Archive for the Crime Category

Bad Education

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_educationSTARS4You wouldn’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is.  Based on the 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker with the aforementioned title, Bad Education is a true-life tale about one Frank Tassone.  This release may have debuted April 25 on HBO but it would’ve made perfect sense to release it during awards season in a theater.  This is indeed one of the best films of the year.  Yeah, I know.  There’s hasn’t been much competition this year, but hear me out.

How could the embezzlement of $11.2 million from a public school — the largest in U.S. History — even happen?  It is the unbelievable foundation for a fascinating film.  Credit a charismatic and talented cast for bringing this story to fruition.  Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a popular and successful superintendent of the Roslyn District in the wealthy enclave of Nassau County, New York.  Roslyn High School became one of the top ten best public institutions in national rankings.  That kind of success creates power.  Jackman is completely believable as someone who uses his own eloquence and charm to dupe gullible staff members and parents.  That includes Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a much too trusting school board president.  The fact that Frank held a doctorate from Columbia University probably didn’t hurt either.

Frank Tassone didn’t act alone.  The scandal was first discovered in 2002 when Roslyn officials initially assumed that it was Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) who had “only” embezzled $250,000.  Her actual sum later revealed to be $4.3 million.  Pamela was the assistant superintendent and business administrator.  She got her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and son (Jimmy Tatro) involved as well.  She was Frank’s close confidant and partner-in-crime.  As reported in the original article: “If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt.”  Nevertheless, the woman is fairly obstinate and headstrong.   Not likable but at least fiercely loyal to Frank.  As embodied by Allison Janney, the chronicle paints a picture of two like-minded individuals united in their quest for more money.  Unfortunately for Pam, Frank immediately threw her under the bus, forcing her to resign and subsequently causing her to lose her license.

Deception was a way of life for this reprehensible man and it ran deep into every facet of his being — both personally and professionally.  Frank appears to be a virtuous paragon of the community.  He eats lunch with the students and attends a book club with the parents.  He still even keeps a photo on his desk of his late wife who passed on in 1973.  It’s unclear whether she ever even existed.  However, he was definitely in a longtime relationship with domestic partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella).  They had been living together for many years in a tawny Park Avenue apartment.  Frank was also involved in an affair with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a lover in Las Vegas.  Tom was unaware Frank kept a picture of his wife on his desk or his adultery.

The star of the account is the wrongdoer, not the champion that brought him to justice.  However, this could be looked upon as one of those great films about journalism like All the President’s Men.  The impressive difference is that the reporter was a bright, determined correspondent at the high school’s newspaper — Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan).  She uncovered school administrators had been embezzling taxpayer money.  It’s a surprising twist that the corruption was first uncovered by one of Frank’s pupils.  That gives this account an extra-added dimension that makes it even more appealing.  Rachel first reported the story in the school’s humble journal scooping The New York Times and every other periodical of note.  She is rightfully portrayed as a hero.  Her zealous pursuit of the truth bested all of her supposedly more established peers.

Sometimes style is just as important as content.  The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with such artistic elan.  The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened.  Yet there are amusing details.  The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene.  He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin.  This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside.  Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved.  The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating.  Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

05-09-20

True History of the Kelly Gang

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on May 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

true_history_of_the_kelly_gang_ver3STARS2True History of the Kelly Gang begins with some text that reads: “Nothing you’re about to see is true.”  Yeah, so the title is made irrelevant within the first minute.  This western is based upon Peter Carey’s critically acclaimed 2000 novel about the very real Ned Kelly and his band of followers.  The admittedly honest warning ostensibly gives the author carte blanche to fabricate whatever he chooses.  I’m no expert on the biography of this man, but I was aware that certain facts were being distorted and other events completely invented.  I try not to fault movies for this.  I take even so-called “factual” accounts with a grain of salt, so I was ready to evaluate the drama’s ability to simply tell a compelling story. Unfortunately, even this imaginary memoir can only entertain in fits and starts.

I figure I should start with one undisputed fact about the man. “Ned Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was an Australian bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and convicted police murderer.” — Wikipedia.  Actor George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, 1917) conveys the role with impressive intensity.  However, he doesn’t appear until later.  It’s in the beginning when we are introduced to Ned as a child where this saga truly captivates.  Special acknowledgment to casting directors Nikki Barrett and Des Hamilton for finding newcomer Orlando Schwerdt.  The talented actor gives the outlaw life as a youngster.  Schwerdt suggests his older counterpart in both appearance and temperament.  It’s here where we begin to understand Ned’s environment.  His ex-con father Red Kelly (Gentle Ben Corbett ) dies in prison after being jailed for poaching.  Mother Ellen (Essie Davis) succumbs to granting sexual favors to provide for her family.  The best scenes feature little Ned talking with a portly and grizzled Harry Power (Russell Crowe) a bushranger who becomes sort of a father figure to the boy.

Ned Kelly is one of those mythical outlaws like Jesse James or Billy the Kid — both lionized and vilified at various points.  Australia in the 19th century was a rough country populated by brutal individuals.  The screenplay upholds the idea that violence was ubiquitous, but it doesn’t give us anyone to root for.  George MacKay embodies the central personality as a product of his surroundings.  He exudes raw physicality, but he’s a man without a strong moral compass.  I’ll give the account some credit in that it doesn’t try to glorify a violent, unhinged criminal as some mythic hero.  However, this is entertainment and so it would be nice to have someone to champion.  Even the seemingly charming but corrupt Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) is a detestable heel of a man.

Given the bleak atmosphere, I suspect adapting Peter Carey’s book would test any filmmaker.  The novel inserts random bits of fantasy that the script dutifully recreates.  Most memorably is the Sons of Sieve, a relentless army descended from Irish rebels who wear dresses to frighten their oppressors.  Wearing evening gowns into battle is to make their opponents think they are mad, but it introduces a lot of confusion (and questions) for the audience as well.  Such developments are symptomatic of the entire production.  Director Justin Kurzel’s movies (The Snowtown Murders, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) have been polarizing and this one is no different.  The quest to make a great Ned Kelly film has been ongoing ever since the release of the 1906 silent The Story of the Kelly Gang.  There have been so many others including portrayals in 1970 and 2003 by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger respectively.  This is the 10th version.  Sadly the search continues.

Les Misérables

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on April 21, 2020 by Mark Hobin

les_miserablesSTARS3.5I know what you’re thinking.  Another adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel?!  No this is a modern drama based on an incident of police brutality and the subsequent riot that followed.  There is a connection to the 19th-century classic, however.  It’s set in Montfermeil — an eastern suburb of Paris — where some of Victor Hugo‘s 1862 tome takes place.  Director Ladj Ly grew up there and still calls it home.  A neighborhood comprised of poor residents — Africans, Muslims, and Romani people — living in cramped housing projects within a lively community.  This fusion of people coexist within a constant state of unease.

If your idea of Paris is strolling along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, then this should be an eye-opener.  This is not the Paris shown in travel videos — the ads that proudly promote the Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Louvre and Notre-Dame Cathedral.  It’s a rougher section of Paris where young lawbreakers rule the streets, a high-crime area rarely depicted.

Our story is centered around a trio of cops.  A plainclothes officer named Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is recently assigned to a three-man crime unit that patrols the city.  He’s the new guy, trying to play by the rules and the most sympathetic.  Then there’s hothead Chris (Alexis Manenti).  He often oversteps his bounds and takes pleasure in exerting control over people.  For the cynical among us, he’s your typical policeman.  Then there’s Gwada (Djebril Zonga).  He’s lived in this area all his life and shares the experience of the residents he serves.  Despite his background, he’s loyal to the badge which makes him complicit in Chris’s suspect behavior.

Les Miserables‘ point of view is although cops attempt to maintain order, their conduct might actually make things worse.  Curiously the drama is told from their perspective.  Chris is not to be trusted but Ruiz is oddly compassionate.  That makes his portrayal somewhat unique.  Interestingly Gwada is the most intriguing character and yet he’s also the most undeveloped.  I had so many questions.  Who is this man?  How does he feel about his partner Chris?  Why does he allow Chris to behave in this manner?  Sadly, the screenplay doesn’t answer those concerns.  Nonetheless, director Ladj Ly still has an artistic eye.  The presentation of humanity is impressively photographed.  I was drawn into the cinéma vérité style — its gritty realism feels authentic. Regrettably, the chronicle ends on a rather unsatisfying note.  Ambiguity is a creative choice but it can also feel like the filmmaker hasn’t committed to a point.  I would’ve preferred a definitive statement.  Whether positive or negative the result would’ve made the conclusion more powerful.  As it stands, the denouement is anemic.  The account is worth watching.  It’s satisfying enough, but it could’ve been great.

04-11-20

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Posted in Crime, Documentary, Drama with tags on April 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

tiger_kingSTARS3.5America loves Tiger King.  Most of us are confined to our homes.  265 million citizens — about 80% of the US population— are currently under stay-at-home orders.  Needless to say, movie theaters across the U.S. are closed.  As a result, state mandates have no doubt contributed to the popularity of certain TV shows. The U.S. population has made Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness a bona fide hit.  It has captured the nation’s attention.  Not a traditional film per se, but a true-crime documentary TV series.  Actually “true-crimes” would be a more accurate description because there is an inestimable myriad of infractions here on display.  This was actually released on Netflix back on March 20  (2 weeks ago) but it took a little time for it to enter my radar.  I don’t usually review television shows on this site but with cinemas shuttered, I figured might as well review what the people are watching.

Tiger King has captured the zeitgeist of 2020 America.  This is a tale complete with a cast of bizarre personalities and sinister plot twists that even the most creative mind couldn’t concoct in their wildest fantasies.  Honestly, if this was a work of fiction, I would fault it for too many plot twists.  The title technically refers to one man: Joe Exotic.  He’s a rather — shall we say — unsavory soul.  Spending time with him is a dispiriting experience.  After the first episode, I didn’t want to continue.  Yet I persisted because I had to understand how this piece of pop culture had become such a phenomenon.  Further chapters in this saga changed my perception.  The chronicle isn’t just about him.  The movie essentially details a circle of individuals associated with a small but deeply interconnected society of big cat parks.  Along the way, there’s a panoply of subjects we will touch upon: murder for hire, polygamy, political elections, drugs, and a “missing” husband.  It loses focus occasionally.  Part 5 contains Joe’s run for both President and state Governor.

The series is divided into 7 segments each roughly about 45 minutes long.  The first episode “Not Your Average Joe” introduced the character of Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage (nee: Schreibvogel) who runs the Greater Wynnewood (G.W.) Zoo in Oklahoma.  In his own words, he’s “a gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.”  He’s often seen wearing a sequined top.  Animal rights activists don’t like him very much.  He has a well-defined conflict with a woman named Carole Baskin who is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal “sanctuary” near Tampa, Florida.  Every good story needs a villain and she is his chief rival.  Their antagonism toward each other is rooted in distrust — that the intentions of the other person are less than admirable.  Before it’s all over, someone will be sentenced to jail for 22 years because of a murder-for-hire scheme.

This is a portrait of an eccentric group of Americans who are obsessed with the power that comes from owning large felines.  The tale is set against the practice of private zoo keeping and ownership of large wild cats.  It’s like a religion and this documentary sheds a light on their practices.  Are these businesses exploitative zoos or conservationists or sanctuaries?  Good question.  I’m convinced each business is inherently the same.  It’s just a matter of marketing more than anything else.  I suspect you’ll come away with the same conclusion after having watched all of this.  Because this presentation is spread out over 7 installments, you will get a pretty deep and detailed snapshot of many different people and the parks to which they’re attached.

Everything kind of revolves around the rivalry between Joe Exotic vs. Carole Baskin.  Their relationship is merely a springboard into other larger-than-life characters involved in a host of other true-crime tales.  At times, it’s a bit hard to keep track of all of the individuals.  Some of the most important include Carole Baskin’s former husband — Don Lewis — who simply vanished without a trace.   There’s Carole Basin’s third and present husband Howard.  He is deeply devoted to her and to running Big Cat Rescue.  There’s also fellow private zookeeper Doc Antle who is the founder of “The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species” (T.I.G.E.R.S.).  He runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina which is staffed by his girlfriends…wives?  There also Mario Tabraue, a former drug kingpin who now runs the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in Miami.  He was reportedly the inspiration for “Scarface” Tony Montana.  Then there’s the current GW Zoo owner — Jeff Lowe — who is introduced as a wealthy investor.  Initially, he’s seen as a beacon of hope willing to bail Joe out of financial trouble.  Things don’t go so well for Joe.  Jeff currently owns the zoo as of this writing.  Nevertheless, there are a few people that appeared to have Joe’s best interests at heart.  The GW Zoo General Manager — John Reinke — who lost both legs in a bungee jumping accident.  He remained loyal to Joe through the good times and the bad.

Joe Exotic’s personal life is a soap opera in itself.  He has had four husbands, some simultaneously.  John Finlay was Exotic’s second.  Then there’s Travis Maldonado who he met in 2013 when the young man was only 19 years old.  Maldonado and John Finlay married Joe in a three-way ceremony.  Apparently, Travis was straight but was so addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana that he entered into a relationship that provided convenient access to drugs.  You can’t make this stuff up.  There’s so much more.  I couldn’t possibly detail all of the ins and outs of this drama but let’s just say that Travis Maldonado is a truly tragic figure.  Two months after their marriage ended, Joe married another young man named Dillon Passage.

So who is the moral center of this saga?  That is a question you will ask yourself over and over again throughout this chronicle.  In the first episode, it appears to be Carole Baskin.  However, the questionable disappearance of her husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis, in 1997, will definitely give you pause.  Joe Exotic stoked the rumors surrounding Don’s disappearance with a music video to a song entitled “Here Kitty Kitty.”  In it, a spot-on lookalike of Baskin is ostensibility feeding pieces of her husband to a tiger.  Was she guilty?  She was never charged but I’ve seen the entire series and I still don’t know who to root for.  I’ll tell you right now, my ultimate take is there is no saint in this whole sordid mess.   That is part of what makes the machinations icky and yet so oddly fascinating.

Tiger King delineates a dramatis personae that would rival the cast of a Shakespearean novel.  I have barely touched the surface in this review.  Over five years, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin assembled these presentations.  THAT is what elevates this profile into something approaching artistic merit.  It’s the sheer depth and variety of the characters involved.  I dare say, this makes the regrettable guests you used to see on The Jerry Springer Show seem tame by comparison.  Yet you can’t help but fixate on the array of humanity presented.  It’s an honest and captivating depiction of our modern times.  I try not to rely on cliches….but yes, this is your classic train wreck.

 

03-27-20

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

birds_of_prey_ver6

 

STARS1
“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

The Gentlemen

Posted in Action, Crime with tags on January 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gentlemen_ver8STARS3George Cukor’s infinitely superior classic The Women (1939) is probably the last film any sane person would use as a comparison to this one.  However, Guy Ritchie’s latest offering does have a similar title.  Furthermore, the game of oneupmanship and catty comments that made those ladies such a force to be reckoned with is the underlying basis of what makes this story tick.  Words, not guns, are the most powerful weapon of all.

If only the screenplay (also by Guy Ritchie) completely understood this.  The Gentlemen is a violent comedy with shootings, assaults and plenty of blood.  Yet the movie frequently relies on conversation-heavy scenes.  That is what captivated me.  Ritchie got his start making high octane British crime thrillers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  Then he went on to direct Hollywood box office blockbusters like Sherlock Holmes and AladdinThe Gentlemen is a return to the kinds of pictures he used to make.  Longtime fans should be quite pleased.  All others will be less entertained.

The acting ensemble assembled here is a charismatic lot and they’re clearly having fun.  Matthew McConaughey stars as a cool cannabis baron named Mickey Pearson.  Mickey has his values.  Hard drugs are bad but pot is perfectly harmless.  His wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) and right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) are there to assist him in his sordid dealings.  He’s opposed by a sleazy investigative reporter — a character played by Hugh Grant sporting a goatee and leather jacket.  Also included are American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding).  Then there’s Colin Farrell as Coach who’s just kind of shoehorned into the mix.  The man isn’t as closely affiliated with the criminal underworld as the others but he’s still a welcome presence.  Actually, the entire cast is very good.

What always highlighted Ritchie’s gangster films was a breezy wit that played fast and loose with a linear narrative and frankly didn’t give a damn of whether you grasped what they were saying or even doing.  The dialogue is flamboyantly funny when it isn’t relying on race-related jokes or the mere sound of dirty words.  Another problem is that there are also too many plot twists.  One or two is clever but twelve is a headache to follow.  I would never spoil specific developments in a review anyway but I couldn’t — even with a gun to my head.  Get it?  The Gentlemen isn’t as good as Richie’s best.  Heck, it’s barely recommendable.  However, style and panache make this chronicle captivating.   It kind of wins you over through the sheer power of its aesthetic.

01-26-20

Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

The Irishman

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on December 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

irishmanSTARS4The Irishman has been a labor of love 10 years in the making for Marin Scorsese.  What’s not to like?  You’ve got an esteemed filmmaker working within his wheelhouse of gangster movies.  This is a genre the filmmaker does very well.  Despite the superlatives you may have heard, it’s not his best work, but it is still very compelling.

The Irishman highlights a trio of great performances.  There’s the irresistible opportunity to watch Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reunite with director Martin Scorsese.  They last worked together in Casino.  Now let’s add Al Pacino to the cast, an actor who has surprisingly never worked with Scorsese.   The chronicle is a sprawling epic about Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was an American labor union official.  The story is told from his insider’s point of view as we follow his trajectory from World War II veteran to truck driver to hitman for the Philly mob and eventual union leader.  His personality is focused and driven in brutal behavior but oddly detached.  He has very little qualms about his murderous actions.

Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.  Joe Pesci is back in his first major screen role in almost a decade.  Here he gives a very un-Pesci like performance.  He made a name for himself playing flamboyant individuals in Goodfellas, Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Lethal Weapons 2,3, & 4.  Here he subverts expectations with his understated display.  He’s reserved but powerful.  There’s a subtle brilliance to the performance.  Bufalino subsequently introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the forceful President of the Teamsters Union.  For me, this is where the production really takes off.  Once Al Pacino shows up portraying the labor union leader, the film gets its focus.  He is unquestionably the MVP of this production.  The chronicle becomes more engaging, particularly in the last hour where it builds to its conclusion.

The Irishman presents itself as a narrative account of history.  The movie is a fascinating tale that begins with Frank Sheeran as an old man reflecting on the details of his life.  Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts the drama based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by investigator Charles Brandt.  The book was based on his interviews with Frank Sheeran.  Given its $150 million budget, this is Martin Scorsese’s most expensive production.  For that you can thank costly CGI that de-ages these septuagenarians over the course of their lives.  Much has been written about this decision.  I noticed it at first, then accepted the technique after a while.  It was never an issue after that.  I don’t see it as any different than using prosthetics and makeup to artificially age an actor.  It’s just that we now have the technology to this in reverse.  Having these three actors playing the same role over the course of a lifetime gives their characters an added weight and poignancy.  That emotional gravitas wouldn’t have been present if distinct actors had been cast at various stages.  It adds to the extensive, all-encompassing nature of the saga.

The narrative recounts the events over 50 years.  Whether Sheeran’s confessions are the gospel truth is certainly up for debate, but they do make a gripping — albeit taxing — tale.  Given its three and a half hours, the aggressive runtime puts this squarely in the company of legendary works like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Those films justified their extreme length in a way that this film does not.  I blame lots of little extended comedic vignettes that pop up occasionally.  While amusing, the inclusion of so many doesn’t vindicate the extended runtime.  However I still highly recommend this feature.

How you watch this movie will undoubtedly affect your enjoyment.  In the past, cinema of this length was originally shown with an intermission.   When The Irishman received a limited theatrical release on November 1, 2019, it was exhibited with no break whatsoever.  Then it was subsequently made available on digital streaming through Netflix on November 27,  less than a month later.  I saw The Irishman on Netflix which is appropriate.   That’s how the majority of the world will see this film.  My experience was not confined to a seat for nearly four hours but rather over the span of two nights where I had the option of using a pause button.  Seeing it at home provides the freedom to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or the opportunity to confirm just how many gangster movies Marin Scorsese has actually directed.*   I thoroughly enjoyed it in that way.

11-27-19

* It’s six by the way (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Irishman).

Knives Out

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 3, 2019 by Mark Hobin

knives_out_ver13STARS3.5At first glance, Knives Out would appear to be a retro throwback to the classic whodunit-style mysteries that Agatha Christie wrote.  Additionally, it appears to suggest the kind of thrillers that made Hitchcock famous.  That certainly raises the bar with me.  I adore both of those things and so I was primed to enjoy this.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson both writes and directs this feature, which is something he has always done on his films.  He also serves as a producer for the first time.  He’s a clever individual.  Perhaps too clever.  By that, I mean that the production is extremely meta.  It’s fully aware of TV shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote as well as movies like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and Clue.  Rian wants to exploit that knowledge but subvert the audience’s expectations at the same time.

Knives Out is unquestionably a fun film.  It flies by over its extended 130-minute running time.  The production design is a character in itself.  The setting is a palatial Victorian mansion in Massachusetts.  This allows us to have the most amazing art direction.  This includes quirky antiques, weird sculptures, giant paintings, bear rugs, and an impressive knife collection that is arranged as a huge circle that looks like a halo pointing at the head of anyone who steps in front of it.  Never underestimate the power of an exquisite estate.  The digs are pretty swanky and the gorgeous environment infuses the trappings with enough style to gloss over any lulls in the chatty proceedings.

The production is distinguished by a charismatic cast.  There’s the murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  A trio arrives to investigate: two police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and more importantly, one private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig.  He’ll take center stage in the investigation.  He chews the scenery with a ridiculous accent as Detective Benoit Blanc to learn the truth.  His animated vocal inflections call to mind Foghorn Leghorn — that larger than life cartoon rooster.  I say boy I say… I do declare that his performance is an enjoyable display.

There’s also a colorful house of suspects which include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette.  They’re all great in their own unique ways but I could watch Toni Collette read the phone book and appreciate her oratory skills.  Here she’s portraying a Paltrow-esque head of a beauty company called Flam.  Later Chris Evans shows up performing the part of a villainous playboy named Hugh Ransom Drysdale.  He seizes our attention playing a spoiled brat in his luxurious white cable knit sweater.  I don’t know if a movie can get an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design simply based on an article of clothing but given the buzz on social media, this film could set a precedent.  Ana de Armas is the acting newcomer as Harlan Thrombey’s nurse.  Her immigrant status is a very calculated and conscious choice to suit the political zeitgeist in 2019.  Regardless, she solidly holds her own in a pivotal role amidst a much more experienced cast.

Rian Johnson is keen on undermining expectations.  He deconstructs the whodunit in a way that plays with convention.  It’s not just about who did it, but also why and how.  These tidbits are revealed in a way that feels like the script is oh-so-very pleased with itself.  It’s snarky and knowing.  I suppose this is obligatory in 2019.  We have to up our game to account for our modern sensibility.  What I expected and what I got were somewhat different things.  You ultimately have to ask yourself this question: Does Rian Johnson’s vision improve upon the time-honored sophistication of a straight-ahead mystery?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s offbeat.  Although it’s hard to warmly embrace the smug self-satisfaction that emanates from the proceedings.  Still, I admire the unconventionality of a winking screenplay so beautifully dressed up in a lavish production.

11-22-19