Archive for the Crime Category

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted in Crime, Film Noir, Thriller with tags on August 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For photo starrating-1star.jpgIn 1917 artist Marcel Duchamp took a readymade porcelain urinal signed it “R.Mutt” and submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. It was a controversial idea whose influence is still discussed today. Now I’m not here to take Duchamp to task for his questionable objet d’art. Nevertheless it would seem to me that beneath this move there had to exist at least a modicum of contempt either for art or the audience or both. As I sat watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, this idea filtered through my mind. Duchamp appropriated a urinal as art much in the same manner that Frank Miller appropriates film noir as a movie.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the disastrous sequel to 2005’s Sin City, a successful neo noir thriller. It beautifully captured the look of a comic book. A Dame to Kill For is stylistically impressive as well. But it’s so utterly bereft of substance, as to offend the basic requirements of storytelling. This perverts the very idea of entertainment.  The narrative’s fetishizing of violence and sex would be downright pernicious if it wasn‘t so ineffectual and awkward.  Miller conveys style and visual aesthetic, but not heart.  Granted, the measure of good taste is subjective. Let’s set aside the extreme level of violence for a moment. There is no story. Just a compilation of shooting, stabbing, slicing and dicing. The misdeeds strung together as a pseudo fable that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s disgusting, reprehensible, vulgar, misogynistic and every other negative word you can use in this day and age to describe something without value.

The characters are shockingly devoid of merit, especially for a drama in these “enlightened“ times. Film noir has always highlighted the femme fatale. However these women have little to do other than display their physical attributes. The narrative unrepentantly parades Jessica Alba, Eva Green Jaime King, and Juno Temple through the production like skewered selections by waiters at a Brazilian BBQ. Women are either prostitutes, strippers, or evil temptresses.  At least one gets to be a good luck charm. Rosario Dawson literally wears what looks like metal saucepan lids over her breasts in one scene. Jamie Chung doesn’t even get to speak. Oh but she displays her knife wielding skills. Can I re-emphasize the violence? The unending obliteration of human beings is gruesome. It’s like watching a chef at Benihana chop up various meats and vegetables for 102 minutes and then calling it a drama. The men aren’t any more carefully drawn either. Their lack of humanity is disheartening. These guys are rotten to the core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is just a body to destroy. He serves no purpose. For the first 10 minutes, I marveled at the visual style. It’s remarkable, but soon after the ugliness beneath the production seeps through and overstays its welcome fast.

08-27-14

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

22 Jump Street

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

22 Jump Street photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOfficers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back in this follow-up to the wildly popular 2012 hit 21 Jump Street. There isn’t much new or fresh added to the original idea of the first. Sequels are usually more of the same, just bigger with an increased budget. The whole production is rather pointless, but that IS the point. Familiarity is a major component of the laughs. The truth is, the only thing a comedy really needs to be, is funny and 22 Jump Street is indeed that.

I don’t even think the narrative matters but here’s a little recap anyway. Instead of high school this time, the two go undercover at a local college. They’re out to investigate a new designer drug called WHYPHY (pronounced Wi-Fi) which the students are using to help them study. Instead of locating their base of operations in the Korean church at 21 Jump Street, this satire has them setting up headquarters on the opposite side at 22 Jump Street. That’s the level of humor on display here. The screenplay keeps everything that made the original hilarious and even a few things that didn’t. The first movie’s villains Dave Franco and Rob Riggle cameo as prisoners whose interaction is profoundly unfunny. It borders on embarrassing. However, there are new additions like Jillian Bell as Mercedes, a college student that sees right through Schmidt’s weak cover.  Her deadpan delivery had me in stitches. Whenever she appears, the scene springs to life. Then there’s the twins that occupy the dorm room across the hall. As portrayed by the Lucas Bros., they provide an off kilter stoned out presence that is reminiscent of Cheech & Chong. In the words of Keith Staskiewicz, they’re “so laid-back, they’re practically lying down.”

22 Jump Street is keenly aware of itself in every way possible. The picture is one big meta joke. Nick Offerman’s grumpy police chief shows up in the beginning to explain we’re going to do EXACTLY the same thing as before. Just in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title, the trailer and everything we’ve seen prior to his appearance. What, are we dead? Three main themes are beaten into the ground ad nauseam. One, that the actors know they are making a sequel, Two, that the principals look too old to be in college, and three that the male camaraderie between work partners Schmidt and Jenko have the superficial characteristics of a romantic relationship. The script persists in exploiting different ways to make gags about these topics. For the most part, they are amusing, but I don’t know how much longer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can continue in this vein. There’s a final bit regarding the ongoing monotony of additional episodes in the future: 23 Jump Street, 24 Jump Street, etc. It’s presented as if doing so would be a joke. I hope so. I am not too keen on a protracted franchise that makes fun of routine by being routine.

06-15-14

The Shawshank Redemption

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on March 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Shawshank Redemption photo starrating-5stars.jpg“They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.” — Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

So laments Red (Morgan Freeman) as he reflects upon his duration at Shawshank State Penitentiary. He is in jail for murder. The “only guilty man” there he informs us as narrator. The year is 1947 and banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, has just been admitted. He has been given two consecutive life sentences. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the tale recounts a 20 year friendship between the two men. It is a story that is undeniably powerful as a moving portrait of camaraderie.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine ode to male bonding than this drama spanning two decades from 1946 to 1967. When Andy arrives, he is subject to beatings, humiliation and all manner of horrors within the prison system. He endures the harassment seemingly unfazed. Slowly he learns to adapt, utilizing his talents as an auditor to garner favor from the powers that be. In time he inspires his fellow inmates, making friends with them, in particular Red. This is the same inmate that had originally bet Andy would be the first inductee to crack upon arriving.

The film is highlighted by several superlative performances. Morgan Freeman rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Red, our narrator. He embodies the character with reverence, heart, and warmth. Freeman has never been better and that is saying quite a lot of the 5 time nominated actor who would ultimately win an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Tim Robbins is every bit his equal in a role that is more difficult to warm up to. If the actor appears a bit of an enigma, that is only because the character is meant to be that way. There is a quiet stoicism to his performance that recalls the great Gary Cooper. Actor Bob Gunton is a villain for the ages as Warden Samuel Norton. A stern man that exploits the prison for his own gain as low-cost labor. He presents himself as a god-fearing man, although his true nature is gradually disclosed. The depth of his evil seems to know no bounds. His reaction regarding testimony from young convict Tommy Williams is particularly memorable.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies whose estimation has only grown with time,. It wasn’t a box office hit in 1994, barely making back it’s production budget when initially released. However it was a critical success and received 7 Academy Award nominations of which it won absolutely NOTHING, losing Best Picture to Forrest Gump.  Nevertheless, it has occupied the #1 slot as greatest film on the IMDb’s user-generated list since 2008. Like a flower that grows through a crack in the concrete, the narrative is filled with one uplifting note after another amongst the most oppressive of surroundings. There are many, but here’s my personal favorite: Andy’s letter writing efforts to secure a better library for the prison are finally rewarded with a collection of old records. In an act of defiance, Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and using the central microphone, blasts an opera record. As Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro echoes through the penitentiary, Roger Deakins cinematography captures the emotion as the inmates look upwards, embracing the audible gift. I can’t exactly describe the feeling, but the scene always reduces me to tears. Shawshank is brimming with moments like this where the human soul triumphs over adversity in the most inspiring way.

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wolf of Wall Street photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe spectacular rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the subject of this dark comedy based on his memoir of the same name. In 1991 Forbes magazine dubbed him the “Wolf of Wall Street”. The article was meant to incriminate the tycoon, but ironically only ended up adding to his allure. He didn’t even work on Wall Street—he operated out of Long Island. Stratton Oakmont was a New York “over-the-counter” brokerage house founded after the stock crash of 1987 by him and his business partner Danny Porush. Jonah Hill is Donnie Azoff modeled after the very real Danny Porush. The financial institution became the largest OTC firm in the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. Employing more than 1,000 young impressionable money-hungry types at its peak, the firm operated as a boiler room. Their racket? Encouraging potential investors to buy mostly penny stocks, pumping up the price with exaggerated claims and then selling quickly leaving investors holding worthless stocks.

Director Martin Scorsese considers the true story, then extracts every ounce of hype and offers it to the masses as a fascinating piece of flamboyant entertainment. It’s a fictionalization of Jordan Belfort’s life and Leonardo DiCaprio embodies that man. This marks the 5th collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and his current muse. The two are a partnership made in cinematic heaven as this elicits DiCaprio’s finest performance in a Scorsese film, and possibly ever. He is simply amazing in the role. All intense wild-eyed coked up intensity, he perfectly conveys the magnetic intensity of the man that became a multi-millionaire at age 26. He displays a manic energy dialed up to eleven. Jordan’s take no prisoners approach to getting investors is at once abhorrent and captivating as he commands a roomful of wannabe Gordon Geckos who hang on his every word. We the audience cannot look away either, even when he is spouting the sort of business tactics that would make him a convicted felon a decade later. He doesn’t ask for your attention. He demands it, then smacks you in the face for not listening sooner.

The Wolf of Wall Street is never boring, but it is overlong. The picture was originally scheduled for release on November 15th. That date was pushed back six weeks to Dec 25th when the production was still unfinished. The pressure to get it out before the year was over to qualify for the Academy Awards was building. The finished 3 hours show signs that it didn’t spend enough time in the editing room. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. It’s not so much that all the lasciviousness occupies a high percentage of the action, because it doesn‘t. But in showing Jordan’s seduction into a drug-fueled and sexual decadence, brief examples pop up continuously throughout. We get it. Jordan snorted a lot of cocaine and <bleeped> a lot of whores. There’s grace in the art of restraint especially in a saga about excess.

The Wolf of Wall Street presents the sensationalism, but what keeps it interesting is the levity. There’s a crazy sense of humor as things are spiraling out of control. The financial institution becomes sort of a bacchanalian orgy where office practices are decidedly less than professional. The movie opens with a large group of brokers playing a dwarf tossing game where they throw little people onto a board with a dollar sign for a bulls-eye. Slimy Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) and stylish British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) are memorable side roles. Jordan interacts with each of these characters separately. The scenes feature alternating voice-over inner thoughts that add a humorous layer to the outer dialogue. But the most memorable scene in the film, and perhaps of the year, is when Jordan overdoses on expired Quaaludes and enters what he labels the cerebral palsy stage. What follows is terrifyingly hilarious or hilariously terrifying, depending on your point of view.

The narrative gently chastises Jordan for immorality and the illegality of his depraved lifestyle, while subconsciously seducing the viewer with temptations. Hookers are his weakness. Cocaine and Quaaludes are his vices, but his ultimate drug of choice is money. It’s an indictment of greed. He and his buddies ultimately get their comeuppance. Although it’s served with a frustrating helping of mercy. Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) adapts Jordan Belfort’s memoir that supposedly lectures us on the wages of sin, then proceeds to show a guy having the time of his life. The cautionary tale gets a bit lost in the 3 hour runtime but it’s a fun ride while it lasts.

American Hustle

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on December 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

American Hustle photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIrving Rosenfeld is a small time con-artist. He meets bewitching Sydney Prosser and the two join forces embezzling money from unsuspecting investors. Their talents are soon tapped by a cocky FBI agent named Richie DiMaso who‘s looking to prosecute political corruption in Washington. Carmine Polito is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and one of Richie’s potential targets. In their interactions, Richie develops an attraction to the seductive Sydney. He tells her things in an attempt to turn her loyalties away from Irving. A dynamic love triangle evolves. Sydney keeps the two men (and the audience) in the dark as to who she is truly loyal to. Oh and let’s not forget that Irving is married to temperamental Rosalyn who complicates matters considerably.

The exuberant flamboyant swagger of the late 70s is an important component of American Hustle. It’s lovingly recreated with the care and attention of an aesthete. The soundtrack percolates with the joy of a disco dancing, pop song loving, classic rock connoisseur. Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, Wings, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer are all represented, The music underscores the action and the tone is humorously tongue in cheek. Witness Christian Bale, who gained 43 pounds for the part, fastidiously fixing his “elaborate” comb over in the opening scene.

Fashion is a key component in the personification of the era. Jeremy Renner rocks a pompadour that would make Elvis jealous, Bradley Cooper sports a tight perm. He even wears curlers at one point. The guys don plaid suits, velour blazers, aviator sunglasses, exaggerated peak lapels and huge floppy bow ties. Not to be outdone by the men, the women raise swanky 70s fashion to new heights with body hugging wrap dresses. Amy Adams models a sequin gown with a plunging down-to-there neckline, channeling ringlets a la Bernadette Peters. Jennifer Lawrence has the sophisticated updo of a Charlie’s Angel with a slinky white dress that would look right at home on the dance floor at Studio 54. The era is conceived as it was and then multiplied by 100.

Abscam began in 1978 and was a major procedure run by the Long Island office of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to target corrupt public officials.  What makes a potentially dry subject so delightfully fun is the intricate way the plot unfolds. The movie boasts the best ensemble cast of the year. Director David O. Russell once again commands his impressive troupe of regulars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence. Was frequent supporter Mark Wahlberg not available? Every performance is award worthy. They give life to a story about a complicated sting. But just who exactly is going to get stung? You’ll be guessing until the end when the true nature of the plan is revealed.

David O. Russell’s tour de force on the FBI operation begins rather modestly with the words: “Some of this actually happened.” That playful intro informs the viewer that while this is a drama, it’s also a bit of a comedy as well. American Hustle is the work of a dazzling showman that has logged years of experience under his belt. Russell manipulates fact vs. fiction with the singular vision of a confident filmmaker. We’re treated to a spectacular production that fabricates the pop culture excess of the late 70s in its unfettered glory. With its remarkable style and storytelling, American Hustle feels like the beautiful lovechild sired by Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Yes, comparisons to one of filmdom’s most accomplished auteurs is a compliment of the highest order. Call it Martin Scorsese’s greatest movie…that he didn’t actually direct.

The Bling Ring

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Bling Ring photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRebecca: Did you speak to any of the victims?
L.A. Detective: I’ve spoken to all of them.
Rebecca: Really?! What did Lindsay say?

A gang of 5 wealthy L.A. teenagers begin breaking into the homes of celebrities. They’re driven by a dual obsession with fame and desire for new clothes. The group of four girls and one boy targets celebutantes and starlets. The reason being they own clothes the girls want to wear. Sounds like a satire dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter, an indictment of entitled LA teens not satisfied with the level of their affluence. But truth is stranger than fiction. The reality is, it did happen during the latter half of 2008 and beginning of 2009 when Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge and the homes of various other personalities were burglarized in the Hollywood Hills.

As we watch the crimes committed, the details are a real eye-opener. We see how the band reads gossip magazines to determine when their victims would be out of town, then use the internet to discover their addresses. Once there, they climb over fences without effort and virtually walk in undeterred. At one point they access a house through a doggy door, at another they find the keys lying under the doormat. Director Sofia Coppola was intrigued after reading an article in the March 2010 Vanity Fair titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” The movie features newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard as the main duo and includes genuine stars Emma Watson as Nicki, one of the vapid teens, and Leslie Mann as her airhead mother, Laurie. The cast is uniformly excellent in conveying their shallow yet passionate rapacity for material possessions.

The action is filmed almost as if the audience is the 6th member of their little clique. There are some delicious quotes sprinkled throughout: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” mother Laurie shrieks to her daughters one morning; or the way lead burglar Rebecca chirps, “Let’s go shopping!” before she robs someone’s house. The tone of The Bling Ring is surprisingly egalitarian. It presents without moralizing. As such, the script isn’t particularly deep, but it‘s compelling viewing nevertheless. The superficial approach actually befits its subject. There is a noticeable unwillingness to delve into their celebrity based fame-whore mentality. That’s because there is no depth to the machinations of these youths. They’re an American tragedy. They believe in absolutely nothing but their own satisfaction. Therefore, the peripheral examination gently rebukes these kids by giving their lives a trivial treatment. Despite the heinousness of their crimes, I suspect they relish the fact that a film was made about their escapades. Perhaps that’s the saddest tragedy of all.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 619 other followers