End of Watch” is a gritty brief apologia from writer-director David Ayer for his less than complementary Los Angeles copsploitation films “Training Day” and “Harsh Times.” Where those films depicted the underbelly of LA cops as drug-crazed thugs no better than the criminals they pursue, here the boys in blue are framed as decent individuals doing an impossibly dangerous and disorienting job. But apologias are not David Ayers’ forte. Plot holes and plot leaps proliferate around Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, a couple of South Central patrol cops with a knack for stumbling into colossal trouble.
The drama excels in the pitch-perfect dialogue between officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena), two brothers of the badge who share a loyal and frequently humorous bond. Ayer has clearly done serious research to exactly nail down the official and unofficial slang that Los Angeles cops use to communicate in verbal shorthand.
Ayer employs an erratically accessible film-within-a-film device that has officer Taylor using a combination of camcorder and clip-on pocket cameras for he and Zavela to record thier police activities for a college course Taylor is supposedly taking. And yet, we never see him attending any classes. As such, the cop-as-amateur-filmmaker trope doesn’t suspend much disbelief. In some nighttime scenes Ayer goes so far as to use a night-vision camera that puts his subjects under a glowing negative relief visual audiences will associate with military convention. If anything, these point-of-view camera effects distract more than they add to the violently charged action at hand.
Taylor and Zavala like to poke fun at one another. They like to dish about their women. Zavala is happily married to his high school sweetheart. She has a bun in the oven. Taylor is tired of repeating his worn-out dating routine, which goes from a “respectful kiss” on the first date to “carnal knowledge” on the second, to “a couple of bootie calls” before coming to an abrupt halt. Anna Kendrick plays Janet, a vivacious and confident young woman who wins Taylor’s affection — body and soul. Although Kendrick adds a lot to the film, one major plot problem emanates from the couple’s relationship, which goes from zero to married without much narrative attention. The couple’s wedding scene seems to come out of nowhere.
A similar issue of underdeveloped plot construction lingers over a story involving illegal immigrants and a Mexican drug cartel. The officers discover an outrageously distressing example of human trafficking that seems to provide the movie with a thematic goal. And then — nothing. The same goes for the copious drug smuggling evidence they run across during a routine door-knock. Severed body parts serve as some kind of grotesque warning at the crime scene.
Finally, the film’s bloody denouement is built on a cartoonish gang of cholo thugs led by a tough chic who swears she is prepared to “do the time” for the murderous crime she intends to commit. The crew has it in for Taylor and Zavala for some overblown reason that is never adequately explained.
Despite its flaws “End of Watch” is nonetheless entertaining for the praiseworthy performances of its ensemble. Gyllenhaal and Pena are exquisite together, and Anna Kendrick works her disarming charm to every advantage. The question remains: what made David Ayers turn from anti-cop propaganda to pro-cop propaganda? Perhaps his next copsploitation effort will help answer the question.
Rated R. 109 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Inflected with the same gritty appreciation for brutal violence that director John Hillcoat applied to his Australian-set period Western “The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a Depression-era bootleg gangster fantasy baked in booze, blood, and grime. Based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 fictionalized account of his grandfather’s moonshine-running exploits (“The Wettest County in the World”) in Franklin County, Virginia, singer-songwriter Nick Cave takes up screenwriting and musical composition duties. The result is an entertaining crime drama embellished with various cartoonish plot and character elements. Cave’s deconstructed blues version of Lou Reed’s “White Light / White Heat” thoughtfully accents the action.
Ardent sincerity by a talented ensemble obfuscates the film’s more risible aspects. Guy Pearce’s shrill portrayal of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a corrupt Chicago lawman on a mission to eradicate Franklin County of its many bootleg still operations, is laughable nevertheless. Rakes is a sexually conflicted dandy right out of J. Edgar Hoover’s playbook. The character may as well have a “V” for villain stitched across his chest.
The height of Prohibition, circa 1931, makes a profitable living possible for a cloistered community of backwoods “hillbillies” who would otherwise have no way to subsist. Moonshine stills light up the side of a mountain like “lights on a Christmas tree.” Benoit Delhomme’s evocative cinematography captures a timeless quality that registers as Virginia, although the movie was filmed in Georgia.
The Bondurant brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) — have a widespread reputation as the most feared clan of moonshiners in the region. Forrest likes his brass knuckles. As with most of the characters Tom Hardy creates, Forrest has a presence that resonates throughout even when the character isn’t onscreen. The notorious siblings even sell their famously potent jars of white lightening to local good ole boy police officers until the fey Charlie Rakes arrives with his own crew of “law” enforcers to take a cut of the local economic pie. Every other moonshiner might be willing to play ball with Deputy Rakes, but the Bondurants refuse to share. The battle lines are drawn. Much blood will be spilled.
Gary Oldman chews his limited share of the scenery as Floyd Banner, a big time Chicago mobster with whom Shia LaBoeuf’s Jack does business with after narrowly avoiding a premature burial. Oldman’s character is crucial to the story because Floyd Banner represents an urban version of the outlaw that Jack aspires to be like. Jack inches out Forrest as the story’s main protagonist. He starts out as a wimp who finds inner strength through his latent ambition. While not the best casting choice for the role, LaBoeuf delivers a competent performance.
Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska cast glows of womanly perspective as objectives of desire for Forrest and Jack, respectively. Chastain especially adds dimension to the film for her character Maggie’s bold resolve to work for the gang at the gas station they own, and romantically align herself with the stoic Forrest. The slight allusion to Bonnie and Clyde is unmistakable. “Lawless” never pretends to be anything more than a revved up period-piece gangster movie. If the movie takes a few too many liberties regarding the survivability of its invincible leading characters, the trespass is forgivable.
Rated R. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Oliver Stone revs up the crime thriller genre with an energetic video-nasty that keeps up with modern sensibilities regarding sex, drugs, and violence. A cozy ménage a trois is at the heart of a kidnap story that bounces between Southern California and Mexico. Too much voice-over exposition from Blake Lively’s center-of-attraction character “O” — she was named after Ofelia, not the subject of “The Story of O” — mars the flow of action. O is the mutual girlfriend to war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and to his stoner best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon is the alpha to Ben’s beta. As O describes them, Chon is the Earth, while Ben is the soul of the threesome. Chon gives O orgasms. She gives him “wargasms.” Ben, on the other hand, makes love to her. As Salma Hayek’s villainous drug queenpin Elena describes them, Chon and Ben love each other more than they care for O, or else they wouldn’t be able to share her. And share her they do.
Chon and Ben run a most profitable pot business from their posh Malibu seaside home. Using high-octane pot seeds Chon shipped over from his tour in Afghanistan, the boys have created a wicked weed that packs an unheard of “33% THC” punch. Elena’s Mexican drug cartel wants in on Chon’s and Ben’s business model. Not even John Travolta’s corrupt FBI official Dennis is much use to his pot-slinging buddies in the face of Elena and her brutal crew. Benicio Del Toro burns up the screen as Elena’s number-one enforcer Lado. From the looks of it, Del Toro has more fun chewing up scenery than nearly anyone else in the movie.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel, the story takes its time getting into gear. Ben and Chon would rather go off the grid in Indonesia than play ball with Elena and her bloodthirsty thugs, who are known for decapitating people and blowing out brains. Savages they are. This is not a movie for moviegoers with weak stomachs. Much blood is spilled. Ben and Chon take a day too long to get out of town. Elena’s boys kidnap O before laying down the law about how business will run for the next three-years — the first of which O will spend as a hostage. Naturally, Chon and Ben have a few ideas about how to rescue O.
Oliver Stone keeps politics largely out of the picture, but the subtext is written on the wall about things such as, the planned obsolescence of corporations, and America’s shifting attitudes toward sex and marijuana. Still, “Savages” is more willing to pull punches in the bedroom than it is in the arena of torture and murder. For all of the film’s outrageous violence, the tone is almost jocular. Oliver Stone could easily have gone heavier on the sex to balance out the bloodshed.
Rated R. 129 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Unlike its routine title, “Easy Money” is a knotty crime thriller set in Stockholm’s criminal underworld where Middle Eastern thugs go up against Serbian mobsters for control of Sweden’s cocaine trade. Based on Jens Lapidus’s novel “Snabba Cash,” director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”) seamlessly integrates action and suspense with memorable characters. A risky jailbreak involving convict Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) allows the story to hit the ground running, albeit with limp Jorge earns during his lone escape. Mob heavy Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) wants to rub out Jorge, who gets rescued by rich-kid-poseur JW (Joel Kinnaman). Suit-and-tie-wearing JW pretends to be the rich son of a diplomat so he can hang out with Sweden’s privileged class that he desperately wants to assimilate into. For cash, JW works as a driver for Jorge’s drug bosses. JW’s model-copied good looks enable him to romantically attach to Sophie (Lisa Henni), a social butterfly among the elite.
Children fulfill a crucial aspect of the film’s weighty emotional underpinnings. Jorge wants to help out his pregnant sister. Mrado has an eight-year-old daughter named Lovisa who he struggles to shield from his unsavory occupation. The fact that Hollywood already has plans to remake an American version of “Easy Money” tells you all you need to know. It’s a good foreign movie you should see rather than wait for Hollywood’s watered down remake.
Rated R. 124 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
A flawed, melodramatic riff on the "Bad Lieutenant" corrupt cop theme that Abel Ferrara so eloquently nailed down in 1992, "Rampart" is the result of a partnership between writer/director Oren Moverman and crime novelist James Ellroy. A lot of thought clearly went into creating Woody Harrelson's hyper-articulate, reprehensible police officer. Harrelson's lunatic white cop prototype is formalized within an inch of its life; all the writing mechanics show. Harrelson does a bang-up job, spitting out every line of faulty logic and well-defended-by-the-book alibis the 24-year-veteran Officer Dave Brown uses to justify his illegal acts. Harrelson's sociopathic cop is notoriously nicknamed "Date Rape" for allegedly killing a violent sexual predator _an event he neither confirms nor denies. And yet, by design, the story overreaches. You keep waiting. But it never comes to life.
Brown’s gleeful intimidation of Jane (Stella Schnabel), a minority female police trainee he insultingly calls cowboy, segues into a nasty traffic accident--a civilian T-bones Brown's squad car. Jane ‘s promise as a significant supporting character falls by the wayside in favor of other, less satisfying, narrative detours. (Our unreliable protagonist responds to the car wreck by beating the shit out of the driver--naturally it's all captured on videotape, à la Rodney King, for the media to chew on like dogs tearing meat from a 300-pound carcass. All is business as usual for a cop whose resentful teenaged daughter Helen (Brie Larson) calls him by his cop-buddy moniker when he returns home in the evenings. His younger daughter (by Helen’s-mom’s-sister) has a burning question: are she and her sister inbred? The improbable cop’s female-dominated home life matches in artificiality everything that follows with an adulterous affair involving Linda, a prosecuting attorney played by Robin Wright. Linda likes to announce her love of "sucking cock." You can almost hear the screenwriters yucking it up in the background. Harrelson’s bad-boy cop lives with his wife and ex-wife (siblings played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, requiring even more suspension of disbelief).
Superficially based on corruption involving Los Angeles’s notorious “Rampart” police precinct scandal, the movie is a brief examination of the toxic mindset of corrupt individuals working in a cynical system incapable of managing its sociopathic employees. On patrol Officer Brown firmly believes he is participating in a military occupation. Laws are flexible ideas that work better turned upside-down.
That the film hardly rings with any meaningful editorial impact is a testament to society’s tacit approval of extremist police corruption and brutality. There’s no need for unethical cops to hide behind the legendary blue curtain anymore. They can proudly exert their blood-spewing punishments against American citizens for the entire world to witness on YouTube. If they're lucky, like the cop in Davis, California, their nasty acts will get turned into a viral meme.
Far from being shocking, “Rampart” practically presents an apologist's view of crooked cops because it doesn’t give anywhere near as much screen time to the victims of police brutality. To observe American police acting like enemy soldiers against its citizens has become a daily routine. “Rampart” doesn’t add anything to the conversation. As a piece of journalistic drama the film is too busy with goofy sex scenes and rambling subplots to make a cogent point about a despicable status quo. If the movie is not part of the solution, then it must be part of the problem. I can imagine the same cops who spray tear gas into the eyes of Occupy protestors going to see this film, and admiring Officer Dave Brown for his Teflon intellect and impudent approach to his job. With anti-hero protagonists like this one, we don’t need more enemies.
Rated R. 105 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Director Oliver Megaton (no irony intended with his phony last name) creates an insipid melodrama crime action movie complete with a rinky-dink musical score and low production values to match. Zoe Saldana plays tranny-wanna-be Cateleya. Between soap-opera-staged meetings with her kingpin uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) Cateleya likes to play top-dog to her oh-so-willing artist boyfriend Danny (Michael Vartan). Danny is clueless as to Cateleya's activities when she isn't jumping on top of him demanding sex wicky-wicky. Cateleya has no time for idle chit-chat; she just wants to bone down. But don't the wrong idea; the sex scenes are dishwater average. The rest of the time, Cateleya is busy hunting down and killing members of the gang that wiped out her family when she was a kid. She likes to perform in bare feet and underwear with her steam-spewing automatic weapons. The filmmakers are clearly in love with this particular fetish. Even the scantily clad revenge-fantasy kill sequences have about as much suspense as watching someone walk their dog across a busy street. It might work for the uninitiated, but anyone vaguely familiar with the genre will yawn. Hotshot CIA agent Ross (Lennie James) tracks Cateleya from his TV-stage-set office. Not even SWAT can catch our spunky little kill vixen. If you go into "Colombiana" expecting a glorified student film you will not be disappointed.
Rated PG-13. 107 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
England's 1964 mods-and-rockers-era (the scene depicted in The Who's "Quadrophenia") comes under a noirish light in writer-turned-director Rowan Joffe's moody filmic adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel.
Sam Riley ("Control") plays 17-year-old gangster Pinkie Brown, the same character Richard Attenborough played in John Boulting's 1947 original film version of the same story. Stoic Pinkie is forced to reevaluate his place on the lower rungs of gangland after his criminal mentor Kite (Geoff Bell) is murdered on a dark street by a rival gang. Ordered by his crew to put some fear into the gangster who killed Kite, Pinkie's initial tentative effort earns him a nasty scar on his otherwise unblemished cheek. Riley's Pinkie is a tortured anti-hero who draws you into liking him regardless of his despicable nature.
On Brighton’s famous pier Pinkie is photographed with his soon-to-be-victim and a young woman named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). Rose is the only witness who could potentially finger Pinkie as the person last seen with the man escorts under the pier. Pinkie sizes up the homely Rose as a submissive girl he can best control through seduction.
The film’s centerpiece of character discovery comes during an unforgettable scene wherein Pinkie makes a recording for Rose. He stands inside a coin-operated booth speaking a truth that Rose can only guess at as she peers in through a window, unable to hear Pinkie’s testimonial. Misplaced love never seemed so tragic.
Joffe makes the most of Brighton’s overcast setting to give a communal sense of the culture's compressed social structure. Although meticulously filmed in color by cinematographer John Mathieson (“Gladiator”), the film feels like you're watching a black-and-white movie made at the end of the ‘50s. The audience gets a visceral impression of the economic depression and psychological tenor of the time and place.
Helen Mirren draws on her experience to bring colors of emotion as Ida, the owner of an elegant teahouse. Ida sees through Pinkie's romantic handling of Rose, who works for her as a waitress. A soft-peddled romance between Mirren and the ever-enjoyable John Hurt lends a grace note of kindness to a character study of a young man incapable of love.
Not Rated. 111 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Playing with a William Friedkin-like level of patient intensity, atmospheric style, and shocks of violence Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn creates his own 21st century dialectic of cinema. Part love story, part black comedy, and part crime thriller "Drive" is a film-lover's dream. Hossein Amini's adaptation of James Sallis's pulp novel provides Ryan Gosling with the kind of cool-blooded character actors would kill to portray. Known only as Driver, Gosling wears a trademark silver racing jacket with a big gold scorpion embroidered on the back. His curious fashion sense matches his singular motivation to drive...fast.
Driver is a "five minute" man. For the right price he will navigate L.A.'s "100,000 streets" as a getaway driver. Whatever happens before or after his five minute work schedule begins or ends is up to the client. One thing is guaranteed; his escape will be clean. His clients' fates are less certain. During the day Driver works as a mechanic when he isn't performing driving stunts in Hollywood movies. When we see Driver dressed as a cop before filming a stunt, it's telling how convincing Driver is as an actor. The layers of Gosling's stoic Driver run thick and many.
Driver's apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) snaps him out of his laconic loner routine. Irene has a boy named Benicio whose dad's release from prison is coming up. Such unnecessary exposition is mercifully kept out of the way of the mostly silent chemistry that passes between the would-be lovers. Careful and restrained, a romantic tension slowly builds. It crescendos with an elevator kiss in the presence of a hit-man. When Refn breaks the spell with a disgusting act of violence, every plotline and character line that has come before coalesces into a vortex of repulsed emotion. The lovers have a test. How much uncertainty can a new relationship withstand?
To give anymore of the plot away would be a sin. Suffice it to say Driver is a man of secrets. He lives by a strict code that only becomes apparent through his actions. Driver isn't telegraphing anything. Still, he does have a temper.
"Drive" is an impossibly glamorous and gritty film filled with nooks and crannies bursting with action goodness. Sam Peckinpah has clearly been a profound influence on Nicholas Wending Refn. Like Peckinpah--the genius filmmaker behind such classics as "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "The Getaway" (1972)--Refn understands the menace of sensuality and the sexiness of machines. He knows how to exploit these cinematic elements for all they're worth. Hopefully, Refn will not be co-opted and degraded by Hollywood as so many gifted directors before him have been.
The moody techno soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is the hippest thing around. Sexy, violent, and stylized like you can’t believe, “Drive” is a big-screen movie that oozes charisma and pops with brutality. Yum.
Rated R. 100 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Dog Day Afternoon - Classic Film Pick
Sidney Lumet's unforgettable crime drama is impeccably anchored in time, place, character, and story. Screenwriter Frank Pierson won an Oscar for his script based on a Time magazine article about a Brooklyn bank robbery committed by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile during the summer of 1972.
Al Pacino's bank robber Sonny is as complex a character as the celebrated actor ever played. We marvel at Sonny's shameless humanity in the face of a doomed situation. Over the course of the film Sonny becomes an anti-hero of epic proportions. Character revelations come after Sonny and his two accomplices set foot inside a bank at closing time. John Cazale plays Sonny's partner Sal with a suicidal intensity. Sal is afraid of everything except his ability to kill. The third accomplice gets cold feet and abandons the robbery. Sonny has worked in a bank so he knows things like how to avoid alarms and marked decoy money. True to the spirit of the times, he is also a Vietnam veteran. More importantly, Sonny genuinely cares about the female bank employees he and his nervous partner Sal corral into the bank's vault. His compassion for their comfort will cost him their getaway.
Lumet eschews music, allowing the dialogue and background sounds to carry the material's intrinsic drama. The quickly barricaded street outside the bank fills up with New York cops and local onlookers who feed the story's sense of urban claustrophobia. Panic strikes when Sonny releases the bank's asthmatic black security guard. In a scene that has since been copied countless times, evidently racist plain-clothes cops handcuff the hostage under the assumption that he is an accomplice. News photographers jockey for a good angle when detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) invites Sonny to come out on the street to see the rooftop police snipers and flatfoots itching for a clean shot. Sonny seizes the tense moment to incite the crowd with chants of "Attica! Attica! Attica" in reference to the recent prison uprising where guards indiscriminately gunned down prisoners. Suddenly the balance of social order shifts. Intimidated cops are ordered to put their guns down. For an instant Sonny has the power of public support. That power will recede when the crowd learns of his bisexuality—a facet of his personality that has contributed to his motivation for robbing the bank.
As much as it is about a deeply troubled individual, "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) is about a shift toward exploitation in the American media via live television. The bloodthirsty public which feeds off of its pernicious influence wishes it had what it takes to be someone like Sonny.
Kill the Irishman
Crime drama biopics don't come any grittier than director/co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh's entertaining movie about the rise and fall of Cleveland kingpin Danny Green. Ray Stevenson is perfectly cast as the '60s and '70s era Irish roustabout who muscles his way into heading up the local ship workers union. An FBI investigation into the union's illicit activities brings Danny momentarily low. Nonetheless, Danny cuts a deal that keeps him out of jail, much to the chagrin of Val Kilmer's lead detective Joe Manditski. He takes a personal interest in bringing the local crook down. Ray Stevenson ("The Book of Eli") evinces his character's elevated intellect as it combines with Danny's whip-fast street smarts. Here is a thinking man's criminal with an earthy integrity about everything he touches. Not the least of which is the women he attracts. Relegated to the lower rungs of Cleveland's crime ladder, Danny becomes an effective debt collector for Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), a charming restaurateur and vicious loan shark. But when an advance Shondor arranges for Danny to open his own pub goes awry, it attracts the negative attention of New York's Gambino family of mobsters. "Kill the Irishman" is a straightforward, fact-based, period crime story punctuated with strong supporting performances. Vincent D’Onofrio's best efforts as Danny's right-hand-man John Nardi do not go unnoticed. There's a candid rawness here that makes you aware of how far America's ideas of corruption and justice have transgressed.
Rated R. 106 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The same exponential decline in story complexity that occurred between the first and second cinematic installments of Stieg Larsson's posthumously published "Millennium Trilogy" continues here. Where "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" had taut criss-crossing subplots of boundless internal and external significance, the final act of the trilogy is little more than a tepid courtroom drama with some willy-nilly spectacle thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the author's gravest sin lay in his refusal to follow up on the budding romantic relationship that developed in the first story between our simpatico protagonists. Without "Dragon Tattoo's" buzzing of sexual energy between Noomi Rapace's goth-bi-action-girl Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist's Julian Assange-type editorial activist Mikael Blomkvist "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" is a fallen cake.
Rated R. 148 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Dirty Harry - Classic Film Pick
Relying on Clint Eastwood's relaxed but intense title character, Don Siegel's 1971 crime thriller introduces a cornucopia of iconic modern noir elements with which we are all familiar today. An opulent aerial daytime shot reveals a sniper preparing to shoot a woman swimming in a San Francisco rooftop pool. Said woman is dispatched by said crazed gunman. City Police Inspector Harry Callahan is assigned to investigate. Harry carries an especially large handgun called a .357 Magnum that "can blow your head clean off."
Harry is the prototypical "book? what book?" cop. His partners typically end up hurt or dead. "Dirty" Harry gets called upon to take care of the department's dirty work. On a given day Harry might have to go up in a fire truck crane to rescue a suicide jumper. Harry is fiercely dedicated to the task of catching the serial killer. But Harry has a temper, and an oral fixation that has to be fed with hot dogs and chewing gum.
Aside from Bruce Surtees's brilliant cinematography, part of what makes the film so much fun is its campy tone. Harry is the ultimate badass cop, yet wears a red sweater vest like something your grandfather would wear. While discussing the Zodiac-style killer with his partner, Harry issues one of the funniest proclamations in the history of cinema. Commenting on the killer's note, which reveals his plan to target a member of the clergy, Harry thoughtfully says, "He may just figure he owes himself a Padre." It's a ridiculously funny line that means nothing. It's priceless because it shows the great sense of humor the filmmakers had about the kind of action movie they were creating. "Dirty Harry" is still one of the most enjoyable films you could hope to sit down with for a couple of hours. Clint Eastwood's hair is an ever-changing work of art unto itself.
Bad Lieutenant - Classic Film Pick
Alongside "Reservoir Dogs" Able Ferrara's 1992 tour-de-force crime drama provides the epic showcase for Harvey Keitel's impressive acting abilities. Similar in tone to Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," this tragic story of suicidal redemption follows anti-hero Keitel as a nameless police lieutenant addicted to all forms of vice—which, as an officer of the law, he is supposed to be combating. He spends his days doubling down on bad baseball bets, extorting sex from random women, stealing cash from crime scenes, and numbing himself in the company of prostitutes with copious amounts of cocaine and heroin. Ferrara's brilliant direction captures a raw and gritty '80s-era Manhattan in which crime is king on the economically-distressed streets.
Episodic in form, the movie lurches from one hazy scene of reckless debauchery to the next, each examining Keitel's inner monologue of social and religious dysfunction. Steeped in old-school Catholicism, the tragically flawed lieutenant endures something akin to a nervous breakdown inside a church where a Catholic nun has just been raped. After seeing a vision of Jesus, he furiously begs for forgiveness of his countless sins. Soaring to a Marlon Brando level of commitment, Keitel's performance is nothing short of earth-shattering. Co-written by Paul Calderon and Ferrara regular Zoe Lund ("Ms. 45"), "Bad Lieutenant" arrives at an inspired double climax that aspires to—and achieves--a Shakespearian quality of catharsis. "Bad Lieutenant" is a time capsule of a certain moment in New York existence and of a unique view of masculine self-destructiveness. It marks a high point for Abel Ferrara's career. Despite its place in time, it resonates with a daring urgency as genuine today as when the film was made.
Ben Affleck has so thoroughly reinvented himself as an actor that it's tempting to take for granted his commendable skills as a director even after his notable debut with "Gone Baby Gone" (2007). Affleck straightforwardly plays Boston criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold Doug MacRay, in a film he co-wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Although the story--based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves"--dips into fantasyland on more than one occasion, the direction is precise as clockwork and tempered with plenty of stylistic flourishes. Set in the distinctive Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, a largely Irish-American breeding ground for more bank and armored-car robbers than anywhere else in the country, four well-acquainted thieves commit a bank heist that necessitates taking into hostage the bank's manager Claire Keesey. Up-and-comer Rebecca Hall ("Vicki Christina Barcelona") is alluring as Claire, the unfortunate bank administrator left traumatized after her release by the masked bandits. The drama ratchets up once FBI Special Agent Frawley (well played by John Hamm) launches a soup-to-nuts investigation that puts the cozy burb of Charlestown under a microscope.
Rated R. 123 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)