15 posts categorized "Crime Drama"

July 24, 2018

AMERICAN ANIMALS

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April 23, 2018

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — CANNES 2017

You_were_never_really_hereIf only I had never really seen this atrocity of a movie I’d feel much better. That does it; I’m giving up on Lynne Ramsay for good. I loathed Ramsay’s last film “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011). Still, I was willing to give her latest effort a chance. Big mistake. I thought it possible that Ramsay had grown as a filmmaker. The complete opposite appears to be the case.

Ramsey steals a dozen little tropes from movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Taxi Driver” to piece together a baloney narrative that hangs together like wet seaweed on the beach. Some people might call it experimental, and I can see why. You certainly feel like a guinea pig being experimented on while watching this awful movie. Ramsey based her self-penned screenplay on Jonathan Ames’s novel, but you’d never guess that this movie had any formal underpinnings.

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hit man/cop killer who rescues underage girls from sex traffickers. A New York politician hires Joe to rescue his pubescent daughter. So topical, you think. Wrong. Ramsay treats the issue with such cavalier sloppiness that she trivializes sex trafficking into something so fake that it's no wonder so many people don't believe such a thing even exists. Judging from this film, it doesn't.

If revenge fantasy is your thing, Michael Winners 1974 “Death Wish” did it meaner and with real heart from the great Charles Bronson. Joaquin Phoenix just looks like he needs a good long nap. Joe suffers from delusions, so not everything we see is for real. Joe is a white dude sociopath whose chosen weapon is a hammer. If I never see Joaquin Phoenix with his shirt off, it will be too soon. 

Joaquin

If this set-up sounds like something you want or need to see for some imagined reason, just know that there is an underwater scene that is a very close copy of a similar scene in “The Shape of Water.” You could always stream “You Were Never Really Here” and turn it into a drinking game where you have to drink a shot every time you see a reference to another movie. The influences here are much more accessible (read lazy) than the arcane ones you find in a Tarantino movie. Then again Quentin Tarantino is a real filmmaker; Lynne Ramsey isn’t.

Rated R. 89 mins. (D-) Zero stars — out of five / no halves

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

December 04, 2013

AMERICAN HUSTLE

American HustleA Sloppy Con
Good Delivery — Bad Form

If awards were handed out for the sloppiest movies, “American Hustle” would be a dead ringer for such a booby prize. This damn thing is all over the place. It can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy, a period crime drama or a music video. Dueling voiceover narration — between Christian Bale and Amy Adams — finally ceases after an eternity, and the film segues into something resembling a movie only to flit away a in series of music sequence montages that make you pine for the glory days of MTV.

The good news is that the film’s acting ensemble is as committed as they can be. When those actors happen to include Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper, it’s sufficient cause to head out to the nearest cinema with the knowledge that you’re there for the performances but not the format. The players are great but the rules of the game don’t apply.
Conspicuously cribbing from Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” director/co-screenwriter David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) creates a hodgepodge caper movie (an exaggeratedly fictionalized account of a real-life ‘70s era sting operation involving the FBI) that falls apart so many times that there’s nothing left by the time the third act closes.

Anyone familiar with the term “Abscam” remembers the decades-old FBI political-corruption probe that used the obvious moniker as a phony business front to entrap nearly 20 political figures — including a U.S. senator, House Representatives, New Jersey state officials, Philadelphia City Council members, and a handful of attorneys.

Drycleaning and art-forgery businessman Irving Rosenfeld (played by a paunchy Bale) has one of the worst comb-overs you’ve ever seen. It takes him many minutes in front of a mirror to stick a patch of black toupee on his pate before carefully spraying down the hair he pulls across the top of his head at an unnatural angle. The unsightly disguise gives Irving the confidence he needs to go out in the world and rip off investors dumb enough to believe that the $5,000 they give him will be returned tenfold. There’s one born every minute.

Irving wastes no time charming the pants off Edith [not-her-real-name] (Adams), a redhead looker with a British accent who is just as devious as Irving. It takes awhile before Edith discovers that Irving is married to a tacky woman named Rosalyn (Lawrence), but by then the romantically-attracted Edith has already signed on to participate in Irving’s con games.

Irving calls his arms-length wife Rosalyn a “Picasso of passive aggression” for good reason. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen — which is saying something considering the caliber of actors she shares it with. A couple of scenes in particular provide the movie with two of its high points — one involving a microwave oven, and another in which Rosalyn’s crocodile tears leave Irving, and the audience, speechless.

Irving’s and Lady Edith’s con games aren’t as polished as they imagine. An eventful run-in with undercover FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Cooper) leaves the felonious couple with an option of spending many years in the pokey, or participating in four sting operations that will wipe their record clean. Unfortunately for Irving and Edith, DiMasso doesn’t really know how to count to four.

For all of its awkward narrative tics, “American Hustle” is more than a little entertaining, but it comes no where near living up to the hype surrounding it. “Goodfellas” — “American Hustle” ain't.

Rated R. 129 mins. (B-) Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

 



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December 03, 2013

OUT OF THE FURNACE

FIRE AND ICE
SCOTT COOPER DELIVERS ON PROMISE

Out of the FurnaceScott Cooper’s American character study-thriller bursts at the seams. After his directorial debut with “Crazy Heart,” Cooper returns from his Oscar win with a sophomore movie that fulfills his promise as a filmmaker of vision and grit. While it doesn’t carry “Crazy Heart’s” satisfying range of emotional texture and ironic wit, it’s a solid effort that bodes well for Cooper’s growth as a filmmaker.

The industrial look of “Out of the Furnace” is exquisitely grungy. Set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the story resonates with “The Deer Hunter” without needing to visit upon the ravages of America’s sundry wars overseas; Americans are already plenty ravaged enough at home. That’s the message of the movie. Cooper doesn’t sugarcoat anything.

Out-of-the-furnace

The nation’s downturned economy is a pervasive quicksand that drains color and life out of everything, especially in the town of Braddock, where Christian Bale’s Russell Baze works at its soon-to-be-closed Carrie Furnace Complex.

Furnace

Russell’s brother Rodney is an Iraq war vet who has done too many tours of duty. Some people have read too many books, or seen too many movies. Rodney has seen too much mindless killing, and been a part of it too. He’s damaged goods. If anyone thought Affleck fell off the planet after “The Killer Inside Me,” this exceptional actor is back with a vengeance. Affleck’s immersion in the role of a universal soldier with a permanent chip on his shoulder is thoroughly compelling. Rodney finds distraction in over-leveraging his social condition — namely that of an unemployable (broke) war vet — with a taste for stupid gambling. The only money Rodney makes comes from fighting in an illegal fight club run by a local bar owner played by Willem Dafoe. Still, Rodney is a military badass who hasn’t yet learned how to take a fall.

You would be hard pressed to find three finer performances than those delivered by Affleck, Bale, or Woody Harrelson (playing an inbred Appalachian brute). “Out of the Furnace” is a straightforward revenge thriller with plenty of atmosphere, character development, and plot twists to make the experience matter. It’s a movie that raises questions without trying too hard. What comes out of the furnace, and where does it go next?

Out-of-the-furnace

Rated R. 106 mins. (B) (Three stars - out of five/no halves)

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September 17, 2013

PRISONERS

Shocks, and Surprises and Scares
High-Tension Mystery is a Doozy

PrisonersWhile it lacks the oomph of a concrete true-crime drama like “Zodiac,” Denis Villeneuve’s taut innovative suspense-thriller keeps you guessing. Lauded for his deserving 2011 Oscar-nominated drama “Incendies,” Villeneuve keeps the narrative puzzle moving with a clinical precision, supported by Roger Deakins’s understated cinematography. The unnerving suspense that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) develops, shifts between characters on multiple sides of a kidnapping mystery regarding two little girls. Vigilante justice plays a key role in the film’s dark underbelly of interconnected crime.

Every parent’s worst nightmare comes to fruition on a cloudy Thanksgiving Day in suburban Pennsylvania where one God-fearing family visits another within walking distance of their traditional middle-class home. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their kids, 15-year-old Ralph and eight-year-old Anna, to cook dinner at the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). Anna plays with the Birch’s similarly aged daughter Joy. As the afternoon wears on, the parents realize that the girls are missing. The unseen driver of an RV that was parked in front of a nearby vacant house presents the most obvious suspect. Evidence of America’s failing economy is all around.

Keller discloses his survivalist mentality in an opening sequence where he coaches his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) about “praying for the best but being prepared for the worst,” after Ralph shoots and kills his first deer. The patriarch’s cynicism resonates right up to the film’s closing shot. He’s not wrong, though ethically he’s on thin ice. Though not an obvious stretch for Hugh Jackman — a do-it-all-actor whose brawny presence more than fills the screen — his performance here as a man who loses all sense of propriety in order to locate his missing daughter, arrives with an authority of passion that galvanizes the film’s unsettling themes — the uselessness of torture being one.

Jake Gyllenhaal leads the story’s police-procedural element as Detective Loki, a personally committed detective whose constant state of sleep-deprivation causes him to forcefully blink his eyes. The scenes where Gyllenhaal and Jackman play off one another burn with a white-hot fury. If the audience is in tune with what two of the finest actors in cinema are doing, they realize that this is as good as it gets.

Keller rightfully holds Loki accountable for a complicated investigation further hampered by Loki’s less than competent police chief. Loki works alone, but not by choice.

The determined detective captures the RV’s sketchy driver Alex (creepily played by Paul Dano), a mentally indigent man-child with the IQ of a 10-year-old. Without enough evidence to detain Alex more than a couple of days, the police chief releases the case’s primary suspect to the care of his white-trash aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). A police parking lot scuffle between Keller and Alex provides the distressed father with all the proof he needs to be convinced to Alex’s guilt. Taking matters into his own hands, Keller becomes a kidnapper in his own right.

“Prisoners” demonstrates an uncomfortable connection between criminals and their victims, whose lives take on dark aspects of their suf fering. There’s nothing morally comfortable. Good and evil don’t exist, only a cold gray indifference that might land heads-up with a nudge from someone like Loki, who cares too much for his own good. Caring is a good thing, so long as you keep a safe distance.

Rated R. 146 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)



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April 28, 2013

THE ICEMAN

IcemanThe Big Killer
Michael Shannon Gets Cold

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 interviews — 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 Shannon’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.

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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.

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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)

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January 28, 2013

STAND UP GUYS

Stand Up GuysLiving Large: 
Arkin, Pacino, and Walken Take a Parting Shot at Past Glory

“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)

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