Archive for the Crime Category

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in Crime, Drama, History with tags on October 19, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the most significant film of 2020. No, not really, but that’s how this solemn melodrama is presented. Incoming attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) and his justice department have cooked up a case against a list of Richard Nixon’s enemies. To underscore the point, Mitchell even describes the litigation to prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as “the most important trial of your lifetime.” This is a gloomy and academic courtroom drama from writer Aaron Sorkin who is a talented writer who knows a thing or two about such things. Nearly 3 decades ago he gave us A Few Good Men which is a classic I truly adore. I was primed to love this. Alas, this is my reflection on a disappointment.

Chicago 7 has value because it’s a true story. However, as the chronicle is detailed here, it wouldn’t exist solely a fictional work to be enjoyed. This is the depiction of an event from the past that seeks to instruct and enlighten. The account is based on the prosecution of a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters. They were charged with conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This timely tale “ripped from the headlines” seizes the current zeitgeist. As such, it’s been hyped as a major awards contender this year.

Aaron Sorkin is an exceptional writer. Of that, I am convinced. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Social Network which is brilliant. Although that picture was directed by David Fincher who imbued its aesthetic with spectacular style. This is only Sorkin’s 2nd time directing (Molly’s Game was the first) and I truly wish someone else had taken over those duties. While he has an ear for crackerjack conversation, he’s less attuned to what makes a compelling movie. He’s famous for fast-paced dialogue and extended monologues. The saga runs 130 minutes so you’re going to get a lot of those. Nevertheless, the delivery of those speeches is so traditional and dated. This feels like something you’d watch in school. There’s a frustratingly long opening montage that clumsily introduces the characters. Then there’s the actual lawsuit which is the bulk of the movie. Flashbacks are peppered into the narrative. These interstitials illustrate why these defendants are before the court. None of it is innovative or emotionally galvanizing. It simply exists to educate. This is your standard-issue Hollywood legal drama with the good guys clearly defined on one side and the bad guys on the other.

The sprawling cast is composed of unique casting choices. The “saints” include Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale. They all have vignettes that will play well in the highlight reel on Oscar night — should they get nominated, that is. That clearly is the goal. Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler who defends the Chicago Seven is the designated hero so he has several moments. Actor Mark Rylance sporting long hair, is quite affecting in the role. Now for the “sinners.” If there’s a performance that’s begging for a prize, it’s Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. Initially, I was inclined to hate him as the villain of the piece. His grumpy old man character glaringly represents the establishment. However, I gradually regarded his over-the-top histrionics as a reactionary as a welcome comedic break from all the serious talk. I savored his cranky behavior in his verbal exchanges with William Kunstler.

It all climaxes with a conventional checklist of some of the most hackneyed elements ever put forth on film. The ending literally features a slow clap with the music swelling and a stirring speech. I mean it’s as cliched as anything I’ve ever seen and it’s the last thing you’re left to think about before the credits roll. Some will relish the theatrics. Overall Chicago 7 has some great writing about a historical milestone, but as entertainment it came up short for me. Be that as it may, it is just the type of didactic, politically left learning portrait that Hollywood adores. Its heart-tugging specifying is designed to win accolades. I suspect this will be recognized when nominations are announced on March 15th. It is a wee bit amusing when lesser-known defendant John Froines (Danny Flaherty) wonders aloud as to why he and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) have been included. “This is the Academy Awards of protests,” Lee deadpans. “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” At least the movie is self-aware.

10-16-20

American Murder: The Family Next Door

Posted in Crime, Documentary with tags on October 11, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

True crime documentaries are all the rage. Nowhere is this more evident than on Netflix. Recent titles include: Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, and Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. As you can see, “killers” seem to be a focus. The list goes on and on. There are hundreds of titles available. The genre has become something of a cottage industry for the streaming service. This latest one was released on September 30 and quickly captured the public curiosity as it immediately shot to #1. This one is particularly haunting. The documentary does a great job of explaining “what” happened. It’s the “why” that left me confused.

The chronicle concerns the disappearance of Shan’ann Watts and her beautiful daughters: 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. She was also nearly 4 months pregnant at the time with her son Nico. Shan’ann was a big user of social media. She posted photos and videos online often to document her life. Director Jenny Popplewell utilizes this archival footage to construct an intriguing story. From the outside, it appears that she had an attractive picture-perfect family with husband Chris and daughters living in Colorado, but as we delve deeper, two extremely unhappy people within a disintegrating marriage are revealed.

This is a disturbing window into the annihilation of a family. Text messages between Shan’ann and her best friend are displayed across the screen popping up like real discussions back and forth. They discuss intimate matters and we are eavesdropping. I felt a little uneasy reading these confidential particulars. It’s a tragedy that Shan’ann is no longer around to object, so I sadly acknowledge they’re more like evidence at this point than a private chat. They do shed some light. Her fabulous marriage by all outward appearances wasn’t wonderful. She too is baffled by her increasingly distant husband. The portrait also highlights the idea that reality vs. an online persona can be wildly different things. Given that this largely details a police investigation, it effectively presents the facts, emphasizing certain developments, the subsequent procedural, and how they were able to secure a confession. The underlying psychology behind the murder is less clear. It feels incomplete. Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered. However, the eerie feeling remains long after this unsettling account is over.

Enola Holmes

Posted in Adventure, Crime, Drama on September 26, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Enola spelled backward is “alone.” Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) raised her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) to be an independent, freethinking woman. Enola Holmes is also pretty good at defending herself in a fight. Just as the mind of every Disney heroine of the past 30 years has been implanted with a progressive identity, this 19th-century English woman likewise promotes the feminist ideology of our current era. Mother Eudoria is an activist in the women’s suffrage movement. That would explain Eudoria’s decision to raise her daughter in this manner. However why Eudoria doesn’t reveal her passion for this political cause to Enola is a mystery.

Ok so granted, Enola has a personality that seems a bit anachronistic. She may push boundaries and resist social norms but she remains witty, graceful, and even demure when called upon to be. A remarkable creature that can be all things to all people. Enola is the teen sister of the much older Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) and his stern brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin). They both left home years ago and so it is now just Enola and her mother. On her fourteenth birthday, Eudoria disappears and it’s up to Enola to figure out what happened.

This enjoyable chronicle is based on The Enola Holmes Mysteries. The series of young adult books by author Nancy Springer has been adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne. The Case of the Missing Marquess is the first novel published in 2006 and the basis for this film. The search for Enola’s absent mother occupies her pursuit at first. Then she meets the young Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) who is pursued by a bowler hat-wearing assassin (Burn Gorman). They eventually part ways but the fear that his life is in danger continues to vex her. She may outwardly dismiss him as a “useless boy” but her obsession with Tewkesbury betrays reality. She’s deeply smitten by the man…..and he needs her help. What is the male equivalent of a damsel in distress anyway?

The production is an amiable romp filled with various escapades. However, it’s slightly undone by excessive length. There’s a focus change halfway through this meandering story that is bizarre. Instead of continuing to search for Mom, she abruptly decides to track down Tewkesbury in order to save him first. The narrative is episodic and the ending promises more exploits in the future. It’s clear that this is positioned as the introduction to a much larger film franchise. Normally I eye-roll at such blatant commercialism but this is one of the rare times — in recent memory anyway — where I greeted the idea with enthusiasm. I was broadly entertained by what I saw.

The mystery captivated me. Enola Holmes manages to combine Victorian-era costumes and style with a very modern revisionist sensibility toward adventure. This may be the world that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about but Nancy Springer’s fan fiction interpretation is a new and entertaining creation. Enola is a detective like her brother. Actress Millie Bobby Brown adds so much to this tale. She rises above the character’s conventionally unconventional personality and becomes a charming and delightful presence.

09-23-20

The Devil All the Time

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I don’t mince words. In that spirit, I was going to head off my review with a tried and true denunciation: The Devil All the Time is “a sadistic slog.” Then I discovered a fellow critic had already used that epithet. Somehow a “vicious venture” or “fiendish fable” doesn’t sound quite as catchy. Regardless. They all fit. This is a thoroughly unpleasant movie. A southern gothic tale concerning various characters and their crimes is set in rural Ohio and West Virginia after WWII. Dark and brutal is the atmosphere at hand. Are these people depraved? Welp. Let’s just say that the individuals detailed here make the Georgia souls living in the wilderness of Deliverance seem sophisticated by comparison.

Because I am fair, I will start with the good. The production has the aura of quality. It promotes a talented all-star cast including Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, and Sebastian Stan. Tom Holland plays Arvin, a local from the provincial town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Arvin is a little boy (Michael Banks Repeta) at the beginning of the story and the closest thing to what might pass for a hero. He attempts to make things right although his actions are so very violent. I’m not sure if I should be applauding his behavior. Actress Riley Keough is effective too. She plays an outright criminal but there’s some shading to her role. She’s conflicted at least. There are a lot of personalities. The intricate ensemble converges in a myriad of interesting ways throughout the saga. The production features nice cinematography. Ok, that is where the compliments end.

The bad news is that this chronicle simply wallows in unpleasantness. These are wicked people doing really immoral things. The narrative frequently weaves religion into the framework in order to give cursory weight to this tale. As you probably have guessed by now, we’re not dealing with pious believers. These are the hypocrites that abuse faith in order to further their perverse agendas. The viewer is confronted with a lot of dreadful moments. An evildoer (Harry Melling) slays his poor wife (Mia Wasikowska) with a screwdriver in the name of religion. A false preacher (Robert Pattinson) preys on innocent underage girls. Another couple (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough) are serial killers who film their murders. Then there’s the father (Bill Skarsgård) of a little boy (Michael Banks Repeta) who believes sacrificing the family dog will save his wife who is dying from cancer. I won’t delve into the sordid details but a cross is involved. Ya know it’s an odd thing . I’ve noticed you can kill any number of humans and the audience won’t bat an eye. Kill a dog and you’ve committed the ultimate sin. You’ll witness that atrocity in a most heinous way. You have been warned.

May God have mercy on the makers of this production. Director Antonio Campos’ (Christine) adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel is — to borrow a hackneyed phrase — misery porn. I’m not the first to level that criticism upon this wretched drama and I surely won’t be the last. Screenwriters Antonio Campos and his brother Paulo subscribe to the belief that there is nothing worse on this earth than a hypocritical religious zealot. The account reminds you of this fact time and again until the immorality is drummed into your skull to the point you can’t bear the degradation any longer. The deeds portrayed echo in a hollow chamber of superficial developments. I didn’t get an overall objective to all this depravity other than to emphasize that there is evil in the world. Sometimes powerful images can underscore deep themes but here it is a cheap and easy way to merely shock. Unless you’re tempted by the visual depiction of human suffering with no redeeming social value, skip this.

09-16-20

Project Power

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on August 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

project_powerSTARS1.5There is a (brief) moment where Project Power isn’t a turgid mishmash of special effects and badly edited action sequences.  It occurs when actress Dominique Fishback portraying high schooler Robin Reilly drops a series of rhymes extemporaneously built around random words suggestions by Art (Jamie Foxx).  These meticulously clever raps probably weren’t dashed off as effortlessly in real life.  Yet the screenplay by Mattson Tomlin presents them that way.  The fantasy that this teen has such a facility with language that she could achieve the impressive feat is a superpower in itself.  That’s the kind of talent that should have been the focus of this film — not some stupid drug.

Most of Project Power is a slapdash mess of an idea about a pill that grants the taker a mere 5 minutes of superhero ability.  However, there are caveats.  An individual’s reaction to the drug is unknown until it is ingested.  Some people have exploded after taking which makes it an extremely risky endeavor.  The narcotic is popular in the criminal underground where it has been purposefully introduced.  Now if you’re thinking this may be some thinly disguised sociopolitical message movie about the CIA and its association with crack cocaine, then you’re far too smart for this twaddle.

The drama is populated with hackneyed personalities.  Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a police officer trying to enforce order on the streets of New Orleans.  We’re reminded that this is the “Big Easy” many times.  So often, in fact, that I started thinking that it might make a good drinking game because alcohol is the only way I could have enjoyed this numbing assemblage of cliches.  Frank is supposed to be a good guy, yet even he takes the stimulant in order to level the playing field.  He’s conflicted.  The motivations of an ex-army soldier named Art (Jaime Foxx) are even less clear or logical.  He kidnaps a small-time dealer named Robin Reilly (Dominique Fishback).  Robin is the one human being that exhibits a fresh personality.  Art demands to know her supplier.  As if we needed more plot threads, he also happens to be searching for his missing daughter.  Then there’s the clearly evil drug overlord “Biggie” portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro.

The tone is wildly inconsistent.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt often provides comic relief as Officer Frank Shaver.  Meanwhile, Jaime Foxx is as serious as a heart attack.  He scowls a lot.  You’d think the superhero narrative and presence of high school kids would’ve inspired directors Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman (Nerve, Viral) to go the family-friendly route.  Instead, this is a wallow through R-rated sludge.  Events are blighted by violence and gore.  The decision to feature people who either graphically explode or are permanently disfigured is misguided to say the least.  One guy is shot in the hand and his fingers are blown off.  Luckily the CGI is so sloppy that the effects are more cartoonish than realistic.  Visually incoherent is the best way to describe the action sequences and quite frankly, the entire film.  Project Power contains a creative idea that 9 out of 10 writers could’ve easily expanded into an interesting tale.  Apparently, this is the attempt that failed.

08-22-20

The Lovebirds

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lovebirdsSTARS2So I was excited about this film for a couple reasons.  (1) it was originally scheduled to be released to theaters in April by Paramount Pictures and (2) it reunites Kumail Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter who were both responsible for The Big Sick, my favorite movie of 2017.  However I’ll cut to the chase, it didn’t deliver, and the fact that this had different writers probably explains why it wasn’t on the same level.

I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The Lovebirds debuted to Netflix on May 22 and briefly held the #1 position.  Then it plummeted.  Not even two weeks later and the title is nowhere to be found in the Top 10.  Meanwhile, Uncut Gems and  Just Go With It have been popular mainstays. Perhaps Netflix should try acquiring Adam Sandler’s entire filmography.

But back to The Lovebirds.  Our story concerns a constantly bickering duo played by Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani that unintentionally become murder suspects in a mystery where they must clear their names.  A tale of mistaken identity can be a great basis for a plot.  Alfred Hitchcock took the idea and delivered North by Northwest, an indisputable classic.   Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall who wrote the screenplay are presenting us with a comedy.   The problem is it’s not funny.

The dialogue is mostly scenes where this annoying couple endlessly bicker.   It’s the details of those arguments that are supposed to make the audience laugh.  Comedy is the most subjective genre.  However, humor must be rooted in a kernel of truth.  The conversations don’t read as the ways humans really talk.  They’re like stand up routines.  The dialogue is completely detached from the situation happening on screen.  A few times they find themselves in dire circumstances where there appears to be no escape.  Yet each time they easily get out of it.  There are no stakes.  This is essentially a series of fabricated situations so the lovers have an excuse to simply argue.  I’ll admit there are some amusing lines but not enough to justify sitting through this 87-minute movie.  I know, that seems short….but it feels long.

05-22-20

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